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Baha’i History, Texts, and Contexts

Panel II-13, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
As a new religion that emerged in the nineteenth century contexts of Qajar Persia and Ottoman Syria, analysis of the Bahāʾī religion is germane to understanding the modern Middle East. This panel brings together a group of scholars who study the Baha'i religion through the lenses of social history and religious texts to locate the Bahāʾī religion in Middle Eastern contexts. Each paper investigates Bahāʾī interactions with, or contributions to, the socio-intellectual life of the Middle East from the late nineteenth century onwards. These papers ask questions that intersect with themes that are central to the fields of religion, politics, history, women’s studies, sociology, and literature. What were the causes of anti-Bahāʾī riots in multiple Iranian cities in 1903? How does Bahāʾī support of women’s empowerment make Bahāʾīs a target of the Islamic Republic of Iran? To what extent are Bahāʾī practices and texts divergent and convergent with Islam and Muslim communities in Iran, Kuwait, and Bahrain? What can we learn about the development of the Bahāʾī community in Persia from a rare Bahāʾī manuscript found in the United States? Conclusions to these questions are formulated by putting a variety of sources in conversation with each other, including Bahāʾī religious texts, memoirs, Iranian parliament minutes, government telegrams, and consular reports. These sources are read with the following theories or approaches in mind: scapegoating, masculine power networks, continuity and change, and textual analysis. Taken together, the conclusions of these studies allow us to re-vision our understanding of the history and texts associated with the Bahāʾī religion by placing them in the diverse contexts of Iranian politics, Islamic thought, social life in the Persian Gulf, Christian missionaries in the Middle East, and the contemporary Iranian women’s movement. More broadly, these studies contribute to larger discourses in Middle East studies on minority religions.
Religious Studies/Theology
  • Prof. Zackery Heern -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Alyssa Gabbay -- Presenter
  • Prof. Farzin Vejdani -- Discussant, Chair
  • Dr. Mina Yazdani -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Omid Ghaemmaghami -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Dr. Saghar Sadeghian -- Presenter
  • Prof. Zackery Heern
    To what extent does the Bahāʾī religion intersect with Islam? There is an urgency to addressing this question to better understand why the Islamic Republic of Iran continues to persecute Bahāʾīs (the largest non-Muslim religious community in Iran). The sources for this question center on the Arabic and Persian writings of the founder of the Bahāʾī religion, Mīrzā Ḥusayn ʿAlī Nūrī, known as Bahāʾu’llāh (d. 1892). Most scholars have focused on the divergence of the Bahāʾī religion from Islam as a result of the fact that Bahāʾīs have asserted their independence from Islam. This divergence is evident in the writings of Bahāʾu’llāh, who developed new laws and traditions that are unmistakably distinct from Islam. For example, Bahāʾu’llāh outlawed jihad, and called for his followers to be completely non-violent. While there are indeed many differences between the Bahāʾī religion and Islam, I argue that there are also many convergences between the two religions – a reality that few scholars have explored. In fact, the writings of Bahāʾu’llāh reference the Quran more than any other source and Bahāʾīs have adopted numerous Islamic concepts, including divine revelation and monotheism. Additionally, Muslims were often the recipients and immediate audience of Bahāʾu’llāh’s letters, epistles, and prayers. My argument, then, is that much of the language, terminology, and meaning found in Bahāʾu’llāh’s writings are simultaneously Islamic and post-Islamic. I analyze the explicit and implicit statements in these writings related to Islam to argue that while the Bahāʾī religion is distinct from Islam, Bahāʾu’llāh’s writings honor Islam by praising the Quran and the Prophet Muhammad. By placing Bahāʾu’llāh’s writings in the contexts of the Quran, Islamic theology, and Islamic history, the aim of this paper is to contribute to the discourse on the relationship between Islam and minority religions in the Middle East.
