Read: Basic Baha'i Chronology, The, by Glenn Cameron, and Historical Dictionary of the Baha'i Faith, by Hugh Adamson


A Basic Bahá'í Chronology
Authors: Glenn Cameron with Wendi Momen
Publisher: Oxford, George Ronald, 1996, 540 pages
Review by William Collins
published in Baha'i Studies Review 8:1 (1998)


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Historical Dictionary of the Bahá'í Faith (Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements, no. 17)
Authors: Hugh C. Adamson and Philip Hainsworth
Publisher: Lanham, Md; London, Scarecrow Press, 1998, 504 pages
Review by William P. Collins
published in Baha'i Studies Review 8:1 (1998)


With the Bahá'í Faith's dramatic growth and relative emergence from obscurity in the past two decades, the need for adequate reference books becomes ever more acute. Articles in general encyclopædias have tended to perpetuate common errors of fact and have often misstated what Bahá'ís believe. Treatment in reference works on religion in general, or on Islam in particular, have often either marginalised the Bahá'í Faith or treated only its recognisably Islamic traits. Notable exceptions are The Encyclopædia of Religion, edited by Mircea Eliade (New York: Macmillan, 1987), the second edition of The Encyclopaedia of Islam, and Encyclopaedia Iranica. However, the preparation of accurate, moderate, well-organised dictionaries and encyclopædias specifically on the Bahá'í Faith becomes more essential as researchers go to libraries to determine what this religious community is really all about.

A project to prepare a Bahá'í encyclopædia has been under way for some time. Questions of focus, tone, timing, and format have meant that this project has moved slowly, with the Universal House of Justice preferring that it be done right rather than that it be done quickly. The gap left by the absence of a truly comprehensive, authoritative, and balanced encyclopædia is being filled by Bahá'ís who have prepared a handful of one-volume reference works. Among the most widely used is Wendi Momen's A Basic Bahá'í Dictionary (Oxford: George Ronald, 1989), 261 pages in length, with short, clear definitions of main Bahá'í ideas, biographies of major figures, descriptions of holy places and events, and enough useful illustrations to give visual impact to the main points.

A successor volume, Glenn Cameron's A Basic Bahá'í Chronology, twice the length of the dictionary, provides a reasonably detailed timeline of Bahá'í history, with illustrations. Chronologies are not normally something that comes off the shelf often, but when needed for verifying dates they are indispensable. In the preface, the authors clearly indicate that there is no way to include every date, but that inclusion was based upon a date either having significant importance to how the Bahá'í Faith of today emerged, or being a date for some "fascinating" occurrence. While it would be impossible for such a work to be exhaustive, at well over 500 pages, a significantly full timeline is available. This chronology has proved useful on several occasions for finding the publication from which a particular date has been taken - useful information for researchers who need to verify the provenance of chronological information and make determinations of the veracity of that information. The chronology entries are keyed to the original source (book or periodical) from which they are taken. So while the author himself makes no claim to absolute accuracy in verifying dates, a researcher can be certain of the source from which the date was taken. The page layout is one that facilitates the location of specific years, months, and days: the year is clearly indicated as a running header on each page, with months and days set in bold in a column on the left. The many black and white photographs are strategically placed to relate to a chronological entry on the same or a facing page. Cameron's chronology also includes a good index that refers the reader to the specific dates where entries relate to the index topic. A useful improvement to this kind of volume would be chronological maps showing growth in distribution and size of the Bahá'í community. That, however, would be solved if George Ronald publisher were to prepare a third volume - A Basic Bahá'í Atlas - in which the history, growth, spread, and distribution of the Bahá'í Faith could be illustrated cartographically, with short scholarly articles on each aspect covered.

