Various responses to Denis MacEoin's review of Making the Crooked Straight
- Response of Tony Lee
- Response of Kavian S. Milani
- Response of Udo Schaefer
This response from Tony Lee was posted on
H-Bahai by the author on 16 June 2001.
Thanks very much to Robert Stauffer for his comments of the review of
Making the Crooked Straight
posted by Denis MacEoin. The review
was provocative on many counts, and I would look forward to several more
comments about it on this list. MacEoin has raised some of the most
fundamental and important questions facing Bahá'í scholarship today, and
they deserve to be discussed.
Stauffer writes, in response to MacEoin's question of why Crooked/Straight
should have been translated into English:
It may have been published in English "to head off troubles"
which are anticipated to spill over in the future to other lands. As
English is so widely understood, it would be a good language to produce
such a book. The book will then serve to educate especially Bahá'ís
interested in the Institutional position to such arguments and
misrepresentations as Ficicchia makes.
If indeed that was the motivation behind translating Crooked Straight into
English, I am afraid that it won't work, at least as far as academic
studies are concerned. Bahá'ís cannot guard against the expression of
academic opinions with which they disagree or works that pretend to be
academic and which have little merit on that level by simply publishing a
semi- official statement of academic positions that are acceptable to
Bahá'í institutions. Such a publication will constrain no one, of course.
And it will simply be ignored by the academic community as an official
polemic, with no academic standing whatsoever.
The reason that the German Bahá'í community was so vulnerable to
Ficicchia's "rotten book" (as Denis calls it), and the reason that it did
so much damage to the reputation of the Bahá'í community in Germany, was
not that there were no offical Bahá'í books to call on. The reason was
that there was (and still is) NO BODY OF ACADEMIC LITERATURE on the Faith
in German to call on. Since there was virtually nothing in German of an
academic nature to refer to, the Ficicchia book could pretend to be a
contribution to the academic literature and be taken seriously by churches
and universities. There was nothing to challenge it with, and no one to
make such a challenge.
A similar event in English today is simply impossible. There is now a
considerable body of respectable academic literature on the Bahá'í Faith
in English, both published by Bahá'í companies and by university presses.
There is an accepted body of academic literature to which anything that
pretends to be academic must refer and come to grips with. Anyone who
tried the Ficicchia trick in English would simply be dismissed as a hack
and a charlatan by any number of Bahá'í and non- Bahá'í scholars who are
familiar with this literature. In Germany, there was no such protection
and there still isn't. We probably can say the same thing about
other important languages of scholarship French (though at least
there is Nicholas), Spanish, Italian (there is Bausani), Russian.
And, I would maintain that unless there emerges a body of true academic
literature on the Bahá'í Faith in German and other languages (Crooked
Straight is apologetic, of course. It is not an academic exercise.)
until there is such a literature in German, the Bahá'í Faith is
still quite vulnerable to stealth attacks by authors claiming to present a
disinterested and scholarly assessment of the religion, when they are
doing no such thing. Right now there is the Ficicchia book, which argues
one way, and the Schaefer book that argues another way both from
partisan positions. That leaves the academic literature still empty. And
all it would take would be for someone with real academic credentials to
write something unfair about Bahá'í history in German, and it would stand
alone and unchallenged in the field.
My point is to argue that the real protection against the Ficicchias of
the world is not ferocious apologetic and polemic by indignant Bahá'ís,
but a real development of academic research in German on Bahá'í Studies
within the German academy.
This response from Kavian S. Milani was posted on
Bridges by the author on 17 Jun 2001.
The posting by Denis MacEoin in the form of a critique (review) of
Schaefer et al. was a very interesting one. I have to commend the author's
writing style and his well developed (yet dark and polemical) sense of
humor. However I find myself unable to reconcile some of his statements
with realities in Bahá'í discourse. These assertions are accordingly
problematic. I am taking this opportunity to raise a few such points. My
goal is not to defend the book as the authors are more than able to
respond, and I do hope they respond. It goes without saying that I am very
open to new ways of looking at these problems as well. It is also fair to
point out that Dr. MacEoin is one of the senior scholars in Babi and
Bahá'í Studies with a 1979 Ph.D from Cambridge, and has to his credit a
few books and articles in this field.
