Meditations

Commentary on the divine unity

by Alison Marshall


In praise of God, the Lord of all that is, the Beautiful

"These days are the manifestation of the firm and incontrovertible phrase,
'No God is there but He'". Baha'u'llah: Commentary on a Verse by Rumi(1)


Table of Contents



Introduction

The divine unity is the principle that there is no god but God. Baha'u'llah testifies:

All praise and glory be to Thee, Thou of Whom all things have testified that Thou art one and there is none other God but Thee, Who hast been from everlasting exalted above all peer or likeness and to everlasting shalt remain the same.(2)

Baha'is recite the principle every day. It is included in all three of the obligatory prayers:

"There is none other God but Thee…" (Short)

"God testifieth that there is none other God but Him…" (Medium)

"There is no God but Thee, the Almighty, the All-Bountiful. There is no God but Thee …" (Long)

But what does it mean and what are its implications?

In teaching the Faith, Baha'is tell people about the oneness of God and the unity of religion and of humanity. They also apply the concept of unity to their own community. Baha'is are taught to see themselves as a group of individuals who work together in a harmonious fashion - like an orchestra, where everyone plays their part in an overall divine plan. The concept of unity also carries a powerful emotional element that leaves the believers feeling: "Ah, isn't it lovely that we are all one?"

But at its core, the divine unity is about power. When you claim to be a god, you are claiming an ultimate, unquestioning power over everyone else. And when you claim to be the only god, you are making a very serious claim indeed - one that likely will lead to considerable conflict. For the question is, how is this one God represented on earth, and who gets to speak with God's authority? In this commentary, I explain that Baha'u'llah teaches us that the manifestation is God's representative on earth and that he is the only one who speaks on behalf of God.

This has important implications for who has authority in the Baha'i community. If Baha'u'llah is the only one to speak with the authority of God, what is the role of the community's leaders? The divine authority of Baha'u'llah means that, while the leaders have been given the role of administering the community's affairs, Baha'u'llah remains the only one whose word reflects a true understanding of the Faith. Baha'u'llah alone represents God.

Baha'u'llah tells us that in the past the people did not understand the limits of their leaders' authority. They believed that their leaders' worldly authority gave them the power and ability to arrive at a true understanding of the Faith. Therefore, instead of striving to understand the word of the manifestation himself, they accepted the views of their leaders as authoritative. In this way, the leaders became the way to understand the Faith and the actual word of the manifestation was disregarded.

It is widely believed that the House of Justice has access to infallible guidance in its role as administrative head of the world Baha'i community. Because of this perfect guidance, it is believed that the House of Justice acts in accordance with the will of God in all it does and says and cannot make a mistake. Accordingly, Baha'is are accepting that the House of Justice exemplifies true belief and practice and can correctly interpret the Faith. With the living example of the House of Justice before them, the believers no longer need to consult the divine standard itself - the word of Baha'u'llah. This practice of turning to leaders of religion for perfect guidance and away from the manifestation is a return of the practice Baha'u'llah explains occurred in past dispensations.

I will show why the belief that the House of Justice is infallible is a violation of the divine unity and makes the House of Justice into a partner with God. I will argue that this belief and the practice of turning to the House of Justice for perfect guidance is causing the Baha'i Faith to go into decline.

The divine unity

The structure of the divine unity

In a number of passages, which appear to have been consciously collected by the Guardian and included in Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, Baha'u'llah makes statements to the effect that a particular idea is the fundamental concept of the divine unity.

The core concepts of the divine unity that Baha'u'llah identifies are:

  1. That God transcends creation.
  2. That the manifestation should be considered the same as God.
  3. That there is no distinction between the manifestations.
  4. That every created thing is a sign of God.

These four concepts are linked logically to each other. Together, they explain that there is one transcendent God and the manifestation is God's representative in creation. They also define the relationships between God, the manifestation and the rest of creation.

In the first half of this commentary, I discuss the core concepts of the divine unity.

1. The transcendent God

Regard thou the one true God as One Who is apart from, and immeasurably exalted above, all created things. The whole universe reflecteth His glory, while He is Himself independent of, and transcendeth, His creatures. This is the true meaning of Divine unity. He Who is the Eternal Truth is the one Power Who exerciseth undisputed sovereignty over the world of being, Whose image is reflected in the mirror of the entire creation. All existence is dependent upon Him, and from Him is derived the source of the sustenance of all things. This is what is meant by Divine unity; this is its fundamental principle. (G:LXXXIV, 165)(3)

Baha'u'llah teaches that God transcends creation. This means that God is beyond the domain of creation altogether. God is "apart from, and immeasurably exalted above, all created things". It is impossible for anyone or anything in creation to ever know God. In one passage, Baha'u'llah says that "All creation … is standing in one spot in the presence of God."(4) We can imagine God looking at a spot in front of him, and that spot is creation. If you look at a spot in front of you, then you get an idea of what it means to say that God transcends us.

Because God transcends creation, it makes no sense to speak of creation having a particular relationship with God. Look at a spot in front of you. Does it make sense to speak in terms of the spot having a "relationship" with you? No, and for this reason, Baha'u'llah says that God has no relationship with creation: "Between him and his creation there is no relationship, no link, no direction, no allusion, and no indication."(5) It even makes no sense to speak of God as being "beyond" us or "remote" in relation to us: "[God] standeth exalted beyond and above all separation and union, all proximity and remoteness."(6) The reason for this is that the concepts of union and separation, or any other form of relationship, are ones that make sense only within the world of creation. Look again at the spot in front of you. Imagine the concepts that might be true within the world of existence of that spot. You can see that those concepts do not have any reality for you. They do not bind you to that spot because you are wholly outside of it. At any moment, you can simply rub the spot out! Similarly, the concepts of union and separation have a meaning in the world of creation, but they do not describe the relationship between God and creation or bind God to creation.

The image of a spot or dot is also commonly used to explain how God is the source of existence. `Abdu'l-Baha uses this metaphor in his commentary on the famous hadith qudsi:(7) "I was a Hidden Treasure and loved to be known. Therefore I created the creation that I might be known."(8) In this commentary, `Abdu'l-Baha argues that the essence of God is like a dot of ink. Inside that dot is stored up in a state of potential all the writing that ever was or will be. It contains all the letters of the alphabet and all the words that can be made up from them. But you can't see them. You look at the dot and wouldn't begin to imagine that it has the potential to say so many things. In this sense, it said to be a "hidden treasure". In the state of a dot, it makes all writing one, but it has the potential for all writing to come out of it. Similarly, the essence of God is said to be a hidden treasure. It is one, but it is also the storehouse of all creation.

`Abdu'l-Baha goes on to point out that although the dot of ink is the hidden treasure of all the letters and words, this does not mean that the dot itself descends into the words. Similarly, the essence of God does not descend into creation. In a tablet called Commentary on the Disconnected Letters, Baha'u'llah gives a wonderful explanation of how this principle works, comparing it to the way that humans function. He argues that although a human being is one "self", a person nevertheless is able to perform many actions, such as talking and thinking. The "self" is like the hidden treasure and the actions are like the words. These actions all come from one self, but the self does not enter into the actions, rather it stays abstracted from them. The actions carry the characteristics of the person but not the person in his or her essence. For example, at will, a person can focus on his or her mouth and speak, and convey a particular message using words. The way we speak, the words we choose and the message we convey come from the hidden treasure of our "self". Our individuality is carried in them, but our essence does not descend into our mouth or words. The self remains apart from the act of speaking and the speech.(9)

In addition to being the hidden treasure of creation, God is also its one and only sovereign. Absolutely everything that exists comes from him and is ruled by him. The idea of how God rules creation can easily be grasped if we think again of creation as a series of letters and words emerging from one dot of ink. Imagine yourself using a pen to write a word in front of you. In doing this, you become the author of that word and, in addition, you become its ruler. You can decide what words to write and what words to delete. You can also decide what story to tell by putting a lot of words together. You have complete sovereignty over your writing. The same is true for God, who "writes" creation into existence in whatever manner he pleases. The destinies of all in creation are determined by his will, through his word.

