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Do Indigenous Prophets Count?

March 27, 2018

Recently in response to the article, Recognizing and Respecting the Sacred Lakota Traditions by Christopher Buck + Kevin Locke on the BahaiTeachings blog a Baha’i objected to the idea that White Buffalo Calf Woman could be a Prophet of God for the Lakota in line with the Baha’i teaching that God has sent many prophets of God throughout time and to differing peoples.

One of the objections that this Baha’i made was that he said that there were only 9 existing religions and hence only 9 messengers of God were therefore possible. This Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi supports this: “The number nine which in itself is the number of perfection is considered by the Bahá’ís as sacred because it is symbolic of the perfection of the Bahá’í Revelation which constitutes the ninth in the line of existing religions, the latest and fullest Revelation which mankind has ever known. The eighth is the religion of the Báb, and the remaining seven are: Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the religion of the Sabeans. These religions are not the only true religions that have appeared in the world, but are the only ones still existing. There have always been divine Prophets and Messengers, to many of whom the Qur’án refers. But the only ones existing are those mentioned above.”
(From letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, July 28, 1936: Bahá’í News, No. 105, February 1937, p. 2, Lights of Guidance, p. 414)

We could argue that the secretary who penned this letter in 1936 didn’t know of the existence of the Lakota people or that the secretary thought that the Lakota didn’t have an existing belief system or we could argue that this letter was intended as advice to the addressee (see: “when he gives advice” (1944)). “(S)ometimes one statement is exactly the right for one type of mind and wrong thing another.” (see the letter below) Perhaps if we saw the question that was asked, the intention might be clearer.

There is a later letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which also states that there are only 9 religions and hence only 9 Prophets of God possible: “First, regarding the significance of the number nine; its importance as a symbol used so often in various connections by the believers lies in three facts: first, it symbolizes the nine great world religions of which we have any definite historical knowledge, including the Bábí and Bahá’í Revelations; second, it represents the number of perfection, being the highest single number; third, it is the numerical value of the word ‘Baha'”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, July 9, 1939, Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 414.)

And there is also a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which states the number nine refers to the numerical meaning of the word Baha “…In telling people of the 9 religions of the world, that is, existing religions, we should not give this as the reason the Temple has 9 sides. This may have been an idea of the architect, and a very pleasing idea, which can be mentioned in passing, but the Temple has 9 sides because of the association of 9 with perfection, unity and ‘Baha’.

“The Guardian feels that with intellectuals and students of religion the question of exactly which are the existing religions is controversial, and it would be better to avoid it. He does not want the friends to be rigid in these matters, but use their judgement and tact, sometimes one statement is exactly the right for one type of mind and wrong thing another.

“Strictly speaking the 5-pointed star is the symbol of our Faith, as used by the Báb and explained by Him. But the Guardian does not feel it is wise or necessary to complicate our explanations of the Temple by adding this.”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, October 28,1949, Lights of Guidance, p. 415)

I have pasted the 1949 letter in the same formatting as can be found in the 1983 book of compilations, Lights of Guidance. This letter is also in the book, Directives from the Guardian but there the dating of letters is not clear whereas in Lights of Guidance it is clear and so I would assume that the editor made the spacing for a reason – to show that the gaps were in the original letter or that the excerpts come from parts of a longer letter.

So what do I do as a Bahai? I go to the Bahai Scripture and see what is written there. I didn’t find any number for how many prophets of God there have been. Here is Baha’u’llah: “A divine Manifestation Who hath extolled and magnified the one true God, exalted be His glory, Who hath borne witness to His knowledge and confessed that His Essence is sanctified above all things and exalted beyond every comparison — such a Manifestation hath been called at various times a worshipper of the sun or a fire-worshipper. How numerous are those sublime Manifestations and Revealers of the Divine of Whose stations the people remain wholly unaware, of Whose grace they are utterly deprived, nay, God forbid, Whom they curse and revile!”
(Baha’u’llah, Tabernacle_of_Unity)

I found not only the word “numerous” but also the idea that all these messengers have equal importance.

