The Modes and intentions of Biography
This paper seeks to explore some of the
'moral implications' in writing biography in Bahá'í
perspective. It proceeds by searching out the modes, intentions,
and problems of Bahá'í biography in order to ground its
theoretical observations empirically and to point to some issues
of method associated with biographical practice. A related
purpose is to offer some initial observations on the ways in
which biographical literatures frame understandings of the
individual in the context of community.
The biography, as distinguished from all
other texts, places the life experience of an individual (or
individuals) at the centre of investigation. The Encyclopedia
Britannica describes a biography as a "narrative which
seeks, consciously and artistically, to record the actions and
recreate the personality of an individual life..." Other
works such as histories and other types of commentary may well
consider the same person or people, but without placing them at
the centre of the investigation. There are, for instance,
descriptions of Horace Holley in Gayle Morrison's study of Louis
Gregory, but the latter is at the centre of focus. Similarly,
Robert Stockman's recent survey of the Bahá'í Faith in America
describes a great number of individuals, without amounting to a
biography of any one of them. A further distinction can be made
between biographies written about oneself (autobiographies)
rather than about others. The noblest goal of an autobiography is
to examine one's life and to share the results of this
examination with others. It requires the capacity to observe
oneself at a distance. Autobiographies may also be written for
other purposes, whether for the instruction of others, or simply
to record the times one has lived through and the events one has
witnessed or participated in.
Not all biographies intend exploring
their subject in similar depth. Those which are essentially
chronological and descriptive intend to document a life
"for the record". They seek, that is, to preserve, or
to record, information of interest about a person, and they seek
remembrance (tadhkira) of a subject without exploring the
relationship between his or her values and actions, and without
placing these actions in some specific historical or
socio-cultural context. In a sense they offer an assurance that a
subject possessed the qualities of the spiritual and the virtues
of the holy, but do not necessarily bring the reader any closer
to an understanding of the struggles and achievements of their
A more complex biographical exercise
presents relevant events in some actual context, and examines the
progression of the biographical subject through the conditions of
their life. It takes the step of seeking the significance
of the subject's existence, of extracting the essential
from myriad events and happenings in their life. For example,
biographies of George Townshend and Louis Gregory seek to position
their subjects in the context of their times.
Traditions of biography and
autobiography have evolved in each of the world religions.
Devoted at first to depicting the life of the prophet, and the
lives of the first disciples, they have expanded to include
accounts of martyrs, saints, and holy men and women. The Shorter
Oxford English Dictionary defines this literature as
"Hagiogology" - "literature that treats of the
lives and legends of saints". But this literature in its
original form was not as concerned with the details of an
individualised life as with the generalised moral story that it
could be called on to tell. Such idealized biographies of saints
that were the focus of medieval hagiographies, explain Averill
... were little concerned with
the idiosyncrasies of individual lives. Their purpose was
to further Christian ideals, and medieval biographers
felt free to borrow anecdotes from one saint's life to
embellish the life of another. To the extent that
differences among people were accorded significance, such
differences were based on preestablished regional, class,
and gender expectations. A person was born into a certain
social station (a nobleman, say, or a serf), and that
station determined the meaning of his or her life.
The "exemplary" purpose of
such texts has recently been elaborated by studies of the
"broad injunctions" found in Christian texts in
contrast to the "specific regulations" found in
Inevitably, there arose a need
to identify models of proper, and improper, behaviour to
compensate for the excessive laconism of the New
Testament on this topic. Lives of saints were written and
accounts of the lives of famous pagans were scrutinized
to extract from them the models that would guarantee the
moral uplifting of righteous Christians. We know these
models under the name of exempla, narratives of
others' lives, or of events in others' lives, admitting
of a moral lesson.
The Buddhist tradition offers a slightly
different approach to biography, which yielded a somewhat similar
result. According to Gungwu the practice of biography was
inhibited by the attempt to limit the "aggrandisement of the
self" through placing little emphasis on "any
individual self" at any particular point in time, or place
Self was knowable but specific
selves were not worth knowing except where they might
show a capacity to merge with the universal, with the
infinite and the eternal. There was, therefore, no
meaningful biography except where it might demonstrate
how a few extraordinary men conquered their selves.
