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It’s taken me only just over a year to get round to finishing The Islamic Enlightenment: the modern struggle between faith and reason by Christopher Bellaigue, which by my standards is not too bad.

I finally got hooked by it. It’s fascinating for a number of reasons that the subtitle summarises. But that is not all.

Bellaigue deals with three middle-eastern contexts in his book on the Islamic Enlightment: Iran, Egypt and Turkey. It is not surprising therefore that he should spend a significant number of pages dealing with the impact on Iran of the Bábí and Bahá’í movements, as he terms them.

There was at least one major surprise to me in his account. More of that later.

He deals at length with the reign of Nasrudin Shah. Within that there is a short section on the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, with regular references to their influence at different points throughout the later sections.

I bought it partly because a review also contained the following: ‘The story of the Persian feminist-martyr Fatemeh Zarrin Taj Baraghani [Qurrat al-Ayn], who read too much, wrote too much and, veil-less, promoted the social vision of the Bahá’ís (a united, anti-nationalist, monolingual world), is poignantly told.’ It describes her as one of the ‘brave radicals’ adding she is ‘Iran’s first feminist.’

More of the details of that in a moment.

Though her review effectively quotes the title of a book The Woman Who Read Too Much, Bettany Hughes doesn’t mention it. Alberto Manguel’s review captures the essence of the book, which suggests that it provides an important supplement to any more conventional historical approach. He wrote:

Less interested in theology than in literature, Bahiyyih Nakhjavani has chosen to construct, around the figure of Táhirih, a complex fragmented portrait that brings to literary life not only the remarkable personality of someone little known in the west, but also the convoluted Persia of the 19th century, treacherous and bloodthirsty.

The Báb and Bahá’u’lláh

Bellaigue’s account of the Bábí/Bahá’í impact on Iranian society begins on page 140:

The Bábí movement, which began in the 1840s, went on to become an important catalyst of social progressiveness in mid-nineteenth century Iran, promoting interreligious peace, social equality between the sexes and revolutionary anti-monarchism.

He oddly describes it as based on ‘secularism’ as well as ‘internationalism, and the rejection of war.’ He goes on to describe its survival ‘to the present day’ in the form of ‘Bahaism which emerged from Babism in the late nineteenth century’ adding that this ‘qualifies it for inclusion in any narrative about modernisation in the Middle East.’

It was, he explains, experienced as ‘a mortal threat to Islam,’ which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Bábís. For this reason hostility towards it continues in Iran to the present day. Even though he sees ‘the theology of Bahaism’ as ‘a little whacky’ he concedes that ‘the social vision was anything but.’ It transcended any Islamic perspective in its ‘vision of consultative democracy,’ in the ‘distinction it made between religion and politics’ and in ‘its promotion of a world civilisation united by a common language.’

Bellaigue concludes his account of this ‘movement’ by saying ‘Having declared the redundancy of the Muslim clergy, Bahá’u’lláh and his son and successor, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, proposed one of the most enlightened social systems of the time.’

Given the persecution it endured, he notes as surprising Bahá’u’lláh’s declaration concerning ‘the abolition of war’ and His forbidding the ‘denigrating of other religions.’ He points out the Bahá’í Faith’s continuing ‘efforts to live in peace with Islam,’ which continues to be largely rejected within the country of its birth, Iran.

Tahirih, aka Qurrat al-Ayn

Belaigue’s account of Tahirih, aka Qurrat al-Ayn, begins (page 147) by claiming she is ‘one of the most remarkable characters in nineteenth century Iranian history. She is both a feminist icon and the mediaeval saint.’

He recounts her early life and then focuses on perhaps the most famous incident in her entire life apart from her leaving of it – her appearing unveiled at the conference of Badasht (page 151).

Qurrat al-Ayn’s removal of the veil was a blatant rejection of the Prophet Muhammad’s command to his followers, set down in a famous hadith, that ‘when you ask of them [the wives of the Prophet] anything, ask it of them from behind a curtain.’

He then explains a crucial ambiguity:

‘Curtain’ and ‘veil’ are the same word in Arabic, and this ambiguous hadith is the basis on which the practice of veiling women has been sanctified.

After the conference, when the participants were marching north, ‘the sight of an unveiled Qurrat al-Ayn chanting prayers alongside Quddus prompted a group of villagers to attack them. Several Bábís were killed; the rest fled.’

I think it important to mention here that, while noting the intensity of her religious faith, Bellaigue, for obvious reasons given the theme of his book, looks particularly at the political legacy and inspiration of Qurrat al-Ayn. There is another important aspect of her life that needs to be included if we are to achieve anything life a complete sense of her contribution to our culture.

This can be accessed not just from Bahá’í sources. There is a book I discovered in the rich seams of Hay-on-Wye’s bookmines: Veils and Words: the emerging voices of Iranian women writersby Farzaneh Milani. On page 93 she quotes in translation the following poem:

I would explain all my grief
Dot by dot, point by point
If heart to heart we talk
And face to face we meet.

To catch a glimpse of thee
I am wandering like a breeze
From house to house, door to door
Place to place, street to street.

In separation from thee
The blood of my heart gushes out of my eyes
In torrent after torrent, river after river
Wave after wave, stream after stream.

This afflicted heart of mine
Has woven your love
To the stuff of life
Strand by strand, thread to thread.

I think that should be enough to indicate that she was a poet and writer of considerable power.

Milani argues that (page 90): ‘Tahereh’s contribution to the history of women’s writing in Iran is invaluable: she proves that women could think, write, and reason like men – in public and for the public. Such actions set her apart from her contemporaries and confer upon her an inalienable precedence.’

Sadly, this view was not yet widely shared outside the Bahá’í community at the time of her writing in 1992, 140 years after Tahirih’s murder, which, coincidentally, was also the anniversary of the death of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith :

Whether because she has been deemed to too offensive, too dangerous, or too minor a literary personage, no article, let alone a full-length book, has been written either on work, or on her life as a struggle for gaining a public voice.

