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Mapping Divine Light: The Community Building Power of Basketmaking

July 1, 2024, in Articles > Baha'i Life, by

When I was growing up on the island of Cyprus we used handcrafted items regularly in daily life. Our laundry hamper and the container we stored clothes pegs in were both handmade baskets; hanging baskets were used in the kitchen to keep rodents and insects away from baked goods; and all the carpets and blankets in our home were hand-made. My Cypriot friends were taught the art of crocheting and knitting from a young age. Handmade bedspreads and tablecloths adorned many homes, and I don’t think anyone in my family owned a winter scarf that wasn’t made by someone we knew. Crafts were so seamlessly integrated into daily life that, until very recently, my perception of them was that most people engaged in crafts as a hobby, but I didn’t see them as a full-time profession. So I admit that when I learned that Abdu’l-Baha claimed “mat weaver” as His profession on His U.S. customs declaration form, I was surprised.

In Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, He wrote:

Consider what a bounty and blessing it is that craftsmanship is regarded as worship. In former times, it was believed that such skills were tantamount to ignorance, if not a misfortune, hindering man from drawing nigh unto God. Now consider how His infinite bestowals and abundant favours have changed hell-fire into blissful paradise, and a heap of dark dust into a luminous garden.1

The Baha’i Writings tell us that it is incumbent upon each of us to engage in an occupation or trade. In response to a question He was asked about earning a living, Abdu’l-Baha said:

For example, I know how to weave or make a mat, and you know some other trade. This, in itself is an act of worship, provided that it is conducted on the basis of utmost honesty and faithfulness.2

Many years ago as a university student in Arizona I attended a talk by a Navajo family about how the Teachings of Baha’u’llah fulfilled Navajo prophecy. Basketmaking is a cherished craft in Navajo culture, and the family giving the presentation had brought one with them to illustrate their beliefs about the life of soul. They explained that in Navajo tradition the basket is a map through which they chart the course of their lives. The central spot represents the beginning of life, and the inner coils symbolize birth. The Navajo use particular colours to represent different life experiences: as you travel outward more black is integrated into the weaving to represent struggle and pain. Red stands for marriage and the mingling of the blood of two families through the creation of a family. Moving further outwards there are often more bands of black interspersed with white to indicate a gradual movement towards enlightenment, and the outermost rim is all white to represent the light of the spirit world. Navajo baskets all have a line from the centre of the basket to the outer rim as a reminder that no matter how much darkness a person encounters in their life, there is always a path that will lead us toward the light. The family presenting to us explained that Navajo weavers believe that if they do not include a pathway to the light in their baskets they will no longer receive divine inspiration, and the creative process will be thwarted.

The importance of treating one’s craft as a kind of map directing humanity toward the light is reinforced by this quote by Baha’u’llah:

The source of crafts, sciences and arts is the power of reflection. Make ye every effort that out of this ideal mine there may gleam forth such pearls of wisdom and utterance as will promote the well-being and harmony of all the kindreds of the earth.3

The materials used in basketmaking intimately tie people to nature. Being a basket maker necessitates a knowledge of the native plants growing in the area that could be used to weave and add colour to baskets. Dependable access to plant materials harvested from the natural environment makes basket makers natural custodians of local ecosystem health, and educators who make powerful advocates for the sustainable use of natural resources in their communities.

The more I reflected upon basketmaking as a form of worship, the more I realized how transformative the craft is. The raw materials are transformed by being woven together into a basket; the craftsperson is transformed through creating as an act of worship; and the community is transformed by the act of using the baskets to harvest and transport agricultural products, store items for future use (cutting down on waste), share food (for example at picnics or to carry items purchased at a farmers’ markets), celebrate marriages in some cultures, and create beauty in both public and private spaces. A recently released Baha’i World News Service article explains why the traditional craft of weaving was chosen as the unifying theme around which the new Baha’i House of Worship in Papua New Guinea was designed. Integrating weaving patterns and expertise into its construction honoured traditional crafts as a reflection of the interconnectedness of individual and community life, and nurtured a sense of connection between the over 1,000 local tribes living in the area and the temple as a symbol of social harmony.     

Crafts like basketmaking are a noble and enriching occupation. It is clear to me that the more crafters a community has the healthier and more vibrant the entire community will be. Abdu’l-Baha captures the essential contribution that craftspeople make to society in this passage: 

It behoveth the craftsmen of the world at each moment to offer a thousand tokens of gratitude at the Sacred Threshold, and to exert their highest endeavour and diligently pursue their professions so that their efforts may produce that which will manifest the greatest beauty and perfection before the eyes of all men.1    

Is there a craft you regularly engage in? Do you think of it as a service to your community? In what ways? I’d love it if you enriched this post by sharing your reflections in the comments section below this post!   

  1. Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha 127, p. 145 [] []
  2. Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha 126, p. 144-145 []
  3. Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah []
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Ariana Salvo

Ariana Salvo was born in the United States, and spent sixteen years of her childhood on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. She moved to Prince Edward Island to do her master’s degree in Island Studies, fell in love with the tightly knit community, and has never left. When not writing, she can be found exploring art at galleries around the world, flower farming, traveling to remote islands, hiking and taking photos of the wild natural landscapes of Canada’s eastern shore, teaching English to international students and reading historical fiction with a good cup of tea.
Ariana Salvo

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