Bahá'í, I by Margit Warburg:
Author: Margit Warburg
Publisher: Elledici, Turin, Italy, 2001, in the series Religioni e Movimenti (seconda serie)
Edited by: Massimo Introvigne
Review by: Daniela Pinna
A religion suspended between globalization and fundamentalism, militant
advocacy of human rights and censorship of its intellectuals. That's Danish
sociologist Margit Warburg's portrayal of the Bahá'í Faith, as it emerges
from her latest work i baha'i, recently published in Italy.
This is a tiny little book that may have a big impact on the image of the
Bahá'í Faith in Italy, and on the way Italian Bahá'ís perceive themselves.
Dr. Warburg's is the first monographic work on the religion by a non-Bahá'í
author to come out in Italy. It is number 25 in a series of slim,
easy-to-read, low-priced volumes on minority religious movements authored by
scholars and published by Elledici, a well-known Catholic publishing house
with a widespread network of bookshops. The series is edited by Massimo
Introvigne, a regular contributor to L'Avvenire, the Italian Bishop's
daily newspaper, and founder of Turin-based Center for Studies on New
Religions (CESNUR), Italy's most influential source of information on NRMs.
All those elements combined imply that Dr. Warburg's book will reach a wide
public, ranging from ordinary readers to opinion makers and scholars. The
book may certainly shape the way the Bahá'í Faith is seen in Italy, a country
where Catholicism is still the de facto, if not the de jure, state religion
and where very little is known about minority religions in general, and the
Bahá'í Faith in particular.
Not only that. This 120-page volume may also reshape the way Italian Bahá'ís
look at themselves and their own religious beliefs. For most of them, it will
be the first time they have been confronted with a thorough survey of their
Faith by an external author. An entire section of the book is devoted to the
issue of conflicts between scholars and Bahá'í authorities on freedom of
research, a topic about which little is known among Italy's rank-and-file
Religions in Italy
Now to fully understand the possible impact of Margit Warburg's book on an
Italian public, some basic background information may be useful.
According to the latest estimates — provided by CESNUR's Enciclopedia
delle Religioni in Italia (Turin: Elledici, 2001) — 1.1 million
Italians (1.9 per cent) belong to minority (i.e., non-Catholic) religions.
The figure rises to approximately 2 million (3.5 per cent), if immigrants
are included. Minority rights are protected under the 1948 Republican
Constitution, but non-Catholics are in fact second-class citizens in Italy.
That is because of the enduring influence that the Catholic Church has
exerted on laws and lawmakers since the Italian state was
British historian Denis Mack Smith states that the destruction of the Pope's
temporal power was one of the most significant achievements of the
Risorgimento, the movement for the unification of Italy (Modern Italy, a
Political History, London: Yale University Press, 1997). When in 1870 Italian
troops conquered the Holy City, Pope Pius IX locked himself inside the
Vatican, and Rome was made the Capital of the Kingdom of Italy. Shortly
afterwards, the Vatican forbade Catholics to vote in national elections. The
prohibition was largely ignored, despite the threat of excommunication.
Relations between the Vatican and the Kingdom of Italy remained tense, with
the Pope claiming temporal sovereignty over the city of Rome. The Vatican in
typical fashion protested the abolition of anti-Jewish legislation and of the
Ghetto, and it objected to the building of a Protestant church and a Free
Masons temple in Rome. Still, the secular Kingdom of Italy did not grant
non-Catholic religions full rights. They were instead guaranteed "tolerance,"
provided they did not infringe "public order".
The situation changed for the worse in 1929, when Fascist dictator Benito
Mussolini made his peace with the Church, signing the Concordat. Now
Catholicism was the state religion, a compulsory subject taught in public
schools. The Church was granted tax exemptions, state funds, and substantial
independence. The Catholic laws concerning marriage were imposed on all
Italians. A few months later, in June 1929, Law No. 1159 was passed
regulating the rights and activities of "admitted cults." They could
proselytize, were entitled to partial tax exemption, and could perform
legally binding marriages. But, once again, they were not to infringe public
order, and worse, public morality, a rather vague concept. In fact, this was
a way to legalize persecution.
The 1948 Republican Constitution granted all citizens religious freedom, but
not without ambiguities. The restrictions concerning public order were
abolished, but not those concerning public morality. What's more, an
alliance between the Communist Party and the Christian Democrats granted the
Church full recognition in the Constitution of Mussolini's Concordat. That
was to have lasting effects on Italian legislation on a number of issues. It
was not until the 1970s that any non-Catholic-oriented legislation was
passed, allowing for equal rights and responsibility between husband and
wife (for example), legalizing the sale of contraceptives, permitting divorce
and, later, abortion.
