Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Towering Gate

Like many of us, I'm fascinated by the Bab: His manner, His words, His Life.  Everything about Him is fascinating.

In The Dispenation of Baha'u'llah, Shoghi Effendi describes "the youthful glory of the Báb, infinite in His tenderness, irresistible in His charm, unsurpassed in His heroism, matchless in the dramatic circumstances of His short yet eventful life".

When I first became a Baha'i, I ran into Mrs Khadem (literally, but that's another story) (oh, and in case you didn't know who she is, she was the widow of the Hand of the Cause and was serving as an Auxiliary Board member at the time), and she encouraged me to enrol in a deepening program.  This was before the Ruhi books were popular in North America, and the program she enrolled me in required me to read a few texts, like The Dawn-Breakers, God Passes By, Balyuzi's trilogy, just to name a few.

Well, I tried but I couldn't make heads or tails out of it.

As a recent university graduate, coming from a school that required tons of reading, this was a bit embarrassing.   But my fellow students were very encouraging.  They were veteran Baha'is, and I'm sure they knew the stories inside out, but for me, they were a mystery.  I actually didn't go to a lot of the study sessions because I was too embarrassed by not being able to make sense of what was happening (I've really tried to take this into account when tutoring or studying with others).

As I was completely lost in the group, I decided to make a go of it on my own, not wanting to hold back the others.  You see, I really was very interested in learning this history, even though I had almost no interest in history in school.

Realizing that my main problem was not having a context in which to understand this story, I started with what I could grasp: 'Abdu'l-Baha's visit to North America.  At least there I had some reference points.  I'd been to Lincoln Park in Chicago, and knew the Temple.  I could relate to this.

Obligatory aside: A few days after I began reading these sections in Balyuzi's book, I was working in a bookstore when one of my regular customers came in.  He asked me what I was reading, which was odd as he usually asked what he should read.  Seizing this opportunity, I told him I was reading a biography about an amazing man, but that he couldn't get the book at this store.  He asked me who it was about, and I said, "'Abdu'l-Baha."  "Oh, are you a Baha'i?  So am I. Allah'u'Abha!"  I then proceeded to chastise him for not having told me about the Faith in the years that we had known each other.  (Don't worry, Doug, I won't mention who you are here.)

So there I was, reading 'Abdu'l-Baha by Balyuzi, and I learned all the names of the early Babis that I absolutely had to know: Mulla Husayn, Tahirih, Quddus, Vahid, and so on.  There were only a few more, so it was easy to learn them.  Then I decided to tackle his book on Baha'u'llah, which went into more detail about the early Babis.  By that time I already knew the basics, those whose names I absolutely had to know, and could now begin to remember those names that were really good to know.

Having made it through that book, I then decided to try his book about the Bab, cleverly titled The Bab.  As I already knew those names that I absolutely had to know, and those names that were really good to know, I could now pick up all the other names that were nice to know, but not really all that important to the overall story.

Needless to say, I made it.  I actually was able to get through all three books with some degree of retention of information.

Now it was time for the big one: The Dawn-Breakers.

By this point in time I had also realized that the problem with most of the names were the names themselves.  Being resourceful, if nothing else, I decided to try and make life easier for me by simplifying the names.  To do this, I made a bit of a glossary for myself.  "Mulla", I understood, meant teacher.  "Haji" just meant that the person had been on pilgrimage.  "Mirza" meant sir, and "Shaykh" meant just another kind of teacher.  If the name ended in "i dash something else ending in i", it meant that they were from a town named something else.  Oh, and "ibn-i-" meant son of.  I think that was all of them.  If there any more, I'll let you know.

So really, most of the names were more biographical than nomenclature in origin.  For example, you could call me "Haji Mulla Mead-i-Chicago-i", and you would know that I'm a teacher who has been on Pilgrimage, my name is Mead and I was born in Chicago.  We could add in "ibn-i-Roy" and you would now know my Dad's name, but I'm not sure how to fit that in there.

Oh, I just remembered: Siyyid.  It means a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad.

Another thing that I found confusing about that book (remember, I'm still on The Dawn-Breakers here) was the way that Nabil always made sure to tell you where he got his information.  Most of the book seems to read like, "John said George said Mulla-Mussarif-ibn-i-Ali said he heard it from Shaykh Hasan-i-Karbila-i who got it from his uncle, Haji Mirza Abdu'l-Benny Hasan who saw some bird who flew overhead".  All right, that's not really fair, but it was just about that confusing to me at the time.

