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The Bábí and Bahá'í Religions: From Messianic Shi'ism to World Religion, by Peter Smith:

by Jack McLean

Review of: The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions: From Messianic Shi’ism to World Religion
Author: Peter Smith
Published by: Cambridge University Press, 1987
Review by: Jack McLean

This book, first published in 1987 as a joint venture between George Ronald and Cambridge University Press, is a seminal work that merits wider attention than it has received thus far. For those interested in the harder edge of Bahá'í scholarship, Peter Smith's book can handily serve those serious students who may be seeking to delve into a socio-historical work on the Bahá'í Faith that reaches back to investigate and trace its transformation from an obscure Shaykhi sect into a modern world religion. Dr. Smith, professor in the faculty of social sciences and humanities at Mahidol University, Thailand, clearly states the purpose of his book in the Introduction: "These changing motifs [of the Bábí Faith] may be seen as part of a general process of transformation, whereby what was essentially a messianic Shi'i sect has developed into a world religion". (p. 3)

Smith's book can be profitably read by both the well-informed "observer" and "participant" alike. Those who seek academic rigour will find it in Smith's extensive research and observance of disciplinary norms, while those who seek that tone normally befitting a Bahá'í scholar writing about his own tradition will find it preserved in a hint of insider reverence for the subject matter. With this work, Peter Smith appears to have achieved that balance of scientific objectivity and spirit of engaged inquiry, a synthesis of factuality and faith-driven analysis that makes a conscious effort not to let itself slip into an easy apologetic which would be quite out of place for the genre Smith has chosen for himself. Smith tells us that he has "sought to write without conscious bias and with a general sense of questioning the taken-for-granted assumptions which form part of my background as a Bahá'í" (p. xiv). For the most part Peter Smith has succeeded well with this aim, practising a measured balance of the independent investigation of the truth without at the same time doing violence to the "normative" teachings of the Bahá'í Faith. He achieves his purpose while maintaining a discreet ethos of respect.

One of the things that an informed reader looks for in a competent Bahá'í scholar is a voice; that is, a characteristic and recognizable way of speaking that corresponds to the language of a particular discipline. Smith's chosen voice is rather more that of the social historian than the sociologist, for "formal sociological analysis has been excluded" from this work, he tells us (p. xiv). The perspective of the sociology of religion, however, clearly informs this work, and is the strong point of the book. The Babí and Bahá'í Religions, first written as Smith's doctoral dissertation "A Sociological Study of the Bábi and Bahá'í Religions" at the University of Lancaster (1982), justifiably fits into the first of a kind category, a ground-breaking piece of scholarship of the social and religious history of the Bahá'í Faith that sets a standard of excellence for those who will choose to pursue the same line of interpretation.

The sociological perspective is evident in the way that Smith treats the Bábí-Bahá'í faiths in their broad outlines as religious movements in radical evolution seen against the backdrop of political and social discontent, social reformism and class structure under the Qajar dynasty in Iran (founded 1796) from 1844 to its formal demise in 1925. An exemplary chapter for this type of analysis would be chapter three, "Babism as a socio-religious movement in Iran" (pp. 48-56). While the sociological perspective and analysis help form the grid of Smith's lines of interpretation, the major preoccupation of the work is devoted to an analysis of the strictly religious concerns of the nascent faith, albeit from the more concrete perspective of the social historian who is less preoccupied with the metaphysical and conceptual implications of doctrine. The language and typology of the sociologist are also evident in Smith's penchant for exposition by way of the "motif" alluded to above which he defines as "various dominant religious concerns" (p. 2). Some four of eight of these motifs are presented as "isms": legalism, esotericism, universalism, and liberalism. The other four are: the polar motif — a phrase coined by Smith from the Sufi expression qutb, (pole/axis) which refers to "the regard for authoritative and charismatic leadership" (p. 38), meaning the claims of the Báb and the proofs used by him and his disciples to establish the truth of his revelation — millenarian expectation, social reform and holy war. Although Smith does not give any detailed description of Bábí-Bahá'í theological motifs qua theology, for that is not the main purpose of the work, nonetheless the summary picture he presents of the theological superstructure of the emerging faith offers the reader a concise history of the theological ideas that drove the new revelation.

