LA Study Class Newsletter [#17]

My Notes:

This newsletter gives a brief history of the Persian political scene just before the arrival of the Bab. The discussion brings up an interesting point; that the challenge the Bab presented to the then Iranian society was not simply a religious or doctrinal one. But rather, because of the Shi’ite belief of theocracy (that society was, rightfully, to be ruled by the Imams), the Bab’s proclamation was a direct threat to the ulama’s political and economic powerbase. This may be surprising to some but the fact is that it has historical basis. Early Babis would often enter a town and proclaim that, as of now, the contents of the town, the leadership and everything of consequence there now belonged to the Bab (due to His station). Its one thing to tell someone there is a new religion, its a whole different thing to tell them their position of power, and wealth is no longer theirs. In my opinion 90% of the vehement opposition directed at the Babis probably came as a result of this, and not as a result of their proclamation of a new religious movement.

As well, you will find at the end of the newsletter, a summary of all previous class topics and discussions so far.

If this is your first newsletter, you might also want to read the introduction to the LA study class, here.

On with the 70′s class . . .

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[Ed. personal home address]
July, 1977 — Vol. II, No. 12

The picture we have of the 19th century Persia is an unhappy one. Historians agree it was a land sunk in barbarism, rotten with corruption and shot through with incompetency at all levels of society. In “God Passes By,” Shoghi Effendi characterizes the Persians of that era as “the most decadent race in the civilized world, grossly ignorant, savage, cruel (and) steeped in prejudice.”

Political power in Persia in the early years of the 1800s evolved into a unique kind of church state where the shah shared power with a de facto clergy whose authority sometimes exceeded his own. This clerical power bloc, although not strictly speaking a priesthood class, was called the “ulama” (meaning “learned ones”) and held powerful sway over Persian life. Its influence had a direct effect on the infact Babi movement.

Mehrdad Amanat presented a paper, “The Role of the Ulama in Nineteenth Century Persia,” to our Baha’i study seminar on July 10. Here is a summary of his report. Persia was then, as it remains now, predominantly a Muslim nation, a country in which the Shi’ah [Ed. also spelled Shi'ite] theology is the doctrine of the Imamat. This tenet holds that only a succession of divine religious figures, the Imams, have legitimate right to power in a Muslim state. With the “disappearance” of the Twelfth Imam, Imam Muhammad, in 260 A.H. (circa 873 A.D.), in theory, no government was eligible to run the state. The doctrine of Imamat presented no particular political problem during the long Safavid Dynasty in Persia. The line of Safavid shahs could lay claim to the right of rule because they were the direct descendants of the Imams.

But the Qajar Dynasty, which began in Iran with the reign of Fath Ali Shah (1791-1834), could make no such claim. An attempt to justify Qajar rule by citing the pre-Islamic concept of “divine monarchy” failed when challenged by the ulama. The power vacuum was filled when the ulamas, who claimed to be the legitimate intermediaries between the Imams and the Muslims, assumed a sharing role in the power of government.

Aside from exercising spiritual leadership over the Persian Muslim community, the quasi-governmental rights of the ulama enabled the clerical bloc to administer the nation’s religious endowments, collect a religious tax and run a civil court system to resolve personal or commercial disputes. The state maintained control of the court system dealing with criminal cases.

Once in power, the ulama maintained control by raising up private armies composed of the tullab, the religious students who came to study under the ulama, and by allying themselves with organized bands of brigands called lutis. The most important and learned of the ulama were the mujtahids [Ed. also spelled mujahid]. They were the leaders of the religious power bloc. Some mujtahids supported themselves by living off the taxes and funds they collected, while others loaned out money, charging high interest rates despite a clear prohibition against usury in the Qur’an. This income, from whatever sources, made the mujtahids independantly wealthy and even more powerful.

