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COLLECTIONSBiographies, Unpublished articles
TITLESelf and Society: Biography and Autobiography in Baha'i Literature
AUTHOR 1Graham Hassall
ABSTRACTOn some of the 'moral implications' in writing biography in a Bahá'í perspective; the modes, intentions, and problems of Bahá'í biography.
TAGSBiographies (general)

The Modes and intentions of Biography

This paper seeks to explore some of the 'moral implications' in writing biography in Bahá'í perspective. It proceeds by searching out the modes, intentions, and problems of Bahá'í biography in order to ground its theoretical observations empirically and to point to some issues of method associated with biographical practice. A related purpose is to offer some initial observations on the ways in which biographical literatures frame understandings of the individual in the context of community.

The biography, as distinguished from all other texts, places the life experience of an individual (or individuals) at the centre of investigation. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes a biography as a "narrative which seeks, consciously and artistically, to record the actions and recreate the personality of an individual life..." Other works such as histories and other types of commentary may well consider the same person or people, but without placing them at the centre of the investigation. There are, for instance, descriptions of Horace Holley in Gayle Morrison's study of Louis Gregory, but the latter is at the centre of focus. Similarly, Robert Stockman's recent survey of the Bahá'í Faith in America describes a great number of individuals, without amounting to a biography of any one of them. A further distinction can be made between biographies written about oneself (autobiographies) rather than about others. The noblest goal of an autobiography is to examine one's life and to share the results of this examination with others. It requires the capacity to observe oneself at a distance. Autobiographies may also be written for other purposes, whether for the instruction of others, or simply to record the times one has lived through and the events one has witnessed or participated in.

Not all biographies intend exploring their subject in similar depth. Those which are essentially chronological and descriptive intend to document a life "for the record". They seek, that is, to preserve, or to record, information of interest about a person, and they seek remembrance (tadhkira) of a subject without exploring the relationship between his or her values and actions, and without placing these actions in some specific historical or socio-cultural context. In a sense they offer an assurance that a subject possessed the qualities of the spiritual and the virtues of the holy, but do not necessarily bring the reader any closer to an understanding of the struggles and achievements of their actual existence.

A more complex biographical exercise presents relevant events in some actual context, and examines the progression of the biographical subject through the conditions of their life. It takes the step of seeking the significance of the subject's existence, of extracting the essential from myriad events and happenings in their life. For example, biographies of George Townshend and Louis Gregory seek to position their subjects in the context of their times.

Biographic Traditions

Traditions of biography and autobiography have evolved in each of the world religions. Devoted at first to depicting the life of the prophet, and the lives of the first disciples, they have expanded to include accounts of martyrs, saints, and holy men and women. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary defines this literature as "Hagiogology" - "literature that treats of the lives and legends of saints". But this literature in its original form was not as concerned with the details of an individualised life as with the generalised moral story that it could be called on to tell. Such idealized biographies of saints that were the focus of medieval hagiographies, explain Averill and Nunley:

... were little concerned with the idiosyncrasies of individual lives. Their purpose was to further Christian ideals, and medieval biographers felt free to borrow anecdotes from one saint's life to embellish the life of another. To the extent that differences among people were accorded significance, such differences were based on preestablished regional, class, and gender expectations. A person was born into a certain social station (a nobleman, say, or a serf), and that station determined the meaning of his or her life.

The "exemplary" purpose of such texts has recently been elaborated by studies of the "broad injunctions" found in Christian texts in contrast to the "specific regulations" found in Judaism:

Inevitably, there arose a need to identify models of proper, and improper, behaviour to compensate for the excessive laconism of the New Testament on this topic. Lives of saints were written and accounts of the lives of famous pagans were scrutinized to extract from them the models that would guarantee the moral uplifting of righteous Christians. We know these models under the name of exempla, narratives of others' lives, or of events in others' lives, admitting of a moral lesson.

The Buddhist tradition offers a slightly different approach to biography, which yielded a somewhat similar result. According to Gungwu the practice of biography was inhibited by the attempt to limit the "aggrandisement of the self" through placing little emphasis on "any individual self" at any particular point in time, or place in time:

Self was knowable but specific selves were not worth knowing except where they might show a capacity to merge with the universal, with the infinite and the eternal. There was, therefore, no meaningful biography except where it might demonstrate how a few extraordinary men conquered their selves.

