The first part of this talk will explore definitions of Bahá'í scholarship and then I will end by discussing perspectives. Many of the problems and heated debates about Bahá'í scholarship are because of the failure to make a distinction between two different aspects of Bahá'í scholarship. This distinction is between polemical scholarship and the academic study of the Bahá'í Faith. Polemical scholarship is a type of scholarship which promotes a particular position, specifically designed to advance a cause, whereas the academic study of the Bahá'í Faith is supposedly neutral and has no particular aim other than finding out the truth.
Polemical scholarship can, of course, be both for and against the Bahá'í
Faith, but in this presentation, we will concentrate on polemical scholarship
supporting the Faith. The scope of such polemical scholarship is
very wide and ranges all the way from intensive deepening to Bahá'í
polemic. Intensive deepening would involve, for example, examining
the texts and producing compilations on different subjects, whereas Bahá'í
polemic would be more concerned with writing defences of the Faith against
attack or introductory works on the Faith.
The importance of the distinction between this polemical scholarship
and the academic study of the Faith is that both are commonly referred
to as Bahá'í scholarship and consequently many misunderstandings
occur. I will therefore make an attempt to explain the differences
in approach between these two types of Bahá'í scholarship.
The point about polemical scholarship and, in particular, intensive deepening,
is that it only researches the texts. In other words, it looks at
the Bahá'í scriptures for everything and doesn't go outside
them. It hopes to find all the answers to whatever questions are
being asked within the scriptures themselves.
In contrast, the methodology of the academic study of the Bahá'í
Faith is that everything is explicable from the outside, that any text
or episode in Bahá'í history is explicable from the external
circumstances. Everything has an explanation in terms of psychology,
sociology, economics or whatever. An example of the extreme of these
two positions may clarify the difference. Extremes often give a better
picture of the differences between the two. The extreme of polemical
scholarship is to be very inward-looking and to be what you might call
simplistic by only looking at the Bahá'í scriptures themselves.
On the other hand, the academic study of the Bahá'í Faith
is based on a methodology that is basically irreligious, in the sense that
it is methodology which assumes that God does not intervene in the world.
All that happens in the world has a previous cause which can be identified
and can fully explain that event. Whatever episode or text you are
looking at has an explanation that is grounded in history, culture, sociology,
economics, psychology, or all of these different disciplines. Thus
the academic methodology is irreligious in the sense that it does not allow
for God to intervene in history, whereas the polemical type of scholarship
assumes that everything comes from God in the first place and thus is ultimately
explainable in religious terms.
An example may make my meaning clearer. You have been asked to
give a talk to a group of feminists at a University on the Bahá'í
Faith approach to the status of women. If you were taking the polemical
approach, you would perhaps look up all the texts you could find that mention
the words 'women' or 'handmaidens'. Nowadays a computer index will
produce long lists of such quotes at the stroke of a few buttons.
These quotes could then be organised into ways that link up with each other
and a talk can be gradually created which flows from one quotation to the
next. That would be the basis of your presentation. You may
perhaps read what other Bahá'ís have written on the subject
of the status of women and that may give you a few other ideas. But
basically the approach is that you look firstly at the texts and hoping
to create an answer to this particular subject. The problem with
that approach is that very often it leads to a talk that will be very unsatisfying
to an audience of feminists. You will probably make a presentation
that will come across as stating that Bahá'ís believe in
the equality of men and women. The audience will yawn and say "Yes,
what else? We already accept all that, we want something more." You'll
get a polite hand-clap and that will be it.
If you are using the academic approach, the starting point will be
to research contemporary feminist literature. What are the major
issues that concern feminists? What sort of literature is being written
at this present moment? What is there in the Bahá'í
Faith that corresponds with this literature? For example, one of
the issues that is being discussed in feminist literature is the issue
of how our present social structures tend to be based on values of power
and domination, either on the individual or group level, and how this enhances
the position of men. Whenever you have such a power-based social
structure, it tends to lead to men dominating. So there has been
a lot of discussion on how you can produce social structures that are not
based on power and domination. If you happen to know that this is
what feminists are interested in, there is much Bahá'í teaching
that deals with that area; but this will not be found by looking up the
Bahá'í scriptures under the subject of women, but rather
under the subject of Bahá'í administration and the World
Order of Bahá'u'lláh. We have much to contribute on
this issue: the development of a pattern of society that does not depend
on the domination of one group over another; that is non-hierarchical in
nature; and where power and authority is not given to individuals.
