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Hidden Treasures: H-Bahai Digital Library
By Juan R. I. Cole, Web and List Editor for H-Bahai

For historians, specialists in religion, and social scientists interested in matters such as millenarianism or religion-state relations in Iran, the H-Bahai digital library is increasingly becoming a treasure trove of primary and secondary sources. Among H-Net's thriving lists are a handful that concentrate on Middle East Studies, including H-Turk and H-Levant. The only list so far with a specific Iran focus is H-Bahai, which focuses not only on the Baha'i faith, but also on the Shaykhi and Babi movements and on thinkers and groups that intersect with these religious movements originating in the Qajar period. The discussions have often been lively, covering topics from the Constitutional Revolution in Iran to Shi`ite theology, and from Baha'i conversions in India and Malaysia to controversies of the Ni`matu'llahi Sufis.

Although the vast majority of Iranians is Shi`ite Muslim, religious minorities have played a disproportionate cultural, social and economic role in modern Iran. Debates over the place of non-Muslims have also been crucial to its history. Many religious movements have been persecuted in Iran off and on throughout the past century and a half, but with especial ferocity since 1979. Some two hundred Baha'is have been executed by Khomeinists in Iran, and thousands of books and documents have been destroyed or perished, as when the national Baha'i center in Tehran was confiscated. Tens of thousands of Baha'I families fled abroad, leaving behind precious historical documents to be destroyed.

Many of the materials related to these groups cannot be published in Iran or the Muslim world because they are seen as heretical. Some documents are in danger of disappearing altogether. The web offers scholars and the communities involved the opportunity to ensure that these materials survive and are widely accessible. In addition, many Iranian expatriates or non-Iranian adherents with an interest in these materials can access them from places such as Taiwan and Pakistan, so that the web functions as a global public library. H-Bahai's web publishing program has been quite ambitious and is perhaps the most extensive in Middle East Studies in North America at the moment. The site is divided into pages that host Western-language materials and those that contain Arabic, Persian and Turkish works. The latter in turn are divided into general works of broad import for Iranian Studies (the embryonic Iran Digital Library), and sources specifically related to Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies. The Iran Digital Library hosts a complete run of the important (non-Baha'i) expatriate Iranian feminist journal Nimeye Digar. It is hoped also to post the collected works of important Qajar-era thinkers such as Sayyid Jamal al-Din al-Afghani.

Despite the site's focus on Shaykhis, Babis and Baha'is, many of the literally thousands of pages of materials here are a rich source for modern Iranian history and culture more generally, and includes many rare biographies of women. The site has both manuscript facsimiles and reprinted published works. Photocopies of the manuscripts have often been submitted by Iranian expatriate families or held in expatriate Baha'i libraries.

Materials found at the site can then be written to CD-Rom and copied and shared further that way, as well as printed out and photocopied for friends. This field of study suffers within Iranian Studies from being taboo in mainstream Iranian society, discouraging many academics from investigating it. Baha'is themselves suffer from strict internal controls on discourse such as in-house prepublications censorship ('literature review') and some have been excommunicated or sanctioned for being vocal on email lists. The combination of the taboo nature of the subject for most Iranians and hidden authoritarian practices within the Baha'i faith have left a fascinating corner of Iranian religious history inadequately explored, but the Internet may finally help reverse this situation. Although the site is blocked in Iran, some Iranian patrons are clearly finding ways to access it. Readers of this journal who have not seen the site are invited to peruse it, and to use it for their research. We would publish scans of virtually any lithograph from the Qajar era, and welcome donations of such digitalized materials.

About the Author
Juan Cole is Professor of Middle Eastern and South Asian History at the University of Michigan and is both the Web and List Editor for H-Bahai.


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