Bahá'í Epistolary

Sunday, 27 May 2007

Secular vs. Religious Historiography

The message below combines a post to a Wilmette Institute course on Bahá'í history for which I was serving as faculty, with a dialogue I held with a Bahá'í that found academic readings of history troubling, and felt that to exclude spiritual, or more precisely theological readings of history, was to distort it with potentially immensely damaging results. This is a more general faultline which I attempt to address and to tentatively bridge in the discussion that follows.

Dear all,

Reading the messages and replies in this thread, brought to mind the potential tensions, and the yearning for integration, between two approaches to Bahá'í history. The first may be easily designated academic history. The second approach is what I would describe as providential history.

This is not an either/or polarity, but rather a spectrum, with, for instance, Will McCants and Kavian Milani's seminal Nuqtat’u’l-Kaf article, Mr Balyuzi's biographies, and Mr. Taherzadeh's books, occupying different places in that spectrum. Moreover, the same author in writing for different audiences may opt to position him or herself further or nearer to one or the other polarity. Moojan Momen's prolific and varied work is an example. Much of the conflict in Bahá'í studies has in my view emerged either from misunderstandings of the respective goals, methodologies and stylistic conventions of each approach, or else from competing efforts to make one or the other approach hegemonic in a given discursive context.

It is indeed most stimulating, most challenging, and most important to meditate on the similarities and differences between the complementary perspectives furnished, on the one hand, by the tools of academic history, expounded in Sholeh Quinn's excellent article (“Historical research and Bahá'í scholarship”, Bahá'í Studies Review, Vol.9, 1999-2000), and what may be called providential or dispensational history, the meta-historical, theologically guided, and in this case, divinely inspired interpretation by Shoghi Effendi of the facts furnished by primary sources and the ongoing labours of professional historians.

These two dimensions each have distinct, even if interrelated approaches and limitations, which, as in all matters of the harmony between science and religion, have at once the potential to be dazzlingly illuminating, or explosively polarising.

As a starting point, one of the fundamental methodological bases of modern academic history, is that an academic historian, such as Quinn describes, cannot read back later theological concepts into ealier history and periods. Thus, unless he finds distinct evidence in credible written documents, he or she cannot say that the Báb communed with, announced and gave His blessed life for Bahá'u'lláh, much less suggest that when He wrote in the Bayán "well is it with him who fixeth His gaze on the Order of Bahá'u'lláh", He meant, as Shoghi Effendi proclaimed, the institutions of the Administrative Order, institutions moreover that will, we believe in faith, eventually evolve into a World Order which will in turn culminate in the emergence of a world civilization. An academic historian, as historian, cannot go beyond contemporary sources, and, moreover, must give preference to the earliest accounts in understanding a given period or figure, accounts which cannot be expected to have been aware of interpretations which would emerge only much, much later. To do that is to fall into the academic historian's dreaded pitfall: anachronism, which literally means "out of time", that is inserting in historical narratives elements that belong to an earlier or a later period.

A believer, on the contrary, as believer (be he a professional historian, biologist, woodcutter or painter), and still more a divinely appointed interpreter, can, and Shoghi Effendi tells us, should, understand historical events in the light of Revelation, not only contemporary, but also preceding and subsequent to the events described. Thus, in order to grasp not only the facts of history, but their life transforming, society-building meaning, the historical events that make up the life of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh are to be placed in the context of thousands of years of past prophetic expectation, announcement and disclosure, on the one hand, and on the other, of the glorious promises, the new community, the Covenant of succession and interpretation, and the allusions, fulfilment and expositions of subsequent outpourings of divine revelation and authorized interpretation. This is what Shoghi Effendi does in God Passes By, and, in a wholly different category, authors such as Adib Taherzadeh also emulate.

These are two complementary spheres of historical consciousness, for without the competent research of trained historians, the facts that form the raw fabric whence divine meanings emerge would remain obscure and even unknown, while without the providential context, their spiritual significance, their existential meaning, and, above all, their sacred dimension, would become elusive at best, at worst (and almost inevitably), altogether lost.

To capture this delicate issue most forcefully we can take the following statement from God Passes By:

"The century under our review [1844-1944] may therefore be considered as falling into four distinct periods, of unequal duration, each of specific import and of tremendous and indeed unappraisable significance. These four periods are closely interrelated, and constitute successive acts of one, indivisible, stupendous and sublime drama, whose mystery no intellect can fathom, whose climax no eye can even dimly perceive, whose conclusion no mind can adequately foreshadow....To isolate any one of them from the others, to dissociate the later manifestations of one universal, all-embracing Revelation from the pristine purpose that animated it in its earliest days, would be tantamount to a mutilation of the structure on which it rests, and to a lamentable perversion of its truth and of its history." (God Passes By, Foreword, p.xiv)

Here we can see what intensity of emphasis Shoghi Effendi places on the need to read the early periods of Bahá'í history in the light of "the later manifestations of one universal, all-embracing Revelation ", and viceversa. And yet, the methodology of academic history relies precisely on an effort "to dissociate the later manifestations" from "the pristine purpose that animated it in its earliest days" and try to understand each period in its own terms, as revealed by the contemporary sources at our disposal.

