BAHÁ'Í STUDIES REVIEW,
Volume 6, 1996|
Wisdom and dissimulation:
Susan Stiles Maneck
Bahá'u'lláh regarded the application of any of his laws as contained in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas as conditional upon the exercise of wisdom.(2) Likewise the dissemination of Bahá'í writings was limited for the same reason.(3) Shoghi Effendi, while affirming "that at the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression,"(4) found it necessary to insist that Bahá'ís temporarily submit their work for review by Bahá'í institutions before publication as a provisional measure "designed to guard and protect the Cause in its present state of infancy and growth until the day when this tender and precious plant shall have sufficiently grown to be able to withstand the unwisdom of its friends and the attacks of its enemies."(5)
Adib Taherzadeh, who has written extensively on Bahá'u'lláh's writings, describes the Bahá'í use of wisdom in these terms:
This definition, though by no means inaccurate, does not convey the pragmatic implications of term and how or why "wisdom" or hikmat came to acquire such a meaning. "Observing wisdom" in practice often involved acts which would not ordinarily be regarded as "praiseworthy." These included: denying or misleading people regarding one's Bahá'í identity, concealing inconvenient aspects of the Bahá'í teachings, and compromising certain Bahá'í principles. It is my thesis that the term "wisdom," where it refers to behaviour enjoined for protection of the Faith, has its roots deep within Iranian theology, culture and history. Its usage is not dissimilar from the inscrutable Wisdom of God as depicted in Persian religion as far back as Zoroastrianism. It ties in as well to Iranian conventions of etiquette (ta'aruf). Further, hikmat serves a function not dissimilar to the role played by taqiyyih or dissimulation in Shi'ite Islam.
Wisdom and Persian cultural norms
As was mentioned earlier, hikmat served a function within the early Iranian Bahá'í community very similar to the role of taqiyyih or dissimulation in Shi'ite Islam. Taqiyyih refers to the practice of concealing one's belief in order to avoid persecution. Such behaviour is condoned, and even required of Shi'ites who frequently live among a hostile Sunni majority. The Qur'anic verse condemning apostasy includes the words "except for those who are compelled while their hearts are firm in faith" which is used to justify this practice.(8) As in ta'aruf, a distinction is made between outward behaviour and inner conviction. Taqiyyih might involve nothing more than assuming the prayer positions of Sunni Muslims while performing obligatory prayers publicly or it might entail an actual denial of one's faith.
During the medieval period of Islamic history taqiyyih came to be practised by philosophers and mystics as well as Shi'ites in order to protect themselves against persecution. Such an approach was encouraged by even the great Sunni theologian al-Ghazali, who argued for what the renowned historian of Islam, Marshall Hodgson, has described as a "pattern of gradation and concealment of knowledge."(9) Ordinary believers were not to be given access to certain types of religious knowledge lest they misunderstand it and stumble as a result. Likewise Avicenna, the greatest of Islamic Aristotileans, would in his capacity as a qadi, or Islamic judge, condemn those who too freely popularized the teachings of Aristotle. Sufis likewise criticized al-Hallaj, the famous mystic who was crucified for asserting "I am the Truth," [Ana al-Haqq] not because the sentiment was itself heretical but because al-Hallaj was "revealing secrets" which might incline the common people towards blasphemy. Knowledge in the Islamic world came to be divided into exoteric and esoteric categories. The exoteric knowledge was accessible to all Muslims and tended to be conceived in unambiguous black and white terms. Esoteric knowledge required initiation and works containing such knowledge tended to be worded in such a way as to be unintelligible to those not already familiar with its mysteries. As Marshall Hodgson points out:
While this approach allowed for much more intellectual diversity to exist within the Islamic world than was possible in Christendom at the time, there was a price to be paid for dissimulation. The Muslim intelligentsia, in making themselves incomprehensible to the common people, sacrificed any hope of changing the direction of the community as a whole.
