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Scholars in the Bahai Community 1

This posting to Talisman on 18 March 1996, which I state myself is only “very tentative,” and which has been superseded by later research, is included in the email archive because it has been selectively mis-quoted to make it appear that, back then, I was (in the words of one of my detractors) “promoting a formation of a clergy within the Baha’i Faith which would operate in conjunction with the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar which he envisioned as overshadowing the elected institutions.” I post it here so that readers can get some idea of what was really going on.

The context of this posting is an earlier “flame war” on Talisman, in which someone had taken offense at the use of the term “lay” (not by me) – in this case referring to the way people untrained in sociology look at the dynamics of a community. This person wrote to the UHJ, supposing that the word “lay” implied that that writer considered himself a cleric, and the UHJ gave the kind of response you would expect, assuming that this person’s account was accurate. That of course only made things worse, since people now felt that they had been misrepresented to the UHJ, by someone manipulating the facts to obtain UHJ support for their own position. I think that in this case it was an honest misunderstanding, not intentional misrepresentation.

After the event, I tried to pour oil on the waters, and turn the conversation back to the Writings and what they say about the Learned and Divines in the Bahai Faith. I wrote:


March 18, 1996, to Talisman

It seems to me there are two separate things going on here. On the one hand, XX has a problem with a particular use of the adjective ‘lay’, apparently because he thinks of it as the opposite of ‘clerical’. As an editor, I am constantly asking my writers ‘is this for the lay reader?’ – ‘lay’ in my field means ‘not an economist’, more generally it means ‘not a specialist in this field’. So I had no problem at all when somebody referred to ‘lay Baha’is’ in the sense of ‘not academics in Middle East studies’. XX’s reaction was a hiccup over nothing, which might have been avoided by reference to a dictionary (“not belonging to or connected with a particular profession” – Collins).

According to the secretariat’s reply, XX’s letter said “that attempts [are] being made to introduce a distinction between “Baha’i laymen” and “Baha’i scholars” with respect to the study of the Faith.” Looking at the way in which XX uses the word ‘lay’ in his postings, I think it is clear that this is a misunderstanding and not a misrepresentation on his part. Talisman would function more productively if the talismaniacs would try to check their aim before pulling the trigger, and refrain from casting aspersions on one another’s characters. Please.

On the other hand, there is a clash between a certain strand in Baha’i culture, which has used our lack of a professional clergy and more-or-less democratic administration as distinctive marks of Baha’i identity, and the role given to the divines and learned in the Writings. My sense is (this is very tentative please don’t jump on me please) that the exaggerated and militant egalitarianism which denies the divines and learned a distinct structural role in the community is associated not with non-academics or anti-intellectual classes in society, but rather with (don’t hit me!) American culture. For instance, the revere(n)d Juan, who is not exactly an anti-intellectual, said “Baha’u’llah has restored the pure ideal of learning by denying to the Learned in Baha any *authority* or special standing in the community.” But Baha’u’llah said:

Respect ye the divines and learned amongst you, they whose conduct accords with their professions, … Know ye that they are the lamps of guidance unto them that are in the heavens and on the earth. They who disregard and neglect the divines and learned that live amongst them – these have truly changed the favor with which God hath favored them. (Gleanings, page 128)

There is also an extended panegyric to the divines and learned in Secret of Divine Civilization, from around p32 to 75 or so, beginning:

Those eminent divines and men of learning …. these are alert to the present need and they understand the requirements of modern times, and certainly devote all their energies toward encouraging the advancement of learning and civilization. “Are they equal, those who know, and those who do not know?… Or is the darkness equal with the light?

I was bought up with the ‘Baha’i Faith has no clergy’ line too, and it has taken me years to realize that it ain’t necessarily so (which is obvious from the above, but is hard to assimilate) and even longer to get some idea of where the divines and learned will fit in to the organic structure of the community. I think we are beginning to see the development of a new organ of religious/academic specialists, and that we can form some idea of what it might be and how it might work.

We can at least see how it won’t work:

– the divines and learned will not become the chairmen and women of the assemblies – in fact, they will generally not serve on elected institutions. Of the divines and learned that I know (i.e. limited to those working in English), Kazemzadeh is the only one who also serves on a high-level elected body. This strikes me as similar to the progressive (top-down) differentiation of the Appointed: it seems to be being increasingly accepted now that even an assistant to an ABM should ideally not serve as a member of the LSA which he or she serves as an assistant. Thus the Faith will not be theocratic (rule by religious specialists) even in its internal structure.

– The learned and divines will not have a sacerdotal function – thus will not resemble clergy in the Christian Faith.

