Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
>>   Book Reviews
Responses by Tony Lee, Kavian Milani, and Udo Schaefer to Denis MacEoin's review of Making the Crooked Straight by Udo Schaefer et al.

Making the Crooked Straight, review by Denis MacEoin:

by Anthony Lee, Kavian Sadeghzade Milani, and Udo Schaefer

Various responses to Denis MacEoin's review of Making the Crooked Straight
    Jump to:
  1. Response of Tony Lee
  2. Response of Kavian S. Milani
  3. Response of Udo Schaefer

This response from Tony Lee was posted on H-Bahai by the author on 16 June 2001.

Thanks very much to Robert Stauffer for his comments of the review of Making the Crooked Straight posted by Denis MacEoin. The review was provocative on many counts, and I would look forward to several more comments about it on this list. MacEoin has raised some of the most fundamental and important questions facing Bahá'í scholarship today, and they deserve to be discussed.

Stauffer writes, in response to MacEoin's question of why Crooked/Straight should have been translated into English:
It may have been published in English "to head off troubles" which are anticipated to spill over in the future to other lands. As English is so widely understood, it would be a good language to produce such a book. The book will then serve to educate especially Bahá'ís interested in the Institutional position to such arguments and misrepresentations as Ficicchia makes.
If indeed that was the motivation behind translating Crooked Straight into English, I am afraid that it won't work, at least as far as academic studies are concerned. Bahá'ís cannot guard against the expression of academic opinions with which they disagree — or works that pretend to be academic and which have little merit on that level — by simply publishing a semi- official statement of academic positions that are acceptable to Bahá'í institutions. Such a publication will constrain no one, of course. And it will simply be ignored by the academic community as an official polemic, with no academic standing whatsoever.

The reason that the German Bahá'í community was so vulnerable to Ficicchia's "rotten book" (as Denis calls it), and the reason that it did so much damage to the reputation of the Bahá'í community in Germany, was not that there were no offical Bahá'í books to call on. The reason was that there was (and still is) NO BODY OF ACADEMIC LITERATURE on the Faith in German to call on. Since there was virtually nothing in German of an academic nature to refer to, the Ficicchia book could pretend to be a contribution to the academic literature and be taken seriously by churches and universities. There was nothing to challenge it with, and no one to make such a challenge.

A similar event in English today is simply impossible. There is now a considerable body of respectable academic literature on the Bahá'í Faith in English, both published by Bahá'í companies and by university presses. There is an accepted body of academic literature to which anything that pretends to be academic must refer and come to grips with. Anyone who tried the Ficicchia trick in English would simply be dismissed as a hack and a charlatan by any number of Bahá'í and non- Bahá'í scholars who are familiar with this literature. In Germany, there was no such protection — and there still isn't. We probably can say the same thing about other important languages of scholarship — French (though at least there is Nicholas), Spanish, Italian (there is Bausani), Russian.

And, I would maintain that unless there emerges a body of true academic literature on the Bahá'í Faith in German and other languages (Crooked Straight is apologetic, of course. It is not an academic exercise.) — until there is such a literature in German, the Bahá'í Faith is still quite vulnerable to stealth attacks by authors claiming to present a disinterested and scholarly assessment of the religion, when they are doing no such thing. Right now there is the Ficicchia book, which argues one way, and the Schaefer book that argues another way — both from partisan positions. That leaves the academic literature still empty. And all it would take would be for someone with real academic credentials to write something unfair about Bahá'í history in German, and it would stand alone and unchallenged in the field.

My point is to argue that the real protection against the Ficicchias of the world is not ferocious apologetic and polemic by indignant Bahá'ís, but a real development of academic research in German on Bahá'í Studies within the German academy.

This response from Kavian S. Milani was posted on Bridges by the author on 17 Jun 2001.

The posting by Denis MacEoin in the form of a critique (review) of Schaefer et al. was a very interesting one. I have to commend the author's writing style and his well developed (yet dark and polemical) sense of humor. However I find myself unable to reconcile some of his statements with realities in Bahá'í discourse. These assertions are accordingly problematic. I am taking this opportunity to raise a few such points. My goal is not to defend the book as the authors are more than able to respond, and I do hope they respond. It goes without saying that I am very open to new ways of looking at these problems as well. It is also fair to point out that Dr. MacEoin is one of the senior scholars in Babi and Bahá'í Studies with a 1979 Ph.D from Cambridge, and has to his credit a few books and articles in this field.