All these factors are very interesting to feminists because they are looking
at these kinds of patterns of society as a way of answering the question,
"How can you create a kind of society where men will not always be automatically
dominant within that society?" If you are aware that this is the
kind of question that feminists are interested in, then answers exist in
the Bahá'í Faith, but unless you know what interests them,
you are not going to find those answers.
There is therefore a difficult position where two approaches present
themselves in researching the Bahá'í position on an issue
- one that is based on an irreligious methodology but produces interesting
insights, and the other that only explores the Bahá'í writings
and may produce simplistic answers. As a personal note I may add
that whenever I have researched an area and read the non-Bahá'í
literature and then come back to the Bahá'í literature, it
has provided me with many insights into the Bahá'í material
which I would not have gained by just studying purely the Bahá'í
I would suggest that in order to research a subject, as with all other
issues, the best approach is to take a middle course between the two extremes.
We should not to get trapped into the extremes of the academic methodology
which aims at removing all religious impulses from society. In other
words, we should avoid focusing only on the academic perspective which
assumes that there is nothing in religion other than man-made phenomena.
On the other hand, we need to be sufficiently aware of what is going on
in the academic field and in the world outside to know what are the issues
being discussed, in what way they are being discussed, and thus have an
impression of possible areas of interest from a Bahá'í perspective.
So we have to find a balance between the two opposing or contradictory
We must develop a presentation of an issue that would satisfy the most
conservative of Bahá'í audiences and is perceived as a true
presentation of the teachings of the Bahá'í Faith, which
does not rely entirely on speculative thinking and individual interpretation.
It also has to capture the interest of a non-Bahá'í audience
by discussing the current or fashionable issues--the academic world, like
every other part of the human world, goes through fashions.
The Bahá'í scholar has several criteria to satisfy.
The first challenge is to satisfy yourself personally that you have done
the scholarship to the best of your ability. Secondly, you have to
satisfy the Bahá'í community that your scholarship is a true
representation of the Faith, one that most Bahá'ís would
agree is a presentation of the Faith that is consistent with the texts
and being interpreted in ways to which most Bahá'ís would
not object. At the same time, the academic audience must be considered.
What you present must conform to their criteria of thorough research and
a reasonable use of sources.
Having dealt briefly with definitions, I want to discuss the dangers
of the academic study of the Bahá'í Faith. Among them
is the exposure that you will receive to an environment in which the values
of everyone around you are completely different to yours. The criteria
and assumptions of the academic world are completely irreligious, the methodology
is based on the assumption that God does not intervene in history and does
not reveal himself. All human phenomena can be fully explained by
sociology, psychology, economics, cultural factors, and therefore anything
that has happened can be accounted for. For example, the Bábí
movement in Iran can be traced back to the Shaykhis and Isma'ilis, and
to all the various religious movements that existed in Iran in the past.
One could investigate how all these historical, social and religious elements
converged, and explain the factors that led to the Bábí movement.
There is no need to bring God into the equation at all. This is how
the academic world thinks and it's very easy, if you are actually in that
world all the time, to slip into that mode of thought. It's a natural
mode of thought to slip into. There are very brilliant minds all
around you producing work based on these assumptions and very soon it also
becomes reality for you. If everyone else around you has a certain
set of assumptions which they accept is truth, it becomes very easy for
you to slip into the same sort of thinking. This is not just a theoretical
concern, it's a very real concern. Bahá'ís have gone
into the academic world and have ended up thinking this way and separated
themselves from the Bahá'í community to one extent or another.
Therefore I think it is a very real problem, a very real concern if one
is considering going into an academic career where the main focus of your
studies will the Bahá'í Faith. I think it is something
you should think about, bear in mind, and watch out for.
The question of Bahá'í scholarship or scholarship on
the Bahá'í Faith is one which is going to be increasingly
important in the future. We will inevitably start to have more attacks
on the Faith, as we come out of obscurity and into the limelight.
It then falls to Bahá'í scholars to defend the Faith against
attacks and produce presentations of the Faith for all the various peoples
who will request them. It is very important for Bahá'ís
to position themselves so that they will be the ones who are asked about
The standards and assumptions of the present day world tend towards
asking for the opinion of "experts" in a particular area for information
about it. Therefore, if people want to know about the Bahá'í
Faith, they turn to "experts" on the Bahá'í Faith.
