Bahá’ís around the world are presently celebrating the bicentenary of the birth of one of their two founding prophets. On such an auspicious occasion, it is perhaps meet and seemly to bring thyself to account—so to speak.
When I left the Bahá’í Faith in May 1988, things looked pretty good for “the Faith,” though some folks could see the moon of fundamentalism on the rise. Still, on the up-side, resurgent persecution of Bahá’ís in Iran had given the the Faith a new burst of media exposure. That majestic Lotus Temple had recently been completed, and the Bahá’í firmament still had its stars, though they may have been fading.
During all the time that Shoghi Effendi spent in Switzerland, I wonder whether he ever ventured out to Mainau, a famous garden island on Lake Constance (just over the German border). Mainau is famous for a variety of features, one of which is a water staircase lined with cypresses. One quick look at the staircase is likely to remind any Bahá’í of the grand terraces on Mount Carmel.
I am of the general opinion that each of us has a religion. Each of us holds something to be sacred, though not all of us choose to follow self-proclaimed infallible guides. Not all of us involve prayer as part of our religion, but for those of us who do, prayer can take the form of a poem. For Bahá’ís, sunlight is a favorite metaphor for right guidance from God, but not everyone thinks that light is necessarily the best guide. For Robinson Jeffers, a prayer to a Goddess of darkness is more appropriate than a prayer to a God of light.
While recently looking for images for a video project featuring the poem “Dawn” by California poet Robinson Jeffers, I came upon the painting “Dawn at the Alamo,” a rather imaginative and partisan depiction of the fall of the Alamo.
For those readers who aren’t familiar with the story, a band of Anglo-American Texans, apparently disregarding the urgings of their general Sam Houston, holed up in a Spanish mission after taking a Mexican town. They were doomed from the start. Major General Houston had no interest in holding the town, regarding it a strategic liability. The defense of the town did little or nothing for the cause of Texan independence, rather more likely harmed it—at least tactically, yet the defenders of the Alamo are remembered as martyrs of the cause, probably because they had to be remembered as such. They fought bravely, probably knowing that General Santa Anna, a bloodthirsty tyrant by all accounts, had no intention of sparing the lives of any of them. Continue reading →
You may be familiar with some of the more startling things said about homosexuality in the Bahá’í writings. If not, here’s a sampling:
Homosexuality is highly condemned … (6 October 1956)
… through the advice and help of doctors, through a strong and determined effort, and through prayer, a soul can overcome this handicap. … it is forbidden by Bahá’u’lláh, … (26 March 1950)
… [the homosexual] must mend his ways, if necessary consult doctors, and make every effort to overcome this affliction, which is corruptive for him and bad for the Cause. If after a period of probation you do not see an improvement, he should have his voting rights taken away. (20 June 1953)
You know those people who knock on your door to introduce you to God? That used to be me. I have knocked on doors in the San Joaquin Valley of California, Los Angeles, South Carolina, North Carolina, and even on an Indian Reservation in South Dakota. I did it to “teach” the Bahá’í Faith, as recently as the mid 1980s. I’d been told a few years ago that Bahá’ís don’t go door-to-door anymore, but apparently that is not entirely true.
I recently heard that Bahá’ís in the Pacific Northwest had been running door-to-door “expansion campaigns” (a rather aggressive form of what Bahá’ís call “direct teaching”) as recently as two years ago, so I went out into Googlespace to see what I could scare up. There is ample evidence that Bahá’ís in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington State were knocking on doors in the years 2008–2010. I have also found videos about “direct teaching” from 2011, but I don’t see much in the years since then.
I think this activity was prompted by the Universal House of Justice in the wake of the 2007-8 Global Financial Crisis. Bahá’ís, like some other religious groups, beam with anticipation at the first rumor of crisis. The failures of others are their reassurance that they have the answer and that the world will soon come begging for help.
In the following video, a poster board street map is presented during a 2009 planning session during what was called the “17th Intensive Baha’i Program of Growth.”
It is commonly known that Muslims, for the most part, shun images of their prophet. They certainly do not approve of images of God, though Islám is perhaps as stained by idolatry as any religion. Muslims worship the Qurán as an uncreated being (the word of God exists before creation), they revere Muhammad as the perfect man, and they circumambulate a black stone in what is perhaps their foremost expression of worship. In addition to all that, the Qur’án itself reduces the will of God to a very specific image that can stifle the imagination.
Qur’án 2:115 (Muhammad al-Qtayfani)
But when it comes to the actual Face of God, the Qur’án anthropomorphizes God in a rather non-idolatrous way which I find quite inspired (“your mileage may vary”). It arises in the way that the Qur’án speaks of “the Face of God.” The Qur’án makes reference to this specific construct only twice. In one passage, the point is made that the Face of God can been seen everywhere, and presumably, in everything:
To God belong the East and the West; whithersoever you turn, there is the Face of God; God is All-embracing, All-knowing. [2:115]
There is an old mystical tradition in Islám, generally attributed to Sufis and Persian poets that represents God as “the beloved,” a beautiful “youth” who can sometimes border on the erotic. It seems to be that some more subversive poets such as Hafez made use of this equivocation between God and desire in taking license to celebrate wine, women, and song. Where did this sense of God as the obsession of a drunken lover come from? I haven’t studied this topic nearly enough to hope to have anything new to contribute on the matter, but here’s what I’ve got.
Constant Montald: La Houri: Black-eyed beauty, 1919
Let’s go back to the old Zoroastrian tradition of Daena, the goddess or daemon that greets each soul three days after death. The old tradition says that good souls are greeted by a beautiful, even voluptuous maiden, but bad souls are greeted by an old hag. I composed (or perhaps plagiarized) a poem on the subject years ago. It turns out that Daena, that heavenly reward for the good and punishment for the wicked is really just a reflection of the soul’s own character, expressed esthetically and sexually. The “paradise” of this model is the paradise of one’s own character. As Heraclitus is known to have said, “character is destiny.”
Though Muslims generally reckon their religion to be based upon a book, Islám is a profoundly oral religion. Even its theology is fundamentally oral. The God of Muhammad, it might reasonably be said, is something of a poet; a lyricist and vocalist.
The book that Muslims hold in such reverence as to be an object of worship is not so much something to be read as something to be recited. The book is even named “the Recitation,” and its very first word, according to the traditional chronology of the book, is “recite:”
Recite [اقرا] in the Name of thy Lord who created,
created Man of a clot of blood. (96:1)