Education and the Supreme Talisman in the Kitáb-i-Íqán
"Man is the supreme Talisman. Lack of a proper education hath, however, deprived him of that which he doth inherently possess. Through a word proceeding out of the mouth of God he was called into being; by one word more he was guided to recognize the Source of his education; by yet another word his station and destiny were safeguarded. The Great Being saith: Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures, and enable mankind to benefit therefrom."In his book, A Companion to the Study of the Kitáb-i-Iqán, Hooper Dunbar lists learning as one of the nine purposes defined in the Kitáb-i-Iqán (1). In my opinion, one way to approach the book is to consider it as a compendium of what humankind needs to know; a discussion of perception as it relates to learning what is needful; intellectual honesty; and the results of various learning experiences.
All Bahá'ís should be intimately involved with learning. Bahá'u'lláh revealed:
"Strain every nerve to acquire both inner and outer perfections, for the fruit of the human tree hath ever been and will ever be perfections both within and without. It is not desirable that a man be left without knowledge or skills, for he is then but a barren tree. Then, so much as capacity and capability allow, ye needs must deck the tree of being with fruits such as knowledge, wisdom, spiritual perception and eloquent speech." (2)This paper will consider briefly what kinds of knowledge Bahá'ís acquire; how what is known becomes understood in ways that are meaningful; and how what is understood to have true meaning becomes the basis for our actions. For example, we can know something that we believe is true: God has sent a number of Manifestations to His creatures so that they might know how to follow His straight Path. The next step is to understand what the statement we believe to be true means. Then, having some understanding of the grace given to us through God's bounty, it is up to us to act in some way that reflects our understanding.
Each day of our lives we are engaged in learning new things about the physical world in which we live. Babies learn how to communicate by making sounds and moving hands and feet. At first the sounds and movements are random, but they quickly become purposeful as responses are noted. We learn to do everyday activities by mimicking the examples of others. For example, children feed themselves, ride bikes, and do simple chores by paying attention to what parents or older siblings do and then imitating the action. Later on, we attend schools to acquire a wider range of knowledge about the world in which we live. This type of learning often leads us to a life's occupation through which we are able to provide shelter and food for others and ourselves. All this kind of learning is necessary for us to survive on this plane of existence and for humankind to profit and progress.
In Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Bahá'u'lláh reveals:
"Arts, crafts and sciences uplift the world of being, and are conducive to its exaltation. Knowledge is as wings to man's life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the peoples of the earth, and not those which begin with words and end with words..." (3)Material lessons are necessary and can be beneficial to humankind, but the obvious material reality is not the most significant element in the lessons learned by humankind. True knowledge for humankind is spiritual, not physical. The actual importance of physical lessons is that these lessons lead us to some greater spiritual understanding. If it is to be of true value, everything we learn should serve to increase our awareness and understanding of the Creator and our relationship to His great Plan.
In the Kitáb-i-Iqán Bahá'u'lláh reveals:
"Consider, how can he that faileth in the day of God's Revelation to attain unto the grace of the "Divine Presence" and to recognize His Manifestation, be justly called learned, though he may have spent aeons in the pursuit of knowledge, and acquired all the limited and material learning of men? It is surely evident that he can in no wise be regarded as possessed of true knowledge. Whereas, the most unlettered of all men, if he be honoured with this supreme distinction, he verily is accounted as one of those divinely-learned men whose knowledge is of God; for such a man hath attained the acme of knowledge, and hath reached the furthermost summit of learning." (4)That we have the faculty of reason, of understanding, is a gift from God. In the Gleanings we read:
"Know thou that, according to what thy Lord, the Lord of all men, hath decreed in His Book, the favors vouchsafed by Him unto mankind have been, and will ever remain, limitless in their range. First and foremost among these favors, which the Almighty hath conferred upon man, is the gift of understanding. His purpose in conferring such a gift is none other except to enable His creature to know and recognize the one true God - exalted be His glory. This gift giveth man the power to discern the truth in all things, leadeth him to that which is right, and helpeth him to discover the secrets of creation." (5)We may use our gift wisely to understand the inner realities that God has caused to be revealed, or we can become entranced with the gift itself and find ourselves caught up in our own interpretations and insights that often have little to do with what God has for us to learn and understand. Many of the passages in the Kitáb-i-Iqán point out the destructiveness of dwelling behind the veils of our imaginations and idle fancies.
"Know verily that Knowledge is of two kinds: Divine and Satanic. The one welleth out from the fountain of divine inspiration; the other is but a reflection of vain and obscure thoughts. ...Just as our parents play a key role in our early learning experiences about physical realities, so do they play a key role in our learning the spiritual realities that underlie all we can comprehend. Bahá'u'lláh emphasizes the responsibility of families and Institutions in safeguarding learning opportunities for children, so that their learning is directed toward the knowledge that comes from Divine inspiration rather than personal desire.