To start with Dr. MacEoin critiques Making the Crooked Straight
if it is a book written by an academician for academics. It clearly is
not. The title of book makes this abundantly clear; it is a contribution
to Bahá'í apologetics. The two are apples and oranges. The two styles
(assumptions, audience and method) are from entirely different universes
of discourse. This is not to deny that the authors have substantial
academic qualifications and training. It only means that they have chosen
to engage in apologetics. Apologetics is the science and methodology of
presenting and defending a Faith
, in an arena were religions
encounter in the public square. All religious traditions engage in
apologetics, as do Bahá'ís. In the Christian Protestant tradition Josh
McDowell does it, with great success, as does Anis Soroush. Ficicchia
wrote what these authors (correctly) sensed was an apologetic work
directed against the Bahá'í Faith, and they sought (with justification) to
produce a rebuttal. This is not anything without precedent. Abu'l-Fadl did
the same responding to a little known raddiyya
penned by the Shaykh
ul-Islam of Tiflis. I don't think that apology against the Faith at the
end of the nineteenth century would have been of any consequence in the
short or long term. Nevertheless Abu'l-Fadl wrote. His apologetic rebuttal
(the Fara'id) became one of the most pivotal texts in Bahá'í scholarship
and an inspiration for generations of scholars and believers. Even today,
more than 100 years after its composition the Fara'id inspires the
Bahá'ís. Even today, anti-Bahá'í apologetics produced in Iran are
ostensibly attempts at refuting the Fara'id. An interesting example being
published at the time of the Iranian Revolution (1979).
At any rate there is some interplay between apologetics and academic
studies. They draw on each other. In his dissertation (Cambridge 1979) Dr.
MacEoin quotes the Fara'id
and produces and translates a particular
prophecy of Sayyid Kazem. In Crooked/Straight Dr. Cole is heavily quoted
as a scholar, especially with regards to the democracy-theocracy issue and
that becomes a center-piece of the argument by Schaefer et al. The book has
drawn praise even amidst its polemical audience because Crooked/Straight
is very good apologetics and it draws heavily on academic scholarship
(despite Dr. MacEoin's assertions). Nevertheless apologetics is not
MacEoin also faults Schaefer et al. for not citing (or quoting) Cole's
study of the Sahifiyya-i Shattiyyih, (and hence Nader Saeidi's
critique of it in JABS). He may be unaware that both of these became
available after the book was published originally.
The Ficicchia fiasco was a purely German phenomenon with little or no
visible impact outside Germany or Switzerland, where it did indeed do a
lot of damage to the public image of the Bahá'ís (I'm tempted to write
'the Bahá'í Church', but that is WRONG, and Schaefer, et al., may write
another epic proving it, so better not). Why, then, did somebody think
there was anything to be gained by translating a thoroughly bad rebuttal
into the most widely spoken of the world's languages? To make Ficicchia
better known and the Bahá'ís faintly ridiculous? The old adage of leaving
well enough alone comes to mind.
Would John Locke have been concerned about making Filmer better known (as
he did) by writing the Treatises on Civil Government
? By the same
token the refutation by Shaykh ul-Islam of Tiflis was limited in scope.
Why did Abu'l-Fadl have to single him out for his most adventurous and
aggressive apology? By logical extension one could argue that Abu'l-Fadl
only made his polemical counterpart "better known." Would this detract
from the need (or genuine interest) in an English version of the Fara'id?
The inability to distinguish between apologetic and its audience and
academics and its forums aside is why this writer doesn't subscribe
to Dr. MacEoin's argument, learned as he may be.
Notwithstanding the above my immediate concern is less with MacEoin's
inability to discern the difference between apologetics and academics,
rather with the following. MacEoin makes inaccurate "summational
statements" about Bahá'í Faith, Bahá'í historiography and Bahá'í scholars.
In order to demonstrate my point I will refer the readers to Edward Said's
. By summational statements I mean a biased opinion
based on anecdote or personal experience and generalizing it to an entire
field of human endeavor or activity. The problem in such summational
statements is that they take on a life of their own as "reality," even
though they are simply not true. Consider the (readily falsifiable)
summational statement: "It is one of my great stumbling blocks with the
Bahá'ís and I guarantee it will continue to be a stumbling block
for future historians that they do, in fact, go to such lengths to
'correct' any account of their history that does not fit with God
or The Dawn-Breakers
or other approved sources." Now
this becomes fact, assuming an aura of sacredness impossible to penetrate
with historical analysis. Sadly enough those unfamiliar with Bahá'í
scholarly literature would buy his statements as fact.
The following passages (pasted paragraphs) are the crux of his
argument on the existence of an "official" Bahá'í line in history and
I invite a careful perusal of this extended argument:
It is one of my great stumbling blocks with the Bahá'ís and I
guarantee it will continue to be a stumbling block for future historians
that they do, in fact, go to such lengths to 'correct' any account
of their history that does not fit with God Passes By or The
Dawn-Breakers or other approved sources. Now, history just doesn't
work like that. I know of absolutely no other area of historical studies
where modern writers routinely provide a version of events that
corresponds to a secondary source written as far back as the 1940s.
