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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 2


       Every religion, according to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, has a particular focus, a central theme around which all of its principles, teachings and laws turn. For the Bahá'í Faith, this central theme "is the consciousness of the oneness of mankind."[1] Indeed, Shoghi Effendi asserts that the oneness of humanity is the "the pivotal principle and fundamental doctrine of the Faith ..." and the one "... round which all the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh revolve."[2] For Bahá'u'lláh, the members of the human family, whether Caucasian, Asian, African and so on, are fundamentally one, the same; with skin color or average height being superficial and unsubstantial differences which in no wise contradict this basic unity.

        An important element in the consciousness and appreciation of the oneness of humanity is the Bahá'í principle of the unity of the world's religions. For 'Abdu'l-Bahá, it is "the corner-stone" of the oneness of all people and the
very foundation for its realization in the world of human affairs.[3] Furthermore, Shoghi Effendi asserts that the Bahá'í principle of the unity of the world's religious traditions, with all of its ramifications, is "the fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá'u'lláh."[4]

        The Bahá'í concept of religious unity may well be unique in the history of religion, since unlike other similar views, it is one of the central principles of the Bahá'í Faith and its direct and primary basis is found within its own sacred writings as opposed to interpretations and commentaries on such writings.[5] Indeed, there is no lack of scrip tural references to this important principle in the Bahá'í canon, nor are such references obscure. In fact, an entire volume, the Kitáb-i-Iqán (Ar. "The Book of Certitude"), is primarily devoted to this theme.[6]

        A problem arises, however, the moment one begins to review the literature written by Bahá'í scholars on the theme of religious unity. It seems that for Bahá'ís, the principle of religious unity is so central to their faith, so obvious and compelling, that little if any writing has been done on this subject. No theological discussion of its implications or potential problems, has ever been thought through or worked out in any detail within the Bahá'í community. Even in a recent Bahá'í publication designed to serve as a possible textbook on the Bahá'í Faith, a scant three pages are devoted to the principle of religious unity.[7] The discussion that follows does little to deal with the very real and serious issues with which such a position must grapple.

        The Bahá'í view raises a number of questions. In those writings where the principle of religious unity is mentioned it is often unclear what the Bahá'í writings intend by the use of such phrases as "the religions of God," "all religions," "the divine religions" or "all the Prophets." Do such phrases mean what Muslims intend by the term ahl al-kitáb, literally "the people of the Book" (i.e. Jews, Christians, Muslims, and perhaps Zoroastrians)? In many instances, the only examples cited in the Bahá'í corpus are from these traditions. In fact, in the sacred writings of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh, these are the only religious traditions mentioned. Or do such phrases also include the religious traditions of Asia (e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Chinese religions, and so on) since these faiths are occasionally mentioned, but only in the writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice? Or does the Bahá'í view also include the vast and varied so-called "tribal," "indigenous," or "pre-literate" traditions of the world as well? In any case, it raises questions about the very real and profound differences that exist between the various religious traditions, let alone those differ ences that exist within each one. Again, it may be that what is intended by such phrases is not to be taken literally but symbolically. This raises the further question of whether the Bahá'í view is a descriptive statement about the world's religions or a symbolic one devoid of any cognitive content? Is the Bahá'í view an assertion about the true nature of religion, or a symbolic or mythological one designed to awaken the importance of faith within an individual and provide a coherent world view designed to foster better relations between Bahá'ís and the people of other faiths? Despite the existence of a number of capable Bahá'í scholars around the world, answers to these questions have not been worked out in any detail.

Transcendent Unity

       According to the Bahá'í view, the nature of reality is ultimately a unity, in contrast to a view that would postulate a multiplicity of differing or incommensurate realities. The nature of truth, according to the Bahá'í writings, is thus fundamentally unitary and not pluralistic. In a talk delivered in New York City in December of 1912, 'Abdu'l-Bahá states that "oneness is truth and truth is oneness which does not admit of plurality."[8] At a talk in Paris early that year, 'Abdu'l-Bahá admits that "Truth has many aspects, but it remains always and forever one."[9]

