The Bahá'í World 1992-93 and 1993-94
(Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1992-1993)
Reviewed by Alison Marshall
In her essay on the efforts of the Bahá'í community to realise equality between the sexes, Ann Boyles tells us that “Bahá'ís see their community life as a workshop rather than as a perfect model...” (1993-94 p. 273). After reading these two volumes, I cannot point to anything in them that would prove this statement true. The books are largely filled with public relations material, and their portrayal of the community is sterile and shallow.
Purpose and audience
Beginning with the holy year in 1992, the World Centre has started a new, annual, series of The Bahá'í World. In an effort to return to Shoghi Effendi’s original purpose, “to disclose to others something of the significance of the world-wide movement called into being by the Message of Bahá'u'lláh” (1992-93 p. 7), the World Centre has redesigned the volumes for non-Bahá'í readers (1992-93 p. 8), who are described as serious researchers and general students (back cover). The stated purpose seems to be twofold: firstly, to be a yearbook that reproduces major statements and provides statistical data and information on the Faith’s activities; and secondly, to “offer readers general information on the Bahá'í Faith, its concerns, and its teachings” (1993-94 p. 1).
Content and organisation
The 1993-94 volume has an accessible structure, with the content organised into the following categories (in this order):
· "Introduction to the Bahá'í Community", containing chapters on Bahá'u'lláh, Shoghi Effendi and the community.
· "Writings and Messages", containing excerpts from the sacred writings and an overview of House of Justice messages.
· "Events 1993-94", containing chapters on events such as international convention and the conference of Bahá'í counsellors.
· "Essays and Statements", containing essays on topics such as postmodernism, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, and statements from the Bahá'í International Community.
· "Information and Resources", containing obituaries, statistics, a directory, a short list of new publications, a Bahá'í reading list and a glossary.
The 1992-93 volume is similar in content type, but is not as well organised. It appears more as a collection of various pieces of writing - some written for the volume, others not - and lacks an overall framework to bring it together. Topics are not categorised, and the result is a list of contents in no apparent order and with no indication as to the kind of information the reader is to expect. For example, the chapter "Bahá'u'lláh", which on its face could be just about anything, is a reproduction of a statement by the Bahá'í International Community, written for the holy year and not for this volume and its audience. One chapter is titled "The Bahá'í Community Today", which is not informative given that this is surely the topic to be covered by the book as a whole. It consists of a five-page piece focusing on the expansion of the community and the spread of its teachings. It is placed near the end of the book, and is laid out differently from the rest of the text, indicating that it may be a quote from somewhere. But there is no indication as to its author, purpose and audience.
There is just one significant oversight in the organisation of the 1993-94 volume. The chapter "Bahá'í Sacred Writings" contains two sections of quotes, headed "Writings of Bahá'u'lláh" and "Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha". Unfortunately, the quotes have no quote marks and no references. There is sufficient context for non-Bahá'í readers to work out that they are reading actual quotes from the writings, but confusion sets in when you read on to the next chapter, which is headed "From the Universal House of Justice". You immediately assume you are getting quotes from the House of Justice. However, the chapter starts with "The Universal House of Justice was ordained..." and immediately you ask yourself, is this the House of Justice talking about itself in the third person? Second page in, you are told that "This section of The Bahá'í World features excerpts from a selection of major letters" (p. 40), so it begins to dawn on you that the author is not the House of Justice as the title implies. In fact, the chapter is a short piece with an introduction on how the House of Justice communicates with the community and a summary of what the House of Justice wrote for the 1993-94 year, with indented quotes.
Dealing with two purposes
As stated earlier, the purposes of the volumes are to be a yearbook and to give general information about the Faith.
A yearbook is an annual publication that updates information on a given subject. However, in order to fulfil the second purpose of giving general information about the Faith, the publications also contain a great deal of information that has nothing to do with the current year. This dissipates their focus and leaves the reader wondering what is going to come next. For example, both articles about the Mount Carmel projects (1993-94 pp. 67-69) begin with pages of background before detailing progress for the year (1992-93 pp. 169-175).
