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Baha'i Principle of Religious Unity and the Challenge of Radical Pluralism

by Dann J. May

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Chapter 1


       The Bahá'í Faith, a relatively new religion which has its beginnings in the middle of the nineteenth century, has some 5.3 million adherents world wide, with half living in Asia and 360,000 living in North America. Members of the Bahá'í Faith are found in 205 countries representing over 2112 minority groups and tribes, making it the most widespread world religion after Christianity.[1] At present, Bahá'ís currently reside in over 112,000 cities, towns and villages worldwide.

Historical Summary

       The Bahá'í Faith developed out of the Shí'i Islámic tradition of Persia, what is now Iran.[2] On the evening of May 23, 1844 Siyyid 'Alí-Muhammad (1819-1850) declared the He was the promised Qá'im (Ar. "he who ariseth") and al-Mahdí (Ar. "one who is guided") of Shí'i Islám. Such messianic titles refer to the successor of Muhammad, who according to the Shí'i tradition of Islám, would revitalize and renew Islám and usher in the promised day of judgement (Ar. yawm ad-dín). Siyyid 'Alí-Muhammad referred to Himself[3] as the Bábu'lláh (Ar. "gate of God," a reference to the hidden twelfth Imám of Shi'a Islám), and He is generally known in the West as "the Báb." Despite the incredible nature of these claims, the Báb soon attracted hundreds of dedicated followers who were known as Bábís. The nature of the Báb's claims together with the growing number of converts quickly aroused the attention of Iran's religious and civil authorities who began to actively repress the fledgling Bábí community. Persecution of the Bábís ranged from the seizing of their properties, to banishment, to the taking of their lives, often by bloody public executions at the hands of brutal mobs. Since the Bahá'í Faith's inception, it is estimated that some 20,000 Bábís were put to death as martyrs. Thus the early history of the Bahá'í Faith is similar to early Christian history, especially in its struggle to gain recognition of its claim to embody a unique and independent revelation. The intense persecution of the Bábí community reached its apex on July 9, 1850, when the Báb and one of His disciples, were publicly executed by a firing squad composed of 750 soldiers.

        Among the many teachings the Báb propounded was the notion that He was the herald of a greater messenger, or to use the Bahá'í term, "manifestation," to come. The Báb referred to this next manifestation as "Him whom God shall make manifest" (Ar. Man yuzhiruhu'lláh). In the spring of 1863, one of His prominent followers, Mírzá Husayn 'Alí (1817-1892), proclaimed that He was the promised one foretold by the Báb. He took the title of Bahá'u'lláh, which in Arabic means "the Glory of God," and soon attracted a large number of followers, who eventually became know as Bahá'ís. Bahá'u'lláh spent nearly forty years of His life either in prison, exile, or traveling to and from various places of exile and imprisonment. By His own reckoning, He claims to have authored or "revealed" the equivalent of over one hundred volumes of sacred writings.[4] Shortly before His death, in May of 1892, Bahá'u'lláh appointed His son Abbás Effendi (1844-1921) as His successor and sole interpreter of His writings. Abbás Effendi took the title 'Abdu'l-Bahá (Ar. "Servant of the Glory").

       'Abdu'l-Bahá, together with the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh, are referred to collectively as the three Central Figures of the Bahá'í Faith. For the next thirty years 'Abdu'l-Bahá administered the affairs of the Bahá'í community, wrote numerous books and lengthy letters and traveled to Europe and America in the years of 1911 and 1912. Shortly before His own death, He appointed His eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1897-1957) as the Guardian and Interpreter of the Bahá'í Faith. In 1963, the international Bahá'í community elected nine members to the newly created Universal House of Justice (Ar. Baytu'l-'Adl-i-A'zam). The Universal House of Justice is mentioned in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, and it is charged with the task of administering the affairs of the international Bahá'í community and to legislate on matters not specifically mentioned in the sacred writings. Its members are currently elected every five years by an international convention of delegates convened at the Bahá'í World Centre in Haifa, Israel.

