ه‍.ش. ۱۳۸۴ دی ۲۱, چهارشنبه

Methodology in Bahá'í Studies

Thank organisers

The academic world is dominated by a methodology that is inherently materialistic. There are of course strong historical reasons for this. During the seventeenth and eighteenth century the Enlightenment caused intellectuals in Europe to move away from viewing the universe as a God-centred universe towards thinking of it as a giant machine running according to immutable laws. The church of course resisted this trend, but as the new way of looking at the universe began to be more and more successful at unravelling its secrets, the church became increasingly sidelined.

By the end of the 19th century, many eminent thinkers and scientists were completely atheistic in their perception of the world. The new universities that were springing up rapidly throughout the Western world became the bastions of this thoroughly atheistic and materialistic vision of the world.

A key reason for the triumph of the materialistic viewpoint has been the success of science and the technological advances that have occurred in the wake of scientific progress. This seemed to offer self-evident justification of the correctness of the materialistic assumptions that were held to underpin science. In philosophy, these materialistic assumptions led to the movement called positivism. According to this viewpoint, only propositions that can be empirically verified are meaningful. Later this criterion for knowledge and meaning was refined by Popper to the test of falsifiability - that a law, hypothesis, or theory is meaningful only if it is in principle conceivable that evidence could be cited that would refute (or disconfirm) it. Under one variation or another such theories meant that at the heart of intellectual life was a viewpoint that was not only atheistic but rejected all metaphysical concepts as meaningless.

During the twentieth century, this materialistic, positivist trend was consolidated in the universities - through from the physical sciences into the social sciences and humanities. A few have questioned whether the scientific, materialistic approach is valid when one moves from things to people, from the physical sciences to the social sciences and humanities, but for the majority, the assumptions on which their methodologies are based are those of positivism and materialism.

The reason for my lengthy discourse on the intellectual history of the West is to lay down the background to the intellectual climate in universities today; to describe the reason for the unrelenting hostility that exists in the academic world towards any spiritual orientation or values-based approach to research and discourse.

Inevitably then there must be something of a methodological clash between this world-view that has hegemony over the universities and the Bahá'í viewpoint; between a world-view that sees this whole world as an arena in which blind and impersonal laws are operating in a mechanistic and deterministic way and in which human beings are an accidental and marginal phenomenon and a view point that sees the world as a place where `every atom in existence and the essence of all created things' has been created by a Divinity for the guidance and training of human beings.

The Bahá'í Faith with its emphasis on values, purpose and the centrality of the spiritual world is in many ways the exact antithesis of the value-free, purposeless, materialistic viewpoint on the world that the positivist approach espouses.

So we have an impasse, an opposition between two value systems with the Bahá'í scholars caught between the two.

The Bahá'í response to this situation can be in two ways. The first I will term an interior or internal scholarship. This means that we can pursue a scholarship on the Bahá'í Faith within the Bahá'í community. Because this type of scholarship is within the community, it can adhere to a faith-based, revelation-centred methodology. Most of the participants will be Bahá'ís but occasionally external scholars may be invited in if they subscribe to the methodology. This is a pathway that other religious communities have chosen to tread. They have built theological colleges, madrassas, yeshivas and monasteries, within the confines of which a similar faith-based internal scholarship can be pursued.

This internal scholarship is certainly one response - and useful in that it allows Bahá'í scholars the freedom to explore the full range of the possibilities of the Bahá'í Faith. But, I would contend, it is not enough - and this for 3 reasons:

1. Participation in the world's image of us. At this early stage in the development of the Bahá'í Faith, when it is obscure and its teachings and principles so little known, we need to participate in the creation of the world's image of us. How is this image created? One of the first places that the writers of newspaper articles and the makers of television programmes go to when they need accurate, impartial information about an obscure religious movement is either to encyclopaedia articles written by academics or to the academics themselves. These are the people who are, to a large extent, responsible for feeding information about the Bahá'í Faith out to the world. If Bahá'ís want to be involved in the image of the Faith that is being created, then they need to interact with the academic world. And the best way of interacting positively with the academic world is to publish material that gains the respect of that world - material that accords with its standards. We can no more expect to enter the academic world with a different methodology than we can expect to join in a professional football match and then ask to play under an alternative set of rules.

