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Possible reasons for the lack of attention to the Bahá'í religion in Middle Eastern academic studies. Why is it considered marginal? What are the conceptual boundaries involved and their limitations?

Academic Irrelevance or Disciplinary Blind-Spot?:
Middle Eastern Studies and the Baha'i Faith Today

by Ismael Velasco

published in Middle East Studies Association Bulletin
2001 Winter
In the discussion that follows, I propose to inquire into some of the assumptions that may underlie the disciplinary paradigm of Middle Eastern, and particularly Iranian, studies, making this an interpretive essay on a neglected aspect of the field, rather than a research article as such. Nevertheless, I harbor hopes of stimulating discussion and bringing something of a fresh perspective to bear on a subject which, it is generally acknowledged, lies at the very edge of the Persianate tradition of religious innovation, and consequently at the margins of the academic efforts to understand and explain it: the life and legacy of the Iranian prophet-founder of the Bahá'í faith, Mirza Huseyn Ali "Bahá'u'lláh" (1817-92). The questions I will pose are in essence three: why is the religious innovation wrought by Bahá'u'lláh considered marginal by the majority of scholars of the Islamicate world? What does this attitude tell us about the conceptual boundaries within which these same scholars labor? And do these boundaries reflect the limits imposed by the evidence itself or do they reflect the limitations of the contemporary disciplinary paradigm?

The Marginality of Bahá'í Studies

By way of introduction, it would be useful to consider the state of Bahá'í studies within the broad discipline of Islamics today.[1] If we are able to speak about the marginality of Bahá'í studies today, it is because somewhere, at the margins of academic discourse, Bahá'í studies are taking place. Some thirty or forty years ago, the subheading for this section might have been "The Virtual Non-existence of Academic Bahá'í Studies." In the past twenty or thirty years, however, an increasing number of doctorates have been devoted to the study of the Bahá'í faith and the related, if unquestionably distinct, area of Babism. In the same period, a number of scholars have distinguished themselves with foundational and seminal studies which have provided the basis for the emergence, or resurgence, of academic Babi and Bahá'í studies. The names of Momen, Smith, Cole, Lambden, Buck, Maneck, Lawson, Walbridge, Amanat, MacEoin, Bayat, Milani, Baussani, and Balyuzi stand out within the broad area of Middle-Eastern studies for the impact of their published work on the academic study of the Bahá'í faith. Many more scholars of like calibre within and outside the field of Islamics have similarly advanced the area of academic Bahá'í studies.

Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that these scholars have been working on the periphery of academic discourse. Evidence for such marginalization may be found in the fact that the bulk of this research remains unpublished, out of print, or in circulation in relatively obscure or inaccessible publications, internet discussion lists, seminars, and periodicals, beyond the field of vision of the overwhelming majority of students of the Islamic world. Recognition being, as it is, the bread and butter of academic life, specialization in Bahá'í studies within academia today invite one to be either naive, reckless, or rather brave.

To underscore the current marginality of Bahá'í studies, it may be worth noting that the overwhelming majority of recent work on the Bahá'í faith, particularly within the field of Islamicate studies, has been produced by scholars with an experience, ongoing or terminated, of direct involvement in the Bahá'í community. Since the death of E. G. Browne, no Islamic scholar without direct ties to the Bahá'í community (past or current) has demonstrated sustained interest in the study of the Bahá'í faith.

The mention of Browne in this context is particularly relevant, since he devoted a major, arguably the major, part of his career to the study of the Babi and Bahá'í faiths. For Browne, possibly the most influential pioneer in bringing Iran's history and literature of the Islamic era into the international world of scholarship, the Babi and Bahá'í religions were not side interests, but matters of enormous significance to both the history and future of Iran. Against such a backdrop, the loud silence of his intellectual legatees (all subsequent Iranologists, particularly in the English-speaking world) is a resounding vote of no confidence in a central aspect of Brown's intellectual endeavor.

