It’s been eight years since my self-imposed exile from the Baha’i community. Four years since my resignation from the Faith. My reasons were multifarious, the parting was painful, and the path to recovery has been turbulent.
I needed to recover because a sickness had permeated my entire being: a severe case of self-importance, triggered by a dogmatic ideology and zealous approach to advancing Baha’i-inspired initiatives, and aggravated by a rapidly atrophying connection to the Manifestation.
I was no longer a Baha’i because it was apparent to me that I no longer recognized Baha’u’llah. In fact, I’m not too sure if I ever had. I came to the realization that the Manifestation was never really part of my spiritual consciousness. I adopted a disenchanted view of religion, if you will, where the Manifestation was reduced to the role of an accomplished author: a great thinker who penned the canon that inspired the pedagogy of our contemporary framework for action. A distant figure who hardly figured in the current scheme.
As the Manifestation receded from my field of vision, I could no longer justify my involvement in the Cause. As I saw it, if social economic development, community building, and social justice were our primary objectives, then there seemed to be plenty of opportunity for achieving these ends outside the Baha’i Faith. Moreover, I wouldn’t have to be weighed down by the vestiges of humanity’s anachronistic belief systems. I could advance civilization and fight for justice without the baggage of spiritual obligations, grand narratives, divine promises, and covenants. So I opted for a life of unbridled action.
Despite this realization, I couldn’t simply walk away. I wasn’t ready to refuse Baha’u’llah or the claims of the Manifestations on a whim! Something about those claims compelled me to consider them with due seriousness and to respond thoughtfully (something I was not able to do as a member of the community). If there is truth to these claims, I thought to myself, then the risk of rejecting them is far too great. I was willing to put some work into it. After all, the Writings state that some are meant to toil and struggle moreso than others along the spiritual path.
“[T]he uttermost limit of the realm of effort and striving,” Baha’u’llah proclaimed, is for some to suffer through “spiritual struggle and physical toil” and to “ascend from the lower reaches of ‘no God is there’ to the lofty boweres of ‘but God’”. In this way, He says, one can “flee from the shadow of negation to abide in the limitless realm of affirmation, and abandon the privation of a transient existence for the bountiful assemblage of reunion.”
For the first time in my life (as I was born into a Baha’i family with a spiritual lineage dating back to the Babis), I had slipped on the broken sandals of the determined seeker. I abandoned my Ruhi Books for the unadulterated verses of the Bab and Baha’u’llah. Clearly, I was not counted among those who, “without receiving the least intimation of ‘no God is there’, pass beyond the highest horizon of ‘but God’…” So I would toil, and until I could declare with certainty, “I believe”, those words would never again leave my lips.
“For he who loves God without faith reflects on himself, while the person who loves God in faith reflects on God.”Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling.
It has been eight years, and I have yet to re-join the ranks of the Beloved or to partake of that intoxicating cup of True Faith. However, I have gleaned some insights that I wish to share. Most of this I’ve already covered in previous posts, but here I wish to bring it all together with a few added elements. I recommend that you read through my series titled, “Coming to Terms with Faith and God,” which I’ve listed below, for further elaboration of some of the concepts I’ll be covering in the current piece.
My central thesis has to do with the nature of our encounter with the Manifestation, and is captured in the story of Mullah Husayn and his initial meeting with the Bab.
The details of this magical encounter can be found in Nabil’s Narrative, a.k.a., The Dawnbreakers. Here I wish to share some of the subtleties, which I only recently came to appreciate.
Unlike Quddus who, upon seeing the Bab for the first time famously said to Mullah Husayn, “Why seek you to hide Him from me? I can recognise Him by His gait. I confidently testify that none besides Him, whether in the East or in the West, can claim to be the Truth. None other can manifest the power and majesty that radiate from His holy person…”, Mullah Husayn struggled at first to accept the truth of the Bab’s station.
I could very well be wrong, but I believe that the indicators bequeathed to Mullah Husayn by Siyyid Kazim to verify “the distinguishing features of the promised One” could have been found in a number of Siyyids in Shiraz at the time (except perhaps “innate knowledge” – though that would have been difficult to verify at this initial encounter). The signs were as follows:
- Pure lineage.
- Illustrious descent.
- Seed of Fáṭimih.
- More than 20 and less than 30.
- Endowed with innate knowledge.
- Medium height.
- Abstains from smoking.
