Monday, February 9, 2009

Islam, the Baha'i Faith and the Eternal Covenant of Alast

Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith, once stated that for Baha'is the study of Islam was “absolutely indispensable” for “a proper and sound understanding” of the Baha'i Cause. Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to understanding the Baha'i concept of the Covenant.

When Baha’is discuss the concept of covenant as it applies to their teachings, they usually describe the chain of authority designed to maintain their unity. They typically focus on what is commonly called the Lesser Covenant as embodied in such documents such as the Kitab‑i Ahd, Baha’u’llah’s Will appointing Abdu’l‑Baha as His successor and the Will and Testament of Abdu’l‑Baha which appointed Shoghi Effendi as Guardian of the Baha’i Faith after Him, and called for the election of the Universal House of Justice. Hence, the Covenant is seen as that which obliges individual Bahá'ís to accept the leadership of Bahá'u'lláh's appointed successors and the administrative institutions of the Faith.

But there is another covenant upon which this Lesser Covenant is predicated. Frequently this is called the “Greater Covenant,” namely the Covenant which God has made with all humanity, wherein He promises us continuing guidance through His Messengers, “Manifestations” as Baha’is call them, while we are obligated to recognize and obey them. This idea of the Covenant was first articulated in Islam where it is often known as the Covenant of Alast. I would contend that unless our understanding of the Lesser Covenant is grounded in this Covenant of Alast, depth of its significance will largely be missed.

Of course, the concept of Covenant did not originate with Islam either. Christians divide their Bible into two sections, the Old and New Testament, the term testament signifying covenant. In Judaism the term covenant in relationship to God appears first in the Torah in connection with the story of Noah. God assured Noah that the judgment would not again come to men in the form of a flood and that the recurrence of the seasons and day and night should not cease. At that time, exhortation given to Adam to “be fruitful and multiply” was reaffirmed. Noah and his sons were encouraged to eat all manner of meat, but a taboo was placed on the consumption of animal blood and the shedding of human blood. The rainbow is presented as a sign of this covenant.[i] Another covenant is made with Abraham when he is asked to leave his homeland and journey to a land God has promised him and his descendants. It is promised that through Him all the nations of the world will be blessed.[ii] Abraham was told to circumcise all the male members of his family as a sign of this Covenant.[iii] The key covenant of the Torah, however is the one God made with Israel on Mt. Sinai. This Sinai event forms the basis of later depictions of the establishment of the Greater Covenant that God makes with all mankind.

While Israel was encamped here in front of the mountain, Moses went up the mountain to God. Then the LORD called to him and said, "Thus shall you say to the house of Jacob; tell the Israelites: You have seen for yourselves how I treated the Egyptians and how I bore you up on eagle wings and brought you here to myself.

Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine.

You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. That is what you must tell the Israelites."

So Moses went and summoned the elders of the people. When he set before them all that the LORD had ordered him to tell them, the people all answered together, "Everything the LORD has said, we will do." Then Moses brought back to the LORD the response of the people. [iv]

It is only after this response was received that Moses goes back up the Mountain and the Commandments are revealed. Three days later this event takes place and is described with these words:

On the morning of the third day there were peals of thunder and lightning, and a heavy cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled.

But Moses led the people out of the camp to meet God, and they stationed themselves at the foot of the mountain.

Mount Sinai was all wrapped in smoke, for the LORD came down upon it in fire. The smoke rose from it as though from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently.

The trumpet blast grew louder and louder, while Moses was speaking and God answering him with thunder. [v]

After the revelation of the Ten Commandments, the Israelites again affirmed their Covenant with God and shared a meal together. Such ceremonial meals were considered an integral part of treaty alliances in the Near East, and the Covenant was conceived of as precisely that. Also, a part of such treaty alliances was the practice of calling various deities as witnesses. In the case of the Covenant of Sinai the heaven and earth are called as witnesses. (Deut. 4:26; 30:19; 31:28) As we will see, all these elements will likewise appear as tropes in both Islamic and Baha’i descriptions of the Covenant.