The Bahá'í Faith's Relationship to Islám

       The Bahá'í Faith is similar to Islám, especially Shí'i Islám, in many of its theological concepts and ritual practices. For instance, a striking similarity exists between the "five pillars" (Ar. arkan ad-dín) of Islám and certain Bahá'í practices (see Appendix A). The Islámic concept of tawhíd (the verbal noun of wahhada, "to make one," hence the principle of the absolute oneness of God) and tanzíh (lit. "the elimination" of blemishes or of anthropomorphic traits, in other words, the assertion of God's complete transcendence and incomparability) both have their parallels in Bahá'í theology (see appendix A).[5] Both religions also share in common the principle of progressive revelation -- that all religions are divine in origin and that they have been progressively revealed to humankind throughout history. Bahá'ís, like Muslims, stress that religion has been and will continue to be the foundation and main influence operating in all great civilizations. In summarizing the similarities between these two faiths, Heshmat Moayyad, a scholar of Near East languages, points out that
the intrinsic unity of Islám and the Bahá'í Faith is demonstrated in Bahá'í Scriptures by countless quotations from the Qur'án and hadith and by repeated allusions to Islámic history, in general, and to the life of Muhammad, in particular. Even the religious terminology used in Bahá'í works is mainly derived from Islámic theology.[6]

        However, the Bahá'í tradition also differs on a number of important theological points. Some of the more important differences are (1) the full recognition of the inherent equality of men and women, both in theory and in practice, based on the principle of complimentarity as well as equal access to education, career opportunities and leadership roles, including the unrestricted promotion of interracial, interreligious and international marriages for both men and women; (2) the prohibition of practicing outdated received and traditional ways of doing things (Ar. taqlid), whether secular or religious; (3) the denial of the traditional interpretation that Muhammad is the seal (or last) of the prophets (Ar. khátam al-nabiyyín), coupled with the Bahá'í claim that the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh are the fulfillment of Islám's apocalyptic and messianic expecta tions -- the main cause of so much of the persecution leveled against the Bahá'ís;[7] and (4) a pronounced emphasis on the symbolic interpretation of scripture (Ar. ta'wíl) over one that is more literal (Ar. tafsír).
Bahá'í Principles

       The following teachings make up the traditional list of fundamental principles that Bahá'ís include in nearly all of their introductory material.

        I.        The unity and ultimate unknowableness of God.

        II.        The oneness of religion. All religions share a common foundation.

        III.        The oneness of humanity. The peoples of the earth are all equal in the sight of God.

        IV.        The elimination of all forms of prejudice, including those based on racial, economic, intellectual, religious, sexual, or national factors.

        V.        Everyone is responsible for investigating the truth for themself. There are no clergy in the Bahá'í Faith.

        VI.        The establishment of a universal auxiliary language to be learned in addition to one's native tongue.

        VII.        The fundamental equality of men and women based on the principle of complimentarity.

        VIII.        Universal education.

        IX.        The essential harmony of science and religion.

        X.        The elimination of the extremes of poverty and wealth.

        XI.        The establishment of a world commonwealth.

        XII.        The protection and encouragement of cultural diversity based on the Bahá'í principle of "unity in diversity."

        XIII.        A spiritual solution to economic problems.

        XIV.        The establishment of an international tribunal.[8]

This list is neither comprehensive nor indicative of the breadth or diversity of Bahá'í teachings on a wide variety of theological, practical, and mystical subjects. Indeed, after 'Abdu'l-Bahá presents a similar list of principles, He concludes that "such teachings are numerous."[9] While much could be said about any of these teachings, I will concentrate in this work on explaining and clarifying the second principle, that of the oneness of religion. In addition, I will compare this Bahá'í principle to other contemporary western responses to religious pluralism. I will then characterize the Bahá'í view in light of these responses, and finally examine some of the common criticisms leveled against it.