- Free from bodily deficiency.
After Mullah Husayn had finished enumerating these criteria, the Bab declared: “Behold, all these signs are manifest in Me!” Mullah Husayn, seemingly unconvinced, then goes on to pontificate before the Manifestation (emphasis my own):
He whose advent we await is a Man of unsurpassed holiness, and the Cause He is to reveal, a Cause of tremendous power. Many and diverse are the requirements which He who claims to be its visible embodiment must needs fulfil. How often has Siyyid Káẓim referred to the vastness of the knowledge of the promised One! How often did he say: ‘My own knowledge is but a drop compared with that with which He has been endowed. All my attainments are but a speck of dust in the face of the immensity of His knowledge. Nay, immeasurable is the difference!’
This declaration demonstrates that Mullah Husayn was not entirely satisfied with the fact that the Bab met Siyyid Kazim’s criteria. In effect, he was challenging the Bab to demonstrate, beyond a doubt, the truth of His claim. At this point, Mullah Husayn seemed to experience a sense of his own folly, “I found myself seized with fear and remorse,” and “I bitterly reproved myself, and resolved at that moment to alter my attitude and to soften my tone.” Despite this, he continued to hold the conviction that the Bab should “substantiate” His claim.
Mullah Husayn then challenged the Bab to satisfy two further standards in order to, “ascertain the truth of whosoever might claim to be the promised Qá’im.” The first, to unravel the mysterious allusions made in a treatise composed by Mullah Husayn, “bearing upon the abstruse and hidden teachings propounded by Shaykh Aḥmad and Siyyid Káẓim.” An astounding challenge given that Mullah Husayn is effectively declaring his own treatise as a valid measure for verifying the claim of the Manifestation. The second, after the Bab sufficiently satisfied Mullah Husayn’s first hurdle, He would be required to “reveal, without the least hesitation or reflection, a commentary on the Súrih of Joseph, in a style and language entirely different from the prevailing standards of the time”.
Regard how Mullah Husayn — like any rational human might be expected to do — thought that it was appropriate to subject the Manifestation to an interrogation of sorts. As if the truth of the Manifestation’s claim was conditional upon His ability to satisfy Mullah Husayn’s battery of questions.
At this point, the Bab invites Mullah Husayn to again, “Observe attentively. Might not the Person intended by Siyyid Kazim be none other than I?” The Bab seems to be suggesting here that Mullah Husayn had everything he needed to recognize the truth. Yet, Mullah Husayn is dogged in his mission.
The Bab indulges the first of Mullah Husayn’s standards, performing well beyond expectations. However, before proceeding to stupefy His interrogator by revealing (unasked) the commentary on the Súrih of Joseph, the Qayyúmu’l-Asmá’, He delivered this clear warning to Jinab-i Babu’l-Bab (as Mullah Husayn later came to be known):
Had you not been My guest … your position would indeed have been a grievous one. The all-encompassing grace of God has saved you. It is for God to test His servants, and not for His servants to judge Him in accordance with their deficient standards. Were I to fail to resolve your perplexities, could the Reality that shines within Me be regarded as powerless, or My knowledge be accused as faulty? Nay, by the righteousness of God! it behoves, in this day, the peoples and nations of both the East and the West to hasten to this threshold, and here seek to obtain the reviving grace of the Merciful. Whoso hesitates will indeed be in grievous loss. Do not the peoples of the earth testify that the fundamental purpose of their creation is the knowledge and adoration of God? It behoves them to arise, as earnestly and spontaneously as you have arisen, and to seek with determination and constancy their promised Beloved.
The power dynamic had shifted (if we were to entertain for a moment that Mullah Husayn ever had power in this situation). The interrogator, Mullah Husayn, became subdued and “…enraptured by the magic of His voice and the sweeping force of His revelation.” The battery of tests were no longer of importance because the power of the Bab’s testimony was sufficient proof, in and of itself.
To my point. Through my journey thus far, I’ve learned that there are various sorts of claims bound by different standards of proof (e.g., journalistic, legal, scientific, mathematical, philosophical). Each of these types of claims have particular sorts of content (e.g., scientific claims have empirical content), which determine the appropriate “test” that will verify truth from falsehood with increasingly greater degrees of precision.