"We prescribe unto all men that which will lead to the exaltation of the Word of God amongst His servants, and likewise, to the advancement of the world of being and the uplift of souls. To this end, the greatest means is education of the child. To this must each and all hold fast. We have verily laid this charge upon you in manifold Tablets as well as in My Most Holy Book. Well is it with him who deferreth thereto.There is no way to downplay the heavy responsibility we have for directing our own learning and the learning of the young people around us to what is spiritually profitable. In one passage, which sounds at first reading rather harsh, Bahá'u'lláh underscores the vital importance of education and training. He said: "There are many things which will, if neglected, be wasted, and come to nothing. How often in this world do we see a child who has lost his parents and who, unless attention be devoted to his education and training, can produce no fruit. And better off dead than alive is he who produceth no fruit." (8)
Our spiritual obligation is clear, but in our search for knowledge and understanding we may be hindered by the very educational system that presents us with facts to assimilate. In his book, Lectures on Bahá'í Inspired Curricula, Dr. Arbab points out this danger:
"...We live at a time in history when a certain brand of liberalism is vigorously being promoted in all aspects of human life. One of the characteristics of liberal movements is that they are simultaneously bearers of positive and negative forces. On the positive side, they work for the abolition of prejudice and bigotry, they free man from the grips of despotism, they resist the imposition of narrow thought, they foster respect for basic human rights, and they open space for human imagination and creativity. However they are prone to overstepping acceptable bounds. In fact, extreme liberal thinking tends to deny the very existence of limits and bounds. When this tendency is mixed with extreme relativism - the complete denial of absolutes - it becomes a negative force that can only lead to slavery to one's lower passions. In the context of education, adherents of this type of thinking would be in full agreement with all those aspects of Bahá'í discourse that extol the powers of man and endeavor to develop his great potentials. However, they would have difficulty with statements that define limits for man or speak of his corrupt inclinations. `Tearing away the veils of the imaginations of men' would not be a popular subject in educational circles that are infatuated with liberalism and relativism. Yet this is an essential aspect of the educational process, for if such veils are not torn away, how can human powers and potentials fully manifest themselves." (9)Bahá'ís must be cautious, then, that the way in which we are taught does not limit our true learning. There are many worthy ideas available to us from human beings who have spiritual insights and the well-being of humankind in their minds, but these ideas are only of value as they support the Writings of the Manifestation of God, Who is the Messenger of God for this day and does bring the prescription for a new way of life on God's straight Path. The knowledge we acquire is valuable only to the extent that it enables us to understand our Creator, His Manifestations and the Messages they bring, and our true mission on this plane of existence. If we are truly sincere about developing an understanding of what we know, we must follow the path of search and become true seekers after enlightenment.
Bahá'u'lláh describes the condition necessary for us to attempt to begin our journey of understanding. He writes: "But, O my brother, when a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading to the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse and purify his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. ..." (10)
In order to truly learn the lessons God has provided for us, we must abandon what we know and our pride in any scholarship we may possess. True understanding depends on the realization that, in fact, we understand nothing. Once we have admitted and accepted our own poverty, it is possible to testify to God's wealth and to receive a portion of its vast ocean. Bahá'u'lláh quotes the Qur'an 29:69: "Whoso maketh efforts for Us, ... In Our ways shall We assuredly guide him." (11)
Bahá'u'lláh explains the mechanism by which we gain understanding:
"Only when the lamp of search, of earnest striving, of longing desire, of passionate devotion, of fervid love, of rapture, and ecstasy, is kindled with in the seeker's heart, and the breeze of His loving-kindness is wafted upon his soul, will the darkness of error be dispelled, the mists of doubts and misgivings be dissipated, and the lights of knowledge and certitude envelop his being. At that hour will the mystic Herald, bearing the joyful tidings of the Spirit shine forth from the City of God resplendent as the morn, and, through the trumpet-blast of knowledge, will awaken the heart, the soul, and the spirit from the slumber of negligence. Then will the manifold favours and outpouring grace of the holy and everlasting Spirit confer such new life upon the seeker that he will find himself endowed with a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind. He will contemplate the manifest signs of the universe, and will penetrate the hidden mysteries of the soul. Gazing with the eye of God, he will perceive within every atom a door that leadeth him to the stations of absolute certitude. He will discover in all things the mysteries of divine Revelation and the evidences of an everlasting manifestation." (12)Knowledge and understanding in the Bahá'í Faith lead to action. From the passages quoted above, we know that we must engage in material pursuits that are profitable to humankind, that we must be actively engaged in promoting the education of children, that we must seek greater levels of comprehension and understanding with respect to what will enhance our spiritual development and share these insights with others by directing them to the life and Writings of the Manifestation of God, and that we are ever vigilant to maintain our recognition of our own station in the Worlds of God. Of great help in maintaining the recognition of who we are is the Tablet of Visitation revealed by `Abdu'l-Bahá, a Tablet that reminds us our ultimate station, our dearest wish, is to serve the Cause of God and His loved ones. True learning is the means to this end.
Bahá'í Education: A Compilation. Extracts from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, `Abdu'l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi. Comp., The Research Department of the Universal House of Justice. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, IL, 1977
Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, tr. Shoghi Effendi, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, IL 1976
Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, tr. Shoghi Effendi, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, IL 1971
Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitáb-i-Iqán: The Book of Certitude, tr. Shoghi Effendi, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, IL, 1983
Dunbar, Hooper C., A Companion to the Study of the Kitáb-i-Iqán, George Ronald, Oxford, 1998