  • In the 2022/1401 Iran Revolution, the government arrests a range of populations, from those directly protesting in the streets to environmental activists, bloggers and musicians. Among them are religious minorities, Sunnis, Gonabadi Dervishes and Izadis from Baluchistan and Kurdistan, and Baha’is from different cities. While the Kurds and Baluches are directly involved in the protests, the Baha’is are not. So, why does the regime target Baha’is? This paper argues that the Babi/Baha’i revolutionary ideas impacted Iranian society and created sentiments later echoed in the Constitutional Revolution. Furthermore, it argues that the Baha’is were among the pioneers of empowering women in the Iranian community long before the emergence of the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement. The paper focuses on the Qajar period from the rise of the Babi movement (1844) to the Constitutional Revolution (1906-1911). It reviews the institutional and individual acts of the Babis/Baha’is, which helped empower women at the time. The paper showcases how Sheykh Fazlullah Nuri’s supporters were partly right to object to the constitution, parliament, Muslim/non-Muslim equality, and women’s rights by relating them to Babis/Baha’is. Some instances of these acts, such as Tahereh Qorrat al-‘Ayn’s hijab removal in public for the first time, are more recognized in the collective memory. Others are less discussed, for example, emphasis on women’s education, their election rights and membership in the administration electoral bodies, equal rights for divorce, child custody and heritage. This presentation employs an array of primary and secondary sources, especially journals, parliamentary minutes, Baha’is writings, and documents from Iranian and European archives. It also uses some theories for its comparative approach. Foucault’s ideas about “institutions” and “policing” the subjects to create “docile bodies” (Discipline and Punish) resonate with male guardians controlling women in Iran. At the same time, the Babi/Baha’i principles deconstructed those masculine “power networks” by creating new institutions and redefining women’s role in society. The presentation also discusses how minority groups, including Baha’is, have been the “scapegoats” of Iranian society during episodes of turmoil (René Girard’s Le Bouc Emissaire). The paper’s conclusions imply that the Baha’is are being arrested today in Iran, partly as scapegoats and partly because of their lifestyle and social activities. Their acts contradict the standards the regime wants to establish in society, similar to what Sheykh Fazlullah Nuri believed about the Babis/Baha’is during the Constitutional Revolution.
  • In 1948, the National Pioneering Committee of the Baha’is of Iran deputed a university student, 21-year-old Heshmat Moayyad, to travel around Iran and its environs to encourage people to arise and pioneer – that is, to journey to another place to teach the Baha’i Faith. Between 4 Dey 1327 (December 25, 1948) and 10 Bahman 1328 (January 30, 1950) -- over a year – Moayyad, who ultimately was to become a professor of Persian literature at the University of Chicago, traveled to more than 30 cities, villages and towns in central and southern Iran, Kuwait and Bahrain, recording his experiences at every stage of his journey. Nearly seventy years later, in 2015, having retained his diary from that period, he published his recollections of those travels in a memoir entitled Yad-e Yaran (Remembrances of Friends). Using close textual analysis, this paper will describe the contents of the memoir and offer an assessment of its value as a resource both for those studying the history of the Baha’i Faith and that of 20th-century Iran. It will argue that Yad-e Yaran delivers a granular and useful portrait of life in Iranian cities, villages and towns in the mid-twentieth century (including discussion of industry and populations) as well as a vivid picture of Baha’i communities in Iran and the Gulf at a relatively early stage of development, in places ranging from Arak to Golpayegan to Bandar Lengeh. In it, Moayyad not only lists the names and occupations of many of the members of far-flung Baha’i communities, but also describes how these communities functioned – how often and on what occasions they met, how they practiced their faith, and their relations with Muslim neighbors. My paper will argue that even at this relatively early stage, Iranian Baha’is had developed a sense of community and practices that were quite distinct from those of the Muslim majority.
  • Dr. Mina Yazdani
    In the spring and summer of 1903, anti-Baha’i riots flared across several cities in Persia. They began in March in the northern city of Rasht, erupted most violently in May in Isfahan and in June and July in Yazd and its surrounding towns, followed by a number of other cities to a lesser degree. Mobs instigated by clerics ferociously murdered many of their fellow citizens, raiding their homes and plundering their properties. In terms of the loss of human life, this was the largest and most sweeping anti-Baha’i pogrom in the twentieth century. Approximately two hundred people were killed and homes of many more were looted. Abd al-Husayn Avarah, a historian contemporary to the events, described them as a “labyrinth” perplexing anyone trying to understand their real causes which, in his assessment, were political. Previous scholarship on the topic, focusing on the events of Isfahan, has analyzed them mainly in the context of the socio-politic and socio-economic relations in the city and province. Analyzing a wide array of primary sources such as governmental telegrams between Tehran, Isfahan and Yazd, memoirs of the eyewitnesses of the events, and consular reports, this paper argues that the anti-Baha’i pogrom had causes going beyond the local and provincial. It puts the scapegoating pogrom in the context of the actions taken by the political opponents of Amin al-Sultan, among both clerics and governmental officials, to add to the overwhelming chaos in the country, in order to force the prime minister to resign, a goal attained in September 1903. The most powerful and the most fierce of the then Russophile Amin al-Sultan’s enemies was the Anglophile Mas‘ud Mirza Zill al-Sultan, the eldest son of the Shah and the governor of Isfahan, who was unhappy with the establishment of a Russian consulate in Isfahan and the central government’s Russian loans of which Amin al-Sultan was the main protagonist. Zill al-Sultan was known for having instigated the Isfahan religious leaders to foment trouble in the city when it suited his current policy. Such facts explain why the most intense massacres and raids happened in Isfahan and also Yazd, which at the time was governed by Zill al-Sultan’s son. They also put the pogrom in the larger context of the rivalry between Russia and Britain in Iran in the years preceding the 1907 entente.