What is a Philosophic Understanding of the Baha’i Writings
And What Is It Good For?
Although there are numerous ways of studying the Baha’i Writings – for example, theological, historical, textual and thematic – the development of philosophical approaches to the Writings has, in our view, has been rather slow and uneven. Very few authors have consistently made a philosophical understanding of the Writings the focal point of their work.1 In our view, greater efforts in this pursuit are needed to gain the enormous benefits a philosophic approach to the Writings can offer not only for Baha’is but also for scholars of religious studies.
To contextualize our discussion, let us examine what the Writings themselves say about philosophy. ‘Abdu’l-Baha says,
All mankind must be given a knowledge of science and philosophy; that is, as much as may be deemed necessary. All cannot be scientists or philosophers but each should be educated according to his needs and deserts.2
He also says, ]I]n this age, the peoples of the world need the arguments of reason.3 In effect, ‘Abdu’l-Baha anticipates Mortimer Adler’s dictum that “Philosophy is everybody’s business!”4 The use of the imperative words “must” and “needs” makes it clear that there is some degree of obligation for everyone to receive a measure of philosophical training, i.e. everyone should have a mind trained in careful, systematic thinking, analysis, basic logic and inferential reasoning, and forming coherent arguments. Without these basic skills, people will more readily fall prey to fallacious, irrational arguments, emotional appeals and other propaganda techniques often employed by the clerics and imitators of the past. In the modern age – and to prepare for Baha’u’llah’s new world order – these mental skills to see through these false arguments and beliefs. Consequently, they are necessary, not optional as indicated by ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Moreover, a philosophical approach also requires the habit of questioning so that each individual can take part in the independent investigation of truth to the best of his/her ability. The existence of a Feast of Questions re-enforces how important the habit of questioning is in Baha’u’llah’s dispensation.
A philosophic understanding of the Writings also helps each believer in
Investigating the truth for themselves and in developing a complete world-view based on the Writings. A world-view is a theory or model of reality, a set of ideas, personal beliefs and attitudes that shape the way we interpret reality. Thus, our world-view also influences our feelings and the kind of things about which we develop strong feelings, i.e. our likes and dislikes. Our beliefs about morality, beauty, justice, wisdom, truth, value as well as the constituents, structure and nature of reality are shaped by our world-view.
When we engage in a philosophic study of the Baha’i Writings, we shall find it easier to develop a world-view that is logically and coherently derived from the Texts. After all, a self-contradictory and disjointed world view with tenuous relationships to the Texts will not only serve us poorly but will also make it more difficult to teach and defend the Baha’i revelation and to dialogue deeply with other faiths. Possessing a coherent world-view also helps us to interpret and make sense of the events happening around us because we will have a clear and consistent perspective from which to inspect them. We shall refer to this subject below.
1.1: What the Baha’i Writings Say about Philosophy
Notwithstanding the Baha’u’llah’s alleged criticism that philosophy begins and ends in words,5 Shoghi Effendi provides direct evidence to the contrary. He writes,
Philosophy, as you will study it and later teach it, is certainly not one of the sciences that begins and ends in words. Fruitless excursions into metaphysical hair- splittings is meant, not a sound branch of learning like philosophy.6
Clearly, what Shoghi Effendi rejects is a certain way or school of philosophizing in which affected and unnatural word play and language have a dominant role. One thinks of late medieval Thomism7 or contemporary postmodernism-deconstruction8 in this regard. Elsewhere, he adds,
It is hoped that all the Bahá’í students will follow the noble example you have set before them and will, henceforth, be led to investigate and analyse the principles of the Faith and to correlate them with the modern aspects of philosophy and science. 9
Obviously, the Guardian wishes us to keep in touch with new developments in mankind’s intellectual progress. The reason why is rather obvious: if Baha’is are out of touch with developments in science and philosophy, they will not be able to make the Baha’i teachings part of the public discourse on these subjects – and thereby, they will close the doors to many teaching opportunities. We must always remember that what happens in academic science and philosophy sooner or later makes its way to the street level, to politics, to law and to social practice and general belief.
