Web Talk No. 5, Dr. Moojan Momen’s Discussion of “The Re-Creation and Utilization of a Community’s Memories” Shows How Shoghi Effendi Rallied North American Bahá’ís to Succeed in His Plans
The Wilmette Institute’s fifth twentieth-anniversary Web Talk featuring Dr. Moojan Momen was yet another success. Rescheduled from April 12 to May 9 because of technical difficulties, more than eighty learners (now supplemented with 402 learners who have listened to the talk on YouTube) gathered to hear Dr. Momen discuss “The Re-Creation and Utilization of a Community’s Memories: Shoghi Effendi and Bahá’í History.”
Dr. Momen’s forty-five minute talk began with preliminary comments on why history is important, why it is important for any leader to give people a new vision and goal, why it is important to adjust peoples’ past, reset their vision, and prepare them to go forward in a new direction. He used as an example the Russian Revolution, explaining that the battles were not important but a new understanding of the workers’ oppressive past and their true future in a workers’ paradise was. For Islam, Muhammad had to revision and replace tribal fighting and worship of many deities with one tribe and monotheism. For any successful religion the challenge is not breaking what one historian calls the “chain of memory” but radically recasting the chain of memory in a new form and clothing it in the familiar.
Then Dr. Momen spent a few minutes reintroducing his audience to The Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl’s Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá’í Revelation, which Nabíl wrote about 1887–88 and which Shoghi Effendi translated in 1930–31 and published in 1932 with a 34-page introduction, 668 pages of text, 8 pages of appendices, some 650 footnotes (about one-third of the book), 150 photographs, and a genealogy chart. The project took Shoghi Effendi eight months to complete, including sending Effie Baker (the first Australian Bahá’í and a photographer) to Iran to work with the National Spiritual Assembly of that country to photograph many places described in the book.
Dr. Momen raised the question of why Shoghi Effendi, who was not a “gentleman of leisure” and who had many tasks to oversee (establishing the Bahá’í administrative order, finalizing legal incorporations of Bahá’í administration institutions, carrying on voluminous correspondence, defending the Bahá’í Faith from attacks in four countries, and restoring Bahá’í Holy Places at the Bahá’í World Center) decided to write a history. Furthermore, why did he decided to write about the Bábí period, when a number of well-known historians had already done so; when a history project was already underway in Iran; and when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had worked to “disconnect the Bahá’ís” from the Azali Bábís.
The answers to the questions, Dr. Momen explained, “lie in a consideration of the exact circumstances of the time in which the book appeared : the stage that Shoghi Effendi’s development of the Bahá’í community had reached” and “the future direction that he wanted to take the Bahá’í community.”
After ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s will appointed Shoghi Effendi the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith in 1921 and also referred to the establishment of the Universal House of Justice, Shoghi Effendi determined in 1922 that there was “not a sufficient administrative structure nor Bahá’ís who adequately understood what would be required to form a basis for the election of the Universal House of Justice.” Hence he spent the 1920s “developing the principles and ensuring consistency of the functioning of the Bahá’í institutions,” including the nature of elections, the functioning of elected institutions, “consultative decision-making,” turning to elected bodies for guidance and leadership, the “legal recognition through incorporation,” and dealing with Bahá’ís whose love and loyalty still focused on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.
By 1929 he once again considered the election of the Universal House of Justice, but it became clear that “some senior Bahá’ís demonstrated that they had not understood the principles of the transfer of authority from individuals to institutions and looked to the conference as a route to power.” Shoghi Effendi cancelled the conference and turned to “extending the geographical and cultural base of the Bahá’í community and increasing the number of national Bahá’í institutions as a foundation for the election of the Universal House of Justice.”
In 1930, Dr. Momen continued, only nine National Spiritual Assemblies existed; some 98 percent of the Bahá’ís were Iranians; 90 percent of the Bahá’ís lived in Iran; there were very few Bahá’ís in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin American, east Asia, the Pacific Islands, and Eastern Europe. Iranian Bahá’ís had little ability to travel and settle in all but a few countries. Only the some five thousand Bahá’ís in North America were able to do so.
But there was a problem. Only a handful of North American Bahá’ís had heeded ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s 1916–17 appeal in His Tablets of the Divine Plan, which were unveiled at the 1919 National Convention in New York City, to travel and settle throughout the world. How could he, Shoghi Effendi, get comfortable, middle-class North American Bahá’ís to leave their homes and travel to far-flung parts of the globe with lower standards of living and uncomfortable climates when the Master’s charisma had failed to so.
