The Bab and Modernity
The Bab and Modernity Nader Saiedi
The title of my talk is the Bab and Modernity. Given my limited time, I will not discuss the concept of modernity or the backward character of Iran of 19 th century. Instead I would like to emphasize the overall worldview of the Bab. But before discussing my main point, it is useful to remember that modernity brought about two contradictory principles. On the one hand, it suggested a noble concept of human beings where humans are perceived as beings endowed with rights. On the other hand, it fulfilled this mission through a rejection of religion and spirituality. Modernity advocated a form of rationalism which was centered in a materialistic worldview. These two perspectives are ultimately contradictory to each other, and that is why it was followed by a relativistic culture of postmodernity. What constitutes the distinctive feature of the worldview of the Bab, and later Baha’u’llah, is the fact that both of them emphasize the nobility of human beings through advocating a new and dynamic spiritual consciousness. In this sense, the Bab provides a systematic critique of both religious traditionalism as well as a materialistic worldview. 1. From Perspective of Resemblance (Tashabuh) to the Perspective of Revelation (Tajalli) According to Foucault, traditional cultures and religious discourse have been based on a perspective that he calls it the epistemology or perspective of resemblance. This means that the relation of various social groups to each other resembles the relation of God to his creatures. Therefore, the absolute superiority of God to his servants becomes the model for various forms of social hierarchy in society. For example, the relation of men to women becomes a repetition of the relation between God and his creatures. Similarly, the relation of owners of slaves to slaves mirrors the relation of God to the world. Relation of the king to his subjects, relation of the believers to the non-believers, relation of the priests and mullahs to the ordinary believers are also a repetition of the relation of God to the creatures. We can see that in this perspective all forms of inequality and oppression are justified in the name of God and religion. In fact, the appearance of this perspective is that it sees everything from a spiritual perspective and it is in this way that it rationalizes various forms of injustice and bigotry. Both the Bab and Baha’u’llah reject this perspective of resemblance and replace it with a perspective of revelation or tajalli. This perspective sees the entire reality as the mirrors of divine attributes. Therefore, the truth of everything and everyone is ultimately one and the same, and that is the reflection of divine attributes. In this way all become sacred, all become beautiful and all become endowed with rights. Not only humans become all equal, nature has also its own right. Nature is a reflection of God, and therefore it has to be protected and respected. In order to understand this perspective of revelation, I mention two related points. A. All Truth are contained in the Letter B First, the Bab reinterprets the famous Islamic tradition which says all truth is in the sacred books, and all truth of sacred books is in the Qur’an, and all the Qur’an is contained in its introductory chapter, and all truth in the introductory chapter is contained in the opening phrase of the Qur’an “bismi allh al-rahman al-Rahim, and all the truth of the opening phrase is in the letter B, and the letter B is Baha’u’llah. Of course the immediate meaning of this statement is that the opening phrase of the Qur’an consists of 19
letters. For the Bab this means that they symbolize the Bab and the 18 letters of the Living. The truth of this 19 is present in the letter B namely in the truth of the Bab. And his truth is the same as the truth of his next revelation as Baha’u’llah. But this interpretation is a reflection of a deeper spiritual truth. How is it that all truth is contained in the letter B, symbolized by the Bab or Baha’u’llah? The answer is the perspective of revelation. The truth of everything is none other than utter pure revelation of God in the heart of all things. The letter B refers to the utter revelation of God which is also the truth of all prophets of God, and it is the glory of God enshrined in all beings. From the point of view of the Bab this strange tradition is expressing a spiritual fact, namely that all beings are reflections of God, and therefore, all beings are sacred and beautiful. Both human beings and nature are to be seen as mirrors The second example deals with the logic of interpretation in the writings of the Bab. according to him everything and particularly the divine words possess infinite meanings. But among these infinite meanings there is one meaning that is superior to all other meanings. Unveiling that supreme meaning is the highest form of interpretation. The key to understand that highest meaning is to go beyond the differences of words, sentences, paragraphs and chapters. Therefore, the highest meaning of the Qur’an is understood when in reading of the Qur’an we do not pay attention to the diversity of the letters and words and chapters of the text. Rather we see the entire Qur’an as one thing, namely its supreme truth, which is the pure revelation of God. In this way the main message and meaning of the Qur’an becomes affirmation of the ultimate truth of everything, namely the pure divine revelation. In this way the Qur’an is also the same as Gospel, Torah, Avesta, and all other sacred scriptures. Unlike the interpretation by the clerics of different religions who emphasize the differences and oppositions of various scriptures, the Bab sees in all scriptures their common truth which is the utter pure revelation of God, and that is the very truth of everything. Consequently, for the Bab the highest meaning of the Qur’an or other scriptures is the unity of all beings, the sacred character of all, and the necessity of respecting and loving all human beings and all nature. 