Beliefs and Observances
pages 220, 243-48, 274
Woodbury, NY: Barron's Educational Series, 1970
The literature of the Sufis is rich and revealing of their unselfish mystical search for God. Indeed, Islam's Sufis have left us a most heavily endowed body of devotional literature, enough
to evoke the envy of all those who have dedicated themselves to
the worship of the one God.
A more lasting impression on the orthodox body of Islam
was felt during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when a
number of outstanding orthodox scholars strove to restate the
bases of Islamic theology independent of the set dogmatism and
formalism enshrined in the orthodox manuals of religion. These
scholars attempted to place more emphasis on the psychological
and ethical elements in religion.
The Sufi influence in the Sufi world was persistent, albeit
circumscribed. Here Sufi doctrine and Shí'í "orthodoxy" fused
in the work of Mulla Sadra (d. 1640) and Shaykh Ahmad al-Ahsá'í (d. 1826), the systematizer of Sadra's beliefs into a heterodoxy termed Shaykhiyyah. Their chief doctrine stressed the necessity of having an open channel of communication with the
"Hidden Imam" of the Shi'ah. It is this one concept that gave
rise almost immediately to the Babi movement and its offshoot
THE TRIUMPH OF Ash'ari orthodoxy represented the first
significant religious development of any consequence down to
present times. Several factors may account for this subsequent
dearth of theological agitation. The political dislocations in the
body politic resulting from the Crusades, the split of the 'Abbasid
empire at the seams and the Mongol invasions, the rise of multiple
dynasties, and the disappearance of caliphal authority as a force
symbolizing spiritual unity, the deterioration of commerce and
sources of wealth, the stepped up incursions of Tartar and other
Turkic invaders, all contributed to a widespread spirit of uncertainty.
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that Islam should be championed through rationalism, but rather
through the authentication made possible by revelation and divine
assistance. The Egyptian reformer Muhammad 'Abduh on the
other hand advocated the "precedence of reason over the literal
meaning of the Divine Law in case of conflict between them."
Later on, when Ahmadi missionaries were confronted by Christian
rivals in search of converts, they did not hesitate to resort to reason,
arguing that "objections raised against Islam are due either to a
lack of serious reflection or because passion is allowed to prevail
The Ahmadi stand on science countenances the important
premise that Islam encourages the study and use of science, as
proven historically when Muslims in medieval times made basic
contributions to the sciences. If the spirit or text of the Qur'an is
used as a measure, there can be no contradiction; indeed, science
is more incompatible with Christianity, it is argued, than it is
Similarly the Ahmadis find Súfism perfectly Islamic on the
grounds that "the leaders of thought among them [the Súfis],
never diverged a hair's breadth from the path chalked out for them
by Islam." Furthermore "they have been the true expounders of
Islam, and during the decline of the Muslims it is they who held
aloft the beacons of true Islamism." In continuing their defense
of the Safis the Ahmadis argued that "There was never any question of their departing from the Holy Quran [sic] or the traditions
of the Holy Prophet." What the orthodox termed as "Súfi aberrations" the Ahmadis defended by denial, holding that the Sufis
"put down all those beliefs or practices that savoured of asceticism,
monasticism or - esotericism - as un-Islamic [sic] and wholly foreign
to their own convictions.
Mbisin [?] originated not from Sunnism but from Shi'ism. Like
the Ahmadiyah, this earlier movement was also eclectic. In the
earlier centuries we witnessed the rise of equally eclectic and
syncretistic movements: the Nusayri, Druze, Yazidi, a number of
Shi'i sects, then later, in the Turkish period of ascendancy, of the
The founder of the Babi sect is Sayyid 'Ali Muhammad of
Shiraz who bad been an adherent of the Shaykhi school of philosophical thought among the Shi'ahs. The sect's name derived from
the symbolic name "Bab" (gateway) by which Sayyid 'Ali called
himself in reference to the "gateway" through which divine truth
is said to be revealed unto the believers. It was on May 23, 1844
that Sayyid 'Ali, "moved by the Spirit of God," officially proclaimed his mission to the Persians, in the city of Shiraz where
there had gathered together "eighteen spiritually prepared souls,
men of religious wisdom to whom it bad been given to understand
divine realities." 12
The core of Babi teachings lies in Sayyid 'Ali's belief that he
had been divinely commissioned to warn his listeners of the
coining of the "great promised One," "He-whom-God-shall-manifest,"the "Latter-Day Revelator," "The Lord of Hosts" promised
in the revealed sacred writings of the past who would establish
soon the Kingdom of God on earth.
