The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience


Dear Mr Glaysher,

What a puzzle. If my memory serves me right, I originally wrote this review
at the request of Tony Lee, and I understood that it would appear on
H-Baha'i; since I no longer subscribe to H-Baha'i, I've no kbowledge of
where or when it was 'published', and I had no idea it had been 'targeted'
as you say.

Maybe the simplest thing is for me to attach an original to this e-mail. I
hope you enjoy it.

Best wishes,

Denis MacEoin


To understand how fundamentalists and fanatics are using Mr. MacEoin's review in order to target and discredit it, tactics common among my fellow bahais, see the responses at

Juan Cole's comments regarding Denis MacEoin

Denis MacEoin reviews Juan Cole's Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha'i Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East

Denis MacEoin, Crisis in Babi and Baha'i Studies Bulletin, (British Society for Middle Eastern Studies), Vol. 17, No. 1 (1990), pp. 55-61.
Denis MacEoin, A Few Words in Response to Cole's 'Reply to MacEoin.' British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 18, No. 1 (1991), pp. 86-87.

Incomplete Bibliography:

Baha'i fundamentalism and the academic study of the Babi movement Religion Volume 16, Issue 1, January 1986, Pages 57-84

Afnán, hatcher and an old bone Religion, Volume 16, Issue 2, April 1986, Pages 193-195

Challenging apostasy: Responses to Moojan Momen's ‘Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha'i Community’ 2008

Rituals in Babism and Baha'ism (Pembroke Persian Papers Series) by Denis MacEoin (Hardcover - 31 Dec 1994)

The Sources for Early Babi Doctrine and History: A Survey by Denis MacEoin (Hardcover - 1 Feb 1992)


Udo Schaefer, Nicola Towfigh, and Ulrich Gollmer (contribs.), Making the Crooked Straight: A Contribution to Bah’ Apologetics, trans. from German by Dr. Geraldine Schuckelt, 2000, George Ronald, Oxford, 863 pp.  Reviewed by Denis MacEoin, Dursley, Newcastle. June 2001

 "The Baha’i arguments on every topic are the same old fossils that are trotted out every time their version of doctrines or events is called in question." --Denis MacEoin


I ask myself, when have I ever had to trudge through such a dreary text or plough my path through so many heavy-handed footnotes, and all to such little purpose? I have read worse books: the medieval English biography of Margory Kempe springs limply to mind, not to mention Memorials of the Faithful, The Priceless Pearl, and some of the less inspired writings of the Bab;[1] but seldom have I met anything quite as indigestible, as pompous, or as gradgrindish as this.

          One question stabs at me repeatedly, like an angry bee, and that is: why on earth should anyone in their right mind take the trouble to have had so many trees cut down, and such a massive tome translated at some expense into English and published for an English-speaking audience, given that no-one (Baha’is included) in that audience had ever heard of Francesco ‘Il Fallace’ Ficicchia or his rotten book before this?

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 Baha’is (I’m tempted to write ‘the Baha’i Church’, but that is WRONG, and Schaefer and his pals 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 Baha’is faintly ridiculous? The old adage of leaving well enough alone springs to mind.

          I am perfectly happy to accept that Ficicchia’s book, Der Baha’ismus: Weltreligion der Zukunft? (Baha’ism, World Religion of the Future?), itself a weighty enough indulgence at well over 800 pages, damaged the Baha’is and distorted their cause in certain quarters, mainly within the Catholic and Protestant churches. That said, I am shocked that so many German readers, from theologians to academics, were taken in by it for more than a few moments. The book looks good, of course — Ficicchia, though not an academic, knew enough to give his writing an academic appearance, and it has to be said that, for someone who’d been a Baha’i for only three years, he really did know a lot about the subject and its literature.[2] But the bias, indeed, the animus that lie behind the whole thing, not to mention the constant signs of Ficicchia’s real ignorance, are so apparent that any honest reader should have seen them jumping off the page and running straight for him. Remember what Bertie Wooster used to say about aunts, and the need for rapid evasive action.

          Baha’is were, I can see, quite justified in feeling upset about Ficicchia and his work, bearing in mind the very considerable attention they received in circles that mattered. And I don’t blame Schaefer et al for wanting to pen a rebuttal. But 862 pages? 3860 footnotes? A 32-page bibliography?

          What normal person is going to read a book like this? Few if any of those who first read and liked Ficicchia, if only because the rebuttal is so monumentally dull. I could have written an adequate dismissal of Ficicchia in ten pages. So could a lot of people I know. What more was needed?

          Some academics may have bought copies, who knows?, And some theologians for that matter, since they seem to be the boys Schaefer and his gang are most concerned about. But it won’t have taken long to spot what is going on in the Schaefer volume. If Ficicchia was a non-academic pretending to erudition he did not possess, so Schaefer and Gollmer are well-educated non-academics (Towfigh counts as a professional) who seek to ‘correct’ Ficicchia, not by addressing him academically, as they pretend,[3] but as adherents and proponents of the religion he criticized. The Baha’i arguments on every topic are the same old fossils that are trotted out every time their version of doctrines or events is called in question.

          This is most obvious in the sections devoted to history — chapters 7 through 10, by Nicola Towfigh and Ulrich Gollmer. I could not work out, incidentally, how Gollmer, who is not a historian and is not, as far as I know, able to read either Persian or Arabic, came to be qualified to write about some very difficult issues requiring an expertise in all three areas. You can’t complain about Ficicchia’s lack of scholarship if your own team is not, as Benjamin Braddock might have put it, not fully baked itself. In this area, you need to be completely baked.

          The beginning of confusion in this matter lies in Gollmer’s little essay on ‘Problems of Research in the Field of Religious History’, where, inter alia, he says ‘it is important to correct a persistent misconception: there is no “official”, doctrinaire, sacrosanct Baha’i historiography.’ But if Gollmer had taken the trouble to read his own contributions and those of Towfigh, he surely would have noticed that their version of Babi and Baha’i history corresponds down to fine detail with any other version ever produced by Baha’i writers since round about 1944.[4]

          It is one of my great stumbling blocks with the Baha’is — 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 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.