The book is divided into three parts. Although Parts 1 and 11 are concerned with the establishment of the Bábí-Bahá'í Faiths in Iran and Part 111 with the establishment of the Bahá'í Faith as a world religion, in terms of pagination, the book is almost equally divided between Parts 1 and 11 on the one hand, and Part 111 on the other. It thus achieves a balance between the eastern, western and world-wide concerns that Smith pursues.

Part 1 treats the emergence of the Bábí movement from Shaykhism and presents the main features of the Báb's doctrine under the motifs just mentioned above as well as those of martyrdom, rationalism and the doctrine of Raj`a (the return). In Part 1 Smith also makes the sociological analysis in Chapter 3 by examining several dimensions: social composition, discontent and social class in Iranian society in relation to Bábism, as well as the growth factor and the political aspects of religious dissent. In Part 11 Smith remains on Iranian soil, but now he moves from Bábism to the Bahá'í Faith, in the same fashion as he has pursued earlier a linear progression from Shaykhism to Bábism. Smith's preoccupation is now to detail the emergence of the Bahá'í Faith from Bábism under the spiritual leadership of Bahá'u'lláh. In so doing, Dr. Smith wishes to underscore a certain theological distance between Bábism and the Bahá'í Faith, particularly with "the diminution of esoteric and gnostic themes" (p. 84) and the pursuit in Bahá'u'lláh's Faith of more modern and contemporary doctrines such as universalism, social reformism, modernization and the millennial ideal. There is also a brief consideration of Bahá'í law under the rubric of "The Legalistic Motif" (p. 80-2). In Chapter 6 of Part 11, "The Iranian Bahá'í Community, c. 1866-1921", Smith considers the expansion and consolidation of the Bahá'í Faith both within and outside Iran's borders, persecution of the new community, and an analysis of the social composition of the classes from which Bahá'ís were drawn, social and economic factors in the growth of the new faith, and the more quietistic Bahá'í response to political action and social reform in contrast to the Azalis who became involved in an anti-Qajar democratic reform movement. (p. 99)

Having now consolidated his presentation of the social and religious history of the Bábí-Bahá'í Faith in Iran, Smith now changes the focus of his study in Part 111 from the cradle of the Bahá'í Faith to its implantation within the American republic. This is a significant axial point in Smith's exposition, for it was the American republic that became the great benefactor of the Bahá'í Faith to the rest of the world community. The underlying assumption is that one cannot appreciate the implantation of the Bahá'í Faith on a global scale without an understanding of the role played by the North American Bahá'í community in the pursuit of world-wide missionary activities. It is this theme that Peter Smith explores in Part 111, along with a view of the expansion of the Bahá'í Faith in the West, the Middle East and the Third World, and a consideration of the institutional and administrative functions of the Bahá'í community, as well a further examination of Bahá'í teachings in the light of modernism. In so doing, Smith re-examines some of the same "dominant motifs" he has examined in Chapter 5. With these considerations, Smith completes the journey from Shaykhi sect to world faith.

It is noteworthy that Peter Smith's book has been favourably reviewed outside of the Bahá'í press [MacEoin]. Christian Cannuyer of the Catholic University of Lille, France, author of Bahá'ís, peuple de la Triple Unité (The Bahá'ís. People of the Three Onenesses) (1987), comments that Smith's book "apparaît comme la première synthèse rédigée par un Bahá'í présentant de sa religion un tableau sans concession à une certaine hagiographie officielle"[1] ("appears as the first synthesis written up by a Bahá'í which describes his religion without making concessions to a certain official hagiography" (my translation). Cannuyer also notes that Smith does not hide "les nombreuses dissensions et schismes parfois violents qui ont marqué l'histoire du mouvement" ("the numerous and sometimes violent dissensions and schisms that have marked the history of the movement"). (p. 157) But Cannuyer is not being accurate when he writes that: "This is a new enough departure on the part of a Bahá'í historian to merit special mention." (p. 157) For his part, Cannuyer would have preferred to read in greater detail the Shi'ih sources of Bahá'u'lláh's thought, and in particular Bahá'u'lláh ties to the mystic Sufi brotherhood of the Naqshbandí (p. 157) founded by Bahá'al-Dín Muammad Naqshband (1317-1389).[2] Cannuyer also mentions Smith's references to the "subtle evolutions worked into Bahá'í theology by Shoghi Effendi." (p. 157) One notes in passing the reference to "Bahá'í theology" by a non-Bahá'í professor of religion, a reference that indicates that Cannuyer recognizes Bahá'í theology as being integral to the Bahá'í Faith.