To start with Dr. MacEoin critiques Making the Crooked Straight as if it is a book written by an academician for academics. It clearly is not. The title of book makes this abundantly clear; it is a contribution to Bahá'í apologetics. The two are apples and oranges. The two styles (assumptions, audience and method) are from entirely different universes of discourse. This is not to deny that the authors have substantial academic qualifications and training. It only means that they have chosen to engage in apologetics. Apologetics is the science and methodology of presenting and defending a Faith, in an arena were religions encounter in the public square. All religious traditions engage in apologetics, as do Bahá'ís. In the Christian Protestant tradition Josh McDowell does it, with great success, as does Anis Soroush. Ficicchia wrote what these authors (correctly) sensed was an apologetic work directed against the Bahá'í Faith, and they sought (with justification) to produce a rebuttal. This is not anything without precedent. Abu'l-Fadl did the same responding to a little known raddiyya penned by the Shaykh ul-Islam of Tiflis. I don't think that apology against the Faith at the end of the nineteenth century would have been of any consequence in the short or long term. Nevertheless Abu'l-Fadl wrote. His apologetic rebuttal (the Fara'id) became one of the most pivotal texts in Bahá'í scholarship and an inspiration for generations of scholars and believers. Even today, more than 100 years after its composition the Fara'id inspires the Bahá'ís. Even today, anti-Bahá'í apologetics produced in Iran are ostensibly attempts at refuting the Fara'id. An interesting example being Bahá'í'yyan published at the time of the Iranian Revolution (1979). At any rate there is some interplay between apologetics and academic studies. They draw on each other. In his dissertation (Cambridge 1979) Dr. MacEoin quotes the Fara'id and produces and translates a particular prophecy of Sayyid Kazem. In Crooked/Straight Dr. Cole is heavily quoted as a scholar, especially with regards to the democracy-theocracy issue and that becomes a center-piece of the argument by Schaefer et al. The book has drawn praise even amidst its polemical audience because Crooked/Straight is very good apologetics and it draws heavily on academic scholarship (despite Dr. MacEoin's assertions). Nevertheless apologetics is not academics.

MacEoin also faults Schaefer et al. for not citing (or quoting) Cole's study of the Sahifiyya-i Shattiyyih, (and hence Nader Saeidi's critique of it in JABS). He may be unaware that both of these became available after the book was published originally.

He writes:
The Ficicchia fiasco was a purely German phenomenon with little or no visible impact outside Germany or Switzerland, where it did indeed do a lot of damage to the public image of the Bahá'ís (I'm tempted to write 'the Bahá'í Church', but that is WRONG, and Schaefer, et al., may write another epic proving it, so better not). Why, then, did somebody think there was anything to be gained by translating a thoroughly bad rebuttal into the most widely spoken of the world's languages? To make Ficicchia better known and the Bahá'ís faintly ridiculous? The old adage of leaving well enough alone comes to mind.
Would John Locke have been concerned about making Filmer better known (as he did) by writing the Treatises on Civil Government? By the same token the refutation by Shaykh ul-Islam of Tiflis was limited in scope. Why did Abu'l-Fadl have to single him out for his most adventurous and aggressive apology? By logical extension one could argue that Abu'l-Fadl only made his polemical counterpart "better known." Would this detract from the need (or genuine interest) in an English version of the Fara'id? Clearly not.

The inability to distinguish between apologetic and its audience and academics and its forums aside is why this writer doesn't subscribe to Dr. MacEoin's argument, learned as he may be.

Notwithstanding the above my immediate concern is less with MacEoin's inability to discern the difference between apologetics and academics, rather with the following. MacEoin makes inaccurate "summational statements" about Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'í historiography and Bahá'í scholars. In order to demonstrate my point I will refer the readers to Edward Said's Orientalism. By summational statements I mean a biased opinion based on anecdote or personal experience and generalizing it to an entire field of human endeavor or activity. The problem in such summational statements is that they take on a life of their own as "reality," even though they are simply not true. Consider the (readily falsifiable) summational statement: "It is one of my great stumbling blocks with the Bahá'ís — and I guarantee it will continue to be a stumbling block for future historians — that they do, in fact, go to such lengths to 'correct' any account of their history that does not fit with God Passes By or The Dawn-Breakers or other approved sources." Now this becomes fact, assuming an aura of sacredness impossible to penetrate with historical analysis. Sadly enough those unfamiliar with Bahá'í scholarly literature would buy his statements as fact.

The following passages (pasted paragraphs) are the crux of his argument on the existence of an "official" Bahá'í line in history and historiography.

