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Notes:
See also a Response to this commentary by Juan Cole.

Modernity and Millennium, by Juan Cole:
Some Reflections

by Amin Banani

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 9
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1999
Modernity and Millennium: the genesis of the Bahá'í Faith in the nineteenth century Middle-East
Author: Juan Cole
New York: Columbia University Press, 1998
Comments by: Amin Banani


In the strict sense of the word this is not a review of Juan Cole's Modernity and the Millennium, but rather some reflections on it with the hope that sharing these reflections may be helpful to the book's author as well as to other readers. I should say at the outset that the positive public impact of this book outweighs its shortcomings. It is the first well-documented, conceptually sophisticated, and persuasively argued treatment of a major "missing chapter" in the history of progressive ideas and movements in nineteenth century Persia. As such its value for the academically oriented readers – and particularly the non-Bahá'í Iranian intellectuals – should be appreciated as it brings to the foreground subjects which have been taboo and people who have been treated as non-persons in Iranian historiography. No serious future studies in the history of modernity in western Asia, and in Persia in particular, can ignore what Cole has convincingly demonstrated in this book. Having said that I must confess that it has left a pall of sadness on my heart. While it is a work of original insights and useful conceptual constructs, it contains not a few contradictions, hasty conclusions and curious lapses. The author begins by rightly asserting that, contrary to general western perceptions, the nineteenth century Middle East was not an intellectually moribund place devoid of original and dynamic ideas. He cites the genesis of the Bahá'í Faith to prove his point. Then he tries to trace every bit of what is modern in Bahá'u'lláh's thought to direct and indirect influences from the west.

Cole, who has demonstrated in his prolific and often brilliant writings his capacity for careful and meticulous scholarship, is curiously at his most tenuous in demonstrating what he promises to do, i.e. in establishing the connection between the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and the presumed sources that influenced him. Virtually all the presentation of the evidence, such as supposed casual conversations with westernised Ottoman leaders and thinkers in the coffee houses of Baghdad and Edirne, is couched in vague and subjunctive phrasing. Juxtaposition of European trends of thought on major components of modernity with the progressively emerging and ever expanding vision of Bahá'u'lláh is reminiscent of exercises in intellectual history where ideas are detached from events and very scant attention is paid to the resonance between the two.

The writings of Bahá'u'lláh from the earliest poetic visions in the Siyáh Chál of Tehran to his final Epistle to the Son of the Wolf reveal a remarkable and correlative wholeness. A compression of virtually all the major themes of his prescription for humanity is present in one of his earliest works, The Hidden Words. Nowhere is this unity of vision more evident than in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, the last work to issue from his pen. It is a document of itmam-i hujjat (completion of proof), a final delivery of the proofs of the validity of his cause, which confronts the addressee with the crucial choice to accept or to deny. In this work Bahá'u'lláh quotes trenchant passages from his writings that span of his entire life. The unity of the whole with all its manifold facets is summed up for all fair-minded and open-hearted persons to see.

The particular recipient of this book, Shaykh Muhammad Taqí, stands for all who deny his call and rise up against him and strive to harm his Cause. The light of Bahá'u'lláh's vision did not penetrate the darkness of the Shaykh's soul; but a careful and unfettered review of Bahá'u'lláh's writings over a span of half a century and the contemplation of their majestic power and beauty have led many a receptive soul to take the leap of faith and recognize their divine source. Others who by virtue of their intellectual gifts and spiritual capacity could have attained to that potential, have instead by a curious process of what is occasionally called "formal historical scholarship," allowed that faith to elude them.

I have some difficulty with the notion of "formal historical scholarship." A priori categorisation of varieties of scholarship can be misleading and self-serving. I have an easier time distinguishing sound scholarship from less sound. Although Cole does not say so explicitly, close examination of Modernity and Millennium makes it clear that viewing Bahá'u'lláh as a manifestation of divine will and purpose is outside the purview of "formal historical scholarship." The crucial issue of Bahá'u'lláh's own oft-repeated and explicit claim to be a manifestation of God is finessed by Cole as: "Acclaimed by his adherents as a Manifestation of God (mazhar-i ilahi) and bearer of divine revelation…" (14). In "formal historical scholarship," Bahá'u'lláh is presented as merely a perspicacious reformer who had a good ear for western ideas.

Implicit in this assertion of "formal historical scholarship" is the assumption that sound scholarship is incompatible with religious faith and is the monopoly of the agnostic. Yet the world of sound scholarship has no shortage of practitioners of profound religious faith. In my own academic career I have known such giants of scholarship as Etienne Gilson, Lynn White, Harry Wolfson, Fazlur Rahman and Alessandro Bausani whose adherence to the highest standards of sound scholarship did not drain them of their faith. If such a ubiquitous human experience as the phenomenon of faith must be excluded from the purview of "formal historical scholarship," then it is the bias and limitation of that scholarship that needs to be corrected.

