Posts Tagged idols

My Life as a Fanatic

Posted on Wednesday, September 19th, 2012 at 9:50 am

When I was a young man, I turned toward the Qiblah and prayed to Allah. I fasted for a month every year, and I refused all alcoholic beverages. I exchanged Arabic greetings with my fellow believers. Of course I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where I lived for a year and studied Arabic so that I could better understand the words of Allah. You might have found me carrying around a copy of the Holy Qur’án—just in case I might have some free reading time. And, yes: I was a virgin, though perhaps not entirely by choice.

If you had asked me back then whether I was a Muslim, I would have denied it, for I was a member of a Shi’ite splinter group that refuses to be identified as Muslims. It’s a long story—let’s just say that it’s hazardous to be called a heretic in Iran. But when I look back at my youth I say, “what a Muslim!”

I was a bit of a fundamentalist. No, I wasn’t outraged by the sight of a woman’s face or anything like that, though I was a bit of a stickler about modesty. Idolatry was my hang-up. I was something of a fanatic about it. I stood firm against the worship of men, and my stomach turned whenever one of my fellow believers presumed to be able to measure the goodness of any person. The soul was a sacred trust to me, and I thought it blasphemy to claim to be able to probe it. Did these people think that they knew the mind of God? These idolators saw their religious heroes as partners of God, whether they admitted it or not. And as for their enemies, …

Yes, I was a bit of a fanatic. I was such a radical iconoclast that I couldn’t help but see idolatry more and more in my religious community, right up to the day that I determined that my religion itself was a kind of idolatry. What a crazy Muslim I was.

I suppose I still am.

Unitarian Baha’is?

Posted on Thursday, July 15th, 2010 at 10:43 am

Who are these “Unitarian Bahá’í” we’ve been hearing about?

If a theological unitarianism is meant, why use the term “Unitarian Bahá’í” at all? Have you ever met an avowed trinitarian Bahá’í?

bp is for Blessed Perfection

The mystical 18-pointed star ("bp" is for "Blessed Perfection")

If we are to take the term seriously, we ought to seek to understand its meaning in context. The term has come to be associated with the Behaists, an early 20th Century Bahá’í splinter group whose distinguishing doctrine was a rejection of the divinity, i.e. infallibility, of `Abdu’l-Bahá’, the leader of the Bahá’í religion at the time. The point, then, of using the term “unitarian” in this context, is to indicate a rejection of the divinity (infallibility) of any man. This makes sense, for the deification of any man is tantamount to polytheism.

The problem I’ve always had with the Behaists calling themselves Unitarians is that they never had a problem deifying Bahá’u’lláh himself.

Frankly, I happen to believe that most Bahá’ís are trinitarians, because their theology of Manifestation owes much to Christian theology. This is also true of those who call themselves “Unitarian Bahá’ís.”

The home page for the Unitarian Baha’i discussion group states:

The Unitarian Bahai faith is a movement of Bahaism that teaches that none of the successors of the prophet Baha’u’llah are infallible …

A true unitarian would not deify any man. A unitarian Bahá’í would be a Bahá’í who lives as a Bahá’í without any belief in the infallibility of Bahá’u’lláh.

I personally believe that a Bahá’í can be a unitarian. It’s not as if I don’t know of any true unitarians among the Bahá’ís, but I hesitate to single them out for fear of what might be done to them.

Looks Aren’t Everything

Posted on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010 at 2:37 pm
Bahá'u'lláh in Edirne

Bahá'u'lláh in Edirne, Turkey

As a young Bahá’í on pilgrimage, I remember not being delighted by the photograph of Bahá’u’lláh that only pilgrims and janitors are permitted to see. Having grown up with charming images of `Abdu’l-Bahá, my expectations were high, and unfair to Bahá’u’lláh.

Portraits of `Abdu’l-Bahá are as common in Bahá’í households as crosses are in churches. “place the picture of `Abdu’l-Bahá in your home,” Bahá’ís are told (Lights of Guidance, page 520). They are instructed to post these portaits up high in prominent locations. This is done out of what they call “respect.” In spite of this idolatrous practice, Bahá’ís consider themselves special for not displaying portraits of Bahá’u’lláh.

