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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)

~~~~~~

continuing …

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)

~~~~~~~~
Continuing..


> 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

~~ Sen

Related content:
Compilation on the learned
What is theology, and what’s it good for ? (2008)
The knower as servant (response to Paul Lample) (2008)
Knowledge: project or process? (2009)

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 2005-10-17
Theology 2005-10-21
Theology – 2005-12-03
Theology 2006-02-13
Theology 2007-01-01
Theology 2008-06-03
Church, State, experts, consensus (Oct. 2009)
Theology – a defence (2009)
No Clergy?” (2009)
Theology 2009-10-00
Bahai Studies and the academic study of religion” (2010?)
Method and focus in my Church and State (2010?)

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11 Responses to “Theologians, the learned and the wise”

  1. Sen, you appear to me to intermingle discussions about Baha’i theologians, and Baha’i writings on the learned, as if you think that those writings apply to Baha’i theologians. I see nothing at all about being a Baha’i theologian, in itself, that qualifies a person as one of the learned ones extolled in Baha’i writings, or even makes her more likely to be one, than any other Baha’i. Do you?

  2. Sen, you say that there is a function for people who know the Quran and Shariah and comparative religion and politics etc etc, and you quote Abdu’l-Baha saying “… 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.”

    Reading that in the context of the surrounding passages, what I see Abdu’l-Baha is saying is that in order for the legislative branch of the government to function more effectively, in view of the urgent needs of society, and the scarcity of individuals meeting the first of four qualifications for being referred to as learned, in their place there should be a body of scholars of various groups of experts who, together, combine thorough knowledge “of those complex and transcendental realities pertaining to God, of the fundamental truths of Qur’ánic 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,” and “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.”

    I see Abdu’l-Baha saying that the purpose of that body would be to advise the legislature. Do you have a different view of it?

  3. Sen said

    Being a theologian or a historian or a drainlayer, farmer or homemaker does not qualify or disqualify anyone from being one of the Learned in the sense that Shoghi Effendi defines them:

    In this holy cycle the “learned” are, on the one hand, the Hands of the Cause of God, and, on the other, the teachers and diffusers of His teachings who do not rank as Hands, but who have attained an eminent position in the teaching work. As to the “rulers” they refer to the members of the Local, National and International Houses of Justice. The duties of each of these souls will be determined in the future.
    (Translated from a letter in Persian, dated November 4, 1931, quoted in Messages of the The Universal House of Justice 1963 to 1986, p. 214)

    Some of the Hands of the Cause have been eminent historians and theologians, but for our present purposes it’s the group “who have attained an eminent position in the teaching work” that is interesting, because its membership is open. Teaching of course is not a question of finding a non-Bahai and bending their ear; it is effectively encouraging and assisting people to grasp and apply the teachings of God. In other words, it includes deepening. The learned in Shoghi Effendi’s definition are not defined by how much learning they have, let alone by any academic qualification, but rather by their effectiveness in serving the community. See my blog “the knower as servant.” The possession of knowledge and skills are among the attributes that can make it possible (and therefore, an obligation) for someone to serve in the teaching work, in the broad sense. Whatever talent we may have, and benefits we may have had in our life (for example, from the privilege of studying at university), entail an obligation to use those things for the good. Knowledge buried in the ground (as in the parable of the talents) is an offence. Abdu’l-Baha writes:

    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, 126)

    The Bahai writings refer frequently to the “learned” and particularly those learned in the religious sciences, acting in society and supporting religion (not just the teaching work). This is not “the learned in Baha” but the learned generally, the `ulama. Shoghi Effendi often translates this as “the divines,” because the connotation of `ulama (particularly in the 19th century and before) was of learning in religion. Baha’u’llah writes:

    Those divines, … who are truly adorned with the ornament of knowledge and of a goodly character are, verily, as a head to the body of the world, and as eyes to the nations. The guidance of men hath, at all times, been and is dependent upon these blessed souls.
    (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, 16-17)

    … but as for the learned who practice [their knowledge] and the wise who act justly, they are as the spirit unto the body of the world. (cited by Abdu’l-Baha, in A Traveller’s Narrative, 45)

    The people are ignorant, and they stand in need of those who will expound the truth. 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. God willing, the earth shall never be deprived of these two greatest gifts. … Please God, the peoples of the world may be led, as the result of the high endeavours exerted by their rulers and the wise and learned amongst men, to recognize their best interests.
    (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, 170-1)

    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, 172)

    … servants who dedicate themselves to the education of the world and to the edification of its peoples … are, in truth, cup-bearers of the life-giving water of knowledge and guides unto the ideal way. They direct the peoples of the world to the straight path and acquaint them with that which is conducive to human upliftment and exaltation.
    (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, 34)

    I don’t think we can shoe-horn such references into Shoghi Effendi’s definition of the Learned in Baha: the contexts of these quotes show that the subject is the role of scholarship, particularly religious scholarship, in society: “the learned in Baha” are a special case, within the context of the Bahai community. In these quotes, the service to humanity that is envisioned is sharing knowledge and guiding people. Having knowledge and the skills to obtain and order knowledge is a prerequisite, for while an uneducated parent my impart the love of learning, only the teacher who knows can actually provide the child with knowledge.

