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COLLECTIONBook reviews
TITLEA Lost History of the Baha'i Faith, by Eric Stetson: Review
AUTHOR 1Grover Gonzales
ABSTRACTCritical review of a book about the history of some covenant-breaker groups.
NOTES For more on the writings of Covenant Breakers, please see this compilation.
CONTENT Vox Humri Media published in 2014 a curious book titled A Lost History of the Bahá'í Faith, subtitled "The Progressive Tradition of Bahá'u'lláh's Forgotten Family." The authors are Shua Ullah Behai and Eric Stetson, the latter being the co-author and editor and as such, contracted and paid by VHM. The basis of the work is a manuscript on the Bahá'í Faith written in English, by Shua Ullah, son of Mírzá Muhammad-‘Alí, now published more than a century after the defection of Muhammad-‘Ali and the subsequent events that produced the feud between him and ‘Abdu'l-Bahá. The authors aligned themselves with the "Unitarian" Bahá'ís headed by the brother of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá.

The manuscript was kept by Negar Bahai Emsallen, niece of Shua Ullah; she had a Bahá'í memorabilia shop in Haifa. The work consists of several pamphlets written by Shua Ullah and some other "Unitarian" Bahá'ís, the most important being those by Mírzá Muhammad-‘Alí, son of Bahá'u'lláh. Stetson, an outspoken critic of the Bahá'í Faith, wrote the preface, epilogue, copious footnotes and an introduction to every chapter. The credentials of the authors are, one was the son of Mírzá Muhammad-‘Alí, the other having a B.A. in Religious Studies and being a former member of the Bahá'í Faith.

The book has 552 pages and is divided into 37 unrelated chapters, two appendices and some family photographs. Most of the chapters were already published, mainly in Behai Quarterly, in E.G. Browne's Materials… and in Ibrahim Khayru'lláh's writings. Conspicuous by their absence are the Bibliography (probably for a good reason) and an index.

Stetson introduces his book with these words: "…it is impossible to have a clear and balanced understanding of the Bahá'í Faith…without reading A Lost History of the Bahá'í Faith and "this book can serve as a first introduction to this fascinating religion… (p. xxxviii)" and concludes it, by calling the Bahá'ís to "have the courage to read it unbiased and unprejudiced (p. 541)." In the Preface, Stetson states, maybe candidly: "Some of the material I have added is more partisan in taking the side of Mr. Bahá'í father [Muhammad-‘Alí] and portraying ‘Abdu'l-Bahá in a negative light."

Khayru'lláh and Qazvíní's potent and virulent attacks against ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, reprinted here again, makes the rest of this book comparatively innocuous. The personality of Khayru'lláh, however, needs to be measured against Anton Haddad's notes and Dr. Mahdí Khán's book on the History of the Bábís. Here he states that when Abdu'l-Karim went to America to collect his money from Khayru'lláh, the latter immediately gave his allegiance to Muhammad-‘Alí, and solved his problem. The same Khán assures that the brother of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá is the one that informed the Turkish authorities against Him.

The most critical part of the book is the use of Stetson's sources on the topic; on one side, he places most ex-Bahá'ís, anti-Bahá'ís, open-enemies etc. and, on the other…nobody. Eyewitnesses that were in Palestine during that time, such as Dr. Habíb Mu'ayyad, Hají ‘Aliy-i-Yazdí, Dr. Yunis Khán Afrukhtih, Hájí Mírzá Haydar-‘Ali, and others, are ignored. Modern Bahá'í scholars that wrote about this theme, such as A. Taherzadeh, M. Momen, U. Schaefer, H. Balyuzi and many others, are not mentioned at all. He probably considers them "mainstream" Bahá'ís and therefore, their opinions are biased and prejudiced.

The title of the book A Lost History is quite misleading, since few periods have received so much attention by believers and non-believers alike. The well-known scholar E. G. Browne, with much more resources than Stetson, already dedicated the first 171 pages of his Materials to Muhammad-‘Alí's group; he also provided a list of books, manuscripts and correspondence written by his followers to Browne. Later, Nicholson presented additional correspondence from that group. An analytical study of all this material would have been a real contribution to scholarship. As to "Forgotten Family", most of them made themselves forgettable, by reasons of their own. Regarding "Progressive Tradition", the authors do not indicate what they mean by progressive. As to "Unitarian", it is telling that Stetson titles one of his paragraphs "How Unitarian Were the Unitarian Bahá'ís?" As to doctrine, this group does not show any unity; Bahá'u'lláh is "God the Father" (Khayru'lláh) or "just inspired people" (Kamar Bahá'í, daughter of Badí'u'lláh). The chapter on "Musa [other son of Muhammad-‘Alí] and the Rotary Club" seems to be a kind of subliminal message.

