Review of “Gate of the Heart”
(Waterloo, Ont.: Wilfrid Laurier Press, 2008) viii, 423 pp.
Review by Robert H. Stockman
Review published in Nova Religio 14:1 (Aug. 2010), 124-27.
Publications about the writings of Siyyid Ali-Muhammad of Shiraz, titled the Báb (1819-50) have often generated more heat than light. Dennis MacEoin, a prominent researcher of the Báb’s works from the 1970s, commented about the “innumerable obscurities and vagueness of even the most reliable texts” (p. 49). Nader Saiedi’s book has set out to discover the keys to understanding the Báb’s language and ideas. The resulting ideational universe, while esoteric for the ordinary reader, is not obscure or vague at all.
The work is divided into three parts based on the Báb division of his writings into three stages: interpretation of Islamic terms and texts (1844-Jan. 1846); the philosophical stage (Jan. 1846-Apr. 1857); and the legislative stage (Apr. 1847-July 1850). Many of the concepts mentioned in the earlier stages were elaborated on in the third stage, and thus it has an “epistemological and hermeneutical priority” over them (p. 240).
An introduction (pp. 1-28) explores the Báb’s approach to the crisis of modernity faced by nineteenth-century Islam: a “return to the original creative spirit and source of the religion” (p. 7), i.e., a claim to a new revelation. Such a claim enabled him to question tradition, refashion many basic elements of Islam, and adopt “useful elements of Western modernity” (p. 7).
Part 1 explores the interpretive stage in five chapters. Most examine themes in the Qayyumu’l-Asmá, the Báb’s first major work. Chapter 1 (pp. 39-65) explains the five modes of revelation the Báb used, their significance, and the “foremost hermeneutic concept” behind them, the “principle of metaphysical unity” (p. 49). Chapter 2 (pp. 67-82) explores “the symbolic character of reality itself” (p. 67), such as the meaning of the four elements (fire, air, water, earth).
Chapter 3 (pp. 83-110) explores the terms “the Remembrance” and “the Gate.” Some interpreters have argued that the Báb began by referring to himself using these terms but later changed his mind and made more grandiose claims to be the return of the Twelfth Imam and the Qá’im (two Shi’i terms that refer to a messianic figure at the end of time). Saiedi (and most Bahá’í interpreters) discerns a continuity among the terms and a gradual unfoldment in the Báb’s claims, an approach that avoided immediately shocking his Muslim audience or endangering his life. Chapters 4 and 5 (111-38, 139-59) explore the Qayyumu’l-Asmá in more detail, looking at the book’s structure, the various levels of meaning of the text, and the way it interpreted the Surih of Joseph (the twelfth chapter of the Qur’an).
Part 2, “The Metaphysics of the Primal Will and Divine Action,” explores the philosophical stage in the Báb’s writings. Chapter 6 (163-80) addresses “the methodology and epistemology that the Báb prescribes as the most conducive to the discovery of spiritual truth” (p. 163). Chapter 7 (181-99) explores the nature of the Primal Will, the first emanation from the Divine, the unity of subject and object in it, and the philosophical implications for this unity. God, in the Báb’s writings, is utterly unknowable and transcends the realm of both subject and object; the Primal Will is the “knowable God” in the Báb’s theology, the creator of the world, and the “thing” manifested in the world through the divine messengers.
Chapter 8 (pp. 201-16) explores the seven stages of divine action: Will, Determination, Destiny, Decree, Permission, Term, and Book. The Báb uses them to expound on grammar, clarify the issue of badá (God changing his mind), and explain predestination versus free will. Chapter 9 (pp. 217-36) explores the Epistle of Justice. For Shi’ite Muslims, the root principles of religion are theological points (Divine Unity, prophethood, the imamate, divine justice, and the Day of Resurrection). The Báb reinterprets them and ultimately reduces them to one root principle—the recognition of God—but notes that it implies recognition of divine grace, which implies recognition of the Primal Will and leads to recognition of the Báb as the supreme Mirror of God.
