By H. M. BALYUZI.
pp. ix, 142, 9 ill.
London, George Ronald, 1970. £2.20.
Review by L.P. Elwell-Sutton, published in
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1972)
This is an unashamedly polemical work, and one must accept it as such. H. M. Balyuzi is a distinguished leader of the Bahá'í community in Britain and Europe, and he writes with charm and conviction. His main purpose, in this as in an earlier work, is to present a corrective view of the birth and rise of a world faith that for all the speed of its diffusion throughout the world is still too little known. That the task is a necessary one may be judged from the errors that the author in his introduction briefly quotes from six books recently published in the West by authors of standing in their field.
It is nevertheless a little unfortunate that Mr. Balyuzi should have chosen to cast this exposition in the form of an attack, however generously worded, on the distinguished British Orientalist E. G. Browne, who (as Mr. Balyuzi readily acknowledges) did more than anyone to bring to the notice of the English-speaking world the existence of this new faith - an activity for which, by the way, he was severely criticized by some of his less discerning colleagues. The author, however, feels that Browne's picture of Bahá'ísm was distorted, and it is of course quite clear that he had an incomplete view. He looked backwards rather than to the future. His interest began with the contracts he made during his only visit to Persia in 1887 at the age of 25, and throughout his life he continued to make it a focal point of his interest in Persia. But, as Mr. Balyuzi points out, he does not seem to have realized where the movement was heading. His almost consistent use of the term Babi rather than Bahá'í, even when speaking of the movement as it developed after the recognition of Bahá'u'lláh, is an illustration of this, as is his diminution of interest in Bahá'ísm when its adherents declined to take an active part in the Persian Revolution of 1906 and after, to which Browne devoted so much energy and sympathy.
In Mr. Balyuzi's eyes, however, E. G. Browne's main fault is that he took too much notice of Bahá'u'lláh's younger half-brother Mírzá Yahyá Subh-i Azal, who was for a time a rival claimant to the leadership of the new movement. It is when speaking of Mírzá Yahyá and his followers that Mr. Balyuzi's language, otherwise so moderate, becomes really intemperate. Ineptitude, cowardice, jealousy, diabolical intrigue, are only some of the qualities attributed to him in the first few pages of the book. Perhaps we should not blame the author too severely for this; Christian apologists have written equally harshly of Judas Iscariot and Pontius Pilate. One may legitimately question, however, whether it is necessary to extend this treatment to everyone even remotely associated with Mírzá Yahyá. Balyuzi rejects, for instance (p. 22), H. Kamshad's attribution of the translation of The adventures of Hajji Baba of Isfahan to Mírzá Habíb Isfahání, and insists that the real translator was Shaykh Ahmad Rúhí, apparently on the grounds that the latter's statement crediting Mírzá Habíb with the work appears in a letter to E. G. Browne which also "gave the news of the ascension of Bahá'u'lláh in vilest terms".
Mr. Balyuzi's book is therefore apologetics, polemics, but not objective scholarship. And let it at once be added that it is none the worse for that. We may still await the definitive account of Babism and Bahá'ísm from a neutral pen, and perhaps we shall never get it. But in the mean time Mr. Balyuzi has produced a readable persuasive account that illuminates many dark corners.
Persian scholars will appreciate the meticulously careful and consistent transliteration of Persian
names and words, even though there are a few curiosities (-ih, or -iy- when followed by idáfa, for the háy-i makhfí, Big for Beg, Siyyid for Sayyid). And since at the outset the author makes it clear that in quotations he will quite properly use the original transliteration, it seems a little unnecessary to insert the irritating sic after every word whose spelling is at variance, however slightly, with his own.