Argues that Bahá'í studies must address contemporary world issues, dialogues in pluralism, the New Age movement, and secular ideologies.
Doing Bahá'í Scholarship in the 1990s:
A Religious Studies Perspective
published in Bahá'í Studies Review
London: Association for Bahá'í Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1993
There are certain pillars which have been established as the unshakeable supports of the Faith of God. The mightiest of these is learning and the use of the mind, the expansion of consciousness, and insight into the realities of the universe and the hidden mysteries of Almighty God. To promote knowledge is thus an inescapable duty imposed on every one of the friends of God. . . ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections 126)
In these days when people are so sceptical about religion and look with so much contempt towards religious organizations and movements, there seems to be more need than ever for our young Bahá'ís to be well-equipped intellectually, so that they may be in a position to present the Message in a befitting way, and in a manner that would convince every unbiased observer of the effectiveness and power of the Teachings. (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer dated 5 May 1934, cited in Deepening no. 119)
What he [Shoghi Effendi] wants the Bahá'ís to do is to study more, not to study less. The more general knowledge, scientific or otherwise, they possess, the better. Likewise he is constantly urging them to really study the Bahá'í teachings more deeply. (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi dated 5 July 1947, cited in Deepening no. 148)
All Bahá'ís can play, to a greater or lesser extent, directly or indirectly, a part in the carrying out of Bahá'í scholarship. All Bahá'ís can actively support or contribute to the evolution of Bahá'í scholarship. Bahá'ís at university, such as yourselves, have a special responsibility in this respect.(1)
It is the purpose of these few notes to initiate discussion; not to
set forth axioms, absolute truths for Bahá'í scholarship
or its methodologies. Most Bahá'ís know to a certain extent
what Bahá'í scholarship is though relatively few seem to
realize the importance of academically informed Bahá'í scholarship.
Various Bahá'ís have written papers about Bahá'í
scholarship though clarification of the nature of the field and its methodologies
remains fundamental. Useful compilations have been produced.(2)
Almost nothing has been communicated, however, about the concrete processes
of doing Bahá'í scholarship or sketching out aspects
of what needs to be done.
The following pages then, will attempt to focus upon a western intellectual
approach to doing Bahá'í scholarship, informed by academic
principles and highlighting some important tasks to be done.(3)
Bahá'í scholarship, the Bahá'í intellectual
life, is not separate from Bahá'í teaching activity. It is
an indispensable part of it. The Bahá'í life, in addition
to its central ethical dimensions, also has intellectual dimensions:
If the Bahá'ís want to be really effective in teaching the Cause they need to discuss intelligently, intellectually, the present condition of the world and its problems. We need Bahá'í scholars, not only people far, far more deeply aware of what our teachings really are, but also well-read and well-educated people, capable of correlating our teachings to the current thoughts of the leaders of society.
We Bahá'ís should, in other words, arm our minds with knowledge in order to better demonstrate to, especially, the educated classes, the truths enshrined in our Faith. . . (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi on 5 July 1949, cited in Deepening no. 153, emphasis added)
As the Faith emerges from obscurity the value and significance of academic
Bahá'í scholarship will become much more evident. Many of
us will wish we had studied more, had read more Bahá'í and
non-Bahá'í books; had truly striven to become Bahá'í
scholars. Striving to become a Bahá'í scholar is not a three-year
job but a lifelong process. As all have the duty of sharing their vision
of the Bahá'í Faith ( = "teaching") with others, they also
have the duty of doing this as intelligently
and effectively as
possible; such is the responsibility of becoming a Bahá'í
scholar. The first task of the Bahá'í scholar might be said
to be, to study, meditate and pray earnestly for the realization of scholarly
insights. It is not enough to rely upon others – Bahá'u'lláh
abolished the "priesthood" – to passively attend "deepening classes" which
are sometimes of a poor quality or 'classical' Bahá'í 'fireside
talks' repeated ad infinitum.
The Bahá'í scholar is
one who envisions and realizes the nature of the task; who makes an effort,
who is creative and enthused about scholarly endeavours. Serving the Faith
through scholarship implies effort and work; sacrifices need to be made.
They [persons attending Bahá'í summer schools]
have to be taught the habit of studying the Cause constantly, for the more
we read the [scriptural] Words the more will the truth they contain be
revealed to us. (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an
individual believer dated November 24 1932, cited Lights, no. 1906)
Bahá'u'lláh made it a religious duty for the "people of Bahá"
to actively seek knowledge and to make the fullest possible use of their
insight and intellectual endowments. Intellectual apathy or self-satisfaction
is dangerous; it must be avoided at all costs. While the Prophet Muhammad
is reckoned to have exhorted His followers to "Seek after knowledge, even
scriptures indicate that individuals should diligently seek knowledge from
the cradle to the grave and beyond: ". . He [God] has chosen the reality
of man and has honoured it with intellect and wisdom, the two most luminous
lights in either world" ('Abdu'l-Bahá, Secret
Bahá'ís believe that the "knowledge of God" is infinite.
No human being can ever attain all knowledge or possess every insight.
Spiritual and intellectual perfection is not viewed by Bahá'ís
as a possible goal for either individuals – whether Bahá'í
or not, university professor or whatever – or mankind collectively. The
mysteries of the "Word of God", divine revelation, the Bahá'í
scripture, can never be fully fathomed. The application and interrelationships
between the "Word of God" and evolving human knowledge and insight can
always be furthered. In order for the individual Bahá'í to
carry forward an "ever-advancing civilization", the acquisition of knowledge
and the refining of the powers of the insightful intellect is indispensable.
