Dear Friends, these are personal observations of an individual Baha’i:
What have seven Baha’i prisoners, and the oppressed community they serve, achieved for the nation of Iran?
Posted: 28 Feb 2009 04:31 PM PST
As seven heroic souls in Iran await an impending trial on absurd and dangerous charges, which place their very lives at risk, while excluded from their lawyer, the brave Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi, the question recurs: why?
Why this fear, this virulent hatred of a community so self-evidently committed to peaceful coexistence, sometimes criticised for its absence of partisan political activism, let alone any form of militant stance that might threaten a government, a nation, in the form of hostility, or that staple of government fabrications, espionage?
The nature of the activities of this extraordinary group of people, is explained by the editors of Iran Press Watch as follows:
“After the abduction and disappearance of the nine members of the first National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Iran after the revolution in 1980 and the summary execution of most members of the second such Assembly of Baha’is in 1983, the governing body of the Baha’i community in Iran voluntarily suspended its administrative activities in 1983, and the affairs of the Baha’i community were managed by small groups of three individuals in each locality.
“After a few years, this group of three individuals on the national level became more organized and was named the institution of “The Friends of Iran.” The main responsibility of this institution was managing the affairs of this large religious minority, such as recording marriages, handling divorces, assisting with burials, sending letters of introduction for traveling Baha’is, arranging for worship services, and similar activities. “The Friends of Iran” guided the Baha’i community through many tumultuous years, and provided hope and reassurance through critical times with a unified vision and exemplary resolve.
“The activities of the “Friends” were completely transparent and were devoid of any hidden agenda. Incidentally, during this period, a particular office was designated in the Ministry of Intelligence to follow the activities of the Baha’is. This office would contact the “Friends” directly with any questions about a specific activity. Even Ayatollah Dorri Najafabadi, Iran’s chief prosecutor, has referred to this close monitoring. At the time of the suspension of Baha’i administrative activities in 1983, a letter was sent by the National Assembly of the time to Mousavi Ardabili indicating that in exchange for this suspension, the Baha’i community requested that the government allow its high school Baha’i graduates to enter universities, that the dismissed Baha’i university professors be reinstated, and that the Baha’is fired from the public sector be given permission for employment. The government did not heed or honor any of these requests for minimal civil rights for the Baha’is of Iran.”
Many have been the responses to such dismal and absurd charges. The most memorable for me are perhaps those of Mr. Hamid Hamidi and Moojan Momen. The former, non-Baha’i Iranian intellectual, in a truly remarkable, even historic talk, chronicles impartially with remarkable accuracy and passion the history and context of assaults against the human rights of the Baha’i community as fellow citizens in Iran from the days of Reza Shah to the present day. Moojan Momen’s own statement specifically exposes the absurdity of each of the charges leveled specifically against those seven precious souls who gambled with their lives in service to their community, and to humankind. The context of egregious human rights violations in Iran, not only against the Baha’is, but against many sectors of the population, is eloquently and movingly expounded by a Baha’i uniquely qualified to do so, former UN War Crimes Prosecutor, Payyam Akhavan, reminding us that the world Baha’i community’s struggle for the rights of its cherished brothers and sisters in Iran is part of a wider struggle for justice for all, of whatever faith or none.
Against this backdrop, I was encouraged by a friend whom I deeply respect, to share some excerpts from a paper I wrote in 2001, for an academic journal by the name of the Middle Eastern Studies Association Bulletin, exploring the reasons for the comparative silence of scholars of the Middle East, and of Iran in particular, in relation to all things Baha’i.
As I pondered the suggestion, I reflected that perhaps the discussion that he felt was relevant to what is happening today, was the general exploration of the continuities and discontinuities which the Baha’i Faith represented upon its emergence in the 19th century, and which led to its becoming an “Other” to the people of Iran, to the extent of disappearing from sight, and, if successive governments had had their way, as chronicled by Mr. Hamidi in the link above, dissappearing from existence altogether. In fact, revisiting that paper in the context of today’s fearful persecutions, one finds, not gloom, but extraordinary hope.
