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This paper was originally a talk presented at Bosch Bahá'í school in 1997 to a non-academic audience. It was written specifically for a Bahá'í audience with no background at all in history or historical methodologies. In my view, it is important that academics continue to communicate something about their various methodologies to Bahá'ís without any university background. [-S.Q., 1999]

Historical methodology and the development of Bahá'í scholarship:
toward dispelling a false dichotomy

by Sholeh A. Quinn

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 9
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1999


The recently published compilation on Bahá'í scholarship states that this endeavour is for everyone. Indeed, the introductory letter from the Universal House of Justice to that compilation states:

This scholarly endeavour should be characterised by the welcome it offers to all who wish to be involved in it, each in his or her own way, by mutual encouragement and cooperation among its participants, and by the respect accorded to distinguished accomplishment and outstanding achievement.[1]

Since this call reaches out to every Bahá'í to be involved in scholarly activity, we cannot assume that every Bahá'í will be involved in the same way. Indeed, the diversity of the Bahá'í community, and the wide range of professions, vocations and areas of expertise that are represented preclude and discourage such uniformity of thought and approach. The present paper will (1) introduce and locate one particular academic discipline, history, within the context of Bahá'í scholarship, and vice-versa; (2) present a brief introduction on historical methodologies as practised in the history profession; and (3) explain the limitations of these methodologies. It will conclude with a discussion of what sorts of contributions professional historians and other academics can make to Bahá'í scholarship.

Professional history and Bahá'í scholarship

There are countless ways one can envision engaging in the sort of "scholarly activity" mentioned in the letter cited above. For some, it might mean reading scholarly books and articles on Babi and Bahá'í studies.[2] Others might enrol in evening courses offered at a local community college or university. For still others, it could mean conducting classes of a scholarly nature in our local communities: deepenings on the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, for instance, or Islamic history. For yet others, it might mean delving even deeper into one's own area of expertise. Some Bahá'ís are professional scholars and members of the academy – that is, they make their living by engaging in scholarly activities – teaching courses, conducting research, and presenting that research within professional academic settings, usually colleges, universities or research institutes. Some Bahá'ís, for instance, are professional economists, others are sociologists, engineers, specialists in literature and languages, or historians. Within this group of professional scholars, a few Bahá'ís, along with other scholars who are not Bahá'ís, have chosen as their area of specialization the study of the Bahá'í religion. These individuals study the Bahá'í religion from the perspective of their specific academic disciple, whether it be history, sociology, political science, or literature. However, whether one is a professional academic, a part-time researcher, or a thinking person interested in the life of the mind, the letter quoted above indicates that everyone in the community, with all its tremendous diversity and varieties of perspectives and backgrounds, is welcome to do what he/she can to engage in "scholarly endeavour."[3]

Let us now examine the scholarly endeavours of one area of learning: history. The field of history is vast. It incorporates a wide diversity of people using a variety of approaches. Nearly everyone is familiar with history in one form or another – for some, the mere mention of the word causes grimacing and brings back unpleasant memories of an agonizing process of memorizing names, dates and places. Others love history, and although one's professional training may be in the sciences or other areas not at all related to history, people from a variety of walks of life still, for example, read historical works of various types, watch televised historical documentaries, and otherwise engage in historically-related activities. For some people, history becomes important when they learn about the roots of their own family, whether through joining genealogical societies or recording the stories heard from grandparents or other elders. Other individuals spend much of their lives deeply studying historical eras in which they are interested. In the United States, for example, history related to the Civil War and, more generally, military history are popular fields.

In the same way that a field like astronomy encompasses both amateurs (people genuinely interested in and often engaged in the study of the stars but whose profession is something else), and professionals (those who make a living as astronomers), so too does history have an amateur and a professional side. Professional historians make their living by studying the past. They find employment in a number of places: historical societies, museums, local archives, colleges and universities. Those who make a profession of history, therefore, are only a subset of all those who consider themselves historians are interested in history, or view themselves as "historically-minded." Similarly, those professional historians who study the Bahá'í religion as their special field of research form a subset of all those individuals, professional or amateur, scientist or humanist, and many others, engaged in Bahá'í scholarship.