The Concordat was eventually revised in 1984 by the government led by
socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi. Briefly, Catholicism is no longer
the state religion, but its privileges (such as the teaching of Catholic religion
in state schools at all levels by Church-appointed teachers paid for by the
state) are guaranteed under Constitutional Law. The rights of minority
religions are to be negotiated on a case by case basis, under lesser pacts
called "Intese" (agreements). It is interesting to note that Law 1159 is
still valid, although trimmed of its most undemocratic provisions by the
Constitutional Court. An attempt at passing a new law to deal comprehensively
with non-Catholic religions in a more democratic way failed during the
To this day, only six minority religions have signed "Intese" granting tax
exemptions, access to limited state funds, and the right to bring spiritual
assistance to believers in hospitals and places of detention. The former
leftist government headed by post-communist Massimo D'Alema approved draft
"Intese" with the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Buddhist Union, but they were
never ratified by Parliament because of vocal opposition from conservative
circles and parties that now back Silvio Berlusconi's center-right
Suspicion against the rising number of immigrants (most of them Muslims),
Catholic conservatism (still ingrained in powerful sectors of the Church),
and fear caused by media reports of crimes perpetrated abroad by members of
minority religions combine to produce a feeling of mistrust. Its most
tangible expression is the rising number of organizations devoted to
exposing the dangers inherent in minority religions, generally labelled as "cults."
Under Italian Law, the Bahá'í Faith ranks as an "Admitted Cult," the Bahá'í
National Spiritual Assembly having obtained "recognition" as a Foundation in
1966. The National Assembly has started negotiations towards an "Intesa"
that are still at an early stage. It must also be said that, in recent years, a
clever, unrelenting, and consistent public relations strategy has managed to
give the Bahá'í religion new visibility and credibility in the country.
Considering the socio-religious situation in Italy, and the political
climate, no document, essay, or newspaper article published about the Bahá'í
Faith could be without consequences. This is especially true of a monographic
work by an academic sociologist who has extensively studied Bahá'í
The Bahá'ís are well integrated into a system they vow to change from its
foundations. This is a contrast that Margit Warburg introduces from the
book's first chapter, where she underlines the necessity of paying more
attention to the Faith's programs and the way its believers try to pursue
them. And this because — although the greater part of the personal and social
teachings of their Faith reflects the mores of the Western middle class — the
new world order they wish to install is a mix of religion and politics that
is more Islamic than Western. Theocracy is a topic that the sociologist
returns to later on in the book.
Warburg then proceeds to disclose the Islamic roots of a religion of Iranian
origin that has come to Europe from the United States.
In the 26 pages that cover the period from the Bab's role in Shiite
millenniarism to the 1990s, only a few main historical events are outlined.
But the list of sources mentioned in the footnotes is an interesting key to
Warburg's own interpretation of Bahá'í scholarship. Apart from the
inescapable E. G. Browne (also via Moojan Momen) and Abbas Amanat, Warburg
draws on Denis MacEoin, Peter Smith, and John Walbridge. Official Bahá'í
history is represented by Stockman and Taherzadeh. Warburg's powerful
portrayal of Bahá'u'lláh as an extraordinary religious reformer, aware of
liberal and democratic tendencies at work in both the West and the Middle
East, draws on Juan Cole's Modernity and the Millennium, repeatedly cited.
The core of the book is Chapter 3 (on doctrine and rituals) and Chapter 4
(on the number and organization of Bahá'ís worldwide). Both are based on
Warburg's own field research, as well as on official documents (though the
"cultural" background for Bahá'í rituals is provided by John Walbridge).
They give interesting insights into Bahá'í life as seen by an outsider. The
sociologist underlines the existence in the religion of clearly distinct
sub-cultures directly linked to national identities. That is evidenced, for
instance, by the different attitude towards fasting and towards the
obligatory prayer between Iranian Bahá'ís and native believers in Denmark:
the Persian immigrants strictly observe what they see as a duty, while the
Danish Bahá'ís (and, according to the author, Western Bahá'ís in general)
tend to stress personal choice over obedience.
Margit Warburg has published extensively on the Danish community, with
which she has established cordial links. Yet, the precious experience she
has gained with Bahá'ís in her own country plays against her in her Italian
book. And this points up the work's only major limitation: Denmark (as
indeed the whole of Europe, with its overall 30,000 believers) cannot be
taken to represent Bahá'í mentalities worldwide. The Italian Bahá'í
community (of 2,800 members) — except for being occasionally mentioned
here and there — is absent from a book written for the Italian public,
as is Italy's major Bahá'í scholar, the late Orientalist Alessandro
Bausani, none of whose works are referred to either in the footnotes or in
Warburg's reason for this absence is that she did not use Bausani's work in
her research for i baha'i, and that her choices for a very concise
bibliography (where no Italian authors are cited) show a sociological rather
than historical bent. She also maintains that her silence "does not imply a
judgment on the state of Bahá'í studies in Italy." However, she continues, "I
do think that a country so important as Italy might have more scholars
within the sociology of religion in general and studying Bahá'í in particular"
(personal communication, October 2001).