This must be worked at, and diligently striven for. Intellectual excitement
is part of the spiritual life. Fostering the intellectual development of
Bahá'í communities is not alien to the Bahá'í
The widespread contemporary anti-intellectualism must not be allowed
to lessen the paramount importance of the Bahá'í intellectual
life; the centrality of Bahá'í scholarship. Anti-intellectualism,
fundamentalism and fanaticism are essentially 'negative forces' which are
very much alive in the modern West. These anti-values have no place in
an ideal Bahá'í world. To some extent, they have unfortunately
influenced the Bahá'í community. Intellectuals and academics
are sometimes wrongly marginalized; their studies viewed as peripheral
to the spread of the Bahá'í Faith. Non-Bahá'í
academics in their respective social and religious communities are also
on many occasions unjustly criticized or ignored as the irrelevant occupants
of "ivory towers" – despite the fact that a fair proportion of them truly
serve humanity through their work, intellectual pursuits and important
discoveries. Bahá'ís are exhorted by Bahá'u'lláh
to respect possessors of learning.
The Bahá'í Faith therefore is not in any way anti-academic.
In the modern West, academic knowledge and study has become indispensable
to a proper dialogue with educated and thinking individuals and institutions.
One can hardly dialogue with modern scientists, theologians and philosophers
without some understanding of the academic literature written in these
fields.(5) In order for a good many of the
key tasks within Bahá'í scholarship to be carried out, it
seems to me to be necessary for Bahá'í scholars to specialize.
It is vital though, for every Bahá'í scholar to have a balanced
overview of Bahá'í teachings. Yet it is still necessary to
become especially familiar with certain subjects as understood by leading
thinkers. In the contemporary world the truly polymathic Bahá'í
scholar does not really exist. All Bahá'ís to a greater or
lesser extent only grasp a very limited area of knowledge.
Specialization needs to be carried out systematically. Ideally, Bahá'ís
should be involved in making specialized studies of modern viewpoints on
specific issues, with a view to working out Bahá'í perspectives
or presenting the Bahá'í position. One Bahá'í
might specialize, for example, in world government theories, others in
aspects of Buddhism or theories of human evolution. Every Bahá'í
scholar should attempt to find an area of expertise and work diligently
towards communicating a balanced Bahá'í perspective upon
it in the light of the Bahá'í revelation. Consultations and
seminar type discussions should be conducted to further refine research
findings or theories. The publication and dissemination of Bahá'í
research findings to as wide a Bahá'í and non-Bahá'í
audience as possible is important. Otherwise, the findings of scholarship
cannot be adequately utilized by humanity or promote human unity and understanding.
Indeed, 'Abdu'l-Bahá in The Secret of Divine Civilization
says it is "urgent that beneficial articles and books be written, clearly
and definitely establishing what the present-day requirements of the people
are, and what will conduce to the happiness and advancement of society."
Further, he writes of the "publication of high thoughts" as the "dynamic
power in the arteries of life," "the very soul of the world" (109).
Consulting Modern Sources
With the appearance of every Revelation a new insight
is created in man and this in turn expresses itself in the growth of science.
This has happened in past dispensations and we find its earliest fruits
in our present day. What we see however is only the beginning. With the
spiritual awakening of man this force will develop and marvellous results
will become manifest. (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi
dated 14 January 1932, cited in Lights 21)
The above partially cited letter presupposes that with the advent of a
new religion/Revelation "a new insight" is realized among humanity in general
– both Bahá'í and non-Bahá'í. Ideally, Bahá'í
perspectives need to be promulgated in humble recognition of the legitimate
insights of those not members of the community of the "Greatest Name".
Bahá'ís do not have a monopoly upon all avenues of human
knowledge and progress. Bahá'ís can, in many areas, learn
much from non-Bahá'ís. The plan of God, the Bahá'í
Revelation realizes its potentialities both within and without the Bahá'í
community. Divine providence is universal. The Bahá'í Revelation
realizes its potentialities both within and without the Bahá'í
community. Divine Providence is universal.
The Bahá'ís should not always be the last
to take up new and obviously excellent methods, but rather the first, as
this agrees with the dynamic nature of the Faith which is not only progressive,
but holds within itself the seeds of an entirely new culture and civilization.
(From a letter of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer dated 5 May
1946, cited in Compilation II:1889)
What the Faith needs, even more than teachers, is books
that expound the true significance of its principles in the light of modern
thought and social problems. (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi
Effendi to an individual believer dated 6 May 1933, cited in Unfolding
Generally speaking Bahá'ís have paid too little attention
to contemporary learning and modern science in attempting to communicate
with thinking people today. More than 40 years ago Shoghi Effendi wrote
a letter which highlighted the need for Bahá'ís to exhibit
a "more profound and co-ordinated Bahá'í scholarship" in
order to attract thinking people. At the time of the second World War he
wrote that, "The world has – at least the thinking world – caught up
by now with all the great and universal principles enunciated by Bahá'u'lláh
over 70 years ago, and so of course it does not sound 'new' to them" (From
a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer
dated 3 July 1949, cited in Deepening
no. 152). This situation is
even more acute today when non-Bahá'ís are writing informed
volumes about major Bahá'í principles in a very attractive
manner. Unfortunately, many Bahá'ís remain unaware of such
scholarship and all too often present Bahá'í perspectives
in a wholly outdated manner. Non-Bahá'í books are not read
enough even though a proportion of them are 'very Bahá'í'
in content: sometimes better researched and written than Bahá'í
attempts to tackle certain perspectives. It is important that we be humble
enough to consult these works. We can learn a great deal from the non-Bahá'í
world. It seems that God is working 'indirectly' to further the propagation
of many of the central principles of His Cause. In fact a proportion of
the educated public in the modern West often has an excellent grasp of
certain general Bahá'í principles and their implications
for contemporary society. Non-Bahá'í presentations, however,
clearly have their limitations. The deep Bahá'í insights,
the spiritual teachings and moral guidelines, not to mention the spiritual
power informing the "Word of God" are obviously not present. But this should
in no way prevent us from diligently studying all manner of non-Bahá'í,
often quasi-Bahá'í literature.
