Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Paragraph 55

None of the many Prophets sent down, since Moses was made manifest, as Messengers of the Word of God, such as David, Jesus, and others among the more exalted Manifestations who have appeared during the intervening period between the Revelations of Moses and Muhammad, ever altered the law of the Qiblih. These Messengers of the Lord of creation have, one and all, directed their peoples to turn unto the same direction. In the eyes of God, the ideal King, all the places of the earth are one and the same, excepting that place which, in the days of His Manifestations, He doth appoint for a particular purpose. Even as He hath revealed: "The East and West are God's: therefore whichever way ye turn, there is the face of God." (Qur'an 2:115) Notwithstanding the truth of these facts, why should the Qiblih have been changed, thus casting such dismay amongst the people, causing the companions of the Prophet to waver, and throwing so great a confusion into their midst? Yea, such things as throw consternation into the hearts of all men come to pass only that each soul may be tested by the touchstone of God, that the true may be known and distinguished from the false. Thus hath He revealed after the breach amongst the people: "We did not appoint that which Thou wouldst have to be the Qiblih, but that We might know him who followeth the Apostle from him who turneth on his heels." (Qur'an 2:143) "Affrighted asses fleeing from a lion." (Qur'an 74:50)

This paragraph continue the train of thought that was started in the last paragraph, and asks a basic question that does not seem to be asked often. Why was the point of adoration changed? What was the reason? Was it because Mecca is somehow better than Jerusalem? Or because Muhammad had something against the Jews?

In the last paragraph, we are given a bit of a glimpse into this. We were told that there were a few Jews who had said some "unseemly words against Him". But this, in and of itself, was not enough to cause the changing of the Qiblih. It hurt Him, and He "strongly resented these words", but still faced Jerusalem while praying.

Then, after this continued for a while, the angel Gabriel gave Him permission to face where He wanted. Yet He still faced Jerusalem. It was only later, in the middle of His daily prayers with the friends, when the angel explicitly told Him to face the Ka'bih that He turned. It is as if He was unwilling to follow His own desires, no matter the pain that it caused Him. We are given clear indications that this law was not changed because of anything Muhammad felt or wanted, but for another reason altogether, possibly related, but still different.

And obviously, given what we read in this paragraph, it doesn't matter where we face, because in the eyes of God all places are one and the same, so it wasn't changed due to some inherent superiority of Mecca.

So why the change? To test the believers.

This is such an important point that Baha'u'llah talks about it not only here for two paragraphs, but continually throughout this book brings it up, beginning in paragraph 8.

Perhaps one reason for this is that many people seem to think that leading a pure and holy life will somehow free you from tests, but in fact, it seems to be the opposite. When you say you believe, you will be tested.

But how do you know when it is a test? One way is that you feel that sense of confusion or consternation. Imagine if you had been facing Jerusalem your whole life whenever you prayed. Your parents, your grandparents, everyone you ever knew, or even heard about, all considered facing Jerusalem while praying as a sign of holiness. In this sort of circumstance, we know that we would have felt uncomfortable if we were there when Muhammad suddenly changed where He was facing. The test, though, was to see if we would unhesitatingly obey the One that we recognized as a Messenger from God. If not, then we would have been placing tradition above the Messenger. We would, in a sense, be saying that we knew better.

This is a point that Baha'u'llah really seems to want to make to help us better understand our natural feelings of unease when facing these tests from the Bab, or later from Himself.

He may be giving us warning that if we feel that extreme discomfort to the point where we want to say, "That just cannot be", and walk away, we might want to see if it is just a test.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Paragraph 54

