Juan Cole's "Baha'i Studies" Site
Letter of Douglas Martin via the Secretariat of the Baha'i World Center concerning
Juan R. I. Cole's book, Modernity and the Millennium
3 August 1999
From: Department of the Secretariat
Baha'i World Center
Dear Baha'i Friend,
. . . Clearly, no one would dispute the right of Dr. Cole to write and publish whatever work a publisher is prepared to handle. Nor has anyone questioned the right of a Baha'i who is interested in such a book to purchase it. To suggest that the House of Justice is saying otherwise would be to seriously misconstrue the nature of its concern . . .
Since the independent investigation of reality is an essential Baha'i principle, it is good to see our brothers on the Universal House of Justice according the believers a right that is already theirs, that is, to see with their own eyes and hear with their own ears--which is Baha'u'llah's definition of justice.
As a participant in various Internet discussion groups over the past five years, and particularly in the last year or two, you cannot but be aware from these exchanges that Dr. Cole has embarked on a deliberate assault against the Baha'i Cause,
I am sorry that Mr. Martin, who seems an intelligent person otherwise, appears to be unable to distinguish between a critique and an assault, and between a critique of Baha'i fundamentalism and one of the Baha'i Cause. I have for 28 years, with only a brief lacuna, upheld and helped the Baha'i Cause, as many people who know me will attest. In fact, I put my life in danger for it and spent the precious years of my youth doing things like studying Arabic in Cairo for the Cause. I have never assaulted the Baha'i Cause.
in which he has not hesitated to attack its institutions,
There is a key difference between attacking an institution and critiquing the actions of some of its members at a particular time. For instance, if I said, "The National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha'is of the United States is an irremediably fascist institution and must be abolished at all costs," that would be an attack on the institution. If I said, however, that it is unfortunate that some members of the NSA carried out a bad policy in 1988, that is not an attack on the institution. It is a critique of the institution's functioning at a point in time with reference to a specific issue. I have never attacked any Baha'i institution per se, but I have been critical of particular policies and actions. The demand that we never criticize any policy or any action of any Baha'i institution really would be a form of fascism, of course. Mussolini did not permit himself to be criticized, identifying such criticism with a fatal weakening of the body politic. I am sure our dear brothers on the House of Justice do not think like Mussolini.
to misrepresent its fundamental teachings,
I believe that the fundamental teachings of the Baha'i Cause are belief in tolerance, the unity of the religions, the unity of humankind, the equality of women and men, the unity of science and religion, parliamentary governance rather than absolutism, the non-interference of religious leaders in political affairs, the necessity for a stronger United Nations and collective security to prevent wars, and the need for material progress to be accompanied by spiritual progress. This is a misrepresentation? I think all of these teachings are found in the Baha'i scriptures.
and to abuse the trust of Baha'is who had been led to believe that they were engaged with him in a detached and scholarly search for the truth.
My postings to internet groups such as H-Bahai, which are dedicated to the academic study of the religion, have been academic in character. I am a professor history at a major university, and that is what one would expect. But the search for the truth is not always best carried out in the absence of passion for the truth. I fear what is really being complained about is that academic discussion can involve a severe critique of fundamentalism, and fundamentalism is Mr. Martin's orthodoxy..
These same Internet exchanges exposed you, like other participants, to a flood of calumny and invective against a great many of your fellow believers, on the part of Dr. Cole, that is scarcely credible in rational discourse.
