It is the purpose of these notes to initiate discussion on the question of the present state and future possibilities of Bahá'í Studies; in particular the urgent need to set up one or more permanent Bahá'í Studies Centers and/or Research Institutes offering a full- or part-time, two- or three-year scholarly course along Western academic lines.
Since the late 1960s, a new generation of academically oriented Bahá'í scholars have emerged in various parts of the world, most notably Europe, the United States, and Canada. As certain of these scholars are well qualified graduates of departments of Oriental, religious, or theological studies in Western universities and have acquired an expert knowledge in Bábí/Bahá'í Studies, it would seem to be a good time to initiate discussion. It is also the case that a considerable number of Bahá'ís ardently desire to be trained in the scholarly approach to the study of their Faith, and that the emergence of the Bahá'í Faith from obscurity necessitates the training of Bahá'í scholars capable of dialogue with the academic and intellectual world.
It seems to me that the setting up of a Bahá'í Studies Center and Research Institute (BSCRI) could quite easily be accomplished in the West. It might have a small (2-4) full-time teaching and research staff dedicated to furthering an academic Bahá'í scholarship. Ideally, a BSCRI should have its own library and premises and be funded by the Bahá'í International Community. But it might initially be linked with an accredited Western university. Apart from conducting scholarly research, a full- or part-time scholarly course could be offered to suitable students.
Serious attention should be given to the question of scholarly Bahá'í studies by the Bahá'í International Community for a multitude of reasons—these cannot all be fully discussed here.
First, it should be borne in mind that at present no full-time funding or research facilities exist for individuals who wish to serve their Faith in a scholarly capacity and that no institutions exist that adequately consolidate and coordinate the emergent academic Bahá'í scholarship. The Association for Bahá'í Studies (centered in Canada since 1981 and originally the Canadian Association For Studies on the Bahá'í Faith [established in 1974]) undoubtedly serves a useful and important function. It achieves important objectives, but differs in its orientation and terms of reference from the kind of BSCRI that would suitably consolidate and further an academically informed Bahá'í scholarship.
An academic Bahá'í scholarship would best be furthered by academics trained in scholarly disciplines fundamental to the field of Bábí/Bahá'í Studies, i.e., Oriental studies and/or religious studies. There is often a great difference in scholarly terms, between an academically informed Bahá'í scholarship and the scholarly writings of Bahá'ís trained in (for example) the sciences. This is to some extent illustrated by the interesting though academically inadequate responses of two Bahá'ís to Denis MacEoin’s “The Bábí Concept of Holy War” (see Religion, 1982:12, pp. 93-129 and 1985:15, pp. 29-51.) If Bahá'ís wish to dialogue with academics who challenge apparently “orthodox” Bahá'í perspectives, it will be necessary for them to foster an academic Bahá'í scholarship.
The field of Bábí/Bahá'í studies on an academic level is a special and self-contained discipline. Oriental Bahá'ís, learned in the “traditional sense,” generally operate intellectually within a different universe of discourse from Western-trained academics learned in Oriental/Islamic/religious studies. Occidental Bahá'ís who have “read books” sometimes imagine themselves experts in matters religious, despite their ignorance of modern academic research and methodology and of Persian and Arabic languages.
My intention here is not to criticize traditional Bahá'í learning, picture Bahá'ís (God forbid) as being uninformed, or unduly exalt a Western academicism, but rather to highlight the difference between a professional academic scholarship and general Bahá'í intellectual standards. As time goes on, the Bahá'í world will be increasingly in need of academically trained experts in Bábí/Bahá'í studies. This for both internal and external reasons. The setting up of a BSCRI would go some way towards initiating and perpetuating a tradition of academic Bahá'í scholarship.
In the field of religious scholarship, Bahá'í intellectuals generally have much to learn and important tasks to undertake. Though, for example, a learned Bahá'í “theology” of the problem of the plurality of religions has yet to be adequately articulated, Christian scholars such as Wilfred Cantwell Smith have made important contributions. (See Cantwell Smith’s Towards a World Theology [Philadelphia, 1981].)