    It is not possible to impart the love of scholarship and enthusiasm for the learning process, while showing disdain for the learned. A society or a religious community that harbours anti-intellectual stereotypes will find its children and grand-children ignorant and unable to deal with intellectual challenges. Every aspect of life will suffer, but particularly religion, for as Abdu’l-Baha says,

    … religion and learning are twins that cannot be separated, or they are two wings on which you fly. A single wing will not suffice. Any religion that is bereft of learning is to be considered as blind imitation. It is superficial, not spiritual. Therefore the promotion of learning is one of the limbs of religion. (Address to the Theosophical Society, London, 1911)

    Religion without religious scholarship becomes a negative thing, until the point comes when the world would be better off without it, if that were possible. A common feature of all the fundamentalisms of the 20th century and the present is that their leaders and leading cadre lack broad religious scholarship: they may be trained as engineers or dentists, but not in scriptural languages, exegesis, contextualisation and systematic theology. Another thing they have in common as that they profile themselves in contrast to a religious orthodoxy: in once setting it may be against the Catholic Church, in another it is the traditionalist clerical class, but in every case they use contempt of scholarship to cover their own lack of it. A society or a community that does not respect religious scholarship invites the outcome of ugly religion. So it is that Baha’u’llah says:

    They who disregard and neglect the divines and learned that live amongst them — these have truly changed the favour with which God hath favoured them
    (Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, 204

    To fill this role in society, and be worthy of the respect that should be given to it, one needs relevant knowledge (not ivory tower learning), and a great deal of it, as well as qualities of character and understanding. One part of that understanding, is foreseeing that disregard and neglect are the normal fate of anyone who excels in this field. And one of the character traits that is required, is not to give a damn. The purpose of this respect is not to benefit its objects, it is to orientate the society or the community the right way, for their sake and for the sake of the following generations. The Bahais did rather well in this respect so long as there were Hands of the Cause as role models who were also outstanding scholars; now we seem to be busy rather in profiling ourselves as different to those older religious communities with their – ha ha – ‘scholars.’

  4. Sen said

    I think you are confusing two different senses of ‘legislature.’ In the sense Abdu’l-Baha uses the word, these experts are the legislature (tashri`). Or to be more exact, the entire organ of religious scholarship is the tashri`, that which promulgates the law of God, in society. These experts in the case of Iran would be a formally organised body that advises the government apparatus — the Shah, the judiciary, and the consultative assemblies so far as they existed.

    This is not the “legislature” in the western sense: one of the three arms of government. Rather it is one of the two pillars of society; the government being the other one. See more on my blog at ‘Executive and legislative.’

  5. After some searching, I don’t see you intermingling discussions of Baha’i theologians with quotes from the writings about the learned, as much as I thought you were. Even so, I might not be the only one who comes away from your blog with the idea that the writings extolling the learned, and exhorting us to honor and follow them, apply to Baha’i theologians. Do you understand them that way, yourself?

  6. Sen said

    Bahai theology is simply a field within Bahai studies: it is the study of the Bahai teachings. To be a scholar, on the other hand, involves a degree of expertise, particular, an expertise that enables one to help others. One could say that the Writings that extoll the learned apply to the learned in any useful field, who do in fact use their knowledge and skills to help others. On the other hand, “learning” and “science”; the “learned” and “sciences”; in the Persian and Arabic Bahai texts have a strong connotation of religious sciences. It is not for nothing that Shoghi Effendi often translates “the learned” as “the divines.” There are counter-examples however:

    Beware, O My loved ones, lest ye despise the merits of My learned servants whom God hath graciously chosen to be the exponents of His Name ‘the Fashioner’ amidst mankind. Exert your utmost endeavour that ye may develop such crafts and undertakings that everyone, whether young or old, may benefit therefrom.
    (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 150)

    Here the “learned servants” are apparently creative artists and inventors.

