Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Words of Grace

Posted by Sen on September 1, 2009

Aztec_feast_2One of the Bahais asked what wording is meant by the following verse in Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of Medicine (Lawh-e Tibb):

و اذا شرعت فی الأکل فَابْتَدِئْ باسمی الأبهی
ثمّ اختم باسم ربّک مالک العرش و الثّری

When you would commence eating, begin by mentioning My Most Glorious Name (al-abha) and finish it with the Name of Thy Lord, the Possessor of the Throne above and of the earth below. (Translation by Stephen Lambden)

The Bahai writings contain few commands, and many counsels and admonitions, and it is not always clear what is a command. In this case, the entire Tablet of Medicine is couched as advice. While Abdu’l-Baha followed the practice of saying grace at table, we do not know whether this was because he understood Baha’u’llah to be directly instructing his followers to mention God before eating. Someone once said that good manners are about making the other fellow feel comfortable. Perhaps Abdu’l-Baha was simply following Middle Eastern ‘good manners’ when in Palestine, and western manners when he was traveling in the West. Saying grace at table is in any case not a part of Bahai practice that Shoghi Effendi or the Universal House of Justice have emphasized, so it is presumably a commendable rather than required practice, unless the Universal House of Justice at some time says otherwise.

Blowing_on_maizeBut what exactly is it that one is supposed to say before and after a meal?
The Arabic text above allows four readings:

1 – either one begins and ends by saying bismillah, or you say this in your own language, such as “in the name of God”, or

Fogaca_small2 – begin and end by saying bismalabha (or ‘in the name of the All-Glorious’), or

Fogaca_small3 – begin with bismalabha and end with bism al malik al `arsh wa-as-sara (begin with ‘in the name of the Glorious’ and end with ‘in the name of God, Lord of the throne on high and the earth below’).

Fogaca_small4 – begin and end by mentioning God, for example in a prayer.

Of these, I think the first is most likely to have been what Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha would have expected people to do, because this was normal in the Middle East and was the practice at Abdu’l-Baha’s table. Thornton Chase (In Galilee, 21 (Kalimat Press) describes a lunch:

…food was first offered him, but he refused until all were served when he took some also. Then looking around the table and noting that none were eating, he said: “Bismillah!” (In the Name of God), signifying that we should eat.

Bismillah was also the formula that Baha’u’llah used in the same sense – the head of the table or the person in charge pronounces the words, and everyone feels free to begin. (Samandari, Moments, 4 (Kalimat Press)

103px-Aztec_feast_4While “Bismillah” is, contextually, the most likely intention, I think it is also important to say that if the text of the Tablet of Medicine allows four different readings and practices, then we are free to adopt any one of the four. The ambiguity of the text effectively allows the believer a freedom of choice, and philological or historical considerations about what Baha’u’llah ‘really’ intended — however valid as scholarship — cannot limit your freedom to practise the Faith as you wish. Naturally if other scriptural texts or interpretations from the Guardian are found, or other information about Abdu’l-Baha’s practice emerges, that should be taken into account.

One has to consider not only what meanings the text can bear and, if you choose, what is historically most likely to have been the intention, but also what is the best practice for your own situation. In one situation, ‘Bismillah’ might sound like a strange oriental password, in another setting the Arabic words might be easily accepted as a cultural practice, whereas saying “In the Name of God” in a language clearly understood might appear rather grandiose and formal, for two sandwiches and a cup of tea. In some settings, a grace said in your own words is expected, in other settings it is a time-honoured formula or a familiar verse of scripture. Sometimes the appropriate thing might be to say nothing, and remember God in your heart.

When Mary Lucas visited Abdu’l-Baha in January, 1905, she noted that the household did not say grace and asked why. Her observation runs against all the other evidence, and I have no explanation for it. Having spent six weeks in Egypt before her pilgrimage, she would surely have been able to recognize the Bismillah if it were spoken. Abdu’l-Baha told her, according to her published notes:

My heart is in a continual state of thanksgiving, and so often those accustomed to this form say the words with the lips merely, and their hearts are far from being in a state of thanksgiving.

