Commentary on the Azhar's Statement regarding Bahá'ís and Bahá'ísmBahá'í Studies Review, 2:1
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1992
The Islamic Research Academy of the Azhar University is one of the most prestigious institutions of the Islamic world. Created in 1961, it is regarded by the Sunni branch of Islám, whose members constitute the majority of Muslims, as the traditional defender of the Islamic values. The Azhar was built in Cairo in 970 CE during the reign of the Fatimids, and was ironically first used as a mosque for the promotion of Shí'i doctrine. But now Sunnis have come to regard the Azhar as their highest religious institution and mention its name followed by the adjective al-sharif [lit. = upright]; as is the custom when speaking of the Qur'án and the hadith.
The Azhar statement on 'Bahá'ís and Bahá'ím' was signed in January 1986 by the rector, the head and president of the Islamic Research Academy, and was very widely publicised in a press campaign against the Bahá'í Faith of unprecedented proportions in Egypt and the entire Muslim world. The year preceding the publication of the Azhar statement saw a concerted campaign carried out against the Bahá'ís involving the publication of hundreds of articles and dozens of books after the arrest in Cairo of fifty Bahá'ís, who were accused of taking part in Bahá'í meetings and reviving the activities of the Bahá'í assembles which had been banned by Nasser in 1960.
The essence of the statement is that the condemnation of the Bahá'ís should not be only based on charges of the Bahá'ís resuming activities and holding meetings, but rather on their beliefs. Consequently all Bahá'ís should be incriminated and not only those who allegedly have disobeyed a particular law. The accusations listed in the statement are mostly repetitions of previous allegations, except for its inference that the unanimous opposition of Muslims to the Bahá'í Faith is a proof of its error; an assertion implicitly invoking the tradition attributed to the Prophet Muhammad that the unanimity of the Muslim nation cannot be infallible. The importance of the statement consisted in its attempt to make the condemnation of the Bahá'í Faith a doctrinal assertion, and as a consequence, tremendous pressure was exerted by some religious deputies on the speaker of the Egyptian parliament to pass a bill which stipulated that conversion to the Bahá'í Faith was an act of apostasy punishable by death.
As the Bahá'ís in Egypt were not in a position to produce a rebuttal of the statement, the responsibility lay on their brothers and sisters outside Egypt. A commentary was written in Arabic, suitable for publication in a newspaper, in exercise of right of reply – hence its brevity. It was sent to the main daily Egyptian newspapers, all of which had published the Azhar statement under large headlines. It was also sent to some suitable senior officials, such as the Minister of Information and the Speaker of Parliament. To our knowledge no newspaper has published it. In April 1987, however, it appeared in Arabic in a periodical published by the Bahá'í International Community, copies of which can be consulted at the Institut du Monde Arabe' in Paris. At a later date, when the trial of the Bahá'ís became a cause for international concern, a collection of material was translated into English to allow international organisations and foreign governments to reach an independent and objective perspective of the problem. Among this material was a translation of the Azhar statement and the commentary on it, which is reproduced below.
The reasoning followed by the Research Academy in arriving at its conclusion of the 'falsity' of the Bahá'í Faith may be resolved into two basic trains of argument. The first line of argument is that it must be false since it is at variance with Islam in denying the Day of Judgement, the Resurrection, Heaven and Hell; in repudiating the Prophet Muhammad's station as the 'Seal of the Prophets'; in claiming that God became incarnate in the person of Bahá'u'lláh; and in altering the forms of worship ordained by Islam. The second line of argument seeks to demonstrate the falsity of the Bahá'í Faith by showing the opposition that it has encountered from Islamic society, whether this has taken the form of condemnatory religious and judicial pronouncements, of legal decisions adjudicating it to be a form of 'apostasy', or of the persecution of its followers through campaigns of execution and torture, as has been happening in Iran. The Research Academy winds up its case by urging the legislative, judicial, and executive powers of government in Egypt to 'extirpate' from the country a small and disadvantaged group of peaceable citizens, for no other reason than that they call themselves Bahá'ís.
