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TAGS: 19th century; Abdul-Baha, Life of; Interfaith dialogue; Islam; Middle East; Modernity; Muhammad Abduh; Philosophy; Rationalism; Reform; Theology
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Presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #36, London (July 13-15, 2001).

Mirrored with permission from

Theological Responses to Modernity in the Nineteenth-century Middle East

by Oliver Scharbrodt

published in Lights of Irfan, Book 3, pages 139-154
Wilmette, IL: Irfan Colloquia, 2002

This paper is an attempt to place the emergence of the Bahá'i Faith in the context of 19th century Middle Eastern gedankenwelt. So far only little research has been made to investigate the relationship of the Bahá'í Faith towards Middle Eastern reform thinkers and to compare their ideas. One has to observe that its role in relationship to those reform movements has been overlooked so far, although there were partly intense contacts between `Abdu'l-Bahá' and those reform thinkers. 'Abduh met at least once, but probably several times 'Abdul-Bahá' during his exile in Beirut. The nature of 'Abduh' s relationship to `Abdu'l-Bahá and to the Bahá'í Faith certainly requires further research. Bahá'u'lláh's and Abduh's ideas on theology, prophetology and salvation history are expounded and compared. The comparison does not only aim at showing differences and parallels, but also at finding reasons for them in relation to the objectives of their respective reform programmes. It demonstrates how both thinkers try to bridge tradition with modernity and to find a theological response to the tension between both forces by appropriating, stressing, dismissing and modifying elements of the traditions they come from and enriching them with modern ideas. With their theologies, Bahá'u'lláh and Muhammad 'Abduh attempt to explain the decline of Middle Eastern societies and to justify the necessity of reforms. The comparison shows that despite the similarities in the modernist outlook of their theologies, both find two different responses to modernity. Whereas 'Abduh remains on the grounds of the Islamic tradition and seeks to make it relevant to the modern world, Bahá'u'lláh introduces himself as a new source of divine authority and founds a new religion.
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