The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience


Respecting the Conscience of Man.... June 27, 2000  -  FG

In his conclusion, which would never have passed the system of censorship, "Bahai review," that the UHJ imposes on all publications brought out under its tight control, Professor Cole, of the Department of History at the University of Michigan, quite accurately identifies the distortions that have been wreaked upon Baha'u'llah's Teachings:

"Some contemporary leaders of the Baha'i Faith have given answers increasingly similar to those of fundamentalists, stressing scriptural literalism, patriarchy, theocracy, censorship, intellectual intolerance, and denying key democratic values. While the values of the nineteenth-century Baha'i movement, which was far more tolerant, continue to exist as a minority view, by the late 1990s a different set of emphases prevailed." (196)

Cole himself and many others have suffered at the hands of the fundamentalists who have taken control of the religion:

"The rise of academic Baha'i scholarship has caused tension in the community, whose present-day leadership tends to be fundamentalist and antiliberal in orientation, and this has led to pressure on a number of prominent academics to resign or dissociate themselves from the movement." (201)

These same forces of fundamentalist orthodoxy are evident on talk.religion.bahai and alt.religion.bahai on Usenet for impartial viewers to witness. They will be evident to all perceptive observers of whatever forum Bahais may be trying to control and influence. Both my and Cole's websites provide essential documentation along these lines. It should be noted that the Universal House of Justice has actively worked through the BCCA (Bahai Computer and Communications Association) to suppress all links to websites with other than its own "comprehensive" point of view on such major portals as,, and other search engines. The UHJ has gone even further by advising Bahais to remove any link whatsoever to Professor Cole's website.

As a Bahai since 1976, I myself have always found especially repulsive the manner in which Bahai fundamentalists attempt to manipulate the institutions and leaders of government, the United Nations, and public opinion, while pretending to values they deride in private or at Bahai-only meetings.

Ultimately, it is the Bahai Universal House of Justice that is responsible for the perversion and corruption of such clear and elevating teachings of Baha'u'llah and Abdul-Baha as the following:

"These are effectual and sufficient proofs that the conscience of man is sacred and to be respected; and that liberty thereof produces widening of ideas, amendment of morals, improvement of conduct, disclosure of the secrets of the contingent world." Abdul-Baha, A Traveler's Narrative, 91.

The UHJ is also in the end responsible for inciting Bahai fanatics and fundamentalists to attack other Bahais and non-Bahais merely for their views expressed on and off line in free forums of public discussion.

Professor Cole's Modernity and the Millennium will remain, for many years to come, the most important book available on the Baha'i Faith. His discussion of its historical development within the intellectual milieu of progressive 19th Century thought is particularly brilliant and insightful.

Reviewed at -  Modernity and the Millennium


Juan R.I. Cole. Modernity and the Millennium, Reviewed by Sen McGlinn, Otago University, New Zealand. Published by H-Bahai (July, 1998)


Review by Denis MacEoin, published in Times Literary Supplement, 1999:

Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha'i Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East
Author: Juan R. I. Cole
Published by: Columbia University Press, New York, 1998. 264 pp.

New prophet, new law
Our perception of the Middle East and Islam being what it is, it's not very surprising that most Westerners think of the region as hopelessly unreformed, as, perhaps, beyond reform, in a way that is not thought true of, say, non-Muslim Africa or Latin America. Faced with Saudi conservatism, or the Taliban at work in Afghanistan, the average onlooker may well be forgiven the judgment, however sweeping.

There is no question but that, in recent years, Islamic revivalism has embraced a "back to basics" ethic that manifests itself most notoriously in public floggings, the enforced veiling of women, or calls (as in Pakistan) for the universal implementation of shar'ia law. Yet, go back a century or so, to Turkey or Iran or Palestine and an equally astonishing picture presents itself: one of both religious and secular reformism on a breathtaking scale.

In country after country during the second half of the last century and the first decades of this, Muslims demanded and achieved reforms, that, in the nature of things, encompassed both religion and State. Everything had to be modelled on the expanding, successful West, of course, and very little was considered sacrosanct. Reform affected law, education women's rights, minority rights, and even the character of the Islamic State itself (as in the agitation that led to the new Iranian constitution of 1906).

