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Symbol and Secret and Revisioning the Sacred:
Reviews

by Jonah Winters

published in Iranian Studies, 32:1, pages 141-145
1999-12
Symbol and Secret: Qur'án Commentary in Bahá'u'lláh's Kitab-i Íqán (Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, volume 7)
Author: Christopher Buck
Published by: Kalimát Press, Los Angeles, 1995.

Revisioning the Sacred: New Perspectives on a Bahá'í Theology (Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, volume 8)
Edited by: Jack McLean
Published by: Kalimát Press, Los Angeles, 1997.

Reviews by: Jonah Winters
Reviews published in Iranian Studies 32:1 (Winter 1999), pp. 141-145


    Kalimát Press, a small, independent publishing house, can fairly be described as the premier producer of academic material on the Bahá'í Faith. Most notable of its contributions in this area is the "Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í History" series, volume one of which appeared in 1982.1 The volumes of this series have consistently featured scholarship that is rigorous and often groundbreaking. Volumes seven and eight are no exception.

    Christopher Buck's Symbol and Secret: Qur'an Commentary in Bahá'u'lláh's Kitáb-i Íqán (Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, volume 7) is an examination of the central theological work of the Bahá'í religion and its relation to pre-existing Islamic theologies and literary forms.2

    Written circa 1862, shortly before Bahá'u'lláh first announced to his followers that he was the "one who God shall make manifest" foretold by the Báb, the "Íqán" is ostensibly an extended defense of the mission of the Báb. For Bahá'ís, though, it came to be seen as a defense of and theological exposition on both Babism and the Bahá'í religion, and it bridges and coordinates the two religions. Further, it is regarded as Bahá'u'lláh's masterpiece of theological interpretation and exposition. To adduce proofs of the Báb's prophethood and refute objections to it, Bahá'u'lláh develops a coherent hermeneutic of creative scriptural interpretation, an explanation of which is unfortunately beyond the scope of this review.

    The title of the book derives from its two main areas of focus. Buck first examines the "symbol" by relating Bahá'u'lláh's hermeneutical enterprise in the Íqán to the well-established traditions of tafsir, Qur'anic interpretation. He demonstrates that, since the Íqán can be seen as residing within—though transcending and reshaping—a tradition of Islamic works of exegesis, it is itself an example of Qur'anic exegesis. Much of the value of this examination lies in the fact that comparative studies between Islam and the Bahá'í religion have yet to be undertaken. Such studies are crucial, for it is only through investigations into Islam that certain metaphors and symbols, technical terms, and cultural assumptions in the earlier Bahá'í scriptures can be understood.

    Second, Buck examines the "secret" by exploring the theological underpinnings of the Íqán. What was Bahá'u'lláh's "messianic consciousness" at the time of its writing, asks Buck, and to what extent was he disclosing his own secret: that he himself was the promised "Manifestation"? Here Buck is on unexplored territory, for this topic has barely been addressed in published Bahá'í studies. Along the way the book touches on many other issues, such as the manuscript and publication history of the Íqán, ShÍ`Í notions of the Mahdi, and Bahá'u'lláh's agenda of social and religious reform.

    Much of Buck's work in this book is to be commended. His examination is groundbreaking—he broaches topics vital and yet often ignored. The background work on the history of the Íqán which precedes his main topics is conducted with a depth and assiduousness that could be regarded as a model for future work by scholars of the Bahá'í religion. He examines the publication history of the Íqán, the dating and dissemination of other key Bahá'í texts, offers solutions to certain historical dilemmas, and responds to critical charges made by early opponents of the religion with a diligence and concentration which offers great promise for the rest of the book to follow.

    The heart of Buck's project is a demonstration that Bahá'u'lláh's agenda in the Íqán is prosecuted through innovative tafsÍr. Buck examines many types of exegetical innovation pioneered by Bahá'u'lláh. These include the "interscriptural exegesis," i.e. explaining the symbolism in the scripture of one religion through recourse to the scripture of another religion, and the appeal to rationality, i.e. demonstrating the absurdity of literalism. Through these, Bahá'u'lláh prepares the reader of the Íqán to transcend traditional interpretation and become more receptive to a new revelation. Finally, Buck adapts the tafsÍr typology of Islamicist John Wansbrough to prepare a hermeneutical typology of the Íqán. This section is among the most focused published examinations of Bahá'í scripture and, even if a reader might disagree with some of Buck's analyses, the endeavour itself is to be applauded.

