Baha'i: Studies in Contemporary Religion (Studies in Contemporary Religions, 5)

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9781560851691: Baha'i: Studies in Contemporary Religion (Studies in Contemporary Religions, 5)

 There are 100,000 Baha’is in the United States, about five million worldwide including a significant population in Iran, their country of origin. They are also the most persecuted minority in Iran, where they are accused of being heretics by the Shi’i establishment.

In fact, Baha’i draws on a diverse heritage that encompasses both East and West. Reflecting their Islamic roots, they observe daily prayers and the reading of sacred texts; a month of fast; pilgrimage to Haifa, Israel, where the religion’s relics are preserved; and abstinence from alcohol. They face toward their prophet Baha’u'llah’s resting place when praying, which is reminiscent of Muslims facing Mecca to pray.

In other ways, the Baha’i religion has dissociated itself from orthodox Shi’ism. Adherents avoid communal prayer, reject the idea of a professional clergy, promote gender equality, and devote a great deal of attention to education, health care, and environmental issues. They work actively through the United Nations system to promote their view of a new world order of peace and harmony that they feel will one day unify humankind across all nations, races, and religions.

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About the Author:

 Margit Warburg is an associate professor in the sociology of religion at the University of Copenhagen.She serves on the advisory board of the Danish Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs and is co-chair of the academic Research Network on New Religions (RENNER). She has studied Baha’is for nearly twenty-five years. Her investigations have led her to the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa and Baha’i communities in Africa, Asia, and Europe. She is the co-editor with Eileen Barker of New Religions and New Religiosity and the author of books on eastern European Jewry and topics in the sociology of religion.

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 Internal Disputes and Opposition

Since the mid-1970s the study of Babism and Baha’i has grown considerably. Most scholars in this field are Baha’is or former Baha’is. Their academic activities have now and then led to internal disputes concerning the issue of academic freedom. At the core of the disputes is the practice laid down by Shoghi Effendi that any Baha’i writing on a religious topic must submit his or her material for approval before it is published.16 This not only applies to inspirational literature but also to academic works.

The background for the review policy was summarized in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to a group of young Baha’is who in 1978 were discussing ethics in scholarship:

The principle of the harmony of science and religion means not only that religious teachings should be studied with the light of reason and evidence as well as of faith and inspiration, but also that everything in this creation, all aspects of human life and knowledge, should be studied in the light of revelation as well as that of purely rational investigation.17

In other words, the Universal House of Justice took a clear position in the conflict between academic freedom and acceptance of religious premises: the former must yield to the latter. In a reminder of the policy in 1993, the Universal House of Justice reiterated the same position.18 It is hardly surprising that this policy has led to internal disputes and that these have occasionally surfaced in academic journals.19 In principle, the core tension between doctrinal faith and academic freedom scholars may face from any religion, whether or not the leadership has adopted a pre-publication review policy.

The internet has provided another forum for scholarly discussion, which is not subject to prepublication review. However, Baha’i officials have monitored Baha’i discussion groups on the internet and have reprimanded those who have aired complaints or circulated letters of petition.20 As a result, some of the participants have resigned their membership. Others have decided to keep a low profile.

It is obvious that the leadership runs the risk of bad publicity with a policy that violates scholarly standards. However, the critics are very few and isolated and do not represent an organized or united front, so the sensitivity toward internal critique seems out of proportion to any potential threat. It might be partly explained as fear that another schism could emerge, fueled by a liberal critique. As history has thus far shown, Baha’is have succeeded in maintaining a monolithic organization through resolute excommunications and isolation of the opposition.

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