I don’t intend to criticize Bahá’u’lláh for his lack of physical charm, but when I hear Bahá’ís wonder at the attractiveness of `Abdu’l-Bahá, I am moved to ask, “why do you place significance on such matters?”

Abbas Abbas Everywhere

Abbas Abbas Everywhere!

I can’t help but be skeptical regarding the motives behind the Bahá’í prohibition against portraits of Prophets. Given the Bahá’í affection for graven images, I’m inclined to wonder whether the prohibition would have ever been laid down had Bahá’u’lláh been better looking.

Bahá’ís are told not to keep photos of their Prophets because such photos could too easily become idols; believers would focus on the appearance of their prophet, and be distracted from his message. Yet, the anticipation of Bahá’ís to view the one Holy Image in the International Archives Building in Israel is only heightened by that prohibition of graven images, and Bahá’ís shudder at the prospect of seeing the image of Bahá where they ought not, as though the image itself has some kind of ominous power!

Imagine

Posted on Tuesday, February 2nd, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Imagine what the Bahá’í Faith might become if its idols were stripped away. What if the burden of divine authority were cleansed from every portrait, every image, every institution, and every holy word?

Imagine there’s no Cov’nant. It isn’t hard to do.

What if the Bahá’í religion were not a cult of divine images (“manifestations”), but rather a fellowship of principles (or virtues)? What if Bahá’u’lláh had said, “never mind about me and my station; let’s get down to the business of world reform.”

I know. It’s a stretch.

Imagine by Rachel Boden

Imagine, by Rachel Boden

If Bahá’ís were to forfeit their sense of divine entitlement, would they lose their famous, unquenchable sense of purpose?

Sorry. I couldn’t resist. I’ll try to keep it serious.

They’d have to give up some very comforting expectations, it’s true. I’m not saying it would be easy.

There’s a word for a religion of principles: unitarianism. Christian unitarians practice “the religion of Jesus, not a religion about Jesus.” What if Bahá’ís could say the same about their religion? What would their religion look like?

Progressive Religion

A central, defining principle of the Bahá’í Faith is “progressive revelation.” According to Shoghi Effendi, it is the most fundamental Bahá’í principle, but alas, it is not completely compatible with unitarian thought, because revelation is a concept that depends on singling out one man or book as standing for God. That’s idolatry, so it will have to go, but we can reform the idea of “progressive revelation.” Rather than thinking of religion as leading mankind according to mankind’s needs, let us rather think of religion as evolving organically in response to mankind’s needs.

Independent Investigation of Truth

This is the most unitarian of Bahá’í principles. Named the first principle of Bahá’u’lláh by `Abdu’l-Bahá’ in Paris Talks, independent investigation of truth is often cited as a fundamental principle of the Bahá’í religion, but it has been undermined by qualifications and exceptions in the interests of idolatry since the earliest days of the Bahá’í religion.

God: To Unity and Beyond

Unity is a problematic notion, because it tends to imply uniformity and common fealty to a single book, person, or idea.

“Absolute Unity excludeth all attributes.”

—Saying attributed to the Imam `Alí, cited by Bahá’u’lláh in The Seven Valleys

Care must be taken when speaking of “Unity of God.” Unity, in this case, must be taken to mean inaccessibility and unknowability. Nothing whatever should be permitted to represent God. The very term “Manifestation” must be stricken from the lexicon. God must be seen as utterly unknowable. To suggest that a particular image, such as a holy book, is more holy than anything else is idolatry.

Ultimately, we must get beyond the term “unity,” for unity itself imposes an image of God that is presumptuous. How can we know that divinity is not fundamentally dualistic? We cannot. We can think of God being characterized by unity in some trivial, truistic way, but to declare the unity of God from pulpits and mountaintops is utter pretense and presumptuousness.