Gollmer may well point out that neither Abd al-Baha' nor Shoghi Effendi
was infallible in matters of history (p. 485). How come, then, that I have
never come across a Bahá'í writer willing to disagree with one or the
other of them on a substantial matter in public? Gollmer doesn't do it,
Towfigh doesn't do it. Momen has never done it. Smith has never done it.
In the last analysis, they provide us with just another take on the tired
old official version.
Try criticizing God Passes By or Zarandi. Shoghi Effendi describes
the latter as 'an unchallengeable textbook' ('unchallengeable'?!); others
call it 'authentic', 'authorized', even 'a Gospel'. And Gollmer thinks
there is no sacrosanct Bahá'í historiography?
Throughout his review Dr. MacEoin repeatedly drives home the point that it
is essential that an academic scholar be well versed in the latest
literature. Time after time he faults Schaefer et al. with "dated"
writings. In light of his criticisms (and the standards he advocates) I am
surprised that he is acutely unfamiliar with recent literature in Bahá'í
Studies. His assertion "Gollmer may well point out that neither Abd
al-Baha' nor Shoghi Effendi was infallible in matters of history (p. 485).
How come, then, that I have never come across a Bahá'í writer willing to
disagree with one or the other of them on a substantial matter in public?"
is too hasty a judgment. Bahá'í scholars have for long debated these very
same issues, in fact since 1940's. Incidentally the great Persian scholar
Ishraq-Khavari had presented historical data in his Rahiq-i-Makhtum and
Malik-Khusravi is his Tarikh-i-Shuhadayy-i-Amr which contradicted in some
matters both God Passes By
and Nabil's text. Is MacEoin unaware of
these texts? Has he considered the recently published book by Abu'l-Qasim
that diverges from Nabil in many details based on
excellent primary sources? There are many examples, such as who was it
that actually had a vision (or dream) of the Bab entering Kashan? Was it
Haji Mirza Jani or was it his brother Zabih? Nabil says it was Mirza Jani
but Mr. Afnan suggests it was Zabih (Ahd-i-A`la p. 242) on grounds of
solid primary sources. In short, none of these traditional Persian
scholars are western trained historians, yet all of whom interrogate Nabil
as a historical source, and at times diverge from it.
What of the more recent academically trained authors? Do they fit in the
summational mold MacEoin presents? Absolutely not. In fairness to the
readership I will limit myself to three additional examples from the
1990's published in mainstream Bahá'í journals or publications. This
should suffice to justify my conclusions.
I would direct the scholars on this forum to an article entitled
"Tarikh-i-Nabil-i Zarandi" published in Khushiha
(vol.7 p.76-). The
article comes from the genre of Persian Bahá'í scholarship most readily
essentialized as "fundamentalist" "sacrosanct Bahá'í historiography". It
is an analysis of Nabil's Narrative. On page 81 the author points out that
Nabil is wrong in writing that the Bab was executed on a sunday, the
actual day of the week was monday. Bahá'u'lláh's exile is said to occur on
Wednesday 12 rajab, which is corrected by the author to have occurred on a
monday. To this writer this means that a honest historian does his work
and interrogates his sources even on particularistic and microhistorical
detail. As a Bahá'í I welcome that.
Another example of interest comes from yet another Persian journal of
Bahá'í Studies, the Pazhuheshnameh
vol.2, No.1, p.98. This example
concerns Baha'ullah's 4th and last trip to Haifa. The author then engages
in similar solid interrogation of God Passes By
as history. God
gives the duration of the stay to be 3 months, yet based on
additional historical data the author suggests that the "correct" date was
possibly around 40 days. So I think Dr. MacEoin has put the cart before
The third example comes from Pazhuheshnameh
vol 2, No. 2 where a
young scholar presents (en passant and in the context of a book review) a
historical interrogation of the reliability of God Passes By,
and Nabil's Narrative, and criticizing a book (on
Babi history) that draws exclusively on the three above sources. This one
also is a methodologically sound examination and I invite the Persian
readers (and Dr. MacEoin) to closely read the article.
Anyway there is ample evidence to refute MacEoin's below characterization
as an accurate description the state of Bahá'í scholarship.
It is one of my great stumbling blocks with the Bahá'ís and
I guarantee it will continue to be a stumbling block for future historians
that they do, in fact, go to such lengths to 'correct' any account of
their history that does not fit with God Passes By or The
Dawn-Breakers or other approved sources.
