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The role of apologetics in the Bahá'í Faith is not merely to defend or prove, but to demonstrate that the Faith provides the means for obtaining knowledge of the truth, and to present the truths revealed by the Sacred Writings.
Paper presented at the ABS-ESE conference 'Foundational Issues in Bahá’í Studies,' Oxford, April 2000.

Mirrored with permission from See also the full PDF for issue 33-34.

The Role of the Bahá'í Scholar in Defending the Faith

by Muhammad Afnan

published in Associate, 33-34, pages 3-4
London: Association for Bahá'í Studies English-Speaking Europe, 2001 Winter/Spring
Scholarly defence of the Bahá'í Faith is distinct from traditional apologetics in both its purpose and its method. The purpose of Bahá'í apologetics is not merely to defend the Faith against attacks, nor to prove its validity at any cost by disproving and even disparaging counter-arguments. The purpose is rather to demonstrate that the Bahá'í Faith provides the means for obtaining knowledge of the truth, and to present the truths revealed by the Bahá'í Sacred Writings. In harmony with this purpose, that of discovering the truth, Bahá'í apologetics rejects contention, disputation and other adversarial methods so often used even in academic circles. It relies instead on sharing the truth with wisdom and moderation. In this presentation I would like to examine some of the issues relating to the purpose and methodology of Bahá'í apologetics.

First, let me address the role of science in the study of religion and the extent to which it is able to capture the truth of life. Modern science is primarily applied science. Basic scientific research is implemented in order to obtain practical results and the benefits of material achievements, and, to some extent, in order to quench the human desire for greater knowledge about nature.

What is knowledge? What we call knowledge is based on our discoveries of the laws responsible for the interactions between the world’s phenomena. Witness to this statement is the fact that as we progress in better understanding these laws, we are better able to harness nature and use it for our benefit. Our scientific knowledge and achievements fall far short of the whole truth because the information we collect can be used only to the extent that we have discovered the laws operating in each case. At the same time, each new discovery adds to our existing knowledge and allows us to see new aspects of a system that is gradually revealed as our scientific knowledge progresses. New discoveries are thus tools for further developing existing inventions.

What is the purpose of knowing more about nature, existence and the world? Here, we should keep in mind the fact that human life and happiness are not only physical and material but also social and spiritual, and that true civilization must be based on the healthy growth of both the rational soul and the spirit of faith. According to the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith, important as life is in this world, life after death is a thousand times more important because it is eternal. We believe that God has given a purpose to the whole system of the contingent world; in other words, the physical world has not come into existence by accident. Therefore, human life, which belongs to a higher station of intellect, must also have a purpose to fulfil. This means that human individuals are responsible for their lives both in this world and in the world to come. Thus, knowledge of the world is not an end in itself, but a means of preparing us for life here and hereafter. If our worldly knowledge cannot help us to grow spiritually as well as physically, then it is worthless. This argument is self-evident to any independent thinker who believes that human life is not limited to material life.

According to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, there are two kinds of knowledge, intuitive and perceptive (Some Answered Questions XL). The knowledge that is derived from observation and perception of nature is necessarily secondary and limited, while intuitive knowledge is basic and genuine, because it is based directly on the laws of existence. It goes without saying that we cannot acquire it in its entirety. As a matter of fact, according to the Bahá'í Writings, no one can have that absolute knowledge except God. This type of knowledge is also available to the manifestations of God to the extent that is needed by their Will, as is mentioned by Bahá’u’lláh in the Tablet of Wisdom: ‘...whenever We desire to quote the sayings of the learned and of the wise presently there will appear before the face of thy Lord in the form of a tablet all that which hath appeared in the world and is revealed in the Holy Books and Scriptures’ (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh 149). Religion thus gives us access to truths and laws that are inaccessible by mere observation and human perception.

Truth is one, but at the level of human knowledge and understanding it is not absolute. In any given case, the truth may look different, depending on relative and circumstantial criteria, views of the purpose of existence, and considerations of time and place. A rigid dogmatic evaluation would lead to a clash of understandings. Just as black and white pictures are not the true reflections of the objects in the world, any idea limited to two opposite views is incomplete and a source of hostility. The history of religions shows irreconcilable differences in their practice although they are similar in their principles.

The same idea applies to the relationship between religion and science. We believe in the Bahá'í Faith in the harmony of science and religion. This does not mean that the interpretations of the facts are the same or must be in agreement in these two systems. It does mean, however, that because science and religion both deal with the truth, they relate to the same entity, though from different angles. The result is that science and religion are complementary to each other in their function and one without the other is incomplete.

According to the ancient thinkers, who are also acknowledged by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Some Answered Questions (LXXX, 321-3), there are four types of causes in creation: the efficient cause, the matter, the form and the final cause. In practice, experimental science deals with two of these, matter and form, while religions, through their theological philosophy, deal with the other two, the efficient and final causes. The human mind is obviously not content with knowing only about matter and form, and the other causes of the world of existence are even more attractive to it. For example, the concept of entropy suggests that the physical universe should be steadily drawing toward greater and greater disorder, ending finally in what physicists call ‘heat death’, a state of uniform distribution of energy in which there are no patterns, no structures. However, we see that, on the contrary, new information and new structures have continually emerged in the world. The very idea that this universe has no beginning or end is a proof that there is a well-balanced system at work that holds it together and prevents it from disintegrating. If this is so, then there must be a known purpose behind it. The only beings in the world that can relate to this fact through their mind and reason are human beings. Humankind partakes in the purpose of creation as a rational entity and is able to enter changes into the system and contribute to its progress.