Religious Harmony

“Unity of religion” presents a big problem. It tends to encourage triumphalism, and it threatens cultural diversity. What must be aimed for is not unity, but rather harmony and tolerance.

Human Harmony

I don’t have a problem with the idea that we ought to think of all people as having a great deal in common, and I certainly like the idea of equal treatment under the law, but unity is a dangerous word. Just as it can be abused by religion, it can be abused by the state. Let’s stick with “harmony,” just to be safe. “Harmony” is for unitarians. “Unity” is for idolators.

Equality

Curiously, `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Eleven Principles mention “equality” more times than “unity.” Here are the three equalities that he emphasizes explicitly, plus a fourth principle that implies equality quite strongly:

  • Abolition of Prejudices.
  • Equalization of Means of Existence.
  • Equality of Men before the Law.
  • Equality of Sex—Education of Women.

I find it hard to argue of any of these points. They may not be unitarian ideas per se, but they certainly do not conflict with the unitarian principle.

Peace and Non-interference

Here are three more of the principles that don’t conflict with the unitarian principle:

  • Religion ought to be the Cause of Love and Affection.
  • Universal Peace.
  • Non-Interference of Religion with Politics.

Idolatry

I find only two of `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Eleven Principles to be idolatrous:

The first might not seem so bad at first, but it implies that religion and science are one and the same–that “true religion,” because it is infallible, will always confirm science. The implication being that if science fails to comply with “true religion” then science must adapt. I would sooner keep religion and science at arms length, lest the one strangle the other.

As for the Holy Spirit, I don’t have a problem with admitting the existence of unseen, intangible powers, but what `Abdu’l-Bahá’ asserts with respect to this “Spirit” is pure, unmitigated idolatry.

Conclusion

`Abdu’l-Bahá’s idolatry, superstition, traditionalism, and orthodoxy aside, I think that a unitarian theme can be identified in his message. I believe therefore that it would not be unreasonable for a Bahá’í to adopt a unitarian view of the Bahá’í Faith. I also believe that a fundamentalist view would be equally justifiable. No view of the Baha’i Faith can be free of contradiction. The unitarian approach, however, enjoys a particular advantage: it accepts contradiction as an attribute of all human endeavors and moves forward. The fundamentalist clings to the purity of idols until the strain reaches a point of fracture.

Our Daily Bread: Idolatry Ad Nauseam

Posted on Saturday, January 30th, 2010 at 4:11 am

I just stumbled across yet another grand example of idolatry in the Bahá’í religion. Bahá’u’lláh is here identified by his great-grandson as, among other names, the “Lord of Lords,” the “Self-Subsistent,” and the “Day-Star of the Universe.”

Read it and cringe …

He was formally designated Bahá’u’lláh, an appellation specifically recorded in the Persian Bayán, signifying at once the glory, the light and the splendor of God, and was styled the “Lord of Lords,” the “Most Great Name,” the “Ancient Beauty,” the “Pen of the Most High,” the “Hidden Name,” the “Preserved Treasure,” “He Whom God will make manifest,” the “Most Great Light,” the “All-Highest Horizon,” the “Most Great Ocean,” the “Supreme Heaven,” the “Pre-Existent Root,” the “Self-Subsistent,” the “Day-Star of the Universe,” the “Great Announcement,” the “Speaker on Sinai,” the “Sifter of Men,” the “Wronged One of the World,” the “Desire of the Nations,” the “Lord of the Covenant,” the “Tree beyond which there is no passing.”

—Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By

Why Do You Reject Your Lord?

Posted on Monday, September 28th, 2009 at 12:58 pm

One of the songs I remember best from my Bahá’í youth I may have heard only once or twice, and that, only in part:

World, world, world, world, why do you reject your Lord?
When will you receive your Savior, Bahá’u’lláh?

The couplet echoed in my head until it was as though I’d heard it a hundred times.

I think I remember it being sung in a three-part harmony, with the slow, plodding tempo of a funeral march. I thought it was quite beautiful then, but over the years it began to seem haunted with the dark, lonesome misery of a cult chant. The idolatry in it is almost palpable.