The Sinai event is recalled in the Qur’an with these words:

“When We shook the Mount over them, as if it had been a canopy, and they thought it was going to fall on them (We said): "Hold firmly to what We have given you, and bring (ever) to remembrance what is therein; perchance ye may fear Allah."[vi]

But the Qur’an then goes on to place the Sinai event before and outside of time:

“And (remember) when thy Lord brought forth from the Children of Adam, from their reins, their seed, and made them testify of themselves, (saying): Am I not your Lord? They said: Yea, verily. We testify. (That was) lest ye should say at the Day of Resurrection: Lo! of this we were unaware; Or you should say: Only our fathers associated others (with Allah) before, and we were an offspring after them: Wilt Thou then destroy us for what the vain doers did?”[vii]

This event that establishes the primordial Covenant is known in Islam as the Day of Alast, named after the question God asks, “Am I not your Lord?” alastu bi‑rabbikam

A couple of things might be noted about this passage. First, it is an event that happens in the pre‑existence, an event in which we are all said to be present. Because we all given answer to this question, we all become partners to the Covenant thus created. That Covenant consists of an acknowledgment of God’s lordship, and of our willingness to submit to it. In that primordial response, human responsibility is born. Thus the Day of Alast is intimately tied to the Day of Resurrection. If we fail to subsequently live our lives continuing to acknowledge His Lordship, we can neither claim ignorance or merely doing as our forefathers had taught us. The Covenant, thus conceived, is not so much about what we think or believe, as it is a matter of the directionality of our will. Does it acknowledge God’s Lordship or seek to do its own will?

Annemarie Shimmel describes the significance of this event in Islamic mysticism:

The idea of this primordial covenant (mithaq) between God and humanity has impressed the religious conscience of the Muslims, and especially the Muslim mystics, more than any other idea. Here is the starting point for their understanding of free will and predestination, of election and acceptance, of God's eternal power and man's loving response and promise. The goal of the mystic is to return to the experience of the 'Day of Alastu,' when only God existed, before He led future creatures out of the abyss of not‑being and endowed them with life, love, and understanding so that they might face Him again at the end of time.[viii]

The problem, of course, is that we don’t remember that Covenant, we are forgetful. Forgetfulness in Islam is regarded as the basis of all evil, an evil that can only be overcome by bringing our relationship to God constantly to mind in acts of remembrance.

A major goal of Sufism has been to “remember” the ecstasy of God’s primordial presence and of our response to Him, one that only a true adept is deemed able to attain. Sufis declare they are mast‑e Alast, drunken because God asked men's souls before Creation, "Am I not (alastu) your Lord?" and they affirmed it. This covenant before time itself between lover and Beloved is a source of such joy that its recollection instantly intoxicates anyone who understands it.

Baha’u’llah alludes to this in His mystical poem, the “Mathavi Mubara”

Once someone posted this question to a Gnostic:

You, who've grasped the mysteries of God

You, by bounty's wine intoxicate,

Do you recall the day of "Am I not?"

He said: I do recall that sound, those words

As if it were but yesterday, no less

It lingers in my ears, His call

That sweet soul‑vivifying voice of His

But in the next passage Baha'u'llah takes this traditional trope much further:

Another Gnostic, who had climbed beyond

Had bored the mystic pearls divine, replied:

That day of God has never ended nor

Has fallen short we're living in that day!

His day's unending, not pursued by night‑

That we're alive in such a day's not strange

Had Time's Soul ceased its yearning for this day

then Heaven's court and throne would fall to dust

For through God's power this eternal day

was made unending by His Majesty." [ix]

The Day of Alast then becomes, not something which happened before time began, but something that is happening even now and is most especially present with Baha’u’llah’s Manifestation.

One of the “Hidden Words” especially ties the Day of Alast with both the Bab and Baha’u’llah’s own Manifestation:

Have ye forgotten that true and radiant morn, when in those hallowed and blessed surroundings ye were all gathered in My presence beneath the shade of the tree of life, which is planted in the all‑glorious paradise? Awe‑struck ye listened as I gave utterance to these three most holy words: O friends! Prefer not your will to Mine, never desire that which I have not desired for you, and approach Me not with lifeless hearts, defiled with worldly desires and cravings. Would ye but sanctify your souls, ye would at this present hour recall that place and those surroundings, and the truth of My utterance should be made evident unto all of you. [x]

Here Baha’u’llah’s own Covenant is associated with the Covenant of Alast. According to Abdu’l‑Baha, Baha’u’llah is not talking about a physical gathering. The ‘true and radiant morn’ is an allusion to the Bab, while the ‘tree of life’ is Baha’u’llah and His Covenant. The call was raised within our own souls, but until we purify our hearts we can neither respond nor remember. And this purity of heart consists of desiring only what God desires.