Wisdom in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh
In the Tablet of Medicine, as well as the Tablet of the Proof, Bahá'u'lláh pairs wisdom with eloquence or explication (hikmat va bayan), implying that one should proclaim the Cause discretely. In the case of the Tablet of the Proof, Bahá'u'lláh insisted that the believers exercise wisdom by not protesting their mistreatment at the hands of the authorities:
The injunction to "observe wisdom" was due to the dangerous situation in which Bahá'ís in Iran found themselves. In the Tablet of Medicine, Bahá'u'lláh states that the purpose of hikmat is the protection of the friends in order that they may remain within the world to make mention of the Lord of all worlds.(13)
Most commonly hikmat involved presenting the Faith to non-believers in ways which avoided controversy and ensured a positive reception. In Bahá'u'lláh's words,
Bahá'u'lláh has this meaning in mind, at times even in the Lawh-i-Hikmat, in which hikmat usually refers to Greek philosophy,
Instances where the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh exercised hikmat can be seen in the manner in which they both very gradually disclosed the nature of their station and revelation. In the case of the Báb, for instance, His title suggests He was laying claim to nothing more than being an intermediator of the Hidden Imam. Only much later did He openly proclaim himself to be the Imam Himself. Only well after that was it clear He considered Himself a Prophet bearing and independent revelation from God. Similarly Bahá'u'lláh very gradually revealed Himself to be "He Whom God shall make Manifest."
Another example of Bahá'u'lláh's exercise of this kind of wisdom can be seen in a Tablet addressed to Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl in answer to some questions raised by Manakji, a Parsi agent sent from India to Iran to ameliorate the conditions of the Zoroastrians of Iran. Manakji had asked how it could be, if all religions came from God, that they all had different laws and ordinances such that one forbade pork, while another prohibited beef. Bahá'u'lláh tells him that since the answer to this question goes against Islamic teachings, it would be contrary to wisdom to give him a direct answer, especially since Manakji had in his employ people of various religions who might chance upon this letter.(16) Instead Bahá'u'lláh alludes to the Tablet of the Divine Physician where He has said that every age has different needs and that one should examine the Bahá'í teachings as to whether they are the remedy for today's ills.(17) This perspective would have offended Muslims since they believed that each religion began with the same teachings which only subsequently became corrupted to be finally restored with Islam. In order to avoid charges of heresy, Bahá'u'lláh tries to be as discreet as possible in suggesting that the various religions have had different laws and ordinances from the start. He alludes to the necessity of feeding infants milk and not meat lest they perish. To do otherwise would be wrong and far from wisdom. Only the Manifestation of God can determine such matters.(18)
While at times hikmat involved concealing one's genuine views in situations of insecurity and possible persecution, Bahá'u'lláh at other times spoke of it in broader terms as that sagacity of spirit which ought to typify all of our human interactions at all times. This seems to be the sense in which He uses it in the following Hidden Word:
Wisdom within the Baháí community
The distinction Bahá'ís made between denying their identity as Bahá'ís and denying the validity of the Bahá'í revelation is borne out by the behaviour of Jewish Bahá'ís in Hamadan during this period. Ruhu'u'llah Mihrabkhani reports that the Jewish Bahá'ís of Hamadan in the nineteenth century, "in order to observe hikmat" went to the Presbyterian missionaries and feigned conversion to Christianity. They continued to associate themselves with the missionaries until Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl visited Hamadan and, in the course of his discussions with the missionaries, made it clear that the Jews had come to recognize Jesus as the Messiah only by virtue of having accepted the message of Bahá'u'lláh.(22) Following this and similar incidents one missionary urged others to insist that any candidate for church membership be required to specifically deny that Bahá'u'lláh was the "return" of the preceding prophet in a manner analogous to the way in which Christians understood John the Baptist to be the "return" of Elijah. The "confession" of faith recommended for baptismal candidates went as follows:
While this declaration involved no actual cursing of the Báb or Bahá'u'lláh, missionaries felt confident that no Bahá'í would make such a confession and they were quite correct.
Denying one's identity as a Bahá'í was the most extreme form of hikmat practised within the community and such behaviour ceased to be sanctioned during the ministry of Shoghi Effendi.(24) Given the extreme dangers and persecutions which Bahá'ís have faced throughout their history, that compromise and concealment would be condoned is quite understandable. The issue remains, though, as to why such acts were termed "wisdom?"
Divine wisdom and foresight
The notion of wisdom as foresight goes back as far as Zoroastrianism, the religion of pre-Islamic Iran, where it is regarded as the chief attribute which distinguishes God from the Evil One and ensures His ultimate victory. In Zoroastrianism, God is addressed as Ahura Mazda, meaning Wise Lord. During the Sassanian period when Zoroastrian thought became crystallized, Ahura Mazda was not considered omnipotent, for His power was limited by the independent existence of Ahriman, the Evil One. His sole advantage over Ahriman rested in His possession of wisdom as foresight, which Ahriman utterly lacked. When, in the Pre-existence Ahriman insisted on making war on Ahura Mazda and rejected Ahura Mazda's overtures of peace, Ahura Mazda tricked Ahriman into setting a time limit on the battle, thus inventing lineal time. Ahura Mazda with His wisdom could foresee that once a limit was set on time, evil itself would be limited and contained, and the victory of the forces of good would be assured. Ahriman, unable to foresee this outcome, agreed to the terms.
