Read: Use of Generative Imagery in Shoghi Effendi's Dispensation of Baha'u'llah

This paper was first published as part of H-Bahá'í's series
Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Bahá'í Studies

Ruhiyyih Khanum states of her husband, Shoghi Effendi (Shawqi Rabbani), the leader of the Bahá'í faith in the period 1921-1957, that "However Shoghi Effendi felt in his inmost heart about his other writings, I know from his remarks that he considered he had said all he had to say, in many ways, in the Dispensation." (1) This work is dated February 8, 1934, but it is obvious from its length that it must have been composed over a period of time. (2) Indeed, the similarities between parts of the Dispensation and the discussions from 1932 recorded by Keith Ransom-Kehler and Lorol Schopflocher suggest that Shoghi Effendi was pondering the themes of the work for almost two years. (3) Thus, given the importance Shoghi Effendi assigned to The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh and the extended period of thought that seems to have preceded its composition, it seems reasonable to assume a particularly conscious and carefully considered use of words in this work.

Shoghi Effendi's compositional method was to speak the words as he wrote and to use speech to hone the structure of his text. He was also very concerned with the precise choice of words to convey his meaning. Thus, we may in general assume a high degree of intentionality of word choice in his writing and more especially so when particular usages are rendered prominent by repetition.

Given both Shoghi Effendi's general method and the prominence he gave to The Dispensation, it would seem that this work is likely to be a particularly fruitful subject for detailed textual analysis. In this paper I will consider specifically the use of generative imagery in The Dispensation and in particular will discuss the use of such imagery in relation to his comments on the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá.

There are fifty-six sentences in The Dispensation that use generative imagery. Twenty-six of them are in quotations from other authors, and 30 are in Shoghi Effendi's own text. Thus, he reinforces and validates his own use of such imagery by providing the reader with comparable examples from the writings of the Bab, Bahá'u'lláh, and 'Abdu'l-Bahá. The most concentrated and insistent use of generative imagery in Shoghi Effendi's own text is in the paragraphs concerning the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá.

Let me quote them here in full as a basis for further discussion:

It is notable how Shoghi Effendi takes the normally overlooked or elided metaphorical context of his use of "conceived" in the first of these paragraphs and invokes it repeatedly and explicitly in the second. This extended calling to mind of the literal meaning is reinforced in the third paragraph by the reference to `Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament as a "new-born child." Given the self-conscious orality of Shoghi Effendi's compositional method, this concretization of what could have simply stood as a banal and routine figure of speech invites further investigation.

The Will and Testament is portrayed as the "inevitable offspring" of the "mystic intercourse" between Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá. It is the "Child of the Covenant" with Bahá'u'lláh supplying "the original and motivating impulse," the "generating influence," and 'Abdu'l-Bahá acting as the "vehicle and chosen recipient." The incipience of the Will and Testament derives from the "creative energies released by the Law of Bahá'u'lláh"; yet, the Will is also the result of those energies "permeating and evolving within the mind of 'Abdu'l-Bahá" and thus it is the joint "Heir" of both.

The imagery of this paragraph is almost annunciatory in character; yet, it is made clear that the Will and Testament is not simply produced through 'Abdu'l-Bahá by the impact of these "creative energies," but that 'Abdu'l-Bahá also contributed to its character. There are not active and passive parties here but two active roles in the creation of this "Heir."

There are also two distinct discourses underlying the rhetoric of this paragraph. One is the Oxford Hellenism that was established over a period of decades in the nineteenth century and particularly associated with Balliol College where Shoghi Effendi studied. The other is a traditional Sufi characterization of the relationship between shaykh (master) and murid (disciple). Drawing on both Western and Middle Eastern thematic materials is also characteristic of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's writing. As his grandfather had, Shoghi Effendi uses this technique in The Dispensation to establish cultural linkages and to posit original positions that go beyond cultural precedents.