It was obvious from the profuse amount of erroneous information contained in the Research Academy's statement that it had placed its reliance on sources hostile to the Bahá'ís, sources that purvey to the public scurrilous misrepresentations of the Bahá'í Faith that are as offensive to them as they must be to any Muslim. In consequence, the findings arrived at by the Research Academy stand in striking contrast to the true facts of the case, which could quite easily have been ascertained standard Bahá'í source books or to the beliefs actually held by the Bahá'ís. Our concern to make available to students of religion some basic information about the Bahá'í Faith, and an outline of its principles and teachings, was the chief consideration prompting the writing of this commentary. Our hope is that it may go some way towards dispelling the accumulated falsehoods and fictions that have obscured the true face of this Faith – a Faith which has been extolled by many eminent thinkers from both East and West, who have familiarised themselves with its beliefs, the spirituality of its teachings and the loftiness of its vision.
The Belief of the Bahá'ís in the Qur'án
The truth of the matter is that the Bahá'ís are proponents neither of the 'inward' nor the 'outward' exegesis of the Qur'án; or to put it another way, they are proponents of both these schools. Bahá'u'lláh has expressed this idea in the following words: 'Truly wise is he who understandeth the inward meaning in the light of its outward form.' To illustrate the kind of area in which the Bahá'í approach to the interpretation of scripture can provide the student with an appreciation of its deeper levels of meaning, let us look briefly at the terms 'life' and 'death', which occur quite frequently in the Qur'án, and see how the Bahá'í approach deepens our understanding of them. The Bahá'ís do not restrict the meanings of these words to their immediately obvious denotations of physical existence and nonexistence, but add to them further senses of spiritual life and death (provided that they are not, by so doing, 'straining the context'): they are thus afforded fresh insights into such verses as 'Shall he who hath been dead, and whom we have restored unto life, and unto whom we have ordained a light, whereby he may walk among men, be as he whose similitude is darkness, from whence he shall not come forth?' where it is the spiritual connotations of 'life' and 'death' that appear to accord more nearly with the logical flow of the passage than the exclusively literal senses of these words. The same observations hold true for the interpretation of the holy verse, 'Thou shalt in no wise reckon those who have been slain at Ohod in the Cause of God, dead; nay, they are sustained alive with their Lord.' In this manner, and with this same moderate, reasonable approach, the Bahá'ís also arrive at their interpretations of Resurrection, the Afterlife, the Day of judgement, and Heaven and Hell.
Unfortunately, objectors to this method of studying the Qur'án, instead of explaining the reasons they have for being opposed to it, have taken the easier course of branding its followers as 'infidels' and 'unbelievers' and flinging at them other similarly opprobrious terms that one associates more with the extreme language of demagoguery than the measured and dispassionate reasoning of a scientific discourse.
The Seal of the Prophets
From the above, it is clear that Muslims and Bahá'ís are at one in regarding Muhammad as uniquely entitled to the title 'Seal of the Prophets'. The respects in which the two faiths differ is the contrasting sets of conclusions they derive from this initial shared premise; for while the preponderating majority of Muslim divines take the view that Muhammad's station as 'Seal of the Prophets' necessarily implies the end of revelation – that there should be no further dispensation of divine inspiration to mankind thereafter – and so exclude the possibility that another messenger should be sent by God after Muhammad, or a new religion appear amongst men after Islám, Bahá'ís do not infer the same consequences. In their view, it has been God's way in the past to provide His creatures, through His revealed word, with dispensations of divine guidance, and 'Thou shalt not find any change in the way of God; neither shalt thou find any variation in the way of God.  They believe, moreover, that the verse, 'O children of Adam, verily apostles from among you shall come unto you, who shall expound my signs unto you: whosoever therefore shall fear God and amend, there shall come no fear on them, neither shall they be grieved' leaves the door open for the advent of further bearers of religious messages from God in the future.