I invite a careful perusal of this extended argument:
It is one of my great stumbling blocks with the Bahá'ís — and I guarantee it will continue to be a stumbling block for future historians — that they do, in fact, go to such lengths to 'correct' any account of their history that does not fit with God Passes By or The Dawn-Breakers or other approved sources. Now, history just doesn't work like that. I know of absolutely no other area of historical studies where modern writers routinely provide a version of events that corresponds to a secondary source written as far back as the 1940s. Gollmer may well point out that neither Abd al-Baha' nor Shoghi Effendi was infallible in matters of history (p. 485). How come, then, that I have never come across a Bahá'í writer willing to disagree with one or the other of them on a substantial matter in public? Gollmer doesn't do it, Towfigh doesn't do it. Momen has never done it. Smith has never done it. In the last analysis, they provide us with just another take on the tired old official version.

Try criticizing God Passes By or Zarandi. Shoghi Effendi describes the latter as 'an unchallengeable textbook' ('unchallengeable'?!); others call it 'authentic', 'authorized', even 'a Gospel'. And Gollmer thinks there is no sacrosanct Bahá'í historiography?
Throughout his review Dr. MacEoin repeatedly drives home the point that it is essential that an academic scholar be well versed in the latest literature. Time after time he faults Schaefer et al. with "dated" writings. In light of his criticisms (and the standards he advocates) I am surprised that he is acutely unfamiliar with recent literature in Bahá'í Studies. His assertion "Gollmer may well point out that neither Abd al-Baha' nor Shoghi Effendi was infallible in matters of history (p. 485). How come, then, that I have never come across a Bahá'í writer willing to disagree with one or the other of them on a substantial matter in public?" is too hasty a judgment. Bahá'í scholars have for long debated these very same issues, in fact since 1940's. Incidentally the great Persian scholar Ishraq-Khavari had presented historical data in his Rahiq-i-Makhtum and Malik-Khusravi is his Tarikh-i-Shuhadayy-i-Amr which contradicted in some matters both God Passes By and Nabil's text. Is MacEoin unaware of these texts? Has he considered the recently published book by Abu'l-Qasim Afnan Ahd-i-A`la that diverges from Nabil in many details based on excellent primary sources? There are many examples, such as who was it that actually had a vision (or dream) of the Bab entering Kashan? Was it Haji Mirza Jani or was it his brother Zabih? Nabil says it was Mirza Jani but Mr. Afnan suggests it was Zabih (Ahd-i-A`la p. 242) on grounds of solid primary sources. In short, none of these traditional Persian scholars are western trained historians, yet all of whom interrogate Nabil as a historical source, and at times diverge from it.

What of the more recent academically trained authors? Do they fit in the summational mold MacEoin presents? Absolutely not. In fairness to the readership I will limit myself to three additional examples from the 1990's published in mainstream Bahá'í journals or publications. This should suffice to justify my conclusions.

I would direct the scholars on this forum to an article entitled "Tarikh-i-Nabil-i Zarandi" published in Khushiha (vol.7 p.76-). The article comes from the genre of Persian Bahá'í scholarship most readily essentialized as "fundamentalist" "sacrosanct Bahá'í historiography". It is an analysis of Nabil's Narrative. On page 81 the author points out that Nabil is wrong in writing that the Bab was executed on a sunday, the actual day of the week was monday. Bahá'u'lláh's exile is said to occur on Wednesday 12 rajab, which is corrected by the author to have occurred on a monday. To this writer this means that a honest historian does his work and interrogates his sources even on particularistic and microhistorical detail. As a Bahá'í I welcome that.

Another example of interest comes from yet another Persian journal of Bahá'í Studies, the Pazhuheshnameh vol.2, No.1, p.98. This example concerns Baha'ullah's 4th and last trip to Haifa. The author then engages in similar solid interrogation of God Passes By as history. God Passes By gives the duration of the stay to be 3 months, yet based on additional historical data the author suggests that the "correct" date was possibly around 40 days. So I think Dr. MacEoin has put the cart before the horses.

The third example comes from Pazhuheshnameh vol 2, No. 2 where a young scholar presents (en passant and in the context of a book review) a historical interrogation of the reliability of God Passes By, Traveler's Narrative and Nabil's Narrative, and criticizing a book (on Babi history) that draws exclusively on the three above sources. This one also is a methodologically sound examination and I invite the Persian readers (and Dr. MacEoin) to closely read the article.