China's Confucian tradition elaborated Shih Chi, biographies exemplifying a 'Confucian moralism whose ultimate aim was to guide the conduct of statecraft'. In Japan such literary figures as Mori îgai developed a 'typology of virtue' to describe a vast corpus of biographical literature. A similar hagiographic intention also informs Islamic biography. Biographies of the Prophet were given the name sira, and the tradition of rijál in Shi'a Islam focused on study of the lives of the transmitters of the traditions of Islam. Eventually clergy and califs, saints and missionaries, were equally subject to written remembrance. In some parts of the Islamic world these are known as tarjama, an Arabic term referring to both biography and autobiography. Tajarma marshalled the particulars of the lives of learned men into settled categories:

The components include a genealogy, an account of formal education and Qur'anic memorization, a list of teachers (often including close relatives, which indicates family support for religious learning), the books and subjects studied, and selections from the subject's poetry, aphorisms, or other contributions to learning. Dates are provided whenever possible, since the ability to date events distinguishes the traditionally educated from the unlearned.

As explained by Renard, the significance of the depiction of religious heroes in literature lies in that they 'live and move in a world ordered according to a divine plan', and that they exist 'only to reflect and point out God's signs and presence in creation':

When they conquer they do so by God's leave and power; and even when they lose in time, as rejected prophets or martyrs for justice, they win in eternity. Religious heroes function as custodians of hope against terrible odds, testifying to the virtual certainty of ultimate victory. Their life stories bear witness to the reality of a transcendent dimension in human experience. Most of all, prophets and Friends of God represent the best of religious and cultural ideals in accessible form, perhaps too far away to attain fully but not so far as to discourage an attempt.

Religious biography, of course, exists within a larger practice of biography, which in the modern period has become dominated by studies from popular culture - cinema, literature, music, and war. In the twentieth century biographical endeavour has come to include accounts of previously silenced voices - of 'common' people, of women, and of the oppressed and marginalised, who are now 'writing back' to their oppressors. In finding these voices, the practice of autobiography (ie writing one's own story) has also burgeoned. With the emergence of secularism in Western society the hagiographic function elaborated within the religious traditions has been modified rather than completely rejected. Modern biographies generally avoid questions of "ultimate purpose", but proceed in the knowledge that "each human life recapitulates common human experience".

Biography in the Bahá'í Writings

There seems little need to defend the practice of either history or biography in Bahá'í discourse. The Writings of Bahá'u'lláh are replete with references to history; those of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi similarly draw on past events and persons when referring to present and even future concerns. Bahá'u'lláh immortalised the lives of those devoted to His cause, and he referred to the lives of the past prophets and sages as being lives worthy of emulation. Furthermore, Bahá'u'lláh described his own experiences in his Tablets. Autobiographical references by the Manifestation point to the worth of his experience, and allow the reader to compare the records of that experience with those of the lives of previous Prophets.

'Abdu'l-Bahá recalled the lives of kings, rulers and learned in Secret of Divine Civilization, and extolled sincere Báb' and Bahá'í believers in Memorials of the Faithful. He suggested that contemplation of the lives of heroic Bahá'ís in Persia would set an example that others might aspire to follow, once advising that time be taken at the Nineteen day Feast to

...recount the high deeds and sacrifices of the lovers of God in Persia, and tell of the martyrs' detachment from the world, and their ecstasy, and of how the believers there stood by one another and gave up everything they had.

Thus we see that the intention of a work such as Memorials of the Faithful is to depict 'ordinary' people who, through their faith, do extraordinary things. Such stories inspire us because they show the effect of faith on people like ourselves.

Shoghi Effendi valued those who had served the Cause, and referred to them in the most admiring and loving language. He frequently sent epitaphs when notified of the passing of individuals whose efforts to promote the Bahá'í Cause he cherished, and he instigated an "In Memoriam" section in the first Bahá'í Yearbook (1925-1926) in remembrance of notable Bahá'ís, a tradition that has continued to the present through volumes 2-19 of The Bahá'í World (vol. II, 1926-28 - vol. XIX., 1983-86). The brief biographies that appear in official records, however, were never intended to set limits as to the treatment of individual life-stories. To the contrary, Shoghi Effendi on several occasions referred to the need for further elaboration, which the pressure of his more compelling responsibilities as Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith prevented him from exploring.

The Subjects of Bahá'í Biographies

One feature which begins to emerge from a reading of Bahá'í biographies is the diversity of personalities depicted, and the seeming lack of limitations on culture or social class represented. In what may be an unconscious evolution, the literature has in the first 150 years of its tradition produced studies ranging from the twin 'Great Souls' (the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh), to their followers of high and low station alike, and even those who worked as servants and slaves.