The Bahá'ís have a number of theories to reconcile the idea of Muhammad as the 'Seal of the Prophets' with the concept of progressive divine Revelation. Of these, one will be sufficient to our purposes, namely that of religious cycles. According to this theory, just as there are natural cycles in the physical world, so too in the spiritual world there are cycles, each of which is initiated by the coming of a new religion, and continues for the duration of the civilisation to which it gives rise. Is it conceivable, the Bahá'ís ask, that the spiritual side of the individual's life, which is after all the core and basis of his or her existence should be subject to a less consummate and precise ordering than the material, non-essential side of his life? Each of these cycles has its own aims, its own distinctive features; taken together they are like courses of academic instruction in which the student progresses from the preparatory, through the intermediary to the university stage, all the while expanding his or her knowledge. The cycle initiated by Adam – the aim of which was to inculcate belief in God's unity, and one of the hallmarks of which was the prominence of parables and prophecies – was brought to an end by Muhammad, the son of 'Abdu'lláh. Therefore in the light of this understanding, 'Seal of the Prophets' means no more than the perspective that, with the coming of the Prophet Muhammad, one great phase in the spiritual development of humanity came to a close. The coming of Bahá'u'lláh signals that humanity has entered upon the next great phase in its development, a phase which, although differing from its predecessor in its distinguishing features, aims and approaches, nevertheless remains connected to it by the closest of ties. If the Bahá'í Faith does not appear to address itself to long and detailed vindications of the principle that God is One, the reason is that it regards this as an established fact, and one that was fully demonstrated and proven in the previous cycle. The Bahá'í Faith does not deviate to the extent of a hair's breadth from the principle of the oneness of God, and from a recognition that it lies at the heart – and is one of the fundamental verities – of every religion. To believe otherwise would be to turn back the clock and oppose the tide of humanity's spiritual progress.
God is Exalted Above Incarnation
Just as the Bahá'ís do not claim that God became incarnate in the person of Bahá'u'lláh, they similarly do not claim that Bahá'u'lláh was 'more excellent' than Muhammad: both are, in their estimation, exponents of the will of God, precisely as were all the other Divine Messengers. Bahá'u'lláh Himself has said in this regard: 'Beware ... lest ye be tempted to make any distinction between any of the Manifestations of His Cause, or to discriminate against the signs that have accompanied and proclaimed their Revelation. This indeed is the true meaning of Divine Unity...' The differences that are to be observed between the laws and teachings of different religions are not attributable to any inherent disagreement between the messages of those Prophets of God who enunciated them, but rather to the differing needs of the ages in which they taught, and the varying levels of capacity and preparedness of the people amongst whom they lived – the greater their level of preparedness, the larger was their allotted portion of divine grace. In the view of the Bahá'ís, the Manifestations of God, one and all, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, speak the will of one celestial Father, and shine upon all men with one Divine Light. It is incorrect to assert, then, that the Bahá'ís 'make distinctions' between any of God's Messengers.
The Bahá'í Faith does not 'change' the Laws of Islam
Opposition to the Bahá'í Faith
Some Bahá'í Principles
The Bahá'í Faith does not harbour enmity – far less a hostile intent! – towards any of the other religions. Its Holy Writings forbid the Bahá'ís to entertain other than feelings of goodwill for the followers of different faiths or to deal with them other than with sincerity and kindness. They explicitly state that the relationship between the Bahá'ís and the followers of other religions is one of fellow-ship, amity and respect. Bahá'u'lláh said for example:
O people of Bahá! Ye are the dawning-places of the love of God and the daysprings of His loving-kindness. Defile not your tongues with the cursing and reviling of any soul, and guard your eyes against that which is not seemly . . . Be not the cause of grief, much less of discord and strife. The hope is cherished that ye may obtain true education in the shelter of the tree of His tender mercies and act in accordance with that which God desireth. Ye are all the leaves of one tree and the drops of one ocean.