    This stands out as an exception: generally speaking the learned or divines who are extolled are the capable and virtuous among the religious intellectual workers (a broader category than theologians). However, most of these exhortations are addressed to societies and communities in general: the few that specifically apply this to Bahais are again the exceptions. Certainly, these teachings apply to Bahais. The idea that some Bahai teachings are meant only for the non-Bahai world and not for domestic consumption strikes me as a bizarre, and unscriptural, way of coping with teachings that one finds disagreeable. However the responsibility that rests on the divines in older religious communities is greater, in proportion to the authority that the divines may have in those communities. Baha’u’llah individualizes religion to a greater extent even than Sunni Islam, by abolishing the consensus of believers (de facto mediated by the divines) as a source of authority and by stating that: “the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself” (Gleanings p. 143) and as a corollary of this, “From two ranks amongst men power hath been seized: kings and ecclesiastics.” (cited in Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 20) “Ecclesiastics” here translates the word ulama’, meaning scholars, and particularly religious scholars. It is the word often translated as “the divines.” Just as every talent involves a responsibility to use it for good, every authority involves a responsibility. Since Bahai scholars do not have any authority, the burden is perhaps lighter – except that the responsibility to use one’s talents for good is a moral imperative, it is not measurable. We cannot say that Bahai scholars are only expected to use 50% of their talents, or 50% for good purposes. So in my view, the difference is simply that the scope of action of a Bahai scholar does not include the priesthood or other position of authority accorded to an individual on the basis of religious expertise. The same is true of a female Roman Catholic scholar, incidentally. It simply means that they must use their knowledge and skills for good through the intrinsically useful qualities of knowledge and skill, rather than through the mediation of a position of authority.

    From the point of view of the community doing the honouring, the Bahai community like any other community needs to show respect to certain scholars, as exponents of the quest for knowledge. Who is respected is not the point: a community which tells its children and youth that learning is important and the quest for knowledge is a valuable part of the Bahai life, throughout one’s life, but at the same time tolerates anti-intellectual stereotypes and treats its actual scholars a priori as a danger, can only transmit its own conflicted stance to the next generation. The result will be a generation whose brightest minds become engineers and medical doctors, carefully avoiding applying their intellects to questions of faith.

  7. Thank you, Sen. That brings me a lot closer to the kind of understanding I’m looking for, but there’s still something eluding me, and maybe I need to try to make my concern more clear.

    First I want to say that I see prejudices against academics, against theology and theologians, and so on, and I certainly agree with trying to dispel those.

    My concern is that some people might be imagining that there is substantiation in Baha’i writings for a view in which Baha’is should trust and follow some group of people, certain scholars or theologians or however it might be defined, in their interpretations of the writings and where the Baha’i Faith should be going, in preference to the views of others. Your blog *feels* to me like it nourishes that view.

    Do you indeed endorse that view?

  8. Sen said

    Re:

    some people might be imagining that there is substantiation in Baha’i writings for a view in which Baha’is should trust and follow some group of people, certain scholars or theologians or however it might be defined, in their interpretations of the writings and where the Baha’i Faith should be going, in preference to the views of others. Your blog *feels* to me like it nourishes that view.

    Do you indeed endorse that view?

    No, I do not. It’s a downright silly idea, which was attributed to me in 2005 and has circulated sporadically since then. My stance is just the opposite: I do not think that “authorities” in the old scholastic sense have any standing in the modern or postmodern intellectual world. Questions and their answers have to be weighed with evidence and reasoning, and open critique. The supposed authority of the originator has no weight.

    Lest that rejection of authority be misunderstood, it should also be said that if the subject area is the thought of Tolstoy, obviously his writings have a special standing in that field. If we want to know about Abdu’l-Baha, naturally the words of Abdu’l-Baha have a special standing. And because of what he and his father have written, in the Covenant documents, Abdu’l-Baha’s words have a special standing as authoritative interpretations of Baha’u’llah’s words, and Shoghi Effendi’s interpretations likewise. This also works vice-versa: we can hardly understand Shoghi Effendi without taking into account that he read Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha closely (and knew the latter personally), and tried to mirror their teachings. Taking the Covenant as an epistemological framework means that Bahai theology becomes one field, in which it is impossible to separate the Origin and the thoughts of authorised interpreters. I do not see this as invalidating the principle of disregarding any personal authority the originator of an idea may have: it is rather a question of how the field is defined.

  9. Sen said

    Could I say one more thing Jim. I appreciate that you asked. You felt that I might endorse “a view in which Baha’is should trust and follow some group of people, certain scholars or theologians…” and you checked your facts by asking. I don’t want to sound patronising to you, but in my experience you are displaying a rare virtue and I think that should be highlighted. Kudos, and thank you.

  10. Sen, thank you! That put a big smile on my face!

    Part of what gave me that impression was thinking that I saw you bringing quotes about the learned into discussions about theology. Just now I searched your Web site, and didn’t find you doing that anywhere except on this page. Another part of it was simply the presence of articles like “Learned – honour them” on your Web site. It looked to me like a way of creating an association in people’s minds between Baha’i theologians and the learned, without getting caught actually saying that there is one.

    Now I’m curious, what *is* the context for your articles about the learned? Do you remember what prompted you to write articles, and an entire compilation, about the learned?

  11. Sorry, I didn’t read this page carefully enough. It responds quite well to my question. Far from associating Baha’i theologians with the learned ones that we are to honor and follow, I see you explicitly *dis*associating them here. If you’re making any association, it might be between scholars and the *other* kind of learned ones, where you see possibly two different kinds of learned ones in the writings. It’s all quite clearly stated in this article, and I’m embarrassed that I misread it so badly.

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