          And why do modern Baha’is (as we shall see) remain so obsessed with Subh-i Azal and his dispute with Baha’ Allah, yet so utterly lacking in curiosity about, say, the circumstances of Shoghi Effendi’s death and the events that followed it, an episode of considerably greater relevance to contemporary Baha’ism than an old split within the Babi community of Baghdad?[5]

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 Baha’i 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.

          Official versions are, after all, what this whole enterprise is about. Does the book not, after all, go all out, not only to say that Ficicchia is wrong on this point or that, but to delineate in loving detail the ‘true’ teaching, interpretation, or fact. I don’t think I once came across that classic hallmark of the academic treatise, an admission that ‘I may be mistaken’ or ‘there is more than one opinion about this’.[6] Schaefer et al are keen to portray their book as a work of proper scholarship, but the truth is, it isn’t, and saying so won’t make it so. I don’t propose to treat it as an academic work, but as what it is, a Western-Baha’I radiyya designed to refute all bearers of falsity, and to proclaim the true faith in fine detail.

          Mind you, it’s not as though anyone outside of a hard core of dedicated Baha’i big book groupies is likely to read it at any length. Oprah won’t talk it up, and the book clubs won’t make it Editor’s Choice. Not that that will stop it gaining a solid reputation within the community as a work of deep insight and true erudition, to grace the shelves alongside Balyuzi and Taherzadeh, or the editions of Ishraq Khavari.[7] Until Baha’i writers are willing to admit to the scholarly shortcomings of these and other central authors, the chances of anyone ever challenging the official version of anything are zero.

          I was one of the first to learn how determined the Baha’is can be, both to rely on hack scholarship, and to defend the ‘correct’ version of historical events down to the last detail. The dispute that followed the publication of my article ‘The Babi Concept of Holy War’[8], involving a lengthy rebuttal by two amateur scholars, Muhammad Afnan and William Hatcher, cheapened the field for a long time. It was bad enough that the Baha’is putting me right had no real expertise in this area. What made it worse was the mindless way in which each and every ‘mistake’ from my pen was corrected by direct reference to ‘authoritative’ Baha’i texts. If anyone wanted an object lesson in the zeal with which fundamentalist Baha’is treat historical accounts that deviate from the official, that was it.

          That this attitude is still alive and well anyone can see by reading through this book. Schaefer et al aren’t just content to make a general case against Ficicchia, they seem compelled to pick their way through his text almost sentence by sentence, correcting, correcting, correcting like neurotics fixed on a single topic. I defy anyone to show me where, amid all this verbiage, any of our three authors has mounted so much as a weak contradiction of the tried and tested positions that we all know and love so well.

          This could be put down to simple ignorance, but I don’t think Schaefer or either of his chums can have missed any of the controversies that have dogged the emergence of serious academic scholarship on Babism and Baha’ism. Schaefer, for instance, makes it clear again and again that the faith-inspired scholarship of believers is the equal or superior of the work of independent scholars.

          ‘There is no valid reason,’ he writes, ‘why a presentation of a religion prefaced by the term “critical” is constantly given preference over presentations written by believers themselves. The one is no more ”scientific” than the other’ (p. 18).

And again, ‘That the self-image of a religion must be the point of orientation for any portrayal of that religion by non-believers, that a religion must be able to recognize itself in a portrait, is an accepted methodological standard today’ (pp. 20-21).

          It’s hard to know where to start with this. Perhaps the best place would be to point out the double standard employed by Schaefer. Let me ask him if he thinks the Baha’i portrait of Christianity, something he has done much to paint in his own writings, would pass muster in any Christian church. Christianity stripped of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Ascension, the Resurrection, exclusive salvation through Jesus Christ, a Virgin Mother of God, confession, saints, wine that is truly blood, and so on, would not be Christianity to any of the millions who profess that faith.

          Nor would it be recognizable to Muslims, who, in their turn, deny the crucifixion and reduce Christ to the role of prophet. Nor would the Baha’i portrait of Islam (which is derived essentially from one sectarian version of the religion) be recognizable to a majority of Muslims. The same problem applies in the cases of Hinduism (Krishna a Manifestation of a single God? Two religious cycles in all history? No multiplicity of gods? No reincarnation? No Tantric sex?) or Buddhism (just one Buddha? No celibacy? No Tibetan gods? No Buddha  representations [don’t forget Bamiyan!]? No Dalai Lama?).

          It gets worse as one moves through the narrower sectarian or national forms of each religion, or to smaller religions and cults (Mormonism, the Unification Church, etc.). None of these people will for a moment see themselves in the pictures painted by Baha’i writers. But I don’t doubt that Mr Schaefer thinks the Baha’i version is correct or the Christian or Jewish or Zoroastrian self-image a distortion. I wish him good luck.

          So why, if he’s doing it himself,[9] is he so critical of academics for producing portrayals of religions that diverge from the orthodox? Maybe they do it for the same reason (though, I would argue, with much better arguments) as he, that they think their versions, based on their own and others’ research to be closer to the truth. If it works with Christianity, why shouldn’t it work with Babism or Baha’ism? Why the special pleading, Udo?

          What’s wrong with accounts by believers of their own faith, indeed, what’s wrong with ‘official’, ‘sanctioned’, or ‘authoritative’ accounts? Not a great deal, as long as we recognize them for what they are: one-sided versions with a particular slant. They are insider accounts, and, as such, must be treated with caution.

 Tell me just where on earth other than in religious matters are we expected to trust official insider versions? Scientific reports from within the tobacco, GM foods, and pharmaceutical industries? Modern histories of Iraq published in Baghdad with the imprimatur of the Iraqi Ministry of Information? The manifestos of political parties? The PR releases of any major company you care to name? A film star’s autobiography?

