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Bahá'í Faith: Its History and Teachings, The, by William Miller:
Review

by L. P. Elwell-Sutton

published in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 28:3, pages 157-58
1976
The Bahá'í Faith: Its History and Teachings
Author: William McElwee Miller
Publisher: William Carey Library, S. Pasadena, CA, 1974; 358 pages, appendices, index
Review by: L.P. Elwell-Sutton


[page 157]

    This is a polemical work. I was about to use the conventional phrase "a frankly polemical work", but that unfortunately is just what it is not. Admittedly the frankness is not buried very deep beneath the surface, but the surface is misleading. The title


[page 158]

suggests (and this impression is supported by the "blurbs" on the back cover) that we have in our hands a "standard" work on Bahá'ísm, that is to say, one which, if not necessarily emanating from Bahá'í sources, would be accepted by them as a fair and objective account of the movement. In fact what we are presented with is an all-out attack on, a merciless tirade against, Bahá'ísm, but treated not, as one might expect from the author's credentials (Presbyterian missionary in Iran for 40-odd years), from the Christian, but from the Azali point of view. This has been done before, but Miller has a new source in the shape of a collection of 75 Azali documents presented to him by a descendant of Subh-i Azal, Bahá'u'lláh's defeated opponent, copies of which we are told are now in the Library of Princeton University. These have been thoroughly sifted by a young collaborator, J. Anthony Sistrom, and it is to be hoped that scholars with more objective aims will also be encouraged to make use of them. Meanwhile we have this detailed but surely one-sided account of the rise of the latest faith to claim world status.

    Dr. Miller spends a good deal of time on the minutiae of the in-fighting that occurred within the movement (as with every religious movement since the dawn of history) every time a leader died. None of this does much credit to any of the participants, and Miller makes skilful use of the inconsistencies, contradictions, and illogicalities that characterized much of the disputation. He also takes the opportunity to reprint (without the original introduction) the translation of Bahá'u'lláh's al-Kitab al-aqdas made by himself and another Presbyterian missionary, Earl E. Elder, and first published in 1961. It is useful to have this to refer to, even though it is not the official Bahá'í translation and has indeed been criticized by them as inaccurate (which on the whole it is not) and inelegant (which it is). It is a pity though that in his main text Miller draws on this basic source only to support his anti-Bahá'í case, which is neatly summed up in his final paragraph:

    "With its lack of clarity in its doctrine of God; with its legalism which characterizes its Most Holy Book; with its prescription in this Book of practices long since outdated; with the inadequacy of its treatment of sin and of its provision for the cure of evil in man; with the vagueness of its teaching about life after death; with the gross failure of its founders to exemplify among their own families the love they so strongly advocated - with these and other defects which are manifest in its history, can the Bahá'í world faith be an adequate religion for the world for today, and for the millennium to come? Only one answer is possible, and that is decidedly negative."

    Granted the scholarly research that has obviously gone into the writing of this book, the question remains: Why should Miller be so anxious to argue at such length the Azali case against the founders and heirs of the Bahá'í movement? We can understand the hostility of the Azalis, the defeated contenders for the leadership of the new faith, but why should a Christian exponent involve himself in these sectarian squabbles? He has actually manoeuvred himself into the position, in order to refute the legitimacy of Bahá'í claims, of supporting the legitimacy of the Azalis. Since he can hardly intend to advocate the Azali form of Babism as the One True Faith, we are bound to conclude that his purpose is to discredit Bahá'ísm by washing its dirty linen in public. There is no particular reason why, as a believing Christian, he should not do this, indeed every reason why he should. He must regard both Bahá'ísm and Azalism as in error. But perhaps he ought not at the same time to convey the impression that he has produced an objective study; he would have done better to have given his book some such title as "Bahá'ísm unmasked" or "The truth about Bahá'ísm". Then the reader would have known what to expect.

    Of course Dr. Miller may argue that he and his collaborators have done little more than present facts, from which only certain conclusions can be drawn. But contrary to common belief, the mere accumulation of facts is no guarantee of impartiality. Hasan Balyuzi's books on Bahá'ísm (previously reviewed in these pages) are also full of facts, but they present a picture diametrically opposite to that delineated by Dr. Miller in his absorbing and witty book. Unfortunately we are no nearer to determining which of them is right.

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