LA Study Class Newsletter [#5]

My Notes:The fifth newsletter deals with a very interesting topic – one that many Baha’is emphatically insist does not even exist in the Faith: ritual.

In fact, the Baha’i Faith does have rituals (so does the Babi Faith, by the way). But we are given the guidance to not revel in them or to allow them to confine or confuse our devotion to God. I suspect this is a warning to not fall prey to the previous mistake of humanity in losing sight of God for the trappings and ceremonies around His worship. As Bruce Lee instructs his young pupil in Enter the Dragon: Do not concentrate on the finger pointing to the moon, or you will miss all that heavenly glory.

Having been inspired by the classes treatment of ritual in the Baha’i Faith, I decided to see how many I could come up with. The most obvious one is the 19 day feast which is held every, er, nineteen days and is divided into three sections (devotional, social and administrative). Another obvious one is the annual fast, and another is the ritual surrounding the daily obligatory prayer which must be recited by every Baha’i at specific times during each day. As well, depending on which of the three is recited, it may involve ablutions (the ritualistic washing of hands and face while reciting verses) and repetitive motions (standing up, bowing down, etc.). A person must be facing the Qiblih, no matter which of the three obligatory prayers is recited.

Some other rituals not so obvious are marriage related. The time limit between engagement and marriage, the verse to be recited by man and woman in front of witnesses, the permission of 6 people (the couple, and their parents) and the exchange of a dowery (with specific amounts for country and city dwellers). As well, the antithesis of marriage also has a ritual – the year of patience. I’m not sure if this can be counted as a ritual but it is a specific time where both parties, along with the community and the LSA strive to overcome the challenge and return to each other.

A bit more obscure ritual would be the instruction by Baha’u’llah in one Tablet to recite a verse 40 times with the rythmic flow of waves coming in and going out at Akka’s shore. A person who does this, He said, would be cleansed of all transgressionsand forgiven by God. I suppose it can’t hurt to try it out.

Another set of rituals has to do with death. There is a burial ring (with the inscription: “I came forth from God, and return unto Him, detached from all save Him, holding fast to His Name, the Merciful, the Compassionate”) which is to be placed on a finger (no particular one is specified) for those who were 15 years of age or older. Also, the body can not be transported more than one hour’s journey from the last location (mode of transport is not specified). The body must be buried – not cremated and it should be prepared for burial and wrapped in a shroud of silk or cotton, and be buried in either a stone, hard-wood or crystal coffin. As well the obligatory prayer for the dead is to be recited in congregation (the only prayer recited in this way in the Faith) for those who were 15 years of age or older. This does not mean that everyone in attendance repeats it (a common mistake). Another common mistake is to face the Qibblih during its recitation (this is not specified). But, according to Baha’i law, the dead should be buried facing the Qiblih.

Now, are some of these simply laws or rituals? I guess that is open to debate as it could be argued that the implementation of them borders on ritual. And so I continue:

Pilgrimage – as opposed to visitation to Bahji – also has its specific rites. For example, Baha’is do not have to shave their heads (phwee!) unlike Muslims but they do have to circumambulate, among other things (if you want more specifics regarding pilgrimage, I suggest you get a copy of the Surriyih Hajj). Unfortunately, Baha’is have been unable to go to pilgrimage as the two Holy sites are in Iraq and Iran (the house of Baha’u’llah in Baghdad and the house of the Bab in Shiraz, respectively). But they have been able to do perform another ritual related to pilgrimage; donating the expenses of the trip to the Fund rather than actually going in person.

I suppose the first ritual a Baha’i will engage in is signing a declaration card. This is an administrative act which was put in place by Shoghi Effendi and is not necessary really. But still, it is the first ritual that most Baha’is will – unwittingly – practice.

Another fascinating ritual which mainly Persian Baha’is (and maybe other with an ethnic origin in the Middle Eastern) engage in, is that related to tabarok (singular) or tabarokat (pl.). With thanks to SM, it means: that which gives blessings. This is an ancient, cultural ritual where a special person will touch or handle an object or gift, thereby endowing it with a special spiritual essence. For the Baha’is the object is no longer ordinary because it has been touched, blessed, if you will, or just because it was in the presence of the Bab or Baha’u’llah. It takes on a role similar to a relic (akin to the bones of Saints in Christianity).