2. Obligation to participate in the world, contribute to the Lesser Peace. Bahá'u'lláh has put an obligation on Bahá'ís not to separate themselves off from the world but to participate in it. In particular, Bahá'í have an obligation to promote Bahá'í principles and ideas in the hope that the speedy diffusion of these will assist in their adoption by the people of the world and the consequent alleviation of humanity's suffering. By participating in the academic world, Bahá'í scholars are assisting in this process. Academic works are often the seed-bed of concepts that filter into the wider world. Thus Bahá'í concepts can be diffused by participating in the academic environment.

3. Greater understanding of the Bahá'í Faith itself. The Bahá'í Faith is a result of an interaction between a Divine impulse and the human world. To understand it we must, of course, study the Divine input, which is primarily the text of the scripture. But we must also study and understand the other side - the human response; in what way have human factors affected the Faith? What lessons should the Bahá'ís of today learn from what has happened in the past? In what way can we best tailor the Bahá'í teachings so as to bring them to the attention of the world? What aspects of the Bahá'í Faith are most appealing to different sorts of people? Such questions are best studied through the methodologies developed by such disciplines as history, psychology, and sociology.

A fourth reason to reject an exclusively internal development of Bahá'í scholarship is the fact that the Bahá'í Faith at this stage of its development cannot afford the capital and running costs of institutions that would form the basis of such as scholarship. Indeed, since the Bahá'í Faith does not have a professional clergy, there is little need in the Bahá'í community for institutions similar to the theological colleges and madrassas of Christianity and Islam. There is also no career path for graduates of such institutions.

Methodological approaches

I would suggest then that Bahá'í scholars must, to some extent at least, engage in an external scholarship - an interaction with the academic world. One can identify several approaches that might be taken by Bahá'í scholars in interacting with the academic world.

1. To suspend our Bahá'í viewpoint and immerse ourselves fully in the values and ethos of the academic world; to try thereby to gain the respect of that world in the hope that once in a position of influence, we can guide the academic world towards an interest in a limited number of Bahá'í concepts

2. To find corners of the academic world in which one can participate without compromising Bahá'í principles. There are methodologies that are more favourable to a faith-based approach. In the realm of the study of religion, for example, phenomenology can be seen to such a methodology. It considers that the reduction of religious phenomena to social, psychological or other explanations is a false oversimplification. The best way of understanding such a complex phenomenon as religion is to try to get inside the religious experience One key aspect of the method is einfühlung, the obtaining of an empathic understanding of the religious position of others.

One important writer within the phenomenological school, the late Wilfred Cantwell Smith wrote of attempting to produce material on religion that stands a dual test: that of acceptance by the academic community and also acceptance by the religious community about which the piece is written. Some Bahá'ís have also suggested that writing within the perennial philosophy or Neo-platonic schools would also be comfortable for Bahá'í scholars.

On the whole, however, these methodologies that tend to be more congenial towards a faith-based approach are themselves marginalised by the academic community.

3. To stand outside and seek to influence from the outside. To acknowledge that it is not possible to enter fully into the academic world because of its values and premises and therefore to remain outside it, trying to engage with it and influence it in whatever way possible. This is of course, merges with the internal scholarship described above. It is likely to be only very minimally successful at influencing academic scholarship about the Bahá'í Faith, because the academic world will be unlikely to engage to any great degree with those whose work it perceives to be flawed by incorrect methodology and unprovable metaphysical assumptions.

And so I think we have little choice but to engage with the academic world on its own terms, adopting its methodologies, however much we may dislike these. Personally, I favour the approach of Cantwell Smith that I have described above - that of writing material that satisfies both the academic community and the believing community


Towards a Bahá'í Methodology

Lastly, although I have said that, at this stage, it would not be advisable for Bahá'ís to isolate themselves and to try to create a separate world within which a Bahá'í methodology would obtain, there is no reason why Bahá'ís should not be developing the outlines of such a methodology against a day when it can be fully applied. Many of the points of such a methodology can indeed be applied even today.