Sacred Texts and Writings

       As the Bahá'í tradition is still in its infancy, many aspects of its religious life are not as yet formalized. While no canon or officially approved list of documents has yet been formulated, a provisional list of authoritative texts can be made. It should be noted that the Universal House of Justice is currently in the process of collecting all written documents from the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. Many of these documents have just recently been located. As an indication of the scale of this task, it is estimated that Bahá'u'lláh wrote some 15,000 books, treatises, epistles and letters in both Arabic and Persian. 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote some 27,000, also in both Arabic and Persian, and Shoghi Effendi, some 17,000, in Arabic, Persian and English. The Universal House of Justice reports that nearly all of these documents are in its possession. Needless to say, this huge volume of documents has not been thoroughly scrutinized, systematically arranged, nor fully appreciated. While the most significant sacred writings have been translated into English, as well as other European and world languages,[10] a large proportion of it remains untranslated in the original languages of Arabic and Persian.

        Shoghi Effendi clearly states that the Bahá'í sacred scriptures consist of "the writings of the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá ..." and that "Nothing can be consid ered scripture for which we do not have an original text."[11] Elsewhere He further elaborates that
Bahá'u'lláh has made it clear enough that only those things that have been revealed in the form of Tablets [divinely revealed written works] have a binding power over the friends. Hearsay may be matters of interest but can in no way claim authority.... This being a basic principle of the Faith we should not confuse Tablets that were actually revealed and mere talks attributed to the Founders of the Cause. The first have absolute binding authority while the latter can in no way claim our obedience....[12]

The word tablets, found in the previously cited passage, is the English translation of the Arabic lawh (pl. alwah, lit. "tablets," a reference to the Laws of Moses), meaning any divinely revealed scripture.[13] Occasionally the Arabic word súrih (also sura, lit. "a row or series," a reference to the chapters or subdivisions of the Qur'án) is also translated as tablet. Both words refer generally to the written works of the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, all of which are considered to be sacred writings or scriptures. In fact, the words lawh and súrih are often used in the titles of Their written works.

        Given these initial guidelines, the Bahá'í canon would consist of two types of documents: the first are the sacred writings of the "Central Figures" (the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, and 'Abdu'l-Bahá) and the second are the authoritative writings of Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice. The Bahá'í canon would not include the published talks or recorded utterances of these four individuals nor such utterances made by members of the Universal House of Justice, nor would it include hearsay, or what Bahá'ís refer to as "pilgrims' notes" -- notes taken by individual Bahá'ís of lectures and informal discussions given by the Central Figures, Shoghi Effendi, and members of the Universal House of Justice. Thus, unlike Islám, little importance is given in the Bahá'í Faith to the sayings (or ahadíth, literally "the sayings or traditions" of Muham mad) of its founders and administrative authorities. Furthermore, the writings of Bahá'u'lláh take precedence over all other sacred writings, followed by the writings of the Báb, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice, in decreasing order of importance in terms of scriptural authority.

        Much of the Bahá'í scriptures translated into English consist of compilations of letters, essays, and excerpts from various books, letters, or essays, although many complete works do exist in English translation, including such writings of Bahá'u'lláh as the Kitáb-i-Aqdas ("The Most Holy Book," 1992, the Bahá'í book of laws), the Kitáb-i- Íqán ("The Book of Certitude," 1950, Bahá'u'lláh's most significant theological work), and the Lawh-i-Ibn-i-Dhi'b ("The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf," 1976). Some of the more important compilations of Bahá'í sacred scriptures (many of which are frequently quoted in this work) include Selections from the Writings of the Báb (1976), Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh (1952), Prayers and Meditations by Bahá'u'lláh (1974), Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (1978), and Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá (1978). Compilations of important authoritative writings by Shoghi Effendi include The Advent of Divine Justice (1966), The Unfolding Destiny of the British Bahá'í Community (1981), The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh (1974), and The Promised Day is Come (1980).


