The Babi religion was founded in Iran in 1844 by Sayyid 'Ali Muhammad Shirazi (1819-50), known as the Bab, who claimed to be the promised one of Islam. Given the fervour with which the movement attempted to establish the Kingdom of God on Earth, it is not altogether surprising that the Bab's initial successes provoked considerable resistance from the Shi'i religious leaders whose authority he challenged; within eight years the movement had been exterminated, and its leader executed.
One of the Bab's few surviving followers, Mirza Husayn 'All Nuri (1817-92), known as Baha'u'llah, claimed to be the promised one of not merely Islam, but of all religions, and it was he who established the new religion, Baha'ism. This was to develop in a very different manner from the Babi movement. While the latter had been a fiercely exclusivist Islamic sect, bent on imposing a theocratic state, the Baha'i religion was to celebrate the themes of peace, harmony and universal brotherhood. Such themes have not, however, saved it from persistent and bloody persecution, which has continued in Iran to the present day.
Baha'u'llah was succeeded by his son who encouraged the growth of the new faith to the West, a trend continued when his son took on the mantle of leadership Today, the majority of Baha'is are not Iranian; the movement's international centre is in Haifa; and it is run by an elected body, the Universal House of Justice. The movement has evolved, as the sub-title of the book suggests, from a messianic Shi'i sect to an established religion with centres in almost every corner of the world, its growth being particularly marked in Third World countries.
Peter Smith, himself a convert to the Baha'i faith, has written a careful, clear and fascinating history of this transformation. His basic approach is sociological; he identifies a number of "motifs", and maps the ways in which these emerge, merge, change and/or disappear over time in response to, and creating, new circumstances. The motifs are concerned with themes or topics such as types of authority, attitudes--to knowledge, visions of society and the two religions' role in bringing about social change.
The book ends with the expectation that Baha'ism will continue to expand and become increasingly involved in social issues, perhaps especially those that are concerned with a dialogue between the rich "North" and the poor "South". There are three useful appendices: a glossary, a chronological table, and suggestions for further reading.
It is sometimes said that believers, when they come to write about their own religion, are less likely to be objective, and thus, less informative than nonbelievers. If such is the case, Dr Smith provides an exception par excellence--indeed, about the only disappointment I felt with the book was that we are given so little flavour of what it is like, subjectively, to be a Western Baha'i in the late twentieth century. But I have no hesitation in recommending the book just as it is.
By EILEEN BARKER
©Copyright 1993, Asian Affairs (Royal Society for Asian Affairs)