The Face of God

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

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]

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Bahá’u’lláh and the Houri of the Deep

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.

La Houri: Black-eyed beauty , 1919

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.”

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In the Beginning was the Voice

Qur'an 96:1: Recite in the name of your Lord

Recite in the name of your Lord

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)

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Bahá’í Calendar Redux

The Bahá’í Calendar, arguably the least lunar calendar there is, has recently been given a lunar calculation of its own. Because the founders of the Bábí and Bahá’í religions were reported to have been born a day apart on the Islamic calendar (though two years apart), the Bahá’í leaders in Israel figured it would be nice to make this happen on their calendar. To do this, they marked the 8th new moon after No-Rúz in Tehran as the one most likely to be close to the time of year when the two prophets were born, and then had one prophet’s birth commemorated on the first day after that new moon and the other prophet’s birth commemorated on the day after that.

The commemorations will no longer occur on the actual dates of birth on the solar cycle (October 20 and November 12) or even the Islamic calendar, but rather, they will take place on different dates from year to year, as is done with Easter and Good Friday.

Calendars are an important tool for scheduling our activities. A farmer might use a solar calendar to plan a harvest. A Bedouin might use a lunar calendar to plan a journey across the desert. Many calendars are a hybrid between solar and lunar so that they can be used in accord with seasonal and lunar cycles. The Gregorian calendar, for instance, is precisely calculated to remain synchronized with the seasons. It is not so precise with respect to lunar cycles, each of its months being about a day too long to keep pace with the phases of the moon. Still, a Gregorian month can be used to loosely approximate a lunar month.

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America’s Last Chance

The year was 1966. The times they were a-changin’. In the Bahá’í universe, the pieces were falling into place. The first Universal House of Justice had been elected, and the world seemed to be ready for new answers and new leaders. It was the time of Martin Luther King Jr. and Muhammad Ali. Malcolm X had recently been assassinated. Black Americans were asserting their status and rights as full citizens. The time was right to introduce Black America to Bahá’u’lláh’s message of racial equality and unity.

I was just a year old. My family moved from south Los Angeles to Saint Helena Island, just off the coast of South Carolina. We lived in the town of Frogmore, the location of legendary Penn Center. Saint Helena Island, midway between Charleston and Savannah, had once been a sanctuary for free blacks (Union territory during the Civil War), and the location of a school for the same. It remains an active cultural heritage center to this day. In the 1960s, Penn Center was a conference center for some of the leaders of Black America. My parents even joined in a meeting attended by Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and—I daresay—even Joan Baez. Continue reading

My Life as a Fanatic

When I was a young man, I turned toward the Qiblah and prayed to Allah. I fasted for a month every year, and I refused all alcoholic beverages. I exchanged Arabic greetings with my fellow believers. Of course I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where I lived for a year and studied Arabic so that I could better understand the words of Allah. You might have found me carrying around a copy of the Holy Qur’án—just in case I might have some free reading time. And, yes: I was a virgin, though perhaps not entirely by choice.

If you had asked me back then whether I was a Muslim, I would have denied it, for I was a member of a Shi’ite splinter group that refuses to be identified as Muslims. It’s a long story—let’s just say that it’s hazardous to be called a heretic in Iran. But when I look back at my youth I say, “what a Muslim!” Continue reading

Dear Mr. Ayatollah

Iran: Ethnicities and Sects

Dear Mr. Ayatollah,

Some time ago, a close Bahá’í relation of mine insinuated that I had encouraged you to persecute her fellow believers in Iran. This, I suppose, she did because I have often criticized her religion, having once been a Bahá’í myself. I was very troubled by this assertion of hers. I would hate to think that I had ever encouraged you to persecute anyone, so I am presently writing you to make certain that you have not misunderstood my statements on the subject.

To be frank, I consider your treatment of the Bahá’ís of Iran inhumane, unjust, and thoroughly detrimental to the social welfare of the people of Iran. I consider it divisive and counterproductive.

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The Grand Old Iranian Feast

With the great Iranian harvest festival approaching, I’ve got food on my mind.

Okay. I often have food on my mind.

