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Dr. Todd Lawson's Three Web Talks on the Qur’an: Excellent for Interfaith Dialogue and Significant Conversations, Essential for Bahá’ís Learning to "Establish the Truth of Islam"

Apr 27, 2017
Dr. Todd Lawson's Three Web Talks on the Qur’an: Excellent for Interfaith Dialogue and Significant Conversations, Essential for Bahá’ís Learning to
The trilogy of talks on the Qur’an, Islam, and the Bahá’í Faith that Dr. Todd Lawson gave on three successive Sundays in April provide a wealth of information about, among many other things: The Qur’an and Islam: Explorations from a Bahá’í Perspective.” In his first Web Talk, titled “The Qur’an and Islam: Explorations from a Bahá’í Perspective,” Todd began by stating that:

The Bahá’í Faith teaches that apart from its own vast body of Divine Revelation, the Qur’an is the only other completely authentic scripture currently available to humanity. The Bahá’í writings, whether from Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Beloved Guardian, or the House of Justice, are characterized by a consistent and powerful admiration for, references to, and quotations from the Qur’an. It is, therefore, true to say that there is much Qur’an in the Bahá’í teachings. During these webinars, we will study the form and contents of the Qur’an as a subject of importance in itself and as a way of deepening our knowledge of the Bahá’í Faith.

Then he noted that Bahá’ís know this but that in any deepening it is important to “look at familiar things and revisit and reconnect with the ideas.” Todd’s purpose in his three lectures was, first and foremost, to discuss Islam itself. To set the stage for his discussion, he turned to a series of four BBC lectures available in podcasts. The 2017 Reith lectures were given by cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah on “Mistaken Identities.” The four lectures cover four topics: Creed, Country, Color, and Culture. Some of Appiah’s insights are these: “European identity is in contrast to Islamic identity.” In other words, “Europe is what is not Islamic.” Moreover, Europeans and their culture “carry a distinctive Islamic component.” “This is something Bahá’ís know,” Todd said, “but the academy (the humanities and the sciences) has been slow to see.” Thus, Todd asserted, “The Bahá’ís, among very few people in the world, are uniquely qualified and trained to talk about the Islamic component.” The Bahá’í writings are very explicit about the responsibilities given to the American Bahá’ís:

The mission of the American Bahá’ís is . . . to eventually establish the truth of Islám in the West.—Shoghi Effendi, a letter written on his behalf, July 30, 1941, in Lights of Guidance No. 1665.

To accomplish this responsibility, and, interestingly enough, to prepare for the teaching work in general, Shoghi Effendi says:

They [the Bahá’ís] must strive to obtain, from sources that are authoritative and unbiased, a sound knowledge of the history and tenets of Islám—the source and background of their Faith—and approach reverently and with a mind purged from preconceived ideas the study of the Qur’án which, apart from the sacred scriptures of the Bábí and Bahá’í Revelations, constitutes the only Book which can be regarded as an absolutely authenticated Repository of the Word of God.—Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice 49.

