LA Study Class Newsletter [#4]

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My Notes:

In this edition of the newsletter the class discusses the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Baha’i Faith’s “Mother Book” and the Book of Laws. This was before the completion of the official translation and publication of the Most Holy Book under the auspices of the Universal House of Justice in 1992. So the Baha’is of that time only had access to the “Synopsis and Codification of the Laws and Ordinances of the Kitab-i-Aqdas” (published in 1973) as an official, but incomplete translation, and to the unofficial but complete translation of Miller/Elder. The class, specifically, discusses the charge that the Baha’i Faith (and/or the Kitab-i-Aqdas is ‘sexist’). This is a pretty hot button issue, even today among Baha’is and I am, yet again delighted that the class goes about knocking over one taboo subject after another.

They then go on to discuss an issue which is arguably the most contentious one in recent Baha’i history: women’s exclusion from serving on the House of Justice. The class barely scratches the surface on this topic and for those who are interested in further material, this might be of interest. There is also a plethora of discussions on this topic in various Baha’i discussion forums.

As well, a great deal of the newsletter is taken up by the exuberant reply from MacEoin to the criticisms levelled at his article in the previous class’ newsletter.

Before proceeding, you might also want to read the introduction to the LA study class, here.

On with the 70′s class . . .

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Notes from the Baha’i study group (assemblage? class?), (we never did settle on a formal name) from the meeting of Dec 11, 1976, in Merdat Amanat’s [Ed. correct name is Mehrdad Amanat] apartment (sorry about the spelling on the names) . Those who attended were: Tony Lee (enfant terrible and ringleader), Mehrdat Amanat (did I get it right that time?), Greg and Paula Wahlstrom, Bob Ballenger (secretary and scapegoat) and, truckin’ a bit late, Don and Susan Berkman.

Shahin Carrigan didn’t make it (again), so no presentation on “value free science.”

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Organizational trivia dept. : at Tony’s suggestion, we decided that the notes for these letters should be taken by one person in attendance, on a rotating basis. Since Bob Ballenger couldn’t think of an excuse not to do it fast enough, he wrote this mishmash. Lawsuits for the contents may be directed to the firm Quimby, Eggplant and Frebish.

The topic for the class was a critical analysis of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, with particular attention to seeming sexism [in] the language of the text. As it happens, there is a complete translation of the Aqdas available. The slim red volume most Baha’is are familiar with is a synopsis with only a fragmentary made of the Book’s passages. However, two Christian missionaries, William Miller and Earl Elder got their hands on an authentic copy of the text and they translated it in a rathe awkward rendition freighted down with a wooden style. Still, it provides the reader with a more complete idea of what Baha’u’llah had in mind when He wrote the Book in 1873.

Our discussion of the Aqdas (based on the Baha’i version, which we used) let us to conclude that Baha’u’llah wrote what amounts to an outline of Baha’i law, not a legal text in the codified form. The Aqdas is not a narrative. The text frequently jumps from subject to subject. Sometimes, it seems as if virtually every line in some passage in on a different topic. Our review of the book was hampered by the fact that those related works such as “Questions and Answers” which Baha’u’llah intended as a supplement to the Aqdas, and the various tablets He later revealed, also modifying or clarifying passages in the Aqdas, were not available to us.

Even a cursory reading of the text reveals it to be eliptical and, members of the class agreed, theBook poses a puzzle to the Baha’is who must now live with it. As these discussions go, there was considerable digression into side issues, but we managed to explore these as they arose with dispatch and returned to the business at hand pretty well.

Some things did emerge from the discussion. For instance, it was proposed that, because Baha’u’llah placed more emphasis on male roles (viz. inheritance laws) He evidently intended that men continue to be the primary supporters of their families. Still this did not resolve the seeming ambiguities in the Aqdas that we discovered. Such resolution will have to come at some later date.

