LA Study Class Newsletter [#27]


My Notes:

This is a very informative edition of the LA Class Study Notes because it contains a summary along with discussion of the papers presented at the 1978 Baha’i Studies Seminar held at the University of Lancaster. Inside you can find out such interesting tidbits as: the history of the Finnish Baha’i community, the interaction of the early Babi and Baha’i community with Christian misionaries, whether the Bab claimed to be sent by the Hidden Imam or to be the Hidden Imam, the reconciliatory nature of Baha’i mysticism, whether the early American Baha’i community was as disorganized as usually thought and finally the already discussed history of the Baha’is of Ishqabad (Mentioned in the notes previously here, here, here and here) .

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 . . .

Hermosa Beach, California 90254

May, 1978
Vol. III, No. 5

NOTWITHSTANDING his long and valiant service to our study class, our faithful note-taker and scribe left for the day our last class held on May 7th at the Hendershot abode. We therefore have a substitute scribbler who may or may not be able to make sense out of the proceedings any better. Please, therefore, forgive the inaccuracies in reporting and the typos since this is all new to this pen-holding hand.

Our speaker at this gathering was Tony Lee who recently returned from an international Baha’i Studies Seminar held at the University of Lancaster in England. The seminar was sponsored jointly by the Departments of Religious Studies and Sociology at the institution through the encouragement of Peter Smith, a Baha’i who is a graduate student there. Six papers were presented and discussed and about twelve or fifteen people participated in the seminar. Despite his unfamiliarity with the Queen’s English (he kept risking his life there by calling the houses in Lancaster “cute”), Tony managed to present a paper and take excellent notes in order to report the proceedings to us. A copy of the program is attached to this newsletter and if anyone is particularly interested in receiving copies of any of the papers after reading the summaries, they should try writing to the authors:

  • Denis MacEoin, Kings College, Cambridge University, Cambridge, UK
  • Tony Lee, [Ed. personal address follows]
  • Denise Mossop, (c/o Peter Smith)
  • Peter Smith, [Ed. personal address follows]
  • Harri Peltola, [Ed. personal address follows]

The first paper which Tony discussed was “The Shaykhi Reaction to Babism in the Early Period” by Denis MacEoin. Mr. MacEoin was not at Lancaster to personally present his 41 page document, but the paper was read and generated some discussion. The paper is concerned with the attitudes which certain Shaykhi leaders, particularly Haji Muhammad Karim Khan Kirmani, to the Bab and to the growth of His new religion. The principal argument of the paper was that the Babi Movement spread initially among the Shaykhi networks, shattering the unity of the Shaykhis and causing them to beome the most vigorous enemies of the new Faith. The Shaykhi opposition to the Bab provided the leaders of the school with a point of agreement with orthodox Shi’ih ulama. This point of common opposition to the Babi Faith was used by the Shaykhi leaders to reintegrate their school into mainstream Shi’ih Islam and repudiate many of the radical and distinctive teachings of Shaykh Ahmad [Ahsayi] and Siyyid Kazim [Rashti]. The paper also shed some new light on the Bab Himself and onto the Baha’i understanding of Babi history.

For example, MacEoin makes the point that the Bab did not claim to be the Return of the Hidden Imam until the time of his imprisonment in Mah-Ku [Ed. also Mahku] in 1847/48. He states that those Babis who met the Bab in Shiraz in May of 1844 and thereafter accepted Him as the representative or gate (bab) of the Imam, who would make things ready for the coming of the Imam. Of course, if this is so, it would have tremendous implications for what the Bab actually told Mulla Husayn on the night of His declaration and what Mulla Husayn was actually looking for when he came to Shiraz.

MacEoin develops his position by quoting from early works of the Bab in which he prays for the appearance of the Imam (or the promised Qa’im), He claims that the Qa’im has inspired his work, etc. One quote from the Sahifa-yi ‘Adliyya of the Bab reads:

The meaning and form of expression of all the verses which God hath caused to flow from my tongue are as utter nothingness when compared with a single letter of the Book of God (Qur’an) or the words of the people of the House of Purity (the Imam)

and again

the words that have flowed forth from my tongue and pen…can never equal a single letter of the prayers of the People of Purity, for they dwell in the substance of the Will of God while all others are subject to the influences of their actions.

