The Meaning of Baha'i History
by Moshe Sharon1999-12
[ excerpt; download the full original at www.hum.huji.ac.il ]
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We are concerned here with the history of the Bahá’í faith as seen outside the realm of veneration, as a history of religion and the outline of a new culture. For the historian all the writings are texts to be examined and studied for the sole purpose of achieving the best knowledge possible of the events which brought about the creation of a new world religion. Here the questions posed by Bishop Neill in his study of the New Testament almost 40 years ago and again some 12 years ago are valid for the Bahá’í religion too. Neill believed that he had found the answers to such questions as: “Who is Jesus of Nazareth? What was his message? Why was he put to death? Why did his few followers become, in effect, the nucleus of the powerful and widespread community called Christianity? (Peters 291)”
One can pose each one of these questions when dealing with the history of the Bâb, and all except for one of them, when studying the history of Bahá’u’lláh.
But unlike Christianity and Islam, to say nothing about the ancient beginnings of Judaism, the Bahá’í faith was really born in the full view of history. We know practically everything about the background of the activity of the Bâb and Bahá’u’lláh. The sources for reconstructing the political, social, cultural and religious environments of the two Prophets are practically all open to us. They are rich and of an unusual variety. Qajar Iran and the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century have been the subject of numerous studies, and although research never ends, there is practically nothing which we do not know about these two arenas where the major events surrounding the birth of the Bahá’í faith occurred. And as we approach the Faiths themselves and the lives of their Prophets, we are also in a good situation as far as the sources are concerned.
We have the sources that come from within and those that come from without, the sources which represent the pious view, the view of the lover and the view of the foe, as well as the view of the indifferent and the view of the ignorant. The sources are a feast for the historian.
On the lovers’ side there are, first of all, the scriptures themselves. True, Scriptures were not written, or revealed, depending on the point of view, in order to teach history, but they are historical documents too. They were subjects of interpretation, and this interpretation was undertaken by ‘Abd al-Bahâ’ and Shoghi Effendi. ‘Abd al-Bahâ’ presented the official history of the faith in his Traveler’s Narrative and Shoghî Effendî mainly in God Passes By. These however are not ordinary historical books, they belong rather to the realm of scriptures, and represent the only inspired interpretations of the writings of the Prophets their lives and activities. They are not studies, but rather sources for study. But next to them we have the histories from both Bahá’í and Muslim sides and the evidence of the Europeans. We have enough material to form our opinion about the events and the personalities of the main actors.
Yet there is another factor which makes Bahá’í history such a unique affair. It is all so new. We are in the heart of the events and this makes historical research more complicated because contemporary or near-contemporary history can be very tricky. If we were a couple of hundreds years away our life as historians would have been much easier. However since we are here at this time we must deal with a situation which is rather fluid. The Bahá’í religion, the organization of the Bahá’í institutions, the development of the components of religious life and religious practice and many other issues which are born out of the needs of a newly born culture are in the process of making.
There are the schisms too; the internal breaches, the inevitability of internal oppositions; there are the diversity of cultures and the heterogeneous social environments all over the world which challenge the endurance of the fast spreading religion. In other words, things are still happening, and the history of the Bahá’í faith is a history in creation. In many ways the historian of the Bahá’í faith is inside the history not away from it. Whatever the historian writes is relevant to the actual events. The atmosphere is thick with the smoke of polemics, and there is hardly anything that has been written until now which has not been identified either as the work of a friend or the work of an enemy or at least the work of an unkindly scholar.
The battles have been fought with various degrees of intensity since 1863 and definitely since 1866. They were not always battles fought only with pen and paper. However the place occupied by the historical battle was no less important than the other battles fought in courts and prisons.
Ideally the objective historian cannot take sides. But somehow he might well find himself expected to take sides. This is not such a terrible thing. It is difficult to find a historian who did not take sides or shall we say didn’t have a soft spot for one of the sides featuring in his research. In modern history it is quite common to find historians who, when describing a conflict which involves two or more sides, favour one side. In daily journalism this is the norm .This is not a phenomenon relating only to modern or recent history. Even in the history of the wars between the Persians and the Greeks some 2500 years ago historians took sides. To this very day historians take sides when dealing with the history of the Second Temple period, the Crusades, the Napoleonic wars and, nearer to our time, the history of the American civil war. A good historian lives the events that he describes, otherwise he would be a machine. He feels the need to make moral judgements of the historical happenings not merely to identify them.