Aztec_feast_5Food is more than just nutrition. Its symbolic functions have been intertwined with religious practices since the dawn of time. The resurrected Christ, for example, takes bread and gives thanks. (Luke 24:30) and the Quran says:

Eat of the good things wherewith We have provided you, and render thanks to Allah if it is (indeed) He Whom ye worship.
(Pickthall tr., 2:172 – The Cow)

Benefits and (divers) drinks have they from them. Will they not then give thanks ?
(Pickthall tr., 36:73 – Ya Sin)


Words of Grace

The fourth and broadest reading of the verse in the Tablet of Medicine is that it simply means to begin and end a meal by mentioning God in some way, whether from the Bahai Writings, in your own words, or in one of the formulas which can be read in the text of the Tablet of Medicine. Conversely, if you think that what is strictly intended is “Bismillah” or one of the other formulas, this does not prevent those words being combined with a grace said in your words, or from the Writings.

There are a number of ‘table’ prayers in the Bahai Writings. I have found some of them, and please feel free to add your own finds through the ‘comments’ section to this page. The first I found are two prayers in Tablets of ‘Abdu’l- Baha, page 167.

The first, in my translation, reads:

O my Lord and my Hope. Praise be to Thee that Thou hast sent down for us this spiritual table, this divine bounty, this heavenly blessing. O our Lord, enable us to eat of this food of the kingdom so that its subtle essences may pervade the foundations of our spiritual being and that we may attain to such heavenly strength that we may serve Thy cause, diffuse Thy signs, and adorn Thy orchard with the loftiest trees, the swaying foliage shedding sweet fragrances. Thou, verily, art the All-Giving, the Possessor of great bounty, and Thou, verily, art the Merciful, the Compassionate. [1]

The second reads:

O my Lord, my Hope!
Thanks be unto Thee for these foods and benefits. O Lord! Suffer us to ascend to Thy Kingdom and to sit at the tables of thy divine world. Nourish us with the food of Thy meeting and cause us to attain to the sweetness of beholding Thy beauty, forasmuch as this is the utmost wish, the mightiest gift and the greatest bestowal. O Lord, O Lord! Make this feasible unto us. Verily Thou art the Beneficent, the Giver! Verily Thou art the Bestower, the Mighty, the Merciful.

mahmudsdiaryMore such prayers for mealtimes can be found in the Bahai Writings by using a search engine such as Ocean. Another source is the diary of Mahmud Zarqani, which is not scripture but a relatively reliable pilgrim’s note, recorded in Persian. He offers us these table prayers used by Abdu’l-Baha:

He is God! Thou seest us, O my God, gathered around this table, praising Thy bounty, with our gaze set upon Thy Kingdom. O Lord! Send down upon us Thy heavenly food and confer upon us Thy blessing. Thou art verily the Bestower, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
October 14 1912, 327

He is God! How can we render Thee thanks, O Lord? Thy bounties are endless and our gratitude cannot equal them. How can the finite utter praise of the Infinite? Unable are we to voice our thanks for Thy favors and in utter powerlessness we turn wholly to Thy Kingdom beseeching the increase of Thy bestowals and bounties. Thou art the Giver, the Bestower, the Almighty.
October 15 1912, 329 (one evident typo in the published version has been corrected).

O Thou kind Lord, we render thanks unto Thee that thou has brought us from the farthest lands of the East to the most distant lands of the West and gathered us at this table arrayed with the finest, most diverse, sweetest and most delicious material foods. We thank Thee especially for the presence of those who have turned toward the Kingdom of Thy favor and have fixed their eyes upon the horizon of Thy Kindness.

O Lord! These souls have turned toward Thee, they desire Thy pleasure and are grateful for Thy blessings. They walk in the ways of Thy will. O Lord! Grant them heavenly food; enable them to partake of the Lord’s supper. Exalt this nobly lady in Thy Kingdom, bestow everlasting life upon her and grant her Thine eternal favour. As Thou has given u these earthly blessings so, too, give us heavenly food. Bestow upon us Thine everlasting grace. Strengthen us to arise in praise and gratitude to Thee that we may be aided and assisted to do that which beseems Thy glorification.
Thou art the Mighty, the Generous, the Compassionate
(November 4 1912, 372-3.)