For if Baha’is were non-existent then relatively speaking, if one were to judge by their utter absence (outside frequent polemics that form part of their oppression)from the written discourse of their fellow countrymen, intellectuals, activists, artists, journalists, inside Iran and abroad, Iranian Baha’is certainly “exist” now in the voices and the minds of their compatriots, as never in this Faith’s 165 year history.
It is almost a truism for Baha’is, borne out not only scripturally, but by long experience of repression, yet one that cannot ever lose its pathos, that each wave of persecution, each effort to erase this Faith’s existence, is unfailingly accompanied by an unprecedented victory, that only digs its roots the deeper, and establishes its claims before the sight of men. The preceding chapter of extreme and nation-wide oppression, in the 1980’s, achieved in fact, globally speaking, the Baha’i Faith’s emergence from obscurity, and endowed the Baha’is with an extraordinary capacity for global concerted action, that countless activist organizations admire and respect, as Baha’is across the world for the first time arose as one voice in creative and united ways to seek reddress and protection for their fellow believers, mobilising public opinion from city councils and local press to the European Parliament and the United Nations, and averted genocide.
The most immediate victory that the present episode of persecution has already achieved in a manner that has astounded observers, foremost among them the Baha’is themselves, is the final integration of the Iranian Baha’is into the broader identity of their nation. For the first time in their history, the Baha’is are not the Other which I observed in my paper, they are, for a rising, mighty wave of non-Baha’i Iranians, the prominent and the obscure alike, elite and ordinary people, from all walks of life, “one of us”, fellow citizens, and the silence of the past is not only finally and irretrievably broken, but explicitly repudiated, and for all time.
Achieving this, such an extraordinary victory over mass prejudice sustained by unremitting propaganda and lies, from earliest childhood to the grave, is not just a victory for the Baha’i community, but for the people of Iran, and facilitating such a leap of consciousness, such a broadening of hearts, of minds, and social consciousness, is an extraordinary service which these seven prisoners have rendered the noble Iranian nation, together with the ranks of fellow believers who even now languish in dark incarceration, mourn loved ones killed for their religious identity, and strive to contribute to the welfare and prosperity of their country while the avenues of education and livelihood are either severely limited, or altogether shut.
Why did so many millions shiver, irrespective of their politics, when President Obama gave his inaugural speech? Because the United States, as a nation, had achieved a thing of wonder, it had placed an “Other” that arrived in bondage and slavery, in the highest place of honour it was in its gift to choose. And in so choosing, beyond honouring President Obama, beyond honouring a given minority or minorities, as a nation, it honoured itself, to such an extent, that many souls beyond its borders felt honoured too, at their own humanity’s potential to transcend the universal legacies of hate.
This turning tide began most noticeably, as may be followed in the remarkable website, Iran Press Watch, with Iran’s foremost and most prominent human rights advocate, Shirin Ebadi, agreeing to represent the Bahas’is as defense lawyer. More recently, history was made when 267 personalities, not Baha’is, from famous academics to Iran’s most well known pop star, from the most famous student dissident, to the former Miss Iran and second runner up to Miss World,in other words thinkers, journalists, cultural and popular icons, who for decades held their peace, now spoke and said: “we are ashamed”, of the silence that for so long signalled to their Baha’i compatriots, “you are not Us”, while oppression weighed on them. The Iranian Writers’ Association has likewise made its own voice heard, as have writers and journalists of Kurdistan. Even the first President of the Islamic Republic of Iran (1980-1981) has spoken in support of Baha’i rights, and, more astonishing still, one of Iran’s most caustic attackers in print of the Baha’i Faith, has compellingly been moved to write in defense of a community he spent three decades attacking. Similarly Ayatollah Montazeri, once one of the very highest ranking clerics in Iran, and who in his memoirs recorded proudly his youthful persecution of Baha’is in the 1950’s, broke new ground by proclaiming them legal citizens. The record of new voices continues, as political prisoners in a prison in Karaj raised, amidst their own captivity, a “proclamation in support of our Baha’i countrymen”, while 26 Muslim students in a university of Mazindaran protested the expulsion of Baha’i fellow students. The non-Baha’i Iranian journalist Ali Keshtgar captured the spirit of this mighty victory of non-violent example and resilience over the fear and exclusion of centennial prejudice in the title of his piece: “We are all Iranian Baha’is”.