This brings me to the one historical issue which has been troubling the Bahá’í Faith almost from its very inception. The issue is that of Mirzâ Yahyâ – Subh-i-Azal. With the years, instead of subsiding, the issue has become more and more central to the historical research, and has gathered force until it has become almost a litmus test to differentiate between the acid enemy and alkaline friend.
Already at the infancy of Bâbî research this was the main reason for Browne becoming a suspicious individual in spite of his tremendous contribution to the study of the Bâbî-Bahá’í religions. His publication of Nuqtatu l-Kâf and his meetings with Mîrzâ Yahyâ in Cyprus as well as his clear tendency to espouse the claims of Mîrzâ Yahyâ caused a negative attitude to develop towards him. This attitude was somewhat softened by the book of Balyûzî, who nevertheless could not offer complete clemency to Professor Browne.
The issue was always on the agenda of historians and at the heart of an on-going polemical battle. Nowadays, I am told, there is a whole group of scholars who are regarded to be Neo-Azalists. I am not sure whether this is an official appellation or the invention of a good friend from Newcastle. Whichever is the case, this means that we are back to the question of no more or less than the integrity of Bahá’u’lláh.
Here I wish to offer a different approach to this issue which I think is the right approach although it could be interpreted as taking sides. I shall repeat what I said two weeks ago to two members of the Universal House of Justice in Haifa. The occasion was a very happy one. I brought a gift from the Hebrew University - a large portrait of Bahá’u’lláh, one of the two existing photographs of the Prophet. I found the portrait in an archive at the University National Library consisting of very valuable material that had arrived at the Hebrew University from Cyprus almost forty years ago. I shall leave the detailed story about the circumstances of the appearance of these documents in Jerusalem for another occasion. I shall only add that full microfilm of this material has already been put at the disposal of the centre for the Study of the Texts in Haifa.
I said to Mr. Dunbar and to Dr. Khan that, historically speaking, the issue has nothing to do with the integrity of Bahá’u’lláh, nor with the succession to the Bâb. The problem arose because of the unique nature of the birth of the Bahá’í religion. The religion has two beginnings, not one. Following this assertion it should be emphasized that Bahá’u’lláh never claimed to be the successor of the Bâb. He presented his revelation as a totally new revelation with new scriptures superceding those of the Bâb. The fact that the ministry of the Bâb was only 19 years long is immaterial to the issue under discussion. There is no other religion whose history shows so clearly two distinct beginnings. This presents a tremendous challenge to the historian, but instead of really concentrating on this unique historical phenomenon, great effort has been exerted in the futile debate, regarding an issue, which in my mind is not an issue.
Of course one cannot imagine the Bahá’í religion without the activity of the Bâb. He laid the foundations on which Bahá’u’lláh could build his colossal edifice. But for Bahá’u’lláh the issue of succession did not exist. This is the point that should interest the historian, for whether Subh-i-Azal was, or was not, the successor of the Bâb is a question connected with the mission of the Bâb. The Mission of Bahá’u’lláh is another book not merely another chapter.
This does not mean that the story of Mîrzâ Yahyâ is not extremely interesting for the historian. The story of the Bâb’s movement has been left open-ended. Polemicists have made extensive use of it but not real historians.
Having said that I want to raise the question of the responsibility of the historian. There are issues that a responsible historian must avoid, at least for a while. One of these is the topic of Azal. It is not because the Bahá’í religion is not strong enough to face a serious study of the material available now but because of the possible utilization of such a study by elements that could harm other people. History is full of examples of essentially harmless research that formed the basis for atrocious actions. A straight line leading from Comte de Gobineau toying with the idea of the superiority of the “Aryans” to the implementation of his ideas in Nazi Germany.
being asked, I gave a pledge to the House of Justice that I shall never
publish the material from Famagusta found in the archives in Jerusalem.
This is not because I do not have the natural urge of the historian
to publish such documents, but because I believe that, at this time,
this would be utterly irresponsible.
However I wish to conclude by sharing a rare document with you. When examining the documents in the archives, I found a Tablet of Bahá’u’lláh that has never been published and whose existence was known to very few people.
tablet is most probably the swan song of the Prophet. It deals with
the past and future and refers to yet another problem which was used
to attack Baha’ullah. I read the Tablet and translated it. I am honoured
to give publicity to it for the first time ever at this Academy.
Two major messages are in this Tablet. . . .
. . .
[ end of excerpt; download the full original at www.hum.huji.ac.il ]