Professor Ehsan Yarshater was excommunicated by the Baha'i patriarch Shoghi Effendi

Professor Ehsan Yarshater passed away on 1 September 2018
by N. Wahid Azal

Professor Ehsan Yarshater (b. 3 April 1920 in Hamadan, Iran and died 1 September 2018 in California, USA ), the founder and editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia Iranica, has passed away. Yarshater originally hailed from a Jewish Baha'i family, part of a group of Jewish converts from that city who during the late 19th century CE and early 20th became the biggest group of non-Muslim converts to the creed. As friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and peers pay homage to this man, there is a part of his biography that should be shared.

Ehsan Yarshater was among the most eminent victims of the Baha'i leadership of the last century. During the 1930s the Baha'i patriarch Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (d. 1957) had forbidden any Iranian Baha'i from traveling to the West on the pain of excommunication. The reasons for Shoghi Effendi's prohibition on Iranian Baha'is specifically remains somewhat unclear but many middle-class Baha'is of the intellectual class fell to Shoghi Effendi's authoritarianism during this time.

In the 1930s under the Reza Shah regime, after completing his studies at the newly established University of Tehran, Ehsan Yarshater won himself an Iranian government-sponsored scholarship for graduate studies overseas. He used this scholarship, first alighting in Germany. But the Nazi regime (and, even though he was officially a Baha'i at the time, Yarshater's Jewish Iranian pedigree) forced him out and soon to Britain where he enrolled in the graduate program at SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies) studying under German orientalist Walter Bruno Henning.

When Shoghi Effendi found out that Ehsan Yarshater had defied his orders to stay in Iran and had gone to the West, he swiftly issued an excommunication against Yarshater that effectively made him what in Baha'i parlance is designated as a "Covenant Breaker" (a heretic which in Baha'i terminology is considered to be "spiritual leprosy" whereby all must shun such a person). Since his entire family were Baha'is at the time, under Baha'i beliefs (and Shoghi Effendi's authoritarianism specifically), the entire family of Ehsan Yarshater was obliged to shun him on the pain of being shunned and excommunicated themselves. Yarshater told me in person in his NY office in 1998 that following his excommunication by Shoghi Effendi, he was prevented from visiting his family for decades and was prohibited from even attending his parent's funeral. He was ostracized by his extended Baha'i family henceforth and the Baha'is in general for decades afterward.

Be that as it may, Ehsan Yarshater had his revenge against the Baha'i cult machinery (and Shoghi Effendi specifically) since during the years of the second Pahlavi shah, after Iraj Afshar (d. 2011), he emerged as one of the most eminent Iranists of his generation. Under the premiership of Amir Abbas Hoveyda (d. 1979), during the 1960s the Iranian government of the time commissioned the Encyclopedia Iranica with Ehsan Yarshater as its editor-in-chief: a project and monument that will bear his name forever.

Rest in Power, Ehsan Yarshater (d. 2018).


  1. Besides Ehsan Yarshater, a few of the other prominent academics who have been pushed out of the Baha'i Faith due to overbearing censorship and authoritarianism on the part of the Baha'i Administrative Order include Juan Cole, Denis MacEoin, and Abbas Amanat (the brother of Hossein Amanat, the architect who designed the Baha'i Arc buildings in Haifa and the Baha'i Temple in Samoa).

  2. The tenth anniversary of one of my most powerful blog entries, "The Fatal Flaw of Baha'i Authority" is fast approaching. And I intend to celebrate it.

  3. It occurs to me that once the Hoveyda government of the Pahlavi regime got behind Yarshater and his Iranica project, the UHJ realized that maintaining Shoghi Effendi's excommunication of Yarshater and his designation as a Covenant Breaker was no longer tenable to them to maintain as a viable PR strategy. This whole thing really became a PR nightmare to them at that point (nay, completely collapsed) because not only did Yarshater not go away (as most CB's are forced to) but his star rose in conspicuous prominence.

    However, they never formally removed the Covenant Breaker label from Yarshater which Rabbani had placed on him. But they did not pursue it publicly either as they did with others. There is a lot here to digest on several fronts and possibly make a topic of future research: 1. the politics of Pahlavi era Iran and the place of the various Baha'i factions in it (especially the relation of these factions to Haifa in both the previous and subsequent eras) and 2. the politics of the early UHJ era of the early-mid 1960s and the UHJ's softening (or otherwise smokescreening) of several of Shoghi Effendi's hardline positions in the previous era up to 1957.


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