“…all the Prophets and Messengers of God as one soul and one body, as one light and one spirit, in such wise that the first among them would be last and the last would be first. For they have all arisen to proclaim His Cause and have established the laws of divine wisdom. They are, one and all, the Manifestations of His Self, the Repositories of His might, the Treasuries of His Revelation, the Dawning-Places of His splendour and the Daysprings of His light. Through them are manifested the signs of sanctity in the realities of all things and the tokens of oneness in the essences of all beings. Through them are revealed the elements of glorification in the heavenly realities and the exponents of praise in the eternal essences. From them hath all creation proceeded and unto them shall return all that hath been mentioned. And since in their inmost Beings they are the same Luminaries and the self-same Mysteries, thou shouldst view their outward conditions in the same light, that thou mayest recognize them all as one Being, nay, find them united in their words, speech, and utterance.”
(Baha’u’llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 34-35)

So we have one letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which states “the question of exactly which are the existing religions is controversial, and it would be better to avoid it. … sometimes one statement is exactly the right for one type of mind and wrong thing another.” (October 28, 1949) and we have two other letters which state that there are only 9 existing religions.

Because these letters have a lesser authority, I am not thrown into confusion about which letter is correct. If the idea that there are only 9 religions is only expressed in a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi and nowhere else in Bahai Scripture, then that is not enough of an argument as far as I am concerned to make this a Bahai Teaching. A letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi cannot create a Bahai Teaching because Shoghi Effendi assigned a lesser authority to these letters than his own authority as official interpreter (See my blog Does a letter from a secretary create a Bahai Teaching?). Bahais can and do interpret Baha’u’llah’s words more or less inclusively. Personally I think interpreting what Baha’u’llah writes more inclusively makes more sense because this approach is endorsed by other Bahai Writings that stress unity in diversity as a teaching for the world and not just parts of the world.

If the Universal House of Justice were to state that Bahai communities were only allowed to accept 9 religions, then this would be policy they have the authority to make, and Bahai communities would have to obey this but the Universal House of Justice cannot tell us, individually, how to interpret the word “numerous” Baha’u’llah uses. The Universal House of Justice has the authority to make policy based on their own understanding of Baha’u’llah’s Texts as well as any other texts that are relevant to the policy they are making. If it were to be found, for example that there was no finite number stated by Baha’u’llah, then a later Universal House of Justice is free to make differing policy based on differing understanding or because this new policy is the best policy of the conditions of the times. This is all hypothetical because as far as I know there is no policy from the Universal House of Justice making any sort of statement on the number of world religions. There is a 1996 letter from the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice responding to a request to make a statement that Prophets of God appeared in the Americas: “The Bahá’í Teachings do not explicitly confirm, nor do they rule out, the possibility that Messengers of God have appeared in the Americas.”
(Excerpt from a Memorandum from the Research Department addressed to the Universal House of Justice dated 16 May 1996)

So if there is nothing in Bahai Scripture to state that there are a finite number of religions then the next thing would be to look and see how the Manifestations of God are spoken of, to see whether White Buffalo Calf Woman could possibly be counted as one of these “numerous … Revealers of the Divine”

“… consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship, to proclaim that which the Speaker on Sinai hath set forth and to observe fairness in all matters. They that are endued with sincerity and faithfulness should associate with all the peoples and kindreds of the earth with joy and radiance, inasmuch as consorting with people hath promoted and will continue to promote unity and concord, which in turn are conducive to the maintenance of order in the world and to the regeneration of nations. Blessed are such as hold fast to the cord of kindliness and tender mercy and are free from animosity and hatred.” (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 35-36)

I found a number of texts that express “all religions” or all beliefs but none that limit where these prophets come from. However this Bahai made the argument that all prophets of God could only originate in countries “from the Orient,” which is based on unauthentic text attributed to Abdul-Baha and I will look at that in my next blog.

 

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5 comments

  1. You have correctly quoted letters written on behalf of the Guardian but could you have misrepresented their content? In the letter dated July 28, 1968 it is unequivocally asserted that: ” These religions are not the only true religions that have appeared in the world but are the only ones still existing. There have always been divine Prophets and Messengers, to many of whom the Qur’án refers. But the only ones existing are those mentioned above.” This passage undoubtedly leaves open the possibility that there are religions founded by Manifestations of God which we do not know about possibly because the historical records are lost. There is therefore no categorical assertion that the nine mentioned are the only ones which have ever existed.