He is indeed a true believer in the unity of God who, in this Day, will regard Him as One immeasurably exalted above all the comparisons and likenesses with which men have compared Him. (G:CLX, 335-6)

Because God transcends creation, he cannot be compared to any thing or quality in it. For this reason, God is said to be "incomparable". For example, Baha'u'llah says: "Thou art the one God, the Incomparable… From everlasting Thou wert alone, with none to describe Thee."(10) Earlier on, we saw that God was beyond the concepts of union and separation. This is because God is incomparable. The qualities of union and separation make sense for us who exist in creation, but for God, who stands outside it, they cannot be attributed to him. This is true for all qualities in creation, including qualities such as justice and mercy, which we usually attribute to God. For the same reason, God is not like any thing or person in creation either.

One very important consequence of God's being incomparable is that God is not limited in any way. The reason is that if we describe God using a particular quality, then we immediately limit him to that quality and rule out other qualities that are the opposite. For example, if we assert that God is loving, then we rule out the possibility that God is wrathful. God, therefore, must be beyond description because any word we use to describe God limits him to the qualities of that description. God is unlimited or unconstrained: "God, alone, transcendeth … limitations"(G:LXXVIII, 150).

`Abdu'l-Baha explains that when we speak of God as having certain attributes, what we are saying is that God does not lack perfection.(11) For example, if we say that God is merciful, we are saying that he does not in any way lack the perfection of mercy. If we say God is loving, then he does not lack any aspect of the perfection of love. Therefore, when we attribute qualities to God, we are not asserting that we can comprehend those qualities. Rather, we acknowledge that those attributes are beyond our comprehension.

He is a true believer in Divine unity who, far from confusing duality with oneness, refuseth to allow any notion of multiplicity to becloud his conception of the singleness of God, who will regard the Divine Being as One Who, by His very nature, transcendeth the limitations of numbers. (G:LXXXIV, 166)

Another quality we cannot use to describe God is that of "oneness". We cannot say that God is "one" because God is exalted above the concept of number. From God, all numbers emerge, but God never becomes the number one and cannot be described by it. He remains sanctified above the idea of number and also the idea of "multiplicity", which number carries with it. Number is a part of creation and therefore limited; it is not something that can be ascribed to God.

2. The manifested God

The essence of belief in Divine unity consisteth in regarding Him Who is the Manifestation of God and Him Who is the invisible, the inaccessible, the unknowable Essence as one and the same. By this is meant that whatever pertaineth to the former, all His acts and doings, whatever He ordaineth or forbiddeth, should be considered, in all their aspects, and under all circumstances, and without any reservation, as identical with the Will of God Himself. (G:LXXXIV, 166)

We have seen that we cannot describe God because he is incomparable. But what about the very description "incomparable"? Can we say even this of God? No, because, as argued above, asserting one thing about God rules out its opposite. The mystic, Ibn al-`Arabi,(12) has pointed out that if we say God is incomparable, then we deny his ability to make himself comparable should he choose to do so. If God is truly without limit, he can limit himself.(13)

We can also look at God's transcendence from a practical point of view. If all we knew about God was that we could say nothing about him, what use would that be?(14) What would be God's purpose in creating us if it was just to hold himself aloof from creation? Ibn al-`Arabi argues that the characteristic of a true lover is that he or she will, in an attempt to draw near to the loved one, take on the attributes of the beloved and not remain aloof:

The sincere lover is he who passes into the attributes of the beloved, not he who brings the beloved down to his own attributes. Do you not see that the Real, when He loved us, descended to us in His hidden gentleness by means of that which corresponds to us and above which His eminence and greatness are high exalted?(15)

God is a true lover. Even though he transcends creation, he takes on a form that is like us so that he can get near to us.(16) Baha'u'llah tells us that God manifests himself in all the worlds of God in the form pertaining to each of those worlds. In the world of spirits, he appears "with the signs of the Spirit", and in the world of names and attributes, he appears in a body. "God, the Exalted, appears in the clothing of his creatures."(17)

God, then, creates himself as a person:

The Source of infinite grace… hath caused those luminous Gems of Holiness to appear out of the realm of the spirit, in the noble form of the human temple, and be made manifest unto all men, that they may impart unto the world the mysteries of the unchangeable Being, and tell of the subtleties of His imperishable Essence.(18)

God raises up special human beings that have knowledge of God, so that they can teach humanity about God. These beings are called the "manifestations of God". Their task is to reveal God to creation.

But how, exactly, does a manifestation reveal God? A good way to grasp this idea is to go back to the analogy we used earlier about the functioning of the human being. Baha'u'llah explained that a human being is one person able to perform many actions, such as talking and thinking. We saw that the self of the person was the hidden treasure of all the person's actions, but that the self never descended into those actions. Rather, the actions carried with them the characteristics of the person. The same is true for God when he manifests himself. It is impossible for God himself to become a part of creation (G:XX, 49). Instead, Baha'u'llah explains, he reveals his identity. God is "not a Manifestation in Himself, but rather He is a Manifestation in His identity."(19) In other words, God gives himself an identity so that he can be known, and he does so using the vehicle of the manifestation.

The characteristics, or identity, that God gives the manifestation are the same as what we commonly refer to as the "names and attributes of God". "The Person of the Manifestation … is the Day Spring of God's most excellent Titles, and the Dawning-Place of His exalted Attributes"(G:XXVIII, 70). These names and attributes potentially take in all the qualities found in creation. But the important ones include the common actions of humans, such as speaking, willing and loving.(20) By reflecting these names and attributes, the manifestation reveals the characteristics and will of God. For this reason, Baha'u'llah tells us in the introductory quote that everything the manifestation does and whatever he ordains and forbids should be considered as identical to the will of God. These attributes are not literally identical to God, but should be considered identical to God.

3. The manifestations of God

Beware, O believers in the Unity of God, lest ye be tempted to make any distinction between any of the Manifestations of His Cause, or to discriminate against the signs that have accompanied and proclaimed their Revelation. This indeed is the true meaning of Divine Unity, if ye be of them that apprehend and believe this truth. (G:XXIV, 59)

Baha'u'llah explains that the manifestation has two dimensions.(21) In the first dimension, he is a person made up of the elements of the world. From this perspective, he is like other humans. He experiences the limitations that living in a human body entails, such as oppression, poverty and sickness.(22) He appears to people to be no different to them and lives among them without their noticing: "The great king of the exalted spheres… frequents alleyways and bazaars!"(23) As if to drive home the very 'ordinariness' of the manifestation, Baha'u'llah comments on how people react with amazement and denial when someone who has lived among them like any other person all of a sudden claims to act with the authority of God:

Consider how men for generations have been blindly imitating their fathers, and have been trained according to such ways and manners as have been laid down by the dictates of their Faith. Were these men, therefore, to discover suddenly that a Man, Who hath been living in their midst, Who, with respect to every human limitation, hath been their equal, had risen to abolish every established principle imposed by their Faith … they would of a certainty be veiled and hindered from acknowledging His truth.(24)

By contrast, from the second perspective, the manifestation is the reigning divine reality. In a tablet called Tablet of the Ultimately Real, Baha'u'llah proclaims himself as the Ultimately Real One.(25) In this dimension, the manifestation bestows existence on creation: "all else besides these Manifestations live by the operation of their Will, and move and have their being through the outpourings of their grace."(26) Creation should be thought of as a mirror that reflects the attributes of God shed on it by the manifestation: "All else besides them are to be regarded as mirrors capable of reflecting the glory of these Manifestations Who are themselves the Primary Mirrors of the Divine Being…" (G:XXX, 73)

In his Commentary on the Disconnected Letters, Baha'u'llah gives a mystical explanation for how the names and attributes are reflected to creation by the manifestation. He uses the symbol of the Arabic letter Alif or A, which looks like an "l" in English script, to represent the manifestation as the source of existence. In the passage, Baha'u'llah says that the Alif is established upon the Luminous Tablet, where it is transformed. As a result, out of it come what is called the "disconnected letters."(27) God shuffles these letters around and puts them into words. These words form the names and attributes of God:

[16] When this upright [letter] "A" was established upon the Luminous Tablet, it was again transfigured with renewed splendour, whereupon the Disconnected Letters shone forth… in order that they might be an evidence of the worlds of incomparability and command… [17] Then there appeared from these [Disconnected] Letters… the worlds of delineation and multiplicity. [18] They were differentiated, separated and disconnected then gathered together, reconciled, united and linked together. [19] Then assembled words and gathered letters appeared in the worlds of creation in the forms of Names and Attributes.(28)

You can see from this passage that the names and attributes of God are made up of various combinations of letters, which are all drawn from the Alif or the manifestation. This happens in a two-step process. First of all, the Alif is transformed and out of it come the disconnected letters. The quote tells us that this step is an evidence of the worlds of "incomparability and command". From our earlier discussion, we know that the world of incomparability refers to a world that is sanctified above creation. In the second step, the disconnected letters are shuffled around to form words, which are the names and attributes of God. These words are the cause of the worlds of "delineation and multiplicity". The word "multiplicity" is often used to refer to the world of creation because creation is where the many names and attributes appear from the one source.