          But suddenly, here we are, Baha’i accounts of Baha’ism, all subjected to the approval of national reviewing committees. These we have to prefer, or at least recognize as just as scientific as an account by a neutral academic. Take this to its logical conclusion and we may as well give up any effort to be objective. Why bother to have academics at all, when men and women with vested interests will do the job for free? Think of the savings, think of the leap in standards, think of the gratitude of a thousand patrons worldwide.

          I lost my teaching post at Newcastle University because my version of Islam differed from that of my Saudi sponsors. I taught subjects like Sufism, Shi‘ism, Babism, and Baha’ism, all of which must have alarmed some of the bearded fraternity in Riyadh. I presume that Dr. Schaefer approved of this, since I was clearly going against the rule that you must present a religion in a manner recognizable to its adherents.

          There are differences between the committed and academic styles of presentation. Take ten accounts of Babism by Baha’i writers, and they will all, as though given the David Blaine treatment, seem magically the same. Not only that, but they will bear a magical resemblance to books by Shoghi Effendi, Abd al-Baha’, Nabil-i Zarandi, and other approved texts. On the other hand, take ten such accounts by non-Baha’i academics, and no two will be quite alike. I would expect there to be more and more divergence between the academic versions as different documents are brought to light and fresh theories debated. But I predict that ten Baha’i accounts in the year 2101 will still stick with the approved version.

          And while I’m at it, what’s with the endless bons mots in Latin? I know Schaefer was a German judge and big with Church Law; but I’m a British magistrate, and I don’t pepper my texts with Latin tags. It’s simply showing off, of course, and should have been spanked out of him by a decent editor. But I think it reveals something more substantial than that.

Schaefer’s models are German and Roman law, Christianity in general, and the Catholic Church (and church law) in particular. There’s nothing much wrong with that, I suppose; it’s what he knows. But it does distort his judgement. He spends much of his time trying to fit Babism and Baha’ism, religions which have their origins in Shi’ite Islam (and, to some extent, in Sufism), into the framework of something quite alien to them.

          When they do deal with matters Islamic, or, for that matter, with Babism or early Baha’ism, both Schaefer and Gollmer show themselves well read in the secondary literature, and I congratulate them for that. However, again and again they bite off more than they are qualified to chew, and enter into discussions where a good knowledge of Arabic or Persian might be useful.

On page 715, for example, Gollmer writes, keeping alive an old solecism: ‘The Kitab-i-‘Ahd unequivocally affirms the superior station of ‘Abdu’l-Baha over Mirza Muhammad ‘Ali: “Verily God hath ordained the station of the Greater Branch [Ghusn-i Akbar = Mirza Muhammad-‘Ali] to be beneath that of the Most Great Branch [Ghusn-i A‘zam = ‘Abdu’l-Baha]”’ (f.n. 170). The Arabic words akbar and a‘zam do not mean, respectively, ‘greater’ and ‘most great’. For one thing, they are from totally different roots (kbr and ‘zm). For another, there is no simple distinction in Arabic between comparative and superlative. Akbar could mean either ‘greater’ or ‘greatest’, a‘zam could be read as ‘mightier’ or ‘mightiest’. It’s a tiny mistake, but an Arabist would have put it right, rather than just repeating something found in a secondary source.

Now, I’m not criticizing people for not being Arabists. But I’m afraid that the boundaries between academic and amateur scholarship do get regularly blurred in the Baha’i context. I think it’s commendable that so many Baha’is want to do some sort of research into their history or scriptures or whatever, and I’d like to think I helped foster that development in the days when I was persona grata. (Oops, sorry about that: mea culpa).

But you only have to look at the Database of Baha’i Scholars on the web to see how many people are dabbling in areas for which they’re really not at all prepared. If you think I’m being judgmental in this, let me cite an episode that occurred many years ago in a British Summer School.

An American Baha’i woman had heard that I was writing a biography of Qurrat al-‘Ayn. She introduced herself and told me of her deep interest in this area; she was effusive and fluffy, but I just answered her questions and hoped she would learn some new things. At one point, however, I tried to explain how Qurrat al-‘Ayn had broken with the shari‘a at a very early date, and so on.

Well, this woman hit the roof. ‘Are you calling the Blessed Tahira a law-breaker?’ she demanded, and nothing I could say would make her understand anything about the Babi transition from shari‘a-mindedness to abandonment of the law, followed by the construction of a new shari‘a.

This was the equivalent of someone who knows nothing about medicine having a stand-up row with a physician because their treatment is ‘all wrong’. ‘What’s with the angina tablets, it’s his heart, you dummy!’ Of course, most Baha’i ‘scholars’ are more intelligent and more polite than Mrs Agitated of Arizona, but that doesn’t improve matters too much.

To use the same analogy, but in a real-life example: I have for years been chairman (and before that, council member) of a consumer body called the Natural Medicines Society. I’ve published articles on medicine, I currently lecture medical students at Newcastle University, I’ve delivered papers at, among other things, a conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, last year I presented a detailed report to the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Lords, I shall be delivering a paper at a seminar at Salford University in a few months, and this year I shall be publishing a compilation on health care problems. I know quite a lot about certain areas in the history and sociology of medicine.

But I would never dream of considering myself even a quasi-academic in this field. My papers and articles are those of an informed amateur, and I would never attempt to write the sort of article that could be submitted to a medical journal, or one in the sociology of medicine. My academic expertise is in Islamic Studies.

This is why I feel uneasy when Schaefer and Gollmer, each of whom certainly has his own areas of expertise, take it upon themselves to write to what they evidently see as an academic level. Their bibliography is out of date, their citations omit obvious items, they perpetuate errors that I had thought corrected long ago, they pour energy into subjects that really aren’t that important (e.g. Gollmer’s ridiculously overlong and overstated section on Rmer, pp. 546 ff.). For goodness sake, they keep citing my dissertation ‘A Revised Survey’, when my book Sources for Early Babi Doctrine and History (which is in their bibliography, and sometimes in their notes) is clearly known to be an updated version of the former. Sloppy.