The all-but-explicit rebuff to Browne would seem sudden if it were not for the fact that Browne's researches into the Babi and the Bahá'í faiths had become marginalized already within his lifetime. In contrast to the flurry of intellectual excitement and curiosity that attended the rise of Babism, from the time of Gobineau to that of A. L. M. Nicolas and Browne himself, the rise of the Bahá'í faith was accompanied by a comparable loss of interest. Even Browne, as time wore on and the Bahá'í faith consolidated itself and penetrated into the West, lost enthusiasm in his early motivating vision, without, however, discontinuing his researches. The conclusion appears to have been tacitly but universally accepted, if it was ever in question, that the likes of Browne and Nicolas and Tumansky had made a mistake, the movement they considered so worthy of study was in fact not so, and the considerable energies they put into its analysis and documentation were, ultimately, misspent.

The Bahá'í Faith and the Persianate Religious Tradition

In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Bahá'í faith could be aptly described as an underground messianic movement. Nevertheless, it was not the first such movement. The tradition of Persianate religious radicalism goes back to the origins of Persianate Islam and has always been linked in significant and often predominant ways to chiliastic fervor. The work of scholars such as Madelung, Hodgson, Dickson, Daftari, Corbin, Nasr, Modarresi, Arjomand, and, more recently, Amanat, Babayan, and Cole, has shed much light into the character of these movements, and permitted the beginnings of an integrated picture to emerge. Babayan in particular has sought to identify, following Hodgson and Madelung, common features that, amidst the bewildering diversity, provide grounds for seeing, in the recurrence of certain outlooks and motifs, a tradition of religious innovation in a Persianate context, rather than a collection of sporadic and more or less isolated incidents and movements. At the center of ghulati movements, suggests Babayan, has been found what she describes as "a sense of immediacy in the desire to experience a utopia on earth." The ghulat are often "idealists and visionaries who believe that Justice could reign in this world of ours":

Reluctant to await another existence, perhaps another form, or eternal life following death and resurrection, individuals (ghulat [exaggerators]) with such temperaments emerged at the advent of Islam expecting to attain the apocalyptic horizon of Truth.ƒThey do not see the universe in linear terms of a beginning and an end, but as successive cycles where the end of one era spontaneously flowed into the beginning of another...there is no Final Apocalypse, no End-Time as is believed by "mainstream" Jews, Christians and Muslims....What distinguishes each cycle is a new prophetic vision, each time unveiling layers of the mystery of the universe. And since the cosmos was understood to be alive, endlessly unravelling new dimensions in a way that ultimate Truth was inexplicable, almost unfathomable, creativity and new imaginings saw no bounds for the ghulat.[2]

I have cited rather extensively because in this one paragraph a distinguished scholar seeks to encapsulate the essence of a specific tradition of religious innovation in the Persianate world. I would like to compare the citation to the following messianic proclamation by Bahá'u'lláh:

It is evident that every age in which a Manifestation of God hath lived is divinely ordained, and may, in a sense, be characterised as God's appointed Day. This Day, however, is unique, and is to be distinguished from those that have preceded it. The designation "Seal of the Prophets" fully revealeth its high station. The Eternal Truth is now come. He hath lifted up the Ensign of Power, and is shedding upon the world the unclouded splendour of His Revelation.[3]

Clearly, Bahá'u'lláh's messianic message strongly resonates with the themes enunciated by Babayan and may be regarded as emerging out of that tradition. This view finds further reinforcement from the fact that Bahá'u'lláh repudiated finality for his revelation, holding fast to a cyclical yet evolutionary approach to eschatology that envisaged no end to the periodic and progressive (re)appearance of divine Messengers.

Such links with the tradition of ghuluw are of course as much historical as intellectual, the Bahá'í vision having evolved in direct engagement with the Shaykhism of Shaykh Ahmad Ahsai and Siyyid Kazim Rashti, various strands of irfani and sufi thought and, above all, the rich and living heritage of Siyyid Ali Muhammad, the Bab.[4] The use Bahá'u'lláh made of this tradition, however, was fundamentally not imitative but creative, resulting in a radical transformation to which we will return below.

