On Amin Banani, Some Reflections on Juan Cole s Modernity and the Millennium


Juan R. I. Cole



I would like to take this opportunity to respond to Amin Banani s meditation on my recent book (Amin Banani, "Some Reflections on Juan Cole's Modernity and the Millennium," Baha'i Studies Review, Volume 9 (1999/2000), pp. 159-162). It has been necessary for me to reply on the Internet because the journal itself was forbidden by higher Baha'i authorities to allow me to reply to this review in its pages. Having Banani's reactions to the book is particularly interesting, since he has been so crucial to the development of Iranian studies in the United States during the past half-century. Despite being an immigrant from a very different culture at a time when the U.S. was relatively closed to immigration, he pursued a highly successful academic career in his adopted country, which welcomed him without regard to the issues of religious orthodoxy that had hounded his coreligionists in the land of his birth. His first book, on Reza Shah s modernization program, in many respects still stands today, a remarkable feat. His pioneering researches on Shi`ite passion plays foreshadowed a flood of later work. His sensitive and selfless co-translations of poets like Furugh Farrukhzad, in which he called upon the cooperation of prize-winning English-language poets, constituted a major paradigm shift in our approach to literary translation of Persian. He was also instrumental in introducing this prominent woman writer to English-speaking audiences. At UCLA, he mentored, without any fanfare or due recognition, a stream of doctoral students who went on to make key contributions to the academic study of Iran and the Middle East.

Banani s help and encouragement have thus been important to many scholars of the Middle East over the past 40 years, including to myself. Clearly, he is not responsible for what they go on to write, and it is natural that he would wish in some instances to make his differences with his former students clear. I deeply appreciate his forthright acknowledgment of the value of my book at the beginning of his meditation, in which he points to its importance for Iranian historiography and for the study of modernity in the Middle East. While he does not use the word brilliant lightly or often about scholars, in this case his application of it to yours truly, a mere yeoman historian, is surely a sign of his own generosity of spirit more than anything else.

Banani s subsequent comments come under three headings. First, he objects to what he perceives as an implicit assumption in the book that good scholarship is agnostic and incompatible with faith. Second, he is under the impression that I have traced every bit of what is modern in Baha u llah s thought to direct or indirect influences of the West, and have done so with too little real evidence for such influences. Third, he objects to a small paragraph at the end of the book in which I suggested that some contemporary leaders of the Baha'i faith were committed to principles such as scriptural literalism, patriarchy, theocracy and so forth.

I would like to reply to each of these points very briefly. First, I wish to query Banani s assumption (that seems to be all it is) that Modernity and the Millennium advocates an implicit agnosticism. His conclusion is certainly not one that other reviewers have come to. The Islamicist Merlin Swartz wrote in his review of my book [in The American Historical Review, Volume 105, no. 3 (June 2000): 1049, the flagship journal for some 17,000 professional historians in the U.S.] that it depicted the Baha'i faith as critical of the excesses of Enlightenment rationalism and Jacobinism, saying:

Baha'ism insisted that only a religious dimension is capable of providing the kind of constraints that the secularist and rationalist aspects of modernist doctrines need to protect them against excess a concern dramatically underscored by the events of the modern period.

The author of the review then adds:

To the degree that Cole endorses this Baha'i emphasis on the importance of a religious dimension, some readers will undoubtedly see the present work as in part an apologia for religion. Whether one agrees with the position articulated in this work or not, one must concede that Cole has raised a set of issues that demand careful, critical attention.

Thus, the agnosticism of Cole s approach in Modernity and the Millennium appears to be more a subjective impression of Banani than an objective assessment. Other reviewers have seen the book as the work of an apologist for religion. This phrase keeps cropping up among Western academics that read my work. A draft of the article in The International Journal of Middle East Studies that later was reworked into chapters 2 and 3 of the book was criticized by one of the outside readers as a clever apology for Baha ism. The editor nevertheless published it.

Moreover, it would be extremely difficult to discover any affirmation of faith in a specific religion in `Abdu l-Baha s Secret of Divine Civilization, a book of social and religious reformism aimed at the wider Middle Eastern society, which was published anonymously in Bombay in 1882. Like contemporary academic scholarship, the language of nineteenth-century reformism participated in certain universal assumptions and vocabulary that were not specific to particular religious or cultural groups. `Abdu l-Baha unhesitatingly adopted this language in order to reach his audience, suppressing open acknowledgment of the inspiration for many of the ideas he advocated. To the extent that `Abdu l-Baha is an exemplar for contemporary Baha is, one might expect this lack of explicitness to be more common in Baha i writing about the social principles of their religion than it is.

