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Modernity and the Millennium, by Juan Cole:
Review

by Merlin Swartz

published in American Historical Review, 105:3
2000-06
Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Bahá'í Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East
Author: Juan R. I. Cole
Published by: Columbia University Press, New York, 1998. Pp. xi, 254.
Review by Merlin Swartz, Boston University
review published in American Historical Review Vol. 105 No. 3 (June 2000)


In this carefully researched and perceptive work, Juan R. I. Cole proposes to look at the Western, Enlightenment idea of modernity through "new eyes": that is, through the eyes of Bahá'ísm, particularly those of the leadership of the movement during the formative period of its history. The basis for Cole's selection of Bahá'ísm as the lens through which to view the idea of modernity is nowhere spelled out explicitly, perhaps because his reasons are largely implicit in his analysis of the encounter between the two. Bahá'ísm arose in the Middle East and remained socially and, to some extent, spiritually close to its historical roots; at the same time, its religious character, and especially its millenarian stance, enabled it to distance itself from its religious past and to view that past — indeed, the whole of the past — in a critical light. Bahá'ísm saw itself as the culmination of the earlier monotheistic traditions, both as fulfillment and as corrective. At least in terms of its own self-understanding, early Bahá'ísm represents an orientation that is neither Eastern nor Western. In the analysis and critical assessment of modernity, Bahá'ísm does indeed offer interesting possibilities and perspectives.

Cole's examination of the Western notion of modernity focuses on a number of key issues, among them: religious freedom and the relationship of religion to the state; political absolutism and democracy; nationalism and the state; and patriarchy and gender relations. Cole devotes an entire chapter to a discussion of each of these complex issues. He insists on viewing Bahá'ísm, especially during its formative period, as a tradition in flux or, one might say, as a set of general principles and values that had to be fleshed out, refined, and adjusted in response both to changing conditions and to the perspectives of other intellectual and spiritual traditions. This seems clearly to have been the view of the early leaders of the movement, including Baha'ullah himself. Within the context of these qualifications, Bahá'ísm did come to define its position vis-á-vis the critical issues posed by Enlightenment modernity. On a number of the principles to which Enlightenment modernity was committed, Bahá'ísm declared itself in essential agreement: for example, on the question of the separation of "church" and state, the primacy of the individual conscience, gender equality, and the rule of law.

But if Bahá'ísm did come to endorse many of the characteristic ideas and values of modernity, Bahá'ísm did find some aspects of modernity, especially some of the larger historical consequences that followed, or that seemed to follow, from its implementation profoundly troubling. The idea of an autonomous reason, and what Bahá'ísm saw as the repressive potential of a reason freed from the constraints of a transcendental frame of reference, raised serious questions at both the theoretical and practical levels. The industrialization of war and the enlarged destructive capacity of the modern army, all developed within the framework of modernity, had led to violence and death on a scale without precedent in the history of humankind. These and other reservations, articulated repeatedly in the early literature of the movement, led Bahá'ís increasingly to reject modernism's emphasis on the primacy of reason and its secularism — its Jacobin tendencies — and to call for the integration of religious dimension into the framework of Enlightenment modernism. Bahá'ísm insisted that only a religious dimension is capable of providing the kind of constraints that the secularist and rationalist aspects of modernist doctrines need to protect them against excess — a concern dramatically underscored by the events of the modern period. To the degree that Cole endorses this Bahá'í emphasis on the importance of a religious dimension, some readers will undoubtedly see the present work as in part an apologia for religion. Whether one agrees with the position articulated in this work or not, one must concede that Cole has raised a set of issues that demand careful, critical attention.

This reflective and insightful work is based on an impressive array of primary (in some cases unpublished) sources, not to mention a very large body of secondary, interpretative studies, as will be seen from the notes and the bibliography at the end of the work. It is an important study that will commend itself especially to those who are concerned with modernist doctrine, Bahá'í responses to that doctrine, and the implications of both for a fuller understanding of important facets of Middle Eastern history, especially during the last decades of the nineteenth century.
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