Both the Bab and Baha’u’llah engaged in this ritual. The Bab, for example, gave a package of sugar and tea for a messenger to take to Mulla Husayn. As well, Baha’u’llah would often receive pilgrims and distribute to them small gifts (often mundane things such as a hankerchief, rock sugar, tea, etc.) . Sometimes these were brought by the pilgrims themselves (to be taken back with them as ‘blessed’ items) and other times they were truly gifts from His hands. These items are cherished and passed down from generation to generation. And because they are believed to hold sacred and powerful energies, they were used sparingly, in case of serious illness or injury, for example. Still to this day, many Baha’i families have in their possession many such tabarok items which they consider their most valuable possessions.

Shoghi Effendi extended this practice by giving, to a very few, special Baha’is, hairs and other such personal relics of Baha’u’llah. After Shoghi Effendi, this practice was continued in a different manner. Every few days, the roses that are grown in the many gardens of the Baha’i World Center are picked and their petals are carefully placed on the sacred threshold of the Shrine of the Bab and at Bahji.

To give those who have not gone there an idea, I’m talking about a ledge close the ground where a white embroidered cloth is placed. This also marks the closest that anyone can go to the actual burial sites. Baha’is often put their hands or heads on this ledge when praying at the Shrines. The rose petals are removed from this special place and dried. And when it is time for Baha’is to depart Israel, a handful of the petals are placed in envelopes and they are distributed to each individual; one envelope for Bahji and one for the Shrine of the Bab.

As an extension, Baha’is also prize anything that comes from the vicinity of the Shrines. For example, there is a very young citrus tree in the courtyard of the Shrine of Bahji. Since it can not be allowed to grow to full maturity, it is replaced every 3-4 years when its root system gets too big. When it is removed, any fruits (usually small oranges – like fruits from a rather large bonsai) are distributed to any lucky Baha’is who are there visiting at the time. Again, these fruits are considered tabarok, because they have been so close to the Qibblih.

As well, Baha’is extended similar rituals after the passing of Baha’u’llah when they would often go to the baths that he frequented and gathering up the water or dust that had been left behind. This was not restricted to the Prophets, either but those considered saints were given this treatment as well. For example, the gravesite of Ibn-Abhar was a popular destination for those seeking a tabarok (a handful of the earth from the top of his gravesite). This was believed to contain curative powers. Interestingly, both Baha’is and Muslims used his gravesite for this purpose, lending support to the argument that it was a ritual borne out of cultural roots, as opposed to scriptural ones.

As well there are rituals that do not originate from the Writings or the actions of the Central Figures of the Faith. They are looksely self-imposed or learned repetitive behaviours. I include them tongue in cheek, so don’t take it too seriously.

The greeting, Allah’u’Abha (sometimes used as goodbye also) is like a Baha’i “secret handshake”. I’m not sure when it was started or how (whether it began with the believers emulating Baha’u’llah or Abdu’l-Baha). As well, it can be argued the painstakingly overstatment that what you are about to say regarding the Writings is but only your personal, humble, opinion (not to be construed as an attempt to imply an official and authoritative interpretation) is a Baha’i ritual. Actually, Baha’is are totally free to interpret the Writings personally as much as they wish. What they are prohibited from doing is imposing this personal interpretation or understanding on others as authoritative. And finally, there is a deeply imbedded ritual which Baha’is partake in every year (and sometimes every 5 years) which involves voting for the same people over and over and over again to fill administrative positions within the institutions.

If you are really interested in rituals, I recommend you to Dennis MacEoin’s book: Rituals in Babism and Baha’ism.

Leaving rituals behind (tongue firmly planted in cheek), I also wanted to point out that the classification of the Writings is a fascinating topic (mostly for librarians). Here is another approach from the one discussed in the newsletter which I thought you might find interesting.

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

On to the 70′s class (replete, I’m sure, with huge over-sized collars, bell-bottom pants, and dangerously flammable polyester prints) . . .


December 21, 1976

Dear Baha’i Friends:The Study Group got together again at Mehrdad Amanat’s apartment on Sunday, December 20th, for another stimulating session. Eleven people were present. Unfortunately, Mehrdad himself had been called out of town unexpectadly and could not be there himself. However, he left us the key to his place and things went well.

[Ed. phone number corrections for Greg and Pamela Wahlstrom and Anthony Lee]

(Added to our mailing lest are:

Steven and Bonnie Barnes
[Ed. personal address] )

(By the way, there was some talk about cutting down the mailing list, so if you want to continue receiving these letters and you have never come to one of the classes, you had better let someone know.)

