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Irfán Colloquium #5
The Fifth Scripture Studies Colloquium, cosponsored by the Haj Mehdi Arjmand Memorial Fund and the Institute for Baha'i Studies, was held at the Baha'i National Center in Wilmette, Illinois, March 31 through April 2, 1995. It was the second colloquium devoted to studies related to the Kitab-i-Aqdas. The first was held at DePoort Baha'i Conference Center in the Netherlands, November 4-6, 1994. The Department of the Secretariat of the Universal House of Justice later stated "it is clear that the conference on the Kitab-i-Aqdas was a successful event, and provided timely and useful insights about the contents of the Most Holy Book." They also promised that "prayers will be offered in the Holy Shrines" for the Wilmette colloquium.
Nine research papers were presented on various topics related to the Aqdas and about sixty-five friends attended the colloquium and participated in discussions following each presentation.
At the opening session Friday evening Dr. Robert Stockman welcomed the participants, presented the program, and briefly introduced the Institute for Baha'i Studies and its activities. The Institute, he explained, is an agency of the National Spiritual Assembly dedicated to sponsoring rigorous, academic-quality scholarship on the Baha'i Faith. His remarks were followed by a short presentation by Ms. Tandis Arjmand, great-granddaughter of Haj Mehdi Arjmand, who was a prominent Baha'i teacher and scholar in Iran. Ms. Arjmand quoted in English translation some of `Abdu'l-Baha's tablets in honor and admiration of the achievements of this great teacher of the Faith. Dr. Iraj Ayman gave a short report on the objectives and activities of the H. M. Arjmand Memorial Fund. He explained that the main purposes of the Irfan Colloquia are to promote deeper and more systematic studies on the Holy Writings; providing an opportunity, in the form of open forums, for the interaction between various views and understandings of the Faith in an atmosphere of tolerance and loving unity; and aim to encourage those interested in scholarly studies to enter the field of scholarship and benefit from the dialogues taking place. Quoting the words of `Abdu'l-Baha, "the progress of man's spirit in the divine world, after the severance of its connection with the body of dust is through. . . the charities and important good works which are performed in its name," Dr. Ayman added that he hoped other such memorial trust funds would be established in support of Baha'i scholarly and teaching activities.
Saturday morning the plenary presentation was given by Dr. John Hatcher on "The Model of Penology in the Kitab-i-Aqdas." Dr. Hatcher noted that the penology offered by the Aqdas--that is, the theory and system of punishment--is often very flexible. He also identified several major principles governing response to a violation of a Baha'i law, such as the balance of individual and social rights, though the latter ultimately supersede many of the former; the fact that human life continues after death; and the use of collective pressure to enforce law.
Dr. Hatcher was unable to be present, but he submitted his presentation on videotape and afterward he was put on a speakerphone so that he could interact with and answer questions from the audience. The system proved very effective and represented an important breakthrough achieved by the colloquium, for four of the nine speakers presented in this manner.
Anthony Lee presented a paper on "Choice Wine: The Kitab-i- Aqdas and the Development of Baha'i Law." Mr. Lee outlined some of the latest thinking about the history of composition of the Aqdas, which might have been written in several stages over three or four years, with the final verse possibly added even later. The gradual revelation of the Aqdas was itself an example of the unfoldment of Baha'i law, a process that continued with the revelation of Questions and Answers and other tablets by Baha'u'llah and later by tablets by `Abdu'l-Baha and letters by Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice. Mr. Lee focused on the changing understanding of several laws throughout this unfoldment process.
Saturday morning was completed by a presentation by Ms. Holly Hanson on "Getting to Justice: The Creation of Justice through the Laws of the Kitab-i-Aqdas." Ms. Hanson gave as one example the impact the inheritance laws could have on the distribution of wealth in society. Unfortunately Ms. Hanson's video presentation could not be supplemented by telephone interaction with the audience, for she was unreachable in Uganda.