The learned tomes and tracts of past Bahá'í apologists,
written in the 19th and early 20th centuries and informed by and often
born out of a Shí'í Islámic 'universe of discourse',
remain classic evidences of an emergent, provisional, Bahá'í
scholarship. Their applicability to today's religious and social situation,
to the contemporary partly secularized world is, however, limited - though
works such as Mírzá Abu'l Fadl-i-Gulpáyigání's
"The Book of Divine Precepts" (1st ed. 1315/1897-8. Kitábu'l-Fará'id)
will remain foundational; classical evidences of early Bahá'í
apologetic, of emergent Bahá'í scholarship. Aspects of Bahá'í
scholarship are constantly being renewed as new research is being carried
out and new insights gained. Every decade or so new Bahá'í
intellectual horizons are evident. Powerful spiritual forces radiate throughout
the Bahá'í and non-Bahá'í world inspiring new
scientific and theological discoveries.
The fact that Bahá'ís are still publishing secondary Bahá'í
books written in the 1950's or shortly thereafter highlights the still,
somewhat undeveloped state of Bahá'í scholarship. The first
glimmerings of the emergence of a more mature, more intellectually informed
Bahá'í scholarship in the West, could be dated to the late
1960's or early 1970's. Today many more Bahá'ís need to become
involved. This important endeavour cannot be bypassed for there remain
countless scholarly tasks to be accomplished. Time is ridiculously short
before questions will be raised within and without the Bahá'í
world that require informed and well-researched answers.
Among the concrete steps that can be taken by the prospective scholar-student
of contemporary learning is to accumulate comprehensive notes upon key
themes through the reading of books and articles. This includes visiting
libraries and buying respected and up to date books. Ideally, experts should
be consulted for reading lists. Public and university libraries frequently
stock a wealth of encyclopedias and periodicals which often contain material
central to the enhancement of Bahá'í perspectives.(6)
New periodicals are constantly appearing and old ones sometimes contain
stunningly significant articles. Particularly useful for religiously informed
subjects is the recent Encyclopedia of Religion edited by Mircea
Eliade (16 volumes, New York: Macmillan 1987) and the multi-volume Encyclopædia
Iranica edited by Ehsan Yarshater (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul/Mazda
Publications, 1985.) – in progress [5 volumes to date] and containing
a good many articles on Bábí and Bahá'í subjects.(7)
There are numerous periodicals that can be profitably consulted on all
the issues, and others besides, those mentioned in this essay. The reading
of respected magazine and newspaper articles is also useful, especially
for keeping up to date with national and international affairs.
Much work remains to be done in articulating and clarifying Bahá'í teachings relating to the major world religions, many smaller religious groups and new religious movements. Although the secularized European West tends to marginalize religion and ignore the transcendent, it is yet a tremendously important social and spiritual experience to the majority of the world's inhabitants. Note, for example, the resurgence of interest in religion following the demise of Soviet communism. In relation to major religious groups, Bahá'ís have yet, for example, to produce adequate literature directed towards Jews (18 million), Sikhs (16 million), Zoroastrians (100,000 in the world; around 5,000 in the U.K.) as well as the many millions of Confucians (almost 6 million), Shintoists (almost 3.5 million), Taoists etc. The Bahá'í literature for Hindus and Buddhists is very, very small. Work in this area has hardly begun though non-Bahá'í works of considerable interest appear from time to time – such as the volume edited by Alan Sponberg and Helen Hardacre, Maitreya, the Future Buddha.(9) No Bahá'í book has yet been written which is directed towards the vast majority of Christians, Catholics (926 million) or Orthodox Christians (160 million) – most Bahá'í books used in teaching Christians (e.g. Thief in the Night) are written from a Protestant standpoint. Bahá'í teaching work in Eastern Europe and elsewhere may well be hampered by the Protestant oriented Bahá'í teaching literature. Bahá'ís have yet to clarify their teachings about "progressive revelation" and the "[essential] oneness of religion" in the light of modern views on a "world theology" and "religious pluralism".(10) The Bahá'í teachings about Jesus' resurrection (and the resurrection appearances) need further clarification in relation to patristic and modern Christian viewpoints. The question of reincarnation – belief in which is quite widespread among Hindus, other religionists, and even a proportion of "secularized" westerners – its historical roots and place in the history of Asian and other religions needs to be clarified and addressed from the Bahá'í theological and metaphysical standpoint. Indeed, Asian religious, eschatological and ethical doctrines need to be better known and understood by European and other western Bahá'ís. Quite a number of Europeans are devotees of Asian gurus. There is a remarkable growth of Buddhist centres in the U.K., continental Europe and the U.S.A.
Many issues within the history of religions urgently need researching.