    Symbol and Secret's conclusion extrapolates from the above discussions of Islamic context and content in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh into the realm of Bahá'í theology. Here Buck examines the implications of Bahá'u'lláh's exegetically-founded break from Islam for issues such as post- Qur'anic revelation, religious and social reform, and metaphorical approaches to scripture. This chapter contains some of the most enlightening and useful discussion in the book, and Buck quite successfully conveys the sense of urgency and potency infusing the Íqán and the state of the early Bahá'í community.

    Given the importance of the topics Buck addresses and the skill with which he examines them, it is regrettable that some readers might find Symbol and Secret impenetrable. The two main obstacles in approaching this work are the opacity of Buck's prose and the occasional disorderliness of the book's content.

    Buck's writing can in places read as an unsuccessful juxtaposition of poetic and academic styles. His use of metaphors, while colorful, can be distracting. His fondness for polysyllabic alliteration, as in "vituperative vaticination" (84) or "extraordinary extemporaneity," (294) can bog down the reader or, worse, bemuse him. As well, he often opts for technicality over clarity. Why "variae lectiones," (139) when "variant readings" carries exactly the same semantic value?

    A more problematic aspect of Symbol and Secret is its somewhat chaotic form. It lacks coherence both in formatting and in content, giving the impression that it was composed in numerous parts which were combined into a somewhat haphazard whole for publication. Its inconsistent use of italics and diacritics might be no more than an occasional distraction, but does indicate a certain lack of editing—as do the few dozen typographical errors occurring throughout the book. The topics examined in the text can be jumbled, with unrelated sentences, paragraphs, and whole sections inserted in the middle of otherwise succinct presentations. Conversely, topics that should be presented coherently can be found scattered across the book. One further wonders what organization guided the layout of Symbol and Secret when the book ends, not with a tight summary of ground covered, but a discussion of Bahá'u'lláh's agenda of socio-religious reform which does not bear direct relevance to the preceding book and reads more as the introduction to a new, unrelated book.

    These criticisms aside, Buck has undertaken a project that is to be commended on many fronts. This study is daring in that it is the first extended analysis of the Islamic context and content of Bahá'u'lláh's thought and writings. The rigour with which Buck has treated his topics is a model for anyone engaging in textual scholarship: his research is broad, his attention to detail thorough, and his coverage of the topics exhaustive. Finally, many of his conclusions, the light he throws on the Íqán and its content, and in places even his methods are frankly brilliant. Though Symbol and Secret can be a frustrating text which is difficult to penetrate, it is a good study which will well repay the diligent reader.

    The seven essays of Revisioning the Sacred: New Perspectives on a Bahá'í Theology (Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, volume 8), edited by Jack McLean, cover a variety of topics on Bahá'í theology. While the wide range of style and content of these essays could, in a more established discipline, indicate poor editing or an unfocused mandate, here they demonstrate the richness and potential of this nascent field.

    Bahá'í theology is currently a tentative subject. It faces the expected obstacles confronting such a new and relatively unexplored field, such as a lack of scholastic tradition to build upon, little or no recognition and support from its faith community and institutions, and the difficulty of obtaining formal training. More than this, it also faces potential doctrinal obstacles. Bahá'ís consider their religion the most complete revelation from God to date. The figures in Bábí and Bahá'í history—the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi—constitute an authoritative chain of revelation and interpretation. The sheer volume of the tens of thousands of letters and books they wrote can give the impression that every question one could have about God must be contained somewhere in them, hence what need for practicing theology? As well, Bahá'u'lláh sought to correct abuses of ecclesiastical authority by, among other things, limiting the exercise of interpretation. While individuals are enjoined to come to their own understandings of scripture and religion, authoritative interpretation is strictly limited that of the above four individuals. There is thus a common sentiment that the only appropriate theological endeavor is to read, catalogue, and study these writings, and any form of systematic theology can be regarded with suspicion.3

    The development of Bahá'í theology is, however, a key component in the gradual maturation of the religion. As McLean rightly notes, the "Bahá'í Faith cannot come to be recognized as a distinct and independent world religion without a distinctive theology." (xi) Given the religion's emphasis on "independent investigation of truth," combined with the constraints on authoritative interpretation, it is likely that Bahá'í theology will develop along pluralist lines. In a note near the close of the book, McLean observes that "The universal scope of Bahá'í sacred scripture...would seem to defy any one theological system." Rather, "it is rather more likely that a number of differing theological and metaphysical thought systems will emerge in time and coexist within the Bahá'í writings." (208, note 12)

    These seven essays indicate an auspicious future for the project. Written by a veritable "who's who" within Bahá'í studies, they address a wide variety of topics in an equally wide variety of styles and methodologies.