Our dear brothers on the House of Justice are not being fair here. I haven't calumniated (i.e. libelled) anyone. I have simply critiqued Baha'i officials who have behaved in a cult-like or fundamentalist fashion that has inflicted severe spiritual damage on moderate and liberal Baha'is. Some of these actions have, it is true, angered me. I will rue the day when I no longer feel righteous anger at seeing a devoted believer in Baha'u'llah manipulated, deceived and betrayed by fundamentalist Baha'i officials. But my critique is ultimately a reasoned one, as is demonstrated by the fact that so many elements of it have appeared in academic journals, which would not print irrational discourse that lacks credibility. These journals, moreover, have not been ones where I knew the editors or the referees, but rather were in the religious studies field, a field with which I am only tengentially connected, and they practice double-blind refereeing. I am afraid Mr. Martin's diction here points to something more sinister, as well. When I was falsely accused by "counselor" Birkland in 1996 and resigned from the Baha'i administration in hurt and grief, I soon thereafter began hearing from friends all over the U.S. that when ordinary Baha'is inquired as to what had happened, they were being told by Auxiliary Board Members that they had "long been concerned for Cole's mental balance." Apparently this cult-like attempt to discredit critics and dissidents by intimating that they are insane is quite a common technique in the "administrative order". (It recalls the conviction of Soviet psychiatrists that critics of the Worker's Paradise must be unbalanced and should be committed, as Denis MacEoin once observed in an interview with the BBC). This technique fell flat on its face in my case, since it is widely recognized that neither the University of Michigan nor Cambridge University Press is in the habit of employing the insane for academic work, so it isn't plausible even to the most die-hard fundamentalist. Other falsehoods were then invented, such as a claim that I demanded the UHJ release the writings of Baha'u'llah so that my friends and I could translate them properly. (This allegation is likewise ridiculous, since the writings of Baha'u'llah are freely available and do not need to be released, and it was the UHJ who used to ask *me* to help with the translation work, which I did--not I that demanded anything of them in this regard). Martin so liked the ploy of questioning my balance, however, that he could not quite relinquish it despite its implausibility, and it resurfaces here in this phraseology about 'scarcely credible in rational discourse,' as if it were irrational for me to object to fundamentalist Baha'is misusing their offices to threaten moderate and liberal Baha'is with being shunned merely for expressing their views and declaring their consciences.
Had such a book as Modernity and the Millennium been written by a disinterested non-Baha'i scholar, its misconception of the nature of Baha'u'llah's Mission and its other shortcomings would have represented no more than understandable weaknesses of an honest attempt to explore a religious phenomenon as yet little understood in the West. Indeed, in this context, such an attempt to make the Baha'i Faith comprehensible to the Western academic mind, however inadequate it might appear to knowledgeable Baha'i scholars, would surely have earned its author a measure of genuine Baha'i appreciation for the writing and research skills deployed in devising it.
Apparently Mr. Martin thinks it would have been a good book if only it had been written by someone else. This stance makes little sense, however. `Abdu'l-Baha said that the rose is beautiful no matter in what soil it blooms. If it is a good book in general, it does not matter who wrote it. The attribution to the book of a "misconception of Baha'u'llah's Mission" and other, cleverly unstated "shortcomings" is, of course, simply an expression of fundamentalism. What is really objected to is that the book takes an objective, academic approach to Baha'i history rather than an apologetic, theological one. The book has been praised by knowledgeable Baha'i academics; those who think it "inadequate" are only the fundamentalists. None of the members of the House of Justice is a professional historian and their authority is legislative, not interpretive, so they really have no standing to criticize works of history. When they do so, it appears to be mainly to uphold fundamentalist norms of thinking, which are the precise opposite of the true teachings of the Baha'i Holy Figures.
As you -- like other participants in certain Internet discussion groups -- are well aware, however, the book's author is not a disinterested scholar.
No, the author is not a disinterested scholar. The author became a Baha'i in 1972 and was a Baha'i in the early to mid-1990s when he was writing this book, and so has a generally very positive and subtly Baha'i point of view on Baha'i history in the 19th century. Had the book been written by a Marxist or a strict Muslim it might have been highly critical of Baha'u'llah and the religion he founded. This book is positive, and is history by an adherent. I did my best to be objective, and I believe all the material I presented to be valid, but I would be naive to think my being a believing Baha'i when I wrote the book made no difference.
Rather, he is a deeply embittered individual
I am sorry that Mr. Martin has formed this view of me, which is quite incorrect. If I were embittered I would not have spent so much of my time since 1996 defending the Iranian Baha'is from being persecuted by fundamentalist Khomeinists. If I were embittered I would not have spent so much time publishing the Writings of the Bab, Baha'u'llah, and `Abdu'l-Baha on the World Wide Web. If I were embittered, I would not have been able to recover my faith in Baha'u'llah in the wake of the false charges levelled against me by authorities in Haifa. Rather, I am a fun-loving person who buddies around with his teenaged son, adores his wife of two decades, watches Star Trek and David Letterman religiously, reads Eco and Smiley and Delillo, enjoys teaching students and working with colleagues, has a quirky sense of humor, and devotes an enormous amount of time and energy to Baha'i studies. I don't recognize myself in this one-dimensional dismissal, and Mr. Martin and his colleagues do not know me personally, to be able to make such a determination. Rather, the tone and substance of this entire letter suggest to me that he is the one who is bitter. I pray God give him back a sense of humor, as quickly as possible.