MacEoin claims that Nabil and other Babi and Baha’i chronicles have gone wrong by attributing the Bab’s later claims to His initial meetings with Shaykhis. In the beginning, the Bab was believed to be sent by the Hidden Imam. This seems to have meant that He has a higher status than Siyyid Kazim or Shaykh Ahmad, but a lower status than the Imam himself. Nor, according to MacEoin did the Bab urge his followers to abandon the Shari’a, the Muslim laws and rituals. In this early period He specifically wrote to His followers that they must observe all of the externals of the Law.

Perhaps because of its uncommon theme, this paper generated much discussion among the study class members. Some felt that much of MacEoin’s evidence could be interpreted in several ways. Perhaps the Bab had only veiled his real claims (perhaps made only verbally) by the use of vague and misleading language in his Writings. Another question asked was: If the Bab was only claiming to be the leader of the Shaykhi school, why was He imprisoned and regarded as so much more dangerous than the other Shaykhi leaders? Why were His followers persecuted?

One possible answer to this question is that the Bab, while not claiming to be the Qa’im Himself, did claim to be in communication with the Qa’im and thereby excited messianic expectations and demonstrations among the people. This may have caused His arrest. (It should also be remembered that the Shaykhi leaders became implacable enemies of the Bab and were largely responsible for his persecution, and finally, His execution.) In Shi’ih doctrine the Hidden Imam is believed to be the ruler of the whole world. He is in hiding, but when He appears, He will take control of the political system of Iran and conquer all of the nations. Even today, the Constitution of Iran states that the Shah rules the nation on behalf of the Hidden Imam (and adds “May God hasten his cming!”). So, the claim to be the Hidden Imam, or even to be in direct communication with Him, is a highly political claim. If taken seriously, it would mean that the state would be delivered into the hands of the claimant.

Another complex question was raised: Do the Manifestations of God know from the beginning what the full degree of their Revelations are? Do they fully recognize from the first moment of their awareness their special station as Manifestations of God? Or, is the matter, perhaps, even unclear to them? In other words, is it possible that the Bab (or Baha’u’llah, or Muhammad, or Jesus for that matter) did not claim their full stations at first because they were not fully aware of their station at first?

One member of the class approached these questions from a broad philosophical perspective. He suggested it is natural for human beings to want to see things in an easy categorical terms. The history of religion especially seems to be the history of people jumping to conclusions and reading the present back into the past. The Guardian has stated that religious truth is “relative, not absolute”. This statement applies not only between religions, but also within a particular dispensation. We know that the principle of progressive revelation applies to each dispensation as well as to the history of religions. (Cf., the Introduction of the House of Justice to the Synopsis and Codification of the Kitab-i-Aqdas) Perhaps there is also a kind of progressive revelation that occurs in the lives of the Prophets Themselves before the full plentitude of their powers are revealed to them. Perhaps this unfolding is simply the way human beings are prepared by Divine forces for the full impact of a Revelation.

Since Tony Lee had presented his paper on the Baha’i community of Ishqabad to this class earlier in the year, we skipped discussion of his paper and went on to Denise Mossop’s paper on Baha’i Mysticism. (See program.) The paper which Ms. Mossop read at Lancaster was a composite of excerpts from her senior thesis at that university. It received a rather cool response. Though she is English, Ms. Mosop was a Muslim, on her way to becoming a Sufi, when she heard about the Baha’i Faith and embraced it.

The paper compared the Baha’i teachings with Sufi mysticism on one hand, and the formal legalistic tradition of Islam, on the other. The thesis was that the Baha’i Faith establishes a middle ground between an individual mystic experience and a community-oriented, external religious practice. It is a balanced compromise between the two traditions found in Islam. The major question raised at Lancaster concerned the definition of mysticism. The paper never gives an adequate definition, and neither did the participants in the conference. Therefore, no one was quite sure what Baha’i mysticism might be, if indeed it exists at all. One class member observed that since Ms. Mossop does not speak Arabic or Persian, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for her to compare the Baha’i Writings to those of Sufi mystics.