China's Confucian tradition
elaborated Shih Chi, biographies exemplifying a
'Confucian moralism whose ultimate aim was to guide the
conduct of statecraft'. In Japan such literary figures as Mori
îgai developed a 'typology of virtue' to describe
a vast corpus of biographical literature. A similar hagiographic
intention also informs Islamic biography. Biographies of the
Prophet were given the name sira, and the tradition of rijál
in Shi'a Islam focused on study of the lives of the transmitters
of the traditions of Islam. Eventually clergy and califs, saints
and missionaries, were equally subject to written remembrance. In
some parts of the Islamic world these are known as tarjama,
an Arabic term referring to both biography and autobiography. Tajarma
marshalled the particulars of the lives of learned men into
The components include a
genealogy, an account of formal education and
Qur'anic memorization, a list of teachers (often
including close relatives, which indicates family support
for religious learning), the books and subjects studied,
and selections from the subject's poetry, aphorisms,
or other contributions to learning. Dates are provided
whenever possible, since the ability to date events
distinguishes the traditionally educated from the
As explained by Renard, the significance
of the depiction of religious heroes in literature lies in that
they 'live and move in a world ordered according to a divine
plan', and that they exist 'only to reflect and point
out God's signs and presence in creation':
When they conquer they do so by
God's leave and power; and even when they lose in
time, as rejected prophets or martyrs for justice, they
win in eternity. Religious heroes function as custodians
of hope against terrible odds, testifying to the virtual
certainty of ultimate victory. Their life stories bear
witness to the reality of a transcendent dimension in
human experience. Most of all, prophets and Friends of
God represent the best of religious and cultural ideals
in accessible form, perhaps too far away to attain fully
but not so far as to discourage an attempt.
Religious biography, of course, exists
within a larger practice of biography, which in the modern period
has become dominated by studies from popular culture - cinema,
literature, music, and war. In the twentieth century biographical
endeavour has come to include accounts of previously silenced
voices - of 'common' people, of women, and of the
oppressed and marginalised, who are now 'writing back'
to their oppressors. In finding these voices, the practice of
autobiography (ie writing one's own story) has also burgeoned.
With the emergence of secularism in Western society the
hagiographic function elaborated within the religious traditions
has been modified rather than completely rejected. Modern
biographies generally avoid questions of "ultimate
purpose", but proceed in the knowledge that "each human
life recapitulates common human experience".
Biography in the Bahá'í Writings
There seems little need to defend the
practice of either history or biography in Bahá'í discourse.
The Writings of Bahá'u'lláh are replete with references to
history; those of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi similarly draw
on past events and persons when referring to present and even
future concerns. Bahá'u'lláh immortalised the lives of those
devoted to His cause, and he referred to the lives of the past
prophets and sages as being lives worthy of emulation.
Furthermore, Bahá'u'lláh described his own experiences in his
Tablets. Autobiographical references by the Manifestation point
to the worth of his experience, and allow the reader to compare
the records of that experience with those of the lives of
'Abdu'l-Bahá recalled the lives of
kings, rulers and learned in Secret of Divine Civilization,
and extolled sincere Báb' and Bahá'í believers in Memorials
of the Faithful. He suggested that contemplation of the lives
of heroic Bahá'ís in Persia would set an example that others
might aspire to follow, once advising that time be taken at the
Nineteen day Feast to
...recount the high deeds and
sacrifices of the lovers of God in Persia, and tell of
the martyrs' detachment from the world, and their
ecstasy, and of how the believers there stood by one
another and gave up everything they had.
Thus we see that the intention of a work
such as Memorials of the Faithful is to depict
'ordinary' people who, through their faith, do
extraordinary things. Such stories inspire us because they show
the effect of faith on people like ourselves.
Shoghi Effendi valued those who had
served the Cause, and referred to them in the most admiring and
loving language. He frequently sent epitaphs when notified of the
passing of individuals whose efforts to promote the Bahá'í
Cause he cherished, and he instigated an "In Memoriam"
section in the first Bahá'í Yearbook (1925-1926) in
remembrance of notable Bahá'ís, a tradition that has continued
to the present through volumes 2-19 of The Bahá'í World
(vol. II, 1926-28 - vol. XIX., 1983-86). The brief biographies
that appear in official records, however, were never intended to
set limits as to the treatment of individual life-stories. To the
contrary, Shoghi Effendi on several occasions referred to the
need for further elaboration, which the pressure of his more
compelling responsibilities as Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith
prevented him from exploring.
The Subjects of Bahá'í Biographies
One feature which begins to emerge from
a reading of Bahá'í biographies is the diversity of
personalities depicted, and the seeming lack of limitations on
culture or social class represented. In what may be an
unconscious evolution, the literature has in the first 150 years
of its tradition produced studies ranging from the twin
'Great Souls' (the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh), to their
followers of high and low station alike, and even those who
worked as servants and slaves.
The biographies of the central figures
by Balyuzi combine the approaches of meticulous western source
scholarship and religious attachment, to produce studies which
are at once faithful to and somehow detached from their subjects.
