Friday, 6 July 2007

Fanaticism or Relativism: Can a Bahá'í be Certain?

At the heart of most religious conflict, but also at the heart of most religious altruism, lies the conviction, nay, the certitude, that one is right about one's most fundamental beliefs. When a Bahá'í states his or her belief that Baha'u'lláh's message is divinely suited to the needs of the age, is he or she right? Can he know that this is the case beyond the shadow of a doubt, even unto death itself, a degree of conviction the Iranian Bahá'í martyrs have consistently manifested? Is not such degree of conviction the very basis of religious fanaticism? On the other hand, if one cannot be sure about the reality of any truth claims, how does religious truth differ from personal opinion, and what opinion can inspire the degree of conviction required to engender the level of commitment and personal transformation called for by contemporary challenges to social cohesion and environmental sustainability which threaten our very survival on this planet? The following comment seeks to explore, if not fully answer, these questions.

-------------------------

I have been following the discussions on exclusivism and on scripture
as unchallengeable truth.

One of the questions being asked is, I gather, how do we KNOW? how
does my conviction about something compare with someone else's?

If I believe that Baha'u'llah is the Manifestation of God for this
Day, and someone else doesn't, who's right? Can I say you are wrong
but I am right? Is there a difference between saying 'you are wrong
and I am right' and saying 'I am convinced that you are wrong and I am
right on this one'?

When seeking knowledge of reality, we are faced with a sea of
uncertainty. There are four criteria, 'Abdu'l-Baha stated in Some Answered
Questions as well as in Promulgation of Universal Peace, by which we
understand. Sensory experience, reason, inspiration, and tradition.
The last applies specially to scripture, but I assume we could
stretch it to anything we believe on the authority of another. But,
'Abdu'l-Baha goes on to explain, our senses easily deceive us,
telling us for instance (and for centuries convincing us) that the
Sun revolves around the earth. Our logic is similarily unreliable,
leading us to believe one thing at one time and another at another
time (‘Abdu’l-Bahá gives Plato as an example). Inspiration he describes as
the promptings of the heart, promptings which now lead us to God, now
to Satan, our own insistent self. Finally, tradition, even where
recognised as infallible as in the case of Holy Scriptures, is
dependent upon our reason for its understanding, and so is subject to
its limitations. We are left, then, where we started, in a sea of
uncertainty. With all criteria flawed there would seem to be no
grounds for real conviction, only for an acknowledgement of
inescapable relativism; only for humility, above all, sheer
powerlessness.

And yet, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá leaves us one rock to grasp for refuge, and that is the
Holy Spirit. Through Its guidance, we can arrive at truth, unerring
and infallible. Thus He explains in Paris Talks that when man allows
the Spirit, through his soul, to enlighten his understanding, then he
contains all creation. This may be similarily linked to the
passage in the Iqan where Baha'u'llah states that the understanding
of the scriptures is dependent, not on human learning, but "solely"
upon "purity of heart, chastity of soul, and freedom of spirit",
attitudes which presumably allow the Spirit to enlighten our
understanding. Again, this may be linked to the statement of
'Abdu'l-Bahá in Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá that
when the quest for knowledge is joined to the love of God it
becomes fruitful, whereas without the love of God it is devoid of
fruit, "nay it leadeth unto madness". Understanding being thus
linked to the Holy Spirit, scholarship becomes, in essence, a mystic
quest, in which context alone it fulfils itself.

But I'm digressing. Just as we might sigh with relief at having
found a source of certainty, we ask ourselves the question, "Am I
inspired of the Holy Spirit?", and we're thrown back to the four
criteria of knowledge, back to the sea of uncertainty. For where
everything is relative, the very notion of doubt and certainty
becomes irrelevant.

It seems to me that the primary result of a recognition, conscious

or more often unconscious, of the relativity of understanding is a sense
of powerlessness, a sense of meaninglesness which might in some ways describe
the character of human experience in the 20th century. If all opinions are equally
valuable, then all opinions are equally meaningless. If Hitler's
views were as valid as Ghandhi's then one's views don't mean that
much in the first place.

This breakdown of paradigms as a result of the recognition of relativism

is what I understand to have been the insight of Nietzche's madman.
He saw in the 19th century revolutions not only a sense of liberation but primarily
a sense of breakdown. When God dies, the whole of Western morality dies as
well, and with it Western civilization as a whole. While this
collapse was conceived by Nietzsche to be liberating to himself and
kindred spirits, he also foresaw that it was apocalyptic in its
implications for civilization as a whole.

Like a man whose ship of certainty shipwrecks on a sea of relativity, we are
confronted with two choices: either we cling ever more firmly to
whatever remnants remain afloat, clinging for very life and refusing
to let go or entertain alternatives; or we abandon the shipwreck and
try to swim in the direction of land. In the former case we focus on
answers, in the latter, on questions. In the former we find our
security, our certitude, in location, in the latter, on process.

Thus we find, for instance, among religions,that on the one
hand, we have ecumenism; on the other, fundamentalism. Politically,
countries where this fragmentation of certainty is particularily
evident, like the former U.S.S.R., evince both strong pulls towards
openness, internationalsim, etc., and also towards nationalism and
racialism.At an individual level, similarily, the recognition of relativism and
the human need for meaning may give rise both to humility and to
intransigence. The former is born of a sense of transcendence; the
latter, from insecurity and fear, indeed, paradoxically, for lack of
certitude in the absence of certainty.

And yet we cannot live our lives with such a model. I trust that
there is a computer, so I type this message, which I'm convinced will
be read by you. I trust I exist, no, it's not even a question in my
mind. If you didn't believe me I would not bother with trying to
prove it to you, so certain am I about my existence. Indeed, if you
really did not believe I existed when knowing me personally, I should
think there was something wrong with you. But my certitude is no
grounds for certainty; a distinction to which I will return later.
Indeed, in believing I exist I'm merely using the four criteria
mentioned above, all of which I recognise as flawed. So my
certitude, in the last analysis, is in essence an intelligent act of
faith.

Those of you who are into Wittgenstein will recognise echoes of his
thought. I strongly recommend the posthumously published volume of
his notes on the nature of certainty, appropriately titled On
Certainty
. In this book, as I understand it, he asserts the impossibility of
absolute knowledge, taken to mean a sense of knowing something which warrants
that knowledge as fact, that is, a sense of knowing something which
absolutely precludes the statement "I thought I knew." He thus makes
the distinction between knowledge and certainty, asserting:

"One does not infer how things are from one's own certainty.
Certainty is as it were a tone of voice in which one declares how
things are, but one does not infer from one's tone of voice that one
is justified."

One may perhaps re-label the distinction between knowledge and
certainty as one between certainty and certitude. Certitude denoting
a conviction which does not warrant its subject as fact, and
certainty denoting conviction which warrants its subject as fact.
This might be the difference between the conviction of a
Manifestation, whose conviction that something is true warrants it to
be a fact at some level (not necessarily a literal or historical
one), and that of human beings, none of whose convictions imply such
warrantee (except, I suppose, in the case of conferred infallibility).

Be that as it may, for human beings, as far as the above categories
go, certitude would appear to be the highest form of conviction one
can reach, certainty being an impossibility by virtue of the
epistemological limitations inherent in our nature.

Now, given these limitations, all conviction becomes an act of faith,
more or less rational, as the case may be. Certitude, in this
perspective, becomes the most intense form of faith, almost to the
point, perhaps to the point, of precluding doubt. It is not that
doubt becomes impossible, it is rather that it becomes unthinkable.
Thus I have certitude that I possess a hand, it is not something I
would question, it is a given. I undertake a great many actions
which assume its existence. On the other hand there are beliefs
which I hold which are far more tenuous. Is there life in other
planets? If so, what is its nature? What do the readers of these lines look like?

"It might be imagined," writes Wittgenstein, "that some
propositions, of the form of empirical propositions, were hardened
and functioned as channels for such empirical propositions as were
not hardened but fluid; and that this relation altered with time, in
that fluid propositions hardened, and hard ones became fluid."
Paragraph 96

One man's certitude then, might be another's doubt. So, to return to
our question, who is right? How do we Know? How do we decide? For
decide we must, at least to a degree. If I see someone mugging an
old lady or beating up a child, I'm not going to argue with myself
whether or not he is right to do so - I'll try to stop him. In the
same way, when I call myself a Baha'i, I have actually made a
decision. I recognise in its teachings the best answer to the
dilemmas of humanity as I perceive them. More, I recognise its
teachings as Divine, hence normative, not just for me, but for all
society. It would seem illogical to recognise it as normative for me
and not for others, as if Baha'u'llah had really meant to speak to
Ismael alone, and not to humanity. Others, however, do not see in
the Baha'i teachings a divine revelation, but at most a partial
inspiration which is normative only insofar as it agrees with other
propositions which are, so to speak, hardened in one's mind. Which is true?

This may be answered at three levels.

1) Apodictically (as it is in itself): Is apodictic knowledge
possible? According to 'Abdu'l-Baha it is not humanly possible to
know the essence of a thing. Hence knowledge is relative and varies
according to our point of view. From this perspective all knowledge
is both relative and fallible, and thus one can never truly Know
whether a given proposition is true, false or merely different,
though one may have fairly strong convictions on the matter. In this
perspective Wittgenstein and 'Abdu'l-Baha appear to be in agreement.
However, 'Abdu'l Baha postulates yet one more dimension: the Divine.
From this perspective one may indeed KNOW. Whatever the Holy Spirit
unveils is right and true, is certain. Should the Holy Spirit
enlighten our understanding of any matter we would, to that extent
and to that extent only, know with certainty. However, as mentioned
before, we can never know what aspects of our convictions have been
illumined by the Holy Spirit. Apodictic knowledge is possible, then, but not with
certainty. The possibility of apodicticity is there, but not
the possibility of certainty. We can trust that some of our
knowledge is true apodictically, but we can never absolutely know to what
extent. In other words, reality is not a relative concept, though it
is relatively experienced. Similarily apodictic knowledge of reality
is possible, but not apodictic conviction. Only God knows what,
in all our convictions, is actually true. This allows us to go
beyond the position that there is no such thing as truth, whilst
avoiding the position that we KNOW that we are, as Baha'is, the main custodians
of it, or at least of some aspect of it.

We might believe so, we might give our lives to testify to our certitude in the truth of God's Self-revelation in Baha'u'llah and to vindicate our belief in His teachings, but we are also aware that our conviction, by itself, does not warrant our certitude as fact.
In this perspective, the abrogation of Jihad and the substitution of the sword for wisdom and utterance acquires significance. We renounce the notion of apodictic conviction, though not of apodictic knowledge. By recognising the basis of our conviction as relative, whilst having absolute certitude in its truth, we exchange the quest for conformity for the quest of intersubjectivity, which is the next level at which
we may approach the question.