It takes, however, more than a messianic figure to make a messianic movement; the response has to be forthcoming. In the case of Bahá'u'lláh (and of the Bab before him) the response was considerable not just in numbers, but in spread. Among the sectors from which the leadership of the Bahá'í community was drawn in Bahá'u'lláh's time, according to Momen, were: major `ulama, such as mujtahids, and imam-jum`ihs; minor `ulama, such as religious students (tullab) and sufi darvishes (rawdih-khans); the nobility, including members of the royal court, Qajar princes, governors, high government officials, and military commanders of rank of sartip and above; major land-owners and factory-owners (sahib-kar); minor government officials, secretaries, couriers, and soldiers; wholesale merchants (tujjar) and financiers (sarraf); retail merchants, usually guilded; skilled urban workers such as guilded craftsmen (asnaf) usually ustad (master craftsman), and traditional service workers (for example, tab"b, doctor); unskilled urban workers; peasant and rural workers; tribal peoples; and eventually modern professionals as well. Not only Iranians of Twelver Shi'i background were represented, but also Zoroastrians, Jews, Ahl-i Haqq, Afshari turkomen, Kurds, and Lurs„and this list is drawn only from within the borders of Iran itself. Bahá'í presence in urban settings was only slightly more important than in rural settings.[5] It is suggested that the swift emergence of a substantial Babi, and subsequently Bahá'í, following in Persia constitutes a landmark response to ideological tensions that go back to the beginnings of Persianate Islam, and belongs to, yet also breaks with, the Persianate tradition of religious dissent.

In his seminal interpretive essays on the birth and demise of the late Antique world Browne emphasizes the cultural tensions engendered by the irruption of Arabo-Muslim culture into Sassanid Persia. Islam was the space where these tensions were played out. On the one, it was used as a source of legitimacy and a tool for cultural and political hegemony by the initially Arabized rulers of Persia. On the other hand, Islam served as an instrument for cultural and political appropriation and survival by a distinctive Persianate society. The result was a Persianate religious idiom that remained distinctive, far-reaching, and fragmented. Thus, we see in Persia and its cultural sphere movements and belief systems take root and develop which in the epicenters of the Arab cultural sphere stand out (in the main) as both foreign and alien?examples ranging from orthodox Shi'ism, Twelver and Sevener alike, to much of Sufism and, of course, ghuluw. These religious currents, it is suggested, reflect enduring attempts to appropriate Islam into a Persianate idiom and resolve tensions going back to late Antiquity between a Persianate (gnostic/cyclical) religious heritage, and a Semitic (nomic/linear) worldview inherited from Islam.

From the outset of Persianate Islam, successive political regimes in Persia evolved and jealously guarded Islamic identities that buttressed their power by imposing cultural hegemonies over a volatile cultural mix. In this context, radical religious innovation not only challenged the cultural hegemony of a given Islamic identity, but inescapably undermined the legitimacy of the political order that upheld it. With such weight accruing to ideological conformity in a milieu brimming with cultural tensions, it comes as no surprise that Islamic heresiography should have specially flourished in the Persianate sphere, as groups fought for political power through cultural control. Religious dissent was inevitably political dissent too. Such links between political revolt and religious radicalism are certainly not unique to Persia. What makes Persianate religious dissent distinctive is its persistent attempt to reconcile its Islamic identity with a pre-Islamic heritage that refuses to relax its ideological grip. We thus find, for instance, formulations of the Islamic eschaton not only turning to pre-Islamic theological orientations, but even making room for pre-Islamic Iranian legend, as in the case of the radical Sufism of the Safavi period. Or should we say rather that an enduring pre-Islamic Iranian mindset made occasional room for Islamic eschatology?

