Review: The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions, by Peter Smith
September 5, 2006
The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions: From messianic Shi’ism to a world religion is a thoroughly researched, academically rigorous, and yet accessible overview of the development, growth, and dominant motifs of these two religions. Its author, Dr. Peter Smith, is a researcher and professor in sociology and religious studies. Himself a Bahá’í, he takes great care to execute a balanced treatise, particularly with regard to subject matter where no substantial “neutral” sources are available. In this reader’s mind, it is an exemplary introduction for any student of the newest of the “world religions.”
As an academic work, its 243 pages of text, maps, charts, and notes are relatively slim. Indeed, there were a number of areas, particularly in the earlier sections, where the reader might wish for a deeper exploration. As noted, such an exploration is not always feasible given the dearth of sources out of 19th-century Persia. Further, the author’s purpose is to present a socio-historical survey, not an in depth history, of the movements in the book’s title.
The work begins by providing essential context for the emergence of “Bábísm” in the 1840s. Beginning in the late 1700s, Shi’a Islam was stirred up by a new movement (Shaykhism), one of whose pillars was the recognition of the continuing presence of a intermediary linking the righteous to the source of divine guidance (the 12th Imam of the Shi’as). From this milieu Sayyid ‘Alí Muhammad, the Báb, arose to progressively unfold His claim to be not only the “gate” to the Hidden Imam but also the source of an independent revelation. Smith’s explication of the nature of the Báb’s revelation, much of which was outwardly promulgated by His most prominent followers while His activities remained restricted in the late 1840s, will be particularly helpful for those wishing to gain greater insight into the importance of figures such as Mullá Husayn Bushúu’í, Mullá Muhammad ‘Alí Bárfurúshí (Quddus), and Fátimih Bigum Baraghání (Tahirih).
Though his treatment is brief, the discussion of “Bábísm as a socio-religious movement in Iran,” along with the chapter on legalism and motifs preceding it, presented crucial insight into the religion’s appeal and role in wider Persian society, without appearing to pander to any particular side (unlike, for instance, Mangol Bayat’s Mysticism and Dissent: Socioreligious Thought in Qajar Iran, which exhibited a strong anti-Bábí bias).
The second part of the book traces the rise of Mírza Husayn ‘Alí Núrí’s (Bahá’u’lláh) influence on the Bábí community, from a prominent teacher and half-brother of the titular head of the community after the Báb’s execution to the founder and promulgator of His own independent religion, the Bahá’í Faith. It is with respect to the division of the Bábí community into the followers of Bahá’u’lláh and those of His brother, Mírza Yahya Núrí (Subh-i-Azal) that Smith takes the most care in presenting a balanced perspective. Citing a lack of neutral sources, he spends very little time discussing the physical conflict between the two camps, including no mention of the alleged poisoning of Bahá’u’lláh or of the several murders supposed to have occurred amongst the followers. Nevertheless, Smith’s careful depiction of that which is known about both leaders sheds a great deal of light on Bahá’u’lláh’s ability to win over most of the Bábí followers.
The significance of Bahá’u’lláh’s acceptance in the Bábí community is shown to extend beyond merely overtaking the officially anointed head of the movement. His teachings, while rooted in Islam and Bábísm, in many ways brought about a radical break from these traditions that He Himself had followed, particularly with regard to concept of jihad and the treatment of non-believers. These teachings enabled Him to gain a following among non-Shi’a in Persia and the Ottoman, which His Son ‘Abdu’l-Baha was able to further extend into the Western world.
The extension into the West and the rest of the world occupies the second half of Smith’s book. Here he focuses attention on the themes that drove first Westward expansion and later expansion into the Third World. For the American Bahá’í such as myself, it provides a fascinating overview of the importance of the American community as well as its on-again, off-again growth. While this material is certainly important and relevant for understanding the history and current state of the Bahá’í Faith (at least through 1985), for this reader it was interesting but, unsurprisingly, not as compelling as the first half of the book.
Scholarly research on the Bábí and Bahá’í religions has grown tremendously in the past twenty years, no doubt due in part to Smith’s diligent work here and elsewhere. Although there have been many significant developments in the Bahá’í world since 1985, The Bábí and Bahá’í Religions will undoubtedly continue for many years to occupy an important niche in conveying the dominant themes in the growth and unfolding of today’s Bahá’í religion.