In today's society, history often seems to be at the centre of numerous controversies. Current debates over historical issues, such as the publicity generated by certain historical exhibitions at museums, like the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian museum, or the debates on multiculturalism, show that far from being a marginalised, obscure endeavour, history is in fact a very powerful force. People from all backgrounds and walks of life have deep concerns about that power, not only in relation for example, to whose history is taught in schools, but how it is taught as well.[4] Therefore, unlike certain other professions, where debates involving non-professionals or amateurs might be less passionate, history is seen as something to which everybody may feel the right of access.

Historical methodology

The fact that history is so accessible and so many people are involved in historical enterprises of various sorts tends sometimes to make one lose sight of the fact that the professional side of the discipline exists, and like its fellow academic disciplines in the arts and the sciences, is subject to its own methodologies, its own rules and its own approaches. For instance, the approach taken by a professional historian can in fact differ – although it does not necessarily have to – from that taken by a non-professional historian, in the same way that someone who has a general interest in cooking may undertake the preparation of food differently than a highly trained professional chef. The lack of understanding of how professional historians "do" history as opposed to more popular approaches has led to some of the controversies and debates mentioned above, and, perhaps, tensions within the Bahá'í community as well. Far from exhibiting unique features, the debates over history on various Bahá'í and Bahá'í-related Internet forums mirror the larger context in which they are carried out. On some of these Internet discussion groups, for instance, professional Bahá'í scientists have engaged in debates about historical methodology with both non-professional and professional Bahá'í historians, all claiming the right of access to history. Those debates, however, did not often address what it is that professional historians actually do. In order to contribute to a greater understanding of historical methodology as it is practised in the academy, a brief introduction is provided below.

Historians work primarily, though not exclusively, with written texts in order to understand the past. We may define historical methodology as the process by which historians read and interpret those written texts, sometimes called "sources" or "historical sources." This process goes by many names, some of which include "source criticism," "critical analysis," "textual analysis," or "historical criticism." It is extremely important to keep in mind two points: (1) a historian may use any written text for his analysis, and (2) any text that a historian may use for his analysis can be used by different individuals in different ways, for different purposes, which go well beyond the limits of "historical methodology."

Let us take the following well-known text as an example:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the king's horses and all the king's men
Cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again.[5]

Most of us are familiar with this verse as a nursery rhyme which parents will sing or recite to their child. In this case, it is the recitation of the text which serves the function of entertaining the child. The parent is not particularly interested in historical or literary questions that the rhyme raises.

A professional literary critic will look at the nursery rhyme as a literary text. Unlike the parent, who sings or recites the text, the literary specialist will "interrogate" the text, ask it specific questions in order better to understand its literary nature. Some possible questions might include, what is the rhyme metre of the verse? What are the literary allusions being made? How is this rhyme related to other texts, which collectively form the literary genre known as "nursery rhymes"? Here, as a result of interrogating the text in a specific way, the text reveals certain answers that would be of interest to those who study literature.

A professional historian will ask a different set of questions, which will cause the text to yield a different set of answers. In standard accepted historical methodology, the questions asked of a particular text, if one is going to use that text for historical purposes, remain constant regardless of which text is being read, whether it be a nursery rhyme, a medieval legend or a Babi chronicle. These basic questions include the following: What is the text? Who wrote it? When was it written? Where was it written? Why was it written, and under what circumstances? Whom was it written for? By answering these questions, one learns about the greater "historical context" in which the text was produced.