He is God! O Lord! We are assembled here in the utmost love and are turned toward Thy Kingdom. We seek none other but Thee and desire not but Thy good pleasure. O Lord! Make this food heavenly and make those assembled here of the hosts of Thy Supreme Concourse so that they may become life-giving and the cause of the enlightenment of the world of man, that they may arise to guide all the people of the world. Thou art the All-Powerful, the Almighty, the Forgiving and the Kind.
(November 9 1912, 382-3.)

Balyuzi-AbdulBahaWhile Abdu’l-Baha ways staying with Phoebe Hearst’s house in California, he was asked to say a benediction at lunch. He said:

He is God! Behold us, O Lord, gathered at this board, thankful for Thy bounty, our gaze turned to Thy Kingdom. O Lord! Send down unto us Thy heavenly food and blessing from Thee. Verily, Thou art the Generous, and verily, Thou art the Beneficent, the Merciful.

And at dinner next day:

He is God! O Lord! How shall we thank Thee! Thy bounties are limitless, and our gratitude but limited. How can the limited render thanks to the limitless? Incapable are we of offering thanks for Thy mercies. Utterly powerless, we turn unto Thy Kingdom, and beg Thee to increase Thy bestowal and bounty. Thou art the Giver, Thou art the Bestower, Thou art the Powerful.
HM Balyuzi, Abdu’l-Baha, the Centre of the Covenant 307

Two further table prayers I know of, in Arabic, are in volume 9 of the compilation Ma’idih-ye Asmani, page 74. The editor has marked them as a prayer to be said before a meal, and a prayer to be said after a meal. As I said, feel free to add your favourite table prayers through the ‘comments’ section below.

What the secretary said

There’s a letter to an individual written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi in 1947, which says,

He (the Guardian) does not feel that the friends should make a practice of saying grace or of teaching it to children. This is not part of the Bahá’í Faith, but a Christian practice, and as the Cause embraces members of all religions [2] we should be careful not to introduce into it the customs of our previous beliefs. Bahá’u’lláh has given us the obligatory prayers, also prayers before sleeping, for travellers, etc., we should not introduce a new set of prayers He has not specified, when He has given us already so many for so many occasions….

(The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, 446)

What are we to make of this? Obviously Shoghi Effendi would have known about the Tablet of Medicine, and its contents. An earlier letter written on his behalf refers to the “Tablet of Medicine that Bahá’u’lláh has revealed and which is translated into English...” (14 January 1932, The Light of Divine Guidance v II, 19). Moreover Shoghi Effendi had grown up in Abdu’l-Baha’s household, where the use of the Bismillah before eating was usual. Mahmud Zarqani records one instance (page 15) on the boat, in which Abdu’l-Baha asks the young Shoghi Effendi to chant a prayer before the party go to the dining room. Shoghi Effendi had also grown up in Palestine: he knew that saying grace before eating is not a uniquely Christian practice: he would have seen it in the Jewish and Muslim communities there. On the face of it, this letter reflects the views and knowledge of the secretary, not those of the Guardian. Common sense tells us that the words of the secretary, saying that saying grace “is not part of the Bahá’í Faith,” do not overrule the Tablet of Medicine and the practice of Abdu’l-Baha, and we can continue to teach the children the ‘words of grace’ that Abdu’l-Baha has given us, and use them ourselves. Bayeux-feast01

~~ Sen McGlinn ~~
[Edited November 2012: added Mary Lucas pilgrim’s note.]

Short link:
Add to DeliciousAdd to DiggAdd to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to MySpaceAdd to RedditAdd to StumbleUponAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Twitter


[1] This is my translation, from the text at Amr wa Khalq
The translation in Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha implies that the translator saw a Quranic citation, “the fruits low and near” (Q 69:23), where I, following the text in Amr wa Khalq, have translated ‘the swaying foliage.”

[2] There are variant readings, which do not affect the meaning. Where the version cited has “all religions,” other versions have “all races and religions.” Capitalisation and punctuation also vary.

Related content:
Regarding letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi: one, two, and three.