The Bab preached a peculiar mixture of liberal religious doctrine reinforced by a heavy dose of Gnosticism which actually
yielded little success. His followers were few and scattered
throughout Persia. Persian officials, not to mention the Sh!'ah
fathers, did not take too kindly to Sayyid 'Ali's personal and
doctrinal claims. By inciting his listeners the Bab compelled
Persian authorities to arrest him and, following an uprising of
his followers, to execute him as a common criminal in 1850.
But the movement established by the Bab did not die out as
the Persian authorities had hoped. It merely changed form and
proceeded to grow and spread, mostly outside Persia. Instrumental in the further spread of the beliefs established by Sayyid 'Ali
was the role of a disciple, Bahá'u'lláh (d. 1892) who had taken
charge of the majority of the Babis following the split that ensued
upon the death of the founder.
Baha'ullah continued to elaborate on the doctrine of the Bab
in such radical terms that he and his successors managed to draw
it outside the religious fold of Islam, Since then the original doctrine based on Islam has taken on the trappings of a universal
religion resting on two sustaining principles: pacifism and humanitarianism.
The movement was driven out of Persia largely because of the
intense persecution to-which its adherents were subjected. Bahá'u'llah himself spent four months in a prison in Tehran. Scores
of Babis were turned over by Persian officials to the orthodox
Shí'í fathers to be tortured and slain for their heresy. Baha'ullah
was exiled to Baghdad, then under Ottoman rule, in the hope
of discouraging his followers and confining Babi preachings to
limited circles. But be continued his preachings in Baghdad and
in the fury of ensuing orthodox reaction he sought refuge in the
mountain fastness of Kurdistan. Next he was exiled to Istanbul,
thence under military surveillance to Adrianople where he lived
and preached for five years. These setbacks notwithstanding, his
small group of followers continued to see in Bahá'ulláh "Him-whom-God-shall-manifest."
Trouble still followed him wherever he went, because of the
anger of the Sunni Muslims, who were provoked by his radical
preachings. Finally in the summer of 1863 he was led to the
fortress prison of Acre (Palestine) on the Mediterranean coast
together with about seventy men, women, and children who
constituted his following at that time. Privation and suffering accompanied him, and his followers until his death in 1892. A
shrine was later erected over his burial place near Haifa. Today it
serves as a place of worship and prayer, visited annually by those
who call themselves "Bahá'ís."
His missionary activities were continued by his son 'Abd-al-Baha' who styled himself "The Center of the Covenant." He carried Bahá'í teachings first into Egypt, then into Europe, and later
to America where be resided for eight months in 1912. While in
America 'Abd-al-Bahá traveled extensively from coast to coast and
delivered addresses to various churches, synagogues, university
and civic organizations. During the period of World War I he
confined his efforts to humanitarian activities in Palestine and
was knighted after the war by the British Crown for these services. When be died in 1921, he was entombed next to the Bab in
the Bahá'í shrine on Mt. Carmel.
The core of Bahá'í teaching lies in the collective writings of
the founder, the Bab, known as The Bayan (Expositor) with its
stress on awaiting ('Him-whom-~God-shall~manifest.") In the period
of "awaiting," the devotees are exhorted to prepare themselves
spiritually for meeting Bahaullah. What is significant about
Bahá'ulláh's teachings is their source: Torah, Bible, Qur'án,
which makes the movement highly eclectic and imparts to it the
basis for a universalistic appeal.
