Review of Alkan, Dissent and Heterodoxy
This is not a formal book review, but a response to the author’s request for feedback. The book is available for $30 from Isis Press and for much more from some other sources.
I replied (28 September 2009)
I read it, though not with the minute attention that a historian of the period would give it. It’s very much worth the price and a permanent place on the shelf. It is well written, clear, with flashes of humour. The things that stood out for me were the translations of Ottoman documents. There’s a very nice section from page 146 about multiple interviews between Mehmet Refik and Mehmet Behcet and Abdu’l- Baha, and their report and recollections of these, and another of Suletyman Nazif’s contacts and reports (p 150 f), which I’ve never heard of before. The material on Midhat Pasha pp 111-114 is also new to me, and I think to everyone else reading in English.
There is also new material or treatment from Persian sources; I found the account of Shaykhu’r-Ra’is gave a clearer overview than I had had before. You mention twice that Abdu’l-Baha instructed the community not to mention the Shaykh’s name in connection with the Faith, but do not give a source for this.
On page 123, the discussion of the Marja’ at-taqlid Mirza Shirazi would have benefited from looking at the introduction to my translation of the Sermon on the Art of Governance, which deals with the interpolated Aqdas incident. I think it naive to suppose that Shirazi was the author of the tobacco fatwa, though how it did come to be written remains obscure.
I missed a clear discussion of what was modern or democratic or
reformist about the teachings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, and
what the various generations of modernists and the individuals meant by
their modernism or reform (do they admire Russian absolutism, or
Swiss-style democracy, or something else?), and what you mean yourself by
modernisation and westernisation, and how these relate. The discussion is
there briefly, on pages 133-5, within the framework of the discussion of
Shayku’r Ra’is, but I would have liked to see a chapter that tells the
reader what the teaching of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha were, how you are
using the word “modern” and therefore on what points Baha’u’llah and
Abdu’l-Baha are modern, and where they are critics of the modern.
(Nationalism, colonialism and militarism are also modern and western in
some sense, along with democracy, universal education, equality of women
and the separation of church and state). You quote Shirani’s critique of
Bahai political teachings, for example, but do not say whether this is in
fact what Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha taught. There is a brief discussion
on pp 204-6 that relates the Bahai position (here embodied by Shoghi
Effendi) to Kemalism: could you not have done the same for the earlier
modernists? On page 137 you say there were parallels between the reformist
and modernist ideas of the Baha’i religion and those of al-Afghani – you
need to define the terms, say what the Bahai and Afghani-an programmes
were, where the differences were as well as the points of similarity.
The discussion of Abduh and Abdu’l-Baha is dissapointingly brief;
granted that Scharbrodt’s book came in just as you were finishing,
there is previous research by himself and others. I suspect you are
treating the Ottoman and Turkish context as separate to the Egyptian and
Arabic one, whereas the modernists in these two worlds and the
Persian-speaking world generally treated islam and modernity as one
I missed reference to education and syllabus reform: this was an
important theme for Abdu’l-Baha, if it was not a theme for any of the
Ottoman reformists that should be said. Such differences would have come
to the fore if you had first outlined what was modern about the Bahai
You could also have said something briefly about the role of
heterodox religion in early modernity, as Cole has done in M&M (with
reference to Christopher Hill’s excellent work), to sensitise readers to
the possibility that the radical rethinking of social norms required by
modernisation may enter through the door of religious heterodoxy.
On page 168 you say that heretic elements converted to Hanefi Sunnism as a
response to Christian missionary elements. I have read what follows but
still did not understand what was going on there.
On page 175, the translation from Mu’ayyad’s recollections refers to “the
existence of diverse religions.” I think I recall this being discussed
on this list: was the word not mukhtalaf, and the translation (in view of
Abdu’l-Baha’s teachings elsewhere) would be conflict between religions.
At the bottom of page 189, the footnote should continue to the next
page but does not. There are also double blank pages at several
points, but there does not appear to be any text lost there. Still,
it would be good to warn readers and say if something has been lost
or not. On page 241 the reproduction of an important ms of
Baha’u’llah is of poor quality: would it be possible to put a better
quality scan on the web and note its location? The same could be done for
the other documents, which for my eyes are unreadable.
On page 234, “does this not mean that it is not in reality based on
mercy” should presumably read “does this not mean that it is, in
reality, based on mercy”
There are other grammar and spelling mistakes, but not the extent of being
irritating, even to an incorrigible corrector.
All in all, the book substantially enriches our understanding of the
period, and it is a good read. It’s a book you could take along for the
summer holidays, as I did, which cannot be said for the majority of
theses, or academic histories. Congratulations
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