Anything Shoghi Effendi said is Baha’i doctrine

Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet of Emanuel

13 Responses to “Words of Grace”

  1. robert van der hope said

    Are you saying that the secretary writing on Shoghi Effendi’s behalf has lied – i.e. that the expressed opinion by Shoghi about not saying grace was an invention of his secretary ? This raises very serious concerns on various other matters. I doubt that the Master would have allowed contary rulings to his own being promulgated by a “secretary”. – Comment ? – Robert

  2. Sen said

    No, I do not think the secretary is lying: I do think it would be imbalanced to give more weight to the words of a secretary written in response to some local situation (which we do not know), than to the clear text of the scriptures and the actual practice of Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. If the letter was written in response – for example – to a summer school proposing to have children memorise a particular Christian ‘grace’, the letter might have been the right thing to say, to that person/committee, at that time. But when Shoghi Effendi had something important to say, and when he gave is authoritative interpretations of scripture, he wrote “general letters” addressed to national spiritual assemblies or to all the Bahais in the world or the bahais in the west, the Bahais in Iran, etc… He did not wish us to treat the words written by his secretaries as having the same authority as his own letters: my understanding of this is that they are authoritative, for the person to whom they addressed in the situation in question, but that they were not intended to establish general principles universally applicable.

    This deserves a fuller explanation, with reference to Gerard Keil’s excellent article on the subject in a recent German Bahai Studies magazine, but I am travelling at the moment, using a library computer with a 30-minute time limit in the lovely city of Whanganui, New Zealand. I hope to return to the topic in a few months. I think if you use the search box (top right on my blog) on the word “secretary” or “behalf” you will find some more thoughts.

    ~~ Sen

  3. robert van der hope said

    Thanks Sen, I guess you are correct. My words seem a bit harsh when I read them, but we must be wary of interpretations that are not appropriate, although the saying of grace would not seem to be a major issue. There seems no harm for those who wish it, may even be praiseworthy, so long as it is not seen as a tradition that HAS to be kept. Highest regards to you – Robert.

  4. Shahram said

    As someone who has lived in the east and moved to the west some 30 years ago and have seen the practice of “grace” in various western culture, there is no doubt in my mind that what this letter is conveying is exactly what is meant to be conveyed: The Injunctions of the tablet to the physician has nothing to do with the saying of the “grace” as it is practiced in the west. And because of that it should not even be called “grace “.

    The saying of Besm-i- llah, as Abdu’l-Bahá has used it, is not unique to eating food, this is phrase used by most Persian and Arabs before starting things in groups or even individually, it is the reminder of the fact that all the chapters (surah) of Quran start with Besm-i-llah. Ideally everything starts with Besm-i-llah, not just eating.

    What I have learned and grown up is, before eating a meal, you mention the name of God in your heart and you end it with the name of god. It has always been a private practice amongst Baha’is I grew up with and almost never a loud one, nor is it something one person says for everyone else ( as the practice of grace seems to be where I live today). It is an individual practice. And no one else needs to hear or even know you are saying it. So to compare the practice of “grace’ as it is in the west, with what Abdu’l-Bahá did (said Besm-i-llah after veryone gather and before starting to eat)or the injunction of the tablet of physicians is like comparing oranges and apples. And it is in this light and this spirit that this tablet is written.

    On the other hand, the fact that the letter starts by saying “He (Shoghi Effendi) feels…” is a clear indication that the secretary has checked this with the Guardian and he is not “making up” his own interpretation.

    It seems to me some people are trying too hard to discredit letters of secretaries for some hidden agendas.

    Even though the messages and letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi carry “less authority” ONLY BECAUSE “they use their own terms and not his exact words in conveying his messages” , nevertheless these letters carry his “thoughts and instructions and these messages are authoritative”. (Unfolding Destiny page 260)
    This does not mean however that we cannot find some superficial discrepencies in very unimportant matters in some of the letters written on his behalf. But this one is not one of them.