The next paper discussed was that of Moojan Momen — “Early Contacts Between Baha’is and Christian Missionaries in Persia”. The paper was based on research done in English archives of certain missionary societies which sent workers to Iran in the mid-nineteenth century. It was presented to the seminar in rough, unfinished form, without footnotes. This paper and the one presented by Peter Smith were both drafts of papers which will appear in a forthcoming publication edited by Moojan Momen, entitled Studies in Baha’i History, to be published by George Ronald in England.

Momen’s paper brought to light a number of previously unkonw contacts between missionaries and Babis/Baha’is in the period between 1844 and about 1910. The paper was primarily concerned with English missionaries and their encounters with the Faith, but also included some closing notes on American missionaries. Both sets of missionaries initially reacted with enthusiasm to their discovery of Babis or Baha’is. They saw them as a liberal group, liberated from Muslim superstition and ripe for conversion to Christianity. They hoped that the Babi Faith would provide their opening to the eventual evangelization of all of Iran.

Momen was able to uncover one fascinating incident in which a number of Babis (Azalis) in Isfahan pretended to convert to Christianity in 1871. Rev. Robert Bruce, the missionary who presided over these conversions, sent enthusiastic reports home. However, he was soon to be disappointed when it became clear that these conversions were a result of a major famine which was killing thousands in Iran. Since the missionaries had ready access to famine relief funds, it is not surprising that a few individuals should be willing to come to Bruce and express an interest in Christianity and even pretend to be converted.

Momen writes: “This episode is of great interest since Bruce’s reports shed some light on the state of the Babi community in what can perhaps be termed the Dark Age of Babi-Baha’i history. By that appelation is meant that there is a period from 1852 until about 1875, for which there is a great dearth of source materials that shed light on what was happenign to the Babi community in Persia during this crucial phase of its development, when, bit by bit it was being transformed into the Baha’i community.” Bruce reports a great deal of fragmentation among Babis. There were at least three different groups of Babi/Baha’is in Isfahan during this period — all antagonistic to one another.

Another account from Barfurush (now Babul) in 1852 demonstrates the disorganization of the Babis and their bitterness towards Islam. A missionary relates that he met some Muslims in the street who asked for some Christian tracts against Islam. He asked why, to which they replied:

“Because we detest Mohamed, and ridicule his Koran.” During the short conversation which I had with them in the street, I learnt they were secret followers of the Bab, the renowned Persian socialist, whose community two years ago menaced both the religion and throne of Persia…. I informed my aquaintances in the street, that I should be happy to see them in the caravanserai, but they were afraid to see me, for fear of exciting suspicion. One of them, who from his white turban appeared to be a mullan, ‘Inshallah,’ (ie please God,) ‘we shall yet drive Mohamed, Ali, and all the Imams from Persia; and whether we become Ingleese, or Russ(ian), (meaning Christians of either Churches) is to us a matter of indifference, since all creeds are better than that of the Arabian robber.”

The missionary left their company quickly, feeling that their language was too violent and their hatred of Islam too bitter to continue the conversation in a public thoroughfare.

This quotation excited some discussion in the class. One person felt that it was quite odd to find Babis attacking Muhammad and Islam. Though they may be bitter towards Muslims, (this was a year of major persecution against Babis in Iran) they should not have attacked the Prophet. He wondered if the Babis had not tailored their remarks for the missionary, pretending to hate Islam in order to gain his attention and favor. It is also possible that the missionary misunderstood what the Babis were actually saying and took their disaffection from Islam as an attack on the person of Muhammad and the Koran.

Others felt that there was no reason to make these assumptions, but that the incident could be taken at face value. If so, it is a valuable indication of the nature of the Babi community during this period — confused, frightened and antagonistic to Islam.

Of course, the relationship between Baha’is and missionaries eventually turned sour as the Christians realized that the Faith would not be a rich source of converts and even threatened to be the greatest rival in the field of conversion. By the turn of the century, English missionaries were writings tracts in Persian against the Faith. Within a few years initial cordial relations were cut off completely.

American missionaries in the north of Iran followed a similar pattern of interest, disillusionment and then antagonism towards the Baha’is, but here the final break was a much more dramatic and bitter affair. Several missionaries printed articles in English journals highly critical of the Baha’i Faith. Rev. S. O. Wilson of the Tabriz mission finally published Baha’ism and its Claims, the first full volume written in a European language attacking the Faith. This was followed by other works of similar nature. It is interesting that the only serious, full-scale attacks on the Faith in the West have been written by former-missionaries to Iran. (This includes Miller’s latest volume, The Baha’i Faith: Its History and Teachings.) This is the primary fruit of this early Christian-Baha’i interaction.

