Religious law as a symbolic language, in Gate of the Heart
Posted by Sen on September 14, 2010
Continuing with the readings from Nader Saiedi’s Gate of the Heart, I’ve turned to the first of six principles of moral and spiritual action that Saiedi finds in the Persian Bayan. He calls it ‘the mystic character of action.’ The other five principles are “for the sake of God,” “perfection and refinement,” “the prohibition on causing grief,” and “spiritual linguistics.”
The mystic character of action entails a reading of religious law not as a code of conduct to be applied, but as a genre that is adopted for other, symbolic purposes. I’ve noted the same with respect to the Aqdas laws and the Bayan, in ‘The Puzzle of the Aqdas.’
In Gate of the Heart, from page 308, Saiedi writes (summarised a little, and adding some emphasis)
The distinctive feature of the Revelation of the Bab – the divine summons in the sanctuary of the heart – constitutes the core of the Bab’s diverse discussions of laws and ordinances. There is virtually no exception to this rule. The Persian Bayan is structured around this fundamental principle, decreeing laws and ordinances only after presenting the fundamental principles of faith which those laws represent. The first and second unities (books) of the Persian Bayan … expound the spiritual principles that underlie all the laws that are mentioned in subsequent unities. Yet the most striking feature of the Persian Bayan’s approach to laws is that while a particular ordinance itself is mentioned in the short opening paragraph of its corresponding gate (chapter), the substance of the gate is devoted to an explanation of the philosophical meaning and purpose of that ordinance.
Among religious texts, normally laws are least likely to be couched in highly figurative language. Although laws are certainly subject to differences of interpretation as to their exact meaning, the normal assumption that laws are intended to be taken as more literal than symbolic since their purpose is to regulate concrete practices and actions and to provide the pattern and standard of behaviour that, over time, structures the particular society. The Bab’s laws, uniquely, were not intended to structure society over any significant period of time because His Dispensation was soon to be abrogated by Him Whom God shall make manifest. For this reason, many of the normal assumptions that accompany the concept of law do not apply to the laws of the Bab. Knowing that His laws would soon be superseded by those of the Promised One, the Bab was free to use the “genre” of legislation for other, symbolic purposes.
It is therefore extremely significant that all the chapters of the Persian Bayan define their respective laws as symbolic in nature. The Bab repeatedly stresses that the most important aspect of the law is the recognition spiritual meaning and the fulfillment of its purpose. Otherwise, obeying the law without obeying its real message is of no value. Every one of the laws of the Bab is dalil – a symbol, a metaphor, a guide, a reference and a proof of something spiritual and transcendental. The purpose behind these laws and rituals is that the faithful will engage in istidlal (from dalil) the act of inferring the true spiritual meaning of the symbolic law, deriving the real import of the metaphorical ordinance, and vindicating the truth that is represented by the behavioural sign. Thus the Bab frequently speaks of the necessity of the act of istidlal. But, then, for the Bab, the entire universe is a dalil, or symbol of the Primal Will, and a sign of the divine Action that is enshrined in the heart of every being. His laws and rituals are consciously created to lead His followers to the realization of the perspective of unity in all aspects of their lives so that their lives become pure mirrors reflecting the inner reality of all things, and to prepare them, above all, to recognize the Promised One upon His advent.
The ordinances of the Bab are thus essentially mystical processes … the conduct of life and behavioural expressions are simultaneously a process of spiritual journey. The laws cannot be separated from their spiritual ends, just as the recognition of the divine truth is inalienable from observing the command of the Manifestation. Discussing the law of pilgrimage, for example, the Bab states:
This is the fruit of pilgrimage, that they may arise to fulfill His Command, that haply in the Day of His Revelation, by the aid of such an approach, they will ascend toward Him. Alas! For the Dispensation of the Qur’an no such fruit is harvested, inasmuch as while seventy thousand souls circle round that House, at this very time the supreme Source of the sanctity of the House resideth within the mount of Maku, yet except for one soul, none is present before Him! It is evident that the fruit is not yet gathered. In truth, it was befitting that, at the time of revelation, all the faithful believers in the Qur’an, who by virtue of His Command revolve so frequently around a mere piece of dust, revolve infinite times and until the end that hath no end, around the Command of His own Self.
Therefore, spiritual knowledge (‘ilm), and observance of laws (‘amul) are both necessary aspects of the same reality. … the various laws of the Persian Bayan are symbols of the spiritual journey. For example, the Bab’s obligatory prayer consists of nineteen rakah units (prostrations). He describes these nineteen units as a journey from the realm of the body to that of the heart, a journey that realizes the signs of the Primal Unity within one’s being. This spiritual journey can be depicted as traversing the arc of ascent, which consists of the stages of body, soul, spirit/intellect, and heart. This arc of ascent is the mirror image of the arc of descent, which can be represented as the first four stages of divine creative Action: Will, Determination, Destiny, and Decree.
As we have seen before, in the writings of the Bab these four stages of the spiritual journey correspond to the other symbolic series in fours: the four colours, the four elements, the four words of divine praise, the four rivers of paradise, the four stages of creative Action, the four layers of the covenant, the four modes of revelation, the four levels of the unity of God, and many others. In this sense the spiritual journey embraces all reality, physical and celestial, in one all-encompassing symbolic structure.
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