Now when I read it, especially with other people, I always try to make sure we know when Nabil is changing who he hears something from.  In fact, you can actually place most of the book in brackets to see where what comes from whom, and, believe it or not, that seems to make it easier to follow.

You follow?  All right, I wouldn't have believed me either, but it works for me.

Even to this day, I still can't get enough of Baha'i history.  I've read everything I can find on the history of the Faith, mostly in chronological order, beginning with the Babis, and am now up to reading the biographies of the Hands of the Cause.  Of course, as new books come out (like that amazing book called Leaves of the Twin Divine Trees) I try to read them, too, but am beginning to fall behind.  I also try to re-read The Dawn-Breakers at least once a year, but am falling behind on that, too.

Why do I try to read it all?  And why do I re-read The Dawn-Breakers every year?  Because it gives such an incedible perspective to what we are all experiencing right now.  Remember, the Guardian said that we are "unavoidably approaching a testing period, crucial, prolonged, potent, purifying, clearly envisaged by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, different from but recalling in its severity the ordeals which afflicted the dawn-breakers in a former Age", and that he hoped "the study of the Dawn-Breakers will inspire the friends to greater activity and more exerted energy in serving the Cause and spreading its message".

But that is not what I wanted to write about today.  I wanted to write about humanity's other encounter with the "Gate of God" - Babel.

You see, over the years I`ve had many different images in my own mind that I use for the various Messengers of God.  Perhaps at some point I may describe some of them for you, dear Reader, but not right now.  In general, though, they all involve humanity as a singular body in this encounter.

And today, with the Bab, I imagine that body which I call humanity to be moving through a giant gate.  What is on the other side of that gate?  Well, that depends on which side you are talking about.

You see, I imagine humanity having walked this long path through history.  At one point we were all one people, one culture, speaking one tongue.  Then we walked through the "Gate of God", at the Tower of Babel, for that is what Babel means.  Babel, or Bab-El: Gate of God.

When we walked through that gate, we split up into our different language groups, each speaking our own tongue.

To some, that may have been a disaster, but it also had its benefits.  Neal Stephenson, in Snowcrash, inadvertantly touches upon one possible benefit, which is inhibiting a linguistic virus (don`t ask, just read the book.  It`s fantastic), but I think there was another benefit.  Each language has provided humanity with its  own unique perspective on the world, which is one of the many reasons why it is such a tragedy when a language gets lost.

An example of this perspective is French, in which you don't say, "I miss you", but instead it comes out as, "You are missing from me".  Beautiful, isn't it?  So much more intimate.

Then you get Spanish, with it's phrase about me and the bus.  You don't say, "I missed the bus", but rather "The bus missed me."  That says a lot about one of the reasons why Hisapnic culture is the way it is, and wouldn't we be all the poorer without that perspective?

Like the sciences, each science needed to focus on its own speciality in order to progress to a certain level, but now, to grow even more, we need integrated sciences.

Similarly, each language had to grow on its own, to form its own perspective, but now we need to come together again: integrated linguistics.

We have come back to the Gate of God: On one side, one language; on the other, many lagnuages.

And you know, both are fascinating.

Just like the Bab, Himself.


  1. One of the Baha'is in Topeka, who accepted the Faith in 1934, was so excited when she got her copy of Dawnbreakers (she'd been a Baha'i for a decade then, and they had NONE of the history before that) that she stopped everything to read that book. Then she came to the names!!!

    This woman had not even been to high school. She wasn't going to let a little thing like the names stop her. She said, "Those names weren't going to stop me, I wanted to know the stories, so I just call them all Moses and kept on reading!!!"

    So I never worried about the names either, I just kept on reading. I don't read Dawnbreakers every year, but I have read it more often than most people I know. Sad really.

  2. Thank you. You have really inspired me to read the Balyuzi books and Nabil. If I can make it through Tolstoy, I can make it through my own histories!

  3. Ever since you turned me on to "Snow Crash" some thousand years ago, I have bought it for I don't know how many people and have lent my copies to the point of destruction twice. (I don't mind replacing it when it gets worn out.) It is, hands down, one of the funniest, best written books ever.

    Oh, I liked The Dawn-Breakers, too. ;-)