"Doing history," – writing about the past – therefore, requires one to ask and answer the specific questions listed above of any given text. By applying these questions to the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme, we learn the following: this text originated in fifteenth century England as a popular political protest allegory, in which Humpty Dumpty refers to King Richard III, "sat on the wall" means "attacked a Welshman," who in this case was Henry Tudor, grandson of Queen Catherine, widow of King Henry II of England. Humpty Dumpty's great fall refers to Richard III's defeat at a battle in Leicestershire, where despite his large army of 23,000 men ("all the king's men"), he still suffered defeat ("cannot put Humpty Dumpty together again").[6]

In the example of this nursery rhyme, the parent, the literary critic and the historian each use the Humpty Dumpty text for different purposes. In each separate reading, the text performed very different functions, none of which took away from the importance of the others. It helped entertain a child, it revealed something about the literary nature of nursery rhymes and it provided information about fifteenth century British history and popular political thought. None of these functions of the text need to be in conflict with each other. The historian who studies the political implications of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme is not threatening the legitimacy or validity of the same text to the parent, who enjoys entertaining the child by reciting the rhyme.

Another important consideration for historians who seek to understand the past is deciding which text to rely on. If a number of written texts describe the same events, and no two writers are exactly the same, then no two texts will be exactly the same. But this raises the question, which version should one read, and which version should one believe? By asking the five historical questions listed above, we can better evaluate any given text. Generally, historians favour the accounts written closer to the time of the events they describe over those written later. Likewise, accounts written by eyewitnesses are favoured over those who receive their information second hand. These criteria, however, must be weighed in light of the personal biases of the author, and since all human beings are subjective creatures, there is no such thing as a perfectly "objective" text. It is best, therefore, to read all available accounts of the same historical event.

Turning now to another example that illustrates this issue, we find the following passage in a nineteenth century historical account:

Mirza Ahmad-i-Qazvini, the martyr, who on several occasions had heard Mulla Husayn recount to the early believers the story of his moving and historic interview with the Bab, related to me the following: "I have heard Mulla Husayn repeatedly and graphically describe the circumstances of that remarkable interview . . . 'We soon found ourselves standing at the gate of a house of modest appearance. He knocked at the door, which was soon opened by an Ethiopian servant. "Enter therein in peace, secure," [Q, 15:46] were His words as He crossed the threshold and motioned me to follow Him. His invitation, uttered with power and majesty, penetrated my soul. . .Might not my visit to this house, I thought to myself, enable me to draw nearer to the Object of my quest?"[7]

Here again is a text for which we may envision numerous uses. Certainly, many Bahá'ís can remember participating in celebrations of the anniversary of the Bab's announcement of his prophethood, and will recognize this as a passage from Nabil's narrative, also known as the Dawn-Breakers. One of the very important functions of this text has been to encourage and inspire the Bahá'ís in the west, who – as they are taken back to Shiraz, and imagine that historic meeting between Mulla Husayn and the Bab – are partaking of the fruits of Shoghi Effendi's tremendous effort when he translated and interpreted this chronicle.[8] In this scenario, Bahá'ís would probably most often use this text for inspirational purposes, to convey the spirit of that day of declaration to their fellow believers.

The non-professional historian, or historically-minded individual, might use this text to different ends: to obtain a better understanding of Babi history, as many Bahá'ís are interested in the Babi roots of their own faith. Since not everyone is able to read Persian or Arabic, Bahá'ís are indebted to Shoghi Effendi for producing this English translation and interpretation, for it helps bring to life the historical figures of the past: Shaykh Ahmad and Sayyid Kazim, the Letters of the Living, the Bab himself. A non-professional historian might use the Dawn-Breakers as a basis from which to write a popular account of Babi history, more accessible to the general public, or to lead a local community deepening.