    [1] David B. Barrett, "World Religious Statistics," 1988 Britannica Book of the Year and 1992 Britannica Book of the Year.
    [2] More specifically, the Bábí faith grew out of the Shaykhi school, a late eighteenth and early nineteenth century reform movement within Shi'ism. The Shaykhi school was founded by Shaykh Ahmad Ahsa'i (1752-1825). For a detailed discussion on the Shaykh school and its profound influence on the Bábí and Bahá'í faiths, see Vahid Rafati's informative essay "The Development of Shaykhi Thought in Shi'i Islam," in Heshmat Moayyad, ed. The Bahá'í Faith and Islam, Proceedings of a Symposium, McGill University, March 23-25, 1984 (Ottawa, Canada: Association for Bahá'í Studies, 1990), pp. 93-109.
    [3] According to Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, "pronouns referring to the Manifestation [e.g. Christ, Bahá'u'lláh, the Báb, Muhammad, etc.], or the Master ['Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of Bahá'u'lláh] should, however, invariably be capitalized" (from a letter written on behalf of the Guardian, dated 11/8/48, qtd. in Hornby, Helen, comp. Lights of Guidance: A Bahá'í Reference File [New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983], p. 376, #1015). In order to respect this guideline, all such pronouns will be capitalized in this thesis.
    [4] Most of these writings are considered to be direct revelations from God to Bahá'u'lláh, while others are considered to be inspired by God. In almost all cases Bahá'u'lláh would dictate such writings to a secretary who would first take down such dictations in a kind of shorthand and would then later transcribe them to a legible manuscript which Bahá'u'lláh would very often peruse, make corrections where necessary, and often authenticate with one of His seals. The speed with which Bahá'u'lláh would reveal such writings was sometimes so fast that even the shorthand of His secretary was nearly illegible.
    [5] See Cyril Glasse, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (New York: HarperCollins, 1989).
    [6] Heshmat Moayyad, "The Historical Interrelationship of Islam and the Bahá'í Faith," in Heshmat Moayyad, ed. The Bahá'í Faith and Islam, Proceedings of a Symposium, McGill University, March 23-25, 1984 (Ottawa, Canada: Association for Bahá'í Studies, 1990), p. 76. This article gives a very good summary of the similarities and differences that exist between Islam and the Bahá'í Faith.
    [7] For a full discussion both of the traditional Muslim belief that Muhammad is the "seal of the prophets" -- God's final prophet sent to humankind -- and the Bahá'í interpretation, see Seena Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir "A Bahá'í Approach to the Claim of Finality in Islam"; soon to be published in a forthcoming volume of the Journal of Bahá'í Studies.
    [8] See, for instance, the introductory pamphlet entitled "The Bahá'í Faith," (Dallas, Texas: The Bahá'í Office of Public Information, Dallas/Fort Worth), 1989. For the scriptural basis for such a list of principles see Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By 281- 82 or 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá #227, p. 304.
    [9] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 2d ed. Comp. Howard MacNutt. 1939; rpt. (Wilmette, IL.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982), p. 304, #227.
    [10] Portions of the Sacred Writings have been translated into over 760 languages, including many tribal languages such as Dinka (Africa), Athabascan, Aleut, Navajo (North America), and Timorese (Asia). For a complete list of languages into which Bahá'í works have been translated see John Huddleston, The Earth is But One Country (London, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976), Appendix III.
    [11] Bahá'í Meetings The Nineteen Day Feast, comp. The Universal House of Justice (Wilmette, IL.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976), p. 29 and The Unfolding Destiny of the British Bahá'í Community (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981), p. 208.
    [12] From a letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, in Helen Hornby, comp., Lights of Guidance: A Bahá'í Reference File (New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983), p. 361, #962.
    [13] Wendy Momen, gen. ed., A Basic Bahá'í Dictionary (Oxford:
    George Ronald, 1989).
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