Sunni Islam and the Bahá’í Faith: A Comparative Study of Muhammad Abduh and Abdul-Baha, Abbas


  Review by Denis MacEoin

denis maceoin

  Author: Oliver Scharbrodt

oliver scharbrodt


Publisher: Routledge /New York, 2008. 237pp., (Hardback), ISBN: 978 0 415 77441 3

            Bahá’ísm and its antecedent Babism are topics that have been neglected by Islamists and scholars of Iranian history. The reasons are not hard to find. For all its intrinsic interest, Babism was a short-lived movement that fell short of its original hopes to revolutionize Shia Islam. Bahá’ísm moved rapidly away from any identification with Islam, to become a separate religious movement that spread internationally, but never made any serious numerical growth. The greatest neglect here has been from sociologists of religion.

Oliver Scharbrodt provides a striking exception to this history of disinterest and neglect. He does not just take a second look at the two movements; he places them firmly within the history of modern Islamic reform. The result is an achievement that opens up new avenues for research in both areas and for the re-examination of matters chronologically prior to and after the two men whose careers form the basis for the present work.

            Scharbrodt’s research is just what a study like this demands: detailed, wide-ranging, and careful. Although previous writers, notably Juan Cole, have done well in recreating the reformist milieu in which the Baha’i founder Mirza Husayn Ali ‘‘Baha Allah’’ (1817–1892) and his son Abbas Effendi, Abdul-Baha (1844–1921) built a modern, post-Islamic faith in late 19th- century Ottoman Turkey and Syria, Scharbrodt goes a step further. He writes parallel accounts of Abdul-Baha and that enduring figure of modern Sunni reform, Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), and he does so by demonstrating that, however dissimilar their lives may seem on the surface, they converge in unexpected and creative ways.

This is not a book that will appeal greatly to either Bahais or Muslims. Bahá’ís prefer to see the lives and teachings of their holy figures as severely divorced from the currents in which they swam. And modern admirers of Abduh (including his Salafi offspring) are deeply averse to the thought of any link between their hero and what represents, the Great Apostasy of modern Islam! And it is not just that. Like his father, Abdul-Baha has suffered from a very limited range of biographical information, mainly because his Bahá’í contemporaries preserved a limited range of hagiographical focused information. Abduh too suffered from a hagiographical spin, particularly from his disciple Rashid Rida, who emphasized his connections to orthodoxy, while sidelining his involvement with Sufi mysticism and the radicalism of his mentor, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani.

That is precisely what makes this a groundbreaking study. Scharbrodt shows how Bahaism moved from its roots in the doctrinally bizarre and jihadist Babi movement to become a liberal, pacifist, and reformist sect that finally declared itself a post-Islamic religion. And he paints a fresh picture of ’Abduh, in which he emphasizes his revolutionary roots through his long association with and personal devotion to Afghani, and his mystical training in Sufism, before describing the passage to a mixture of educational reform and scriptural traditionalism.

Scharbrodt focuses on the relevance of Weber’s theories concerning charismatic authority, a marked feature of Babism and Bahaism, but also present in the Sufi circles in which the young ’Abduh found much of his religious inspiration. And just as Bahaism under- went the beginnings of a radical routinization of charisma during the lifetime of Abdul-Baha’s grandson, Shoghi Effendi (1897–1957), so did Salafism under Abduh’s leading disciple Rashid Rida (1865–1935) move away from its charismatic underpinnings to the routinization of fraternities like the Muslim Brotherhood.

According to Scharbrodt, while the physical encounter between Abdul-Baha and Muhammad Abduh initiated this study, their historical relationship was sidelined and almost became irrelevant in the course of the research. Rather than excavating letters, sifting through memoirs and biographers, collecting newspaper articles in order to discover clues on how their relationship might have evolved throughout their lives, contextualizing and comparing these two religious reformers promised to be a more exciting research project – exciting because it was unusual, as it connects to religious movements which are normally not brought together’ (pp. 169–170).

Underpinning the narrative of this comparative intellectual biography is Scharbrodt’s detailed weaving of the ‘contextualization’ referred to above. Religious movements, especially those in the first flush of youth, often feel obliged to cover up or re-write their origins, to make them conform to later doctrinal and historiographical opinion. For those Muslims who see Abduh as the doyen of modern Sunni orthodoxy, his personal roots in Sufism and in the heterodox thought of the political dissident Jamal al-Din al-Afghani represent a stain on his character that has to be covered by a more conventional portrayal of his early life.

For the Bahá’ís, especially after their entry into Western countries, two things became difficult: the militancy and doctrinal excesses of the Babis and the proper milieu within which Baha’ullah developed modernizing thought. Baha’ullah and his son Abdul- Baha were as much a part of the wave of religious and political reformism that swept the late 19th-century Middle East as Afghani and Abduh. In the end, they went in very different ways, and it is in that parting of the ways that we gain our best insights into their motives and eventual disagreements.

Bahá’ísm may now be fairly treated as a non-Islamic faith, whether a world religion, as its adherents would have it, or a New Religious Movement, as its real-life status would suggest. But its Islamic roots are never far beneath the surface, to the extent that it serves to remind us of how acute the dilemma has been for modern Sunni reformers: break too far from the Qur’an and hadith, and you may find yourself venturing into the realm of anti-Islam. For all that Islam has spawned numerous movements since the 19th century, only Babism/Bahaism has sought to move right away from the Islamic orbit. The general trend has been towards a conservative expression of the faith, in Wahhabism, Mawdudism, or any of the innumerable jihadist movements that capture the headlines of today. This makes the Bahai heresy more interesting, not least because it is, of all the modern movements, the only one of any significance to emerge from a Shia matrix. This is why Scharbrodt’s detailed contrast of Bahaism and early Salafism is of such real interest. It is easy to forget that the earliest Babis were as noted for the rigor of their application of Islamic law as they not long after became notorious for their rupture with Islam.

Scharbrodt writes well, conveying often complex ideas in an uncluttered English style that allows the non-specialist to make sense of everything without, much trouble.

There are one or two other niggles of a less stylistic nature. On pages 35–36, in an otherwise accurate description of a major phase in the development of Babi millenarianism and the replacement of the Islamic legal system with an arbitrary Babi Code, the author mentions the Babi poetess and radical theorist Qurrat al-’Ayn only in passing, when he refers to her symbolic unveiling in 1848, at a gathering where the abrogation of Islamic law was determined on by a group of Babis. But Qurrat al- Ayn had already appeared without a veil more than once some years earlier, during a long stay in Karbala’ and Baghdad, and she was well ahead of her co-religionists in advocating a rupture with Islamic law. This is important, because it shows how a breach with Islam had already commenced within a year or so of the Bab’s declaration of his charismatic status, and it occurred without any reference to the Bab’s later eccentricities. Had things worked out differently, given that Qurrat al-‘Ayn was the centre of a sect within Babism, the Qurratiyya, we might have seen the appearance of a female prophet instead of a man! The fact that she was as learned as any of the men who rallied with her to the Bab’s cause only serves to make it the more regrettable that we know so little of her life and have so few of her writings.

The other important omission is any reference to the process by which many Egyptian Sufi orders underwent a process of routinization and administrative re-organization in 19th-century Egypt. The way in which many of the ‘sober’ orders acquired a legal or semi-legal status that brought them into line with broader developments in society is of importance for Abduh’s own shift from a Sufi perspective to one focused on the re-organization of education and law. The topic has already been studied in some depth by Frederick  Jong (Tariqat and Tariqat-linked Institutions in Nineteenth-century Egypt), but those perceptions may be useful in any future study of Abduh in this context.

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