To grasp the extent of this trajectory, and its cultural significance for Iran, I return, as requested, to that paper from 2001, with the following excerpts which might be germane to this discussion:
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the Baha’i faith could be aptly described as an underground messianic movement. Nevertheless, it was not the first such movement. The tradition of Persianate religious radicalism goes back to the origins of Persianate Islam and has always been linked in significant and often predominant ways to chiliastic fervor. The work of scholars such as Madelung, Hodgson, Dickson, Daftari, Corbin, Nasr, Modarresi, Arjomand, and, more recently, Amanat, Babayan, and Cole, has shed much light into the character of these movements, and permitted the beginnings of an integrated picture to emerge. Babayan in particular has sought to identify, following Hodgson and Madelung, common features that, amidst the bewildering diversity, provide grounds for seeing, in the recurrence of certain outlooks and motifs, a tradition of religious innovation in a Persianate context, rather than a collection of sporadic and more or less isolated incidents and movements. At the center of ghulati movements, suggests Babayan, has been found what she describes as “a sense of immediacy in the desire to experience a utopia on earth.” The ghulat are often “idealists and visionaries who believe that Justice could reign in this world of ours”:
“Reluctant to await another existence, perhaps another form, or eternal life following death and resurrection, individuals (ghulat [exaggerators]) with such temperaments emerged at the advent of Islam expecting to attain the apocalyptic horizon of Truth.…They do not see the universe in linear terms of a beginning and an end, but as successive cycles where the end of one era spontaneously flowed into the beginning of another…there is no Final Apocalypse, no End-Time as is believed by “mainstream” Jews, Christians and Muslims….What distinguishes each cycle is a new prophetic vision, each time unveiling layers of the mystery of the universe. And since the cosmos was understood to be alive, endlessly unravelling new dimensions in a way that ultimate Truth was inexplicable, almost unfathomable, creativity and new imaginings saw no bounds for the ghulat.”[Kathryn Babayan, Mystics, Monarchs and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran]
I have cited rather extensively because in this one paragraph a distinguished scholar seeks to encapsulate the essence of a specific tradition of religious innovation in the Persianate world. I would like to compare the citation to the following messianic proclamation by Bah’u’llah:
“It is evident that every age in which a Manifestation of God hath lived is divinely ordained, and may, in a sense, be characterised as God’s appointed Day. This Day, however, is unique, and is to be distinguished from those that have preceded it. The designation “Seal of the Prophets” fully revealeth its high station. The Eternal Truth is now come. He hath lifted up the Ensign of Power, and is shedding upon the world the unclouded splendour of His Revelation.”[Bah’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, (London: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1978), p. 59.]
Clearly, Baha’u’llah’s messianic message strongly resonates with the themes enunciated by Babayan and may be regarded as emerging out of that tradition. This view finds further reinforcement from the fact that Baha’u’llah repudiated finality for his revelation, holding fast to a cyclical yet evolutionary approach to eschatology that envisaged no end to the periodic and progressive (re)appearance of divine Messengers.
Such links with the tradition of ghuluw are of course as much historical as intellectual, the Baha’i vision having evolved in direct engagement with the Shaykhism of Shaykh Ahmad Ahsai and Siyyid Kazim Rashti, various strands of irfani and sufi thought and, above all, the rich and living heritage of Siyyid Ali Muhammad, the Bab. The use Baha’u’llah made of this tradition, however, was fundamentally not imitative but creative, resulting in a radical transformation to which we will return below.