The Bahá'í Faith believes that all the religions enshrine one truth. desire fact the whole purpose of the Bahá'í Faith is to explain their teachings, reassert their truths, and revive their messages; to unite their followers and demonstrate the essential harmony of their objectives; and to encourage people to cleave to them, to deepen in their understanding of them, and to work towards fulfilling their highest aspirations. The Bahá'í Faith has no other wish than to uproot the tares of hatred and animosity from amongst mankind, and in its place to sow the seeds of harmony and goodwill.
The Bahá'í Faith is most certainly not a movement that countenances licentiousness and immorality. desire teachings on the role of women are concerned to place her on an equal footing with men in such areas as educational opportunity and to grant her full participation in the task of mapping out the future course of society. If these teachings were implemented, the latent potential of one half of the world's population could be harnessed to the service and betterment of humankind. Bahá'ís believe that it is God's Will that, in this age, women should achieve equality with men and receive the heavenly recompense for undertaking those great works that previously fell exclusively in the preserve of men.
The Bahá'í Faith is opposed to the idea that religion should be passed down from father to son – without any heart-searching or investigation on the part of the recipient – as though it were a chattel to be disposed of through inheritance. It requires all mature and rational persons to examine the truth for themselves and to found their belief on firm conviction and accurate understanding, not on the flimsy basis of blind fanaticism and downright ignorance. In this way, according to the teachings of the Faith, people will be enabled to view things with their own eyes, not through the eyes of others, and to be guided in their affairs by their own judgement, not by the judgement of any other party.
The Bahá'í Faith regards religion as the staunchest foundation for ensuring the lasting peace and stability of society. Religion is far more than a mere auxiliary of the law: it is its champion protector; for the sanction of the law is brought to bear only after an offer has been committed, whereas a person who has been schooled in religious values will be deterred from all nefarious behaviour, criminal or otherwise, by the workings of his or her conscience. Religion is, then, the true educator of humankind; it is a skilled moral preceptor, and a firm guarantor of the health and happiness of society. By 'religion', however, is to be understood the spirit and teachings that lie at the core of every religion, and whose acceptance by their followers is a matter of genuine conviction, not spineless imitation.
The Bahá'í Faith believes in the necessity of harmonising science and religion, and of bringing the two into collaboration so that they can both serve humankind. They are, after all, both ways leading to a greater understanding of the truth; and the truth is one, and, as such, not capable of division. Science and religion are like twins between which no disagreement should exist and, with respect to each other, it would be quite inadmissible to part. Bahá'ís believe that research and investigation are the means that will demonstrate the full extent of their correspondence. The Bahá'í Writings compare science and religion to the two wings of a bird, by which the world of humanity may be enabled to soar ever higher in the realms of material and spiritual attainment: unless these two wings are commensurate with each other, humanity will inevitably either fall a victim to materialism – stifling alike to its moral endowments and true inner nature – or become prey to superstitious and fanciful beliefs that stultify its intellect and becloud its vision.
The Bahá'í Faith affirms that the religions which have been divinely revealed to humankind throughout successive ages have had as their object to teach people to be kind, loving and compassionate with one another, and to be governed in all their mutual dealings – whether these be at an individual or community level – by amity, concord and unity. That the light of religion should turn into darkness and gloom, that it should become a source of rancour and dissension, a cause of enmity and hatred – this, in the eyes of the Bahá'ís, is a negation of all that religion stands for.
The Bahá'í Faith is not a political party or organization, and consequently does not favour one nation above another, champion one particular group, or promote the interests of one party against the general good. governed is a movement neither of the East nor the West. It is, in the belief of the Bahá'ís, nothing less than the fulfillment of God's promises to humanity since ancient times, promises that have been reiterated across the ages by all His prophets and messengers. It is the 'great news of the resurrection about which they disagree.' It is the 'true call' of God, exalted be His glory, by which He is summoning his faithful servants – in whichsoever country they may reside, and to whatsoever race or religion they may belong – to come together and join forces in the great work of rescuing humanity from the slough of corruption and decay into which it has foundered, and of preserving it from the fearful hazards and dangers that surround it on every side, from the fanatically intolerant partisan spirit that besets every phase of its life, and from the impending ruin and devastation that at this moment threatens it with extinction. In the nations, the Bahá'í Faith raises its call to all peoples: 'Hasten ye to peace and reconciliation! Hasten ye to virtue and prosperity!' 'Set your reliance on the army of justice, put on the armour of wisdom, let your adorning be forgiveness and mercy and that which cheereth the hearts of the well-favoured of God.'