There are some basic principles in the world of creation that are responsible for keeping it solid and stable, and which have their counterparts in the world of human relationships. Thus, both science and religion have something to say about these principles. They include:

  • affinity or attraction between entities, from atomic particles to planets, which is known as love in the human world,
  • equal rights to life, growth and development for members of the world of creation, which, enhanced by the responsibility given to humankind by virtue of its rational capacity, is manifested as the principle of equity in the human world,
  • action and reaction in the natural world, which operates in the human world in the form of justice and is the execution of God's providence,
  • a sense of purpose, collectively in the world of creation and individually in the human world.
As we have seen, to gain knowledge, of both the causes and the laws of the world of creation, we need to rely on religion as well as science. Our knowledge and progress will remain incomplete if we limit ourselves to empirical science and disregard that which is the whole purpose of human life, the efficient cause of existence, and the main means of attraction in the contingent world, that is to say, love.

Let us now examine the methods used in apologetics. One of the main goals of all religions is to teach the ideas and principles of the faith to new people and new generations. There are references to this in the Holy Writings. For example in the Qur'án we read: ‘Summon thou to the way of thy Lord with wisdom and with kindly warning: dispute with them in the kindest manner...’ (The Koran, ‘The Bees’ XVI, 125, trans. by J.M. Rodwell). Unfortunately, the concept of ‘jadal’, which is translated as ‘dispute’, has been practised as a sort of contentious, competitive argument between two opponents. One of the topics in formal logic is dialectics, which is translated as ‘jadal’ in Islamic literature, probably on the basis of certain Quránic verses. Although the Qurán advises leniency and kindness in argument, historically the practice among Muslim - as well as among other theologians and scholars of empirical sciences, in many if not all disciplines -- has been and still is adversarial. This practice is so common and widespread that the word ‘khasm’ (foe, enemy) is the official term used in the course of theological disputations among some of the religious scholars.

Apologetics in the Bahá'í Faith shuns such forms of disputation and is rather based on Bahá’u’lláh’s admonition in His Book of the Covenant that ‘conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book’ (T.R.A.K.A.: 221), and on the Báb's advice in the Bayán: ‘[It] is illicit for you to torment men, even if this is only in striking them with the hand upon the elbow, ... when you wish to remonstrate with someone write your arguments and your proofs with prudence and with the most complete politeness’ (Arabic Bayán, X.6, translated into English by Peter T. Terry from the French translation by A.M. Nicolas).

Apologetics as a means of condemning the ideas of others is unacceptable for Bahá'í scholars, because the Bahá'í Faith acknowledges the truth and validity of all religions and ideologies, each in conformity with the exigencies of its own time and place, and in accordance with the principles of relative progress and progressive revelation. Bahá'í apologetics was originally practised in a milieu where two methods were predominantly used, one called explanatory (halli), and the other contradictory (naqd.i) or binding (ilzami). In the first, the purpose is to help the other party to acknowledge the truth, while in the second, it is to defeat the opposition by using evidence already accepted by the other party against him. The highly accomplished Bahá'í thinker, Dr. A. M. Davoudi, has dealt with this basic issue in one of his papers under the title ‘Why We Do Not Respond’, where he defines the scope and addresses all aspects of Bahá'í apologetics. According to his masterly evaluation and elaboration on the subject, the method of discussion and the dialogue that is practised in all Bahá'í theological and religious papers, meetings and discussion groups should be uniquely different from outside practice. As Bahá'ís, we do not dispute or enter into opposition for its own sake. Instead of responding to attacks, which only leads to more enmity, we try to discern and acknowledge any truth there may be in the opposing argument, and find ways of reaching understanding rather than engaging in confrontation. For more information please refer to the essay in A Collection of the Works of Dr. A. M. Davoudi (volume 3: 145-166 compiled by Dr. V. Ra'fati in Persian).

The goal of Bahá'í apologetics is to share the truth with a kindly tongue (Bahá’u’lláh, quoted in Advent of Divine Justice, 55), equally with every one, whether friend or foe. The methodology of discussion is based on principles of wisdom, justice and mercy: ‘He that riseth to serve My Cause should manifest My wisdom, and bend every effort to banish ignorance from the earth ... Set your reliance on the army of justice, put on the armour of wisdom, let your adorning be forgiveness and mercy and that which cheereth the hearts of the well-favoured of God’ (Tablet of Wisdom, T.R.A.K.A.: 138-9). The methods that are in practice in the social sciences for the study of by-gone civilizations are not valid for the study of the Bahá'í Faith. The Faith has its own criteria and guidelines and an established system that deals with all aspect of its cosmology, based on its fundamental principle of universality.

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