One criticism of Momen’s paper was that he presented the missionaries as the active element and the Baha’is as a passive element in their encounters. While he is careful to explain the motives of the missionaries and the factors which attracted them to the Baha’i community, he fails to provide similar explanations for why Baha’is may have been attracted to missionaries. This is, of course, partially a result of the sources used (ie missionary records). Yet, even here there are some hints. The French consul at Tabriz reported in 1910 that disturbances had broken out in Urniyyih [sic] because the missionaries there had hired a Baha’i to teach Persian in their school. He took the opportunity to convert every one of hsi students to the Baha’i Faith! He was dismissed and the missionaries were asking that he be expelled from the town. (Smile.)

The next paper discussed was that of Harri Peltola, “The History of the Baha’i Faith in Finland: A Case Study in the Sociology of Counterculture.” Although the paper was written in Finnish, Mr. Peltola gave highlights of the paper in English. He began with a long, theoretical introduction on the definition of counterculture and the nature of this phenomenon. Unfortunately, this analysis was then dropped and he began recounting the history of the Faith in Finland without ever integrating these two sections of the paper.

The history of the Faith began in Finland in 1933 when Martha Root gave a talk there in Esperanto. However, the Faith had been mentioned in print in Finland as early as 1897. The first Baha’i moved to Finland in 1938 from the U.S. and converted the first believer, a young priest, to the Faith the same year. But, by 1952 there were still only 8 Baha’is in the whole country. They were all (it seems) from theosophical or metaphysical backgrounds and saw the Faith as a ‘society’ to which they belonged… (in Peltola’s own words) a kind of hobby.

In 1958, the Hands of the Cause in the Holy Land recommended to the Baha’is in Finland that they sever their church affiliations. However, this was only a suggestion and many chose not to follow this advice. In 1962, there being now 80 Baha’is in the country, the government afforded full recognition to the Faith. This recognition obliged the believers to leave their churches and register as Baha’is. Some refused to do so and left the Faith.

By 1969 there were 120 Baha’is in Finland, but still no youth. The greatest growth in the Faith took place in the years between 1970 and 1973, when scores of young people became Baha’is (perhaps because they saw the Baha’i Faith as a counterculture). There are now about 250 Baha’is in the country. Sadly, many of the young converts to the Faith have gotten lost.

Peltola reported that in 1962 a Finnish priest wrote a full volume book attacking the Faith. The book has recently been reprinted. This is pretty amazing considering the number of Baha’is in the country and the fact that Finnish is not a very popular language. Someone in Finland must see the Faith as a big threat.

The final paper discussed was by Peter Smith, “The American Baha’i Community, 1896-1925: Emergence from a Cultic Melieu.” Peter himself has summarized the argument of his paper in a recent report on the conference as follows”

Peter Smith (Lancaster) in a paper entitled, “The American Baha’i Community, 1896-1925: Emergence from a Cultic Melieu”, sought to identify the main themes in early American Baha’i history, giving particular attention to questions of authority. Part of the paper consisted of a description of the gradual emergence of a national administrative structure, centering on the Baha’i Temple Unity. It was argued that as many early American Baha’is came from a particular religious background (the Metaphysical movement) which inclined them towards suspicion of “organization”, tentions were engendered within the American Baha’i community by this emerging administration. These tensions came to a head at the time of the First World War, after which there was a gerater acceptance of organizational forms which presaged later developments during the period of the Guardianship and which marked the American Baha’i community’s emergence from the cultic melieu.

Peter Smith is a graduate student at the University of Lancaster working on a doctorate in sociology. The topic of his dissertation will be on the sociological development of the Baha’i Faith. (Apparently, he intends to take on the whole thing.) He has done research in the Baha’i National Archives of Canada, the United States and Great Britain. His paper was based on his research in Wilmetter.

Smith’s paper implicitely attacked the widespread notion that the American Baha’i Community was, during the time of Abdu’l-Baha, a loose, unstructured and unorganized group which only took on shape and organizational form during the ministry of Shoghi Effendi with the rise of the Administrative Order. The paper demonstrated that from the early days of the Faith in America there have always been two tendencies in the community: one towards organization and structure, the other towards spiritual speculation and lack of structure. During Abdu’l-Baha’is time, these two factions of the Baha’i community sometiems took each other on in full battle.