The influence of the ulama reached its peak during the 19th century reign of Fath Ali Shah. The shah aligned himself with the ulama and, under his influence, the bloc grew in power. Regular sums of money were routinely doled out to the clerical group. Huge amounts were expended to build new mosques and embellish religious shrines. But, despite the extension of their power and influence, the ulama failed to take the opportunity to become a force in the leadership of the nation. “Their main concern was their own immediate interest. Their view of politics was shortsighted. They were woefully ignorant of international relations. In general, their intervention in the affairs of the state was consistently harmful to the national interest.” Amanat writes.

Having gained power under the wing of the shah, the ulama evolved into an arch conservative force, resisting almost all reforms, including anything that smacked of a secularizing influence. “They had no concern for the national interest, they did not help to resolve any of the social, political or economic problems facing Persia and acted as a reactionary force against those who attemped solutions to these problems.” Amanat notes.

The Babi movement is a good example of the ulama’s dogged resistence to any progressive idea or sentiment which threatened its power. When the Bab declared His mission, one of His claims was that He was the Qa’im, or the Hidden Imam. That claim, if honored, meant the end of the ulama rule, for the authority of the clerical bloc rested on the fact that they represented the Hidden Imama in His absence.

Amanat writes, “The Bab not only presented a doctrinal challenge to the ulama. He proposed a genuine and radical idology which would revolutionize Persian society. This doctrine used the stron religious foundations already established in the society. Such ideas were clearly in sharp disagreement with the interests of the corrupt and conservative members of the ulama and the state. The result was the murder of thousands of Babis and the Bab Himself.”

The political myopia of the ulama led its members to urge Persia into a series of wars with Russia — all against an army that had defeated Napoleon. Ther Persians suffered a run of humiliating reversals on the battlefield. The wars had disasterous consequences for the nation. Under the peace treaty of Turmanchay (1828), for example, Persia lost the entire province of Armenia to Czarist Russia. The entire Caucasus region, once entirely Persian, was taken by the victorious Russians as a result of the wars.

The ulama began to fall from power during the reign of Muhammad Shah (1835-1848). The shah favored the Sufis, an unorthodox, mystical sect of Islam, giving them money and making them influential at the expense of the ulama. As the ulama declined in power, antagonism between the clerical gropu and the state intensified. The mujtahids, who once vehemently denounced foreigners as infidels began to look to the European powers to bolster their sagging influence.

During the reign of Nasri’d-Din Shah (1848-1896), foreign domination of Persia reached its peak. England and Russia, rivals for influence in Iran, each played on the ulama, manipulating its membership in a struggle for political and commercial advantage. During the last half of the 19th century, as the Russians gained the upper hand in this battle for power, the British began to finance and stir up various anti-government movements. In the early 1900s, in their political last gasp, the ulama joined a citizen coalition attempting to compel the new ruler, Muzaffari’d-Din Shah (1896-1907), to accept a constitutional form of govenment. Although the ulama took a leadershp role in the early days of this revolutionary movement, its members were soon supplanted by Persian intellectuals, whose ideas formed the heart of the constitutional drive. At that point, members of the ulama began to split into rival camps, some continuing their support of the constitutional movement, others stridently denouncing it. The power of the ulama, already in decline, fell to pieces.

Amanat’s paper ends with a quote from Sadi [Ed. also Saadi], a famous Persian poet. In this freely translated verse, Sadi takes a sarcastic jibe at the pretense and false piety of those like the ulama, writing:

“The pious, who creation face,
Pray with backs towards Mecca’s place.”

UPCOMING CLASSES: Our next session wil take place on Saturday, July 30, at 2 pm at Tony Lee’s apartment [Ed. personal home address follows]. Ruth Campbell, on load to us from the Phoenix, Ariz. community, will review the role and status of women as seen through the Baha’i writings.

AND THEN: Two classes have been set up for August. The first will take place on Sunday, August 14 at 2 pm in the home of Jon and Chris Hendershot [Ed. personal home address follows]. Bob Ballenger will present his muzzy, befuddled and probably seditious paper, laughingly titled: “Roles in Conflict: Baha’i Administration versus American Individualism.” Then, on Saturday, August 27, at 2 pm, Connie Barne’s long-awaited paper, “A Baha’i Theory of Personality” will be given in the home of Greg and Paula Wahlstrom, [Ed. personal home address and phone number follows].

