By H. M. BALYUZI.
pp. xviii, 457.
Oxford, George Ronald, 1976. £5.75.
Review by L.P. Elwell-Sutton, published in
Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1977)
H. M. Balyuzi has made a name for himself as a charming and persuasive apologist for the Bahá'í faith, and his trilogy on the great figures of that religion (JRAS, 1973, 2; 1975, 1) has not only set out in easily read and assimilated form the official Bahá'í view of the historical beginnings of their faith, but has also brought to light a good deal of hitherto unpublished information. Now, however, he has turned his hand to a much wider canvas, the whole course of Islamic civilization from its inception up to the first half of the 19th century. His justification for undertaking such a task is that (just as Muslims recognize Jesus, and Christians Moses) he as a Bahá'í "believes in the God-given mission of Muhammad". So one might hope for a new slant on Islam to set against the convinced Muslim view that it is the only and final truth, and the equally convinced Christian view that it is, in the last resort, a false faith (I leave out of account here more eccentric interpretations such as the atheist and the sociological).
It is sad, therefore, to have to report that the task has proved well beyond Balyuzi's capacity. He is no historian; he shows no ability to grasp the sweep of events, to sense the underlying trends and forces, to analyse and synthesize his material. Instead he has given us a rambling and loosely strung together collection of facts, names (innumerable names!), dates, and anecdotes; indeed the very extent of his gatherings is at least witness to his wide reading, even though it seems to have been confined primarily to traditional Western sources - Gibbon, Ameer Ali, Toynbee, Hitti, Runciman (he devotes a disproportionate amount of space to the Crusades), Arberry, and Watt.
If there is a discernible bias in Balyuzi's work, it is not towards Bábism and Bahá'ism (excluded by the historical limits of his survey), but against Shí'ism - perhaps a not unnatural reaction to the conventional Shí'ite view of Bábism/Bahá'ism (the Sunnís do not have one) as an heretical breakaway from Islam. As samples of other less important instances of his rather cavalier treatment of facts one might cite his reference to the Fihrist's very sketchy treatment of "the Scriptures of other Faiths" as a gauge of "the breadth of vision and understanding of Muslim writers"; his description of the Ismá'íli[i] order as "the most effective and the most significant breakaway group of the Shí'ah branch of Islám - its largest offshoot"; his assertion that Ibn al-Muqaffa' used his translation of the Kalíla wa-Dimna as a medium by which "subtly to disseminate his Manichaean beliefs"; or even his apparent unawareness that there are rather more solid evidences of the spread of Manichaeanism to Europe than his conversation with "a Welshman in London in the late thirties".
Balyuzi maintains the same eccentricities of transliteration that have been criticized in his earlier work, and that he is sensitive to such criticism is evidenced by his devoting three-and-a-half pages to "A note on transliteration", most of which is unexceptionable if over-pedantic. But since towards the end he attacks the Orientalists for the "error" of transliterating the Arabic definite article in the from al- even when it precedes a shamsí letter, it seems necessary to remind him that he is confusing transliteration (of letters) and transcription (of sounds), and that the practice he criticizes merely reproduces the original Arabic, where the lám is retained throughout. And since Balyuzi has in this way invited a riposte, it should be added that his own practice in other respects is highly erratic; so we find "Ibn al-'Arabí", but "Jaláli'd- Dín", " 'Abda'r-Rahmán", " 'Abdu'l-Muttalib"; "Kitáb al- Aghání", but Kitábu'l-Bukhalá' "; and even (hedging his bets?) "Ibna'n-Nadím (Ibn an-Nadím)". This is quite apart from such gross errors as "al-Madínat an-Nabí", "as- Sáhba's-Zanádiqah", "al-Kámil at- Tawáríkh".