Attack on the Baha’i Faith at a Conference on the History of Iran and the British Empire

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The report below is in two parts: (1) extracts from remarks at a recent conference in Tehran provided in translation, and (2) a response from the perspective of the present writer against the accusations stated at the Tehran conference.

Part 1: What Was Said at Tehran Conference

Tehran University was the host for a conference held on Tuesday, 14 October 2008, on the subject, “Iran and British Colonialism”. This conference was organized by the Institute for Political Studies and Research, a Tehran-based organization with strong ties to Iran’s theocracy. A number of well-known figures spoke at this gathering. Iranian Students News Agency has provided a synopsis of the conference and extracts from various talks at:


http://www.isna.ir/ISNA/NewsView.aspx?ID=News-1215518&Lang=P


http://www.isna.ir/ISNA/NewsView.aspx?ID=News-1215105&Lang=P


http://www.isna.ir/ISNA/NewsView.aspx?ID=News-1215463&Lang=P

The subject of colonialism and imperialism is a highly-charged topic in Iran’s modern political discourse, and often facts and a great deal of fiction are intertwined for political gain by various factions.

While much was covered during this conference on Iran’s view of the attempts by “western” powers such as England and Russia to subjugate the Middle East in general and Iran in particular, for the purpose of this report I will confine the discussion to remarks about the Babi and Baha’i Faiths, which essentially rehashed the age-old accusation that these religious communities were created by the British and Russian powers in order to advance their colonial designs.

The second speaker at the Conference was Hujjatu’l-Islam Va’iz-Zadeh Khurasani, whose talk was titled, “The role of Britain in creating religious sects in Islamic countries”. He stated that the first portion of his talk would focus on British interference in Iran, while the remaining part of his presentation would be to analyze the role of British and Russian colonialism in the formation of Babism and Baha’ism.

As part of his presentation, Va’iz-Zadeh stated, “In the 18th century, England had an agency called the Colonial Ministry, which was charged with promotion of universal ignorance and illiteracy, spread of orthodoxy and prejudice, proliferation of hopelessness and insecurity, and much more. … From another direction, England had a hand in creating various sects, such as the Babis and the Baha’is, and advanced the interests of Wahhabis as well.” He continued, “The role of Britain and Russia in creating Babism and Wahhabism was very strong.”

In continuing his discourse on the history of the Babi and the Baha’i movements, the speaker added, “These two sects emerged from the Shaykhi school of thought, which was led by Shaykh Ahmad Ahsa’i. Siyyid Ali-Muhammad the Bab, who presented himself as the ‘Bab’ within this movement, first stated that he had the station of being ‘the gate of knowledge’, then claimed that he was ‘the gate of the Lord of the Age’, and eventually claimed divinity for himself.”

The speaker added, “The initial role in the formation of these sects resided with Russia; it was then assumed by the Britain, and the connection of Russia and Britain with these religious creeds in Iran and other Islamic countries from the time of exile of Mirza Husayn-Ali [Baha’u’llah] to Baghdad should be a topic of further research.”

The same News Agency reports on another speaker, Hujjatu’l-Islam Hamed Qara’iti, who examined the role of Britain in the political development of Iran during the last century. This speaker suggested, “British colonialism advanced its interests in Islamic countries through the Babi and the Baha’i sects.” He added, “During the Qajar era, England advanced its plans in Islamic regions through Babism and Baha’ism, so that by the use of these sects she could attain her objectives.”

Part 2: A Response

The preposterous suggestion that the Babi and Baha’i Faiths are the creation of British and Russian imperialism is the tool of choice of Iran’s mullahs and has been repeated for many decades without an iota of credible evidence. To better understand the issue, let us examine its historical backdrop:

The growth and diffusion of the Baha’i Faith in Iran (and globally) has been a source of considerable concern to Iran’s ecclesiastical orthodoxy, who have historically viewed this expansion as a competition and a threat to their authority and power. This perceived threat stems from a number of the teachings of the Baha’i movement which challenge traditional Islamic belief, including principles that call into question the need for a ministry or priesthood. This bold assertion by Baha’u’llah, prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith, has been treated by the Shiite clergy with hostility, as it is a threat to their doctrinal legitimacy and social prestige – not to mention their financial well-being.

