Baha’u’llah’s Ban on the Burning of Books

It is sometimes considered by modern commentators that simply getting up and speaking out would change the whole religious and political scenario, and the world would be a better place.It is often further suggested or implied that the failure to better the world has been a failure of any religious figure to do such speaking out. This is utter nonsense, uttered by the inexperienced and the sloth. A serious investigator simply has to note  how long the Baha’i Faith has been speaking out throughout Persia, the Middle East and the whole world, to realise how resistant the population is to the change of mind set and behaviour that is required to abolish conflict from the planet. One story, seemingly straightforward in its telling but extraordinary in it’s brief history and its implications, highlights the difficult path from vision to change.

In the 1880’s in a far corner of the world, the ancient city of Akka was home to the exiled nobleman and founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah. English Orientalist, Edward Granville Browne, spent a year in Persia studying the origins and development of the Baha’i Faith. Browne’s visit with Baha’u’llah in Akka in 1890, just one year before Baha’u’llah’s passing, left this account:  “During the morning of the day after my installation at Bahji [the house of Baha’u’llah) one of Beha’s[Baha’u’llah’s] younger sons entered the room where I was sitting and beckoned to me to follow him. I did so, and was conducted through passages and rooms at which I scarcely had time to glance to a spacious hall, paved, so far as I remember (for my mind was occupied with other thoughts) with a mosaic of marble. Before a curtain suspended from the wall of this great ante-chamber my conductor paused for a  moment while I removed my shoes. Then, with a quick movement of the hand, he withdrew, and, as I passed, replaced the curtain; and I found myself in a large apartment, along the upper end of which ran a low divan, while on the side opposite to the door were placed two or three chairs. Though I dimly suspected whither I was going and whom I was to behold (for no distinct intimation had been given to me), a second or two elapsed ere, with a throb of wonder and awe, I became definitely conscious that the room was not untenanted. In the corner where the divan met the wall sat a wondrous and venerable figure,…. The face of him on whom I gazed I can never
forget, though I cannot describe it. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one’s very soul; power and authority sat on that ample brow; while the deep lines on the forehead and face implied an age which the jet-black hair and beard flowing down in indistinguishable luxuriance almost to the waist seemed to belie. No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before one who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might  envy and emperors sigh for in vain!

A mild dignified voice bade me be seated, and then continued:  — ‘Praise be to God that thou hast attained I . . . Thou hast come to see a prisoner and an exile. . . We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations; yet they deem us a stirrer up of strife and sedition worthy of bondage and banishment. . . That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled — what harm is there in this? . . . Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the “Most Great Peace” shall come. . . Do not you in Europe need this also? Is not this that which Christ foretold? . . . Yet do we see your kings and rulers lavishing their treasures more freely on means for the destruction of the human race than on that which would conduce to the happiness of mankind. . . These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family. . . Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind. . .’

Such, so far as I can recall them, were the words which, besides many others, I heard from Beha. Let those who read them consider well with themselves whether such doctrines merit death and bonds, and whether the world is more likely to gain or lose by their diffusion.”

Baha’u’llah has turned the social, religious and political mindset on its head. Although His work has been collected in 100 volumes, even a couple of paragraphs denote the revolution He proposed. Here He is on the resistance of the population and leaders to His vision; the necessity for their own sake, to take Him seriously; and the actual changes they need to make, ” O people of God! Countless are the realms which Our Pen of Glory hath revealed and manifold the eyes to which it hath imparted true enlightenment. Yet most of the people in Persia continue to be deprived of the benefits of profitable counsels and remain sorely lacking in useful sciences and arts. Formerly these sublime words were especially revealed by the Pen of Glory in honour of one of the faithful, that perchance those that have gone astray may embrace the Truth and become acquainted with the subtleties of the Law of God.

The unbelievers and the faithless have set their minds on four things: first, the shedding of blood; second, the burning of books; third, the shunning of the followers of other religions; fourth, the extermination of other communities and groups. Now however, through the strengthening grace and potency of the Word of God these four barriers have been demolished, these clear injunctions have been obliterated from the Tablet and brutal dispositions have been transmuted into spiritual attributes. Exalted is His  purpose; glorified is His power; magnified is His dominion!”  (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 91,92)

In another letter He not only banned the burning but the destruction of books presumably by any means.  (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 25)

We might not think this a very important issue today, but to understand the implications of this we must go to another warning from Baha’u’llah, “Warn the beloved of the one true God, not to view with too critical an eye the sayings and writings of men. Let them rather approach such sayings and writings in a spirit of open-mindedness and loving sympathy.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 329) In doing so, Baha’u’llah forbids conflict even against those who are inflammatory towards His own teachings, encourage an assertive argument to promote His vision. “Those men, however, who, in this Day, have been led to assail, in their inflammatory writings, the tenets of the Cause of God, are to be treated differently. It is incumbent upon all men, each according to his ability, to refute the arguments of those that have attacked the Faith of God. Thus hath it been decreed by Him Who is the All-Powerful, the Almighty. He that wisheth to promote the Cause of the one true God, let him promote  it through his pen and tongue.”(Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 329)