The biographies of the central figures by Balyuzi combine the approaches of meticulous western source scholarship and religious attachment, to produce studies which are at once faithful to and somehow detached from their subjects. David S. Ruhe acknowledges the hagiographic element in his biography of Bahá'u'lláh, Robe of Light ('The Persian Years of the Supreme Prophet Bahá'u'lláh'), and suggests also that a cold objectivity is neither possible nor desirable:

A natural tendency to reflect a feeling for Bahá'u'lláh well beyond hagiography must be moderated through such objectivity as is possible so soon after the lifetime of the Prophet. Nevertheless, the author's subjective emotional conviction has been sustained by a steadily deepening appreciation of the Great Soul.

Ruhe points to a shift in perspective that is gaining ground in the 'post-modern period'. Consisting of many ungathered strands, it is a perspective which questions the certainties of much modern thought, particularly the idea that knowledge can be produced 'objectively', and in a way that determines some 'absolute' or 'scientific' truth. This new perspective is prepared to admit its own boundaries, and to seek validity through disclosure of its own limited capacities to find meanings. Such a perspective finds many parallels that are useful in approaching Bahá'í biographical literature.

At this early stage in a new tradition, the lives of the central figures of the Bahá'í Faith have been presented anecdotally more than through comprehensive narrative. The life-story of Abdu'l-Bahá has been told in such early studies as Myron Phelps The Life and Teachings of Abbas Effendi (1905), and more recently in Balyuzi's Abdu'l-Bahá: Centre of the Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh (1971). Abdu'l-Bahá's sister Bah'yyih Khánum has not been the subject of close biographical observation.

Of the more than fifty individuals appointed 'Hands of the Cause' by Bahá'u'lláh and Shoghi Effendi, only a handful have to date been the subject of serious (English-language) biographies. Accounts of Rahmatu'lláh Muhajir and Zikrullah Khadem have been written by family members, using primarily personal notebooks and diaries, and being subject to later revision and supplementation. Iran Muhajir considers the biography of her husband Rahmatu'lláh Muhajir an incomplete record of the life of this man who "lived only to serve Bahá'u'lláh and who tried to carry out the instructions of the beloved Guardian to the best of his ability". The life-story of Dorothy Baker has been written by her grand-daughter, Dorothy Gilstrap. Other Hands of the Cause who have been subject to biographical treatment include Martha Root, George Townshend, and Louis Gregory and John Esslemont.

Biography as exemplum

The traditions of hagiography in both Islamic and Christian literature have undoubtedly and quite understandibly influenced much of early Bahá'í biographical literature. Elements of Tajarma are clearly evident, for instance, in Nabil-i-Azam's account of the Babis, The Dawnbreakers. So too is Mirza Abu'l-Fadl's 'Short Sketch of the History and Lives of the Leaders of This Religion' (published together with his well-known work The Bahá'í Proofs), reflective of the style. Typical of scholarship in both east and west at the time, Abu'l-Fadl does not detail his sources, but does show that he has considered the evidence of writers who were supportive of his subjects, as well as those who were not, and he supports only those facts he is confident of.

More recent Bahá'í literature also draws on the hagiographic and documentary Islamic and Christian traditions. This includes many biographies that appear in the "In Memoriam" section of volumes of the Bahá'í World. These are based for the most part on memoirs by relatives or acquaintances of the subject. They do not necessarily rely on extensive use of documentary sources, and intend to honour the memory of their subjects, and to acknowledge their contribution to the progress of the Bahá'í Faith rather than to explore their individual contribution in detail. In fulfilling these functions, they encourage and inspire their readers, and locate contemporary Bahá'í activities against a background of worthy tradition. Furthermore, they establish a record of the past which acts as an essential collective memory - a consciousness of the past - that strengthens individuals and communities as they operate in the present.

Bahá'í literature also includes several valuable collections of what might be termed 'biographical essays'. Some of these are by a single author, such as O.Z. Whitehead's Some Early Bahá'ís of the West (Oxford, 1976), Some Bahá'ís to Remember (Oxford, 1983), and Portraits of Some Bahá'í Women (Oxford, 1996); and Dipchand Khianra's Immortals (New Delhi, 1988). Multi-authored collections of this genre include And the trees clapped their hands, edited by Claire Vreeland (Oxford, 1994), and Why They became Bahá'ís, compiled by Annamarie Honnold (New Delhi, 1994).

These volumes of biographical essay each cohere around a specific theme. Whitehead's first volume (Some Early Bahá'ís...) narrates the lives of 23 individuals who met Abdu'l-Bahá. The volume edited by Vreeland includes both biographical and autobiographical accounts of pioneers, while that compiled by Honnold presents 34 autobiographies and 101 biographies of 'first generation Bahá'ís by 1963'. Khianra presents stories of Bahá'ís from the Indian subcontinent. Numerous essays from among these four sets of biographical essays rely on existing secondary sources and primary materials offered by subjects' relatives and acquaintances: not one among them suggests any reliance on formally archived materials.