Juan R. I. Cole's elegantly presented study brings the period and its reformers bark on to centre stage, while doing so through an unfamiliar medium: the reformism of a new, post-Islamic religion, the Bahai faith, which exists today as a widespread and rapidly growing new religious movement. This is not as perverse as it may seem. Baha'ism ranks very high indeed in the hate list of modern Muslims, sandwiched somewhere between Salman Rushdie and Zionism. The reason is simple: despite the smallness of its numbers, Baha'ism represents the ultimate threat to Islam; it is a movement that abrogates Islamic law and puts a new prophet and a new law in its place.

This has all sorts of resonances today, but in the last century (Baha'ism developed through the 1860s, 70s and 80s) it was heady stuff. Secular reformers had already seen the inevitability of abolishing Islamic law, while their clerical opponents perceived a future devoted to rearguard actions in defence of the faith.

The Baha'i prophet, Baha' Allah (1817-92), stands out as a moderate figure in this debate, abrogating Islam while insisting on the primacy of religion within the State. Cole presents the prophet's teachings in an original and accurate manner, demonstrating for the first time in many years the liberalism and even radicalism that exemplified the new creed, and tracing connections with reforms in Istanbul, Tehran and elsewhere. Modern Baha'is have tarnished that picture by a heavy-handed conservative interpretation of Baha' Allah and his ideas, and it is refreshing to see someone of Cole's stature rescue both from their smothering embrace.

It is a pity, however, that Professor Cole didn't spend a little more time discussing the Azali Babis. The Babis were a militant sect that preceded the Baha'is, and the Azalis were and are its only surviving splinter group, and great rivals of the Baha'is at one time. Although their numbers were tiny, many Azalis played an important part in the Iranian constitutional revolution. The Baha'is, on the other hand, were conspicuous by their absence. Yet Babism is backward-looking, mystical, conservative and crippled by some of the most impractical laws in religious history whereas Baha'ism is in principle liberal, forward-looking, delighted by modernity and eager for social improvement. There is an anomaly here that the present work only goes part of the way to explaining.

But even a partial explanation is much more than we have had before. Above all, Cole is to be congratulated for his forthrightness in treating Baha Allah, the main focus of his research, not as a god, but as a man and an articulate exponent of human rights and reformist principles. If, in future, we are to see a realistic biography of the Baha'i leader, it will be along these lines, rather than those of the hagiographies which have, until now, dominated the field.


See, Juan Cole's comments regarding Denis MacEoin

Modernity and Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha'i Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East

by Juan R.I. Cole

(New York, Columbia University Press, 1997) 264 pp. $47.50 cloth $19.50 paper

review by Barbara D. Metcalf

review published in Journal of Interdisciplinary History 30:3 (2000), pages 566-568 

Cole's book illuminates significant aspects of modernity in the Middle East, as well as the early history of the Baha'i millenarian movement led by Baha'u'llah, the nineteenth-century Iranian prophet. Cole's careful work as an archival historian is informed by the theoretical work of historical sociology. But its high quality depends on yet another discipline, namely, "area studies," which has given him excellent command of the languages and the cultural traditions of the area.

Cole's research design places a definition of modernity at the center of his project. Drawing on theorists that include Jürgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, Eric Hobsbawm, Michel Foucault, Alain Touraine, Max Weber, and Victor Turner, he identifies five critical themes that are central to modernity and that, surprisingly, elucidate his case study: the relationship of religion to the state; the move from political absolutism to some form of democratic or representative government; the rise of an international system of nation-states characterized by internal and external violence; the phenomenon of nationalism, with its illusion of homogeneity and relatedness; and, finally, the challenge to patriarchy through women's movements and feminism. The sources for the study [End Page 566] include such Arabic, Turkish, and Persian texts as histories, letters, reports, and the writings of both founders and followers. Cole also draws on a vast background literature in such fields as history, literature, and religious studies.

Mirza Husayn 'Ali Nuri (1817-1892), the founder of the Baha'i faith, built on the protests of Sayyid 'Ali Muhammad Shirazi (1819-1850), his predecessor, who had attacked aristocratic oppression in Qajar Iran and supported interest on loans, more freedom of movement for women, and restrictions on both European merchants and on the official clergy. Known as "the Bab," he was executed and his followers suppressed. Nuri, scion of a magnate family, joined the Babi religion, taking the name by which he was later known, Baha'u'llah ("glory of God"). Exiled to Baghdad in 1853, and subsequently to Edirne and Akka, he built his own following, adding to the earlier Babi themes those of Sufi ethics and ecstatic worship, as well as the claim of being the successor promised by the Bab.