There is another passage in Baha'u'llah's “Hidden Words” which alludes to the Covenant:

O My Friends! Call ye to mind that covenant ye have entered into with Me upon Mount Paran, situate within the hallowed precincts of Zaman. I have taken to witness the concourse on high and the dwellers in the city of eternity, yet now none do I find faithful unto the covenant Of a certainty pride and rebellion have effaced it from the hearts, in such wise that no trace thereof remaineth. Yet knowing this, I waited and disclosed it not.[xi]

Note, that as with the Covenant at Sinai, witnesses are called to attest to it. Abdu’l‑Baha interprets this passage as follows:

As for the reference in The Hidden Words regarding the Covenant entered into on Mount Paran, this signifieth that in the sight of God the past, the present and the future are all one and the same ‑‑ whereas, relative to man, the past is gone and forgotten, the present is fleeting, and the future is within the realm of hope. And it is a basic principle of the Law of God that in every Prophetic Mission, He entereth into a Covenant with all believers ‑‑ a Covenant that endureth until the end of that Mission, until the promised day when the Personage stipulated at the outset of the Mission is made manifest. Consider Moses, He Who conversed with God. Verily, upon Mount Sinai, Moses entered into a Covenant regarding the Messiah, with all those souls who would live in the day of the Messiah. And those souls, although they appeared many centuries after Moses, were nevertheless ‑‑ so far as the Covenant, which is outside time, was concerned ‑‑ present there with Moses. The Jews, however, were heedless of this and remembered it not, and thus they suffered a great and clear loss.[xii]

Here Abdu’l‑Baha explains rather specifically how the primordial Covenant of Alast and the Sinai event are inter‑related. According to Abdu’l‑Baha both Sinai and Alast happened ultimately outside of time and involved generations not yet born who were obligated to ‘remember’ the promises made there.

Here is another passage from Baha’u’llah’s Writings that refers to this Covenant:

I beseech Thee by Thy generosity, whereby the portals of Thy bounty and grace were opened wide, whereby the Temple of Thy Holiness was established upon the throne of eternity; and by Thy mercy whereby Thou didst invite all created things unto the table of Thy bounties and bestowals; and by Thy grace whereby Thou didst respond, in thine own Self with Thy word "Yea!" on behalf of all in heaven and earth, at the hour when Thy sovereignty and Thy grandeur stood revealed, at the dawn‑time when the might of Thy dominion was made manifest.[xiii]

Note the allusion to the ceremonial meal which accompanied the establishment of Covenants in antiquity. All creation is gathered here as in the Islamic depiction of the Day of Alast and the meal becomes a symbol of His Bounty. But even more so, here it is God Himself (presumably through His Manifestation) who responds affirmatively on our behalf to the words, “Am I not your Lord?” I don't think it is any accident that this phrase appears in the Baha'i “Long Healing Prayer.” When we cannot answer the question "Am I not your Lord?" we must let God respond on our behalf.

Nowhere is the theme of responsiveness stronger than in the Persian “Bayan.” The bulk of the laws in the “Bayan” were specifically intended to prepare the Babis to receive He Whom God Would Make Manifest. For Him, as with others, responsiveness to God meant responsiveness to His Manifestations whenever and wherever they appear. And the Bab was acutely sensitive to the fact that our responsiveness to God and His Manifestation were intimately linked to the manner in which we respond to one another. Hence we have this chapter in the Bayan:

It is obligatory to answer each letter, question or request received.

It hath been ordained that in this Dispensation, should one write a letter to another the recipient should give reply. And God doth not love prolonged delays in answering. One must reply in one's own hand, or by means of a scribe.

Likewise, should someone ask a question, the one thus questioned must respond in a precise manner. Perchance on the Day of God's Manifestation none will remain ignorant of that sublime Daystar; and when He revealeth the divine word: "Am I not thy Lord?", all shall respond with 'Yea!'

In truth, the injunction to reply hath been ordained for none other purpose except this, yet its obligations extend to the very last atom of existence . . .

There can be no doubt that on the Day of His Manifestation His books shall descend upon everyone; that none should remain ignorant on account of the veils that envelop him, nor fail to answer Him, inasmuch as the reality of one's being issueth forth from one's response. . .

He is a servant endowed with insight who answereth God in every degree and in all circumstances, be it through his to answer.[xiv]

Baha'is share with Islam an emphasis on the Covenant which calls us to remembrance and responsiveness. The remembrance of God as He has revealed Himself in the past and the determination to recognize and respond to Him as He comes to us in the present and the future, whether it be in the form of a Manifestation or in the cry of a child.

[i] Genesis 9:1‑17

[ii] Genesis 12:3

[iii] Genesis 17:11

[iv] Exodus 19:3‑9

[v] Exodus 19:16‑19

[vi] Qur'an 7: 171

[vii] Qur'an 7:172

[viii] Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975) p. 24.

[ix] Provisional translation by Frank Lewis.

[x] Bahá'u'lláh, Hidden Words, Persian #19

[xi] Persian Hidden Words, No. 71.