       The Bahá'í principle of the unity of religions is grounded on this basic concep tion of reality. This principle, so frequently discussed in the Bahá'í sacred writings, asserts that a common transcendent truth not only lies above the varying and divergent religious traditions, but is in fact, their ultimate source and inspiration. For example, The Báb, claims in The Book of Names (Ar. Kitáb-i-Asmá) that "every religion proceedeth from God, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting" while Bahá'u'lláh, in referring to the religions of the world, writes that "These principles and laws, these firmly-established and mighty systems, have proceeded from one Source, and are rays of one Light."[10] In the most direct and concise passage on the subject that I am aware of, Bahá'u'lláh maintains that the revelation which each Manifestation or Messenger of God receives "is exalted above the veils of plurality and the exigencies of number."[11] Finally, in The Most Holy Book (Ar. Kitáb-i-Aqdas) Bahá'u'lláh even refers to God as "the Lord of all Religions."[12]

        It should be clear from the passages quoted above that the Bahá'í principle of religious unity affirms the existence of a common transcendent source from which the world's religious traditions originate and receive their inspiration. As such, the Bahá'í view is remarkably similar to the thought of Frithjof Schuon, a Swiss scholar of religion who persuasively argues for what he terms the "transcendent unity of religions" which he claims is the foundation of and lies at the very heart of every religious tradition.[13] Like the Bahá'í Faith, Schuon holds that the religions of the world originate from the same ultimate source. "The Divine Will," writes Schuon, "has distributed the one Truth under different forms or, to express it in another way, between different humanities" or cultures.[14] Writing on the same subject and with similar language, Bahá'u'lláh insists that
There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed.[15]

It should be obvious from this reference that Bahá'u'lláh, like Schuon, is not affirming that all religions are the same, for He alludes to the differences between them. Indeed, He claims that the religions of the world only seem to be dissimilar due to "the varying requirements of the ages in which they where promulgated."[16] In other words, the apparent differences that exist among the various religious traditions are due to particular cultural and historical factors.

        While this explanation is widely appealed to throughout the Bahá'í writings, it is certainly not unique to the Bahá'í Faith. Such factors have been recognized and discussed by a number of scholars of religion. For instance, the philosopher of religion, Patrick Burke, argues that
The principle by which religions resemble and differ from one another is not religious, but cultural. Similarities and differences between religions are similarities and differences between cultures.... It is these cultural elements that confer on any particular religion its distinctive identity.... What appear to be conflicts between religious faiths must be seen then, first and foremost as conflicts between cultural values.[17]

Nevertheless, the Bahá'í writings are quite explicit that such differences are not intrinsic with nor innate to the ultimate source of these religions. Thus, in Bahá'u'lláh's concluding remarks about the prophets of God -- the founders of the world's religions -- He argues
It is clear and evident, therefore, that any apparent variation in the intensity of their light is not inherent in the light itself, but should rather be attributed to the varying receptivity of an ever-changing world. Every Prophet Whom the Almighty and Peerless Creator hath purposed to send to the peoples of the earth hath been entrusted with a Message, and charged to act in a manner that would best meet the requirements of the age in which He appeared.[18]

The Twofold Nature of Every Religion

       While the Bahá'í principle of religious unity does not claim that all the religions are the same, it does claim that they all share certain fundamental and essential features which are distinguished from other nonessential aspects related to the historical, cultural and linguistic context in which each religious tradition develops. Consequently, the Bahá'í writings, while recognizing the existence of religious diversity, seek to explain it as secondary to an essential transcendent unity common to all religious traditions. For example, in a talk delivered at the Church of the Ascension, in New York City, on June 2, 1912, 'Abdu'l-Bahá presents an often repeated explanation of the Bahá'í view of religious unity, a view which is known as "the twofold nature of religion":
The religions of God have the same foundation, but the dogmas appearing later have differed. Each of the divine religions has two aspects. The first is essential. It concerns morality and development of the virtues of the human world. This aspect is common to all. It is fundamental; it is one; there is no difference, no variation in it. As regards the inculcation of morality and the development of human virtues, there is no difference whatsoever between the teachings of Zoroaster, Jesus and Bahá'u'lláh. In this they agree; they are one. The second aspect of the divine religions is nonessential. It concerns human needs and undergoes change in every cycle according to the exigency of the time.[19]

        The Bahá'í concept of the twofold nature of religion distinguishes between two basic aspects that are held to be characteristic of every religious tradition: the first is characterized as "essential" or "fundamental" and refers to spiritual matters, while the second is characterized as "nonessential" or "accidental" and refers to matters related to the material or physical world. The essential aspect consists of "fundamental" and "universal truths" which are considered to be changeless and eternal and which constitute "the one foundation of all the religions of God."[20] These universal truths lie at the core of every religious tradition and, according to the Bahá'í writings, consist of faith in God (or in nontheistic terms, ultimate reality), existential truths of life, the awakening of human potential, and the acquisition of spiritual attributes or virtues.[21] On the acquisition of such virtues, John Hick argues that "love, compassion, generous concern for and commitment to the welfare of others is a central ideal" in each of the world's religious traditions.[22]

