We know that Baha’u’llah is divinely inspired, but what about everyone else? Abdu’l-Baha is clear that ordinary people can also access divine inspiration – but, of course, in a much more limited way. The inspiration available to the average person is all that they need to make progress in their allocated world of eternity. Ordinary people are not Manifestations, whose divine inspiration needs to access and encompass the operations of all realities in creation. Each person just needs divine inspiration to help them get along in their individual world. God is with each one of us. Baha’u’llah says he is the all-sufficing, the ever-abiding and the best of helpers. He is there for us if we ask.
Recently, I ordered from Amazon the book Studies in Baha’i Epistmology: Essays and Commentaries, edited by Mikhail Sergeev, which came out late 2021. I bought it because it contains a paper by Jean-Marc Lepain called ‘Tractatus: A Logical Introduction to Baha’i Philosophy’. Jean-Marc Lepain is the world’s best Baha’i philosopher by miles, and this paper represents his latest thinking. The book is worth buying just for this one paper. I haven’t looked much further into the book, but I did notice that the essay following the Tractatus was about the topic of inspiration, and so it caught my eye. The essay is ‘The Criteria of Knowledge: Beyond Inspiration’, by Julio Savi.
Julio Savi’s essay is basically a literature review with commentary, which is useful to me, particularly because it alerted me to a translation of a tablet by Abdu’l-Baha, which makes an important contribution to the subject. The tablet is called ‘Tablet of the Inmost Heart’, translated by William McCants and Steven Phelps in 2000, and it is available for download at the Baha’i Library. (Note that the link to this translation, given in footnote no 9 of the essay, is incorrect.) In this tablet, Abdu’l-Baha runs systematically through the four means available to human beings, by which they can acquire knowledge. These four methods are: using the senses, reason, tradition and inspiration. All of these methods are fallible. The senses can put you wrong, people’s reasonings are always at odds, traditions go stale and are just reasonings, and inspiration can be polluted by the ego. But, and here’s the point, there is a fifth method of obtaining knowledge, which does lead to certitude, and that involves accessing the bounties of the Holy Spirit through a pure heart.
All very well. The issue I have always had with this synopsis has been with establishing the difference between method no 4 when it goes right, and method no 5. In other words, method no 4 is inspiration, which Abdu’l-Baha says can go either way: you might have a real inspiration from the All-Merciful or an idea inspired by the ego. With method no 5, a person turns their pure heart to the All-Merciful and is divinely inspired. What is the difference, then, between no 4 turning out well, and no 5?
In Tablet of the Inmost Heart, Abdu’l-Baha describes the inspiration of method no 4 as “khuTuratin qalbiyyatin” (literally, inspirations of the heart). On page 235, Julio Savi helpfully gives Lane’s definition of “khuTuratin”, and it is “An opinion, or an idea, or object of thought, bestirring itself in the mind… the thing coming at random into the mind, with a view to the end, issue, or result, of a thing”. This is what we would commonly think of as inspiration. I have always assumed that method no 4, when it goes right, was the substance of the inspiration that, for example, leads to discoveries in science and technology. This method fits with Abdu’l-Baha’s emphasis on meditation and how it can lead to inspiration about the realities of nature.
In chapter 40 of Some Answered Questions, Abdu’l-Baha gives an important distinction between two kinds of knowledge: (1) existential or intuitive knowledge and (2) formal or conceptual knowledge. He explains that most people use conceptualization – that is, no 2. This means they make use of the rational faculty (and sense data), by using thinking, reasoning, investigation, argumentation and so forth. In chapter 58 of Some Answered Questions, Abdu’l-Baha also clarifies that science is province of the rational faculty. “All the sciences, branches of learning, arts, inventions, institutions, undertakings, and discoveries have resulted from the comprehension of the rational soul.” In other words, scientific knowledge fits into the formal/conceptual category of knowledge.
Abdu’l-Baha describes no 1, existential or intuitive knowledge, in an entirely different way. He says that this knowledge is like a person’s awareness of themselves, which comes from their experience and comprehension of their sensations, body, mind and so on. It is an ever-present intuitive knowledge based on existential experience and comprehension. This is the kind of knowledge that the Manifestations have of all realities in creation.
Here we come to the source of the confusion. The word “inspiration” is used in two different contexts: first, it refers to method no 4; and second, it is differentiated from conceptual knowledge. In the five-category outline Abdu’l-Baha gives in Tablet of the Inmost Heart, he uses the word inspiration to refer to the method in which ideas pop into a person’s mind when one is trying to find an answer to things. But this is actually the conceptualisation process of the rational soul. It is not existential inspiration, as defined above, even though method no 4 is called ‘inspiration’.
Existential inspiration is the knowledge the Manifestations have of creation. This is explained in chapter 58 of Some Answered Questions:
“But the universal divine Intellect, which transcends nature, is the outpouring grace of the pre-existent Power. It encompasses all existing realities and receives its share of the lights and mysteries of God. It is an all-knowing power, not a power of investigation and sensing. The spiritual power associated with the world of nature is the power of investigation, and it is through investigation that it discovers the realities and properties of things. But the heavenly intellectual power, which is beyond nature, encompasses, knows, and comprehends all things; is aware of the divine mysteries, truths, and inner meanings; and discovers the hidden verities of the Kingdom. This divine intellectual power is confined to the holy Manifestations and the Daysprings of prophethood. A ray of this light falls upon the mirrors of the hearts of the righteous, that they may also receive, through the holy Manifestations, a share and benefit of this power.”
What this means is that method no 5 is the same thing as existential knowledge. It is different to method no 4, where good ideas pop into one’s mind, which is conceptual knowledge. Existential inspiration is a state of being that gives one an ever-present comprehension of the workings of reality. It is a mode of being, not a bright idea. It is experienced, not conceptual. And the point Abdu’l-Baha is making with method no 5 is that ordinary people can share in this experiential knowledge by turning to the Manifestation with a pure heart. The same idea is made in the italicised sentence in the quote above. A person shares in the bounties bestowed on the Manifestation and is given knowledge of the mysteries of creation.
For clarification purposes, perhaps method no 4 should be called inspiration – because it is common for people to say that they had an inspired idea about something – and method no 5 should be called existential inspiration or mystical inspiration. I understand it is commonly referred to in Arabic as ‘irfan.