Elsewhere, the Guardian re-emphasizes the need to engage with contemporary thought:
The Cause needs more Bahá’í scholars, people who not only are devoted to it and believe in it and are anxious to tell others about it, but also who have a deep grasp of the Teachings and their significance, and who can correlate its beliefs with the current thoughts and problems of the people of the world. 10
Finally, he states,
If the Baha’is want to be really effective in teaching the Cause they need to be much better informed and able to discuss intelligently, intellectually, the present condition of the world and its problems. We need Bahá’í scholars, not only people far, far more deeply aware of what our teachings really are, but also well-read and well-educated people, capable of correlating our teachings to the current thoughts of the leaders of society.
A philosophic approach to the Baha’i Writings is ideally suited to fulfilling Shoghi Effendi’s directive to correlate the Texts with contemporary thought and, thereby, make the teachings part of contemporary discourse. This, of course, also provides new opportunities for making the teachings better known.
2: Clarifying Our Terms
To explain a philosophic approach to the Writings, it is best to begin by clarifying our terms. First, who is a philosopher? We believe Mortimer Adler is absolutely correct when he says “Philosophy is everybody’s business!”11 As we have seen above, ‘Abdu’l-Baha agrees. In the broad sense, everyone is a philosopher to one degree or another. Everyone – and especially teenagers and young adults – asks basic philosophic questions about the value, meaning and purpose of life, about our ultimate personal and collective destiny, (im)mortality, about ethics and justice or fairness, the existence or non-existence of God, the nature of good and evil, beauty (nobody intentionally makes their home unattractive to themselves), sex and gender identity, and social duties. Not only does everyone deal with these questions but everyone answers them in one way or another though not always with the same depth and sophistication. The vital difference among people is whether they are conscious or unconscious of such reflections and the degree and consistency with which they pursue these inquiries and develop their ideas.
In a specific sense, philosophers are those who do not take things at face value. A philosopher is anyone who looks at the world analytically, i.e. with a ‘questioning eye’ to look beneath appearances to discover, among other things, hidden connections, similarities, distinctions, errors in reasoning, consequences and patterns. The Writings refer to this as the independent investigation of truth and even celebrate it with a specific feast – the Feast of Questions.
In addition to their analytic functions, some philosophers also exercise a synthetic or creative function in the development of world-views by which to interpret reality. Their world-view is the framework within which they develop concepts of good, truth, justice, beauty, spirit, human nature, non-human nature, reality and so on. These concepts are explained and justified in terms of the philosopher’s world-view. Among the famous philosophers who have developed a world-view are Plato, Aristotle, Nagarjuna, Lao Tze, Hegel and Whitehead.
Finally, whatever their other differences, philosophers share two other convictions. First is the conviction that reason is essential to philosophy, and that philosophical explanations must in some way or another lead to rational explanations. “Abdu’l-Baha emphasizes clear rational thinking because he does not want us to fall prey to “intellectual maladies,”12 i.e. distortions of thought that are prevalent in our time. As we shall see below, the Baha’i Writings place an enormous emphasis on rationality, starting with the definition of the “human spirit” as the “rational soul".13 Baha’u’llah says,
Consider the rational faculty with which God hath endowed the essence of man. Examine thine own self, and behold how thy motion and stillness, thy will and purpose, thy sight and hearing, thy sense of smell and power of speech, and whatever else is related to, or transcendeth, thy physical senses or spiritual perceptions, all proceed from, and owe their existence to, this same faculty14
The physical senses as well as whatever “transcend[s] thy physical senses or spiritual perceptions” depend on the “rational faculty.” In other words, reason includes and goes beyond the physical senses and is applicable even to spiritual matters. Bahá'u'lláh’s statement also makes it clear that the spiritual aspects of our being are dependent on or informed by the “rational faculty” and, therefore, influenced by it. The conclusion is clear: reason is an integral part of human nature and attempts to deny it violate the human essence. Indeed, because reason is essential to human nature, even arguments to ‘disprove’ reason must be presented rationally to be understood. Without reason, philosophy degenerates into free-style opinionating which is as legitimate as philosophy as long as it is not confused with philosophy itself which requires the intellectual discipline of reason.