Her poetry is also challenging, something else that might militate against its wider acceptance (page 91):

Some of Tahereh’s poems are difficult to understand. Their language is rich in abstractions. She not only mixes Arabic with Persian but also makes repeated allusions to Bábí jargon and codes. Her religious convictions saturate her poetry and set her verse on fire. They glow in her poetry like a flame that burns every obstacle away.

Her life and verse complemented and, in one way at least, seemingly contradicted each other (page 93):

If self-assertion is a cardinal tenet of Tahereh’s life, self-denial and self-effacement are key elements of her poetry. The themes of love, union, and ecstasy relate to mystic and spiritual experience.

In the end, there is perhaps more mystery than certainty about the facts of Tahereh/Qurrat al-Ayn’s life, as Bahiyyih Nakhjavani suggests in the Afterword to her absorbing novel The Woman Who Read Too Much:

We know more about what is not known than what is. Her date of birth, for example, is uncertain. The exact circumstances of her death are equally unclear. The details of her marriage and divorce are ambiguous, as is the question of whether she abandoned her children or were they were taken from her.

And the list continues for half a page (p 316). What is beyond argument is what her life stood for and what she died for, and the lasting impact that has had on the course of history since then.

An Unexpected Influence

Returning to Bellaigue’s book in which there are other incidental references to the Bahá’í Faith, as I finished The Islamic Enlightenment, I found an extremely interesting piece of history that I‘d never heard of before. It happened in the reign of Muzzafar al-Din. Bellaigue writes (page 238-39): ‘in January 1906 the shah, embarrassed by the forthrightness of the opposition that had established itself at Shah Abdulazim, and disquieted by strikes in the bazaars, agreed to convene a ‘House of Justice,’ a body made up of influential men that would adjudicate on the complaints of the people, dimly inspired by the(banned) Bábí councils of the same name.’ Later though, the shah’s ‘health had taken a turn for the worse and the government had no intention of carrying out his promise to set up a House of Justice.’

I decided to check this out. I clearly should’ve read further into Moojan Momen’s collection of Western accounts of Bábí and Bahá’í history, which was the first book I pulled off the shelf to check, (page 354 – my bookmark is stuck at the previous page – I got close but not close enough). He quotes, ‘In December 1905, as a result of.a large crowd taking sanctuary in the shrine of Shah ‘Abdu’l-‘Azím near Tihrán, the Shah agreed to dismiss ‘Aynu’d-Dawlih and convene an ‘Adálat-Khánih (House of Justice). Whatever was meant by the latter, the Shah, after the dispersion of the crowd at Shah ‘Abdu’l-‘Azím, showed no intention of fulfilling his promises.’

There are probably many other equally hidden influences on history originating in the Bábí and Bahá’í ‘movements,’ as Bellaigue terms them.

On the whole, and not only for his references to the spiritual path I have chosen to follow, this is a valuable account of one region’s attempt to reconcile its religious history with the pressures of modernity. There is clearly still a long way to go.

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I recently have a short talk at the Birmingham Interfaith. It seemed worth sharing here as it relates to the current sequence.

Ever since I studied English Literature, and long before I eventually specialised in psychology or discovered the Bahá’í Faith, the words of a poet-priest from the Elizabethan period have stuck in my mind.

John Donne wrote:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

He wrote those words, part of the third of his five satires, during what must have been an agonising period of his life, when he was deciding to abandon the Roman Catholic faith, for which members of his family had died, and become an apostate. By taking this step, he avoided torture and execution and gained a career at the possible cost, in his mind, of eternal damnation.

While the Western world feels it has moved on from such ferocious divisions, the same does not seem to be true everywhere. Also, we should not perhaps feel we are completely free from milder variations of religious intolerance here.

This means that Donne’s message is still relevant.

The most obvious implication of what he says here is that we have to work hard to find Truth.

However, there are other equally important implications, and one of them in particular is crucial to the work of the Interfaith and makes a core aspect of the Bahá’í path particularly relevant for us in our relations both between ourselves and with the wider community.

Within the interfaith, we are all, in a sense, approaching Truth from different sides of this same mountain. Just because your path looks somewhat different from mine in some respects, it does not mean that, as long as you are moving upwards, yours is any less viable than mine as a way to arrive at the truth.

Donne clearly felt so at the time he wrote Satire III:

As women do in divers countries go
In divers habits, yet are still one kind,
So doth, so is Religion.

It is clear, if this is as true as I think it is, that we would all move faster upwards if we were able to compare notes humbly and carefully.

I think an aspect of the Bahá’í path is particularly useful for this purpose.

It stems partly from our core beliefs that all the great world religions are in essence one at the spiritual level, coming as they do from the same divine source, and that all of humanity is one at this spiritual level, not just at the level of our increasingly global material connections.

Bahá’u’lláh expresses this second form of unity in powerful terms. We are all created from ‘from the same dust’, and he explains why it is important that we recognise this: ‘Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.’

It’s perhaps important to clarify that the unity He describes is inclusive of diversity: it does not mean uniformity. So, there will be cultural differences affecting our perspectives, creating a need to reconcile them if problems are to be solved.

This radical concept of oneness and interconnectedness is at the root of two Bahá’í practices that relate to our ability to work together in a way that transcends our differences. The skills appealed to me deeply as a way of enriching my therapeutic work with people whose perspectives on life were causing them painful problems.

One practice is shared by just about every religious tradition to some extent, and perhaps most extensively by Buddhism, which has the longest and richest tradition in this area.

This is termed reflection, meditation or contemplation in the Bahá’í Writings. There is one particular fruit of the meditative process that is most relevant here.

This spiritual skill or discipline helps create the necessary detachment and humility for true consultation to take place, because we are able to step back and withdraw our identification from our thoughts and ideas sufficiently to listen sympathetically and open-mindedly to what others are saying.

