Saturday, December 27, 2008


The Unity Tablet

By John Taylor; 2008 Dec 27, 16 Masa'il 165 BE

We have been considering Baha'u'llah's Tablet of Unity, the Lawh-i-Ittihad. A literal, provisional translation of the whole text is available on Moojan Momen's personal website, and at:

In Momen's preface to the Tablet he summarizes the six types or "rutbahs" of unity that are discerned in this Tablet, unity of religion, words, ritual acts, station (or rank), wealth and souls. Unity of religion is unity among the believers themselves. The spread of this unity will make unnecessary excessive lawmaking and external, governmental interference in peoples' lives. The second rutbah is of words, meaning the public stance that Baha'is take, and the ability of individual believers to put this position into effect through good works.

The third rutbah is unity of ritual acts, where all believers pray exactly in the prescribed manner and thus avoid variance and disputation that fragmented the older faiths. The fourth rutbah is unity of station, whose prime concern is eliminating prejudicial arrogance. I will return to this rutbah. The fifth and sixth rutbahs, unity of souls and unity of wealth, Baha'u'llah considers together. When we go beyond voluntary sharing of property and actually prefer that of others to what is ours, then the unity of souls will be complete. Then, all will gather around the love and Word of God.

In this series I have concentrated on the fourth rutbah, unity of station, not only because of its inherent interest but also because it is the only one that has been officially translated, at least in part. Moojan Momen may not have been aware of the existence of the UHJ's partial translation. For purposes of comparison, here is the official translation of one sentence from the fourth rutbah, followed by Momen's more literal version.

Authorized: "And amongst the realms of unity is the unity of rank and station. It redoundeth to the exaltation of the Cause, glorifying it among all peoples. Ever since the seeking of preference and distinction came into play, the world hath been laid waste. It hath become desolate." (Unpublished Tablet, in Letter dated 27 Mar 1978, Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 376)

Momen's version: "Another type is the unity of rank or station. This results in the rising up of the Cause and its elevation among the peoples. But if ranking and preference of one over another comes into its midst, the world falls into ruin and desolation may be witnessed."

It can be seen more clearly in the latter that it is not preference and distinction in general that has historically laid the world waste but specifically the seeking of preference in the Cause of God. That former may well be the case, however, since presumably the lump is leavened according to the quality of leaven of the people's faith.

Baha'u'llah goes on, pointing out that the only way really to understand God's words is to see oneself and others on a level, as of one station. If believers were to take on this egalitarian identity they would have a vision of the world would make it into a paradise of Abha. On the other hand, the tendency to consider the self and what is close to it as inherently above others is a "mighty sin" that nullifies divine acceptance. This, Baha'u'llah says, is the core evil of the Ulama of Iran. It explains their drive to crush all who vary from their dogma, most especially the Cause of Baha'u'llah. The following passage has not been officially translated:

"If they had not considered themselves the most exalted and most accomplished of all beings, they would not have caused those wretched followers of theirs to curse and blaspheme against the Desire of the Worlds. All humanity is dismayed, nay the entire world is bewildered, at these false and neglectful souls. The fire of pride and vainglory has burnt them all, but they are not aware of it and do not understand. They have not drunk a drop of the ocean of knowledge and understanding. Woe unto them and unto what their tongues have uttered and unto what their hands have wrought on the day of retribution and on this day when the people have arisen for the Lord of the Worlds."

Baha'u'llah speaks of pride and vainglory "burning" these arrogant Ulama. It is a common insult in Persian is to accuse someone of having a "burnt father;" I would expect that Baha'u'llah is not merely flinging an insult but calling to mind the probable origin of the expression in such Biblical language as "pouring hot coals on someone's head," that is, following the moral imperative to refrain from retaliating and showing kindness to an angry or haughty opponent. By overlooking the fire of arrogance, a spiritually aware believer leaves these aggressors to burn in the flames of his "father" virtue of haughty ignorance. There is no need to oppose those who are full of themselves, since they will combust and fall apart by themselves.

Momen points out in his preface to this translation that three major issues are raised in the Lawh-i-Ittihad, one, unity as a value in itself, two, the question of station, rank and leadership in the Baha'i community, and three, covenant. As a whole they answer the crucial question: how do the Baha'is propose to get anything done if they are all equal? This apparent contradiction comes up in any egalitarian or libertarian system: if all are equal, who is to say what is to be done? And even if there is strong leadership, who is going to submit to it?

Unity as value offers a remedy to the problem of priorities. In practice values often cancel one another out. For example, freedom of speech, although affirmed as a basic right, can often go against equality and unity. Here, Baha'u'llah sets unity as the deciding "mother of all values."

The question of ranks relates to the removal of a professional clergy from the Cause of Baha'u'llah. The furious arrogance of the Ulama stands as an object lesson for posterity that a pure religion must expunge professionalism from its ranks. As long as a group is singled out it will come to regard the divine message as its own property, and this is intolerable. But the question remains, by what general principle will the Cause gain the strong leadership that unified action implies? Momen get around this by suggesting that the central principle of Covenant -- so important but clarified and solidified only in the last year or so of Baha'u'llah's ministry with the Revelation of the Ahd -- is there by implication.

"The third issue that is touched upon tangentially in this tablet is that of the Covenant. Although the tablet does not refer directly to the issue of the Covenant, we can see how Baha'u'llah's concern for unity would raise the question of what was to be the focal point of unity and loyalty in the new religion. Christianity was based around intellectual loyalty to theological and doctrinal formulations which were summarised in creeds. Islam was based around a more practical loyalty focussed on a way of life formulated around the Shari`ah. What was to be the basis of the unity of Baha'u'llah's religion?"

The unity of rank, then, was later resolved by Baha'u'llah's appointment of a successor who later called Himself Servant, Abdu'l-Baha, thus connecting the Revelation to the spiritual leadership ideal that "if any desire to be first he shall be last of all and servant of all." (Mark 9:35, KJV) A tie is also forged by the Covenant with the unity of ritual acts; prayer and devotionals are fundamentals of the lifestyle of faith, and the details of this were established during the Ministry of the Master. Momen says, "Baha'u'llah saw this (unity of ritual acts) as the way of achieving the last unity that he described in this tablet - the unity of souls."

Much more needs to be learned from this momentous tablet. If I were to choose what its most important thrust I would have to choose its implications for justice. Baha'u'llah says succinctly in the 6th "Leaf" of the Words of Paradise that, "The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men." (Tablets, 66-67) Let that be the topic of the next essay in this series...

John Taylor



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, it may be that the House did not approve a full translation because of the "unity of ritual acts". If the House published it, it may be seen by the Baha'i world as the House's implementation of this as law, thus provoking unnecessary discussion and worry at a time where our energies should be focused on other guidance and discussion at this period of time. Perhaps in the future.