        In contrast, the nonessential aspect of religion involves the outward form of religious practice and operates within the sphere of linguistic, cultural and historical circumstances. Indeed, 'Abdu'l-Bahá argues that the "divine religions of the Holy Manifestations of God are in reality one though in name and nomenclature they differ."[23] In addition, the nonessential aspect further consists of the social laws and regulations governing human affairs as well as ritual practices and doctrinal beliefs, which vary in every age and culture and even within any one religious tradition, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith has so persuasively argued.[24] For example, most if not all religious traditions place great importance on the institution of marriage and the role of the family, but they all differ on the particulars of the marriage ceremony; the rights and obligations of the husband, wife, and children; and the circumstances under which divorce is granted.

        The distinction made between the essential and nonessential aspects of religion is not unique to Bahá'í theology. It resembles closely the "form versus content" or "accident versus essence" debate over the content of myth. In his comprehensive four volume work on mythology, The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell makes the distinction between what he calls the local manifestation of myth and ritual within a particular culture (what the Bahá'í writings call the nonessential or accidental aspects) and the universal aspects (what the Bahá'í writings refer to as the essential or fundamental aspects) which go beyond what is historically and culturally determined.[25] As is the case with the Bahá'í view, it is the local manifestations of the universal aspects that differ and seem at variance with one another. Campbell based his conception of the local and universal aspects of myth on the earlier work of the German sociologist Adolf Bastian (1826-1905) who distinguished between what he called the "elementary ideas" (Elementargedanke) that are found worldwide from their local manifestations in what he termed "ethnic ideas" (Volkergedanke).

Faith: A Common Denominator

       In addition to the recognition of a transcendent unity of religions, the Bahá'í writings also emphasize the process of personal transformation brought about through faith as a unifying factor in all religious traditions. For this reason, the Bahá'í scriptures make a distinction between institutionalized religion, which involves ritual performance, traditional practice, and accumulated doctrine, and faith -- that deeply personal attitude, feeling and inward response of an individual to the transcendent, a response that usually has a powerful transforming effect on an individual and expresses itself in outward practice and belief.

        In the Bahá'í sacred writings, the Arabic word imán is usually translated into English as the word faith.26 According to the Islámic scholar Cyril Glasse, imán refers to "those articles of belief which are part of Islam" such as "faith in God, His Angels, His books (revelations), His Prophets, and the Day of Judgement.[27] Imán is also under stood as one of three aspects that make up Islám as religion (Ar. dín), those other two being Islám (the rites, practices, and laws) and ihsán (lit. "virtue" or "excellence"). However, as with the corresponding English terms religion and faith; imán, Islám, and dín are often used ambiguously and interchangeably. Despite such ambiguity, philoso phers, theologians, and scholars of religion often distinguish between the concepts of faith on the one hand and religion or practice on the other.

        Shoghi Effendi often draws a distinction between faith and religion in his letters to individual Bahá'ís. In such letters he frequently contrasts those Bahá'ís "whose religion is Bahá'í," those who merely "accept and observe the teachings" or who call themselves Bahá'ís, from those "who live for the Faith," whose lives are transformed, "ennobled and enlightened."[28] He further clarifies this difference by contrasting "spiritual awareness" (personal faith) with "administrative procedure" and "adherence to rules" (institutionalized religion). For example, he writes that
The need is very great, everywhere in the world, in and outside the [Bahá'í] Faith, for a true spiritual awareness to pervade and motivate people's lives. No amount of administrative procedure or adherence to rules can take the place of this soul-characteristic, this spirituality which is the essence of man.[29]

Indeed, the Guardian characterizes such spiritual awareness as "that mystical feeling which unites man with God" and which, he declares, is at "the core of religious faith."[30] Elsewhere he maintains that
The Bahá'í Faith, like all other Divine Religions, is thus fundamentally mystic in character. Its chief goal is the development of the individual and society, through the acquisition of spiritual virtues and powers. It is the soul of man which first has to be fed. And this spiritual nourishment prayer can best provide. Laws and institutions, as viewed by Bahá'u'lláh, can become really effective only when our inner spiritual life has been perfected and transformed. Otherwise religion will degenerate into mere organization, and become a dead thing.[31]

