The Importance of Studying History, Theology, and World Religions

Many people ask why it is important to study Bahá’í history. For many, history is just a list of dates, people, and events to memorize. But true history is story, an account meaningful to us and about us. This is not always so obvious with modern secular history, which attempts to provide a neutral description of events and may view them through the lens of whatever ideological concern the author has. But Bahá’í history is different because meaning has been given to it by the successive heads of the Faith in their writings.

It is a unique feature of Bahá’í history that the heads of the Faith have always been deeply involved in writing and interpreting it. Bahá’u’lláh commissioned Nabíl to write The Dawnbreakers. He had numerous prominent believers read the manuscript and comment about it, and He asked Nabíl to make significant modifications to the manuscript. The result was a work filled with the observations of numerous eyewitnesses and one designed to inspire future generations about the sacrifice of the Faith’s founding generation. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote A Traveler’s Narrative, another work about the Báb and the Bábí movement. Presumably He did this work on the request and advice of Bahá’u’lláh as well.

Shoghi Effendi then completed the editing and translated The Dawnbreakers into English, adding copious footnotes from European sources. He then extended the interpretation of history forward by writing God Passes By, a history of the Faith from 1844 to 1944. In order to write it, in the 1920s and 1930s Shoghi Effendi requested Bahá’í communities throughout the east and west to compile local Bahá’í histories and send them to him, so he would have the research material he needed.

Nor have historical works been the only vehicle that the successive Heads of the Faith used for teaching the Bahá’ís about the meaning of Bahá’í history. Tablets by Bahá’u’lláh such as Epistle to the Son of the Wolf and works by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá such as The Secret of Divine Civilization are filled with references to contemporary events and their meaning. Letters by Shoghi Effendi are filled with historical references; many of the important insights in God Passes By can be found in preliminary form in the World Order letters. The Promised Day Is Come, written three years before God Passes By was completed, is an extended interpretation of the world events from the time of Bahá’u’lláh to the eve of World War II. We see the same effort in the Ridvan messages and the recent  28 November 2023 letter by the Universal House of Justice, which provides reflections about the first century of the Formative Age of the Faith. Book 8 of the Ruhi study series is a three-part review of events in the Bahá’í community from the passing of Bahá’u’lláh to the present, from the perspective of the Covenant.

What makes all of these works meaningful to Bahá’ís is not just the list of dates, people, and events, but the story of the continuous development of the Faith that they tell, and hence the meaning of the information. Consequently, Bahá’í history inevitably overlaps with Bahá’í theology, for the meaning of Bahá’í history is derived from beliefs about the purpose of the Faith, the nature of its growth and the challenges it has faced, the directing power of the Faith’s principles, and the impact of following a virtuous Bahá’í life on the actions of Bahá’ís. While historians are not in the position to determine the mind of God or even to nail down with certainty the cause-and-effect relationship between two events, they are in a position to infer the effect of setting goals, educating the community about attitudes to maintain and principles to uphold, the impact of the desire to obey the head of the Faith, and the impelling power of the love of Bahá’u’lláh to inspire Bahá’ís’ efforts. A good non-Bahá’í historian would also have to take these factors into account in studying the development of the Bahá’í community.

The importance of Bahá’í theology in giving history meaning underscores the overall importance of theology and philosophy in the Faith. Theology is not simply a collection of old dogmas about God and religious matters; nor is philosophy something that begins with words and ends with words. Shoghi Effendi made the latter very clear when he said that philosophy was a “sound branch of learning” and not “fruitless excursions into metaphysical hair-splittings” such as some medieval Islamic philosophical branches of study. The word theology simply means “words about God” and the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi are filled with many words about the subject. Bahá’ís have begun to explore the various statements in the authoritative texts about the nature of God, revelation, manifestations of God, reality, physical creation, human nature, the divine covenant, the eternal purpose of religion, the nature of the afterlife, how human beings know things, and many other aspects of Bahá’í theology and philosophy. Their insights have an impact on how we understand ourselves as a community and the future we seek to create.

Closely related to the study of the ideas in the Bahá’í authoritative texts is the translation of the texts and commentary about their content and historical context. While the quantity of writings of Bahá’u’lláh available in English has begun to increase at a significant rate, we still have only about five percent of it translated into English. The number of Bahá’ís learning the Arabic and Persian terminology used by the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has increased rapidly in the last 20 years and many provisional translations are being produced. While these provisionals do not carry the weight of authoritative translations, Bahá’ís are free to study them and discuss them. Provisional translations often prove to be a step towards the release of an authoritative translation. Encouraging the production of both provisional translations and commentaries about the history and meaning of tablets are very important aspects of Bahá’í scholarship that need to be encouraged.

As the range of authoritative texts available in English expands and the number of people doing rigorous study of texts in the original languages grows, the Bahá’í community obtains a deeper and richer understanding of the teachings enshrined in the revelation and in its authoritative interpretations. The relationship between the ideas in the authoritative texts and ideas in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Greek philosophy is a very fruitful and fascinating area of study. Work has begun on parallels between concepts in the Bahá’í authoritative texts and ideas in Hinduism, Buddhism, Chinese religions, and the many indigenous traditions around the world. As that work continues to develop, we can expect many profound insights into the meaning of Bahá’u’lláh’s statements as well as important ways to understand and interpret beliefs in these other religious traditions. It has often been observed that when one studies another faith, one discovers ideas and questions one had never noticed in one’s own religion before; awareness of the questions asked by other religious traditions is often the key to noticing the answers in one’s own faith. Hence the importance of the comparative study of theology and philosophy, not just of the Bahá’í Faith, but of all the religious traditions of the world.

Studying the scriptures of other traditions is important as well. The parallels and contrasts one sees when studying different religious scriptures provide important insights both into the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith but also into the history of progressive revelation. In the past, most Manifestations of God came to societies that were illiterate or had very limited literacy. As a result, the revelations of those divine messengers had to be transmitted orally for decades or centuries before they were written down. This appears to be the case of the teachings of the Buddha, Moses, and Zoroaster; even the teachings of Jesus underwent an oral transmission for 20 to 50 years and had to be translated from the original Aramaic spoken form to the Greek written form. Inevitably, some of the revelation was lost, even though Bahá’u’lláh assures us that enough revelation survived to provide the believers with sufficient guidance. Understanding the limitations on the transmission and interpretation of divine revelation is very important in understanding the relationship between the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith and the teachings of earlier religions.

All of these subjects—Bahá’í history, theology, philosophy, translation of and commentary on Bahá’í scripture, and study of other religions and scriptures—are important components of the Corinne True Center’s mandate. Together, they will help the Bahá’í community acquire a deeper understanding of its origins, development, future, and its relationship with the ideas and scriptures of other religions.