A Concise Encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith
Author: Peter Smith
Publisher: Oneworld Publications, Oxford, 2000, 396 pages
Review by: William P. Collins
Oneworld Publications in Oxford has published four in its series of one-volume concise paperbound encyclopaedias on world religions. Its volumes on Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity were published in 1998. Each of the earlier volumes contained a brief introduction and approximately 250 pages of very short articles. For these older religions, the concise encyclopaedias can barely do an adequate job of covering the main points of their long history. The new volume on the Bahá'í Faith is by far the best yet of the series. The Bahá'í volume is a substantial work of some 400 pages on a religion that is barely a century and a half old. It provides very good topical coverage in a single-volume overview of the Faith's key people, places, beliefs, and sacred texts. The encyclopaedia is the logical extension of A Basic Bahá'í Dictionary by Wendi Momen (Oxford, UK: George Ronald, 1989), and it is an example of what Adamson and Hainsworth's Historical Dictionary of the Bahá'í Faith (Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 1998) might have been with more concision and tighter editing.
Peter Smith, one of the best recognised names in Bahá'í studies, is widely respected for his careful scholarship, balanced assessments, and succinct presentation of complex ideas. Smith is social sciences coordinator at Mahidol University International College in Thailand and the author of the standard sociological study entitled The Babi and Bahá'í Religions: From Shi'ism to a World Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987). Smith demonstrates in this encyclopaedia his stature as a researcher and his ability to organise a vast subject and capture the salient points in few words. The reviewer noted no serious errors of fact, and few statements of belief or practice that might be called into question by Bahá'ís.
The encyclopaedia has also clearly benefitted from relatively thorough and competent editing, which ensured a clear organisation and a reasonable freedom from grammatical and typographical errors. The volume includes a chronology covering 1844-1992, a list of abbreviations, an essay on further reading accompanying a good bibliography, and an extremely helpful thematic index in which related articles are compiled under several broad headings and subheadings. The articles treat significant people, places, events, beliefs, and scriptures. Black and white photographs, and a small number of maps and charts give the book some visual appeal. A few minor misspellings appear, such as the spelling Herrigal for Herrigel in the article White, Ruth, a few incorrect transliterations of Persian words, occasional unexpected switches of tense, and two photos printed backwards that only the truly knowledgeable would notice.
Each article is well-organised, stating in the first sentences the gist of the definition or topic to be covered. References in the text to other encyclopaedia articles are clearly indicated by text in small capitals, e.g. Prayer. Cross references are kept to a well-balanced minimum. The reviewer could find no dead-end references. In one instance, the encyclopaedia would have benefitted from a cross-reference at Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh to Bahjí, parallelling the article title at Shrine of the Báb. Many users of the encyclopædia will probably not know to find the shrine of Bahá'u'lláh under the article on Bahjí. Some additional references might have been included, e.g. in the article on God, a reference to Metaphysics would have helped the reader find the section of the latter article that deals with "God and the world."
Inevitably in an encyclopaedia prepared by one individual, some expressions, concepts or infelicities recur. In an effort to be inclusive and non-sexist, the author several times introduces an ungrammatical structure such as: "Each individual should work to support themselves and their families" (128). This jarring form is easily avoided by rewriting the sentence as "Individuals should work to support themselves and their families." In the article on Shoghi Effendi Rabbání and elsewhere, the author writes of the Guardian simply as Shoghi. In deference to formal protocol in the Bahá'í Faith, as requested by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, it would be appropriate to append the title Effendi.
In writing of the Guardianship some thought might be given to a more explicit differentiation between the institution of Guardianship and the presence or absence of a living Guardian. Given Shoghi Effendi's clear indication that the Bahá'í Faith cannot safely be divorced from either the Guardianship or the Universal House of Justice, this differentiation is essential. The Guardianship still exists as an institution. The Universal House of Justice, and national and local spiritual assemblies, all consult Shoghi Effendi's interpretations before making decision. His pronouncements as Guardian are normative for understanding what Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá meant. Therefore, while there was no way in which a living Guardian could be appointed by Shoghi Effendi, the institution itself still exerts influence to such an extent that the Universal House of Justice will make no decision without consulting his interpretations first.
We may well expect future editions of this encyclopaedia to be published. The publisher may wish to consider the following improvements: (1) Prepare a short introduction on the Bahá'í Faith, or one of Shoghi Effendi's introductory statements on the Faith's basic purpose, primarily to help the novice understand the basic context of the encyclopaedia. The other three volumes in the series benefitted from such introductions to the historical context of the religions covered, and it would be even more useful for a religion as relatively unknown as the Bahá'í Faith. (2) Include an index covering all names and subjects in the volume wherever mentioned. The thematic index should be retained. (3) Update the statistics on Bahá'í population in the chart on page 142, which contains information only up to 1988, although the encyclopaedia bears a publication date of 2000. (4) Include a few more maps, e.g. demonstrate the spread of the Bahá'í Faith using a two-page world map to accompany the article on Expansion. Admittedly, this might entail the use of colour, which would increase the book's cost, but it would provide a cartographic representation of aspects of the article. (5) Include several articles that seem to be lacking in the encyclopædia. Brief references in some of the articles suggest that more is needed:
- Holy Spirit: While this is touched upon in the article on metaphysics, the importance of this concept to the Bahá'í and, in particular, the Christian, audience requires that it be given a separate entry. The article would deal with terms Holy Spirit and Primal Will, which Bahá'í scripture seems to treat as one and the same.
- Joseph: Given the extent to which the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh compared themselves to the Biblical Joseph / Qur'ánic Yusuf, this biblical figure probably requires an entry.
- Easton, Peter Z. / Miller, William McElwee / Richards, J. R. / Wilson, Samuel G.: The encyclopædia deals with Iranian opponents in individual articles. Certain individual Christian opponents are of significant importance and deserve separate entries also. The four listed here come to mind, not only because they wrote extensively against the Bahá'ís, but also because they inspired important apologetic literature, e.g. Easton inspired Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl's writing of The Brilliant Proof.
- Nicolas, A.-L.-M.: This article is far too short given the importance of the individual. He ranks in importance with E. G. Browne.
- Alchemy/Hermeticism: A brief reference in the article on human race indicates that one measure of humanity's maturity will be the transmutation of elements. There is nothing more said of this topic, which begs for additional clarification. An article on alchemical and hermetic science could prove useful background to a very difficult subject, particularly if some attention is given to "spiritual alchemy" and the process of human transformation.
The encyclopaedia is clearly a very handy reference for a wide audience: the novice who is studying the Bahá'í Faith, believers who are learning or teaching others about the religion's history and beliefs, veteran Bahá'ís who will use the encyclopaedia to check facts and verify basic concepts, and academics who need a quick and accurate resource. The references to other works included at the end of each article will send any users to the full background for their own investigation of the topic. The work is not comprehensive in terms of the possible universe of information about the Bahá'í religion, but its sound coverage of the most important topics makes A Concise Encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith a must-own for every English-speaking Bahá'í, and a model for organising future encyclopaedias on the growing community of Bahá'u'lláh's followers. It is also absolutely essential for the reference shelves of university, public, and theological libraries.
- See my review in Bahá'í Studies Review 8 (1998): 73-79.