Internally speaking, Bábí/Bahá'í studies is in its infancy and is likely to remain so unless steps now are taken to support and consolidate an emergent, academically informed Bahá'í scholarship. Many aspects of Bábí doctrine and history have not been studied. Many important writings of Bahá'u'lláh remain unpublished, unstudied, undated, and untranslated. Is it not a sad fact that Azalís have published critical editions and facsimiles of Bábí texts, while Bahá'í scholars generally remain unaware of even the existence of these writings? Is it not the case that Denis MacEoin, a non-Bahá'í, is still widely regarded as the leading expert in Shaykhi and Bábí Studies and is raising issues that Bahá'ís have yet to consider? Much work remains to be done if the Bahá'í community is to aspire to that intellectual integrity so beloved of Bahá'u'lláh and ‘Abdu'l-Bahá.
A learned and academically informed Bahá'í scholarship cannot befittingly evolve outside of the establishment of permanent institutions that will provide full-time teaching and research facilities. The field of Bahá'í Studies needs to be organized and funded in a new, permanent and concrete manner. If steps are taken in this direction:
- Informed Bahá'í dialogue with modern intellectual and academic world would be possible;
- The present generally low standard of Bahá'í studies would be improved;
- An intellectually mature Bahá'í “theology” based on the findings of academic scholarship would begin to emerge;
- The international recognition of the field of Bábí/Bahá'í studies and of the status of the Bahá'í International Community by the academic and thinking world—now more or less non-existent—would be initiated;
- Real and concrete links could be forged between “Bahá'í scholars” and external university and other institutions of learning;
- Tensions between academically trained Bahá'í scholars and certain segments of the Bahá'í International Community could be lessened;
- Bahá'í intellectuals could be made to feel less alienated in that they would feel they have a role to play within the Bahá'í community.
It will, I think, prove very difficult for these objectives to be achieved outside of the setting up of the kind of BSCRI envisaged, run on academic as opposed to deepening and quasi-propagandist lines. Relatively few Bahá'ís seek to be deeply informed about their faith. The number who are conscious of academic Bábí/Bahá'í studies is pitifully small. It is not fashionable today for anyone to indulge in the academic study of religion at the expense of a more pragmatic and lucrative career. Influenced by modern secular attitudes, many Bahá'ís tend to think similarly. Some have been seduced by a misplaced anti-intellectualism. Outside of very considerable Bahá'í community support, it is likely to remain the case that few Bahá'ís will be ready to devote themselves to full-time Bábí/Bahá'í studies and that Shoghi Effendi’s long-cherished hope for a profound and coordinated Bahá'í scholarship will remain unrealized.
The emergence of an academic Bahá'í scholarship is not peripheral to Bahá'í concerns, but absolutely essential. Unless something is done, there will be a proportion of “deepened” Bahá'ís but almost none capable of Bahá'í dialogue with academically trained intellectuals.
Currently existing deepening, summer school, and other provisions for Bahá'í study have generally failed to produce experts in matters religious, or persons aware of modern intellectual perspectives. Bahá'ís who (in Western universities) trained in Oriental Studies in the previous generation (largely Iranians) and went on to specialize in this area—few though they were/are—have generally avoided the challenge of academic Bábí/Bahá'í studies. Within the Bahá'í world today, however, a new generation of Bahá'í scholars have taken up this challenge and are grappling with important issues. They need encouragement and support. How sad it would be if such individuals were moved to complain—in the words of a sixteenth century Muslim poet:
I said to poverty: “Where dost thou hide?”
“In a scholar’s inkwell,” Poverty replied.
The established world religions, many secular government, and even numerically insignificant new religious movements provide facilities for scholarly and academic research. Religions old and new encourage, fund, support, and give great importance to internal scholarship. It is surprising in view of the numerical strength (4.5 million), international diffusion (about 112,000 localities), and rich legacy of Bahá'í scripture and tradition that steps have not yet been taken by the Bahá'í International Community to support internal academic scholarship and research.
A brief response to possible Bahá'í objections to the support of academic Bahá'í scholarship
and the establishment of a permanent Bahá'í Studies Center and Research Institute.
Now is the time for the Bahá'í world to concern itself with teaching; to proffer its message to mankind and develop its administrative institutions. Academic scholarship is something for the future.
REPLY: This kind of Bahá'í sentiment is both understandable and widespread. It is not a false perspective, though it is often voiced by Bahá'ís who have little or no knowledge of what the aims, intentions, and purposes of academic scholarship are—individuals who have a limited perception of what Bahá'í scholarship might contribute to the Bahá'í world. To say that Bahá'í scholarship is “for the future” is to say that detailed research into Bahá'í scripture, history, and doctrine is currently irrelevant. It is to say that Bahá'ís who wish to study their Faith in detail are wasting their time—they should be “out teaching.”
