About the Irfán Colloquium session #1 (English)
Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, EnglandDecember 3–5, 1993.
The first conference of the Haj Mehdi Arjmand Fellowship on studies related to holy scripture, held December 3-5, 1993 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, U.K., was a great success. On Friday evening Mr. Stephen Lambden offered some opening thoughts about Haj Mehdi Arjmand, for whom the conference was named. A Persian of Jewish background, Haj Mehdi Arjmand became a Baha'i about 1878. For two years starting in 1896 he debated an American Protestant missionary about biblical prophecy and subsequently wrote down his arguments in a book he titled Gulshan-i-Haqayiq (The Rose-garden of Truths). Steve also discussed the career of Thomas Kelly Cheyne, one of the pioneers of modern biblical scholarship at Oxford University, who became a Baha'i in his old age as a result of `Abdu'l-Baha's visit to Oxford in 1912.
Saturday morning began with a presentation by Dr. Seena Fazel titled "Understanding Exclusivist Texts." Dr. Fazel noted the problems that exclusivism produces and outlined various approaches that scholars have taken to overcome the exclusivistic meanings of biblical texts. He was followed Saturday afternoon by Dr. Robert H. Stockman, who spoke on "Modern Biblical Interpretation and the Baha'i Faith." The presentation focused on some of the conclusions of modern biblical scholarship—for example, that only a small percentage of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels were actually said by Him—and noted considerable support in the Baha'i writings for such an approach to study of the Bible. Later that afternoon Dr. Todd Lawson spoke about the Bab's Tafsir Suratu'l-Asr, an early commentary on a chapter of the Qur'an, and about the various phases in the Bab's writing. He also offered some illuminating comparisons between the Bab's use of Islamic ideas and terms and Baha'u'llah's.
Sunday morning Mr. Stephen Lambden presented a study titled "Prophecy in the Johannine Farewell Discourse: Paraclete, Ahmad, Comforter (mu'azzi)." He noted that Muslims traditionally argue that the Greek term parakletos (paraclete, "comforter") in John's gospel should be read as pariklutos, "illustrious," which could be translated into Arabic as "Ahmad," a variant on the name "Muhammad." Baha'u'llah agreed that Jesus called Muhammad the "illustrious," but stated that the reference was not preserved in the New Testament. Rather, Baha'u'llah interprets the paraclete passage in the Gospel of John to refer to Himself.
Sunday afternoon Dr. Khazeh Fananapazir discussed the term "Day of God" as it appears in the Old and New Testaments, the Qur'an, the sayings of the imams, and in the Babi and Baha'i scriptures. He was followed by Dr. Kamran Ikbal, whose talk "The Pattern and Symbolism of Revelation from Zarathustra to Baha'u'llah" traced several terms and ideas, notably the idea of a heavenly maiden, through three thousand years of religious history.
In addition to the talks, the conference scheduled time for several discussions of biblical and quranic exegesis (interpretation) from a Baha'i perspective. Though the conference was relatively small—30 attendees, which was the capacity of the Newcastle Baha'i Center—the talks were of considerable quality and the discussions very stimulating.
The Haj Mehdi Arjmand Fellowship will hold a conference on scripture every year in either Europe or North America. The 1994 conference, which is open to the Baha'i public, will be in Wilmette, Illinois, March 25-27. While the list of speakers has not been finalized, already papers have been proposed by Dr. John Hatcher, Dr. Ross Woodman, Dr. Susan Brill, and Mr. Frank Lewis. The Wilmette conference will probably be larger because of the larger scholarly resources of the North American Baha'i community. The purpose of the conference is to encourage research on the Bible, Qur'an, Baha'i scriptures, and other scriptures from a Baha'i perspective that is of academic quality. It is hoped that a volume of papers can be published from the proceedings of the 1993 and 1994 conferences, so that the results will be made available widely.