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Sources for Early Babi Doctrine and History, The: A Survey, by Denis MacEoin:

by John Walbridge

published in Journal of the American Oriental Society, The
Review of: Sources for Early Babi Doctrine and History: A Survey
Written by: Denis MacEoin
Publisher: Brill, 1992
Review by: John Walbridge
Review published in: The Journal of the American Oriental Society (1993)

In recent years a considerable volume of serious scholarship on the Babi and Baha i religions has appeared, including two major studies of the Babi religion: Abbas Amanat's Resurrection and Renewal and Denis MacEoin's present work. MacEoin's is a detailed bibliographic survey of the primary sources available for the study of the Babi movement. In the mid-1970s he was able to make extensive use of the Baha i archives in Iran and was given unparalleled access to the very rich archive of the Baha i World Center in Haifa. He also had some access to materials owned by Azali Babis in Iran. Using this material, published literature, and Western manuscript collections, he has been able to make the first detailed survey of the writings of the Bab, his disciples, and his enemies, and of the relevant historical literature. Although the original version of this work was completed in 1977, it has been updated and reflects literature published through the end of the 1980s.

The larger portion of the book is devoted to a survey of the writings of the Bab himself, a subject in desperate need of systematization. The Bab wrote voluminously but under conditions of great insecurity that hardly favored the systematic preservation of his works. Furthermore, only a few years after his execution, the movement was totally transformed by the accession to leadership of Mirza Husayn- Ali Baha -Allah, whose works superseded those of the Bab. To this day almost the only printed editions of works of the Bab are small editions published by the Azali Babis. As a result, the identity, number, and contents of the Bab's works have remained largely unknown.

MacEoin's work is a first step towards remedying that. He has examined most of the known manuscripts of the Bab's works and has been able to solve long-standing bibliographic problems, in many cases identifying works that had either been completely unknown or that had been thought to be lost. We may say with reasonable assurance that we now have a clear knowledge of the identity of all the Bab's major and most of his minor works. The numerous problems that do remain, however, will require detailed studies of the actual texts of the Bab's works, a task that is beyond the scope of MacEoin's book. Nevertheless, MacEoin frequently gives us tantalizing glimpses of the contents of these unstudied texts. MacEoin also gives information on the writings of the Babi leaders Quddus, Tahira, Hujjat Zanjani, Vahid Darabi, and Husayn Bushru i, among others. (He does not deal with the works of the later Babi and Azali leaders.) He devotes a few pages to the early anti-Babi polemical works, which have some historical value. The second half of the book is devoted to histories, with information on several dozen narratives dealing with the period of the Bab, most by later Baha i writers. In the case both of doctrinal writings and histories, he gives information on the known manuscripts, as well as any available information on the circumstances of the work's composition. This bibliographical labor is thus an important historical study, containing a great deal of information on the origins, purposes, and fate of Babi literature, its authors, recipients, and copyists. The twelve appendices give more detailed information on manuscripts, first lines of the Bab's works, and the interrelationships of the early histories.

The newcomer might find certain aspects of this book puzzling, particularly the emphasis given to the question of the origins of the Nuqtat al-Kaf, an early Babi history, and an undertone of hostility toward the Baha i authorities. Thereon hangs a tale.

After the execution of the Bab in 1850, and particularly after the persecutions of 1852 in which most of the surviving Babi leaders were killed, the community experienced a prolonged leadership crisis. Most Babis followed Baha -Allah, who reshaped the community into the socially progressive and practically oriented Baha i Faith. A much smaller number of Babis remained faithful to the earlier teachings and followed Baha -Allah's half-brother, Subh-i Azal, who had been the titular leader of the community after the death of the Bab. The split was accompanied by bitter polemics on both sides. In 1892, E. G. Browne found a manuscript of an early Babi history in Paris. This work, which he called the Nuqtat al-Kaf, he identified as the work of Hajji Mirza Jani, an early Babi killed in 1852. This identification clearly cannot be sustained, and based on certain passages favorable to Azal, two prominent Persian Baha i scholars of the time denounced the book, in most intemperate language, as an Azali forgery. Some years earlier a Baha i author had prepared another history, clearly derived from the same text, under the title Tarikh-i Jadid, of which Browne had published a translation. This gave rise to the accusation that the Baha is were attempting to bowdlerize their own history through the publication of a series of "official histories." Baha is have thus tended to see the use of the Nuqtat al-Kaf as a sign of hostility to their religion, while non-Baha i scholars have interpreted Baha i reservations as a token of their willingness to falsify history. The debate has generated more heat than light through the years.

