Subject: Re: 'Abdul-Baha on how we should see others
Date: Thursday, May 06, 1999 7:05 PM
I have been doing some thinking as to how so many American Baha'is have come
to think of themselves as "fundamentalists" and how, indeed, many of them
have begun thinking anyone who does not share that point of view is not
really a Baha'i. My guess is that many of them converted to the Baha'i faith
from conservative Christian backgrounds, and brought their habitual ways of
thinking into the new religion. It has been alleged to me that a third of
the white Baha'is are from a fundamentalist or conservative Christian
background, and that Jack McCants tends to be their representative on the NSA
(he once told a friend of mine that he "missed" being on the NSA, and would
have to "go around giving talks to get back on"). Of course, about a third
of the U.S. community is African-American; a majority of this group in the
general society tends to say in polls that it believes in the inerrancy of
scripture. So perhaps 2/3s of the U.S. community are scriptural
On the face of it, it is very strange. The Book of Certitude, for instance,
is largely a refutation of a 'fundamentalist' approach to past scriptures,
which required that if Jesus said the stars would fall to earth, then by God
they would (since stars are suns, they can't "fall to earth." All one would
have to do is get close to the earth and it would be vaporized).
Moreover, `Abdul-Baha's *Secret of Divine Civilization* takes a Higher
Criticism-type approach to early Islamic history. He attacks many shibboleths
of pietist Muslim historiography. He praises the exercise of human reason,
including with regard to religious thought.
But when many Baha'is consider their *own* scripture, all of a sudden Higher
Criticism is ruled out of court. It is all right to do it to the Christians
or Muslims, but our *own* scriptures and holy figures must be put on an
unapproachable pedestal and declared completely infallible in every way.
One problem is that if we use Higher Criticism only for other religions, then
we are being hypocrites if we say Baha'is can't apply it to their own
scriptures. Another problem is that there are errors in Baha'i scriptures,
and so they cannot be "infallible" or "inerrant" in any simplistic sense.
For instance, in *Gleanings* Baha'u'llah says that the language Hebrew got
its name because the Children of Israel crossed the Jordan. In Arabic Hebrew
is called al-`Ibriyyah, and contains the triliteral root `a*b*r . The verb
`abara means to "cross over." So Baha'u'llah presents this folk etymology,
that Hebrew was named for the "crossing" of the Jordan. Of course, it is a
widespread belief that is put forward by many traditional lexicographers.
But it should be obvious that this assertion simply is not true. Languages
don't get named for specific actions, anyway. (What do you call what the
children of Israel spoke before they crossed the Jordan?) Usually languages
are named for peoples. Hebrew probably goes back to Hapiru, semitic-speaking
nomads of the second millennium mentioned in the Egyptian chronicles.
There are several such minor errors in Baha'u'llah's writings, which reflect
the knowledge prevalent among 19th century Middle Easterners. Empedocles,
for instance, was *not* a contemporary of King David, no matter what the
Tablet of Wisdom says.
The problem with adopting a "fundamentalist" stance is that it requires us to
try to defend these errors as the truth. And that in turn forces us to set
religion above science and to prefer superstition to reason. In other words,
we're back to the same old game of persecuting Galileo in the name of
religious dogma! Is that *really* what Baha'u'llah and `Abdul-Baha brought?
Just another dogmatic religion whose adherents won't listen to reason? On
the other hand, if we simply say that Revelation is a revelation of Truth
with a capital "T", not of minor details about history, science or
linguistics, then we can put the anomalies away as trivial. Of course
someone writing in the 19th century Middle East reflects the general state of
knowledge among his audience! How could he have been understood otherwise?
In article <372FEFCA.12501FC0@netvigator.com>,
"Brian F. Walker" <email@example.com> wrote:
I confess to being a fundamentalist in that I believe
> that every word Baha'u'llah wrote was from God, every word He revealed
> was from God. If any part of His Revelation is flawed I need to consider
> all the Revelation as flawed (because God is not flawed) We need to
> reclaim the term "fundamentalist" for faith, and remove the loaded
> Best regards,
> Brian F. Walker
Juan Cole, History, U of Michigan
Buy *Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha'i Faith* at:
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