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).
Source: Wahid Azal’s Blog