The latest addition to reference books on Bahá'í subjects, long awaited by Bahá'í bibliophiles, is Adamson and Hainsworth's Historical Dictionary of the Bahá'í Faith. This is volume 17 in a Scarecrow Press series - Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies and Movements. This series is edited by Jon Woronoff, who edits a number of other series of historical dictionaries for Scarecrow. According to the publisher, the series was conceived as a way to present essential information concisely, in a format that lends itself to ready reference, in language accessible to the layperson. Each volume deals with a specific religion, philosophy, or movement (e.g. Buddhism, Mormonism, Terrorism, the Olympic movement, Catholicism, organised labour, Hinduism, environmentalism, etc.), and has entries on significant persons, places, events, institutions, groupings, practices, writings, doctrines, trends, issues, etc. Each dictionary volume follows a more-or-less standard format that attempts to provide helpful content. An introduction provides an overview and historical context. A chronology provides a quick and easy checklist for important dates. There is also a list of acronyms and sometimes maps if geography is important to a religion. Several volumes have photographs when authors thought it important to portray famous people or places. The dictionaries themselves are intended to give relatively brief entries, although authors have leeway to make decisions about how much information should be included on each topic. The volumes in this series are less uniform than those in Scarecrow's country series, as many concepts require lengthy explanations. There are cross references. The bibliography section should be extensive but carefully selected, organised by subject, and should include more specialised sources. Depending on the topic (and author), a number of the sources may be in languages other than English. The intent is to include as many sources as possible that will be available to North American audiences, but since the publisher sells books worldwide, sources important to the higher-level researcher may be included as well. The editor, according to Scarecrow Press, reads extensively in the field before seeking an author for any given volume. The authors are therefore mostly subject specialists, well-known in their particular field.

In the case of the Historical Dictionary of the Bahá'í Faith, the authors are Bahá'ís in the United Kingdom who have produced several publications, particularly Philip Hainsworth who has written a number of introductory booklets, journal articles, and book chapters. The authors have followed Scarecrow Press's general formula for the series. In addition to a preface and introduction, the authors have included a description of the epochs of the formative age, chronologies ("timelines"), appendices of genealogical information for central figures, lists of important groups of individuals (e.g. Hands of the Cause of God), a description of the Bahá'í calendar, and statistics. The lengthy bibliography focuses about half on authoritative texts, with other primary and secondary literature comprising the remaining half. The bibliography seems to reference primarily articles and books published under Bahá'í auspices, and gives no reference to such major Bahá'í periodicals as The Bahá'í Studies Review, The Journal of Bahá'í Studies, and World Order.

The actual dictionary itself occupies some 360 pages of the book. It is important to recognise that preparation of a historical dictionary of the Bahá'í Faith, in the absence of any earlier examples to build upon, is a daunting task. However, there is a significant experience extant among librarians, researchers, and publishers regarding the proper organisation of such works, and the ways to improve their usefulness. The inclusion of the many clarifying prefatory remarks and appendices goes a long way to setting the standard for what to include in future such dictionaries, and it is clear that this dictionary has the potential to be useful as a quick reference for basic historical events, people, and concepts. It is painful to note that Scarecrow Press's inadequate editing of this work, and a lack of concision on the part of the authors, is immediately apparent, resulting in readers' frustration as they attempt to find the information they are seeking.

Nowhere in the prefatory material is there a clear indication of the criteria upon which the authors and publisher based their choice to include or exclude topics. One finds, for instance, an article on "BEGGING," which is covered in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, but nothing on "REINCARNATION," which 'Abdu'l-Bahá had to address in several of his works in answer to questions from western believers. There are articles on "BAB, SHRINE OF" and "BAHA'U'LLAH, SHRINE OF," including references to them as places of pilgrimage; yet there are no separate entries for "BAB, HOUSE OF" or "BAHA'U'LLAH, HOUSE OF," both of which are prescribed places of pilgrimage. Likewise, there is an entry for "INTERNATIONAL TRIBUNAL," but conspicuously absent are entries for "INTERNATIONAL EXECUTIVE" and "INTERNATIONAL PARLIAMENT," both of which are part of the international governance prescribed in the Bahá'í writings. There is a relatively short article on E. G. Browne, but no articles on other non-Bahá'í historical figures who were significant in Bahá'í history, such as General Allenby or Manakji Limji Hataria. More serious omissions include: the absence of an article on the Guardianship as an institution, separate from the biography of Shoghi Effendi; lack of articles on Ibrahim G. Kheiralla (the Lebanese Christian convert who established the Bahá'í community in the United States), Paul K. Dealy (prominent early American Bahá'í who assisted Kheiralla) and Refo Çapari (first Albanian Bahá'í); and no entry describing the Bahá'í view of the spiritual role of America in the spread of the religion and the formulation of its administrative structure.

