Review of: In Iran: Studies in Babi and Bahá'í History, vol. 3
Los Angeles: Kalimat Press (1986)
Review published in:
British Society for Middle Eastern Studies Bulletin
14:2 (1988), pages 230-231
The third in a series of scholarly anthologies on the Bábí and Bahá'í religions, this volume concerns itself entirely with these movements as they developed in Iran. The series demonstrates both that a critical mass of young scholars interested in these movements has formed and is creating a contemporary field of study, and that the Bahá'í community in the U.S. (rivalling the Quakers in numbers) can now support academic books on the religion; library sales alone would not allow the series to continue.
The millenarian and once militant Bábí movement developed out of the Shaykhi school of Twelver Shrism in nineteenth-century Iran. In the late 1800s and early 1870s most Bábís chose to follow Mírzá Husayn 'Ali Bahá'u'lláh, becoming Bahá'ís, though a small minority followed his brother, Mírzá Yahya Subh-i Azal, becoming Azalis. Arguably, the Bahá'í faith itself, a universalist and pacifist religion that became (and remains) the largest non-Muslim religious minority in Iran, deserves even greater attention. Owing to several dissertations and journal articles during the past ten years, more academic work has now been done on the short-Lived pristine Bábí movement than on the Bahá'í faith.
This volume is evenly split between Bábí and Bahá'í concerns, with three chapters on each. Stephen Lambden employs his philological training in source criticism to examine Bábí and Bahá'í stories about the early schooling of Sayyid 'Ali Muhammad Shírází, the Bábí messiah, setting them in Islamic context and showing the influence of stories about young Jesus.
Peter Smith and Moojan Momen give us the best chapter in the book, which anyone interested in Middle Eastern religious movements ought to read. They treat the Bábí movement from a resource mobilization perspective, showing the great value of collaboration among historians and social scientists and organizing an impressive amount of information in a lucid and provocative manner. The emphasis on organization and social networks and the slighting of ideological content and social origins challenges leftist interpretations of the Bábí phenomenon (unsuccessfully, in my view). The insistence on the great local diversity to be found in such movements undermines the arguments of some scholars that the Bábís constituted a united and consciously revolutionary force. The authors provide 25 theses which they suggest can be tested against the manuscripts for validity, thus providing a research program for scholars of nineteenth-century Iran for years to come. Smith, a sociologist trained at Lancaster University, presents intriguing sociological insights that remind us what a shame it is that so few European and American sociologists (in contrast to anthropologists) have taken an interest in the Muslim Middle East.
Denis MacEoin, lecturer in Islamic Studies at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, analyses hierarchy and authority in early Bábism. MacEoin, a first-rate Persian philologist, wrote an important Cambridge dissertation on Bábism. His range in the Middle East field, however, has been limited, and his output of articles on Bábism and related movements would probably benefit if he also researched some other topic. This piece, based primarily on Bábí MSS in the Browne collection at Cambridge, expertly traces conceptions of symbolic authority during the Bab's lifetime. Although the chapter is generally sound, I must express some reservations about aspects of it. MacEoin was a Bahá'í for thirteen years, before leaving and writing rather bitterly about his former religion (see his pieces in Religion and Bahá'í Studies Bulletin). Although he now says he is an objective non-Bahá'í, he is clearly still very involved in the subject emotionally, and is about as objective as a former spouse after a messy divorce. He also tends to be unduly dismissive of the work on the Bábí and Bahá'í faiths produced by scholars who happen to be Bahá'í (such as myself), rather as if all Christian scholarship on the life of Jesus was a priori less valuable than that produced by non-believers.
In my view this recent work (including the chapter at hand) tends to accept Azali accounts of primitive Bábism rather too uncritically, though certainly Bahá'í MSS can be equally suspect. Some issues, between Jews and Christians, or between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims-and yes, between Azalís and Bahá'ís, will never be resolved simply by historical scholarship. Our real hope for access to primitive Bábism on its own terms, a highly laudable scholarly pursuit, is the discovery of more early Bábí manuscripts in Iran. But, given the Khomeini regime's persecution of Bahá'ís (about which one wishes MacEoin had written more, as an 'objective non-Bahá'í), no such search can now be safely undertaken.
Christopher Buck explores, from a phenomenology of religions standpoint, Bahá'u'lláh's assertion of multiple messiahship, of representing the symbolic advent of the promised one in Judaism. Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism. In a piece on American Bahá'í women educators in Tehran, R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram of the Queen's University of Belfast shows again what interesting things can be done with the records in the U.S. National Bahá'í Archives in Wilmette, Illinois. Mehri Samandari Jensen argues that Muslim fertility in Iran is slightly higher than that of (especially the younger generation of) Bahá'ís, that lower-class Bahá'í women tend to be more educated than their Shi'ite counterparts, and that, whereas the more religious Muslims have large families, the more religious Bahá'ís have small ones. This finding is consistent with other studies showing higher Muslim fertility than Christian in Lebanon, for example, and with Peter Smith's conclusion that Bahá'ís have decreased as a proportion of the Iranian population in the twentieth century. Some of Jensen's language seems a bit prejudiced, however, as when she says that whereas Bahá'ís responded positively to questions as to whether they all loved mankind, Shi'ites took such questions as insinuating that they loved foreigners. But Shi'ites can be very idealistic about wanting to save and liberate all mankind, and one suspects that the respondents were simply objecting to Western imperialism.
To conclude, despite its specialist appeal, this volume is well worth reading by anyone seriously interested in religion in modern Iran. The wave of writing about the Twelver Shi'ite clergy provoked by the Islamic Revolution should not make us forget how diverse Iran's religious landscape really is.