    This concept is reiterated in the letter dated July 9, 1939 in which there is the caveat that the number nine “symbolizes the nine great world religions of which we have any definite historical knowledge.” It is therefore reasonable to infer that the guiding principle is regarding religions deemed to be valid (i.e. not sects, denominations, cults, etc.) by the Guardian for which historical knowledge exists. These caveats seem to me to suggest that the Guardian indisputably leaves open the possibility that there have been numerous Manifestations Who have founded religions but that there are no adequate historical records. There could therefore be a very large number of Manifestations and religions which we simply do not know about because the historical records have been lost.

    Finally, you give the impression that the letters convey the secretary’s own ideas and not the Guardian’s. You may be interested to know that all letters sent by the Guardian were personally approved by him: http://bahai-library.com/uhj_letters_behalf_guardian

    Kind regards


  2. p.s. typo. I mean, of course, July 28, 1936 and not 1968


  3. Further to my previous comment you might find this letter helpful, as its guidance is consistent with the two I have already addressed. “Regarding your questions: “The only reason there is not more mention of the Asiatic prophets is because their names seem to be lost in the mists of ancient history. Buddha is mentioned and Zoroaster in our scriptures-both non-Jewish prophets or non-semitic prophets. We are taught there have always been Manifestations of God, but we do not have any record of their names.” October 4, 1950, to an individual believer. So again it seems to me that it is merely a matter of the absence of historical records and not a stipulation by the Guardian that there “were only only 9 existing religions and hence only 9 messengers of God were therefore possible”. Millions of Bahaís have all sorts of erroneous ideas about various aspects of the Faith and its teachings: using the ideas of one Bahai as the basis of your critique creates the danger of setting up a straw man to knock down as it does not necessarily convey the true position and basis of the teachings regarding the actual number of prior Prophets and religions and how this relates to the hermeneutics of nine religions and nine messengers.


  4. A letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi cannot create a Bahai Teaching because Shoghi Effendi assigned a lesser authority to these letters than his own authority as official interpreter.


  5. You incorrectly state that: “A letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi cannot create a Bahai Teaching because Shoghi Effendi assigned a lesser authority to these letters than his own authority as official interpreter.

    In a postscript appended to a letter dated 7 December 1930, written on his behalf to an individual believer, Shoghi Effendi described the normal procedure he followed in dealing with correspondence written on his behalf: I wish to add and say that whatever letters are sent in my behalf from Haifa are all read and approved by me before mailing. There is no exception whatever to this rule. Given the Guardian’s categorical assertion, it follows that any “exception” to “this rule” would require his explicit permission. For example, in the latter years of his ministry, Shoghi Effendi assigned to the Hand of the Cause Leroy Ioas the special responsibility for monitoring the progress of the goals of the Ten Year Crusade. In implementing this specific function, Mr. Ioas worked under the close supervision of the Guardian; however, not all of his letters — for example, those simply requesting information about the goals — were viewed by Shoghi Effendi before being transmitted. Mr. _ also enquires about the relative degree of authority associated with letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi. He indicates that he is puzzled by a statement in a letter written on the Guardian’s behalf, which indicates that such letters are “less authoritative,” especially since he presumes that Shoghi Effendi would have reviewed these letters prior to their being sent out. It seems likely that the statement referred to by Mr. _ is contained in the following extract from a letter dated 25 February 1951 written on behalf of the Guardian to a National Spiritual Assembly. It is suggested that a careful reading of this statement, which is cited below, will resolve the concern raised by Mr. _. The extract states, Although the secretaries of the Guardian convey his thoughts and instructions and these messages are authoritative, their words are in no sense the same as his, their style certainly not the same, and their authority less, for they use their own terms and not his exact words in conveying his messages. (25 February 1951 to the National Spiritual Assembly of the British Isles) Note that the letters written on behalf of the Guardian are also described as being “authoritative.”

    http://bahai-library.com/uhj_letters_behalf_guardian



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