The Use of Generative Imagery in Shoghi Effendi's The Dispensation of Baha'u'llah
by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram
Ruhiyyih Khanum states of her husband, Shoghi Effendi (Shawqi Rabbani), the leader of the Baha'i faith in the period 1921-1957, that "However Shoghi Effendi felt in his inmost heart about his other writings, I know from his remarks that he considered he had said all he had to say, in many ways, in the Dispensation." (1) This work is dated February 8, 1934, but it is obvious from its length that it must have been composed over a period of time.(2) Indeed, the similarities between parts of the Dispensation and the discussions from 1932 recorded by Keith Ransom-Kehler and Lorol Schopflocher suggest that Shoghi Effendi was pondering the themes of the work for almost two years.(3) Thus, given the importance Shoghi Effendi assigned to The Dispensation of Baha'u'llah and the extended period of thought that seems to have preceded its composition, it seems reasonable to assume a particularly conscious and carefully considered use of words in this work.
Shoghi Effendi's compositional method was to speak the words as he wrote and to use speech to hone the structure of his text. He was also very concerned with the precise choice of words to convey his meaning. Thus, we may in general assume a high degree of intentionality of word choice in his writing and more especially so when particular usages are rendered prominent by repetition.
Given both Shoghi Effendi's general method and the prominence he gave to The Dispensation, it would seem that this work is likely to be a particularly fruitful subject for detailed textual analysis. In this paper I will consider specifically the use of generative imagery in The Dispensation and in particular will discuss the use of such imagery in relation to his comments on the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Baha.
There are fifty-six sentences in The Dispensation that use generative imagery. Twenty-six of them are in quotations from other authors, and 30 are in Shoghi Effendi's own text. Thus, he reinforces and validates his own use of such imagery by providing the reader with comparable examples from the writings of the Bab, Baha'u'llah, and 'Abdu'l-Baha. The most concentrated and insistent use of generative imagery in Shoghi Effendi's own text is in the paragraphs concerning the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Baha.
Let me quote them here in full as a basis for further discussion:
The creative energies released by the Law of Baha'u'llah, permeating and evolving within the mind of 'Abdu'l-Baha, have, by their very impact and close interaction, given birth to an Instrument which may be viewed as the Charter of the New World Order which is at once the glory and the promise of this most great Dispensation. The Will may thus be acclaimed as the inevitable offspring resulting from the mystic intercourse between Him Who communicated the generating influence of His divine Purpose and the One Who was its vehicle and chosen recipient. Being the Child of the Covenant -- the Heir of both the Originator and the Interpreter of the Law of God -- the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Baha can no more be divorced from Him Who supplied the original and motivating impulse than from the One Who ultimately conceived it. Baha'u'llah's inscrutable purpose, we must ever bear in mind, has been so thoroughly infused into the conduct of 'Abdu'l-Baha, and their motives have been so closely wedded together, that the mere attempt to dissociate the teachings of the former from any system which the ideal Exemplar of those same teachings has established would amount to a repudiation of one of the most sacred and basic truths of the Faith.
The Administrative Order, which ever since 'Abdu'l-Baha's ascension has evolved and is taking shape under our very eyes in no fewer than forty countries of the world, may be considered as the framework of the Will itself, the inviolable stronghold wherein this new-born child is being nurtured and developed. This administrative Order, as it expands and consolidates itself, will no doubt manifest the potentialities and reveal the full implications of this momentous Document -- this most remarkable expression of the Will of One of the most remarkable Figures of the Dispensation of Baha'u'llah. It will, as its component parts, its organic institutions, begin to function with efficiency and vigour, assert its claim and demonstrate its capacity to be regarded not only as the nucleus but the very pattern of the New World Order destined to embrace in the fullness of time the whole of mankind. (pp53-5)
The Will and Testament is portrayed as the "inevitable offspring" of the "mystic intercourse" between Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha. It is the "Child of the Covenant" with Baha'u'llah supplying "the original and motivating impulse," the "generating influence," and 'Abdu'l-Baha acting as the "vehicle and chosen recipient." The incipience of the Will and Testament derives from the "creative energies released by the Law of Baha'u'llah"; yet, the Will is also the result of those energies "permeating and evolving within the mind of 'Abdu'l-Baha" and thus it is the joint "Heir" of both.
The imagery of this paragraph is almost annunciatory in character; yet, it is made clear that the Will and Testament is not simply produced through 'Abdu'l-Baha by the impact of these "creative energies," but that 'Abdu'l-Baha also contributed to its character. There are not active and passive parties here but two active roles in the creation of this "Heir."