My experience as a Bahá’í strongly suggests that the detachment necessary for effective consultation between people cannot be achieved easily or possibly at all without this complementary process within each of us. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Son of Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith,  describes it at one point as the ‘faculty of meditation’ which ‘frees man from the animal nature, discerns the reality of things, puts man in touch with God.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1972][1] He also uses the terms reflection and contemplation to describe this state of mind. This process is so powerful that a tradition of Islam, quoted by Bahá’u’lláh states, ‘One hour’s reflection is preferable to seventy years of pious worship.’ [Bahá’u’lláh: Kitáb-i-Íqán 1982]

The simplest way of explaining my understanding of what this involves is to use the image of consciousness, or in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s terms ‘the meditative faculty,’ as a mirror. At one level the mind simply captures as best it can what it experiences just as a mirror captures what’s in front of it.

A deeper implication is that, just as the mirror is not what it reflects but the capacity to reflect, our consciousness is not the same as its contents. To recognize this and develop the capacity to withdraw our identification with the contents of our consciousness, whether these be thoughts, feelings, sensations, or plans, enables us to consult with others effectively and reflect upon, as in ‘think about,’ our experiences, ideas and self-concepts. Once we can do this it becomes easier to change them if they are damaging us or other people.

Acquiring this skill is not easy.

An existential philosopher called Koestenbaum expresses it very clearly in his book The New Image of the Person: The Theory and Practice of Clinical Philosophy.

He states that (page 69):

[a]nxiety and physical pain are often our experience of the resistances against the act of reflection.

But overcoming this resistance is difficult. It hurts and frightens us. How are we to do it? True reflection at the very deepest level, it seems to me, has to ultimately depend therefore upon the degree of our reliance upon God, but can also be achieved to some degree by disciplined practice alone.

Koestenbaum is optimistic about our ability to acquire this skill (page 73):

The history of philosophy, religion and ethics appears to show that the process of reflection can continue indefinitely . . . . there is no attachment . . . which cannot be withdrawn, no identification which cannot be dislodged.’

By reflection what he means is definitely something closely related to meditation. Reflection, he says (page 99):

. . . releases consciousness from its objects and gives us the opportunity to experience our conscious inwardness in all its purity.

What he says at another point is even more intriguing (page 49):

The name Western Civilisation has given to . . . the extreme inward region of consciousness is God.

Reading Koestenbaum has helped to deepen my understanding of this concept.

This process of reflection, and the detachment it creates and upon which the growth of a deeper capacity to reflect depends, are more a process than an end-state at least in this life. In developing that capacity we will have to strive for perfection and be content with progress, as the saying goes.

As a process within the individual, it is complemented by and interacts with the process of consultation, as we will now explore.

Once we can reflect, we can then consult. Interestingly I see this as a two-way street. Just as reflecting more skilfully makes for better consultation, so does striving to consult properly enhance our ability to reflect.

And consultation makes the creative comparison of paths and perspectives possible, as we will see. As far as I am aware no tradition other than the Bahá’í Writings makes this link between these two skills so clearly nor emphasises so strongly the need for consultation as a dissolver of differences and enhancer of understanding both at a practical and a theoretical level.

Why is all this so important?

A statement on prosperity from the Bahá’í International Community, an NGO at the UN, states a key weakness of our culture’s basic approach:

Debate, propaganda, the adversarial method, the entire apparatus of partisanship that have long been such familiar features of collective action are all fundamentally harmful to its purpose: that is, arriving at a consensus about the truth of a given situation and the wisest choice of action among the options open at any given moment.

Karlberg, in his book Beyond a Culture of Contest, makes the compelling point that for the most part our culture’s processes are adversarial: our economic system is based on competition, our political system is split by contesting parties and our court rooms decide who has won in the battle between defence and prosecution, rather than on the basis of an careful and dispassionate exploration of the truth. The French courtroom is, apparently, one of the few exceptions.

The Bahá’í International Community explain how we need to transcend our ‘respective points of view, in order to function as members of a body with its own interests and goals.’ They speak of ‘an atmosphere, characterized by both candour and courtesy’ where ‘ideas belong not to the individual to whom they occur during the discussion but to the group as a whole, to take up, discard, or revise as seems to best serve the goal pursued.’

Karlberg describes this alternative model in far more detail in his book than is possible to include here. His approach is based on the Bahá’í experience. The nub of his case is that (page 131: my emphasis):

Bahá’ís assert that ever-increasing levels of interdependence within and between societies are compelling us to learn and exercise the powers of collective decision-making and collective action, born out of a recognition of our organic unity as a species.

It isn’t too difficult to see how all this might be applied to our interfaith work.

Paul Lample, a member of the Bahá’í supreme body, the Universal House of Justice, explains further (Revelation and Social Reality – page 215):

[C]onsultation is the tool that enables a collective investigation of reality in order to search for truth and achieve a consensus of understanding in order to determine the best practical course of action to follow.… [C]onsultation serves to assess needs, apply principles, and make judgements in a manner suited to a particular context. Consultation is therefore, the practical, dialogical means of continually adjusting relationships that govern power, and, thus, to strive for justice and unity.

So, exactly what is this consultation?

Shoghi Effendi, a central figure in the explication of the Bahá’í faith after the deaths of its Founder, Bahá’u’lláh, and His son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, quotes ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as saying that ‘the purpose of consultation is to show that the views of several individuals are assuredly preferable to one man, even as the power of a number of men is of course greater than the power of one man.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1922[2]]

‘Abdu’l-Bahá spells out the qualities required of us if we are to consult effectively. These include ‘purity of motive,’ ‘detachment from all else save God,’ (detachment – that key word again that helps us be united), ‘humility,’ and ‘patience.’ [Abdu’l-Bahá 1978[3]]

It should be clear by now that bringing those qualities to any process of collective decision-making will be made far easier if participants have already begun to master the art of reflection. In fact the link is so strong that Paul Lample, in his book Revelation & Social Reality,expresses it as follows (page 212): ‘Reflection takes a collective form through consultation.’