who, as his book was in preparation,
This is a historical error of some importance. A draft of my book, Modernity and the Millennium, was written and complete in 1995. Indeed, the book was sent to a publisher, who wanted the more theological sections removed in favor of the chapters on the social teachings, which explains its final emphases (it later ended up with a different publisher, however). When I wrote that book, I was a Baha'i in good standing, and it was substantially before the blow-up over firstname.lastname@example.org in 1996. Mr. Martin's chronology is simply wrong, and so too are the conclusions he draws from it.
had just denounced in the most intemperate language an apparent twenty-year allegiance to Baha'u'llah,
In May, 1996, I had been a Baha'i for nearly 24 years. During that time I risked my life for Baha'u'llah more than once. If my "allegiance" had been only "apparent," I certainly would not have pioneered in a war zone or risked tropical diseases. This subtle attempt to cast doubt on the sincerity of my belief as a Baha'i youth is among the more regrettable features of this letter, and does its author and the institution that issued it no credit. I think the letter has a typographical error, and that "renounced" is meant rather than "denounced." My renunciation in May of 1996, of course, was not voluntary but under duress. I was given by the hardline in Haifa the apparent choice of allowing my conscience to be coerced by people like Mr. Martin or being shunned. I was in a state of shock, since I had always imagined that our brothers on the House of Justice, whatever our disagreements, were true Baha'is, were my friends, who had my best interests at heart. And yet here was Birkland smirking and gloating that he had succeeded in getting me out, and surely his attitude reflected that of his masters in Haifa. One friend of mine from Haifa told me in the summer of 1996 that "my enemies" on the House of Justice were "celebrating" my withdrawal. (Perhaps they had a special dispensation to toast with champagne on that occasion?) I was watching as "covenant-breaking" was being redefined from an attempt at schism to simply expressing liberal Baha'i views and critiques of the status quo on the internet! It was being misused as a tool to establish fundamentalism as the unchallengeable Baha'i dogma. I fear I was still, at that time, extremely naive, and could not imagine such a thing. My heart was broken.
in the wake of a failed attempt on his part to impose his private ideological agenda on the Baha'i community's study of Baha'u'llah's Message.
It is a feature of authoritarian personalities to see their victims as menacing. Most bigots do not hate persons who are different than themselves because they despise their weakness, but rather because they attribute to those persons evil intentions and vast powers to implement them. I did not have a "private ideological agenda." I had personal beliefs about what the Baha'i faith is, that derived from my long years of studying its scriptures and history intensively in the original languages and contexts. My personal beliefs were and are sincere. They are no different in that regard from any other Baha'i's personal beliefs, including those of Mr. Martin himself. Nor did I have the intention or the means to "impose" my personal beliefs on the Baha'i community. All I could do was "express my beliefs and declare my conscience," in Shoghi Effendi's words. I am simply a professor and never had any official position in the Baha'i faith. I could not take away someone's administrative rights for disagreeing with me, as Robert Henderson has done. I could not attempt to organize a global campaign of backbiting or even shunning against someone whose views I disliked, as Mr. Martin has done. The allegation that I sought to impose my views on anyone is absurd, and the idea that I could have done so even if I wanted to is ridiculous. Mr. Martin is, of course, the one who has a "private ideological agenda." His agenda, I believe, is to impose a backwoods Canadian form of fundamentalism on the Baha'i teachings, distorting them toward authoritarianism, patriarchy, and scriptural literalism. I would once have said there was room in the religion for both of us. But he decided that I must be either silenced or cast out and discredited. Unlike me, Mr. Martin and his allies do have actual power to impose their ideological agendas on Baha'is.
Modernity and the Millennium represents an effort to provide the current stage of this long-running scheme with the underpinnings of scholarly rationalization.