Anyway there is ample evidence to refute MacEoin's below characterization as an accurate description the state of Bahá'í scholarship.
It is one of my great stumbling blocks with the Bahá'ís — and I guarantee it will continue to be a stumbling block for future historians — that they do, in fact, go to such lengths to 'correct' any account of their history that does not fit with God Passes By or The Dawn-Breakers or other approved sources.
These facts are presented for a candid discussion of issues raised by MacEoin. While the 21st century has dawned and Bahá'í scholarship has continued to gain in adventurous, progressive and innovative studies, emerging from the historical necessity of a more apologetic approach to historiography, it is unfortunate to see scholars such as Dr. MacEoin stuck in the discourses of the late 1970s and early 1980s. The world has moved on, and so should they.
    warmest regards,

This response from Udo Schaefer was posted on H-Bahai by Peter Terry on 28 Jun 2001.

Mr. Lee's comments on Dr. MacEoin's recent review of MTCS have been brought to my attention, and I would like to respond to some of his points as well as to the review.

For Mr. Lee, apologetics is only "official polemic with no academic standing whatsoever", not "true academic literature". The authors of MTCS have "no real academic credentials". Mr. Lee does not see any difference between the accountant Ficicchia who "argues one way and the Schaefer book that argues another way — both from partisan positions" (!). For Mr. Lee, MTCS is only "ferocious apologetic and polemic by indignant Bahá'ís".

"The presupposition of these views is that Bahá'ís who want to enter the serious academic discourse can do this only on the basis of agnosticism, of a methodological positivism. A scholar has to be committed to absolute objectivity and therefore to refrain from all personal beliefs, commitments etc. That means, a Bahá'í who wants to participate in academic discourse has to slip into the garment of science and to give up for this purpose all that he believes, all his personal convictions and commitments and must regard the Faith from outside. The objective foundations of religion, the religious truth, all doctrines, laws, principles, the very core of religion have to be left open to critical discourse. Thus he becomes a schizophrenic personality: As a Bahá'í he believes in the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, as a "scholar" he has to abandon all commitments.

I think the crucial misunderstanding of the whole controversy is that the fundamental difference between religious studies and theology is neither seen nor understood. Religious studies looks at the phenomenon of religion from the outside. The scholar in this field has to leave out his personal beliefs and convictions. Religious studies are descriptive, empirical, phenomenological, historical. Religious truth, however, is beyond the reach of science. Claims to truth cannot be the object of critical research, of scholarly questioning. The central concepts of metaphysics such as "God, freedom and immortality" are, as Kant put it, beyond our rational understanding or empirical experience.

Theology is different from Religious Studies. It is not a science that is based on empiricism, it is based on revelation. In its methodology, which operates within the closed system of revelation, it is undoubtedly academic. If one defines science in the sense of Karl Popper's insight that all knowledge is provisional, hypothetical in character and ultimately cannot be verified, neither jurisprudence nor theology are "sciences". However, in their methodology within the closed system of codification or revelation they are undoubtedly academic. Theology is a closed system, and apologetics has always been part of theology. The theologian regards his religion from the inside, he is committed to his faith.

Astonishingly, there seems to be a deep contempt for apologetics (and for those who do this job) among some Bahá'ís, although Bahá'u'lláh has called upon his followers to defend his Faith (Gleanings 154). In all religions the starting point of a systematic theology has always been apologetics. Mr. Lee and others have indicated that apologetics is inherently non-academic. If that were true, I wonder why nearly all European Universities have departments of Catholic or Protestant theology. Everywhere there are chairs for apologetics, and in Catholic institutions, apologetics is presently denominated "Fundamentaltheologie".

The German edition of our book was reviewed by the Christian editor of the Ficicchia book, by Professor Hutter, the director of the Institute for Religious Studies at the University of Bonn and by Professor Christian Cannuyer, professor of Islamology and Oriental languages at the Catholic University of Louvain/Belgium. By these and other reviewers, the academic standing of the book has been acknowledged.

That a self-confessed "atheist or agnosticist" such as Dr. MacEoin disparages our academic credentials, that our whole book is for him nothing but rubbish, does not surprise me. The question arises as to whether it is the new academic style to address one of the authors of a book under review as a "gang leader" ("Schaefer and his gang", "Schaefer and his chums", "Schaefer and his pals"), a "dinosaurier", a "fundamentalist", a "non-academic", a "show-off, an "amateur 'scholar'", a "blindered man" and to characterize his entire contribution to that book as "academic sloppiness", "apologetics dressed as scholarship"!

As to my approach to apologetics, I refer to my forthcoming article "Bahá'í apologetics?" in the next issue of Bahá'í Studies Review (online at
          Sincerely, Dr. Udo Schaefer
Back to:   Book Reviews
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
. .