If you are in the unfortunate position of not having any Bahá'ís
who are in the academic world, when people such as journalists, editors
of encyclopaedias, or people writing books on religion want information
about the Bahá'í Faith, they turn to people who perhaps are
not particularly friendly towards the Bahá'í Faith but are
nevertheless perceived as experts on the Bahá'í Faith.
It is therefore very important for Bahá'ís to position
themselves in the academic world, to be known as experts on the Bahá'í
Faith, so that when people want information on the Bahá'í
Faith, it is Bahá'ís that they come to. This is the
nature of the world in which we live. People assume that experts
know, and that experts will give an impartial view of the subject in which
they are specialists. The problem is that experts are not neutral.
I have never known an expert who was an impartial observer; the very fact
that they are an expert means that they have a passion about the subject.
So it is illogical to consider them as impartial and dispassionate.
To take an historical example, E.G. Browne is considered to be one
of the greatest academics on Iran that there has ever been. But he
was extremely passionate on every area he went into, not just the Bahá'í
Faith, but also on the Constitutional Movement. There was almost
no area of Iranian life that he wasn't passionate about, and that's what
made him a great scholar. He was sufficiently interested in all these
things that he was quite happy to stay up hours at night and research them.
He did not regard it as a nine to five job, it was an eight in the morning
until midnight job as far as he was concerned which is why he was a great
Experts are never impassionate. They are never neutral observers.
They always have some viewpoint. They always have some particular
bias in the way they think about a subject. Unfortunately if we as
Bahá'ís do not place ourselves in the position of being the
acknowledged experts on the subject in the academic world, then other people
will and may not present the Faith in such a favourable light. Because
they are the experts, they will be asked to write the encyclopaedia articles
on the Bahá'í Faith; they are the ones to whom journalists
will turn for information whenever there is something to say about the
Bahá'í Faith; they are the ones who will asked to write chapters
in books and so on. Therefore it is very important that we position
ourselves, including the Bahá'í community as a whole, in
this role of experts in the academic world and occupy the academically
respected positions and posts.
The means to this end will vary for different individuals - not everyone
needs to study Arabic and Persian in order to become a Bahá'í
scholar. There have been some who have done that and have done it
reasonably successfully but it is by no means the only way of doing it,
particularly if you do not happen to be good at learning languages.
You do not have to go down that particular road, there are all sorts of
different areas which you can study and which will eventually lead to the
same sort of result. For example, at the moment we have almost nobody
in the field of religious studies, which is a growing field in the academic
world with new university departments being created. Very few Bahá'ís,
as far as I know, are in that field, studying it, becoming experts and
relating it to the Bahá'í Faith.
There are all sorts of other areas which Bahá'ís can
research and become experts. It is difficult at the moment to relate
fields such as economics to the Bahá'í Faith, because, although
the Bahá'í Faith has teachings that have an economic bearing,
there has not been sufficient research into Bahá'í economics
so that Bahá'ís can become experts within the academic world.
However these fields will develop within the next fifty to a hundred years
and there is no reason why people cannot perhaps make a start; it will
just be that more difficult.
There are many other fields which Bahá'ís can research
and thereby make an impact locally among ordinary people; areas such as
feminist thought, development issues, racism, etc. where there is much
discussion and many groups which have nothing at all to do with the academic
world. To enter that sort of field, one can read the literature,
become aware of the issues. In this way one will be a scholar of
feminism, for example. Then one can go along to these groups and
have something interesting to say to them because one is are aware of what
they are thinking and what issues concern them. It is quite possible
for someone who does not hold an academic post to participate in this process
but it must be done thoroughly. It is no good just reading one book
on feminism; one has to read a large number of books, including recent
material so that one has a sense of what the current thinking is and what
is being debated presently. At first it may be best to go along to
some meetings, keep silent and listen to what is going. Gradually
one can begin to contribute. The number of areas is virtually limitless
and interested Bahá'ís should follow their own interests.
It's much better to follow a path that is in line with one's own talents
and inclinations than to force oneself into something that one is not going
to be particularly good at. If you are not good at languages, don't
force yourself to study Arabic, which is a very difficult language to learn
anyway. Go into a field where you have talent and can make progress,
eventually aiming to become an authority in that area.