Our Daily Bread: Flamin’ Metaphors

Two of the letters that Bahá’u’lláh wrote to Zoroastrian Bahá’ís touched upon the theme of fire, the primary symbol of Zoroastrianism. In one letter, he simply mentioned fire several times, along with several other Zoroastrian themes (light, deeds, charity, gardens, water, and purity). There’s a lot of key terms thrown in, but not much food for thought, IMHO. In the other letter, he goes into greater depth, so we have cut today’s slice from that letter:

O friends of God! Incline your inner ears to the voice of the peerless and self-subsisting Lord, that He may deliver you from the bonds of entanglement and the depths of darkness and enable you to attain the eternal light. Ascent and descent, stillness and motion, have come into being through the will of the Lord of all that hath been and shall be. The cause of ascent is lightness, and the cause of lightness is heat. Thus hath it been decreed by God. The cause of stillness is weight and density, which in turn are caused by coldness.

Though there are indications that fire is an important metaphor to Bahá’u’lláh as a source of light, the only explicit statement in this letter regarding the metaphorical value of fire regards it as a source of heat, motion, and presumably energy in general.

Bahá’u’lláh continues:

And since He hath ordained heat to be the source of motion and ascent and the cause of attainment to the desired goal, He hath therefore kindled with the mystic hand that Fire that dieth not and sent it forth into the world, that this divine Fire might, by the heat of the love of God, guide and attract all mankind to the abode of the incomparable Friend.

Bahá’u’lláh appears to be under the impression that these metaphors have not occurred to anyone before him:

This is the mystery enshrined in your Book that was sent down aforetime, a mystery which hath until now remained concealed from the eyes and hearts of men.

Note the phrasing “your Book,” which seems indicative of some degree of estrangement, or at least displacement, and lack of perfect camaraderie. This was not the only time that Bahá’u’lláh spoke of the Avesta as such. In fact, that’s the only way I’ve ever seen him refer to the Avesta. Did he ever refer to the Qur’án as “your Book?”. Bahá’u’lláh evidently regarded himself as a Muslim, but I digress.

I think it’s a safe bet that, had Bahá’u’lláh acquainted himself more with Zoroastrian scholarship, he may have been exposed to a number of other less obvious fire metaphors, such as those associated with purification, assessment of purity, transformation, transmutation, moral truth, and order. Not that he didn’t delve into such themes, he just didn’t appear to recognize their relationship to the fire that the Avesta calls “Asha”.

One of my favorite fire metaphors is the Logos image of Heraclitus, a Greek subject of the Persian Empire who was quite probably familiar with Zoroastrianism, as well as Armenian fire worship.

Our Daily Bread: Lord Wisdom

Zoroaster, that Iranian prophet of note, is recognized by Bahá’ís as one of the great “Manifestations of God”, and one of only three named non-Abrahamic so-called Manifestations. I say “named”, though I don’t know of any case where Bahá’u’lláh actually named any of them. I do know of a case where he mentioned Zoroastrians and Zoroaster, but only in quoting or paraphrasing questions set to him.

What is peculiar about the lack of any mention of Zoroaster by Bahá’u’lláh is that Bahá’u’lláh was a Persian, with some evident reason to concern himself with the ancient faith of his motherland, and did seem to concern himself with the conversion of Zoroastrians to the Baha’i Faith.

In 2006, various letters by Bahá’u’lláh to Zoroastrians and Bahá’ís of Zoroastrian origin were published under the title Tabernacle of Unity. Given the importance of Zoroastrianism to me, I intend to cut a number of slices from that volume. The first letter in that compilation—which I like to think as the superior Lawh-i-Hikmat—is the source and subject of todays’ slice:

The Tongue of Wisdom proclaimeth: He that hath Me not is bereft of all things. Turn ye away from all that is on earth and seek none else but Me. I am the Sun of Wisdom and the Ocean of Knowledge. I cheer the faint and revive the dead. I am the guiding Light that illumineth the way. I am the royal Falcon on the arm of the Almighty. I unfold the drooping wings of every broken bird and start it on its flight.