2. Perspective of revelation: From Identity to Equality Unlike the perspective of resemblance, the perspective of revelation leads to a new concept of identity which affirms the sanctity of all things, and highlights the equality of human beings. The concept of identity refers to the truth of human beings. As a reaction to the failed promise of modern rationalism, we have now moved to a postmodern definition of identity. Now in fact we no longer believe in any concept of the human being. Instead, there are only biological and social categories. The identity of people is nothing but their group characteristic. We are either male or female, black or white, Muslim or Christian, Japanese or Egyptian, rich or poor, Persian speaking or English speaking, but we have nothing in common. Although the intention of the postmodern view is good, its conclusion is the same as the pre-modern ideology. Since we have nothing in common, there is nothing universally good or bad. Therefore, the only criterion of truth and value becomes one’s own culture and tradition. Therefore, return to one’s tradition becomes the only criterion of ethics and justice. The problem with all these definitions of identity is that they define human identity in terms of what separates us from each other. The result is that humans are perceived to be either strangers or enemies of each other. It is here that the worldview of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh offer an entirely different perspective. For the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, humans are spiritual beings, and therefore their identity is of God, and treated with respect and dignity. B. The Supreme Meaning of Sacred Texts
defined as the unity of all human beings. In the writings of the Báb, He argues that the human being is like a mirror. This mirror consists of two aspects. One aspect is the characteristics of the glass of the mirror. Some mirrors are circular. Some are triangular. Some are red, and some are white. In other words, our glasses are different from each other. The world so far has defined the identity of humans in terms of the different characteristics of our glasses. But the Báb says that the true identity of humans as a mirror is not in the characteristics of our glasses, but rather it is in the image of God that is reflected in the mirror of our hearts. From the point of view of the Báb, the truth of everyone is the revelation (tajallí) of God upon our being. Our truth is the divine attributes. Consequently, we are all one, all are sacred, all are beautiful, and all are equal. Here I give three examples: A. Kings and Farmers: Comparing the social rank of farmers with kings, in his work the Kitab al-Asma’ (the Book of Divine Names), the Báb argues that farmer / cultivator (ZARI’) is one of the supreme names of God. God is a farmer because he plants the seeds of his divine words in the hearts of human beings. Humans must purify the soil of their souls so that these seeds will yield fruit. He continues that since farmers, who are apparently the lowest rank in society, are a reflection of divine names, and since kings are also a reflection of divine names, therefore, people should treat farmers exactly in the same way that they treat their kings. Both are one reality and both are living by God’s bidding. We can see that here the very notion of God turns into a powerful justification for social equality. B. Men and Women: The nobility of human beings in the perspective of revelation requires a different approach to the station of women. Although the dispensation of the Báb is a transitional dispensation between Islam and the Bahá’í Faith, which means that the full announcement of the equality of men and women had to wait till the advent of Bahá’u’lláh, there is no doubt that the Báb brought about a new respect for the station of women which was absolutely unprecedented in the Iran of the 19 th century. Here I briefly refer to a few points: The first point relates to the fact that throughout his writings he uses the symbol of haykal (temple or pentagram) to refer to men, and the symbol of six concentric circles (davá’ir) to refer to women. But the Báb explains the real meaning of these forms in the Persian Bayán. A haykal consists of five lines which together create six chambers. In other words, in a temple, the outward is five and the inward is six. Together five and six are equal to the word Huva meaning He, which refers to God (H is five and V is six). But the symbol for women is six concentric circles. These six circles create between themselves five chambers. In other words, for women’s symbol, the outward is six and the inward is five. What this means is that both men and women are one and the same truth. Both are reflections of “He,” namely God. Their appearance is different but their truth is one and the same. Both are reflections of God and therefore both are equal and sacred. The second point refers to his equation of men and women with different ways of reference to God in the Qur’an. The Báb equates men and women with different modes of grammatical patterns by which God is mentioned, as raf’ or nasb, and then says: God attributes both men and women to Himself that haply neither men exalt themselves over women, nor women exalt themselves over men . In this statement of the Báb, we see that since God defines both men and women as His Own reflection, they both must be treated as equals.