At the crux of Oxford Hellenism was a value distinction between physical and spiritual procreancy. The core text for this distinction lay in Plato's Symposium which first became an integral text in the education of Oxford classics scholars under the regime of Benjamin Jowett as Master of Balliol College:

This passage is used as a recurring referent in Dowling's discussion of Oxford Hellenism in which she demonstrates the extent to which the text was by allusion and paraphrase a frequent presence in the thought and writing of those educated at Oxford in the later nineteenth century. These authors, of course, were familiar with the text in the original, but those who relied on Jowett's English rendering encountered a particularly physical version of the text:

Given not only the cultural background of the original text but also the suppositions of the nineteenth century regarding the mental and spiritual acuity of women, it was assumed that spiritual procreancy took place in a relationship between an older and a younger man. Shoghi Effendi described the Will as being "conceived" in the mind of 'Abdu'l-Bahá as a result of "creative energies" associated with Bahá'u'lláh. Thus it could be considered the fruit of spiritual procreancy. Yet, obviously, Bahá'u'lláh is also 'Abdu'l-Bahá's physical father. The Will is the ultimate product of both spiritual and physical procreancy.

It is notable that in his translation of the passage Jowett locates not simply the generative impulse but pregnancy per se in the male body/soul; just as it is ironic that in the original dialogue the text which is explicating the superiority of spiritual procreancy (i.e. procreancy without women) is purportedly Socrates' retelling of the words of Diotima, "a woman wise in this and many other kinds of knowledge."

But although the end of spiritual procreancy is the production of "wisdom," all wisdom is not equivalent: "the greatest and fairest sort of wisdom by far is that which is concerned with the ordering of states and families, and which is called temperance and justice." And, indeed, the type of education developed by Jowett at Oxford was intended to produce the rulers of empire. We may note that in a letter written in 1920 Shoghi Effendi lists "great men" who had been educated at Balliol: "Lord Grey, Earl Curzon, Lord Milner, Mr. Asquith, Swinburne and Sir Herbert Samuel." And while at Oxford he particularly studied politics and economics, often in connection with the issues of the day. (6)

The imagery of Shoghi Effendi's paragraph does feminize the mind of 'Abdu'l-Bahá: it receives the "generating influence" communicated through "mystic intercourse." This feminization of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in relation to Bahá'u'lláh suggests one of the traditional tropes portraying shaykh/murid relations. Malamud notes that in such Sufi texts "masters are represented as fathers and procreators: they inseminate disciples with the essential substance that will bring about the birth of the disciple's new spiritual existence. The novice's dependence on his guide is signified in our texts by feminizing him: he becomes a passive receptacle (a field or a womb) for the masculine seed."(7)

But, as we have noted, although the paragraph feminizes the mind of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, it does not thereby render it passive: the "creative energies" evolve and interact within it. Also the feminized portrayal of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's mind is not part of an account of producing a new "spiritual existence" for 'Abdu'l-Bahá but of a process of joint creation.

Nor does Shoghi Effendi's use of the term "mystic intercourse" suggest a resulting identity of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá; the fana' of the murid in the shaykh. On the contrary, earlier in Dispensation, Shoghi Effendi had stated that there is not "any authority whatever for the opinion that inclines to uphold the so-called 'mystic unity' of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l- Bahá."(p48) 'Abdu'l-Bahá is unique and distinct.

The traditional Sufi imagery is based on an Aristotelian model of generation with the female acting as passive incubator to the male creative impulse. Shoghi Effendi's generative imagery draws on a Hippocratic/Galenic model that requires contributions from both parties to achieve a result.

The result that is achieved in this case is a text, and the "creative energies" leading to this text emanate from the "law of Bahá'u'lláh" rather than simply his person. Thus text begets text via the ratiocination of 'Abdu'l-Bahá.

In the Middle East knowledge acquisition, literacy, and textuality are often seen as analogous to physical generation. Reading and writing skills and textual knowledge were traditionally seen as transmitted generatively and directly in quasi-genealogical chains rather than as being acquired by individuals using their inherent resources; literacy/textuality requires an exterior impulse. At its most concretized, this view results in the popular Magribian belief that the acquisition of literacy by the pupil requires actual insemination by the teacher before book learning can be effective. This set of beliefs is, of course, what gives such force to the "unschooled" prophet motif; when autodidacticism is not a feasibility then "inspiration" must be the exterior cause.

Thus texts can be viewed as having very specifically generative aspects. According to Ibn 'Arabi:

In Dispensation Shoghi Effendi includes several quotes from Bahá'u'lláh which use explicitly generative language to refer to textuality:

Thus, well before his description of `Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament, Shoghi Effendi has laid a scriptural warrant for locating generative power in textuality. And in that description he provides a series of interlocking generative chains: 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Bahá'u'lláh are linked through both physical and spiritual procreancy and the text of the "Will" has its sources in the text of the "Law." But, just as 'Abdu'l-Bahá is not identical with Bahá'u'lláh, so one text is not identical with the other. The "creative energies" evolved in the process of producing the "new-born child."

