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Bahai Studies and the academic study of religion

In a discussion of the relationship between the “new paradigm” of Bahai Studies and the academic study of religion, one of the friends wrote:

> If a Bahá’í who is an academic wrote a brilliant ACADEMIC piece about
> Bahá’í history that corroborated the support of many obscure
> insights in God Passes By and did so in a language that both secular
> scholars and the Bahá’í faithful found acceptable, I don’t think any
> Bahá’í would ask whether that example of Bahá’í academic scholarship
> was also “Bahá’í scholarship.”

> On the other hand, if a Bahá’í academic wrote a piece of academic
> history that came to conclusions that agreed with some of those of the
> Covenant-breakers, …
> The problem is that these are two end members of a spectrum (the
> “Moojan end” and the “Sen end”?) and most of our writings fall in
> between.

You have not grasped even the smallest element of my approach, if you think it could in any way corroborate the Covenant-breaker’s positions. It would appear, in fact, that you have not read my work. The situation is precisely the opposite of what you sketch: my approach is a theological one, it is “faith seeking understanding.” Generally speaking, I do not pretend to be doing a value-free, objective study of religion that brackets out personal committments. Rather I am a Bahai, committed to the Bahai Faith, and I explore the implications of that personal faith: is it internally consistent, based on authentic texts, consistent with authoritative interpretations of scripture; what does this faith imply in practice, how can it be expressed anew and “made new”, how can it be persuasively defended (apologetics); and not least, how does it correlate with the issues that trouble our society, how can it be used to help believing individuals to live in and contribute to the evolving world civilization (pastoral theology).

Theology is a cluttered and varied curiosity shop: I would characterise my approach as Maimonidian, because of my emphasis on the harmony of Faith and Reason. But it all falls under the general rubric of “faith seeking understanding.”

Having said that, from the point of view of theology there is no opposition between a theological approach and academic methods of research. If I want to know what texts are authentic or what happened in history, I have to start with the best methods available, and those generally come from the academy. For theology, the disciplines of philology and history are feed-ins, not ends in themselves, because the goal of theology is not to know about religion, but to understand the implications of one’s faith.

Most of Moojan’s published works, on the other hand, are good examples of the academic study of religion in which the author, a believer, successfully brackets out his personal committment so that his findings are both comprehensible and acceptable to readers of all Faiths and none. As a historian (not for example in his apostasy paper or interpretations of Ruhi and the “new culture”), Moojan’s faith shows in his choice of significant topics, not in the way he deals with them. Having chosen, for instance, the Bahais of Sari as a topic, he writes about them as if he was a non-Bahai, and his conclusions stand up purely on the basis of evidence.

The situation in relation to Bahai Studies vs academic studies by Bahai is thus paradoxical: what the Universal House of Justice refers to as a new paradigm of scholarship, or “Bahai Scholarship” as something distinct to academic methods, is what I and several others do, and we call it theology and call ourselves theologians, rather than historians or academics, precisely because theology does NOT make a claim to academic authority based on objective criteria. But the words theology and theologians are misunderstand as meaning a claim to authority based on academic credentials! At the same time, Bahais who are successfully publishing as historians and sociologists of religion, in academic media, find their work is generally welcomed (your mileage may vary) while the methods that they learn at universities and apply in their work are censured, as in the recent letter to the Yerrinbool Bahai school which says that the school should not “conduct courses in Baha’i studies in the same sense as those offered in universities by departments of religious studies, which, as you know, the House of Justice discourages since it could easily lead to a class of individuals in the Baha’i community who assume a degree of authority on the basis of some formal qualification.”

The resolution I think must lie in the direction of embracing Bahai theology, under another name if necessary, as the embodiment of the “Bahai Studies” approach that the UHJ is seeking, and which believers actually need, and also clarifying how the methods of academia feed Bahai theology with its data but cannot predetermine its questions or conclusions.

As for your insulting suggestion that my writing is one end of a spectrum – where conclusions agree with those of the Covenant-breakers – I invite you to actually read something of what I have actually written:

Church and State and ‘A theology of the State’ are extended defences against the charges levelled by Ficicchia, MacEoin, Miller and many others.

– Anna presents the New World Order
deals with the same attacks more briefly

– Mitchell’s mistake ( is an argument against Ruth White’s misconceptions about the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha

– No counterfeits
refutes the claims of Remey and his successors

– Abdu’l-Baha by Lake Geneva ( refutes the claim that Abdu’l-Baha addressed the Zionist Congress in 1911

– Abdu’l-Baha and the African tribe ( deals with claims that Abdu’l-Baha had racist attitudes to Africans

– 1917 and all that
addresses a claim that Abdu’l-Baha predicted cataclysms in 1917, followed by a world at peace in which “all nations shall be as one faith.” This has been used to show that Adbu’l-baha was a failed prophet.

