June 18, 2023 will mark 40 years since 10 Baha’i women were hanged in Shiraz. Their only ‘crime’ was their refusal to renounce their beliefs in a faith that promotes the principles of gender equality, unity, justice, and truthfulness. This collection highlights Baha’i Blog content relating to the ongoing persecution of Baha’is in Iran.
Looking through a list of the names of the 19 months in the Baha’i calendar, I notice that 16 are attributes of God: splendor, glory, beauty, grandeur, and so on. Then we come to the months of words, speech and questions. You might be interested to explore this Baha’i Blog article about words, or this one about speech, but for now I’d like to explore the 15th month: questions. There may be a reference somewhere in which questions is referred to as an attribute of God (I have yet to find one, so if you do, please let me know), but to me this month has always been a bit of a curiosity. I have a friend whose first Nineteen Day Feast was the Feast of Questions. When he arrived at the gathering chairs had been arranged in a circle around a large piece of fabric which lay on the floor in the centre of the room. The host had spray painted a giant question mark across it. My friend found himself questioning what he had gotten himself into, but in addition to being an amusing introduction to the Nineteen Day Feast, the host clearly also had questions about the month of Questions, and it made my friend stop and ask himself a question or two! The fact that an entire month has been dedicated to questions suggests to me that questioning has an important role to play in the Baha’i Faith. The deeper I delve into the purpose of questions, the more questions I have. So, in the spirit of the month, below are my top four questions about the month of Questions:
1. Why are questions so important?
Independent investigation of truth is a foundational principle of the Baha’i Faith. We know that “Baha’u’llah asked no one to accept His statements and His tokens blindly. On the contrary, He put in the very forefront of His teachings emphatic warnings against blind acceptance of authority, and urged all to open their eyes and ears, and use their own judgement, independently and fearlessly, in order to ascertain the truth.” 1 The responsibility for determining this truth rests with each individual. Since questions help us distinguish truth from falsehood and ascertain the basic truths upon which we build our lives and values, it makes sense that our questions are important tools whose use or misuse shape our reality.
2. What do Baha’is see as the purpose of questions?
If we want to utilize questions effectively, we need to ask what our end-goal is. At the most basic level truth is what every question comes back to, but when I pry deeper, what I come to is unity. Unity within myself (bringing my own will into line with the Will of God, or greater cohesiveness to my physical and spiritual realities), unity with those around me, friends and strangers alike, and unity with the natural world. That truth leads me to unity implies that there are certain universal truths that are common to us all. We may come to them along different paths, but the destination is the same. Abdul-Baha says:
Know ye that God has created in man the power of reason whereby man is enabled to investigate reality. God has not intended man to blindly imitate his fathers and ancestors. He has endowed him with mind or the faculty of reasoning by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth; and that which he finds real and true, he must accept. He must not be an imitator or blind follower of any soul. He must not rely implicitly upon the opinion of any man without investigation; nay, each soul must seek intelligently and independently, arriving at a real conclusion and bound only by that reality. The greatest cause of bereavement and disheartening in the world of humanity is ignorance based upon blind imitation. It is due to this that wars and battles prevail; from this cause hatred and animosity arise continually among mankind. 2
Ultimately the purpose of questions seems to be to help us as individuals get closer to the truth so that we can grow spiritually and use this individual progress to further the larger goal of unity at a global scale. Of course since God is unknowable, questions also imply mysteries, and are a reminder that God is the treasury of all mysteries. We will never unravel them all, but I do think that the task of striving to do so helps us draw ever nearer to God.
3. Who is asking the questions?
Are questions God’s way of encouraging us to get curious about our spiritual reality? For us to better understand ourselves and the world around us? We are encouraged to bring ourselves to account at the end of every day, which is an opportunity to question ourselves on whether our actions and choices line up with our values, and to make adjustments as we go. But where is the inspiration for these questions coming from? Abdu’l-Baha says:
O thou who art turning thy face towards God! Close thine eyes to all things else, and open them to the realm of the All-Glorious. Ask whatsoever thou wishest of Him alone; seek whatsoever thou seekest from Him alone. With a look He granteth a hundred thousand hopes, with a glance He healeth a hundred thousand incurable ills, with a nod He layeth balm on every wound, with a glimpse He freeth the hearts from the shackles of grief. He doeth as He doeth, and what recourse have we? He carrieth out His Will, He ordaineth what He pleaseth. Then better for thee to bow down thy head in submission, and put thy trust in the All-Merciful Lord. 3
It’s true that we have free will in determining what questions we ask (and shaping the scope of the responses we will get), but the source of the capacity to question at all, and the inspiration and impetus for asking the questions seems to come from the soul and its natural inclination to reflect its source: God.