Ironically, Baha'u'llah's evolving political ideas were close to those of Ottoman reformers in accepting a fundamental separation between religion and state. In due course, he was to create democratic governing institutions for his followers, the "houses of justice," at every level of his community. He fully supported religious freedom while simultaneously criticizing Enlightenment deism, opposition to organized religion, and unfettered science. 'Abdu' l-Baha, his eldest son, further articulated these political teachings. His tens of thousands of followers in Iran clearly played a role in the ferment for constitutional reform during the first decade of the century--a role hitherto undocumented. Baha'u'llah favored the creation of a union of nations as a way of eliminating war, as well as the establishment of a single world language. Cole situates Baha'u'llah's teachings in the context of French "peace thought" and notes the similarity in social milieu of the early Baha'i followers--largely merchants, skilled urban workers, less influential clergy, and many activist women--and the followers of Saint-Simon (137). Baha'i have differed in their interpretations of the founder's teachings in relation to women, but at the least he articulated a position that gave higher status and privileges to women than was common in the Islamic law and custom of his day.

One contribution of Cole's work is his exploration of the issues of religious transformation and modernity in the context of predominantly Muslim societies, given Euro-American assumptions that virtually equate Islam with anti-modernism. Cole, in contrast, reviews the ambiguities and variations that make it impossible to accept that simplistic view. He also shows the simultaneity of many material developments in the Middle East and in Europe, as well as the patterns of intellectual responses common to modernity throughout both areas. Following Giddens' discussion of European movements against the "dark side" of modernity, Cole places Baha'u'llah among the "utopian realists" whose critiques of the power of industrialized warfare, xenophobic nationalism, [End Page 567] colonialism, materialism, and exploitative capitalism seem ever more prescient.1 To explore an interpretation of movements like the Baha'i as utopian, rather than reactionary and antimodern, is in itself an important contribution of this study. It is surprising that Cole makes no reference to the broadly similar Ahmadiyya movement, which originated in colonial India. The Ahmadis have been denied status as Muslims, which they have sought; the Baha'i, by contrast, have insisted on identity as a separate religion. Neither strategy has helped: In Iran, about 200 Baha'i have been executed since the revolution (144).

In his conclusion, Cole notes that the Baha'i community in recent years has come to emphasize literalism, patriarchy, theocracy, and censorship--far less tolerant values than those of their founder. This "radical reorientation" (194), which resonates with the positions of "fundamentalist" movements elsewhere, further counters easy assumptions of essentialism in relation to Middle Eastern religious movements--an argument effectively made in the study as a whole.

    Barbara D. Metcalf
    University of California, Davis


1. Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity (Stanford, 1990). etcalf_b.html 

American Historical Review

VOLUME 105 NUMBER 3 June 2000

Review by Merlin Schwartz, p. 1049

Juan R. I. Cole. Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha'i
Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East. New York: Columbia University
Press. 1998. Pp. xi, 254. Cloth $47.50, paper $19.50.