This over-energetic, unfocussed approach is characteristic of all amateur ‘scholarship’. You can see it on every website where some nerd has devoted years of his life to assembling every last imaginable fact about some obscure movie actress; in every fanzine ever published; in all those Baha’i lists of pages in books, magazines, and postage stamps where the word ‘Baha’i is mentioned or (my favourite) the article in which ‘Shoghi Effendi and Charles Mason Remey are barely visible in a funeral photograph’.[10]

This is less of a problem with Nicola Towfigh. She has at least studied ‘oriental studies’, though I’m not quite sure what that means, and ‘islamology’, and she has a doctorate in ‘Creation and Manifestation from the Viewpoint of the Baha’i Religion’. I presume she knows Persian and possibly some Arabic, though I’m not sure about the latter.[11] Since these are important things to know about an author, I was disappointed that her bibliographical details were so sparse. That she is also a member of the German National Baha’i Assembly is mentioned only in passing on p. 782.

Nevertheless, the passages by her did show a grasp of secondary and primary sources. She has read around the subject of Babi history and writes about it intelligently. But, let’s say it again, she is not an expert in Babi history — as far as I know, she has published nothing on the subject — and this shows in many different ways.

Above all, it shows in her strategy (one already referred to above) of bringing it all back home. She does not correct Ficicchia on the basis of current academic knowledge, but instead replaces his ‘facts’ with a series of her own ‘facts’ as presented in standard Baha’i literature. She is critical of some of Ficicchia’s sources (the Nuqtatu’l-Kaf, Tarikh-i Jadid,Hasht Bihisht, Browne, and Rmer, but never says a word questioning the accuracy of his Baha’i sources (which include Balyuzi, The Bab, Baha’u’llah, Edward Granville Browne and the Baha’i Faith, Nabil’s Narrative, God Passes By — all books about which I would have strong reservations. This is known as applying a double standard, and it gets us nowhere, and makes for very bad history writing.

Much of her discussion of sources concerns two texts, the Nuqtat al-kaf and the Tarikh-i jadid, both of which have long been bugbears of the Baha’is, though I don’t really understand why. I find it curious (though others may politely tell me why) that she does not engage with my arguments concerning these two works, as presented in my Sources for the Doctrine and History of Early Babism. To my knowledge, this represents the latest and fullest (and, to date, the only academic) discussion of these texts. It is customary in academic circles to engage with the most recent authority, not proceed as though ignorant of it. Towfigh does refer to Sources several times, but only on points of information.[12]

The result is that her discussion feels very dated, with conclusions that are no more advanced than those of Balyuzi, who more or less started this whole business in his book about E. G. Browne. I won’t rehearse my own arguments here: anyone can go out and get hold of a copy of my book (a snip at Amazon). It may be that Dr. Towfigh’s analysis is correct (though I think not); but that does not alter the unscholarly way in which she has carried it out.

And it is worth saying that her conclusions are, I think, seriously mistaken. The idea that the Nuqtat al-kaf is an Azali forgery palmed off on Gobineau (pp. 511-12) just does not hold water.[13] But it seems that the mere mention of Azal in an approving manner in the text is enough to give Baha’is even today a mild form of apoplexy, even though the text also refers with admiration to Baha’ Allah as well. And even though plenty of other texts indicate that admiration for Azal was at this stage practically universal and therefore not at all egregious.

The fact is that Dr. Towfigh insists on presenting a black-and-white world, with good guys and bad guys, saints and antichrists, as it occurs in official Baha’i histories. But scholarship has moved on from the simplistic world views of ‘Abd al-Baha’, Shoghi Effendi, or Hasan Balyuzi. The world of middle Babism was more complex and possibly less ridden with factionalism than Baha’i historians would have us suppose. It’s time all this nonsense about ‘If it’s favourable to Azal it must be a sinister conspiracy and forgery’ was put behind us.

What sort of historian can write the following with a straight face? ‘… because Browne was not an objective, non-partisan researcher and therefore committed some serious errors, it is important for the reader to examine his work critically….’ (p. 544). Try replacing Browne with ‘Shoghi Effendi, Balyuzi, Taherzadeh, Momen’, or whomsoever you will, and you’ll see right away how very peculiar all this is. But I can’t imagine a Baha’i writer publicly disputing the objectivity and accuracy of a Baha’i historian, especially one that comes with knobs on, such as a Guardian or a Hand of the Cause.

No doubt Dr Towfigh and Herr Gollmer will object that I am wrong to claim there is such a thing as an official Baha’I historiography. As Gollmer puts it: ‘… it is important to correct a persistent misconception: there is no “official”, doctrinaire, sacrosanct Baha’i historiography’ (p. 484). That will come as news to any Baha’i who has tried to publish a version of one or more events that contradicts the official line.

I still have a vivid memory of something that happened to Moojan Momen and myself at a Baha’i summer school in, I would guess, 1978. I had given a number of talks on Babi history, and a couple of ‘Hands of the Cause’ who were present expressed disquiet about the contents. Moojan and I were summoned to see Abu’l-Qasim Faizi, and roundly treated to a severe lecture on contradicting the official line and the possible consequences of doing so.

That wasn’t the first or the last such encounter. I’d already had David Hoffman and Ian Semple playing good cop/bad cop with me one sunny afternoon in London, in one of the most unpleasant encounters of my 52 years, so I don’t need Mr Gollmer telling me there is no 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 Baha’i historiography?

Not many lines later (p. 485), he writes ‘Although, as a Baha’i one trusts that the main sequence of events is recorded correctly….’. Frankly, being a Baha’i doesn’t come into it, Ulrich. Facts are facts, and pious trusting has no place in historical analysis. But Mr Gollmer isn’t content with trusting in the texts: he actually believes that the lives of their authors make a difference.