    The book opens with Dann J. May's "The Bahá'í Principle of Religious Unity: A Dynamic Perspective." May attempts to "unpack" what can sometimes sound like a Bahá'í platitude: that religious truth is, at core, unitary. In the Bahá'í view, religious identity and phenomena can be isolated into two aspects, the essential and the accidental. In "essence," religions are one in as much as God is one; they share what May (following Frithjof Schuon) terms a transcendent unity. The problem, of course, is that the "accidental" aspect of religious experience is highly diverse, which can lead to inter-religious misunderstanding and conflict. May adapts Bahá'í theology to a six-tiered typology of pluralism of Raimundo Panikkar to attempt to classify and better elucidate this principle of religious unity. This essay contains some very useful overviews of pluralist theologies, and May's adaptation of Panikkar's typology is instructive. Given the complexity and variety of contemporary discussion of pluralism, though, the essay can read merely as an introduction which leaves many questions and objections unaddressed.

    Stephen Lambden's "The Background and Centrality of Apophatic Theology in Bábi and Bahá'í Scripture" would have more appropriately been titled "An Overview of Apophatic Theology in Western Religions." Lambden surveys negative theology in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Bábism, and then in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi. Most of the article is simply a catalogue of sample instances of apophaticism in scripture, which does serve well to highlight the variety and commonality of apophatic approaches. Yet while the number of instances of the via negativa Lambden finds in writings of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh does indicate that it was a well-favored approach of each figure, and hence "central" in terms of frequency, Lambden offers very little theological analysis to illuminate this. This is unfortunate, because the via negativa could well prove to be a key in understanding and resolving the very problems of religious diversity May has just hinted at. If Bahá'ís are to teach that religious truth is unitary, and yet retain a respect for the diversity of religious expression, Bahá'í theology might well have to insist on a form of relativism in which all talk of God is ultimately founded on the via negativa. While this article would serve as a fine introduction to the topic for readers having no background in theology, it adds little to the field.

    Juan Cole's "Bahá'u'lláh and Liberation Theology" is, in contrast, a very welcome piece which begins to fill a clear gap in Bahá'í scholarship. Whether in an attempt to find common ground and avoid offense, or simply because of non- religious concerns, the Bahá'í Faith is sometimes presented more as a social development organization than as a religious movement. In its quest for legitimacy and its sincere desire to improve the lot of the dispossessed, the sheer "religiousness" of the religion is often downplayed. On the other extreme, theological discussion, in any tradition, can lose sight of practical experience in its pursuit of theory. Liberation theology offers promise to bridge this gap, to apply theology to social welfare and vice versa. Cole pleas for such an approach: "...the world desperately needs a new vision of spiritual and social justice such as Bahá'u'lláh enunciates." (82) Cole approaches this by first introducing Bahá'u'lláh's own social welfare concerns and activities. He then discusses a number of Bahá'u'lláh's writings to bring out aspects which are often overlooked, namely the emphasis Bahá'u'lláh places on empowering the impoverished and the degree to which such concerns were truly revolutionary for Qajar Iran. This is a well-written and timely article.

    Anjam Khursheed's survey of contemporary common philosophies of science, "The Spiritual Foundations of Science," demonstrates that most share a common empiricist philosophy. Such an approach, he argues, exaggerates positivism and masks the fact that, historically, science has been founded on spirituality more than materialism. Given the Bahá'í view that truth is unitary—that religious truth and scientific truth are complementary—Khursheed calls for a renewed emphasis on morality and on value- oriented scientific practice. This essay summarizes well common Bahá'í explanations of the religion's principle of "unity of science and religion" and provides a fine overview of competing paradigms of the twentieth century, but it presents little original analysis or theological justification. One weakness of this essay is that Khursheed bases part of his explanation of the unity paradigm on the fact that the Bahá'í writings often mention "science" and "arts" as complementary endeavors and refer to both simply as "knowledge." (107) One suspects that this stems partly from linguistic differences. Terms such as "science" and "knowledge" had quite different meanings and connotations in nineteenth- century Persian and Arabic than in in twentieth-century English, and without a philological discussion some of Khursheed's conclusions are suspect.

