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Religion Library: Baha'i

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Moojan Momen

While there was the above-described initial flurry of interest in the Babi and Baha'i religions in the West, it was not sustained, and from the 1920s to the 1970s, there were no Western scholars who were as deeply engaged as the above-named ones and only a handful of studies that can be said to have done much to advance knowledge. From the 1970s onward, there gradually emerged a new stream of scholars who can be said to be a fusion of the above two groups, the Western and the Baha'i scholars. This new generation of scholars mostly began as Baha'is, although some have subsequently left the religion. They use Western academic methodology and most operate from within Western universities but they have access to insider information and resources. Apart from these individuals, the Baha'i Faith has been very little studied by Western scholars of religion.

A word must also be said about what passes for scholarship on the Baha'i Faith in Iran and to a lesser extent in the rest of the Middle East. Baha'is have been persecuted in many Middle Eastern countries and rejected by Islamic leaders, and one form of this discrimination has involved the manipulation of information. For most of the last 100 years, deliberately distorted or falsified information and documents have been created mostly by some within the Islamic religious establishment and then distributed as though these were facts about the Baha'i Faith. Since the Baha'is have had no ability to respond to this material in the Middle East, these distortions have gradually become accepted in the Middle East as the truth.

One example is the forged memoirs of Count Dolgorukov, the Russian ambassador to Iran in the 1840s to 1850s. Dolgorukov was a well-known Russian figure from a prominent family and his biography can be found in many Russian sources. These authentic accounts, however, have him in various diplomatic posts in Europe at the time that the forged memoirs say that he was converting to Islam in Iran and then setting about undermining his new religion by creating the Babi and Baha'i religions.

This and other contradictions were so clearly spurious that even some Iranian scholars debunked them when they were first published in the 1940s. But despite this, they are often regularly cited by Middle Eastern writers up to the present day as though they are a reliable source for the history of the religion. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, this manufacturing of disinformation and forged material has increased greatly with programs in the media, articles, and books appearing on a frequent basis, especially in the government-run media. The result is that there is almost nothing published in the Middle East that has reliable information about the Baha'i Faith in it. A little of this sort of scholarship has also appeared in the West; some Christian missionaries have written anti-Baha'i material and ex-Baha'is have published academic work that is calculated to make the Baha'i community resemble a cult as portrayed in the anti-cult campaigns that were carried out in the Western media in the 1980s.

Study Questions:
     1.    In what way did the Russian scholars differ from the British and French scholars in their studies of this religion?
     2.    What sorts of books did the Iranian Baha’i scholars produce?
     3.    In what ways did the scholars on the Baha’i Faith that emerged in the 1970s differ from the earlier scholars?
     4.    Describe the sort of scholarship about the Baha’i Faith that is emerging from Iran and the Middle East.


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