David S. Ruhe acknowledges the hagiographic element in his
biography of Bahá'u'lláh, Robe of Light ('The
Persian Years of the Supreme Prophet Bahá'u'lláh'), and
suggests also that a cold objectivity is neither possible nor
A natural tendency to reflect a
feeling for Bahá'u'lláh well beyond hagiography must be
moderated through such objectivity as is possible so soon
after the lifetime of the Prophet. Nevertheless, the
author's subjective emotional conviction has been
sustained by a steadily deepening appreciation of the
Ruhe points to a shift in perspective
that is gaining ground in the 'post-modern period'.
Consisting of many ungathered strands, it is a perspective which
questions the certainties of much modern thought, particularly
the idea that knowledge can be produced 'objectively',
and in a way that determines some 'absolute' or
'scientific' truth. This new perspective is prepared to
admit its own boundaries, and to seek validity through disclosure
of its own limited capacities to find meanings. Such a
perspective finds many parallels that are useful in approaching
Bahá'í biographical literature.
At this early stage in a new tradition,
the lives of the central figures of the Bahá'í Faith have been
presented anecdotally more than through comprehensive narrative.
The life-story of Abdu'l-Bahá has been told in such early
studies as Myron Phelps The Life and Teachings of Abbas
Effendi (1905), and more recently in Balyuzi's Abdu'l-Bahá:
Centre of the Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh (1971).
Abdu'l-Bahá's sister Bah'yyih Khánum has not been
the subject of close biographical observation.
Of the more than fifty individuals
appointed 'Hands of the Cause' by Bahá'u'lláh and
Shoghi Effendi, only a handful have to date been the subject of
serious (English-language) biographies. Accounts of Rahmatu'lláh
Muhajir and Zikrullah Khadem have been written by family members,
using primarily personal notebooks and diaries, and being subject
to later revision and supplementation. Iran Muhajir considers the
biography of her husband Rahmatu'lláh Muhajir an incomplete
record of the life of this man who "lived only to serve
Bahá'u'lláh and who tried to carry out the instructions of the
beloved Guardian to the best of his ability". The life-story
of Dorothy Baker has been written by her grand-daughter, Dorothy
Gilstrap. Other Hands of the Cause who have been subject to
biographical treatment include Martha Root, George Townshend, and
Louis Gregory and John Esslemont.
Biography as exemplum
The traditions of hagiography in both
Islamic and Christian literature have undoubtedly and quite
understandibly influenced much of early Bahá'í biographical
literature. Elements of Tajarma are clearly evident, for
instance, in Nabil-i-Azam's account of the Babis, The
Dawnbreakers. So too is Mirza Abu'l-Fadl's
'Short Sketch of the History and Lives of the Leaders of
This Religion' (published together with his well-known work The
Bahá'í Proofs), reflective of the style. Typical of
scholarship in both east and west at the time, Abu'l-Fadl
does not detail his sources, but does show that he has considered
the evidence of writers who were supportive of his subjects, as
well as those who were not, and he supports only those facts he
is confident of.
More recent Bahá'í literature also
draws on the hagiographic and documentary Islamic and Christian
traditions. This includes many biographies that appear in the
"In Memoriam" section of volumes of the Bahá'í
World. These are based for the most part on memoirs by
relatives or acquaintances of the subject. They do not
necessarily rely on extensive use of documentary sources, and
intend to honour the memory of their subjects, and to acknowledge
their contribution to the progress of the Bahá'í Faith rather
than to explore their individual contribution in detail. In
fulfilling these functions, they encourage and inspire their
readers, and locate contemporary Bahá'í activities against a
background of worthy tradition. Furthermore, they establish a
record of the past which acts as an essential collective memory -
a consciousness of the past - that strengthens individuals and
communities as they operate in the present.
Bahá'í literature also includes
several valuable collections of what might be termed
'biographical essays'. Some of these are by a single
author, such as O.Z. Whitehead's Some Early Bahá'ís of
the West (Oxford, 1976), Some Bahá'ís to Remember
(Oxford, 1983), and Portraits of Some Bahá'í Women
(Oxford, 1996); and Dipchand Khianra's Immortals (New
Delhi, 1988). Multi-authored collections of this genre include And
the trees clapped their hands, edited by Claire Vreeland
(Oxford, 1994), and Why They became Bahá'ís, compiled by
Annamarie Honnold (New Delhi, 1994).
These volumes of biographical essay each
cohere around a specific theme. Whitehead's first volume (Some
Early Bahá'ís...) narrates the lives of 23 individuals who
met Abdu'l-Bahá. The volume edited by Vreeland includes both
biographical and autobiographical accounts of pioneers, while
that compiled by Honnold presents 34 autobiographies and 101
biographies of 'first generation Bahá'ís by 1963'.
Khianra presents stories of Bahá'ís from the Indian
subcontinent. Numerous essays from among these four sets of
biographical essays rely on existing secondary sources and
primary materials offered by subjects' relatives and
acquaintances: not one among them suggests any reliance on
formally archived materials.
