Bahá'í Epistolary

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

How to read the Word of God? Reflections on the Book of Certitude

How read, how truly read, words claiming to descend from God, claiming to clothe truth transcendent in mere syllables and sounds? 

How achieve that elusive goal, "true understanding"?

 Is the Book sufficient unto us? 

Or is "your own book" needed also, the one we have already, if seldom read, within our souls?

A journey into the Book of Certitude that ended taking this incapable reader into some deep waters... 


“In the name of God, the Exalted, the Most High. No man shall attain the shores of the ocean of true understanding except he be detached from all that is in heaven and on earth.” 


With these words opens Baha’u’llah’s Book of Certitude.  Without warning, without pause, perhaps even unawares we are transported to the edge of dilemma: do we identify ourselves with the type of reader which the book assumes is glancing at its pages - a reader devotedly seeking shores of oceanic understanding?  Or do we resist the identification, proceeding as an audience other than the one presumed (intended) by Baha’u’llah?  And if we do recognise in the quest for true understanding our own aspiration, do we accept the challenge of detachment as formulated in the text?  More to the point, do we accept the book’s authority to prescribe at all?  Or do we here part company with Baha’u’llah, choosing to measure the book by standards other than those laid out in its pages? 


On our conscious or unconscious answer to these questions rests our subsequent experience of the text.  These choices and decisions, not explicit in the text, lie implicit in the prescriptive authority assumed by Baha’u’llah throughout the work.   The extent to which we either acquiesce to Baha’u’llah’s authorial voice, or distance ourselves therefrom, dictates a diversity of possible relationships between text and reader which in turn give rise to various ways of experiencing its meanings. It is this link between interpretation and experience, as conceived by Baha’u’llah, which we wish to explore in greater depth.


Let us return, then, to the beginning.  “No man shall attain the shores of the ocean of true understanding except he be detached from all that is in heaven and on earth.”  Implicit in this passage is, as we have said, an audience desirous to attain the wondrous vista, the “shores of the ocean of  true understanding”.[1]  The generic tone of the address, as of the work as a whole, further indicates that the book’s intended audience is not only one particular person seeking to attain unto these shores,[2] but rather a type or even archetype of reader, seeker-aspirant of this glorious destination.[3]  Implicit in this aspiration, furthermore, is the fact of separation, of distance from one’s goal (true understanding), for one cannot aspire to attain a goal one has already reached.  An unspoken recognition of the reader’s remoteness from true understanding thus provides or rather signals the point of departure.  It evokes receptivity - a willingness to listen openly and sincerely to an authorial voice that speaks as if from deep within or far above in the preamble of the book. 


But such desire to attain, such awareness of the distance, are deemed insufficient: “except” we be “detached from all that is in heaven and on earth”, we shall in no wise “attain the shores of the ocean of true understanding”.  The use of the conditional (“except he be detached...”) implies that detachment is not inherent in the journeying.  It is possible to travel towards true understanding without detachment, but though one may indeed thus travel, one will never thus attain. 


Expatiating on the meaning of these initial words the next paragraph states:


“The essence of these words is this: they that tread the path of faith, they that thirst for the wine of certitude, must cleanse themselves of all that is earthly - their ears from idle talk, their minds from vain imaginings, their hearts from worldly affections, their eyes from that which perisheth.” 


In what could almost be considered a paraphrase of the earlier passage, the book’s ideal reader is defined still more clearly.  Not only must he desire to attain to the shores of the ocean of true understanding; he must also “tread the path of faith” and “thirst for the wine of certitude.”  Unlike detachment, which quality the conditional clause implies could be absent during the journey, the other three requisites are treated as a given, a sine qua non of the journey itself.  An intention - to attain to the shores of the ocean of true understanding; a designated and ongoing action - treading the path of faith; and an inner state - thirst for certitude’s mystic wine.  Bereft of these three, not just the goal, the book advises, but the very journey, are beyond reach.


The Author thus seems to be emphatically inculcating certain attitudes in the audience.  An ideal reader is being not merely hoped for or awaited – but rather actively cultivated. It becomes clear that there are preconditions imposed by the book upon its reader without which one may not fully participate in its paradigm.  Unless these conditions apply to us as readers, while reading of the book will still be possible, our attempts at understanding it ‘from within’ will be in fact precluded.  For unless we are in actual fact upon a quest for true understanding, treading the path of faith, and thirsting for the wine of certitude, we will fall outside the scope of the book’s intended, or at least implicit, audience. 


This of course does not mean that only those who fulfil or desire to fulfil these requisites will be able to derive meaning from the Book of Certitude.  The literary, philosophical, even aesthetic contents of the Book of Certitude may be equally accessible to readers who recognise and readers who reject the Author’s claim to prescriptive authority.  Both audiences may well arrive at similar or identical conclusions as to the meaning of a text.  But the psychological effect of arriving at those shared conclusions is likely to differ in relation to one’s attitudes to the Author’s claims to authority, implicit in his interpretive demands. Readings which do not accept the Book of Certitude’s underlying premises; readings which do not, for instance, involve the intense spiritual seeking so emphatically inculcated in its opening pages, will result in an experience of the text other than that expected by its Author.