A large section of Chapter 4 is devoted to the activities at the Bahá'í World
Center, the Haifa (Israel) headquarters of the Bahá'í Faith, with which
Warburg has direct experience, having sojourned and done research there,
which she describes as an extraordinary religious metropolis, and which she
compares to the Vatican, and to the Mormon headquarters in Salt Lake City.
The Danish sociologist turns a sympathetic eye to the Bahá'í Faith's social
projects and to its cooperation with international organizations on human
rights and sustainable development issues. Drawing on her own research on
Bahá'í approaches to globalization, Warburg emphasizes the unequivocally
liberal content of the Bahá'í political messages to the United Nations. But
then she goes on to stress that Bahá'ís do seem to focus on building a
society that rejects one tenet of Western democracies: the separation of
church and state. Warburg concedes that the issue is debated among
intellectuals, and she again refers to Cole and Sen McGlinn as saying that
Bahá'u'lláh's original teachings were in fact in favor of separation of
church and state. But she points out that their position is a minority one.
She concludes that, on this aspect, the Bahá'í Faith resembles the
fundamentalist currents found today in its religious antecedents: Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam.
Schism and excommunication as a means for maintaining a monolithic
organization are a recurring theme in i baha'i. Warburg deals with
them specifically in Chapter 5. The issue of covenant-breaking cannot be
discussed at length in a slim book directed toward the general public. But
Warburg's brief list of schismatic crises can modify a stereotype that is
widespread in the Italian rank-and-file Bahá'í community: that of a
cohesive, tight-knit religious community where dissidence has always been
limited to consciously mischievous individuals. It is not uncommon, in
public meetings or at members-only deepenings, to hear Bahá'í officials say
that the Bahá'í Faith has generated no sects.
But the most innovative section will no doubt be the one concerning
opposition, where Margit Warburg concisely relates the controversies between
some eminent Bahá'í scholars and Bahá'í authorities concerning
pre-publication censorship and research methodologies.
In Italy, this issue will come as a surprise to most Bahá'ís. Bahá'í studies
in Italy are considerably less developed than in the United States and
Canada, or in Britain. Although there are dedicated individual believers who
have done valuable research and have written books on Bahá'í history and
theology, none of their works could be classified as scholarly, or would be
accepted in academic circles. (The only exception is the late Professor
Alessandro Bausani, who unfortunately left no intellectual heirs of his
stature). Translation of books from English is limited to the sacred
scriptures, compilations on general matters, and the occasional novel.
Italian Bahá'ís, then, unless they speak English or are extremely motivated
to go beyond official literature and have access to the internet, can have no
clue as to conflicts between Bahá'í administrators and scholars. Or, if they
do, it is mainly through official channels.
Quoting from the 3 January 1979 letter from the Universal House of Justice to
young Bahá'í scholars, Dr. Warburg draws her conclusion which — as she's not
a Bahá'í and does not have to meander along a web of subtleties and
contradictions — goes right to the core: If the Bahá'í scriptures are the
parameter against which all knowledge should be measured, then freedom of
research must submit to religious premises. Warburg relates how these
conflicts emerged on the Internet and eventually made it onto academic
publications, while eminent scholars (no names are mentioned) resigned from
the Faith, and others toned their rhetoric down.
Ample reference to the official documents from the House of Justice is to be
found in footnotes, as well as to MacEoin's "The Crisis in Babi and Bahá'í
Studies" and Juan Cole's "Panopticon." But Warburg does more than just
report on the issue, stating that the Bahá'í leadership, by adopting a policy
that may look like a clear violation of freedom of research on the part of
Bahá'í scholars, is incurring the risk of gaining a bad reputation — a
statement whose negative tones are only slightly attenuated by an
uncharacteristically elaborated syntax and fine chiselling of words.
No mention is made in this chapter of dissent regarding women's exclusion
from the Universal House of Justice or the prohibition against homosexuality.
Such topics, in the author's comment "do not cause any real friction within
the Bahá'í community."