Smith’s paper was fascinating in the light which was able to throw on the nature of the Baha’i community before 1925. The most striking feature of that community, for the modern Baha’i at least, is its unrelieved factionalism. Each city would have not one Baha’i group, or even two, but five or six mutually antagonistic groups all calling themselves Baha’is. This might include groups of Covenant-breakers and Baha’is who followed different teachers. Often the women would have a group of their own, though it is usually centered around a male figure. In Chicago, for instance, there was established the House of Spirituality (that is, the Spiritual Assembly) to which only men could be elected; and then, there was the Women’s Assembly of Teaching. These two bodies were not always on the best of terms. In light of these kinds of divisions, Abdu’l-Baha’s constant exhortations tothe community for unity take on new meaning.

Smith noted that before the Faith was established in America it had not attracted any substantial number of believers from a Christian background and remained essentially a phenomenon within Persian Shi’ih Islam. It was this initial period of growth outside of the Faith’s original Islamic melieu which established the breadth of its appeal and its ability to adapt to alien religious traditions. What we have in the West is, in some sense, our own ‘home grown’ variety of the Faith.

Peter Smith has summarized some of the common themes found in the historical papers presented at the Lancaster Conference as follows:

The historical papers ranged considerably in time and locale… A common theme which might be discerned in mos tof the historical papers is the way in which Babi and Bah’ai communities have evolved into relative independence from various milieu: from a movement within Shaykhism to an independent religious community bitterly condemned by the new Shaykhi leadership; from a de facto part of a newly established Persian Shi’a community in Ishqabad to an independent religious community officially recognized by the government and possessing its own distinctive institutions; from a loosely organized part of the “cultic milieu” of early twentieth century America, to a more tightly organized community with a stronger sense of its separate identity and mission; and from an individualistic “Baha’i Society” whose members retained nominal membership in the state church, to an independent religious community officially recognized by the Finnish authorities. In two of these cases (Lee, Peltola) government recognition has been an important feature in this evolutionary process, whilst in the Babi case governmental and clerical opposition was a major factor; in two cases (MacEoin, Smith) internal tensions within the community contributed significantly, and in the Ishqabad, American and Finnish examples external directives from central Baha’i authorities were important.

The study class went on to discuss other general concerns which were raised at the Lancaster Conference. These included the question of the role of faith in the academic study of the Baha’i Faith. What assumptions, if any should the Baha’i make as he approaches a serious study of the Faith from an academic point of view? The importance of this kind of study of the Faith was also discussed. At this point in Baha’i history, is it just a luxury or does it have an important role to play in the Baha’i Community. Unfortunately, spce does not allow a summary of these discussions.


Saturday, 15th and Sunday, 16th April, 1978


All sessions will be held in Room B65, Sociology Department, Cartmel College, University of Lancaster.

Saturday, 15th April

11:00 – 12:15 Denis MacEoin (Cambridge)
“The Shaykhi reaction to Babism in the early period”.

12:15 – 2:00 Lunch

2:00 – 3:15 Tony Lee (Los Angeles)
“The Baha’i community of Ishqabad, Russian Turkistan”.

3:15 – 3:45 Tea

3:45 – 5:00 Denise Mossop (Lancaster)
“The mediatory role of Baha’i: a comparison of Sufi and Baha’i mysticism”.

5:00 – 6:00 General discussion of the three papers.

Sunday, 16th April

10:00 – 11:15 Moojan Momen (Cambridge)
“Early contacts between Baha’is and Christian missionaries”.

11:15 – 11:45 Coffee

11:45 – 1:00 Peter Smith (Lancaster)
“The American Baha’i community, 1894-1925″.

1:00 – 2:00 Lunch

2:30 – 3:45 Harri Peltola (Helsinki)
“The history of the Baha’i Faith in Finland: a case study in the sociology of counterculture”

3:45 – 4:15 Tea

4:15 – 5:30 Discussion of last three papers.

5:30 – 6:30 “Baha’i Studies” – general discussion

Peter Smith
Department of Sociology
University of Lancaster


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The original scanned documents can be found here.