2) Intersubjectively: If we cannot apodictically know then we cannot
apodictically prove something to be right. Instead of trying to
prove, we attempt to persuade, to arrive at a consensus as to what is
right or true. In this light, a given conviction proves its validity
by its capacity to generate agreement around its subject. The
proposition that the earth circles the sun has validated, though not
proved, itself by the degree of agreement it has generated throughout
the centuries. Similarily Newton's theories, so long accepted so
widely, have to a large extent been superseded by Einstein's work,
which "proved" itself to be right by becoming more intersubjectively
accepted. When the disciples of Jesus accepted him, they had nothing
but their own certitude and their grounds for such a certitude to go
by. The capacity of their beliefs to generate agreement around their
subject matter has given them intersubjective validation.
Similarily, Baha'is cannot "prove" their beliefs, but they can
increasingly help others to make sense of them, in the faith, nay the
certitude, that others will similarily recognise them as the true
answer to the needs of the world. Recognise them, that is, not
apodictically, but intersubjectively.

Which brings us to the third level:

3) Subjective: At this level, one's own convictions become the
criteria by which we decide the truth of a given proposition. The
highest degree of conviction we can reach is certitude. Certainty is
beyond us. In accepting this we can accept diversity without
compromise; that is, we can agree to disagree. We follow our own
convictions in the hope that time will show the correctness or
otherwise of our positions. Above all, in recognising our
powerlessness, we renounce any ideas of imposing our beliefs, though
not necessarily of winning others to our way of thinking. In other
words, we aim at intersubjectivity, and not beyond.


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Poems of the Journey: Absent Beloved

I cannot describe or present this latest poem of the journey, the sigh of a fractured, if loving soul, which only utter Beauty and utter helplessness might explain.

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Poems of the Journey: Absent Beloved


Absent Beloved

You see me immobile, straining to step into your court, unable even to fix my gaze upon your winged feet.

I fail utterly to rest upon invisibility, even when the visible has lost its power of conviction over my soul. Incapable to lure any longer my dreams, my hopes and expectations, it is still able to persuade, for moments upon accumulating moments, my full attention, the transient motions of my being, when all round me solidity presses its suit and promises in its all-surrounding embrace momentary escape from your absence's burning pain.

Desire overwhelms me, and all but undoes me. I can no longer tell what atom of this yearning is not you, for in your absence every shadow takes on your silhouette and torments my waking dreams. I call to you, with every tear and every smile (I can no longer tell them apart) while hope, exhausted, falters, and thirst images all round me a thousand empty mirages, which I readily discern as insubstantial, yet my unheeding, thirst-consumed limbs pursue in overwhelming need of respite, my will only at the very last imposing itself over this pointless career toward the emptiness of you, leaving my spirit not unscathed.

There is no part of me that has not sought you, no prayer left unsaid, no supplication unuttered, no tear unshed. There is no doctor, earthly or heavenly, to whom I have not turned to help me bear your absence, else draw it to a close. I have travelled the earth and joined every company, and also closed my eyes and sought you alone and quietly in the privacy of my habitation. I have sung to you songs of love where the wise gravely discourse; wept for you until more tears were impossible, yet keep on falling. I have kindled one hundred hearts in joy at your evocation - wounded hundreds more with the consequences of my majnun-like search of you.

I have sought you, beloved, from my youth, with all my innocence and vigour, and have aged prematurely upon reaching your door, and receiving your invitation, and hearing your most sweet voice, and smelling your exquisite perfume, and feeling your touch upon my skin - and discovering myself unable to respond, to step into your open chamber, cross your threshold, and join you, my love, my goal, my genesis, my all.

I know not what else to do, where else to go. You alone know the extent of my efforts. Only you can plumb the depths of my disappointment, the measure of my failure, the scale of my self-defeat, the accumulated grains of loneliness that add up to this desert of longing.

And yet, goal of my heart, perhaps your greatest miracle in me is that I am still far, very far from losing hope. Your tender, flashing eyes, even in the distance, even behind the luminous veil that hides your face, speak intimately to my heart such ravishing beauty and compassion, that I know, I know however far I seem destined to remain, yet you are nearer. I do not understand this statement of mine which my throbbing heart beats when I lift my gaze to yours. But what is the logic of words where beauty reigns?

Beloved one. You know my heart. You know my desperate, if not despairing need, and the exact limits of my strength.

Do not abandon me.

I know my undeserving. You know my sincerity, all there is of it.

I do not ask relief, best beloved - my tears and searing sighs are your kisses upon my neck - but only faithfulness. The strength to come to rest without distraction in your invisibility, rest fully, joyfully and undeviatingly, else be granted in my weakness a visible path to rest in you.

You know what is in me. I know only my desire to be yours without remnant or delay, and be granted the insight and ability to court you in deeds that destroy in triumphant celebration the lukewarm traces of mediocrity in love.

Whatever I am, I am yours. All else is my love for your mirrored image upon creation's troubled waters, and my unwise and self-destroying impatience with your absence. Even my failures in your path are signals of your conquest. Like Jami's Zuleika, if I slit my own hands while preparing the banquet, it is only because you just stepped into the room, and I lost my concentration.

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Friday, 22 June 2007

Poems of the Journey: Preamble to a Wish

Here is another "poem of the journey", as I have chosen to refer to these burning sighs. This one is the fruit of my reflections on the preamble to the Long Obligatory Prayer, which in truth may be an entire journey, in itself, into the heart of obligatory prayer, and a gateway to sincerity. May we be confirmed in our quest for authenticity at the moment, that unique, atemporal moment, that kairos, of true prayer.



PREAMBLE TO A WISH



“Whoso wisheth...”


Whose own wishes

spread like canvas

for His hand to trace

its wishes on?


Who


so wishes

so longs

so yearns?



Who so wishes



“let him stand up”


above what

inclination

from what

reclining state



“and turn”


at last away from all

inertia?



“unto God”


advance

approach

the Wish of Him

Who wishes

we might wish so?



Who so wisheth

to recite this prayer

let him stand up

and turn


unto God.

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Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Seeing the end in the beginning: the Birth of the Báb

Meditation on the Occasion of the Birth of the Báb

Continuing what might be called my meditations on the Bahá'í Holy Days I share here a meditation on the Birth of the Báb which I wrote for the 20th of October of 2001. It includes little known accounts of what He was like as a suckling, and His mother's memories of His infancy. It speaks not just of yesterday, but of today, and of tomorrow, and brings us sweet perfumes from the city of Shiraz.



On the night of October 20th 1819, on the first day of Muharram in the year 1235 A.H.,1 slumbering humanity slept on, and few were the souls that rose to greet the birth of Siyyid ‘Alí Muh?ammad, the Báb, in the home of Áqá Mírzá ‘Alí, His mother’s uncle, in the fabled city of Shíráz.

Shíráz, fortunate city! Well did the celebrated E.G. Browne speak of you as “the home of Persian culture, the mother of Persian genius, the sanctuary of poetry and philosophy, Shíráz.”2 A thousand times over was Háfiz's supplication granted, when he cried out in his love for you:

“Sweet is Shíráz and its incomparable site!
O God, preserve it from decline!”3

For on that sacred night, unbeknownst to your sleeping children, you attained to your greatest accolade, becoming the dayspring of revelation and birthplace of the One Whom the Tongue of Grandeur designated as King of the Messengers.4 Today you are honoured among His lovers, who long to kiss your blessed dust, set apart by the Most Great Name as a site of pilgrimage unto the people of Bahá.

And yet, Shíráz, notwithstanding such bestowals, incarceration and martyrdom were the only welcome forthcoming from the majority of your dwellers and their compatriots to One whose name they had for a thousand years invoked. On the anniversary of His own birth, ensconced within a fortress, buried like a seed fertile under the oppressive soil, the Primal Point recalled, in a supplication to the All-Merciful, the night Shíráz attained to its heart’s desire:

“Through the revelation of Thy grace, O Lord, Thou didst call Me into being on a night such as this, and lo, I am now lonely and forsaken in a mountain. Praise and thanksgiving be unto Thee for whatever conformeth to Thy pleasure within the empire of heaven and earth. And all sovereignty is Thine, extending beyond the uttermost range of the kingdoms of Revelation and Creation.

“Thou didst create Me, O Lord, through Thy gracious favour and didst protect Me through Thy bounty in the darkness of the womb and didst nourish Me, through Thy loving-kindness, with life-giving blood. After having fashioned Me in a most comely form, through Thy tender providence, and having perfected My creation through Thine excellent handiwork and breathed Thy Spirit into My body through Thine infinite mercy and by the revelation of Thy transcendent unity, Thou didst cause Me to issue forth from the world of concealment into the visible world, naked, ignorant of all things, and powerless to achieve aught. Thou didst then nourish Me with refreshing milk and didst rear Me in the arms of My parents with manifest compassion, until Thou didst graciously acquaint Me with the realities of Thy Revelation and apprised Me of the straight path of Thy Faith as set forth in Thy Book”5

And so in a Shírází merchant’s home the Báb was born “from the world of concealment into the visible world”, twenty-five years, four months, and four days before the birth of His Revelation, the promised Day of God yet unseen and pulsating within the soul of a newly born Child.

A touching evocation of His earliest days and months comes from the words of His fortunate mother, the noble Fátimih Bigum, who was frequently heard to recount:

“Often He was serene and made no noise. During the twenty-four hour period, He would desire milk only four times and while nursing would be most gentle and no movement was discerned from His mouth. Many a time I would be disturbed as to why this Child was not like others and thought that perhaps He suffered some internal ailment which made Him not desire milk. Then I would console myself that if indeed He experienced some unknown illness, He would manifest signs of agitation and restlessness. Unlike other children, during the weaning period, He did not complain nor behaved in any unseemly manner. I was most thankful that now that the Exalted Lord had granted me this one Child, He is gentle and agreeable.”6

How dimly the world suspected the significance of the birth of that Unique One, to outward seeming an ordinary Child, yet Bearer of an extraordinary destiny: an Infant “naked, ignorant and powerless” yet with all the mysteries of creation and revelation latent within His rarified Soul!

Indeed, far from celebrating, the chosen land of Persia was dressed in mourning. For the night of the Promised One’s birth coincided with the first of ten days of ritual lamentation for the third Imam’s martyrdom, the sublime Husayn, killed at the hands of the Umayyad armies of the caliph Yazíd on the plains of Karbilá, some eleven centuries earlier. This melancholy occasion undoubtedly constitutes the most important, and most tragic commemoration in the Shí’i sacred calendar, and so it was amidst the mourning and loud weeping of the masses that the very stones of Shíráz cried out in the sheer joy of reunion. Lost in their lamentation were the weeping crowds, “bereft of discernment to see God with their own eyes or hear His melodies with their own ears”.7 And thus bereft, those eyes shed a river of tears for the Imam Huseyn on the day when the he himself surely rejoiced at the birth of His glorious Kinsman. Those same weeping eyes that remained dry on the day 750 muskets pierced the breast of the true Joseph.8

As the earth rejoiced and the tears of the people rained down on the sacred night the Báb was born, pathos and joy embraced as long-parted lovers clinging the one to the other like candle and flame, reconciled henceforth.