He further claims that the fundamental purpose of religion
is to bring man nearer to God, and to change his character, which is of the utmost importance. Too much emphasis is often laid on the social and economic aspects of the Teachings; but the moral aspect cannot be overemphasized.[32]

Once again, it is the moral life and the personal response of the individual to divinity that is considered the basis of the religious life; a life that must be transformed through the acquisition of virtues and the spiritual nourishment of prayer and meditation, and not the mere adherence to various doctrines and teachings, nor the pious participation in ceremonies and rituals, holidays and commemorations. Thus, Shoghi Effendi, in a letter written on his behalf to an individual believer, distills down the essence of the Bahá'í view to the following statement:
Every other Word of Bahá'u'lláh's and 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Writings is a preachment on moral and ethical conduct; all else is the form, the chalice, into which the pure spirit must be poured; without the spirit and the action which must demonstrate it, it is a lifeless form.[33]

This distinction between the spirit and the form of religious faith, is echoed in the words of the great Hindu teacher Sri Ramakrishna when he pleads
Do not care for doctrines, do not care for dogmas, or sects, or churches, or temples; they count for little compared with the essence of existence in each [person], which is spirituality ... Earn that first, acquire that, criticise no one, for all doctrines and creeds have some good in them.[34]

        Thus, it should be clear that when the Bahá'í writings declare that the religious traditions share certain fundamental and essential aspects, it is primarily the transform ing power of faith and its effects upon the individual and upon society as a whole that is meant. In other words, it is the religious life itself, the process of transformation which brings the individual nearer to God or ultimate reality, that is considered an essential feature of every religion. And while the particular path or outward expression may vary, it is the result or goal, and the process which leads to it, that are held to be the same. To take an obvious analogy: there are many paths and approaches that may be used to scale a difficult and challenging mountain (differences in technique, equipment used, and so on) but they all share a common goal -- reaching the summit.[35] Or, seen from a more philosophical perspective, Hick has effectively argued that
the great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to, the Real or the Ultimate from within the major variant cultural ways of being human; and that within each of them the transformation of human existence from self-centredness to Reality-centredness is manifestly taking place -- and taking place, so far as human observation can tell, to much the same extent. Thus the great religious traditions are to be regarded as alternative soteriological 'spaces' within which, or 'ways' along which, men and women can find salvation/liberation/enlightenment/fulfillment.[36]

Accordingly, for Hick, while the various religious traditions differ in terms of their outward expression or linguistic form, in their attempts to describe and approach "the Real" (his general term for divinity or the absolute) and to transform individual lives, yet they all appear to be involved in a similar process. Perhaps, too, this is what Ramakrishna was referring to when he suggests that
As one and the same water, is called by different names in different languages, one calling it "water," another "Vatri," a third "aqua," and a fourth "Pani," so the one Sachchidananda, Absolute Being-Intelligence-Bliss, is invoked by some as God, by some as Allah, by some as Hari, and by others as Brahman.... As one can ascend to the roof of a house by means of a ladder or a bamboo, or a staircase or in various other ways, so diverse are the ways and means to approach God. Every religion in the world is one of the ways to reach Him.[37]

        In all of the cases that I have considered thus far, it is terminology and outward practice that are held to differ, while the process, the conscious and active life of faith and its effects on the individual, is declared as being common to the various religious traditions. Similarly, in his influential book The Meaning and End of Religion, Smith argues that
... faith differs in form, but not in kind. This applies both within communities and from one community to another. My observation, as a historian of religion, would be put thus: in so far as he or she has been saved, the Muslim has been saved by Islamic faith (faith of an Islamic form, through Islamic patterns; faith mediated by an Islamic context); the Buddhist by Buddhist faith, the Jew by Jewish.... just as Christians have been saved by faith of a Christian form, so have Muslims by faith of an Islamic, Buddhists by Buddhist.[38]

In this same work, Smith further demonstrates that while almost all cultures have a word for faith or its equivalents (i.e. piety, religiosity, reverence), very few have a term corresponding to the Western notion of religion as an empirical phenomenon and an overt system of principles and practices separate from other aspects of life.[39] In fact, Smith argues that when a culture coins a word for 'religion' as an overt abstract system, it is well on its way to losing sight of the importance of faith.

