A Book Review: The Baha’is of Iran

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Editor’s note: The following is a book review by Oliver Scharbrodt, with the citation:  Oliver Scharbrodt (2008); Dominic Parviz Brookshaw and Seena B. Fazel; The Baha’is of Iran: Socio-Historical Studies, London and New York: Routledge, 10 2008. (Routledge Advances in Middle East and Islamic Studies.) xv, 283 pp. ISBN 978 0 415 35673 2. £70. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 71, pp 574-576

The situation of the Baha’is in Iran has received some media attention since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Despite being the largest non-Muslim religious minority, the Baha’i community is not recognized as one of the ‘‘protected’’ religious groups in the Iranian constitution and Baha’is in Iran have been subjected to persecution and severe discrimination. While their plight is regularly discussed in media outlets and raised in reports on the human rights situation in Iran, the history of the Iranian Baha’i community and its place in modern Iranian society, with a few exceptions, has not been the object of serious academic scholarship. The articles in this volume serve the twofold purpose of providing new insights into the history of the Iranian Baha’i community and of discussing the role of the Baha’is in the development of modern Iran.

Two articles deal with conversion from minority religions to the Baha’i Faith. Mehrdad Amanat investigates the conversion of Iranian Jews to the Baha’i Faith, while Fereydun Vahman discusses Zoroastrian conversions. Both authors are interested in the reasons why followers of these religions, already subject to severe discrimination, chose to follow a new religious movement which had roots in Shii Islam but which was not recognized as a religion by the Shii ulama’ and the Qajar state. Converting to the Baha’i Faith meant a deterioration of the social and legal status of Jews and Zoroastrians, who not only met the opposition of their own co-religionists but did not enjoy the same legal protection as members of the recognized dhimmi communities. Mehrdad Amanat attributes the conversion of Iranian Jews to the Baha’i Faith to messianic expectations which were seen to have been fulfilled in the new religion and to a sense of dissatisfaction with traditional Rabbinic Judaism which was perceived as being unfit to meet the challenges of the modern world. Vahman identifies as reasons for conversions from Zoroastrianism the universalist orientation of the new religion and the particular Iranian character of the Baha’i Faith, which adopted the pre-Islamic Iranian new year festival as a religious holiday and uses, in addition to Arabic, Persian as a sacred language.

Dominic Brookshaw provides a survey of different letters that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha sent to women in the Iranian and Indian Baha’i communities. These letters usually praise the addressees for their conversions to the new religion and encourage them to assume a more active role in the Baha’i community. The rise of Baha’i schools in Iran in the early twentieth century is discussed by Moojan Momen. Together with Christian missionaries, the French Alliance Israelite, and Parsi initiatives, the Baha’is played an important role in introducing a modern educational system. Momen provides an overview of the various Baha’i schools which were closed by the government in 1934. He primarily attributes the involvement of Iranian Baha’is in these educational initiatives to the particular stress on education in the Baha’i writings. He does not discuss why the religious minorities in particular played a central role in the advancement of modern education. An emphasis on education can be attested to all these religions including Islam and does not suffice alone as an explanation for the strong involvement of the minority religions in promoting a modern education.

A survey of Baha’i health initiatives is provided by Seena Fazel and Minou Foadi. The emphasis is placed on hospitals that were run by Baha’is until the Islamic Revolution. Kavian Milani’s contribution provides a discussion of the attitudes of the Iranian Baha’is to the Constitutional Revolution (1906–11), which challenges traditional assumptions. While a sceptical if not oppositional role to the Constitutional Revolution is usually attributed to the Iranian Baha’is in that period, following Edward G. Browne’s scholarship, Milani shows that the leaders of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’ullah and Abdu’l-Baha, had adopted pro-constitutionalist attitudes in their writings and that therefore most Baha’is viewed the revolution favourably. Abdu’l-Baha in particular intended for the Baha’is a mediating role between the different political factions. However, as the political divide hardened, anti-constitutionalist ulama’ presented the revolution as a Baha’i plot and Baha’is suffered from persecutions as a consequence, ‘‘the Iranian Baha’i community adopted a course of political non-involvement’’ (p. 152).

Several articles deal with the marginalization, discrimination and persecution of the Iranian Baha’is. Eliz Sanasarian compares the situation of the Baha’is in post-revolutionary Iran with that of the other religious minorities. Abbas Amanat investigates the historical roots of the persecution of Babis and Baha’is in Iran, focusing in particular on attitudes of the Shii ulama’ and the Qajar authorities towards the Babis. Abbas Amanat attributes the anti-Babi and later anti-Baha’i sentiments in the religious and political establishment of nineteenth-century Iran to the Baha’is’ ‘‘non-conformity’’ (p. 180) to an Iran conceived as a Shii nation.

H. E. Chehabi discusses the anti-Baha’i discourse of secular Iranian intellectuals during the Pahlavi era. While secular thinkers like Ahmad Kasravi considered the Baha’is instruments of foreign powers like Russia and Britain, secular opponents of the shah’s regime perceived the Baha’is as supporters of the Pahlavis. Finally, Baha’i cosmopolitanism was seen as suspicious by those intellectuals who promoted a strong sense of Iranian nationalism. Mohamad Tavakoli-Targhi’s article deals with the Islamist discourse against the Baha’is in the Pahlavi period. Various Islamist movements and their publishing activities against the Baha’is are discussed. Tavakoli-Targhi argues that the young Muhammad Reza Shah initially co-operated with the ulama’ in order to gain legitimacy for his rule and allowed leading representatives of the Shii clergy to agitate against the Baha’is until the mid 1950s. As the relationship between the court and the clergy deteriorated afterwards, the state support of anti-Baha’i activities decreased likewise.

The final article, by Reza Afshari, provides a detailed discussion of the history of the persecutions of Baha’is in post-revolutionary Iran. While extremely critical of the human rights record of the Islamic republic and acknowledging the severe persecutions of and discriminations against the Baha’is, Afshari is also sceptical of the suggestion that one can speak of systematic and centrally orchestrated persecutions of the Baha’is led by the government.

The articles collected in this volume are interesting for scholars of the Baha’i Faith and of the social history of modern Iran. The two articles on the conversion of Jews and Zoroastrians are particularly original, as are those on secular and Islamist anti-Baha’i discourses in the twentieth century. Afshari’s contribution is also one of the first scholarly discussions of the persecution of Baha’is in post-revolutionary Iran. It is hoped that these articles will pave the way for a much-needed monograph on the history of the Baha’i Faith in Iran.

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