It seems to me, in any investigation of such topics, that we would do well to be skeptical of all facile analysis. I am both a skeptic, and a Bahá'í. I like to think of myself as combining the possibilities of skeptical reason and of reasonable faith. It is clear from Mr. Gardner's discussion of the Bahá'í religion and its early Babi phase, that he may not have a close relationship with a knowledgeable Bahá'í who can place the numerological symbolism of Bahá'í in context. There are also some errors of fact in his column. I would like to address several points, if I may.
First, I would note that the significance of 19 as a mystical representation of physical creation and of divine "revelation" is not based upon some superstitious magical notion. In some strands of Islamic mysticism, the entire Qur'an (or Koran) is believed to be enfolded in the first chapter of that book. That first chapter is likewise believed to be contained in the first verse. The first verse - bismi'llah al-rahman al-rahim "In the Name of God, the Beneficent, the Merciful!" - is composed of 19 letters in Arabic. That first verse is believed to be contained in the letter "B" ( ) at the beginning of the verse, and that letter "B" is believed to be contained in the dot or point beneath the letter. The mystical significance is that the initial "B", the "19 letters of the first verse", the first chapter, and the entire Qur'an were generated from the first point. In the realm of physical creation, the universe began from a single point, generating all the galaxies, stars, solar systems and living organisms. In the realm of spiritual creation, the unknowable divine reality we term God created a first will from which all things were created; the embodiments of that divine will are the inspired personages known as Messengers, Prophets or Manifestations of God, who generate holy books and civilizations, transforming societies according to new principles. The Bab (the "Gate", 1819-1850), was titled "the Primal Point," in honor of that point from which the universe and the Qur'an were generated. I can think of no better illustration of the Bahá'í principle of the harmony of true science and true religion than this notion of all created things emerging from a single point. It accords with scientific understanding, and it has a powerful symbolic significance in religious terms.
Mr. Gardner gives a somewhat distorted significance to Bahá'í numerological symbolism that very few Bahá'ís would even recognize. The use of the number 9 is often believed by many non-Bahá'ís, and some Bahá'ís, to stand for 9 Manifestations of God (as Mr. Gardner states on p. 18 of his article). In fact, its significance is that 9 is the highest single digit in the decimal system, and thus is seen by Bahá'ís to "contain" all the other digits. It is a useful metaphor for universality and unity. It is also the numerical equivalent to Bahá'u'lláh's name in the Arabic system of letter-for-number symbolism.
It is true, as Mr. Gardner notes, that the Bahá'í community has nine-member elected institutions at the local, national and international levels. It should be noted, however, that Bahá'u'lláh has made nine the minimum number of members of these institutions, but they can (and probably will in time) have more members. There is no dogmatic adherence to the membership level of nine. The international council, called the Universal House of Justice, is elected by the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies, of which there are currently 175. The Universal House of Justice has never been elected by a body of 27 "custodians." These "custodians", who were termed Hands of the Cause of God, guided the Bahá'í community from 1957 to 1963, between the death of Shoghi Effendi (Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith), and the election of the Universal House of Justice. There happened to be 27 of them at the time of the death of Shoghi Effendi, but when the Universal House of Justice was elected, there were fewer.
The calendar devised by the Bab was indeed complex, and numerologically rich. Bahá'ís confine their use of the calendar to the 19-month annual cycle, with four intercalary days (five in leap years). The other cycles of years and mutiples of years are simply not significant in modern Bahá'í usage. Years have cardinal numbers (the current year beginning 21 March 1997 is 154). The Bab stated specifically that his entire religious culture was intended to signify the identity of the expected Messenger. Thus the inclusion of references to 9 and 19 were not so much talismanic or ritualistic or superstitious as they were simply intended to indicate the identity of Bahá'u'lláh.