The second step in this creation process gives us an idea of how the names and attributes act as the building blocks of reality in creation. By virtue of the disconnected letters being put together into various combinations, the characteristics of our world come into being. One way to illustrate this is to liken it to the functioning of a computer screen. Consider a computer screen that is 'on' or lighted, but that has no text or mark on it. The screen is like the Alif or manifestation; it is pure illumination because there is nothing on the screen except undifferentiated light. In this state, the letters are all hidden in the light. Now, if we type the letters of the word 'glory' on the screen, they create meaning by appearing as a series of shadows in the light. Each letter defines itself by differentiating shadow from light in a unique way. By putting the letters into various combinations, each word - or name or attribute - makes its own unique statement by shadowing out some of the light.

The manifestation is often referred to as the "Logos" or "Word" of God. In his capacity as the writer of reality, he holds within himself all the possible meanings that can be created from the letters. He is therefore the ultimate word or meaning of creation, and through his word all things derive their meaning:

The perfections of Christ are called the Word because all the beings are in the condition of letters, and one letter has not a complete meaning, while the perfections of Christ have the power of the word because a complete meaning can be inferred from a word. As the Reality of Christ was the manifestation of the divine perfections, therefore, it was like the word. Why? because He is the sum of perfect meanings. This is why He is called the Word.(29)

In some of the writings, we witness Baha'u'llah acting in his capacity as the writer of reality. A clear example appears in Surah of the Almighty, where Baha'u'llah is commanding the name "the Almighty" to produce the effects of its self in creation: "Sun of my name, the Almighty: Rise from the East upon all beings with the wonders of the power of your Lord, so that all things may witness in themselves the Might of God, the Omnipotent, the All-Glorious."(30)

When Baha'u'llah says that there are no differences between the manifestations, he is speaking about them from the point of view of their second dimension - that of their creative, divine reality. From the point of view of their human dimension, they are obviously different people. They lived at different times throughout history, had different personalities and even brought different messages. However, from the point of view of their ultimate reality, there is no distinction between them. In our discussion on the disconnected letters, we saw that concepts like multiplicity and differentiation have meaning only in the world of names and attributes. The manifestation's ultimate reality creates these concepts, but is not subject to them.

4. The sign of God

He is really a believer in the Unity of God who recognizeth in each and every created thing the sign of the revelation of Him Who is the Eternal Truth, and not he who maintaineth that the creature is indistinguishable from the Creator. (G:XCIII, 188-9)

Baha'u'llah tells us that every thing in creation is a sign of God's revelation: "Know thou that every created thing is a sign of the revelation of God" (G:XCIII, 183). This means that every thing reveals something about God and in so doing is a "sign" of him.

The sign of God is a thing's inmost reality. Baha'u'llah states that if all the veils that hide the inmost realities of things were stripped away, all that would remain would be the sign of God (G:LXIII, 140). The inmost reality of things reflects God's names and attributes: "All things, in their inmost reality, testify to the revelation of the names and attributes of God within them".(31)

The sign of God should not be thought of as an 'object' that subsists in things. It is not something you can reach out and grasp. Nor can you burrow inside and find it, just as you can't take apart a human body to find the soul. Rather, the sign of God is a hidden treasure. From this hidden essence is projected an image of the thing, which it reveals when you look at it or experience it. For this reason, the sign of God is often likened to a mirror; for example, Baha'u'llah calls it "the mirror of His beauty".(32)

The sign of God produces the image of a thing in the broadest sense; that is, an image that includes all information the thing gives away about itself, including how it looks and acts and what it experiences. Grasping this way of viewing the world requires a complete shift in the way we think about physical things and reality. In our everyday life, we think that a thing is "real" if it has physical substance. In other words, we assume that "reality" is the same thing as "physicality" and we might assert, for example, that dreams are fantasy because they lack physicality. However, from the point of view of the sign of God, the images that are physical objects and the images in dreams are both "real" in that they both reflect the names and attributes of God. If a thing has physical substance, this physicality is just one of the attributes of God that it reflects. Its physicality does not constitute its reality.

In humans, the sign of God is the soul. It is also referred to in the writings as the human spirit,(33) human reality, human soul and rational soul.(34) In a passage devoted to the sign of God in humans, Baha'u'llah refers to it as the "rational faculty."(35) His discussion reveals that the sign of God in humans is the self that stands behind all experience, both subjective and objective. That is, it is behind our sensual experience; our movement; and our inner experience, such as our emotion, imagination, thought and will. All these faculties rely on the soul to function. Baha'u'llah points out that it is a mistake to think the sign of God is the same as one of these faculties - for example, the same as our sight. If we lose our sight, we do not lose all our faculties. In fact, the soul is not only different from, it is sanctified above, the names and attributes it reflects. It is "immeasurably exalted… in its essence and reality, above all such names and attributes".(36)

Baha'u'llah explains that the sign of God gives each thing the power to have a unique influence in creation and to show the world a unique quality of God: "Each and every created thing hath… been endowed with the capacity to exercise a particular influence, and been made to possess a distinct virtue" (G:XCIII, 188). Among all created things, human beings have been singled out for the bounty of reflecting all of the names and attributes (G:XXVII, 65). Despite this, however, each thing is created to reflect one name of God in particular and humans are no exception. `Abdu'l-Baha explains:

However, although he [humankind] is the dawning-place of the manifestation of all the Names and Attributes, one of the Divine Names is manifested most strongly and appears most intensely [in each person]. Thus his being originates from this Name and returns to it.(37)

In his Commentary on the Hidden Treasure, `Abdu'l-Baha likens the sign of God to the central point of a compass.(38) A compass is designed to always revolve around its center point and is incapable of breaking free of that limitation. The sign of God works in us in the same way. As we have seen, the soul reflects the names and attributes of God. In so doing, it generates a universe or reality in which we find ourselves completely submerged. The center point of that universe is the sign of God placed in us. But however much we develop spiritually, we can never step outside that universe. Spiritual development within our own universe is eternal, but it is nevertheless confined to the pre-ordained limitations inherent in our soul.

The limiting action of the sign of God has very important consequences. It means that no matter how much we grow spiritually, our knowledge, understanding and experience of God and of life in general will always be confined to our own spiritual realm. What we know to be 'true' will be true for our world; others will have different knowledge and experiences, which will be true for their worlds. `Abdu'l-Baha confirms that the differences in understanding about the nature of God that were debated among the Islamic philosophers were the result of differences in the souls of the philosophers themselves.(39) Baha'u'llah explains that everything the mystics have said down through the ages was also true of themselves:

Salman, all that which the mystics have mentioned refers to the plane of creation. For however high exalted souls and purified hearts soar into the heaven of knowledge and mystical insight, they can never escape the plane of contingent being or go beyond what was created in their own souls by their own souls. All the mystical insights of every mystic, all the mentions made by everyone who praises God, all the depictions of everyone who describes him, refer to the effulgence of his Lord that was created in his soul.(40)

This does not mean, however, that all human understandings about God are equally true. Some people's knowledge will be more true than others', for souls have different capacities. The crucial thing is that no one's understanding is absolutely true. Baha'u'llah forbade the believers from disputing with each other about the nature of God, pointing out that: "There hath never been nor is there now anyone capable of proffering a befitting description of the essential nature of this Most Great Manifestation."(41)

This fact captures the key difference between the manifestation and other humans. The self of the manifestation is not limited to creation. His divine self bestows existence on creation. The self of the rest of us, however, is limited by the attributes reflected in our soul. In addition, the key difference between humans and other signs of God is that humans, being made in the image of God, are able to reflect all the names and attributes as opposed to only one or some of them.

Going back, to the introductory quote for this section, Baha'u'llah says that a true believer in the unity of God is a person who recognises the sign of God in each created thing. The unity of God, he says, is not found in maintaining that one creature is God himself. Ordinarily, we would tend to think that a "unity" is reflected in one thing. But Baha'u'llah is saying that the divine unity is reflected in all things. Each thing is a sign of God and reflects a unique aspect of God.