In quite a number of his letters Shoghi Effendi left matters touching on
the history of religions, among other research issues, to future Bahá'í
scholars - sometimes depending upon their consultation of non-Bahá'í
scholarly authorities. The following few selected passages must suffice
to illustrate this:
Your question concerning Brahma and Krishna: such matters,
as no reference occurs to them in the Teachings, are left for students
of history and religion to resolve and clarify . . . (From a letter of
Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer 14 April 1941, cited in Lights
of Guidance 503)
. . . As to correlating philosophy with the Bahá'í teachings; this is a tremendous work which the scholars in the future can undertake. . . (From a letter of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer dated 15 February 1947, cited in Unfolding 445)
. . . the task of formulating a system of education which
would be officially recognized by the Cause, and enforced as such throughout
the Bahá'í world is one which the present-day generation
of believers cannot obviously undertake, and which has to be gradually
accomplished by Bahá'í scholars and educationalists of the
future. (From a letter of Shoghi Effendi dated 7 June 1939, cited in Bahá'í Institutions 91-2)
. . . the Bahá'í attitude in detail regarding
such questions as sociology and economics must be formulated in the course
of time . . . (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi dated
14 March 1952, cited in Light of Divine Guidance 103)
Shoghi Effendi presupposed the future historical researches of Bahá'í
scholars when he wrote, for example, "Of the exact circumstances attending
that epoch-making Declaration [of Bahá'u'lláh] we, alas,
are but scantily informed. The words Bahá'u'lláh actually
uttered on that occasion, the manner of His Declaration, the reaction it
produced, its impact on Mírzá Yahyá, the identity
of those who were priviledged to hear Him, are shrouded in an obscurity
which future historians will find it difficult to penetrate." (God Passes
In an explanation of the twin pillars of the Administrative structure
- the institutions of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice
- Shoghi Effendi writes:
To define with accuracy and minuteness the features,
and to analyze exhaustively the nature of the relationships which, on the
one hand, bind together these two fundamental organs of the Will of 'Abdu'l-Bahá
and connect, on the other, each of them to the Author of the Faith and
the Canter of His Covenant is a task which future generations will no doubt
adequately fulfil. (World Order 147)
The spirit of Islám, no doubt, was the living
gem of modern Civilization. (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi
Effendi to an individual believer dated July 30 1941, cited in Lights,
. . . Muhammadanism [Islám] is not only the last
of the world religions, but a fuller Revelation than any one preceding
it. . . (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual
beliver dated November 12 1933, cited in Lights, no. 1670)
Shoghi Effendi hopes that your lectures will not only serve
to deepen the knowledge of the believers in the doctrines
and culture of Islám, but will set their hearts
afire with the love of everything that vitally pertains to Muhammad and
his Faith. . . The Bahá'ís should try
to study history anew, and to base all their>investigations
first and foremost on the written Scriptures of Islám [= the Qur'án]
and Christianity [= the New Testament]. (From a letter written
on behalf of>Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer
dated April 27 1936, cited in Lights, no.>1664)
. . . We must remember that every religion sprang from
some root, and just as Christianity sprang from Judaism, our own religion
sprang from Islám, and that is why so many of the teachings deduce
their proofs from Islám. (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi
Effendi to an individual believer dated March 5 1957, cited in Compilation,
. . . The Guardian would certainly advise, and even urge
the friends to make a thorough study of the Qur'án, as the knowledge
of this sacred Scripture is absolutely indispensable for every believer
who wishes to adequately understand and intelligently read, the writings
of Bahá'u'lláh. (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi
Effendi, cited in Directives 171)
Much work also remains to be done with respect to the Bahá'í
approach to Muslims and the Bahá'í reinterpretation of Islámic
teachings. Most Muslims (over 80%) in the world are Sunnís who are
sometimes antagonistic towards Shí'í Muslims (16%) and the
phenomenon of Shí'í Islám out of which the Bábí
and Bahá'í religions emerged. Almost all of the oriental
Bahá'í literature is written from a Shí'í perspective.
Because classic Bahá'í apologetics is Shí'í
rooted, utilizing Shí'í proof-texts and informed by a Shí'í
'universe of discourse', Bahá'ís worldwide need to evolve
an approach to the majority Sunní Muslim world and to many non-
or quasi-Shí'í Muslim groups in preparation for the time
when teaching the Muslim world becomes more of a priority.
In addition to teaching the Bahá'í Faith, Shoghi Effendi
gave western Bahá'ís the supplementary task of communicating
the grandeur of Islám and its Prophet Muhammad to westerners.(11)
It is fairly clear that a proportion of both oriental and occidental Bahá'ís,
unfortunately, do not fully appreciate the grandeur of Islám or
the greatness of the Qur'án. Failure to appreciate the 'world of
Islám' is a severe limitation since it was from this religious background
that the Bábí and Bahá'í religions were born.
Shoghi Effendi hoped that western Bahá'ís would enable all
too often anti-Islámic westerners to appreciate the true greatness
The study of Arabic and Persian is also an important part of Bahá'í
scholarship. Scattered throughout Bahá'u'lláh's writings
are various testimonies to the importance and greatness of the Arabic and
Persian languages. They indicate that Bahá'ís could thoroughly
agree with the saying, "Persian is the language of Paradise, but Arabic
is the language of God."(12) Bahá'u'lláh
referred to the Arabic language as linguistically incomparable; a matchless
tongue of unsurpassed magnitude – "most eloquent" [afsah], "most
comprehensive" [absat] and "of broadest scope" [awsa'].
He also not infrequently characterized Persian as an extremely "sweet"
[shirín] and "beloved" [mahbúb] language. In
one Persian Tablet He stated that the Arabic language is "most excellent"
[ahsán] while Persian is "supremely sweet" [ahlá].(13)
Like the Bible which is largely in Hebrew (a Semitic language) and Greek
(an Indo-European language), the Bahá'í revelation (= a new
collection of Tablets or "Books" = a "Bible") is largely in a Semitic (=
Arabic) and an Indo-European (= Persian) language. Just as Biblical scholars
have studied the languages of the Bible, so Bahá'ís are in
general exhorted, by Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá
as well as Shoghi Effendi in many Tablets or letters, to study these twin
sacred languages of revelation. Relative to Persian, Abdu'l-Bahá
on one occasion wrote, "Acquire the Persian tongue, so as to learn the
meanings of the Divine words and know the Divine mysteries, to develop
an eloquent speech and to translate the blessed Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh.
The Persian language shall become noteworthy in this cycle; nay, rather,
the people shall study it in all the world."(14)
'The Age of Aquarius'
Several thousand new religious movements and new age groups (membership
something in excess of 111 million persons worldwide) need to be understood
by Bahá'ís.(15) There is
in the West, for example, a widespread and serious interest in the 'new
age', esoteric and the occult (beyond a mere dabbling with ouija boards)
as a means to self-understanding. Many major bookshops in the U.K. today
have relatively little stock relating to the major world religions but
a plethora of volumes about many aspects of New Age and related movements.
Sometimes implicit in the new age/esoteric scene is an attempt to access
actaully or allegedly pre-Christian (e.g. Celtic) or "primeval" beliefs
and practises, partly as a result of disenchantment with contemporary religiosity
('Churchianity'). Theory and methods of divination (I Ching, Palmistry,
Tarot, Geomancy) and 'Earth Mysteries' (ley-lines, stone and crop circles)
for example, often excite great enthusiasm, as do certain Asian religious
teachings (methods of Yoga, meditation and reincarnation). Interest in
all sorts of allegedly 'new age' paraphernalia is quite widespread, e.g.
tarot, crystals etc. Such persons as Eliphas Levi (1810-1875; the probable
originator of the word occultism, from the French occultisme), Madame
(Helena Petrova) Blavatsky (1831-1891) and the Armenian gnostic George
I. Gurdjieff (?1877-1949) among many others, are revered. Interest in all
manner of esoterica is evident in certain circles today. Knowledge of the
Bible, of Moses and Jesus, is often virtually non-existent while knowledge
of various living or mythical 'hierophants' is fairly widespread. Such
Bahá'ís as are interested in this area should become acquainted
with aspects of 'new age' philosophy and Bahá'í reactions
to it through the study of sensible sources. Reference to some 'anti-cult
material' may, in this respect, prove valuable – though a fundamentalist
Christian bias might need to be taken into account.