One hundred and eighty two years later one wonders how often, for lack of discernment, we weep for yesteryear when jubilation beckons in seemingly ordinary births, if only we had eyes to see. How often do the revelations of His grace “issue forth from the world of concealment into the visible world” in modest garb, hidden in the mountain of material life and sight awaiting recognition in the realm of insight and discernment, and within that realm, awaiting celebration. The realm of insight where within the ordinary the extraordinary is grasped, and in the captive seed the luscious fruit is intuited and even tasted before the youngest shoot springs forth.

For the prayer revealed by the Báb on the anniversary of His birth, tracing His journey from conception to maturity, might speak also for every one of His lovers in our community of broken winged birds, and for the metaphorical children born of our servitude in His path. The prayer gives praise for each stage of development, from existence in the darkness of the womb, through birth into powerlessness and dependence, to ultimate arrival at the gate of God’s good pleasure. Might this trajectory not be observed, in its own way, in relation to the many instruments of our servitude and worship, be it study circles or Local Spiritual Assemblies; scholarship or the arts; devotional meetings or children’s classes; firesides and nineteen day feasts; or quiet acts of hospitality like those of Jináb-i-Mírzá Muhammad-Qulí, that faithful brother of the Blessed Beauty who would simply “pass around the tea”, “always silent”, holding fast to the Covenant of ‘Am I not your Lord?’9

It is the eye of discernment alone that makes it possible to look upon nascent institutions and infant instruments of service, “naked, ignorant of all things, and powerless to achieve aught”, and yield praise for the revelation of His transcendent unity in the simple fact of their existence; their having issued forth, powerless and fragile, “from the world of concealment into the visible world”. It is spiritual discernment, again, that gives us the joy and patience to nourish such infant creatures “with refreshing milk” and rear them in our arms “with manifest compassion”, till they become acquainted, in the fullness of time, “with the realities of Thy Revelation” and apprised “of the straight path of Thy Faith as set forth in Thy Book”

How great the temptation, as we nurture our communities and our own souls amidst the conspicuous signs of our relative immaturity, “to be disturbed”, like the mother of the Báb, “as to why this Child was not like others” and think that “perhaps He suffered some internal ailment which made Him not desire milk”. Whereas the eye of discernment might perceive, amidst the fissiparous forces of a distracted and distracting world, amidst the materialism and indifference and strife that tear apart the society to which we all belong, that which might, with Fatimih Bigum, make us “most thankful that now that the Exalted Lord had granted me this one Child, He is gentle and agreeable.”

The birth of the Báb is a call to celebration then, but also a call to spiritual discernment. So that, should a night arrive like unto the night in which we were born and find us prisoned in a forbidding mountain, be it built of heart’s fragments or of cold stone, we might with the Báb exclaim to God:

“Praise and thanksgiving be unto Thee for whatever conformeth to Thy pleasure within the empire of heaven and earth. And all sovereignty is Thine, extending beyond the uttermost range of the kingdoms of Revelation and Creation.”

Glad tidings!


1 See, Nabil-i Azam, The Dawnbreakers, (trans. Shoghi Effendi) p.73, BPT, Wilmette, 1970
2 EG Browne, A Year Amongst the Persians (1893), p.283, Century Publishing edition, London, 1984
3 Cited in ibid. p.287
4 Bahá'u'lláh, Tablet of Ahmad, Arabic, Bahá'í Prayers, BPT, UK
5 Selections from the Writings of the Bab, p.173-74, Baha'i World Centre, 1982.
6 Cited in Mirza Habibu'llah Afnan’s account of the Bab in Shiraz, translated by Ahang Rabbani, Translations of Shaykhi, Babi and Bahá'í Texts, No. 11, Dec 1997, H-Bahá'í
7 Bahá'u'lláh, Tablet of Ahmad, Arabic.
8 Cf. The Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, cited in SWB, p.4
9.Memorials of the Faithful pages 70-72

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Monday, 18 June 2007

A tribute to ten Shirazi women

On the night of the 18th of June, 1983, ten Bahá'í women were hanged in Shiraz for refusing to deny their faith.

"Two days later, Mona and the other nine women were told that they would be given one more chance to recant their Faith or be sentenced to die. It was their last chance to remain alive. That night, Mona had another dream in which she was in prison saying the long obligatory prayer. Abdu'l-Baha came through the cell door and sat on the bed on which Mona's mother was sleeping. Tahirih Siyavushi was sleeping on the floor. He patted her mother's head and raised His other hand towards Mona, who thought to herself that He might leave if she continued saying her prayer. So she sat on her knees in front of Abdu'l-Baha and held her hands in His. 'Abdu'l-Baha asked Mona, "What do you want?" Mona replied, "Steadfastness." 'Abdu'l-Baha asked again, "What do you want from us?" Mona replied, "Steadfastness for all the friends." Abdu'l-Baha asked for a third time, "What do you want?" Mona again replied, "Steadfastness." Then Abdu'l-Baha said twice, "It is granted. It is granted." "


"Mona replied, 'Mother, If I knew that during each year I spend in prison only a few people become Baha'is, I would wish that I could spend a hundred thousand years in prison.'

'And if I knew that because of my execution, all the youth of the world would arise, join hands in service to humanity, become selfless, teach the world about Baha'i ideals and try to move the world, I would beg Baha'u'llah to give me 100,000 lives to sacrifice in his path.'
"




* * * * *

It is with trepidation that I begin to write these words. My heart’s vocabulary of emotions seems unequal to the object of my contemplation, how much more the groaning structure of my words. I have prayed with all the fervour of my heart for the sincerity to feel, the eloquence to express. And yet, at the gateway, my knees weaken.

Tahirih Siyavushi, when she placed her neck upon the noose, was my age as I write these lines. Mona Mahmudnizhad, when she breathed her last, was my age when I became a Bahá’í. Mrs. Yalda’i was the same age as my mother is today, when they killed her after whipping her two hundred times, blending her clothes with her skin. Mrs Ishraqi was only four years younger. Her daughter Roya, Zarrin Muqimi, Shirin Dalvand, Akhtar Sabit, Simin Sabiri, and Mahsrid Nirumand, were all younger than I am.




This very night, perhaps this very hour at which I am now writing, twenty four years ago, they were killed for a Faith whose name I bear.When I think of them, I remember the living.

Not in the abstract.

I remember a young Shirazi woman in the lonely town of Felixtowe, England, who taught me to pray, not in words, but in the fervour of her supplications, and the burning fire in her gut at the perplexity of being alive, of being spared, when those ten women, when Mona, her own friend, were not. I think of her brother, and his dreams of Bahá’u’lláh, and his unassuming, yet unflagging and fruit-bearing dedication to servitude to His Cause. I think of the same outwardly disciplined, inwardly consuming flame in the serenely fervent eyes, brimming with unshed yet constantly flowing tears - of devotion and pain and longing - of a lone woman scholar of Shiraz, of the same generation, who now quietly but powerfully sheds her light in far distant Northern climes. And I think of those ten women’s fellow prisoner, who blessed my house with her stay, and befriended my three year old child, with whom I was united, for brief hours, in their remembrance, as I laboured to bring her voice, and their memory, to tens of thousands of readers of two publications in Scotland. And I remember a husband and wife I briefly met at the Guardian’s resting place in London, on a brief respite from some six years spent in different Iranian prisons, on their way back to Iran to likely future incarceration. They invited me to be their guest, should I ever visit the land of my heart’s desire. I felt they were my hosts already, as they shared of the abundance of their sorrow-seared, joy-irradiated, hearts.

That quiet intensity in the eyes of these cherished companions, or rather, to use a Persian idiom, that burning in their liver - something at once intensely spiritual, and visceral, instinct at once with light and only just contained emotion, like a voice that says, at every moment “Do not rest! Do not falter! Do not betray the trust!” - is to me pure evocation, lingering perfume of a moment, a moment that broke through the bars and walls of Adelabad and Seppah, and refused to become past, remaining instead present, ever ongoing, long after the fingers that type these fugitive words join the earth that entombs their precious if ephemeral bodies.

Perhaps my thoughts turn so immediately, so instinctively to these friends of mine, who belong, not by design or by appointment, to what the Bahá’í writings call “the remnant of the martyrs”, even as their forebears were the “remnants of the sword” (baqiyyatu’s sayf), because they seem to hear most immediately and pressingly, most continually and urgently, an admonishment that these ten women, and their fathers, and husbands and friends who shared their fate call out to us, in that silence that speaks when words avail not, call out insistently, in the manner of their death, to the manner of our lives.

I do not know by what means to fit my feet into their crimson footprints. My spirit breaks with love and inadequacy. Many are the things I hoped to say in this brief tribute. None have the strength to make it past my yearning. I can only hope the heat of their affliction is such as to burn at least some links in the long chain of self-defeat that holds me back from flying as my innermost spirit visions and desires, and that the selfsame heat does make me move, move an inch, a mile, a frasakh:

“While Persia remains heedless and unaware and its sorely-tried friends are beset by grievous repressions and cruelties, the hosts of life, the bearers of the divine Message of salvation are moving far and wide over the extensive territories of the free world, and bending their energies to capture the citadels of men's hearts. The motivating impulse, the driving power which is responsible for the successful achievements of these sanctified beings is derived from the heat and flame and the influence released through the relentless persecutions and ordeals which the pure-hearted friends in Persia are enduring. Wherefore has the Master said: When the light of God is ignited in the East it will shed illumination upon the West and its evidences will become visible both in the North and in the South.” (Shoghi Effendi, Fire and Light (Nar va Nur), section III)

How inert my motion feels in relation to the flame that burnt up those ten hearts this night in 1983 - and their pain was real, and trying, and their supplications for firmness constant (perhaps an indication of an equally constant awareness of a dangerous fragility under inconceivable mental, and emotional, and spiritual stress), however triumphant and spiritually jubilant the final outcome.

And yet, I look inside my heart, and I find the fragrance of their sacrifice in the very depths of my aspiration, I find a love for their spirits, for their humanity, and for the manner of their love. I find within myself a yearning for faithfulness to the trust of their sacrifice, for answer to their call, in Mona’s case explicit and unequivocally, for a reaction from us all, a reaction to their deaths in the form of genuine, burning servitude, and I cannot ignore that indeed, in their sacrifice is, even for such an indigent one as me, a “motivating impulse”, a “driving power”, that does “shed illumination” over the farthest reaches of my soul.

It is up to me, with God’s assistance, for the “evidences” of such a driving power as their martyrdom contains, so far invisible and folded in the recesses of unrealized aspiration and longing, to “become visible both in the North and in the South.” I feel unequal to the task, but cannot rest in such a feeling. I lack the language to address those 10 women, to lift my heart in prayer and give expression to my feelings. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s own voice gives vent to my humble request to Mona, Roya, Zarrin, Shirin, Akhtar, Simin, Mahsrid, Mrs Ishraqi and Mrs. Yalda’i:

“O ye who have suffered martyrdom! O trustees of His Revelation! …O illustrious and noble ones! May my inmost reality, my spirit, my entire being and whatsoever God hath bestowed upon me through His bounty and grace be laid down as a sacrifice for you.