In the light of all this, to summarise the core aspects, we could say that consultation as Bahá’ís understand it, is a spiritually based process of non-adversarial decision-making which assumes that:

  • no one person can formulate anywhere near an adequate representation of the truth. In a study group on consultation I facilitated at a Bahá’í summer school in Scotland last year, one of the participants nailed an extremely important point to the wall of our understanding. He said, ‘Being honest is not the same as being truthful. None of us can be sure what the truth is. That’s why we need to consult.’ An important implication of this is that even when we are convinced we are telling the ‘truth,’ we need to have the detachment to accept we might still have got it wrong, objectively speaking. So,
  • groups of people, if they pool their perspectives in a collaborative fashion, formulate increasingly accurate but still never fool-proof approximations to the truth, and
  • today’s formulation, no matter how useful, may be out-of-date by tomorrow.

Only its proper use can be guaranteed to transcend differences and discover the most effective and constructive lines of action.

The unity we all both desire and need is an ideal that may not be possible without true consultation, which is a spiritual discipline not easily or cheaply achieved.

Hopefully we can all agree that these concepts constitute fruitful food for thought, or do I really mean reflection?

Footnotes:

[1]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá:Paris Talks(Bahá’í Publishing Trust UK – pages 173-176).

[2]. `Abdu’l-Bahá, cited in a letter dated 5 March 1922 written by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada, published in “Bahá’í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932”, pages 21-22.

[3]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá –number 43.

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It’s fatal when I’m left to wait with time on my hands near a book shop, especially with three book tokens burning a hole in my wallet – well, it’s perhaps more accurate to say they were making it too thick to fit comfortably into my pocket. I had nearly half-an-hour to kill within one hundred yards of a Waterstones. I gravitated first towards my usual ground floor book-stacks – Smart Thinking, hoping I’d learn how to do it one day, and Biography. Zilch. History was tucked into a corner to my left. I usually don’t bother. History books bore me as a general rule.

Not this time. For some reason one book I wasn’t remotely looking for leapt out at me: The Islamic Enlightenment. I pulled it down and skimmed the inside of the dust cover. I saw the words ‘brave radicals like Iran’s first feminist Qurrat al-Ayn.’ I flipped to the index. ‘Baha’ism 144-147.’ 

Having declared the redundancy of the Muslim clergy, Bahá’u’lláh and his son and successor, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, proposed one of the most enlightened social systems of the time.

I quickly Googled for reviews and came across this one from the Guardian. There were clearly many other good reasons to buy this book, which is lying on my desk at this very moment along with several others, waiting its turn to be read in a rather long queue. Below is a short extract from the review: for the full post see link.

A celebration of an age of reformers in Istanbul, Cairo and Tehran provides a powerful corrective to lazy, prejudiced thinking.

Fifteen years ago, I sought out the oldest surviving folios of Plato’s philosophy. My hunt took me first to the Bodleian library in Oxford, and then past vats of indigo and pens of chickens in the souk in Fez, through the doors of al-Qarawiyyin mosque and up some back stairs to its archive storeroom. There, copied out and annotated by the scribes of al-Andalus, was a 10th-century edition of Plato’s works: in my hands was evidence of a Renaissance, in Islamic lands, three centuries before “the Renaissance” was supposed to have happened.

The jibe too often heard today that Islam is stuck in the dark ages is simplistic and lazy – as evidenced by this vigorous and thoughtful book about Islamic peoples’ encounters with western modernity. One of the pertinent questions Christopher de Bellaigue asks is: did a rational enlightenment follow on from Islam’s deep-rooted interest in the works of Plato and other classical philosophers? The answer he gives is: yes, in certain places and at certain times.

The author has a keen eye for a story, and our companions as we follow his argument are those vivid heroes (and occasionally heroines) who had the vision and the guts to bring about reform. The narrative takes us through Napoleonic Egypt, Tanzimât Istanbul and Tehran in the 19th century, and the swirl of nationalism and counter-enlightenment beyond. De Bellaigue makes it clear that in the Islamic east, after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, a lot happened – in some cases reformation, enlightenment and industrial revolution – in very little time. The telegraph appeared within a heartbeat of the movable-type printing press; trains arrived at the same time as independent newspapers. Many of the challenging concepts being gingerly embraced by Islamic pioneers were also being given a name for the first time in the west – “human rights” in the 1830s, feminism in the 1890s. The tsunami of modernity was both thrilling and fearful.

On occasion, as with the Albanian-born Muhammad Ali Pasha of Egypt and the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II, the enlighteners were “both modernisers and martinets”. Often they died for their ideas. The story of the Persian feminist-martyr Fatemeh Zarrin Taj Baraghani [Qurrat al-Ayn], who read too much, wrote too much and, veil-less, promoted the social vision of the Bahá’ís (a united, anti-nationalist, monolingual world), is poignantly told. As well as big history analysis there are delightful incidental details. Egyptians, for instance, were horrified to discover that Napoleon’s troops trod on carpets with their boots and didn’t shave their pubic hair – at a time when Egypt was instituting such hygiene reforms as the fumigation of letters before delivery.

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Bird feed in the park

The previous post ended just as I arrived at the venue for my meeting. This post picks up the threads after the meeting was over.

My friend and I, returning from our meeting via a walk across Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, had got ourselves sorted at a table with one reserved seat for the return journey via Newport. My phone was plugged into the charger to tether my laptop ready to answer emails and create the report about the meeting.

Pretty soon after, a pale woman in her early thirties came rushing towards us brandishing her ticket and claiming ownership of the ticketed window seat, loudly but pleasantly. She was clearly a character. My friend slid out and sat across the aisle. She flopped into her seat, plugged in her phone and produced leaflets galore and a writing pad. Someone else clearly on a mission.

