Read: Rituals in Babism and Baha'ism, by Denis MacEoin


DENIS MacEOIN, Rituals in Babism and Bahá'ísm, Pembroke Persian Papers, Vol. 2
Published in association with the Centre of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge
London: British Academic Press, 1994
Pp. 204.
REVIEWED BY CHRISTOPHER BUCK, Department of Religion, Carleton University, Ottawa

Bahá'ísm--the "Bahá'í Faith" as known by practitioners, press and public (lexicalized "Bahá'í" in the Oxford English Dictionary 2nd ed. 1:885)--is variously treated as an independent world religion, as a new religious movement (NRM), or, in older literature, as a "sect of Islam."[1] Bahá'ís believe Babism's prophet-founder Sayyid 'Ali-Muhammad Shirazi, the Bab (d. 1850), was the co-originator of the Bahá'í religion in his role as precursor to prophet-founder Mirza Husayn-'Ali Nuri Bahá' Allah (OED sp., Bahá'u'lláh; official Bahá'í spelling, Bahá'u'lláh, d. 1892), succeeded by 'Abd al-Bahá' 'Abbas (d. 1921), Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (d. 1957), and now the Universal House of Justice (Haifa). Foundational for the academic study of these two religions is Peter Smith's The Babi and Bahá'í Religions: From Messianic Shi'ism to a World Religion (Cambridge, 1987).

Having taught for a number of years at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Denis MacEoin is an independent scholar who wrote his dissertation on the Babi movement at Cambridge (1979) and has continued to publish on Babi and Bahá'í topics ever since. Rituals in Babism and Bahá'ísm is a text-centered, information-rich study of the prescriptive passages of Babi and Bahá'í scriptures. It is a revision of a paper written circa 1980 when the author was teaching at the University of Fez (Preface). Following a brief "Introduction" (Chapter One, pp. 1-5), what are in effect two separate but related studies--"Babi Ritual Observances" (Chapter Two, pp. 6-36) and "Bahá'í Ritual Observances" (Chapter Three, pp. 37-69), followed by endnotes ("Notes," pp. 71-90)--comprise the main body of this compact, well-documented study. The reader is provided with a representative selection of texts (twenty-six "Appendices," pp. 91-168) translated from the Persian and Arabic originals, followed by primary and secondary works consulted (173-79). Four separate indexes, "Technical terms," "Books/texts," "People/groups/places" and "General topics" (pp. 181-88) facilitate referencing.

The author has anticipated some inevitable criticisms. In his preface, MacEoin states: "This is not a penetrating anthropological study of the practices of two little-known religious groups. Babism all but died out well over a century ago, whereas Bahá'ísm was recently described as the second most widely distributed religion after Christianity. Of Babi ritual practice--if there ever was very much of it--we know next to nothing....This is a book mainly about prescriptive texts, and only secondarily concerned with praxis" (p. xv). In the case of Babism, this approach has its merits. MacEoin's treatment of Babi observances derives from his comprehensive survey of known manuscript writings of the Bab, containing laws that were largely unimplemented: "Babism remained little more than a religion in potentia, fossilized in the memory of historical events and little-read texts" (p. 1). The author's description of Babi praxis is of purely theoretical interest unless otherwise historically attested.

For different reasons, Bahá'í observances are treated in the same text-based way. "Needless to say," the author says, "this provides us with a prescriptive rather than actual picture of Bahá'í practice" (p. 38). This is a telling admission. MacEoin's privileging of text over real-life, veridical, day-to-day practices of a faith community appears to compromise the canon of believer-intelligibility (as advocated by W. C. Smith et al) in the academic description of religion. There is a sharp methodological contrast between MacEoin's textual description and Peter Smith's sociology of the Babi and Bahá'í religions. The two methodologies do overlap and complement each other. Yet, in the final analysis, there is little resemblance between the two resulting pictures of these religions. Bahá'í laws have been implemented according to a principle of gradualism, in which far more has been demanded of believers from Iran and other parts of the Middle East than of the vast majority of other Bahá'ís, who are non-Persian. Considering that a study of scripture cannot be atomized in abstraction without any sociological control, Smith's monograph is "real-world" in terms of its correlation of method and data, while MacEoin's is, at best, a partial match.