In order to harmonize these two perspectives, we need to understand that they obey complementary yet distinct goals: on the one hand, trying to understand "what happened" at a given period or moment in time, and what it most likely meant to the people of that time (academic history); and on the other hand, seeking to comprehend what those events mean in the light of faith to believers today, and, beyond the confines of contemporary context, what it means in eternity in the sacred light of what the Guardian describes as the "Grand Redemptive Scheme of God" for humanity (God Passes By, p.139), where, the Bible tells us, "one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." (II-Peter 3:8)

Shoghi Effendi, in God Passes By, makes room for both approaches. As an example, his discussion of the declaration of Ridvan is framed in the spiritual context of former prophecy and future divine promise, and it is in this light that he identifies and interprets the facts at his disposal: as providential history. The task of expanding and enriching the facts available, that raw material from which to expand and enrich in turn the sacred narrative of providential history, he does not himself attempt, but, as in "the exact circumstances" attending that Declaration, that is "the words Bahá'u'lláh actually uttered on that occasion, the manner of His Declaration, the reaction it produced, its impact on Mírzá Yahyá, the identity of those who were privileged to hear Him" he leaves, rather, to the labours of "future historians" (GPB p.153). This is where Sholeh Quinn's "professional historian" comes in. In some cases, both aspects can to some degree be combined (as in Mr Balyuzi's histories, and most of Persian Bahá'í historical writing). In the majority of cases, however, particularly where university audiences and non-bahá'í periodicals and conferences are involved, academic history and providential history remain separate, albeit frequently, and ideally, complementary endeavours.

This is specially so for believers who approach history from a Faith perspective. It is to be expected that those who do not share the premises of Faith, apply a reading that takes no account of faith based premises, such as the claim that in writing about the Order (nazm) of Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb had in mind, not the arrangement of future compilations of the Bayán, but the institutions the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, a use of the term “order of Bahá’u’lláh” which was only formulated explicitly for the first time by Shoghi Effendi in the 1930’s. The believer, on the contrary, faces three potential pitfalls, as I understand it. I am speaking here about hermeneutical risks, risks in understanding, not about the expression of that understanding in print. In print, or in conversation even, one will express one’s historical understanding in accordance to the conventions and constraints of the audience one is addressing. Whether one has a theologically informed perspective on history or not, if writing in an academic journal geared at a non-believing audience, one will not go beyond the interpretive resources of the period under study. However, it is suggested, as a believer, one’s own understanding, regardless of how fully or partially it finds its way to print, should be informed, animated, and guided by the light of faith in the supernatural, supra-historical dimension of history as the vehicle for the purposeful unfolding of the will of God for humanity.

The first interpretive risk for a Bahá’í historian from this perspective, then, is to strip religious history of its religious meaning, an endeavour which, while legitimate for non-believers, is at best incongruent for such as consider themselves believers in the divine realities of the Faith of God. It is to make revelation irrelevant to a believer’s understanding of history, and reduce in his own mind the causes and effects of events and happening purely to material means and processes, and limit the meaning of the facts at hand to the range of possibilities available to contemporaries, discarding the extended meanings that a supra-historical, scripturally informed understanding of their significance makes possible.

I say extended meanings, because the second pitfall into which a believer can fall is, beginning from scripture or belief, to discard, disavow or distort the factual investigations that are necessary as underpinnings of any theological meta-narrative of history, if it is not to become a pious fiction, history as, from a given theological perspective, it ought to have been. In medieval literature, the hagiographical genre is one example where frequent historical narrations derived from belief but entirely unsupported by research, in fact, pure works of edifying fiction, abound as examples. There are matters which it is, specifically, the province of academic historical and linguistic research to establish, above and beyond the premises of faith, although these may influence the dynamic and emphasis of the research. When, taking as the starting point a 21st century theological formulation of a Bahá’í meaning of the term “revelation, one states that there is no documented evidence whatsoever to declare that Quddus claimed divine revelation for himself, this is not something for Providential or Divine history, in other words for theology as such, to establish, but really for normal historical investigation.