I couldn’t resist finding out what was going on and she was more than happy to tell us. She’d been facilitating a Dementia Training Day for support workers. She’d been doing this kind of work for about ten years and was clearly committed to it. She was adamant that people with this problem needed to be treated with care and respect. She shared how people irritated her so much when they said ‘I am just a carer.’

‘Just a carer! I hate that phrase. What on earth are they talking about? Don’t they understand how important caring is? People should recognise how valuable a carer is so that carers don’t feel they have to almost apologise for getting paid. End of rant!’

‘On a related topic but somewhat to one side, I was at a Death Cafe last month,’ I said.

Her eyebrows shot up. ‘A what?’

I explained it was where people could talk about death and dying without being shut up or criticised and how hard it was for some of the dying to feel that they were understood and truly cared for. Death, like dementia, was a subject that was almost taboo. Speaking of it could get you quarantined. And the dying could be rendered almost invisible.

‘Just as with Alzheimer’s, even if ordinary consciousness is warped, lost or nearly lost in the dying process, there is still a person in there. They must be treated the same as anyone else, even though they do not respond or communicate.’

She nodded emphatically in agreement.

The train had not set off yet and we were already in the thick of a deep conversation. I could see my report time being swept away on these waves of thought.

A young girl slid smoothly into the seat opposite me. We all smiled. The lady with the leaflets couldn’t remain silent even though I could see she was jotting down notes on her pad.

‘You just made it in time.’

‘Fortunately.’

‘Been doing anything interesting?’

‘I’ve been on a two day training course for dental assistants.’ She was by far the youngest of the four of us and seemed slightly more reserved though friendly. She mostly only answered questions and seldom chipped in with her views as the journey back to Wales began. She was heading for Cardiff like the Dementia trainer.

I never found out their names but feel it would be easiest to give them invented names for this account. So, the Dementia trainer will be Alison from now on, and the Dental Assistant in the making will be Denise.

Denise helped reassure Alison that there need be no pain from injections at the dentist, but the needles, which Alison found so daunting, had to be frighteningly long. She explained this and how the pain could be avoided completely but I was too busy typing my second paragraph to register what she said. I’m afraid I’m not up to Proustian multi-channelling. If the account of his friends is anything to go by Marcel Proust could listen to an opera, talk to his friends and monitor the conversation in the neighbouring box, all at the same time. He even registered key changes in the score, not just plot lines, apparently!

Alison began describing her work to Denise, who wanted to know more. She came across as warm, compassionate and dedicated to her work. She was skilled at keeping her explanations clear and accessible. She avoided the technicalities of amyloid plaques and focused more on the nature of the memory problems and how to help people maintain a happy quality of life in spite of them. I couldn’t resist praising her positivity and dedication. It was truly admirable.

She was hesitant about one thing though. There was the possibility of participating in a research project testing a new medication. She was quite scared of doing so because of the possible side-effects creating long-term damage. Denise thought that unlikely. I wasn’t so sure, sharing that this was difficult to assess as much of the research data generated by drug companies was kept under wraps so it was impossible to determine how many people had been adversely affected.

‘Maybe I’ll do it when I’m older,’ she added, with a rueful smile. I didn’t say so, but I felt that she was contributing hugely as it was. More was not required of her.

The ticket inspector suddenly appeared — well, suddenly to us as we had been so deep in conversation we never saw him coming. Alison produced a hand of cards.

‘Which one do you want?’ she asked. ‘I never travel on trains. This is only the second time in ten years. I’ve no idea.’

‘Paddington to Cardiff looks good,’ he said. ‘I don’t need the other ones.’ He moved on down the carriage.

I had noticed the silver crucifix pendant on her necklace and decided to comment on it now.

‘It looks as though you have a spiritual angle on all this as well.’

‘Some people see me as very Christian about all this,’ she sidestepped slightly, looking a bit embarrassed.

I decided not to push the issue of her beliefs.

‘I certainly have a spiritual take on it all. As a Bahá’í I believe our soul is still intact even when our body and brain are shutting down. At that level we know how we are being treated. That’s even more reason to deal with those who are damaged in this way with dignity.’

Another idea flashed through my mind.

‘At the Death Cafe . . .’

I saw the look on Denise’s face.

‘Ah! You weren’t on the train when talked about that were you?’

She shook her head. I briefly explained again.

‘At the Death Cafe,’ I picked up the thread, ‘it was amazing to be able to discuss the whole spiritual dimension freely with everyone feeling it was OK to say what they believed.’

Silence.

I looked down at my computer and the first few words of the report I had been planning to draft on the train. I began to type. I noticed that my friend across the aisle was nearly asleep. For a short while Alison seemed happy to sort her papers out and make her notes in silence.

But not for long.

 

Park FountainI’m not sure how we got there but Alison was explaining how, at a recent training, she had seen how someone with dementia was managing to take care of herself and perform routine tasks with the help of prompts and lists. This triggered my memory of a recent TV documentary by Angela Rippon on the subject of dementia. It included a moving section in which a GP explained how she coped with her dementia with the help of a QR reader and an iPad, and by keeping all her dishes in the sink to remind her what she had eaten and drunk during the day. She was handling her problem so well she was even able to run a cognitive stimulation group for other sufferers based on Japanese research. Truly inspiring.

Even antihistamines came up as a topic as Alison shared that she might have to consider which brand to take. Amazingly I was able to share my own attempts to shed light on the topic. The evidence I’ve found suggests that anticholinergics like Piriton which cross the blood-brain barrier, trigger memory loss in some people. This may be true even for Loratadine, whereas Zirtek, which apparently doesn’t get into the brain, is safer. Alison was surprised that her own team did not seem to have this knowledge and noted it down to check it out.

I cannot help but feel that this established for me a degree of credibility so that when it later became my turn to rant I was listened to with patience and understanding.

The conversation had reverted to mortality, death, and the importance of being compassionate and helpful.

