Discordant World Views within Bahá'í Studies and the Detraction They Encourage

By Richard Harmsen

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #9
Bahá'í­ National Center: Wilmette, Illinois, USA
March 29 – April 1, 1996
(see list of papers from #9)


    Bahá'í studies appears to be at a critical juncture in its evolution, not the least reason being the Faith's emergence from obscurity. Accompanying such emergence is inevitable academic scrutiny of the Bahá'í religion. Such scrutiny forces the Bahá'í scholarly community to clarify its own understanding of the true nature and fundamentals of Bahá'í scholarship, lest by default others do it for them. The longer Bahá'í scholars delay (collectively) the clarification and articulation of "Bahá'í fundamentals" and the unique methodological requirements of a truly Bahá'í scholarship, the more it will be obliged to forfeit such clarification and articulation to a skeptical and increasingly hostile non-Bahá'í academy.

    The pervasive nature of currently dominant non-Bahá'í, world views translates into predictable consequences in every dimension of life, and Bahá'ís cannot entirely escape their influence. One consequence is severe mental testing of the Bahá'í community or of its individual members. Dr. Peter Khan, in a published address delivered in Wilmette in the fall of 1995, alluded to how some of these influences negatively affect Bahá'í individuals and Bahá'í administration in the West. Even more recently the Universal House of justice made reference to the "corrosive influence of an overbearing and rampant secularization" invading the North American Bahá'í community (letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States dated 19 May 1994 and published in the June 1995 issue of The American Bahá'í). Both statements clearly have direct bearing upon the state-of-the-art of Bahá'í scholarship, and it is obvious from the letter and from Dr. Khan's remarks that it is critical for Bahá'ís involved in Bahá'í studies to meditate deeply about the impact of non-Bahá'í world views on their scholarship. This paper offers a relative outsider's view of specific areas of Bahá'í studies that appear particularly vulnerable to criticism when observed from this wider world-view perspective. If Bahá'í authors fail to recognize that Bahá'í scholarship in some cases requires significantly different criteria and methodologies than are currently popular in the academy, they may very well be encouraging the subtle (yet persistent) attacks that are being launched from various quarters.

    The paper will also pose some questions which beg to be answered regarding the need for sound strategies to preserve our sacred trust, that is, the Bahá'í Writings. The challenge clearly is to apply the Writings to current problems in ways that are palatable to the wider secular society, while simultaneously upholding the unique status of a Bahá'í world-view. Maintaining this paradoxical balance would seem to be the best way for Bahá'í scholars to facilitate the destined academic renaissance which shall accompany the emergence of the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. Not keeping that balance in either direction can have serious consequences for the development and growth of the Faith. Finding that balance may well be the most difficult and challenging issue facing Bahá'í scholarship at this historical moment.

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