    In "Interreligious Dialogue and the Bahá'í Faith," Seena Fazel addresses a concern that has been raised by numerous scholars outside the religion: Bahá'í dialogue often starts and ends with the claim that all religions offer truth from the same divine source, and hence are to be respected in their own right. This, Fazel points out, is "only... a beginning." (127) Dialogues which merely declare commonalities will founder on the real fact of difference. Dialogue is sometimes no more than a polite form of proselytism, an opportunity to present one's own tradition in a friendly setting with the covert hope of persuading the other. In the best dialogue, Fazel argues, each partner comes away transformed. After discussing types of, and challenges to, religious dialogue, Fazel proposes three approaches Bahá'ís could adopt in pursuing interreligious discussion. The three "bridges" he presents—the ethical, the intellectual, and the mystical/spiritual—are valuable and insightful. Fazel's topic is a vital one, and his proposals welcome. One wishes that this essay could be made required reading for all Bahá'ís who seek to teach their faith to others.

    Most of the essays in this volume deal with abstracts, with theories of theology. Keven Brown's "Hermes Trismegistus and Apollonius of Tyana in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh" is a reminder that much of theology must concern itself with specific, practical questions. Bahá'u'lláh mentions Hermes and Apollonius (in Arabic, BalÍnþs) only a handful of times, but these infrequent citations pose a few specific problems. One, what is the relevance of these citations to Bahá'í theology? Two, how should Bahá'ís treat texts which are regarded to be infallible and inerrant in the face of conflicting historical accounts? Much of the significance of these citations lies in the fact that the mere mention of Hermes can invoke a range of occult and alchemical associations, associations quite foreign to contemporary Occidental Bahá'ísm. After briefing the reader on the historical accounts and myths of Hermes and Apollonius, Brown presents the more significant citations of these two figures in early Bahá'í texts and examines their meaning and relevance. This is useful partly because it is one of the only published discussions of alchemy and the Bahá'í Faith. The second question arises because Bahá'u'lláh stated certain historical "facts" about Hermes and Apollonius with which modern historical scholarship would disagree. Shoghi Effendi and, later, the Universal House of Justice explained that Bahá'u'lláh wrote to convey truths which sometimes required that he cite contemporary historical views, even if incorrect, to make his points. Brown agrees that it is the points Bahá'u'lláh was making, not any inaccurate historical details, that are significant. While a convincing argument, it is insufficient in that Abdu'l-Bahá, whose interpretations are also seen as infallible, would on occasion firmly emphasize the inerrancy of Bahá'u'lláh's historical statements. (see 187, note 115) The first of Brown's two topics in this essay is treated very well; the second is far from settled.

    McLean's essay "The Possibilities of Existential Theism for Bahá'í Theology" is, like most of his writing, a well-considered and academically informed meditation on living the Bahá'í life. He surveys the thought of a few key European "existential" philosophers, relating each to Bahá'í thought and theology. Through his discussion of existential concerns and approaches, McLean argues that the scholar working within a faith tradition must not completely objectify his field of study, must not divorce his studies from the existential commitment. This article, drawing on contemporary philosophy for a practical comparative approach, offers many original considerations and provides an engaging conclusion to the volume.

    Like Symbol and Secret, this book suffers from the types of faults that can plague underfunded, independent publishing houses. The articles are inconsistently edited, both stylistically and grammatically. Further, while most are quite accurate, one is thoroughly riddled with errors of punctuation, diacritics, and spelling. The table of contents lists an incorrect title for another. These are no more than a minor distraction, though. Most of these essays are of a high quality and address original, vital topics. Their range of topics indicates the vastness and rich potential of emergent Bahá'í theologies, and Kalimát Press and McLean are to be commended for having produced a valuable addition to Bahá'í studies.

Notes:

    1 Volumes one through four were subtitled "Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í History"; beginning with volume five the series was renamed "Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions."
    2 A more in-depth review of this book can be found in Jonah Winters, "Review of Christopher Buck: Symbol and Secret: Qur'an Commentary in Bahá'u'lláh's Kitáb-i Íqán" (Journal of Bahá'í Studies 8:3, 1998).
    3 See J. A. McLean, "Prolegomena to a Bahá'í Theology" (Journal of Bahá'í Studies 5:1, 1992), esp. pp. 28-36, for further discussion of these issues.
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