Mr. Gardner characterizes the Bab as a "new 'manifestation' of Allah." I have generally found that when Americans use "Allah" in articles relating to religion in the Middle East, it can tend to carry a tone of disparagement, and serves to differentiate Islam from Christianity or at least from Western thinking. "Allah" is the Arabic word for God. If the Bahá'í Faith had originated in France, I doubt that articles would refer to someone as a "new 'manifestation' of Dieu." In the Arabic translations of the Christian Bible, the word for God is Allah. The Bahá'í sacred texts translated into English, and Bahá'ís in the West, use the word God. "Allah" is not a name; it signifies a Being Who is called God in English, Dieu in French, Dios in Spanish, and so on.
There are a few other corrections, clarifications and amplifications that I would note. The Bab was executed in 1850, not 1856. Bahá'u'lláh was imprisoned for more than nine months. He was imprisoned first in Tehran in 1852 for a lengthy period. He was then exiled to Baghdad, Constantinople (Istanbul), Adrianople (Edirne), and finally to the Ottoman penal colony of Akko in Palestine in 1868. In the latter place, he was imprisoned for more than two years in foul and pestilential conditions. When 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Bahá'u'lláh's son, visited North America in 1912, the Bahá'í Faith did not spread like wildfire. It certainly gained ground, and was widely appreciated because of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's fine qualities. It grew most quickly in its early days in the United States between 1894 and 1900, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The number of Bahá'ís in the United States is currently about 130,000 - a very small number compared with other religious groups in the United States. This is not the largest group outside Iran. Iran has over 300,000. There are two million Bahá'ís in India, and communities in the 100,000+ range in a few other countries. The total number of Bahá'ís worldwide is approaching six million.
Bahá'u'lláh taught a principle of religious evolution called "progressive revelation." It is the notion that God reveals teachings according to humanity's need in given times and places; that all the world's great religions are part of this overarching process of revealing a single "religion of God"; and that humankind has reached a stage where a universal Messenger to the world is possible. While Bahá'ís acknowledge Bahá'u'lláh as that universal Messenger, it is fundamental to Bahá'í thinking that religious revelation has not ended, and that in a few centuries there will be yet another revelation through another of God's Manifestations. According to the Bahá'í writings, "Religious truth is not absolute but relative."
Joseph Campbell, the renowned scholar of mythology, wrote: "Whenever a myth has been taken literally its sense has been perverted. . . [and] whenever it has been dismissed as a mere priestly fraud or sign of inferior intelligence, truth has slipped out the other door." Bahá'ís state explicitly and without apology that science and religion must go hand in hand. There is room for mythology and for realism, for poetry and for mathematics, for the metaphorical and the literal, for faith and for skepticism. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, when he visited the United States, spoke frequently about science. His unequivocal statement was: "Any religion that is not in accord with established science is superstition." The Babi and Bahá'í usage of 9 and 19, while mythological, is not generally taken by Bahá'ís so literally as to become magical. Yet it is also not dismissed as meaningless superstition. The question is whether the usage of numerological symbols enriches a larger community of people in its understanding of deeper spiritual meanings, or is simply the bizarre distortion of perverse individuals whose intention is to separate and antagonize. My experience is that the Bahá'í usage is the former.
I am skeptical of placing all numerological usage in the "superstition" basket. The significance we give to numbers can lend meaning to highly abstract cosmological concepts, such as the Bahá'í concept of spiritual and material creation originating from "the first point." Sorting out the wheat from the chaff in such discussions can be daunting, particularly when involving Babism, which is obscure to the general audience. I hope that Mr. Gardner will study some of the more challenging philosophical works by Bahá'ís regarding science, religion and mysticism.
William P. Collins
William P. Collins (B.A., M.L.S., M.S.Sc.) is author of a major bibliography on the Babi and Bahá'í religions, and an award-winning article on "Sacred Mythology and the Bahá'í Faith." He is also working on a book about millennialist ideas in the American Bahá'í community. Mr. Collins was for13 years the head of the library at the Bahá'í World Centre, and is presently head of a division at the Library of Congress.