Todd went on to say that he would approach his three lectures in this spirit: One cannot be a Bahá’í unless s/he accepts Muhammad as a Manifestation of God and the Qur’an as divine revelation. He then provided additional quotations on the subject from the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi. Todd challenged his listeners to study the similarities and differences between Islam and the Bahá’í Faith. He ended by saying: “This is our duty as Bahá’ís: to establish the truth of Islam.” The question-and-answer session that followed Todd’s talk was well worth staying for. He discussed a provisional translation of a prayer that Bahá’u’lláh revealed for Islam and another revealed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for the Ottoman State; translations of the Qur’an; the Qur’an as the first book in Arabic; the need for standing up for Islam but not for the actions of some Muslims; and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Secret of Divine Civilization as a great source for understanding the contributions of Islam. After his talk and before it was posted on the Wilmette Institute’s YouTube channel, Todd provided links to seven supplementary materials: 1) Selected Readings on Islam; 2) Bahá’u’lláh’s prayer for Islam; 3) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s prayer for the Ottoman State; 4) Benjamin Franklin on a nondenominational meeting house in Philadelphia; 5) an excerpt from the Encyclopaedia on the Qur’an; and a link to Kwame Anthony Appiah’s lecture on the cultural aspect of mistaken identity, including his linking Islam with European culture. “The Qur’an in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb.” In his second Web Talk, Todd discussed “The Qur’an in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb.” He stressed that Bahá’ís “need to look at Islam not as the ‘other’ but as part of us, part of our culture as Bahá’ís.” He noted that the Báb uses the Qur’anic principle that Prophets speak to their audiences in the language they know. Hence the Báb’s main sources for His writings were the Qur’an and other Qur’anic and Islamic sources. The Báb’s style is dependent on and deeply devoted to and respectful of the Qur’an and, at the same time, unique. His Commentary on the Sura of Joseph is traditional in that every line contains passages from the Qur’an, and its topic is the story of Joseph, which is loved by all Muslims for its religious and literary qualities and for the identity it gives to them. But it is unique in that He takes the Qur’an and the story of Joseph further to speak as the New Prophet about the coming of the New Day. Thus, “when the words of the Qur’an are brought out, it is not for mere information but it is, rather, an irruption of the divine in life.” When Todd turned to a discussion of the role of Qur’an in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, he said that again the Manifestation of God was speaking the language of the people being addressed. Bahá’u’lláh’s writings, early and late, show veneration, adoration, and connection to the Qur’an. He noted that Dr. Christopher Buck has observed that Bahá’u’lláh’s Kitáb-i-Iqán is one of the most widely translated and circulated commentaries on the Qur’an. Taking one of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings that has antecedents in the Qur’an—progressive revelation—Todd said the Qur’an mentions some two dozen prophets who taught the oneness of God and that Muslim extra-Qur’anic sources posit no less than 124,000 prophets throughout history that taught the oneness of God and humanity. The Bahá’í teaching on the topic is both the same and different. Again, Todd urged his listeners to come up with their own lists of Bahá’í concepts deriving from the Qur’an. Just as the question-and-answer session following Todd’s was first talk very informative, so was the Q&A session following the second talk. One listener asked whether the Báb, Who wrote the Commentary on the Sura of Joseph in Arabic, was speaking to the clergy. Todd said that the Báb’s earliest followers were seminarians. Táhirih translated the Arabic into Persian and used it for teaching. Another listener asked how Bahá’ís should study the Qur’an. Todd said to read it from front to back, then from back to front, then from the middle. But it is important to understand that the Qur’an was transmitted orally. Hence its structure is different from the beginning-middle-end structures with which we are familiar. Many suras stand on their own with the payoff coming in the middle of the sura. The structure can be thought of as an “X” with the main point coming where the two arms of “X” cross. Reading the Qur’an is not easy, but the “community needs to work on this seriously,” Todd said. “The Qur’anic Epic and the Creation of Humanity.” Todd’s final talk in his trilogy was called “The Qur’anic Epic and the Creation of Humanity.” He began by saying that “The driving idea for the talk is that the current notion that we have in the world today of humanity as a cosmopolitan, pluralistic, multiple, highly various phenomenon owes much to the Qur’anic revelation for its cultivation and for it’s being accepted throughout the world.” Noting that everything in the some six thousand verses in the Qur’an is the Word of God and, therefore, important, he selected six “key” Qur’anic verses to “orient ourselves.” These verses, Todd said, “have had a deep influence on the way Islam has seen itself in the world, and has presented itself, and has taught itself to others, and has attracted others to join Islam.” The first verse, Qur’an 10:47 says that “To every people (was sent) a messenger.” Thus no one needs to go save some benighted “other.” There is no “other.” All have received Manifestations of God. Qur’an 14:4 says that God has always sent Messengers to speak “in his own people’s tongue” to ensure that those receiving revelation can understand it. Qur’an 49:13 explains that God has created diversity—male, female, nations, tribes—“so that ye might come to know one another.” If He had chosen to do so, He could have created mankind as one community (as in the Qur’an’s Sura of Húd, 11:118). We have to achieve unity ourselves. In Qur’an 41:53, a beloved Qur’anic verse, we are told that “We shall show them Our signs in the horizons and in themselves, till it is clear to them that it is the truth.” The signs of God, the most holy things in creation, appear in the external world or horizons, in the souls of people, and in the Qur’an simultaneously. The concept is very much a part of the Bahá’í revelation. Finally, Qur’an 24:35, perhaps the “single most beautiful verse in the Qur’an,” was beloved by the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. It describes “the Light” as neither of the East nor the West, or sunrise and sunset, a light that never rises or sets:

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp (the lamp in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star) kindled from a Blessed Tree, an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West whose oil well-nigh would shine, even if no fire touched it; Light upon Light; (God guides to His light whom He will.) (And God strikes similitudes for man, and God has knowledge of everything.)