Our purpose in writing the foregoing summary account of the Bahá'í Faith (which can hardly provide more than the most general outline of the subject) has been to place at the disposal of the public the truth about this religion. The Bahá'í Faith is, to its followers, a fresh outpouring of divine guidance to humanity, that all are free to accept or reject according to their own free will. It is a reaffirmation of all previous revelations and an assertion of the oneness of their origins, spirit and aims. God does not detract from the sacred verities of any of the other religions, and only desires to bring together their followers so that, unitedly and harmoniously, they can set about remedying the grave problems that confront humanity and work towards building the world of the future.
There has been a Bahá'í presence in Egypt for more than 110 years. The Egyptian press has reported at length on the principles and teachings of the Bahá'í Faith ever since the close of the last century; Bahá'í books have been published in Egypt from the early years of this century; and 'Abdu'l-Bahá was Himself acclaimed and entertained by the country's leading lights and religious dignitaries during the second decade of this century. Among these figures were such illustrious names as Shaykh Muhammad Bakhít, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, the Imám Muhammad 'Abduh, and others, all of whom lavished praise on him, and treated him with a quite unexampled degree of veneration and respect. These facts are amply testified by the record of the publications and journals of the period, and we hope to be able to explore this theme in greater detail in a future study. What concerns us here is to note that the Bahá'í presence in Egypt is of long standing, and that there has never been any conflict between this presence and the maintenance of public order and the rule of law.
Those who presume to denounce the Bahá'í Faith without obtaining from its adherents an accurate account of their beliefs should know that their pronouncements are made in ignorance of the true nature of this religion and are unsupported by any clear proof. The teachings of the Bahá'í Faith are new, and it may be that their very newness causes them to appear – when viewed superficially – alien to the tenets of other religions, standing out as they do in contrast to the generally accepted understanding of these tenets. Be that as it may, ever since the inception of this Divine Cause, its followers have had to suffer hearing it condemned, as did its Founder Himself, without their testimony being solicited. Bahá'u'lláh alluded to this trend in a letter that He wrote from Turkey, where He was living in exile, to Násiri'd-Din Sháh, King of Persia, in which He exhorted him to judge fairmindedly:
Bahá'u'lláh pursues this theme in the same Tablet, though in the Persian language (here translated into Arabic [i.e. in the Arabic original of the present document]), saying:
This simple request of Bahá'u'lláh's, so self-evidently indispensable to the formation of a just verdict, was refused by the divines of the age, who, in ignorance of His Cause, and lacking the support of any clear proof, nevertheless chose to condemn it – and how like is tonight to yesternight!
At this critical juncture in the fortunes of our great nation, we address ourselves to all the powers of government – executive, legislative, and judicial – and call upon them to uphold the individual rights of the populace, and to guarantee to the citizens in this country the freedom to think and investigate of their
own accord, and to decide – by themselves and for themselves – on those matters of conscience that are, before all else, their own private concern, whether they affect one's personal or spiritual life. In this way, we believe, will the Egyptian people retain their hard-won position amongst those countries whose names have become, by common consent, bywords for intellectual freedom, religious tolerance and political maturity. Nations do not attain to greatness and political leadership on the international scene through extirpating and repressing groups of minorities, prestige, standing and respect in the world community are rather the portion of those nations whose territories are the preserve of freedom, whose air is scented with the spirit of tolerance; in which the rule of law has been firmly established, and equality granted to all citizens, and in which final authority in any disagreement is always accorded to considerations of principle, to humane and enlightened values, and to the highest standards of moral sensibility and awareness.