By the end of the 19th century, there was a growing dissension within the Qajar state, and thus charges of subversion and conspiracy against the Baha’is increased in the hope of drawing public attention away from the government and its problems, and instead toward the evils of the “wayward sect”. In the early 20th century, the Baha’is were seen as being non-conformists in a society seeking for uniformity and fearful of losing its perceived unique Shiite culture due to outside threats. By the 1940s, the clerical and the state agencies were stating broadly that the Baha’i Faith was entirely manufactured by colonialists and imperialists in order to destroy the “unity of the Muslim nation” and that those who did not share the beliefs of the Muslim nation were agents of foreign powers.

By the 1960s the cynical disdain for the Baha’i social message among pro-religious intellectuals had increased, and charges of spying and connections to foreign powers were added to the previous charge of Baha’is being heretics. This new attitude towards the Baha’is by this time had passed beyond the circle of mullahs and had become rampant among the secular Iranian middle class.

Some observers have noted that while Iran’s sovereignty was recognized in the 19th century, Britain and Russia meddled in the country’s affairs to further their own interests, and that groups that have trans-national ties like the Jews and the Baha’is are viewed with great suspicion by Iranian nationalists.

It is true that the Russian and British governments had a formidable presence in the 19th-century Iran and competed for political, economic and territorial influence. The support of Britain during the Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11, the Anglo-Russian convention which allowed Russia and England to partition Iran into spheres of influence, the occupation of Iranian territory during the First World War by the British, Russia and the Ottoman forces, as well as the coup d’état of 1921 which was backed by Britain, all encouraged the development of conspiracy ideas related to foreign powers. Opponents of the Baha’i Faith, particularly Shiite clerics, used this atmosphere to allege that the Baha’i religion was also a product of Russian and British governments who were striving to weaken Islam and create divisions in the Iranian nation.

The basis of many of the conspiracy theories relating the Baha’i Faith to Russian influence is a fictitious memoir attributed to Dimitri Ivanovich Dolgorukov (also known as Dolgoruki), who was the Russian ambassador to Iran from 1846 to 1854. The memoir states that Dolgorukov created the Babi and Baha’i religions in order to weaken Iran and Shiite Islam. This document in many ways is the functional equivalent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was a fraudulent anti-Semitic tract alleging a Jewish plot to achieve world domination. The fictional memoir was first published in 1943 in Mashhad, Iran, and shortly thereafter published again in Tehran with some of the most glaring historical errors corrected. The book still contains many historical errors and has been refuted by many non-Baha’i scholars (e.g. see http://www.iranian.com/main/2008/sacrificing-innocent).

This memoir states that Dolgorukov used to attend gatherings of Hakim Ahmad Gilani, where he would meet with Baha’u’llah. However, Gilani had died in 1835, three years before Dolgorukov’s arrival in the country. There are numerous other errors relating to the dates and timing of events that the memoir describes, including descriptions of events after the deaths of those who supposedly took part or when the people involved were young children, or when they were in different parts of the world.

Actually, Dolgorukov’s interaction with Baha’i history was very limited. In 1852, when the entire Babi community fell under suspicion, many Babis, including Baha’u’llah, were arrested in a sweep. When Baha’u’llah was jailed by the Shah, his family went to Mirza Majid Ahi, who was married to Baha’u’llah’s sister and was working as a secretary in the Russian Legation in Tehran, and asked him to go to Dolgorukov and request him to intercede on Baha’u’llah’s behalf – and Dolgorukov agreed.

After Dolgorukov and Iran’s Prime Minister pressured the Shah to either produce evidence against Baha’u’llah or to release him, the Shah agreed to free Baha’u’llah, but decreed that he be banished from Iran. Dolgorukov offered Baha’u’llah and his family the opportunity to migrate to Russia, but the latter refused. Instead, Baha’u’llah chose to go to Iraq and settle in Baghdad.

