Translations of Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Texts, vol. 1, no. 12 (December, 1997)

Juan R. I. Cole. "A Tablet by Baha'u'llah on the Figurative Interpretation of Scripture (Lawh-i Ta'víl) Text, Translation, Commentary."

Date: Sat, 11 Oct 1997 11:28:00 -0600
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Subject: interpretation and ta'wil
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Date: Sat, 11 Oct 1997 02:01:53 -0400
From: jrcole@umich.edu (Juan R. I. Cole)
Subject: interpretation and ta'wil

In both medieval Europe and medieval Islam, two important types of scriptural exegesis were practiced. One was exegesis, the attempt to understand the outward meaning of the text through linguistic and philological analysis, reference to historical events surrounding the verse's revelation, and comparing it with similar verses of scripture. The other was eisegesis, or figurative, esoteric and allegorical interpretation. As most of you know, High Medieval Catholic scripture commentary was only thought perfect if it contained both elements, both literal and allegorical interpretation.

In Islamic thought, as Todd Lawson has insightfully pointed out (--we are sometimes insufficiently aware of how blessed we are to have someone among us--), over time exegesis came to be known as tafsir and eisegesis was referred to as ta'wil. In his Commentary on the Surah of the Sun Baha'u'llah urges commentators on scripture to engage in both literal and figurative interpretation, and warns about losing the balance between the two. The Western Baha'i tradition of popular Baha'i culture has been insufficiently aware of what a strong denunciation this is of scriptural literalism of the sort that came to be known after about 1905 as "fundamentalism."

Baha'u'llah does not forbid ta'wil in general. In the Most Holy Book, he forbids the ta'wil of *legal* texts. There is a simple reason for this. A figurative interpretation of a verse of scripture that concerns *law* raises the question of practice, and Islamic tradition is orthoprax. Thus, from Baha'u'llah's point of view it would be wrong to interpret the command to perform ablutions before prayer in such a way as to not in fact require that one perform ablutions. The advent of the next manifestation is also a legal and institutional event, and therefore it would be wrong to interpret the thousand-year interval figuratively.

In an important Tablet in Iqtidarat pp. 279-283, Baha'u'llah explicitly explains what he means by ta'wil or figurative interpretation, and when he thinks it legitimate. He says ta'wil should only be practiced if it does not result in depriving one of the exoteric or outward meaning of the verse. thus, if God commands one to wash one's face, one may not interpret that as a command to cleanse one's inner countenance, and then go about grimy-faced.

Nevertheless, he says, "some of the divine words may be interpreted esoterically (ba`d-i kalimat-i ilahi ra mitavan ta'wil namud)." Such figurative interpretation or ta'wil must not become a source of idle fancies. To show a legitimate exercise in ta'wil, Baha'u'llah considers the Qur'an verse that those who are given "wisdom" (hikmah) are given great good. He points out that some commentators have identified "wisdom" with the divine Law. Others have suggested it means "medical knowledge" (hikmah bears that meaning in Arabic, as well). Others have said it means knowledge of the realities of things; still others have identified it with metaphysics. Baha'u'llah settles on the "fear of God" as the best figurative interpretation or "ta'wil" of "wisdom." Baha'u'llah concludes on pp. 282-283 with incisive criticisms of Sufis who use ta'wil to confuse the difference between merely praying (du'a) and saying obligatory prayers (salat). (That is, the Sufis sat around praying and never got to their obligatory prayers, but said that was all right because they were, by the lights of ta'wil, the same thing). Baha'u'llah says such a person is deprived of the outward meaning of the verse, how much more of its inner meaning.

In short, it is not true that Baha'u'llah forbade either the interpretation of scripture generally or ta'wil as a technique in particular. He only forbade figurative or personalistic theology if it caused one to betray the outward meaning of the verse, or if concerned *legal* matters.

I present a more extended discussion of these issues in *Baha'i Studies Review,* Volume 5.1 (1995), Invited Commentary: "Interpretation in the Baha'i Faith".

Baha'u'llah was very supportive of individual interpretation.

I wrote to H-Bahai on 16 July 1997 and will quote from that message here: "There are two sorts of lattitude I'd like to point to. The first is lattitude of relatively free thought. Because Baha'u'llah accepted Ibn al-`Arabi's and Rumi's Sufi notion of standpoint epistemology with regard to metaphysics, he did not believe there was only one right answer to any particular doctrinal question. Which answer one gave would depend on one's own "maqam" or spiritual station, and upon one's degree of spiritual discernment or "idrak." Since maqams and idrak were so numerous and disparate, in Baha'u'llah's view, he did not expect the Baha'is all to adhere to the same theological beliefs at the same time. That is why he refused to intervene in the dispute between Jamal-i Burujirdi (who insisted that Baha'u'llah was man, not God) and other prominent Baha'i teachers (some of whom saw Baha'u'llah as a manifestation of God's very essence). This tablet and Khazeh's translation is in Baha'i Studies Bulletin and also on my Web page. It is very instructive. (cf. Iqtidarat p. 219) . . .