After the group came to order, the first matter taken up was a short presentation by Anthony Lee on “Categories of Baha’i Scripture”. It is well known that the various statements attributed to the Central Figures of the Faith and the Guardian and the House of Justice have different authenticities, ranks and different binding effect. Most people know, for instance, that Pilgrim’s Notes have not binding effect. Mr. Lee attempted a tentative classification of all Baha’i “scripture” (which it might be added, raised as many questions as it answered, maybe more).

The classification was given in outline form:

I. The Holy Text of the Manifestation of God (this is separate and distinct from all other Baha’i scripture in that it represents direct Revelation from God. It is also unique as the Creative Word, that is, the words of the Manifestation create a new reality simply by virtue of their utterance. The words of the other figures of the Faith do not have this quality.)

A. The Writings of Baha’u’llah
1. Books and Tablets of universal import (according to Baha’u’llah these can be divided into nine categories. One Baha’i scholar has proposed the following scheme (Cf. The Revelation of Baha’u’llah, Vol. 1. p.43):

a. Tablets with a tone of command and authority (Revealed in the style of the Quran?)
b. Those with a tone of meekness and supplication (prayers?)
c. Interpretations of old Scriptures and beliefs and doctrines
d. Laws and ordinances
e. Mystical Writings
f. Tablets regarding matters of government and world order, including those to the kings and rulers
g. Tablets concerned with scientific and philosophical matters, eg. medicine, alchemy, etc.
h. Exhortations to education and divine virtues
i. Tablets regarding social teachings

2. Particular tablets and exhortations to individuals which have no binding effect on mankind as a while. (There was some question of the validity of such a category.)

B. The Writings of the Bab (which rank below those of “Him Whom God shall Manifest” according to the testimony of the Bab, Himself.) Apparently, the Bab ranked His Own Writings as follows (Cf. Johson, Ph.D. Dissertation, p.152; Bayan (Nicholas Transl.) III, 17; Browne, Traveller’s Narrative, p.344-5):
1. Verses (similar to 1.a. above)
2. Prayers (similar to 1.b. above)
3. Commentaries (similar to 1.c. above)
4. Scientific treatises (similar to 1.g. above)
5. Writings in Persian (as opposed to Arabic)

II. The Writings of Abdu’l-Baha (Explanations, elucidation, and interpretation of the Holy Text)

A. Tablets and books of Abdu’l-Baha which bear his seal and signature (these are binding on all believers) (No distinction was made here between Tablets written before the Ascension of Baha’u’llah, and those written after, though such a distinction may be possible.)
B. Records of public talks and other statements of Abdu’l-Baha which did not get His written approval (no binding effect)
C. Statements and Writings of Abdu’l-Baha not related to the Faith (there was some question regarding whether or not these are regarded to be infallible. The question was not settled.)

III. The works of the Guardian

A. Interpretation and application of the text (which must be accepted as infallible)
B. Statements regarding the protection of the Faith (also infallible) (Cf. UHJ letter to Richard Grieser 7/25/74)
C. Letters to individuals (which may not have general application)
D. Writings and statements on non-Baha’i topics (which are subject to error)

IV. Letters and statements of the Universal House of Justice (all of which may be infallible. Mr. Lee did not attempt any classification of this category.)

V. Pilgrim’s Notes

These are of interest, but have no binding effect. There are no grounds for suppressing them, however.

VI. Stories and sayings regarding the Central Figures of the Faith and the Guardian which can not be traced to a single source. (Again, these may be of interest and should not be suppressed, but have not binding effect.)

The above presentation sparked quite a bit of discussion on various topics. The group focused briefly on the whole question of infallibility. It was agreed that no one could provide an adequate definition of the term. Clearly, infallibility does not imply omniscience since the Manifestation of God did not know everything — and neither does the House of Justice. Someone present noted that some Baha’is have gone as far as to suggest that infallibility should be regarded as a duty which rests on the believers, rather than an intrinsic quality of the Center of the Faith. Many were uncomfortable with this idea.

This led to a brief discussion of the nature of the Manifestation of God. Some Baha’is (notably Saeid Khadivian) have maintained that the Manifestation, from the moment of His conception is fully conscious of both past and future and stands beyond human limitation of any kind. He displays apparent human emotion and feeling as a mercy to mankind, but is really beyond human feelings. Such passages which display apparent anger, sorrow, dissapointment and the like are interpreted as only written for the benefit of man, but not genuine. Especially Baha’u’llah’s experience in the Siyah-Chal is regarded as only outward display. Thought the discussion was not pursued, most members of the class agreed that such a view is unacceptable since it reduces most of Baha’u’llah’s life to a meaningless charade.