Associating a partner with God

In the second half of this commentary, I discuss the opposite of the divine unity, which is the idea that there is more than one God. This is called "associating a partner with God" or "idolatry". The focus of my commentary is on leaders of religion as idols.

Idolatry

The opposite of the principle of divine unity is the idea that there are two or more Gods. This is called "associating a partner with God" or "idolatry". In the Qur'an, it is said that associating a partner with God is the only unforgivable sin:

"Lo! Allah forgiveth not that a partner should be ascribed unto Him. He forgiveth (all) save that to whom He will. Whoso ascribeth partners to Allah, he hath indeed invented a tremendous sin." (4:48)

When Baha'u'llah was asked about there being two Gods, he replied:

Beware, beware, lest thou be led to join partners with the Lord, thy God. He is, and hath from everlasting been, one and alone, without peer or equal... He hath assigned no associate unto Himself in His Kingdom… (G:XCIV, 191)

In principle, there are two possible ways to assign a partner to God. First, we can say that there is a second god, who exists outside of creation. Second, we can say that there is a second god, who exists within the realm of creation. I will look at both possibilities, but the focus of this half of the commentary is on the second possibility.

We saw in the section on the transcendent God that God is the sovereign of creation. Using the analogy of a person writing, we saw that God writes creation into existence as he wills through his word. Because God is the author of all that is, this rules out two possibilities. First, it rules out the possibility that there is another god, equal to but separate from God, who has created another dimension. In other words, there is not a second creation created by a second god. Whatever dimensions there are out there, they will be ruled by the same God as us. It also rules out the possibility that there is another god - such as Satan - who also wields power over creation and acts in competition with God. God is the only god that transcends and rules creation. In Arabic, God is called Allah, which means "The God". Allah is The God because he is the only god there is.

The possibility that there is a second god transcending creation is also ruled out by the fact that the concept of number is itself limited to the realm of creation. The idea of there being two of anything only makes sense within the realm of the names and attributes. To assert that there are two transcendent gods is therefore meaningless. God is the creator of the concept of number and is not subject to it. This is the point Baha'u'llah is making in the quotation cited in the first section:

He is a true believer in Divine unity who, far from confusing duality with oneness, refuseth to allow any notion of multiplicity to becloud his conception of the singleness of God, who will regard the Divine Being as One Who, by His very nature, transcendeth the limitations of numbers. (G:LXXXIV, 166)

Having ruled out the possibility that there is a second god transcending creation, we come to the idea that there is a second god within creation. The first thing we might think is that the second concept of the divine unity - that the manifestation should be considered the same as God - sets up a god in creation. In a sense, this is true - Baha'u'llah is 'God' in creation. But this does not make Baha'u'llah a partner with God. The key reason is that the manifestation does not manifest the essence of God, only his attributes. This makes Baha'u'llah 'God' only in the sense that he has been created with God's identity.(42) He is simply a reflected image of God and not another, separate, god.

Baha'u'llah tells us that God creates this reflected image of himself so that he can be represented in creation. Baha'u'llah therefore refers to himself as God's representative:

The Person of the Manifestation hath ever been the representative and mouthpiece of God. He, in truth, is the Day Spring of God's most excellent Titles, and the Dawning-Place of His exalted Attributes. (G:XXVIII, 69)

Because Baha'u'llah is God's representative, associating a partner with God in the realm of creation is the same as setting up a partner with the manifestation.

It might be argued that the manifestations are partners to each other, given that there are several of them. The third supporting concept of the divine unity - that there is no distinction between the manifestations - argues against this. The fact that the self of each manifestation transcends the names and attributes means that it is beyond creation and number. It is therefore incomparable, indivisible and peerless. In Some Answered Questions, `Abdu'l-Baha uses a useful analogy to explain this.(43) He argues that the manifestation has two selves: an individual reality, which is the rational soul, and a holy reality, which is the transcendent self. He likens the individual reality to the glass of a globe and the holy reality to the light. Each manifestation displays the light through the characteristics of its own rational soul, but from the point of view of the light, there is no distinction between them.

The concept that every created thing is a sign of God also rules out the possibility that created things can be a partner to the manifestation. We saw that created things can claim no more than that they are reflections of the manifestation's divinity. They also operate within the restricted reality generated by the sign of God in the essence of their being. Because of these limitations, a created thing cannot be God or like God:

Let no one imagine that by Our assertion that all created things are the signs of the revelation of God is meant that … [God is] comparable unto men, or can, in any way, be associated with His creatures. Such an error hath been committed by certain foolish ones who, after having ascended into the heavens of their idle fancies, have interpreted Divine Unity to mean that all created things are the signs of God, and that, consequently, there is no distinction whatsoever between them. (G:XCIII, 186)

God and the divine self of the manifestation cannot be compared to any created thing. No created thing can be like God.

An idol, therefore, is a created thing that has been held to be God or god-like. It claims to be divine in some way, but its self is limited to creation and therefore can be compared to other created things. Baha'u'llah makes this point in the following passage:

Were one to be known by any beside Him, it would never be proven to have its essence sanctified from any similitude, its identity purified from likeness and its singleness from any created appearance.(44)

In other words, if we were to examine the inner self of any being in creation who claimed to be independent of God and therefore a partner, we would find that its essence, identity and singleness would not be sanctified from being similar to something in creation. These would necessarily be comparable. This means that it could not be a partner to Baha'u'llah; instead, it would be a creation of his word.

Leaders of religion

Being the one and only God means that you have absolute rule over your creation. We have seen that God rules creation through his representative. The effect of idolatry is to give an idol illegitimate power. It claims to be a god or to have god-like abilities and, by virtue of this, asks to be obeyed instead of God. Although in theory any created thing can be an idol, Baha'u'llah gives particular attention to leaders of religion. Throughout history, the social standing of religious leaders has lead the believers to think that their leaders exemplified perfect belief and knowledge. This meant that the people followed their leaders and not the manifestation.

In the opening passages of Gems of the Mysteries, Baha'u'llah asks a fundamental question: why do the people always reject the manifestation of God? "First of all, you must contemplate the reasons for which the diverse communities now dwelling upon the earth failed to recognize the messengers whom God sent forth by his power…"(45) This is a crucial question, for if we could identify the reason the people do not recognise the manifestation, we would also know what leads them astray in the first place. It is no surprise, then, to find Baha'u'llah saying that this issue is so vital it lies at the very heart of faith and certitude in the Cause of God:

O wanderer in the wilderness of knowledge and passenger on the ark of wisdom, if you remain ignorant of the answer to this question, you will never attain to the station of faith, nor will you acquire certitude concerning the Cause of God.(46)

Baha'u'llah also asks this same question early on in the Kitab-i Iqan. In relation to the pattern of violence, oppression and cruelty routinely inflicted on the manifestations of God, he asks: "Reflect, what could have been the motive for such deeds? What could have prompted such behaviour towards the Revealers of the beauty of the All-Glorious?" He immediately goes on to state that it is the same thing each time that causes this behaviour: "Whatever in days gone by hath been the cause of denial and opposition of those people hath now led to the perversity of the people of this age."(47)

What is it, then, that causes the people to treat the manifestation with injustice and to reject him? Baha'u'llah anticipates the question and its answer in the first paragraph of the Kitab-i Iqan. He states:

… man can never hope to attain unto the knowledge of the All-Glorious… can never enter the abode of immortality… unless and until he ceases to regard the words and deeds of mortal men as a standard for the true understanding and recognition of God and His Prophets.(48)

At this very early stage in the book, we can already hear Baha'u'llah saying that people are inclined to set up humans as standards of the knowledge and understanding of God. This same idea is also stated in the Tablet of Joseph, where Baha'u'llah explains:

Notwithstanding that they had been commanded in all the Tablets not to cling to anything created between earth and heaven in the time of the Manifestation, but to adhere only to the Root of the Cause and that which is manifested through Him, yet they deviated from the Right Path and adhered to the idea that the way to know God (Who is exalted and holy above all) depends upon believing or disbelieving the people.(49)

Baha'u'llah gives a more detailed answer in the course of his argument in Gems of the Mysteries and the Kitab-i Iqan. In both cases, he outlines a pathological relationship between the leaders of religion and their followers. The people, he argues, refuse to clear their minds and dispassionately examine the words of the manifestation, preferring instead to understand his words using the interpretation of their leaders.

