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Studies in Honor of the Late Hasan M. Balyuzi: Studies in the Babi and Baha'i Religions vol. 5, ed. Moojan Momen:
Review

by Frank Lewis

published in Iranian Studies, 32:1, pages 145-48
1999-12
Studies in Honor of the Late Hasan M. Balyuzi (Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, vol. 5)
Editor: Moojan Momen
Publisher: Kalimat Press, Los Angeles, 1988, xx + 293 pp.
Review by: Franklin Lewis

      Hasan Balyuzi (1908-1980) was a prominent Bahá'í whose study of Edward Granville Browne's relationship to the Bábí and Bahá'í faiths appropriately marked the beginning of a renaissance in the academic study of those religions in the west after a long hiatus that began with Browne's death. Balyuzi, trained in chemistry and history, helped establish the Persian-language broadcast of the BBC's foreign services during the Second World War and later went on to write a number of historical studies, including biographies of the Báb (Sayyed 'Ali Mohammad Shirazi, 1819-1850), 'Abd al-Bahá ('Abbas Effendi, 1844-1921), Bahá Alláh (Mirza Hosayn-'Alí Núrí, 1817-1892), and a number of prominent 19th century Bahá'ís. Moojan Momen, the editor of this volume, was close to Balyuzi, and completed Balyuzi's final work for publication after his death. The five articles collected here, which can be seen as a kind of posthumous Festschrift, include two philological inquiries into specific phrases or topoi in Bábí and Bahá'í scripture, an exposition of Bahá'í metaphysics, and two studies of the development of Bahá'í communities in the west.

      Though much of the Báb's writing is notorious for its difficulty, B. Todd Lawson, who wrote his Ph.D. dissertation on a treatise of the Báb, is uniquely qualified to comment upon it. His substantial study, "The Terms `Remembrance' (dhikr) and `Gate' (Báb) in the Báb's commentary on the Sura of Joseph" (pp. 1-63), responds to and carefully corrects the views of Denis MacEoin (and others) on the successive stages of the Báb's claims to prophecy. Lawson considers a number of factors pointing to the Báb's early self-understanding as a Prophet, including his reworking of Koranic material, his rejection of the doctrine of i'jáz al-Qur'án, as well as his identification of the Hidden Imam with Gabriel, which he elsewhere calls the link between the heart and mind of Muhammad. By contextualizing the terms dhikr and báb in 18th century Akhbari and Shaykhi discourse, Lawson demonstrates the range of implications these terms would have held for an audience sharing the Báb's theological tradition and rather convincingly demonstrates that the claim to an independent revelation of God abrogating the dispensation of Islam is already implicitly apparent in an early work of the Báb, the Qayyúm al-asmá', a tafsír on the Sura of Joseph, written in May 1844. As Lawson puts it, "There can be no question about the `voice' of the commentary. Regardless of who is presented as speaking, the Báb, the Imám, or God...the author of the commentary becomes tinged by the spirit of either the Imám or God in the process of transmitting the words." All future studies of the self-understanding of the Báb will have to take Lawson's hermeneutic and his conclusions into account.

      Stephen Lambden's erudite "The Sinaitic Mysteries: Notes on Moses/Sinai Motifs in Bábí and Bahá'í Scripture," constitutes the bulk of the collection (pp. 65-183). Lambden provides a stunning historical panorama of the burning bush motif and Moses' request to see God, as reflected in the Torah, the Koran, a number of Shi'i texts, and finally in Bábí and Bahá'í scripture, making frequent reference to Jewish, Christian, and Islamic exegetical and theological literature in the process. The article includes an amazing array of excerpts from source texts that are not well-known in English, including some of the sermons attributed to 'Ali like the Khutba Tutunjiyya, and commentaries of Shaykh Ahmad Ahsá'í and Sayyed Kázem Rashtí. Though ostensibly addressing the question of Bahá'u'lláh's prophetology and his reworking of Islamo-Judaic motifs, the importance of the Moses motif for Sufi and Shi'i theophanology is also examined in great detail, and anyone interested in the prophetic lore of the Semitic religious traditions and its development from early Jewish through late Islamic sources will find abundant material of comparative interest here.

      The project to expound a Bahá'í theology in academic terminology was barely underway when the editor's own contribution, "Relativism: A Basis for Bahá'í Metaphysics" (pp. 185-217), appeared. This groundbreaking study poses the problem of how to reconcile the "dualist" cosmology of an utterly transcendent Absolute Being, inherited from the Semitic religious traditions and reflected in most of Bahá'u'lláh's writings, with statements in other of his writings which describe a more "monist" conception of God and the human soul. Between these "dualist" and "monist" poles, Momen usefully sketches out the details of a few intermediary schema to which the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abd al-Bahá' sometimes appeal, including an emanationist cosmology derived from the later school of Isfahan and ultimately from Islamic Neoplatonism, in which there are five realms of creation, and a basically trinitarian view, in which there are the three realms of God, the Manifestations or Prophets (the Holy Spirit), and Man.