It may be of some importance to note that the name of the Zoroastrian God is “Wisdom” (Mazda), and that, given the Zoroastrian emphasis on freewill, intelligence, and conscience, this is no arbitrary coincidence. From an impartial standpoint, it is hard to know whether Bahá’u’lláh was aware of this fact, but he was Persian, after all, and the foremost scholar in his service, Mirza Abu’l-Fadl, was employed in the service of the Zoroastrian to whom this letter was addressed. If we read the paragraph in this light, we might interpret it as an exaltation of wisdom to the rank of God.

It so happens that we can determine the context of this passage from the second letter of the volume, where the question to which the passage replies is cited:

Some maintain that whatsoever is in accordance with the dictates of nature and of the intellect must needs be both permissible and compulsory in the divine law, and conversely that one should refrain from observing that which is incompatible with these standards. Others believe that whatsoever hath been enjoined by the divine law and its blessed Author should be accepted without rational proof or natural evidence and obeyed without question or reservation, … Kindly indicate which of these positions is acceptable.

Given what I’ve already indicated about the general character of Zoroastrian belief, its comparatively non-scriptural (liturgical) origins, and the fact that much of what it teaches is accompanied by justifications (however outdated, obscure, or absurd), it is reasonable to presume that the former position is the Zoroastrian position. The latter can be presumed to represent the Islamic position.

In light of this, it seems pertinent to observe that Bahá’u’lláh continues as follows (key phrase and Zoroastrian key words in bold):

The incomparable Friend saith: The path to freedom hath been outstretched; hasten ye thereunto. The wellspring of wisdom is overflowing; quaff ye therefrom. Say: O well-beloved ones! The tabernacle of unity hath been raised; regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Verily I say, whatsoever leadeth to the decline of ignorance and the increase of knowledge hath been, and will ever remain, approved in the sight of the Lord of creation.

The Zoroastrian mantra, if there is any, is: good thoughts; good words; good deeds. Bahá’u’lláh elaborates, pointing out that acquired knowledge must be applied:

In this day the choicest fruit of the tree of knowledge is that which serveth the welfare of humanity and safeguardeth its interests.

He also says that words have no influence without the support of action:

O people! Words must be supported by deeds, for deeds are the true test of words. Without the former, the latter can never quench the thirst of the yearning soul, nor unlock the portals of vision before the eyes of the blind.

A little paradoxically, he asserts that words have great influence in and of themselves:

The Lord of celestial wisdom saith: A harsh word is even as a sword thrust; a gentle word as milk. The latter leadeth the children of men unto knowledge and conferreth upon them true distinction.

What does he say about “good thoughts”? Perhaps all this talk of wisdom covers that.

I do not believe that we can reasonably conclude that these statements express the fundamentals of Bahá’u’lláh’s religion. The picture, unfortunately, is far from that simple, but letters like this one are encouraging to the Western liberals and Zoroastrians-in-spirit among the Bahá’ís. That should come as no surprise, given that this letter was addressed to a Zoroastrian. Regrettably, the tone of Bahá’u’lláh’s follow-up letter is quite different.

To be continued …

Religion and Conscience

Religion is often juxtaposed against conscience. There is a good reason for this: religion is truth that descends upon man, whereas conscience is truth that emerges from within man.

That said, it should not be maintained that moral intuition is intrinsically antagonistic to faith. The Zoroastrian religion uses conscience synonymously with religion—and quite literally: the Avestan word for religion, “Daena” (akin to the Persian-Arabic “Din”), is also the Avestan word for conscience.

“Conscience” has two related meanings. First, it is a moral intuition (literally, a “knowing”). Secondly, it is a sense of shame. In religious circles, the latter usage is often employed, inasmuch as moral intuition is often rejected. Zoroastrianism appears to use the concept in both senses.