The professional historian will use the same text in very specific ways in order to learn and analyse the past. As in the nursery rhyme example, the uses of the text differ, as do the questions posed of the text and the answers it gives. Note that the historian will ask the exact same questions of Nabil's text that she asked of the nursery rhyme. Again, she wants to know: When was this text written? By whom? What was the author's background? The answers to these general questions give rise to more specific questions, which might include the following: The author, Nabil, claims to have heard the story from Mirza Ahmad Qazvini, who heard it from Mulla Husayn. When did Mirza Ahmad-i Qazvini tell the story to Nabil? Did Mirza Ahmad Qazvini tell the same story to anyone else? Did Mulla Husayn tell anyone else, and do we have other versions of the same episode? If so, how do they differ from Nabil's? Furthermore, if they do differ, whose account do we "privilege," and how do we account for the differences in the various versions?

Thus, historians analyse any number of texts in a uniform way in order to understand the past and they present their analysis in a manner that conforms to certain standard rules, sometimes known as "scholarly apparatus." For instance, one important aspect of the scholarly apparatus is that professional historians must cite their sources by means of a footnote or endnote reference, so that the reader may check the original "text" in order to evaluate the historian's analysis. By providing examples and citations from their sources, historians provide "evidence" to back up, or "prove" their conclusions. Entire undergraduate and graduate seminar courses at universities are devoted to teaching students how to ask questions, how to weigh evidence, how to read and interpret texts, and how to present one's findings or conclusions. It is very important to note that the questions and methods can become extremely detailed and complex, as students and scholars delve deeper and deeper into their topic.

Professional historians in academia specialise in various areas or "fields" of history, which are the subjects that they teach and/or research. These fields include areas such as "European history," "world history," "social history," "women's history" and "East Asian history." Within these broad areas are subfields and more specifically designated areas of specialisation. These fields of history require different sorts of special skills. Historians like to read sources in the languages in which they were written, so that less will get lost in the translation, thus some specialities require language skills. For instance, historians of China need to be able to read their sources in the original Chinese, economic historians need to have some knowledge of economics, and so forth. In the case of professional historians studying early Babi and Bahá'í history, the field requires advanced training in (1) historical methodology, (2) Islamics, and (3) the Persian and Arabic languages.[9]

History, then, as it is practised in the academy, is a sort of "craft," and like gardeners who must learn the various methods of tending a garden and know how to use specific tools and materials in order to perform their tasks, so too must historians learn to use the tools of their craft, which include the skills mentioned above. Learning to master the profession, and perfecting one's use of the "tools," requires time, training, and commitment. Since the tools of the trade are the same regardless of what period of history one studies, the approaches used in the professional study of Bahá'í history are no different from the approaches used in the professional study of any other period or area of history, for example, early Christianity, medieval India, or modern Canada.

Limitations of the discipline

Having outlined the sorts of questions historians ask and the methods they use to answer them, a few words must be said about the "limits" of the discipline. We often hear what historians do; we do not often hear what historians cannot or should not do. For professional historians, the kinds of questions that can be asked of a text are limited. Returning to the garden analogy, the number of tools in our garden shed are not infinite, and they can only fix certain kinds of problems. In the case of gardening, a gardener's tools, no matter how sophisticated, cannot prevent a winter storm from freezing the plants. Nor can these tools help the gardener explain why the storm occurred in the first place or predict when the next one is due. To require the gardener to answer such questions is making the gardener go beyond the limits of what his discipline, gardening, can tell him. Similarly, historians can only explain certain aspects of events, and answer certain questions in certain ways, due to the limitations of the discipline. It is for this reason that sometimes people read the scholarship of professional Bahá'í historians and claim that they have a problematic identity: being Bahá'ís but writing like non-Bahá'ís. Such perceptions are a result of not having sufficient knowledge of what history cannot do.

We have already established that historians ask certain types of questions of a particular text: they ask questions that the text is able to answer within the limits of the discipline. Like the gardener whose hoes, weeders and bags of fertilizer are unable to predict winter storms, there are certain questions which history cannot answer. One final example aptly illustrates this point:

Oh Ahmad! Forget not my bounties while I am absent. Remember My days during thy days, and My distress and banishment in this remote prison. And be thou so steadfast in My love that thy heart shall not waver, even if the swords of the enemies rain blows upon thee and all the heavens and the earth arise against thee.[10]

This is from one of the best known writings of Bahá'u'lláh, the "Tablet of Ahmad." How many times have Bahá'ís recited this passage, gaining spiritual strength and comfort from its words, which Shoghi Effendi states have a "special potency and significance." For most believers, this work's primary use is for prayer and meditation.