Publications expressive of Bahá'í spirituality targeted
towards this, and other groups and expressing something of the mystical
dimension of the Bahá'í Faith desperately need to be written.(16)
In a letter dated 8 December 1935 through his secretary Shoghi Effendi
. . . the core of religious faith is that mystic feeling
which unites man with God. . . It is not sufficient for a believer merely
to accept and observe the teachings. He should, in addition, cultivate
the sense of spirituality which he can acquire chiefly by means of prayer.
The Bahá'í Faith, like all other Divine Religions, is
thus fundamentally mystic in character. Its chief goal is the development
of the individual and society, through the acquisition of spiritual virtues
and powers. . . (Guidance for Youth 4, emphasis added)
Bahá'í dimensions of spirituality urgently need comparative
exploration. Many aspects of the Bahá'í doctrines of the
soul and of life after death/human immortality invite detailed study.(17)
The distinctively Bahá'í view of the future of mankind, the
vision of the emerging new age again invite comprehensive analysis and
research. Both the perspective regarding the immediate and the more distant
future would make the subject of useful papers and volumes. In other words,
Bahá'ís need to spell out, in light of Shoghi Effendi's writings
and other scriptural texts, our concept of the new age and its full realisation
in the future.
The Humanities and Non-Religious Ideologies
A considerable number of Bahá'ís who have embarked upon
further education have, or are today studying, aspects of technology or
the practical sciences – especially branches of engineering. Generally
speaking the sciences have had a greater prestige than the humanities (the
arts and the social sciences) in most non-European countries. Sadly, this
has led to a neglect or lack of interest by Bahá'ís in many
fields within the humanities. Subjects that in certain circles were once
considered a 'sheer waste of time' within the humanities (i.e. philosophy,
theology, sociology), although considered relatively unimportant within
contemporary technocratic society, are nonetheless central to Bahá'í
researches. Bahá'ís cannot afford to have countless technicians
and almost no philosphers, theologians and sociologists. Bahá'í
dialogue demands experts within the humanities as well as within the practical
sciences. Awareness of new theories, insights and perspectives within the
humanities could be said to be just as centrally important as new medical
discoveries. Within the field of economics, for example, there is a fast
growing appreciation of the cultural context and moral dimension of macro-economic
It is important for Bahá'ís to be able to communicate
their faith to non-religious persons; to be able to vindicate the importance
of religion and human spirituality. While the majority of the world's inhabitants
are in one way or another "religious" there remain some 836 million agnostics
(nearly the same number as Hindus and Buddhists collectively) and more
than 225 million atheists. The religiosity of many Europeans has ebbed
away. Bahá'í literature for the many non- or anti-religious
groups still needs to be written, e.g. literature directed towards actual
or lapsed communists, Marxist groups and all manner of secular ideologies.
Bahá'í research informed by modern theories needs to be
done in many areas; for example, feminism and feminist movements,(18)
theories of evolution, the artificial language movement and notions of
an international language and script,(19)
theories regarding the interface between science and religion,(20)
educational psychology, psychotherapy, international affairs, the rise
and fall of civilizations, etc.
Ideally, Bahá'í talks that touch upon these subjects need
to be well-informed – to a greater or lesser extent depending on the 'audience'
– by some relevant updated knowledge; a proportion of which will be "Bahá'í-like"
or "quasi-Bahá'í". One example of a book that Bahá'ís
can clearly benefit from reading is Joseph Mitsuo Kitagawa's The Quest
for Human Unity, A Religious History.(21)
Kitagawa's lucid volume should be studied by Bahá'ís as an
aid and an inspiration towards the full-blown academic articulation of
that Bahá'í world theology which is implicit in Bahá'í
scripture. The Quest. . . is the kind of book, the theme
of which should have previously been attempted by Bahá'í
academics. Had Bahá'ís heeded Shoghi Effendi's words earlier
this century about the need for Bahá'í scholarship, such
an academically well-researched volume might have been written by a Bahá'í
scholar to the glory of the Bahá'í world.
Some areas within the humanities have been largely neglected by Bahá'ís.
The various branches of theology are something about which Bahá'ís
need to be aware. There is much that can be learned from modern theologians
about moral, metaphysical, hermeneutical and other issues. In the preface
to the 1985 reissue of his useful publication Evil and the God
of Love (London: Macmillan Press Ltd, 1985), John Hick(22)
writes "the sheer crushing weight of the pains suffered by men, women and
children, and also by the lower animals, including that inflicted by human
greed, cruelty and malevolence, undoubtedly constitutes the biggest obstacle
that there is to belief in an all-powerful and loving Creator (xiii). Bahá'ís
desperately need to articulate their theodicy; their vindication of the
love and justice of God in creating a world in which human "evil" (the
multifarious expressions of the lower human 'self') currently dominates
so many areas of socio-economic and political life. Bahá'í
theologians are needed to highlight the importance of theistic religion
as a force for global unity and world order.
Philosophy in addition, as pointed out by Shoghi Effendi, is not at
all something which merely "begins and ends in words". Being philosophically
informed is particularly important for Bahá'ís who are in
dialogue with persons concerned with ethical, epistemological, theological
and metaphysical issues. Too few Bahá'ís have to date grappled
with this complicated but vital area.(23)
The following passages, among many others from the Bahá'í
writings, are worth bearing in mind.
