Two books I've read this year have changed the way I think about Babi/Baha'i history. In the past I approached the topic in a basically inward looking fashion. I would read books by Baha'is, for Baha'is, and about Baha'is and sometimes about those individuals who persecute them. Now I'm beginning to approach Baha'i history in a more outward looking way with the help of two Iranian scholars "looking inward" to the Baha'i community from outside. The first of these is Soli Shahvar, who teaches at the University of Haifa and whose work "The Forgotten Schools: The Baha'is and Modern Education in Iran 1899-1934 was just published this past October. The other is Negar Mottahedeh, who teaches at Duke University, whose work "Representing the Unpresentable: Historical Images of National Reform from the Qajars to the Islamic Republic of Iran" has been out since 2007. I finished "the Forgotten Schools" a couple of months ago. And at the moment I'm about halfway through "Representing the Unpresentable." I'd like to do a brief review of both. But Mottahedeh's book should probably wait until I actually finish it.
Shahvar and Mottahedeh are very different types of scholars. Shahvar's work is dry, detached, and thorough. He sees that Iranian studies has almost entirely neglected the contributions of Baha'is to the modernization of Iran, and has gathered together a treasure trove of facts and anecdotes for scholars looking into their contributions to the field of education. Mottahedeh's work is adventurous, iconoclastic, and occasionally lurid. Drawing on psychoanalysis, post-modern social theory, and Walter Benjamin's ideas on historical memory and dramatic performance, Mottahedeh demonstrates that "Babis" are the abject and repressed Other, that veils nothing and introduces foreign influence, against which Modern Iranian identity constructed itself over the course of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, both scholars share a common conviction: that Babis and Baha'is have played an enormous role in the development of modern Iran, and Iranian studies must get past its taboos and anxieties in discussing the nation's repressed Other.
One of the most helpful aspects of these books is that they locate Baha'i activity within a much broader social context. They show the complex interactions between Babis, Baha'is and the society around them, thereby demonstrating what about them was/is unique and is worthy of further investigation. They present a way of thinking about Baha'i history that blends well with today's renewed focus on reaching out to society, listening to its needs, and taking action to address them. At this juncture, over half of the animators in the Junior Youth program are "non-Baha'is." In many places, coordinators in the same program are beginning to think on the scale of how they can raise the capacity of the generality of young people in their communities and not just a few individuals and groups here and there. Perhaps then, it should come as no surprise that scholarship looking into a similar process from a different generation is being spearheaded by non-Baha'is.
Shahvar and Mottahedeh do not draw attention to Baha'i history because they are promoting own religion. After all, it's not their religion. Rather, they draw attention to it because it is a reality they are convinced the world must face. Listening to their insights can help galvanize Baha'is and clarify their vision in their efforts to make this a reality in every other nation, a reality that future scholars one day might also feel compelled to face.