In Gems of the Mysteries, Baha'u'llah explains that the Jews and Christians failed to recognise the manifestation because they accepted the interpretation of scripture given to them by their leaders and did not examine the word of God itself with their own eyes. This caused them to miss its meaning, promises and guidance:

… know that because such peoples as the Jews and the Christians failed to recognize the inner meaning of the divine Word or to comprehend that which God has promised them in his Book, they denied the Cause of God, shunned his messengers and rejected his proofs. Had they gazed at the proof itself, rather than following those of their clergy and rulers who were only scoundrels and reprobates, they would have attained to the repository of guidance and piety… However, they failed to behold the proof with their own eyes, with which God endowed them, and coveted other than what he desired for them in his grace.(50)

In the Kitab-i Iqan, Baha'u'llah attributes the rejection of the manifestation to the petty-mindedness, arrogance and pride of the people, who were bent on ignoring the truth and following the demands of their leaders. He repeats the idea that the people, refusing to free their hearts, eyes and ears of the views of others, judged the word of the manifestation according to what they were taught by their leaders.(51)

Having described this unholy alliance between the leaders of religion and their followers, Baha'u'llah goes on in the Kitab-i Iqan to accuse the leaders of religion "in every age" of using their temporal power to prevent their followers from recognising the manifestation and of sanctioning and authorising the cruelties suffered by the manifestations. Again, in a passage from Gleanings, Baha'u'llah asserts: "They who were regarded as the leaders of men have invariably striven to hinder their followers from turning unto Him Who is the Ocean of God's limitless bounty." (G:XXIII, 56)

If we examine this relationship between the leaders of religion and their followers, we can see that although the leaders arguably have a legitimate temporal authority over the affairs of the community, Baha'u'llah is saying that they use this authority to promulgate their own interpretation of the religion in competition with that of the manifestation. In this way, the leaders become the exponents and representatives of God in place of the manifestation.

In a passage from Gleanings, Baha'u'llah sums up the cause of the demise of Shi'i Islam. This passage is instructive because it explains how the followers of a religion slowly go astray and over time destroy the religion's spiritual vitality, with the result that the forthcoming manifestation is rejected and oppressed:

Behold, O Muhammad, how the sayings and doings of the followers of Shi'ih Islam have dulled the joy and fervor of its early days, and tarnished the pristine brilliancy of its light. In its primitive days, whilst they still adhered to the precepts associated with the name of their Prophet, the Lord of mankind, their career was marked by an unbroken chain of victories and triumphs. As they gradually strayed from the path of their Ideal Leader and Master, as they turned away from the Light of God and corrupted the principle of His Divine unity, and as they increasingly centered their attention upon them who were only the revealers of the potency of His Word, their power was turned into weakness, their glory into shame, their courage into fear… Behold, how they have joined partners with Him Who is the Focal-Point of Divine unity. (G:XXVIII, 68-9)

Mirroring the explanations in passages discussed above, Baha'u'llah explains that the demise of Shi'i Islam was caused by its followers gradually shifting their focus from the word of the manifestation, "their ideal Leader and Master", to the word of those who are only reflections or "revealers of the potency" of his word, and he says that this is a form of idolatry.

No doubt the people of previous dispensations would have rejected Baha'u'llah's accusation, arguing that they never made a prophet of their leaders or that their leaders never claimed to be divine. But this misses the point. They do not need to claim these things for Baha'u'llah's argument to hold. All that is required is for people to accept their leaders' understandings of the religion over their own views of what the manifestation says. In this way, the leaders become the standard for the proper understanding of the religion and not the manifestation himself.

The attribute of infallibility

Infallibility is an attribute of God. In the same way that we say God is knowing or merciful, God is also infallible. Infallibility should be looked at in exactly the same way as any other name or attribute of God. We have seen in our discussion on the names and attributes that they are characteristics of God that are reflected from God to creation by the manifestation, and that we, in turn, reflect them in our souls. This means that, just as we think of the manifestation as being merciful and of ourselves as being merciful also, the same is true of the attribute of infallibility. The manifestation is perfectly infallible and the rest of humanity reflects infallibility as well, according to each individual's capacity.

The attribute of infallibility therefore needs to be thought of as operating on two levels: one applying to the manifestation and one applying to the rest of humanity. Baha'u'llah calls the infallibility applicable to the manifestation the "Most Great Infallibility". `Abdu'l-Baha usually refers to it as "essential infallibility". `Abdu'l-Baha calls the infallibility applicable to the rest of humanity by two names: "conferred infallibility" and "acquired infallibility". For convenience, I will call it "acquired infallibility" here.

In the following passage, `Abdu'l-Baha explains the two kinds of infallibility, essential and acquired, and explains that this distinction is true for all the attributes of God:

Know that infallibility is of two kinds: essential infallibility and acquired infallibility. In like manner there is essential knowledge and acquired knowledge; and so it is with other names and attributes… Essential infallibility is peculiar to the supreme Manifestation… But acquired infallibility… is a ray of the bounty of infallibility which shines from the Sun of Reality upon hearts, and grants a share and portion of itself to souls.(52)

The Most Great Infallibility

The Most Great Infallibility is confined to the manifestation:

He Who is the Dawning-place of God's Cause hath no partner in the Most Great Infallibility. He it is Who, in the kingdom of creation, is the Manifestation of "He doeth whatsoever He willeth". God hath reserved this distinction unto His own Self, and ordained for none a share in so sublime and transcendent a station.(53)

`Abdu'l-Baha calls the Most Great Infallibility "essential infallibility" because it is essential to the manifestation's nature. If the manifestation did not have perfect infallibility (as well as perfection in every other attribute), he would not be the manifestation. An essential characteristic is one that cannot be separated from a thing, just as the rays of the sun cannot be separated from the sun.(54)

In the passage from the Kitab-i Aqdas quoted above, we can see that the principal meaning of the Most Great Infallibility is the principle that "He doeth whatsoever He willeth". This principle breaks down into two aspects: first, that God does whatever he wills and, second, that what he wills is "sanctified from errors and omissions."(55) In the first aspect, God is not constrained by any thing in the world - such as law, custom or authority - from ordaining whatever he pleases. For example, the manifestation reveals laws that run counter to accepted practice among the people, who reject them for that reason. The second aspect is that whatever the manifestation ordains cannot, by definition, be 'wrong'. Another way of looking at this is to say that whatever he ordains cannot be judged by human standards. "The Will of God is not limited by the standards of the people, and God doth not tread in their ways."(56) To illustrate this, Baha'u'llah uses examples that defy human reason; for example, he says: "Were He to pronounce right to be wrong or denial to be belief, He speaketh the truth as bidden by God."(57) What Baha'u'llah is trying to demonstrate is that it makes no sense to speak of the divine laws as being 'wrong'. This is because the laws of the manifestation are the standards that define what is right and wrong.

The attribute of the Most Great Infallibility is the product of the manifestation's transcendent knowledge of God. It gives him the authority to make laws governing humanity and the perfect knowledge to do so effectively. One way to understand this is in terms of the distinction Baha'u'llah makes between the "Book" and the "book". Baha'u'llah explains that the "Book" is the self of the manifestation. In this Book is stored "the knowledge of all that hath been and will be."(58) In the Qur'an, Muhammad is commanded to: "Read! The Book of thine own self". When the manifestation writes the laws in the book of scripture, such as the Kitab-i Aqdas, he does so by reading the Book of his self, which is the source of his Most Great Infallibility.

Acquired infallibility

Acquired infallibility is the attribute of infallibility as it is reflected by humans. `Abdu'l-Baha calls it "acquired infallibility" in order to distinguish it from essential infallibility. He explains that infallibility, like all the other attributes, is not essential to humans. This means that, unlike the manifestation, infallibility is not intrinsic to human nature. Rather, it is a quality that is reflected to humans by the manifestation.