I bear witness that ye are the radiant stars, the gleaming meteors, the resplendent full moons. the brilliant orbs in this wondrous Revelation. Well is it with you, O birds that warble in the gardens of divine unity; blessed are ye, O lions that roar in the forests of detachment; happy are ye. O leviathans that swim in the waters of His oneness. Verily ye are the signs of divine guidance. ye are the banners that flutter in the field of sacrifice.

I beseech God to bless me, through the breezes of holiness wafted from that glorious centre of sacrifice, and to quicken me with the reviving breath of heavenly communion blowing from that blessed region.

I beg you to intercede on my behalf in the presence of the ever-living, sovereign Lord that He may graciously suffer me to quaff my fill from the choice sealed wine, may grant me a portion from the unbounded felicity that ye enjoy and may exhilarate my heart by giving me to drink from your chalice which is tempered at the Camphor Fountain. Verily my Lord is merciful and forgiving. By bestowing the bounty of sacrifice in this realm of existence, He aideth whomsoever He willeth with whatsoever He pleaseth.”

((‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Fire and Light (Nar va Nur), section XX)

And so, as I remember these ten women, and the 200 believers who were executed in those years, and the afflictions that still rain down on the sweet and valiant friends of Iran, and as I approach the day in which the King of the Messengers was martyred, I cannot but evoke the glorious company which those ten women joined on this, their festal night:

“How well is it said:

'The worldly wise who garner the ears of grain

are unaware of Layla's secret, For unto none was accorded the great glory

but Majnun --

he who set the whole harvest afire.'

“... In this way most of the favoured ones of God offered up their lives as martyrs in the field of sacrifice. He Who is the resplendent Morn of divine guidance, the Exalted One [the Bab] sank below the horizon of sacrifice. Quddus sought companionship with the Beloved through glorious martyrdom. Mulla Husayn opened a new gate to the field of martyrdom. Vahid distinguished himself as a peerless figure in the arena of sacrifice. Zanjani [Hujjat] offered up his life as a martyr upon the plain of tribulation. The King of Martyrs hastened forth to the place of sacrifice. The Beloved of Martyrs was enraptured with ineffable gladness when he offered up his life for the sake of God. Ashraf attained the heights of honour as he unflinchingly set his face towards the arena of sacrifice. Badi', as he breathed his last, exclaimed: 'Magnified be my Lord, the Most Glorious!' The martyrs of the land of Ya [Yazd] drank their fill with relish from the draught of glorious martyrdom, and the martyrs of Shiraz laid down their lives in the arena of ardent love to the tune of sweet and wondrous melodies. Those massacred in the land of Nayriz were inebriated with the brimful cup of sacrifice, and the martyrs of Tabriz were seized with ecstatic joy and unleashed new energies in the field of sacrifice. Those who renounced their lives in Mazandaran exclaimed: 'O Lord! Destine for us this cup that brimmeth over with the choice wine'; while the martyrs of Isfahan laid down their lives with utmost joy and radiance.

“…In truth those that are guided solely by their reason would be unable to perceive the sweetness of this cup, but the ardent lovers will be overjoyed and enraptured by the holy ecstasy which this wondrous draught doth produce. Every discerning observer who hath gazed upon the countenance of that graceful Beloved was prompted to lay down his life as a martyr, and every receptive ear which had hearkened unto that celestial melody suffered its listener to become so enravished with joy as to offer up himself without hesitation as a sacrifice. The moth which is animated by love will burn its wings as it flitteth round the lamp of God and the phoenix of tender affection will be set ablaze by the fire of ardent desire. No unfamiliar bird can partake of the heat of this Fire, nor can the fowls that dwell upon the dust plunge forth into this heavenly Ocean. However, praise be unto God, ye are the leviathans of this ocean, the birds of this pasture, the moths of this lamp, the nightingales of this meadow.

And upon ye rest the glory of the Most Glorious!”

(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Fire and Light (Nar va Nur), section XIII)





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Tuesday, 12 June 2007

Poems of the Journey: In Circumambulation

Given the rather dense nature of recent postings, I feel a need to look upwards, to the Beauty that, in the final analysis, is the single point of knowledge, which the ignorant have multiplied, the beginning and the end of the journey, the very thing that in the end, makes us recklessly throw caution into the air and, forgetting what we read in the books of the grammarians, the stronghold of our certainties, cast ourselves into His sea.

"The death of self is needed here, not rhetoric and grammar
Be then as nothing, and walk upon the waves".



In Circumambulation

I go around in circles seeking entrance to Your dwelling, and each time my very soul cries out - thus far, no further. The hair’s breadth that separates us stretches to infinity when I try to bridge the gap. Circling Your home, I return always to this spot. Circumambulating Your presence, I arrive once more to my starting point.

Cherished one! The love of You has filled me and exceeded me and therefore broken me. What is this union whose taste is separation? This caress that makes clear I cannot touch You? What is this water that makes athirst, this sobering wine, this food that sates with yet more hunger?

And yet though alone, disconsolate and helplessly enraptured, I remain intoxicated, drunk with Your majesty, sighing with relief amidst anxiety in the intuition of Your name, the Merciful. No voice is sweeter than Yours, no comfort real outside Your arms. All else but You in the end falters, and I cling to You, and am pacified. I place my trials at Your feet like petals, and inhale Your own fragrance, the perfume of Your grace. The consciousness of Your presence, beyond my separation, fills me with joy, and the colours of this world dissolve in the radiance of Your face, and the murmur of the world is stilled at the sound of Your footsteps, and I with all creation watch, breathless, the miracle that is Your gait.

Beloved! Watch me melting, dissolving like clay in the ocean of Your name, the All-Glorious. Be with me, my friend, my protector, for I fear oblivion, I fear perpetual, final separation. I fear to go down into Your waters as a little ball of clay, diminished but unvanished. Forgive me, precious one, my want of trust. Overlook my fears. Visit my soul.

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Monday, 11 June 2007

Bahá'í Excommunications and Takfirs

The idea of Bahá'í excommunication or Bahá'í "takfir" (the Muslim declaration of unbelief) has acquired prominence in polemics directed against the Bahá'í community generally, and specifically against the Universal House of Justice, to the degree that it has gained remarkable currency even in the informal discussions of individuals, members, ex-members and non-members of the Bahá'í community, critical of Bahá'í institutions, even in non-polemical contexts. It has been applied, in good faith and without polemical animus, to the loss of administrative rights and expulsion of a Local Spiritual Assembly of two openly gay believers, as in the beautifully open and sensitive critique of the Bahá'í position on homosexuality posted by Andrew as a comment on my homosexuality post.

More elaborately, inflammatorily, or influentially, it has been prominently emphasised in blogs, internet lists, and even serious academic journals by individuals with a clear and long-standing opposition to the administrative institutions of the Bahá'í community. Concretely, the accusation of Bahá'í excomunications and takfors centre on the very exceptional disenrolment, over several years of a handful (or less than a handful) of individuals, by the Universal House of Justice, on the grounds that their public statements and actions are not judged by the Universal House of Justice to be compatible with membership in the Bahá'í community.

Such decisions have been taken to equate with excommunications, takfir, human rights violations, and even, on ocassion, with the notion of theological tribunals. The present essay integrates a number of postings I made in response to reactions to one prominent case of disenrolment, examining such decisions by the Universal House of Justice in the light of the sociology of community and through a comparative analysis of Bahá'í disenrolment and the terminology of takfir and excommunication.





Dear all,

It is very far from my purpose to engage in polemics of any kind, which
in my view always and inherently obscure, rather than shed light on truth,
and make intersubjectivity all the more elusive.

I do regard the present story as saddening, in all of its aspects, including, but not limited to those that have been shared. What is very clear to me is that, before being academics, or believers, we are human beings, and that these tensions, which in the
past resulted in immense, large scale traumatic fractures in religion hurt us
in very human ways (one recalls Eusebius' accounts of early Christians about
to be martyred yet holding different theological perspectives and refusing
to be martyred together!). Clearly, there is, even in the best of
cases, a great deal of hurt in these long-term and, I suggest, in fact universal processes.

I suspect however that history will be kinder than some present voices - voices
both in defense and in detraction of the decisions of contemporary Bahá'í
institutions - in its judgement of the manner in which these tensions are
being handled, by comparison to the way such tensions have been managed
over the centuries.

The voices that are arguing for radical, nefarious and highly pessimistic
readings of these events are speaking, in my view perfectly legitimately,
from within their own, innevitably painful experience of these processes.
But I still feel that when one looks beyond the painful crux of this encounter, one sees very much a natural, long term process of community development inherent in the
nature of religious community itself, not always harmonious, and typically
infinitely more explosive than is the case today, notwitstanding the very
explosive tones in which protagonists of these tensions may address it.

With all of the intense feeling expressed in these posts, with all of the
arguably severe decisions of Bahá'í instituions, we are a far cry from
the thundering jeremiads of Eusebius, the Spainsh Inquisition, the witch
hunts of James the VI, the fatwas and takfirs of Khomeini, or the secular
purges of Stalin and Mao - or even the comparatively tender probings of the
McCarthy era. I think it is perfectly correct to identify an area of tension in
outlook and, I would add as being even more important, in communication
culture, between the Universal House of Justice and those intellectuals
who have run into this kind of conflict with it. I sense that to some extent
the nature of the conflict is not primarily doctrinal as processual, but
that is my perspective which I don't expect others to necessarily share.

Were the situation to be reversed, and the Universal House of Justice
have absolute compatibility with the perspective put forward by these
intellectuals, I don't believe that, a century and a half
into community building, we would not find ourselves here in any case,
that is, with an evolving and often painful process of boundary maintenance
that would be incompatible with a different population's outlook, views or
approach to action and communication. It might look totally different in
terms of the issues that provoke and define it, and even in the manner of
engagement, but in the end, the dilemmas of inclusion and exclusion, of
individual interpretation and community cohesion, of institutional
authority and individual freedom, would remain, as they do in every single
long-standing community, religious or secular.

There is pain and there is anger. That is fair and inevitable, as it is
fair and inevitable that it informs our perspective of events (for all
concerned, whether as intellectuals, as members of institutions or as both at once).
But really I feel that taking a long, comparative view, informed by what
we know about the dynamics of community building and community development
(my professional field for the last 15 years), this seems to me, particularly
in light of current events in the world, not a scenario of extremism, human
rights violations and the end of academic freedom for all Baha'i
academics, but really a most painful, yet altogether mild and benign culmination of a process of competing discourses and identities within a constituted,
institutionalised community setting.

That within such a setting the perspective of a community's elected institutions
should come to prevail, is only to be expected. That such an in my view inevitable outcome should not be accompanied, notwithstanding the suggestions that this is the case, by
calls for attacks and hostilities, but rather a respect for dissenting
individuals's conscience, and for their right and freedom to express
their thoughts on the matter outside of the community the institutions have
been elected to guide and indeed shape, that is to me a credit to the process.

As we move onto weighing the impact of this sad development, I think that the concerns expressed regarding its potential fallout are legitimate and inevitable.
There is no doubt that this event can be neatly fitted into the narrative of such as perceive or advocate a "culture war" in the Bahá'í community. On the other hand, others might see it as simply one fairly reasonable manifestation of a complex
and age-old challenge common to all religious traditions and communities, namely, harmonising the challenge of individual self-expression with that of community cohesion.