My last point is related to the way in which the Báb treated Ṭáhirih and her station. In the Bábí religion, after the Báb, the highest spiritual station is assigned to the first 18 believers of the Báb, who are called the Letters of the Living. One of these 18 is a woman who is famously known as Ṭáhirih. This heroic woman was the first woman in Iran who removed the veil and announced the abrogation of Islám and the beginning of a new religion by her questioning this patriarchal tradition. One the most dramatic expression of the attitude of the Báb toward Ṭáhirih is manifest in a tablet written in Chihríq, where the Báb gives the name of the 18 Letters of the Living. However, the Báb defines them as 17 and 1. First He says: “ and the names of seventeen of them are these :” and then He gives the name of 17 of them. Then the Báb says: “ Verily God took the essence of these seventeen and placed it in this one soul who answered as the 18 th .” It is amazing that the Báb defines this one soul as Ṭáhirih. In other words, from the point of view of the Báb, the station of Ṭáhirih by herself is equal to all other 17 Letters of the Living combined. In all these examples we see that the perspective of revelation leads to questioning inequality and oppression. 3. Nobility of Humans and Independent Thinking The Báb desires to create a culture in which people think for themselves. One of the most important expressions of this new culture is the centrality of the word (kalimih) in the worldview of the Báb. Perhaps the most frequent discussion of the writings of the Báb is the idea to replace miracles with creative words. The Báb emphasizes that the evidence of the truth of a prophet of God is no longer performing strange miracles, rather it is offering words and verses which bring a new spiritual worldview that advances humanity to a higher spiritual level. Unlike the miracle-obsessed culture of the Muslim clerics of his time, the Báb, in all His writings, explains that this is a time that all people should appear as spiritual beings, namely beings who think for themselves. Therefore, the understanding of the word becomes the main evidence of the truth of the Prophet. But if the Báb makes the word the only legitimate cause of accepting or rejecting a prophet, He is affirming a new definition of all human beings. For the first time in human history all human beings are perceived as rational beings who are all equally capable of thinking for themselves, and who are responsible before God to use their independent mind in the investigation of truth. Replacing miracles with words means affirmation of a culture of rationalism, independent thinking, and equality of all human beings. Another implication of this noble conception of human beings is the rejection of clerical authority in His writings. I give two examples: The Báb makes going up the pulpit (manbar) forbidden. The Persian Bayán explains that the idea of one person going up and lecturing others who are all sitting down is contrary to the nobility and dignity of human beings. People can share their ideas with others, but only as equals. Likewise, the Báb abrogates the practice of communal prayer (namazi Jamá’at). Only the Prophet can lead prayer of others. No one else can lead prayers because only God is aware of the inner degree of the spiritual station of human beings. Consequently, all humans should be treated as equals. 4. Religion as Historical and Dialectical Iranian intellectuals of the 20 th century became familiar with dialectical logic and historical consciousness through the writings of Hegel and Marx. However, it is noteworthy that in the middle of 19 th -century Iran both dialectical logic and historical consciousness were discussed in the writings of the
Iranian prophet, the Báb. The writings of the Báb, who was executed in 1850, and the early works of Karl Marx were written at the same time; and both of them, in different ways, address a dialectical and historical consciousness. In regard to the question of religion, Marx simply rejected religion in general, whereas the Báb rejected traditionalism and called for a dialectical reconstruction of religion. Much has been said about dialectics and its meaning. Yet, the essence of dialectical logic is contained in the German word Aufhebung which is the core concept in all the writings of Hegel. The word Aufhebung indicates two opposite meanings. On the one hand, Aufhebung means cancellation, elimination, negation, and destruction. In traditional religious discourse this sense is expressed by the word abrogation ( naskh ). On the other hand, Aufhebung means preservation, elevation, and exaltation. It is the unity of these two opposite meanings of Aufhebung that defines Hegel’s dialectical philosophy. In other words, in the movement of history, each new and higher stage of history is the realization of the previous stage in a higher form. The more developed stage is the Aufhebung of the previous stage because it cancels and elevates the previous stage. Thus, Aufhebung is a synthesis that contains within itself both the thesis and the anti-thesis: it both preserves and negates the previous stage. Aufhebung is the unity of negation and affirmation. One of the most significant and central ideas of the Báb is precisely this dialectical and historical concept. According to the Báb, each new stage of the development of humanity is an irtifa’ of the previous stage. Consequently, each new religion is an irtifa’ of the previous religion. The word irtifa’ , which means both cancellation and elevation, is used by the Báb as his key conceptual term to convey the unity of two opposite meanings. On the one hand a new religion is the negation and abrogation of the previous religion. On the other hand, the new religion is the same previous religion which appears in a higher more elevated