The attribute of infallibility acts on humanity in the same way that the other attributes do. Each attribute has a vast and incalculable influence for centuries after it is revealed.(59) `Abdu'l-Baha also explains that the attribute of infallibility is responsible for the steadfastness of holy souls, who are crucial role models to the believers.(60)

Baha'u'llah says that the attribute of infallibility results in characteristics such as being "guarded against sin, transgression, rebellion, impiety, disbelief and the like".(61) These qualities can be witnessed in people's personal lives. For example, every time a person keeps faith in times of difficulty, that person is reflecting infallibility because he or she is avoiding disbelief. Every time a believer passes a spiritual test, that person is reflecting infallibility because he or she has clung to righteous behaviour and displayed good character.

Acquired infallibility does not mean that a person is unable to make mistakes. It should be looked at in the same way as the other attributes. We saw `Abdu'l-Baha explain that all the names and attributes of God are conferred on humans. For example, you can have acquired knowledge and acquired power. Acquired knowledge means that people have the capacity to be knowledgeable. We can see that people in the world have knowledge, according to their capacity. Similarly, acquired power means that people have power of various descriptions, according to their respective situations and capacities. But acquired knowledge does not mean that a person has perfect knowledge and acquired power does not mean that a person has perfect power. The same is also true of infallibility. Acquired infallibility means that people have the capacity to reflect the attribute of infallibility - for example, make good decisions and overcome spiritual tests - but it does not mean that a person is perfectly infallible.

This ties in with the limiting action of the sign of God. As we have seen, the human soul is limited to the sphere of its own reality. All the attributes a person reflects are relative to this reality, but are never an absolute reflection of them.

We are now in a position to apply the meaning of acquired infallibility to the Universal House of Justice. `Abdu'l-Baha says that the House of Justice has "conferred infallibility", or acquired infallibility, and says that it is "under the protection and unerring guidance of God."(62) He makes similar statements in his Will and Testament, where he states that the House of Justice is "the source of all good and freed from all error". He also says that the House of Justice and the Guardianship are "under the shelter and unerring guidance" of Baha'u'llah and that "Whatsoever they decide is of God."(63)

Some argue that these passages mean Baha'u'llah confers infallibility on the House of Justice through guidance and inspiration so that it is guaranteed never to commit an error of judgement. This position is contained in the following statement by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of New Zealand:

The faith of a believer can be tested when he comes across a statement that is contrary to his way of thinking. If this individual is steadfast in the Covenant, he will readily acknowledge that the mind of man is finite and his judgement often erroneous, and will sincerely accept as divinely guided the words and guidance of those upon whom Baha'u'llah has conferred infallibility.(64)

It is believed that Baha'u'llah confers this infallibility during the consultation process. The members of the House of Justice as individuals are not infallible, but when they come together to consult, their collective decisions on behalf of the institution are infallible.

However, just as acquired infallibility does not mean that a person cannot make mistakes it also does not mean that an institution cannot make them either. Acquired infallibility is the attribute of infallibility as it is reflected in the signs of God. No sign of God, whether person or institution, can reflect an attribute perfectly. If Baha'u'llah could confer perfection on a sign of God, this would make that thing a manifestation. Instead, every thing reflects the attributes in accordance with the characteristics of its sign and to the extent of its capacity only. We have already seen that humans are limited by their soul, which generates a particular world in each of us. Institutions are more limited again. Unlike people, they are not made in the image of God and cannot reflect all the names and attributes. It is true that the institution of the House of Justice will reflect the attributes in a different way to each of its members. This is because the House of Justice and its members are all different signs of God. But this does not mean that the House of Justice can reflect the attribute of infallibility perfectly.

The Universal House of Justice

It is a widely held belief in the Baha'i community that the House of Justice has perfect infallibility. An example of this position is described by Udo Schaefer:

An unreflected, even magical vision of the unerring guidance which has been conferred on the House of Justice currently prevails in the community. Some imagine the community to be in possession of some kind of Delphic Oracle, to which everyone can appeal whenever they are in a quandary… [this attitude] reveals that one presupposes that the Universal House of Justice … acts as a mere recipient, transformer and mouthpiece of the Holy Spirit; that its decisions are revelational in character.(65)

Schaefer holds to a less extreme position on the House's infallibility. He maintains that the House makes decisions using a consultative and rational process and that it is therefore rational to believe that the House's "legislative acts are immune to error by virtue of divine guidance" and that "the will of God is manifested in them according to the promise of infallible guidance."(66) However, our discussion on the divine unity shows that any claim to have perfect infallibility is a claim to be like god, and is idolatry. No sign of God can claim to perfectly reflect any attribute, whether that sign is a person or an institution.

The widespread belief that the House of Justice has perfect infallibility has resulted in the belief that it should be followed without question. This attitude can be seen in the quote from the New Zealand National Spiritual Assembly, which argues that because the believers have only finite minds and erroneous judgement, they should therefore sincerely accept the guidance of the House of Justice because it is infallible. The quote from Udo Schaefer also reports the attitude of the believers that they can simply turn to the House of Justice whenever they need the answer to a problem. It is also common practice for the believers to turn to the House of Justice for interpretations of Baha'i scripture and teachings and to accept these as authoritative, even though the House of Justice is not empowered to interpret scripture.

In the section on leaders of religion, we saw that leaders become idols because the believers regard their leaders' views as the standard for a true understanding of the religion. The believers therefore adopt their leaders' understandings and do not turn to the word of the manifestation himself and consider what he is saying. The belief that the House of Justice is infallible has led to the same result. The House of Justice is considered able to truly understand the Faith. The word of Baha'u'llah, therefore, stops being used as the primary and only perfect source of divine guidance.

Baha'is justify blindly following the House of Justice on the basis that doing so is the means by which the community maintains its unity. The House of Justice provides all the answers from God, the believers accept them without question and this keeps everyone united. But the fourth concept of the divine unity argues against assigning god-like abilities to people or institutions (signs of God):

He is really a believer in the Unity of God who recognizeth in each and every created thing the sign of the revelation of Him Who is the Eternal Truth, and not he who maintaineth that the creature is indistinguishable from the Creator. (G:XCIII, 188-9)

The community's unity is not maintained by making the House of Justice the divine rallying point. The divine unity is reflected in every one. Each believer reflects a unique understanding of the teachings. It does not matter, as suggested in the National Spiritual Assembly's quote, that we have finite minds and erroneous judgement. Being imperfect is not blameworthy and a reason to give up one's conscience to another. Instead, the divine unity requires us to reflect our own understanding of scripture to the extent of our ability.

There is enormous pressure on the Baha'is to give up their own views on Baha'u'llah's word in favour of the House's 'infallible' opinion. Whatever the House of Justice, or any of its members, says on any matter is supported by their considerable authority and influence in the community. In addition, the quote from the National Spiritual Assembly indicates that turning to the House of Justice is a way to demonstrate one's firmness in the covenant. Because covenant breakers are shunned, there is an implied threat for those who don't accept the official position. As a result, the House of Justice has significant power beyond its legitimate authority as administrative head of the Faith. Its alleged infallible guidance gives its views on the Baha'i Faith a divine status. The House of Justice has become the exponent of 'true' belief, in competition with the representative of God.

Conclusion

The principle that there is no god but God rests on four concepts. First, that God transcends creation absolutely. This means that he is beyond creation altogether. He cannot be described by any name or attribute or compared to any created thing. If he could be described or compared, this would limit him to the characteristics of that description and rule out his also being its opposite. Second, that because God transcends creation, he creates a person who acts as his representative in creation. This person is the manifestation of God. The manifestation reveals God's identity by reflecting all the divine names and attributes. Whatever he reveals and does should be considered identical to the will of God himself.

The third concept of the divine unity is that there is no difference between the manifestations. Each manifestation has two stations, a human one and a divine one. In their human station, they are like other humans, with individual personalities and lives. They are also subject to human limitations such as poverty and abasement. But in their divine station, they are the reigning divine reality that bestows existence on creation. This reality is commonly referred to in religious writings as "the Word of God". From it emerges all the names and attributes, which in turn account for the multiplicity in the world as well as the infinite possible meanings. From this perspective, the manifestations are all the same reality.

The fourth concept of the divine unity is that all created things are a sign of God. The sign of God is the inmost essence of a thing. Like a mirror, it reflects the names and attributes of God and thereby produces an image of the thing. In humans, it is the soul. The soul is different from the sign of God in other things because it can reflect all the names and attributes of God. `Abdu'l-Baha likens the soul to the point of a compass. The center point generates a person's world of experience but also limits it to that world. A person reflects the names and attributes in accordance with the characteristics of the soul, but never reflects an attribute perfectly. The divine unity is reflected in all things, not in a sign of God that has been given a god-like status.

