Affirmative mysticism

The Sufi path (tariqat) in general seeks renunciation to achieve abundance: sort of like emptying a cup so it may be filled with water.

As a form of metaphysics, it is based on the negative. The main task of the seeker is to eliminate, that he may find. This is epitomized in the statement, “There is no God, but God.”

Bahá’u’lláh changed the basic metaphysics of mysticism, however. In this Revelation, the above statement has been changed to, “He is God.” This phrase cannot be found in the Qur’an, but occurs frequently in the Bahá’í Writings. Taherzadeh wrote:

Referring to the fore-mentioned phrase There is no God but Him', Baha'u'llah, in the Tablet of Salman, proclaims in majestic and powerful language that He has removed the letter of negation which had been placed before that of affirmation. This phrase, which the Prophet of Islam, through His all-encompassing wisdom, regarded to be the cornerstone of His Faith, is now, in the Dispensation of Baha'u'llah, symbolically replaced by the affirmative phraseHe is God’, signifying that the Revealer of the Cause of God holds within His hands the reins of authority, and, unlike the Dispensations of the past, no one has the power to wrest it from Him.1

All mysticism previous to Bahá’u’lláh was based solidly on the letter of negation. This emphasis led naturally toward celibacy, asceticism, vows of silence and poverty, withdrawal from the world, and self- mortification. In this Dispensation, however, mysticism is founded upon the letter of affirmation: the world is upheld in its mode of manifesting the Will of God, and does not exist to be shunned.

I don’t think one can overstate how fundamental and radical a shift this is. It could take centuries before its impact is fully realized. I even think it will change basic mystical thinking so much that the concept of asceticism will come to be seen as barbaric, kind of like people spiritually bleeding themselves to cure an illness.

What is a mysticism of affirmation? It should be noted that some of Bahá’u’lláh’s texts, revealed before His declaration, speak in the language of negation – such as the Seven Valleys, and many of the Hidden Words (cf. “Blind thine eyes that thou mayest behold My Beauty”). This does not mean that negation is invalid, simply that the emphasis changed after His declaration to one of affirmation.

Affirmation confirms the validity of existence. The world is not meant to be taken as a substitute for God, but it is a sign of God. If I were to write a letter to someone, my words would not be me, but they would convey my spirit and intentions. If the person receiving the letter is distracted by the medium, however, its purpose is not fulfilled. In the same way, this world expresses the intentions of its Creator. It is possible to “see Him in everything”, because His qualities are what illumine existence. If we become distracted by that medium, however, its purpose is also unfulfilled.

The letter of negation is a guard against seeing value in the world in and of itself. The letter of affirmation indicates its value as the expression of God’s Will. The practice of negation, such as impoverishing one’s self, was meant to ensure that one did not become distracted. But as important as this is, it should no longer be the emphasis. The emphasis is now on the purpose of life. For its purpose to be realized, it must be valued in a way that affirms the role of the world.

For example, the Sufis wished to absorb themselves in devotion, so they withdrew from the world. They practiced negation to find God. However, since men are intended to be lamps of His light, shining among the people, withdrawal nullifies the purpose of the seeker’s own reality. What use is a lamp hidden under a bush? The real devotion is dedication to God’s ultimate purpose, a part of which is that men become exponents of virtue, and of benefit to society.

A mysticism of affirmation, I believe, would uphold wealth for its purpose, while never forgetting that it must not become a distraction. The Bahá’í credo of “excellence in all things” shows how we should be at the forefront of all endeavors, and never sit in the back from fear of fame and fortune. The emphasis now is on life, and no longer on the danger of living.

Another important aspect of this shift is the focus on Bahá’u’lláh. Direct connection not being possible, we turn to His Intermediary. The Guardian stated:

We liken God to the Sun, which gives us all our life. So the Spirit of God reaches us through the Souls of the Manifestations. We must learn to commune with Their Souls, and this is what the Martyrs seemed to have done, and what brought them such ecstacy of joy that life became nothing. This is the true mysticism, and the secret, inner meaning of life which humanity has at present, drifted so far from.2

Some mystics, in their negation of all but God, believed in no worldly focus. Even though the Prophets were a focal point for meditation, the true Goal lay “beyond all things”. All was looked past, that the Ultimate might be seen. This can lead to a belief that even the authority of the Prophet is a barrier to the true mystic’s path, meaning it also was cast into the fire of negation. When nothing was left, attainment was felt to be near.

In many ways this is true, because a lover’s heart must be free of all things. However, finite beings requires a finite object; one cannot love what is perfectly inaccessible. This is something that makes negative mysticism so terribly difficult: the seeker is given an essentially impossible task. Affirmation – loving God through His manifestations (and Manifestation) – is vastly easier, even if it requires more maturity on the part of the seeker (since the danger of distraction is always present).

In sum, if Bahá’u’lláh is our Goal, and His Will equally beloved, and if the natural world and society are the form of that Will, then it follows that nothing can be evil or reprehensible – things simply fulfill their purpose or not. There is no need to cast away wealth, nor any intrinsic merit to poverty. It is simply a matter of each thing fulfilling its role in Divine Creation.

Negative: Abandon wealth, that you may discover true wealth in the Infinite. Affirmative: Achieve wealth, that you may realize its aim: the finite expression of His name, the All-Bountiful.

  1. Adib Taherzadeh, Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, volume 2, p. 289↩︎

  2. Shoghi Effendi, Unfolding Destiny, pp. 406-7↩︎