  5. Sen said

    The first of the possible readings of the Arabic text which I gave is “one begins and ends by saying bismillah, or you say this in your own language, such as “in the name of God.” If I understand you correctly, you are supposing that this is the only possibility: the other three being ruled out by the letter on behalf of the Guardian. The difficulties with this are:
    1) this reading supposes that Bahai practice just emulates the practices of the Middle East. But Bahai practices in general do not simply do this. Although an understanding of Islam and its institutions is certainly useful to understand just what the Bahai texts are saying, that knowledge often shows how innovative the Bab and Baha’u’llah were, rather than how Middle-Eastern they were.
    2) Abdu’l-Baha did in fact reveal table prayers. I’ve quoted eight in my posting. The wording is not really different to the words of a Christian grace, nor is the way Abdu’l-Baha is described as saying the prayer different to the Christian practice of saying grace: one person prays on behalf of all, to bless the food and those assembled (“Make this food heavenly and make those assembled here of the hosts of Thy Supreme Concourse…”). Are we to conclude, on the basis of a secretary’s letter, that Abdu’l-Baha was un-Bahai? Abdu’l-Baha would also on occasion ask someone else to chant a prayer before a meal. I have found no example, in the Holy Household, in which everyone says a Bismillah for themselves at table. They may have done so, but the practice you suggest is unattested. That doesn’t prevent you continuing it as your personal practice, I am just trying to keep the door open for other readings of the Lawh-e Tibb that are consistent with Abdu’l-Baha’s words and example.

    At the end of my posting I refer to common sense: “Common sense tells us that the words of the secretary, saying that saying grace “is not part of the Baha’í Faith,” do not overrule the Tablet of Medicine and the practice of Abdu’l-Baha, and we can continue to teach the children the ‘words of grace’ that Abdu’l-Baha has given us, and use them ourselves.” It seems to me as obvious as the nose on my face, that a ‘catholic’ reading that allows the use of Abdu’l-Baha’s table prayers and prayers in our own words is the least strained reading of the texts. If you think otherwise, then “common sense” is not something you and I share in common, which rather destroys my argument.

    The letter you quote from Unfolding Destiny is this:

    P.S. — I wish to call your attention to certain things in “Principles of Baha’í Administration” which has just reached the Guardian; although the material is good, he feels that the complete lack of quotation marks is very misleading. His own words, the words of his various secretaries, even the Words of Baha’u’llah Himself, are all lumped together as one text. This is not only not reverent in the case of Baha’u’llah’s Words, but misleading. Although the secretaries of the Guardian convey his thoughts and instructions and these messages are authoritative, their words are in no sense the same as his, their style certainly not the same, and their authority less, for they use their own terms and not his exact words in conveying his messages. He feels that in any future edition this fault should be remedied, any quotations from Baha’u’llah or the Master plainly attributed to them, and the words of the Guardian clearly differentiated from those of his secretaries.
    (The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, 260)

    What could be meant here by “their words are in no sense the same as his.” It’s not just the matter of difference of style, or having less authority because the phrasing is that of a secretary: it’s a difference in basic category which comes before the difference in style and authority, which are added as supplementary considerations. My thinking is that this relates to the difference between the roles of Head of the Faith, and ‘Expounder of the Words of God,’ both of which Shoghi Effendi had, but which are independent (the Universal House of Justice is now the Head, but not the Expounder), and very different in their effects. What the Guardian says, writing as the Expounder of the Words of God, becomes interwoven with the sacred text itself. What the Head of the Faith says is an instruction to someone, which that person or Bahai institution must follow. They are two different kinds of authority, requiring different kinds of readings. An instruction given by the Head of the Faith on some matter can only be understood in the light of the “matter” concerned, which usually means at least knowing what question or proposal was put to the Head of the Faith concerned. In this case, if for example a summer school committee had proposed teaching the children “Give us grateful hearts, O Father, for all thy mercies, and make us mindful of the needs of others; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen” (1928 Book of Common Prayer) then the response “This is not part of the Baha’í Faith, but a Christian practice, and as the Cause embraces members of all religions we should be careful not to introduce into it the customs of our previous beliefs” would make sense. But if the proposal was to teach the table prayers of Abdu’l-Baha and use them in the summer school dining room, the secretary’s response would make no sense. In other words, given what Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha wrote by way of table prayers, we can guess that this letter came in response to a proposal that was quite specifically Christian. Whatever it was, the Head of the Faith rejected it, but since we don’t have the question or proposal that was put to the Guardian, we have no way of knowing whether it is generalisable. All we have is a more general principle, that the Manifestation’s authority is in the station “He has no partner,” Abdu’l-Baha’s authority is that of “the Most Mighty Branch of God,” and no other shares that level of authority.