This, as was pointed out earlier in the thread, is to be established by referring to the writings of Quddus, and to a lesser degree to contemporary secondary sources. When, from the point of view of divine or providential history, one asserts that Quddus never declared such a thing, without first checking in his writings whether that is the case or not, that is in fact not divine history, but divination. The Guardian, himself, as my quote regarding Ridvan suggests, always built his theological formulations on the basis of solid evidence, and refused to speculate, let alone categorically assert matters of fact, such as the exact circumstances and even the content of Bahá’u’lláh’s declaration, where the necessary research was lacking. Now, if a perusal of the writings of Quddus showed that he wrote "I have received wahy", whatever our theological or doctrinal starting point, we would be compelled to declare: Quddus did claim to have received wahy or divine revelation. It would then be the task of the theologian of Providential history, not to deny, against the evidence, that such claims were made, but to harmonise and reconcile them, and explore how Quddus's claims to revelation might fit with the concept of revelation in Bahá'í belief. This - establishing what it might mean for Bahá'ís the fact that Quddus claimed revelation (if he did) - would not be something to be established by historians as historians, but by believers as believers.

I would whole-heartedly agree that for a sincere believer in Bahá'u'lláh's claims, questions about the meaning of history must indeed be interpreted in the light of revelation. But questions of fact must, the Guardian himself suggests, be understood primarily on the basis of careful assessment of the sources. We must also be able to go beyond the kingdom of names, and not read in the same terminology necessarily the same meaning for different periods, and judge accordingly. Here, providential history even as it is built around the factual researches of academic history, can benefit from the complementary tool of linguistic or semantic analysis. As an example, the question has arisen whether Quddus ever claimed, or was assigned, the station of a mazhar or Manifestation of God. From a modern Bahá’í perspective, the instinctive response would be that he could not have claimed such a thing, as it is clear that only the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh could have claimed such a station in this dispensation. Once more, this is an issue for historical research, not doctrinal presupposition to establish. But supposing an instance was indeed found where Quddus refers to himself, or is referred to by the Báb, as a mazhar, we need not immediately assume there is a theological contradiction at work. By turning to the ancillary tool of linguistic research, whereas in Bahá'í theology the term "mazhar" has become linked to a very specific concept, namely, that unique and peerless Intermediary between man and God, the same term "mazhar" has a long tradition with a much wider and more inclusive set of concepts attached to it in Shi'i theosopy (see Corbin's work, passim) and in Bábism also, and thus, if we find that someone is decribed as "mazhar" in a Bábí text, we should not jump to the conclusion that they are claiming to be Manifestatons of God in the Bahá'í sense, nor, on the other hand, because of the modern Bahá'í concept of "mazhar", rule out that the term may have been used for earlier, non-prophetic figures, although not necessarily with the same connotations.

Similarly, for Quddus to say that he “revealed” things, need not entail an equivalence to the use of the term “reveal” in Bahá’u’lláh’s writings as expounded by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. The concept of revelation, even in Bahá’í terms, is demonstrably not static or monolithic, but rather flexible or plural. Thus, the term "reveal" has been authoritatively used by the Guardian both for the Master and for Bahá'u'lláh, but surely with different connotations. Those different connotations are clearly not purely matters of historical or linguistic research, but also, for believers, matters of theological reflection in the light of the writings of the Guardian on the respective stations of each of these Holy Figures. These are matters in which providential history and normal historical and linguistic research must, for a believer, and when communicating with an audience that shares the premises of faith, complement each other. Naturally, when writing for audiences that do not share our faith, our convictions arising from divine or providential history might be possibly (not necessarily wisely) communicated by us, but we cannot expect others to share them with us or even be receptive to them. It is, as I understand it, the task of providential history to harmonise, interpret and make sense of the facts as solid historical and linguistic research presents us, and not the other way around: such was always the way of Shoghi Effendi.

Beside the twin pitfalls of either reducing the meaning of history to exclusively material causes and effects and to strictly contemporary possibilities of meaning; and of ignoring or rejecting the processes and findings of the factual investigations carried out through academic history, the third potential pitfall for a believer approaching historical discourse from the standpoint of faith is, on the basis of a personal faith perspective, to presume his or her conclusion definitive, universal, or self-evident. Providential history, concerned, as has been suggested, not so much with "what happened" as to "what does it all mean in the light of the Faith", is not in any way cut and dried, any more than academic history. If anything, I would think that "what it means" is even less cut and dried, even more multilayered and nuanced and ambiguous, generally, than "what happened". One individual's perception of what is "the right interpretation" of a historical figure or event, is no more authoritative than that of a fellow believer working from the same starting point, and may frequently differ, which means that these are in fact, ever and anon, matters to be established, ever tentatively and for the duration of this dispensation, by consultation and dialogue, for which we need to develop, the House of Justice states, a culture of tolerance for diverse views representing individuals' different perceptions.