But I’m not alone. Zoroastrians are religious about food, and who can blame them? There are, by name at least, seventeen feast days on the Zoroastrian calendar. Eight of these feasts are observed religiously. Imagine having eight Thanksgivings throughout the year!

A Tajik 'No Rooz' feast

A Tajik No Rooz feast

And no, they don’t fast.

After the harvest feast of September comes Mehregan, a particularly significant feast. It is also a harvest feast, by virtue of its placement on the second day of October. It is the Feast of Mehr, or Mithra. Mehr represents two things in the Iranian mind: ethically, faithfulness to contracts, and symbolically, the sun. Thinking of the crucial role the sun plays in the harvest, and thinking of agriculture as a crucial contract with the earth, one can easily see that Mehr is as good a celestial power as any to be recognized at the onset of Autumn.

Not to suggest that there aren’t other good times to throw a feast. The ancient Iranians also had a Spring feast, a feast for the rains, a Summer feast, a round-up feast (yes, like the cowboys have), a Winter fire feast, and an “All Souls Feast” at the year’s end.

Each Zoroastrian congregation celebrated these festivals by attending religious services early in the day, devoted always to Ahura Mazda, and then by gathering in joyful assemblies, with feasts at which food was eaten communally which had been blessed at the services. Rich and poor met together on these occasions, which were times of general goodwill, when quarrels were made up and friendships renewed and strengthened.

Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians

As I have mentioned more than once before, I was raised in an Iranian religion that has little regard for its pre-Islamic Iranian heritage. I never heard of these feasts as a Bahá’í. If my family had a feast day, that was Thanksgiving. I really liked Thanksgiving. Turkey Day was right up there with Halloween and Independence Day. Thanksgiving was one of those Western holidays that we were free to observe because of its lack of any strong ties to Christianity. It would have been a slippery slope. It seems harmless enough to have a Christmas dinner, but next thing you know you’re fasting for Ramadan. You have to nip these things in the bud!

I attended my first Zoroastrian New Year’s (No Rooz) celebration last Spring, and I’ve been meaning to write something down about what a pleasant experience it was. I went to the fire temple first, with no real intention of joining the festivities in the community hall. I enjoy the fire temple, and I’d go much more often if it were in a more convenient location. It’s a quiet, casual experience. One is expected to remove one’s shoes and wear a cap, but that’s not much to ask. I wouldn’t be comfortable tracking dirt in there anyway, and though the cap is a bit formal for my general liking, it gives me a comfortable sense of—how should I put it—spiritual discipline.

As for the festivities, well, I’m hesitant to jump into the fray with a lot of Iranian strangers (and thus they’ve remained strangers over the years), but once invited, I generally enjoy myself. And what’s not to like? Good food, song, dance, and conversation.

Someone’s bound to point out that Bahá’ís do have observances which they call “feasts”. The Bahá’í Calendar features nineteen meetings which they call “Nineteen Day Feasts.” These Bahá’í “feasts” may have been originally inspired by Iranian culture, but they have little in common with Zoroastrian feasts, or any other traditional feast, for that matter: Bahá’í “feasts” are not really feasts at all.

The 19-day Feast is administrative in function …

Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian

The Bahá’í feast is primarily an administrative event. It does generally include food in its “social portion” as any good committee meeting would, but the meeting is generally a rather exclusive affair, being limited to Bahá’ís who have not lost their administrative rights, hence these Bahá’í feasts tend to exclude non-Bahá’ís and Bahá’ís without said administrative rights.

The Zoroastrian feasts are quite literally feasts; traditionally an opportunity for the fortunate to share the bounty of their good fortune with the less fortunate. The Bahá’í feast, though it generally involves food, is more often described as a feast of spiritual sustenance — in a distinctively administrative sense so characteristic of Bahá’í practice.

Further Reading

John Walbridge, The Nineteen Day Feast

The Heritage Institute: Gahambar

This Message Will Self-Destruct

This is a continuation of the What’s Wrong With Islám thread. I’m not satisfied with where I left it.

I have more than once voiced the opinion that Islám can only move forward by disposing of its idols. This, I believe, can be done by Muslims without forfeiting their religious heritage. They must simply recognize that no aspect of Islám is unchangeable, perfect, immaculate, or infallible. This recognition can be achieved within the context of Islamic belief: one need only recognize passages in the Qur’án that assert that:

  • No one fully understands the Qur’án but God.
  • The face of God is in everything.
  • Muhammad was only a man, with flaws like any other.