In Christianity, there is of course plenty of shame, but though men are seen as flawed, conscience is treated more as a moral intuition than a capacity for shame:

When the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another … —Epistle of Paul to the Romans

And again:

Love worketh no ill to his neighbor: love therefore is the fulfilment of the law. —Epistle of Paul to the Romans

From such sayings of Paul, “examination of conscience” has become orthodox Catholic practice. It does not presume a state of guilt, but rather presumes a capacity to distinguish right from wrong:

Directly, this examination is concerned only with the will, that is, with the good or bad intention that inspires one’s thoughts, words, and actions. — Catholic Encyclopedia: Examination of Conscience

Again, some other scriptures focus more on incapacity and shame. This appears to be the case with Baha’u’llah, who emphasized the Judeo-Islamic notion of religion as revelation of and adherence to divine law.

Regarding the incapacity of man, Baha’u’llah said:

Man is unable to comprehend that which hath streamed forth from the Pen of Glory and is recorded in His heavenly Books. Men at all times and under all conditions stand in need of one to exhort them, guide them and to instruct and teach them. —Lawh-i-Maqsud

Regarding fear and shame:

The fear of God hath ever been a sure defence and a safe stronghold for all the peoples of the world. It is the chief cause of the protection of mankind, and the supreme instrument for its preservation. Indeed, there existeth in man a faculty which deterreth him from, and guardeth him against, whatever is unworthy and unseemly, and which is known as his sense of shame. This, however, is confined to but a few; all have not possessed and do not possess it. —Words of Paradise

The Glories of God

The Pahlavi term for the Glory of God, “Farrah” (originally the Avestan “Khvarenah”), is sometimes translated in Arabic-Persian as nūr (“light”):

Fundamental to the concept of khvarenah are its connections with light and fire, attested in the root from which it is derived, khvar (“to burn, to glow”), which is probably … connected with the same root as hvar, “sun” (Duchesne-Guillemin, 1963, pp. 19–31). This explains why khvarenah is sometimes translated in Greek as doxa (“glory”) and in Arabic-Persian as nūr (“light”). —Encyclopedia of Religion

The Zoroastrian Faravahar, thought by some to represent the “Glory of God”

Though this concept of divine glory, light, and bounty was dominant in the native religion of Iran, there is little or no indication that the Iranian nobleman and prophet Mirza Husayn ‘Ali Nuri was consciously aware of it when he was given the Arabic title Baha’ (Glory) by his religious leader Sayyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi (the Bab). The nobleman of Nur later extended that title to Baha’u’llah, “Glory of God”.

We might well wonder how such a coincidence occurred, that a man’s title might correspond so well with the name of the home town of his ancestors, but this ought to come as no surprise, for the name of his ancestral home was part of his name from birth. When the Bab heard his name end in Nuri, the name Baha’ must have come naturally to the Prophet of Shiraz.

Shoghi Rabani made much of the correspondence between his great-grandfather’s ancestral home and spiritual title, reporting in his history God Passes By that Bahá’u’lláh, when asked to report his name and origin,

… spoke with majesty and power these words:“My name is Bahá’u’lláh (Light of God), and My country is Núr (Light). Be ye apprized of it.”

Of course Bahá’u’lláh didn’t have any control over the fact that he was born a nobleman from Nur, so the fact that he had such an auspicious ancestry might be seen as divine providence, but it might also be seen as a circumstance that might give a man an elevated sense of personal destiny; that is, it might be seen as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Though I don’t believe anything supernatural was involved in the naming of Bahá’u’lláh, I have not counted out the power of cultural values. In a land with such a history of fire and sun worship, where the “Glory of God” was once one of the central concepts of the dominant religion, is it too much of a stretch to assert that this name Bahá’u’lláh is a subconscious expression of Iranian heritage?