personal statement on Baha'u'llah, 3 years on
2 Mar 1999 18:47:08 -0500

Date sent: Tue, 02 Mar 1999 18:08:51 GMT
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Subject: Personal Statement on Baha'u'llah, 3 years on
Date: Tue, 02 Mar 1999 07:34:44 GMT
Newsgroups: talk.religion.bahai
Organization: Deja News - The Leader in Internet Discussion
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I became a Baha'i in 1972 at the age of 19 in part because of a mystical
experience I had while reading the Tablet of the True Seeker in the Book of
Certitude, especially this passage:

"Only when the lamp of search, of earnest striving, of longing desire, of
passionate devotion, of fervid love, of rapture, and ecstasy, is kindled
within the seeker's heart, and the breeze of His loving-kindness is wafted
upon his soul, will the darkness of error be dispelled, the mists of doubts
and misgivings be dissipated, and the lights of knowledge and certitude
envelop his being. At that hour will the mystic Herald, bearing the joyful
tidings of the Spirit, shine forth from the City of God resplendent as the
morn, and, through the trumpet-blast of knowledge, will awaken the heart, the
soul, and the spirit from the slumber of negligence. Then will the manifold
favours and outpouring grace of the holy and everlasting Spirit confer such
new life upon the seeker that he will find himself endowed with a new eye, a
new ear, a new heart, and a new mind. He will contemplate the manifest signs
of the universe, and will penetrate the hidden mysteries of the soul. Gazing
with the eye of God, he will perceive within every atom a door that leadeth
him to the stations of absolute certitude. He will discover in all things the
mysteries of divine Revelation and the evidences of an everlasting
manifestation." Kitab-i-Iqan pp. 195-196.

I had gone home to Virginia after my freshman year at Northwestern, and I was
taught the faith by many friends in the Northern Virginia area, including
Charles "Herk" Lerche, the Huddlestons, Abbas Seymour and the Bashirs. It
was the time of the Vietnam war, which I opposed, so peace and world unity
looked good to me. It was a time of enormous interest in Oriental religions,
and I already knew something about Hinduism and about Sufism; the Baha'i
faith seemed to exemplify the best in them. And it was a time of great
licentiousness in the youth culture, in which I perceived something selfish
and immature, and which a specific spiritual discipline helped address.
Under the influence of Shoghi Effendi's Advent of Divine Justice, I
immediately began studying Arabic at Northwestern and switched to majoring in
religion, completing a B.A. This was the passage that really shaped the rest
of my life:

"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 Justice, pp. 49, 51

In 1974 I pioneered to Lebanon as part of the Five Year Plan. I returned
briefly to graduate, then went back in September, 1975. Despite the advent
of civil war, which forced me to leave for Egypt in December of '75, I made
the effort to be at my post in summer 1977 and came back to live and work in
1978-1979. In the time Beirut was too hot, 1976-78, I completed an MA in
Arabic Studies/History at the American University in Cairo. Although a new
Baha'i, I quickly became pretty deepened, helped tremendously by kind locals
like Shihab Zahra'i (later kidnapped by a militia and now almost certainly
dead). I helped out the NSA of the Near East with community development,
both there and in Senegal/Gambia and in India. My Arabic got near-native

I then went to UCLA in fall, 1979, to begin a doctorate in Islamic Studies,
studying with Professor Amin Banani (son of the Hand of the Cause) and
others. In all this living in the Middle East and studying Arabic, Persian
and Islamics, I sought to fulfill the mandate Shoghi Effendi laid upon Baha'i
youth. Of course, I also was filled with intellectual curiosity about the
magnificent civilization of Islam and the kind and generous peoples of the
Middle East. I fell in love with Arabic literature, and then Persian, and
then Urdu. A fine poem in any of them still gives me tingles in my gut. At
the request of the Association for Baha'i Studies, in 1980-81 I wrote "The
Concept of Manifestation in the Baha'i Writings." In the '80s I also
translated two books by Mirza Abu'l-Fadl. The House of Justice commended me
for the latter and asked me to do some translating for them, in which I
complied even though it was perhaps the busiest time of my life. I did my
dissertation research on Shi`ite Islam in Lucknow, India, and did some
community service work for Baha'is when I traveled to places like Bengal. I
remember buying a whole Bengali village copies of a translation of Hushmand
Fatheazam's New Garden.

I went back to UCLA, finished writing up, and came to the University of
Michigan in 1984, after which I was very much immersed in trying to establish
myself in Middle East scholarship. I heard only vague echoes of the 1988
crackdown on *dialogue* magazine (I was abroad when the heavy action
occurred), which had been published by some friends of my in Southern
California. I did not approve, to say the least. But I thought, well, all
religions have narrow-minded people in them, and the Baha'i faith's
principles are so stacked toward tolerance that eventually it must emerge in
the faith itself.