It takes, however, more than a messianic figure to make a messianic movement; the response has to be forthcoming. In the case of Baha’u’llah (and of the Bab before him) the response was considerable not just in numbers, but in spread. Among the sectors from which the leadership of the Baha’i community was drawn in Baha’u’llah’s time, according to Momen, were: major `ulama, such as mujtahids, and imam-jum`ihs; minor `ulama, such as religious students (tullab) and sufi darvishes (rawdih-khans); the nobility, including members of the royal court, Qajar princes, governors, high government officials, and military commanders of rank of sartip and above; major land-owners and factory-owners (sahib-kar); minor government officials, secretaries, couriers, and soldiers; wholesale merchants (tujjar) and financiers (sarraf); retail merchants, usually guilded; skilled urban workers such as guilded craftsmen (asnaf) usually ustad (master craftsman), and traditional service workers (for example, tabíb, doctor); unskilled urban workers; peasant and rural workers; tribal peoples; and eventually modern professionals as well. Not only Iranians of Twelver Shi’i background were represented, but also Zoroastrians, Jews, Ahl-i Haqq, Afshari turkomen, Kurds, and Lurs—and this list is drawn only from within the borders of Iran itself. Baha’i presence in urban settings was only slightly more important than in rural settings.[Moojan Momen, “Iran” l] It is suggested that the swift emergence of a substantial Babi, and subsequently Baha’i, following in Persia constitutes a landmark response to ideological tensions that go back to the beginnings of Persianate Islam, and belongs to, yet also breaks with, the Persianate tradition of religious dissent.
In his seminal interpretive essays on the birth and demise of the late Antique world Browne emphasizes the cultural tensions engendered by the irruption of Arabo-Muslim culture into Sassanid Persia. Islam was the space where these tensions were played out. On the one, it was used as a source of legitimacy and a tool for cultural and political hegemony by the initially Arabized rulers of Persia. On the other hand, Islam served as an instrument for cultural and political appropriation and survival by a distinctive Persianate society. The result was a Persianate religious idiom that remained distinctive, far-reaching, and fragmented. Thus, we see in Persia and its cultural sphere movements and belief systems take root and develop which in the epicenters of the Arab cultural sphere stand out (in the main) as both foreign and alien―examples ranging from orthodox Shi’ism, Twelver and Sevener alike, to much of Sufism and, of course, ghuluw. These religious currents, it is suggested, reflect enduring attempts to appropriate Islam into a Persianate idiom and resolve tensions going back to late Antiquity between a Persianate (gnostic/cyclical) religious heritage, and a Semitic (nomic/linear) worldview inherited from Islam.
From the outset of Persianate Islam, successive political regimes in Persia evolved and jealously guarded Islamic identities that buttressed their power by imposing cultural hegemonies over a volatile cultural mix. In this context, radical religious innovation not only challenged the cultural hegemony of a given Islamic identity, but inescapably undermined the legitimacy of the political order that upheld it. With such weight accruing to ideological conformity in a milieu brimming with cultural tensions, it comes as no surprise that Islamic heresiography should have specially flourished in the Persianate sphere, as groups fought for political power through cultural control. Religious dissent was inevitably political dissent too. Such links between political revolt and religious radicalism are certainly not unique to Persia. What makes Persianate religious dissent distinctive is its persistent attempt to reconcile its Islamic identity with a pre-Islamic heritage that refuses to relax its ideological grip. We thus find, for instance, formulations of the Islamic escathon not only turning to pre-Islamic theological orientations, but even making room for pre-Islamic Iranian legend, as in the case of the radical Sufism of the Safavi period. Or should we say rather that an enduring pre-Islamic Iranian mindset made occasional room for Islamic eschatology?