For the most part these biographic
essays are vehicles for exempla - for inspiration and the
consolidation of tradition. Such exemplary biographies are not
inherently problematic, but they may become so when tension
results from difference between a writer's intentions and
readers' expectations, or else when through the selective
(non-)use of biographical evidence, leading in some instances to
'biographies of denial'. The life-story of Fatima Zarin
Taj Baraqhani (also known as Tahireh = 'The pure one',
and Quratul'ayn = 'solace of the eyes'), for
instance, is one still to be imagined from within its prism of
both eastern and western biographic traditions. Being female, her
learning did not satisfy the criteria of tarjama, and only
her individual brilliance has saved her from being silenced like
so many of her sister believers, as lamented in Bahiyyih
Nakhjavani's insightful Asking Questions:
The pages of Nabil's Dawn-Breakers
are filled with countless women. They ride beside their
husbands and sacrifice their children. They are
humiliated, beaten and raped. They are paraded on
horseback as the heads of their sons and husbands are
held aloft on pikes. They carry stones and build forts;
they cut off their hair and use it to bind together the
fracturing guns at Nayriz. They were no doubt among those
who helped grind the bones of dead horses and who rushed
out under cannon fire to gather the new grass to eat at
Fort Shaykh Tabarsi. But they have no names
and Nabil does not go out of his way to mention
them...(Oxford: 1990, p130).
Being a martyr for her Faith, her
persona as 'heroine' is more familiar than her
individuality. An instance of difference between author's
intentions and reader's expectation on the subject of
Tahirih occurred in a critic's response to Martha Root's
biography, Tahirih the Pure: Iran's Greatest Woman.
F.W.Ebner, who received a copy of Miss Root's book at the
time of her visit to China in 1938, wrote in the North-China
Were this book written primarily
to show the life and influence of a nineteenth-century
Persian woman who suffered martyrdom in her attempt to
emancipate women, it would have resulted in a unique
contribution to oriental biography. However the author's
interest in her subject, Hadrat-i-Tahirih, Her Highness
the Pure One, has been secondary to her interest in the
promotion of the Bahá'í Faith. The review does not take
exception to the purpose of the book as conceived by the
author. He merely states that the ostensible purpose of
the book seems to be of secondary concern.
While Miss Root gathered much of her
material first-hand, in Iran, her treatment of the life-story of
Quratul'ayn emphasised her role as suffragette and Báb'
heroine rather than her individuality. Ebner, on the other hand,
was evidently more interested in Tahireh's individuality as
poetess and religious reformer.
Another instance of tension between
biography as exempla and narration of a unique life is
related by anthropologist Michael Fischer. During extensive
fieldwork in Yazd, Iran, Fischer befriended Nœru'llah Akhtar-Khávar',
a Bahá'í employed to handle international affairs at the
Kerakhshan wool spinning and weaving mill. Akhtar-Khávar'
was a couragous advocate of his Faith, who was executed by the
Khomeini government in 1980. In re-presenting the story of his
life, Fischer recognised that 'two stories' could be
The more powerful one is of the
exemplary figure, the modern man who had decided to
operate in a very conservative society, not to badger or
embarrass it, but to show a new and open mode of
behaviour. The challenge here is to show how one operates
in such a society: it is almost an ethnographic
challenge, the kind of challenge that requires the eye of
a novelist for local color knowledge of local detail. It
is a challenge to describe how a society changes,
sometimes moving in reactionary self-destructive
directions, but nonetheless irrevocably changes, in ways
involving considerable internal conflict. The exemplary
individual as well as all other individuals have to make
choices, have to negotiate pragmatic as well as moral
The other narrative that can be
told - by far the weaker story, I think - is to turn
Akhtar-Khavari into a standard Bahá'í martyr. It is
this that I fear will be his fate. I fear it not only
because I will no longer recognize my friend, but also
because he was larger than such stereo-typing allows. His
personality (like every human being's) was unique:
it was also graceful, informed, and forceful, and thus
Fischer's understandable concern is
that hagiographic treatment of Akhtar-Khávar' would have
a moulding effect, which would 'disembody' the
authentic self. He sees the 'typing' of an individual
as 'martyr' as a reduction of the subject, a shrinking
of personhood into a brave but futile heroism. He regards the
legacy of Nœru'llah Akhtar-Khávar' not as 'a
dialogue of martyrdom with Shi'ism' but 'the
possibility of living in Yazd as if it were the twentieth
century, as if one could live without fear of religious
fanaticism, as if people could live and let live each by his or
her own lights.' His purpose is not to 'denigrate the
suffering or the heroism of Bahá'í martyrs' but to
'raise for discussion the possibilities for more effective
ways of countering the genocidal atrocities of the Khomeini
A survey of Bahá'í biographical
literature suggests that Fischer's fear has not been
realised. In the first place, despite the many deaths of Babis
and Bahá'ís in the nineteenth century, and the continued
martyrdom of Bahá'ís in both pre- and post-revolutionary Iran,
these martydoms have not necessarily led to biographies of
hagiographic intent and 'martyrdom' trope. Secondly,
the appearance of such literature, when it does eventually
emergence, need not betray the individuality of the subject in
the way that Fischer fears. For sacrifice of self is regarded as
honourable in the Bahá'í tradition as in those of the past, and
lives that have been offered in the purest of motives will be
remembered among the exemplary.