True to the Persianate tradition of religious innovation, Bahá'u'lláh's vision was able to transcend a strictly Islamic worldview through realized eschatology. Only, Bahá'u'lláh appropriated not merely the pre-Islamic past but, crucially, the non-Islamic present, to predicate a post-Islamic future. In the past, Islamicate religious dissent had been used to challenge other Islamic cultural hegemonies. Persians who embraced Bahá'u'lláh's message, and, even more, Persians who embraced the Bab's message, were responding to similar pressures, seeking to resist cultural encroachments from a new religious-political hegemony fractiously championed by the `ulama and, to a lesser degree, the secular rulers of Qajar Persia. The Bahá'" teachings, typically, criticized the clerical establishment and formulated an alternative, spiritualized, and disestablished view of its place in society, legitimizing the sovereignty of secular rulers independently of clerical authority.

For the first time, however, equally strong pressures on identity came from a source outside the Islamicate world altogether: the Western world, whose expansion was accompanied by a subtle but insidious assertion of cultural hegemony in the form of Empire, one of the drivers of globalization. The Bahá'í teachings gave nineteenth-century Persians who wished to do so a vehicle to resist the cultural (hence social and political) hegemony not only of the 'ulama, but of the intruding Western world. The Bahá'í teachings could appropriate the idiom not just of Persianate Islam, but also of the West and use it to resist its cultural hegemony, in the same way as Islam gave the Sassanids a means to appropriate the cultural idiom of the Arabs to resist their attempt at cultural dominance. In other words, the Bahá'í teachings opened an avenue for a new, post-Islamic identity that promised to overcome and finally resolve the cultural (and by implication political and social) tensions of the day. They also posed an unmistakable challenge to the existing order. What was seen by some as the fulfillment of Islam, was regarded by others as its open subversion.

What is perhaps most remarkable is that through the far-reaching political and social changes that have taken place since the days of Nasir-i Din Shah, the repression of Iranian Bahá'ís has remained constant, varying only in intensity, regardless of the prevailing order of the day. Coverage of these persecutions has focused on the Qajar period and the persecutions under the Islamic Republic, but Bahá'ís also suffered periodic persecutions throughout the whole Pahlavi period, not least being the country-wide campaign orchestrated against them in 1955. Even in quiet periods under the Pahlavis, the Bahá'ís never achieved rights as basic as having their marriages legally recognized. The consistency of this persecution suggests powerful cultural, social, and political continuities that may easily pass unnoticed by scholars of the ever-changing Iranian socio-political landscape.

The Bahá'í Faith as Departure

Having concentrated on historical continuities, we may now elaborate on the discontinuities. For even as there can be little doubt that the worldview and community that crystallized around Bahá'u'lláh has inextricable connections with the rich currents of tradition, there can likewise be little doubt that in Bahá'u'lláh's hands, the traces of tradition were embedded in something altogether new, something Other, something amounting, both in intent and consequence, to a new religion. The theological transition from Islam has recently been mapped by Buck. The author describes Bahá'u'lláh's doctrinal teachings as "an ideological bridge to a new worldview."[6] This new worldview implied sociological innovations too. Traditionally, the energies released by large-scale Islamicate responses to a messianic claim have sought outlet in military enterprises. Such indeed was the case with Babism. The idea of the conquering Mahdi or Qa'im pervaded prophetic expectations, and the conquest was expected to occur by military and supernatural means. This Islamic ideal of messianic conquest, like so much else in the Islamic heritage, was not rejected by Bahá'u'lláh, but it was recast in spiritualized form, community building, and moral regeneration taking the place of physical combat as the proper instruments of victory. Bahá'u'lláh would eventually conquer the world, but would do so by spiritual means, through the attraction of hearts, and the battle would be waged by Bahá'ís through a consecrated dedication to community building and the cultivation of moral rectitude. Not surprisingly, a doctrinal outlook that appropriated the prophetic expectations of all religions yet upheld the relativity of truth led to early experiments in multiculturalism. On the one hand were the imperatives from Bahá'u'lláh to consort with the followers of all religions; on the other was the conversion of non-Muslim minorities, which initiated a slow and gradual process of cultural rapprochement between converts from these various backgrounds, as has been broadly examined by Stiles-Maneck.[7]