Part 3 explores the third stage of the Báb’s writings. Chapter 10 (pp. 239-57) considers the role of historical consciousness in the Báb’s teachings. God’s will is progressively revealed throughout human history by a succession of messengers, which will continue indefinitely into the future. The “Day of Resurrection,” the Shi’ite millennium, is interpreted as the “interaction between the divine effulgence and the current stage of human social and spiritual development” (p. 244) in the form of a new divine messenger (the Báb himself). Chapter 11 (259-80) considers exoteric and esoteric meanings of the word “bayán” (Arabic for exposition), which is the name of two of the Báb’s most important books and is used to refer to his entire corpus of writings.
The last three chapters look at the Bábí community and its future. Chapter 12 (281-98) considers the “application of the principle of unity to the realm of the spiritual community” in the Persian Bayán (p. 281). Chapters 13 (pp. 299-338) and 14 (pp. 339-75) examine the Bábí “sharí’ah” or laws, of which two types exist; “laws to order the behavior of the community of believers during His Dispensation” that were later “reaffirmed and retained by Bahá’u’lláh”(1817-92), founder of the Bahá’í Faith; and “laws to concentrate His followers’ attention on the Revelation to come” which were “ostensibly severe” and abrogated by Bahá’u’lláh (p. 299).
Chapter 13 summarizes the kinder and gentler laws, which were based on the universal moral maxim to treat everything as God would treat them, with infinite kindness and generosity. Thus one should cause no grief and unhappiness to any human being and be kind to animals. One should strive for perfection and refinement, not only in one’s character, but in one’s art and industry, even if this means imitating Christians (i.e., Europeans with their technology). Miscellaneous applications of these principles include carrying no weapons in public, building doorways tall enough so that even tall people can enter without bending down, no spanking or humiliating small children, limiting the burdens on animals, and a prohibition on opening other people’s mail without permission.
Chapter 14 considers the intolerant and brutal teachings in the Bayán: the commandments to expel all nonbelievers from the central provinces of Iran, confiscate their property, annul marriages made between them and believers, destroy their books, and put them to the sword. Edward Browne and Dennis MacEoin viewed the intolerant teachings as “a straightforward code of laws that was intended to be enforced and to endure a long time” (p. 340). The difficulty, according to Saiedi, was that every single intolerant law was made contingent on acceptance of “Him whom God shall make manifest,” the next divine messenger, and thus serves as a pointer to turn Bábís to him. “He whom God shall make manifest” would appear in the “year nine” (1853) or “the year nineteen” (1863), the years when Bahá’u’lláh claimed to receive the symbolic intimation of his divine mission and when he public declared his mission, respectively. Saiedi notes that since the Báb knew his religion would have a brief duration, he was “free to use the ‘genre’ of legislation for a rhetorical purpose very different from the normal purpose of setting down laws” (p. 342); he could use the laws as a way to remind his followers of the coming of “He whom God shall make manifest.” Saiedi deals with various objections raised by Bábís about Bahá’u’lláh’s claim to be “He whom God shall make manifest” and responds to interpretations by MacEoin, especially his arguments that the Báb promulgated a revised version of the Islamic principle of jihad.
Saiedi has sought to produce a work accessible to multiple audiences. He uses the Bahá’í system for transliterating Arabic and Persian terms rather than more modern academic systems and renders the Báb’s writings into King Jamesian English, rather than a more standard formal English. Both decisions will resonate with Bahá’í readers, but may put off some academics. Educated Bahá’ís—who may be the majority of the purchasers of the book, but possibly not the majority of its readers—will struggle to get through the text. Islamicists may critique some of the generalizations about the connections between the Báb’s ideas and those in Shi’i and Shaykhi philosophical and theological works. Scholars of NRMs and others generally unfamiliar with Islamic Studies will be intrigued by comparisons and contrasts with a wide range of thinkers, including Kant, Weber, and Hegel, but may find little that relates to their fields. But anyone wishing to contribute to the scholarly study of the Báb’s writings will find this work to be seminal and foundational to later work. For that audience, it is must reading.