To close this first favourable look at Smith's account, one can also say that for all of its factual acumen, one does not have the impression of reading a detached and lifeless piece of socio-historiography. The reader is still left with the impression, particularly in the earlier chapters, of being a witness to a moving drama of spiritual history, to a story that is very much alive.

For all of its fine features, however, Smith's book sends out a few signals which merit questioning. These "questions" about the text are not in the main quarrels with any substantive issues, but have to do with reservations or concerns about a few of Smith's assertions, as well as the ambiguous tone that accompanies a certain phraseology.

The first point has to do with Smith's reference to Táhirih or to Quarratu'l-`Ayn, as Smith prefers to call her, following Siyyid Kázim's epithet. He maintains that "it is difficult to see her as the martyr for women's rights which she has sometimes been portrayed as in the West. Rather she is more easily seen as a religious zealot whose zealotry was such as to impel her beyond normally sanctioned female social roles." (p. 47)

With this reference to the Báb's preeminent female disciple, Smith seems to be straining somewhat to make Táhirih conform to his sought after objective sociological perspective of the Bábí revelation. For one thing, it is difficult to ignore the fact that although Táhirih's lifestyle was impelled in the main by her overwhelming love for the Báb, and her open and avowed support for the new revelation, she was also a very non-conformist "liberated" woman, who by Smith's own assertion "defied and scandalized social convention with the freedom with which she spoke and travelled, and that on occasions she allowed herself to be seen unveiled." (p. 47)

Táhirih was certainly slain by the Muslim power structure because she was viewed as being a heretic. The open and free manner with which she conducted herself, boldly flouting both Islamic jurisprudence and convention, were looked upon as the gravest of offences in the eyes of the ulama patriarchy. The very fact that she travelled unattended by her husband, Mullá Muhammad, from whom she was separated (p. 47), or without the supervision of the male members of her family, must have been in itself seen askance, but her removal of the veil, occasional or not, was looked upon as an obscene scandal. Even some Bábís were so scandalised by her conduct that they worked to undermine her. She may well have come to harm at the hands of her own co-religionists had not Bahá'u'lláh intervened. One can only imagine how the horrified Muslim populace felt about her. In one of the works cited by Peter Smith, that devoted Bábí A.L.M. Nicolas reminds us that in Shi'ih Islam a woman scarcely ranked above the beast, and that her sole usefulness was judged to be reproduction, and that she was not even deemed to have been endowed with a soul. (Seyyèd `Ali-Muhammad dit le Bâb, Le Livre des Sept Preuves, p. 274.)

One can find room for agreement with Peter Smith that Táhirih did not see herself primarily as a crusader for women's rights. She was first and foremost a lover of the Báb and the unique female herald of his dispensation. But neither can one ignore in Táhirih's defiant moves the profound implications for women's rights in the medievalistic Iranian society in which she lived, and beyond its borders, in the larger society of the West that responded more heartily to the courageous example of her life and death. Táhirih in and through her faith, with the performance of such iconoclastic deeds, became at the same time both the Báb's peerless disciple of her sex and a heroine of the emancipation of women well before her time, and in conditions that women in the West would have found oppressive in the extreme, compared with the relative freedom that they enjoyed. In other words, the liberating quality of Táhirih's faith had no choice but to be exercised in and against the oppressive social conditions in which Iranian women lived. In proclaiming her faith, Táhirih became at the same time a de facto powerful symbol for the emancipation of women.