At this juncture it would be worth asking what contemporary Persians themselves regarded as innovative about Bahá'u'lláh's teachings. One testimony comes from a Bahá'í convert from the later period of Bahá'u'lláh's ministry, a former cleric, writing in 1911 when the Bahá'í community had been securely established in the East and had begun to penetrate into the West. The features he highlights as the most significant innovations of Bahá'u'lláh include: abstaining from crediting verbal traditions; prohibiting individual claims to authoritative interpretation; abrogating conflict and controversy on the basis of differences of opinion; the prohibition of slavery; the obligation to engage in allowable professions as a means of support, and obedience to this law being accepted as an act of worship; the compulsory education of children of both sexes; the command prohibiting cursing and execration and making it obligatory upon all to abstain from uttering that which may offend men; the prohibition on the carrying of arms except in time of necessity; the creation of the House of Justice and institution of national parliaments and constitutional governments; the exhortation to observe sanitary measures and cleanliness, and to shun utterly all that tends to filth and uncleanness; and the provisions of inheritance laws designed, in his view, to prevent the creation of monopolies.[8]

The concerns highlighted in this testimony are not unique, or even rare, although the specific responses are distinctly Bahá'í. They reflect issues exercising the minds of many contemporary Persians, regardless of their faith. Iranian Bahá'ís, like the Bahá'í teachings, were distinctive, but far from incomprehensible to fellow Iranians.

Academic Silence and the Valorization of the Bahá'í Faith

The above discussion has sought to make a case for seeing the Iranian Bahá'í experience as an integral part of Persian history rather than existing in a sphere apart, on the sidelines of Qajar Persia or outside contemporary Iran. The same case has been pleaded from a different angle and with considerable erudition by Cole,[9] as was done for the Babi community by Amanat.[10] They follow in the footsteps of Bayat, who likewise deals with this issue in a wider context.[11] Should the hypothesis that the Bahá'í experience is an organic part of the Iranian experience in general be valid, then its relative voicelessness must perplex. How does one manage to ignore such a large and visible community?

As an outsider to the field, I would have anticipated that at a time when the study of 'minorities' is in vogue, the largest religious minority in Iran today would have generated more interest. The absence of even one solid academic monograph on the Bahá'í faith in Iran is positively intriguing. This absence is in stark contrast to the volume of work devoted to Persian Jewry, for example, which has, I suspect, received notice outside of Jewish circles.

Similarly, the prominence which the recent persecutions of Bahá'ís in Iran has had in the Western world has hardly sparked discussion about the roots or cultural significance of persecution, or even the socio-cultural impact of 150 years of continuous repression against a substantial segment of the Iranian population. The place of the Bahá'í persecutions in Irano-Western political discourse has hardly been noted, even when major NGOs, numerous national parliaments, the General Assembly of the United Nations, and major heads of state such as former President Clinton have issued condemnations and resolutions and even sent commissions to Iran to investigate human rights abuses against Bahá'ís.[12] Such contemporary prominence of the Bahá'í faith in Irano-Western relations appears to be deeply uninteresting to scholars, to judge from the attention it has received. Even more intriguing is to find that Bahá'í historical documents have not been mined in areas such as the social and political history of Qajar Iran, even though they are often extremely rich in detail and broad in geographical spread.[13]

Figures in the history of Babi and Bahá'í who attracted the attention of Browne's generation, such as Qurratu'l-Ayn, scholar-poetess-prophetess, or Abdu'l-Bahá, who pioneered the successful translation of a Persianate religious idiom into a Western milieu, have recently received little attention, notable exceptions merely proving the rule. Qurratu'l-Ayn's ritual unveiling appears to be a particular omission, given the emergence of feminist scholarship on Iran.[14] The transplantation into over 2100 ethnic groups of a Persianate nineteenth-century religious innovation, touching as it does on processes of globalization, modernity, tradition, nationalism, and more, also has passed virtually unnoticed in the literature, perhaps as something that has nothing to do with the Persianate and Middle Eastern milieu that witnessed its genesis.