        As I have argued, the Bahá'í writings contrast faith with religion, that system of practices and traditions, rites and beliefs, that, if followed only in an outward sense, often degenerates into a mere organization. It is religion as mere organization, devoid of the transforming power of faith, that the Bahá'í writings point to as the source of so much of the diversity, conflict and dissension that often characterize the religious traditions of the world. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, in his talks given in America, constantly argues this point. For instance, in his talk delivered to the Universalist Church of Washington D.C. in 1912, he maintains that
The foundations of the divine religions are one. If we investigate these foundations, we discover much ground for agreement, but if we consider the imitations of forms and ancestral beliefs, we find points of disagreement and division; for these limitations differ while the sources and foundations are one in the same.[40]

Later that year, in a talk delivered at the Foyer de L'ame in Paris, 'Abdu'l-Bahá reiterates this point
All these divisions we see on all sides, all these disputes and opposition, are caused because men cling to ritual and outward observances, and forget the simple, underlying truth. It is the outward practices of religion that are so different, and it is they that cause disputes and enmity -- while the reality is always the same, and one. The Reality is the Truth, and truth has no division.[41]

        Consequently, it should be clear that the Bahá'í concept of religious unity is not some isolated or obscure notion, since it has its parallel expressions in such diverse thinkers as Ramakrishna, Hick, Schuon, Campbell, and W. C. Smith. It is equally clear that the Bahá'í concept is not so much about the existence of similar doctrines or beliefs, but rather about the transformation which religion is capable of bringing about in the moral and religious life of an individual -- a life transformed and animated by and through the power of faith.

Exegesis of Important Terms and Phrases

       A full understanding of the Bahá'í principle of religious unity rests significantly upon how key Bahá'í terminology and phrases are to be understood and interpreted. Since the majority of religious terminology used in the Bahá'í scriptures is derived from Islámic theology, most of the exegesis which follows will depend heavily on Islámic sources.

        To begin with, how are the phrases "all religions" and "all the Prophets" -- both of which are used in the Bahá'í scriptures to refer collectively to the world's religions -- to be interpreted? These phrases together with similar ones such as "the divine religions" or "the religions of God" are the usual English translations of the corresponding Arabic or Persian terms. The phrase "all religions" is the English translation of the Arabic al-adyan kulliha and the Persian jami'-yi adyan.42 Adyan is the plural of dín, the Arabic and Persian word for "religion," while kulliha and jami are the Arabic and Persian words for "all."[43] Islámic sources define dín as "'religion' in the broadest sense," thus, it "may mean any religion" or even religious knowledge as opposed to intellectual knowledge; but it is primarily used in the Qur'án to refer to "the religion of Islám" (Ar. dín al-Islám).[44] When other religions are mentioned in the Qur'án, the Arabic word milla (lit. "religion" or "sect") is used; however, this meaning is now largely obsolete in the Arabic speaking world.[45] Nevertheless, the phrase "all religions" and its variants is still unclear, for it is not immediately obvious what religious traditions are intended by such phrases.

       As a partial clarification, the authoritative writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi do include the names of other religions. For example, in the letters written in English and on behalf of Shoghi Effendi there is reference made to the "nine existing religions," those being the Bahá'í Faith, the religion of the Báb, Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islám, and the religion of the Sabians.[46] Within the Bahá'í scriptures, the number nine is symbolic for completeness or wholeness because it is seen as the completion or culmination of the single digit numbers. Consequently, the use of the phrase "nine existing religions" metaphorically refers to all religions, and while the Bahá'í writings recognize the problematic and controversial nature of such a list, they do not consider these nine religions as "the only true religions that have appeared in the world."[47] In fact, other religious groups (e.g. "the Confucianists," the Sikhs, and Native Americans) are mentioned in a positive manner in the Bahá'í writings.[48]

       The reference to the Sabians as one of the "nine existing religions" is obscure. However, the meaning of this term will shed light on what the Bahá'í writings intend by such phrases as "all the religions." The Sabians (Ar. Sabi, pl. Sabi'un; also spelled as 'Sabians') are first mentioned in the Qur'án (2:59, 5:73, and 22:17), but their identity is problematic. The Qur'án identifies the Sabians, along with the Jews and the Christians (and by implication, the Zoroastrians) as ahl al-Kitáb (lit. "the people of the book"), those who have received revealed scriptures. The Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam states that two distinct groups have been identified with this name:
1. the Mandaeans or Subbas, a Judeo-Christian sect practicing the rites of baptism in Mesopotamia (Christians of John the Baptist); 2. The Sabaeans of Harran, a pagan sect which survived for a considerable period under Islam ...