For the most part these biographic essays are vehicles for exempla - for inspiration and the consolidation of tradition. Such exemplary biographies are not inherently problematic, but they may become so when tension results from difference between a writer's intentions and readers' expectations, or else when through the selective (non-)use of biographical evidence, leading in some instances to 'biographies of denial'. The life-story of Fatima Zarin Taj Baraqhani (also known as Tahireh = 'The pure one', and Quratul'ayn = 'solace of the eyes'), for instance, is one still to be imagined from within its prism of both eastern and western biographic traditions. Being female, her learning did not satisfy the criteria of tarjama, and only her individual brilliance has saved her from being silenced like so many of her sister believers, as lamented in Bahiyyih Nakhjavani's insightful Asking Questions:

The pages of Nabil's Dawn-Breakers are filled with countless women. They ride beside their husbands and sacrifice their children. They are humiliated, beaten and raped. They are paraded on horseback as the heads of their sons and husbands are held aloft on pikes. They carry stones and build forts; they cut off their hair and use it to bind together the fracturing guns at Nayriz. They were no doubt among those who helped grind the bones of dead horses and who rushed out under cannon fire to gather the new grass to eat at Fort Shaykh Tabarsi. But they have no names and Nabil does not go out of his way to mention them...(Oxford: 1990, p130).

Being a martyr for her Faith, her persona as 'heroine' is more familiar than her individuality. An instance of difference between author's intentions and reader's expectation on the subject of Tahirih occurred in a critic's response to Martha Root's biography, Tahirih the Pure: Iran's Greatest Woman. F.W.Ebner, who received a copy of Miss Root's book at the time of her visit to China in 1938, wrote in the North-China Daily News:

Were this book written primarily to show the life and influence of a nineteenth-century Persian woman who suffered martyrdom in her attempt to emancipate women, it would have resulted in a unique contribution to oriental biography. However the author's interest in her subject, Hadrat-i-Tahirih, Her Highness the Pure One, has been secondary to her interest in the promotion of the Bahá'í Faith. The review does not take exception to the purpose of the book as conceived by the author. He merely states that the ostensible purpose of the book seems to be of secondary concern.

While Miss Root gathered much of her material first-hand, in Iran, her treatment of the life-story of Quratul'ayn emphasised her role as suffragette and Báb' heroine rather than her individuality. Ebner, on the other hand, was evidently more interested in Tahireh's individuality as poetess and religious reformer.

Another instance of tension between biography as exempla and narration of a unique life is related by anthropologist Michael Fischer. During extensive fieldwork in Yazd, Iran, Fischer befriended Nœru'llah Akhtar-Khávar', a Bahá'í employed to handle international affairs at the Kerakhshan wool spinning and weaving mill. Akhtar-Khávar' was a couragous advocate of his Faith, who was executed by the Khomeini government in 1980. In re-presenting the story of his life, Fischer recognised that 'two stories' could be told:

The more powerful one is of the exemplary figure, the modern man who had decided to operate in a very conservative society, not to badger or embarrass it, but to show a new and open mode of behaviour. The challenge here is to show how one operates in such a society: it is almost an ethnographic challenge, the kind of challenge that requires the eye of a novelist for local color knowledge of local detail. It is a challenge to describe how a society changes, sometimes moving in reactionary self-destructive directions, but nonetheless irrevocably changes, in ways involving considerable internal conflict. The exemplary individual as well as all other individuals have to make choices, have to negotiate pragmatic as well as moral decisions.

The other narrative that can be told - by far the weaker story, I think - is to turn Akhtar-Khavari into a standard Bahá'í martyr. It is this that I fear will be his fate. I fear it not only because I will no longer recognize my friend, but also because he was larger than such stereo-typing allows. His personality (like every human being's) was unique: it was also graceful, informed, and forceful, and thus worth preserving.

Fischer's understandable concern is that hagiographic treatment of Akhtar-Khávar' would have a moulding effect, which would 'disembody' the authentic self. He sees the 'typing' of an individual as 'martyr' as a reduction of the subject, a shrinking of personhood into a brave but futile heroism. He regards the legacy of Nœru'llah Akhtar-Khávar' not as 'a dialogue of martyrdom with Shi'ism' but 'the possibility of living in Yazd as if it were the twentieth century, as if one could live without fear of religious fanaticism, as if people could live and let live each by his or her own lights.' His purpose is not to 'denigrate the suffering or the heroism of Bahá'í martyrs' but to 'raise for discussion the possibilities for more effective ways of countering the genocidal atrocities of the Khomeini regime'.