If that’s not enough, there’s the generally agreed-upon point that the Qur’án cannot be understood fully without reference to less immaculate source materials such as Hadith and histories.

Based upon this, Islám can be permitted to adapt and grow, and not merely continue as a contest between moderates and fundamentalists. If Islám could be inspired by the idea that no man has a monopoly on truth while retaining its heritage of faith, it could be permitted to rise above its heritage of violence and persecution.

The problem I see with this vision is that, when I read the Qur’án, I see frequent reminders of what made Islám so idolatrous. The Qur’án is saturated with judgmental statements that draw a vast gap between believers and unbelievers. Unbelievers will burn in Hell eternally, and it’s nobody’s fault but their own. This may not mean that Muslims are permitted to mistreat infidels, but it does establish a broad moral distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is not so easy to simply see Islám as iconoclasm, because Islám is all about submission to a specific idol. Its iconoclasm is not fundamental; it is derivative. Muslims, taken as a group, never smashed idols for the sake of some lofty unitarian ideal; rather, they smashed idols for the benefit of their own idols (Alláh, Muhammad, the Qurán, etc.).

We might be able to imagine an Islám that transcends its own idolatrous legacy, but I fear that Islám would need to do more than admit the fallibility of the Qur’án; it would need to renounce the tribalistic, sectarian, violent, judgmental, and idolatrous aspects of the Qur’án. Given this, would I be right to encourage Muslims to follow such a path, when it would be more honest of me to encourage them to simply abandon the superstitions of the past and think for themselves?

I would like to see a day when the ultimate expression of Islamic conviction would be the ritual burning of a single Qur’án. That wouldn’t prevent religious violence or gender discrimination, but it might send a clear message that Islám might just be capable of being self-critical. It would be a start—but I don’t see even that happening. Maybe some minority group of Muslims might come to the fore and give us hope by committing such a criminally noble act. They would be doing so at their own peril, of course.

Our Daily Bread: Baha’i Hair Care

Here are several of my favorite passages from Bahá’u’lláh’s “Most Holy Book.” I think these passages open a window into the future of Bahá’í fashion.

it is not seemly to let the hair pass beyond the limit of the ears. Thus hath it been decreed by Him Who is the Lord of all worlds.

please read this paragraph. I know your eyes want to gaze at the photo below, but please resist that temptation.

I imagine that Bahá’í hippies will not have long hair like the Founding Fathers of the Bahá’í Faith, or rather if they do, they might use those aboriginal-style ear lobe inserts to extend their ears as far as they desire to grow their hair.

The Look of Rock’s Future

… or maybe those long-in-the-back new wave hairdos from the ’80s will be permissible. I remember when the guys in Rush all had their hair cut for Grace Under Pressure. I was so impressed by their kosher fashion that I sent them a copy of The Promise of World Peace! That was a little embarrassing, them looking so extremely anti-homophobic and me being such a pawn, but it hardly diminishes the wisdom of keeping one’s ears clear of overgrowth.

… I mean, unless you’ve got Geddy Lee’s ears. Yikes.

Here’s another window into the future:

God hath decreed, in token of His mercy unto His creatures, that semen is not unclean. Yield thanks unto Him with joy and radiance …

I think the inner significance of this is that Bahá’í Rastafarians of the future might glue their modest dreadlocks with semen, or perhaps when future Bahá’ís need a little mousse, they can come by it in an environmentally responsible manner.

I’m talking about hair mousse, of course.

Finally, here’s one the strikes close to home for yours truly:

Shave not your heads; God hath adorned them with hair, and in this there are signs from the Lord of creation to those who reflect upon the requirements of nature. He, verily, is the God of strength and wisdom.

Geeze. Did he really need to use the word reflect?

Observe that the Lizard Man does not shave his head.

Unfortunately, men of the future will not be able to conceal their bald spots by shaving their heads, so I suppose bald guys will cease reproducing and will go extinct.

It’s a little sad, but all for the betterment of the species, I guess.