And the "child," the "Heir," is not itself an immutable given but as any new-born must be nurtured in order to develop. The Administrative Order as it exists at any one time provides the framework within which that development takes place. However, that order has its own dynamic, related to the Will, but not equivalent to it.

The extended generative imagery that Shoghi Effendi applies to the Will and Testament goes beyond its underlying discourses. It rejects the ranked dichotomy between physical and spiritual procreancy of Oxford Hellenism and asserts the value of both. It rejects the imitative reiteration of the shaykh/murid model and asserts the dependence and independence of creative evolution.

Shoghi Effendi's generative model is one of change and adaptation, of genotype and phenotype: potentialities and their expression in particular circumstances. The 'religious' approach to the relation of 'scripture' and the world is often unilinear, determinative, and essentialist. What is 'in' such texts is supposed to be definitively and delimitably recoverable and they (as sites of numenosity) forecast and 'create' outcomes. The meaning boundaries of texts are closed and their results inevitable. This is analogous to Aristotelian generation: Each new 'life' is generated from a single source and the incubator of that source's generative impulse can only effect the outcome by inadequately incubating this 'essence.' If the result is not as it should be, this is the 'fault' of the incubator who produced a 'degenerated' outcome. Historically, the attribution of numenosity to texts has often included a presumption that they have exactly the unilinear generative nature that Shoghi Effendi did not adopt in his discussion of the Will. Shoghi Effendi maintains the generative role of text and integrates this into a sophisticated organicism so that text too may participate in growth. Thus, it seems especially important in approaching such texts that we be as conscious of the dialectical aspect of their generative functioning as we may be of their attributed numenosity.

In the Hippocratic/Galenic tradition of thought generation is seen as a joint process with outcomes retaining a quality of provisionality at any point in the process. Thus, one cannot read a determined future from current or previous conditions, nor can one posit the inevitability of the present. Equally, responsibility (personal and social) cannot be displaced to the inevitable outcomes of the in essentia qualities of the 'generative impulse' as outcomes reside in the impulse in potentia and are expressed as the result of interactive processes that involve volitions other than that underlying the impulse itself.

There is an apposite African saying: Destiny is fan shaped. At any point on a path there are a myriad potential ways forward. The way that is chosen presents another myriad possibilities. Thus, no present is ever inevitable but is the result of cumulative choices, each choice being made in the context of its circumstances. Especially important is that although past choices constrain the circumstances in which current choices are made, past choices do not obviate choice as such.

Thus, although there are many comments by 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi to the effect that if such and such had been done the current situation would be so and so, the fact that this is not the current case does not mean that one has to give up. There has not been 'degeneration' of the essence of the generating impulse but merely a limited working out of its potentials within a particular (thus bounded) context.

Shoghi Effendi's discussion of the Will and the Administrative Order suggests that the two exist in an interactively creative relationship not one of simple linear causation. The "child" of the Will develops in association with the working out of the Administrative Order and thus continues to 'live' rather than being the founding 'ancestor' of that Order. Thus, the expression in action of the Will within the Bahá'í community is not something fixed but something that must be worked at within particular circumstances and as those circumstances change so may the 'meaning' of the Will and Testament.


(1) Ruhiyyih Rabbani. The Priceless Pearl. 1969: 213.

(2) Shoghi Effendi, The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh. 1938 [dated February 8, 1934).

(3) Keith Ransom-Kehler and Lorol Schopflocher. "Notes at Haifa, May 12, 1932." Typescript in Horace Holley Papers, National Bahá'í Archives, Wilmette, Illinois.

(4) Plato. The Collected Dialogues including the Letters. Eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961. Quoted as the epigraph to Chapter Three of: Linda Dowling. Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994:67.

(5) B. Jowett. The Dialogues of Plato. Translated into English with Analyses and Introductions. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan and Co., 1892: Vol I, 579.

(6) Rabbani, 1969:32;36.

(7) Margaret Malamud. "Gender and Spiritual Self-Fashioning: The Master-Disciple Relationship in Classical Sufism." Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 64, No.1, Spring 1996: 95-6.

(8) quoted in Malamud: 100. v2.7 (213613) © 2005 - 2015 Emanuel V. Towfigh & Peter Hoerster | Imprint | Change Interface Language: DE EN