True to the Persianate tradition of religious innovation, Baha’u’llah’s vision was able to transcend a strictly Islamic worldview through realized eschatology. Only, Baha’u’llah appropriated not merely the pre-Islamic past but, crucially, the non-Islamic present, to predicate a post-Islamic future. In the past, Islamicate religious dissent had been used to challenge other Islamic cultural hegemonies. Persians who embraced Baha’u’llah’s message, and, even more, Persians who embraced the Bab’s message, were responding to similar pressures, seeking to resist cultural encroachments from a new religious-political hegemony fractiously championed by the ‘ulama and, to a lesser degree, the secular rulers of Qajar Persia. The Baha’í teachings, typically, criticized the clerical establishment and formulated an alternative, spiritualized, and disestablished view of its place in society, legitimizing the sovereignty of secular rulers independently of clerical authority.
For the first time, however, equally strong pressures on identity came from a source outside the Islamicate world altogether: the Western world, whose expansion was accompanied by a subtle but insidious assertion of cultural hegemony in the form of Empire, one of the drivers of globalization. The Baha’i teachings gave nineteenth-century Persians who wished to do so a vehicle to resist the cultural (hence social and political) hegemony not only of the ’ulama, but of the intruding Western world. The Baha’i teachings could appropriate the idiom not just of Persianate Islam, but also of the West and use it to resist its cultural hegemony, in the same way as Islam gave the Sassanids a means to appropriate the cultural idiom of the Arabs to resist their attempt at cultural dominance. In other words, the Baha’i teachings opened an avenue for a new, post-Islamic identity that promised to overcome and finally resolve the cultural (and by implication political and social) tensions of the day. They also posed an unmistakable challenge to the existing order. What was seen by some as the fulfillment of Islam, was regarded by others as its open subversion.
What is perhaps most remarkable is that through the far-reaching political and social changes that have taken place since the days of Nasir-i Din Shah, the repression of Iranian Baha’is has remained constant, varying only in intensity, regardless of the prevailing order of the day. Coverage of these persecutions has focused on the Qajar period and the persecutions under the Islamic Republic, but Baha’is also suffered periodic persecutions throughout the whole Pahlavi period, not least being the country-wide campaign orchestrated against them in 1955. Even in quiet periods under the Pahlavis, the Baha’is never achieved rights as basic as having their marriages legally recognized. The consistency of this persecution suggests powerful cultural, social, and political continuities that may easily pass unnoticed by scholars of the ever-changing Iranian socio-political landscape.
The Baha’i Faith as Departure
Having concentrated on historical continuities, we may now elaborate on the discontinuities. For even as there can be little doubt that the worldview and community that crystallized around Baha’u’llah has inextricable connections with the rich currents of tradition, there can likewise be little doubt that in Baha’u’llah’s hands, the traces of tradition were embedded in something altogether new, something Other, something amounting, both in intent and consequence, to a new religion. The theological transition from Islam has recently been mapped by Buck. The author describes Baha’u’llah’s doctrinal teachings as “an ideological bridge to a new worldview.”[Chris Buck, Symbol and Secret (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1995), chapter 5] This new worldview implied sociological innovations too. Traditionally, the energies released by large-scale Islamicate responses to a messianic claim have sought outlet in military enterprises. Such indeed was the case with Babism. The idea of the conquering Mahdi or Qaim pervaded prophetic expectations, and the conquest was expected to occur by military and supernatural means. This Islamic ideal of messianic conquest, like so much else in the Islamic heritage, was not rejected by Baha’u’llah, but it was recast in spiritualized form, community building, and moral regeneration taking the place of physical combat as the proper instruments of victory. Baha’u’llah would eventually conquer the world, but would do so by spiritual means, through the attraction of hearts, and the battle would be waged by Baha’is through a consecrated dedication to community building and the cultivation of moral rectitude. Not surprisingly, a doctrinal outlook that appropriated the prophetic expectations of all religions yet upheld the relativity of truth led to early experiments in multiculturalism. On the one hand were the imperatives from Baha’u’llah to consort with the followers of all religions; on the other was the conversion of non-Muslim minorities, which initiated a slow and gradual process of cultural rapprochement between converts from these various backgrounds, as has been broadly examined by Stiles-Maneck.[“The Conversion of Religious Minorities,” Journal of Baha’i Studies 3. 3 (1991)]