‘From my perspective as a Bahá’í, it’s really important that we all recognise that we are all members of the same human family. None of these divisions we’ve created count for anything really. Nationality, creed, race, and all the other labels we bring out are real. They’re creations of our cultures. Beneath all that we’re fundamentally the same, in body, mind and spirit. And until enough of us really believe that we’ll never solve the problems we’re facing now. The core of all positive belief systems in the end is love and wisdom, and as the being of light told someone before they were sent back to this life, that is all we can take with us when we die.’

“You had your rant before the end!’ Alison said with big grin on her face. We all laughed.

My friend roused from his slumber at this point. He seemed to have heard more than we thought and spoke of how this was true of all Faiths, including Islam, which he explained is much misunderstood at present. Both Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, and Muhammad, expressed this spirit of love in their lives.

‘We can see this aspect of Muhammad’s character in the incident with an old woman. She really did not like Him. To express her contempt she used to throw garbage in His way whenever He passed by her house. One day, when He walked past her house there was no garbage thrown. This made Him check out where the old woman was. He came to know that she was sick and went to visit her offering His assistance. The old woman felt extremely humbled and ashamed of what she had done. She became convinced that Islam must be a true religion.’

As my friend spoke I tried to read the expression on Denise’s face. Was it boredom? Irritation? I couldn’t quite tell. She was looking a little pale.

My friend paused for a moment. No one spoke. He continued, ‘Bahá’u’lláh showed the same spirit. He was being taken to prison. As He was approaching the dungeon, an old woman emerged from the crowd with a stone in her hand. She was eager to throw it in the face of Bahá’u’lláh. Her eyes glowed with determination and fanaticism. Her whole frame shook with rage as she stepped forward and raised her hand to hurl her missile at Him. “I adjure you,” she pleaded, as she ran to overtake His captors, “give me a chance to fling my stone in his face!” Bahá’u’lláh said, “Suffer not this woman to be disappointed. Deny her not what she regards as a meritorious act in the sight of God.”’

Just then Denise almost fell off her seat in her sleep and had to be steadied by Alison. I put this down to her tiredness at the end of her demanding training rather than to her lack of interest in the topic. Not that I’m biased in anyway.

With perfect timing the train approached Newport where my friend and I had to get off. As I did so Alison spoke of how a blog would be a great way of capturing what we had all been talking about. I barely had time to scribble the name of this blog on her pad before I sped to the exit just in time to descend onto the platform as the train came to a complete halt.

My friend, who lived close by, helped me find the bus stop I needed. We said our goodbyes. As I stood waiting I noticed that a tanned, slim, elderly man in a dark suit carrying a suitcase was looking slightly puzzled. We started chatting. He’d been to London to watch the cricket at Lords.

I was able to help him clarify which bus we needed and he was grateful as he had not understood the mumbling rail staff’s hurried explanation that the first bus was a stopping service and the 18.00 was the one that went direct to Hereford.

Once on the bus our chat continued. It roamed across many topics: left-wing politics including socialism, pacifism through Buddhism to the Bahá’í Faith, republicanism, as well as our experiences of university. To go into more detail would tax any reader’s patience.

I definitely felt at the end of these two journeys in and out of London that my declared delight in deep conversations was being put to the test. I think it passed because, even after such an early start and all the constant talking throughout the day both on the trains and in the meeting, I was uplifted rather than exhausted. I am grateful for having been able to spend such fascinating spans of time with such interesting people.

Birds across water

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Pan of Arc

I am embarking on sequences of new posts which examine a number of ideas from books I have recently read. These ideas relate to where our society is heading and what we as individuals might be able to do about that. I decided that I also needed to republish other posts from the past that related in some way to that basic theme. This post was first published in 2009.

Yes, I can spell better than that. I know the title is a silly joke but it captures my mood of the moment very well.

Currently circumstances are pushing me to think hard about what I would describe myself as doing as a Bahá’í, about what I think is the core purpose of the Bahá’í community, and most of all about what I think the work of all human beings is most concerned with. In the end, I have concluded,  all those three descriptions come down to the same thing.

And what is that exactly?

Responsibility for the Welfare of the Entire Human Family

I can’t do better than use the words of the central governing body of the Bahá’í community:

. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.

(Universal House of Justice: 24 May 2001 in Turning Point page 164)

 For ‘individuals’ I think it’s fair to read ‘everyone’ whether Bahá’í or not

 This passage was written when a major building project  at the Bahá’í World Centre had been completed. The project was of great spiritual significance to the Bahá’í community world-wide. The buildings form an arc around Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, a place already of symbolic importance within Judaism, Christianity and Islam:

In mainstream Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought, it is Elijah that is indelibly associated with the mountain, and he is regarded as having sometimes resided in a grotto on the mountain. In the Books of Kings, Elijah is described as challenging 450 prophets of a particular Baal to a contest at the altar on Mount Carmel to determine whose deity was genuinely in control of the Kingdom of Israel; since the narrative is set during the rule of Ahab and his association with the Phoenicians, biblical scholars suspect that the Baal in question was probably Melqart.

(See Wikipedia entry for a full background)

The word ‘arc’ becomes a pun when this semi-circle of buildings is seen as a symbol of our strivings as Bahá’ís to work alongside others to build a social system that will become a point of refuge for a beleaguered humanity in crisis rather in the same way as the Ark Noah built did physically in the Biblical story of a flooded world.  Bahá’u’lláh Himself points this out:

Call out to Zion, O Carmel, and announce the joyful tidings: He that was hidden from mortal eyes is come! . . . . . Oh, how I long to announce unto every spot on the surface of the earth, and to carry to each one of its cities, the glad-tidings of this Revelation—a Revelation to which the heart of Sinai hath been attracted, and in whose name the Burning Bush is calling: “Unto God, the Lord of Lords, belong the kingdoms of earth and heaven.” Verily this is the Day in which both land and sea rejoice at this announcement, the Day for which have been laid up those things which God, through a bounty beyond the ken of mortal mind or heart, hath destined for revelation. Ere long will God sail His Ark upon thee, and will manifest the people of Bahá who have been mentioned in the Book of Names.