In this carefully researched and perceptive work, Juan R. I. Cole proposes
to look at the Western, Enlightenment idea of modernity through "new eyes":
that is, through the eyes of Baha'ism, particularly those of the leadership
of the movement during the formative period of its history. The basis for
Cole's selection of Baha'ism as the lens through which to view the idea of
modernity is nowhere spelled out explicitly, perhaps because his reasons
are largely implicit in his analysis of the encounter between the two.
Baha'ism arose in the Middle East and remained socially and, to some
extent, spiritually close to its historical roots; at the same time, its
religious character, and especially its millenarian stance, enabled it to
distance itself from its religious past and to view that past indeed, the
whole of the past in a critical light. Baha'ism saw itself as the
culmination of the earlier monotheistic traditions, both as fulfillment and
as corrective. At least in terms of its own self-understanding, early
Baha'ism represents an orientation that is neither Eastern nor Western. In
the analysis and critical assessment of modernity, Baha'ism does indeed
offer interesting possibilities and perspectives.
     Cole's examination of the Western notion of modernity focuses on a
number of key issues, among them: religious freedom and the relationship of
religion to the state; political absolutism and democracy; nationalism and
the state; and patriarchy and gender relations. Cole devotes an entire
chapter to a discussion of each of these complex issues. He insists on
viewing Baha'ism, especially during its formative period, as a tradition in
flux or, one might say, as a set of general principles and values that had
to be fleshed out, refined, and adjusted in response both to changing
conditions and to the perspectives of other intellectual and spiritual
traditions. This seems clearly to have been the view of the early leaders
of the movement, including Baha'ullah himself. Within the context of these
qualifications, Baha'ism did come to define its position vis-a-vis the
critical issues posed by Enlightenment modernity. On a number of the
principles to which Enlightenment modernity was committed, Baha'ism
declared itself in essential agreement: for example, on the question of the
separation of "church" and state, the primacy of the individual conscience,
gender equality, and the rule of law.
     But if Baha'ism did come to endorse many of the characteristic ideas
and values of modernity, Baha'ism did find some aspects of modernity,
especially some of the larger historical consequences that followed, or
that seemed to follow, from its implementation profoundly troubling. The
idea of an autonomous reason, and what Baha'ism saw as the repressive
potential of a reason freed from the constraints of a transcendental frame
of reference, raised serious questions at both the theoretical and
practical levels. The industrialization of war and the enlarged destructive
capacity of the modern army, all developed within the framework of
modernity, had led to violence and death on a scale without precedent in
the history of humankind. These and other reservations, articulated
repeatedly in the early literature of the movement, led Baha'is
increasingly to reject modernism's emphasis on the primacy of reason and
its secularism its Jacobin tendencies and to call for the integration of a
religious dimension into the framework of Enlightenment modernism. Baha'ism 
insisted that only a religious dimension is capable of providing the kind
of constraints that the secularist and rationalist aspects of modernist
doctrines need to protect them against excess a concern dramatically
underscored by the events of the modern period. To the degree that Cole
endorses this Baha'i emphasis on the importance of a religious dimension,
some readers will undoubtedly see the present work as in part an apologia
for religion. Whether one agrees with the position articulated in this work
or not, one must concede that Cole has raised a set of issues that demand
careful, critical attention.
     This reflective and insightful work is based on an impressive array of
primary (in some cases unpublished) sources, not to mention a very large
body of secondary, interpretative studies, as will be seen from the notes
and the bibliography at the end of the work. It is an important study that
will commend itself especially to those who are concerned with modernist
doctrine, Baha'i responses to that doctrine, and the implications of both
for a fuller understanding of important facets of Middle Eastern history,
especially during the last decades of the nineteenth century.

Merlin Swartz
Boston University

The Genesis of the Baha'i Faith in Middle Eastern Modernity by Juan Cole


Middle Eastern religion is seldom mentioned in the same breath with
modernism, at least in the West. However, the Baha'i faith, which originated
in nineteenth-century Iran, poses key conundrums to our understanding of the
relationship between modernity and religion in the global South.

Modernity was conceived in binary oppositions, between superstition and
reason, absolutism and liberty, nation and Other, civilized and barbarian,
and male and female. Proponents of modernity, as Edward Said demonstrated in
his masterful Orientalism,1 managed to range a number of such oppositions
together, coding reason, liberty, nation, civilization and maleness as
European, whereas both Europe's medieval ('immature') past and Europe's
Oriental Others, especially Islam, were painted as possessing the opposite
and inferior characteristics. European modernity tended to hide from itself
its own darker traits, including chauvinist hatreds, industrialized warfare,
racism, colonialism and male chauvinism, and the degree to which the modern
form of these phenomena was inextricably intertwined with the entire
modernist project.

From a postmodern point of view, modernity has lacked a sense of ambiguity
and irony, and suffers from limiting its typologies to mere binary
oppositions, when in fact social phenomena come in three's, four's, and even
higher ordinals, not just in two's. North Atlantic modernists have also
privileged the European experience of modernity in ways that seem peculiar
to anyone who knows something about world history. Anthony Giddens in The
Consequences of Modernity (Stanford, 1990), argues that modernity is not a
static matter of binary oppositions, but is rather dialectical. Movements
against absolutism give rise not only to parliamentary regimes, but also to
national security states that appear to many citizens to deprive them of
liberties instead of bestowing them, thus generating oppositional grassroots
movements campaigning for democracy (as opposed to elitist Liberalism) and
for workers' rights. That is, he challenges modernists' insistence that the
contenders in political battles can be neatly divided into 'reactionaries'
and 'progressives'. Giddens gives the name 'utopian realist' to the
movements, such as those of workers, women, peace groups and others, that
challenge the industrial, militant nation-states of bourgeois modernity.