Bahá'ísm utilizes a sophisticated approach founded on the
promise that man can not achieve a higher spiritual status if he
does not perfect the powers latent in his body and soul; training
the body, it is said, provides man the organism to manifest his
spiritual side. Education, according to the "world teacher" (Bahá'u'lláh), plays an important role in summoning all of mankind
to one spiritual world-consciousness.
The Bahá'í view is that Muhammad arose at a time when
people in Arabia were submerged in ignorance and superstition,
and that he changed the situation by calling to the worship of one
God and inculcating his followers with high moral standards
through a code of laws and ordinances suitable to the spiritual
and material needs of his day. The Muslim "church," however,
soon departed from the real spirit of Muhammad's teachings. But
Muhammad had taken the precaution of preparing his people for
the "great latter-day Bahá'í revelation," as witnessed in the
Hadith. The time of the spiritual awakening, equated with resurrection, was to be accompanied by signs mentioned also in the
Bible, that is when religious faith has decayed and general demoralization set in.
So the early converts to Bahá'ísm accepted the new calling with
the understanding that the Bab is the promised Mahdi and
Bahaullah the Christ (spirit), as both seem faithfully to have
met the prophesied condition and time of appearance.
The Bahá'í Revelation is held to confirm also the Hindu truth
of religion as well as the Buddhist expectation of "Maitreya" ~ i.e.,
"He-whose-name-is-Kindness," or Bahá'u'lláh. Thus he becomes
to the Buddhists the return of their promised Buddha. 'Me
Zoroastrians bad looked upon fire as the great cleanser; the
Bahá'ís say this really signifies spiritual purity, "for it is through
the spiritual fire of the love of God that men's souls are purified
and quickened into eternal life." The Zoroastrians also have
similar ideas concerning the resurrection or spiritual judgment.
The end of the Zoroastrian dispensation, as foretold in their sacred
writings, is contingent also on the prevalence of spiritual impurity
which would necessitate another "Manifestation" to bring the
divine fire of purification, or love of God, back to earth. Their
latter-day prophet, "Shah Bahrain," is again the bearer of the
Bahá'í Revelation, which accounts for the Zoroastrians of India
and Persia-known today as Parsees-accepting the message of
Baha'ullah. This is indeed an attempt at the broadest possible
symbiosis, with Bahá'í Revelation being equated with the long-awaited one of Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus, and
The Bahá'ís evolved a liberal cult confirming to the essential
ingredients of other faiths - temple worship, fasting, prayer, good
deeds to supplement creed and dogma, separation of state and
church, and the unification of mankind through common institutions acceptable to all, such as what Bahá'ulláh represents, based
not on separation of church and state but on the union of religion
The Bahá'í modernist outlook stems from the conception that
peace is desirable and can be achieved in the federation of all
small and large nations and the establishment of a universal governing body supervised by one system of adjudication; Bahaism
teaches cooperation in all affairs, between capital and labor, East
and West. Cooperation materially and spiritually will make of
various peoples one harmonious world-family.
There is no conflict between the divine and the natural; there
exists rather, it is stated, scientific harmony between the two
and perfect accord throughout the whole of creation. Indeed,
natural science in the view of the Bahá'ís "teaches man how to
live properly upon a human plane." Man can discover and
utilize the laws of nature; but the laws of God are revealed unto
man only through His mediators: Christ, Muhammad, the other
prophets, and Baha'ullah.
The near-avid interest in modern thinking by the Bah5'is bespeaks their respect for it as an aid to religious fulfillment. "This general and widespread spirit of modern thought," they argue,
"has been as a plough which has prepared the religious ground
of the world to receive the spiritual seeds of universal religious
ideals."13 Bahais regard themselves as being in perfect harmony
with modern trends on the grounds that "the modernists of all
religions are teaching many of the same principles as held by the
followers of the Bahai Cause."14 Conflicts in the past between
science and theology are attributed to "imaginations and superstitions" which religions had accumulated over the centuries to
make them unacceptable to science. Since these are held to be
outside the realm of the actual teachings of the great prophets
like Jesus and Muhammad, dispensing with such unhealthy accretions in no way compromises the basic teachings of these religions. And by eliminating them there would remain no area
of conflict between theology and science.