These facts are presented for a candid discussion of issues raised by
MacEoin. While the 21st century has dawned and Bahá'í scholarship has
continued to gain in adventurous, progressive and innovative studies,
emerging from the historical necessity of a more apologetic approach to
historiography, it is unfortunate to see scholars such as Dr. MacEoin
stuck in the discourses of the late 1970's and early 1980's. The world has
moved on, and so should they.
This response from Udo Schaefer was posted on
H-Bahai by Peter Terry on 28 Jun 2001.
Mr. Lee's comments
on Dr. MacEoin's recent review of
MTCS have been brought to my attention, and I would like to respond to
some of his points as well as to the review.
For Mr. Lee, apologetics is only "official polemic with no academic
standing whatsoever", not "true academic literature". The authors of MTCS
have "no real academic credentials". Mr. Lee does not see any difference
between the accountant Ficicchia who "argues one way and the Schaefer book
that argues another way both from partisan positions" (!). For Mr.
Lee, MTCS is only "ferocious apologetic and polemic by indignant
"The presupposition of these views is that Bahá'ís who want
to enter the serious academic discourse can do this only on the basis of
agnosticism, of a methodological positivism. A scholar has to be committed
to absolute objectivity and therefore to refrain from all personal
beliefs, commitments etc. That means, a Bahá'í who wants to
participate in academic discourse has to slip into the garment of science
and to give up for this purpose all that he believes, all his personal
convictions and commitments and must regard the Faith from outside. The
objective foundations of religion, the religious truth, all doctrines,
laws, principles, the very core of religion have to be left open to
critical discourse. Thus he becomes a schizophrenic personality: As a
Bahá'í he believes in the revelation of
Bahá'u'lláh, as a "scholar" he has to abandon all
I think the crucial misunderstanding of the whole controversy is that the
fundamental difference between religious studies and theology is neither
seen nor understood. Religious studies looks at the phenomenon of religion
from the outside. The scholar in this field has to leave out his personal
beliefs and convictions. Religious studies are descriptive, empirical,
phenomenological, historical. Religious truth, however, is beyond the
reach of science. Claims to truth cannot be the object of critical
research, of scholarly questioning. The central concepts of metaphysics
such as "God, freedom and immortality" are, as Kant put it, beyond our
rational understanding or empirical experience.
Theology is different from Religious Studies. It is not a science that is
based on empiricism, it is based on revelation. In its methodology, which
operates within the closed system of revelation, it is undoubtedly
academic. If one defines science in the sense of Karl Popper's insight
that all knowledge is provisional, hypothetical in character and
ultimately cannot be verified, neither jurisprudence nor theology are
"sciences". However, in their methodology within the closed system of
codification or revelation they are undoubtedly academic. Theology is a
closed system, and apologetics has always been part of theology. The
theologian regards his religion from the inside, he is committed to his
Astonishingly, there seems to be a deep contempt for apologetics (and for
those who do this job) among some Bahá'ís, although
Bahá'u'lláh has called upon his followers to defend his
154). In all religions the starting point of a
systematic theology has always been apologetics. Mr. Lee and others have
indicated that apologetics is inherently non-academic. If that were true,
I wonder why nearly all European Universities have departments of Catholic
or Protestant theology. Everywhere there are chairs for apologetics, and
in Catholic institutions, apologetics is presently denominated
The German edition of our book was reviewed by the Christian editor of
the Ficicchia book, by Professor Hutter, the director of the Institute for
Religious Studies at the University of Bonn and by Professor Christian
Cannuyer, professor of Islamology and Oriental languages at the Catholic
University of Louvain/Belgium. By these and other reviewers, the academic
standing of the book has been acknowledged.
That a self-confessed "atheist or agnosticist" such as Dr. MacEoin
disparages our academic credentials, that our whole book is for him
nothing but rubbish, does not surprise me. The question arises as to
whether it is the new academic style to address one of the authors of a
book under review as a "gang leader" ("Schaefer and his gang", "Schaefer
and his chums", "Schaefer and his pals"), a "dinosaurier", a
"fundamentalist", a "non-academic", a "show-off, an "amateur 'scholar'", a
"blindered man" and to characterize his entire contribution to that book
as "academic sloppiness", "apologetics dressed as scholarship"!
As to my approach to apologetics, I refer to my forthcoming article
"Bahá'í apologetics?" in the next issue of
Bahá'í Studies Review
Sincerely, Dr. Udo Schaefer