Amin Banani was an influential scholar and a Knight of Bahá'u'lláh
Amin Banani, author of numerous scholarly works and longtime professor of Persian history and literature at the University of California, Los Angeles, served the Bahá’í Faith in a wide range of roles.
For more than two decades he was a member of the Board of Trustees of Bahá’í Ḥuqúqu’lláh for the United States, and earlier was an advocate for the Faith at the United Nations. He and his wife, Sheila, were honored as Knights of Bahá’u’lláh for their role in the founding of the national Bahá’í community of Greece in 1953–1958. Since the 1990s he played an active role in development of the Bahá’í-sponsored Association of Friends of Persian Culture.
Amin passed away on July 28, 2013, having lived for many years in Santa Monica, California. He was 86.
A message of tribute from the Universal House of Justice says in part, “Whether in the pioneering or administrative fields, he served with distinction — a service that was ever characterized by humility and self-effacement. … [W]e recall with heartfelt admiration and gratitude his staunch and effective defense of the Faith, the signal contributions he made to the advancement of both Bahá’í and Iranian studies, and his twenty-six years of service to the institution of Ḥuqúqu’lláh. In all respects, his was a life that exemplified unwavering devotion to the Cause and abiding commitment to its high ideals.”
In its turn, the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly wrote, “Scion of an illustrious family, Dr. Banani proved through his striving for excellence and through faithful and sacrificial deeds his worthiness to inherit its shining legacy. … Dr. Banani consistently placed service to the Faith we hold sacred first and foremost in his life. …”
Born in 1926, Amin Banani was the oldest child of Musa Banani, who later was designated by the Guardian as a Hand of the Cause of God. He was a superior student at the Zoroastrian and Alborz schools in Tehran.
One of a number of young Persian Bahá’ís who came to the United States in 1944 to complete their education, he graduated high school as valedictorian. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history at Stanford University, a master’s at Columbia University and a doctorate at Stanford.
His global-level service began in the late 1940s, when he accepted assignments to represent the Bahá’í community at a UN conference of nongovernmental organizations and a human rights commission. In the early 1950s he also served the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly on its National Youth Committee.
In 1953 he and his wife, Sheila Wolcott, responded to the call of Shoghi Effendi to move to countries and territories without Bahá’ís. They moved with their first child to Greece, where they spent five years fostering the beginnings of the Bahá’í community. His first university teaching post was in Athens with the Overseas Program of the University of Maryland.
During this time Amin was called by Shoghi Effendi for further work in the United Nations to protect the rights of Bahá’ís in Iran, ultimately being appointed in 1956 to an international committee for defense of the Faith.
After the family’s return to the United States in 1958, the National Spiritual Assembly appointed Amin at various times from the 1960s through the 2000s to serve on the Community Development Committee, Publishing Committee, Persian Reviewing Board and Payam-e-Doost Governing Board. He was a delegate to the Bahá’í National Convention several times in the 1950s and 1970s.
Over the years he was elected to Local Spiritual Assemblies serving Bahá’í communities in California, Greece, Oregon, Massachusetts and California again. He led sessions at Bosch, Louhelen and Green Acre Bahá’í schools; of summer schools in the United States, England, Iran, Ireland, Italy, Switzerland and Germany; and of the ‘Irfán Colloquium. In his worldwide travels he frequently taught the Faith and supported and encouraged Bahá’í communities abroad. At home he gave many public presentations promoting Bahá’í principles, intercultural understanding and global awareness.
His academic career was similarly active and distinguished. After teaching at Stanford, Reed College in Oregon, and Harvard University, he was invited in 1963 to start a program at UCLA in Iranian history and literature. From this work emerged the first undergraduate major in Iranian studies at any U.S. university, followed by master’s and doctoral programs.
He rose to become chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. Over the years his graduate teaching yielded a number of scholars who have taught at such institutions as Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Oxford University in the U.K., the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley.
He published many books, chapters and articles in his field. Among those works, he was author of The Modernization of Iran and editor and contributing author of The Epic of Kings, Islam and Its Cultural Divergence, Iran Faces the Seventies and Individualism and Conformity in Classical Islam.
He collaborated with Jascha Kessler on highly acclaimed translations of poetry by Forough Farrokhzad and by the Bábí heroine Ṭáhirih.
His influence in the field is reflected in his service on the board of directors of the Middle East Studies Association of North America, the executive council of the Society for Iranian Studies and the vice presidency of the American Association of Iranian Studies.
Starting in 1980, Amin was instrumental in developing the Bahá’í institution of Ḥuqúqu’lláh in the United States, first as a deputy trustee then as a member of the Board of Trustees serving the United States from 1984–2006. During his service the board initiated many educational efforts and materials on this major law of the Faith, particularly crucial as the Universal House of Justice put it into full effect worldwide in 1992.
When the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly in 1991 established what is now the Association of Friends of Persian Culture, Amin was appointed to its first advisory board. Since then, at the association’s annual conferences — which have grown to be a rallying point for Bahá’ís of Iranian heritage and a cultural common ground with Iranians of all faith traditions — he delivered many important talks on such topics as Persian literature, mysticism and history. He was also influential in bringing Iranian academicians from other faiths to make presentations at those events.
His focus on the poetry of Ṭáhirih was central to his presentation for the 1995 Hasan Balyuzi Lecture, the principal event at the annual Conference of the Association for Bahá’í Studies. He also contributed scholarly articles to that association’s Journal of Bahá’í Studies and to World Order magazine.
In addition to his wife of several decades, Sheila, Amin Banani is survived by two daughters, Susanne and Laila; and two grandchildren. Among family members who preceded him in death is his sister Violette Nakhjavani.
Information from Sheila Banani, the National Bahá'í Archives, the UCLA website, the U.S. Bahá'í Office of Persian-American Affairs and past issues of The American Bahá'í