Author: John Walbridge
Publisher: George Ronald, Oxford, 1996, 322 pages
Review by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram
The basic problem with this work is stated in the author's preface: "Most of this book was originally written as articles for an encyclopædia on the Bahá'í Faith, which has not yet appeared" (xii). One can certainly sympathise with the author that after putting so much work into these articles it seemed a waste for them not to be read, and, let me be clear, there is not one article in this book that does not heartily deserve to be read. Nevertheless, the result is a miscellany rather than a book.
The lack of a central thrust can be seen from the preface itself. First, it is stated that the book "is an exploration of several areas of the sacred in the Bahá'í Faith" (xii). Part One is to discuss religious law; Part Two to deal with sacred space and pilgrimage; and Part Three to discuss sacred time in respect of the Bahá'í calendar and holy days. Walbridge explains that he wishes to go beyond simply detailing the requirements established in the text by taking into consideration what Bahá'ís actually do. He then suggests another major rationale for the work saying it "attempts to put the laws of the Aqdas in a larger context, not only correlating the relevant Bahá'í texts but discussing their roots in Bábí and Islamic law and comparing aspects of Bahá'í religious law to the role of law in other religions" (xiii).
A discussion of law (even religious law) and a discussion of the sacred in religious praxis are not the same thing. Every article in this book does one or the other, and sometimes both, but each is largely self-contained and there is little linking or development of ideas from one topic to the next. Even the arrangement of the chapters and sections seems increasingly arbitrary as the book proceeds, until it winds down with five appendices that give the appearance of left-over ingredients (and again let me emphasise their tastiness) that could not be fitted somewhere into the main courses.
Accepting this book as a collection, then, how successful is it as an "enquire within" resource? I must admit to having picked it up with some trepidation as I did not expect encyclopædia articles to be an entertaining read. However, Walbridge has generally managed to be both informative and interesting. It is a precipitous balancing act to simplify without over-simplifying and this collection maintains an amazingly even keel. Certainly, there are a few places where one might wish to add buts, ifs, and maybes, but these are relatively few and far between.
The most useful sections of the book are those that begin with a capsule presentation of the Bahá'í position on a topic followed by a general discussion of that issue in religion and then a presentation of the Islamic, Bábí, and Bahá'í views in basic detail. One of the most important contributions of these discussions is the way in which they present the basics of the Islamic context with which so many Bahá'ís are unfamiliar and do so with a minimum of technical vocabulary. This type of presentation is used for each topic through chapter four, to some extent in chapter five, and then again for the calendar in chapter eight. The rest of Part Two is simply straightforward brief accounts of holy places and specific texts. The section on Bahá'í cemeteries would seem to have been at least as relevant after the discussion of funerals in the first part of the book as where it is placed.
The third part of the book amounts to a handbook on the Bahá'í calendar, includes a glossary (of somewhat inconsistent format) on the Arabic names of the days, months, etc., and gives an account of the Nineteen Day Feast and the holy days. Most of the details presented here are not well known among (or widely used by) average Bahá'ís. In the introduction to this part of the book, Walbridge states "the Bahá'í Faith has a keen sense of the sacredness of historical time" (173). However, there is no mention in his discussion of Bahá'í "sacred time" of the historical periodicity most widely known among Bahá'ís: Shoghi Effendi's use of the concept of "age" or "epoch" as in "the Heroic Age" or "the Formative Age."
The first appendix is somewhat misleadingly titled as "Two Bahá'í Legal Texts" which could easily lead a reader to suppose that the actual texts of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas and Lawh-i-Tarazat are to be found there rather than just a brief discussion of them. There is also an editorial oversight in that chunks of this appendix are repeated almost verbatim in the notes to it.
Walbridge notes in the preface that the lack of scholarship on which to draw limits his ability to treat Bahá'í practice empirically as well as normatively. He says that he has had to rely mostly on his own observations "which are largely limited to American, Arab and Iranian Bahá'ís" (xiii). However, the combination of his observations and his textual research have provided him with a firmer grasp of the history and practice of the Eastern community. This leads to a certain bias and privileging of Eastern experience and practice in some instances.
To give examples: The discussion of the implementation of Huqúqu'lláh (81; 96-98) focuses on the Eastern community. There is no doubt that the institution has been more developed there, but it is not accurate to see it as not involving the West until recent years. There is a tablet to Roy Wilhelm in 1919 instructing him to send "Hukook" to the usual bank. (1) So that however many (or few) were contributing, and for however long they did, huquq was being offered from the West during the time of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. We might note that this tablet was translated by Shoghi Effendi so he knew this to be the case. One of the first things Shoghi Effendi did as Guardian was to establish national funds, and when the subject of huquq was brought up by Americans subsequently he told them to contribute to the Temple Fund as this was a more urgent matter at that time. (2)
While Persian Bahá'ís may use the term mashriqu'l-adhkár to refer to dawn prayers and Walbridge echoes that usage (30, 52), it is not the case that this is what the term "means" nor that the principle focus of the institution is on that practice. One might note that of the tablets addressed to America that refer to specific meetings as constituting in one way or another mashriqu'l-adhkár, none refer to dawn prayers, all refer to meetings that were being held later in the day. (3)
In his discussion of translations of the Aqdas (250-1, 295), Walbridge mentions the Haddad translation into English. There was also at least a partial further translation into English (by Fareed?) as early Chicago believers quote Aqdas passages that are not the Haddad text. There is also the Mazandarani/Gail English translation which although not widely known is still of significance. And there was a French translation by Dreyfus which was available in the US as well as Europe. Both these latter unpublished translations included Questions and Answers.
As this book has been issued as the first in a new series "Bahá'í Studies," something needs to be said about the course it seems to set. Unlike the established Kalimát Press series colloquially known as "Bahá'í Studies" (properly "Studies in the Bábí and Bahá'í Religions"), this book does not lead one to suppose that the George Ronald series will address a scholarly audience. The level of this book seems to be aimed at the reasonably educated general reader or the undergraduate student. The publishers back cover blurb seems to suggest that this is indeed the audience targeted by the series. It is to be hoped, though, that subsequent books will be able to maintain the quality of content of this one but add a coherent structure. It would also be pleasant if they did not evince the annoyingly inconsistent use of different type styles for heads and subheads seen here.
All in all, then, Sacred Acts, Sacred Space, Sacred Time is a series of fragments fractured from a larger reference work; each worth rescuing and reading, but pick and choose as needed rather than expecting a cover to cover read.