As is almost inevitable in discussions such as the one we had, the fact that women can not serve on the UHJ was trotted out thrashed about. There is no doubt about this, by the way. In the text of the Aqdas, Baha’u’llah addresses the members of the Universal House as “men of justice”. No one apparently knows why women are thereby apparently excluded from membership, but its a fact of Baha’i administrative life that they are. We discussed this point at some length. It was noted that women are not precluded from administrative service. They regularly are elected to various local and national assemblies. So if women were (for some reason) to be excluded from administrative responsability, it seems logical Baha’u’llah would have taken care to do so all the way down the line…and didn’t. Although there was no concensus on this next point, it was worth noting that it was suggested there is nothing peculiar about women that causes their exclusion on the UHJ. Rather, what appears to be the case is that the special nature of the Universal House somehow precludes women from serving on its membership. So, in essence, the reason is not a sexist one, but has some other basis in being. (Incidentally, in that regard, it was pointed out that even if the reason for the exclusion of women from membership on the House, and their seeming second class treatment with regard to inheritance, for example, were sexist, that’s just too bad. Baha’u’llah, specifically warns those who read the text to “Weigh not the Book of God with such standards and sciences as are current amongst you, for the Book itself is the unerring balance established amongst men.” Sexism and our contemporary concern with it, it could be argued, is just such a “current standard” that simply is in error.)

More speculation. One theory offered up (on the condition the author of it remain nameless; we’ll call the person Deep Vote) suggest that the exclusion of women from House membership does not involve any alleged inferiority on their part. As the theory goes, members of the House must work closely and intensely together, sometimes for extended periods of time. Men and women under such conditions, might arouse suspicions (on the part of non-Baha’is) of possible hanky-panky. Since the UHJ is the supreme Baha’i administrative institution, there must never be a hint or suspicion about impropriety among its members. Therefore, to avoid giving rise to such suspicions, women are excluded. (To which, it might be argued, why not exclude men? To which it can be replied that, in the current state of the unliberated world, women in certain lands would find it impossible to serve on the House.And so it goes.)

Probably the best refutation that the Baha’i Faith is secretly sexist, is its own history. After all Tahirih played a major role in the Babi Dispensation and is considered a Baha’i (well, Babi) heroine. Also, when Abdu’l-Baha came to Europe, and America, He called the equality of men and women one of the most important Baha’i principles. Now, He was not indulging in press agentry or misrepresentation when he did so. When Abdu’l-Baha left the Holy Land on his western trips, He left His sister, the Greatest Holy Leaf, in charge of the whole shooting match. All questions relating to the Faith, all administrative functions, and running the Baha’i household — everything was up to her. She was the de facto head of the Faith while Abdu’l-Baha was away. Early in his own ministry, Shoghi Effendi also put the Greatest Holy Leaf in charge on atleast two occasions when he went to Europe in the 1920s. Again, if women were, in the Baha’i view, somehow inferior, this wouldn’t have happened.

Okay. This (too long) sample is to give those who didn’t make it some idea of what went on. The classes tend to be discursive but informative. Besides, where else can you sit around and talk (seriously) about the Baha’i Faith without winding up stuck in the muck of fireside misinformation?

Next class will deal with the myths and rituals of the Baha’i Faith. (Funny, don’t they always say at firesides that we have no myths, no dogma, no ritual?) The class will be held at 2 pm Sunday, Dec. 19 at the spacious apartment of Mehrdad Amanat, [Ed. address follows]. From there, we adjourn to the new Idi Amin Hotel in downtown Botswana for tea.

[Ed. handwritten note reads:]

Editor’s Note: Susan Berkman will read a paper on the topic of “Myth & Ritual in the Baha’i Faith” at the next class. It promises to be most stimulating.

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[Ed. the following is from Denis MacEoin in reply to the discussion and critique of his article]

[Ed. illegible title heading but most probably it is the tile of article being discussed"The Concept of Nation in Islam" ]

In reply to certain objections raised at a seminar held in Los Angeles on November 27, 1976.

I must thank these friends who took part in the above seminar, not only for having had interest and patience to discuss my article, but for having given me this opportunity to reply to the criticisms which were raised regarding certain aspects of it. Perhaps I shall be able, in the course of this reply, to clarify some of the statements which became the subject of criticism and thereby make possible a deeper understanding of the subject as a whole.

[Ed. illegible word] I begin by remarking that I felt that much of the criticism was unjustified seemed to result from a very superficial reading of the article. In particular – as I shall show in more detail later – the introduction of the red herring, of ‘nationalism’ led the seminar into areas of discussion quite removed from the initial argument of my article and resulted in a very serious misunderstanding of what I was trying to say.