form. Therefore, the truth of all religions is one, but this same truth appears in higher forms in subsequent revelations. For example, according to the Báb the Qur’an is the same as the Gospel. Although the Qur’an abrogates the laws of the Gospel, that same spiritual truth appears in the Qur’an in a higher form corresponding to the development of history. The word irtifa’ as used by the Báb is exactly the word Aufhebung as it was used by Hegel. The Báb believes that religion and culture are ever advancing, and there is no end to this renewal and development. Religion is a dynamic and changing reality because the human being is a historical being and society is a dynamic reality. The logic of religions is the logic of irtifa’ . Thus each religion corresponds to its own historical moment and is subject to abrogation/elevation by the next religion in accordance with the dynamics of the historical development of humanity. 5. Reconstruction of Heaven and Hell One of the most significant expressions of the Báb’s rationalistic teachings is his reinterpretation of the concept of heaven and hell and the day of resurrection. The common understanding of these issues is based upon a literal reading of the Qur’anic verses. This view finds society and history as static, opposes the requirements of reason, and negates the justice of God. This God loves to inflict eternal torture on humans who have committed some sins. Likewise, heaven is perceived primarily in terms of materialism and sexuality. It appears to be the fantastic projection of the basest physical dreams and desires of men. The first point is that according to the Báb, heaven and hell are not confined to human beings. Instead, all things have their own heavens and hells. For all things, heaven, the Báb maintains, is the state of the realization of its own potential. Likewise, hell is the deprivation of a thing from realizing its perfection. The Persian Bayan believes that not only humans but also all beings in nature are manifestations of
divine attributes. Consequently, all things are beautiful and sacred, and nature is also endowed with moral rights. All things yearn to attain the state of their own perfection, which is their paradise. Humans are obligated to help everything, including the realm of nature, to achieve its paradise. In regard to human beings, paradise is the state of the realization of one’s spiritual potentialities. Since humans are historical beings and since there is no end to their spiritual advancement, therefore, heaven and hell are also dynamic and historical phenomena. The Day of Resurrection is not the end of history. Instead, it is the day of the revelation of a new prophet of God who begins a new stage of development of human history. Living in accordance with new spiritual values implies resurrection from the graveyard of ignorance and stagnation. Those traditionalists who oppose the advancement of culture and history are depriving themselves and others from realizing their spiritual potentialities. This deprivation is hell itself. 6. Reinterpretation of the Occultation and Return of the 12 th Imam Another reflection of the creativity of the Báb is his new interpretation of the concepts of the Twelfth Imam, his occultation, and his return. Although the prevalent and literal understanding of these ideas contradict both reason and ethical values, the Báb reinterprets the same ideas in ways that affirm rationality and the nobility of human beings. Needless to say the Báb considers himself to be the Return of the Twelfth Imam. However, as it is explicated in his later writings, by Twelfth Imam he means the common spiritual truth he shares with all other sacred figure of Islam. Yet, in one of his mystical works, Commentary on the Occultation Prayer, he provides an alternative interpretation for the occultation of the Twelfth Imam. This work of the Báb is a commentary on a prayer attributed to the 6 th Imam, called the Prayer of Occultation. This prayer consists of three sentences and the Shi’a believers are encouraged to recite this prayer in order to hasten the return of the Twelfth Imam. The Báb interprets this prayer in a mystical and philosophical way. According to him, the Twelfth Imam, his occultation, and his return do not refer to any particular historical event, rather they are symbolic expressions of the dynamics of human self-alienation and self- consciousness. According to the Báb, God has created the primordial truth of human beings in the utmost state of perfection and nobility. This idea, namely the original spiritual perfection and powers of all human beings is symbolically represented as the birth and the childhood of the Twelfth Imam. However, despite its potential nobility and glory, human beings in the course of their ordinary pursuits, become preoccupied with selfish and materialistic concerns, forgetting their own spiritual identity and truth. This state of self-forgetfulness and self-alienation is symbolized by the idea of the occultation of the Twelfth Imam. The age of occultation is the age of tyranny and injustice because the essence of tyranny is none other than the negation of spiritual values and the reduction of self to the level of beasts. That is why the emancipation from tyranny and the realization of the age of freedom require the reawakening of human spiritual consciousness in such a way that one’s potential spiritual powers become operative at the level of one’s concrete life. This return to one’s spiritual identity is symbolically presented as the return of the Twelfth Imam. For such overcoming of tyranny, it is necessary to engage in prayer, since the spirit of prayer is the dynamic of discovering the infinite within one’s own finite reality. 7. Spiritualization of Ethics