Finally in this review of, to me, puzzling silences, is the place of the Bahá'í community in the drive towards modernization that ran through Iran in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Bahá'í community of Iran at the turn of the century was closely linked to agricultural reform and elementary education at the village level. Modernization extended to educational formats and content as well, as Iranian Bahá'ís established schools for boys and, significantly, for girls, in partnership with American Bahá'ís, enjoying, until they were banned, a substantial intake of students from outside the Bahá'í community. No serious attention has been given to these schools, nor to Bahá'í medical clinics and hospitals or to the role of Bahá'ís in the introduction to Iran of Western pharmaceutical knowledge. The eradication of illiteracy among all Iranian Bahá'í women under the age of forty in the 1960s and 1970s likewise does not appear in the history of Persian women.

In most disciplines, a social movement that sweeps across a country, touches virtually every demographic segment of a population, and has a 150-year history would have a solid body of literature behind it. Is my puzzlement legitimate, or is it merely due to my lack of experience in the field? One possibility is that silence breeds silence, insofar as it might be thought that if leading scholars have not written about a subject for almost a century, there is probably good reason. The question is, what is that reason? Regardless, it is likely that silence does reinforce and perpetuate silence in its own right. One other possible reason for this silence is the very success of the Bahá'í faith in transcending its Islamicate matrix. Students of Islam are not interested, because it is not Muslim. Students of the Middle East are not interested, because it is today mostly found outside its native land. Nevertheless, what about its sociological importance in Iran and the Middle East both now and in earlier years? And even if no one was interested in the Bahá'í faith per se, why should they ignore Bahá'í sources and materials which shed light on other subjects?

Another possibility is that academics may fear unreasonable criticisms from a faith community fearful of being studied. The sustained and enthusiastic co-operation of the Bahá'í community at the very highest levels with the recently established and entirely independent Chair of Bahá'í Studies at the Hebrew University in Israel would suggest that academics interested in studying the Bahá'í community 'from outside' should fear few obstacles from Bahá'í institutions. The common tensions arising within faith communities in relation to academic deconstructions of the 'Faith' by believers themselves might also possibly act as a disincentive to some individuals, but there is no reason why this worry should influence academic endeavors.

A related concern is that access to primary sources may be restricted, as it sometimes is by 'Faith' communities; but this concern is also without substance. There are more than enough materials available in universities, on-line, and in private hands to sustain serious academic engagement for decades to come. Indeed, even if concerns about obstructionism were to prove legitimate, such responses have not stopped scholars from studying living-faith groups with a genuine history of belligerence?how much less likely is it to deter them from engaging with a notoriously quietist community.

The hidden costs for breaking the silence may be more serious, since the Bahá'í faith is not in favor in the Middle East at the moment. This barrier is doubly serious for scholars with Iranian relatives, whether in Iran or outside. There seems to be more substance to this constraint than to many others, as there is evidence to suggest that academics have sometimes faced penalties for concentrating on Bahá'í subjects even in Western countries, and the Bahá'í open university in Iran was recently banned in a flurry of confiscations and arrests. It is not a sufficient explanation, however, as many scholars write freely on more controversial subjects.

There is of course the possibility that the Bahá'í faith really is not interesting, really is marginal, and really is largely disconnected from the currents of Persian history, at least in relation to a host of far more important subjects crying for attention, but equally or more neglected. I have found no evidence, however, that such is the case.

