The University of Haifa Lectures in Bahá’í Studies

by Soli Shahvar (Volume editor)
©2021 Monographs XVIII, 208 Pages


This volume brings together a selection of essays from the Lecture Series in Bahá’í studies at the University of Haifa. Each chapter explores an aspect of the Bahá’í religion, including its history, community, culture and theoretical perspectives on contemporary issues. The authors discuss topics including the family and descendants of the Báb (founder of the religion from which the Bahá’í Faith emerged), the influential role of Bahá’í schools in the modernization of education in Iran, the process of introducing the law of monogamy into the Iranian Bahá’í community, early connections between Swiss citizens and Bahá’ís in the Middle East, the rich and varied landscape of Persian Bahá’í poetry, and the role of African Americans in the development of the US Bahá’í community, particularly with regard to race relations and the principle of the oneness of humanity. Also presented in this volume are Bahá’í perspectives on contemporary topics including changing conceptions of work and work values, the role of apologetics in interfaith dialogue, and the issue of ‘defamation of religions’ in international human rights discourse. This book will be of interest to readers in various disciplines in the humanities and social sciences who want to become informed in more depth about a wider range of topics in the emerging field of Bahá’í studies.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Note on Transliteration
  • 1. The Goodly Gifts: A Brief History of the Afnán Family
  • 2. The Bahá’í Schools and the Modernization of Education in Iran
  • 3. The Introduction of Monogamy in the Iranian Bahá’í Community, 1873‒1936: A Study in the Progressive Application of Religious Law
  • 4. Episodes from the Early History of the Bahá’í Faith in Switzerland, with Particular Reference to the Middle East
  • 5. African American Bahá’ís, Race Relations and the Development of the Bahá’í Community in the United States
  • 6. Glimpses of Persian Bahá’í Poetry and Poets
  • 7. A Bahá’í Perspective on the Meaning of Work and Values
  • 8. Apologetics and Interfaith Dialogue from a Bahá’í Perspective
  • 9. A Bahá’í Perspective on ‘Defamation of Religions’
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index

←viii | ix→


The city of Haifa and its environs have had a close historical connection with the Bahá’í religion ever since its founder, Bahá’u’lláh (Mírzá Ḥusayn-‘Alíy-i-Núrí), arrived in the harbour of Haifa in the summer of 1868 as a religious prisoner of the Ottoman Empire. Banished from his native Iran in 1853, he was sent, along with his family and a group of followers, first to Baghdad, then in 1863 to Istanbul, and two years later to Edirne. Finally, on 31 August 1868, the exiles arrived in Haifa en route to the prison citadel of Acre (‘Akká in Arabic) at the northernmost end of Haifa Bay. He lived in that city, or its vicinity, until his death in 1892, and it was during this period that he wrote some of his most important works, foremost being the Kitáb-i-Aqdas [The Most Holy Book], his book of laws.

After the Young Turk Revolution in 1908, political and religious prisoners were freed, and Bahá’u’lláh’s son and successor, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, moved his residence to Haifa. There, in 1909, he arranged for the interment of the remains of Siyyid ‘Alí-Muḥammad, the Báb – the founder of the Bábí religion and forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh – in a mausoleum built at the spot on Mount Carmel that Bahá’u’lláh had pointed out during one of the three visits he made to Haifa. The superstructure of the building would be completed in 1953 under the direction of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s grandson and successor, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani. Today the golden dome of the Shrine, its surrounding gardens and terraces and the neoclassical marble buildings of the Bahá’í World Centre on the mountainside are iconic features of Haifa’s landscape.

When the University of Haifa offered me a position in Iranian studies in the Department of Middle Eastern History (later named the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies), it occurred to me that given both Iran’s centrality and Haifa’s prominence in Bahá’í history, as well as their ongoing connection with the Bahá’í Faith, it was logical that an academic programme ←ix | x→in Bahá’í studies should be developed at the University of Haifa. At its inception in 2000, the Bahá’í studies programme was hosted by the Department of Middle Eastern History, but from 2007 its home has been at the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies, of which I have been the director. The centre of the programme is the Lecture Series in Bahá’í Studies, which is organized in co-operation with the Bahá’í World Centre and in which guest lecturers from all over the world present research on various aspects of the Bahá’í religion, including its history, literature, community and perspectives on various topics.

The first Europeans to engage in the study of the Bábí and Bahá’í religions, including A. L. M. Nicolas, E. G. Browne and A. Tumanskii, were orientalists who viewed the object of their investigation through the lens of their own interests in Islam and Iran. Early research done by Bahá’ís themselves focused on textual, biographical and historical studies. From the second half of the twentieth century, the range of enquiry in Bahá’í studies expanded to include other disciplinary approaches, including philosophy, sociology, psychology, law and international relations, among others, as well as the application of perspectives based on Bahá’í social and ethical principles to address issues in areas such as globalization, peace, race relations, the status of women and human rights.

I had observed that many scholars in various fields and disciplines had practically no knowledge of the history and teachings of the Bahá’í Faith and their relevance to those fields or of the activities of the Bahá’í communities in the countries in which they live. Thus, through the medium of the Lecture Series, an interest in Bahá’í studies was sparked among academics as well as undergraduate and graduate students, who have produced a number of undergraduate papers as well as master’s and doctoral theses on topics in Bahá’í studies. These, in addition to a growing body of University of Haifa–based research and conference presentations have put the university in the vanguard of academic institutions that encourage research and study in this field.