In the light of the plethora of Bahá'í texts that underline the importance of the intellect and Bahá'í intellectual life, it can hardly be said that Bahá'í scholarship is a waste of time. A variety of authoritative Bahá'í texts explicitly state that Bahá'í administrative institutions should strive to promote and enrich the intellectual life of the Bahá'í community. The Bahá'í philosophy of “teaching” obviously must include the intellectual articulation of Bahá'í perspectives. Academics and intellectuals also need to be “taught” or informed about Bahá'í teaching.
The concrete support of Bahá'í scholarship would have important consequences for internal Bahá'í deepening and external Bahá'í teaching. It would strive to enable certain individuals to be more adequately informed about their own Faith and enable them to befittingly communicate it to others. It would also equip individuals to “defend their Faith” against distorted and hostile misrepresentations—which are increasingly of a detailed nature or such that the non-expert in Bábí/Bahá'í history and doctrine cannot hope to discuss or refute. Experts and academically trained Bahá'í scholars are needed to discuss and communicate research findings that clarify “obscure questions” and to throw light on doctrinal and other issues that trouble individuals or Bahá'í communities.
Quite apart from the concrete benefits that the support of academic Bahá'í scholarship can now offer, there is also the point that studying religion is ontologically valuable and important—it is important, in other words, in its own right and for its own sake as an expression of the creative human spirit. It should not be necessary to justify the academic study of the Bahá'í Faith on other grounds. Bahá'í scholarship should be viewed as an integral part of Bahá'í community life. As human beings, Bahá'ís have intellects and should use and develop them to the full. It is obvious that the scholarly study of religion is important, inasmuch as the lives of countless individuals are determined by their religious beliefs and practices. It can be extremely intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually stimulating, and it demands a high level of empathy, insight, imagination, detachment, and honesty. The contemporary decline of interest in religion has perhaps influenced Bahá'ís more than any would care to admit in terms of obscuring the importance of religious studies in general, and Bábí/Bahá'í studies in particular. So called “concrete careers” or business success become all important, to the detriment of the alleged ephemerality of the study of religion—even to the Bahá'í Faith itself.
Another reason why it is imperative that Bahá'í institutions begin to support Bahá'í Studies in a concrete manner—the sooner the better in this connection—is that it is becoming increasingly important that Bahá'ís understand the history, nature, and teachings of the great world religions. As time passes, the Bahá'í dialogue with, for example, Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, Christians, and Muslims will take on new dimensions and become more and more informed. Academically trained experts on the history and teachings of these religious traditions will be needed: Bahá'ís who are capable of informed dialogue with leading intellectuals.
The standard of the Bahá'í approach to the world’s great religions is, at present, intellectually very poor. Secondary Bahá'í literature designed to convert the Hindus, Buddhists, Jews, and Christians, etc., has left much to be desired. The errors of fact are many and the apologetic stance dated. Intellectuals who read this literature are frequently horrified by the low standard of Bahá'í scholarship. The writers of such tracts are often devoted and well-meaning Bahá'ís who have not had the benefit of informed academic training. In no language does there exist an informed Bahá'í approach to contemporary Jews, Muslims, or Christians. The Bahá'í literature is, for the most part, dated and inadequate. Outside of the promotion of Bahá'í scholarship, this situation is unlikely to improve. The establishment of Bahá'í studies institutions would go some way towards educating Bahá'ís such that informed dialogue with other religionists becomes possible.
The support of Bahá'í studies cannot be left for the future, as if the internal and external articulation of Bahá'í perspectives is divorced from scholarly research.
OBJECTION: The establishment of an “Institute for Bahá'í Studies” would lead to a Bahá'í intellectual elite.
REPLY: This, I think, (and I have heard it voiced on several occasions) is quite an absurd objection. No scholarly or academic institution for higher study can exist without applying the principle of selectivity. Some individuals are better suited to specific academic pursuits than others. Everyone cannot be a nuclear physicist, or brain surgeon. Not all Bahá'ís desire, or would be good at, religious studies—even those who take religious studies degrees can differ markedly in ability. Not all Bahá'ís would be willing or able to face the challenge of studying their own Faith; to achieve the necessary balance of empathy and objectivity.