Second, unless they wish their own arguments to be logically self-refuting, philosophers are motivated by the search for truth, i.e. an understanding of ‘how things really are in the world.’ Even skeptical philosophies – such a postmodernism and
deconstructionism – which ostensibly deny the quest for truth or even the existence of truth do so in the belief that what they describe is ‘how the world really is.’15 For example, ‘slippage’ is accepted as a genuine, i.e. true feature of language and ‘destabilization’ can reveal actually existing levels of meaning that are otherwise hidden. Other postmodernists such as Foucault see ‘power’ as the hidden feature in virtually all human activities and endeavor to bring these hidden power-relations to light. Despite Foucault’s denials, he obviously believes that he and his followers have revealed some true feature of the world and human interaction.
Third, according to the Writings, reason is necessary for faith and belief, even for the beliefs held by the heart. ‘Abdu’l-Bah asserts,
If religious belief and doctrine is at variance with reason, it proceeds from the limited mind of man and not from God; therefore, it is unworthy of belief and not deserving of attention; the heart finds no rest in it, and real faith is impossible. How can man believe that which he knows to be opposed to reason? Is this possible? Can the heart accept that which reason denies? Reason is the first faculty of man and the religion of God is in harmony with it.16
In a similar vein, he states, “among the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh is that religion must be in conformity with science and reason, so that it may influence the hearts of men.”17 The need for reason leads `Abdu'l-Bahá to dismiss the traditional Christian account of the Trinity as “unreasonable and evidently wrong”18 because of its self-contradictory nature. If it were true,
[t]he foundations of the Religion of God would rest upon an illogical proposition which the mind could never conceive, and how can the mind be forced to believe a thing which it cannot conceive? A thing cannot be grasped by the intelligence except when it is clothed in an intelligible form; otherwise, it is but an effort of the imagination.19
3: What is a Baha’i Philosopher?
The preceding discussion leads us to the question, ‘What do we mean by the term ‘Baha’i philosopher’? Can there even be such a thing? If, by this term, we mean a person whose philosophical ideas have a privileged or normative status among Baha’is, then the answer is clear: there can be no Baha’i philosophers. On the other hand, if we mean a person who studies the Writings from a philosophical perspective, then there can – in potential – be as many Baha’i philosophers as Baha’is.
In our view, a Baha’i philosopher is one who explicitly studies the Writings in regards to the various branches of philosophy: metaphysics and ontology; philosophy of man; epistemology; personal and social ethics; aesthetics; philosophy of science; political and social philosophy; philosophy of history and numerous other subdivisions. There are, of course, many ways of approaching these traditional branches among them:
(1) textual studies;
(2) applications of the teachings to modern social, legal, psychological, political and scientific problems;
(3) comparison and contrast studies with other religions and philosophies;
(4) readings of texts in light of other religions or philosophies;
(6) theme studies;
However, to ‘be Baha’i,’ each of these explorations, must use the Baha’i Writings as the basis of understanding and the standard for truth, at least for the author. The Baha’i philosopher seeks to understand what and why God has revealed certain truths and revealed them in a particular way just as a scientist seeks to know the facts of nature and why they operate in the way they do.
The belief that the foregoing suggestions establish some form of scholasticism in which independent thought is dependent – at least to some extent – on revelation is true but trivial. It doesn’t say very much because no field of study can be independent of certain unquestioned and unquestionable foundational principles. In today’s academic world, arguments must be rigorously secular, empirical, materialistic and compatible with the modern Anglo-American ‘analytic’ outlook to be acceptable. The problem is that the truth of materialism, empiricism, secularity and the analytic outlook are no more than ultimately unprovable working hypotheses. There is simply no way of proving that the empirical, material secular path is the only method of acquiring truth or understanding even of the natural world. Consequently, it is clear that using the Baha’i Writings as a basis for understanding is no less or more ‘scholastic’ than the procedures employed in the sciences and the academic world.
4: The Benefits:
There are at least seven ways in which we benefit from using a philosophic approach to the Writings.