Cole is right, of course, in noting a pattern of evolutionary expansion in the encompassing vision of Bahá'u'lláh. But that pattern is far more credible and comprehensible as a dimension of his progressive revelation. As the context of his unfolding mission and the identity and variety of his audience changed and expanded, he focused upon and elaborated themes that he had touched upon as early as in the Hidden Words. Thus it is only natural that in his early poetic responses to Kurdish Sufis about the way-stations of the mystic path he would not touch upon subjects such as the virtues of democratic consultative government, condemnation of militarism, and the need for a universal auxiliary language as he did later when he was addressing the rulers of the world. In this light, for example, Cole's statement about Bahá'u'lláh's evolution from Babi militancy to advocacy of world peace – presumably because of his improbable exposure to Saint Simonian ideas – misses the mark and does not stand the test of historical scrutiny. Bahá'u'lláh's role as a peace-maker and conciliator even in his earliest Babi days and at the height of Babi militancy is well-attested. His condemnation of the attempt on the life of Nasir al-Din Shah was unequivocal; and from the earliest Baghdad days he was, in his own words, bent upon "sheathing the swords of the Babis."

That Bahá'u'lláh was in cordial contact with progressive Ottoman individuals in Baghdad, Istanbul and Edirne is, as Cole points out, a historical fact. But for all of Cole's suggestions that these men were conduits to Bahá'u'lláh of European ideas, there is only one reasonably well documented account of direct exchange between one of these men, the Ottoman diplomat Kemal Pasha, and Bahá'u'lláh, in Istanbul in 1863. In that encounter it was the European educated polyglot cosmopolitan Kemal Pasha who was dazzled by the novelty of Bahá'u'lláh's cogent argument for the global need to adopt a universal auxiliary language. That there were areas of convergence between the ideas and objectives of some of the Ottoman reformers and the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh is true. But there are three points that no objective scholar, no matter how sceptical or agnostic, can deny: (1) that none of the ideas, programmes and agendas of those progressive Ottomans came close to the multi-faceted, correlated and integrated wholeness of Bahá'u'lláh's vision for healing the spiritual, social, economic and political ills of not just the Ottoman society but the whole of humankind; (2) that on every crucial issue of social, political and economic reform Bahá'u'lláh's prescriptions were more radical and revolutionary than what the Ottoman reformers could envision; and (3) that important components of Bahá'u'lláh's pattern for his world order were years ahead of gaining currency even in the west.

In his efforts to portray Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá as recipients and reflectors of western modernist ideas, Cole occasionally makes oblique reference to events that could be misleading to uninformed readers. For example, he makes a passing reference to 'Abdu'l-Bahá attending the study classes of Muhammad Abduh in Beirut, leaving the reader with the impression of a master-pupil relationship (181). Again, Cole is entirely right that 'Abdu'l-Bahá was well aware of the intellectual currents of his environment and was well-read in the Egyptian and Turkish modernist press; and he met and corresponded with some intellectuals including Muhammad Abduh. It would be interesting to know of Abduh's recollection of meeting with 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Fortunately, we have a vignette in the memoirs of Comte de Sacy, the son of the famed French orientalist, who quotes a letter from his friend Muhammad Abduh saying that meeting with 'Abdu'l-Bahá was more beneficial than seeing the greatest of philosophers, that he had never come across anyone with the intelligence, wisdom and vast knowledge of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, that he seemed to know the secrets of hearts and could respond to inmost questions, that it was evident that the holy spirit dwelled in him, and that his knowledge was innate and his power divine.

In the conclusion of the book, Cole blames "later Bahá'í leaders" for a growing tendency to literalism, conservatism and fundamentalism. This, he suggests, has slowed if not reversed the liberal and progressive thrust of Bahá'u'lláh's cause. He constructs a pattern of Bahá'í polity envisaged by Bahá'u'lláh in conformity with Jeffersonian enlightenment, and makes a strong plea for separation of religious and civil authority. To uphold this view, he resorts to a literalist device of insisting on the historical etymological boundaries of certain crucial terms used by Bahá'u'lláh such as siyasat and millat (historically governmental leadership and religious group, but evolved today to politics and nation/people). To be so hidebound at a time when the semantic fields of these terms were undergoing dynamic transformation is uncharacteristic of Cole, who is usually more alert to the pace of change in history. While it is true that Bahá'u'lláh emerged from the matrix of Shi'i Islam and as nearly all of his interlocutors were Muslims, he necessarily spoke in terms understood by them, it is equally true that he invested familiar terms, concepts and institutions with dynamic new potentialities that emerge in the course of time. To read with a backward glance is to miss the vast prospects ahead. At any rate, doctrinaire debates about the evolving relations of Bahá'í institutions and civil authorities is an exercise in premature speculation that ignores the dynamic complexities of future developments.

These "later Bahá'í leaders," who presumably include Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice, have acted with one supreme goal: to promote the welfare of the cause of Bahá'u'lláh and preserve the unity of Bahá'í communities. The individual temperamental characteristics of members of Bahá'í institutions, especially the Universal House of Justice at the apex of the Bahá'í administrative order, have little to do with the final outcome of their deliberations. No fair-minded person can review the messages and pronouncements of the Universal House of Justice in the last thirty-five years and find them injudicious, literalist, anti-intellectual or fundamentalist.

To be sure some of Cole's criticisms about anti-intellectualism and the thought-squelching atmosphere of some Bahá'í communities, the tendency to lifetime incumbency in Bahá'í institutions, the overdue need to amend the publication review process to peer review, and the need for nurturing and making better use of scholarship in the Faith are cogent and well-taken. There is no doubt that both human and institutional behaviour are subject to retrenchment and hardening. But in the open consultative and constructive channels of Bahá'í governance, Bahá'u'lláh has provided the mechanisms to correct these tendencies. My sadness at reading Cole's conclusion is that he may have helped set back that natural process of correction.

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