Traditionally where the balance has weighed on the former, schism has been the result, while
where the balance has weighed on the latter the result has tended to be the denial of the
individual's right to freedom of conscience. In this case the head of the Faith, in
excercising its legitimate and constitutional right to determine the qualifications for
membership in the Bahá'í community, which is a voluntary act and is in no way demanded or
expected of anyone, has excluded an individual from membership on the basis of an "established pattern of behaviour and ...statements published" which it considers incompatible with membership in the community, without however adding
anathemas, questioning his right to publish such statements, seeking retractions, casting
aspersions upon his character or otherwise infringing on his freedom of thought or of
expression. This surely represents a comparatively benign way of dealing with a
situation that has confronted every religious community from its origins and led to some of the most bloody and fractious episodes in history.

From this perspective, it is perfectly fair for an individual to determine his own opinions,
beliefs, and actions, even as it is perfectly fair for the responsible institution to judge
their compatibility with its own criteria for membership and with the dynamics of community
development that it cosiders appropriate. This principle would seem to apply quite logically
even outside the religious sphere, where voluntary membership in a constituted association
implies acceptance of its constitution, and where the ultimate decision on whether this is the case lies with the constituted body's governing institution.

This is radically different from the Catholic concept of excommunication
(http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05678a.htm) which has as its aim forcing a change of belief
or action in the excommunicant, to be expressed through penance, thus infringing on freedom of conscience. The consideration by an elected, constituted body that a set of individual
statements and behaviour are incompatible with its criteria for membership does not carry with it a demand for a change of opinion, much less a call for penance. It is even farther removed from the catholic concept of anathema, which, in addition to the excommunication, condemns the anathemised person to everlasting hell.

It is likewise far removed from the Muslim practice of takfir. The takfir or decree of
unbelief, while in some ways analogous, is generally not primarily a determination of the
membership status of an individual but a moral judgement frequently attached to punitive
measures (hadd) and a reduction in political, military and/or judicial rights (as opposed to
membership rights). It implies eternal damnation and at the very least it is a measure designed to stimulate a hostile response in the community:

"The “fatawa of condemnation” [takfir] constitute an extraordinarily provocative genre of response in the annals of Islam. They provoked action; they aroused rebuke; and they served to banish from the fold of Islam the most troublesome elements, who threatened to unravel the fabric that bound one Muslim to another." (John Ralph Willis, “The Fatwas of Condemnation,” in Islamic Legal Interpretation: Muftis and Their Fatwas, eds. Mohammed Khalid Masud et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 153.)

In contrast the termination of membership status in this case has been communicated privately to the individual and to the institutions concerned (and could have remained largely anonymous without affecting wider interactions outside his immediate Baha'i community, depending on the choice of the individual), without a hint of
moral judgement or condemnation, and in no way calls for or implies a hostile response from
believers, as a passage of the Guardian cited by the House of Justice in its letter on theocracy from 1995 makes clear:

"...the mere fact of disaffection, estrangement, or recantation of belief, can in no wise detract from, or otherwise impinge upon, the legitimate civil rights of individuals in a free society, be it to the most insignificant degree. Were the friends to follow other than this course, it would be tantamount to a reversion on their part, in this century of radiance and light, to the ways and standards of a former age: they would reignite in men's breasts the fire of bigotry and blind fanaticism, cut themselves off from the glorious bestowals of this promised Day of God, and impede the full flow of divine assistance in
this wondrous age." http://bahai-library.com/uhj/theocracy.html

Hence, while the recent policy of disenrolment of a relatively few individuals (I am aware of less than five), could be cast in the rather inflammatory discourse of
excommunication or takfir, I think a much closer parallel would be the much more common, and much less controversial cases of disenrolment from all kinds of voluntary associations, sometimes acrimonious, but never entailing the moral judgements, metaphysical consequences, and demands for recantation associated with the religious practices reviewed above, and entirely inapplicable to this and similar cases.

This is important to bear in mind because the tensions that have led to this impasse are
tensions universally associated with the phenomenon of religious community around the
world and across history, and hence it is likely to reccur as the years go by, one hopes in
decreasing frequency as we develop a more creative, more cohesive discourse that liberates
our capacity for self expression by engendering a richer and less contentious culture of dialogue.

Even so, I think it is unrealistic to expect or demand that such tensions cease to stimulate
intervention from a constituted body vested with the task of ensuring, according to its best
judgement, the unity of the community above and beyond the diversity of perspectives it
demonstrably tolerates and even fosters. As with any other religious community without exception, such tensions are bound to result from time to time in both, principled individual dissent, and principled institutional action.

What must be borne in mind I feel is the distinctiveness of the response, which in my view
combines a sense of collective stewardship over the development of the community the Universal House of Justice has been elected to guide and nurture, with a respect for the sacrosanct right to freedom of conscience in the individual, effectively saying that the individual's views are his or her own concern, but their compatibility with membership requirements and community dynamics in their turn are its own legitimate concern. Where it perceives a conflict, without restricting or even condemning the individual's principled perspective, it may legitimately act within the sphere of its constitutional responsibilities.

Thus the disenrolment is in no way accompanied by warnings or encouragements to
cease from writing or acting in the vein that has led to the disenrolment. It is simply made clear that it would be inappropriate to do so within the context of Baha'i membership as defined by that membership's elected, ruling body.

I am not suggesting that takfir does not have to do with membership status. In fact there are indeed some analogies, precisely relating to this aspect of the decision. However, when one is disenrolled from an association on the basis that its guiding body does not consider statements or actions taken in its name as compatible with membership therein (an example is the recent expulsion of Yehudi Menhuin's son Gerard from his father's eponymous
society for comments made in various articles that were incompatible with the
aims of the association), although great controversy may ensue, no one would
suggest that someone is losing their political, judicial or military
rights, but rather his membership rights which do include participation within
the membership body's structures. The Bahá'í community, after all, is a
membership organization, with very clear constitutional structures, and
what is being rescinded is specifically membership in that body, with,
obviously, the privileges, no less than the limitations, attached thereto. That is a
perfectly legitimate thing for any constituted body to do, within or
outside religion. In practice, the decision of the Universal House of Justice
means an individual will no lnger be able to contribute to Bahá'í funds, elect or be
elected onto institutions, or participate in the 19 Day Feast. Apart from that
no space of Bahá'í community is closed, no association curtailed, no Bahá'í
activity forbidden. He may continue to write as he wishes, and publish as
he wishes.

To confuse this with political, judicial and military rights is to cloud the
issue. The courts, the government, the police, his freedom of movement,
speech and interaction have in no wise been curtailed. Only such spaces
as attach to membership in a specific and quite small membership body have
been cut off, naturally enough, along with membership therein.

Now, I think the differences from Takfir should be most apparent! The
Universal House of Justice in its letter does not make any declarations
on an individual's belief, or declares him an unbeliever. It addresses specifically
his "membership", not his belief, in "the Bahá'í community", in the light,
notof his beliefs, which it leaves to himself, but of behaviour and
statements that it considers, perfectly within its rights, the individual in question has himself clearly stated, in conflict with the qualifications of membership in the
constituted association known as the Bahá'í community. No pronouncement on his
relationship with God is made, only with the Bahá'í community as a
membership body under its authority and care.

This is radically different from takfir situations, which, as all the
legal literature on takfir will reveal to the most casual observer, is to be
followed by an appropriate hadd or punishment additional to the severance
of membership. In the past this has frequently tended to mean execution...
We are, if we be fair, rather far from such dimensions. I do think, and
there will be enough expertise here to clarify the matter in case I am
mistaken, that the greater Kufr or unbelief, on the basis of which a fatwa of
takfir is issued, does carry the necessary implication of damnation, unless
repentance is made. Here the House of Justice is not saying, you may not
believe as you do, let alone you will rot in Hell for it, it is simply
saying that the positions advanced are incompatible with its criteria for
membership, as happens daily in hundreds of thousands of membership
bodies around the world.

It seems exaggerated therefore to equate the House of Justice saying that a number
of ideas, statements and behaviours are incompatible with membership in the
Bahá'í community, to say, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie,http://www.iranian.com/Pictory/2003/February/fatwa.html
or in the most benign of cases, as in the case of the takfir against
Shaykh Jassiem of South Africa, implying at the least being declared one to whom
is "denied admittance to mosques and Muslim burial grounds, to whom marriage
is prohibited by Muslim law, and with whom Muslims should not associate" (p. 115 of Appeal Court Judgment).

The equivalent is clearly non-existent here. No temples are closed, no
marriages impeded, no association forbidden, no burial forsworn. Simply
membership in a membership body is suspended by that body's governing
institution, without, it is true, the privileges attached thereto in
relation participation in that body's institutions, but likewise without
the constraints associated, such as Bahá'í review and obedience to its
governing body.

In relation to my emphasis on terminolgy, it has been written "whether it is takfir or not", but clearly, as in the examples given, this a very important distinction, since if it is takfir it carries a far more explosive, contentious and intrusive implication than
if its is, as it in fact appears, a disenrolment pure and simple. That it
is a punitive measure, I think it is perfectly legitimate to hold, as is
disenrolment in any and all membership bodies, but not in the sense of
say, administrative sanctions, which have as their aim to induce a change of
behaviour and compliance and hence being accompanied by warnings and
exhortations.

One may indeed disagree with the decision, but to makse such disagreement
the basis of vehement accusations of takfir is to disregard the nature,
and legitimacy, of a perfectly common, perfectly legitimate, if not for that
palatable or even correct decision by a membership body's elected, governing
institution. Thus I have no problem with someone considering this
decision wrong, but do think it unreasonable to present it in the loaded and
inappropriate garb of takfir, anathema, or excommunication, or to present
it as a priori illegitimate, or to equate it with a violation of political,
judicial or human rights at a time when the eggregious violation of such
rights is endemic and infinitely more serious and far reaching than the
suspension of membership in a voluntary religious association. To equate
the latter to the former is to trivialize one and sensationalize the
other.

Finally, as regards the notion of doctrinal tribunals, the very point
here is that there is no attempt to infringe on the individual's liberty of
thought, no requirement to change his beliefs, his statements or even his
behaviour, hence no congregation for the doctrine of the faith, no
theological trial, much less the rather explosive and potentially
inflammatory concept of "theological crimes"! This is not about belief,
but about community.

