Theologians, the learned and the wise
This is part of a fairly long discussion on beliefnet, which I entered in December 2006 (here), but the section I’ve copied begins at post 38 in that thread. It’s a good discussion, with lots of useful contributions. It’s also a good example of why we would be better to write Bahaullah rather than Baha’u’llah: at least on my browser, all the apostrophes are turned to code, making sacred names look ugly. Yet while I can get used to writing Bahai, I can’t get used to the appearance of Bahaullah. Would Baha-ullah be acceptable, and appear in the same way in every browser and operating system?
To return to the thread: one of the friends had asserted
> the concept of the “Learned” in the Faith does not
> include “theologians”. They cannot be independent
> of the Institution of the Rulers. They are all
> appointees serving with utter obedience.
I mean to write a book about this one day. It is evident that the people appointed to the ‘Learned’ branch are generally not the most knowledgeable Bahais, and vice versa, that the most knowledgeable do not generally serve on either the appointed or elected branches. I think this is a good thing, because it makes the separation of functions clear by separating the personnel, with some exceptions (Mr. Kazemzadeh for instance wore two different hats with panache). The Counsellors seem to me to be characterised more by wisdom than learning, and I note that Shoghi Effendi sometimes translates one word, the ulama, as the learned and the wise. Or consider this:
Respect ye the divines and learned amongst you, they whose conduct accords with their professions, who transgress not the bounds which God hath fixed, whose judgments are in conformity with His behests as revealed in His Book. Know ye that they are the lamps of guidance unto them that are in the heavens and on the earth. They who disregard and neglect the divines and learned that live amongst them — these have truly changed the favor with which God hath favored them.
(Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 128)
Is this ‘divines and learned’ just a parallelism, is Baha’u’llah saying one thing twice? Or is it another indication that the ‘learned’ come in two flavours or can have two distinct functions: one is simply to know stuff or know where and how to find it, the other is the task of the Counsellors, to guide and protect the community. Compare these uses:
The Great Being saith: The man of consummate learning and the sage endowed with penetrating wisdom are the two eyes to the body of mankind. (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 170)
If the learned and wise men of goodwill were to impart guidance unto the people, the whole earth would be regarded as one country. (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 172)
It is essential that scholars and the spiritually learned should undertake in all sincerity and purity of intent and for the sake of God alone, to counsel and exhort the masses and clarify their vision with that collyrium which is knowledge. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 39)
The Great Being saith: The man of consummate learning and the sage (ulama) endowed with penetrating wisdom are the two eyes to the body of mankind. –
(Baha’u’llah, Tablet of maqsud)
I don’t think I have a watertight case here, but it certainly looks as if there are two different functions that together are known as ‘learning’, and that they are supposed to be complementary. And together, they complement the rulers:
Say: O concourse of the rulers and of the learned and the wise! (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 239)
Consider the following:
O people of God! Righteous men of learning who dedicate themselves to the guidance of others and are freed and well guarded from the promptings of a base and covetous nature are, in the sight of Him Who is the Desire of the world, stars of the heaven of true knowledge. It is essential to treat them with deference. They are indeed fountains of soft-flowing water, stars that shine resplendent, fruits of the blessed Tree, exponents of celestial power, and oceans of heavenly wisdom. Happy is he that followeth them. Verily such a soul is numbered in the Book of God, the Lord of the mighty Throne, among those with whom it shall be well. (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 96)
These learned whom we are to follow and show deference to do not just ‘know stuff’ – they live it and can in some way convey it to others. I think these are the Hands and counsellors etc.. On the other hand:
There are certain pillars which have been established as the unshakeable supports of the Faith of God. The mightiest of these is learning and the use of the mind, the expansion of consciousness, and insight into the realities of the universe and the hidden mysteries of Almighty God. To promote knowledge is thus an inescapable duty imposed on every one of the friends of God. (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 126)
This seems more like ‘knowledge’ than ‘wisdom.’ It is to do with education and the educated. Similarly :
The first attribute of perfection is learning and the cultural attainments of the mind, and this eminent station is achieved when the individual combines in himself a thorough knowledge of those complex and transcendental realities pertaining to God, of the fundamental truths of Qur’anic political and religious law, of the contents of the sacred Scriptures of other faiths, and of those regulations and procedures which would contribute to the progress and civilization of this distinguished country. He should in addition be informed as to the laws and principles, the customs, conditions and manners, and the material and moral virtues characterizing the statecraft of other nations, and should be well versed in all the useful branches of learning of the day, and study the historical records of bygone governments and peoples. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 35)
Obviously the Hands and Counsellors are not required to know the Quran and Shariah and comparative religion and politics etc etc.. But there is a function for people who do have this knowledge:
… it is essential to establish a body of scholars the various groups of whose membership would each be expert in one of the aforementioned branches of knowledge. This body should with the greatest energy and vigor deliberate as to all present and future requirements, and bring about equilibrium and order.
(Secret of Divine Civilization p. 37)
> Theologians particularly in the historically Christian
> or Muslim sense no longer exist as learned authority
> for Baha’is and there can be no Baha’i Theologians.
> The Covenant precludes such completely, IMHO.
Well, if you claim something is in the covenant, you have to be able to cite a text. Where does it say there can be no Bahai theologians??
The UHJ addressed this question in the 1980s, when there were people saying that the Bahai community didn’t need the study of theology, and the UHJ came down on the other side: it allowed the study of theology. It was a letter to the NSA of Germany about 1981.
It also appears you have not studied Christian or Islamic history. The theologians in Christianity have seldom had any authority (Pope Benedict is an exception, he is both theologian and Pope; Luther was another exception, a theologian who became an authority). And in Islam, if you study theology (kalimaat) you will be treated with suspicion and marginalised by the mainstream scholars. At Leiden we regularly get students from al-Azhar who come here to ‘finish,’ and I don’t think we’ve ever had one who had previously studied theology: they are vague even about the basics. What they know is Quran and recitation, hadith, fiqh and tafsir, but theology? There’s no future in it, you can’t build a career on theology, not in any religious community I know. Theology is strictly a labour of love
and I love it
and in the email archive:
Scholarship and review in the Bahai community (1990)
Scholars in the Bahai Community 1 (1996)
Scholars in the Bahai Community 2 (1996)
Foreword to ‘Church and State’ (2005; see the section on the limits of theology)
Theology – 2005-12-03
Theology – 2005-12-03
Church, State, experts, consensus (Oct. 2009)
Theology – a defence (2009)
“No Clergy?” (2009)
“Bahai Studies and the academic study of religion” (2010?)
Method and focus in my Church and State (2010?)
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