My mouth is open. I scratch my head in bewilderment. I simply do not know what "long-running scheme" is being referred to. I lived among the Baha'is in Southern California off and on in 1979-1984, and among those in Michigan 1984-1996. Ask any of them if they ever heard me rant on about a long-running scheme. The House of Justice asked me to translate for them when I was in India in the early 1980s, wrote me complimentary letters on my translations in the 1980s, and as late as 1994 asked me to help with the revision of the translation of Some Answered Questions. Why would they have dealt with me that way if they thought I was a dangerous conspirator? Could it be that this smear is ex post facto, and is now being trotted out because Martin's idiotic scheme of trying to silence the Baha'i professors by threatening them with being shunned has failed? This paranoid language of conspiracy makes me extremely anxious for the fortunes of the Baha'i faith if this is how its leaders now think. The only "long-running scheme" I had was to deepen myself on the Writings in the original languages and attempt to understand them in their context. This "scheme" was suggested to me by Shoghi Effendi's advice to the Baha'i youth in Advent of Divine Justice. He wrote
Those who participate in such a campaign, whether in an organizing capacity, or as workers to whose care the execution of the task itself has been committed, must, as an essential preliminary to the discharge of their duties, thoroughly familiarize themselves with the various aspects of the history and teachings of their Faith. In their efforts to achieve this purpose they must study for themselves, conscientiously and painstakingly, the literature of their Faith, delve into its teachings, assimilate its laws and principles, ponder its admonitions, tenets and purposes, commit to memory certain of its exhortations and prayers, master the essentials of its administration, and keep abreast of its current affairs and latest developments. They must strive to obtain, from sources that are authoritative and unbiased, a sound knowledge of the history and tenets of Islám--the source and background of their Faith--and approach reverently and with a mind purged from preconceived ideas the study of the Qur'án which, apart from the sacred scriptures of the Bábí and Bahá'í Revelations, constitutes the only Book which can be regarded as an absolutely authenticated Repository of the Word of God. They must devote special attention to the investigation of those institutions and circumstances that are directly connected with the origin and birth of their Faith, with the station claimed by its Forerunner, and with the laws revealed by its Author . . . Let him also attempt to devise such methods as association with clubs, exhibitions, and societies, lectures on subjects akin to the teachings and ideals of his Cause such as temperance, morality, social welfare, religious and racial tolerance, economic cooperation, Islám, and Comparative Religion, or participation in social, cultural, humanitarian, charitable, and educational organizations and enterprises which, while safeguarding the integrity of his Faith, will open up to him a multitude of ways and means whereby he can enlist successively the sympathy, the support, and ultimately the allegiance of those with whom he comes in contact. - Advent of Divine JusticeMy book, Modernity and the Millennium, is the result of 25 years of intensive study of religion, history, and Arabic and Persian, of the sort Shoghi Effendi urged upon us, though I fear few of the Western friends have paid much attention to him, including Mr. Martin. The book is my reasoned understanding of key themes in Baha'u'llah's writings and their nineteenth-century context. The book has nothing to do with any imaginary "scheme," any more than Gershom Scholem's work on the Kabbalah was intended to underpin the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It is, obviously, quite scarey that Mr. Martin even thinks in these terms, since we have seen where such conspiracy theories on the part of powerful religious leaders have led in the past.
What is this rationalization? Although distorted by its evasion of Baha'i Texts that contradict its main assertions,
The allegation that I "evaded" Baha'i texts that might contradict my conclusions is a very serious piece of libel against a professional historian. I examined thousands of pages of Baha'u'llah's writings for that book, and I assembled *all* the relevant evidence I could find for each point attributed to him. Of course, even Mr. Martin would not dispute this. The charge being made here is not that I failed to consider contemporary evidence from the 19th century, but that I did not allow later, 20th century developments and texts (perhaps Mr. Martin's own speeches?) to govern my interpretation of the earlier ones. The key difference between a professional historian of religion and a mainstream believer is that the historian is seeking the Baha'u'llah of history. The historian does not deny the Baha'u'llah of faith, but that is simply not his subject, which he leaves to theologians. While it is not inconceivable that some Catholic bishop might demand that a biographer of Jesus incorporate into his work the pronouncements of later Fathers of the Church and Popes, no professional historian would agree to such a procedure. Only Baha'u'llah's own words, and those of his exact contemporaries, can help us understand Baha'u'llah's ideas in an academic sense. Later, 20th century Baha'i thinkers lived in a different time with a different context, and their use of Baha'u'llah, while it can be enlightening for our understanding of them, is a very different thing from any attempt to understand him on his own terms. In a religion dedicated to the unfettered and independent search for reality, it is quite sad to see such demands that history be distorted for ideological and institutional purposes.