A survey of Bahá'í biographical literature suggests that Fischer's fear has not been realised. In the first place, despite the many deaths of Babis and Bahá'ís in the nineteenth century, and the continued martyrdom of Bahá'ís in both pre- and post-revolutionary Iran, these martydoms have not necessarily led to biographies of hagiographic intent and 'martyrdom' trope. Secondly, the appearance of such literature, when it does eventually emergence, need not betray the individuality of the subject in the way that Fischer fears. For sacrifice of self is regarded as honourable in the Bahá'í tradition as in those of the past, and lives that have been offered in the purest of motives will be remembered among the exemplary.


If there exists a 'true path' for human endeavour and the refinement of character, there also exists a path of 'waywardness'. Where one is a path of faithfulness, the other is that of deceit, and one role of biography is to clarify the distinction between the two. Thus the central figures of the Bahá'í Faith exalted the character and actions of the praiseworthy, and noted the condition of its opponents for the purpose of instructing others in right conduct.

The extent to which accounts can vary in their evaluation of an individual's place in Báb' and Bahá'í history is illustrated in studies of the life of the Persian activist Jamalu-din al-Afghani (1838/9-1897). Afghani was an Iranian of considerable intellectual and political capacity, who wove deception into every phase of his eventual life. Renowned Persianist Nikkie Keddie suggests that Afghani saw himself as a 'kind of prophet or messiah, destined to reform, reawaken, and reunite the Muslim world and free it from its infidel conquerors.' While there is no doubt that Afghani knew much about the Teachings of the Báb, and associated with Báb's, views vary greatly on whether or not Afghani was in sympathy with, or opposed to them. Kedourie has suggested that during his last years in Istanbul Afghani associated with "Persian Babis prominent in the dissemination of heterodoxy, and active in subverting the authority of the Persian Government", and suggests that an anti-Báb' article attributed to Afghani in Vol. V of Butrus al-Bustani's encyclopedia Da'irat al-Ma'arif published in Beirut in 1881 was written by Bustani himself. Shoghi Effendi, however, is clear in his assement of Afghani's relationship to the early Bahá'ís, and describes Afghani as one of those "enemies who have sedulously sought to extinguish the light of Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant":

The scheming Jamalu'd Din Afghani, whose relentless hostility and powerful influence had been so gravely detrimental to the progress of the Faith in Near Eastern countries, was, after a checkered career filled with vicissitudes, stricken with cancer, and having had a major part of his tongue cut away in an unsuccessful operation perished in misery.

In this passage Shoghi Effendi combines judgement of character ('the scheming Jamalu'd Din...') with matters of historical fact relating to his political and physical decline. While few biographies have been written to date about those who occupied themselves in active opposition to the Central figures and to the Bahá'í Community itself, the references to their actions in such works as Shoghi Effendi's God Passes By suggests that such studies will in time be required in the ongoing search for historical understanding of past events.

Partial Biographies

There are many individuals whose lives as Bahá'ís are only partially uncovered in the biographical literature. These include the famous movie actress Carol Lombard, who did not live long after her becoming a Bahá'í. The black American philosopher Alaine Locke (1886-1954) is another whose activities within the Bahá'í community are not fully documented or assessed, in biographies which focus on his achievements as a philosopher and writer. The Bahá'í literature, conversely, notes Locke's involvement in race amity conferences in the 1920s without examining in any detail his work in philosophy.

Roy Wilhelm (1875-1951), the trusted servant of 'Abdu'l-Bahá designated a "herald of Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant' and later Hand of the Cause by Shoghi Effendi, is known to Bahá'ís for his service on the Bahá'í Temple Unity Board (from 1909) and the North American National Assembly (from its inception 1922 until 1946, when he retired at age 71); and especially for the property in New Jersey which became the east coast Bahá'í Community's first summer school. Less well-known is the fact that Wilhelm rose from high school drop-out to become one of the largest coffee brokers in North America, a story better told in the pages of the New York Times. Perhaps even less well known are the troubled formative years which prepared Wilhelm for a life of service. As recalled by Wilhelm's butler Walter Blakely:

Roy was born in Zainsville Ohio, he went to school, when he got to high school he didn't like it so he ran away, his people found him and brought him back, then he ran again the second time, and he told me he covered his tracks thoroughly, he got a job as a pottery salesman on the road, what they called a "drummer" in those days, and he used to go all over the US selling pottery, and finally he told me he saved up $750, it was like $7,500 now, and a confidance man came and cheated him out of it, which he said was a good thing, because he never got cheated again.

