I am amazed at the simplicity and elegance of the four ‘guidelines’ that the class adopts. At once they set the foundation for a fruitful and positive gathering of Baha’is. I will insist that if you wish to create a similar class for your own community, you do not try without them.
Right at the onset, the class opens up a can of worms. It has been a common complaint of Baha’i historians and scholars that Baha’i history has stopped in its tracks because of the ‘historical’ works of the Central Figures of the Faith (or their approval of similar works by others such as Nabil). Since these works did not follow prescribed and currently accepted methods of historiography, they are sometimes at odds with events and facts which have been later unearthed. However, the devotion and esteem that Baha’is hold towards the authors is such that to suggest that they could be wrong is simply taboo. The heavy burden of “setting the record straight”, while not getting lynched in the process, rests on the shoulders of modern Baha’i and Babi scholars. Unfortunately, some have not gotten away with their hides intact.
Also of interest is the name Vahid Rafati, listed as one of the Baha’is who, while not attending the classes, are interested to receive the newsletter. Dr. Rafati (Ph.D. from UCLA) would later become the director of the Research Department at the Baha’i World Centre, in Haifa, Israel.
Before proceeding you might also want to read the introduction to the LA study class, here.
On with the 70′s class . . .
Several Baha’is got together on October 30th to begin a new study class on the Baha’i Faith. It occurred to me that it might be useful to write up a short summary of what took place at the meeting for the information of those who did not attend and for review by those who did. The following should be regarded as a very much an informal report, however.
Thirteen Baha’is were present at the first seminar. They were:
Sidney and Karen Morrison [Ed. private home address and phone number follows for each]
Richard Grieser and John Yazdi
Soheil Sohrab, Behnaz Sohrab and Lili Sohrab
Ron and Shahin Carrington
This letter is also being sent to the following Baha’is who have expressed an interest in the effort:
John and Chris Hendershot
John and Homa Snibbe
The seminar began with a short presentation which outlined some of the purposes of the gathering and proposed certain guidelines which were to be observed by the participants. First, it was noted that under most circumstances (such as at ordinary fire sides and deepening classes) Baha’is are forced to edit their comments and avoid discussion of certain topics for fear for giving non-Baha’is and unbalanced or unfavorable impression of the Faith or to avoid confusing new believers who may not be well grounded in the teachings. This is as it should be. However, it was proposed that there should also be some place where knowledgeable Baha’is can gather to speak freely, exchange ideas and discuss difficult questions without concern for such matters. It is hoped that this new class will provide such a forum.
Four sets of guidelines were proposed as ground rules for the seminar and these seem to have been accepted by the group. They were:
1) There should be no topics which are barred from discussion, no questions which can not be asked, and no opinions which can not be put forth openly. No subject will be regarded as taboo. Rather the floor will be open to all themes.
2) During the course of the discussion it will be regarded as improper for anyone to question another speaker’s faith in Baha’ullah, his commitment to the Covenant, or his devotion to the Faith or its Central Figures. We all enter the discussion as Baha’is with a common commitment to beliefs which is beyond challenge or suspicion.
3) Ideas and points of view will inevitably differ. Everyone who speaks should expect that his ideas will be challenged and be prepared to support them with evidence which will be acceptable to others.
4) The discussion will be intellectual (in the best sense of the word). This is not to say that we will not discuss feelings or that the discussion will be pedantic or obscure. Rather is meant that we are interacting with each other on a level of ideas (not personality or emotion) and that the goal of the discussion will be an exchange of ideas, not emotions (though such an exchange will hopefully prove to be meaningful and emotionally satisfying.) There was a good deal of discussion on this point and it perhaps was not accepted as fully as the others by the group as a whole.
After this presentation, there was an extended discussion of the goals, purposes, format and subject matter of the class. A division seemed to develop between those who were primarily interested in an academic and detailed study of Baha’i history and teachings and those who expressed the need for a place to discuss personal questions and problems with the Faith as it relates to daily life.
As a compromise, the group agreed to divide each meeting into two parts for the time being. The first part will consist of a presentation by one member of the class of his research on some subject of the Faith which is of some special interest to him. This will be followed by discussion on that subject. The second part will be a more informal discussion without an established topic during which questions and problems may be raised by anyone present. It was agreed that the class should meet once every two weeks on Saturday at 3 pm. The place will rotate from home to home and will be decided at the end of each meeting.
The next seminar will be held on Saturday, November 13th at 3:00pm at the Sohrab’s home [Ed. home address and directions follows].
