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When we try to define Baha’i scholarship, we naturally encounter preconceptions from our cultural surroundings. These arise from how scholarship has affected us over our varied histories of colonisation, conquest, enlightenment, enslavement, liberation, revolution, and materialistic consumerism. Scholarship, in part, refers to the systematic and disciplined study of any subject with the goal of deeper and shared understanding, and has often included appropriate personal characteristics, though these vary by culture and era.
Scholarship starts with assumptions about reality, which it simultaneously tests and pursues by a strict, but ideally not narrowing, set of rules. If done in the spirit of uncovering more of the mysteries of reality with a mix of humility and wonder, its results are ever-changing and open to challenge. It is worth identifying, unedited, our private lists of qualities and processes we ascribe to scholarship before considering scholarship in light of the Faith’s Teachings. In a workshop at the 2013 conference of the Association for Baha’i Studies, such an exercise revealed a fascinating list of praise, contempt, hope, and frustration, often from the same person, and from scholars, themselves.
Scholarship belongs to and is practised by all, the way music belongs to, and is practised by all. It also has its expert practitioners, the way that music has its Dizzy Gillespies, its Bachs, and its local full-timers. The dynamic between the “expert” and “everyday” scholar can pose challenges, and open old wounds, but also create synergies and dynamic new thoughts. Scholarship is the soul’s quest to exercise its greatest gift, the rational faculty, as applied to specific problems. It is, regardless of belief system, a profoundly spiritual exercise.
In practice, however, scholarship can get embroiled in power systems, systems which, to put it mildly, are not dedicated to fostering equality or broad participation. In our recent past, scholarship became identified with clergy who, over time, usurped the relationship between Creator and created. Today, scholarship and knowledge can be associated with a debilitating, utilitarian materialism, whose questionable practices range from corrupt, self-serving funding, exclusionary ownership rights, unrecognised ethnic and class biases, and a highly suspect desire to find – and exploit – a materialist rationale for any expression of the human spirit.
At the same time, fear of the legitimate questioning which scholarly activity requires has led to the imposition of both subtle and obvious restrictions on its practice in everything from totalitarian autocracies, to established democracies. A growing anti-intellectual mood sullies communication, electoral and decision-making processes, and even inhibits peoples’ career choices.
The Baha’i community faces the challenge of developing a community of scholars, and a community engaged with scholarship in an era of unprecedented change and opportunity. Scholars and scholarship are explicitly valued in Baha’i community life, while clergy is abolished. How, then, will scholarship take shape in this community, which is itself taking shape? In considering early steps, it is useful to ask some open-ended questions which force us to identify and re-think assumptions.
In the context of the quotes at the end of this article, consider:
- What adjectives, verbs, nouns, adverbs come to mind when you hear the term “scholar” or “scholarship”?
- The House of Justice chooses not to develop a narrow or exclusive definition of “Baha’i scholar” or “Baha’i scholarship”. After examining quotes describing scholarship in the Writings, identify a list of alternative adjectives which could replace “Baha’i.”
- In any community, how does scholarly activity and how do scholarly individuals reflect the principle of unity in diversity?
Addressing the work of the Association for Baha’i Studies (ABS) North America in 2013, the Universal House of Justice suggested that it focus on enhancing peoples’ abilities to explore opportunities to examine the forces operating in society. This focus on “enhancing” reflects the administration’s primary role as facilitator, not director. The Association for Baha’i Studies, as a membership organisation, and as an agency of the Faith, is not the repository of scholars or scholarship in the Baha’i Community, but is tasked with its encouragement.
To further this, the ABS executive committee was asked to “consider the notion of an evolving conceptual framework”, and specific attributes which could influence its emergence. Responsibilities of Baha’is already engaged in scholarly activities in academia or practice were also identified. They must consider the methodologies – literally, the science or logos of their methods – in light of the Revelation, assured that the principle of the harmony of science and religion prevents succumbing to superstition or the appropriation of scientific findings by materialism. On a more practical note, a series of small steps was recommended, which must occur at all scales of community life. Systematic efforts are being made from the permanent schools in the US, for example, and at the Association’s 38th annual conference in Toronto this August, to foster local and topic-related activities in gatherings of all sizes.
Finally, I might add that scholarly investigation is not an esoteric skill, held by a few, and used on special occasions. Those who make it their life’s work, like musicians, are more rare. But the secretary of the Local Spiritual Assembly who researches the Writings and scientific literature on a difficult problem, the citizen who questions municipal or industry decisions, the parent who researches a child’s illness, all exercise the basic skills of research, not just technical but moral and spiritual. These are problems which require not only careful investigation, but commitment, courage, detachment, and love. That some might have expert training, and some not, is less important, than recognising that both the expert and everyday actions are recognised as part of community life, and that the passion for questions and ability to answer them are understood as shared community resources.
Quotes to consider for questions:
Happy are ye, O ye the learned ones in Baha. By the Lord! Ye are the billows of the Most Mighty Ocean, the stars of the firmament of Glory, the standards of triumph waving betwixt earth and heaven. Ye are the manifestations of steadfastness amidst men and the daysprings of Divine Utterance to all that dwell on earth.The Kitab-i-Aqdas, paragraph 173
The Great Being saith: The man of consummate learning and the sage endowed with penetrating wisdom are the two eyes to the body of mankind. God willing, the earth shall never be deprived of these two greatest gifts.Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh Revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 171, US edition
Make every effort to acquire the advanced knowledge of the day, and strain every nerve to carry forward the divine civilization… Included must be promotion of the arts, the discovery of new wonders, the expansion of trade, and the development of industry. The methods of civilization and the beautification of the country must also be encouraged; and also to be inculcated is absolute obedience to the Government and total avoidance of any trace of sedition.From a Tablet of Abdu’l-Baha, translated from the Persian, Compilation on Scholarship, selection 3
At this early stage in the development of the Faith, it would not be useful to propound a highly restrictive definition of the term “Baha’i scholarship”. In a letter written on behalf of the House of Justice to the Association for Baha’i Studies recently, it is stated that:
The House of Justice advises you not to attempt to define too narrowly the form that Bahá’í scholarship should take, or the approach that scholars should adopt. Rather should you strive to develop within your Association respect for a wide range of approaches and endeavours. No doubt there will be some Bahá’ís who will wish to work in isolation, while others will desire consultation and collaboration with those having similar interests. Your aim should be to promote an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance within which will be included scholars whose principal interest is in theological issues as well as those scholars whose interests lie in relating the insights provided by the Baha’i teachings to contemporary thought in the arts and sciences.19 October 1993 letter of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Canada
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