Disciplinary Paradigms and the Representation of the Bahá'í Faith

There is one other possibility for the neglect of Bahá'í studies. Could it be that in the orthodoxy of Iranian and Islamicate studies, like in the orthodoxy of Iranian religion, a stigma attaches to all things Bahá'í? Could it be that beyond academic considerations a certain amount of prejudice is at work? Allow me to explore this question. It appears that, given the prominent presence of the Bahá'í faith in Iran historically, the wealth of material available, and the precedent of serious academic study of its history and doctrines by the foremost Iranologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the more recent silence on the Bahá'í faith and the complete indifference even to Bahá'í historical sources mark a definite boundary which designates it as Other. Other, that is, from the perspective of a disciplinary paradigm from which it is largely excluded.

This exclusion is significant. The nineteenth-century Persians who converted to the Bahá'í faith evidently felt that the boundary between the Islamicate world to which they truly belonged?they could belong to no other?and the Bahá'í faith was bridgable. Members of this faith were nineteenth-century Persians, representing a microcosm of Persian society, steeped in its culture, its traditions, its values. They were both Bahá'ís„they belonged to a distinctive community, with traits that differentiated them from all other Persian communities„and they were Persians„they shared with their compatriots a common education, common material circumstances and pressures, and a great deal more. Yet, in current Islamicist scholarship they are not integrated into the spiritual, social, religious, or political landscape of the nineteenth-century Middle East in the way that the Zoroastrians, Jews, merchants, or 'ulama might be. Nor are they even explicitly excluded. Instead, they are negated.

Let us discard conspiracy theories. I do not believe that many academics in this field would consciously choose to exclude a range of potentially relevant sources merely because they were tagged Bahá'í. Rather, the Bahá'í faith occupies a disciplinary blind-spot in the perspective of scholars of the Middle East, so that when we look at the Persianate world we do not see the Bahá'í faith, when we search for sources we do not notice Bahá'í sources, and when they come into our field of vision we push them aside so we can see more clearly what we are examining. It is as if the disciplinary paradigm of contemporary Persianists is predicated on an 'imagined' nation, to allude to Anderson,[15] which, emulating the imagined nation of many Iranians throughout the century and across all political divides, cannot explain or even accommodate the existence of the Bahá'í faith in Iran. In other words, it may be that an element of cultural bias has filtered into the discipline of Islamics, in a sort of inverted Orientalism, in which the Iranian Bahá'í community is exiled from the Iranian cultural experience.

If this is so, then we might be missing an entire dimension of the Islamicate, and particularly the nineteenth-century Persian landscape. In the throes of modernization and the first deep encounters with globalization, we contend that the Bahá'í faith opened up possibilities of identity to which nineteenth-century Persians could relate even if they could not always accept the faith. To integrate the Bahá'í faith into the nineteenth-century mentality might well change many of our understandings of the multilayered processes of identity formation, affirmation, and development in nineteenth-century Persia. The same might apply to present-day Iran. Who is Bahá'u'lláh? Who are the Bahá'ís? What did these questions mean in nineteenth-century Persia? What do they mean in Iran today? Is it not likely that by completely ignoring their existence, we may have a distorted picture of nineteenth-century Persian society? By ignoring their presence in Iran today, their situation, and their place in contemporary Iranian religious and political culture (and international relations), do we not distort our understanding of contemporary Iran?


* I am grateful for the constructive comments on this paper made by Kathryn Babayan, Moojan Momen, Juan Cole, Susan Maneck, and Todd Lawson.

[1] For the most thorough, up to date, and accessible collection of online bibliographies on Babi and Bahá'í studies see It supplements William P. Collins, Bibliography of English-Language Works on the Babi and Bahá'í Faiths, 1844-1985 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1990). See also the solid collection of both published and 'grey' academic literature on the Bahá'í faith elsewhere in the same site.

[2] Kathryn Babayan, Mystics, Monarchs and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran (forthcoming).