– The learned and divines will not serve as points of imitation, although they will be ‘lamps of guidance’ (see above). Thus their role does not resemble the mujtahids of Shi`ih Islam

– I don’t think they will serve as spiritual masters (pir) in the Sufi manner. I could be wrong here, but being ‘alert to the present need’, understanding the ‘requirements of modern times’, and devoting themselves to ‘encouraging the advancement of learning and civilization’ don’t strike me as *pir* type activities.

Now, much more tentatively, what the learned and divines might be.

– First of all, they can serve in their individual capacity as the repositories of knowledge, as researchers and teachers, and as advisors to the elected and appointed institutions. I have a hunch that they will find their spiritual home and work in and around the Mashriq, but not, obviously, as prayer-leaders (unless someone wanted to specialize in the burial prayer).

– Beyond the individual level, various sorts of structures will be required. Many of these can grow out of existing academic infrastructures: universities, libraries, seminaries (who said that?), encyclopedia projects, academic journals and publishing houses. But `Abdu’l-Baha speaks also of the need for “a body of scholars the various groups of whose membership would each be expert in one of the aforementioned branches of knowledge. This body should with the greatest energy and vigor deliberate as to all present and future requirements, and bring about equilibrium and order.” (Secret of Divine Civilization, page 37). This body would serve in the first place by advising the legislative branch of the civil government (this is clear from the context in SDC). Even sociologists would apparently be admitted, and could advise the legislature regarding social dynamics and effects of legislation in ways which will excite the wonder and admiration of laypeople. Perhaps their advice will even be put into practice. “He has given us ears, that we may hear and profit by the wisdom of scholars and philosophers and arise to promote and practice it.” (SDC p3) If the legislature which they were advising was one which sought to function in accordance with the laws of the Aqdas and the teachings of Baha’u’llah, then this body would have to include Aqdas scholars and religious specialists. In fact, the ‘aforementioned branches of knowledge’ which `Abdu’l-Baha refers to (above) include not only “the laws and principles, the customs, conditions and manners, and the material and moral virtues characterizing the statecraft of other nations” and “all the useful branches of learning of the day” and “the historical records of bygone governments and peoples” (you listening ZZ?) but also “a thorough knowledge of those complex and transcendental realities pertaining to God, of the fundamental truths of Qur’anic political and religious law, of the contents of the sacred Scriptures of other faiths”.
This may be an artificial distinction, but I associate the first group of sciences with the ‘learned’ and the second with the ‘divines’. If we considered only the ‘learned’, this advisory body of scholars would resemble the State Science Council (China), the Academy of Sciences (old USSR, and France I think) and whatever the equivalent body is called in the US. There is an advisory body of clerics which confirms legislation and approves parliamentary candidates in Iran. Putting the two together should be interesting. 😉

The development of an organ of ‘learned and divines’ in the Baha’i community will demand a major conceptual shift on the part of the whole community, whose self-image has included the lack of such a body as a virtue. This is analogous to the shift which was demanded when the administrative order was developed precisely in the national community which believed that the Faith could not be organized, or a second shift which took place when the function of the appointed arm was extended downwards to the local level so that it affected the daily lives of individuals. Since the rigorously egalitarian conception of the Faith seems to be strongest in the US, it is a fair guess that that is precisely where the shift will take place. My guess is that it will either be concurrent with, or follow, the development of the Mashriq as the centre of every Baha’i community.

The message on behalf of the Universal House of Justice which MM received represents the continuation and extrapolation of the development trajectory of the Faith. It disappoints me in the same way as the draft version of the 4-year plan disappointed me. Neither speaks of the possibility of a more radical shift in the nature of the community, from one path of development to another.

If we do face such a radical shift, away from the administration-centred model and involving the growth of organs which have thus far existed only potentially, then the kind of strain that XX and VV and others have expressed here is of no significance whatever. A whole community will have to rethink itself, which will involve repeated and ever more vehement restatements of the old understandings and models of the community. “NO DIVINES OVER MY DEAD BODY” etc. Things are doubtless warming up: I can hear the fat sizzling here and there and sympathize with academics who are subject to anti-intellectual rhetoric from high and low. But if we throw the fat in the fire and announce that the lamp of learning is being put out at every petty instance, this is going to be a very painful process indeed.


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More of my postings from 1996 that have been mispresented by selective quotation are in this archive as Scholars in the Bahai Community 2 and The Virgin Birth, twin houses and twin shrines.

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 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
Bahai Studies and the academic study of religion” (2010?)
Method and focus in my Church and State (2010?)

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