The issues of censorship and internal opposition were not raised at the May
public meeting in Turin where i baha'i was presented to the press in
the presence of the author and of Italian national Bahá'í authorities. Nor
had they been the subject of discussion when the editor sent the book's
typescript to the National Spiritual Assembly for its comments. It is
possibly this step — which is not mentioned anywhere in the book
— that led to speculation among some of the Bahá'ís in Italy that i
baha'i had been, so to speak, approved by Italy's National Bahá'í
According to Warburg herself, only two minor requests were made for
editorial changes: one concerning the spelling of the word Bahá'í, the
other the rephrasing of a sentence on abortion. The first she refused, but
added a note explaining how she had adopted the international
transliteration accepted by scholars, except when quoting from authors who
had followed Bahá'í style; the second she accepted in part. Of course, this
is a minor episode that would normally be of no interest in a book review.
But it sheds light on the non-confrontational attitudes of the publisher,
of the general editor of the series, and of the author who, although
committed to scientific integrity, seek to respect the point of view of the
religious minority group under scrutiny. It also speaks for the
open-mindedness of Italy's National Spiritual Assembly, that they respected
the author's independence, and did not try to interfere with content they
must have found unpalatable — and that they accepted to take an active
part in the book's public presentation.
The section of i baha'i concerning persecution is a brief but poignant
indictment of Iran's theocracy. Discussing its deliberate attempt to destroy
the Bahá'í community with a set of judiciary measures, Warburg does not
hesitate to compare them to the infamous Nuremberg Laws. It is to be hoped
that the Danish sociologist's denunciation of the persecution against Iranian
Bahá'ís makes a positive impact on Italy's low level of awareness on the
matter. In a country that is among Iran's foremost commercial partners, it
is usually impossible for the non-political Italian Bahá'ís to make their
voices heard in the national media, let alone in government quarters. Thus
awareness of the Iranian persecution of the Bahá'í community is, in public opinion,
limited to small circles, often at the local level, where individual Bahá'ís
are personally well accepted and esteemed.
Now, can i baha'i change that? In the long run, the possibility should not
to be excluded for a number of reasons.
A potentially far-reaching book
With 4000 copies printed, there is obviously little hope of i baha'i
becoming a bestseller — not even at a time where interest in religious
movements is on the rise, especially if a Muslim link can be found or even
suspected. Neither CESNUR nor Elledici have as yet any figures concerning
sales. As of September, the publisher's PR office could only say that
"several copies" had been ordered by unspecified Bahá'í authorities, and by
Turin-based bookshops specializing in "alternative" religiosity (personal
Both publishers and editor cater to selected groups of opinion makers.
Elledici is a publishing house founded in the nineteenth century by San
Giovanni Bosco, a Catholic priest, a groundbreaking social worker, and an
educator. The Salesiani run a host of quality private schools, from
elementary to high schools, children's recreational centers, and parish
youth clubs, as well as a widespread chain of bookshops that cater mostly to
families, the clergy, and Catholic religion teachers.
The Religioni and Movimenti series reaches farther than that, however. It is
the first attempt in Italy at giving the general public an academicallly
reliable, non-judgmental account of minority religions. Although the
best-selling books of the series are easily those devoted to Satanism or
Spiritism, titles range from Islam to Orthodox Churches, and from Scientology
to the Protestants. As in Warburg's case, the language is accessible but the
treatment is scholarly.
The series editor, Massimo Introvigne, is a lawyer turned sociologist founder
(in 1988) of the Turin-based non-profit association CESNUR. Its president is
Luigi Berzano, ordinary professor of Sociology at the University of Turin,
while British-based academic Eileen Barker is a member of its scientific
With a lending library of 20,000 volumes in several languages, and a rich
corpus of field research, CESNUR has become the Italian media's more
reliable source of independent information on new religion movements. Their
most notable work to date is the Enciclopedia delle Religioni in
Italia, a 1048-page tome covering from the Catholic Church (dissenters
and schismatics included) to UFO cult groups. Their website hosts a
collection of articles on CESNUR's works published in prominent newspapers
CESNUR and notably Introvigne have been under attack in recent years for
allegedly being "cult apologists." It goes beyond the scope of this review
to delve into a polemic that spread mainly, if not only, via the Internet.
But it should be noted that CESNUR's works are increasingly being quoted in
academic publications in Italy, and that CESNUR experts regularly give papers
at conferences organized by respected academic institutions. It could be
suggested that, considering the Italian situation as described above, the
mere act of studying non-Catholic religions in a non-judgmental way becomes
a political act, subjected to partisan evaluation that is not always fair, or
even well documented.
In the end, it can be said that Margit Warburg's i baha'i is a groundbreaking
work in the field of Bahá'í studies in Italy, and it is likely to have an
influence that well exceeds the obvious limits of an introductory
publication. Being the first and only comprehensive study of the religion by
a non-Bahá'í scholar, it may easily become a reference book for a wide
public, from ordinary readers to scholars. In short, it will be difficult for
anyone in Italy writing on the Bahá'ís — or even just seeking information
about them — to do without it.