At this juncture it would be worth asking what contemporary Persians themselves regarded as innovative about Baha’u’llah’s teachings. One testimony comes from a Baha’i convert from the later period of Baha’u’llah’s ministry, a former cleric, writing in 1911 when the Baha’i community had been securely established in the East and had begun to penetrate into the West. The features he highlights as the most significant innovations of Baha’u’llah include: abstaining from crediting verbal traditions; prohibiting individual claims to authoritative interpretation; abrogating conflict and controversy on the basis of differences of opinion; the prohibition of slavery; the obligation to engage in allowable professions as a means of support, and obedience to this law being accepted as an act of worship; the compulsory education of children of both sexes; the command prohibiting cursing and execration and making it obligatory upon all to abstain from uttering that which may offend men; the prohibition on the carrying of arms except in time of necessity; the creation of the House of Justice and institution of national parliaments and constitutional governments; the exhortation to observe sanitary measures and cleanliness, and to shun utterly all that tends to filth and uncleanness; and the provisions of inheritance laws designed, in his view, to prevent the creation of monopolies.[Mirza Abu’l-Fadl Gulpaygani, Letters and Essays, 1886-1913, trans. Juan R. I. Cole (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1992)]
The concerns highlighted in this testimony are not unique, or even rare, although the specific responses are distinctly Baha’i. They reflect issues exercising the minds of many contemporary Persians, regardless of their faith. Iranian Baha’is, like the Baha’i teachings, were distinctive, but far from incomprehensible to fellow Iranians.
…As an outsider to the field, I would have anticipated that at a time when the study of ‘minorities’ is in vogue, the largest religious minority in Iran today would have generated more interest. The absence of even one solid academic monograph on the Baha’i faith in Iran is positively intriguing. This absence is in stark contrast to the volume of work devoted to Persian Jewry, for example, which has, I suspect, received notice outside of Jewish circles.
Similarly, the prominence which the recent persecutions of Baha’is in Iran has had in the Western world has hardly sparked discussion about the roots or cultural significance of persecution, or even the socio-cultural impact of 150 years of continuous repression against a substantial segment of the Iranian population. The place of the Baha’i persecutions in Irano-Western political discourse has hardly been noted, even when major NGOs, numerous national parliaments, the General Assembly of the United Nations, and major heads of state such as former President Clinton have issued condemnations and resolutions and even sent commissions to Iran to investigate human rights abuses against Baha’is. Such contemporary prominence of the Baha’i faith in Irano-Western relations appears to be deeply uninteresting to scholars, to judge from the attention it has received. Even more intriguing is to find that Baha’i historical documents have not been mined in areas such as the social and political history of Qajar Iran, even though they are often extremely rich in detail and broad in geographical spread.
Figures in the history of Babi and Baha’i who attracted the attention of Browne’s generation, such as Qurratu’l-Ayn, scholar-poetess-prophetess, or Abdu’l-Baha, who pioneered the successful translation of a Persianate religious idiom into a Western milieu, have recently received little attention, notable exceptions merely proving the rule. Qurratu’l-Ayn’s ritual unveiling appears to be a particular omission, given the emergence of feminist scholarship on Iran. The transplantation into over 2100 ethnic groups of a Persianate nineteenth-century religious innovation, touching as it does on processes of globalization, modernity, tradition, nationalism, and more, also has passed virtually unnoticed in the literature, perhaps as something that has nothing to do with the Persianate and Middle Eastern milieu that witnessed its genesis.
Finally in this review of, to me, puzzling silences, is the place of the Baha’i community in the drive towards modernization that ran through Iran in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Baha’i community of Iran at the turn of the century was closely linked to agricultural reform and elementary education at the village level. Modernization extended to educational formats and content as well, as Iranian Baha’is established schools for boys and, significantly, for girls, in partnership with American Baha’is, enjoying, until they were banned, a substantial intake of students from outside the Baha’i community. No serious attention has been given to these schools, nor to Baha’i medical clinics and hospitals or to the role of Baha’is in the introduction to Iran of Western pharmaceutical knowledge. The eradication of illiteracy among all Iranian Baha’i women under the age of forty in the 1960s and 1970s likewise does not appear in the history of Persian women.