One of the most significant then, if least obvious themes of the Book of Certitude, is what may be termed the psychological, or more precisely the mystical, dimension of hermeneutics.  In linking true understanding – the quintessencial subject of hermeneutics – to spiritual states, Baha’u’llah aligns the hermeneutical process to what is best described as mystical experience.  The exploration of a sacred text, when undertaken under the pale of Baha’u’llah’s exhortations, becomes a journey of the soul into the realm of the spirit: the mystical City of Certitude and the Word of God become indistinguishable. True understanding becomes inseparable from specific personal qualities.  Hermeneutical success is conditioned upon a re-orientation of the reader’s aspirations, will and worldview.  According to this rather demanding measure, a reading that fails to positively transform, is a reading that fails to truly understand. 


From this perspective, Baha’u’llah’s Book of Certitude appears intended primarily, not to impart certain information or expound a given set of opinions (which any intelligent reader is likely to be able to grasp), but to have a specific existential/mystical effect which only a spiritually engaged reading can induce.  The hermeneutical process is thus harnessed to the goal of spiritual education.  Rather than focusing on dispelling the obscurities of a specific set of escathological traditions as voiced by Haji Mirza Siyyid Muhammad, for which a more traditional tafsir approach would have been perhaps more appropriate, Baha’u’llah uses the Haji’s questions as a means of directing him, and by extension the full compass of the intended audience, to the qualities of mind and heart that according to the Book of Certitude can alone enable a reader to truly understand, that is to say, truly experience, the allusions at hand and others akin to them. 


The underlying method involves linking the text’s message to a series of interpretive obstacles which act as spiritual stimuli.  These obstacles take the form of  premises and attitudes which must be developed or overcome in order to attain the goal of  “true understanding”.  They function simultaneously as gates mediating entry into a privileged experience of the text, and as barriers defending or concealing the full meaning of the book from audiences regarded as unworthy to receive it or unready to accept it.   Hence, the Book of Certitude may perhaps be said to have a less obvious intended audience than might at first be imagined: a reader who, though not yet fulfilling its criteria for true understanding, is yet desirous of fulfilling them, and willing to spend the necessary effort.


In reality, our approach to Scripture, to the practice of “sacred reading” more generally, and to our investigation of life itself, proceeds, if we are to follow Bahá’u’lláh’s injunctions and the vistas they unfold, in the reverse direction to that followed in this essay. It begins, in fact, in the striving for a spiritual condition which is the fundamental prerequisite of true understanding, and which the Book of Certitude explicitly, and the whole Bahá’í canon implicitly, seek to stimulate. It is out of this inner yearning, and sincere labour, that wells out the true intellectual humility and compassion that make possible an open-minded and loving eye. The receptivity, self-awareness, and independence of thought that such a spiritual condition and hermeneutical attitude engenders, empowers us to engage with the ambiguities, perplexities, contradictions and paradoxes of real life, in all its overwhelming immensity and plenitude, without yielding to either despair or dogmatism, and impels us, and makes us ever more capable, to achieve reconciliation in an increasingly fissiparous world.

[1] the word here translated as "true understanding" is irfan, a word rich in mystic resonances. The word is present in the short Baha'i obligatory prayer, as well as in the opening paragraph of Baha'u'llah's Most Holy Book, and in both texts it is held up as the purpose of existence.  Irfan is further translated by Shoghi Effendi as "knowledge" and as "recognition" of God and His Manifestation.  Islamicists usually translate the term as "gnosis".  Its prominence in Islamic mysticism may be inferred from the fact that the word irfan, according to Siyyid Hussein Nasr, was used in post-Safavid Iran, especially in the nineteenth century, as a euphemistic way of referring to sufism when the latter was repressed and socially unacceptable.  Irfan is sometimes described as "relational knowledge" as opposed to purely rational or analytical knowledge, and is said to involve spiritual communion, mystic insight and love.

[2] Such as Haji Mirza Siyyid Muhammad, the maternal uncle of the Bab in answer to whose questions the Book of Certitude was written.

[3] Confirmation of the broad scope of the intended audience may be gathered from the following passage of the Book of Certitude concerning its own contents: "We have variously and repeatedly set forth the meaning of every theme, that perchance every soul, whether high or low, may obtain...his share and portion thereof...'That all sorts of men may know where to quench their thirst.'"KI187"


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this beautiful reflection! To achieve a state of detachment--to "stand as witness before Him"--in which the ego is completed sublimated into a condition of humility, surrender and compassion is a journey that must be pursued regardless of whether we ever arrive at the destination. It is the basis for all other aspirations of justice, unity and peace.

Keep on blogging Ismael!!


Thank you so much for your kind words and stimulus, and thank you for such an evocative link between personal search, endless aspiration, and justice, unity and peace. Your feedback is deeply appreciated.