Centering the “Pupil of the Eye”: Blackness, Modernity, and the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh
In the late nineteenth century, Bahá’u’lláh likened people of African descent to the “pupil of the eye” through which the “light of the spirit shineth forth.”
This selection of metaphor, often referred to by Central Figures and Institutions of the Bahá’í Faith, effectively positions blackness at the epicenter of a “bold and universal” world-transformative project that involves nothing less than the “coming of age of the entire human race” (Shoghi Effendi, World Order 43, 163).
Explications by the Universal House of Justice clarify that “Bahá’u’lláh favored the black peoples by making a specific reference to them” through this metaphor (“Letter,” Ridván 153).
Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation offers few, if any, analogous designations, which isolate and “favor” a racialized subset of humanity. Thus, this specific reference to black peoples constitutes a noteworthy moment in the “wondrous System” He elaborated in the nineteenth century (Kitáb-i-Aqdas ¶181).
When exactly in the latter half of the nineteenth century did Bahá’u’lláh offer the metaphor? During which period of His ministry? This has not yet been determined. Similarly, it is all but impossible to precisely delimit the human collective that Bahá’u’lláh intended to compare to the pupil of the eye.
Who exactly are the “colored people” that Bahá’u’lláh esteems with the metaphor? It may be simply assumed that all people of African descent are honored by the designation—‘Abdu’l-Bahá evoked the metaphor when addressing African Americans; the Universal House of Justice has used it in communications with Bahá’ís on the continent of Africa. But if the spiritual reality of all African-descended people is described by the metaphor, what is it that binds this collectivity together? Is it a morphological, phenotypical similarity—the presence of visually perceptible markers that in certain geographical contexts once signified “coloredness” and now signify “blackness,” markers like melanin-endowed skin, specific hair-textures, or facial features? Or, is it a matter of genotype—does genetic composition determine whether or not one is properly comparable to “the black pupil of the eye”? If Bahá’u’lláh’s metaphor is meant to be understood as the articulation of a metaphysical truth about a certain group of people, these questions are worth considering. The rich body of scholarship that investigates the philosophical complexity of racial and cultural identity illuminates these types of questions, even if it does not answer them. Because “blackness” is a social construction that has no definitive biological reality, it can be difficult to say who is black and who is not, and it is equally difficult to define black culture. What experience or biology is shared by a wealthy black New Yorker with little melanin, a subsistence farmer in never-colonized Ethiopia, and an Afro-Iranian fisherman on the coast of the Persian Gulf ? There is no immutable black essence transcending time and space. As Jamaican-British scholar Stuart Hall once put it when considering the slipperiness of black identity, “We cannot speak for very long, with any exactness, about ‘one experience, one identity’” (225). And yet, for several centuries now, blackness as a racial identifier has been deeply consequential in many social environments. As modernity has crept across the globe so too has anti-blackness, an evolving, protean thought regime that works to stigmatize those deemed black, wherever and whenever they have been found. Perhaps, then, what is most important about Bahá’u’lláh’s metaphor is not the boundary of the collective that it describes, or the socio-cultural practices of that collective, but rather the metaphor’s absolute refutation of one of the most pernicious constructs of modernity. If it is difficult to offer up a concrete, static definition of blackness, it is also hard to crisply define the phenomenon of “modernity” that has produced race and blackness. Political scientist Richard Iton furnishes a roughshod description of modernity that is as good as any by describing it as “that bundle of cultural, political, philosophical and technological iterations and reiterations of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution” that has shaped the material world in recent centuries. There are some aspects of this “bundle” worth underscoring when considering Bahá’u’lláh’s “pupil of the eye” metaphor. One is that although modernity is often (simplistically) linked to the “West,” it has ramified throughout the world. As one scholar of Iranian history puts it, “The cataclysmic revolution of Western modernity has left virtually no part of the globe unaffected” (Vahdat xi).
Whether or not Western modernity should be regarded as a cataclysm is not pertinent here; however, according to Iton and many other scholars of race, Western modernity has wrought devastation for some because it has always created “antonymic and problematic others,” groups of people stigmatized as unworthy of social and civic honor and protection . Indeed, it can be argued that blackness is nothing more, and nothing less, than the stigma that modernity has projected onto people deemed to be its most “antonymic and problematic others.” This is not to say that blackness is always and everywhere a stigma, or that those who embrace black identity are embracing stigma—rather that, in the context of now-global modernity, blackness is inextricably bound to its origin as a racial classification meant to facilitate the exclusion of “others” from the protected community.
Whatever else blackness may be, in the period since the emergence of modernity it has also been an antonym of the sacred community, the sign of the excluded “other.” Through the “pupil of the eye” metaphor, Bahá’u’lláh wrestles with and radically transforms the meaning of a major symbol of modernity. If modernity conjured blackness to fragment humanity and marginalize those bearing its mark, Bahá’u’lláh’s metaphor alters the meaning of blackness, drawing it to the center of the body of humanity.
THE INSTRUMENTAL AND INSTRUCTIVE PURPOSES OF THE METAPHOR
For the most part, scholars have figured the “pupil of the eye” reference as a refutation of chauvinisms as well as a means by which Bahá’u’lláh conferred “new racial identity” to black people and furnished an “effective psychological antidote to the prevailing racial stereotypes” (Thomas 46; Buck)
This is surely an important social function of a scriptural metaphor that imbues its tenor—black people—with the qualities of its vehicle—the pupil of the eye—and consequently brings honor and esteem to a segment of humanity that was subject to some of the most dishonoring and stigmatizing discourses of modernity.
However, before tracing out some of the implications of the purely instrumental purposes of Bahá’u’lláh’s nineteenth-century metaphor, which affiliated black people with spiritual light rather than mortal darkness, it is important to recognize that the metaphor was not only an instrument that would elevate the social status of black people. The metaphor was also instructional: it was the articulation of some truth that the Manifestation of God wanted to teach the world.
“The Prophets of God should be regarded as physicians whose task is to foster the well-being of the world and its peoples, that, through the spirit of oneness, they may heal the sickness of a divided humanity” (Gleanings)
Obviously, the anti-black ideology that has infected societies for several centuries is a constituent element of the humanity-dividing sickness that Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation aims to heal. In its most virulent forms, anti-blackness has marginalized black life out of existence—that is to say, it promotes social conditions in which disregard or disdain for black life is so intense that the social and civic body is unperturbed by or even desirous of the elimination of black people. Through His “pupil of the eye” metaphor, which adamantly centers black life in the figurative body of humanity, Bahá’u’lláh acted as social Physician, prescribing a spiritual and social concept that must be regarded as something more than a gesture of comfort or solace for a historically burdened people. Bahá’u’lláh’s specific and explicit refutation of one of modernity’s most hateful and divisive social ideologies is an instructive prescription addressed to all humanity. Surely, the condition of oneness that is global society’s highest and most urgent aspiration is impossible without the universal internalization of the medicine that Bahá’u’lláh has loaded into the “pupil of the eye” metaphor.
There is perfect brotherhood underlying humanity, for all are servants of one God and belong to one family under the protection of divine providence.
Bahá’ís of Botswana
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