Along the same lines, in Iqtidarat, p. 100, Baha'u'llah tells the Baha'is who keep writing him with questions that *they* are the springs of his own discourse, and that they should strive to cleanse their water of idle fancies so that they can answer their questions *themselves*:

ta az shuma: khu:d dar amtha:l-i i:n masa:'il-i mas'u:lih java:bha:-yi muhkamih-'i mutqanih za:hir shavad

In this dispensation, he says, all bear the divine effulgence according to their own capacity, and all are able to discern the truths in the revealed scripture. This is an encouragement to all Baha'is without exception to develop their own midrash on the Baha'i scriptures and to try to answer questions for themselves. This is very different from the attitude of some authoritarian leaders that everything must be referred to them, and they must have the option of settling all important questions."

This freedom of individuals to engage in their own personal interpretation (which in English is part of what ta'wil amounts to) was also affirmed by Shoghi Effendi. In 1928, he wrote to an individual Baha'i, as reprinted in Unfolding Destiny, p. 423:

"I have no objection to your interpretations and inferences so long as they are represented as your own personal observations and reflections. It would be unnecessary and confusing to state authoritatively and officially a dogmatic Baha'i interpretation to be universally accepted and taught by believers. Such matters, I feel should be left to the personal judgment and insight of individual teachers . . ."

Moreover, when a dispute arose in a local community over John Cornell's freedom of individual speech, in the time of Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian backed Cornell.

Baha'u'llah's openness to figurative and personalistic interpretation for non-legal purposes and on condition that it not betray the common-sense meaning of the verse; his positive encouragement of individual believers to become the fountains of his own discourse through their independent interpretive activities; his standpoint epistemology; and `Abdu'l-Baha's and Shoghi Effendi's later reluctance to erect a dogmatic orthodoxy that would curb individual interpretive activities--all this could form the basis for a Baha'i openness, liberalism and universalism unlike that in any other revealed religion, if Baha'i thinkers were to build on them.

Juan Cole History Univ of Michigan

p.s. The word `Abdu'l-Baha uses for Interpreter is mubayyin, which literally means 'one who makes things clear.' Note that it is neither mufassir/exegete nor mu'awwil/eisegete.

Date: Mon, 27 Oct 1997 13:20:25 -0500
From: jrcole@umich.edu(Juan R. I. Cole)
Subject: Baha'u'llah on Figurative Interpretation

As a result of our discussion of esoteric or figurative interpretation (ta'wil or eisegesis) by individuals earlier this month, I looked at my notes and found extended comments by Baha'u'llah on the subject in a Tablet printed in Iqtidarat (pp. 279-286), of which I shared a summary.

It seemed to me that the subject, of the legitimacy of figurative scripture interpretation, is of sufficient importance that I should make a translation of this tablet. I have referred to it as the Lawh-i Ta'vil (the Persian transliteration), even though it has no title in Iqtidarat, because that is clearly its subject-matter.

This Tablet quotes from a passage in Arabic that is also quoted in the Lawh-i Maqsud, dated late 1881. It seems to me therefore likely that this Tablet can also be dated to around that time in `Akka.

One of the reasons for the controversy over ta'wil was that Baha'u'llah had appeared to forbid it in the Most Holy Book. He writes (para. 105, p. 57): "Whoso interpreteth what hath been sent down from the heaven of Reelation, and altereth its evident meaning, he, verily, is of them that have perverted the Sublime Word of God . . .' The underlying Arabic here is ta'wil. "Interpret" is not really the right translation, and is misleading. What Baha'u'llah means is "interpret away".

It is clear that Baha'u'llah had only meant to forbid a figurative interpretation of legal texts, such as would excuse adherents from complying with the commands therein. (That is why the issue is mentioned in the Most Holy Book). It was never his intention to forbid individuals from interpreting scripture in the sense of exegesis, nor to forbid figurative or eisegetic interpretation if it was applied to other than legal texts. He makes these issues very clear in the Lawh-i Ta'vil.

Here, as in his "Commentary on the Surah of the Sun" , Baha'u'llah urges a golden mean. Believers should neither so depart from the outward meaning of the text in idiosyncratic flights of fancy that the original intent is lost sight of, nor should they be so literal as to leave them with only the letter and none of the spirit. He condemns antinomian Sufism for the former, and the great Sunni Qur'an commentator al-Baydawi for the latter. He admits, in his discussion of the controversy in Islam over the meaning of Qur'an 2:227, that there is more than one valid interpretation of the verse, and therefore acknowledges the legitimacy of individuals seeking these meanings. He does not ever suggest that the meaning of non-legal scripture can be finally fixed by any institutional authority, and appears to encourage individual study and group discussion without hindrance or limitation. The only area in which he finds such activities inappropriate is the figurative interpretation of revealed law, which would have the effect of setting it aside . . .


Juan Cole History U of Michigan

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