Review

Bridging the gap between traditionalist Islam and the modern world

In Brief: 
  • The dramatic story of the Báb has been under researched
  • Sociologist Nader Saiedi says the Báb's writings encouraged sciences, arts, and industry
  • They also form a coherent, forward-looking whole, explaining that "all religions are valid and true"
  • Emerging from the Islamic matrix, they offer a transformational worldview

Gate of the Heart: Understanding the Writings of the Báb
By Nader Saiedi
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Canada

For Bahá'ís, the story of the Báb is well known. The forerunner of their Faith, the Báb appeared in Iran in 1844 - and within six years he had established a new religion, attracted thousands of followers, and incurred the intense persecution of religious authorities. His mission was marked by heroic deeds, the revelation of scriptures that his followers believe fulfills and supersedes the Qu'ran, and his dramatic death by firing squad in 1850.

But for the world at large, and even most scholars of religion, this spectacular episode in history is largely unknown and little studied, especially in recent times.

Gate of the Heart: Understanding the Writings of the Báb by Nader Saiedi is a significant effort at filling this void. In a wide-ranging scholarly study that draws on elements of sociology, psychology, and modern interpretation, Dr. Saiedi examines the Báb's major works with great depth and intellectual vigor.

Moreover, he puts that examination in a contemporary context, showing how the Báb's writings offer keen insights into the nature of the fundamentalist/modernist tension that so powerfully divides the world today, especially in the Islamic realm.

"The events of September 11 placed Islam at the center of Western cultural and political discourse as the West struggles to make sense of what seems a bewildering, medieval mindset, centering around holy war or jihad as a religious duty," writes Dr. Saiedi, who is a professor of sociology at Carleton College.

"A series of troubling but crucial questions have come to the fore: Is religion, particularly Islam, ultimately only conducive to conflict and hatred? Is the ‘clash of civilizations' inevitable? What went wrong with the Middle East's encounter with modernity? Why has nothing comparable to Christianity's Reformation occurred with Islam?"

Dr. Saiedi says that the writings of the Báb offer a "novel solution to Islam's cultural and spiritual impasse." Specifically, he writes, their "creative spirit" offers a bridge between traditionalist Islam and the modern world view.

One the one hand, the Báb encouraged learning from the sciences, arts, and industries of the West. On the other hand, his teachings also reject the "particularistic, materialistic, and morally harmful aspects of modernity that obstruct the progress of human civilization."

With that theme as a backdrop, Dr. Saiedi plunges into a deep, detailed, and lucid analysis of the major works of the Báb, which by any reckoning stand as one of the most prolific outputs in religious history. One of the Báb's books, Dr. Saiedi notes, is 3,000 pages long.

Among the Báb's works are extensive commentaries on specific chapters of the Qu'ran, expositions on the fundamental principles of religion, and epistles in which the Báb quite boldly proclaims his own mission as a new messenger of God.

The Báb's writings also contain numerous references to the imminent coming of another new messenger, long promised in all the world's religions, who Bahá'ís recognize to be Bahá'u'lláh.

On this point, Dr. Saiedi offers near the book's beginning an extensive discussion of the prophetic expectation - strongly felt in the Báb's era and still a factor in Iran today - about the coming of the 12th Imam. He explains why Bahá'ís believe this expectation has been fulfilled in the Bahá'í Faith.

In the book's main thrust, Dr. Saiedi endeavors to show how the Báb's writings, despite their wide range of topics, frequent references to the Qu'ran, and extensive use of symbolic and often veiled language, nevertheless form a coherent, consistent and forward-looking whole.

This comes in part as a rebuttal to some among those few religious scholars who, studying the Báb's writings in a limited way in the past, have argued that his works often seemed at odds with one another, or that he looked too much backward, at Islam.

But Dr. Saiedi says the Báb wrote in three distinct stages, and five "modes" - which, among other things, account for the seeming inconsistencies.

"[S]tatements which may appear to be contradictory assertions are actually diverse expressions of a single underlying principle that is expressed in a particular manner in accordance with the capacities of differing audiences," Dr. Saiedi writes. "A careful analysis of the Báb's writings discloses that throughout the three stages, all his writings are animated by a common fundamental principle which has multiple dimensions and forms."

That principle, Dr. Saiedi writes, is "metaphysical unity." And in that framework, the Báb has explored a vast range of topics that explain how God, revelation, and religion operate in and influence the world.

The Báb's writings, for example, clearly outline the principle of "progressive revelation," which is more fully developed in Bahá'u'lláh's writings and stands as a core principle of the Bahá'í Faith.

"In the writings of the Báb, religion is characterized as the product of the interaction between the divine effulgence and the current stage of human spiritual and social development," writes Dr. Saiedi. "In this view, if all the religions represent the progressive revelation of the same Primal Will, then all religions are valid and true because they are in fact one and the same reality."

These and other insights offered by the Báb are what open the door to a transformation for those Muslim thinkers who may be mired in the past, clinging to traditional interpretations that clash with the facts of modern life, he suggests.

Although the depth and detail of Gate of the Heart are clearly aimed at religious scholars or others, such as Bahá'ís, who wish to understand more about the Báb, the clarity and logic with which Dr. Saiedi approaches the subject make it accessible to a larger audience. Anyone concerned with the fundamentalist/modernist clash that has so divided the world will find much food for thought in this fine volume.

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