The first criticism made was that the article was either hopelessly broad or hopelessly narrow – perhaps the very fact that such an extreme range of views existed on this point is evident that the article was somewhere in between these two extremes. More serious criticism was that the article was mistitled and that I was more interested in showing the concept of nation in Europe than in Islam. It seems quite obvious to me that whoever made this suggestion had not read the article at all [Ed. the following word is difficult to read and may be another] clearly; the whole point of the article was to demonstrate that it was in Europe and not in the Islamic world that the first nation states arose. In the last paragraph, I wrote: “It would seem, therefore, that in direct terms, that the Mission of Muhammad was frustrated within Islam itself… If, as we have tried to show, the purpose of God was brought to a satisfactory resolution in the emergence of nations in Europe. It is this interaction between the religions and cultures of Islam and Christianity which constitutes the most remarkable feature of the Dispensation preceeding the Baha’i Dispensation” The reason for the title is really very simple – it is intended to draw attention to the common misconception among Baha’is that, in simple and literal terms, Islam brought the nation state to the world; I began with the statement of Shoghi Effendi that “the Faith of Islam … introduced … the conception of the nation as a unit and a vital stage in the organization of human society, and embodied it in its teaching” and went on went on to try to reconcile this statement with observable historical facts about the rise of nations. This necessarily meant dwelling to some extent on the development of the European nation-state, but it is simply not true to say that I was ‘more interested in the concept of the nation in Europe than … in Islam’ – please simply count the number of pages devoted to each topic.

Another criticism is that, having put forward the hypothesis that ‘Islam is the ultimate source of nationalism in Europe’, I should, as a minimum requirement ‘demonstrate some historical connection between the concept of nationhood in Islam …and the European idea of nationalism’. This you say, I ‘utterly failt to do’, and since I myself admit this failure , you ask what point if any, I was trying to make. This is an exceptionally unfair criticism; it is up to the reader to discover what point I am trying to make rather than to first decide for himself what point I should have been trying to make and then condemn me for not having made it. The demonstration of that historical connection is nowhere said by me to be the purpose of the article; it is, as you say, in my so-called admission of failure, nothing more than a theme, on which it would be useful to elaborate. I am not even convinced that there is a direct connection between the ‘umma concept and the European political thought, and I clearly say so. What I do believe is that there was a direct influence by the Islamic world on Europe, both in the Carelingian [Ed. previous word is difficult to make out] period and in the Middle Ages, and I feel that I have presented a reasonable amount of evidence such influence existed. To be more precise, I have tried to show that there was some sort of interaction between Islam and Christendom which brought mankind, by the nineteenth century to the point where nation states could become the universal political unit in readiness for the next stage of political development, that of world unification. If I have to some extent, succeeded in this effort, I can hardly be attacked for not having achieved what someone else thinks I should have done.

Your next criticism is both the most important and, if I may say so, the least justified. You say that I indicate that the quotations I cite from Shoghi Effendi require us to believe ‘that European nationalism (that is the modern, popular, and secular nationalism which we know today) was introduced by Muhammad and its beginnings in Islam’. I am glad to see that most of those present disagreed with this interpretation, since it is your own interpretation and is nowhere made or suggested by me. It seems to me that the bulk of your criticism consists in putting words into my mouth and then attacking me for having said them. This is not only unscholarly, it is impertinent. To begin with, the definition of nationalism given here (‘modern, popular and secular’, and below ‘modern, militaristic and god-less’) is yours and not mine. For this reason alone, the whole argument presented by your group here falls down completely inasmuch as it is in no way related to the concept which I actually discuss. Again, the suggestion that this nationalism ‘was introduced by Muhammad and had its beginnings in Islam’ is entirely yours; I have gone to pains in my article to show precisely that the form of nation-state introduced by Muhammad very quickly vanished from Islam and that the modern concept of the nation does not have its beginnings in Islam; as I state on page 15 of the article ‘… after the death of Muhammad, we are faced not with the development of ‘umma but with the creation of an empire, and again (on page 19); ‘Something clearly went wrong with Islam …’. You go on to say that I attribute the rise of the ‘evil’ of modern nationalism to a Manifestation of God (i.e. Muhammad); I would appreciate it if you could possibly tell me exactly where I have made such an attribution.

