A prophetology of laughter

We do not often think of prophets as jesters.  I think ex-Baha’i Denis MacEoin has many unfortunate misconceptions in his article, “Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Shari’a: the Babi and Baha’i Solutions to the Problem of Immutability,” but I feel that in his essential thesis he’s onto something very true and powerful: the Báb joked.  I don’t mean that he told funny anecdotes to amuse himself and his companions; I mean his ministry was itself a jest.  Here’s what MacEoin says:

One comes away from the Bayan with a strong sense that very little of this is to be taken seriously. It is a form of game, never actually intended to be put into practice, much in the same way that whole sections of the Báb’s later books don’t in fact mean anything very much, but are elaborate exercises in interesting things you can do with Arabic roots. Or the way so many of the Bab’s early writings, described as tafsirs on this or that sura of the Qur’an, are really not commentaries at all.

Inevitably, the Bábi legal code remained largely a dead letter. [For example] the average Bábi could hardly hope to afford the three diamonds, four yellow rubies, six emeralds, and six red rubies that he was expected to give to the Bábi Messiah, let alone find time to observe all the rules and regulations laid down in the book. For all that, the Bábi shari’a made an impact.  Above all, it stated very clearly that the Islamic code could be replaced.

This is an incredible interpretation of the Báb’s ministry that somehow resonates with me as not only true, but also as saying something important about the nature of truth and the vast capacity of the divine for irony and inversion.  From the impossible and credulity-straining miracles of old to the quiet miracles of the heart, when we find ourselves as the Hanged Man from Tarot, turned upside down yet seeing rightside up for the first time eyes, to the absurdities of quantum mechanics and the symphony of the celestial spheres, God jokes and God laughs.

I think often of the Báb, especially his last moments: how he mysteriously slipped down from the wall of execution upon which had been tied and vanished from before the hail of bullets, not to arise miraculously from the grave, but to finish his conversation with a companion.  When he was done, he calmly re-submitted himself to the firing squad.  Ever the slippery one, he confronted the arbitrariness of the human world, embodied in the corrupt Persian authorities, and mocked it, transforming his brutal death into a joke that was more than mere human joking, laughing at the darkness, telling it, You are merely the absence of light and a dawn is coming.

Yet, there was also compassion in the joke.  Laughter is, after all, a release, and joking is a way of soothing the pains of existence; could it not also be metaphysical, uplifting an individual heart, or indeed, the very soul of the world?  The Báb was saying to us, This life, for all its beauties and horrors, is absurd.  Find the truth in the absurd and the absurd in the truth. I want to get the joke.  I’m trying very hard, but perhaps in the end, the trick is to do as the Báb did: I am fastened to this wall with tethers of my own making; let them go and be let go, return to the conversation with the divine, and then submit myself to be struck by bullets cast from the lead of love.

Deconstructing and Reconstructing the Shari’a:
the Babi and Baha’i Solutions to the Problem of Immutability
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8 thoughts on “A prophetology of laughter

  1. PS — To reiterate, although perhaps it’s needless, I don’t agree with much else that’s in MacEoin’s paper, certainly not MacEoin’s portrayal of Baha’u’llah, but I do find his central insight to be remarkable. I should note that what I say here doesn’t contradict or override the essential historical point that MacEoin is making, namely, that the Bab was going to the heart of sharia in order to deconstruct and reconstruct it; rather, I’m expanding upon it spiritually and philosophically.

  2. The Bab’s de/reconstruction of sharia reminds of Nader Saeidi’s book ‘Gate of the Heart’. But this is new to me: to consider the Bab’s ministry as a jest, which makes sense from the perspective that life on earth is limited and we should not take it too seriously. It has a strangely liberating effect.

    • Ha! Indeed you’re right, especially since I’m one of those very serious types. 😉 And I think there’s many other facets to this “spiritual” and “existential jest”. One would be, ironically, to also enter into and enjoy life in the sense that, as Baha’u’llah said, existence is a gift — it has its own intrinsic worth to which somehow detachment can also lead us back. And there’s another joke or irony in that, namely, that detachment for the sake of ascending unto God can instead return us to this life. 😉

      • Which explains why the Bab and Baha’ullah, despite obviously aware of the transitory character of this life were at the same time passionately involved in its transformation, giving their lives for that purpose. Examples to follow.
        Thanks

  3. Have you read Nader Saiedi’s book, mentioned above? It shows that MacEoin and others had a very big misunderstanding of the Bab’s teachings and laws. And of course, Shoghi Effendi has also clarified the main purpose of the Bab’s legal system in “God Passes By”.

    • Hi Nicholas, no, although I’ve heard about it from several sources long before this post. But let’s suppose Saiedi is correct and that MacEoin is profoundly wrong about the Babi dispensation: does that negate the essence of my reflection?

    • I’m afraid I only have a ‘big misunderstanding’ of the Bab’s teachings and laws from a Baha’i perspective. But I am not a Baha’i, so I’m free to come up with whatever views I like, and you may find that many or most secular non-Baha’is will, in some measure, agree with me.

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