Here’s the complete lyric, according to an obscure Internet source that I don’t see any point in citing:

World, world, world, world, why do you reject your Lord?
When will you receive your Savior, Bahá’u’lláh?
Peace, peace, peace, peace, this is what we’re waiting for.
Love shall conquer all the hatred, Bahá’u’lláh.
Joy, joy, joy, joy, inside of every man,
If only he would discover Bahá’u’lláh.
World, world, world, world, everything has been fulfilled.
For the Prince of Peace has come – Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’u’lláh.

If Only …

Posted on Monday, September 14th, 2009 at 4:39 pm

My religion of birth, the Bahá’í Faith, is often described to non-Bahá’ís with a list of a dozen principles, though there are fundamental aspects of the Bahá’í Faith that are not revealed in those principles. Here, I would like to propose a similar list of principles that, were they to fully define Bahá’í belief, I would still be a Bahá’í today.

  1. Strict Unitarianism. God is one, thus God cannot be associated with any name, attribute, or individual over any other. No man speaks for God to the exclusion of others; rather, all things speak equally for God. This principle precludes any belief in divine messengers and prohibits any covenants thereto. Any vow of allegiance to any man or institution is naught but idolatry.
  2. Independent Investigation of Truth. In accordance with the Unity of God, no one path can be exalted to the exclusion of any other. This is not an endorsement of apathy; to the contrary, it is a mandate to actively seek truth with one’s own eyes.
  3. Religion is multifarious. In accordance with the Unity of God, there can be no One True Religion. Religions should not be forcibly unified, though interfaith harmony and tolerance are worthy goals.
  4. Mankind is one species, but people are not uniform. People are entitled to have different values and talents.
  5. Though people are not the same, people should be treated equally when their differences are irrelevant, whether in terms of race, gender, height, weight, elderliness, or sexual orientation. Any preference based on any of these criteria with respect to religious office or ceremony is antithetical to this principle.
  6. Harmony of science and religion. The cultural merit of religious myths and practices should not be invalidated by their lack of conformity with science. In turn, knowledge obtained by means of a rigorous scientific process must not be contested by religion. Religion must defer to science in all matters within the domain of science. To anticipate the eventual vindication of religious beliefs by future advances in science is a violation of this principle.
  7. Mitigation of suffering by means of the elimination of extreme poverty, malnutrition, illness, violence, and illiteracy.

This Message Will Self-Destruct

Posted on Thursday, February 12th, 2009 at 4:17 pm

This is a continuation of the What’s Wrong With Islám thread. I’m not satisfied with where I left it.

I have more than once voiced the opinion that Islám can only move forward by disposing of its idols. This, I believe, can be done by Muslims without forfeiting their religious heritage. They must simply recognize that no aspect of Islám is unchangeable, perfect, immaculate, or infallible. This recognition can be achieved within the context of Islamic belief: one need only recognize passages in the Qur’án that assert that:

  • No one fully understands the Qur’án but God.
  • The face of God is in everything.
  • Muhammad was only a man, with flaws like any other.

If that’s not enough, there’s the generally agreed-upon point that the Qur’án cannot be understood fully without reference to less immaculate source materials such as Hadith and histories.

Based upon this, Islám can be permitted to adapt and grow, and not merely continue as a contest between moderates and fundamentalists. If Islám could be inspired by the idea that no man has a monopoly on truth while retaining its heritage of faith, it could be permitted to rise above its heritage of violence and persecution.

The problem I see with this vision is that, when I read the Qur’án, I see frequent reminders of what made Islám so idolatrous. The Qur’án is saturated with judgmental statements that draw a vast gap between believers and unbelievers. Unbelievers will burn in Hell eternally, and it’s nobody’s fault but their own. This may not mean that Muslims are permitted to mistreat infidels, but it does establish a broad moral distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is not so easy to simply see Islám as iconoclasm, because Islám is all about submission to a specific idol. Its iconoclasm is not fundamental; it is derivative. Muslims, taken as a group, never smashed idols for the sake of some lofty unitarian ideal; rather, they smashed idols for the benefit of their own idols (Alláh, Muhammad, the Qurán, etc.).