[3] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1978), p. 59.

[4] On the links between the Persian heterodox tradition and the Babi Faith see Abbas Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850 (Cornell University Press, 1989), chapters 1-2. Also Babayan, Mystics, Monarchs and Messiahs, conclusion.

[5]Moojan Momen, "Iran," article found on This is the most thorough overview of Bahá'í history in Iran to date and includes provincial accounts. See also his paper on "The Social Basis of the Babi Upheavals in Iran: A Preliminary Analysis," International Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 15 (1983): 157-83. Of relevance too is Peter Smith, "A Note on Babi and Bahá'í Numbers in Iran," Iranian Studies 15 (1984): 295-301.

[6] Chris Buck, Symbol and Secret (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1995), chapter 5. Although Buck does not cover it, the crucial bond in the chain linking the Babi and Bahá'í faiths to Islam is early Shaykhism. The theological linkages are explored by Vahid Rafati, "The Development of Shaykhi Thought in Shi'i Islam," The Bahá'í Faith and Islam: Proceedings of Symposium, McGill University, March 1984, ed. Heshmat Moayyad (Ottawa: Bahá'í Studies Publications, 1990). Also Amanat, Resurrection and Renewal. Of relevance too is Mangol Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran (Syracuse, 1982), pp. 37-86.

[7] Susan Stiles-Maneck, "The Conversion of Religious Minorities," Journal of Bahá'í Studies 3. 3 (1991).

[8] Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani, Letters and Essays, 1886-1913, trans. Juan R. I. Cole (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1992).

[9] Juan R. I. Cole, Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Bahá'í Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998). This work is particularly valuable in exploring Bahá'u'lláh's political thought in a broader Middle Eastern context, shedding light on the relevance of intellectual and political currents in the Ottoman world to Bahá'u'lláh's political thinking. See also Cole's "Iranian Millennarianism and Democratic Thought in the Nineteenth Century Middle East," International Journal of Middle East Studies 24 (February 1992): 1-26. Peter Smith takes a sociological perspective on Babi and Bahá'í millenarianism in "Millennarianism in the Babi and Bahá'í Religions," Millennialism and Charisma, ed. Roy Wallis (Belfast, 1982), pp. 231-83. Also important is Moojan Momen, "The Bahá'í Influence on the Reform Movements of the Islamic World in the 1860s and 1870s," Bahá'í Studies Bulletin 3.2 (1983): 47-65.

[10] Resurrection and Renewal.

[11] Mangol Bayat, Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1982).

[12] See Nazila Ghanea-Hercock, "A Review of Secondary Literature in English on Recent Persecutions of Bahá'ís in Iran," Bahá'í Studies Review 7 (1997) for the most thorough and up to date review of the theme. Also found at

[13] While it is true that many of these sources are difficult to access, much is available. The groundbreaking work of the H-Bahá'í section of Humanities Net (H-Net) in making a wealth of primary sources available on-line goes a long way towards filling earlier gaps. See Arabic and Persian Texts Related to the Shaykhi, Babi and Bahá'í Movements, at Other collections of unpublished sources exist in academic libraries worldwide, in private hands, the Bahá'í-sponsored Afnan Library in London, and, of course, at the Bahá'í World Centre.

[14] A notable exception is Farzaneh Milani's Veils and Words: The Emerging Voices of Iranian Women Writers (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1992). See also Negar Mottaheddeh's paper from the perspective of cultural studies, "Ruptured Spaces and Effective Histories: The Unveiling of the Babi Poetess Qurrat al-`Ayn Tahirih in the Gardens of Badasht," H-Bahá'í Occasional papers on Babi and Bahá'í Studies 2.2 (February, 1998), Of broader relevance is the discussion of Qurrat al-`Ayn Tahirih as a paradigm of Bahá'í womanhood in "Women in the Bahá'í Faith," Religion and Women, ed. Arvind Sharma (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994).

[15] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso Books, 1991).

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