And likewise, reflect upon the revealed verse concerning the "Qiblih." When Muhammad, the Sun of Prophethood, had fled from the dayspring of Batha (Mecca) unto Yathrib (Medina), He continued to turn His face, while praying, unto Jerusalem, the holy city, until the time when the Jews began to utter unseemly words against Him -- words which if mentioned would ill befit these pages and would weary the reader. Muhammad strongly resented these words. Whilst, wrapt in meditation and wonder, He was gazing toward heaven, He heard the kindly Voice of Gabriel, saying: "We behold Thee from above, turning Thy face to heaven; but We will have Thee turn to a Qiblih which shall please Thee." (Qur'an 2:144) On a subsequent day, when the Prophet, together with His companions, was offering the noontide prayer, and had already performed two of the prescribed Rik'ats (prostrations), the Voice of Gabriel was heard again: "Turn Thou Thy face towards the sacred Mosque." (Qur'an 2:149) In the midst of that same prayer, Muhammad suddenly turned His face away from Jerusalem and faced the Ka'bih. Whereupon, a profound dismay seized suddenly the companions of the Prophet. Their faith was shaken severely. So great was their alarm, that many of them, discontinuing their prayer, apostatized their faith. Verily, God caused not this turmoil but to test and prove His servants. Otherwise, He, the ideal King, could easily have left the Qiblih unchanged, and could have caused Jerusalem to remain the Point of Adoration unto His Dispensation, thereby withholding not from that holy city the distinction of acceptance which had been conferred upon it.

This has been a very interesting exercise for us. Oh, not just reading this book in such detail, and studying it paragraph by paragraph, but reading this particular paragraph after a hiatus of a few days. We found that we initially began looking into the origin of this story, looking at the quotes cited from the Qur'an and reading the story around it. We then discovered that this story isn't actually from the Qur'an. It is from the Hadith. And then we began to talk about story telling and sacred text and how stories get changed and how Baha'u'llah has affirmed this story from the Hadith, as well as many others, while never mentioning some of the more wonky ones, and went on and on and talked about all sorts of other things only to discover that we had become distracted from what we feel is the main point.

And isn't that easy to do? Get distracted?

But then, when we said a prayer, which we always do before looking at this book together, and glanced over the previous few paragraphs, and checked where we were in the overall outline of the book, we realized that we had become distracted.

So, looking back at the outline, once again, we realized that this paragraph, this very story, falls under the section of that quote from Jesus, "The powers of the earth shall be shaken..."

"Their faith was shaken severely." Baha'u'llah does not choose His words lightly.

But let's look again at the placement of this story. This paragraph comes just after a reminder of symbolism in religion. He has just spent quite a number of paragraphs on this theme, and is still continuing to talk about it. He is not only stating what should be an obvious truth, He seems to also be reminding the Uncle of the Bab, and by extension us, of that other truth from Muhammad: "Think because ye say ye believe ye will not be tested?" We will be. Baha'u'llah seems to be preparing us for those inevitable tests.

Using a story that must have been very familiar to the reader, He reminds him that even the point towards which we turn is but a symbol.

This is quite important, given the status to which Mecca has been elevated in the Muslim community. He seems to be saying that even something so major, so iconic as the Ka'bih itself is merely a symbol, when in relation to God. In short, this becomes, as it was in the time of the Prophet, a test of detachment and obedience.

Let's be clear, God doesn't care where we face, where we turn our bodies. He is more concerned about our heart. Are we more attached to tradition, or is obedience more important to us? After all, just a few lines earlier in the Qur'an, it says, "So wherever you [might] turn, there is the Face of Allah." (Qur'an 2:115) The Uncle of the Bab would have been very familiar with this.

And so, once again, Baha'u'llah is leading us carefully onwards to help us get ready to recognize and accept a new Messenger. He is carefully pointing out what we already know, and the pitfalls that likely await us.

Finally, there is one other thing that really stood out for us, and that is a small phrase near the beginning. He tells us that "the Jews began to utter unseemly words". He is very specific. He is not anti-Semitic, to be sure, but is just reporting a specific historic fact. Our question, though, is whether this is a bit of foreshadowing, or not. Is Baha'u'llah planting the seed that will later grow into the law prohibiting backbiting? Were the Jews unseemly words a form of backbiting? If so, then look what was lost due to that: the supremacy of Jerusalem. This could be seen as but one result from the corrosive effects of backbiting.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Paragraph 53

Know verily that the purpose underlying all these symbolic terms and abstruse allusions, which emanate from the Revealers of God's holy Cause, hath been to test and prove the peoples of the world; that thereby the earth of the pure and illuminated hearts may be known from the perishable and barren soil. From time immemorial such hath been the way of God amidst His creatures, and to this testify the records of the sacred books.