Unitarians made the extraordinary accusation that ‘Abdu'l-Bahá considered himself equal to Bahá'u'lláh or even greater, and so, infallible. After reviewing all the evidence, Stetson says: "It is unclear whether ‘Abdu'l-Bahá himself claimed to be infallible." His Will and Testament was considered a fake by all the Unitarians, attributing it to different persons like Shoghi Effendi himself, Muhammad-‘Alí, Munírih Khánum, Zia'iyyih Khánum, Rúhi Afnán, etc. Kamar Bahai says that it was a fabrication of some intriguers who entrusted the leadership "…to a boy whom they were able to handle as they pleased on account of his youth." (p. 259). Of Ruth White, the inventor of the forgery theory, Muhammad-‘Alí has this to say: "Shoghi has never been in my presence, and I do not know him personally. Mrs. Ruth White's accusations are untrue. It is indeed surprising to observe that progressive Occidentals satisfied themselves with hearsay, and passed judgment without investigation." (p. 181). Stetson, surprisingly, writes: "The forgery theory remains mostly conjecture, unsupported by any convincing evidence." (p.142)

As noted before, most of this book has already been published. The most important chapters were, of course, the Autobiography of Muhammad-‘Alí and his Will and Testament. Both documents are unpublished, although the ubiquitous Jelal Azal had many extensive extracts.

The Autobiography (p. 183) has some interesting topics, such as: the first printing of Bahá'í Holy Books, the Kitáb-i-‘Ahd, the Recantation of Badí'u'lláh, and his tablet to Qazvín.

Even though the first printing of Bahá'í holy books is known, the testimony of this son of Bahá'u'lláh, who carried on this important task, merits the entire quote:

"…the Book of Aqdas and the Book of Haykal were copied by the late Haji Mirza Husayn Shirazi, better known as Khartumi, and the late Mulla Ahmad Ali Nayrizi. I carefully compared them with the original manuscripts, then sent them to the printing. When the proofs of both books came, I presented them to Bahá'u'lláh through the mail and again secured His permission for the final printing. Also an epistle which was composed by Ghusn-i-Azam and which I asked the late Mirza Muhammad of Isfahan, who was the caretaker of the pilgrim house in Acre, to inscribe. This was also printed. Later on, other holy books were printed, namely the Book of Ishraqat, the book inscribed by Mishkin-Qalam, the Book of Aqdas in modern type, the book of supplications inscribed by Haji Mirza Husayn Khartumi and small book of supplications in modern type." "The books were printed by the Nazeri Press. The owner was Haji Siyyid Muhammad Afnan and the manager Aqa Mirza Ibrahim Afnan." (p. 197-8)
It is important to note that this is the first time in history that the Holy Books of a revealed religion were printed and approved by its own Founder.

Muhammad Jawád Qazvíní, one of the witnesses to the reading of the Kitáb-i-‘Ahd, wrote in his Epitome of the Faith, that part of the Will was concealed; since then, many conjectures have been around. Muhammad-‘Alí read the entire Will and offers the following: "Ghusn-i-Azam said: ‘It shall not be a secret from you, only I do not wish as yet that the believers should read it and know its contents.' I read it all, and it [the concealed part] was regarding Khadim [Mírzá Áqá Jan] and his services, and at the end addressed both Ghusn-i-Azam and the Khadim enjoining them to be faithful to Him. Zia Ullah Effendi also read the Will." (p. 204-5). Late in life Bahá'u'lláh expelled Khadim from His presence because of his arrogance while asking some material benefits. At the same time, he postponed the order of Bahá'u'lláh to explain to the believers that he did not write anything by himself. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, finally obtained this letter. After the Ascension, he became a humble servant of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá and his relations with the other Aghsán were due to his living in Bahjí. While there, the Unitarians tried to get rid of him to take his possessions, so he escaped to Acre. Finally, they tricked him with a letter "descended for heaven." He gathered the believers to read it, ‘Abdu'l-Bahá stopped him and that was his spiritual end. All of the above indicates that it was Bahá'u'lláh Himself that either crossed out or covered the paragraph related to him in His Testament, written before this time. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá, probably did not want the believers to know his disgrace; besides, he was not declared a CB. Later Muhammad-‘Alí said nothing about the Will and finally Shua Ullah in his Selections of Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, published the entire Kitáb-i-‘Adh, without the last paragraph and without any comment.