and blurred by reliance on speculations peculiar to its author's purpose, the thesis appears to run somewhat as follows: Baha'u'llah's work and Writings represent essentially one of several efforts by Middle East thinkers to work out a "response" to the challenges posed by European modernity in the form of rationalism, revolution, nationalism, economic upheaval, feminism and other contemporary developments. Although Oriental in origin, this particular "response", in contrast to various others, was unusually "progressive", "liberal", "idealistic", even "radical". Because it "grew up" in a congenial modernist era, its Author was able gradually to adjust and revise the ideas with which He had been "grappling", through benefiting (in a manner generally insinuated rather than explicitly stated) from successive interactions with other thinkers and movements. By 1862, apparently in order to deal with the problem of religious exclusivity in the Muslim world, and in response to some form of "private mystical experience", He "decided to make a prophetic claim of his own" . . .
This paragraph demonstrates conclusively that Mr. Martin simply has no idea of how to read a text. First of all, I went to great lengths to point out that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century modernity should *not* be coded as "European," and I noted that Europeans found it alienating and difficult to adjust to, as well. I never called the Baha'i faith (or anything else) "Oriental," but this language demonstrates the Orientalist mode of thinking to which Mr. Martin still seems captive. What I said was that peoples of the greater Mediterranean, both Europeans and Middle Easterners, were confronted with modernity, and that they responded in various ways--acceptance (liberalism), accommodation, or rejection (fundamentalism). What struck me as remarkable about the Baha'i faith was that it combined several motifs that were usually separate, including acceptance of key elements of modernity but a critique of others, all within a millenarian framework. Martin goes on to make the error of mistaking the neutral language of academic prose for active apostasy. But this is what the greatest Baha'i scholar, praised by Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha wrote about historiography:
Although the author is a believer in the holy path of the Baha'i Faith, God is my witness--and He suffices as a witness--that I have not been unduly influenced in the writing of this history by my love or faith. My devotion to Baha'u'llah has not deflected me from the path of fairness. For the station of a historian is beyond that of love and devotion and too sacred to be defiled by bias and prejudice. A historian must put to one side his love or hate for various groups when writing about historical events and must with the utmost justice and equity record what he knows. For truthfulness is a precious gem and the fairness of human beings is their ornament. - Mirza Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani, Letters and Essays, p. 81.Mr. Martin wishes me to be deflected from the path of fairness by my commitment to Baha'u'llah, and to defile the station of the historian by bias and prejudice. I am being indicted for not putting aside my love or hate for various groups. In any case, to speak of Baha'u'llah deciding to make a declaration does not in any way rule out the possibility that it was divine revelation that led him to that decision. Academic history-writing brackets such matters of theological belief, so that we can have a form of language accessible to everyone regardless of religious background. Also, implicit in Mr. Martin's criticism of my thesis is his own fundamentalist conviction that Baha'u'llah's writings are contextless, sui generis and fell from the sky in pristine form. Among the greatest scholars of Islam in the 20th century was a Pakistani, Fazlur Rahman. He was a prodigy, mastering not only Arabic, Persian and Urdu, but also Latin, for his work on Avicenna. In the new country of Pakistan, Professor Rahman was appointed to head up an Islamic Institute. He wrote an excellent book on Islam that came out in the mid-1960s, using academic tools. In that book he mentioned that traditionalist Muslims believe that God sent the Qur'an down directly on the Prophet's heart via the angel Gabriel. Professor Rahman gently suggested that all this should be taken allegorically, and that the Qur'an in fact gives evidence of responding to historical context in Mecca and Medina. The fundamentalist Muslim clergy in Pakistan found out about this passage, and were outraged. They denounced Professor Rahman from the pulpits in their mosques. They brought crowds into the streets and provoked riots. Professor Rahman had, in the end, to flee his native land for America, where he lived the rest of his life in exile, becoming an eminent professor at the University of Chicago. There is not any essential difference between Mr. Martin's mindset and that of those Pakistani Muslim clergymen, and fundamentalist Baha'i authorities have managed to exile me from my community just as the hardline Pakistani fundies exiled Professor Rahman from his homeland. It is a matter of great sadness that the religion of Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha has come to this, the persecution of professors for writing academic books. The religion had so much more promise than that.
