The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

From: Juan Cole <>
Subject: Baha'u'llah the greatest spiritual teacher of the past two centuries
Date: Wednesday, July 07, 1999 3:17 PM

Dear all:
With regard to my statement that Baha'u'llah was the greatest spiritual
teacher of the past two centuries, obviously that is a subjective value
judgment and a matter of my own personal faith.  I did not mean it in a
chauvinist way.  But on the other hand I would regret political
correctness going to the extent of making it impossible for someone
simply to state what he or she believes.
But let me try to defend the proposition in a reasoned way, at least to
shed light on what leads to this subjective judgment.
First of all, I spoke of the past two centuries because Baha'u'llah was
born in 1817.  I'm comparing him to his contemporaries and to those who
came after him, not to those who came before.  This is because the past
two centuries are the centuries of modernity, and I'm not sure premodern
thinkers are exactly comparable to modern ones.
It is a Hegelian argument, I suppose.
For me, personally, it is precisely his synthetic abilities, which some
have called derivative, that are the mark of Baha'u'llah's greatness.
It is the things he put together into one synoptic gaze:
internationalism and globalism; collective security and international
peace; a form of early Middle Eastern feminism; concern for the poor and
for those against whom prejudices are directed; Illuminationist
rationalism and respect for modern science and medicine; Sufi
spirituality, chants, meditative techniques, and ideas about the unity
of religions; Shi`ite esotericism and cyclical time; simplified Qur'anic
law and ritual.  The collectivity of his concerns and values seem to me
synergistic in the sense that the whole is greater than the parts.
Generally speaking, moreover, his spiritual teachings are progressive
and compatible with modernity, which is something I find attractive (and
which is not apparent to me in Mormonism or Christian Science, e.g.).  I
think spiritual work done in the framework that he sets out can be
extremely rewarding; for me, it is more rewarding than anything else
I've tried, and I've tried a lot.
Religion in the past two centuries has often been reactionary.  Look at
the 19th century syllabus of errors issued by the popes.  In their
light, Baha'u'llah is quite refreshing and progressive. And I am a
rationalist, so I don't appreciate those 'spiritual' teachers who have a
magical, miracle-filled view of the world and more especially who
discourage people who need a doctor from seeing one.
And Baha'u'llah is congenial to a historian.  When Baha'u'llah
commissioned Nabil to write his narrative, Nabil filled it with all the
miracle stories that the Iranian Babi-Baha'is love so much, and
Baha'u'llah rebuked Nabil for it.  He wanted a sober, academic-style
history.  That is why the original of Nabil hasn't been published;
Baha'u'llah disapproved of all the abracadabra.  That is why it is so
ironic that his trustees should be having a fit over the emergence of
solid, academic Baha'i historiography that avoids the pitfalls into
which Nabil fell, and which looks much more like what Baha'u'llah
So it is mainly personal preference, I suppose, and the lingering effect
of that powerful mystical experience I had when I read the Book of
Certitude for the first time, when I was 19.  But I also do think there
is something more substantial to it; the synergy argument and the
compatibility with modernity are the ones I would try to hang my case
cheers   Juan

Juan Cole, History, U of Michigan
Buy *Modernity & Millennium: Genesis of Baha'i*
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