There are also two distinct discourses underlying the rhetoric of this paragraph. One is the Oxford Hellenism that was established over a period of decades in the nineteenth century and particularly associated with Balliol College where Shoghi Effendi studied. The other is a traditional Sufi characterization of the relationship between shaykh (master) and murid (disciple). Drawing on both Western and Middle Eastern thematic materials is also characteristic of 'Abdu'l-Baha's writing. As his grandfather had, Shoghi Effendi uses this technique in The Dispensation to establish cultural linkages and to posit original positions that go beyond cultural precedents.
At the crux of Oxford Hellenism was a value distinction between physical and spiritual procreancy. The core text for this distinction lay in Plato's Symposium which first became an integral text in the education of Oxford classics scholars under the regime of Benjamin Jowett as Master of Balliol College:
It is notable that in his translation of the passage Jowett locates not simply the generative impulse but pregnancy per se in the male body/soul; just as it is ironic that in the original dialogue the text which is explicating the superiority of spiritual procreancy (i.e. procreancy without women) is purportedly Socrates' retelling of the words of Diotima, "a woman wise in this and many other kinds of knowledge."
But although the end of spiritual procreancy is the production of "wisdom," all wisdom is not equivalent: "the greatest and fairest sort of wisdom by far is that which is concerned with the ordering of states and families, and which is called temperance and justice." And, indeed, the type of education developed by Jowett at Oxford was intended to produce the rulers of empire. We may note that in a letter written in 1920 Shoghi Effendi lists "great men" who had been educated at Balliol: "Lord Grey, Earl Curzon, Lord Milner, Mr. Asquith, Swinburne and Sir Herbert Samuel." And while at Oxford he particularly studied politics and economics, often in connection with the issues of the day. (6)
The imagery of Shoghi Effendi's paragraph does feminize the mind of 'Abdu'l-Baha: it receives the "generating influence" communicated through "mystic intercourse." This feminization of 'Abdu'l-Baha in relation to Baha'u'llah suggests one of the traditional tropes portraying shaykh/murid relations. Malamud notes that in such Sufi texts "masters are represented as fathers and procreators: they inseminate disciples with the essential substance that will bring about the birth of the disciple's new spiritual existence. The novice's dependence on his guide is signified in our texts by feminizing him: he becomes a passive receptacle (a field or a womb) for the masculine seed."(7)
But, as we have noted, although the paragraph feminizes the mind of 'Abdu'l-Baha, it does not thereby render it passive: the "creative energies" evolve and interact within it. Also the feminized portrayal of 'Abdu'l-Baha's mind is not part of an account of producing a new "spiritual existence" for 'Abdu'l-Baha but of a process of joint creation.
Nor does Shoghi Effendi's use of the term "mystic intercourse" suggest a resulting identity of Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha; the fana' of the murid in the shaykh. On the contrary, earlier in Dispensation, Shoghi Effendi had stated that there is not "any authority whatever for the opinion that inclines to uphold the so-called 'mystic unity' of Baha'u'llah and 'Abdu'l-Baha."(p48) 'Abdu'l-Baha is unique and distinct.
The traditional Sufi imagery is based on an Aristotelian model of generation with the female acting as passive incubator to the male creative impulse. Shoghi Effendi's generative imagery draws on a Hippocratic/Galenic model that requires contributions from both parties to achieve a result.
The result that is achieved in this case is a text, and the "creative energies" leading to this text emanate from the "law of Baha'u'llah" rather than simply his person. Thus text begets text via the ratiocination of 'Abdu'l-Baha.
In the Middle East knowledge acquisition, literacy, and textuality are often seen as analogous to physical generation. Reading and writing skills and textual knowledge were traditionally seen as transmitted generatively and directly in quasi-genealogical chains rather than as being acquired by individuals using their inherent resources; literacy/textuality requires an exterior impulse. At its most concretized, this view results in the popular Magribian belief that the acquisition of literacy by the pupil requires actual insemination by the teacher before book learning can be effective. This set of beliefs is, of course, what gives such force to the "unschooled" prophet motif; when autodidacticism is not a feasibility then "inspiration" must be the exterior cause.