Humans tend to prefer claims with empirical content as these can be verified through human experience (e.g., experimentation and observation to verify scientific claims). Perhaps we prefer these because we have a certain degree of control over these sorts of claims, which gives us confidence. Therefore, we are less likely to be blindsided or taken advantage of by charlatans and others who seek advantage by capitalizing on ignorance.
But what sort of claim is Revelation? Revelation includes no empirical content. That is, it cannot be verified through any measure of human experience — at least not in a way that makes its truth undeniable to all. Sure, there are some empirical standards that can be applied, e.g., the transformative power of the sacred word, the internal coherence of revelatory texts, the character and life of the Manifestation, the self-sacrifice and devotion of believers. However, all of these can be contested and successfully challenged by any committed skeptic.
Indeed, as I’ve argued in previous posts, though these standards and proofs are sufficient to inspire belief in some or to validate beliefs in others, in and of themselves they are inadequate to empirically prove the truth of the Manifestation..
Verily, I find no proof for His existence and His unity save His own self.The Bab, Tablet to Mirza Sa’id.
Hence the folly of Mullah Husayn during his initial encounter with the Bab. In retrospect, this story seems to have been written as an allegory to convey a deeper truth. Namely, the testimony of the Manifestation is its own proof. The modern empiricist or skeptic might scoff at this, but upon further inspection you’ll realize that, logically, it can be no other way. As Baha’u’llah explains in the Kitab-i-Iqan:
Were the prophecies recorded in the Gospel to be literally fulfilled; were Jesus, Son of Mary, accompanied by angels, to descend from the visible heaven upon the clouds; who would dare to disbelieve, who would dare to reject the truth, and wax disdainful?
The Manifestation’s claim must be concealed from human standards of verification, otherwise there would be no condition for Faith. For there to be True Faith — the type where one feels resigned to a testimonial claim — there must be no means of verifying its veracity. For if you could verify the veracity of the Manifestation’s claim, you would no longer have faith – you would have reasons.
Sacred scriptures provide a metaphysical explanation for this apparent conundrum: Revelation is a touchstone of faithfulness, “[…] because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed….” (Jesus Christ, Book of John, The Bible). The essential function of the Holy Word, the sword of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:17), is to “separate the wheat from the chaff”; to know the faithful from the infidels; to discern true belief from falsehood.
‘Verily Our Word is abstruse, bewilderingly abstruse.’ In another instance, it is said: ‘Our Cause is sorely trying, highly perplexing; none can bear it except a favorite of heaven, or an inspired Prophet, or he whose faith God hath tested.’ […] when the divine Touchstone appeared, they have shown themselves to be naught but dross.Baha’u’llah, the Kitab-i-Aqdas.
What good is it to know this? I’ve asked myself. One might think that being aware of this spiritual truth would itself inspire some measure of faith. On the contrary, it’s won me little more than ammunition for my next argument with the poor soul who dares to say that, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The claim of the Manifestation is indeed extraordinary, and His being is all the extraordinary evidence you’re ever going to get.
Besides that, all I really get out of this knowledge is a reason to wager, like Pascal. A gamble guised in the robe of faith.
Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.Blaise Pascal, Pensées.
True Faith has not yet found resonance within me. I’m disillusioned, but yearning. How do I acquire the faith of Mullah Husayn through toil, since I’ve failed to recognize the self-evident truth of the Manifestation like Quddus?
Of course, I’m aware that Mullah Husayn was transformed by the grace of God. On the one hand, he had the benefit of a personal encounter with the Primal Point, the Bab. On the other hand, he was also intended to perform a key role in the Divine Narrative. Therefore, evaluating my experience against his is a ridiculous false comparison.
Still, there is an element of that encounter in Shiraz, which may inform my journey towards the recognition of the Manifestation. Recall that Mullah Husayn exclaimed how he was “enraptured by the magic of His voice and the sweeping force of His revelation.” In a sense, Mullah Husayn’s heart was subdued by the Will of God. The proverbial “heart” plays a central role in the language of spirituality. The path towards God is often described by mystics, prophets, and divine luminaries as the journey of the heart.
To Love is to reach God.Rumi, as translated by Shahram Shiva.
Never will a Lover’s chest
feel any sorrow.
Never will a Lover’s robe
be touched by mortals.
Never will a Lover’s body
be found buried in the earth.
To Love is to reach God.