One can pounce on this very sad episode as a lurid attempt to purge the
Bahá'í community of its intellectuals, to infringe on people's civil
rights, to silence their voice and pronounce fatwas of takfir against them. But
I suspect that most dispassionate observers will see this rather as one
fairly low key manifestation of a universal tension in religion between
individual scholarly interpretation and community cohesion, which does not spell the
end of rigorous intellectual production within its ranks (surely the
worth of work produced by the likes of Buck, Lawson, Momen, Lambden, Knight,
Quinn, etc., will be judged for its scholarship and not for its faith
allegiances) ; an episode which no court of law would consider a human or
even civil rights violation, but a constituted body's legitimate (correct
or incorrect) action, implemented discretely and as far as possible
protecting the privacy of the individual concerned (his immediate institutions were
logically notified of his being unable to serve on them, but apart from
them this in no way impled, as you put it, "a very public" act, none of us
would know about it, nor most of the Bahá'í world, had it not been shared by
the author himself); and, while expressing institutional disagreement with a
given position (surely a perfectly reasonable thing to do), and judging
it outside its membership criteria - yet making no calls on it to be
modified, much less muted; and while implying potentially an ethical disapproval
(surely an equally reasonable possibility for anyone) in no way accompanied
by the extreme condemnations and proscriptions associated with takfirs or
excommunications.

In the hope that this clarifies somewhat my understanding, and contributes
to engendering a less fractious, more nuanced discourse on a universal,
if unuplifting situation inherent in the phenomenon of religious community
itself, and linked (not condemned) in social science to the need for
boundary maintenance, the processes by which a community seeks to build
an identity that promotes commonality and cohesion and which, while
legitimate, is not always harmonious,

With love,as ever,

Ismael

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Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Problems with the Ruhi Model

This post is the result of honest exchanges on the challenges, the tensions, the heartaches that many of us have found in the process of integrating the Ruhi study circles into our communities and our lives.

Among the questions addressed in this post are: pro-Ruhi vs. anti-Ruhi; how do we judge if is it a good or a bad methodology? Painful Ruhi experiences, successful Ruhi experiences, rigid attitudes and disenfranchisement of fellow Bahá'ís, discarding firesides and deepenings for Ruhi, dealing with narrow community responses, participation and abstention, fostering change. And throughout reflections on the Ruhi model, on tutoring, and on Books 2 and 6 of the Ruhi sequence.

The following, then, is one attempt at understanding the place and implementation of the Ruhi model in the processes of community growth and cultural change, and addressing some of the very real and painful tensions that arise along the way.





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Perhaps the greatest challenge faced by the world Bahá'í community today is the imperative to a change of culture whose magnitude we are still, it seems, very far from begining to conceive. The timescale contemplated for this change stretches from 1996 to the year 2021, the end of the first century of the Formative Age of the Faith.

I don't think the vast majority of us, myself included, have grasped the degree of change that such a timescale implies. Rather, we seem to approach, with great frustration, the changes being introduced into our community processes as a rather full-scale make-over, which nevertheless remains purely cosmetic. We are yet far from recognising 1996 (the moment when this process of conscious culture-change was propelled by the Universal House of Justice), as "a turning point of epochal magnitude." (Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 153, 1996)

As this process has gathered momentum, it has become increasingly, virtually universally, linked to the Ruhi Institute, bringing in its wake, the world over, both great successes and formidable cultural tensions. In the midst of the undoubted trials accompanying the profound tranformation we are undergoing (and it is a profound transformation, which, as these exchanges aver, is painful all over, however pregnant with promise), I find solace, direction and power in the moving and instructive words of the Universal House of Justice.

"Let no excessive self-criticism or any feelings of inadequacy, inability or inexperience hinder you or cause you to be afraid. Bury your fears in the assurances of Bahá'u'lláh. Has He not asserted that upon anyone who mentions His Name will descend the "hosts of Divine inspiration" and that on such a one will also descend the "Concourse on high, each bearing aloft a chalice of pure light"? Step forth, then, into the arena where all His loved ones are equally summoned, equally challenged and abundantly blessed. For to teach, Bahá'u'lláh Himself affirms, is to do the "most meritorious of all deeds". And at this extraordinary moment in the history of the planet, nothing whatever is of more critical importance than inviting people of every sort and every gift to the banquet table of the Lord of Hosts." (Ridvan 152, 1995, p. 3)

What I frequently feel in discussions of the Ruhi process is the presence, explicit or implicit, of "excessive self-criticism" and/or "feelings of inadequacy, inability or inexperience", which generate frustration, can provoke disunity, and, in the end, "hinder" us, and cause us "to be afraid", for the future of the Cause, the viability of its processes, or our own space and sense of belonging within its community. And really, it is only through that spirituality that breaks through us when "the heart giveth way, and willing or not, turneth humbly in prayer unto the Kingdom of the Lord", that the promises and assurances of Bahá'u'lláh achieve the inner plausibility and eventual certitude to act as a genuinely compelling counterweight to the ubiquitous material evidences of our inescapable "inadequacy, inability and inexperience", before what, with the eye of faith, is a Plan which is firmly in the mighty grasp of God, under the stewardship of His Universal House of Justice.

I have seen and shared in dismal, disempowering study circles. As I reflect upon them, my negative experiences of Ruhi have teded to take place at early stages of its implantation in a new cultural context, be that a national community or a cluster or locality. I remember it from the very beginning of the process in Scotland and encountered it again much later at a similar stage on the local level in different places, and again when I moved to Tenerife. There are two tendencies which I see in the early stages of the application of Ruhi, and which I have personally observed in some 5 communities in different countries, and heard echoed in other places too. One is to take a minimalist approach to Ruhi, which basically, as the experiences so reccurrently shared in this dialogue also painfully illustrate, may mean that only those who have done the relevant book are to do the core activities. Alternatively it may mean that only the core activities are to be done, and the anecdotes shared about Auxiliary Board members declaring that deepenings were a thing of the past, or the local discouraging of firesides, or the dismissing of Association of Bahá'í Studies meetings because they lacked a skills component, etc. This flies in the face of all the guidance which on the contrary urges us to be entreprneurial as individuals, to experiment, to initiate, wherever we might be or not in the sequence. The other extreme, which I have seen in the early stages too, is the maximalist extreme, where the instruments, instead of mastered, are altogether recast into alien if more familiar configurations. Here Ruhi becomes a poor deepening. A third hamstringing of the Ruhi model is, in my experience, to divorse it from the simultanoues and equally crucial elements of the new paradigm of growth, namely, the concept of the cluster and its stages of capacity building, and the concept of core activities. Isolated from these complementary elements, the effectiveness of Ruhi in consolidating and propelling community development becomes mutilated and hence distorted.


On the other hand, I have also found consistently, in my own personal experience, the Ruhi model's power to transform, to motivate, to unite and inspire, both new and old believers, from all social classes and levels of education and understanding, at the same time. In a recent Book 1 that finished last december, I had the precious gift of tutoring a circle which began with 10 non-bahá'ís and 3 Bahá'ís. The beginning was wonderfully fun and challenging, with an age range of 16-82, all women bar me. By the third or fourth session there were only 5 of us who could make it regularly, me the only Bahá'í, with occasional "parachutists" who dropped in and spiced the circle. They all became Bahá'ís. One more who had to leave the circle, became a believer the week after, and finished the book in her own town with different tutors. The transformations were palpable. One man, disabled and obese, with low self esteem and a serious problem with his temper, transformed so dramatically within the first few weeks, actually within the first few days of initiating the excercise of reading the writings morn and eve, with the single prayer he had been given, that first he remarked upon it, then his mum phoned another participant, without any idea that her son was involved in anything, to say that he had tranformed beyond recognition for the better. The atmosphere itself was transforming, so that one old lady that two of the participants were employed to care for, and who did not really follow very much, softened and revived, to the point that her relatives and acquaintances asked her carers whether they had been putting new make-up on her because she looked so well. I could go on with the stories. They proved successful in raising human resources too. The four new believers had been attracted in the first place by the single new believer with whom we started the circle. Only last week, some three months after ending book 1 and one month into book 2, the same man I mentioned, who has no eloquence, no apparent "leadership" qualities, and very limited knowledge, brought another soul into the Cause. The neighbouring circle had similarly strong results, with three of the four participants becoming believers and the other one a closet Bahá'í. One of those new believers brought, almost concurrently, the week after her declaration, another soul into the Faith. Another of those believers initiated a regular devotional in her home. For unit convention, they could not make it, but all sent postal ballots. The believers in my circle had had no previous contact with the Faith. One was a mormon, another a Catholic, another a more synchretic seeker. From the other circle they all recently went to the World Centre on a 5 day visit, without much money, all of which they spent on the trip. You can understand that such an experience can be deeply moving, and it was so for me. The bonds I have made I will take to the next life with me.


Now, this is just one successful experience. As I say I have also had pretty poor ones. And anecdote by anecdote we can build either picture. What is going on? That the process of developing, implementing, refining, transplanting, implementing, refining, multiplying, refining again, and disseminating reformulated models of cummunity learning, is a developmental, laborious, time-consuming and non-linear process, that obeys the more general dynamics of Bahá'í community-building:

"The Faith advances, not at a uniform rate of growth, but in vast surges, precipitated by the alternation of crisis and victory."
(The Universal House of Justice, A Wider Horizon, Selected Letters 1983-1992, p. 53)

"The Faith of God does not advance at one uniform pace. Sometimes it is like the advance of the sea when the tide is rising. Meeting a sandbank the water seems to be held back, but, with a new wave, it surges forward, flooding past the barrier which checked it for a little while. If the friends will but persist in their efforts, the cumulative effect of years of work will suddenly appear."
(27 July 1980, written by the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly)
(The Universal House of Justice, 1993 Nov 09, Promoting Entry by Troops, p. 11)

We are, still, in the "cumulative years of work" stage. In this respect it is instructive to recall the stirring, and to many of us dangerously so, call from the Universal House of Justice for pioneers. Whereas in the past pioneer movements obeyed a spatial priority, where do we need more Bahá'ís to create or sustain fragile National Assemblies, the priority today is qualitative: where do we need more Bahá'ís to establish successful models of community that may be applied to communities in earlier phases of the community development process, understood in terms of cluster categories. When we have this critical mass of working models of community generally, and of the core activities specifically, it is logical to expect the focus to shift from model-building, to diversified application and adaptation of tried and tested models of success. I imagine and sense however that we are close to a qualitative leap, the "sudden effect", for the empirical base of good practice is very rapidly accumulating, built on multiple and formidable piles of average, mediocre and plain bad practice in our efforts to reach the heights, like the many dead ends, detours and scenic routes one takes to find the way to the centre of the labyrinth. Such meanderings are indispensable and inevitable parts of the process of finding the right track, however, once that track is found, and mapped from different starting points, the subsequent comings and goings are smoother and infinitely and more efficient. One can begin to focus on beautifying the paths, rather than simply discovering them.

This to me is precisely the point of getting the system fully in place and understood before judging and modifying it. Book 6, for instance, suggests that the process of launching a teaching campaign focused on a receptive population might and should take something approaching two years of preparation, consisting of a number of systematic, iterative pilot projects, evaluation and refinement. That kind of rigour or such timescales for a teaching campaign is not something we are used to. Likewise, I think the timescales involved in establishing, implementing, and understanding the three new concepts of core activities, sequential training, and capacity-building segmented clusters, are much longer than most people work with to arrive at judgements of their efficacy or adaptability. I am sure, and several letters allude to this, that after a good few years more, during which uniformity of format allows for validity of comparisons, there will be a phase of regional modification and adaptation, but one based on a worldwide, large-scale empirical process of action research, over several years, going on even as we speak and stewarded by the ITC, with a solid statistical and qualitative base in each country of the world. Only then will we be in a position to know what is essential and what is non-essential to the working models we have only begun to put in place.

