by Jack McLean
Response to Dr. Moojan Momen’s article “The Bahá’ís as Mystic Community” published in World Order 38:1, 2006. The response was published with Dr. Momen’s rejoinder (not included)
I was very interested to read Dr. Moojan Momen’s “The Bahá’ís as a Mystic Community” in the 2006 (37:4) issue of World Order. Dr. Momen has employed a multi-facetted approach to elucidate aspects of Islamic mysticism, world religions, and Bahá’í spirituality to make his argument. His article has the added feature of two provisional translations from Bahá’u’lláh’s Tablet of Unity. The paper offers a radical redefinition of mysticism by which the traditional understanding of mysticism as a personal individual quest has been superseded by the entire Bahá’í community as “mystic.” He rightly argues that Bahá’u’lláh has largely discredited the lifestyle of certain mystics and/or mystical practices — his example is a degenerate Sufism, although not exclusively — and that Bahá’u’lláh’s laws, teachings and administrative order have largely replaced the need for mystical and spiritual practices as they have existed previously in the world’s religions. Instead, Momen argues (on page 38 in his article) that mysticism is a “not so much a state to be achieved as a process of acquiring divine attributes that aids one in the process of becoming more God-like.” If the paper intends that this new model is a supplement to, rather than a replacement for, the old model, this position has not been made clear, at least to this reader. The basic thrust of the paper is to make a major shift from the individual to the community.
Although Dr. Momen’s paper is well-researched and instructive, its basic thesis is not, in my view, convincing. But before I register my reservations about the novelty of the argument he makes, I will first indicate those points with which one may wholeheartedly agree. It is, of course, beyond dispute that Bahá’u’lláh has abolished both priesthood and monasticism, which have been the traditional locus of mystical practices. This consequential reorientation in religious life has had the major consequences that Dr. Momen discusses in turn: the abolition of hierarchical structures and with it the master–disciple relationship; private, oral, sometimes esoteric or secret teaching by a master to a student; total submission to the authority of a religious leader; practices that induce altered states of consciousness; anti-worldliness, anti-social, bizarre or degenerate behaviour; mendicancy, asceticism and confession of sins.
However, Dr. Momen writes that “Bahá’u’lláh did give His qualified assent to a number of practices used by mystics” (33). He gives the example of dhikr or mantras: the gathering together to chant sacred verses to remember the Divine. Prayer and meditation also figure into these practices. Their use is given full endorsement, within the bonds of moderation. In the past, he argues, mysticism has been confined to organized minorities in religious orders, but today Bahá’u’lláh “has brought mysticism forward to a central role”; “…the communal aspect of mysticism, the organization of the Bahá’ís as a mystic community, is where Bahá’u’lláh sets a direction that is radically different from existing mystical systems” (16).
As I see it, there are at least three problems with this argument: (1) the novelty of the definition of community mysticism itself; (2) the downgrading, whether intentional or not, of the individual’s mystical experiences; and (3) the neglect of the synergistic relationship that must exist between the individual and the community, whether this relates to the new community mysticism he proposes, or other questions. By focusing on community experience, individual experience has been neglected by default, whereas it should be an essential feature of the discussion.
I will consider these points globally. It seems to me that one cannot subsume mysticism, as it has been understood for centuries, to an ill-defined mystical community experience that comes with consultation, study circles or even with the development of essential spiritual virtues. One may be spiritual, without being in the least, mystical, at least as the word is normally understood. However necessary it is to practice consultation, to develop Bahá’í spirituality, and to participate in study circles, and however inspiring these activities may prove to be, one cannot qualify these elements of religious life as being fundamentally mystical, unless one redefines the word so as to make it practically unrecognizable.
After rereading Dr. Momen’s paper carefully, I am still haunted by this question: Did Bahá’u’lláh intend to create a world-wide mystical community at all? His writings advocate, rather, the manifestation of essential spiritual virtues, not essential mystical virtues such as self-abstraction, absorption in the Divine, the death of self, ecstasy, etc. This is not mere semantical hair-splitting. While certain elements of mysticism, such as universal divine love, prayer and meditation help to constitute faith and spirituality, it does not follow that mysticism is at the heart of Bahá’í community experience. By definition, mysticism is a type of peak experience. It is not a steady state, whereas faith and spirituality may, and should be, lived as constants. In this sense, practical spirituality trumps rarefied mysticism, whether one refers to the individual or the community.
In retaining the basic connection between “meditation and prayer” and “that mystical feeling that unites man with God,” as being at the heart of the faith-state, it seems to me that Shoghi Effendi has validated the essential tools that may lead to individual mystical experience. The link between faith and mysticism given by Shoghi Effendi through his secretary is not actually new. It retains the perennial elements of the mystical quest. This essential quote has been cited in part by Dr. Momen but it needs revisiting in full:
For the core of religious faith is that mystical feeling which unites man with God. This state of spiritual communion can be brought about and maintained by means of meditation and prayer. And this is the reason why Bahá’u’lláh has so much stressed the importance of worship. It is not sufficient for a believer merely to accept and observe the teachings. He should, in addition, cultivate the sense of spirituality which he can acquire chiefly by means of prayer (letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to a Bahá’í, December 8, 1935, in Compilation of Compilations No. 1704).
