Historical Perspectives

Reports of the Babi movement reached Europe very early owing mainly to the intense persecutions that marked that history. European newspapers reported the persecutions and in 1865, the Comte de Gobineau (1816-1882), a French diplomat in Iran, published Les Religions et Les Philosophies dans l'Asie Centrale, a book describing the history and teachings of the Bab, which did much to create interest in Europe.

As a result of this interest, a number of scholars began to research the new religion. Foremost among these was Professor E.G. Browne (1862-1926) of Cambridge University who visited Iran and also travelled to 'Akka to meet Baha'u'llah and has left accounts of these journeys. He translated two histories of the new religion and published two other books as well as a number of articles. He also made an important collection of manuscripts that he gave to Cambridge University Library. Baha'is have criticized Browne's work, however, for being too sympathetic to Azal, Baha'u'llah's half-brother and implacable enemy. Nevertheless, Browne's keen observations and engaging literary style render a vivid picture of the ethos and community life of the Iranian Baha'is in the late 19th century.

A.L.M. Nicolas (1864-1939) was a French consular official in Iran who researched and wrote a biography of the Bab as well as translating three of the Bab's major works into French. While Browne and Nicolas were primarily interested in the Bab and his religion, there was a circle of Russian scholars who were more interested in Baha'u'llah. The most senior of these was Baron Viktor Rosen (1849-1908), who was director of the Oriental Department of the University of St. Petersburg. He saw the importance of studying the new religion and secured the assistance of a number of Russian consular officials and researchers in collecting manuscripts and gathering information. The most important of those who assisted in this was Aleksandr Tumanski (1861-1920), who spent a great deal of time with the Baha'i community of Ashkhabad in Turkmenistan and with the leading Baha'i scholar, Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani. Although he did not write as much as Browne or Nicolas, what he did write was derived from a very deep and thorough investigation.

Within the Baha'i community, there was much interest in scholarship from the very beginning. Almost all of the most important disciples of the Bab were Islamic religious scholars, as were many of the leading converts to the Baha'i Faith in later years. Therefore, there was an extensive body of scholarly literature from the very beginning of the movement. Of particular importance was the work of the above-mentioned Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani (1844-1914), who was able to develop presentations and proofs of the Baha'i Faith for the emerging converts from Zoroastrianism and Judaism in Iran in the 1880s and for the Christians in the West during a trip there in 1901-1904. During the 1930s to 1960s, a second generation of Iranian Baha'i scholars, such as Fadil Mazandarani (1881-1957), 'Abdul-Hamid Ishraq-Khavari (1902-1972), and 'Azizu'llah Sulaymani (1901-1985) systematized Baha'i theology and law, developed aids for scholars such as dictionaries of Baha'i terminology, and wrote histories and biographies. This was of course a more traditional style of scholarship than is current in the West, but it continues to be useful to all present scholars.

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.

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