Saturday afternoon Diana Malouf made a presentation on "The Kitab-i-Aqdas: Questions of Structure and Style." Dr. Malouf particularly compared and contrasted the Aqdas with the Qur'an; both use rhetorical devices for emphasis such as parallelism, repetition, and irregular syntax, though they often use different metaphors and images. She noted that the Aqdas would become the nucleus of a world civilization and the mother book of a literary system, like the Qur'an.
Jeff Simmonds then presented a paper on "The Relationship of the Laws of the Kitab-i-Aqdas to the Laws of the Bayan of the Bab." Mr. Simmonds argued that relatively few of the Bab's laws were actually abrogated by the revelation of the Aqdas, since many of them had been designed to operate only until "He Whom God Will Make Manifest" appears. Mr. Simmonds, a non-Baha'i doctoral candidate in Religious Studies, answered questions from the audience from his home in Wellington, New Zealand.
Saturday afternoon closed with Christopher Buck's "Sacralizing the Secular: The Proclamatory Aqdas as a Response to Modernity." Mr. Buck noted that the Tablet of Glad Tidings (Lawh-i-Bisharat) could be viewed as a "re-revelation" of selected laws of the Aqdas for the purpose of proclaiming them to the world. The tablet was sent to two prominent western scholars, reinforcing the likelihood the tablet had been revealed for the purpose of proclamation. Mr. Buck noted that the Glad Tidings sacralized--made sacred--many secular values, such as the value of democratic elections in forming governments, while it desacralized--abrogated--some Christian, Islamic, and Babi practices.
The Saturday evening session was devoted to a panel discussion on "The Kitab-i-Aqdas: Current Research and Future Directions." The session began with introductory remarks by the three panelists: Dr. Jena Khadem, Dr. Moojan Momen, and Mr. Charles Nolley. A diversity of perspectives was expressed by the panelists as well as the participants, showing a wide range of views and approaches. The two interesting recommendations made in this session were: (1) the value and advantage of promoting team research, that is, a group of Baha'is collaborating together in producing joint papers; and (2) identifying and recommending a number of topics to be researched as chapters of one volume, thus producing some of the literature badly needed in the Baha'i community.
Sunday morning Habib Riazati opened the program with "The Relationship between Content and Context in the Kitab-i-Aqdas." The presentation sought to demonstrate the universality of the laws of the Aqdas in spite of the varying contexts in which they are expressed. It also considered the matter of the infallibility of the Manifestations and the historical circumstances of the revelation of specific universal laws.
Sen McGlinn then presented a paper about "Some Considerations Relating to the Inheritance Laws of the Kitab-i- Aqdas." He argued that while many of the inheritance laws have been interpreted as creating an unequal division of an estate, with males inheriting more than females, other ways of looking at the same laws allow them to be viewed as supporting equality of the sexes. Mr. McGlinn's paper generated a lively discussion, with the telephone carrying Mr. McGlinn's voice from his home in the Netherlands.
The colloquium closed with "Obedience to Divine Law: Evolution of the Individual's Perception" by Azadeh and Nabil Fares. The paper noted differences between the concept of obedience in the Qur'an and the Aqdas, the former stressing fear of punishment, the latter obedience out of one's love for God. It also noted that individuals' understanding of the concept of obedience changes, from a simplistic or negative conception to a richer conception that views obedience as the means to achieve true liberty. The paper was presented by Mr. Fares, with Mrs. Fares participating in the discussion by speakerphone.
A booklet containing the abstracts of the colloquium is available for $3.00 by writing the Research Office, Baha'i National Center, Wilmette, Illinois, 60091 (please make the check out to "Baha'i Services Fund"). Similar abstract booklets are also available for $3.00 for the second and fourth Scripture Studies Colloquia, the Baha'i History Conference, and the Conference on Women in Baha'i Perspective. (The first booklet ordered is $3.00; subsequent ones are $2.50 each.) The next Scripture Studies Colloquium in Wilmette will be March 29-31, 1996. It will have two themes: it will continue discussion of the Kitab-i-Aqdas but will also focus on difficult questions the outside world is beginning to ask about Baha'i scripture.