Review of: Bahá'í Perspectives on Islam, Modernity, and Peace
Kalimat Press, Los Angeles, 2021
Published in: Reading Religion
(Nov. 30, 2021)
Being Human: Baha’i Perspectives on Islam, Modernity, and Peace is the expanded edition of the original title, which first appeared in 2019. It is a collection of five previously published articles revised by Todd Lawson, a leading scholar of the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, and of the Babi and Baha’i religions, which arose in 19th-century Persia (Iran). The Baha’i Faith, a global religion established by Baha’u’llah (1817–1892), evolved from the Babi religion, founded by the Bab (1819–1850) on the evening of May 22, 1844, in Shiraz. Both charismatic figures are thus considered to be the cofounders of the present-day Baha’i Faith, the purpose of which is to unify the world. Academics in the field of Babi and Baha’i studies, of course, are quite familiar with Lawson’s work. Being Human presents Lawson’s work to a much broader audience.
As for the intriguing title of the book, Lawson explains that “the history of humanity is punctuated by the appearance of ‘new’ religions,” and that the “challenge and promise for today is the realization of the biological, physical, and spiritual kinship of all humans across the globe.” “Attunement to this challenge,” represents yet another way of being human (preface, xiii).
Lawson characterizes his work as focusing on “the growth and development of the Baha’i Faith from its parent religion, Islam, and its profound and enduring kinship with Islam—a kinship that continues to characterize Baha’i faith, practice, and thought” (xiii). The purpose of this anthology, therefore, is to resolve a “paradox” in that, while the Baha’i Faith has its roots in Islam, the faith has emerged as an independent world religion. This is phenomenologically parallel to the relationship between Judaism and Christianity.
This historical and contemporary paradox, in turn, presents a certain “cognitive dissonance” that invites a sophisticated yet clear explanation. Lawson rises to this challenge and resolves this insistent scholarly problem as framed. The simple answer is that the relationship between the Baha’i Faith and Islam is complex. More importantly, it is dynamic.
Throughout the rest of this volume, Lawson addresses salient Baha’i continuities with Islam, and discontinuities as well. Over the course of its growth and development, a distinctive Baha’i ethos has taken on definitive shape, both institutionally and doctrinally. This historical and ideological interplay makes for some interesting reading in terms of the relationship of the Baha’i Faith vis-à-vis its parent religion, Islam.
Lawson offers positive—and perhaps corrective—valuations of Islam in order to counter some of the rampant outbreaks of Islamophobia that precipitously arose in the wake of September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks that shocked America and the world—outbreaks that persist to varying degrees today. That said, no hard-and-fast, formulaic paradigm shift appears to be ventured or otherwise theorized, except in carefully nuanced ways. Instead, Lawson seems content with accentuating and amplifying the harmonics that reverberate between Islam and the Baha’i Faith.
The introduction, titled “The Baha’i Faith: From Heresy to World Religion,” is based on “Baha’i Religious History,” which introduces a “Special Issue: Bahá’í History” (a notable scholarly “event”) published in December 2012 by the Journal of Religious History and guest-edited by Lawson. The Baha’i Faith offers an intriguing phenomenological “example of how heresy becomes orthodoxy”—having arisen “from within the bosom of its parent religion, Ithna-‘Ashari Shi‘ism” (5), that is, Twelver Shi’ism, the faith is yet “perhaps the only Islamic movement of recent history to have ‘escaped the gravitational pull of Islam’ and to have acquired a distinctive post-Islamic identity” (9). An instance of Lawson’s original and critical thinking is his statement that “religious history” is a “pleonasm” (a superfluously worded expression, used as a rhetorical figure of speech for emphasis or clarity) since “in a sense, all history is religious” (6). Secular historians may differ. But Lawson’s logic is thought-provoking nevertheless.
Also originally published in 2012, “The Baha’i Tradition: The Return of Joseph and the Peaceable Imagination” (chapter 1) maps out a trajectory of the history of ideas vis-à-vis Islam and the Baha’i Faith. Lawson points out that certain originally “Islamic beliefs,” as taken up in the Baha’i Faith, are “universalized beyond their formative Arabo-islamicate matrix, and beyond their evolution and development in the more far-flung realms of islamicate civilization” (17).
Of special interest is the section “The Return of Joseph,” wherein the notion of “Baha’u’llah’s advent (zuhur), a return of the True Joseph” (20) is explained and elaborated. This “True Joseph” analysis is sourced, in part, to “Muhammad-Husayni, Yusuf-i Baha’” in the corresponding endnote (129 n. 38). (Although a proper transliteration of a Persian name, this spelling is incorrect, and should read “Mohammadhosseini” [first name Nosratollah].)
Next is the title essay, “Being Human: From Shaykh Ahmad to Baha’u’llah” (chapter 2)—also first published in 2012—which presents a qualitatively distinct definition of religious (rather than secular) humanism, especially in terms of its religious foundations and formulations. An extended discussion of the Baha’i concept of covenant follows in “Seeing Double: The Covenant and the Tablet of Ahmad” (chapter 3). The primordial “Covenant in Islam” (see Q. 7:172–174) is discussed at some length, followed by “Covenant in the Baha’i Faith,” then “Covenant in the Tablet of Ahmad,” with commentaries on this special prayer revealed by Baha’u’llah rounding out this chapter. In “Globalisation and the Hidden Words” (chapter 4), Lawson characterizes Baha’u’llah as a precocious “nineteenth-century Persian theorist of modernity and globalization” (109). A postscript (acknowledgments, primarily) concludes the substantive body of the book.
Being Human is an original contribution to academic studies on the Babi and Baha’i religions. Lawson’s style is original, engaging, thought provoking—and, in places, unpretentiously profound. Throughout the book, the figure of Joseph is presented as the paradigmatic peacemaker and humanist, prefiguring Baha’u’llah. Therefore, beyond its intrinsic academic interest, Being Human awakens and brings to life the archetypal Joseph, timeless yet timely, standing subliminally within the depths of social conscience. That said, Lawson’s work is recommended as a significant and valuable introduction to Baha’i studies for a general readership. It is also a handy resource for scholars in the field—as a field guide—to have on hand.
About the Reviewer:
Christopher Buck is an independent scholar.
About the Author:
Todd Lawson is Emeritus Professor of Islamic Thought at the University of Toronto.