4. What types of questions are we asking & what questions are worth asking?
Questions are the foundation of everything we think, say, do and accomplish, so the types of questions we ask will be instrumental in shaping the ways, speed and directions in which we grow individually and as a society. Many of us in the West live in cultures in which individual truths and rights often trump universal ones—a reality which, while perhaps giving a sense of having greater control over our lives, can undercut the many unifying initiatives happening around the world. I believe that we are spiritual beings having a brief physical experience. As such, explorative questions that expand what we accept as truth and what is possible; questions that invite us to get curious and investigate how the physical and the spiritual connect and affect each other, and how individual development can reinforce collective wellbeing seem worthwhile. Abdu’l-Baha says:
The fourth teaching of Baha’u’llah is the agreement of religion and science. God has endowed man with intelligence and reason whereby he is required to determine the verity of questions and propositions. If religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition. Unquestionably there must be agreement between true religion and science. If a question be found contrary to reason, faith and belief in it are impossible and there is no outcome but wavering and vacillation. 4
It is my understanding that this would imply that our questions should not be limited to the spiritual reality—scientific discoveries are just as essential to the upliftment and overall wellbeing of humankind. Whatever questions we choose ask, exploring truth as a unifying rather than divisive force will take time and effort, and the more skilled we become at asking the right questions, the more quickly we will get the answers and inspiration we are looking for.
What significance does the month of Questions have for you? What questions does is raise?
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.
When researching the Writings for this Feast of Questions, I came across this Tablet by Bahá’u’lláh.
“Tablet of the Seven Questions (Lawḥ-i-Haft Pursish). The Tablet was written in response to questions by a prominent early Bahá’í of Zoroastrian background.]”
Marian Blair (December 12, 2020 at 4:37 PM)
Thank you for sharing Marian. I will be sure to look it up!
Ariana Salvo (December 12, 2020 at 10:51 PM)
This is wonderful. I am a writer also, and have taught creative writing for quite a while. A friend and I who does devotionals with writing prompts in them, were just talking as to how to make Feasts more creative! Thank you so much. I subscribed to your/her blog!
Esther Bradley-DeTally (December 12, 2020 at 5:21 PM)
Thank you for reading/sharing Esther! I look forward to seeing/hearing more about how you enrich the feasts in your community!
Ariana Salvo (December 12, 2020 at 10:52 PM)
Bahá’u’lláh’s name was Husayn-`Ali Nuri, and his father’s name was Mirza Abbas Nuri. So, does that mean that “Nuri” part of the name means “from Nur” as in Nur, Iran?
LAWRENCE (December 12, 2020 at 5:20 PM)
Yes. As far as I know, that is exactly what that means Lawrence. Apologies for just seeing this comment now. I replied as soon as I noticed it!
Ariana Salvo (February 2, 2021 at 12:56 PM)
It is my personal understanding that the “Questions” which are an attribute of God may not refer to us asking questions, and may not mean asking for information. It may mean God “questioning” in a different sense – God questioning us. In this sense it is close to the meaning of challenging, sifting, or judging. It is used in this sense when Baha’u’llah says that it is for God to question humanity and not for humanity to question God. My personal view is that this is the meaning intended in the Month named by the Bab.
Here is Baha’u’llah describing the method of God’s Questioning (“asking”) of the human being, quoting a verse from the Qur’an and discussing it with a Muslim:
We then asked him saying: “Hast thou not read the Qur’an, and art thou not aware of this blessed verse: ‘On that day shall neither man nor spirit be asked of his Sin?’ Dost thou not realize that by ‘asking’ is not meant asking by tongue or speech, even as the verse itself doth indicate and prove? For afterward it is said: ‘By their countenance shall the sinners be known, and they shall be seized by their forelocks and their feet.’ Thus the peoples of the world are judged by their countenance. By it, their misbelief, their faith, and their iniquity are all made manifest. (Book of Certitude, p. 173) That is, Baha’u’llah is describing God judging a person, presented as “asking”.
Likewise the Bab wrote to Muhammad Shah who had oppressed the followers of His faith: “In truth thy day is nigh at hand and thou shalt be questioned concerning all this, and assuredly God is not heedless of the deeds of the wicked.” (Selections from the Writings of the Bab, p. 25)
In another sense, the Arabic word Masa’il – Questions – does not only refer to asking questions, it is sometimes translated as “matters,” “problems,” or “subjects.”
Here are examples of the various ways the Shoghi Effendi has translated “masa’il”:
“It is incumbent upon these members (of the Universal House of Justice) to gather in a certain place and deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference, questions [masa’il] that are obscure and matters [masa’il] that are not expressly recorded in the Book.”
(The Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha)
“The soul as thou observest, whether it be in sleep or waking, is in motion and ever active. Possibly it may, whilst in a dream, unravel an intricate problem [masa’il] incapable of solution in the waking state.”
(Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel)
“These teachings are even as the tree that beareth the best fruits of all trees. Philosophers, for instance, find in these heavenly teachings the most perfect solution of their social problems [masa’il] and similarly a true and noble exposition of matters that pertain to philosophical questions.”
(Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel)
“The members thereof must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord may arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should anyone oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters [masa’il] are fully discussed can the right way be revealed.” (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 87)
Brent Poirier (November 11, 2021 at 7:57 PM)