Next, the class turned to Susan Berkman who had prepared a paper on “Myth and Ritual in the Baha’i Faith”. Her reading was puncuated by several mini-discussions throughout the rest of the afternoon. Not everything can be reported here, but I hope to atleast do justice to the main points of argument.

Ms. Berkman began by pointing out that there is no agreement in the academic world on an adequate definition of the term “myth”. Some scholars have emphasized the explanatory functions of myth as a primitive science , while others have tended to see myth as a canon of cultural symbols which order social life. The whole study of mythology is intertwined with theories of lost civilization, primordial culture, Freudian interpretations and nineteenth century religious arguments. Much of it (the academic work) is just nonsense.

Ms. Berkman never settled on a full definition of myth herlsef but leaned toward the idea of myth as a symbolic statement. She was especially interested in the theories of [Ed. empty white space in text] Wallace. He maintains that myth and ritual are always closely associated and even reciprocal. These are intended to serve five different functions: 1) to control events; 2) to heal sickness or create disease; 3) to organize one’s life; 4) to remit psychopathology; 5) to revitalize society.

The Academic study of myth has been limited to ancient (and so called) primitive society. Hence, even the term myth connotes falsehood. No scholar has ever denied that myth exists in our own society, but no one has yet made a serious study of it. Therefore, it is hard to know how to apply the concept of myth to contemporary beliefs.

But, Ms. Berkman maintained, there is both myth and ritual in the Baha’i Faith. She especially pointed to the Kitab-i-Iqan, which she proposed, may be seen as Baha’ullah’s Own dissertation on myth and symbolism and its role in social and personal life. In the Iqan, Baha’u’llah indicates that the Manifestation of God deliberately speak in symbolic language, both to awaken mankind and to serve as a test of the pure in heart. Myth, therefore, has the function of providing symbols which embody deep spiritual truths and also having an outward physical meaning. The myth serves both as a key to spiritual reality (which cannot finally be expressed in words) and a test of those who are able to appreciate the myth on this spiritual level.

Ms. Berkman speculated that all mythology must find its ultimate source in the words of a Manifestation of God. The Prophets use symbolic language to explain abstract concepts and “unseen realities”. (Some Answered Questions pp.94-98) These symbols are often understood by the people in a literal sense. This literal interpretation is then elaborated, embellished and codified by clergymen and scholars. This codified, de-spiritualized symbolism becomes mythology.

Ms. Berkman pointed out that Baha’u’llah often uses highly symbolic language which has some of the characteristics of myth eg. The Seven Valleys and the Tablet of the Holy Mariner . Baha’is must resist the temptation to crystalize and codify these symbols as have been done in the past. To some extent this is already happening. For instance, the historical details of the Martyrdom of the Bab are in considerable doubt. There are atleast three different versions of the event, of which Nabil’s account is only one. None of these versions is given by an eyewitness to the Martyrdom itself. Therefore, historically, the details of the execution are open to question. All sources agree that the first volley missed the Bab, but what happened next, (and just before) is an historical question which has not yet been fully resolved. Nonetheless, a clear Baha’i mythology has grown up to fill in the gaps.

Ms. Berkman briefly touched on the question of ritual in the Baha’i Faith. There are undeniable rituals in the Baha’i Faith, the most important one being prayer. But there is also fasting, feast, etc. These rituals, especially prayer, fulfill all of Wallace’s five categories. (see above) Ms. Berkman preferred a broad definition of ritual as any repeated behaviour with sacred significance. But, even in the narrow sense of a ceremony which must be performed in a prescribed way, the Baha’i Faith has rituals in it. (Anyone who has doubts about this is invited to look over the section of the Synopsis and Codification of the Aqdas on prayer.) Ms. Berkman also quoted from a letter of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of Columbia in which the House corrects the notion that there is no ritual in the Faith. They explain that the Faith has no elaborate, man-made ceremonies which must be attended by a clergyman as does other religions, but there are Baha’i rituals.

At this point, our time ran out.

The next meeting of the class will be held on Sunday, January 2nd at 3 pm at the home of Anthony Lee [Ed. home address, directions and phone number follows]

Robert Ballenger kindly volunteered to give a report on an article which appeared in the Folklore Research Center Studies (Journal) in 1973 entitled “The Baha’is of Acre”. It is a sociological study of the remnant of covenant-breakers left in the Holy Land. Quite interesting. And Greg Wahlstrom agreed to make a presentation next time on “The Calamity” in Baha’i Scriptures (hotsy, totsy!). So everyone, please come and be prepared to stay as late as possible.

With apologies for bad typing . . . . .

Anthony A. Lee


The original scanned documents can be found here.