The passage is, of course, a definition of faith, not of mysticism. And it needs to be stressed that the mention of “mystical feeling” refers to the individual’s spiritual life, not to collective worship. It points to mysticism, more exactly, mystical feeling along with prayer and meditation, as being at the heart of religious faith. Thus mysticism has to be seen within the larger context of both faith and spirituality.
Bahá’ís would agree that one should not attempt to force, outside the prescribed means, a self-generated mystical happening. True mystical experiences, as Shoghi Effendi has written through his secretary, are essentially God-originated, not self-generated: “If we are going to have some deeply spiritual experience we can rest assured God will vouchsafe it to us without our having to look for it” (letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to a Bahá’í, October 25, 1942, in Compilation of Compilations No. 1742). Theistic varieties of mysticism also assert that true mystical experience originates with God and not with the mystic. This is virtually identical with Shoghi Effendi’s statement. While great varieties clearly exist in the types of mystical experience, the mysticism of the heart, as elucidated in Bahá’í scripture, and which is closest to the Abrahamic religions, and to Sufism in particular, remains a profound, life-altering sui generis experience, whether it happens in the dream or meditation state, or as a result of a transformation in mundane consciousness.
Bahá’u’lláh has made His readers/believers aware that this largely uncharted, inner universe of the heart does exist, and that the ‘aríf (mystic knower) is capable of attaining ‘irfán (mystic knowledge) directly, rather than through a process of rational discourse. But it is understood that today, in view of the dire straits in which a divided humanity finds itself, Bahá’ís should not make the experience of this private, inner universe of the heart the whole quest of spiritual life. The Bahá’í writings, and the guidance of Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice, have established other priorities.
Another point should be made here regarding the unattainable or rare nature of mystical experience. This is perhaps one reason that has prompted Dr. Momen to democratize, so to speak, mystical experience to include the whole community. It is true that the real mystical experience is relatively rare. But if I have read Him correctly, Bahá’u’lláh also reveals that God or the mystical experience is not always unattainable, hidden and far away. He/It is close at hand: “This most great, this fathomless and surging Ocean is near, astonishingly near, unto you. Behold it is closer to you than your life-vein!”(Gleanings, no. 153:326).
We also read in a Bahá’í prayer the paradoxical statement that God is “the most manifest of the manifest and the most hidden of the hidden.” (Bahá’u’lláh, Prayers and Meditations No. 155:248). (Paradoxical language is typical of mystical expression.) The Divine is found in the faces of our loved ones, in our ordinary, most mundane experiences which are perpetually entrancing, and within the deeper recesses of our own and others’ hearts. The greatest mystical poet of them all, Jalálu’Dín Rúmí, wrote that the light of God could shine forth from a pile of ashes. Bahá’u’lláh has made similar affirmations. God is found in the humble grain of sand or blade of grass, since every created thing enshrines one of the names and attributes of God: “Gazing with the eye of God, he will perceive within every atom a door that leadeth him to the stations of absolute certitude. He will discover in all things the mysteries of divine Revelation and the evidences of an everlasting manifestation”( Kitáb-i-Íqán, par. 217: 181) .
Another point needs to be considered. Some of the greatest mystics have always understood that the mystical life must lead to service of others. The Bahá’ís did not invent this truth for it is an ancient one. To cite but two examples: St. Francis of Assis practiced what we would call today “peaceful conflict resolution” by mediating between feuding Italian noble families and bringing them to reconciliation. St. Vincent de Paul, who was admired even by the atheist Voltaire, directed his missionaries to ransom some twelve hundred mainly Christian slaves who had been seized by Ottoman privateers from the Barbary coast (North Africa) after they were abducted from their Mediterranean coastal towns. In doing so, he helped to clear the Mediterranean of pirates. Historically, mystics have established hospitals and schools and counselled troubled souls. Dr. Momen’s article leans too heavily on the objectionable or negative aspects of the mystic’s life.
It stands to reason that this experience of the mystical community that Dr. Momen advocates can be no more nor less mystical than the individual members who comprise it. While this line of reasoning cannot be developed within these limits, one may safely assert that the existence of a mystical community demands the presence of individual members who are themselves “mystical,” however one chooses to define that term. These two poles — the individual and the community — are, in fact, inseparable. In making an argument in favour of the newly defined, mystical community, Dr. Momen has, by default, minimized the importance of the individual’s experience that must contribute to the experience of the community. For, if it is true that Bahá’u’lláh has given us a new definition of community mysticism, it should follow that He has, at the same time, given a new definition of the individual’s mystical quest, rather than abolishing it. This new definition is found, of course, in The Seven Valleys and The Four Valleys and in the other mystical writings that He has revealed. Yet, we are still far from attaining even a basic understanding of these writings, as the scholarly literature attests.
In closing, let me say that I agree with Dr. Momen that the Bahá’í community may experience, at special times, certain forms of “mystical” experience, through the dynamics of consultation, by participating in the sacred moment of listening to the holy utterances at the Nineteen Day Feast, at momentous conventions and conferences, and perhaps even in the study circles that he mentions. At these rarified moments, the individual feels at one with his co-religionists. To be at one — with God, with self, with one’s fellows, with one’s universe is the essence of mysticism. Dean William Ralph Inge of St. Paul’s cathedral in London wrote in his Mysticism in Religion: “Mysticism is the immediate feeling of the unity of the self with God” (p. 25). But I struggle with the notion that this definition may be applied to a community experience, however desirable that may be.