Equally problematic is the lack of any definition of "ritual" or "semi-ritual." MacEoin speaks variously of "quasi-rituals" (p. 34), of "pseudo-Bahá'í practices" (p. 38), of "ritual and semi-ritual observances either prescribed or sanctioned by Bahá'í scriptural texts in Persian or, more usually, Arabic" (p. 38), as well as a "generally ritual atmosphere, even when specific rites are not being carried out" (p. 34) in the case of Babism. Recently, Jan Platvoet has provided an operational definition of "ritual," and cited twenty-four theoretically influential definitions, in chronological order.[2] Based on these twenty-five definitions, MacEoin's unstated definition of "ritual" appears to be any "patterned" (R. Firth, 1951), "stylized or formalized" (S.F. Nadel, 1954) or "repetitious" (E.M. Zuesse, 1987) performative behaviour in a context of "rule-governed activity" (F. Staal, 1986), but without any explication of ritual as a "symbolic fusion of ethos and world view" (Geertz, 1966).[3] Such a sense of ritual appears to govern MacEoin's selection of texts.

Many Bahá'ís, especially in the North Atlantic world, have adopted a rhetorical stance of attempting to minimize the existence of ritual in their religion. Thus, they tend to downplay the ritual nature of such practices as the annual fasting month, attendance at a "feast" or meeting for worship, community business and fellowship every nineteen days, and daily obligatory prayers. That is, they appear to mean that the Bahá'í religion has relatively simple, "low-church" rituals, rather than that it has none at all. At the grassroots level, it may be fair to say that Bahá'ís perform their obligatory prayers, fast, etc., and still say they do not perform any ritual, because it has not occurred to them these practices constitute rituals. (Bahá'ís tend to associate rituals with Catholic Mass, and the like.) In other matters they make a genuine attempt to avoid what they see as ritual. For instance, all Bahá'í houses of worship are said by Shoghi Effendi to be utterly "devoid of all ceremony and ritual."[4] "Bahá'u'lláh has reduced all ritual and form to an absolute minimum in His Faith," according to an official statement. "The few forms [of ritual] that there are--like those associated with the two longer obligatory prayers--are only symbols of the inner attitude."[5]

The entire exercise in inventorying putative ritual is problematic in that a Bahá'í would utterly fail to recognize his or her religion as ritualistic in MacEoin's depiction of it. His vocabulary of ritual runs counter to an explicit Bahá'í rejection of all but the barest of ritual. Acknowledging, as the author does, the Bahá'í Faith's "fundamental injunction against excessive ritualism" (p. 69), the title of MacEoin's book is thus somewhat provocative and misleading. "Both Babism and Bahá'ísm," the author concludes, "possess a high ritual content, almost all of it of a prescriptive nature. There is virtually no customary practice" (p. 68). Yet he admits that "the majority of Bahá'í devotional texts have no ritual associations" (p. 42); that, in pilgrimages to Mount Carmel, there is "virtually no ritual involved and care is taken to prevent its development" (p. 58); that for Bahá'í holy days, "there are no specific rites" (64); that in Bahá'í temples there are "no fixed forms are given for worship" (p. 66). This is not to say that there are no patterned or repetitive activities in Bahá'í praxis. There are. Yet in the absence of a working definition of ritual, given the conscientious Bahá'í disavowal of ritual, the informed reader experiences some conceptual dissonance. Moreover, MacEoin ignores ethical texts--the soul of ritual--and any ethical dimensions of ritual.

An engaging but disproportionate interest in the esoteric features of the Babi and Bahá'í religions is illustrated by the fact that all five figures listed on p. xi are talismans (one Shi'i, four Babi). An entire section on "Talismans and rings" (pp. 48-52) perhaps weights the subject of talismans too heavily, considering that Bahá'í use of talismans "seems to have died a natural death" (p. 48). MacEoin points to a relatively obscure (among Western believers at least) statement by 'Abd al-Bahá' in which the dissolving in water of the "Greatest Name" of God (Bahá') is, in MacEoin's words, "recommended...as a cure for illness" (p. 48). No cultural context is provided for this statement, and no cross-reference to the standard Bahá'í practice of consulting one's physician, as Bahá'u'lláh exhorts his followers to do in The Most Holy Book: "Resort ye, in times of sickness, to competent physicians; We have not set aside the use of material means, rather have We confirmed it through this Pen, which God hath made to be the Dawning-place of His shining and glorious Cause." Bahá'u'lláh obliges Bahá'ís to consult physicians, whereas 'Abd al-Bahá' does not even "recommend" the practice to which MacEoin refers. It is conditioned entirely upon faith, and was probably indicated for the benefit of one individual, not for an entire religion.[6]