If there exists a 'true path'
for human endeavour and the refinement of character, there also
exists a path of 'waywardness'. Where one is a path of
faithfulness, the other is that of deceit, and one role of
biography is to clarify the distinction between the two. Thus the
central figures of the Bahá'í Faith exalted the character and
actions of the praiseworthy, and noted the condition of its
opponents for the purpose of instructing others in right conduct.
The extent to which accounts can vary in
their evaluation of an individual's place in Báb' and
Bahá'í history is illustrated in studies of the life of the
Persian activist Jamalu-din al-Afghani (1838/9-1897). Afghani was
an Iranian of considerable intellectual and political capacity,
who wove deception into every phase of his eventual life.
Renowned Persianist Nikkie Keddie suggests that Afghani saw
himself as a 'kind of prophet or messiah, destined to
reform, reawaken, and reunite the Muslim world and free it from
its infidel conquerors.' While there is no doubt that
Afghani knew much about the Teachings of the Báb, and associated
with Báb's, views vary greatly on whether or not Afghani was in
sympathy with, or opposed to them. Kedourie has suggested that
during his last years in Istanbul Afghani associated with
"Persian Babis prominent in the dissemination of heterodoxy,
and active in subverting the authority of the Persian
Government", and suggests that an anti-Báb' article
attributed to Afghani in Vol. V of Butrus al-Bustani's
encyclopedia Da'irat al-Ma'arif published in Beirut in
1881 was written by Bustani himself. Shoghi Effendi, however, is
clear in his assement of Afghani's relationship to the early
Bahá'ís, and describes Afghani as one of those "enemies
who have sedulously sought to extinguish the light of
The scheming Jamalu'd Din
Afghani, whose relentless hostility and powerful
influence had been so gravely detrimental to the progress
of the Faith in Near Eastern countries, was, after a
checkered career filled with vicissitudes, stricken with
cancer, and having had a major part of his tongue cut
away in an unsuccessful operation perished in misery.
In this passage Shoghi Effendi combines
judgement of character ('the scheming Jamalu'd Din...')
with matters of historical fact relating to his political and
physical decline. While few biographies have been written to date
about those who occupied themselves in active opposition to the
Central figures and to the Bahá'í Community itself, the
references to their actions in such works as Shoghi
Effendi's God Passes By suggests that such studies
will in time be required in the ongoing search for historical
understanding of past events.
There are many individuals whose lives
as Bahá'ís are only partially uncovered in the biographical
literature. These include the famous movie actress Carol Lombard,
who did not live long after her becoming a Bahá'í. The black
American philosopher Alaine Locke (1886-1954) is another whose
activities within the Bahá'í community are not fully documented
or assessed, in biographies which focus on his achievements as a
philosopher and writer. The Bahá'í literature, conversely,
notes Locke's involvement in race amity conferences in the
1920s without examining in any detail his work in philosophy.
Roy Wilhelm (1875-1951), the trusted
servant of 'Abdu'l-Bahá designated a "herald of
Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant' and later Hand of the Cause by Shoghi
Effendi, is known to Bahá'ís for his service on the Bahá'í
Temple Unity Board (from 1909) and the North American National
Assembly (from its inception 1922 until 1946, when he retired at
age 71); and especially for the property in New Jersey which
became the east coast Bahá'í Community's first summer
school. Less well-known is the fact that Wilhelm rose from high
school drop-out to become one of the largest coffee brokers in
North America, a story better told in the pages of the New
York Times. Perhaps even less well known are the troubled
formative years which prepared Wilhelm for a life of service. As
recalled by Wilhelm's butler Walter Blakely:
Roy was born in Zainsville Ohio,
he went to school, when he got to high school he didn't
like it so he ran away, his people found him and brought
him back, then he ran again the second time, and he told
me he covered his tracks thoroughly, he got a job as a
pottery salesman on the road, what they called a
"drummer" in those days, and he used to go all
over the US selling pottery, and finally he told me he
saved up $750, it was like $7,500 now, and a confidance
man came and cheated him out of it, which he said was a
good thing, because he never got cheated again.