In sum, my understanding is that we must distinguish, when judging the communications of historians, believing or not, whether in their writings or messages they are trying to establish "what happened", or "what does it mean". If the former, that is the province of academic history, into which matters of faith enter but tangentially. If the latter, that is, in the light of faith, a question for believers qua believers, for which the bare facts are but raw matter, and not reductive final points of meaning. Here too, there must be room for a diversity of opinions, and a humble acknowledgement that one's own conviction of where the truth lies, however strong and personally compelling, remains an individual, human, and ultimately fragile and fallible perception, in the company of many more, not all in accordance with our own, but not therefore necessarily or inherently "wrong".

With love, as ever,



Anonymous said...

Dear Ismael
What a fascinating blog! Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and insights with us all.

This particular posting I found very interesting. I wonder if it would be too off-topic (or too presumptuous of me) to ask how your would apply these principles to the issue of militancy and apparent fanaticism in the early Babi community?

I recently came across Karen Armstrong's description of this period in her book 'Battling for God' depicting the Babis as violent revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the state in Iran. (Available here p155-7) Whilst of course I would question her sources and interpretation of events, what little I have read by unbiased scholars online seems to indicate that the history is not quite as 'romantic' as accounts such as 'God Passes By' make out.

For example, according to Jonah Winters' 'Dying for God' ( the Bab wrote that all non-believers (ie non Babis) would be expelled from certain regions of Iran and any that remained slaughtered. Whether intentionally or not, these and other statements appear to have been seen as a literal call to arms, and it was subsequent displays of provocation - Babis carrying weapons, converging on a location and even unfurling a standard - that led to outbreaks of violence.

Needless to say this is quite different to typical Baha'i accounts of peaceful Babis being set upon solely because of their beliefs, and it seems difcult to square the Bab's more inflammatory writings with Baha'u'llah's condemnation of religious fanaticism as a 'world devouring fire'.

How in your opinion could these different perspectives be reconciled? I'd be most interested in your thoughts.

Yours very humbly


Dear Anonymous,

Thank you so much for commenting, and for the encouragement it gives.

I don't have time to respond in detail to your question, but in relation to the broader theme of the post that inspired your comment, the distinction between interpretation and fact applies here as well.

In brief, I do think the facts in all sources, God Passes By, included, depict the Babi period as tumultuous, tense, to some extent improvisational, as a deeply Shi'i community of millennialists strove to grasp the evolving spirit and teachings of a radical new Revelation.

In fact, the most advanced research on Shaykh Tabarsi, Siyamak Zabihi-Moghaddam's “The Babi-State Conflict at Shaykh Tabarsi,” in Iranian Studies 35 (2002): 87-112, categorically shows that that episode, far from being a venture in plunder and pillage, as suggested by Armstrong, was essentially a defensive action from a group that had ran out of options, and was clearly in no way a Jihad.

The passages of the Bab that you have come across have to be placed side to side with the prohibitions on even saddening a heart, and the preconditions, such as a fully fledged Babi kigndom (!) for such hypothetical jihad, which made its realization, as with so many Bayanic laws, an impossibilitty in the Bab's lifetime. The key context is really the nature of the Bayan, not as a legal code to be implemented, but rather as a sustained metaphoric excercised designed to trigger a distinctive mindset of expectation and receptivity to an impending messianic figure, Him Whom God shall make manifest. This is dealt with very thoroughly by Nader Saiedi in his latest book, Gate of the Heart, and I also write about it elsewhere.

This is not to say that fanaticism was not present in the masses that embraced often without premeditation the as yet not fully formed teachings of the Bab, and those that had already been proclaimed circulating in limited and hard to disseminate manuscripts. In the absence of such guidance, many could only revert to the age old scripts of escathological expectation, and excesses did take place on occasion, in a minority of cases, and are indeed noted in books such as a Traveller's Narrative and God Passes By.

But the fact remains that such episodes were not, by any stretch, the keynote, which in fact, when you compare the numbers of conversions, with the numbers that were, largely unwillingly, engaged in military action, the latter are but a tiny minority of the former. Of those that did participate in the uprisings, the number that broke with the exceptional discipline that reigned in a band who knew, given the blind and unrelenting hatred of their assailants, that they were destined, soon or late, to die.

In that respect, while one might seek to nuance the accounts found in such texts as God Passes By, Dawnbreakers, and a Traveller's narratives, with discontinuous anecdotes, I am fully confident that a fair examination of the sources will bear out the tone and spirit that defines our "providential histories", which then allow us to perceive the grandeur that therein lies.

With love,


ps: It is late and I am tired, so this may not make much sense in the morning's light! Do get back to me if it provokes yet further questions.

Anonymous said...

Dear Ismael,

This is very late (computer down for about a month) but I just wanted to thank you for your reply to the question above, and for the suggested reading - to the non-academic and non-persian speaker it can be difficult to know where to start so that is a huge help.