The memoirs, however, extend this assistance to all facets of Baha’u’llah’s life. In one edition of these fictitious memories, Dolgorukov is said to have provided money for Baha’u’llah to build a house in Akka; however Dolgorukov died in 1867, before Baha’u’llah arrived in Akka. Thus newer editions of the memoir state that Dolgorukov sent money for a house to be built in Edirne, where Baha’u’llah lived prior to being exiled to Akka. As Dolgorukov had left the Russian diplomatic service in 1854 and died in 1867, he was unable to interact with Baha’u’llah in ways described by the fictitious memoir.

The suggestion of British ties is even more preposterous, and is based completely on false evidence. In a biography of Iran’s famous Prime Minster, Amir Kabir, the well-know Iranian intellectual Firaydun Adamiyat (recently deceased) stated that Mulla Husayn, the Bab’s first disciple, was in fact a British agent who was recruited by Arthur Conolly, a British intelligence officer, explorer and writer. Adamiyat states that the evidence for this allegation appears in Conolly’s book, “Journey to the North of India Overland from England through Russia, Persia, and Affghaunistaun”. However, no mention of Mulla Husayn or the Bab appears in the book. In later editions of Adamiyat’s biography on Amir Kabir, this fabrication has been removed.

The accusations of ties to the British also were made because of the knighting in 1920 of Abdu’l-Baha Abbas, Baha’u’llah’s son, by the British Mandate of Palestine – an act that antagonists claim to be a reward for the political relations between the Baha’i Faith and Great Britain. Abdu’l-Baha was, however, awarded this knighthood for his humanitarian efforts shortly after World War I. During the War years, Palestine suffered an intense famine caused by the Ottoman government’s mismanagement as well as a major infestation of locusts (for details see the diary of Dr. Habib Mu’ayyad at http://ahang.rabbani.googlepages.com). In response, Abdu’l-Baha encouraged his followers in the region to cultivate, store, and distribute grain to the famine-stricken people after the war.

Baha’is have also been accused of ties to global Zionism, an international political movement formed in the 19th century in support of the reestablishment of a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. A common way in which this claim is advanced is by pointing out that the shrines and holy places of the Baha’is are located in Israel. However, Baha’u’llah was banished from Iran to Baghdad in the Ottoman Empire, and later exiled by the Sultan of the Ottomans, at the Shah’s behest, to territories further away from Iran and finally to Akka in Syria, which only a century later was incorporated into the state of Israel. Baha’u’llah died in 1892 near Akka and was buried in that vicinity. Following his death, Abdu’l-Baha assumed the leadership of the religion until his passing in 1921, and was buried in Haifa, then in Palestine. Another important figure for Baha’is buried in current-day Israel is the Bab, whose remains were transferred to Palestine and buried in Haifa in 1909. Israel was not formed until 1948, almost 60 years after Baha’u’llah’s death, 40 years after the Bab’s remains were brought to the region, and 27 years after Abdu’l-Baha’s death.

Baha’is have also been accused of supporting the state of Israel because they send financial support to their international headquarters, located in Haifa, Israel. These financial contributions, however, are sent for the maintenance and upkeep of the Baha’i shrines and historical sites and for attending to the humanitarian affairs of the Faith’s global community. Much the same way that Shiite Muslims of Iran are praised for sending money out of the country to Iraq and Jerusalem for the upkeep of their religious shrines, the Baha’is contribute financially to the upkeep of their own shrines, which happen to be located in Israel due to an accident of history.

For further reading on this subject, kindly consult the following on-line article and cited sources: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegations_of_Baha’i_involvement_with_other_powers

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3 Responses

  1. AdibM

    October 16, 2008 12:33 pm

    Thank you for citing that article, Dr. Rabbani. I hope it continues to gain wider recognition so that all Baha’is may know about the truth of the mullahs’ mendacity.

    Reply
  2. Marty Flick

    October 19, 2008 11:40 pm

    Your comment: “often facts and a great deal of fiction are intertwined for political gain by various factions.” – to call this ‘apt’ is to possess a gift for understatement. Sadly, in such an atmosphere, friend is percieved as foe; the eternal is exchanged for the transitory. I was looking for the quote from SDC about how Iran was once the cynosure of civilization. I’m not as good at that as you are. Thanks for the insight!

    Reply

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