Roy Wilhelm used to write to the
Guardian every day. I used to mail them for him, and he
used to get a letter back about once a week. He sent the
Guardian an automobile, a brand new buick, the best ever
made, I picked it out, because Roy said "you pick it
out Walter, and pick out all the parts he will need for a
number of years, 10 years".
Apart from the investigation of lives
lived in loyalty to 'the Covenant' of Bahá'u'lláh,
there remains too the issue of lives lived outside it, or in
wilful opposition to it. A small number of biographies focus on
subjects who were not Bahá'ís, but whose lives intersected
significantly with the Bahá'í Revelation. These include Edward
Granville Browne, the Cambridge Orientalist who devoted some
three decades to the study of the Babi movement. Balyuzi's
study Edward Granville Browne and the Bahá'í Faith does
not explore all facets of the scholar's life and work, but
focuses, as the title suggests, on his activities and
publications in relation to the Religion and community of the
Báb. More specifically, Balyuzi writes from the perspective of
one who has examined Browne's early and later writings, and
who is puzzled at his increasingly contradictory and oftentimes
Biography, it seems, cannot aspire to
full re-presentation of a subject's life. Rather, its
function and purpose is to select facets of that life which the
biographer finds important. In doing so, biography offers
commentary on the significance of that life, and on what was
individual about that life. In contemporary terms, one
commentator has suggested "The biographer imposes pattern on
experience to declare the comprehensibility of human existence.
Learning of other people, we learn of ourselves." To aid the
task of finding and commenting on meaning, biography makes use of
such devices as metaphor and critique.
Biography as metaphor
St. Augustine has written in his Confessions:
Many things...are done, which
seem disallowable to men and yet are approved by thy
testimony; and many things again are commended by men,
which by thy testimony are condemned. For the appearance
of the act is often different from the intention of him
that doth it; and the precise circumstances of the time,
which are hidden from us, must often vary.
The Christian tradition of biography
developed metaphors with which to describe the evolution of the
religious life, and against which to compare the specifics of the
life of their subject. Vincent Brummer explains, for instance, a
three-stage growth process within the Christian tradition of
mysticism, commencing with purification (or
purgation), then illumination (or enlightenment) and finally
ecstasy (or union). In the stage of purification one learns
repentance, self-denial, and humility. This first stage is one of
self-knowledge, a stage in which the "spirit of God inflames
our will with love. This is a love that is chaste, holy and
ardent". The third level, union, is not possible in the
mortal realm, although enlightened mystics may gain glimpses of
If a metaphor such as Brummer's is
accepted, the biographical task become that of making evident the
progress of the spirit as it becomes refined through the tests it
encounters and endures in the world of physical being. The stages
of search, love, knowledge, unity, contentment, wonderment,
poverty and absolute nothingness explored in Bahá'u'lláh's
mystical work The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys refer
to stages that souls traverse in life in varying degrees of
intensity, which relate to varying degrees of capacity. To the
present this model has been explored in systematic theologies,
but has not provided the foundation for any biographical study.
The literary subject might render the biographer's task easy by
depicting his or her spiritual state on paper, but few people are
so inclined, and the interpretation of their interior journey on
the basis of their exterior one remains extremely difficult. The
most accessible biographical subjects are those who themselves
engaged in literature. Thus biographer Wendy Heller found Lidia
Zamenhof a subject at once tragic and accessible. Zamenhof was
the daughter of Ludwik Zamenhof, a polish Jew who created the
language of Esperanto. She devoted herself to propagation of the
Bahá'í Teachings through the medium of Esperanto language and
culture, until terminated by the Nazis of Hitler's Germany.
Heller's treatment of Zamenhof's restless life excels
in narrating her life journey against the backdrop of pre-war
Europe, when Bahá'í Communities laboured innocently in the
context of a mounting maelstrom.
More frequent use has been made of
life-cycles - the pilgrimage from childhood, to adolescence, to
adulthood. This physical progression provides a metaphor for the
spiritual journey that gives meaning to the physical: it offers a
view on the quest for life - the conquering of self, the
over-coming of desire; it seeks to examine the ways in which
periods of crises and test contributed to the subject's growth
A number of significant motifs recur in
the depiction of the life-cycle of an individual believer in the
Faith of Bahá'u'lláh. These include the process of
conversion/confirmation of Faith, socialisation (becoming
familiar with the value system of the Community), conversion
encounters (acts of teaching the Faith to others), acts or
episodes of service (eg participation in administration,
propagation, scholarship and learning, defence of the Bahá'í
Among the most successful biographies in
exploring the life-cycle are those by Marzieh Gail. In Summon
Up Remembrance (Oxford, 1987) and Arches of the Years
(Oxford 1991) Gail graciously introduces the reader to the world
as lived by her parents, Ali Kuli Khan and Florence Breed, quite
possibly the first Persian-American marital alliance, and
certainly a meeting of culture and learning on both sides. As a
child-witness to much that she records, Gail's account thus
benefits from intimate association with her characters, and
permits the reader not merely an understanding of the involvement
of Khan and Breed in the affairs of the Bahá'í Community -
whether in Persia, Palestine, Turkey, France, or the United
States - but insights into the influences that shaped the
development of their characters, and the forces in the world at
large that shaped their destinies.
