The Face of God

It is commonly known that Muslims, for the most part, shun images of their prophet. They certainly do not approve of images of God, though Islám is perhaps as stained by idolatry as any religion. Muslims worship the Qurán as an uncreated being (the word of God exists before creation), they revere Muhammad as the perfect man, and they circumambulate a black stone in what is perhaps their foremost expression of worship. In addition to all that, the Qur’án itself reduces the will of God to a very specific image that can stifle the imagination.

Qur’án 2:115 (Muhammad al-Qtayfani)

Qur’án 2:115 (Muhammad al-Qtayfani)

But when it comes to the actual Face of God, the Qur’án anthropomorphizes God in a rather non-idolatrous way which I find quite inspired (“your mileage may vary”). It arises in the way that the Qur’án speaks of “the Face of God.” The Qur’án makes reference to this specific construct only twice. In one passage, the point is made that the Face of God can been seen everywhere, and presumably, in everything:

To God belong the East and the West; whithersoever you turn, there is the Face of God; God is All-embracing, All-knowing. [2:115]

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They breathe only what can be inhaled
from others. That is their way.

When you had no more air for them,
their memory of you was a bible.
They buried the book and mourned it
as you lay breathless, solitary,
according to their law.

They encircled their book,
emitting weeping sounds,
embalming it with rose water
and saline solution.

I stepped up secretly, discretely
pushed each one into the hole,
back after back, there not being faces.

The tomb was spacious
(The book was large).
The earth weighed heavily on the spade,
but it rested well upon them.

They have come to no harm, do not cry.
They lie there today,
sipping each other’s air.

© 2013–15 Kaweah


My Life as a Fanatic

When I was a young man, I turned toward the Qiblah and prayed to Allah. I fasted for a month every year, and I refused all alcoholic beverages. I exchanged Arabic greetings with my fellow believers. Of course I went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where I lived for a year and studied Arabic so that I could better understand the words of Allah. You might have found me carrying around a copy of the Holy Qur’án—just in case I might have some free reading time. And, yes: I was a virgin, though perhaps not entirely by choice.

If you had asked me back then whether I was a Muslim, I would have denied it, for I was a member of a Shi’ite splinter group that refuses to be identified as Muslims. It’s a long story—let’s just say that it’s hazardous to be called a heretic in Iran. But when I look back at my youth I say, “what a Muslim!” Continue reading

Messiah as Man

“the more fallible the mammal, the truer the example.”
—Christopher Hitchens

I wasn’t brought up Christian, but I was brought up to believe in a holy trinity of sorts. I was taught that a certain few men were perfect images of God; that these men, though not God in essence, were perfect reflections of God in the “material world,” and thus they were effectively God so far as mankind is concerned. As images of God in the material realm (i.e., idols), they could be regarded as God incarnate. Hence Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of my parents’ religion wrote, “I am God.”

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Unitarian Baha’is?

Who are these “Unitarian Bahá’í” we’ve been hearing about?

If a theological unitarianism is meant, why use the term “Unitarian Bahá’í” at all? Have you ever met an avowed trinitarian Bahá’í?

bp is for Blessed Perfection

The mystical 18-pointed star ("bp" is for "Blessed Perfection")

If we are to take the term seriously, we ought to seek to understand its meaning in context. The term has come to be associated with the Behaists, an early 20th Century Bahá’í splinter group whose distinguishing doctrine was a rejection of the divinity, i.e. infallibility, of `Abdu’l-Bahá’, the leader of the Bahá’í religion at the time. The point, then, of using the term “unitarian” in this context, is to indicate a rejection of the divinity (infallibility) of any man. This makes sense, for the deification of any man is tantamount to polytheism.

The problem I’ve always had with the Behaists calling themselves Unitarians is that they never had a problem deifying Bahá’u’lláh himself.

Frankly, I happen to believe that most Bahá’ís are trinitarians, because their theology of Manifestation owes much to Christian theology. This is also true of those who call themselves “Unitarian Bahá’ís.”