What makes the Bahá'ís modernists in their outlook is the
conviction that their doctrine and teachings are free from the
superstitions of the past and are compatible with modern science.
The Role of Extra-Shari'ah Legislation
Such radical movements typified by the Ahmadiyah and Bahaiyah are symptomatic of the impact of modern thinking on traditional beliefs and organizational concepts in Islam. The trend
towards creeping change and readjustment may not be fully
delineated as of the moment; but there is no denying that the
motions already in process tend nearly in that direction, and not
even the Shari'ah will be spared further scrutiny.
Revisions of the Shari'ah started tangentially with a variety of
Ottoman decrees in the nineteenth century and more directly with
the secular laws enacted by Muslim leaders in the twentieth.
There are definite attempts in the Arab countries today, excluding
perhaps Saudi Arabia, consciously to adapt Shari legislation to
the needs of modern life and to a more liberal conception of
human views. The resulting reforms betray careful thinking, stemming from the search and utilization of precedents in the Shari'ah that are best suited for the realization of such reforms without
encroaching on the spirit and intrinsic philosophy underlying it.
There is no outright innovation, but the trend towards an eclectic
system of legislating for modern needs within the more broadly
interpreted tenets of the canon law is clearly in evidence.
Muslim beads of state and legislators today may seem to be
resorting to a form of ijtihad, justified by the argument that it is
their prerogative to override a traditional canonical principle.
if the interests of the modern public demand it. Invariably they
resort to the argument that they are not innovating outrightly but
simply choosing from the opinions of accepted, albeit rival, jurists.
They have circumvented Ijma' with the argument that it can not
be established how encompassing public consensus really was
when resorted to in the past. They have also drawn a line between
the compulsive and permissive nature of canonical decrees on the
grounds that by exploiting the permissiveness of a decree they
are committing an act of conscience which they are willing to risk
should they be called upon to account for it on the Day of Judgment. One of their stronger arguments, however, is that a divine
ordinance can not be binding for all time when the condition and
circumstance of its promulgation have changed.
Islam in America
Islam in America is comparatively a very recent phenomenon.
Muslim immigrants from Arab countries, India, Malaya, Yugoslavia, and Albania form small enclaves located mostly in the
larger cities, although it is not uncommon to find them in the
smaller cities as well.
These Muslim immigrants and their descendants are representative of the numerous sects of Islam: Sunni, Druzes, Shi'ites,
Ahmadiyah, Bahá'í. They have organized themselves into numerous societies which reflect their ethnical derivation with all types
of women's and youth's auxiliary groups.
American Muslims have endeavored to observe the tenets of
their faith as best as they can determine them. Besides the
Islamic mosque and institute in the capital, which caters principally to the diplomatic Corps representing Muslim states, there
are only a few other mosques in places like Chicago, Detroit,
Toledo, and Cedar Rapids. It is difficult to ascertain the number of immigrant Muslims in America because statistics are lacking. An educated guess would point to about ten thousand. They
are mostly withdrawn. into themselves and have no active interest
in propagating Islam in America. They have their Islamic culture
centers in.New York, Washington, and San Francisco where the
Sunni view predominates. These centers are open to all those
interested in learning about Islam.
The Qadiyani Ahmadis and Bahá'ís are, on the other hand,
quite active in disseminating their respective versions, of Islam.
The Sunni elements lose no time, however, in discrediting their
claims to Islam wherever and whenever the opportunity presents
itself. Yet both have well organized missionary activities and are
willing to spend to spread their beliefs; this type of zeal is lack-
ing among the orthodox Muslim groups.