In all her writing Gail describes the
heroic without creating generic heroes or heroines, and in this
she follows Ruhe in instinctively developing another of the
'ungathered strands': The new framework for observation
of lived lives does not seek to be prescriptive, does not set up
'personas' modelling or somehow defining a set of
'ideal' behaviours. That modernist effort to
standardise our every action, to stifle difference, to create
categories which we can clearly label as 'the heroic'
teacher or defender of the Faith, or the 'stalwart' and
tragic martyr or saint, have been dismissed. Here instead is an
effort to see subjects in their individuality, to find qualities
of humility, of love, of brilliance, of courage, in their
specific locations, rather than in some pre-defined categories
into which our infinitely diverse characters must somehow be put.
Here instead is the project of finding heroic acts in the
ordinary and everyday, to find the saintly in the common believer
as much as in the extraodinary person of some other time and
place. Here is a biography of difference, of
identification of and examination of that sense of individuality
that is to be achieved in the context of community. Here is
celebration of the subject's consciousness of individual worth,
of being-at-one with other believers and community rather than of
being the same as all other believers.
Re-formulating the biographical
The shift toward a modernist framework
has been accompanied by a desire to examine the biographical
subject more critically. The modern biography now seeks to convey
not merely the facts and example of the subject's life, but an
interpretation or even evaluation of it. Most importantly, the
critical approach of modernist biography has been encouraged by
the presumption that an author occupies some superior and
objective vantage-point from which to view, and judge, the
subject. "In the recent past", it has been suggested,
the usefulness of a 'critical
biography,' one that purports to connect life and work,
was thought to consist mainly in giving the work a
limiting context. ...Today, when the range of critical
approaches has widened beyond the narrow verities of
formal criticism, we are permitted an ampler view of
critical biography. To understand any literary work
requires, to begin with, a grasp of its genre and of its
historical context. Equally essential is a personal
context ...that biography provides to put the subject's
work in adequate perspective. The work never provides
sufficient information in itself for proper
Exponents of the critical mode of
biography suggest its superiority over traditional hagiography,
and over mere chronologies and purely descriptive works. It could
be argued, however, that extreme practices of both critical
biography and hagiography are best avoided, and that the most
satisfactory biography emerges from a collection of intentions,
which include not only critical examination, but an effort to
construct and contextualise rather than to deconstruct a
The Writings of the Bahá'í Faith
provide immense insight into the nature of man and the purpose of
his existence and can assist in formulating the criteria upon
which sound biographical enquiry may proceed. They create, on the
other hand, a dilemma for the writer of biography. We know that
humans are imperfect; we also know that we are not to dwell on
the faults of others: since we also know that in the discipline
of biography the biographer is challenged to reveal the life of
the subject, how can such a life be revealed without displaying
imperfections, and at the same time avoiding simple hagiography?
If we are to reveal our subject - and we know subjects are
imperfect - then we will reveal blemishes of character. But if we
are true to the facts as we find them, and reveal blemishes of
character, then we are exposing the faults of others, and this we
are not allowed to do. If, furthermore, we sift the facts to
present a partial picture of our subject, dwelling only on those
aspects that we think will show our subject in a positive light,
we are in danger of distorting the reality of "things as
they are": how might the biographer resolve this dilemma?
Firstly, I suggest, the intention of
Bahá'í biography is not to critique for critique's
sake, but to explore the relationship between a subject's
conscious purpose, and the fruit of the enactment of that
purpose. Bahá'í biographies are not stories of selves engaged
in rational strategies toward fixed objectives, but voyages of
beings through time and space, being tested as they approach
stations of spirituality. Bahá'í biography, in other words,
attempts the depiction of enlightened ontological states, in
which life-meanings constructed in unique and specific
circumstances accord with universal theological foundations: each
human being has a specific path to treat, partly pre-ordained,
partly self-defined; each has a rational soul and a physical
form, and possesses capacities of spirit, intellect, and moral
capacity, which the life journey presents with opportunities to
either develop or ignore, through the voluntary application of
will. Interactions with the worlds of nature, of culture, and of
the spirit, refine the soul for entry to a future (post-physical)
life: such is the journey - should the biographer attempt to
Secondly, since we understand that the
highest capacities inherent in the person are to know (to seek
knowledge of God), to love, and to act, these capacities should
emerge in biography, through consideration of an individual's
spiritual concerns, mental development, relationships with
others, and use of will. In writing about the mind of an
individual, furthermore, such an approach would be informed by
the relationship between the spirit and the intellect as this is
explained in the Bahá'í writings.