Near the beginning of his Tablet to the entomologist and social reformer,
the Bahá'í Dr. August Henri Forel (1848-1931), 'Abdu'l-Bahá
By materialists, whose belief with regard to Divinity
hath been explained, is not meant philosophers in general, but rather that
group of materialists of narrow vision who worship that which is sensed,
who depend upon the five senses only, and whose criterion of knowledge
is limited to that which can be perceived by the senses. All that can be
sensed is to them real, whilst whatever falleth not under the power of
the senses is either unreal or doubtful. The existence of the Deity they
regard as wholly doubtful.
It is as thou hast written, not philosophers in general
but narrow-minded materialists that are meant. As to deistic philosophers,
such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, they are indeed worthy of esteem
and of the highest praise, for they have rendered distinguished services
to mankind. In like manner we regard the materialistic, accomplished, moderate
philosophers, who have been of service (to mankind).
We regard knowledge and wisdom as the foundation of the
progress of mankind, and extol philosophers who are endowed with broad
vision." (Bahá'í World 37)
Among the relevant passages in letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi
Philosophy, as you will study it and later teach it,
is certainly not one of the sciences that begins and ends in words. Fruitless
excursions into metaphysical hair-splitting is meant, not a sound branch
of learning like philosophy . . . he would advise you not to devote too
much of your time to the abstract side of philosophy, but rather to approach
it from a more historical angle. As to correlating philosophy with the
Bahá'í teachings: this is a tremendous work which scholars in the future
can undertake. We must remember that not only are all the teachings not
yet translated into English, but they are not even all collected yet. (Letter
dated 15 February 1947, cited in Unfolding 445)
. . . When He ['Abdu'l-Bahá] calls the philosophers
of the West materialistic this does not for a moment mean he includes all
Western philosophers for, as you truly point out, many of them have been
very spiritual in their concepts. . . (From a letter written on behalf
of Shoghi Effendi dated 7 June 1946, cited in Arouhani 88)
As early as 6 August 1933, Shoghi Effendi's hope for Bahá'í
students was expressed as follows,
It is hoped that all the Bahá'í students
will follow the noble example you have set before them and will, henceforth,
be led to investigate and analyze the principles of the Faith and to correlate
them with the modern aspects of philosophy and science. Every intelligent
and thoughtful young Bahá'í should always approach the Cause
in this way, for therein lies the very essence of the principle of independent
investigation of Truth. (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi
to an individual believer, cited in BSB 5:1-2 [Jan 1991]: 83)
Finally but not exhaustively in this connection, is the fact that, a few
years before his passing, Shoghi Effendi lamented the fact that ". . .
at present we have not had time to evolve the Bahá'í scholars
who can deal with these subjects in detail, and take upon themselves to
answer the abstruse points and the many unfounded doctrines which are advanced
by modern philosophers" (from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi
dated 22 April 1954, cited in BSB
5:1-2 [Jan 1991]: 81). Now is
undoubtedly the time for some Bahá'í scholars to come to
terms with, learn from and dialogue with exponents of modern philosophy.
Those men . . . who, in this Day, have been led to assail,
in their inflammatory writings, the tenets of the Cause of God, are to
be treated differently. It is incumbent upon all men, each according to
his ability, to refute the arguments of those that have attacked the Faith
of God. Thus hath it been decreed by Him Who is the All-Powerful, the Almighty.
He that wisheth to promote the Cause of the one true God, let him promote
it through his pen and tongue. . . If any man were to arise to defend,
in his writings, the Cause of God against its assailants, such a man, however
inconsiderable his share, shall be so honoured in the world to come that
the Concourse on high would envy his glory. No pen can depict the loftiness
of his station, neither can any tongue describe its splendour. For whosoever
standeth firm and steadfast in this holy, this glorious, and exalted Revelation,
such power shall be given him as to enable him to face and withstand all
that is in heaven and on earth. Of this God is Himself a witness. ( From
Shoghi Effendi's translation of a portion of Bahá'u'lláh's
Lawh-i-Salmán I, Gleanings CLIV)
. . . the majority of Bahá'ís, however
intensely devoted and sincere they may be, lack for the most part the necessary
scholarship and wisdom to reply to and refute the claims and attacks of
people with some education and standing. ( From a letter written on behalf
of Shoghi Effendi dated 25 September 1941, cited in Unfolding 439)
The field of Bahá'í scholarly research has many dimensions.
As indicated in the above quotations Bahá'í scholars have
the imperative duty to prepare themselves for the defence of the Bahá'í
Faith against the attacks of intellectuals, academics and the general public.
Difficult issues old and new will be raised by opponents from various religious
and secular backgrounds. Narrow-minded and anti-Islámic fundamentalist
Christians, for example, will highlight and attack the neo-Islámic
dimensions of the Bahá'í Faith as well as the claims made
by Bahá'u'lláh. Secular humanists will reject the Bahá'í
theophany; the need for a new religion or religious solution to the world's
problems. All manner of modern groups will decry the Bahá'í
position on a multitude of issues. Bahá'ís will thus find
it necessary to defend and justify their laws, teachings and practises.
Many aspects of Bábí and Bahá'í studies
have yet to be clarified. Detailed aspects of the life of the Founder of
the Bahá'í Faith and His revelation – about which little
has been written or researched (e.g. the family of Bahá'u'lláh)
– will be challenged, requiring detailed answers. One hundred years after
the passing of the Founder of our Faith, we remain in need of a chronologically
ordered list of His major and titled Tablets (alwáh) along
with, where published, their locations and partial or complete translations.
The same is to some extent true of the writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá
and Shoghi Effendi.
The publication, this centennial year, of the Most Holy Book of Bahá'u'lláh,
the Kitáb-i-Aqdas , will cause much discussion both
within and without the Bahá'í community. Bahá'í
legalism and related doctrines and practices need to be studied in light
of contemporary socio-economic thought and jurisprudence. Many of the legalistic
and non-legalistic aspects of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas invite detailed
analysis and study (cf. the Persian 'Treasurehouse of Laws and Ordinances'
[Ganjinih-i-hudúd wa ahkám] by the late Ishráq
Khávari [d. Tehran 1972]). A Bahá'í philosophy
of law has yet to be written. Bahá'í ethical philosophy is
likewise a field requiring scholastic work, as is the Bábí,
Islámic and wider religious roots of the "Most Holy Book". The comparative
study of Bábí-Bahá'í law is a major desideratum.