    You might like to look at my email ‘Letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi‘ archived on this blog. The best published work to date on the problems in using letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi is Gerald Keil, ‘Textzusammenhang und Kritik: ein Fallbeispiel anhand eines Briefes von Shoghi Effendi,’ in Beitrage des Irfan-Kolloquiums 2007/8. Gerald concentrates mainly on the issue of contextuality: a letter may be clear and say the right thing, to the person who asked a particular question, but appear to us to say something different or to be unclear. He demonstrates this very well, using a letter for which he has been able to get partial information about the questions put to the Guardian and what was going on in the American Bahai community at the time.

    In addition to contextuality, there is the fact that Shoghi Effendi regarded these letters as being of lesser authority, wished to have them differentiated from his own words, and even discouraged the publication of some of those written to individuals (letter published in the US Bahai Newsletter, February 1933). When he chose to have a question answered “on behalf” he was also intending his readers to read it in this way. If we as readers fail to differentiate such words from his own words, if we give them equal authority with his own words, we are not only leading ourselves up the creek, we are showing disrespect to the Guardian.

  6. Shahram said

    Dear Sen
    Re Bismilah:
    “If I understand you correctly, you are supposing that this is the only possibility: the other three being ruled out by the letter on behalf of the Guardian.”
    Sorry for not been clear enough. I did not mean that at all. The reason I did not specify “what” is being said is because there are the 4 possibilities as you mentioned and as there is no hard rule on this in the writings, friends are free to choose whichever they like.
    In my specific case, and the circles of Baha’is I have been around and discussed this issue with, the third option you mentioned seemed to be understood and practiced the most.
    The mention of Bismillah was only to point that, as you mentioned, if Abdul-Baha used that at a table, it is mostly because it is an eastern habit and not necessarily an indication of following the Lowh-i Tibb. (Even though it might be, but it is such a current practice in the east that that probability is much higher in my mind).
    The only point I am really trying to make is that the practice of saying grace the way it is done in the west (a person render thanks to God in his own words and others listen and say Amen) is not what I understand of the injunction of the low-i -Tibb nor of the revealed Prayers of Abdu’l-Bahá for this occasion to be.
    When I read “we should not introduce a new set of prayers He has not specified”, I understand that as Baha’u’llah (not Abdul-Baha) has not specifically revealed a prayer to be said before eating nor he made a law out of it (there are many injunctions in that tablet and none of them are Baha’i laws nor are to be turned to rituals) , we should not start a new “ritual” or “practice” in the Baha’i community that would promote the idea that Bahá’ís are saying grace the way Christian say grace. This also has the further benefit of differentiating Baha’is from Christian by not adopting a similar ritual. This does not mean Baha’is are not “free” to say prayers which Abdu’l-Bahá has revealed for this specific purpose but this should not become a Baha’i Ritual.
    Re the Authority, I agree with everything you say but my application of this may be different. I agree that Baha’u’llah’s writings have more authority that those of Abdul-Baha, and the writings of Abdu’l-Bahá have more authority than those of Shoghi effendi and the writings of Shoghi effendi have more authority than those of his appointed secretaries writing on his behalf. Nevertheless, when I am in the presence of Abdu’l-Bahá, he is the authority for me (conferred to him by Bahaullah, and not of his own) and if Shoghi effendi “appointed” a representative to be present in the UHJ on his behalf, then that appointed rep is carrying “his” authority in that chamber. In the presence of Shoghi Effendi , his appointed is no one and cannot and should not speak his mind, but if Shoghi effendi is absent and ask me to ask for directive through his appointed representative, then I have to accept the authority he has conferred upon them. but as soon as Shoghi is back, that person also disappear. So in regard to the writings of his secretaries, if I see a contradiction with the writings of Shoghi Effendi or other central figures, I know whose words to trust and give more authority but for those letters in which there is absolutely no contradictions there is no reason to judge them as less authoritative. And my humble opinion is that in this specific letter of the secretary, I do not see any contradiction with the injunctions of the tablet of the Physician nor the prayers revealed by Abdu’l-Bahá. Knowing all the above, if any “Baha’i” asks me today if Baha’is say grace before eating, I will give the same answer as the secretaries gave: “He (the Guardian) does not feel that the friends should make a practice of saying grace or of teaching it to children”. Again only because what I have seen as the “practice of saying grace” is not the same as what I understand from Baha’i writings.
    And if any confusion arises in any matters, we are to turn to the head of the Faith for clarification. And if we do not agree with the decision, we need to ask for reconsideration but at the end obedience is only way toward a better spiritual and social outcome, as the wrong will correct itself much better and faster. I do remember that Abdu’l-Bahá Himself mentioned that if any spiritual Assembly ask for something to be done, he will be the first one to rise and obey.