[xii]Abdu'l‑Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l‑Baha, p. 207

[xiii] Baha'i Prayers, p. 96.

[xiv] The Persian Bayan, provisional translation by Ismael Velasco.


  1. Beautifully written. Thanks for this very comprehensive treatment of the subject.

  2. Dear Susan,

    I think what you're doing with your blog is wonderful. I feel strongly that, if Westerners are to embrace the Faith, then we must explain in plain English the Islamic context in which it is embedded. Your entry on the covenant is one I have wanted to write for ages but I don't have the background knowledge that you do. You are in a good position to explain these things and I'm, frankly, delighted you've decided to do this in a format that people can easily access.

    Alison Marshall

  3. Susan, thank you so much for giving us such a clear explanation of the context of the Covenant. I very much agree with Alison's comment about the importance of your new blog and look forward to reading more.

    --Barney Leith

  4. What a beautiful commentary. It provoked so many other connections in my mind. One of these, the naming of a Baha'i Month as Masa'il (Questions), for if the months are named for attributes of God, Questions seems a strange attribute, except in this case in which God is the Questioner of humanity. Another is that the Aboriginal people of Australia have a religious notion called Alcheringa, often translated as Dreaming or Dreamtime, but those who have developed a deeper relationship with Aboriginal elders have come to understood this, not as a set of ancient mythologies, but as a living vision replete with prohecies and adaptations.

  5. Dear Owen,

    You are precisely right about the association of Questions with the Covenant. Masa'il refers precisely to that primordial question, "Am I not your Lord?"

    warmest, Susan

  6. You have written an exceptional article explaining the Eternal Covenant. With meditation when both our inner and outer response to the Call/Question of God are aligned; as above so below, the spark of Remembrance is born as the sacred flame. The last sentence sums up the enormity of the path of true unity. Many Thanks.

  7. Hello,

    I had a discussion with a former Muslim friend of mine about the Hadith. I would like to know more information about the Baha’i perspective of the Hadith. Would you be able to suggest some Writings I may deepen upon and share with this friend?

    Thank you.

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  12. Dear Philosphyisme,

    I'm not sure we can say that there is one specific "Baha'i perspective" on hadith. As Baha'is we have our own shariah or sacred law and are not bound by laws found either in the Qur'an or the hadith since we believe many of these were intended for an earlier time and place. Those laws which were universal in nature have been reiterated in our own scriptures. While in Islam much of the shariah is derived from both scripture and the hadiths, i.e. oral sources, Baha'is only accept as authoritative what has been put in writing by Baha'u'llah or those to whom He gave authority to interpret, namely 'Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. Oral accounts from any of these people, which we call Pilgrim's Notes have no authority in matters of faith or practice. So hadiths would not be sources of law for us. How we might use hadith for understanding Islam is a bit of different question, and it is easier for me to answer as an academic rather than a Baha'i per se. As an academic I cannot regard hadiths as having anywhere near the reliability as the Qur'an. While the Qur'an reaches its final form within a generation after the Prophet's passing and shows all the signs of a single authorship, the hadiths were compiled centuries after the Prophet and are often quite anachronistic in their content matter. I am not at all persuaded that the traditional Islamic methods of isnad criticism are sufficient to determine the historicity of particular hadiths. At the same time I do not subscribe to the 'Qur'an alone' school because it is nearly impossible to make sense of the Qur'an or to understand its context without at least some reference to hadith. What I've notice about those groups of Muslims who subscribe to this school is that it has given their leaders a tremendous amount of latitude to interpret the Qur'an anyway they wish and they often do so in ways I find quite idiosyncratic.

    As I indicated in another post what I would personally like to see evolve is a new science of hadith using modern methods of higher criticism such as have been applied to biblical studies. I would not use this new science of hadith, as Muslims do the traditional science, for legal purposes, for as I said, Baha'is have their own shariah. What I would like to use it for is to better understand the historical Muhammad. While not all or even most of the hadiths can be traced back to the Prophet's time, at least some of them can and if we can sort those out they are invaluable as historical sources. I feel the same way about what Baha'is call Pilgrim's Notes, personal accounts of what various Baha'is remember about one of the Central Figures of our Faith. Just because they cannot be considered authoritative sources in matters of faith and practice does not mean they are not invaluable historically speaking.

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  21. Islam is the monotheistic religion articulated by the Qur'an, a text considered by its adherents to be the verbatim word of God.

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  24. Thanks Sambara. I haven't added much to this blog in the last couple of years but I plan to put up something which compares Islamic and Baha'i concepts of the proper relationship between religion and state.