Baha’u’llah’s courage was to assert, from a most vulnerable position, from a miserable corner of the Middle East, that a global society was the only worthwhile goal for any national government, and that the ethics of such a society required freedom for people to write and say what they thought. He did not protect people from criticism. He did not protect Himself from criticism. His only demand was that any criticism itself does not necessarily go unchecked. From that remote exile, Baha’u’llah contrived a vision of the most free society conceivable. Yet, some 166 years  after the Baha’i Faith began to wrestle the mindset of the Persian people away from miserable superstitions, there are still ignorant people in all continents who resist opening their eyes and minds to look at the truth. There are people who want to burn books. Some of them are religious. Some of them declare aetheism.  So do not cry out for others to stand up and speak. Others have. It is now for the critic to stand up and support Baha’u’llah’s vision.

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8 thoughts on “Baha’u’llah’s Ban on the Burning of Books

  1. Concorde

    Thanks for this excellent post; this is precicely why the authorities in Iran want to have Baha’is silenced.

    The mere dissertation of a 16 year old Mona claiming the right to explain her beliefs to her fellow students in school was an act of “rebellion against God” that led to her execution in 1983 and the presence of a nine pointed star on a grave is felt as a threat to the stability of the regime, leading to the destruction of cemetries.

    In the midst of such threats, the Yaran stand up for their beliefs, as an act of defence of the rights of the entire planet. Future generations will befittingly appreciate their courage and selfless love for mankind.

  2. Concorde

    @ Owen59, this story,as numerous others since the birth of the Baha’i Faith in 1844, provide any serious observer to understand that the accusations such as spying, immorality, incest, corruption on earth, apostasy and other slanders levelled against the Baha’is are unfounded and that the real reason is to silence a vision of religion that promotes reconciliation and unity and hence endangers the theories of hatred and division on which the IRI are founded. This attitude is similar to that of the churches steeped in superstition who feared a loss of power and influence in the Middle-Ages facing scientific evidence.

    1. I am currently reading Marilynne Robinson’s book, “Absence of Mind.” While from a Christian perspective, Marilynne raises some insightful analysis of world history that shows up the philosophical ‘sloppiness’, prejudice really, that has become the hallmark of the aetheistic, positivist movement. Of course, I can fully understand the anger and frustration that has clouded their judgement in this manner, and reminded of Baha’u’llah’s exhortion, “When a true seeker determineth to take the step of search in the path leading unto the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, … so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.” (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 264). I also fully recognise the value that the positivist movement has created for those societies, again reminding me of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha’s constant encouragement to build sciences that have ethical and productive outcomes. The ongoing blindspot in the positivist aetheist movement is the failure to reconcile and engage with the enormous value that religious discipline has had in the world, and that the majority of expenditure on positivist science goes towards killing people, and if we add to that the expenditure that is orientated towards technologies that allow the wealthy to increasingly dominate the populations of the world, often without providing best product or service that is available, then the unethical behaviour related to science probably projects towards the 90 percentile of expenditure. This is a very precarious place for the world to be. And, though I am feeling a little precarious myself from the economic downturn of the last couple of years, I think it was the best thing that could have happened to humanity. Yet whether governments, bankers, multinationals, actually understand what is happening, and are responsive to the lesson, will determine how many rounds and how severe these rounds of reconciliation of the balance, is needed, to build ethical institutions.

  3. Concorde

    @Owen59, to a pilgrim (Ahmad Yazdani) Abdu’l-Bahá explained the world would first abandon religion when recognizing it as a source of conflict, and then will realise that without religion, social disruption will arise, and then humanity will seek and adopt à religion adapted to it’s time.

    The citizens of the world seem to me at different stages of this evolution; Some cling to an outdated form of religious practice others have already abandoned it and are unhappy without knowing why, others are seeking, and a lucky few have found the new path to human progress.

    1. And through my small inklings, I think that the Baha’i Faith is to become a religion vastly different from anything seen in the history of humanity. It is evolving towards that new thing as the Faith works within that world of many degrees of change. It is an awesome dynamic.

  4. Concorde

    Owen59, yes it is awsome, and besides our inklings, Shoghi Effendi was very clear that the Major Plan of God is the one reshaping the planet into a new creation, a banquet offered to all humanity. What the Baha’is are doing is the Minor Plan of God, working in the kitchen and spiritual catering for the masses. As vital as this service might be, the sprouting of the widely sown seeds in the deeply furrowed hearts of men is the spectacular result of God’s gifts to humanity. Once again, thanks for this timely subject and inspiring thread.

  5. Pingback: The Burning of Books - Baha'i Forums

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