As in the example of the nursery rhyme, however, a historian – believer or not – can also use this text, and do so for an entirely different purpose than its "spiritual" function, which does not take away or invalidate its use as a prayer or a devotion. The questions a historian would ask of this text, in order better to understand the past, should by now sound familiar: Who is the author? When did the author write? For whom? Why? Specific questions could include the following: Who is Ahmad? Why is he distressed? Where is the remote prison? How long was the author in that prison? Who, specifically, are the enemies whose swords may rain down upon Ahmad?

The first of the general questions – who is the author and what is his background – is one of the first that historians routinely ask. In this case, the text is from the writings of Bahá'u'lláh. The historian writing for academic audiences would answer the first question with something like the following: "The author of this Tablet is Mirza Husayn 'Ali, who took the title Bahá'u'lláh ('glory of God'). He was a 19th century Persian who claimed to be a manifestation of God." The professional historian, whether Bahá'í or not, cannot justifiably state the following: "The author of this Tablet is Bahá'u'lláh, who is the Manifestation of God for this day." The reason has to do with the limitations of the discipline. A historian could very well believe that Bahá'u'lláh is a Manifestation of God, or not, but the fact that this is a text-based discipline means that the historian cannot use textual evidence to back up the second statement. The gardener may very well believe that the storm will return the next day, but his gardening tools do not, cannot, and should not be used to prove his opinion. Historians can only reach certain kinds of conclusions based on textual evidence. Bahá'ís may appear to be "writing as non-Bahá'ís" but in fact they are writing as historians, restricted by the tools of their trade, able to analyse only certain problems and say things in certain ways.

What can professional historians contribute?

Why is it so important for us to understand what professional academics do? In 1989, the Universal House of Justice wrote:

Newly enrolled professionals and other experts provide a great resource for the development of Bahá'í scholarship. It is hoped that, as they attain a deeper grasp of the Teachings and their significance, they will be able to assist Bahá'í communities in correlating the beliefs of the Faith with the current thoughts and problems of the world.[11]

What are some of the "current thoughts" in the world, which the Universal House of Justice has asked Bahá'í scholars to correlate with the beliefs of the faith? In academia, these include newer fields of study that have attracted the attention of scholars in a number of both traditional and new disciplines, including history. The Bahá'í writings and texts all have a great deal to offer in these areas, and as these "professionals and other experts" try to correlate "the beliefs of the faith with the current thoughts and problems of the world," it is no coincidence that some of the most fervently debated issues in some segments of the Bahá'í community reflect this current thought. For example, current thought in the newer fields of gender studies, feminist studies and women's history (which includes discussions about feminist approaches to texts) cannot help but lead to discussions about women serving on the Universal House of Justice. "Current thought" on hermeneutics and how one interprets and analyses a text "correlates" with questions related to theories of the interpretation of Bahá'í texts, which incidentally have included a discussion on the relative advantages and disadvantages of "compilations," and even the relationship between science and religion. "Current thought" on the history of nationalism and religion raises issues of the relationship between church and state in Bahá'í patterns of future government. "Current thought" on post-colonialism and subaltern studies, with their emphasis on studying how some groups (such as the 19th century European colonial powers) have traditionally categorised other groups (such the colonized peoples of the Middle East) in order to maintain power over them has led to "correlated" discussions about attitudes within the Bahá'í community towards the "Other," whether that Other is a person of colour, a woman, a historian, a homosexual, a Persian, a "scholar," etc. As time passes, the issues that form "current thought" will of course change. Bahá'ís in academia should be able to engage in a meaningful discussion of whatever the current discourse of the time may be.