      Proceeding from the assumption that these various statements reflect propositional doctrines about the nature of the cosmos and the metaphysical world, Momen finds a dichotomy: either the human soul and the Absolute are similar in essence, or they are fundamentally and essentially other. Much as one might describe the physical world in terms of Newtonian or quantum physics, depending on what phenomena are under observation, the resolution of this metaphysical dichotomy lies in relativism; since Bahá'u'lláh teaches that human knowledge can never comprehend the divine reality (and here we return to a dualist mode, which, it seems to me, is the dominant cosmology reflected in Bahá'í scripture), the only knowledge humans have of "reality or the structure of being (i.e. ontology)" is relative, corresponding to different planes of human perception, equally valid, depending on one's vantage point, a doctrine which can be found in Bahá'í scripture.

      Most theologians and religious philosophers of the previous traditions "have ultimately come down on one side or another of the two positions. . .or have resorted to a `higher truth/lower truth' resolution of the problem," and so the relativity of religious truth appears to Momen as "an original formulation" of the Bahá'í writings. I find Momen's grounds for exclusion of a variety of Christian and Muslim mystical thinkers untenable, but what is ultimately meant is that the Koran, the New Testament, and the Hebrew Bible depict the doctrines taught by prophets as absolute truth, whereas the notion that religious truth is relative occurs explicitly in many passages of Bahá'í scripture. Momen finds the Bahá'í writings, and especially 'Abd al-Bahá's attempt to accommodate the differing "soul/psyche complex" in individuals, distinctive among the major religions and compares it to John Hick's philosophy of religious relativism. This comparison, however, brackets the question of how the relativist strains of thought in Bahá'í scripture are juxtaposed and/or interpreted in praxis by Bahá'í institutions and individuals (i.e., is this scriptural accommodation to individual ontologies or psychological orientations to the divine implemented in any distinctive way in the Bahá'í community's definition of doctrine or its tolerance of heterodoxy?). Within the context of comparative religion or theology, Momen' s argument seems to me fraught with problems, but viewed within the parameters of the theological discourse shaping up within the Bahá'í community, he provides here an important scriptural brief for a more inclusive doxology.

      The final two contributions deal with the development of the Bahá'í community in the west. Philip R. Smith's "What Was a Bahá'í: Concerns of British Bahá'ís, 1900-1920" (pp. 219-51) attempts to understand what being a Bahá'í meant in England during the first two decades of this century, drawing upon the letters and publications of a handful of early English Bahá'ís and showing how they moved conceptually from their previous religious or communal affiliations to a primarily or solely Bahá'í identity. "Some Aspects of the Establishment of the Guardianship," by Loni Bramson-Lerche, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the evolution of the Bahá'í Faith in North America, focuses on the transfer of authority from Bahá'u'lláh's eldest son, 'Abd al-Bahá', who died in 1921, to 'Abd al-Bahá's eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1897-1957), who functioned as "Guardian of the Cause" (Valí-ya amr). 'Abd al-Bahá' had been held in adulation by western Bahá'ís as a charismatic and Christ-like figure. Many expected the election of a nine-member body to administer the affairs of the Bahá'í community, and Shoghi Effendi, who had been studying at Oxford when 'Abd al-Bahá' died, did not himself know of his appointment as successor in his grandfather's will. Though there were prior intimations that such an institution would be created, the establishment of the Guardianship of the Bahá'í Faith--the hereditary stewardship of the international Bahá'í community, including authority to interpret the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abd al-Bahá, as well as discretion over international projects and expenditures--was not, therefore, without difficulty. Bramson-Lerche gives a brief overview of the opposition to Shoghi Effendi and his responses, including his initiatives to expand and develop the world-wide Bahá'í community.

      The layout of the volume is clear, with large and very readable type, though the quality of the photographic reproductions leaves something to be desired. Although there is copious quotation of Arabic, Persian, and Hebrew throughout the first 200 pages of the book, typographical errors are few and minor (e.g., "is" for "in," xvii:18; a missing hyphen 3:8; a missing accent on Saríhán, 13:20; "was" in place of "thou wast," 81:4; an unwanted "a," 220:21; asamání for ásimání (182:13). Arabists and Persianists trained during the last half-century may find the Bahá'í system of transliteration, which was chosen in the 1920s and has been used in Bahá'í publications ever since, to be annoying.

      Kalimat Press, publisher of the seven volumes of scholarly essays and monographs in the series Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í History, has proven itself the most important and long-standing forum for the academic study of the Bahá'í faith. From Higher Criticism onward, faith communities, upon finding their scripture, doctrines, and history the subject of academic methodologies, have often reacted with discomfort or hostility; the Bahá'í community is no exception. Kalimat's dedication to providing scholars of the Bahá'í faith a forum to present their research, despite the commercial and communal problems encountered in the process, is greatly to be admired.
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