The discussion of goals and format was followed by a short presentation based on the letter of the Universal House of Justice, which was sent to Mr. Richard Greiser dated July 25th 1974. (A copy of this letter is enclosed for those who were not present.) The letter was read in full. The gist of the presentation was that the letter seems to indicate that neither Abdu’l-Baha, nor Shoghi Effendi need to be regarded as infallible in matters of historical accuracy. This is significant since both of these men have written histories of the Faith. (A Traveller’s Narrative and God Passes By, respectively). It was maintained that neither of these works needs be regarded as authoritative in matters of historical fact and certainly should not be regarded as “infallible history”. In fact the speaker went on to claim that since they do not conform to the accepted standards of historiography, they should not be regarded as histories at all (in the regular sense), but more as commentaries on Baha’i history. Much lively discussion followed.
The topic of discussion for the next session had to be decided with some haste. Shahin Carrigan generously offered to give a presentation next time on the problems raised by the need for “value-free science” and the commitment of a Baha’i scientist (or scholar) to his Faith. Objection was immediately raised that there is no such thing as “value-free” science or “value-free” scholarship of any kind, but the discussion was postponed for next time. Everyone was asked to do some private research on the question of values and objectivity in science and social science.
Adding a personal note, it appears to me that the seminar has not yet found its direction or really taken shape. There is a real need for a clearer focus. Next week’s topic may be a bit more diffuse than it should be. However, a clearer focus can only emerge from further discussion and practice. Anyone who expects a fully developed class of this kind to drop from the sky is going to be dissapointed.
Let me propose some topics for future study which we can discuss next time. We might concentrate on episodes and careers of Babi history for instance (the conference of Badasht, the life of Quddus or Tahirih, or of Mirza Yahya for that matter). We could look at some recent attacks on the Baha’i Faith such as William Miller’s book, and investigate the arguments and responses. The whole question of Baha’i historiography is fascinating and Balyuzi’s book, E.G. Browne and the Baha’i Faith might be a good place to start. There are also some doctoral dissertations on the Faith which might merit some study. And so on.
Let’s talk about it carefully this time when we choose the next topic of study!
[Ed. the following is the letter from the House of Justice, referred to above.]
Baha’i World Centre
July 25, 1974
Mr. Richard Greiser
[Ed. personal address]
Dear Baha’i Friend,
We have received your letter stating you were disturbed by statements made in your deepening class regarding the infallibility of the beloved Guardian and we appreciate your concern.
According to your letter, this question arose in connection with Shoghi Effendi’s references in God Passes By to historical events, and in his description of the characters of opponents of the Faith, particularly that of Haji Mirza Aqasi. Letters written on behalf of the Guardian by his secretary to individuals who asked similar questions clearly define the sphere of the Guardian’s in fallibility. We quote from two of these, one written in 1944, the second in 1956.
“The infallibility of the Guardian is confined to matters which are related strictly to the Cause and interpretations of the Teachings.; he is not an infallible authority on other subjects, such as economics, science, etc.”
“The Guardian’s infallibility covers interpretation of the revealed word and its application. Likewise any instructions he may issue having to do with the protection of the Faith, or its well-being must be closely obeyed, as he is infallible in the protection of the Faith. He is assured the guidance of both Baha’u'llah and the Bab, as the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha clearly reveals.”
Now in the matter of accuracy of historical fact, Shoghi Effendi had to rely on available information. For example, on page 5 of God Passes By, he refers to Haji Mirza Aqasi as “…the idolized tutor of Muhammad Shah, a vulgar, false-hearted, and fickle-minded schemer…” An appropriate and pertinent quotation supporting that characterization can be found in P.M. Sykes’s A History of Persia, Volume 2, pages 439-440, which appears as a footnote on page 235 of Nabil’s Narrative:
“The state of Persian was not satisfactory; for Haji Mirza Aqasi, who had been its virtual ruler for thirteen years, ‘was utterly ignorant of statesmanship or of military science, yet too vain to receive instruction and too jealous to admit admit of a coadjutor; brutal in his language; insolent in his demeanor; indolent in his habits; he brought the exchequer to the verge of bankruptcy and the country to the brink of revolution…’ Such – to adopt the weighty words of Rawlinson – was the condition of Persia in the middle of the nineteenth century.”
The Guardian was meticulous about the authenticity of historical fact. One of the friends in Yazd wrote to him stating that the account given by Abdu’l-Baha in one of His Tablets about events related to the martyrdom of some of the believers in that place was in conflict with known facts about these events. Shoghi Effendi replies saying that the friends should investigate the facts carefully and unhesitatingly register them in their historical records, since Abdu’l-Baha himself had prefaced His recording of the events in His Tablet with a statement that it was based on news received from Yazd.
It is a great pity if some of the friends fail to recognize the matchless prose to be found in the Guardian’s writings. Shoghi Effendi’s masterly use of the English language makes the meaning abundantly clear, and that is an essential quality of great works.
We are delighted that you and your dear wife are conducting classes for the benefit of the friends, and we will remember you both in our prayers at the Holy Threshold.
With warmest Baha’i greetings,
[Signed: The Universal House of Justice]
cc: National Spiritual Assembly of the United States