The following is not a methodology per se, but rather an attempt to extract from the Bahá'í scriptures those concepts and ideas that could form the basis of a Bahá'í methodology:

Tablet of the True Seeker. Some may say that that passage of the Kitáb-i-Íqán that is commonly referred to as the Tablet of the True Seeker only concerns the seeking out of religious faith, but the introductory words, in fact, speak of seeking out "the knowledge of the Ancient of Days". Since we can find "the signs of thy Lord's mercy in every created thing, and see the spreading rays of His Names and Attributes throughout all the realm of being"[1], it follows that seeking out "the knowledge of the Ancient of Days" can also involve all forms of seeking or research - provide we are doing the research with this noble aim of seeking out "the knowledge of the Ancient of Days".

If we turn to the passage regarding the true seeker, we find many statements that can be related to the methodology of research. The following are the first six exhortations that Bahá'u'lláh makes in this so-called "Tablet of the True Seeker":

1. He must, before all else, cleanse and purify his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy.

Interpretation: `acquired knowledge' is a difficult phrase, but in this context it think it could be interpreted as ridding oneself of preconceptions. Each one of us has certain preconceptions that have arisen as a result of our education and experiences in this world. These preconceptions mean that we see everything that presents it self to us from a particular viewpoint. Often the greatest and most innovative researchers, those who create new paradigms, those who are able to step outside their preconceptions and view an old problem from a new perspective.

2. He must purge his breast, which is the sanctuary of the abiding love of the Beloved, of every defilement, and sanctify his soul from all that pertaineth to water and clay, from all shadowy and ephemeral attachments.

Interpretation: This sentence would apply to the need to rid oneself of all base motives in our research work. Very often, work is carried out for reasons other than the pure desire to obtain the truth. Career advancement, jealousy, fear of a rival, racial, religious or gender prejudices all play a part in the interactions of academic life and the production of research work. Bahá'u'lláh states that all such "defilements" ultimately cause us to veer away from the straight path towards truth.

3. He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth.

Interpretation: In the course of our scholarly research, we often become very committed to certain theories or approaches to a problem. Indeed, we acquire an emotional attachment to these. Similarly we can become emotionally opposed to other theories perhaps because they are associated with certain individuals whom we do not like. In either eventuality, such emotions may blind us to the best approach to take to a problem.

4. That seeker must at all times put his trust in God, must renounce the peoples of the earth, detach himself from the world of dust, and cleave unto Him Who is the Lord of Lords.

Interpretation: Very often, researchers are afraid to put forward a new idea that conflicts with the received wisdom of the academic community or go against the prevailing fashionable theory. So the researcher must be willing to stand up for what he or she believes to be the truth, unless and until it is demonstrated to be otherwise.

5. He must never seek to exalt himself above any one, must wash away from the tablet of his heart every trace of pride and vainglory, must cling unto patience and resignation, observe silence, and refrain from idle talk.

Interpretation: Research work should not be motivated by a desire for self-advancement and fame, nor should one produce papers and publish material merely for the sake of having one's name before one's fellow scholars. One should only publish material when one has something new and worthwhile to say

6. That seeker should also regard backbiting as grievous error, and keep himself aloof from its dominion, inasmuch as backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul.[2]

Interpretation: Criticism of another's work should be positive and constructive and not negative and destructive.

All of the above exhortations apply to one engaged on research to some extent.

7. Justice - to see things fairly is an attribute that is of great value to researchers in assessing the results of their findings. Bahá'u'lláh assures us that if we can achieve this quality, it would enable us to know of our knowledge and not through the knowledge of our neighbour.[3]

8. Reason: In the course of constructing a Bahá'í methodology, we must not forget the high station that `Abdu'l-Bahá gave to human reason and to the fruit of that reason: scientific thought.