Roy Wilhelm used to write to the Guardian every day. I used to mail them for him, and he used to get a letter back about once a week. He sent the Guardian an automobile, a brand new buick, the best ever made, I picked it out, because Roy said "you pick it out Walter, and pick out all the parts he will need for a number of years, 10 years".

Apart from the investigation of lives lived in loyalty to 'the Covenant' of Bahá'u'lláh, there remains too the issue of lives lived outside it, or in wilful opposition to it. A small number of biographies focus on subjects who were not Bahá'ís, but whose lives intersected significantly with the Bahá'í Revelation. These include Edward Granville Browne, the Cambridge Orientalist who devoted some three decades to the study of the Babi movement. Balyuzi's study Edward Granville Browne and the Bahá'í Faith does not explore all facets of the scholar's life and work, but focuses, as the title suggests, on his activities and publications in relation to the Religion and community of the Báb. More specifically, Balyuzi writes from the perspective of one who has examined Browne's early and later writings, and who is puzzled at his increasingly contradictory and oftentimes disapproving conclusions.

Biography, it seems, cannot aspire to full re-presentation of a subject's life. Rather, its function and purpose is to select facets of that life which the biographer finds important. In doing so, biography offers commentary on the significance of that life, and on what was individual about that life. In contemporary terms, one commentator has suggested "The biographer imposes pattern on experience to declare the comprehensibility of human existence. Learning of other people, we learn of ourselves." To aid the task of finding and commenting on meaning, biography makes use of such devices as metaphor and critique.

Biography as metaphor

St. Augustine has written in his Confessions:

Many things...are done, which seem disallowable to men and yet are approved by thy testimony; and many things again are commended by men, which by thy testimony are condemned. For the appearance of the act is often different from the intention of him that doth it; and the precise circumstances of the time, which are hidden from us, must often vary.

The Christian tradition of biography developed metaphors with which to describe the evolution of the religious life, and against which to compare the specifics of the life of their subject. Vincent Brummer explains, for instance, a three-stage growth process within the Christian tradition of mysticism, commencing with purification (or purgation), then illumination (or enlightenment) and finally ecstasy (or union). In the stage of purification one learns repentance, self-denial, and humility. This first stage is one of self-knowledge, a stage in which the "spirit of God inflames our will with love. This is a love that is chaste, holy and ardent". The third level, union, is not possible in the mortal realm, although enlightened mystics may gain glimpses of it.

If a metaphor such as Brummer's is accepted, the biographical task become that of making evident the progress of the spirit as it becomes refined through the tests it encounters and endures in the world of physical being. The stages of search, love, knowledge, unity, contentment, wonderment, poverty and absolute nothingness explored in Bahá'u'lláh's mystical work The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys refer to stages that souls traverse in life in varying degrees of intensity, which relate to varying degrees of capacity. To the present this model has been explored in systematic theologies, but has not provided the foundation for any biographical study. The literary subject might render the biographer's task easy by depicting his or her spiritual state on paper, but few people are so inclined, and the interpretation of their interior journey on the basis of their exterior one remains extremely difficult. The most accessible biographical subjects are those who themselves engaged in literature. Thus biographer Wendy Heller found Lidia Zamenhof a subject at once tragic and accessible. Zamenhof was the daughter of Ludwik Zamenhof, a polish Jew who created the language of Esperanto. She devoted herself to propagation of the Bahá'í Teachings through the medium of Esperanto language and culture, until terminated by the Nazis of Hitler's Germany. Heller's treatment of Zamenhof's restless life excels in narrating her life journey against the backdrop of pre-war Europe, when Bahá'í Communities laboured innocently in the context of a mounting maelstrom.

The Life-cycle

More frequent use has been made of life-cycles - the pilgrimage from childhood, to adolescence, to adulthood. This physical progression provides a metaphor for the spiritual journey that gives meaning to the physical: it offers a view on the quest for life - the conquering of self, the over-coming of desire; it seeks to examine the ways in which periods of crises and test contributed to the subject's growth and development.

A number of significant motifs recur in the depiction of the life-cycle of an individual believer in the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh. These include the process of conversion/confirmation of Faith, socialisation (becoming familiar with the value system of the Community), conversion encounters (acts of teaching the Faith to others), acts or episodes of service (eg participation in administration, propagation, scholarship and learning, defence of the Bahá'í Faith).

