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Abstract:
From chapter eight, "The East in the Golden West: Other Oriental Movements."

Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America

by Robert S. Ellwood

pages 253, 275-280
New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc, 1973
[page 253]

      These are all ways of capturing the secure joy of being in tune with ultimate Oneness. The other major religion which lies behind the groups under consideration in this chapter, Islam, is also profoundly concerned with Oneness, but in a very different way. In Islam psychological and cosmic Oneness mean setting to rights the relationship of two entities, the omnipotent personal God and the individual, through submission of man to God, a submission deepened by the exchange of love.

      The fundamental tenet of Islam, proclaimed every day by the muezzin from the minaret of every mosque, is that there is no god but God ("Allah" is "The God" in Arabic) and Muhammad is his Prophet, or Envoy. Islam (which means "submission," submission to the absolute will of God) is a supreme example of the emissary style of religious communication. Muhammad is emphatically human. He was selected by God as his final prophet solely by God's will and not on the basis of any great psychic or mystical recommendations, even though orthodox Muslims almost incidentally talk of him as a paragon of virtue.

      Nonetheless, the powerful emphasis on the singleness and omnipotence of God gave rise to currents in Islam capable of making contact with the alternative reality tradition in the West, especially as Islam encountered Hellenism, Zoroastrianism, and India on its fringes. On one hand, the tremendousness of the Muslim God encouraged great concern about the legitimacy of lines of communication between this mighty being and ordinary men. Muslim arguments about true imams, prophets, and masters provided some fuel for the speculative flames of Theosophy, and also provided prophesies and models for teachers of new gospels like Bahá'u'lláh of Bahá'í and Meher Baba. On the other hand, the greatness and personality of the Islamic God favored a type of mysticism called Sufism marked by yearning, freedom, ecstasy, and awareness of immediacy expressed exquisitely in its classical literature through the language of love and intoxication.


[page 275]

4.       The Bahá'í Faith

      North of Chicago along the coast of Lake Michigan in the suburb of Wilmette is a splendid building which looks almost as though it might have been transplanted from a Persian paradise. Its grounds are gorgeously landscaped, and above its nine sides looms a dome spun of such lacy, light filigree as to seem to be floating above the lakeshore. This is the American temple of the Bahá'í Faith, a worldwide religion of Iranian origin which holds that its teacher, Bahá'u'lláh, is the prophet of God for our age, and that its institutions set the pattern for a new universal world order of liberty and peace.

      While some have been drawn to Bahá'í because of its imposing temple, many more in large and small communities have been reached through the peculiar tradition known as the Bahá'í fireside. Leading members of Bahá'í hold weekly discussions in their homes around a cozy blazing fireplace to introduce inquirers to the world of this new religion which


[page 276]

claims to give an answer to the tortured spiritual quest of modern man in this day of transition.

      I once attended a fireside in the home of a prominent judge. (Bahá'í seems especially to appeal to the sort of idealism characteristic of people in law.) The evening opened with an exposition of the life of Bahá'u'lláh, and then of the Bahá'í conception .of world order. Special stress was laid on Bahá'í's fulfilling the expectations of all religions and of modern secular hope for a new and better age. A general discussion accompanied refreshments. Questions centered around reasons for accepting the authority of Bahá'u'lláh and the attitude of Bahá'í toward various ethical problems people in the group faced: the draft, marriage, and so forth.

      The quiet, verbal manner with emphasis on social rather than mystical experience suggests that Bahá'í is not a cult as we have defined it; basically it is geared to the emissary style, even if more Muslim than Judaeo-Christian in background. In the West, it has even lost most of the Sufi immediacy it had at the beginning. It actually should not appear in this book, but a survey of new religious movements would seem incomplete without Bahá'í. The contrast makes the common characteristics of most of the others more apparent.

      It is appropriate and significant that this new prophet for a new age should have appeared in Iran, for that land may be considered the homeland of eschatology, or religious beliefs concerning the future and the end of history. It is thus a homeland of the emissary style; and eschatology is the emissary's greatest tool„work and sacrifice now, eschew ecstasy now, for greater glory in the Lord's Day. There, some 2500 years ago, the mighty prophet Zoroaster taught that man must choose between sides in a great cosmic war between the principles of good and evil, and that at the end of the war„the end of history„a new prophet would appear, and the victorious good Cod, Ahura Mazda, would end the sentence of the wicked in hell and create a new paradisical heaven and earth. Many scholars believe that the subsequent eschatologies of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Hindu and Buddhist teachings about the future avatar of Vishnu and the coming Buddha Maitreya were deeply influenced by Zoroaster's primordial vision of man living not in cosmic, eternal-return time, but on the battlefield of a history in which he is judged and which will end in a glorious divine victory.

