Bahá'í studies and scholarship is recognized by the Bahá'í Faith and its institutions
- to have a significant place in Bahá'í community life
- to be an important factor in the development of the Bahá'í Faith as a worldwide organization
- to make a major contribution to the thinking of Bahá'ís and their institutions on issues of social importance
- and thus to the sorts of social and economic development activities in which Bahá'ís are engaged
- and also thereby influencing the processes towards peace, which is one of the goals of the external affairs strategy of National Spiritual Assemblies
- to be necessary for the defence of the religion
- to be an aspect of the Covenant
The relationship between Bahá'í institutions and Bahá'í scholars, therefore, needs to be one of mutual support and collaboration. I am not today speaking on behalf of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United Kingdom, but I will use it as an example, as it is the institution of the Faith with which I am most familiar and have the most experience. There is a long tradition of Bahá'í scholarship in the United Kingdom, which everyone is anxious to continue. The National Spiritual Assembly is also a co-trustee of the Afnan Library, a research library, which it has made the deposit library of the United Kingdom Bahá'í community.
In the United Kingdom, the National Spiritual Assembly takes the view that the institutions of the Faith should support Bahá'í scholarship and help to identify those who might be influenced to participate more fully in it and in the academic study of the Bahá'í Faith. The ‘rainbow' policy of the National Spiritual Assembly promotes the concept that each individual has a unique contribution to make to the Faith and seeks to create the climate in which that contribution can be made and valued by the whole community.
The National Spiritual Assembly of the UK is particularly concerned to promote scholarship for the following reasons:
- For its own sake, as a measure of the health of the Bahá'í community
- To assist the Bahá'í community to correlate the teachings of the Faith to current affairs and activities
- To defend the Faith
The National Spiritual Assembly of the UK feels that there is presently and has been for many years a good working relationship between scholars of the Faith and the institutions, particularly with the National Spiritual Assembly itself. This has not always been the case but has been so for at least the past two decades. Many years ago the National Spiritual Assembly gave its blessing to the informal Bahá'í Studies group and its publication, The Bulletin, became an official organ of the National Spiritual Assembly. This group was later absorbed into the Association of Bahá'í Studies ¬English-Speaking Europe, which has an active and vigorously functioning executive committee supported by the National Spiritual Assembly.
The National Spiritual Assembly of the UK uses the environmental principle as the basis of its policy regarding the defence of the Faith: ‘the solution to pollution is dilution'; that is, the best way to deal with attacks on the Faith from any quarter is to encourage the publication of good scholarship to such an extent that it overwhelms in volume and quality inferior, vexatious or malicious accounts of the Faith. The National Spiritual Assembly is therefore anxious to promote good scholarship and its publication in academic journals and books.
The National Spiritual Assembly has a review panel for ordinary publications, which works quickly and effectively, and an academic review panel comprising Bahá'í academics from around the world to whom academic or specialist works are sent for review, which is by the way of peer review. The National Spiritual Assembly's review policy is that there should be a presumption in favour of publication and it adheres rigorously to the 1971 Memorandum on Publishing which, at one level, limits the extent of review by institutions. The National Spiritual Assembly of the UK believes that fostering, establishing and maintaining a good working relationship between the Bahá'í institutions and Bahá'í scholars is a two-way street. Both Bahá'í institutions and Bahá'í scholars have a role in creating the climate and fostering the attitudes and behaviours in the community which will assist Bahá'í scholars in the pursuit of their work and will assist Bahá'í institutions in the pursuit of theirs. Suspicion, anxiety and fear on both sides, if they exist, need to be overcome. Institutions need to make it clear to believers that Bahá'í scholarship is a legitimate and valued activity; to help the Bahá'ís and their communities understand that they need to ‘develop greater tolerance toward ideas that may not coincide with their current understanding, and remain open to new insights . . .' (Letter of the Universal House of Justice, 18.4.89). Bahá'í scholars need to make it clear through their attitudes and actions that they are not a breed apart from other Bahá'ís.
All Bahá'ís are working together towards a common purpose: to establish the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh and to help the world implement the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh for its own spiritual and material well-being. The Administrative Order has been provided for this purpose and it is important for all Bahá'ís to work through the institutions of the Faith. ‘Scholarly endeavours are not an activity apart from this organic process . . .' (Letter of the Universal House of Justice, 5.10.93; p. 9) For example, ‘Bahá'ís are "fully entitled to address criticisms to their Assemblies" and offer their recommendations. When Bahá'ís have addressed their criticisms, suggestions and advice to their Assemblies, including their views "about policies or individual members of elected bodies", they must "whole-heartedly accept the advice or decision of the Assembly".' (Letter of the Universal House of Justice, 2.7.96; p. 26) This is true for all Bahá'ís in all circumstances. It is important for the institutions of the Faith to accept, even welcome criticism - a compilation on this subject has recently been sent by the House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the UK and has been the subject of its own deepening.
I believe there are a few steps that could be taken by Bahá'í institutions to foster, establish and maintain a good working relationship with Bahá'í scholars and academics:
- to include the promotion of scholarship and activities of Bahá'í scholars as a part of any national plan and to make some budgetary allocation for this
- frequent, perhaps annual, meetings between the institutions and Bahá'í scholars to discuss strategies for the further promotion of scholarship in the Bahá'í community. At the national level, these meetings would include members of the ABS but not be limited to them. These meetings can do much to allay fears and overcome suspicion, should they exist.
- at a national level, annual meetings between the ABS and the National Spiritual Assembly
- visible support of the institutions of the Faith by attendance of members at events organised by ABS and other agencies, such as the Irfan Colloquium
- calling upon scholars of the Faith to assist in the creation of programmes of study for residential schools, etc.
- at a national level, calling upon scholars of the Faith to advise the National Spiritual Assembly of developments in academia that would have a bearing on the progress of the Faith
- at a national level, calling upon scholars of the Faith to advise the National Spiritual Assembly in the preparation of any programmes designed to defend the Faith or promote its interests in its external affairs activities, widely defined
- providing scholars of the Faith, through the Association of Bahá'í Studies and other agencies, with opportunities to discuss with colleagues some of the challenges of being a Bahá'í scholar and academic
- listening to the concerns of scholars and academics
- fostering a spirit of inquiry, learning, inclusiveness and unity among all believers
I also believe there are a few steps Bahá'í scholars and academics could take that would foster a good relationship with Bahá'í institutions:
- participating, to the extent possible, in the general activities of the Bahá'í community
- taking an active role in the programmes of residential schools and other community educational activities, such as community schools
- serving on committees and other agencies when called upon to do so
- advising the institutions of the Faith when called upon to do so
- offering to the institutions insights into current affairs and ways of correlating the Faith's teaching with them
- cooperating with the review procedures set up by the National Spiritual Assembly and offering their assistance to improve them or facilitate their working
- continuing to seek new avenues for the publication of their work and taking part in professional conferences, media events and other activities where a scholarly point of view would be appreciated
- assisting Bahá'ís, particularly young Bahá'ís, in their efforts to become Bahá'í scholars and to offer a mentoring programme where feasible
- participating in the teaching activities of their Bahá'í communities
- listening to the concerns of Bahá'í institutions