The Covenant, the distinguishing feature of Baha'u'llah's Revelation, has been made the central target of this effort (a maneuver that Dr. Cole's book is at particular pains to shore up).
This allegation is simply bizarre. The theme of the book was the encounter with and critique of modernity in 1863-1892. If I wrote a book about the evolution of Baha'i authority structures, *then* I would deal with the "Covenant" at length. I don't believe I said much about it one way or another.
Although forced to acknowledge the appointments of `Abdu'l-Baha and the Guardian as Interpreters of Baha'u'llah's Message,
In other words, I did not "target" the Covenant, but rather acknowledged it. And what would "force" me to acknowledge it if I did not *want* to? It is not as if I am afraid of Douglas Martin. My acknowledgment was a result of my judgment.
every effort has been made to call such authoritative interpretation into question wherever it presents a problem for the notions being promoted.
If something `Abdu'l-Baha or Shoghi Effendi said is in historical error, it is the duty of a historian to say so. Sorry. Neither of them would have minded; they never claimed infallibility with regard to things like history writing.
Similarly, although ostensibly acknowledging that the Universal House of Justice is Head of the Baha'i Faith today,
I don't know what this has to do with my book, since it is about the 19th century, when no House of Justice existed. However, perhaps the book "ostensibly" acknowledges that the Universal House of Justice is the Head of the Baha'i Faith today because that is what the author believes. The Qur'an suggests that it is bad to be too suspicious of one's fellow human beings. "Some suspicion," it says, "is sin."
this opposition has tried by every means possible to undermine the broad authority conferred in Baha'u'llah's own words and emphasized in the Master's Will and Testament.
I don't believe that Baha'u'llah's Ishraq 8 or subsequent constitutional documents confer "broad authority" on the House of Justice. It seems clear to me that it was designed to be a legislative, not an Interpretive body, and was, indeed, forbidden to attempt to engage in authoritative Interpretation by Shoghi Effendi in his World Order of Baha'u'llah. Since history-writing falls on the interpretive rather than the legislative side of things, I think the only logical conclusion is that how I write history does not fall under the House of Justice's purview.
(In Dr. Cole's book, this agenda makes its appearance in the conclusion: namely, that the Faith founded by Baha'u'llah has failed in its mission because, like "the Khomeinist state in Iran", it has been somehow captured by "fundamentalists", by which term Dr. Cole has repeatedly characterized the members of the Universal House of Justice.) . . .
I did not say that the Faith founded by Baha'u'llah has "failed in its mission." Could someone please quote me back such an assertion from my book? Can't these people get anything right? What I said was that Baha'u'llah was dedicated to the non-interference of religion in the affairs of state, to the replacement of absolutist rule by parliamentary governance, to world peace through collective security, to justice for the poor, to the unity of humankind, the unity of the religions, and to the equality of women and men. And I went on to say that I thought that with regard to virtually all these principles there were organizations now active in the Middle East who were doing a better job of promoting them than the current Baha'i leadership. And, I noted that "some Baha'i leaders" (whom I did not identify) have actually turned Baha'u'llah on his head by advocating the opposite of his key principles. Those leaders seek a Baha'i theocracy that would differ little from Khomeinism in Iran; they seek an absolutism that would involve the abolition of parliaments and rule through a sort of one-party state; they uphold a strict patriarchy that excludes women from the highest decision-making body in the religion and insists that men are the heads of the household; and they deny the unity of religions by exalting the Baha'i faith above all the others in a triumphalist and distasteful manner. That some contemporary Baha'i leaders advocate these views is not, I should think, in doubt. We may even have just heard from one.
[With loving Baha'i greetings,
Department of the Secretariat]
Loving Baha'i greetings from me, too - Juan R. I. Cole, Professor of History, University of Michigan