Referring to Abd al-Baha’ and Shoghi Effendi, he writes: ‘The lives of these two chroniclers testify to this, embodying as they do the ethical principles of their faith’. I’ve no doubt Shoghi Effendi was the best of men (though I know less about him than I do about, oh, let’s say, Ann Frank) , but the fact is that, when he wrote God Passes By, he hung his ‘facts’ on a preconceived framework. Just as I might distort historical characters or events in writing a novel, so he told his tale in order to meet the demands of a grand scheme, a divine drama played out in Shiraz, Baghdad, or Acre. It’s a work of genius, but I don’t think it’s a reliable historical source, if for no other reason than that there isn’t a single reference from beginning to end. We’re meant to take everything on Shoghi Effendi’s say-so. Whereas academic books are open and transparent, displaying their origins in the form of citations and bibliographies, God Passes By is wholly opaque, cramming primary and secondary materials in together without rhyme or reason, and leaving the reader in the dark throughout. So just what Shoghi Effendi’s rather pale life has to do with the veracity of his text is quite beyond me.

One particularly lengthy historical section, written by Towfigh, runs from page 599 to page 673, and deals, in the main, with the break between Baha’ Allah and Subh-i Azal. I found this a very frustrating sequence to read, because I sensed throughout that Towfigh was only marginally familiar with the original texts, but brazened things out by judicious use of secondary materials, most of them from Baha’i sources. Since this is still a controversial area, it requires well-honed historical and linguistic skills, without which it is easy to slip into error, as Towfigh does.

As before, I am aware that the only detailed discussions of Babism in this period are to be found in Chris Buck’s Symbol and Secret and in two articles by myself, ‘Hierarchy and Authority’ and ‘Divisions and Authority Claims’, along with Juan Cole’s translation of the Risala-yi shathiyya and some discussion that has emerged from it. Yet, apart from a passing reference to Buck’s work, none of these is brought into Towfigh’s analysis.

In other words, she is choosing which sources to cite, and which to engage with (if any), whereas in proper academic discourse a salient book or paper demands to be accounted for. In other words, you don’t have the freedom to ignore anything that gets in the way of your argument.[14] Unless, of course, you don’t actually know such materials exist, in which case you should not be writing on the subject.

Towfigh is constantly out of tune with what seems to have been happening. She shows no understanding of the Shi‘ite concept of ghayba as an element in Azal’s behaviour (it was certainly referred to by his contemporaries in explanation of his absence), she persists in accepting ‘Mystic Source’ as an adequate translation for the phrase masdar-i amr,[15] she believes (incorrectly) that there is no document in the Bab’s hand which legitimizes Azal’s position, and she does not know why Azal was chosen as the Bab’s successor (on account of his ‘inspired’ writings, apparently).

In one place she states that ‘the early Babis, too, clearly expected the Promised One to arrive soon’, which is debatable at the very least. And she goes on to say: ‘Only this can explain the fact that during the years immediately following the martyrdom of the Bab so many proclaimed themselves to be the Promised One.’ If she had read the second of my articles, she would have seen adequate evidence that probably no-one made that claim at that point, and that all these matters require a much more sophisticated understanding of events and terminology than Towfigh brings to them.

Since the range of claims open to the Babis of that period was fairly large, a researcher in this field ought to be able to access the sort of texts in which they are laid out. I see no mention at all in Towfigh’s copious footnotes of Naraqi, Dahaji, the Azali compilation Qismati az alwah, the original texts of Baha’ Allah’s Baghdad writings, or the relevant later works of the Bab. The work is being done largely from secondary texts: God Passes By is cited no fewer than twenty-one times, A Traveller’s Narrative thirty-one, and other articles by Browne thirty-nine times.

Elsewhere, ideology leads to contradictions. On p. 665, we are assured that, when Browne was writing, ‘a single, united Babi community had long since ceased to exist’, whereas on pages 672-3, we are informed that ‘the term schism is inappropriate in connection with the conflict between Mirza Yahya Azal and Baha’u’llah, since no division within a religion occurred’.

There are numerous other points that arise from this section, but I’ll restrict myself to just one here, which is an ethical, not an historical one. On p. 636, Towfigh quotes a statement from ‘Abd al-Baha’ to the effect that the Bab and Baha’ Allah agreed to have Subh-i Azal appointed nominal head of the faith in order to preserve his older brother from danger. She is not the first Baha’i writer to cite this with approval, and I’m sure she will not be the last. Let me only comment here that, if the aim of this book is to win friends and influence people in the non-Baha’i world, this citation alone would undermine the whole enterprise. Imagine how Christians would react to the suggestion that Jesus conspired to have Judas substituted for him so he could escape the cross (an idea actually mooted by some Muslim writers). Or that a French resistance fighter handed a Jew over to the Gestapo, knowing that doing so would save his life. Or that John Kennedy, fearing assassination, had placed a double to ride in his open-top car.

This is something the Baha’is have to think about hard. Fortunately, the solution is historical rather than ethical. We can’t prove there wasn’t some sort of conspiracy, but Azal’s appointment does seem genuine, we know that the Bab gave Azal specific instructions to ‘preserve himself’,[16] that he issued instructions to others to take care of Azal,[17] and that Baha’ Allah was in the public eye from quite an early period.[18] What Abd al-Baha’ was trying to do was to find a plausible explanation for what was to him an unpalatable fact: that the Bab had appointed as the guardian of his faith and writings a man considered by Baha’is to be a primary source of spiritual evil.

That’s enough history for the moment. To be honest, the historical gaffes and distortions gave me less grief than some early sections in Schaefer’s main contribution, and in parts of Gollmer’s section on politics. This isn’t easy to convey, but it matters, so please be patient while I try to develop this point.

