Although to acquire the sciences and arts is the greatest glory of mankind, this is so only on condition that man’s river flow into the mighty sea, and draw from God’s ancient source His inspiration. When this cometh to pass, then every teacher is as a shoreless ocean, every pupil a prodigal fountain of knowledge. If, then, the pursuit of knowledge lead to the beauty of Him Who is the Object of all Knowledge, how excellent that goal; but if not, a mere drop will perhaps shut a man off from flooding grace, for with learning cometh arrogance and pride, and it bringeth on error and indifference to God. The sciences of today are bridges to reality; if then they lead not to reality, naught remains but fruitless illusion. By the one true God! If learning be not a means of access to Him, the Most Manifest, it is nothing but evident loss.
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 109)
No students have had to study harder or more earnestly than those theology students in the madrisihs. They read day and night, neglecting food and sleep. Some invented means by which to keep themselves awake to study more, such as tying ropes around their necks and attaching them to the roofs to keep their heads from nodding, or cutting a finger and rubbing salt in the wound. But alas! The subjects of their study were mostly superstitious and pointless arguments. They held endless discussions on the proper way to wash the different parts of the body before prayer; on the various acts and objects that might nullify one’s prayers, and so on. Heated debates might arise over such questions as whether the urine of the holy Imam was ritually clean, or whether the Prophet Mohammad had a shadow. Could He be in 40 places at the same time? Could the Imam travel long distances in the twinkling of an eye? Such subjects kept them occupied for months, or even years.
Within their seminaries, the mullas had developed the art of debate with precision. The purpose was not the search after truth, but rather the defeat of the opponent. Part of the course of study in the theological college consisted of formal disputes between the students, held in the presence of the master. The debaters would sit effacing each other and in front of other students. Sometimes a crowd would gather to see who the winner would be. Often these disputes would end in quarrels, shouting matches or even violence … It was not a question of who was right or wrong, but of who would win or lose.
(R. Mehrabkhani, Mulla Husayn: Disciple at Dawn, p. 5-6)
Shoghi Effendi, in a letter written on his behalf, likened sciences that “begin with words and end with words” to “fruitless excursions into metaphysical hair-splittings", and, in another letter, he explained that what Bahá’u’lláh primarily intended by such “sciences” are “those theological treatises and commentaries that encumber the human mind rather than help it to attain the truth”.
(Shoghi Effendi, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Endnote 110, p. 214)
This Day, O Shaykh, hath never been, nor is it now, the Day whereon man-made arts and sciences can be regarded as a true standard for men, since it hath been recognized that He Who was wholly unversed in any of them hath ascended the throne of purest gold, and occupied the seat of honor in the council of knowledge, whilst the acknowledged exponent and repository of these arts and sciences remained utterly deprived. By “arts and sciences” is meant those which begin with words and end with words. Such arts and sciences, however, as are productive of good results, and bring forth their fruit, and are conducive to the well-being and tranquility of men have been, and will remain, acceptable before God.
(Bahá’u’lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 19)
What Bahá’u’lláh meant primarily with “sciences that begin and end in words” are those theological treatises and commentaries that encumber the human mind rather than help it to attain the truth. The students would devote their life to their study but still attain nowhere.
(Shoghi Effendi, Scholarship, p. 19)