  7. robert van der hope said

    A friend of mine who is not a Baha’i has pointed out out that to accuse Christians of observing a “ritual” in saying grace is in fact no different to our “rituals” of obligatory prayers or reading only prescribed /designated writings at our ritual Feasts. An independent observer might just agree ? No ?

  8. Sen said

    Why would anyone want to “accuse” someone else of observing a ritual? If the discussion was about a particular savage ritual, say child-sacrifice, I would understand the context, but what’s the problem with saying grace? I only have a problem with the practice of imposing it on children, ‘for their own good,’ when the adults opposing it wouldn’t think of saying grace themselves in the canteen at work, or even at home when the children are not there.

    Within the Bahai faith, we could distinguish between rituals that we all do in common because they are in scripture, and those we choose for ourselves (like, readings from the writings around the circle in the Feast), but the distinction is not as clear as it may seem. Take the Lawh-e Tibb for example: that sets out a ritual for the beginning and end of meals, but because the text is subject to at least four readings, and because for Bahais “acts of worship must be observed according to that which God hath revealed in His Book” (i.e., the House of Justice does not have jurisdiction: Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 27), whatever we do in this respect is in fact our own choice. This is not really different to the Christian situation, where there is a scriptural warrant for blessing the food (eg, Christ, on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24:13ff), and a wide variety of different practices based on that. How is our ritual different from the Christian one then?

    Similarly our obligatory prayers, as compared to the Lord’s prayer. We have more specific directions (to say one of them daily), but is there any difference in principle?

  9. Matt said

    Sen, perhaps you could write an article about rituals and their place in the Baha’i Faith. In my experience, most Baha’is I know are anti-ritual or at least have a cautious view of rituals.

  10. robert van der hope said

    Sen, surely this is the whole point ? It is not so much as to whether anyone “accuses” Christians or others of ritual. It is my understanding that ritual has been forbidden in the Baha’i Faith. And yet we have our own rituals – by definition. This must be seen as a double standard and is going to get us into trouble I feel – other faiths will be justified in criticizing this double standard ?

  11. Sen said

    What gives you the idea that ritual has been forbidden in the Bahai Faith?

    When people become Bahais, they bring with them a lot of baggage and mix it in with the Bahai Faith. We then have to critically examine our own understandings of our faith, to sort out what is really scriptural from what is just assumptions introduced from other sources. Around the beginning of the 20th century, the weaking of organised religion in the West, and big changes in the class structure of society, led to a devaluation of ritual in religious and public life. People who were becoming Bahais around that time introduced these ideas into Bahai belief, and boasted that they, unlike ‘old religions’, had no ritual. Larousse Encyclopaedia picked this up, in its article on the Bahai Faith in the 1907 supplement, and that encylcopaedia article was translated into English and used by the Bahais as an objective description of the Bahai Faith. It says “Ritual holds no place in the religion.”

    What the Encyclopaedia says is nonsense: we have heaps of rituals, and some of them should have been known even in 1907. There’s daily obligatory prayer, the washing before the daily prayer, pilgrimmage, fasting, 19-day feast, giving to the Fund, naming a child, marrying, burying a believer (from washing and wrapping the body to a special form of ritual prayer at the burial), electing a local assembly, or the Universal House of Justice, collective devotions, private meditation, reciting the greatest name 95 times per day, reciting the ‘Remover of Difficulties’ together, Holy day observations, and on and on. The Bahai Faith is rich !

    On this blog, see ‘It’s Friday, thank God.’