      When Zoroastrianism gave way to Islam in Iran, the Shi'ite wing of the latter faith which took root there was, as might be expected, more strongly eschatological than the legalistic Sunni school of most other Muslims. Shi'ites looked forward eagerly to the coming of the Mahdi, the twelfth Imam or successor of Muhammad who, it was believed, had hidden himself but would appear at the right time as a Messiah surrounded


[page 277]

by glorious hosts to raise the dead and deliver final revelations and effect the ultimate victory of righteousness. Yet the Shi'ites also had a cultus of the quasi-redemptive sufferings of Husain, the Christ-like nephew of Muhammad. Moreover, Iran is a homeland of the Sufis, the God-intoxicated Muslim mystics whose ecstatic devotionalism tempers the harshness of Islamic fervor.

      All of these historical strands met with the incipient modern world to produce the new Bahá'í faith. Its first manifestation was in the figure known as the Bab, or "Gate," born Mirza Ali Muhammad (1819-50). As a young man he became involved with a Sufi sect expecting an immanent divine revelation, and in this atmosphere first declared himself the Bab, then that he was the Mahdi himself in 1844. A great number of his Sufi sect accepted his claims, and with their help, a fervent Babist religious movement swept through the land. The Bab taught that resurrection and judgment, heaven and hell, are here now in the new divine manifestation, depending on whether individuals accept or reject it. If one accepts, he lives in a universal love and holy ecstasy no power can destroy. This original ecstatic immediacy was quickly tempered by the incursion of history in the form of suffering. Perhaps out of this came its new futurism. Like most enthusiastic religious revivals, Babism was considered blasphemous and disturbing by the unenthusiastic. It suffered persecution from the backward Persian government of the day. Finally in 1850, the Bab himself was martyred. But among his followers was another God-possessed young man, Bahá'u'lláh (1817-92).

      The death of the Bab did not mark the end of Babism. When in 1852 a deranged member of the sect made an attempt on the life of the Shah, fierce persecution broke out anew. A number of members of the Babist sect were thrown into dungeons, including Bahá'u'lláh. But, as is so often the case, persecution only strengthened faith. Bahá'u'lláh became convinced that he was called to regenerate the movement. After four months of imprisonment, Bahá'u'lláh was exiled and went to Baghdad. Later the Ottoman government moved him to Adrianople, then to Constantinople, and finally to the grim prison city of Acre. Just before leaving Baghdad in 1863, he declared that he was the One whose coming had been announced by the Bab, the Chosen of God. He ended his life in house arrest at Acre, though in the later years restrictions were much relaxed and he lived in some comfort and dignity, visited by high and low. According to Bahá'ís the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh are Co-Founders of the Faith, though Bahá'u'lláh represents a culmination of the revelation.

      Bahá'u'lláh was succeeded as leader by his son, called Abdu'l-Bahá, (1844-1921), who wrote extensively and lectured in Europe and America, doing much to extend the new teaching. He did not, however,


[page 278]

rank himself with the Bab or Bahá'u'lláh, but saw himself merely a conservor of their faith.

      Upon Abdu'l-Bahá's death, he was succeeded by his grandson, called Shoghi Effendi, as Guardian of the Faith. Both could add nothing, but were "infallible" interpreters of its meaning. Upon Shoghi Effendi's passing in 1957, this authority passed to the cabinet-like body called the Hands of the Cause of God, and in 1963 to the International House of Justice, now constituted as the supreme governing body and prototype of a world government. It sits in Haifa, Israel.

      One God and one world: this is the essence of the Bahá'í vision. With this goes the concept of progressive revelation. The founders of all major faiths, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and now Bahá'u'lláh, are all manifestations and messengers of God. But they have each spoken the message needed by a particular time and place, and so should not be followed exclusively after their day has passed. The great message of the present founder, Bahá'u'lláh, is the oneness of mankind. Like all great religious teachers, he was concerned with love and devotion toward God, and with the deep matters of suffering and death and man's ultimate destiny. But he was especially concerned with making the unity of mankind and its practical structures„a world tribunal; equality of all races, nationalities, and sexes; universal peace; universal education; a world calendar; a universal auxiliary language„part of religious faith and vision. The attainment of practical unity was made the object of that most powerful of human drives, the religious. This is the day when the unity of mankind can be attained because of universalizing culture and communication. It is desperately needed. It is God's desire and so is the burden of his true prophet for our time. Perhaps a couple millennia or so in the future, the next prophet will come with a new message beyond our present comprehension.

      The Bahá'í concept of the history of religion is essentially one of continuing revelation through great men. One is reminded of Carlyle's view of history as the strokes of heroes. Bahá'í seems to presume that all of a religion, except the life and words of the founder, is deterioration. Perhaps this accounts for the very great zeal to preserve uncorrupted the sayings of Bahá'u'lláh.

