Modernity and Millennium: the Genesis of the Baha'i Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East

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Posted by Jonah on July 09, 2101 at 13:29:56:

In Reply to: History and Political setting posted by Robert on July 09, 2101 at 07:55:11:

There is one book that actually perfectly fits this topic, but it is unfortunately problematic in places. Juan Cole's Modernity and Millennium: the Genesis of the Baha'i Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East, published jointly by Columbia Press and Kalimat in 1998, covers this period and the relations of Iran and the Baha'i community to the surrounding countries. Cole's scholarship is thorough and broad, and he definitely provides well-written synoptic history.
Its problem is that many believe Cole to have an unstated political agenda for the contemporary Baha'i community which leads him to excessively politicize his interpretations of this history, esp. Baha'u'llah's intentions.

There are many reviews of this book you can read for more discussion. Two are and Two others I don't have online yet, so I've attached them below.

There are other works which treat this topic, including some of E.G. Browne. But none so thoroughly and appositely as Cole's. -Jonah

Review 1, by Denis MacEoin

Times Literary Supplement, 1999

"New prophet, new law"

Juan R. 1. Cole

The genesis of the Baha'i faith in the nineteenth-century Middle East
264pp. New York: Columbia University Press; distributed in the UK by Wiley. 38 (paperback, 16). 0231 11080 4

Our perception of the Middle East and Islam being what it is, it's not very surprising that most Westerners think of the region as hopelessly unreformed, as, perhaps, beyond reform, in a way that is not thought true of, say, non-Muslim Africa or Latin America. Faced with Saudi conservatism, or the Taliban at work in Afghanistan, the average onlooker may well be forgiven the judgment, however sweeping.

There is no question but that, in recent years, Islamic revivalism has embraced a "back to basics" ethic that manifests itself most notoriously in public floggings, the enforced veiling of women, or calls (as in Pakistan) for the universal implementation of shar'ia law. Yet, go back a century or so, to Turkey or Iran or Palestine and an equally astonishing picture presents itself: one of both religious and secular reformism on a breathtaking scale.

In country after country during the second half of the last century and the first decades of this, Muslims demanded and achieved reforms, that, in the nature of things, encompassed both religion and State. Everything had to be modelled on the expanding, successful West, of course, and very little was considered sacrosanct. Reform affected law, education women's rights, minority rights, and even the character of the Islamic State itself (as in the agitation that led to the new Iranian constitution of 1906).

Juan R. 1. Cole's elegantly presented study brings the period and its reformers bark on to centre stage, while doing so through an unfamiliar medium: the reformism of a new, post-Islamic religion, the Bahai faith, which exists today as a widespread and rapidly growing new religious movement. This is not as perverse as it may seem. Baha'ism ranks very high indeed in the hate list of modern Muslims, sandwiched somewhere between Salman Rushdie and Zionism. The reason is simple: despite the smallness of its numbers, Baha'ism represents the ultimate threat to Islam; it is a movement that abrogates Islamic law and puts a new prophet and a new law in its place.

This has all sorts of resonances today, but in the last century (Baha'ism developed through the 1860s, 70s and 80s) it was heady stuff. Secular reformers had already seen the inevitability of abolishing Islamic law, while their clerical opponents perceived a future devoted to rearguard actions in defence of the faith.

The Baha'i prophet, Baha' Allah (1817-92), stands out as a moderate figure in this debate, abrogating Islam while insisting on the primacy of religion within the State. Cole presents the prophet's teachings in an original, and accurate manner, demonstrating for the first time in many years the liberalism and even radicalism that exemplified the new creed, and tracing connections with reforms in Istanbul, Tehran and elsewhere. Modern Baha'is have tarnished that picture by a heavy-handed conservative interpretation of Baha' Allah and his ideas, and it is refreshing to see someone of Cole's stature rescue both from their smothering embrace.

It is a pity, however, that Professor Cole didn't spend a little more time discussing the Azali Babis. The Babis were a militant sect that preceded the Baha'is, and the Azalis were and are its only surviving splinter group, and great rivals of the Baha'is at one time. Although their numbers were tiny, many Azalis played an important part in the Iranian constitutional revolution. The Baha'is, on the other hand, were conspicuous by their absence. Yet Babism is backward-looking, mystical, conservative and crippled by some of the most impractical laws in religious history whereas Baha'ism is, in principle liberal, forward-looking. delighted by modernity and eager for social improvement. There is an anomaly here that the present work only goes part of the way to explaining.

But even a partial explanation is much more than we have had before. Above all, Cole is to be congratulated for his forthrightness in treating Baha Allah, the main focus of his research, not as a god, but as a man and an articulate exponent of human rights and reformist principles. If, in future, we are to see a realistic biography the Baha'i leader, it will be along these lines, her than those- of the hagiographies which have, until now, dominated the field

Review 2, by Merlin Schwartz

American Historical Review

VOLUME 105 NUMBER 3 June 2000

Review by Merlin Schwartz, p. 1049

Juan R. I. Cole. Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha'i Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press. 1998. Pp. xi, 254. Cloth $47.50, paper $19.50.

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 Baha'ism, particularly those of the leadership of the movement during the formative period of its history. The basis for Cole's selection of Baha'ism 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. Baha'ism 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. Baha'ism 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 Baha'ism represents an orientation that is neither Eastern nor Western. In the analysis and critical assessment of modernity, Baha'ism 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 Baha'ism, 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, Baha'ism did come to define its position vis-=E0-vis the critical issues posed by Enlightenment modernity. On a number of the principles to which Enlightenment modernity was committed, Baha'ism 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 Baha'ism did come to endorse many of the characteristic ideas and values of modernity, Baha'ism 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 Baha'ism 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 Baha'is 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. Baha'ism 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 Baha'i 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, Baha'i 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.

Merlin Swartz
Boston University

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