The same enduring message is conveyed in all the sacred texts, i.e., the journey towards God occurs through the gate of the heart. This wisdom is extended further through teachings that exhort us to “dilate” our hearts, to calibrate our inner reality in order that the Divine Will may descend into and occupy our entire being. I think this is what is meant when we are asked to “die in God.”
Rain down, then, upon us, O my God, that which beseemeth Thy grace and befitteth Thy bounty. Enable us, then, O my God, to live in remembrance of Thee and to die in love of Thee…Baha’u’llah
It makes sense. Expanding the surface area of our proverbial transcendent heart allows us to reflect the Will of God with greater potency and radiance.
Say: by reason of your remembering Him Whom God shall make manifest and by extolling His name, God will cause your hearts to be dilated with joy, and do ye not wish your hearts to be in such a blissful state? Indeed the hearts of them that truly believe in Him Whom God shall make manifest are vaster than the expanse of heaven and earth and whatever is between them. God hath left no hindrance in their hearts, were it but the size of a mustard seed. He will cheer their hearts, their spirits, their souls and their bodies and their days of prosperity or adversity, through the exaltation of the name of Him Who is the supreme Testimony of God and the promotion of the Word of Him Who is the Dayspring of the glory of their Creator.
Verily, these are souls who take delight in the remembrance of God, Who dilates their hearts through the effulgence of the light of knowledge and wisdom. They seek naught but God and are oft engaged in giving praise unto Him. They desire naught except whatever He desireth and stand ready to do His bidding. Their hearts are mirrors reflecting whatsoever He Whom God shall make manifest willeth.The Bab
The means by which we can achieve this “dilation of the heart” is revealed through the many prescriptions and ordinances found in sacred texts. Are we not repeatedly advised to pray, meditate, immerse ourselves in the Divine Verses, and to purify our hearts? Does not Baha’u’llah begin the Iqan with these words:
[T]hey 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. They should put their trust in God, and, holding fast unto Him, follow in His way.
And does not Shoghi Effendi reaffirm this truth in the following passage?
For the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling which unites Man with God. This state of spiritual communion can be brought about and maintained by means of meditation and prayer. And this is the reason why Bahá’u’lláh has so much stressed the importance of worship. It is not sufficient for a believer merely to accept and observe the teachings. He should, in addition, cultivate the sense of spirituality which he can acquire chiefly by means of prayer. The Bahá’í Faith, like all other Divine Religions, is thus fundamentally mystic in character. Its chief goal is the development of the individual and society, through the acquisition of spiritual virtues and powers. It is the soul of man which has first to be fed. And this spiritual nourishment prayer can best provide.
Unfortunately, one of the prevalent tendencies with the contemporary Baha’i practice is the secularization of the above passage to give canonical legitimacy to a “twofold moral purpose.” What I mean by secularization here is that the acquisition of spiritual virtues and powers is sometimes treated independently of recognition of the Manifestation. However, Baha’u’llah makes it clear in the first paragraph of the Aqdas that the two cannot be separated:
The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed.
In elucidating the meaning of these words, ‘Abdu’l-Baha states the following in Some Answered Questions (section 65):
[T]he foundation of success and salvation is the recognition of God, and that good deeds, which are the fruit of faith, derive from this recognition. When this recognition is not attained, man remains veiled from God and, as he is veiled, his good works fail to achieve their full and desired effect.”
The Writings also place additional restrictions on this act of recognition. Namely, that True Faith and True Knowledge are derived from recognizing the Manifestation of the age in which one lives.
True knowledge, therefore, is the knowledge of God, and this is none other than the recognition of His Manifestation in each Dispensation.The Bab
To return to my thesis: It seems to me that the journey of the soul is propelled by a yearning to ready the heart for the descent of the Beloved. The ultimate aim isn’t outward knowledge (Ilm-i-zaaheri) — like the sort we hope to achieve through the scientific process, which is burdened by the ambiguity of endless doubt — rather, the aim of this journey is certitude (iqan) in our faith in the divine reality of the Manifestation of our age (i.e., recognition or Irfan, which is a mystical or Divine knowledge).
And it seems to me that this recognition, or Irfan, is only the threshold of the journey. The path before the faithful is riddled with tests proportionate to the capacity of the believer. Life then becomes a mission to prove one’s steadfastness and constancy in faith as we hasten unto Him, “With faces beaming with joy.”
True Faith requires a resonant encounter between the heart and the Manifestation. It’s time for me to abandon this self-stultifying path of reasons.