Frequently Bahá'í writings refer to divine wisdom as an act of selective concealment in order to obtain long-range benefits. Such wisdom is embedded in the very notion of Progressive Revelation, wherein God has revealed Himself not in accordance with His own Being but in accordance with the capacity of humanity to receive knowledge of Him. In The Seven Valleys, Bahá'u'lláh asserts that the one who has obtained true knowledge will apprehend "the divine wisdom in the endless Manifestations of God" and will not be mislead by the seemingly contradictory nature of God's activity in the world.(26)
An instance of such seemingly contradictory events was the discontinuance of the institution of a living Guardian at the death of Shoghi Effendi. According to the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, the Guardian of the Cause of God had the responsibility "to appoint in his own life-time him that shall become his successor, that differences may not arise after his passing..."(27) Yet Shoghi Effendi passed away without providing for a successor. As the Universal House of Justice pointed out, at Shoghi Effendi's death there were no potential candidates for this position, the Guardian having been childless and his family members having died or been expelled from the community. Consequently the House of Justice insisted:
The fact that Shoghi Effendi did not leave a will cannot be adduced as evidence of his failure to obey Bahá'u'lláhrather we should acknowledge that in his very silence there is a wisdom and a sign of his infallible guidance.(28)
On the issue of women's rights, divine wisdom, in the sense we have just discussed it, and the injunction upon Bahá'ís to observe "wisdom" in their action directly converge. While Bahá'u'lláh unequivocally proclaimed the equality of men and women,(29) in a 1902 Tablet to Corinne True, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, in answer to a question regarding the exclusion of women from the Chicago House of Justice, replied that the House of Justice, "according to the explicit text of the Law of God, is confined to men, this for a wisdom of the Lord God's, which will ere long be made manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon."(30) Seven years later, in 1909, 'Abdu'l-Bahá ruled that this exclusion applied only to the as yet unformed Universal House of Justice and allowed women in America to serve on local bodies.(31) When women in Iran, however, attempted to imitate the American Bahá'í women by discarding the veil and demanding a greater role in Bahá'í administration, 'Abdu'l-Bahá insisted that "nothing should be done contrary to wisdom." He further admonished them,
Ye need to be calm and composed, so that the work will proceed with wisdom, otherwise there will be such chaos that ye will leave everything and run away. "This newly born babe is traversing in one night the path that needeth a hundred years to tread" [A Persian proverb]. In brief, ye should now engage in matters of pure spirituality and not contend with men. Abdu'l-Bahá will tactfully take appropriate steps. Be assured. In the end thou wilt thyself exclaim, "This was indeed supreme wisdom!"(32)
'Abdu'l-Bahá's anxiety over the agitation of Iranian Bahá'í women was quite understandable. In the Middle East, where males and females typically operate in entirely separate spheres, nothing would have aroused greater antipathy from Muslims than to see Bahá'í women uncovered and moving freely and equally among men. A woman could not consult in a private meeting of an assembly with men and expect to maintain her reputation.
Bahá'u'lláh Himself provided for the progressive application of Bahá'í law for reasons of wisdom. He stated,
Indeed, the laws of God are like unto the ocean and the children of men as fish, did they but know it. However, in observing them one must exercise tact and wisdom... Since most people are feeble and far removed from the purpose of God, therefore one must observe tact and prudence under all conditions, so that nothing might happen that could cause disturbance and dissension or raise clamour among the heedless.(33)
This principle has been applied by 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi in the case of Bahá'í teachings on monogamy. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas appears to allow bigamy when it states: "Beware that ye take not unto yourselves more wives than two."(34) In an untranslated letter, 'Abdu'l-Bahá gave a believer permission to take a second wife. He also indicated that the law concerning taking no more than two wives cannot be abrogated. He noted that this law was conditional upon justice which was a condition virtually impossible to fulfill, but that 'Abdu'l-Bahá would not prevent believers from marrying a second wife if they were certain they would act with justice.(35) During the ministries of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá bigamy was practised in Bahá'í communities within the Middle East. Yet in another Tablet 'Abdu'l-Bahá stated:
Know thou that polygamy is not permitted under the law of God, for contentment with one wife hath been clearly stipulated. Taking a second wife is made dependent upon equity and justice being upheld between the two wives, under all conditions. However, observance of justice and equity towards two wives is utterly impossible. The fact that bigamy has been made dependent upon an impossible condition is clear proof of its absolute prohibition. Therefore it is not permissible for a man to have more than one wife.(36)
Shoghi Effendi later determined that this statement of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's would be considered normative within the Bahá'í community.(37) A letter from the Research Department of the World Centre on this topic suggests that 'Abdu'l-Bahá "introduced the question of monogamy gradually in accordance with the principles of wisdom and the progressive unfoldment of His purpose."(38)
As we have seen, the term wisdom in the Bahá'í writings, whether it refers to inscrutable divine wisdom or the caution and tact with which Bahá'ís are urged to conduct themselves for the protection of the Faith usually carries with it the connotation of foresight. In practice, the word could be used within the community to refer to acts which seemingly contradicted some of the basic principles of the Faith but which in the long term were seen as serving its best interests. Such acts of note include the willingness on the part of believers to deny their Bahá'í identity under persecution, the temporary exercise of censorship, and compromises made in regards to gender issues.