And we're back to tests. Remember those tests? Way back in paragraph 8? He said, "the Almighty hath tried, and will continue to try, His servants, so that light may be distinguished from darkness, truth from falsehood, right from wrong, guidance from error, happiness from misery, and roses from thorns." In fact, in the whole section of paragraphs about the various Messengers, He brings up the whole issue of tests again and again.

When looking at these quotes, and the understanding of the symbolic terms, Baha'u'llah seems to be telling us that there isn't a right or a wrong interpretation of these terms. "Manifold are the meanings." What is important is the nature of our understanding of these terms. Does our understanding lead us to become egotistical, thinking that we are right and everyone else is wrong? Or does our understanding lead us to consult with others and better develop our community? Does it make us more divisive or more inclusive?

Baha'u'llah is looking at the condition of our heart, for the condition of our soul, not for the depth of our knowledge. If the heart is good and pure then the seeds He plants within it will take root and grow. If the heart is barren, then no seeds will ever grow there.

When we go to school, we are expected to take a test at the end of a course to see if we understood what was taught. The purpose of school, however, is not to help us pass the test. It is to help us learn, and the test is merely an indicator.

The tests here prove the worth of the soul, determine its quality. And this has always been the way of God. At the very end of this paragraph Baha'u'llah reminds us that we will find such things in our own sacred books, no matter which religion we follow. Again, having us go back to our own tradition and book is pivotal in our understanding of His point. He references these at least a few hundred times in the course of this text, continually reminding us to go back and study them.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Paragraph 52

In like manner, reflect how the elevated heavens of the Dispensations of the past have, in the right hand of power, been folded together, how the heavens of divine Revelation have been raised by the command of God, and been adorned by the sun, the moon, and stars of His wondrous commandments. Such are the mysteries of the Word of God, which have been unveiled and made manifest, that haply thou mayest apprehend the morning light of divine guidance, mayest quench, by the power of reliance and renunciation, the lamp of idle fancy, of vain imaginings, of hesitation, and doubt, and mayest kindle, in the inmost chamber of thine heart, the new-born light of divine knowledge and certitude.

"In like manner..." Just in case we didn't catch it, that's a clue that we're moving on to something new. "...(R)eflect..." Ok. That's doesn't seem like anything new. (Not that this is bad. After all, how many times are we told to reflect and ponder in this book? It's pivotal.)

But here we are, continuing the examination of "the heavens". In the previous paragraphs, Baha'u'llah has talked about many meanings of the words earth and heaven. Here the focus is more on heaven, and how it refers to the Dispensations of the past. He reminds us of the previous meanings He used for the sun, the moon and the stars, again turning our thoughts back to what we already know and, presumably, agree with.

It's interesting, isn't it, how often He does this. When the Guardian told us that we needed to be thoroughly conversant with the methods and arguments in this book, if we wanted to be effective teachers of the Cause, perhaps this is one of the methods he was referring to.

What stands out for us in this paragraph, though, is the reference to the lamp. Here, Baha'u'llah seems to be alluding to the fact that we use a lamp in the evening, when all is dark in the world. But, if we have seen the sun shine during the day, we would never mistake the lamp for the sun. In fact, in the morning, when the sun has risen, we turn off the lamp and use the far more powerful light of the sun.

Now, He says, we need to stop using the feeble light of our ideas that were useful in the night season and begin to use the light of the true sun, risen through His Revelation. He also reminds us that this true light can ignite a fire in our heart, the seat of God within us.

This paragraph, with its very simple beauty, really touched us. It reminded us of the intimacy implied with the phrase "the inmost chamber of thy heart", almost like the bedroom of our inner being, reserved for only that deepest love of our lives. And that even there, so deep within, we still have the lamp of idle fancy burning and need to quench it and replace it with the bright light of the sun.