This paper has suggested that there are not only many ways to read a text, but that any given text can be read, analysed and used for a number of different purposes, and that for professional history, any given text yields only certain kinds of information which can be presented in certain ways. As individuals, we have the freedom to ask any and all questions of any text. As professional historians, there are only certain questions that our discipline allows us to ask and answer. Instead of creating false dichotomies between professional historians, popular historians and Bahá'í scholars, multiple approaches to the text, like the many approaches to Bahá'í scholarship, should co-exist. Given the broad call by the Universal House of Justice to all Bahá'ís to develop Bahá'í scholarship and to welcome all who wish to be involved in it, that welcome should include professional academic historians, who along with other academics, form just one small subgroup of all people engaged in Bahá'í scholarship.

End Notes
  1. From a letter on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, dated 10 February 1995, published as the introduction to the "Compilation on Scholarship," Bahá'í Studies Review 5.1 (1995): 105.
  2. See, for example, From Iran East & West, eds. Juan R. Cole and Moojan Momen (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1984); H. M. Balyuzi, Eminent Bahá'ís in the Time of Bahá'u'lláh (Oxford: George Ronald, 1985); Studies in Honor of the Late Hasan M. Husayn Balyuzi, ed. Moojan Momen (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1988); Abbas Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989); Denis MacEoin, The Sources for Early Babi Doctrine and History: a Survey (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992); Juan R. I. Cole, Modernity and the Millennium (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); and various articles in the Bahá'í Studies Bulletin ed. Stephen N. Lambden.
  3. 'Abdu'l-Bahá explains why developing ones intellect may be so compelling to some: "All blessings are divine in origin, but none can be compared with this power of intellectual investigation and research, which is an eternal gift producing fruits of unending delight. Man is ever partaking of these fruits. All other blessings are temporary; this is an everlasting possession" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity [Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, ??19xx??] 61).
  4. For example, some of these debates took place following the publication of Alan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind (New York : Simon and Schuster, 1987).
  5. The Illustrated Treasury of Children's Literature, ed. Margaret E. Martignoni (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1955) 29, and reprinted in many other places.
  6. See Albert Mason, The Nursery Rhyme: Remnant of Popular Political Protest (Kansas: Coronado Press, 1968) 67-81.
  7. Nabíl Zarandí, The Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl's Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá'í Revelation, ed. and trans. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970) 52-54.
  8. I use the word "interpret" here based on Rúhíyyih Rabbani's statement: "Although ostensibly a translation from the original Persian Shoghi Effendi may be said to have re-created it in English, his translation being comparable to Fitzgerald's rendering of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat which gave to the world a poem in a foreign language that in many ways far exceeded the merits of the original" (Rúhíyyih Rabbaní, The Priceless Pearl [London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1969] 215). Those who care read both English and Persian might find it an interesting exercise to compare Fitzgerald's translations with Khayyam's original, and see just how much Fitzgerald changed the original Persian quatrains. One of the primary reasons why Shoghi Effendi translated this work was to inspire the Bahá'ís in the west. In a cable to the United States in 1931, the Guardian urged the study of this translation for he felt it an "essential preliminary to [the] renewed intensive Teaching Campaign necessitated by [the] completion [of the] Mashriqu'l-Adhkar" (ibid., 217). See also Priceless Pearl 214-218 for a general summary of the history of this translation.
  9. A sample question faced by historians could be the following: "Official Qajar historical writing is a continuation of earlier traditions of Safavid, Afsharid and Zand historical writing, where imitative historiographical methods are utilized. Did Nabil utilize the same imitative methods, and if so, which earlier texts was he imitating?" (Incidentally, the Persian original of Nabil must be consulted in order to answer this particular question.)
  10. Bahá'u'lláh, Tablet of Ahmad, reprinted in Bahá'í Prayers (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1945) and many other places.
  11. From a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, dated 18 April 1989, cited in "Compilation on scholarship," no.41, 124.
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