FUTURE FROLICS: Topics in preparation include sessions on “Shoghi Effendi: the Contrast Between Public Utterance and Private Views,” (that’s sort of a working title) with Jon Hendershot; Paula Wahlstrom’s review of Elena Marsella’s book “The Quest for Eden;” Tony Lee’s overview of the rise and fall of the Baha’i Faith in Russia; Greg Wahlstrom’s review of a book on the social structure of Islam; Mehrdad Amanat’s review of H.M. Balyuzi’s book “E.G. Browne and the Baha’i Faith,” and, next year sometime (assuming he gets off his duff to do the research) Bob Ballanger’s study on attacks on the Baha’i Faith in America.

LAST GASPS: We are in the process of purging our mailing list. Many people once said they wanted copies of these class notes, but their interest did not sustain them to the extent of paying the required fees for these summaries. We’ll be mailing post cards to those who haven’t paid up, sort of a last warning before their names are axed from out list. Photocopies of the full papers presented to our classes will be made available after each is presented to the class. For those of you who want more than these space-limited summaries you read here, copies of the papers are available at $1 each (all right, all right, don’t everybody rush forward at once). Please send your money and your order to Paula Wahlstrom [Ed. personal home address follows]. Also available for those who crave such junky trivia, are back issues of this newsletter. These, too, cost $1 each and are available from Ms. Wahlstrom. Please specify which issue (by date) you want when ordering.

Here’s a list of newsletters to date and a summary of their content:

Nov 9, ’76 (Vol. I, No. 1) Introduction to the class and its groundrules.
Nov 16, ’76 (Vol. I, No. 2) more organizational stuff and topics for discussion.
Dec 5, ’76 (Vol. I, No. 3) class discussion of Denis MacEoin’s “The Concept of Nation in Islam,”
Dec 11, ’76 (Vol. I, No. 4) class discussion of apparent sexism in the Kitab-i-Aqdas.
Dec 21, ’76 (Vol. I, No. 5) Susan Berkman’s paper on “Myth and Ritual in the Baha’i Faith.”
Jan 3, ’77 (Vol. II, No. 1) Bob Ballenger’s report on “The Covenant Breakers of Akka” and Denis MacEoin’s rebuttal to class discussion of his paper on the concept of nation in Islam
Jan 14, ’77 (Vol. II, No. 2) Joel Roth’s review of two sociological studies (one by a Baha’i) on the influence of religion on human behavior.
Jan 26, ’77 (Vol. II, No. 3) Jon Hendershot’s report on St. Paul’s pattern of composition and uses of symbols in the 15th chapter of I Corinthians
Feb 10, ’77 (Vol. II, No. 4) Tony Lee on “Politics and the Baha’i Faith” (with supplementary material).
late Feb,’77 (Vol. II, No. 5) Tony Lee’s report on birth control, contraception and abortion in the Baha’i Faith.
Mar 6, ’77 (Vol. II, No. 6) Kazem Kazemzadeh, “The Baha’i Community of Ishqabad”
Mar 19, ’77 (Vol. II, No. 7) general class discussion and rebuttal to the Jan. ’77 editorial in “The American Baha’i” entitled “Gentlemen, the Verdict Please.”
Apr 11, ’77 (Vol. II, No. 8 ) Kazem Kazemzadeh on a modern day persecution of the Persian Baha’is – the Yazd incident of 1949
Apr 17, ’77 (Vol. II, No. 9) Amin Banani’s analysis fo the Baha’i writings authenticity systems proposed by Tony Lee and Denis MacEoin.
May 1, ’77 (Vol. II, No. 10) general class discussion and a deepening on Baha’u’llah’s pupose for the human race
June, ’77 (Vol. II, No. 11) Greg Wahlstrom’s review of the calamity as seen in the Baha’i writings

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Links:

The original scanned documents can be found here.