The same problem also reveals itself on a micro level, within sections of articles. In the section “Year in Review” (1993-94 p. 128), the Houses of Worship section starts with an explanation of what Houses of Worship are, what Bahá'ís do in them and how many there are, before discussing Houses of Worship for the year. And in the middle of an article on social and economic development, there is a paragraph that outlines assembly functions and explains the election process at all levels of the administrative order (1992-93 p. 234).
I recommend the editors commit themselves to making The Bahá'í World a yearbook. This would mean putting all the yearbook-related information first - House of Justice statements, events, statistics - and all background information into appendices - explanations of Bahá'í administration and teachings, quotes from the writings, and information on matters such as the persecution of the Bahá'ís in Iran. The editors should definitely resist the urge to put the sacred writings first just because Bahá'ís like it that way! And they should also resist putting information together just because it is about the same topic. Information should be grouped according to time not subject; so, for example, the article on what’s currently happening in Iran would come in the yearbook section, and then the reader can be referred to the appendices and other publications for further information.
The 1993-94 volume contains a glossary that explains and gives background on some basic Bahá'í terms such as "Universal House of Justice". Using a glossary stops the information in the main part of the publication from being cluttered with background detail. Unfortunately, this has not been heeded by the various authors of the volume, and the reader is given unnecessarily repeated explanations such as: "Every five years, a three-stage process culminates in the election by the Bahá'ís of the world of the supreme governing council of their community, the Universal House of Justice" (p. 51); "... immediately following the Seventh International Bahá'í Convention - the occasion every five years for the election of the Universal House of Justice..." (p. 60); "Members of the Universal House of Justice, the international governing body of the worldwide Bahá'í community..." (p. 79).
Impressing the audience
The publications assume that a non-Bahá'í audience is not interested in detail. The World Centre's review of the first series of The Bahá'í World concluded that the series was a “detailed record” that resulted from the tendency of the writers and editors to provide an “exhaustive treatment” of community activities. These, it argues, were of intense interest to Bahá'ís, many of whom were personally involved in the projects, but not to the general reader (1992-93 pp. 9-10).
The result for the new series is a run of articles that give uninteresting descriptions of events supported by very little detail. In the 1993-94 volume, the section "Year in Review" is 50 pages long and made up of separate sections each focusing on a specific event, area of service or topic. With little to relieve the tedium, most follow a formula: a description of what happened, where it happened and who was there (those considered important), with a brief description of what was discussed. To take one paragraph at random: “Five Bahá'í singers and musicians were among those who performed for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting held in Cyprus in October. Alex Zografov directed the musical opening, Vic Salvo played the piano, and three members of the Zografov family sang in the choir. The performance moved many of the forty-eight leaders of Commonwealth Nations so greatly that some of them commented on it in their speeches” (p. 121). Be honest. Could you cope with that for 50 pages?
The article on the “Conference of Bahá'í Counsellors” tells us that: “Issues concerning questions about the Faith raised by interested members of the public and attacks launched by opponents, the role of the Teaching Centre in encouraging systematic study of the Faith, the production and dissemination of Bahá'í literature, and the flow of pioneers and travelling teachers were also discussed” (1993-94 p. 66). No more detail is provided; there is no attempt to describe, much less analyse, what was discussed, and no attempt to clarify why the House of Justice considered the event “highly significant”. The reader is left to wonder what could be meant by such phrases as "attacks launched by opponents".
Besides being uninteresting, I am at a loss to see how this information is of use to a ‘serious scholar’. Beyond the general documenting of events for the year, the statistics, the obituaries and basic reference material, I suggest that the most telling aspect of the publications is what they don't say. Where is the heart and soul of the community? I could find almost nothing that reflected the community's humanity - people with foibles, people who make mistakes, people who are passionate.
Contrast this with the more than 100 pages devoted to the persecutions of the Bahá'ís in Iran in The Bahá'í World 1979-83. Although some of it would be excluded if the selection was restricted, as suggested, to material relating to the relevant years, most of what is included is relevant. As discovered in the review of the old series, the pages reveal a careful and loving attention to detail, with all sorts of useful material: photographs of those killed, personal accounts of persecution, reproductions of key documentation, maps, and exhaustive detail in the text. I cannot understand why this kind of information “will have a diminished importance in the eyes of general readers” (1992-93 p. 10). It is precisely this kind of detail that makes the publication useful and interesting. Although the editors state that their intention was to retain the positive aspects characteristic of the old series (1992-93 p. 12), I cannot see any evidence of this; for example, the obituaries have been reduced from the short biographies of the earlier series to a few cursory remarks.