My problem is this. With one important exception, which I shall come to later, the tone and content of much of the book seemed to me deeply conservative and self-righteous. What is worse is that Schaefer clearly seems to want his voice, with its illiberal overtones, to be taken for the voice of the Baha’i faith as a whole. To be honest, this doesn’t surprise me, since a rather puritan conservatism was the atmosphere within the Baha’i movement when I was a member and had much to do with driving me and others out. What does surprise me is that, after so much worthwhile debate, promoted by organs like Dialogue magazine, the liberal voice of Baha’ism has not convinced men like Schaefer that they are dinosaurs who need to modify their views in some respects if they are not to cause the Baha’i faith to petrify in a mode that will become more and more out of touch with the reality lived by most thoughtful, caring people.

Let’s take a look. After a lengthy section on Baha’i political ideas, to which I’ll return in a moment, Schaefer really gets going on pp. 301 ff., where he discusses ‘the concept of liberty’. At first he seems quite reasonable, arguing, for example, that the liberty of which Baha’ Allah disapproved was not democratic liberty but anarchy, immorality, and so forth. From there, he works his way round to a popular Baha’i theme, namely that true liberty is obedience to God’s law. This too, he stresses, does not contradict democratic liberties.

But this liberal mask starts to slip not much later. Ficicchia, he says (p. 318), argues against Baha’ Allah’s legislation ‘purely on the basis of the modernist attitude held by the sceptical and irreligious person who lacks any concept or understanding of religious obligations and — horribile dictu — faithful obedience, who rejects any possibility of absolute authority, accepting no authority but his own self according to the principle: “I am the Law!”’

There’s nothing like a stereotype to waken certain forms of bigotry, in this case the notion that non-believers do not understand religious matters, and that they are anarchists and libertines at heart.

But he goes further. It isn’t just non-believers whom we can’t trust, it’s people in general:[19] ‘people today value nothing more dearly than their sovereign liberty in decision-making, their individual right to shape their own lives, their freedom to decide for themselves what is and what is not permissible as defined by their sense of moral autonomy’ (p. 320).

In the last century, thousands upon thousands of men and women gave their lives to establish just such a freedom, very rightly rejecting the ‘absolute authority’ of fascism and communism. Many of these were religious people of upstanding morals. Others, perhaps the majority, were agnostics or atheists, also of high moral standards. Many of Schaefer’s own countrymen and women joined the widerstand, the internal opposition to Hitler, just as many Russians resisted Stalinism, denying that the authority of the state is absolute and that individuals have no rights.

Other men and women fought — as many round the world today still fight — for human rights, for the right of the individual to believe and speak and write and act within very broad limits. This sometimes results in speech or behaviour that you or I may find offensive. But I — and millions of others — would always prefer to be offended than to be straitjacketed by a Hitler or a Khomeini, a Pope or an ‘infallible’ religious body. If Schaefer sees (as I think he does) something ignoble in this, what a very blinkered man he must be.

One of the things that originally attracted me to the Baha’i faith was its modernity, its concern with contemporary issues, the belief that it had passed beyond traditional religions to a new dimension of belief and action. All I see now, when I look at it, is a religion led by deeply conservative men and women whose beliefs chime only too well with those of the conservative wing of all the old faiths. Baha’is have more in common with haredi than Reform Jews, with the present Pope than liberation theologians, with Southern Baptists and fundamentalist Muslims than Unitarians and reformist Shi‘a.

Much of this neo-conservatism has its roots in just the same fears that prompted Pius IX to declare war on the liberalism of his day. It’s a deep-seated fear of people, a distrust of anyone who dares to think for himself, to publish a book without having to ask anyone else’s approval, to stand up in meetings and tell those in charge they are talking nonsense, to tell obscene jokes like Lenny Bruce, as a weapon against racism and sexism.

It’s a fear of that young man with his shopping bags standing his ground in front of tanks on Tianenmen Square, of the Catholic women who stand up in church to demand the right to contraception, abortion, and women priests, of the Muslim women who jeered at the fundamentalists marching in support of the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, of the angry rabbis who dared take God to task for allowing the Holocaust to happen, of a writer daring to satirize a religion that has the temerity to condemn him and others to death. It’s a fear of change, of questions, of the laughter that punctures the pride of the man on the platform, of satire; a fear of the power of sex, of the power of words, of the power of people who are willing to make their own decisions and their own mistakes, people who have eyes that can see through the Emperor’s new clothes.

Schaefer is on the wrong side of history. We atheists and agnostics out here are not a gang of depraved, self-interested libertarian anarchist no-gooders. If you want depravity and self-interest, better look in almost any religious group around. Religious people have been responsible for an outrageous amount of suffering in this world, and they still have the gall to tell us: ‘It was bad then, but that was a mistake, just trust us, we’ve got it right this time round.’ Rationalists believe in the dignity of man, the value of reason, the worth of ordinary human wisdom, the power of disobedience to irrational authorities.

Was the Enlightenment a denial or affirmation of the worth of humanity? Was science hindered or helped by its separation from religion?[20] Ditto medicine. Which is the less violent culture, that of largely secular Europe, or that of the highly religious USA, with its craze for guns, its murders, drug-related crime, capital punishment, and Star Wars? Is secular England, where churches are demolished or turned into bingo halls, a worse place to live than my native Northern Ireland, which has churches on almost every street corner? Which developing countries have made the most progress economically and socially: the lightly religious nations of Asia, or the fervently religious countries of the Islamic world? Are practices like female genital mutilation, honour killings, forced marriages, and the like more common in religious (mainly, Islamic) countries or in secular states?

I could go on here for pages. In case anyone thinks this has just been a digression, may I point out that my reason for going into all this is simply to draw full attention to an extraordinary refusal on Schaefer’s part to come face to face with arguments like these which contradict his self-assertive and, frankly, pompous pronouncements on the frivolity and danger of the non-religious world.

The fact is that Schaefer and pals are writing an extended polemic, not just against Ficicchia, but against a host of Baha’i bugbears, from free speech to balanced academic enquiry.