In his God Passes By, Shoghi Effendi refers to the Kitáb-i-Aqdas
as the "Charter" of the "New World Order" of Bahá'u'lláh
(see 213ff). The implications of this and other designations of the "brightest
emanation of the mind of Bahá'u'lláh", this "New Jerusalem"
of Bahá'í law, again invite intellectual pilgrimage.
In summary, scholarship can make important contributions to the present
and future protection of the Bahá'í community and the vindication
of its teachings. The importance of specifically Bahá'í research
cannot be over-emphasized. Bahá'í scriptural commentary,
Bahá'í theology(ies), Bahá'í philosophy (epistemology
and metaphysics), Bahá'í history, Bahá'í hermeneutics
and many other intellectual dimensions of the new revelation are in their
infancy. Important contributions to their gradually evolving existence
and maturity can be made by all who make a sincere and disciplined effort.
Having made the foregoing points it is not at all my intention to inhibit
people from Bahá'í scholarship as a result of highlighting
the enormity of the work to be done. All can contribute who strive to increase
their overall Bahá'í knowledge and specialize in an area
they feel attracted to. Pray for guidance and insight. Meditate upon the
"Word of God" and enjoy the ecstasy that is Bahá'í scholarship.
- 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Selections from the Writings of
'Abdu'l-Bahá. Comp. Research Department of the Universal House
of Justice. Trans. Committee at the Bahá'í World Centre and
Marzieh Gail. Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978.
- ___. Tablets of 'Abdul Bahá Abbas. Comp. Albert
R. Windust. Vol. II. Chicago: Bahá'í Publishing Society, 1915.
- ___. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Wilmette:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970.
- Bahá'í Institutions - A Compilation.
New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1973.
- The Bahá'í World. Vol. XV (1968-73).
Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1976.
- Bahá'u'lláh. Gleanings from the Writings
of Bahá'u'lláh. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. Rev. ed. Wilmette:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976.
- BSB = Bahá'í Studies Bulletin. (Newcastle
upon Tyne, England U.K.) 1:1 (June 1982) ff.
- The Compilation of Compilations Prepared by the Universal
House of Justice 1963-1990. 2 Vols. Maryborough: Bahá'í Publications
- Ganj-i-Shayigan. Comp. Ishráq
Khávarí. Tehran: Bahá'í Publishing Trust,
- Guidance for Youth. London: Bahá'í Publishing
- The Importance of Deepening our Knowledge and Understanding
of the Faith. Comp. Research Dept. of the Universal House of Justice. Wilmette:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983.
- Lights of Guidance, A Bahá'í Reference
File. Ed. Helen Hornby. 2d ed. New Dehli: Bahá'í Publishing
- Payám-i-Ásmání az intisharat-i-Payám-i-Bahá'í.
n.p., 145 BE/1988.
- Shoghi Effendi. Arouhani, Letters from Shoghi Effendi
to New Zealand. Suva, Fiji: Bahá'í Publishing Trust,
- ___. God Passes By. rev. edn., Willmette: Bahá'í
Publishing Trust, 1974.
- ___. The Light of Divine Guidance. Vol. 2. Hofheim-Langenheim:
Bahá'í-Verlag GmbH, 1985.
- ___. Unfolding Destiny. London: Bahá'í
Publishing Trust, 1981.
- This paper was originally presented on my behalf at the U.K. National Bahá'í Societies Conference held in York (England) in 1992. It has been slightly revised and expanded for the purposes of this publication. I am grateful to Gillian Lambden, Robert Parry and Martin Woods for looking over various drafts of this presentation. I am also grateful to Seena Fazel for his various editorial suggestions.
- Among them is Peter Khan, "Bahá'í Scholarship", Bahá'í Studies Bulletin 2.1 (June 1983): 63-72; Bahá'í Scholarship, An excerpt from a letter to the Continental Boards of Counsellors from the International Teaching Centre New Zealand: N.S.A of the Bahá'ís of New Zealand, 1985. Cf. Stephen Lambden, "Some Thoughts on the Establishment of a Permanent Bahá'í Studies Centre and Research Institute", Bahá'í Studies Bulletin 3.3 (Sept. 1985): 41-87 - also partly printed in Dialogue II.2/3 (1988): 34-40.
- A Western academically informed approach to Bahá'í scholarship is not, it should be understood, the only legitimate one. As the title indicates, this paper is also largely written from a Religious Studies stance.
- The tradition is cited and referred to as a "celebrated hadíth (Holy Tradition)" by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in his The Secret of Divine Civilization (26).
- The utilization of academically informed methodologies and academic style is indispensable to the writing of books and papers which the non-Bahá'í intellectual world will take seriously. This does not necessitate academic training but involves learning from contemporary academic publications.
- See, for example, Alexander King, "The holistic path to a global society" in International Social Science Journal 131 (February 1992): 57-67.
- Available from Mazda Publications, P.O. Box 2603, Costa Mesa, California, U.S.A. Tel: 714-7515252; Fax. no.: 714-7514805.
- The statistical details given in this section are largely as found in Britannica Book of the Year cited in World Religious Statistics (299). Comp. D.B. Barrett. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1991.
- Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988. [ISBN 0 521 34344 5]. Of possible interest to Bahá'í scholars is Peter Masefield's Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1986; ISBN 0 04 2941326) - a volume which "presents evidence which makes it clear that salvation in early Buddhism depended upon the saving intervention of the Buddha's grace and that, contrary to the now commonly accepted view of Buddha as a rationalist philosophy of self-endeavour, the picture that emerges from a careful examination of the Canonical texts is one of Buddha as a revealed religion in every sense of the term with the Buddha as every bit the divine guru" (from the jacket cover).