Though selectivity is inevitable, this has nothing to do with elitism. Bahá'í scholars are simply Bahá'ís—no better and no worse—who study their faith in a systematic manner. Those who might graduate from a course in Bahá'í studies do not become anything; they are not entitled to say “I am a Bahá'í scholar, I am special” (God forbid), or anything else. They are nothing other than Bahá'ís who have attempted to study and understand their faith in a disciplined manner. On a spiritual level they may emerge “no better than anyone else,” since the scholarly study of the Bahá'í Faith is not necessarily the same as “deepening.” In actual fact the scholarly study of one’s own faith can be an extremely humbling experience. One has to admit—often frequently—that one did not know about or understand Bahá'í teaching or history as well as one might have imagined. One makes mistakes and has them exposed. Far from giving the student any sense of belonging to an elite, it should be that he or she becomes more aware and tolerant of others and of human limitations.
Bahá'í scholars are not priests or anything comparable. They have no authority as individuals at all. Their detailed studies do not quality them to guide others spiritually. They are simply fallible members of the Bahá'í community who, for one reason or another, have decided to study their Faith in detail. They do not constitute an elite.
OBJECTION: The academic approach to Bábí/Bahá'í studies is an inappropriate one.
REPLY: This possible objection is based on a misunderstanding of the “academic approach.” The academic approach is neither directly designed to promote nor destroy faith. There may be academics—both Bahá'í and not—who seem to challenge faith positions, but it is often the case that what are challenged are uninformed and premature crystallizations of a supposed “Bahá'í orthodoxy.” Scholars sometimes, by virtue of their detailed researches, come up with Bahá'í perspectives that are new; and it is not infrequently the case that textual support for their theories is discovered—scriptural texts are found, not generally known or published, that confirm their detailed research.
Conscious of the fact that the academic approach is not incompatible with apologetics and theology (“faith articulating itself”) each of the great world religions sponsors institutions that take an internally academic approach. Bahá'ís have nothing to fear about taking an internally academic approach. If Bahá'ís wish to establish institutions of higher learning that are respected for their academic integrity, it is imperative that they understand and adopt an academic stance. It remains to the future for Bahá'í scholars and theologians to work out the kind of academic approach that is best suited to Bábí/Bahá'í studies. It seems to me to be certain, however, that an inhibiting “fundamentalist” position will not equip Bahá'í scholars to enter into adequate dialogue with the thinking world or befittingly articulate their Faith.
OBJECTION: Are there not already learned Bahá'ís and Bahá'í scholars who are capable of fulfilling Bahá'í intellectual needs? Why bother with an institute?
REPLY: While there are learned Bahá'ís and Bahá'í scholars, there is no institution designed to promote and coordinate academically informed Bahá'í scholarship and no full-time course which caters to the need of younger Bahá'ís who desire to undertake a detailed study. A definite gap exists. Furthermore, many of the learned Bahá'ís and Bahá'í scholars have no real training—if any at all—in the academic study of religion. The academic study of religion is a specialized discipline. Knowing a lot about the Bahá'í Faith seldom equips a given individual to enter into academically informed religious debate. The proposed center or institute would promote this kind of scholarship; students would be trained in Bábí/Bahá'í studies according to the best contemporary methodologies surrounding the study of religion. This would lead to new intellectual developments within the field of Bábí/Bahá'í studies. If Bahá'ís are to keep up with modern developments in the study of religion, it is not enough to fall back on the generality of “learned Bahá'ís.” If Bahá'ís are to enter into dialogue with modern intellectuals they must be academically informed.
A learned Bahá'í may know a great deal, for example, about the Bahá'í notion of “progressive revelation,” but this does not mean that he or she could contribute in an academic manner to the contemporary debate about the possibility of an emergent “world theology.” A Bahá'í scholar may be learned in the Bahá'í interpretation of the Bible, but may be completely unable to understand or evaluate the methods and findings of modern Biblical scholarship. Such examples could be multiplied. The setting up of an institute on academic lines would produce scholars who might make important contributions to key contemporary concerns.
The number of learned Bahá'ís who have been trained in the study of religion remains very few. The proposed institute would go some way to increasing their numbers and raising Bahá'í intellectual standards. No matter how well qualified a Bahá'í might be in such fields as medicine, chemistry, physics, engineering, psychology, or economics, this does not mean that such studies would make him or her a good student of religious subjects. Many Bahá'ís regarded as learned are learned in areas other than Bábí/Bahá'í studies. Bábí/Bahá'í studies is a self-contained and specialist field. As such it needs to be fostered and developed. Learning in an area peripheral to Bábí/Bahá'í studies does not mean integrity in Bábí/Bahá'í studies is automatic.