Other volumes in the series, such as the one on Mormonism, included brief but helpful articles based on broad geographical areas - North America, Africa, Asia, Pacific, and so on. The Bahá'í dictionary does not have such a useful overview. For researchers who might find such geographical access useful, the volume would have been helped by an alphabetical geographical index pointing to the biographical articles, since many of these are about early Bahá'ís in specific countries.

A stylistic concern that is immediately recognisable is the use of internal Bahá'í language without any prefatory explanation. The frequent use of "the Faith," "the Cause" and "the believers" gives an internal tone to many of the entries. This is increased by the generally hagiographical content of many of the biographies, parts of which have clearly been taken from the memorial articles in The Bahá'í World or from articles written by devoted family members. For example, in the article on Musa Banani, a stirring testimony to Mr. Banani's faith is recorded: "Towards the end of his life, while he lay paralysed and bedridden, his prayers, like a great beating heart, supported and sustained the teaching work..." This form of biographical praise, even in a sympathetic reference work, impedes the flow of straightforward information that a user of a historical dictionary would expect to find. In the article on the "ARC" on Mount Carmel, mention is made of the astonishment and admiration of Israelis and visitors because the construction on Mount Carmel is paid for solely by the sacrifical participation of Bahá'ís. The style here tends to obscure important information that might have been separated and stated factually elsewhere: that the construction is financed solely by Bahá'í contributions; that contributions for Bahá'í funds are accepted solely from believers.

One obvious disadvantage in using this work is that the dictionary entries are apparently sorted by a computer program that takes into account punctuation and diacriticals. The result is dozens of entries out of order or unfindable except through searching and experience with the book's quirks of location. The entry for "CONVENTION, NATIONAL" appears out of alphabetical order ahead of "CONVENTION, INTERNATIONAL." When I searched for "MUHAMMAD-'ALI," half brother of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, it was not where I expected to find it, but rather immediately after "MUHAMMAD TAQIY-I-ISFAHANI" and just before "MUHAJIR, RAHMATU'LLAH." More problematical is the location of three entries beginning with "GHUSN," which all appear after "GUNG, CLAIRE." This non-alphabetic ordering occurs repeatedly where transliterated words appear, and severely limits the usefulness of the work for the average user. An additional filing problem appears in the bibliography, where titles beginning with "The" are entered alphabetically under T, whereas filings by title should always ignore initial articles.

A further concern has to do with the inconsistent or incorrect use of cross references. Under "ABHA," there is a correct cross reference to "ALLAH'U'ABHA," followed by a reference to "BAHA'U'L-ABHA" rather than to the correct "YA BAHA'U'L-ABHA." Under "ASSISTANTS TO THE AUXILIARY BOARDS [sic] MEMBERS," the cross reference to "AUXILIARY BOARD MEMBERS" should be to "AUXILIARY BOARD," which is the dictionary entry. Occasionally, cross references in an article refer to another cross reference rather than directly to the referenced article, as in "HOUSES OF JUSTICE" where the reader is referred for more information on Shoghi Effendi to the article "GUARDIAN, THE." At "GUARDIAN, THE" one finds "See SHOGHI EFFENDI." The pointer in "HOUSE OF JUSTICE" should simply have referenced the article on Shoghi Effendi with the traditional abbreviation q.v. A parallel problem is inconsistency of name forms in the headings and when those names are referenced in another article. Under "BAKER, EFFIE," one finds that she learned of the Bahá'í Faith from "Father and Mother Dunn." One searches the dictionary in vain for a reference under Dunn. However, if one is already reasonably knowledgeable about Australian Bahá'í history, then one can find the Dunns under "HYDE-DUNN, CLARA" and "HYDE-DUNN, JOHN HENRY." A similar problem involves the tendency to have double entries under different forms of the same name, with one of the forms having a lengthier biography, and often without a cross reference between them. The entries under "AZAL, MIRZA YAHYA" and "MIRZA YAHYA" are one example, compounded by the absence of any cross reference under the title Subh-i-Azal.