    For a general discussion of the peculiar American attitude to rituals in relation to Bahai, see Rituals: An American Baha’i dilemma, Linda Walbridge, Bahai Studies Review 5.1, 1995.
    For a sociological approach, with a description of contemporary Bahai practices in Atlanta, see Michael McMullen, ‘The Baha’i”, chapter 5.
    For a text-based study see MacEoin, Rituals in Babism and Bahaism (can be partly examined on the Amazon and Barnes & Noble sites).

    On obligatory prayers see
    On fasting see
    and lots more on the bahai-library site about ritual observances in the Bahai Faith: just use the search engine on the front page to search for a particular ritual observance.

  12. robert van der hope said

    Sen you are of course quite correct. Bahais must continue to be wary of pronouncements about their Faith that do not come from an authoritative source. Another error that has caused considerable distress is the opinion I often hear from Bahais that St Paul perverted the teachings of Jesus Christ. This is extremely offensive to all Christians, and is of course untrue. It is important that we do not corrupt the Word of God to our own petty devices. – Regards – Robert.

  13. Sen said

    I think (I hope) that it’s only a few Bahais who have the anti-pauline bug. The genuine letters of Paul are our earliest written source on Jesus and early Christianity. Sure, he has his own slant on things, he has priorities that are not necessarily the same as the church in Jerusalem, but precisely because he writes in his own person and we have several letters from him, we can get an idea of what is the result of his own personality, in relation to the message from Christ.

    Several posts on this blog are about the way misunderstandings get incorporated into ‘Bahai teachings’ and passed on, and changed, over the generations. One of the funnier ones is the idea that the world will roll on its axis and cause all sorts of disasters: it’s a misunderstanding compounded by changes as the story was passed down down the line.

    World order, administrative order” is an instance where the words “Administrative Order” changed to “World Order,” and what the difference is.

    A consummate union is about the phrase ‘the consummate union and blending of church and state’ which Macnutt, one of the early Bahai theocratists in America, inserted into the words of Abdu’l-Baha. It was part of the “theme material” prepared for use in state and regional summerschools in the USA, in 2005, and it’s part of “The Essence of the Covenant” published by Palabra Publications in 2005, but it’s an interpolation.

    How theocracy happened is broader, about how the Macnutt-style thinking became like coloured spectacles, until the whole scriptures were read within a millenialist framework, although here too a specific textual mixup between the Supreme Tribunal and the Universal House of Justice (equated in footnotes to old editions of Some Answered Questions) played a considerable role.

    Instant, exact and complete?”, is about a phrase from Madame Blavatsky that the Bahais borrowed for themselves.

    Conversation with God is a common or garden pilgrim’s note, now being taught and memorised in Ruhi book 1 as Bahai teachings.

    1917 and all that is about the prediction attributed to Abdu’l-Baha, “Before 1917 kingdoms will fall and cataclysms will rock the earth. Then all nations shall be as one faith, all men as brothers, and these fruitless strifes and ruinous wars shall pass away and the most great peace shall come; and man shall not glory in this, that he loves his country, but rather in that he loves his kind.” It didn’t really happen that way – and it was never said that way either.

    Century’s end, followed by Century of Light, are about the Bahais of my generation who predicted the Lesser Peace or ‘Peace among the nations‘ coming by the year 2000, or by 1953, 1957, or 1963, and about what is really meant by “the century of light” : it’s not over, it’s just beginning!

    Entry by troops is somewhat similar, contrasting Shoghi Effendi’s looong time-frame for this to the “next year maybe” approach of the Bahais.

    The supreme Institution is a misunderstanding in the making: first the rest of the phrase is omitted for brevity, then people forget what it originally referred to, “the Supreme Legislative Body of the World Order of Bahá’u’llah.”

    The mystery of sacrifice” is another myth in the making, from Seals and Crofts to Shoghi Effendi. Watch this one, in another two generations it’s likely to be attributed to Abdu’l-Baha.

    If I were designing a Ruhi-type course for new believers, one of the first things I would want new believers to know is, “what are the authentic sources of Bahai teachings.” There’s not much point in teaching reading and memorisation skills, without teaching what can be relied on, and how much of the popular Bahai culture is mixed with other things.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: