Commentary on the Surah of the Sun
Juan R.I. Cole,
Department of History,
University of Michigan
Baha'i Studies Bulletin vol. 4, nos. 3-4 (April 1990):4-22
Qur'an commentary proved an important literary genre in Shaykhism, Babism, and the early Baha'i Faith, the three religious traditions that formed the matrix for the emergence of the modern Baha'i community. One perspicacious observer has already drawn attention to the paradox implicit in Babi scripture consisting in part of commentary on previous scripture.(1) Although such commentary played a considerably less important role in Baha'u'llah's writings, some Qur'an commentary (Tafsir) does occur in them. Here I would like to bring attention to a central text for this issue, Baha'u'llah's commentary on Surah 91 of the Qur'an, "The Sun" (ash-Shams). Obviously, where Baha'u'llah himself says something about how one should go about interpreting scripture, the Baha'¡ commentator must take it extremely seriously. Yet this Arabic Tablet, written during the `Akka period, has not to my knowledge been discussed in Baha'¡ literature. Muhyi'd-Din Sabri, the Kurdish-Egyptian intellectual who undertook an important compilation of Baha'u'llah's Tablets and published them in Cairo in 1920, thought the commentary so important that he placed it first in the book.(2) In this work, Baha'u'llah sets out some general guidelines for commenting on scripture, and I offer a translation of it in Appendix II below, with some brief comments here.
Before turning to the hermeneutical and exegetical principles elaborated by Baha'u'llah in his brief commentary on the Surah of the Sun, written at the request of one of the Ottoman ulama, some of this tablet's general features should be mentioned. First, the reader will be struck by the eloquence of Baha'u'llah's Arabic. Unlike his Baghdad and Edirne works, this piece completely conforms to the conventions of standard nineteenth-century Arabic, showing neither the Persian grammatical influences we find elsewhere nor the Dadaist, Babi disdain for conventional grammar apparent in some earlier works. Some of its passages display a fine literary flair, such as Baha'u'llah's satirical description of how the sciences of rhetoric and grammar cultivated in Muslim polite society had caused him so much grief.
My main interest in this tablet, however, derives from the manner in which Baha'u'llah expresses himself on how he thinks scripture commentary should be carried out. He shows himself altogether opposed to literalism and what we might now call fundamentalism. "Know thou," Baha'u'llah writes in this Tablet, "that whoso clingeth to the outward sense of the words, leaving aside their esoteric significance, is simply ignorant."(3) One has only to examine classical Qur'an commentaries such as that of al-Baydawi, to see such an exoteric approach at work. For al-Baydawi, the sun is the sun is the sun.(4) On the other hand, Baha'u'llah has equally little patience with those mystics or sectarians who wholly neglect the plain, commonsense meaning of scripture in favor of wild, unanchored flights of speculation. "Only the one," he concludes, "who interpreteth the verses esoterically while harmonizing this reading with their literal meaning can be said to be a complete scholar." The Muslim civilization had developed an elaborate apparatus for understanding the literal or outward (az-zahir) meaning of a verse of scripture. It included the study of Arabic grammar, lexicology, and rhetoric so that the commentator could be sure he understood the structural place of the various elements in the verse. That is, the scholar had to take into account syntax and morphology, as well as seeking the meaning of obscure words in parallel usages in pre-Islamic poetry. The commentator also attempted to put the chapters of the Qur'an in chronological order and studied their context in the biographies of the Prophet and in a literature known as "occasions of revelation" (asbab an-nuzul). Baha'u'llah clearly requires that commentators attain such linguistic and historical competency, all of which is required for an understanding of the verse's outward meaning.
The outward sense of the verse must not be disregarded in Baha'u'llah's view. In his Most Holy Book, he castigated those who performed an esoteric exegesis (ta'wil) on revealed legal verses, accusing them of corrupting the word of God.(5) An entire disregard for the literal, commonsense meaning of scripture would open the door, after all, for antinomianism. Baha'u'llah, weary of the endless parade of Babi manifestations of God, at one point in the Most Holy Book declares himself the last prophet who will arise for at least 1,000 years. Yet Babis were nothing if not clever in matters of numerology, and he felt it necessary specifically to forbid believers to interpret this verse in anything but a literal manner, excluding esoteric exegesis or ta'wil.(6) He feared that too subjective an approach to hermeneutics could harm his religion, especially if applied to matters of law and authority.
On the other hand, an exegesis concerned wholly with details of grammar and items of lexicology could only deaden the soul. In his commentary on the Surah of the Sun, Baha'u'llah goes beyond such dry exercises in pedantry, advising exegetes to set up a tension between the outward and the manifold subjective meanings of scriptural verses, and let them play off one another. Here, it seems to me, the cultural tradition in which Baha'u'llah stood, of Persian mysticism and gnosticism, resonates rather nicely with aspects of contemporary postmodernism. Baha'u'llah completely rejected the primacy of common-sense or positivist approaches to meaning. A proposition, in his view, had many potential meanings, tens of them, not just a single literal one. Some might prefer to think of this stance as the positing of "polyvalence," or many levels of meaning, in scripture. Others may see it in postmodern terms as semantic ambiguity or instability.(7) In either case, the multiple meanings inscribed in statements and texts derives from both the diversity of human perceptions and from the multiple nature of reality itself. Reality is not exhausted by what can be experienced by sense-perception, as a positivist would maintain. Rather, reality consists of a series of graded "planes" or "stations" (rutbah, maqam), which run the spectrum between pure Being and pure nothingness. At the pole of pure Being is the plane of absolute unity, which is the domain of God's preexistent essence. Below this domain is the plane of God's Word or Command, the domain of the Logos. Then come various lesser stations or planes of the created, contingent world. Some of these planes have to do with human psychology and the attainment of certain mystical states, and they are often metaphorically called by Baha'u'llah "cities" or "valleys," in Persian mystical style. Thus, we have the city or plane of rida, wherein the believer radiantly acquiesces in whatever God wills for him or her. All this is well-known, of course. But the point I want to make here is that Baha'u'llah envisions these various planes or stations of reality, whether they be metaphysical or psychological, as sites of discourse. A person speaks from some plane and understands the discourse of others within the subjective context of that particular plane or station which he or she inhabits at that moment. A verse of scripture, in short, will carry a different meaning to different believers, depending on what plane they inhabit, or even depending upon what plane they are meditating on when considering the verse.
Any verse of scripture, then, carries an obvious literal sense, along with a myriad of metaphorical or subjective significations which will differ from believer to believer, and from station to station. A proper exegesis would take account of these several semantic dimensions. Thus, when the Qur'an represents God as taking an oath by the sun and "by the moon when it followeth it!" one may say on the prosaic plane that the Qur'an is appealing to the grandeur of nature in order to exalt its Creator. But according to Baha'u'llah, such terms as sun and moon also carry a great many subjective or metaphorical meanings for the believer who meditates upon them. In the station of absolute divine unity, the sun refers to the emanations of the Self or the Primal Will upon creation, a reference to Neoplatonic conceptions of metaphysics and theology wherein a demiurge emanates from God, from whom in turn emanates the contingent world. In other stations, on other planes, the sun can refer to prophets, or to imams and saints. The potential numbers of referents for the word sun are infinite, depending upon the station in which the word is considered. Unlike the case in postmodernism, these contending significations appear to war with one another only if one neglects to take account their various semantic levels, which exist in a hierarchical arrangement. Disputes among believers about the metaphorical sense of a particular passage might arise if the two believers were speaking from, or in the context of, different metaphysical or psychological planes.
This polyvalence or semantic ambiguity is what makes it impossible for any believer to promulgate an authoritative interpretation of scripture. Any individual's interpretation would be bounded by his or her stage of spiritual development, and readers dwelling on other planes would interpret in a wholly different manner the proof-texts of which the exegete made use. The ability of `Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi to interpret scripture authoritatively for the community appears primarily to have concerned the legal or doctrinal implications of the verses' outward meanings; neither suggested that he had exhausted the verses' esoteric meanings. Even this central teaching authority is now absent in the Baha'i Faith, leaving even greater scope for a decentralization of theology. With the passing of the guardianship, the new leadership of the Baha'i Faith, the Universal House of Justice (elected in 1963), has the prerogative only of legislating on matters not covered by scripture. The authority to interpret scripture was confined solely to the Guardian, and the Universal House of Justice, Shoghi Effendi wrote, would never "infringe upon the sacred and prescribed domain" of interpretation.(8)
The multiple meanings inscribed in texts, then, requires that Baha'is tolerate a wide variety of theologies within their faith, recognizing the subjective element in exegesis. I do not myself find this prospect at all problematic. All world-religions have in fact been very diverse, but their ecclesiastical representatives have often attempted to deny that diversity and to play upon the community's anxieties about ambiguity in order to gain more power by persecuting those they branded heretics. Islam, for instance, encompasses persons in West Africa who have essentially the same mindset and basic beliefs as their neighbors who follow indigenous African religions, as well as encompassing Indian Muslim villagers who, in their illiterate ecumenism, often call upon Hindu deities for help. Admittedly, modern literacy, printing, and mass media are making inroads against this kind of localism and popular syncretism. But for most of history, the world-religions have been little more than umbrellas under which all sorts of folk and local practices were pursued. The Qur'an clearly meant something different to the Gambian Muslims than it did to those in South India. A fundamentalist might argue that these mostly illiterate believers misunderstood their own religion. But that would require the absurd conclusion that the vast majority of Muslims have been daily misunderstanding Islam for 1400 years. The alternative explanation, that a world-religion necessarily involves the subsuming under a few broad symbols of millions of localistic subjectivities, is hateful to fundamentalists because it challenges their conviction that there is only one, literalist way to read scripture.
In matters of theology, Baha'is have the magnificent opportunity to let a thousand flowers bloom. Many of the otherwise admirable saintly figures in human history, from St. Augustine to Sir Thomas More, have been guilty of having heretics burned to death. This hypocrisy was forced upon them by the vain belief that it was possible and necessary to achieve an absolute creedal consensus within their religious community. Baha'u'llah himself made this sort of ugly Inquisition wholly unnecessary by recognizing the ambiguity and semantic instability of texts, even revealed ones. His theory of exegesis deserves a more rigorous investigation than I can offer here. I think the idea of plane-specific semantic universes offers a fascinating area for the interplay of Baha'¡ ideas with those of modern philosophers of language such as Wittgenstein, Eco, and Derrida. But the most important and lasting contribution of Baha'u'llah's exegetical principles may be the creation, at last, of a self-consciously diverse world religion, which achieves unity, not by Inquisition, but by tolerance
NOTES(1) Todd Lawson, "Interpretation as Revelation: The Qur'an Commentary of Sayyid `Ali Muhammad Shirazi, the Bab (1819-1850), in Andrew Rippin, ed., Approaches to the History of the Interpretation of the Qur'an (Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1988), pp. 223-53. (2) Baha'u'llah, Majmu`ih-yi alvah-i mubarakih-yi hadrat-i Baha'u'llah, ed. Muhy'd- Din Sabri (Cairo: Sa` dat Press, 1920; repr. Wilmette, Il.: Baha'¡ Publishing Trust, 1978), pp. 2-17. (3) "Tafsir Surat 'Wa'sh-Shams,'" in Baha'u'llah, Majmu`ih, Sabri ed., p. 11. (4) Nasiru'd-Din Abu Sa`id `Abdu'llah ash-Shirani al-Baydawi, Anwar at-tanzil wa asrar at-ta'wil (Beirut: Dar al-Jil, n.d.), pp. 800-801 for a literalist, or at least highly concrete, exegesis of the Surah of the Sun. (5) Baha'u'llah, al-Kitab al-aqdas (Bombay, n.d.), p. 107: "Inna'lladhi yu'awwilu ma nuzzila min sama'il-wahy wa yukhrijuhu `an az-zahiri, innahu harrafa kalimata'llahi." (6) Ibid., pp. 38-39. (7) I was urged by Franklin Lewis of the University of Chicago to make clearer in this revision (1 April 1994) the distinction between a perhaps more Apollonian semiotic approach that would stress polyvalence, and the more Dionysian approach of Derrida's deconstruction, which would talk of semantic ambiguity and instability. I do not myself believe deconstruction is altogether incompatible with elements of Babi-Baha'i epistemology, but in this paper I am simply opening the question. I do wish to suggest that in any case the alternative Western traditions of positivism and the Vienna circle approach to language analysis are unlikely to be as helpful in understanding Baha'u'llah's and the Bab's approaches to textual interpretation as are either semiotics or postmodernism (the latter itself diverse and not limited to deconstruction). (8) Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, The World Order of Baha'u'llah (Wilmette, Il: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1969), p. 150.