Among the most successful biographies in exploring the life-cycle are those by Marzieh Gail. In Summon Up Remembrance (Oxford, 1987) and Arches of the Years (Oxford 1991) Gail graciously introduces the reader to the world as lived by her parents, Ali Kuli Khan and Florence Breed, quite possibly the first Persian-American marital alliance, and certainly a meeting of culture and learning on both sides. As a child-witness to much that she records, Gail's account thus benefits from intimate association with her characters, and permits the reader not merely an understanding of the involvement of Khan and Breed in the affairs of the Bahá'í Community - whether in Persia, Palestine, Turkey, France, or the United States - but insights into the influences that shaped the development of their characters, and the forces in the world at large that shaped their destinies.

In all her writing Gail describes the heroic without creating generic heroes or heroines, and in this she follows Ruhe in instinctively developing another of the 'ungathered strands': The new framework for observation of lived lives does not seek to be prescriptive, does not set up 'personas' modelling or somehow defining a set of 'ideal' behaviours. That modernist effort to standardise our every action, to stifle difference, to create categories which we can clearly label as 'the heroic' teacher or defender of the Faith, or the 'stalwart' and tragic martyr or saint, have been dismissed. Here instead is an effort to see subjects in their individuality, to find qualities of humility, of love, of brilliance, of courage, in their specific locations, rather than in some pre-defined categories into which our infinitely diverse characters must somehow be put. Here instead is the project of finding heroic acts in the ordinary and everyday, to find the saintly in the common believer as much as in the extraodinary person of some other time and place. Here is a biography of difference, of identification of and examination of that sense of individuality that is to be achieved in the context of community. Here is celebration of the subject's consciousness of individual worth, of being-at-one with other believers and community rather than of being the same as all other believers.

Re-formulating the biographical framework

The shift toward a modernist framework has been accompanied by a desire to examine the biographical subject more critically. The modern biography now seeks to convey not merely the facts and example of the subject's life, but an interpretation or even evaluation of it. Most importantly, the critical approach of modernist biography has been encouraged by the presumption that an author occupies some superior and objective vantage-point from which to view, and judge, the subject. "In the recent past", it has been suggested,

the usefulness of a 'critical biography,' one that purports to connect life and work, was thought to consist mainly in giving the work a limiting context. ...Today, when the range of critical approaches has widened beyond the narrow verities of formal criticism, we are permitted an ampler view of critical biography. To understand any literary work requires, to begin with, a grasp of its genre and of its historical context. Equally essential is a personal context ...that biography provides to put the subject's work in adequate perspective. The work never provides sufficient information in itself for proper interpretations.

Exponents of the critical mode of biography suggest its superiority over traditional hagiography, and over mere chronologies and purely descriptive works. It could be argued, however, that extreme practices of both critical biography and hagiography are best avoided, and that the most satisfactory biography emerges from a collection of intentions, which include not only critical examination, but an effort to construct and contextualise rather than to deconstruct a life-story.

The Writings of the Bahá'í Faith provide immense insight into the nature of man and the purpose of his existence and can assist in formulating the criteria upon which sound biographical enquiry may proceed. They create, on the other hand, a dilemma for the writer of biography. We know that humans are imperfect; we also know that we are not to dwell on the faults of others: since we also know that in the discipline of biography the biographer is challenged to reveal the life of the subject, how can such a life be revealed without displaying imperfections, and at the same time avoiding simple hagiography? If we are to reveal our subject - and we know subjects are imperfect - then we will reveal blemishes of character. But if we are true to the facts as we find them, and reveal blemishes of character, then we are exposing the faults of others, and this we are not allowed to do. If, furthermore, we sift the facts to present a partial picture of our subject, dwelling only on those aspects that we think will show our subject in a positive light, we are in danger of distorting the reality of "things as they are": how might the biographer resolve this dilemma?

Firstly, I suggest, the intention of Bahá'í biography is not to critique for critique's sake, but to explore the relationship between a subject's conscious purpose, and the fruit of the enactment of that purpose. Bahá'í biographies are not stories of selves engaged in rational strategies toward fixed objectives, but voyages of beings through time and space, being tested as they approach stations of spirituality. Bahá'í biography, in other words, attempts the depiction of enlightened ontological states, in which life-meanings constructed in unique and specific circumstances accord with universal theological foundations: each human being has a specific path to treat, partly pre-ordained, partly self-defined; each has a rational soul and a physical form, and possesses capacities of spirit, intellect, and moral capacity, which the life journey presents with opportunities to either develop or ignore, through the voluntary application of will. Interactions with the worlds of nature, of culture, and of the spirit, refine the soul for entry to a future (post-physical) life: such is the journey - should the biographer attempt to depict it.