On pages 209 ff, Schaefer adresses the questions of pre-publication review, restrictions on free expression, and so on. I don’t intend to pursue the topic here, since a lot could be said on the matter. But I will comment that the arguments employed by Schaefer reminded me vividly of a debate that is currently raging in several Asian countries, notably Singapore and Malaysia, over the role of the press vis--vis the government. Inevitably, the more authoritarian states take much the view that Schaefer does here, arguing that the state (for which read Schaefer’s religious institutions) must be above all criticism.

In similar vein, Schaefer writes, refuting Ficicchia’s claim that Baha’ism is anti-democratic, ‘On no account is [the Baha’i order] “anti-democratic”, since the democratic elements, along with the theocratic traits, are dominant’ (p.246). The overall impression (and Schaefer is not alone in giving it) is that the proposed (and, indeed, the current) Baha’i system of government is dominantly democratic. I imagine many of my readers will concur in this understanding. I, however, beg to differ, as, I think, will most democrats.

The trouble is that you cannot, in reality, just mix monarchy/aristocracy, democracy, and theocracy (with absolute authority). The result is a denaturing of each of the elements to no useful purpose. We in Britain have a monarchy, but the monarch cannot override the will of the people: if she could, we would no longer have a democracy, and might as well dissolve parliament. Theocracy, as in Iran and Afghanistan, tends to demand precedence over democratic norms (such as the right of the people to enact laws according to their will). Democracy, where it flourishes, tends to make other systems redundant.

This is not to say that democracy does not have its problems. But those problems will not be solved by introducing incompatible notions such as absolutism or infallibity.

Throughout this section, Schaefer selects his targets so that he does not have to confront the real issues. The main objections are as follows: 1) the fact, referred to above, that believers can have their voting rights and their right to vote suspended should they infringe the Baha’i moral code (including, I would argue, improper questioning of the authorities); 2) the fact that heresy/disobedience to divinely-constituted authority leads to automatic exclusion from the community; 3) the fact that, however democratically elected, no Baha’i government can introduce major legislation in its own right or abrogate laws set by Baha’ Allah or the UHJ (democratic parliaments make and rescind their own laws); 4) the fact that women cannot serve on the UHJ; 5) the fact that a Baha’i state would be a one-party state (try setting up in opposition to the official ‘divinely-appointed’ line even now); 6) the fact that there can never be open debate about certain basic issues, such as gay rights, capital punishment, or any number of matters from contraception to the running of the police, that have yet to be decided by the Universal House of Justice.

I know that Baha’is don’t actually want a democracy, but that leaves the rest of us justifiably concerned. It’s not enough to try to reassure us by saying democracy is dominant alongside theocracy. Democracy is not divisible, and is only mocked when autocratic states use it as a mask to conceal their true nature.

Finally, what was the exception referred to above? On pages 256-7 and page 742, Schaefer and Gollmer mention something that they do not, surprisingly, make much more of. The second reference is to two texts, one by ‘Abd al-Baha’, the other by Shoghi Effendi, both writing about the need to accord human rights to covenant breakers.

To be honest, this flabbergasted me. I had never seen the passages in question before, and they caught me unawares. Anything, whether scriptural or otherwise, I had ever read previously on covenant-breakers, had been extremely negative: reading their words is like eating vomit (from a ‘Hand of the Cause’), they are utterly despicable, they are to be shunned absolutely, even by their families, and so on. All of those vitriolic passages in God Passes By about Azal and Mirza Muhammad ‘Ali, and Ruth White, and Ahmad Sohrab, and every ‘enemy of the Faith’ from Hajj Mirza Aqasi on. So to learn that even Covenant-Breakers have rights turns a lot of my assumptions upside down.

The biggest puzzle, of course, is why there aren’t more passages displaying this degree of humanity, and why the Baha’is haven’t made greater efforts to present this side of their faith, instead of the heavy-handed conservatism to be found in the work of so many eminent exponents.

There are also, of course, obvious contradictions between these texts and others. ‘Abd al-Baha’ instructs some believers not to obstruct a covenant-breaker in seeking employment as a teacher, since even such a person has to earn a living. That’s terrific, and much more sensitive than I’m used to in Baha’i texts; but if we move forward a bit in time, to a large village or small town where most of the inhabitants are Baha’is, what happens at the school? I can’t imagine the Baha’i authorities or the other teachers or the parents letting a covenant-breaker loose on their children just because ‘Abd al-Baha’ says he should have job. Can you?

I also have trouble with the Shoghi Effendi passage. Not with the statement itself, which is admirable, but with how it squares with other things. If covenant-breakers are not to be deprived of their civil rights in a free society, then how come the mere act of drinking alcohol, or having sex outside marriage, or even, for a man to let his hair grow below the earlobes, will lead to the loss of voting rights, the most basic civil rights of all? How humanitarian is it to demand that a man’s wife and children should shun him merely because he has changed his beliefs?

All of this needs to be addressed, and I was disappointed that neither Schaefer nor Gollmer chose to do so.

I’m left with a list of items that I’d love to take up, but I realize this has also become one of the longest book reviews on record. Given time, I could probably get to 900 or even 1000 pages, but I doubt very much if anyone would want to publish the resulting book in German.

Why have I been so hard on Dr. Schaefer and his chums? Basically, it’s because Schaefer himself goes to some trouble to point out how much Ficicchia’s book damaged understanding of the Baha’i faith within German-speaking academic and ecclesiastical circles, and even civil authorities (pp. 1-12). I don’t disagree with that, but when I then find that the volume seeking to correct Ficicchia’s misrepresentations is itself with replete with factual errors, academic sloppiness, and apologetics dressed as scholarship — in other words, many of the things Ficicchia stands accused of — I find myself obliged to try to set the balance as straight as a simple man can.