Islam's encounter with nineteenth-century modernity produced not only
reactionary, revivalist, millenarian, liberal and fundamentalist responses,
as some have argued, but in the form of the Baha'i faith it produced a
mixture of millenarianism, liberalism and utopian realism that later turned
sharply toward a sort of fundamentalism. The latter turn has tended to
obscure the original emphases of the religion's founder, which can only be
recovered through reading his voluminous letters in their nineteenth-century
political and cultural context.

The Baha'i faith developed out of the esoteric, kabbalistic Shaykhi movement
of Shicite Islam, founded by Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsa'i (1753-1826), and out of
the apocalyptic and messianic Babi movement, founded by cAli Muhammad
Shirazi, the 'Bab' or door to the divine, in 1844, which racked Iran with
religious ferment and turmoil, leading to the Bab's execution in 1850 and a
retaliatory attempt on the life of Nasiru'd-Din Shah by radical Babis in
1852, and thence to a nation-wide pogrom against the new religion.2 Out of
this maelstrom emerged an entirely different sort of messianic movement, the
Baha'i faith, founded in Baghdad in 1863 by Mirza Husayn cAli Nuri,
Baha'u'llah (1817-1892).

Baha'u'llah, a high notable born in Tehran whose father had been a
provincial governor married into the royal family, had emerged after the
Bab's execution as a prominent Babi leader, though his more radical younger
half-brother, Mirza Yahya Subh-i Azal, was more widely recognized as the
vicar of the Bab in the 1850s and early 1860s. Baha'u'llah was exiled first
to Ottoman Baghdad (1853), then to Istanbul (1863), Edirne (1863-1868) and
finally in 1868 to Akka on the coast of Ottoman Syria, where he lived until
his death. In 1867 he had broken decisively with Azal, proclaiming himself
the messianic successor of the Bab and founding a new religion, the Baha'i
faith. Partly due to his exiles to the Ottoman Empire, which was more
directly imbricated in European modernity than Qajar Iran, Baha'u'llah
turned Babism from a millenarian protest movement into one that mixed
modernist and utopian realist themes. He expressed approval of some aspects
of modernity, whereby he critiqued the absolutist Ottoman and Qajar states,
including a call for parliamentary democracy, some separation of religion
and state, a guarantee of freedom of conscience and expression, greater
rights for women, and an end to arbitrary decrees, which should be replaced
by tribunals. At the same time, however, he critiqued nineteenth-century
modernity itself, condemning chauvinist nationalism (whether religious,
linguistic or ethnic in character), European colonialism, industrialized
warfare paid for by high taxes on the poor, the anarchy of international
relations based upon the absolute sovereignty of nation-states (which he
wished to curb through international peace conferences), and what he thought
of as over-developed civilization, by which he appears to have meant
materialism, pollution and massively destructive weaponry.

Baha'u'llah's mixture of rationalization (e.g. parliamentary institutions
and due process), appeal to human rights, and yet his communitarian emphasis
on the creation of a new, revealed missionary religion, prefigured some of
the convergences between the old Right and Left that French sociologist
Alain Touraine perceives as characteristic of the turn of the twentieth
century. In a fascinating about-face, the later Baha'i faith's leaders
turned increasingly to the Right, condemning multi-party democracy as
factious and plutocratic, advocating theocracy, and curbing individual
freedom of conscience and expression within the community. This right wing
shell has preserved the utopian realist core of Baha'u'llah's own emphases,
however, creating a unique sectarian community that has remained tiny in the
literate world, in part because of its strict controls on discourse, but
which has had some success missionizing in India and elsewhere in the global
South. The Babi-Bahai movements underwent an odyssey from militancy in the
1840s to pacifist, liberal globalism under Baha'u'llah and thence in the
twentieth century to two contending emphases: a liberal stream that
maintains a universalist and tolerant outlook and a conservative one that
dreams of theocratic domination and insistence on scriptural literalism. The
movement thus defies any easy teleology of modernity, and in many ways
parallels the major reformist intellectual currents of modern Iran's Shicite

Juan R. I. Cole is Professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian History at
the University of Michigan, USA. He is author of Modernity and the
Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha'i Faith in the Nineteenth Century Middle
East. New York: Columbia University Press.


1. New York: Vintage, 1978.

2. Abbas Amanat (1989), Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi
Movement in Iran, 1844-1850. Cornell: Cornell University Press.

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