– Century of light ( and
– Century’s end ( ) show that the Bahais do not have “failed prophecy’ of world peace by the year 2000 – they just misunderstood their own texts.

– The world’s a stage
addresses an idea shared by many Bahais, but also important to the apocalyptics of the Remeyite covenant-breakers, that Abdu’l-Baha or in some versions Shoghi Effendi predicted that the earth would “fall off its axis and spin wildly for three days”…

and so on. The essence of a Bahai theology is that it takes the Bahai Covenant as its starting-point (Faith seeking understanding) and as its hermeneutic framework, so a Bahai theology that finds common ground with the Covenant-breakers would be bad bad theology. I may sometimes have produced bad theology, but not THAT bad.

~~ Sen

Related content:
Compilation on the learned
What is theology, and what’s it good for ? (2008)
The knower as servant (response to Paul Lample) (2008)
Knowledge: project or process? (2009)

and in the email archive:

Scholarship and review in the Bahai community (1990)
Scholars in the Bahai Community 1 (1996)
Scholars in the Bahai Community 2 (1996)
Foreword to ‘Church and State’ (2005; see the section on the limits of theology)
Theology – 2005-12-03
Theology 2005-10-17
Theology 2005-10-21
Theology – 2005-12-03
Theologians, the learned and the wise (2006)
Theology 2006-02-13
Theology 2007-01-01
Theology 2008-06-03
Church, State, experts, consensus (Oct. 2009)
Theology – a defence (2009)
No Clergy?” (2009)
Theology 2009-10-00
Method and focus in my Church and State (2010?)

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2 Responses to “Bahai Studies and the academic study of religion”

  1. Denis MacEoin said

    I’m profoundly irritated by your lumping me in with Ficicchia and Miller, both of whom come from a totally different worldview to mine. Neither was an academic, and their motives in writing about Baha’ism have nothing in common. If you can’t see the difference, I’m amazed.

  2. Sen said

    I didn’t say you had the same views or world-view as Ficicchia and Miller, Denis. I said that “Church and State and ‘A theology of the State’ are extended defences against the charges levelled by Ficcicchia, MacEoin, Miller and many others.” If you get my Church and State and look up your name in the index you will find this is literally true. It begins on page 81 with reference to the “essentially theocratic hopes of Babism,” (Maceoin, ‘From Babism to Baha’ism’ p. 220): I spend several pages explaining why I think this is incorrect, and why Amanat’s contrary view fits the facts better. From page 346 I’ve dealt with your “new Jerusalems” article, Including:

    [MacEoin] writes that “Baha’ism perpetuates the Muslim theory of society as a unity, without the distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘politics,’ ‘sacred’ and ‘secular’ characteristic of Christianity.” This is an odd comment for someone with some knowledge of Islam, and who reads Persian and Arabic and claims to have read the Bahai scriptures widely, since the distinction between religion and politics is the theme of Abdu’l-Baha’s Risalih-ye Siyasiyyah (Sermon on the Art of Governance) and one of the themes of Baha’u’llah’s Kitab-e Aqdas. Moreover he himself quotes from shorter passages from the writings of Baha’u’llah that establish the rights of civil government as a fundamental principle:

    In one passage of Baha’i scripture we read that “God … hath bestowed the government of the earth upon the kings. To none is given the right to act in any manner that would run counter to the considered views of them who are in authority.”

    He compares this to what Márkus has called ‘theologies of oppression:’ the theologies of evangelical churches in South America that have justified political inactivity. “Bahaism is, therefore, a movement whose spread is bound to be attractive to rulers only too happy to have large numbers of their … populations embrace an ethos of political quietism.” This is a fair criticism, but also points to an inevitable trade-off: if religion recognises that political affairs are the proper province of political mechanisms, this necessarily implies that religion renounces some claim to immediate political relevance.

    If there’s something particular in my treatment that you object to, please say so. But if your only objection is that I’ve also dealt with Miller and many others, then you have no reason for annoyance. Did you expect to be the subject of a monograph on your own, without any other authors being mentioned? You may also remember that you based yourself on Miller, in New Jerusalems, where he wrongly attributes the words “that immature civilization in which church and state are separate” to Shoghi Effendi. It is in fact a selective quotation from a statement by the NSA of the USA: Miller omitting the words “and competitive institutions,” which when we recall Holley’s search for an alternative to capitalism as a basis of society, makes the meaning of the NSA’s statement clear.

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