The home page for the Unitarian Baha’i discussion group states:

The Unitarian Bahai faith is a movement of Bahaism that teaches that none of the successors of the prophet Baha’u’llah are infallible …

A true unitarian would not deify any man. A unitarian Bahá’í would be a Bahá’í who lives as a Bahá’í without any belief in the infallibility of Bahá’u’lláh.

I personally believe that a Bahá’í can be a unitarian. It’s not as if I don’t know of any true unitarians among the Bahá’ís, but I hesitate to single them out for fear of what might be done to them.

Looks Aren’t Everything

Bahá'u'lláh in Edirne

Bahá’u’lláh in Edirne, Turkey

As a young Bahá’í on pilgrimage, I remember not being delighted by the photograph of Bahá’u’lláh that only pilgrims and janitors are permitted to see. Having grown up with charming images of `Abdu’l-Bahá, my expectations were high, and unfair to Bahá’u’lláh.

Portraits of `Abdu’l-Bahá are as common in Bahá’í households as crosses are in churches. “place the picture of `Abdu’l-Bahá in your home,” Bahá’ís are told (Lights of Guidance, page 520). They are instructed to post these portaits up high in prominent locations. This is done out of what they call “respect.” In spite of this idolatrous practice, Bahá’ís consider themselves special for not displaying portraits of Bahá’u’lláh.

I don’t intend to criticize Bahá’u’lláh for his lack of physical charm, but when I hear Bahá’ís wonder at the attractiveness of `Abdu’l-Bahá, I am moved to ask, “why do you place significance on such matters?”

Abbas Abbas Everywhere

Abbas Abbas Everywhere!

I can’t help but be skeptical regarding the motives behind the Bahá’í prohibition against portraits of Prophets. Given the Bahá’í affection for graven images, I’m inclined to wonder whether the prohibition would have ever been laid down had Bahá’u’lláh been better looking.

Bahá’ís are told not to keep photos of their Prophets because such photos could too easily become idols; believers would focus on the appearance of their prophet, and be distracted from his message. Yet, the anticipation of Bahá’ís to view the one Holy Image in the International Archives Building in Israel is only heightened by that prohibition of graven images, and Bahá’ís shudder at the prospect of seeing the image of Bahá where they ought not, as though the image itself has some kind of ominous power!


Imagine what the Bahá’í Faith might become if its idols were stripped away. What if the burden of divine authority were cleansed from every portrait, every image, every institution, and every holy word?

Imagine there’s no Cov’nant. It isn’t hard to do.

What if the Bahá’í religion were not a cult of divine images (“manifestations”), but rather a fellowship of principles (or virtues)? What if Bahá’u’lláh had said, “never mind about me and my station; let’s get down to the business of world reform.”

I know. It’s a stretch.

Imagine by Rachel Boden

Imagine, by Rachel Boden

If Bahá’ís were to forfeit their sense of divine entitlement, would they lose their famous, unquenchable sense of purpose?

Sorry. I couldn’t resist. I’ll try to keep it serious.

They’d have to give up some very comforting expectations, it’s true. I’m not saying it would be easy.

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Our Daily Bread: Idolatry Ad Nauseam

I just stumbled across yet another grand example of idolatry in the Bahá’í religion. Bahá’u’lláh is here identified by his great-grandson as, among other names, the “Lord of Lords,” the “Self-Subsistent,” and the “Day-Star of the Universe.”

Read it and cringe …

He was formally designated Bahá’u’lláh, an appellation specifically recorded in the Persian Bayán, signifying at once the glory, the light and the splendor of God, and was styled the “Lord of Lords,” the “Most Great Name,” the “Ancient Beauty,” the “Pen of the Most High,” the “Hidden Name,” the “Preserved Treasure,” “He Whom God will make manifest,” the “Most Great Light,” the “All-Highest Horizon,” the “Most Great Ocean,” the “Supreme Heaven,” the “Pre-Existent Root,” the “Self-Subsistent,” the “Day-Star of the Universe,” the “Great Announcement,” the “Speaker on Sinai,” the “Sifter of Men,” the “Wronged One of the World,” the “Desire of the Nations,” the “Lord of the Covenant,” the “Tree beyond which there is no passing.”

—Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By

Why Do You Reject Your Lord?

One of the songs I remember best from my Bahá’í youth I may have heard only once or twice, and that, only in part:

World, world, world, world, why do you reject your Lord?
When will you receive your Savior, Bahá’u’lláh?

The couplet echoed in my head until it was as though I’d heard it a hundred times.

I think I remember it being sung in a three-part harmony, with the slow, plodding tempo of a funeral march. I thought it was quite beautiful then, but over the years it began to seem haunted with the dark, lonesome misery of a cult chant. The idolatry in it is almost palpable.

Here’s the complete lyric, according to an obscure Internet source that I don’t see any point in citing:

World, world, world, world, why do you reject your Lord?
When will you receive your Savior, Bahá’u’lláh?
Peace, peace, peace, peace, this is what we’re waiting for.
Love shall conquer all the hatred, Bahá’u’lláh.
Joy, joy, joy, joy, inside of every man,
If only he would discover Bahá’u’lláh.
World, world, world, world, everything has been fulfilled.
For the Prince of Peace has come – Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’u’lláh.

This Message Will Self-Destruct

This is a continuation of the What’s Wrong With Islám thread. I’m not satisfied with where I left it.

I have more than once voiced the opinion that Islám can only move forward by disposing of its idols. This, I believe, can be done by Muslims without forfeiting their religious heritage. They must simply recognize that no aspect of Islám is unchangeable, perfect, immaculate, or infallible. This recognition can be achieved within the context of Islamic belief: one need only recognize passages in the Qur’án that assert that:

  • No one fully understands the Qur’án but God.
  • The face of God is in everything.
  • Muhammad was only a man, with flaws like any other.

If that’s not enough, there’s the generally agreed-upon point that the Qur’án cannot be understood fully without reference to less immaculate source materials such as Hadith and histories.

Based upon this, Islám can be permitted to adapt and grow, and not merely continue as a contest between moderates and fundamentalists. If Islám could be inspired by the idea that no man has a monopoly on truth while retaining its heritage of faith, it could be permitted to rise above its heritage of violence and persecution.

The problem I see with this vision is that, when I read the Qur’án, I see frequent reminders of what made Islám so idolatrous. The Qur’án is saturated with judgmental statements that draw a vast gap between believers and unbelievers. Unbelievers will burn in Hell eternally, and it’s nobody’s fault but their own. This may not mean that Muslims are permitted to mistreat infidels, but it does establish a broad moral distinction between Muslims and non-Muslims. It is not so easy to simply see Islám as iconoclasm, because Islám is all about submission to a specific idol. Its iconoclasm is not fundamental; it is derivative. Muslims, taken as a group, never smashed idols for the sake of some lofty unitarian ideal; rather, they smashed idols for the benefit of their own idols (Alláh, Muhammad, the Qurán, etc.).

We might be able to imagine an Islám that transcends its own idolatrous legacy, but I fear that Islám would need to do more than admit the fallibility of the Qur’án; it would need to renounce the tribalistic, sectarian, violent, judgmental, and idolatrous aspects of the Qur’án. Given this, would I be right to encourage Muslims to follow such a path, when it would be more honest of me to encourage them to simply abandon the superstitions of the past and think for themselves?

I would like to see a day when the ultimate expression of Islamic conviction would be the ritual burning of a single Qur’án. That wouldn’t prevent religious violence or gender discrimination, but it might send a clear message that Islám might just be capable of being self-critical. It would be a start—but I don’t see even that happening. Maybe some minority group of Muslims might come to the fore and give us hope by committing such a criminally noble act. They would be doing so at their own peril, of course.