There is one important exception. The article by William Collins, “The Bahá'í Faith in the Eyes of the World: What the Print Media Report About the Bahá'í Faith” is interesting and informative, being crammed full of actual examples and detail. It has been put together by someone who knows the subject well and is able to analyse it and make intelligent comments about it. He describes the trends in the media’s coverage of the Faith, explains events that sparked changes, and isolates themes that the media has taken up about the community. The article even mentions, albeit briefly, possible challenges for the Bahá'ís with regard to its relationship with the media (1992-93 p. 167). Another article in the same volume that held my interest was “The Case of the Bahá'í Minority in Iran”, by Douglas Martin. It was informative, and written in a style that kept the story moving.
Language and style
The volumes are verbose, with an overuse of passive sentences and nominal phrases, and have an impersonal, dry PR quality:
"Among these are the aspiration that development activities will contribute to a rehabilitation of human society and will eliminate extremes of poverty and wealth, a belief that a desire to serve others is ultimately the most outstanding motivation for participation in development activities, and the conviction that high standards of morality can and should be intentionally cultivated by every person." (1992-93 p. 231)
At some difficult points, unsupported generalisations fill the gaps:
"One of the principle [sic] teachings of Bahá'u'lláh is the equality of the sexes, and throughout its brief history, the Bahá'í community has achieved an extraordinary record in this area." (1993-94 p. 83)
In some sections, the authors are clearly writing for an external audience of policy-makers or academics and use language that they think would be usual in these circles, without themselves mastering or perhaps understanding it. The results are verbose, giving the appearance of analysis, without the substance:
“The development activities of the Bahá'í community express a well-articulated alternative paradigm of development, of interest in its unusual approaches to the dilemmas of sustainability, of meaningful project design, and equitable North/South interaction.” (1992-93 p. 229)
Other sections are written without any apparent thought for an external audience; preachy, but preaching only to the converted:
"They [the letters of the House of Justice] show how the supreme elected institution ordained by Bahá'u'lláh in His writings functions, protecting the Bahá'í community from persecution and division, applying the Bahá'í teachings for the current situation, guiding the Bahá'í community in its course of development, and sharing news of both crisis and victory in the Bahá'í world." (1993-94 p. 47)
Essays and statements
As mentioned earlier, the publications contain essays and statements. In keeping with the purpose of The Bahá'í World as a yearbook, I think that essays should be included only if they are linked to some event that occurs during the year and needs extended comment. For example, the essay on The Kitab-i-Aqdas in the 1992-93 issue is justified, given that the release of that book during the year was a big event for the community. On the other hand, the essay on The Kitab-i-Aqdas included in the subsequent issue has nothing to do with the 1993-94 year. Worse, it is 47 pages long and, along with other essays, placed in the middle of the issue, breaking up the flow of information for the year.
Apart from this, I see no reason to include essays. The role of The Bahá'í World is to report what the Bahá'ís are doing in scholarship, not enter the arena of scholarship itself. It is striking how little space is actually devoted to Bahá'í scholarship: the 1992-93 volume makes no reference to it whatsoever, and the 1993-94 volume devotes just three pages to it.
With regard to statements, if a particularly important statement comes out for the year, there may be reason to include it as an appendix. Otherwise, I recommend listing the statements for the year - perhaps with summaries - and providing references or contact details for those wanting copies.
I recommend that the editors of The Bahá'í World focus on producing a yearbook that describes and analyses in detail the events of the year, with references to sources where readers can obtain further information. All background information on the Faith and any statements that must be included belong in appendices.
The editors should revisit the whole issue of content, bearing in mind that the 'human' element of our experience is attractive to readers, who will be looking for glimpses of themselves in the pages - evidence of people on real spiritual journeys, not reports of administrative meetings and events involving famous people.
I strongly advise the editors to abandon the impersonal, self-congratulating language in favour of a personal, straightforward tone and style.