In the '90s I occasionally published articles on the Baha'i faith in places
like History Today or scholarly journals. To my knowledge they were well

Then came along, and I was introduced to the new medium
of electronic mail on a big listserv. I think all of us were astonished at
what followed, with feminist Baha'is discussing with rather conservative
Iranian males, fundamentalists discussing with academics, mystics meeting
bureaucrats, and all sorts of diverse views being expressed. was controversial in a community that was used to pretty
tight controls on public, written discourse, but I had no reason to think it
was somehow illegitimate as an activity, and I enjoyed the 'deepening'
aspects of it, as with the slow read of the Most Holy Book and the give and
take on all sorts of issues, from which I learned an enormous amount. I also
liked the idea of making friends in cyberspace, and I made a large number.

I still have no idea why it was that in late April, 1996, I was called up by
a member of the Continental Board of Counselors and informed that I had on "made statements contrary to the Covenant." I have been
back over my messages there numerous times and find nothing in what I said
that in any way challenged the Baha'i Covenant. Indeed, the very idea of
such a challenge would have made me nauseous. I don't approve of schism or
covenant breaking. I am sure that the entire thing was an unfortunate
misunderstanding, and have heard back privately from members of the Universal
House of Justice to that effect.

At the time, the entire thing seemed to me clearly contrary to every
principle I had ever believed about the Baha'i faith, from the importance of
the rule of law to the right of every Baha'i to declare his conscience and
express his views (guaranteed by Shoghi Effendi himself) as long as those
views were advertised as non-authoritative (which I always did).

I have to admit, with some shame, that my faith in Baha'u'llah was shattered
by this episode. Leaving ideology aside, the officials I was dealing with
seemed to me very weird. When, full of unutterable sorrow, I announced my
resignation from the faith under this duress, the counselor with whom I was
dealing, who should by all rights have been concerned with the good of my
soul, merely sent me a gloating email message: "I thank you for your
intellectual consistency." If at that point I had ever done or said anything
to make a Baha'i think about leaving the faith, I would have been stricken.
I would have called him up and said it was clearly all an error and could he
please reconsider. I wouldn't have thanked him for his intellectual
consistency, basically saying 'Good riddance!'. This was weird.

I was mystified, shocked and horrified. I also realized over time, partially
through the Meyers-Brigg profile, that I am simply not temperamentally suited
to a strongly extroverted organized religion. For better or worse, I'm
introverted, an intellectual, a mystic, and an individual. As a professional
academic historian, my life is dedicated to free inquiry and I cannot allow
an outside body to dictate how I write history. There could not have been a
worse fit between a personality and a religion than that between me and the
Baha'i World Faith.

However, in the meantime I have continued to read, meditate on, study and
translate the works of Baha'u'llah and the other holy figures, and I continue
to find nothing in any of this material that would in any way justify what
was done to me and others on in 1996. And I found that
that old love I had conceived for Baha'u'llah in August, 1972, just would not
flicker out.

I therefore feel the obligation publicly to say that I feel myself a believer
in and a follower of Baha'u'llah. (That feels so right to say!) And that I
formally disavow my earlier disavowal of Him.

As for the rest, I know very well by now what the reactions and expectations
of many will be. All I can say is this: I probably do not mean 'believe in'
or 'follower' in the sense most conservative Baha'is would take the terms to
connote; I abhor schism and urge all Baha'is to recognize the legitimate
authority of the Universal House of Justice in its legitimate spheres of
authority; I am only a rather inadequate individual with no pretense to any
sort of authority or leadership. I simply am not temperamentally suited to
membership in an organized religion and I do not seek any administrative
rights in the community. I recognize that my views are so similar to those of
Michael McKenny that I probably also do not "meet the requirements for
membership" in the Baha'i World Faith, nor do I claim to be a member or to be
able to speak for it in any way. I suppose if anything I am an eternal
seeker oriented to Baha'u'llah.

I actually have met people in the past who died for their belief in
Baha'u'llah. I shook hands with Professor `Ali Murad Davudi in Tehran in the
summer of 1976, who was later bulldozed into a mass grave and made to
'disappear' by the Khomeinists. I have never felt happy with my surrender of
faith in Baha'u'llah, however paradoxical the situation in which I found
myself. I don't think, though of course I could be wrong, that I would have
disavowed Baha'u'llah if some terrorist had kidnapped me and demanded it. As
those who know me will attest, I am very stubborn. It was only an internal
issue that could have so confused me.

If in the end all this means that I am shunned by the Baha'is, well, so be it.
It is better than my shunning Baha'u'llah, my Lord. As Baha'u'llah quotes the

"How well hath a believer of the kindred of Pharaoh, whose story is recounted
by the All-Glorious in His Book revealed unto His beloved One, observed: 'And
a man of the family of Pharaoh who was a believer and concealed his faith
said: `Will ye slay a man because he saith my Lord is God . . ?'" [Qur'án

To all the Friends, as well as to my friends, I wish a happy and spiritually
uplifting Fast.


Juan Cole

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