Associating a partner with God, or idolatry, is the belief that there are two or more Gods. Baha'u'llah explains that God does not have a partner - God was always alone without peer or equal. This rules out the possibility that there is a second transcendent God, who has created another creation or who rules creation in competition with God. God is Allah, which means "The God". Moreover, as God's representative in creation, the manifestation also does not have a partner. He is the only one that represents God. The essential difference between someone claiming to be a god and the manifestation is that the self of the idol is limited to creation. The essence of an idol is similar or comparable to creation and is therefore not a partner to God. It is a creation of his word.

Being the one and only God means that you have absolute rule over your creation. When a created thing claims to be a god or to have god-like abilities, the effect of this is to claim an illegitimate power. The idol is obeyed instead of God. Baha'u'llah argues that throughout history leaders of religion have been idols. This is because followers believed that their leaders' worldly authority made them the perfect standard by which the religion should be understood. This meant the believers did not look at the word of the manifestation himself - the real standard - with their own eyes and hold to their own understandings of it. Baha'u'llah argues that this practice of adopting the word of the religious leaders over that of the manifestation resulted in the rejection of the manifestations and the gradual decline of the power and glory of Shi'ism.

Some argue that the House of Justice has access to a perfect infallible guidance because Baha'u'llah confers this on it. However, an examination of the attribute of infallibility shows that it operates on two levels, one for the manifestation (essential infallibility) and one for the rest of creation (acquired infallibility). In the manifestation, it enables him to do whatever he wills; he is not constrained by human standards from revealing whatever he wants and what he reveals is sanctified from being 'wrong'. In the signs of God, such as people and the House of Justice, it means that they are able, for example, to make good decisions. But it does not mean they cannot make mistakes. The attribute of infallibility acts like the other attributes. If a person or institution has acquired power, it does not mean they have perfect power, just that they reflect power in some way. The same is also true for the attribute of knowledge. No one and no thing can claim that their knowledge is perfect, except for the manifestation.

The belief that the House of Justice is infallible is idolatry. This is because it assigns a godlike status or perfection to a created thing that is not a manifestation. The belief has led the community to take its focus off the word of Baha'u'llah, the sole standard of true faith, and turn it to the word of the House of Justice instead. Baha'is do this because they believe it will result in community unity. However, the fourth principle of the divine unity holds that the divine unity is reflected in everyone revealing God, not in everyone blindly following an idol.

The community's worship of the House of Justice has given that institution significant power beyond that warranted for its legitimate administrative role. This power is due to Baha'u'llah. When returned to him, it infuses power into the Cause and leads to victories, as the believers everywhere reflect his beauty. When it is locked up in leaders of religion, it causes the decline of religion. This is evidenced by what happened to Shi'ism:

As they gradually strayed from the path of their Ideal Leader and Master, as they turned away from the Light of God and corrupted the principle of His Divine unity, and as they increasingly centered their attention upon them who were only the revealers of the potency of His Word, their power was turned into weakness, their glory into shame, their courage into fear… Behold, how they have joined partners with Him Who is the Focal-Point of Divine unity. (G:XXVIII, 69)

If the Baha'i Faith is not to follow the path Shi'ism took, the Baha'is need to reclaim their spiritual destiny. They can do this by rekindling the mystical relationship between their hearts and Baha'u'llah and use it to find their own path in the Cause. A glorious future will never be a reality if we leave our destiny in the hands of a few. Baha'u'llah wiped out those old ways of being and gave spiritual power to all of us. We are accountable for what we do with the opportunity he has given us.



List of tablets of Baha'u'llah cited

Ay Bulbulan (O Nightingales!), in Fadil-i Mazandarani: Tarikh-i Zuhur al-Haqq, vol. 4

Bayán-i-Hadíth-i-Sharíf, 'Man 'arafa nafsahú faqad 'arafa Rabbahú' (Commentary on the tradition "He who knoweth his self hath known his Lord), in Majmu`ih-yi Matbu`ih alvah-i mubarakih-yi Hadrat-i Baha'u'llah, ed. Muhyi'd-Din Sabri (Cairo 1920, Wilmette 1978) pp 346-361 [Gleanings sections CXXIV, LXXXIII, LXXIII]

Ishraqat (Splendours), in Tablets of Baha'u'llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, (Haifa: Baha'i World Centre, 1978) pp 101-13

Javáhiru'l-Asrár (Gems of the Mysteries), in Athar-i Qalam-i A`la Vol. 3 pp 4-88

Kalimat-i Maknunih (The Hidden Words), Majmu`ih-i Alvah-i Mubaraka hadrat-i Baha'Allah. Cairo, 11/1338AH = July 1920AD pp 17-32 (Arabic)

Kitab-i Aqdas (The Most Holy Book), Mona Vale, NSW: Baha'i Publications Australia, 1993

Kitab-i Iqan (The Book of Certitude), London: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1961

Lawh-i Abdu'r-Razzaq, in Iqtidarat, Bombay, n.p., 1310 A.H. (1892-3) pp 43-78 [Gleanings section LXXVIII]

Lawh-i Haqq (Tablet of the Ultimately Real), in Ishraq-Khavari, Ganj-i Shayigan

Lawh-i-Jamál (Tablet to Jamál-i-Burujirdí), in Alvah-i Mubaraka-yi-hadrat-i Baha'u'llah ... shamil-i iqtidarat va chand lawh-i Digar pp 218-231

Lawh-i Madinatu't-Tawhid (The City of Unity), in `Abdu'l-Hamid Ishraq-Khavari (ed.), Ma`iydih-i Asmani vol. 4, Iran, 129 BE pp 313-29 [Gleanings section XXIV]

Lawh-i Salman (I) (Commentary on a Verse by Rumi), in Majmu`ih-yi Matbu`ih alvah-i mubarakih-yi Hadrat-i Baha'u'llah, ed. Muhyi'd-Din Sabri (Cairo 1920, Wilmette 1978) 128-160

Lawh-i Shaykh Fani, in Ishraq-Khavari, Ganj-i Shayigan, Tehran, 124 BE pp 177-9 [Gleanings section CLX]

Lawh-i-Yusuf (The Tablet of Joseph), at http://bahai-library.org/provisionals/tablet.joseph.html

Lawh-i Zuhur (Tablet of the Manifestation), at http://bahai-library.org/provisionals/manifestation.html

Súratu'l-Qadír (Surah of the Almighty), in Athar-i Qalam-i A`la Vol. 4(rev) pp 373-378

Tafsir-i Bayti az Sa`di (Commentary on a Verse by Sa`di), in `Abdu'l-Hamid Ishraq-Khavari (ed.), Ma`iydih-i Asmani, vol. 1, Iran, 128 BE pp 57-60 [Gleanings section XCIII]

Tafsír Hurát-i-Muqatta'ih (Commentary on the Disconnected Letters), `Abdu'l-Hamid Ishraq-Khavari (ed.), Ma`iydih-i Asmani vol. 4, Iran, 129 BE, pp 49-80

Tafsir-i Suriy-i Va'sh-Shams (Commentary on the Surah of the Sun), in Majmu`ih-i Alvah-i Mubaraka hadrat-i Baha'Allah. Cairo, 11/1338AH = July 1920AD pp 2-17 [Gleanings section LXXXIX]




My thanks go to Bill Garlington for working through an early draft of this commentary. Particular thanks to Sen McGlinn for reviewing and editing the commentary. I also want to thank Mark Choveaux, Steve Marshall and Juan Cole for their invaluable encouragement. Finally, I want to thank Baha'u'llah, who supported, encouraged and inspired me, and without whom this work could not have been written.

Endnotes

1. Baha'u'llah: Lawh-i Salman (I) (Commentary on a Verse by Rumi), translated by Juan Cole. Unpublished in English. Posted to the H-Baha'i discussion list on 15 March 1997.

2. Baha'u'llah, quoted in Baha'i Prayers (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1991), p 122

3. Because there are a number of citations from Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, I have referenced these with a G, followed by a section number and page number. Where the name of the tablet is known, it is included in the list at the end. Pages numbers refer to the English, 1978 edition.

