About the ‘Irfán Colloquium session #8 (English)

Newcastle, England

December 8–10, 1995.

Theme: "Responding to Attacks on and Criticisms of the Faith"

Report: Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the birthplace of the Irfan Colloquium, was the venue of the joint gathering of the eighth Irfan Colloquium and the semi-annual meeting of the Religious Studies Seminar of the Association for Bahá'i Studies of English-speaking Europe. The Irfan Colloquium is sponsored by the Haj Mehdi Arjmand Memorial Fund and the Institute for Bahá'i Studies (Wilmette, U.S.A.). The colloquium took place at the Department of Religious Studies of Newcastle University on 8-10 December, 1995. Forty-five researchers and others interested in the academic study of religion and scripture participated in this joint meeting.

The theme of the program was attacks on and criticisms of the Bahá'i Faith and ways of responding to them. The colloquium was opened by two presentations. Dr. Iraj Ayman briefly described the aims and objectives of the Irfan Colloquium and then presented a biographical sketch of Haj Mehdi Arjmand, a well-known scholar-teacher of the Bahá'i Faith. He also summarized the contents of a few of the tablets of Bahá'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Bahá and the letters of Shoghi Effendi to Haj Mehdi Arjmand. Dr. Robert Stockman spoke on "The Limits of Discourse in the Bahá'i Community and their Consequences," focusing on the needs of any community to define boundaries of internal discourse in order to preserve its unity. He focused on two issues that have been raised by non-Bahá'i critics of the Faith about its internal discourse: the treatment of Covenant-breakers and the existence of prepublication review. Continued development of the review process to make it more consultation-based will resolve much of the criticism of it.

Saturday morning Dr. Udo Schaefer spoke about "Anti-Bahá'i Polemic in German-speaking Countries," focusing primarily on a lengthy attack on the Faith by a Covenant-breaker, Francesco Ficichia, published in 1981; the work's gradual acceptance as an impartial scholarly treatment by academics, journalists, and ecclesiastics; the failure of a policy of ignoring the work; and the lengthy rebuttal by himself and two other German Bahá'is just published by a scholarly press. Dr. Moojan Momen presented on the basis of persecution of the Bahá'i Faith in Islamic law by describing different Islamic legal categories (such as believer, unbeliever, people of the book, and heretic) and noting how those categories had been used by Muslims and Bahá'is in actual court cases.

Saturday afternoon had four presentations. Dr. Margit Warburg, a professor of the sociology of religion at the University of Copenhagen who devotes much of her research to the sociology of the Bahá'i community, spoke about "Religious Definitions and Religious Polemics: Bahá'i in Popular Handbooks of Religion." She had read about fifty descriptions of the Bahá'i Faith published since 1920 in books describing two or more religions. She found no handbooks published since World War Two that described the Bahá'i Faith as a sect of Islam; most authors accept the Bahá'i Faith as a "religion"; a few called it a "sect," but those few were usually not writing against the Faith; those opposed to the Bahá'i Faith were far more likely to refer to it as a "cult" than neutral scholars.

Dr. Kamran Ekbal then spoke on "Taqiyih and Kitman: Reflections on the Practice of Dissimulation in the Babi and Bahá'i Religions." Dr. Ekbal noted that the term taqiyih in Shi'ih Islam covers a range of meanings from denial of one's faith to mere concealment of it; that the Bahá'i prohibition of denial of one's faith was not fully understood or implemented until the time of Shoghi Effendi; and that concealment of one's faith is a form of taqiyih allowed to Bahá'is.

Dr. Nichola Towfiq then presented a paper on "E. G. Browne's Misconceptions." The paper noted various misinformations Browne presented about Mirza Yahya, such as the statement that the Bab appointed him His vali (successor) when in fact no such appointment was made, and described various Azali interpretations of the Bab's allusions to a future Manifestation of God as referring to the advent of the next Manifestation in 1501 or 2001 years.

The afternoon closed with Dr. Khazeh Fananapazir's "Mirza Abu'l-Fadl's Contribution to Bahá'i Polemic and Replied to Anti- Bahá'i Polemic." The paper described arguments made in the Brilliant Proof and the Fara'id.

Sunday morning Stephen Lambden gave a brilliant paper on "the Position of Mirza Yahya Subh-i-Azal: Some Aspects of Azali Anti-Bahá'i Polemic and Bahá'i Apologetics." The paper noted the critical need to examine the writings of the Bab and Bahá'u'llah in far greater detail, for they will reveal aspects of the station of Azal usually not considered and will likely make it clear he was never granted a formal position of successorship by the Bab; that a life of Yahya and a much more thorough study of his movement is necessary to correct some misinformation properly; and that a more thorough examination of Bahá'u'llah's relationship to Yahya will reveal many important details.

The morning closed with Lil Abdo's "Possible Criticisms of the Bahá'i Faith from a Feminist Perspective." She noted that, ironically, the chief "feminist criticism" of the Faith was offered eighty years ago by very patriarchal Presbyterian missionaries, who criticized the slowness of the emancipation of Iranian Bahá'i women. A much more thorough exploration of the Bahá'i conception of sexual equality, and a more frank exploration of its differences from secular feminism, are crucial for responding to attacks on he Bahá'i Faith's treatment of women.

During the lunch period many attendees visited the cemetary where Edward G. Browne is buried. Afterward a short business meeting was held to discussion possible themes for future conferences. The theme tentatively selected for 1996-97 is "The Bahá'i Faith and Christianity"; for the subsequent year "The Bahá'i Faith and European Culture" will be considered. Next year's Irfan Colloquium in Europe will be held in late autumn at the Acuto Bahá'i School in Italy.

The Newcastle conference was characterized by scholarly rigor, openmindedness, and warmth. The participation of many participants from Germany compared to previous years was most welcome. The abstract booklet for the colloquium is available from the Institute for Bahá'i Studies.