MacEoin has made some progress in clarifying the situation, although he has not entirely settled the questions of the authorship of Nuqtat al-Kaf or of its relation to the Tarikh-i Jadid. He theorizes that the historical portion of the former (it also contains a Babi doctrinal treatise, probably written by a Babi not long before the Bab's death) was written in Baghdad in about 1854 by Hajji Mirza Isma il, a brother of Hajji Mirza Jani, perhaps with several of his Babi relatives. It would thus predate the split between the Baha is and the Azalis. The Tarikh-i Jadid is closely related to it but derives from a different manuscript tradition than Browne's edition. But the final disposition of the question awaits additional dispassionate textual study.

However, the debate about Babi historiography has not been confined to the origins of the Nuqtat al-Kaf and has become a fundamental issue in Baha i scholarship. The Baha i faith is a historical religion. Among its sacred literature is a historical text - a Traveler's Narrative by Abd al-Baha - and many texts mentioning historical matters. Moreover, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, the Baha i leader from 1921 to 1957, translated the Babi section of a history written by the early Baha i Nabil-i Zarandi and himself wrote a history of the two religions, God Passes By. These latter works, of unquestionable merit, quickly acquired nearly unchallengeable authority among Baha is. As a result, alternative accounts on even minor points of detail produce indignant complaints from some Baha is. Amanat's admirable book was criticized, for example, for giving an account of the conversion of Mulla Husayn Bushru i that differed in details from that found in Nabil's history.

Thus, as younger Baha i scholars began to publish on Babi and Baha i history in the late 1970s and 1980s, a series of incidents created an atmosphere of suspicion between some of these scholars - notably MacEoin himself - and the Baha i authorities. The vicissitudes of this book are an example. MacEoin complains, "Kalimat Press - a Los Angeles-based publishing house under Baha i management-approached me with a request to publish [this book].... Publication was scheduled for 1987, then 1988, the book was listed as forthcoming, and I believe an ISBN was even issued, when I heard from the publishers that the Baha i authorities in the United States had banned its publication" (p. i). Furthermore, the Baha i World Center has tended to be cautious about allowing access to its materials. While this in part reflects limitations of facilities, it has also been the case sometimes that certain items - notably the original Persian text of Nabil's history - are considered too sensitive to release.

Many of these problems reflect inexperience with scholarly matters on the part of those in positions of authority within the Baha i community, as well as a preoccupation with more practical problems such as persecutions in Iran and the need to develop the large new Baha i communities in South Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Pacific. In fairness, also, MacEoin himself received generous assistance from Baha i offices in both Haifa and Tehran, as well as from many individual Baha is, which he is scrupulous in acknowledging. Nevertheless, the Baha i community has paid an unnecessary price in credibility for such scholarly fiascos at a time when the courage and blood of Baha is in Iran has won it widespread sympathy and respect.

It is thus a matter for relief that Brill has chosen to publish this extremely valuable work. Without doubt it will be for many years an absolutely indispensable tool for any scholarly study of the Bab and his religion.

The second work reviewed here can be dealt with more simply. It is a collection of eight articles, the proceedings of a symposium on the relationship between the Baha i faith and Islam, held in Montreal in 1984 under the sponsorship of the Association for Baha i Studies. Its particular interest is that a considerable number of the participants were not Baha is and thus brought fresh viewpoints and interests to the subject. Though the articles are arranged - impartially if illogically - alphabetically by authors' names, they are better considered in three groups.

In the first, Baha i scholars explain their religion's views and history in academic terms. The late Allesandro Bausani discusses the Baha i faith's interpretation of itself as the eschatological fulfillment of other religions, with particular reference to Baha i use of Koranic prophecy. Heshmat Moayyad, the editor of the volume, gives a careful and fairminded account of the religious links and conflicts between the Baha i faith and Islam, especially Iranian Shiism. He concludes by pointing out the sad but unquestionable fact that the conflict between the Baha i faith and Islam is almost entirely caused by the hostility of Iranian Shiites. Douglas Martin discusses the development of the Baha i faith in recent decades, stressing the ways in which it has broken from its Islamic heritage, with Western and Third World cultural elements becoming increasingly important in the religion's cultural makeup.