- A plethora of sometimes important books about religious pluralism and "world theology" have been published in the last decade. Notable among them are-: John Hick (Ed.), On Grading Religions, The Problems of Religious Pluralism. Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1985; Paul F. Knitter, No Other Name? London: SCM Press, 1985; John Hick & Paul F. Knitter (Eds.), The Myth of Christian Uniqueness. London: SCM Press, 1987 [ISBN 0-33401066-7]; Stanley Samartha, One Christ - Many Religions. Towards A Revised Christology. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1991. [ISBN 088344-733-9]; D. J. Krieger, The New Universalism. Foundations for a Global Theology. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1991. [ISBN 0-88344-727-4] See also Jack McLean's "Prologemena to Bahá'í Theology," in The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 5.1 (1992): 25-67.
- See Stephen Lambden, Muhammad and the Qur'án: Some Introductory Notes in The Bahá'í Studies Review 1.1 (1991): 8-14. A brief book list is given in this article of English language works worth studying about Muhammad and Islám. Supplementary to this list the following title should be noted, Ian Richard Netton, A Popular Dictionary of Islám. London: Curzon Press 1992. [ISBN O 7007 0233 4 / £9.99 (PBk)] and Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1992 [ISBN 0 391 03756 0]. Netton, conscious of the fact that "The quality of the books which deal with Islám, in both the West and the East, is . . . various, embracing the good and the bad, the profoundly bigoted and the devoutly sympathetic" (5), has produced an excellent, academically sound and informative dictionary. Bahá'ís anxious to acquire an introductory Dictionary of Islám would be well-advised to purchase this useful work.
- This "saying" (hadíth?) is cited in C. Glasse's entry Arabic (47) in his The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (London: Stacey International, 1989).
- See Payám-i-Ásmání 108; Ganj-i-Shayigan 210ff. For further details, see F.Froughi & Stephen Lambden, 'A Tablet of Bahá'u'lláh Commenting on that verse of the Most-Holy Book [Kitáb-i-Aqdas] about the need for an International Language and Script' in BSB 4.3-4 (April 1990): 28-49.
- Tablets of 'Abdul Bahá Abbas, Vol. II: 306.
- Peter Clarke writes in his essay "Introduction to New Religious Movements" (Chapter 13 in S. Sutherland and P. Clarke (eds.), The Study of Religion, Traditional and New Religion (London: Routeledge, 1988/91), "Over four hundred 'new' religions have emerged in Britain alone since 1945 and many of these and others are to be found in the rest of Western Europe. The figure is very much higher for North America and post-war Japan has also witnessed, as have parts of sub-Saharan Africa from the 1890s, what amounts to a thriving industry in new religions" (149).
- A preliminary step, a basic start towards a Bahá'í approach to adherents of 'new age' and related groups is the pamphlet produced by a Warwick (England, U.K.) based group who have produced a single page leaflet entitled, The New Age (Warwick: Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Warwick: n.d. ).
- John Bowker's recent The Meanings of Death (Cambridge: CUP, 1991; ISBN 0-521-39117-2) is worthy of consultation.
- See Ruth R. Pearson, Women and Peace, Theoretical, Historical and Practical Perspectives (London: Croom Helm, 1987, ISBN 0-7099-4068-8). Also worth consulting in terms of modern feminism and world religions is the volume edited by Paula M. Cooey et al., After Patriarchy, Feminist Transformations of the World Religions (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1992).
- A first rate appraisal of the artificial language movement is Andrew Large's, The Artificial Language Movement (Oxford: Basil Blackwell Ltd, 1985).
- An excellent guide to the historical relation between science and religion is John Brooke's Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives (Cambridge: CUP, 1991; ISBN 0-521-28324-4). The richness of the complexity of the interface between science and religion is here surveyed along with a very useful bibliographical essay. Also of interest in this respect is Ian G. Barbour, Religion in an Age of Science (= The Gifford Lectures 1989-91 Volume 1; London: SCM Press, 1990, cf. the same author's classic, Issues in Science and Religion [London: SCM, 1966]) as is Angela Tilby's Science and the Soul, New Cosmology, the Self and God (London: SPCK, 1992; ISBN 0-281-04579-8).
- (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990, ISBN 0-8006-2422-X) For a review of this book see BSB 6.2-3 (Feb 1992): 108-110. Review notices printed on the jacket cover of this volume are, a) by Ninian Smart of the University of California, Santa Barbara), "This book is a vital contribution to our new global sense from Joseph Kitagawa, one of the architects and the chief sustainer of the famous Chicago history-of-religions program. Kitagawa has written a rather special history of the human quest for unity through religions. He rightly recognizes the importance of outer as well as inner religious facts, and in presenting his narrative he both informs and enlightens." b) by Annmarie Schimmel of Harvard University, "Kitagawa's book leads the reader through the history of the different religions from the beginning of the human quest for God. He shows lucidly how the elements of inner and outer meaning in each religion have manifested themselves in time and space. In the great tradition of history and phenomenology of religion, the author makes us aware of the necessity of understanding each other's tradition through respecting and recognizing the one truth that is inherent in all of them, though perhaps hidden behind the veil of time-bound external forms." Another important review by Ursula King can be found in Numen XXXVIII.2 (1992): 278-80. She commences her review by writing "The theme of this book is an important and timely one. It expresses the imperative for human unity and traces numerous attempts towards its realization through the history of religions East and West."
- Much can be learned from a selective reading of the numerous publications of John Hick, the Danforth Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at Claremont Graduate School (California, U.S.A.). He is one of the most significant living writers in modern theology and the philosophy of religion. A useful collection of his writings is Paul Badham (ed.), A John Hick Reader (London : Macmillan Press Ltd, 1990; ISBN 0-333-48730-3). Cf. also in this connection John Bowker's Problems of Suffering in Religions of the World (Cambridge: CUP, 1970; ISBN 0-521-09903-x).
- Robert Parry (a doctoral candidate in the area of philosophical theology) has recently completed an article, Philosophical Theology and Bahá'í Scholarship. BSB 6.4 -7.2 (Oct 1992): 66-91.