Although the author speaks of the Bahá'í faith's "uncompromising break from Islam" and its post-Islamic status as "without doubt a religion in its own right" (p. xvi), MacEoin's interest in "a study of their [Babi and Bahá'í] religio-legal systems" serves as "a means of assessing the nature of Islamicity" (ibid.). If the controlling interest resides in assessing Islamicity, it is done so at the expense of determining what is phenomenologically and distinctively Bahá'í. The latter's professed abrogation of Islamic law in favor of observances aligned with a more universalist paradigm of world unity (distinct from the "unitarianism" of some modern Muslim reform movements) indicates something of a departure from, or at least a transformation of, Islamicity. The Islam--Bahá'í paradigm divide (with Babism somewhere in between) is not clear-cut. Formal similarities in the few rituals common to Bahá'ís and Muslims may, in some cases, carry quite distinct symbolic and attitudinal values in actual practice. This is where descriptive nuancing is most needed. In both theoretical and anthropological terms, comparisons and contrasts between the Bahá'í Faith and Islam raise fundamental questions of similarity and demarcation.[7]

The recent publication of al-Kitab al-Aqdas [8] may intensify a debate in Bahá'í studies--as part of a larger debate in the study of religion--over whether the praxis of practitioners or the prescriptions of texts is taken as normative and as that which defines the religion, and whether or not the former ought to constrain weighting of the latter in the academic description of religion. As he himself admits, MacEoin's survey is not truly representative of Bahá'í behaviour and communal life in the real world. In so doing, the author overrules the prevailing Bahá'í conception of itself as a religion "free from any form of ecclesiasticism" possessing "neither priesthood nor rituals" (p. 3).

Notwithstanding his preoccupation with the Islamicity of unimplemented Babi laws and gradually implemented Bahá'í praxis, MacEoin's Rituals in Babism and Bahá'ísm is a provocative contribution to Babi and Bahá'í studies. Its tacit challenge is that there are more rituals prescribed in the texts than have so far been implemented. While this is a valid point, the author's projection of which rituals should or will be implemented is doubtful. MacEoin surveys a selective range of legal and ritual texts with atomistic precision. Ethical texts, which are also prescriptive, which ensoul the ritual, and which also regulate behaviour, are excluded. Rituals in Babism and Bahá'ísm is recommended strictly as a sourcebook, so long as the reader is aware that the Babi section is purely documentary and that the Bahá'í chapter treats in a predominantly philological fashion texts and prescriptive practices that are quite unknown to the vast majority of actually-existing Bahá'ís in the world.

NOTES

[1] I have discussed its precipitous break from Islam--mediated by the Babi religion--in a recent monograph: Christopher Buck, Symbol and Secret. Qur'an Commentary in Bahá'u'lláh's Kitab-i Iqan, Studies in the Babi and Bahá'í Religions, vol. 7 (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1995).

[2] Jan Platvoet, "Ritual in Plural and Pluralist Societies: Instruments for Analysis," in idem and Karel van der Toorn (eds.), Pluralism and Identity: Studies in Ritual Behaviour (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1995), 25-51.

[3] Buck, Symbol and Secret, 42-5.

[4] Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974 [1944]), 350.

[5] From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, 24 June 1949, cited in Wendi Momen, A Basic Bahá'í Dictionary (Oxford: George Ronald, 1989), 198.

[6] Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitab-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book. Translated under the auspices of The Universal House of Justice (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1992), 60. Upon examination of MacEoin's source, 'Abd al-Bahá's statement turns out to be an address (khitabi) presumably to an individual believer, rather than a written, authoritative "tablet" (lawhi), although the latter cannot be ruled out. No "cure" is promised, but the "influence shall be powerful" (ta'sirash shadid ast) if performed "with absolute devotion, with a pure heart and pure intention and with attraction of the spirit" (bi-tavvajuh-i tamm va qalb va niyyat-i pak va injizab-i ruh). Fazil Mazandarani, Amr va Khalq (Bahá'í-Verlag, 1986): IV, 68-69 (MacEoin's translation; my transliteration). I can scarcely conceive of such a "cure" as a "ritual" or even as a "semi-ritual" since its observance is now rarely, if ever, practiced among Bahá'ís.

[7] In terms of group dynamics, Jan Snoek's hypothesis may be instructive here: "The more the groups from which one wishes to distinguish oneself (the out-groups), are similar to one's own group (the in-group), the more rigidly will the distinguishing characteristics be formulated, and the more attention will be paid to these characteristics." Snoek, "Similarity and Demarcation," in Pluralism and Identity, 53.

[8] See note 6.

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