Two articles by well-known European scholars deal with specific aspects of the Baha i relationship with Islam. J. C. Burgel traces concepts of peace in Achaemenid, Roman, and Christian thought and compares these with Baha i ideas, discussing the extent to which Baha i ideas on peace are successful in avoiding the dilemmas of earlier religious systems, Annemarie Schimmel discusses themes from Babi history in Iqbal's writings, particularly the Babi poetess and theologian Tahira, who appears at several points both in Iqbal's poetry and in his scholarly writings.

The remaining three articles are more ambitious. Vahid Rafati's article on Shaikhi theology and metaphysics is a summary of his regrettably unpublished doctoral dissertation on the Shaikhis and analyzes their distinctive views and doctrinal links with the Babis. It is in fact striking how closely linked even modern Baha i theology is to that of the Shaikhis. Marvin Zonis' and Daniel Brumberg's attempt to explain persecution of the Iranian Baha i in terms of the theological and political interests of the Iranian Shi ite clergy has unfortunately dated rather quickly with the increased understanding of the subtleties of Shi ite religious politics.

The last article deserves comment. Michael Fischer attempts "to trace the changing patterns of rhetoric and social position" of the Baha i community of Yazd, using as his main source his interviews with a prominent Baha i of the town some twenty years ago. The result is gravely defective both in tone and content. On the one hand, there is a consistent and unprofessional tone of patronizing disdain for his Baha i contacts: American Bah is, whose religious attitudes had "little to do with the agonizing social strife in Iran from which Bahaism grew and drew its original strength"; Baha i officials, who failed to understand the nature of his scholarly project; and his Yazdi informant, who accepted execution "for some literalist or ritualistic nonsense" rather than recant his faith or flee abroad. A modern social scientist's role is to understand his subjects, not to urge them to change their minds.

More serious is his choice and misuse of sources and the resultant historical and anthropological misunderstandings. On the historical side, he insists on using his Yazdi informant as a source for such matters as the intellectual views of Abd al-Baha and the relationship between the Babi and Baha i religions, topics on which there is abundant primary literature. Moreover, his informant's son, in a footnote added by the editor, protests that Fischer misrepresented his father's religious views. Since some of the statements attributed to the informant seem most improbable in the mouth of a modern Baha i, one is forced to wonder if Fischer's notes are at fault. His historical accounts are marred by numerous errors of fact or interpretation. A few examples: when the Babis attacked the prison in Zanjan, it had nothing to do with freeing tax debtors; the Babis did not initiate a jihad in 1848 (a privilege they reserved for the Bab himself); the point about an anecdote concerning a dispute about the burial of an early Zoroastrian Baha i was that Baha i practice agreed with that of the Achaemenid kings; a quote attributed to Tahira cannot be documented and is probably spurious.

A more serious error underlies the main anthropological conclusion of the paper, which is that the community is in the grip of an obsolete ideology of martyrdom. Fischer states:

To a secular Westerner, Iranian Bahaism seems very much a half-way house: a rhetoric containing many progressive ideas, but one designed for traditional folk who cannot do without prophets, hierarchical authority, dreams, signs, and wonders.

He seems to be saying that Baha i theology is a way of making Baha i liberalism palatable for the traditionally religious. This is exactly backwards. It is, as Fischer should have seen from Rafati's paper, the theology that has been the constant in the religion's development from its Shaikhi roots. The "liberalism" of the Baha is has developed as Baha i leaders and believers attempted to apply their religious beliefs to new situations. Thus the refusal of the Iranian Baha is to compromise in the face of death is not a "dated rhetoric" but an insistence that spiritual integrity is the necessary foundation of other sorts of personal and social goodness. One can only assume that the editor, who is manifestly uncomfortable with this article, felt that to have excluded a critical article from a scholarly collection published under Baha i auspices would have invited misunderstanding.

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