Wisdom and scholarship
This issue looms especially large for Bahá'í academics and scholars. While the Bahá'í community in general, and the Persian believers in particular, might wish for the Bahá'í academic scholars to confine themselves to topics which edify the community and further the expansion of the Cause, individual scholars often feel that their research should be guided only by the principle of methodological agnosticism embodied in the words: "He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth."(39) In this connection scholars may find it most productive to shine their light in darkened corners, often much to the dismay of the faith community.
In connection with this issue, it should be recognized that Bahá'u'lláh laid a special burden upon the learned in connection with the exercise of wisdom. In the Lawh-i-Maqsud, Bahá'u'lláh discusses the way in which the learned should "impart guidance unto the people."(40) "No man of wisdom," He asserts, "can demonstrate his knowledge save by means of words." "Moreover," He continues, "words and utterances should be both impressive and penetrating. However, no word will be infused with these two qualities unless it be uttered wholly for the sake of God and with due regard unto the exigencies of the occasion and the people." Bahá'u'lláh goes on to say,
Elsewhere in the same Tablet Bahá'u'lláh reiterates the connection of wisdom with tolerance. He says, "The heaven of divine wisdom is illumined with the two luminaries of consultation and compassion"(42) and elsewhere, "The heaven of true understanding shineth resplendent with the light of two luminaries: tolerance and righteousness."(43)
This Tablet suggests that a number of factors should be considered when judging the "wisdom" of our work. First and foremost is our purpose. It is our work done for the sake of God or are other motives in operation? Secondly, we must consider our audience. To whom do we address our work and under what circumstances? Finally we must consider our tone. Is it reflective of the forbearance, tolerance, and compassion which Bahá'u'lláh urges us to exhibit? Is it conveyed in such a spirit as to be conducive of further discourse and consultation?
I propose no easy answers to the dilemma imposed upon the scholar who strives to adhere both to the standards of wisdom and truth. "Observing wisdom" and the "independent investigation of truth" are both principles enjoined by Bahá'u'lláh. But two things must be kept in mind in connection with this issue. First wisdom, when it involves a temporary suspension of a Bahá'í principle, must be always regarded as an emergency measure which should cease once the circumstances which created it no longer operate. Secondly, wisdom, as I have established, carries with it the connotation of farsightedness. Acts accord with wisdom, not to the extent to which they make the rank and file Bahá'ís feel comfortable, but to the extent to which they further the Cause of God in the long term. In this respect, it must be recognized that many actions Bahá'ís have taken in the name of hikmat have proved to be short-sighted indeed.
Consider again the case of the Jewish Bahá'ís of Hamadan who in the name of hikmat pretended to become Presbyterians. This action aroused the antagonism of Dr Sa'id Khan, a Kurdish convert to Christianity. Convinced by the duplicity of those Bahá'ís that the Bahá'í Faith was a religion based on deception, he went on to collect as much "dirt" on the Cause as he could. The material he collected was eventually turned over to Rev. William McElwee Miller and became the basis of his two books attacking the Faith.(44) Even those missionaries who, unlike Miller, had no investment in converting others came to see the Bahá'ís as a people without integrity. Some of these, such as T. Cuyler Young, went on to become eminent scholars in America and their attitudes have spread to academics throughout the country.
I could name several other cases, much more recent than the one cited, where prominent persons have rejected the Cause as a result of actions taken and policies made in the name of hikmat. Bahá'ís must exercise constant vigilance to ensure that hikmat not be used to obtain short-term gains or avoid immediate conflicts without considering its long-term consequences. Such actions are, in fact, contrary to wisdom.
Copyright © 1996, Susan Stiles Maneck / Association for Baha'i Studies (English-Speaking Europe)