The dictionary has, unfortunately, errors of spelling (an editorial lapse) and factual inaccuracies (a lapse in research). The article on "MILLS, MOUNTFORD" [sic] has repeated a common misspelling of Mountfort Mills's first name that could be verified in Stockman's history or in the letters of Shoghi Effendi. The article on "RUMI, SIYYID MUSTAPHAY" [sic] implies a normal death from old age in 1945. However, this Hand of the Cause and a handful of other believers were assassinated, probably in 1945 during the war, according to letters to the Bahá'ís of India published in Messages of Shoghi Effendi to the Indian Subcontinent, 1923-1957 (New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1995). Under "'ABBAS EFFENDI," the definition states that non-Bahá'ís gave him that name, whereas 'Abbás was 'Abdu'l-Bahá's given name, bestowed on him by Bahá'u'lláh. The introduction indicates four languages in which Bahá'í writings were revealed - classical and modern Persian, and classical and modern Arabic - missing the prayers and tablets revealed in Ottoman Turkish by 'Abdu'l-Bahá.

In browsing through the general entries on theological topics, sometimes a non-Bahá'í would be hard put to understand what is being communicated. If we take, for example, the entry under "GOD," there is no succinct explanation that Bahá'u'lláh teaches one God, incomprehensible at the level of His essence, Who reveals His attributes universally in creation, and specifically in a series of divine Messengers or Manifestations. Instead there is a brief discussion of divine attributes, followed by a quotation from Bahá'u'lláh that indicates God's exalted station, and His revelation through Manifestations. To the uninitiated, this is not clear, particularly as the following article is "GOD, ATTRIBUTES OF." The article on "GOD, MANIFESTATION OF" defines briefly that a Manifestation is the founder of a revealed world religion, and includes a lengthy quotation. Yet it does not address such important questions as whether the Manifestation is God incarnate, simply an advanced human being, or somewhere between God and man; it misses Adam and Joseph as additional Manifestations; and it does not consider that Bahá'u'lláh implies the existence of Manifestations not named in the Holy Books. The dictionary is thus inadequate in conveying the full extent of basic concepts, and is missing other topics that should have been included. Indeed, there could well have been an article on creation, the difference between essence and attribute in Bahá'í philosophy, and the terms "Prophet" as opposed to "Messenger" and "Manifestation." These theological and philosophical articles would have benefited from more careful construction, succinct explanations, and a reduction in the number of quotations, as well as some sort of historical context.

One remaining observation that limits the usefulness of the work has to do with the structure of some of the articles. In any encyclopædia or dictionary, the basic definition or salient points for each entry must appear in the first one or two sentences. In the article "UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE," there is no succinct statement up front that it is the highest elected institution in the Bahá'í Faith, a 9-member council elected every five years, charged with legislating on matters not dealt with in the Bahá'í sacred texts. Similarly, in the biography "HAYDEN, ROBERT EARL," one finds only toward the end of the article that he was a "gifted, internationally recognized poet," which is his great claim to fame. There is no mention of his having been for two terms the Poet in Residence at the Library of Congress (now Poet Laureate of the United States).

Preparing reference works is a difficult job. An obsession with detail, organisational structure, and clarity of expression is vital if a reference work is to communicate the essential information sought by readers and researchers. Adamson and Hainsworth have given this difficult task a good effort, which must also have been under a serious time deadline. Scarecrow Press has done them a disservice by not becoming much more attentive to problems of organisation, style, and detail. A review of the manuscript by librarians, Bahá'í historians, and researchers would have caught many of the work's weaknesses ahead of time, and provided to the user a work easier to use and more concise in its information. Given its rather expensive price, the final product deserved better care and treatment.

For the time being, interested readers can continue to use A Basic Bahá'í Dictionary, and can look forward to A Concise Encyclopædia of the Bahá'í Faith by Peter Smith (scheduled for 1999 publication from Oneworld), and ultimately the Short Encyclopædia of the Bahá'í Faith under the auspices of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States.

End Notes

  1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

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