The simple process of selecting those concepts, (core activities, sequential training, and capacity building segmented clusters) to build the present working model, took close to a decade of cross-cultural comparison, pilot projects and experimentation, as I discussed in my paper, not to mention the decades that went into building the alternative models from which the selection was made. Anyone with professional experience of community development will recognise the timescales and incredible resistance involved in incorporating participatory structures into communities, and the even longer timescales involved in making them work, as well as the conflict they almost inevitably engender as they disrupt existing structures and replace, not do away (in this I agree with the sceptics) existing hierarchies. What changes, in my view, is not the existence of hierarchy, but the more widely accessible processes underlying them, and the more transparent criteria and processes for establishing them. Again, anyone with solid grassroots experience in participatory democracy, will know how in the process of change a good number of immature power-games operate, on all sides, which become increasingly marginal, if the strategy is truly participatory and process focused, as the new structures gather momentum, familiarity and efficiency, that is, as they become integrated into the commonality of a new community culture.

I agree entirely that to see Ruhi-propelled firesides, devotionals, etc., as the invention of the wheel is both inaccurate and inhibiting. As I suggested in earlier messages, the distinctive element of this Epoch is that Bahá'í activities are integrated in a subtle and complex yet overarching context that involves Ruhi, not as a stand-alone activity, but as part of a system and model of community building and community development that also includes clusters categorized in accordance to community capacity and core activities tried and tested and eventually arrived at as the key generators of Bahá'í community. I this respect it is interesting to note that the quest for these key elements, for the most important activities to focus on to build and develop communities, began systematically in the first 9 Year Plan, and only after immense experimentation and further systematic pilot projects it was found that these three, now four core activities, are the support of the proverbial lever.

In other words, what makes the new paradigm of Bahá'í community distinctive is not the concrete activities. As Century of Light explains, by the 1980's there was not an activity or approach that had not been tried. Rather it is their integration into a coherent, globally applied systemic model that enables systematic community learning to take place, and, out of the immense range of Bahá'í activity, identifies, not on the basis of theory or personal preference, but on the basis of exhaustive trial and error across decades and countries and ethnicities, those "core" elements that have the capacity, within a sufficiently large yet coherent geographical area with a basic institutional and community capacity (several functioning LSA's , a good number of capable believers who understand and support the new systemic processes of growth), to achieve a multiplication and enrichment of
Bahá'í community activity, and a context that facilitates growth. This coherent and shared model makes possible the meaningful comparison of data and achievements, which in turn enables refinement to the model. Thus the core activities began as three, but as the model was applied in a variety of contexts, it became apparent that the education of junior youth played a no less important, foundational role in the gestation of community as the previous three activities. We now have 4 core activities. Again, the devotional meetings and study circles were originally built into the model as Bahá'í only activities. The accumulation of comparable experiences within a coherent model allowed for a further refinement that first encouraged further experimentation in opening these activities to the wider community, and then made such involvement of the acommunity of interest in these core activities absolutely pivotal to the global model we are applying, going as far as designating them portals for entry by troops. This change was reflected in the new statistics of non-Bahá'í participation that began to be gathered. In the Canaries, devotionals that don't include non-Bahá'ís are no longer quantified, for the statistical needs of the model have moved on.

The point I'm making is that by linking our individual initiatives to the new mechanisms of this epoch, the core activities, the Ruhi focused institute process, the cluster and its area committees, the community of interest, the capacity building movement through cluster categories, what we are doing is not merely, or I would argue primarily, contributing in a frequently haphazard way to our local community. Rather, we are participating in a systematic process of cummunity learning on a global scale that, for community development professionals, is an incredible, awe-inspiring achievement. We do so, not only by our own reflection on how to make the new tools work for us, but specially by furnishing a unqiquely individual, precious atom of experience that, when systematically viewed alongside thousands of similar contributions, will reveal, under the inspired guidance of the Universal House of Justice the parts of our experience that are genuinely in tune with the potentialities of our moment, those which are redundant, and those that are obstructive. This is a feedback loop that makes the community, as opposed to individual, insights incomparably keener, more widely accesible to more diverse participants, and better skilled at growth, change and maturation.

In this light, it is important to recognize that Ruhi itself is very far from static, and that the empirical evidence that has been and is being gathered through its application in diverse cultural contexts has already dramatically changed its contents from its original Colombian incarnations. To cite but one example, in Colombia the arts played no significant part in the Ruhi methodology. In book 7 it is critical. Again, in Colombian Book 7 itself did not exist, and the sequence was not always the same. Originally Book 1 began with Life After Death. So, as with every other tool (examples could be added of change in our modelling of clusters, and I am certain the same will happen before long with junior youth, as the three core materials become tested and tried in enough environments for enough time).

With this in mind I, for one, consider myself very far from being in a position at such an early stage in the game and with such geographically limited experience, to really get what Ruhi is about. Each time I study it some more, and particularly each time I creatively and receptively apply it once more, as well as each time I see it applied in a new cultural or social or even individual context, I realize that there is more to it than I previously thought. What I feel though is enough confidence to recognise when its failures are due to parrochial and inevitably ephemeral applications of the process, and when they appear to stem from structural aspects in the methodology itself. The biggest barrier to the successful implementation of Ruhi, not as either an exclusive endoeavour, or as a panacea for all challenges and problems, but merely as a crucial tool in propelling and integrating the learning-in-action of our community on a global scale, is the often alien and particularistic conceptual models we use to approach it and define it even before studying or experimenting open-mindedly with it in a spirit of learning to use a new instrument.

An example of such particularistic "either/or" models, which the Ruhi books set out, in fact, explicitly to challenge, is sadly furnished by the examples, which I have also seen in many, many places, with similarly discouraging impacts on so many Bahá'ís who feel disenfranchised when the either/or becomes naturally embodied in us/them relationships (both by advocates and detractors of Ruhi), is the perception that firesides and deepenings are somehow, if not a thing of the past, then at least in competition with Ruhi study circles and at a lower order of priority. Faithful application of the books' methodology, however, shows this to be a serious distortion of the model. The House of Justice letters on this subject are almost repetitive. Not only is Ruhi not a replacement for firesides but on the contrary firesides are enjoined as an essential part of the current pattern of community activity, for many years now, and measured in the statistics as measures of community capacity, vitality and progress. Deepenings, likewise, far from being marginal to the process, are the main service activity together with home visits of book 2, and there are many letters suggesting their indispensability and complementarity. Again, many letters emphasize the inadvisability of replacing other activities with Ruhi, rather Ruhi is seen as an engine to stimulate a multiplication of precisely such activities. That in early stages the result is the opposite is to be expacted, as the priority becomes having a core of trained resources. That happened here in Tenerife, as it happened in Nottingham, the two areas of which i have some close experience of the process. Then, as the priority for completing the sequence became less when a sufficient number of tutors became available, the focus precisely shifted onto the complementary activities indispensable to the success of Ruhi. Thus, the Ruhi sequence hardly covers the administrative order, and we have found that as new enrolments take place through Ruhi, devotionals and firesides, the need to deepen on this theme was pressing and obvious.

ut even within this framework, the minimalist approach, can be excessive, so that deepenings that are not vernatim recitations of Ana's talks, or firesides that likewise depart from the given texts in Books 2 and 6, are somehow seen as deviations, or at most approximations with regard to the ideal deepening and fireside. When one reads them closely, one discovers that the deepening, home visit and fireside contents are not prescriptive but indicative. Book 2, for instance, specifically suggests that the talks provided are starting points. The participants, including the tutor, have enormous room for creativity when applying the basic concepts and skills cultivated in book two to thei specific local and individual contexts, another thing that is explicitly encouraged in Books 2 and 7. The same applies with Book 6. The teaching campaign is offered, like Ana's talks in Book 2, as a template, but the group is encouraged to arrive at its own daily programme and campaign through consultation on its specific needs. The public talks suggested as part of an intensive campaign have titles that bear at times no resemblance to the templates given earlier. It is here that is suggested that the process of identifying a receptive population, getting to truly know and understand its needs, developing appropriate materials and approaches, and finally designing, on this basis, a comprehensive campaign, is likely to take some 2 years. Hardly a reified prescription or a rigid formula to be followed...

All this is very well in theory, but what to do when face to face with narrow attitudes (on either side of the proverbial fence), with inadequate implementations of the process, or with categorical judgements of its merits wholly on the basis of personal preference, local experience, or anecdote? What to do when a community, local, regional or national appears to be either apathetic about the nationally adopted Ruhi model, or else excessively, discouragingly and polarizingly rigid in its application? After all, what prompted this discussion are the real life experiences of pain before inadequate applications of the model, regardless of the merits that it may possess in theory, or that it may possess in paractice in more receptive or more experienced environments.

In the last analysis, what is described in such negative, and very, very far from universal experiences, is to me simply more evidence of the conceptual distance yet to be traversed by one community to understand better what the Universal House of Justice, and for those who care to read attentively, the Ruhi model itself, advances.Here, as in everything in the Bahá'í community, the nobility of our endeavours lies in our persistent arising before an ever more palpable consciousness that we are but mere approximations of what we most cherish and seek and are bidden be. We can retard things, but not stop them, The Word trumps all things, soon or late, every time, for love, in the end, rules in our hearts. If the House of Justice says, deepen, have firesides, do home visits, do external affairs, scholarship, SED, as well as the "core" activities, then, some communities quicker than others, we will respond, because the power of the Covenant ultimately impels us. You can only ignore the guidance, with good intentions, so many times before you "get it", then it's there for keeps. Now, the responsibility we bear in understanding and responding to it with promptitude is undoubted, and our progress, our "spiritual velocity" and community development are dependent on that. Thus there have always been diverse levels of achievement and vitality in different communities, as some engage fully with the guidance earlier or more wholeheartedly than others. Nor is this static. The British Bahá'í community was at the very vanguard of the world Bahá'í community, precisely because of the promptitude and consecration of its response to Shoghi Effendi's guidance. A recent message from the Universal House of Justice suggests that this community lost vitality over many long years, and has only just reclaimed its destiny, through a leap in response to the guidance of the Supreme Body. I found it interesting that, in highlighting the most distinguished achievements in community building, Century of Light dwelt exclusively on communities in the global South, even war-torn communities such as those in Liberia, with none of the more established communities with clear destinies, such as the United States or Britain, being singled out for praise, save in the area of external affairs. And while the institutions have an essential, a critical role in leading the community's engagement to the guidance of the Supreme Institution, there can be no doubt that the power of response is fundamentally vested in us as individuals, and it is when a sufficient numbers of individuals respond fully and intelligently, within and outwith institutions, that a community achieves the potentialities that invest it with destiny and vitality.