The Perspective of revelation means that the Bab wants to spiritualize the world, and that this spiritualization means affirmation of the dignity, nobility, and rights of all beings: A. Name of Things One expression of this logic is the spiritual approach to language in the writings of the Báb. When thinking of anything, the Bab asks us to examine the alphabetical letters that constitute its name. We should then take each letter of that name as an abbreviation of one of the names of God. In this way we can see everything as the embodiment of various divine attributes. Everything becomes sacred and beautiful, because it is a reflection of divinity. Since the truth of everything is the reflection of divine names and attributes, we can remember the truth of things by just naming them. The Báb intends to create a culture in which people get habituated to seeing everything as wonderful and majestic. People should treat all beings with love and respect. The Persian Bayan gives the example of the word sang (a pebble or rock, consisting of the Persian letters: SNG) which is apparently devoid of any value. According to the Báb, one should see in the letter “S” the divine name subbuh (All-Glorious), and in the letter “N” the name nur (Light), and in the letter “K” (the Arabic equivalent of the Persian G) the Qur’anic name of God karim (All-Bountiful). And so, all objects become beautiful and sublime. B. For the sake of God (Lillah) The writings of the Báb offer a universal ethical maxim. He says that human deeds should be done “for the sake of God and for the sake of his creatures.” This ethical rule which has strong affinity with the moral maxim of Kant (“act on the basis of good will”), emphasizes that not only should actions be accompanied with purity of motive, but that acting for the sake of God is inseparable from acting for the sake of all the creatures of God. Human action should be motivated by the desire to serve the human race as well as all beings, rather than being a means for attainment of one’s selfish desires. C. Culture of Affirmation (ijabat) One of the main aims of the Báb is the creation of a culture of affirmation in which all see themselves as responsible for the needs and welfare of all others. In his Persian Bayan, he writes that if one receives a letter, or is asked a question, one has to answer it in the most responsive way. He then says that one must go further, and insists that if someone is in need of something, even if he does not ask for help, one should respond to the call of his condition. All must feel obligated to answer the objective needs of all others. As he explains the purpose of this law is that no one would be saddened. This end is one of the most important ethical and social principles of the Báb. It states that not only one should not cause sorrow and grief for others, but rather, one should bring joy and delight to the hearts of others. D. Perfection and Refinement Another manifestation of the nobility of human beings in the writings of the Báb is his frequent emphasis on the necessity of a spiritual reconstruction in the realm of the economy and industry. In works like The Persian Bayan, and The Book of Divine Names, the Báb commands that one has to perform his economic and industrial work in the utmost state of perfection. The Báb affirms that when one engages in productive labor in the highest state of perfection possible at one’s level, one is acting as the image of God. The sacred and spiritual character of humans, therefore, must manifest itself at the
most “materialistic” level of social life, namely in the realm of economics and work. This spiritualization of economic activities turns the realm of economy into a moral domain. In the writings of the Báb, the idea of seeking excellence in work is inseparable from the imperative of refinement and beautification in all things. It is necessary to beautify the world, to make it a mirror of the kingdom of God. 8. Reconstruction of the Millenarian Culture (Farhangi intizar) I finish this talk by contrasting the culture of awaiting for the coming of the Promised One in the writings of the Bab with the prevalent culture of awaiting of the Qa’im among Shi’ih clerics. Writings of the Bab are all devoted to the idea that his religion is not the last religion and that the purpose of all his writings is to prepare people for recognition of the next prophet. But this culture of expectation becomes the exact opposite of the culture of awaiting among Shi’ih Muslims. The Shi’ih concept sees the Promised One as one who takes back humanity to past Islamic traditions. They think that the clerics are the experts who will recognize and support him and therefore the believers must obey the clerics. They take the idea of awaiting as the duty to reject, kill, persecute, and kill those who would pretend to be the Qa’im. Finally, the Qa’im comes to kill all the infidels and make shi’is the ruler of the world, and this is their concept of justice. The Bab reverses all these concepts. The Promisd One of the Bab is a new prophet whose advent means abrogation of the Babi religion. It is a rejection of traditionalism altogether. The Promised One can only be realized by independent thinking of each individual. Therefore, no one should follow any cleric in searching after truth. In fact, the clerics are the defenders of tradition, and they are the first to oppose the Promised One. All Babis must get used to the culture that they should refrain from causing sadness to anyone so that when someone makes a claim to be the Promised One, true or false no Babi would ever cause harm or sadness to him. Absolute religious tolerance and love is the rule of the new culture of expectation. Finally, the coming of the Promised One is intended to actualize spiritual potentialities of human beings, rather than return humans to the beastly culture.
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