ed. Moojan Momen
Oxford: George Ronald, 1997
review by Daniel Grolin
review published in The Associate: Newsletter of the Association for Bahá'í Studies
(English-Speaking Europe) Issue 30 (Spring, 2000)
The third volume of the Bahá'í Studies series from George Ronald is a significant contribution to the promotion of a growing scholarship in the field of Bahá'í exegesis. It is a collection of eleven papers originally presented at the Irfan Colloquia 3rd-5th December 1993.
The first paper, which is by Iraj Ayman, is an historical presentation of Haj Mihdi Arjmand, one of the Faith's early scholars to whom the volume is dedicated. The paper starts by recounting his early years and his conversion, followed by vignettes from his teaching exploits, with vivid accounts of debates with Biblical and Qur'ánic proofs. Later accounts include pilgrimage to the Holy Land, his activities in Tehran and the opposition of the governor of Hamadán. The paper concludes with a description of his family and his literary achievements. The author's contribution brings into print much hitherto unpublished material and, for the English reader, much previously untranslated material.
In the next paper, entitled 'The Validity and Value of an Historical-Critical Approach to the Revealed Works of Bahá'u'lláh', John S. Hatcher presents and argues for the validity of some of the most basic assumptions underlying the 'Historical-Critical approach'. By doing so, Hatcher provides the basis for accepting the contextualisation of Scripture into a historical framework. Here the Manifestation becomes an Actor in dialogue with history and society. Hatcher demonstrates the approach with the Tablet of Ahmad as an example in order to show its usefulness in the exegetical exercise.
The third paper is Robert H. Stockman's 'Revelation, Interpretation and Elucidation in the Bahá'í Writings'. Stockman here takes on some of the difficult issues related to popular concepts of revelation, issues concerning the relationship between Scriptural propositions and science. Stockman here proposes that, on the one hand, we are commanded to investigate matters independently and, on the other hand, the Aqdas (paragraph 99) states: 'Weigh not the Book of God with such standards and sciences as are current amongst you.' This is not necessarily a true dichotomy. The paragraph in question is addressed to the 'leaders of religion' whose sciences are those of interpretation of religious Law, and the Book of God referred to here must be Bahá'u'lláh's Book of Law (the Kitáb-i-Aqdas). Stockman goes on to consider the nature of revelation. He proposes that revelation may sometimes come to the Manifestation in flashes, or that knowledge used in connection with revelation was conditional upon the Manifestation wishing to have it. Another aspect of revelation that Stockman considers is that the Manifestation may use sciences that were current amongst the peoples of His day. The issues of interpretation and elucidation receive very little consideration. Nonetheless the article complements Hatcher's paper very well by taking on some of the difficult issues that are not dealt with by him.
The fourth paper is Stephen Lambden's 'Prophecy in the Johannine Farewell Discourse: The Advents of the Paraclete, Ahmad and the Comforter (Mu'azzí)'. The whole article is characterised by great thoroughness. Lambden starts by mapping the history of interpretation of the Farewell Discourse in Christianity, how it had been translated and understood. He interestingly noted various early Christian (heretic) Paraclete claimants, showing that some did indeed understand the Paraclete to be a prophetic figure. Lambden goes on to discuss the application of the Qur'ánic verses about Ahmad to the Paraclete. This application, as Lambden notes, has led some Muslims to believe that "periklutos" (=Ahmad) was the original reading of the text.
Lambden goes on to discuss Islamic commentaries on the Paraclete sayings and those which portray Muhammad as the Paraclete. Finally he completes the tradition's journey to the Writings of the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. Lambden here produces a detailed analysis of the Bahá'í texts which deal with this theme, adding to the end of his paper three useful appendices for further study.
'Daená-Dén-Dín: The Zoroastrian Heritage of the "Maid of Heaven" in the Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh' is the fifth paper and is authored by Kamran Ekbal. Ekbal presents the development of the image of the heavenly maid from its origin in Zoroastrianism through Islam into the Bahá'í Writings. He provides an insight into literary and doctrinal history of Zoroastrianism. Ekbal's paper is instructive, but could have been made more readable if it had been divided into sections with titles.
The sixth paper, 'The Dangers of Reading: Inliberation, Communion and Transference in the Qur'án Commentary of the Báb', is by Todd Lawson. Lawson's paper is written in an informal style with apparent confidence about the matter of discourse. Lawson starts by discussing Qur'ánic commentary (tafsír) in general, followed by Shí'í commentary and then the Báb's commentaries on the Qur'án. Lawson makes a case study of the Báb's commentary on the Súra of Wa'l-'Asr including provisional translation and commentary of several passages from it. Lawson then makes a thought-provoking conclusion regarding the nature of Qur'ánic exegesis. In Christianity, sanctification is received through the ceremonious consumption of the holy body of Jesus through the vicarious Eucharistic meal. Lawson proposes that the equivalent occurs in a Muslim context when reading (and thus interpreting) the Qur'án, because the Qur'án is the 'incarnations' of holiness. In a Bahá'í context, the 19-Day Feast could be understood as serving a similar purpose (see The Nineteen Day Feast, p. 425, Bahá'í World Faith, pp. 390-391). Lawson includes two appendices, the first being an index of the letters commented on in the Súra of Wa'l-'Asr and the second an excerpt from Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism by Gershom Scholem.