It strikes me as particularly odd that I should be accused of agnosticism, since I am to my knowledge the only academic Baha i historian of my generation who has also written theology. If the accusation is that I reserve theological assertions for theology and historical ones for my history-writing, I plead guilty. However, a similar approach to historiography is visible in others. It is difficult for me to see any difference in the style in which Modernity and the Millennium is written and the academic historical writings on the Babi-Baha i tradition of Alessandro Bausani, Abbas Amanat, Peter Smith, Todd Lawson and Moojan Momen. In a 1983 article for IJMES, Momen actually applied a sophisticated mathematical formula to establish that the class origins of the Babis as Tabarsi were statistically similar to those of Iranians as a whole! (Moojan Momen, The Social Basis for the Babi Upheavals in Iran (1848-53), International Journal of Middle East Studies 15 (1983):157-183.) Indeed, I cannot recall Banani himself publishing anything on the Baha'i faith in refereed academic venues outside the Baha i publishing establishment, which gave any practical demonstration of a successful alternative, pietistic approach to the writing of Baha i history. It seems to me that my book is being singled out for a style that is commonplace in academic writing on the history of religious movements, which has been employed by a number of prominent Baha is in good standing.

The second main issue with which Banani is concerned in his meditation is what he sees as my attempt to trace all the major Baha i principles to Western influences. Here again, I explicitly deny in the book (and I continue to deny here) that this dichotomy is a useful way of thinking. I note that modernity was felt as alien in Europe, just as it was in the Middle East. The antinomy between the West and the Middle East is itself an artifact of a modernist outlook, rooted in binary oppositions and nationalist claims on knowledge. `Abdu l-Baha in The Secret of Divine Civilization denounced the anxiety among Iranian Shi`ites of his time to avoid Western influence as a piece of foolishness. Nineteenth-century modernity was global in its origins and impact. The West is not a useful category for considering this phenomenon. The Chinese invented printing, gunpowder and bureaucracy, and there is some evidence that Europe derived most if not all of these from East Asia. Algebra and key advances in astronomy were invented by the Muslims. Benedict Anderson has argued that nationalism was first imagined in Latin America. The great colonial empires were Creole, hybrid affairs. A Muslim pilot guided Vasco da Gama to India. Baha u llah lived his life in the Greater Mediterranean (including five years on European soil), and responded to the crises and conundrums faced by the people around him who felt the impact of modernity, whether they were Europeans or Middle Easterners. All prophets address both transcendental spiritual and ethical concerns and more immediate social problems, and this book is about the latter.

With regard to peace thought, I talk of India s Akbar and of Shi`ite millennialist traditions and hopes, not just about Western European movements. I give clear evidence of the importance for Baha u llah s thinking on collective security of the 1856 Treaty of Paris (which ended the Crimean War), a document hammered out by Middle Easterners like Mehmet Emin Ali Pasha as well as by European and Russian diplomats. To see this treaty, which pledged several Western European nations to go to war to protect the Ottomans from any future Russian aggression, as a Western document would be to ignore the Ottoman context of and key contributions to it. Rather, it was a document that evolved in the interaction and dialogue (violent and peaceful) of the peoples of the Greater Mediterranean, articulating the principle of collective security, which Baha u llah approved of as a model for global peacekeeping. I show the ways in which Baha u llah presents a severe critique of reigning European ideologies such as Romantic nationalism and Enlightenment deism, and suggest its indigenous roots.

Where I sketch parallel European developments, these are instanced as contributory to the Zeitgeist of the Greater Mediterranean during Baha u llah s lifetime, not necessarily as direct influences on him. The evidence for his interactions with progressive Ottoman officials and intellectuals, however, seems to me far more extensive than Banani is willing to admit, going rather beyond casual coffeehouse conversations, to actual correspondence and long association, not to mention awareness of the Ottoman press. The problematic of my book is not Westernization, the old paradigm so crucial to Banani s early work on Reza Shah at Stanford in the 1950s, but modernity and postmodernity with their global contexts and impact. That he insists on reading the latter through the lens of the former seems to me to say more about his unwillingness to abandon the old paradigm of modernization theory than about my book.