Badí'u'lláh renounced Muhammad-‘Alí, repented, and came to ‘Abdu'l-Bahá. He wrote "An Epistle to the Bahá'í World" and other letters of repentance, showing the misdeeds of Muhammad-‘Alí, who wrote about him: "He could not stand the hardships…He piled up debts and the debtors pressed him." Practically, he was a parasite that for some food could change sides; not getting enough he returned and wrote his frantic Memories that show his unbounded hate to Munírih Khánum, attributing all to Bahá'u'lláh Himself; even Rev. Miller showed great surprise on this. Why did he not come forward with this at the time of the rebellion of the Aghsán? This vendetta was written late in his life; the grand daughters of Shua Ullah call it "shocking" and together with Stetson wait eagerly for its translation and publishing, not knowing that the infamous Jelal Azal, son-in-law of Badí'u'lláh, already made it available more than half a century ago.

‘Abdu'l-Bahá accused Muhammad-‘Alí of revealing the sacred tablet to Qazvín, making himself equal to the Manifestation of God. His defense is as follows: "It is in my handwriting and signed by me", but, "it was revealed by the Supreme Pen." The reason he gives is, to test the believers.

According to Stetson, The Will and Testament of Muhammad-‘Alí "presents a relatively simple vision of the Bahá'í Faith" (p. 227). It covers a doctrinal part and a defense to the accusations of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá against him. On the Martyrdom of The Báb, he follows the exaggeration of the Shí'ahs and writes: "…from the rifles of eight hundred soldiers, not a bullet touched him…"

Shua Ullah wrote his own memories. He represented Muhammad-‘Ali in America, established The Behai Quarterly, helped Khayru'lláh, and made friends with those opposed to ‘Abdu'l-Bahá. He refers to 46 volumes of Writings of Bahá'u'lláh that most likely were in his father possession but, nobody knows their whereabouts. It is very possible that they actually are at the Bahá'í World Center. The book also describes the sects of Bahaists in USA at the beginning of the 20th century: Society of Bahaists, NSA of the Bahá'ís, New History Society, National Association of the Universal Religion. Except for the NSA, none of them have survived. Shua Ullah returned to Palestine without any accomplishment. Of these memories, Stetson says: "This is an eye-opening account of various tourist destinations along the way, as they appeared in the 1930s." (p. 395)

Much effort and ink would have been saved if Shua Ullah and Stetson had read this paragraph from the Book of God: "Refer ye whatsoever ye understand not in the Book to Him Who hath branched from this Mighty Stock" (Aqdas 121). In this 600-page book, this most critical paragraph does not appear. The best that one can think of the authors is that they were not aware of it. Or, were they? Cynicism pervades the book. The non-believer could ask: What super power ‘Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi have that, against all odds, made their powerful enemies disappear with just a word or one stroke of their pens?

If some abstract could be prepared of this book, probably, it would be as follows (taken from the author himself):

Bahá'u'lláh's progressive teachings have inspired millions of people around the world, but his own family was torn apart by schism and authoritarian interpretations of the religion. Most of his descendants are remembered today as heretics or have been forgotten by Bahá'ís. ... Mr. Bahai [Muhammad-‘Alí] started a competing sect of the Bahá'í faith during ‘Abdu'l-Bahá ministry. Unity was commanded by Bahá'u'lláh and schism prohibited, so this has to be as something of a black mark against Mr. Bahá'í legacy. [p. 521] The last books by adherents of Mohammed Ali Bahai were published in the early 1900s, before his sect gradually faded away into obscurity and disappeared. [p. xxxvii]
The writing of this book was for Stetson a "religious experience" (p. 496) that finally moved him to found his own religious group, the Christian Universalist Association. He also formed the Council of Wisdom and other groups. Stetson, somehow, could be congratulated for the effort put on this book, because it is very difficult to be an advocate of lost causes.

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