The fact is that Making the Crooked Straight will sell more copies to Baha’is than to the great unwashed beyond their gates. Most people aren’t sufficiently interested in Baha’ism as yet that they will sit down and read over 800 pages of apologetics. So, I suppose the book is aimed more at believers than anyone else. If that’s so, it means that Schaefer et al have produced a major contribution to a process that has been going on since Shoghi Effendi’s days, but particularly over the past fifteen years or so. At some point in that period, while expansion remained a priority, the Baha’i authorities seem to have woken up to the fact that most believers had a limited grasp on the basics of their faith. Making the Crooked Straight may not be the most systematic presentation of where Baha’is stand on most crucial issues, but it is certainly the largest, and has the appearance of being the most authoritative.

That’s why I’ve spent so long niggling away at the text, and why I could go on longer if I thought anybody was still reading. Major statements require greater care than has been devoted to this volume. Not only that, but it disturbs me to find that fundamentalist Baha’is have seized the high ground in this way. Why shouldn’t some liberal Baha’is tell it like it is for once? If my criticisms nudge things further in those two directions — accuracy and liberality of mind and heart — they will have been worthwhile. Thank you for reading this far.


Denis MacEoin



June 2001


[1]  I don’t wish to appear facetious about the Bab’s writing. There are numerous lengthy passages which consist of variants (few of them genuine) on Arabic verbal roots. Even if we take these as a post-modern take on the Arabisms of the Iranian ulama, they are still unreadable, and utterly untranslatable.

[2]  I remain unimpressed by Schaefer’s curious claim that Ficicchia’s book was really written by someone else: ‘I doubt if the author, Francecso Ficicchia, who has certainly contributed a lot of material, was able to write the book himself in the style of a methodical, scholarly work, using the terminology of theology and religious studies and Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Greek and Latin terms – languages of which the author, himself a social worker, has no knowledge. It is very probable then that the book was written by an expert of religious studies and that Ficicchia contributed some material and his name’ (Baha’i Studies Review, 2:1 (1992).

[3] The first sentence of chapter one, part one reads: ‘The goal of all academic research is to find truth….’, with the rest of the chapter proceeding along the same lines.

[4] That making academic work conform with Baha’i mass opinion is an obligation on Baha’i scholars is made clear by Moojan Momen: ‘Secondly, you have to satisfy the Bah' community that your scholarship is a true representation of the Faith, one that most Bah's would agree is a presentation of the Faith that is consistent with the texts and being interpreted in ways to which most Bah's would not object’ (Baha’i Studies Review, 3:2 [1994]).

[5] This episode is cursorily dealt with in a refernce on p. 101, and a footnote on p. 703.

[6]  Baha’is seem to have a problem with this. Many years ago, I met with the editor of the Penguin Handbook of Living Religions and two members of the British NSA, who were there to persuade him to drop my commissioned article on the Baha’is and replace it with one they would have written by a Baha’i author. Like any sensible academic, I admitted during the meeting that I had my biases and assumptions. The Baha’is seized on this, arguing that this alone disqualified me from writing the piece. Not once did they accept the possibility that their Baha’i author might be biased in his own way. The editor, John Hinnells, admitted to me later that he had been quite sympathetic to the Baha’is until he actually sat through that meeting.

[7] I’m referring specifically to the many volumes of scripture edited by him, all of them sloppy, filled with mistakes and misattributions.

[8] Religion, 12 (1982): 93-129. See also ‘Baha’ȵ Fundamentalism and the Academic Study of the Babȵ Movement’, Religion 16 (1986): 57-84, and ‘Afnan, Hatcher, and an Old Bone’, Religion 16 (1986): 193-195. It’s interesting that none of these articles, which represented one of the first debates between the old-style Baha’i scholarship and the new, academic approach, is referred to in the present work.


[9] Gollmer does it too. On p. 464, he quotes approvingly a statement by the World Council of Churches: ‘A second danger is that of interpreting a living faith not in its own terms but in terms of another faith or ideology. This is illegitimate on the principles of both scholarship and dialogue’.

[10]  W. Collins, Bibliography of English-language Works on the Babi and Baha’i  Faiths, p. 281

[11] In footnote 20, p. 498, she complains that ‘Even within Ficicchia’s own transcription system, the transcription Ta’rih (sic) is incorrect, since Trkh is written with alif and not with hamza. Since when? Ta’rikh is an Arabic word and is written with hamza in that language, whatever the Persian pronunciation might be. Of course, it would be pointless to object if someone left the hamza out, but it seems most irregular to correct someone for putting it in. And, by the way, it is not Ficicchia’s ‘own transcription system’, but a standard one used widely by Arabists and Persianists in Germany and elsewhere.

[12] Gollmer too shows a reluctance to engage with current scholarship, and even appears to be unaware of what is happening in the wider world. On p. 778, for example, he states magisterially: ‘no systematic presentation of the Baha’i Faith has yet been published that satisfies academic criteria’. Says who? Peter Smith’s excellent volume for Cambridge University Press springs immediately to mind. And what about the numerous encyclopaedia articles by Juan Cole, Smith, Moojan Momen, Todd Lawson, and myself?

[13]  Gollmer reiterates this position on pp. 558 and 559.

[15] He gets into greater trouble on the next page, when he asserts that there are plenty of scriptural texts in which the phrase masdar-i amr refers to God. I have gone over most of these texts with Steve Lambden, and I don’t think there was one where the phrase might not as easily have referred to the Manifstation. For examples, see my ‘Divisions and Authority Claims’, pp. 118-19. I am dismayed that Gollmer did not even attempt to engage with these references.

[16] See MacEoin, ‘Divisions and Authority Claims’, p. 109.

[17] Ibid

[18] See ibid’, p. 117.

[19] There’s more of this on the next page, p. 321: ‘most people at present’, ‘modern people’. On the next page, p. 322, he expresses his impatience with ‘a critical and sceptical public’.

[20] On this, see an excellent new study by Stephen Jay Gould, Rock of Ages.