Thus texts can be viewed as having very specifically generative aspects. According to Ibn 'Arabi:
Every single letter proceeding from Our mouth is endowed with such regenerative power as to enable it to bring into existence a new creation... (p. 17)
The Holy Spirit Itself hath been generated through the agency of a single letter revealed by this Most Great Spirit...(p. 19)
And the "child," the "Heir," is not itself an immutable given but as any new-born must be nurtured in order to develop. The Administrative Order as it exists at any one time provides the framework within which that development takes place. However, that order has its own dynamic, related to the Will, but not equivalent to it.
The extended generative imagery that Shoghi Effendi applies to the Will and Testament goes beyond its underlying discourses. It rejects the ranked dichotomy between physical and spiritual procreancy of Oxford Hellenism and asserts the value of both. It rejects the imitative reiteration of the shaykh/murid model and asserts the dependence and independence of creative evolution.
Shoghi Effendi's generative model is one of change and adaptation, of genotype and phenotype: potentialities and their expression in particular circumstances. The 'religious' approach to the relation of 'scripture' and the world is often unilinear, determinative, and essentialist. What is 'in' such texts is supposed to be definitively and delimitably recoverable and they (as sites of numenosity) forecast and 'create' outcomes. The meaning boundaries of texts are closed and their results inevitable. This is analogous to Aristotelian generation: Each new 'life' is generated from a single source and the incubator of that source's generative impulse can only effect the outcome by inadequately incubating this 'essence.' If the result is not as it should be, this is the 'fault' of the incubator who produced a 'degenerated' outcome. Historically, the attribution of numenosity to texts has often included a presumption that they have exactly the unilinear generative nature that Shoghi Effendi did not adopt in his discussion of the Will. Shoghi Effendi maintains the generative role of text and integrates this into a sophisticated organicism so that text too may participate in growth. Thus, it seems especially important in approaching such texts that we be as conscious of the dialectical aspect of their generative functioning as we may be of their attributed numenosity.
In the Hippocratic/Galenic tradition of thought generation is seen as a joint process with outcomes retaining a quality of provisionality at any point in the process. Thus, one cannot read a determined future from current or previous conditions, nor can one posit the inevitability of the present. Equally, responsibility (personal and social) cannot be displaced to the inevitable outcomes of the in essentia qualities of the 'generative impulse' as outcomes reside in the impulse in potentia and are expressed as the result of interactive processes that involve volitions other than that underlying the impulse itself.
There is an apposite African saying: Destiny is fan shaped. At any point on a path there are a myriad potential ways forward. The way that is chosen presents another myriad possibilities. Thus, no present is ever inevitable but is the result of cumulative choices, each choice being made in the context of its circumstances. Especially important is that although past choices constrain the circumstances in which current choices are made, past choices do not obviate choice as such.
Thus, although there are many comments by 'Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi to the effect that if such and such had been done the current situation would be so and so, the fact that this is not the current case does not mean that one has to give up. There has not been 'degeneration' of the essence of the generating impulse but merely a limited working out of its potentials within a particular (thus bounded) context.
Shoghi Effendi's discussion of the Will and the Administrative Order suggests that the two exist in an interactively creative relationship not one of simple linear causation. The "child" of the Will develops in association with the working out of the Administrative Order and thus continues to 'live' rather than being the founding 'ancestor' of that Order. Thus, the expression in action of the Will within the Baha'i community is not something fixed but something that must be worked at within particular circumstances and as those circumstances change so may the 'meaning' of the Will and Testament.
(1) Ruhiyyih Rabbani. The Priceless Pearl. 1969: 213.
(2) The Dispensation was first published in booklet form in 1938 and is available in many editions. The one used here is: Shoghi Effendi. The Dispensation of Baha'u'llah. London, England: Baha'i Publishing Trust,1947.
(3) Keith Ransom-Kehler and Lorol Schopflocher. "Notes at Haifa, May 12, 1932." Typescript in Horace Holley Papers, National Baha'i Archives, Wilmette, Illinois.
(4) Plato. The Collected Dialogues including the Letters. Eds. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961. Quoted as the epigraph to Chapter Three of: Linda Dowling. Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994:67.
(5) B. Jowett. The Dialogue s of Plato. Translated into English with Analyses and Introductions. 3rd ed. London: Macmillan and Co., 1892: Vol I, 579.
(6) Rabbani, 1969:32;36.
(7) Margaret Malamud. "Gender and Spiritual Self-Fashioning: The Master-Disciple Relationship in Classical Sufism." Journal of the American Academy of Religion. Vol. 64, No.1, Spring 1996: 95-6.
(8) quoted in Malamud: 100.