God has endowed man with reason that he may perceive what is true. If we insist that such and such a subject is not to be reasoned out and tested according to the established logical modes of the intellect, what is the use of the reason which God has given man? (`Abdu'l‑Baha: Promulgation of Universal Peace* Pages 63‑64)

Reason, `Abdu'l-Bahá tells us is the "discoverer of the realities of things" and what is research but the attempt to uncover "the realities of things"? He also states

"that which conflicts with its conclusions is the product of human fancy and imagination."[4]

Thus any Bahá'í methodology must be firmly grounded upon the use of reason. The conclusions reached must be demonstrably reasonable and not contain any flaws of logic.

9. Balance with revelation

While praising the human rational faculty and encouraging its use, `Abdu'l-Bahá also warned against excessive reliance upon it as a criterion for truth. He points out that if the reason by itself were a sufficient instrument to arrive at the truth, then we would find the philosophers all agreed upon the fruits of their reasoning processes. Whereas in fact we find no such agreement. Indeed we find that two philosophers starting from exactly the same information derive very different conclusions, and each asserts that he or she has used only rational processes in arriving at this conclusion. Thus reason by itself is not a sufficient guide on which to base our researches. `Abdu'l-Bahá speaks of the bird of humanity having two wings - science and religion - and that humanity cannot fly upwards without a balance between the two. In relation to a research methodology, this could be understood to mean that we must balance the knowledge that come to us empirically with what information we have through revelation. Given that both of these sources are usually subject to human interpretation that is fallible, neither necessarily outweighs the other. This principal can also mean that our research must be guided by both materialistic values (meticulous examination of the sources, the strength of the evidence, the balance of probabilities, etc.) and also by spiritual values (probity, fairness, etc.).

10. Consultation. The concept of consultation is a powerful one in the Bahá'í teachings. The methodology of consultation is one that could be applied to scholarly research and which could form the basis of a radical new Bahá'í research methodology that would be the exact antithesis of many of the features of the prevailing academic methodology. Instead of the promotion of one's own opinion, one's view become lost as one submits it to the group; the group then works on the view expressed and a complete revision of that view emerges as the final result, such that it is no longer possible to attach the name of any individual to the idea.

11. Ethical ways and means. A Bahá'í methodology would be human-centred rather than results-oriented. This means that ethical considerations would predominate over the desire to get results. Considerations of people's feelings, confidentiality, the ethics of the ways used to gather data, and the value of the individual human being may all mean that certain methods or certain data would not be used even though they may yield useful information.

12. The Covenant. Lastly a Bahá'í methodology cannot ignore the centrality of the Covenant in the Bahá'í Faith. There are two aspects to this: the first theoretical and the second practical. The first means that for a Bahá'í, the situation with regard to authority is often the reverse of what it is for academic scholars. For an academic scholar, the older a historical source, the more likely it is to be reliable. Thus an older source will usually be considered better than a more recent source. In the Bahá'í Faith, it does not work that way. The interpretation of `Abdu'l-Bahá may be more recent than the writings of Bahá'u'lláh but if they interpret the writings of Bahá'u'lláh one way, then no amount of protestation by scholars that they can prove that Bahá'u'lláh intended something else is going convince a Bahá'í audience. For Bahá'ís, `Abdu'l-Bahá's interpretation trumps all other interpretations of the writings of Bahá'u'lláh.

The practical aspect of the Covenant involves of course obedience to the present Centre of the Covenant, the Universal House of Justice, and those institutions of the Bahá'í Faith established under the authority of the Universal House of Justice. This obedience may be difficult and at times be unintelligible to academic scholars but it is an inseparable part of the Bahá'í Faith. I will not deal with this area of the relationship between Baha’i scholars and the Baha’i institutions any further here as it is the subject of another presentation at this conference

And running out of time


[1] `Abdu'l-Bahá: Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 41

[2] Bahá'u'lláh, Kitab‑i‑Iqan, pp. 193‑5

[3] Bahá'u'lláh, Arabic Hidden Words 2

[4] `Abdu'l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 316

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