First: the philosophic approach helps us understand the numerous philosophic passages in the Writings such as the arguments to prove the existence of God and human immortality; the nature of causality; the essence-attribute-potential analysis of reality, i.e. ontology; and the limits of human knowledge. These and other arguments use Aristotle’s concepts for analyzing reality and, therefore, understanding these concepts and terms and how they are used is necessary to comprehend many significant passages in the Texts.20 In short, the philosophic approach deepens and widens our own engagement with the Writings.
Second and Third: the philosophic approach also helps in explicating the Writings to others in a clear and rational manner. This helps us by strengthening our own faith and providing confidence in our teaching work. As shown above, ‘Abdu’l-Baha asserts that,
If religious belief and doctrine is at variance with reason, it proceeds from the limited mind of man and not from God; therefore, it is unworthy of belief and not deserving of attention; the heart finds no rest in it, and real faith is impossible. How can man believe that which he knows to be opposed to reason? Is this possible? Can the heart accept that which reason denies? Reason is the first faculty of man and the religion of God is in harmony with it.21
Elsewhere he adds, “among the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh is that religion must be in conformity with science and reason, so that it may influence the hearts of men.”22 A philosophic understanding of the Writings helps build our personal faith and love for Baha’u’llah on a rational foundation.
Fourth: a philosophic understanding of the Baha’i Writings provides new opportunities for dialogue with other religions, especially those which have a well-developed philosophical tradition those such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Taoism and Hinduism. Like the Writings, these religions have deep philosophical resources that are best engaged by a philosophic understanding of the Baha’i Texts because only then can dialogue progress from the surface features to the underlying principles.
Fifth: a philosophic understanding of the Writings also helps open dialogue with contemporary schools of thought as recommended by Shoghi Effendi. (See below) Among these influential schools of thought are postmodernism, Marxism, existentialism, Objectivism and empiricism-materialism. In addition, a philosophical understanding of the Writings also facilitates Baha’i contributions issues of contemporary debate such as human nature, governance, social decline, ethics and globalism.
Sixth: a philosophic understanding of the Writings is of special importance to Baha’is insofar as apologetics or defending the teachings are concerned. Such an understanding is useful for two reasons. First, it allows us to show the underlying rationality of the teachings and the governance of the Faith. Second, philosophy provides a mental training that enables analysis and critique of opposing arguments and renders them moot. If nothing else, this will enhance respect for the Faith if not agreement.
Seventh: as already mentioned above, a philosophic approach to the Writings helps us to formulate a coherent world-view by which to manage our lives both in our quotidian and spiritual matters. This approach facilitates the development of a mind well-disciplined in reason as encouraged by ‘Abdu’l-Baha.
5: How Do We Start?
The best place to begin a philosophic study of the Writings is in the Writings themselves. We can often identify such passages by the language they use. Of course, we must always remember that the Writings are not philosophic texts and that in many cases the philosophic passages are responses to questions and remarks on special occasions and situations. Consequently, the philosophic elements do not all appear in the form of philosophic treatises.
Most of the philosophical terminology used in the Writings originates with Aristotle,23 but of course, it is their use by Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha that makes them valid in the philosophical approach to the Writings. After all, why would Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha make familiarity with these terms and concepts necessary for understanding the Writings if They did not intend for Baha’is to use them? Whatever the reason, the fact remains that this terminology is pervasively present in the Writings and must be understood in any philosophic approach. Furthermore, the way these terms and used in the Writings also demonstrates adoption of Aristotle’s way to analyze and explain reality i.e. in terms of essence/substance and attributes; potential and actualization; form and matter; and four-fold causality. Of course, all this is not to say that other philosophical approaches – existentialist, Marxist or Whiteheadian are invalid or unworthy of pursuit; rather, at this point, it seems sensible to begin our studies with the philosophic concepts explicitly and pervasively present in the Writings.