More serious, perhaps, than your mistaken allegation that the concept of which I was was concerned in my article, was nationalism in the bad sense, is your confident assertion that Shoghi Effendi speaks only disparagingly about nationalism. On the contrary, he clearly distinguishes between false and true nationalism, between the harmful ‘philosophy of nationalism’ on the one hand and the reality of the genuine nation states on the other. He writes: “The love of one’s country instilled and stressed in the teachings of Islam, as ‘an element of the Faith of God’, has not, through this declation, this clarion call of Baha’u’llah, been either condemned or disparaged. It should not, indeed, it can not be construed as a repudiation, or regarded in the light of censure pronounced against, a sane and intelligent patriotism, nor does it seek to undermine the allegiance and loyalty of any individual in his country, nor does it conflict with the legitimate aspirations, rights, and duties of any individual state or nation” (Promised Day Is Come pp. 126-127). Again, “let there be no misgivings as to the animating purpose of the world-wide Law of Baha’u’llah. … its purpose is neither to stifle a sane and intelligent patriotism in men’s heart, nor to abolish the system of national autonomy so essential if the evils of excessive centralization are to be avoided. It does not ignore, nor does it attempt to supress, the diversity of ethnical origins, of climate, of history, of language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples of the world (World Order of Baha’u’llah p.41).

That the national concept, in the modern sense, is regarded by Shoghi Effendi as the stage of social organization immediately prerequisite to and absolutely essential for the unification of mankind in a federated world state is made abundantly clear by him in many places. He writes: “To the states and principalities from the welter of the great Napoleonic upheaval, whose chief preoccupation was either to recover their rights to an independant existence or to achieve their national unity, the conception of world solidarity seemed not only remote but inconceivable. It was not until the forces of nationalism had succeeded in overthrowing the foundation of the Holy Alliance that had sought to curb their rising power, that the possibility of a world order, transcending in its range the political institutions these nations had established, came to be seriously entertained” (World Order of Baha’u’llah p.44). Again: “Unification of the whole of mankind is the hallmark of the stage which human society is now approaching. Unity of family, of tribe, of city state, and nation have been successively attempted and fully established. World unity is the goal towards which a harassed humanity is striving. Nation-building has come to an end” (World Order of Baha’u’llah p.202). That it is to the essentially European concept and fact of nationhood that Shoghi [Effendi] is referring is made abundantly clear by him in a passage quoted by me in my article, where he states: “The conception of nationality, the attainment to the state of nationhood, may, therefore, be said to be the distinguishing characteristic of the Muhammadan Dispensation, in the course of which the nations and races of the world, and particularly in Europe and America, were unified and achieved political independance” (Promised Day Is Come p. 125). Perhaps you could tell me in what respect my argument differs from that outlined by the Guardian in the above sentence? That this, and not some rediculous attempt – such as you attribute to me – that modern nationalism in its most exaggerated form had originated in Islam, was what I set out to demonstrate in my essay was made even clearer by me by my quoting the second part of that sentence a second time (p.12). I would suggest that you read again, and this time with more care, the second paragraph on page 12. The simple fact is that the modern nation state does form the basic building block from which a federated world system will be constructed, just as individual states of North America formed the units out of which the Unites States came into being; it is also a fact that these nation states came into being within the period of the Islamic Dispensation; it is also a fact that Baha’is believe that everything during the Dispensation of a Manifestation has its origin in the creative forces released by Him and can ultimately be traced back to His influence; it is also a fact that Shoghi Effendi, as quoted above, explicitly attributes the rise of national states to the influence of Muhammad. To drag the debased and corrupt forms of modern nationalism which have been developed during the Baha’i Dispensation (because the nation concept is now outgrown) into this argument is completely out of place and utterly unwarranted. Modern nationalism is nothing but a corrupt expression of a valid concept; it has nothing to do with the matter under consideration.

You even go so far as to say that I was misled by false ‘fireside information’ in preparing my article, when it should be abundantly clear to anyone reading the article with a minimum of attention that it is precisely in order to dispel the absurd fireside myth that the nation actually within Islam itself, that the article has been written. May I, therefore, end here, by requessing all of you to take the advice given to me towards the end of your reply and read again the quotations from the Guardian which I have given in my article and above, and to try to grasp the fairly obvious points made in them. I would also recommend that each of you read, once again, the article itself and attempt to understand what I’m actually saying rather than making completely unfounded allegations about what you thought I was saying. It may be that I was not sufficiently clear about my arguments in the original, but I hope that this reply will make them clearer and make it possible for you to have a more constructive discussion on what I believe to be important concepts deserving of some attention.

May I thank you all once again for your kindness in allowing me to thus reply to you criticisms; I do look forward to hearing more of the activities of your group and wish you all every success in the study of the deeper implication of the Baha’i revelation.

With warmest love,

Denis MacEoin

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Links:
The original scanned documents can be found here.