Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

In crystal coffins

On Talisman, we were discussing the burial laws of the Aqdas, which says, in verse 128:

The Lord hath decreed that the dead should be interred in coffins made of crystal, of hard, resistant stone, or of wood that is both fine and durable, and that graven rings should be placed upon their fingers. He, verily, is the Supreme Ordainer, the One apprised of all.

This contrasts with the simplicity of orthodox Islamic burials. which have no coffin. One of the participants said he thought the Muslim solution preferable.

My response (7 October 2009):

I think the Muslim solution is precisely what the Bab and Baha’u’llah were
changing. The Islamic norm is to use no coffins or grave stones and only
cotton (that is, cheap) cloth, and to bury the body more or less
immediately. This complex of practices is socially egalitarian and resists
attaching any great importance to the body. It is treated as a mere shell.
The Babi/Bahai practices allow the body to be honoured through ceremony
and symbol, as a temple for the spirit, at the price of not being
egalitarian in practice.

I do not take the crystal coffin, or what the Bayan says about
covering Houses of Worship with precious jewels, literally. I take
the religious law as a way of saying something doctrinal, just as
religious history is often not history but theology. The Aqdas allows
those who want to apply the coffin law literally to do so using hard wood,
but I don’t think it is required to apply this law by literal practice.

The same goes for burning the arsonist and killing the killer: this
is “religious law” as a genre for expressing ideas and operative
principles. It’s a genre based on the law codes of antiquity which
were actually the administrative law of empires, but its intent is
quite different to what we call “the law” in societal matters.

There’s more thinking about this in my blog entry on the Puzzle of
the Aqdas

Another participant asked:

> you say that the Bab/Baha’u’llah’s purpose was to change Muslim
> practice and to allow the body to be honoured through ceremony and
> symbol. Would this then be the thinking behind our not using cremation?
> Does this mean that the no-cremation rule is more an exhortation in
> keeping with the spirit of the revelation than a hard and fast rule
> forbidding it?

The change of law is important in itself: other visible changes
include the direction of prayer and the type of obligatory prayer,
the greeting Allah-u’Abha. the different time of the Fast. Together
these tell the world, and the Bahais, that they are a new religious
community with new standards. Obviously the message is not
communicated outwardly unless these laws are actually practiced by
the Bahais, with reasonable uniformity.

Beyond that, specific laws, and specific changes to laws, convey a
message. They are as it were stories in action. Compare this to the
two creation stories of Genesis: each is a “theology” expressed in
story. One tells us that God created from nothing by an act of will, that
God is mighty and creation is good. The other tells us that God created by
separating dark from light, land from sea, etc.. This story tells us that
God is the author of order, that it is important for us to maintain
distinctions too. The two creation accounts are incompatible, but the two
theological points they are making are complementary. If we see that the
biblical writers are taking an existing genre – creation story – and using
it as a medium, we get closer to their intent than if we concentrate on
the details of the creation stories and how to square the differences.

Law codes were one of the first written genres of the Middle East,
and probably of other places as well. So it is hardly surprising that the
biblical writers seized on this genre and wrote theologies expressed in
law codes. This has shaped the Abrahamic tradition, including the Bahai
Faith. Some of these laws are practicable and intended to be practiced,
others are quite impracticable and serve only to make a point, and in
between there are those which give guidelines which can be embodied in
practical rules of conduct. A law which is not implemented per se can
still have a profound effect through its symbolic weight, for millenia.
Take the Old Testament law of jubilees for example, and its use in
achieving agreement on their world debt reduction around the year 2000.
The “law itself” was never implemented, but it is still a “full letter”
not an empty letter. Other laws made by kings and governors at the same
time as Jubilees might have been objectively better laws for society, but
their effects are limitied. A law which is written in the Kingdom of
Heaven exercises a spiritual power over us.


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