The present collection of essays comprises a selection from the lectures that have been given over the years in the series, reflecting the diverse, transdisciplinary approach that characterizes Bahá’í studies today. In ‘The Goodly Gifts: A Brief History of the Afnan Family’, Elham Afnan gives a historical account of the Afnán family – the relatives and descendants of the Báb, who in 1844 founded the religion from which the Bahá’í Faith emerged. In the literature about the Báb and his religion, the members of his family are usually mentioned only in the context of the events of the life of the Báb. Dr Afnan, who is herself a descendant of one of the uncles of the Báb, highlights the ←x | xi→lives of the members of this family, their trades and professions, their place in Iranian society and their role in the propagation of the Bahá’í Faith.

The chapter on ‘The Bahá’í Schools and the Modernization of Education in Iran’ by Soli Shahvar explores the significant contributions to that process made by the dozens of modern schools that were opened by Bahá’ís in Iran from the end of the nineteenth century to the fourth decade of the twentieth – although the existence of these schools and their influence has been passed over in silence in the academic literature on the subject in Iran. The emergence of the Bahá’í schools is placed in its historical context, and it is explained how they came to be established and to flourish in cities, towns and villages. The schools offered modern education to children of all classes, religions and sectors of society represented in the country until they were ultimately forced to close in 1934 by order of Reza Shah Pahlavi (r. 1925–1941) himself.

In ‘The Introduction of Monogamy in the Iranian Bahá’í Community, 1873‒1936: A Study in the Progressive Application of Religious Law’, Siyamak Zabihi-Moghaddam analyses the process by which the Bahá’í law requiring monogamy was introduced into the Bahá’í community of Iran. He discusses the methods used by successive Bahá’í leaders to bring their community, steeped in the traditions of a society in which polygamy had been a religiously sanctioned practice for over a thousand years, to accept a challenging new law along with all its moral and social implications. He argues that the approach they used took into consideration a variety of psychological, social and institutional factors as they led their community to adopt a radical change in values.

In ‘Episodes from the Early History of the Bahá’í Faith in Switzerland, with Particular Reference to the Middle East’, John Paul Vader and Graham Hassall describe how Swiss citizens came into contact with Bábís in Iran as early as 1852 and subsequently encountered Bahá’ís in provinces of the Ottoman Empire because of the persecution of key Bahá’í figures and their exile to those territories. Swiss nationals, including the scientist Dr August Forel, played a significant role in denouncing the persecutions and speaking out in defence of the Bahá’ís.

Richard W. Thomas, in ‘African American Bahá’ís, Race Relations and the Development of the Bahá’í Community in the United States’, describes the attraction of the Bahá’í Faith for the first African Americans who were drawn to the religion and became believers, and how they faced the challenge of the racism permeating American society and the behaviour of some white Bahá’ís who, despite their good intentions and their belief in a faith that ←xi | xii→advocated racial equality and human unity, still found themselves in the grip of entrenched cultural attitudes.

As Heshmat Moayyad tells us in his chapter, ‘Glimpses of Persian Bahá’í Poetry and Poets’, poetry is a hallmark of Persian culture. Thus, it is no surprise that although the Bahá’í religion is less than two hundred years old, it already has a vigorous and abundant poetic tradition. Professor Moayyad provides an overview of the rich and varied landscape of works by poets, both men and women, written on Bahá’í themes, predominantly in Persian and Arabic, but also some in Turkish. As in the case of the Bahá’í schools, the hostility of Muslims towards all things Bahá’í has led to the systematic exclusion of any mention of Bahá’í poets and their poetry in historical studies written by Iranian authors – even though some of these poets, notably Qurratu’l-‘Ayn (Ṭáhirih), are well known and their poetry is held in high esteem by Iranians of all religious backgrounds.

In her discussion of ‘A Bahá’í Perspective on the Meaning of Work and Values’, Tiffani Betts Razavi takes as her starting point the decline of the traditional conceptions of work and the work ethic in light of the emergence of a new paradigm of socio-economic interactions characterized by increasing emphasis on self-fulfilment and the optimization of human potential. As a framework for analysing this paradigm shift, she uses the Bahá’í conception of work, in which labour, rather than representing a predominantly utilitarian, material activity, is viewed as a spiritual endeavour that is ultimately a form of worship that assists the individual to better understand the purpose of his or her life.

In ‘Apologetics and Interfaith Dialogue from a Bahá’í Perspective’, Nicola Towfigh applies a Bahá’í perspective to examine the relationship of those two concepts, which are often in tension. She reviews the historical role of apologetics in the Abrahamic religions as well as in the Bahá’í Faith, whose scriptures call for the believer to maintain a position of tolerance and sympathy, rather than criticism, toward differing views. Based on the example of the book Desinformation als methode, which was written to rebut the arguments of a former member of the religion who became a bitter enemy, she suggests that apologetics can sometimes be a necessary precursor to interfaith dialogue by removing the obstacles that have been created by misinformation, and that interfaith dialogue and discourse about religious truth need not be mutually exclusive activities.


XVIII, 208
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Oxford, Wien, 2021. XVIII, 208 pp., 25 b/w ill.

Biographical notes

Soli Shahvar (Volume editor)

Soli Shahvar is the founding director of the Ezri Center for Iran and Persian Gulf Studies and Professor of Iranian Studies at the Department of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, University of Haifa, Israel, where he chairs the Lecture Series in Bahá’í studies


Title: The University of Haifa Lectures in Bahá’í Studies
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226 pages