4. Baha'u'llah: Lawh-i Salman (I) (Commentary on a Verse by Rumi)

5. Baha'u'llah: Lawh-i Salman (I) (Commentary on a Verse by Rumi)

6. Baha'u'llah: Kitab-i Iqan (The Book of Certitude), translated by Shoghi Effendi (London: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1961) p 64

7. A hadith qudsi is a traditional saying of Muhammad in which God speaks in the first person.

8. `Abdu'l-Baha: Tafsír-i-Hadith-i-Kuntu Kanzan Makhfíyyan (Commentary on the Islamic Tradition "I Was a Hidden Treasure ..."), translated by Moojan Momen. Baha'i Studies Bulletin 3:4 (Dec. 1985), 4-35, p 10. Also at http://bahai-library.org/provisionals/hidden.treasure.html.

9. Baha'u'llah: Tafsír Hurát-i-Muqatta'ih (Commentary on the Disconnected Letters), translated by Stephen Lambden. Section VIII6-12. Unpublished in English. Also known as the Lawh-i-Áyih-i-Núr (Tablet on the Verse of Light).

10. Baha'u'llah: Prayers and Meditations (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1987) p 194

11. `Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1990) p 148

12. Muhyi al-Din ibn al-`Arabi was a great 12th century Islamic thinker and mystic.

13. William C. Chittick: Ibn al-`Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination. The Sufi Path of Knowledge (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1989) p 109

14. Henry Corbin: Alone with the Alone. Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn `Arabi (New Jersey, Princeton University Press, 1997) p 146

15. Quoted in William C. Chittick: Ibn al-`Arabi's Metaphysics of Imagination. The Sufi Path of Knowledge p 72

16. "This through His favour, so that His servants may not flee from Him, but that they may approach Him and rest in His presence, hear His wonderful melodies and be benefited by that which proceeds from His mouth, and by that which He reveals unto them from the Heaven of His will." Baha'u'llah: Lawh-i Zuhur (Tablet of the Manifestation), translator unknown. Found at http://bahai-library.org/provisionals/manifestation.html.

17. Ibid

18. Baha'u'llah: Kitab-i Iqan (The Book of Certitude), p 64

19. Baha'u'llah: Lawh-i Zuhur (Tablet of the Manifestation)

20. It is not a coincidence that we can look at ourselves as humans and gain an understanding of how God works. Baha'u'llah says that humans have been made in God's image. See Baha'u'llah: Kalimat-i Maknunih (The Hidden Words), from the Arabic, no 3.

21. These two perspectives are discussed by Baha'u'llah in Kitab-i Iqan (The Book of Certitude), pp 64-68.

22. "…the appearance of that immortal Beauty in the image of mortal man, with such human limitations as eating and drinking, poverty and riches, glory and abasement, sleeping and waking…" Baha'u'llah: Kitab-i Iqan (The Book of Certitude), p 46

23. Baha'u'llah: Ay Bulbulan (O Nightingales!). Found at http://home.clear.net.nz/pages/alisonz/translations/Nightingale.html.

24. Baha'u'llah: Kitab-i-Iqan (The Book of Certitude), pp 47-8

25. Baha'u'llah: Lawh-i Haqq (Tablet of the Ultimately Real), translated by Stephen Lambden. Unpublished in English. Posted to the H-Baha'i discussion list on 23 April 1999.

26. Baha'u'llah: Kitab-i-Iqan (The Book of Certitude), pp 66-67

27. The disconnected letters are Arabic letters that introduce some surahs of the Qur'an; for example, the first verse of the second surah The Cow reads: "Alif. Lam. Mim."

28. Baha'u'llah: Tafsír Hurát-i-Muqatta'ih (Commentary on the Disconnected Letters), section I:16-19

29. `Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions pp 206-207

30. Baha'u'llah: Súratu'l-Qadír (Surah of the Almighty), translated by Juan Cole. Unpublished in English. Posted to the H-Baha'i discussion list on 16 January 2000.

31. Baha'u'llah: Tafsir-i Suriy-i Va'sh-Shams (Commentary on the Surah of the Sun), translated by Juan Cole. Baha'i Studies Bulletin vol. 4, nos. 3-4 (April 1990):4-22. Also at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/shams.htm. Also in Gleanings, LXXXIX, 177.

32. Baha'u'llah: Bayán-i-Hadíth-i-Sharíf, 'Man 'arafa nafsahú faqad 'arafa Rabbahú' (Commentary on the tradition "He who knoweth his self hath known his Lord), translated by Shoghi Effendi and Juan Cole. Found at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bhzen.htm. Also in Gleanings, CXXIV, 261.

33. `Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions p 143

34. Ibid, p 151

35. Baha'u'llah: Bayán-i-Hadíth-i-Sharíf, 'Man 'arafa nafsahú faqad 'arafa Rabbahú' (Commentary on the tradition "He who knoweth his self hath known his Lord). Also in Gleanings, LXXXIII, 163.

36. Ibid. Also in Gleanings, LXXXIII, 164.

37. `Abdu'l-Baha: Tafsír-i-Hadith-i-Kuntu Kanzan Makhfíyyan (Commentary on the Islamic Tradition "I Was a Hidden Treasure ...") p 29

38. Ibid, p 32

39. Ibid, p 28

40. Baha'u'llah: Lawh-i Salman (I) (Commentary on a Verse by Rumi)

41. Baha'u'llah: Lawh-i-Jamál (Tablet to Jamál-i-Burujirdí), translated by Khazeh Fananapazir and Shoghi Effendi. Baha'i Studies Bulletin Vol. 5:1-2 January 1991, pp 4-8. Found at http://bahai-library.org/provisionals/burujirdi.html.

42. "There is no distinction whatsoever between Thee and Them; except that they are Thy servants and are created of Thee." Tradition quoted by Baha'u'llah in Kitab-i-Iqan (The Book of Certitude), p 65.

43. `Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions p 155

44. Baha'u'llah: Lawh-i Zuhur (Tablet of the Manifestation)

45. "First of all, you must contemplate the reasons for which the diverse communities now dwelling upon the earth failed to recognize the messengers whom God sent forth by his power, whom he commissioned to establish his cause and whom he rendered the lamp of his pre-eternity in the niche of divine unity. Why did they turn away from them, oppose them, contend with them, and wage war upon them? By what proof did they refuse to acknowledge either their mission or their authority? Rather, they disbelieved in them and poured out invectives upon them, finally murdering them or driving them into exile." Baha'u'llah: Javáhiru'l-Asrár (Gems of the Mysteries), translated by Juan Cole. Unpublished in English.

46. Ibid

47. Baha'u'llah: Kitab-i-Iqan (The Book of Certitude), p 9

48. Ibid, p 3

49. Baha'u'llah: Lawh-i-Yusuf (The Tablet of Joseph), translated by Anton Haddad. Found at http://bahai-library.org/provisionals/tablet.joseph.html.

50. Baha'u'llah: Javáhiru'l-Asrár (Gems of the Mysteries)

51. Baha'u'llah: Kitab-i-Iqan (The Book of Certitude), p 10

52. `Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions p 171-172

53. Baha'u'llah: Kitab-i Aqdas (The Most Holy Book), Mona Vale, NSW: Baha'i Publications Australia, 1993, K47

54. `Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions p 171-172

55. Baha'u'llah: Ishraqat (Splendours), in Tablets of Baha'u'llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, translated by Habib Taherzadeh (Haifa: Baha'i World Centre, 1978) p 108

56. Ibid, p 109

57. Ibid

58. Baha'u'llah: Tafsír Hurát-i-Muqatta'ih (Commentary on the Disconnected Letters), section V:12-13

59. Baha'u'llah: Bayán-i-Hadíth-i-Sharíf, 'Man 'arafa nafsahú faqad 'arafa Rabbahú' (Commentary on the tradition "He who knoweth his self hath known his Lord). Also in Gleanings, LXXIII, 141-142.

60. `Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions p 172

61. Baha'u'llah: Ishraqat (Splendours), in Tablets of Baha'u'llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas p 108

62. `Abdu'l-Baha: Some Answered Questions p 173

63. `Abdu'l-Baha: Will and Testament of `Abdu'l-Baha (Wilmette: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1971) p 14 and p 11

64. National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of New Zealand, Feast letter for the month of Qawl, 15 November 2001. Published in New Zealand Baha'i News December 2001-January 2002 (BE 158) p 4

65. Udo Schaefer: Infallible Institutions? in The Baha'i Studies Review Vol 9 1999/2000 p 40

66. Ibid, p 41