Bahá'í Epistolary

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

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

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
. 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.


Anonymous said...

These are all thoughts that I myself have had. Your distinction between certainty and certitude is interesting, but ultimately doesn't really help us.

I don't think though that this means anything at all might be true. (You're not arguing this, but one might come to this conclusion.) We can rely on logic to rule out inconsistencies and to establish what is likely or unlikely. I don't have Abdul-Baha's comments on the four criteria of knowledge in front of me so I can't speak to that directly, but I don't see how Abdul-Baha could rule out logic itself, rather than a poor use of it.

Salman Oskooi said...

Dear Ismael,

Thank you for your reflections. I've read your blog on homosexuality and was hoping to see Andrew's follow up to your later posts. I tried e-mailing the following comment to you at to get a more personal response from you, but it was sent back as 'undeliverable'.

I looked over what you wrote in this post about "certainty" and "certitude" in relation to how much we can say we 'know' something to be true. While I agree with your ultimate conclusion about 'agreeing to disagree', I'm not sure that your positioning of certitude beneath 'certainty' is one that will be accepted by secular folk. The online Princeton dictionary has "certitude" defined as:
"total certainty or greater certainty than circumstances warrant".

Are we to appeal to a new definition of certitude to justify the kind of faith that Baha'is hold as ideal? This is an honest question. I'm a grad student in philosophy so I do think of these topics often. I personally cannot reconcile (even as a Baha'i) "greater certainty [in Baha'u'llah] than circumstances [our limited capabilities/knowledge] warrant". This may seem paradoxical... but if we are to be open-minded and honest, I don't think we can claim to be "certain" in a way that leaves us unwilling to reconsider our most basic assumptions at any given time.

I'd like to hear your thoughts on this. If you do respond by posting here on your epistolary, please let me know at as I don't check here often.


Baha'i Dialogue said...

Dear brother Ismael,

I'm a classically trained singer, and my musical education tried to convince me that all of the greatest composers in history were Germanic. In my study of philosophy and history of religion, I have often encountered a Germanic bias, with German and Austrian philosophers and historians of religion occupying particularly prominent pedestals and most other scholars much less exalted and often altogether ignored.

My suggestion is that you frequent the thought of Rene Girard, who has an altogether different take from the Germans on many philosophical and religious issues. And by the way, he reads German and has read all of the great German thinkers and thought about them very carefully.

You may find yourself looking at the issues of fundamentalism and relativism entirely differently after immersing yourself in Girard's work.

With loving regards,

Peter Terry

Anonymous said...


I think it is important to note that Abdu'l-Baha summarizes his examination of the four modes of knowing by indicating that, even though each mode is susceptible to error, we can use them successively, in combination, to examine the truth of a thing, and if the evidence passes the four tests--is reasonable, not contradicted by empirical evidence, appeals to the intuition, is in agreement with traditional sources of knowledge such as revealed truth --then we may proceed to turn our hearts toward the Holy Spirit, seeking confirmation and illumination. I think this is important because it is very different from a kind of Pyrhonian scepticism that His talks might at first seem to imply. He elsewhere talks about how ideas are of two kinds, one being like the foam upon the water and another kind that accords with reality. Thus, experience might be a further criterion of knowledge, revealing as it often does the pragmatic value of certain propositions. Ultimately, for me, certitude implies an inner calm and tranquillity, an assurance that wells up from mystic sources but which is underpinned by my confidence that the things I believe in as a Baha'i are logical and in accord with the highest ethical and moral values that humanity has yet imagined and indeed, seem to lead one even beyond what is generally taken to be the growing tip of morally progressive thought. (The World Order Models Project and others have identified the emerging universal values that are beginning to congeal under rubrics such as human rights.) Let us simply begin with the notion that we are to annhilate in our hearts limited conceptions such as the duality of "stranger" and "friend" and see all mankind as members of a single human family. Now there is a mast worth tying oneself to. The whole point seems to be passing beyond the baser stages of one's unbelief, whereupon, having achieved recogniton of the Manifestation, one's knowing takes on a different meaning, one that is, as you hint, intersubjectively shared within a community of believers. None of this answers the fundamental questions you raise, but it points the way toward a different kind of exploration and a set of questions that may be more fruitful and more interesting, which is not to gainsay the importance of the ones you raise. Were certainly possible, then there would be an element of compulsion in belief, would there not? In that case, we would not be permitted to turn "graciously" towards God, but we would be dragged to recognition, almost against our wills. Anyway, these are just some random thoughts. Keep chipping away. Your writing is always stimulating and I much appreciate what you are doing.

Alexander M Zoltai said...

Gave your blog an Inspirational Award today:

Hajir Moghaddam said...

Hi Ismael, Nice blog.

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Certitude is one's own conviction. Fanaticism is when one attempts to impose one's conviction onto someone else. Baha'is can have certitude and respect other people's right to their own certitude.
- dlherrmann