I move to the more sensitive phrase "religious zealot" with which Peter Smith describes Táhirih. While one might defend Smith's usage of this phrase on the basis of a dictionary definition, the denotation of this word clearly suggests fanaticism. The historical context of Jewish zealotry against the Romans involved plots, armed revolt and assassinations. A gentler insider word or phrase would have avoided any possible confusion that might arise as to Táhirih's role in Bábism because of this ambiguous epithet.

Also somewhat ambiguous or at least suggestive is Smith's use of the phrases relating to exclusivism and the Bahá'í Faith. He writes of "organisational exclusivism" (p. 183), "exclusivist conception of Bahá'í membership" (p. 145) and "It was an exclusivist view of the Bahá'í Faith that was now officially promoted" (p. 126). In context, Smith is correct to maintain that from circa 1925 onward, Shoghi Effendi did make the requirements for membership in the Bahá'í Faith more rigorous, and that under his guardianship the Bahá'í Faith took on a hitherto unknown administrative and institutional function with his call for the erection of local and national assemblies and the execution of organised teaching plans. The disillusioned "anti-organizers" (p. 125) either opposed Shoghi Effendi and his plans or left the Faith. Once again, it is the denotive meaning of the word "exclusivist" that is ambiguous or suggestive. The word exclusivism has become associated with elitism and narrow-minded prejudice. Theologians and comparative religionists write of "orthodox-exclusivism" with a bad taste in their mouth. It would have been helpful here, as with the case of "religious zealot" in reference to Táhirih, to add a word of qualification to the statement, viz., of the Bahá'í Faith's inclusivist teachings in order to dispel the notion that the Bahá'í Faith is narrowly exclusivistic. One might well have gathered as much from Smith's exposé of the more progressive Bahá'í teachings, but such a qualification would have provided a moderating influence in context.

One also wonders why Smith on p. 183, after using consistently the insider phrase "the Bahá'í Faith", should suddenly revert to the outsider single substantive "Bahá'í" to refer to the Bahá'í Faith: "For many western Bahá'ís the view that Bahá'í was an independent revealed religion disturbed their traditional conceptions. Similarly, the new exclusivity of membership was profoundly disturbing." One of the strong points of Smith's book is that he has for the most part nicely bridged the gap between the insider and outsider voices, between the apologete and the detached inquirer. This lone use of "Bahá'í" to refer to the Bahá'í Faith is a little jarring, especially since it comes from a Bahá'í who normally makes coin of another usage.

Further, there seems to be a factual error in Smith's assertion that it was the Báb who bestowed the name Táhirih to his lone female disciple (p. 16). According to Nabíl, it was Bahá'u'lláh who bestowed the name at the Conference of Badasht, a title which was later confirmed by the Báb. (Dawnbreakers, p. 293) If Smith is relying on another source for this assertion, the source is not cited. One also has to question Smith's assertion (p. 58) that immediately following the declaration of the Báb in 1844 that "He [Bahá'u'lláh] was not, however, amongst the main rank of leaders, all of whom were ulama." [complete]

In some cases, the text would have benefited from additional explanatory footnotes. It would have been useful, to cite just two examples, to document more fully the statement that "despite `Abdu'l-Bahá's own denials some Bahá'ís clearly regarded him as Christ returned". (p. 102) Smith also writes that "Husayn 'Ali....laid claim to be the promised Man-yuzhiruhu'lláh ("Him whom God shall make manifest") (p. 57). A footnote would have proved useful to document Bahá'u'lláh's assertion.

Despite these slight drawbacks, Peter Smith has written a book that will long stand as a worthy example of the socio-historical approach to the Bahá'í Faith from its middle eastern origins as a Shaykhi sect to its present day development as a modern world religion.

  1. Book Review. Mélanges de Science Religieuse 50.2 (Avril-juin 1993): 156.
  2. Stephen Lambden writes that during his stay in Kurdistan Bahá'u'lláh, in addition to his contacts with the Naqshbandíyya, also had contact with the Sufi leaders of the Qádiríyya order founded by `Abd al-Qádir Jílání (c. 1077-1165) and the Khálidí, founded by Bahá' al-Dín Khálid al-Shahrazúrí (1776-1827), a sub-brotherhood of the Naqshbandí order. From research notes of Stephen Lambden.
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