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For the Student of Religion

by Bahá'í International Community

The Bahá'í Faith1 is the youngest of the world's independent religions. From its obscure beginnings in Iran during the mid-nineteenth century, it has now spread to virtually every part of the world, has established its administrative institutions in over 200 independent states and major territories, and has embraced believers from virtually every cultural, racial, social, and religious background.

The new faith is a distinct religion, based entirely on the teachings of its founder, Bahá'u'lláh. It is not a cult, a reform movement or sect within any other faith, nor merely a philosophical system. Neither does it represent an attempt to create a new religion syncretistically by bringing together different teachings chosen from other religions. In the words of Arnold Toynbee:

Bahaism is an independent religion on a par with Islam, Christianity, and the other recognized world religions. Bahaism is not a sect of some other religion; it is a separate religion, and it has the same status as the other recognized religions.2

Bahá'u'lláh's central message is that the day has come for the unification of humanity into one global family. He asserts that God has set in motion historical forces that are bringing about worldwide recognition that the entire human race is a unified, distinct species. This historical process in which, Bahá'ís believe, their faith has a central role to play, will involve the emergence of a global civilization.

Entirely separate from this breathtaking vision, the Bahá'í Faith holds a particular interest for students of the history of religion. This is because the empirical data is so accessible. It would be difficult or perhaps impossible to establish precisely the generating impulses that gave rise to the birth and development of any of the earlier major religions of the world. An explanation of the nature of the teachings of the Buddha, the actual events of the life of Jesus, the era in which Zoroaster lived and the nature of his influence, even substantiating the historical existence of "Krishna"--all remain seemingly insoluble problems. The life and person of Muhammad are more accessible, but even here controversy exists on many matters of vital detail.

One of the earliest Western historians to become interested in Bahá'í history was Edward Granville Browne, a noted Cambridge orientalist. It was Browne's view that the then little-known faith afforded a unique opportunity to examine in detail how a new and independent religion comes into existence. He said:

for here he [the student of religion] may contemplate such personalities as by lapse of time pass into heroes and demi-gods still unobscured by myth and fable; he may examine by the light of concurrent and independent testimony one of those strange outbursts of enthusiasm, faith, fervent devotion, and indomitable heroism--or fanaticism, if you will--which we are accustomed to associate with the earlier history of the human race; he may witness, in a word, the birth of a faith which may not impossibly win a place amidst the great religions of the world.3

The same point has been made by modern observers from outside the Bahá'í community:

The Bábi-Bahá'í movement provides the historian of religion with invaluable sources for studying its origin and development as with no other religion. There are at least two reasons for this. First, the Bahá'í Faith is the most recent religion. Other religions began hundreds or thousands of years ago. Of the so-called eleven major, living religions of the world, only Islam (seventh century A.D.) and Sikhism (sixteenth century A.D.) are centuries old: the others--Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity--date back thousands of years. The Bahá'í Faith originated only in the last century (1844 A.D.), and only since 1963 has it reached possibly the last phase of its formative development, which incidentally makes the present time most appropriate for making a study of that development. The Bahá'í Faith is, therefore, a religion of modern times and is naturally more accessible for study and understanding than the older religions.4

Most recently, the intensification of the persecution of Iranian Bahá'ís by the Islamic regime in their country has attracted international attention. Since it is principally the religious affiliation of the victims which has occasioned the attacks, interest has increasingly focused on the Bahá'í Faith itself. The beliefs that distinguish Bahá'ís from Muslims, particularly, and the sequence of historical events that has led up to the current outbreak, have been the subject of considerable discussion in Western information media.

For all of the reasons mentioned above, the Bahá'í Faith is increasingly included for study in university and college course curricula on world religions. The writings of the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, together with in-depth expositions by His appointed interpreters, are readily available in compilations published as English-language translations. Apart from these primary sources, literature on the Bahá'í Faith represents two main types of secondary material: commentaries by its adherents written to educate Bahá'ís and attract support, and a number of attacks by antagonists from among the Christian clergy. Neither type of secondary source publication can be considered adequate or appropriate to the objective exposition of the history and teachings of the Bahá'í Faith.

The study of any religion poses special challenges. Unlike most of the phenomena science studies, religion claims to comprehend human beings themselves. Religion demands not only attention, but ultimately devotion and commitment. So it is that many religious thinkers have insisted that there is a fundamental conflict between faith and science and that the realm of the former lies essentially beyond the explorations of the latter.

Here the Bahá'í Faith comes to the aid of those who undertake to study it. One of the teachings of its founder, Bahá'u'lláh, is that God's greatest gift to humankind is reason. Bahá'ís accept that reason must be applied to all the phenomena of existence, including those which are spiritual, and the instrument to be used in this effort is the scientific method.5 `Abdu'l-Bahá, the Son of Bahá'u'lláh and the appointed interpreter of his writings, asserted that: "Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it is only ignorance--for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge."6

To an unusual degree, therefore, one who studies the Bahá'í Faith finds the subject laid open to examination. The mysteries one encounters, like those in the physical universe, reflect no more than the recognized limitations of human knowledge. That is to say, they do not represent assertions about the natural world which contradict science and reason. The minimum of ritual and the absence of a priestly elite endowed with special powers or knowledge also afford relatively easy access to the central features of the Bahá'í Faith.

Nevertheless, the study of religion is not paleontology. It is an examination of living phenomena which must be penetrated, to the fullest extent possible, not only by the mind but also by the heart, if a clear understanding is to result. The Bahá'í Faith is a subject which represents the deepest beliefs of several million people, beliefs which govern the most important decisions in human life, and for which many thousands of Bahá'ís have accepted and are today accepting persecution and death.


Notes
  1. Adapted from William S. Hatcher and Douglas Martin, The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), pp. xiii-xvii.
  2. From a letter to Dr. N. Kunter, Avakat, Istanbul, Turkey, dated 12 August 1959. Published in British Bahá'í Journal, No. 141, p. 4, November 1959. The correct name of the religion is the Bahá'í Faith, not "Bahaism."
  3. Edward G. Browne, A Traveller's Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1891), p. viii.
  4. Vernon Elvin Johnson. "The Challenge of the Bahá'í Faith" in World Order, Vol. 10, No. 3, 1976, p. 39.
  5. The Revelation proclaimed by Bahá'u'lláh, His followers believe is ... scientific in its method ... religious truth is not absolute, but relative." Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, Selected Letters (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1938), p. xi.
  6. `Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, Addresses Given By `Abdu'l-Bahá in Paris in 1911-1912, 11th ed. (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust), pp. 130-141. For a detailed treatment of the subject of science and religion in a Bahá'í context, see William S. Hatcher, The Science of Religion, Bahá'í Studies, Vol. 2, The Canadian Association for Studies on the Bahá'í Faith, Ottawa, 1980.
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