(Tablet of Carmel)

There are two points perhaps worth making here.

Are We Utopians?

The first relates to what what some may feel is the utopianism of these ideas. The very word utopia, which means ‘nowhere’, contains the seeds of some of this contempt. John Gray in his anti-utopian book Black Mass is keen to remind us of this as is Chris Hedges in his intriguing book I don’t believe in atheists. They are also both deeply suspicious of the tendency towards self-righteous violence that seems inseparable from the behaviour of all those who feel they know what’s best for us in the long run, no matter what the cost.

[After the Enlightenment] [t]error in the name of utopian ideals would rise again and again in the coming centuries.

(Hedges: page 19)

And Hedges, who is attacking a secular utopianism that does not accept humanity’s proness to sin, goes on to say (pages 57-58):

Those who believe human beings can be morally reformed are . . . . suicidal. . . . [The delusions of a utopian vision] seem to elevate the deluded, especially those who are deemed to be favoured by race or nature, above other forms of life. This lack of reverence, this refusal to see that we exist as an integrated whole, blinds humankind to its vulnerability, the fragility of life and human weakness. These delusions are part of a worldview that places itself and its selfish desires and dreams before the protection of life itself.

A main charge is also that, for all utopians, the ends will come to justify all means no matter how horrific.

It is important to emphasise here that, while Bahá’ís yearn to help create a more just society, we also recognise that this is an evolutionary process that will take many generations and requires love and patience as well as the passage of a vast amount of time. We also recognise that we, as imperfect human beings, contain the seeds of the very problems  in society we are hoping to help solve with this empowering vision of humanity’s potential and that it would be very easy for us to betray the blueprint of the Divine Arkitect by, for example, the same kind of self-righteous impatience as has bedevilled such utopian projects as the English, French, Russian and Chinese Revolutions (not all them religious, it is worth noting).

Empowerment

The second relates to the difference between patronising or exploitative rescue and empathic empowerment. We are not saying we already know exactly how to fix a broken world at the level of practical action. Nor are we saying that there are not multitudes of other compassionate and self-sacrificing people with decades of experience in tackling aspects of the challenges that face us all. That would be arrogant and self-deluded.Building Project

There are two things though that mean we can  contribute something special, we would say unique. We have a concept of unity expressed in a body of spiritual, organisational and practical teachings and we are learning to apply this systematically and world-wide in our daily lives (for a fuller explanation of this see Baha’i Epistolary). However, what makes up this special contribution is not just the concepts, though they evince a high level of originality and coherence,  nor simply the experience of applying them, though to some degree this makes up in rich diversity for what it  lacks in duration and size given the newness of the Faith on the world scene.

There is a third key ingredient, not unique to us but rare in the world,  which hopefully will militate against utopian self-righteousness and the destructive arrogance that goes with it. We are striving, with a keen sense of our own frailty, to empower ourselves to respond more effectively to the needs of all humanity to be empowered. We are striving to become capable of enabling others to respond to their particular challenges in their own way.  We feel we can  bring extremely useful tools to that process while having a huge amount to learn from others at the same time.

There are service projects in many places in the world that dwarf what we are currently doing as Baha’is. I’ve just been reading about the Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington, Illinois. They provide child care for thousands of children every Sunday. Their vast array of buildings is open seven days a week for dawn till dusk. They have banks, pharmacies and schools as well as counselling and guidance groups. They help people prepare for tests, fill out tax forms and buy houses, as well as offering classes in martial arts. Their marketing of what they offer is second to none. In fact, they base their operation on the ‘same principle as all successful businesses: putting the customer first.’ (For a fuller description see  God Is Back by Micklethwait and Wooldridge pages 183-187).

That last sentence is the give away. Too many projects are driven by the desire to provide what they see people as needing and will eagerly consume, but in a predefined and often formulaic way. There is an emphasis on the passive consumption of what is on offer.

Micklethwait and Wooldridge go on to describe (page 187) how ‘many megapreachers have begun to worry that they are producing a tribe of spectators who regards religion as nothing more than spectacle.’ Some are attempting to address this problem. They have not escaped being labelled the ‘Disneyfication of religion’ and ‘Christianity Lite’ (page 189), charges which the authors feel are a touch too dismissive. However, their measured summary of what is happening highlights a major problem:

. . . . the target audience for the megachurches consists of baby boomers who left the church in adolescence, who don’t feel comfortable with overt displays of religiosity, who dread turning into their parents, and who apply the same consumerist mentality to spiritual life as they do to every other aspect of experience.

The Bahá’í model in contrast emphasises, from a non-negotiable set of spiritual principles that are seen as absolutes, that it is imperative to enable people to become active participants in change, in the process of deciding what to do and doing it. In the old adage, it is teaching people to fish rather than giving them fish — an ideal that, sadly, all too few social development projects exemplify. It is not providing something that, if you were no longer there, could not be sustainably provided by those whom you are seeking to help.

Arc building siteI visited Mount Carmel as the buildings referred to earlier were nearing completion. On my return to the UK I wrote the poem that I will be republishing soon – Carpenters of Minds.

It describes the beauty of the whole environment, where there were, though, still many traces of a work in progress such as you can see on any building site — sacks of concrete, exposed foundations, ladders, cranes, piles of stone, heaps of rubble. You could see plain evidence of the hard work and planning that had gone into the process. At the end of the poem, realising how similar in some ways was the work of building a new kind of society, I wrote:

But who are the masons, the carpenters of minds, who will raise
up the New Jerusalem from this dust?           “Why you, of course!” He says.Wordsworth was clear: getting and spending we lay waste our powers.

. . . . .  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  In this brief pause
I half-sense some hope of beauty in this building site of ours.
But who are the masons, the carpenters of minds, who will raise
up the New Jerusalem from this dust?  “Why you, of course!” He says.

So, anyone want a job working for the Divine Arkitect? This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Don’t miss out! And the job spec says that, while being a Bahá’í may be desirable, it’s not essential. We want to work with anyone who wants to create a better world with love, patience and empowerment.

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Myrha Street is part of the Arab/African immigrant quarter of Paris and is barricaded on Fridays to allow Muslims to pray in the street

Myrha Street is part of the Arab/African immigrant quarter of Paris and is barricaded on Fridays to allow Muslims to pray in the street

For another perspective on the recent events in Paris and the issue of religious extremism, an article by Sima Mobini looks at it from the perspective of a Bahá’í with a personal background in two cultures – Iran and America. Below is a short extract: for the full post see link.

In the aftermath of the French terror attacks, I’ve spent some time reflecting on the amount of attention the news media has paid to “freedom of speech” and “the dangers of religious extremism.”

While both of these important angles of this sad story strike me as worthy of deep discussion, I would like to visit this tragedy from a somewhat related, yet different angle: what caused individuals who were French citizens, who grew up in that country, who, based on news accounts, had girlfriends, rapped and smoked pot until a few years ago, to become extremist terrorists? When this happens, what about the responsibilities of various factions of society–ranging from governments, educators, community and religious leaders and individuals–to resolve this widely spreading, worldwide problem of fundamentalist terror? How can we stop the causes of terror, rather than bemoaning the outcomes after they’ve already occurred?

Of course we will never really know the answers to these important questions from the point of view of the individuals involved—they can no longer tell us. But we can speculate a bit, and reach some general conclusions. As someone born in Iran and transplanted to the United States in my youth, I have some thoughts about the answers to those questions.

In the case of the three French citizens who committed these heinous terror attacks, we know they lived in a minority community in France, an “Arab ghetto,” as some describe it. The people in those areas report feeling slighted, ignored, discriminated against and not accepted by mainstream society. Many researchers have concluded that these issues, paired with the Muslim community not having fully assimilated in French society, have become serious problems in France, contributing to the violence and terror now plaguing the nation.

These three terrorists, from marginalized and socially-unaccepted backgrounds, likely had poor educational opportunities. As they grew up one or more of them accumulated criminal records and spent time in jails. There, at least one met older and more hardened violent criminals who could indoctrinate and train them in a violent brand of “Islamic” terror—which has nothing to do with the actual practice of the religion of Islam.

Just like in many other societies, these young men may have developed rage and hatred against the community they felt treated them like second-class citizens. And while they apparently had no political or “religious” convictions until just a few years ago, their radical extremism obviously provided an outlet for their hatred and anger, gave them feelings of self-worth and exaggerated importance, exploited their lack of education and trained them for violent, suicidal vengeance.

This is not a new phenomenon in human history. Murderous criminal gangs have formed in many societies for the same reasons, among groups who have suffered from discrimination, have not been accepted as equal, have not integrated, and have not been well-educated. Until societies fully accept, assimilate and build unity with their minority populations, we will continue to suffer from this problem.

How can governments, community and religious leaders and educators, in places where people of various backgrounds live, resolve these serious issues and create unified societies?

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Given the widespread trauma and havoc being caused in Africa at the moment at the hands of ‘Islamic’ extremists it seems important to keep our own sense of outrage in proportion. Two posts have help me in this respect. The first is Are all terrorists Muslims? It’s not even close, which is fairly wide-ranging in the atrocities and murders it includes.

In terms of the United States Dean Obeidallah writes:

Back in the United States, the percentage of terror attacks committed by Muslims is almost as miniscule as in Europe. An FBI study looking at terrorism committed on U.S. soil between 1980 and 2005 found that 94 percent of the terror attacks were committed by non-Muslims. In actuality, 42 percent of terror attacks were carried out by Latino-related groups, followed by 24 percent perpetrated by extreme left-wing actors.

More focused on the relative importance of extremist threats by self-styled Islamic groups in Europe is the one by Beenish Ahmed which Dean includes as a link and from which I have included a brief extract below. For the full post see link.

AP606494488472v2

CREDIT: AP

The murdering spree by two gunmen on the offices of a French satirical magazine have incited horror across the world. That’s completely justified. But what’s been lost in the mass outpourings of solidarity and condemnations of barbarity is the fact that so few of the terrorist attacks carried out in European Union countries are related to Islamist militancy. In fact, in the last five year, less than 2 percent of all terrorist attacks in the E.U. have been “religiously motivated.”

In 2013, there were 152 terrorist attacks in the EU. Two of them were “religiously motivated.” In 2012, there were 219 terrorist attacks in EU countries, six of them were “religiously motivated.”

In 2011, not one of the 174 terrorist attacks in EU countries in 2011 were “affiliated or inspired” by terrorist organizations. 2010, 249 terrorist attacks, three of them were considered by Europol to be “Islamist.” In 2009, of 294 terrorist attacks, only one was related to Islamist militancy – though Europol added the caveat, “Islamist terrorists still aim to cause mass casualties.”

Here’s what these numbers look like:

terrorism EU 2

CREDIT: THINKPROGRESS/DYLAN PETROHILOS

The vast majority of terrorist attacks in E.U. countries have for years been perpetrated by separatist organizations.

Of 152 terrorist attacks in 2013, 84 of were motivated by ethno-nationalist or separatist beliefs. That’s more than 55 percent. That’s down from 76 percent the year before. While the report notes this decline, it also states that a number of separatist groups are showing “greater sophistication, incremental learning and lethal intent.”

Religious motivations makes up just a slightly larger portion of terrorist attacks in the U.S.

Islamist militants lag far behind other groups when it comes to carrying out terrorist attacks in the U.S. too. According to FBI data compiled by the Princeton University’s Loon Watch, Islamist extremists were responsible for just 6 percent of terrorist attacks between 1980 and 2005 — falling behind Latino groups, Extreme left-wing groups, and Jewish extremists.

Charles Kurzman, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, has called Muslim Americans “a minuscule threat to public safety.”

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