We might be able to imagine an Islám that transcends its own idolatrous legacy, but I fear that Islám would need to do more than admit the fallibility of the Qur’án; it would need to renounce the tribalistic, sectarian, violent, judgmental, and idolatrous aspects of the Qur’án. Given this, would I be right to encourage Muslims to follow such a path, when it would be more honest of me to encourage them to simply abandon the superstitions of the past and think for themselves?

I would like to see a day when the ultimate expression of Islamic conviction would be the ritual burning of a single Qur’án. That wouldn’t prevent religious violence or gender discrimination, but it might send a clear message that Islám might just be capable of being self-critical. It would be a start—but I don’t see even that happening. Maybe some minority group of Muslims might come to the fore and give us hope by committing such a criminally noble act. They would be doing so at their own peril, of course.

What's Wrong With Islam

Posted on Monday, January 12th, 2009 at 5:18 pm

What’s wrong with Islám? Is it the ease with which the doctrines of jihad and martyrdom can turn bloody? Is it discrimination against women and homosexuals? Is it the theocratic legacy? These are all serious issues, but I see them as symptoms of a disease called idolatry. The symptoms are not unique to Islám, nor is the disease, but let’s discuss Islám.

Here are the physiological components of the disease, as it has adapted itself to Islám:

  1. Arrogance. Islam’s fundamental assertion is that a Muslim is one who has identified the Lord of Creation. It just doesn’t get any more arrogant than that.
  2. Idolatry. Islam is primarily based upon a book, regarded to be infallible and wholly divine—even uncreated—that declares specific delineations between truth and untruth, and associates virtue with specific practices.
  3. Cult of personality.
    1. Muslims generally regard their prophet as perfect, and even those who claim to think he was a mere man seem to think that he could do no wrong. Hence Muslims have created a form of scripture from a vast collection of biographical accounts of their “perfect man.”
    2. Most Muslims regard the first four successors of Muhammad to be “rightly guided.” Shi’a Muslims idolize 14 early Muslims in all as infallible beings. All of these infallible and rightly guided founders of Islam provide a vast body of biographical material by which pious Muslims guide their lives.

But there is hope.

  1. If Muslims resist the urge to exalt their God-image over those of others, and abstain from any assertion or implication that they know God best, then they are true monotheists. It seems to me that if any religion can transcend its own idols, Islám ought to be the first. Isn’t Islám all about abandoning idols? Doesn’t this make Islám intrinsically pluralist?
  2. The history of Islám attests to the fact that the Qur’án—as it exists today—is not immaculate. The Qur’án was collected and canonized during the third Caliphate. Some manuscripts were favored, and the rest were destroyed. This only regards the consonants. The vowel markings were not added till even later.
  3. The Qur’án itself asserts that only God can fully understand the Qur’án, and also asserts that the face of God can be seen in every direction. Why then be so self-assured about the will and identity of God?
  4. The Qur’án itself attests to the fallibility of the prophet Muhammad. His every act need not be an example for Muslims. The same goes for his rightly-guided and infallible successors.

Our Daily Bread: Quid Pro Quo

Posted on Wednesday, January 7th, 2009 at 12:04 am

Hey, a little quid pro quo never hurt nobody. You scratch my back—I’ll scratch yours!

One of the most reliable ways for a Bahá’í to “grow spiritually” is by proselytizing. Bahá’ís call it “teaching.” I remember wondering as a child: what will Bahá’ís do when everyone is a Bahá’í, and there’s nobody left to teach?

O SON OF MAN! Magnify My cause that I may reveal unto thee the mysteries of My greatness and shine upon thee with the light of eternity.

—Bahá’u’lláh, The Arabic Hidden Words

O SON OF BEING! Make mention of Me on My earth, that in My heaven I may remember thee, thus shall Mine eyes and thine be solaced.

—Bahá’u’lláh, The Arabic Hidden Words

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