In most disciplines, a social movement that sweeps across a country, touches virtually every demographic segment of a population, and has a 150-year history would have a solid body of literature behind it. Is my puzzlement legitimate, or is it merely due to my lack of experience in the field? One possibility is that silence breeds silence, insofar as it might be thought that if leading scholars have not written about a subject for almost a century, there is probably good reason. The question is, what is that reason? Regardless, it is likely that silence does reinforce and perpetuate silence in its own right…
There is one other possibility for the neglect of Baha’i studies. Could it be that in the orthodoxy of Iranian and Islamicate studies, like in the orthodoxy of Iranian religion, a stigma attaches to all things Baha’i? Could it be that beyond academic considerations a certain amount of prejudice is at work? Allow me to explore this question. It appears that, given the prominent presence of the Baha’i faith in Iran historically, the wealth of material available, and the precedent of serious academic study of its history and doctrines by the foremost Iranologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the more recent silence on the Baha’i faith and the complete indifference even to Baha’i historical sources mark a definite boundary which designates it as Other. Other, that is, from the perspective of a disciplinary paradigm from which it is largely excluded.
This exclusion is significant. The nineteenth-century Persians who converted to the Baha’i faith evidently felt that the boundary between the Islamicate world to which they truly belonged―they could belong to no other―and the Baha’i faith was bridgable. Members of this faith were nineteenth-century Persians, representing a microcosm of Persian society, steeped in its culture, its traditions, its values. They were both Baha’is—they belonged to a distinctive community, with traits that differentiated them from all other Persian communities—and they were Persians—they shared with their compatriots a common education, common material circumstances and pressures, and a great deal more. Yet, in current Islamicist scholarship they are not integrated into the spiritual, social, religious, or political landscape of the nineteenth-century Middle East in the way that the Zoroastrians, Jews, merchants, or ’ulama might be. Nor are they even explicitly excluded. Instead, they are negated.
Let us discard conspiracy theories. I do not believe that many academics in this field would consciously choose to exclude a range of potentially relevant sources merely because they were tagged Baha’i. Rather, the Baha’i faith occupies a disciplinary blind-spot in the perspective of scholars of the Middle East, so that when we look at the Persianate world we do not see the Baha’i faith, when we search for sources we do not notice Baha’i sources, and when they come into our field of vision we push them aside so we can see more clearly what we are examining. It is as if the disciplinary paradigm of contemporary Persianists is predicated on an ‘imagined’ nation, to allude to Anderson, which, emulating the imagined nation of many Iranians throughout the century and across all political divides, cannot explain or even accommodate the existence of the Baha’i faith in Iran. In other words, it may be that an element of cultural bias has filtered into the discipline of Islamics, in a sort of inverted Orientalism, in which the Iranian Baha’i community is exiled from the Iranian cultural experience.
If this is so, then we might be missing an entire dimension of the Islamicate, and particularly the nineteenth-century Persian landscape. In the throes of modernization and the first deep encounters with globalization, we contend that the Baha’i faith opened up possibilities of identity to which nineteenth-century Persians could relate even if they could not always accept the faith. To integrate the Baha’i faith into the nineteenth-century mentality might well change many of our understandings of the multilayered processes of identity formation, affirmation, and development in nineteenth-century Persia. The same might apply to present-day Iran. Who is Baha’u’llah? Who are the Baha’is? What did these questions mean in nineteenth-century Persia? What do they mean in Iran today? Is it not likely that by completely ignoring their existence, we may have a distorted picture of nineteenth-century Persian society? By ignoring their presence in Iran today, their situation, and their place in contemporary Iranian religious and political culture (and international relations), do we not distort our understanding of contemporary Iran?