Banani characterizes me as having asserted the influence of fundamentalism among some contemporary Baha i leaders, and goes on to say that I was presumably speaking of Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice. I must confess myself absolutely astonished that a scholar of Banani s caliber and eminence should have chosen arbitrarily to put words in my mouth in this way. Since I was speaking of the contemporary Baha i community, I obviously did not have Shoghi Effendi in mind. I spoke simply of some leaders. Moreover, this particular tack in his argument bewilders me because I have listened to endless complaints from him about the Universal House of Justice s policies toward scholarship. He complained about having his own translation work interfered with on a number of occasions. He angrily withdrew his name from his introduction to Muhammad `Ali Salmani s My Memories of Baha u llah, when the translation by Marzieh Gail was ordered bowdlerized by the Universal House of Justice in 1982. I heard through a friend that he was criticized for this move in Haifa as spineless. (Apparently his unwillingness to defend the censorship of primary sources was seen as a sort of cowardice and lack of commitment to the Baha i Cause.) Nor did the Amin Banani I knew have much respect for the intellectual acumen of the Baha i establishment in Haifa. He once told me, The problem with Haifa is that they do not know what they do not know. For him now to insist that there is no hint of religious fundamentalism attaching to anyone in the Baha i world center, as he does in his meditation, seems to me contradictory to everything he ever said to me privately on this subject. While I would not ordinarily begrudge him this bit of pious dissimulation, it does seem a bit hard for him now to take me to task for saying publicly what he has long said privately. As for my general point, I cannot see how it differs in any essential way from that of Moojan Momen in his article on fundamentalism in this very journal (Moojan Momen, Fundamentalism and Liberalism: Towards an Understanding of the Dichotomy, Baha i Studies Review, vol. 2 (1), [1992]). Momen makes the same argument as I do, that fundamentalist and liberal tendencies both exist in the contemporary Baha'i faith, and that the conflict that sometimes breaks out between the two can be painful for individuals. That this somewhat obvious assertion should cause any controversy somewhat amazes me, since by now there are a fair number of well known such conflicts.

That a small paragraph in a 264-page book, virtually the only passage that is anything but laudatory about the movement, should be the focus of so much commentary, suggests to me that it is being used as a hook rather than being the actual subject. It is a hook for bringing up the discontents I have expressed, not in this book but in other forums, about anti-intellectualism in the contemporary community (the justice of which Banani graciously acknowledges). This book was substantially completed before those controversies broke out, however, and the comments in the conclusion about a contemporary fundamentalist tendency were simply intended to demonstrate the fallacy of essentialism and the fluidity of religious responses to modernity. I should therefore be sorry to see one sentence dominate discussion of a book that is largely about another subject altogether.

Finally, I am disturbed by a particular aspect of the Banani review. He objects to the use of the methodologies of what I called formal academic scholarship in the study of the Baha i religion. Yet these methodologies are simply the ones of contextualization and historical explanation, the same ones he has used all his life and for which he represented himself to stand before the U.S. academic community. His equation of these methods with the lifework of Shaykh Muhammad Taqi Isfahani Najafi, the prominent Shi`ite clergyman of nineteenth century Isfahan, seems to me actually bizarre. Shaykh Muhammad Taqi, whom Baha u llah called the son of the Wolf, never wrote anything at all employing the modern historical methodologies to which I appealed to in my book. He was simply a traditional nineteenth-century clergyman. He attacked Baha u llah on theological grounds, not academic ones. And, of course, he had a number of Babis and Baha is killed as heretics. To equate a figure like Shaykh Muhammad Taqi with contemporary academic historians of the Babi and Baha i religions seems to me a category error to say the least. For my own part, I not only have not attacked Baha u llah (in whom I am a believer and whose cause I have served for nearly 30 years), but I have been vocal and active in defending the Iranian Baha i community from persecution. I decline to speculate as to why Banani chose to bring up Shaykh Muhammad Taqi in this context, because all the explanations I have been able to think of are unworthy.

That subject of my book was the alternative image of modernity presented to us by Baha u llah, a vision of peace, tolerant spirituality, global cooperation, human rights, the advent of reason among the masses and the concomitant rise of parliamentary governance, the equality of women and men, and the development of the potential of societies and persons throughout the world. Many would call it a hopelessly utopian and unrealistic vision. They would point out that if minor differences concerning the presentation of it are capable of dividing old friends like Amin Banani and myself, who share that vision even if we do not agree about the best ways to achieve it, then it really is nothing more than a chimera. I for one refuse to believe that either of these latter, cynical propositions is true.


  • To Scholarly Papers on the Baha'i Faith

  • To Translation Page

  • To Baha'i Studies

  • To Talisman

  • J. Cole Home Page

  • WebMaster: Juan R.I. Cole