      Bahá'í sees itself as a new vision of the meaning of history, and a light of hope in mankind's present dark and stormy and often desperate passage from one age to another„the efficacious plan for the next and far better era is already here. Just as Christianity retained some incidentals and externals of Judaism, so Bahá'í has retained some externals of its womb-faith, Islam. There are daily prayers and a month-long fast reminiscent of the Muslim Ramadan. It could be argued that Bahá'í's basic concepts„radical monotheism, prophet and scripture-centeredness, suspicion


[page 279]

of priesthood and soteriology and rite„all suggest a perhaps unconscious carry-over of Islamic assumptions about the very nature of true religion. Indeed, for a long time Bahá'í was considered a Muslim sect. But some Bahá'ís are willing to allow the providential nature of this„and rightly point out that these Islamic biases also correspond with the biases of many present-day European and American religious liberals, those who have left "Puritan" theology, but not an ingrained "Protestant ethic" and a negative reaction to anything suggestive of medieval Catholicism.

      Concerning life after death, Bahá'ís like to talk about this present life as comparable to the life in the womb, and death as a rebirth, a prelude to infinite further growth. Heaven and hell are not places but states of consciousness.

      Bahá'í life for the believer centers around the local Bahá'í community. It does not have the usual Sunday worship, although temples like the one in Wilmette have a Sunday lecture. But in addition to the firesides there is a monthly feast. It is "monthly" according to the Bahá'í calendar of nineteen months of nineteen days each (plus four or five intercalary days). The nineteen-day feast, for Bahá'ís only, consists of three parts: devotional, business, and social. The devotional part will be simple prayers and readings from the Bahá'í writings. The governing body of a Bahá'í community is the Spiritual Assembly, consisting of nine persons selected by secret ballot without nominations. Throughout the year there are nine festivals, mostly based on Bahá'í history, when Bahá'ís stay away from work or school if possible, and the spring nineteen-day fast when they take no food or drink from dawn to dusk.

      Moral and religious discipline is not taken lightly in Bahá'í circles. The local Spiritual Assembly must give consent to marriage of members, and regardless of the age of bride and groom, they must also obtain the consent of all four parents if living. Drinking and narcotics are not allowed. Many people who might otherwise be attracted by the idealism of Bahá'í are put off by its prohibition of participation in demonstrations and even partisan politics. The local Spiritual Assembly may reprimand erring members, though the member may appeal to national and world assemblies. The life style often suggests "deferred reward" and "inner asceticism," work rather than ecstasy now to produce a good society later. In his suffering and verbal-legal teachings, Bahá'u'lláh seems a model of these values, even though some of his devotional writing tends toward Sufi mysticism.

      The enthusiasm of committed Bahá'ís who have been seized by its vision of a new revelation and new world order is splendid. Some become "Bahá'í pioneers," who move, at their own expense, to new places where the Faith is not yet planted to sow its seeds. It has now spread to some


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countries and major territories. Presently it seems to be growing most rapidly in the underdeveloped world. Its mission appeals to those or whom work and sacrifice as spiritual values correspond to current historical experience. For them, Bahá'í is a vehicle of modernization.

      But Bahá'í is also making headway in the West. In the U.S., Bahá'í membership doubled from 25,000 to 50,000 between 1970 and 1971. Many of the new adherents of Bahá'í are young people retaining idealism but disillusioned with the "instant" realization offered by cult mysticism and revolutionary ideology alike. Bahá'í is not strictly a cult, since it retains a personal God, a legal and emissary as well as exemplary concept of the prophet, and a social as well as mystical experience orientation in spiritual life.

Reading Selection: Bahá'í

      The following passage from a classic introduction to the Bahá'í faith an early Western convert sums up well some of the Faith's most important characteristics„love for God and the wide world, continual happy references to the words of Bahá'u'lláh and Abdu'l-Bahá, insistence that while on the one hand it is important to recognize and nourish the good in all religions, on the other it is now a day when new envoys from God have come who must be heard.
      When asked on one occasion: "What is a Bahá'í?" Abdu'l-Bahá replied:

      To be a Bahá'í simply means to love all the world; to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood." On another occasion He defined a Bahá'í as "one endowed with all the perfections of man in activity." In one of His London talks He aid that a man may be a Bahá'í even if He has never heard the name of Bahá'u'lláh. He added: "The man who lives the life according to the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh is already a Bahá'í. On the other hand, a man may call himself a Bahá'í for fifty years, and if he does not live the life is not a Bahá'í. An ugly man may call himself handsome, but he deceives no one, and a black man may call himself white, yet he deceives no one, not even himself."

      One who does not know God's Messengers, however, is like a plant growing in the shade. Although it knows not the sun, it is, nevertheless, absolutely dependent on it. The great Prophets are spiritual suns, and Bahá'u'lláh is the sun of this "day" in which we live. The suns of former lays have warmed and vivified the world, and had those suns not shone, the earth would now be cold and dead, but it is the sunshine of today

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that alone can ripen the fruits which the suns of former days have kissed into life.
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