It is important to recall that the philosophy of Aristotle (and Plato) played a prominent role in the development of Persian philosophy beginning with the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great who had been tutored by Aristotle. Alexander ordered that all noble children should learn Greek; later, the famous philosopher Narses made Aristotle’s work well-known.24 Finally, numerous Greek philosophers arrived after the Roman emperor Justinian closed the School of Athens and banished all the philosophers in 529 CE. They brought their manuscripts and key texts with them. The philosophers eventually left but the ideas of Aristotle remained forming the basis for a long period of Greek influence in Persian thought.25
Here is a list of the commonly used
Terms and Concepts:
1: Essence: what a thing actually is, or, its definition which distinguishes it from all other kinds of things; its unique identity as a certain kind of being. Each essence has a unique set of potentials and therefore, a unique form; it is also unique substance.* We cannot know the essence of anything directly; we can only know about essences by means of the attributes in the phenomenal world.26 The word “reality’ is sometimes used instead of ‘essence’ because it draws attention to the fact that a particular essence is also existent in the phenomenal world.
2 : Attribute: the qualities that an essence or a particular thing has. There are two kinds of attributes. Essential attributes are those that an essence or a particular thing must have to be what it is. Being a mammal is an essential attribute for a dog. Accidental attributes are those that can change without changing what a thing is. Being black and white is an accidental quality of a dog; if its color were different, it would still have the essence of a dog. Sometimes, an attribute is essential from one point of view but not from another. Being brindle colored is an essential attribute for my particular dog, Athena, but it is not an essential attribute i.e. accidental for being a dog in general.
3 : Form: another term for essence from the point of view of its structure or composition as seen in real things. Form identifies something as the particular kind of thing it is. Everything we know has form because without it we could not distinguish one thing from another. Even ideas have form, or, as Abdu’l-Baha calls them, “intelligible form,”27 i.e. a particular composition by which we can understand them. Form is more than just physical shape.
4: Matter: is that from which something else is made. “Matter is a relative term, to each form there corresponds a special matter.”28 For example, paper is matter relative to books and books are matter relative to libraries. Matter can be physical but can also be concepts that are formed into an argument or a plot idea formed into a novel. It is sometimes called ‘substance.’ The same idea/matter can often have more than one “intelligible form” just as certain mathematical ideas can be expressed in different formulas. There is no such thing as actual matter without form.
5 : Hylomorphism: the belief that all actual beings – except God – are composed of matter and form. The Writings do not explicitly use this term but the concept is implicitly evident in various arguments presented by ‘Abdu’l-Baha.29 It is evident in the theory of four-fold causality where formal causality is involved in everything that happens to matter. He also refers to hylomorphism directly:
For example, letters and words are composed of two things: The first is the substance which is ink and pencil-lead and is the "Fashioned" while the second is the forms and features of the letters and words which are the "Fashioner".30
In “I was a Hidden Treasure” Abdu’l-Baha also writes:
For it is not possible for a thing to have an external existence and not to be formed into a shape because substance and primal matter in order to exist need shape and form; while shape and form in order to appear need substance.31
Finally, we also read,
Then it is clear that original matter, which is in the embryonic state, and the mingled and composed elements which were its earliest forms, gradually grew and developed during many ages and cycles, passing from one shape and form to another, until they appeared in this perfection, this system, this organization and this establishment, through the supreme wisdom of God.32
“Original matter” is Abdu’l-Baha’s term for what Aristotle’s “primal matter” (see above) i.e. matter without form which is pure potential that has not yet been made actual. Abdu’l-Baha’s calls this “the embryonic state,” precisely because it is still pure potential and is impelled by God’s action guided by His wisdom through various forms. Hylomorphism is also the metaphysical basis of progressive revelation in which the (subject) matter – “the eternal verities” found in every revelation – appear in various forms over historical time. As Abdu’l-Baha says, “truth is one, although its manifestations may be very different.”33 The actual manifestations are the in which truth can appear.
6 : Change: the movement from potential to actual or actualization of potentials, or capacities, Change may be a simple as moving from one place to another or the actualization of human potentials. Change always requires something external to make potentials actualize because if potentials could realize themselves they would not be potentials. This is the metaphysical reason for needing Manifestations: as perfectly actualized mirrors of God they are able to activate and actualize the potentials in humankind. All change, including spiritual change, is the movement from potential to actual. If there were no potentials in man or anything else, there would be nothing to actualize.