In brief, because contemporary Bahá'í deepening and study does not lead to academically informed and expert knowledge in Bábí/Bahá'í studies there is a need to establish academically oriented research and teaching institutes. Oriental Bahá scholarship tends to polymathism rather than systematic analysis and is generally uninformed by modern scholarly methodologies. Occidental Bahá'í “deepening” is usually teaching oriented and unaware of a plethora of texts in Arabic, Persian and other languages central to the more scholarly approach. I am not suggesting that deepening should be scholarly research, but trying to highlight the differences between them. Though there is some context, Bahá'í deepening is generally as different from academic research as the Christian Bible study group is from a university Biblical studies course. Many questions seldom if ever raised in a Bahá'í deepening are fundamental to scholarly research. Texts and documents, Bahá'í and non-Bahá'í, which are crucial for academic research are relatively unimportant in the deepening context.
Quotations on the importance of Bahá'í scholarship
“There are certain pillars which have been established as the unshakeable supports of the Faith of God. The mightiest of these is learning and the use of the mind, the expansion of consciousness, and insight into the realities of the universe and the hidden mysteries of Almighty God.
To promote knowledge is thus an inescapable duty imposed on every one of the friends of God.”
(‘Abdu'l-Bahá, passage cited in Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá [Haifa 1978], p. 126).
“It seems that what we need now [1949!] is a more profound and coordinated Bahá'í scholarship in order to attract such men as you are contacting. The world has—at least the thinking world—caught up by now with all the great and universal principles enunciated by Bahá'u'lláh over seventy years ago, and so of course it does not sound ‘new’ to them. But we know that the deeper teachings, the capacity of His projected World Order to re-create society, are new and dynamic. It is these we must learn to present intelligently and enticingly to such men!”
(From a letter dated July 3, 1949, written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer).
“The Cause needs more Bahá'í scholars—people who are not only devoted to it and believe in it and are anxious to tell others about it, but also who have a deep grasp of the teachings and their significance, and who can correlate its beliefs with the current thoughts and problems of the peoples of the world.”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 21 October 1943).
“What he [Shoghi Effendi] wants the Bahá'ís to do is study more, not study less. The more general knowledge, scientific or otherwise, they possess, the better. Likewise he is constantly urging them to really study the Bahá'í teachings more deeply.”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi dated 5 July 1947).
Bahá'í scholars and writers will, no doubt, gradually appear, and will, as promised by Bahá'u'lláh, lend a unique support to their Faith.”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi cited in U.S. Bahá'í News, no. 102 [August 1936], p. 2).
“As the [Bahá'í] Cause develops it will need more and more people who are really versed in their branch of learning and who can interpret the [Bahá'í] teachings to suit the facts.”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi in Bahá'í Youth: A Compilation, p. 14).
“What the Faith needs, even more than teachers, is books that expound the true significance of its principles in the light of modern thought and social problems.”
(From a letter of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer dated 6 May 1933, cited in Unfolding Destiny [London 1981], p. 431).
“…the majority of Bahá'ís, however intensely devoted and sincere they may be, lack for the most part the necessary scholarship and wisdom to reply to and refute the claims and attacks of people with some education and standing.”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi dated 25 September 1942, cited ibid., p. 439).
“Scholarship has a high standing in the Bahá'í teachings and Bahá'í scholars have a great responsibility to a growing, divinely-guided world society….”
“Bahá'í scholarship is of great importance in the development and consolidation of the Bahá'í community.”
(From a statement from the Research Dept. of the Universal House of Justice on Bahá'í Scholarship ).
“The Supreme Body [The Universal House of Justice] has informed us [the International Teaching Centre] that it believes that both the International Teaching Centre and the Boards of Counsellors can render valuable services in the field of Bahá'í scholarship by encouraging budding scholars, and also by promoting within the Bahá'í community an atmosphere of tolerance for the views of others.”
(From a letter of the International Teaching Centre dated 22 March 1981).
Stephen Lambden is a doctoral candidate in Islamic studies at the University of Newcastle. He has published numerous articles on the Bábí and Bahá'í religions and is the editor of The Bahá'í Studies Bulletin, in which this article originally appeared.