The seventh paper is by Khazeh Fananapazir and is about 'The Day of God (Yawmu'lláh) and the Days of God (Ayyámu'lláh)'. Fananapazir here presents an exposition of Biblical/Islamic/Bahá'í eschatology, the theme of the Last Day[s]. In his exposition of the Bible, Fananapazir posits three types of transformations as a consequence of the coming of the Day of God: society, individuals and nature. It is not a paper that concerns itself with recent critical New Testament scholarship which, for example, would not support the proposition that 'Peter' was written by 'Peter the first Apostle of Jesus'. The author's style of writing is reminiscent of the works of Mirza 'Abu'l-Fadl.
The eighth paper is 'Understanding Exclusivist Texts' by Seena Fazel. This is a rather extensive treatment of an alternative approach to the dialogue problem of texts which proclaim uniqueness for a particular Manifestation. Fazel proposes that exclusivist texts were written in a certain 'language'. One example is 'survival language' in which exclusivity is a means of keeping one's identity. 'Apocalyptic language' is an attempt to express hope under extreme persecution, whereas 'confessional language' expresses the pious love of the Christian authors. Others are 'action language' which is an invitation to enter into salvation while 'hyperbolic language' uses exaggeration to emphasise a point. In Fazel's discussion of the Greek text (p. 254), he is dependent on Knitter and thus inadvertently mistakes its reading and translation. But Fazel proposes an exegesis which he is willing to apply, not only to Christian Scripture but also to Bahá'í Writings. He points out the necessity of using the historical critical approach which, as the first articles argued, could be used for the Bahá'í Writings and should also impact Bahá'í/Christian dialogue.
The ninth article 'The Love Relationship between God and Humanity: Reflections on Bahá'u'lláh's Hidden Words' is by Julio Savi. Savi produces in his paper an admirable attempt at constructing the theology of the Hidden Words. As such, Savi outlines central theological themes in that work: 'The origin and position of Man', the dual nature of man, 'God's Ancient Covenant', 'The Manifestation of God', the consequences of faithlessness to the Covenant and the spiritual journey. Savi emphasises the importance of the Covenant: 'This Covenant is the kernel of the ethical teachings set forth in the Hidden Words' (p. 294) Savi balances appropriately between references to the Hidden Words and other Bahá'í Writings so as to get the main material from the former and using the latter only for clarification.
'Mythoi: Stories of the Origin, Fall and Redemption: A Study in the Topology of the Holy Books' by William Barnes is the tenth paper. Barnes starts by defining 'myth' as an imaginative construct in which historical events are seen through 'archetypes or mythical exemplars'. Cassirer, whom Barnes quotes in a footnote, points out that myths are not individual constructs but are psychologically necessary constructs. I don't think, however, that this is sufficient to an understanding of the nature of myth. Myths are foundational. They not only provide answers to individuals, but also to communities. They are the relics that unite individuals and provide a social fabric. In my opinion, the necessity of myth to the individual and to the community is primary, whilst allegorical applications are secondary. Allegorical interpretation of the myth, as done by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in Some Answered Questions, is a valid religious practice, but, in my view, is problematic when interpreting socio-historically.
Barnes suggests that Adam's name giving of the animals is a revelation of 'Kingdom of Names', but was the point of the story about Adam being a revealer? Or is it the answer to the question, 'Why is that animal called that?' Elsewhere he suggests that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is the sign of the end of Eden (elaborating on 'Abdu'l-Bahá's allegorical interpretation). Its mythic function, however, is to answer the question 'How come we know what is evil and good?' The mythic function of the condemnation of God placed on Adam, Eve and the snake (Genesis 3:14-19) is to explain many basic conditions of life.
Taking the objections about the distinction between a mythic and a psychological reading of the text, it has to be stated that Barnes provides an interesting analysis of some of the elements of the Creation-Fall myth. For example Barnes notes that the Babel myth is in fact a re-enactment of the Fall (from Eden) (p. 322). While the Fall from Eden looked back at an idealised hunting/pre-agricultural society vs. an agricultural social order, the Babel myth looks back at an idealised rural life vs. an urban social order. Likewise Barnes is correct, I believe, in proposing that when citizens of Babel decide to make a name for themselves this is considered an infringement on the divine right.
The final paper is by Ross Woodman on 'The Inner Dimensions of Revelation'. Woodman reflects here on the spiritual exercise of interpreting metaphorically and the effect of revelation. Starting with thoughts on the Kitáb-i-Íqán, its composition and its purpose, Woodman proposes that the reason why the clergy did not accept the Manifestations was because they understood Scripture literally. This was also the reason why the Báb's uncle was having problems accepting his own Nephew. He then takes it a step further by proposing that metaphorical language is by nature spiritual, the metaphorical meaning being the inner dimension. I would argue that there are some Holy Writings that should not be interpreted metaphorically. Books such as the Kitáb-i-Aqdas have as their purpose to change the outer dimension, or the physical world. A qualification of the dichotomy between inner and outer dimensions would have been useful.
The volume as a whole is well-composed. Moojan Momen has compiled eleven papers that are relevant and has ordered them in a sensible way so that it starts with papers discussing overall principles followed by papers that clarify and detail. It is to be hoped that this volume may not only support current exegetical scholarship, but also promote wider understanding of its purpose.