I am sure that is the case with Ruhi as well, with some communities having a more rounded and engaged perspective than others. I also think this is why there is such a focus on priority A clusters, because we need a good number of functioning models of the potential of the new processes, not only for expansion but also for consolidation, for a community that is rich and varied and rounded and abundant, in diverse contexts, to be able to disseminate that learning and change, gradually, entrenched or short sighted attitudes and cultures in less discerning or responsive contexts. To return to the example of the British Bahá'í community, it was the success of the American 7 Year Plan that prompted the UK Bahá'ís to request a plan of their own, being given a ridiculously ambitious 6 Year Plan by Shoghi Effendi. Far from responding on time, the British community lagged dramatically in it arising, so that the Guardian was forced to offer to postpone the deadline a few months, saying it is the most I can do. Hugh McKinley tells of Marion Hofman visiting every believer in the final year of the Plan to say: "Friends, you know why we are not accomplishing more? Because we don't understand the station of Shoghi Effendi. Not his function as Guardian, but his spiritual station as the Sign of God on earth, as the Will and Testament refers to him. If we did, we would not delay one instant." This message, as well as the Guardian's urgent pleas, in other words, the vitality of their love for the Centre of the Covenant, made them finally arise with such vigour and sacrifice as to win all goals in time and have the distinction of being the community which, in war-time and under the Blitz, sent forth more pioneers, some 60% of the community uprooting themselves entirely, if memory serves. Perhaps a more spiritual, more loving, more reverent and consecrated understanding, not only of the function, but of the station of the Universal House of Justice might accelerate and refine our level and quality of spiritual response, and in that leap increase not only our commitment, but our spirituality and success.

And in the meantime, here we are, still, with the same question: all that is very well, and the community may indeed advance gradually toward its destinty, and all things get better, but in the meantime, we are, many of us, still confronted with unpropitious community environments, feel left out, see better ways of doing things, would wish Ruhi study circles would be applied in different ways, and that frustration does not go away, and sometimes carries on growing.

Here I sense the importance and urgency of people who would not naturally gravitate toward Ruhi (I include myself), to get deeply involved in its processes, to go through the sequence, learn to make it work for them, increasingly, and then, from the spiritual leadership that success in close alignement to the guidance and thrust of the Plans naturally engenders (I'm not talking institutional leadership, but the simple power of attraction), we are in a position to bring our individuality to bear on the collective processes, and ensure, through our diversity, that the notes we hear that pass others by become part of the music, and that the notes we cannot yet make sense of and others seem to hear so clearly gradually resonate within our consciousness. This is not a narcisistic endeavour, but rather one the Universal House of Justice explicitly furthers:

"The advancement of the Cause is an evolutionary process which takes place through trial and error, through reflection on experience and through wholehearted commitment to the teaching Plans and strategies devised by the House of Justice. Believers ...who appreciate the opportunities thus provided, can be of great assistance by encouraging their respective countries and assemblies to similarly invest themselves in the process." (22 August 2002, to an individual)


In fact, not only as a tutor, but even as a participant in the Ruhi process one can stimulate such rounded applications of the process, simply by carrying out the practices involved in a way that personally makes sense. Anyone who gets to book 2 has an ample field indeed, as part of the course, even as a participant, to initiate a wide-ranging series of deepenings. That is an essential, critical part of Book 2's requirements. One of the key skills it seeks to develop. I have found that in my participation, even when the tutor is not switched on to the practice elements of the books, which are increasingly being emphasised at all levels now that the hurry simply to complete the sequence is over and the focus is on completing it well, I can, simply by offering a personal initiative to fulfill the Book's requirements, not only make deepenings and home visits happen, but stimulate others to feel more confident about doing so too, and in any case imparting an impulse to this dimension of the process.

Now, if one does not participate in these books, if one does not bring one's power of individual initiative and spiritual leadership based on attraction and consultation, if one does not engage with the actual practices of the learning process that lift the method from a conceptual, spiritual excercise to a life-engaging, life-challenging, and life-transforming iteration of prayerful study, action, and reflection around a common and spiritually informed purpose, then, as Moojan points out, the speed at which we will finally apply effectively the Ruhi system, with its concommittant implication of a multiplication of deepenings, firesides, teaching projects, arts events, and social interactions, will be much slower. The Faith relies on our diversity to achieve maximum effectiveness. As long as all the people who are instinctively resistant to the initial applications, and conceptualisations, of the Ruhi process, fail to become engaged in enriching and transforming it to fully include their distinctive orientations, the process will be distorted by the undoubted insights, and undoubted blindspots, of that population of Bahá'ís that resonates immediately with its early, woefully inadequate application.

The Native American experiences and perspectives on the Ruhi process, shared earlier, are highly instructive in this regard, and echo my own experiences of seeing the sequence applied the sequence in a Spanish, evangelical gypsy context. If, when encountering applications of the Ruhi sequence that silence the voice and diversity of the Native American, or Gypsy, or any range of populations relatively marginal to the cultural bias of a given Bahá'í community's culture, (might one include the formally trained scholarly population?) the reaction was non-involvement, not to speak of passive resistance, the maturation of these new processes would be hamstrung and retarded. It is on the contrary by their full engagement with the core guidance that unites and makes equal all Bahá'ís, that a space is created, a very empowering space, to broaden and enrich the cultural content and practical expression of the shared model of the Ruhi process. And, again and again, we find that that process will engender resistance, but more consistently and lastingly, engenders success, such as that reported among the Native American believers and their community of interest, and in the growth engendering circles here in Tenerife, and in the successfully inclusive study circkes in Nottingham and in the groundbreaking study circles with evangelical ministers among the gypsies of Spain. It is that success that eventually leverages cultural change, for the drive to succeed in applying the divine guidance is ultimately a more powerful motivator for Bahá'ís than that of preserving the status quo, which we cannot but be, if it is our primary cultural referent, very strongly attached to.

When I hear the reports of the distorted implementation in these very early stages of the process, and personally witness them too, and then hear the voice of those who feel somehow disenfranchised by the current application of the new processes, I silently pray that those, the disenfranchised, become fully engaged in the processes, "even unto tutoring", for I know that on this depends, in very significant measure, the pace of our eventual arrival at the working model that Ruhi has been systematically tested and modified to be, over several decades in several continents, or, in our case, to become. When it is fully in place, when we can say that the overwhelming majority of Bahá'ís in a community are applying the Ruhi methodology in all its aspects, with the proliferation of devotional meetings, deepenings, home visits, personal teaching plans, firesides, small group teaching projects, artistic creativity and empowering of local artistic traditions, and intimate informal socializing, all focused on a multitude of small groups of increasingly spiritually intimate friends deeply engaged with and authentically enriching their family, work, neighbourhood and friendship networks, only then, will we have a basis to judge the effectiveness of the Ruhi system, and be in a position to identify, from a position of experiential as well as statistical and theoretical insight, the adaptations and modifications that might refine its workings in a given local or national context.

This may sound like pie in the sky, but it is in fact the daily, if far from prosaic experience of a multitude of study circles the world over, which as yet constitute but a tiny proportion of the whole. This whole, the entirety of the thousands upon thousands of study cricles running worldwide, may be said to be distributed, in different concentrations en each national and local community, along a spectrum ranging from simple learning by rote, skipping "boring" or "simplistic" sections, else turning them into interminable discussions of personal opinions, without a practical or even an emotionally or intellectually engaging component, and an artistic element, if any, at most stretching to doing kids' drawings ;-), where membership is limited, sometimes by design, to Bahá'ís only, and only the right kind at that, (I'm sure I'm not the only one who's been part of such scary circles); all the way to empowering, dymanic and intellectually and spiritually exhilarating study circle experiences such as those described by in Native American communities, and such as I witnessed among the ministers and leaders of the Gyspy evangelical churches, and in my own little group, and such as doubtlessly many, many more people have experienced, dotted around the globe and building slowly a critical mass of good practice. When this is in place, when we have finally enough truly compelling, and sufficiently diverse "successful embodiments" of the Ruhi process the world over, its maturation beyond the simplistic polarities of an early conceptual framework with a budding and in many communities virutally non-existent and undiversified experiential base, will, I am certain, dramatically accelerate, as we stop having to reinvent the wheel, which we still largely have to do in most local contexts.

In this, as in all things in this Cause, in the absence of a clergy, depending entirely on the ultimately unfettered consent and participation of the individual, else his or her non-involvement, change takes place, engagement is effected, participation is leveraged, reflection and reconsideration are prompted by, primarily, the mighty power of example. Hence the priority now is, clearly, achieving the necessary number working models, of compelling examples, of a rounded, abundant application of the Ruhi process and the other key processes associated with this Epoch, that can be relevant, not universally but singly, to large rural communities, large urban ones, tiny urban ones, tiny rural ones, mainstream, alternative, ethnically mixed or homogenous, upper, middle, working class, and "lumpen", global North and global south.

As time goes by, and I understand better the Ruhi method, and get more experience under my belt, and put more fire into it in my own process of maturation, I find that my wonder increases, and my sense of its immense potential deepens. It also emphasises for me the developmental nature of the skilling and capacity building process. In our cluster Ruhi almost paralysed everything for some two or three years. Now it is beginning to act as a catalyst of further activity, but that is also linked to the equally developmental and still unwieldy tools of the cluster itself, of the area committee, and especially the budding intensive cycles, all of them new tools we are but learning to develop. It took the World Centre itself, as I discussed in my paper on community, some 5 years to develop a working model with hand-picked communities. We are but 6 years into a process of integrating counter-cultural methods into frequently ill-equipped communities without the benefits of direct and daily support, participation and guidance from the Counsellors . To judge the effectiveness of these tools at this point in time seems to me a bit like trying to measure the worth or beauty of a building when the foundations are still being laid, or the speed and maneuverability and flair of a car while driven by someone who only just got their license, and frequently by those like me who are still learning to drive.

Be that as it may, it seems to me that the reply of Candide to the theoretical meanderings of Pangloss after a long journey of personal experiential testing of reified mental models, is most apt: "all that is very well, but let us cultivate our garden." Let's create, each one of us, models that work, that we can share and contribute from our individuality and diversity, within the shared context of the processes of this Plan, which will give the fruits we pluck from our individual plot, a currency and impact that will undoubtedly go far beyond our little garden. It may be that some of the communities that don't get it, might do so yet, and that when they do the potential for making up for lost time might very much be there.

It makes me think of one of the most suggestive and touching passages of the Master:

"The blessings of Bahá'u'lláh are a shoreless sea, and even life everlasting is only a dewdrop therefrom. The waves of that sea are continually lapping against the hearts of the friends, and from those waves there come intimations of the spirit and ardent pulsings of the soul, until the heart giveth way, and willing or not, turneth humbly in prayer unto the Kingdom of the Lord."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 192)

That is how I see the processes of the change of culture, of the new mechanisms and the inherent, hidden blessings in the Universal House of Justice's guidance in this challenging new Epoch: as lappings of divine grace against the hearts of the myriad variegated communities that make up the people of Bahá. Eventually, each and all will give way, and, "willing or not", discover the bounty of knowing that He is the prayer-hearing, prayer-answering God. In the end, as that tablet further declares: "Ye live, all of you, within the heart of 'Abdu'l-Bahá."

Is that not beautiful and brimming with certainty?

With love,

Ismael


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