Here is where The Dawn-Breakers finds it raison d’être. In the history of the early Bábí community were role models of “bravery, even heroism, self-sacrifice, and perseverance under difficult conditions.” Here was a way for Shoghi Effendi “to create a connection in the minds of the American Bahá’ís between themselves and these early Bábís.”
After translating the book and publishing it in 1932, Shoghi Effendi spent the next five years urging youth and adults alike to study the book in teaching programs, in summer schools, for inspiration, as “an invaluable companion,” as an “indispensable preliminary to future pilgrimage,” as an “unfailing instrument to allay distress and resist attacks of critical, disillusioned humanity,” “as one of five Bahá’í books to be “read and read over again by every soul who desires to serve the Movement or considers himself an active member of the group.” (Shoghi Effendi also had The Dawn-Breakers translated into Persian for the Persian Bahá’ís.)
“In this way,” Dr. Momen noted, “the contents of The Dawn-Breakers became deeply imbedded in the Bahá’í community.” Not only did Shoghi Effendi encourage the North American Bahá’ís to internalize the message of heroism and self-sacrifice but, in a letter written on his behalf, he also encouraged the German Bahá’ís, writing that “The life of those heroes of the Faith should teach us what true sacrifice is, and to what extent we should forego our personal and worldly interests while endeavoring to carry the divine message to the four corners of the earth.” Thus the “word ‘Dawn-Breakers’” became “synonymous with heroism and self-sacrifice.” Indeed, “Dawn-Breakers” became code for heroism and sacrifice.
By 1936, with the Bahá’í administration strong enough to serve as a “launching pad” for taking the Bahá’í Faith around the world, Shoghi Effendi asked the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada to devise a “plan for the expansion of the Bahá’í Faith to every state of the United States and every republic in the Americas” (and eventually to European countries). When Shoghi Effendi launched the first Seven Year Plan in 1937, he referred to the American Bahá’ís as “spiritual descendants” of the Dawn-Breakers, a term he used again in his December 1938 letter to them published under the title The Advent of Divine Justice; in another letter sent in 1946 during the second Seven Year Plan; in yet another letter sent near the end of that Plan; and yet again in his launching of the Ten Year Plan in 1953. Shoghi Effendi also invoked the Dawn-Breakers when discussing sacrifice for the Fund and pioneering.
Dr. Momen’s talk is an inspiring look at how the translation and publication of the history of the early Bábís gave the North American Bahá’ís a new and recast “chain of memory,” a new vision, a “communal remembrance from a different community,” a “new identity,” and the Iranian Bábís as their spiritual ancestors, infusing the American Bahá’ís with a new identity and “with a new capacity for heroism and sacrifice.” In addition to providing a new understanding of the purpose of The Dawn-Breakers, Dr. Momen’s exploration also provides a context for understanding many of the letters that Shoghi Effendi wrote between 1921 and his death in 1957.
The grafting of new memories onto an old chain of memory, Dr. Momen concludes, requires insight into the conditions under which “this grafting” may “occur successfully.” His tentative suggestions are these: (1) “There must be some connection between the community whose memory is evoked and the community that is being grafted onto” (in this case the American Bahá’ís recognized the Báb as the cofounder of their religion); (2) “it must be done by someone who is perceived to have the authority and knowledge to do this” (only Shoghi Effendi could have done it); (3) “it must be done through a narrative that is vivid and direct, an eyewitness of the events depicted in the memory” (Nabíl was an eyewitness to the events about which he wrote); (4) “it must be done by someone who has good rhetorical skills and is able to create an acceptable encoding of the narrative” (Shoghi Effendi was a skillful translator and writer); and (5) “it should be done in a situation in which the inspiration evoked by the communal remembrance is put to use immediately” (in 1936 Shoghi Effendi asked the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada to prepare a plan, which they did; Shoghi Effendi followed in 1937 with the first Seven Year Plan and subsequent plans.)
Dr. Momen’s talk was followed by a half hour of thoughtful questions and answers.
If you missed Dr. Momen’s talk on “The Re-Creation and Utilization of a Community’s Memories: Shoghi Effendi and Bahá’í History” or want to listen to it again, click here.
The next Wilmette Institute twentieth-anniversary Web Talk is scheduled for Sunday, June 7, at 2 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. The speaker will be Dr. Sandra Lynn Hutchison, who will discuss “Windows on Divine Wisdom: Accessing the Meaning of the Bahá’í Revelation.” For information on the remaining six talks, visit the “Web Talk” tab on the Wilmette Institute’s website, http://wilmetteinstitute.org.