7: Substance: has several meanings. It can be plain, simple matter, but its most important meaning refers to anything that is not an attribute of something else, i.e. it is independent, not a part of something else the way an attribute is. As we shall see, in the Writings even God is said to be a substance. In fact, He is the only independent 'thing' and, therefore, is a substnace in the fullest sense of the word.
8: Four-fold Causality: Abdu’l-Baha accepts Aristotle’s analysis of causality34 according to which everything has four causes:
the existence of everything depends upon four causes -- the efficient cause, the matter, the form and the final cause. For example, this chair has a maker [efficient cause] who is a carpenter, a substance which is wood [material cause], a form [formal cause] which is that of a chair, and a purpose [final cause ] which is that it is to be used as a seat.35
In nature, all these aspects of causality work together at the same time and not in sequence but when a conscious maker is involved, the final cause, i.e. the purpose and the formal cause i.e. the plan precede the efficient and material cause. Before we actually build a desk, we make the decision to do so, i.e. conceive a purpose; then we think of a form or plan, and after that we gather the materials and get to work.
9: Phenomenality: refers to all that are created and exist in time. This is not an Aristotelian term per se but it makes explicit the difference between the caused and that which causes. All phenomenal things are preceded by a cause and require causes to continue existing.36 That is why they are “essentially phenomenal,” i.e. it is part of their essence to require causes. The phenomenal is dependent on external causes which is why it is “contingent.” The human soul is phenomenal though it is eternal once it exists.37 Phenomenal things can never understand the non-phenomenal, i.e. Preexistent. (See below) The phenomenal world is subject to the laws of nature. The essence of phenomenal things cannot be known directly, but only by their attributes.38 The phenomenal world is also “the source of imperfections.”39
10: Emanation: describes the relationship between God and His creations and the method of creating. This is not an Aristotelian term per se but rather comes from Plotinus who developed it from Aristotle’s concept of God as thought thinking itself40 and thereby being the foundation of the created, phenomenal world. Here is Abdu’l-Baha’s explanation:
Know that proceeding is of two kinds: the proceeding and appearance through emanation, and the proceeding and appearance through manifestation. The proceeding through emanation is like the coming forth of the action from the actor, of the writing from the writer. Now the writing emanates from the writer, and the discourse emanates from the speaker, and in the same way the human spirit emanates from God. It is not that it manifests God -- that is to say, no part has been detached from the Divine Reality to enter the body of man. No, as the discourse emanates from the speaker, the spirit appears in the body of man.41
It is the opposite of “manifestation”42 (not related to “Manifestation.’): “the proceeding through manifestation is the manifestation of the reality of a thing in other forms, like the coming forth of this tree from the seed of the tree.”43 Another way to think of emanation is a magnet and its magnetic field.
6: A Final Question
At some point or another we must deal with the question, ‘Do the Baha’i Writings represent a certain kind philosophy?’ Of course, the Writings are far more than a “mere philosophy”44 but it seems clear that particular philosophical principles are embedded within Them. We have explored some of these in the foregoing discussions. To these we might add, the Writings are based on a metaphysical dualism that rigorously divides the Creator from the phenomenal creation45 thereby promoting a two-tier universe. They also assert the reality of soul and spirit, thereby rejecting – as ‘Abdu’l-Baha does openly in Stanford – a strictly materialist understandings of reality. Moreover, they claim the immutability of human nature, and consequently, deny that humankind is simply a more complex variation of animal evolution. On these issues alone – and there are many others – the Baha’i Writings stand in closer proximity to such philosophies as Aristotelianism, Thomism, Whiteheadianism and theistic existentialism than to Marxism, postmodernism, positivism and secular humanism.46 The answer to our initial question, therefore, seems straight forward: for a variety of reasons, the Baha’i Writings cannot be reduced to any one particular philosophy but they are clearly more naturally associated with some philosophies than others. However, as noted above, this does not mean we should not or cannot do the “correlation” studies called for by Shoghi Effendi even – or especially – with philosophies that are based on different principles. Defining differences is, after all, an essential part of understanding our own views and those of others. Moreover, once difference s are carefully defined, new avenues for unsuspected connections may appear.