Secondly, since we understand that the highest capacities inherent in the person are to know (to seek knowledge of God), to love, and to act, these capacities should emerge in biography, through consideration of an individual's spiritual concerns, mental development, relationships with others, and use of will. In writing about the mind of an individual, furthermore, such an approach would be informed by the relationship between the spirit and the intellect as this is explained in the Bahá'í writings.

The juxtaposition of scriptural passages which at one time stress individual "nothingness" and at another celebrate individual worth suggests not contradictory elements within the Bahá'í writings, but the range of levels available for interpreting the worth of the self, and the individual life. Advocacy of self-effacement does not denote lessening of individual value, just as promotion of universal values does not deny the importance of particularity. Stories of the self thus find their importance at different levels. We must decide on some understanding of the self as the combined effects of physical, spiritual and intellectual selves. A mature biographer may feel confident to offer an evaluation of a subject's life, but those who write within a Bahá'í genre will temper their evaluation of the worth of the life of another human being through consciousness of the biographer's own limited access to a suitable plane from which to judge. Bahá'u'lláh's admonitions to observe the good and to ignore the shortcomings of others discourage hasty passage of judgement. The more we consider the immensity of the task, however, the less we feel inclined to assume the role of 'judging observer'.


No biography can fully 'represent' a life story. It can, at best, provide a faithful 're-presentation' of that story. Furthermore, the qualities of such a representation are determined by several factors, including the intentions of the author and the nature of the records disclosed. Biographies are 'source-dependent', in that the extent to which the life of another may be 're-presented' depends much on the quality and quantity of records - written or otherwise - that remain. To textualise lived experience is to theorise it, to place a grid on it. The tarjama and hagiography are examples of such grids. They provide conventions and criteria for appraising a subject's acts. Least accessible are 'inner motives', which are rarely exposed, except perhaps in autobiographical accounts, which are in and of themselves not guarantee of authenticity.

A well-crafted biography grounded in Bahá'í texts would address the nature of the individual person, noting his or her elemental qualities, and underlying motivations. It would, furthermore, would be informed by past traditions. Existing traditions of biography need not be rejected. To the contrary, the positive functions of each must necessarily be drawn on in the quest for more encompassing approaches to life-writing. Certain steps are required, however, to transform brief adulatory and uncritical accounts into more substantial pieces of biography. These seek to position a subject in context, and beyond that, seek to make a judgement, or an evaluation, of the subject's significance. I have suggested also that a biography should examine notions of public and private selves, and distinguish between active and passive, or contemplative, facets of individual existence - between the capacity to reflect, and the will to act. Such "spiritual biography" - if it can be called that - must additionally be constructed on the bases of well-considered conceptions of the terms "person" and "society". But all of these biographical objectives are subject to the availability of evidence, and literary devices that can use this evidence to 're-present' their subject. The self is always in some relation to an order, and biography is text that seeks to represent this relationship.

On the foundation of the arguments laid out in brief above, Bahá'í biography is essentially the depiction in literature of moral heroism. Its exponents and readers must, therefore, consider deeply what concept of hero they seek to establish. We are most familiar with hero/heroine whose exploits are apparent in the physical world, and in the 'public' arena, and whose travels and exploits are well documented in the source literature. But the concept of the heroic conveyed in Bahá'í Scriptures includes heroes and heroines whose arenas for victory are the 'inner life', or the life at home in the family - lives far less accessible to the biographical process. The 'hero', thus, need not be famous, and what is 'heroic' need not be 'public'. An integrating and unifying personality may not be one that takes the lead and stands out, and breaks new ground. Such an integrating personality may make no specific outstanding contribution, and hence not attract individual attention. But such a life is quite an achievement, an outstanding contribution in its own way, worthy of celebration, worthy of examination.

In this essay I have suggested that the contexts in which Bahá'í biography are written include each of the existing cultural and religious traditions. The hagiographic traditions of Christianity and Islam have influenced Bahá'í biographies toward depictions of subjects as exemplars, as heroes, saints, and martyrs. In the 'modern' biography the 'religious' or 'spiritual' orientation of life-stories has given way to more secular views of the the origins, character and motivation of the 'human spirit.' The modernist tradition has also allowed for representations of 'ordinary' believers, and for critical accounts which value factual accuracy as much as representations of 'ideal' personas. Rather than privilege one of these traditions above any other, however, this paper has suggested that the Bahá'í biographical project, in keeping with the facility that underlies Bahá'í theological and philosophical pursuits accommodates a range of biographical devices, and that this flexibility in approach will allow Bahá'í authors to continue to draw on the skills of the craft elaborated across many generations, divergent cultures and traditions, yet draw on the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh for inspiration productive of new insights into how lived lives might be depicted in literature.


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