Having discussed Qur’anic verses that have parallels in the Bahá’í writings, Todd turned to a discussion of the Qur’an as an epic, using a list of characteristics derived from S. V. Revard and J. K. Newman’s classic article “Epic: I. History and II. Theory” (in The New Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, ed. A. Preminger and T. V. F. Brogan [Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1993]). As fascinating as the characteristics of an epic are, perhaps the most important observation is that made by Richard P. Martin in “Epic as Genre” (in A Companion to Ancient Epic, ed. John Miles Foley [Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005] 9–19) when he says that the purpose of the epic is “to articulate the most essential aspects of a culture, from its origin stories to its ideals of social behavior, social structure, relationship to the natural world and to the supernatural.” Hence, Todd says, the Qur’an is similar to an epic, and it is the epic of the Muslims. It describes the way things are, where we came from, why we are here, and where we are going. The organization of many of the Qur’an’s suras, as Todd mentioned in his second talk, is that of ring composition (characteristic, cross-culturally, of oral composition), in which the point is revealed in the middle. In the Qur’an as a whole, except for the first seven verses, one finds the longest chapters (which were revealed later) at the beginning and the shortest chapters (which were revealed earlier) at the end. The short chapters at the end of the Qur’an are hymnic and suffused with the “energy of divine revelation,” but they do not always answer questions of who we are and why we are here. The early chapters begin in medias res (in the middle of things), with the familiar story of Adam and Eve, the Exodus, and Moses in the wilderness. But Adam and Eve are not the beginning. In Qur’an 7:172–73, the myth (what is true, important, sacred, of the highest order of truth) or epic begins—the Covenant with God. This is the time before Adam and Eve, before creation, when God, in the language of myth, brought forth from the loins of the Children of Adam all future human beings, individually and collectively, to confront them with a specific and all-important question:

       When thy Lord drew forth from the Children of Adam—from their loins—their descendants, and made them testify concerning themselves, (saying): “Am I not your Lord (who cherishes and sustains you)?” They said: “Yea! We do testify!” (This), lest ye should say on the Day of Judgment: “Of this we were never mindful”: Or lest ye should say: “Our fathers before us may have taken false gods, but we are (their) descendants after them: wilt Thou then destroy us because of the deeds of men who were futile?” (Q 7:172–73, Yusuf Ali translation)

As important as that question was and is, it seems that the Qur’an also wants us to notice an equally important feature: at the time of this primordial covenant, all humanity was at peace together in the presence of God. In Bahá’u’lláh’s Persian Hidden Words, No. 19, one finds the same theme:

O My Friends! Have ye forgotten that true and radiant morn, when in those hallowed and blessed surroundings ye were all gathered in My presence beneath the shade of the tree of life, which is planted in the all-glorious paradise? Awestruck ye listened as I gave utterance to these three most holy words: O friends! Prefer not your will to Mine, never desire that which I have not desired for you, and approach Me not with lifeless hearts, defiled with worldly desires and cravings. Would ye but sanctify your souls, ye would at this present hour recall that place and those surroundings, and the truth of My utterance should be made evident unto all of you.

The question-and-answer session that followed Todd’s talk was, once again, very informative. Topics included the twenty-five messengers named in the Qur’an; the Covenant in the Qur’an (Am I not your Lord?); the Seal of the Prophets; apparent contradictions in scripture; who arranged the suras in the Qur’an; the Age of Prophecy and the Age of Fulfillment; studying the Hadith; reading Qur’anic commentaries; epic and apocalyptic aspects of Holy Books, including the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, the Qur’an, the Bahá’í writings; and others. Todd provided twelve links to a number of topics: 1) Kwame Anthony Apiah’s Reith Talks on “Mistaken Identities” as seen in creed, color, country, and culture; 2) Selected Passages from the Qur’an; 3) Hodgson on the Qur’an; 4) 25 Prophets of Islam; 5) Arnold on Jihad; 6) Jihad; 7) Magians (Zoroastrianism in the Qur’an); 8) Community and Society in the Qur’an; 9) Tolerance and Coercion in the Qur’an; 10) Qur’an and Epic; 11) Paradise in the Qur’an and the Music of Apocalypse; and 12) The Seal of the Prophets. As always, the staff of the Wilmette Institute recommends that you listen to Todd Lawson’s three talks on the Qur’an, as it is impossible to capture in an article all the details and nuances of the presentations.  Todd Lawson is Professor Emeritus of Islamic Thought, University of Toronto. He has been a Bahá’í since 1968 and has been a member, since 1975, of the Association for Bahá’í Studies, which awarded him the distinguished book award for his study of the Qayyúm al-asmá, Gnostic apocalypse in Islam (Routledge, 2012). Todd has published numerous articles and books on the relationship between the Bahá’í Faith and Islam, Qur’an commentary, Sufism and Shi‘ism, his most recent being He lives in Montreal with his wife, daughter, and grandchildren. To listen to one or all of Todd Lawson’s talks on the Qur’an, click here. To listen to Todd’s earlier Web Talk “Bahá’u’lláh, The Return of Joseph,” click here.

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