The juxtaposition of scriptural passages
which at one time stress individual "nothingness" and
at another celebrate individual worth suggests not contradictory
elements within the Bahá'í writings, but the range of levels
available for interpreting the worth of the self, and the
individual life. Advocacy of self-effacement does not denote
lessening of individual value, just as promotion of universal
values does not deny the importance of particularity. Stories of
the self thus find their importance at different levels. We must
decide on some understanding of the self as the combined effects
of physical, spiritual and intellectual selves. A mature
biographer may feel confident to offer an evaluation of a
subject's life, but those who write within a Bahá'í genre
will temper their evaluation of the worth of the life of another
human being through consciousness of the biographer's own limited
access to a suitable plane from which to judge. Bahá'u'lláh's
admonitions to observe the good and to ignore the shortcomings of
others discourage hasty passage of judgement. The more we
consider the immensity of the task, however, the less we feel
inclined to assume the role of 'judging observer'.
No biography can fully
'represent' a life story. It can, at best, provide a
faithful 're-presentation' of that story. Furthermore,
the qualities of such a representation are determined by several
factors, including the intentions of the author and the nature of
the records disclosed. Biographies are
'source-dependent', in that the extent to which the
life of another may be 're-presented' depends much on
the quality and quantity of records - written or otherwise - that
remain. To textualise lived experience is to theorise it, to
place a grid on it. The tarjama and hagiography are
examples of such grids. They provide conventions and criteria for
appraising a subject's acts. Least accessible are
'inner motives', which are rarely exposed, except
perhaps in autobiographical accounts, which are in and of
themselves not guarantee of authenticity.
A well-crafted biography grounded in
Bahá'í texts would address the nature of the individual person,
noting his or her elemental qualities, and underlying
motivations. It would, furthermore, would be informed by past
traditions. Existing traditions of biography need not be
rejected. To the contrary, the positive functions of each must
necessarily be drawn on in the quest for more encompassing
approaches to life-writing. Certain steps are required, however,
to transform brief adulatory and uncritical accounts into more
substantial pieces of biography. These seek to position a subject
in context, and beyond that, seek to make a judgement, or an
evaluation, of the subject's significance. I have suggested also
that a biography should examine notions of public and private
selves, and distinguish between active and passive, or
contemplative, facets of individual existence - between the
capacity to reflect, and the will to act. Such "spiritual
biography" - if it can be called that - must additionally be
constructed on the bases of well-considered conceptions of the
terms "person" and "society". But all of
these biographical objectives are subject to the availability of
evidence, and literary devices that can use this evidence to
're-present' their subject. The self is always in some
relation to an order, and biography is text that seeks to
represent this relationship.
On the foundation of the arguments laid
out in brief above, Bahá'í biography is essentially the
depiction in literature of moral heroism. Its exponents and
readers must, therefore, consider deeply what concept of hero
they seek to establish. We are most familiar with hero/heroine
whose exploits are apparent in the physical world, and in the
'public' arena, and whose travels and exploits are well
documented in the source literature. But the concept of the
heroic conveyed in Bahá'í Scriptures includes heroes and
heroines whose arenas for victory are the 'inner life',
or the life at home in the family - lives far less accessible to
the biographical process. The 'hero', thus, need not be
famous, and what is 'heroic' need not be
'public'. An integrating and unifying personality may
not be one that takes the lead and stands out, and breaks new
ground. Such an integrating personality may make no specific
outstanding contribution, and hence not attract individual
attention. But such a life is quite an achievement, an
outstanding contribution in its own way, worthy of celebration,
worthy of examination.
In this essay I have suggested that the
contexts in which Bahá'í biography are written include each of
the existing cultural and religious traditions. The hagiographic
traditions of Christianity and Islam have influenced Bahá'í
biographies toward depictions of subjects as exemplars, as
heroes, saints, and martyrs. In the 'modern' biography
the 'religious' or 'spiritual' orientation of
life-stories has given way to more secular views of the the
origins, character and motivation of the 'human
spirit.' The modernist tradition has also allowed for
representations of 'ordinary' believers, and for
critical accounts which value factual accuracy as much as
representations of 'ideal' personas. Rather than
privilege one of these traditions above any other, however, this
paper has suggested that the Bahá'í biographical project, in
keeping with the facility that underlies Bahá'í theological and
philosophical pursuits accommodates a range of biographical
devices, and that this flexibility in approach will allow
Bahá'í authors to continue to draw on the skills of the craft
elaborated across many generations, divergent cultures and
traditions, yet draw on the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh for
inspiration productive of new insights into how lived lives might
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