        A positive identification of the Sabians is further hampered by the fact that many groups, upon encountering Islám, often claimed to be the Sabians mentioned in the Qur'án in order to be under the Qur'ánic privileges and protection associated with the ahl al-Kitáb. Furthermore, sympathetic Muslims frequently employed the term upon encountering peoples of diverse religious faiths. Accordingly, the designation "Sabians," as it is used in the Islámic world, appears to be inclusive in nature, and may thus be used in reference to any religion not specifically mentioned in the Qur'án. Indeed, Glasse, in summing up the problems associated with the term, concludes
The very fact that many different groups were assimilated to the name and that it is impossible to fix the Koranic term definitely to any one of them, suggests that the concept of the Sabians was an open door for the toleration to any religion which upon examination appeared to be an authentic way of worshipping God.[49]

        Moreover, since the term Sabians was applied to so-called "pagan" groups (religions other than Christianity, Judaism or Islám; or religions that pre-date them) its use may best be interpreted as metaphorically referring to all tribal or indigenous religions. This interpretation would certainly make better sense of the Bahá'í listing of the "nine existing religions," since tribal or pre-literate religions, which number some ninety-two million people world wide,[50] don't appear to be directly mentioned otherwise.

        In the Bahá'í scriptures, the phrases "all the Prophets" or "all the Prophets of God" are often used to refer collectively to various prophets, or to use the Bahá'í term, "manifestations" (Ar. mazhar, "manifestation" of the essence of God) -- those extraordi nary individuals who initiated and founded the various religious traditions.[51] Such phrases are the English translations of the Persian jami' anbiyá. Anbiyá is the plural of the Arabic and Persian word nabí, meaning a prophet, that is, one "whose mission lies within the framework of an existing religion" (i.e. Ezekiel or Isaiah), as opposed to a rasúl ("Messenger" or "Envoy," pl. rusúl), one "who brings a new religion or major new revelation," such as Christ or Muhammad.[52] In the Qur'án, a nabí is also called a bashir ("he who brings glad-tidings") and a nadhir ("a warner"). Rusúl are also called al- mursalin ("those who are sent"). In addition, the Bahá'í scriptures also use the Persian phrases mazahir-i jami'ih ("the all-embracing Manifestations") and hamih mursalund ("all the Messengers") when referring to the prophets of God.[53]

       According to the British historian of religion, Geoffrey Parrinder, the Qur'án mentions twenty-eight prophets and messengers by name (see Appendix B for a complete listing) -- including many of those mentioned in the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament.[54] The Qur'án, however, does not seem to limit their number to twenty-eight. In fact, it indicates that there have been countless prophets sent throughout the history of the human race. For many of these prophets, the details of their lives are lost in the mists of ancient history and prehistory. In reference to these prophets the Qur'án states:
And We have already sent Messengers [Ar. rusúl] before Thee [Muhammad]: of some We have told Thee, and others We have told Thee nothing ... (Qur'án 40:78, see also Qur'án 4:162)

And there never was a people without a Warner [Ar. nadhir] having lived among them. (Qur'án 35:24)

No doubt on this basis, later Islámic theologians and scholars put the number of prophets much higher than twenty-eight, by some accounts as high as 224,000. Indeed, even in the Ahadíth, the collected sayings of Muhammad, the number of prophets is symbolically said to be 124,000, a number so large as to both dazzle the imagination and prevent humanity from claiming that it was not adequately warned of universal judgement.[55]

       Like the Qur'án, the Bahá'í scriptures contain the names of a number of prophets and messengers. To be precise, at least thirty-two prophets are mentioned by name in the Bahá'í writings, twenty-three of which are identical to those mentioned in the Qur'án (see Appendix B for a complete listing). What is significantly different about the prophets named in the Bahá'í writings is, whereas the Qur'án names only prophets associated with the Judeo-Christian-Muslim heritage, the Bahá'í scriptures include "prophets" or "messengers" from Asian cultures -- for example, Zoroaster (Zarathustra), The Buddha, and Krishna.

        Also like the Qur'án, the Bahá'í writings do not limit the number of prophets to thirty-two. Thus the Báb declares that "God hath raised up Prophets and revealed Books as numerous as the creatures of the world, and will continue to do so to everlasting."[56] This would, theoretically at least, make the number of prophets practically infi nite, or at the very least, even larger than the highest numbers mentioned in Islám. In fact, Shoghi Effendi, while quoting from the writings of Bahá'u'lláh, asserts that
From the "beginning that has no beginning," these Exponents of the Unity of God and Channels of His incessant utterance [the prophets of God] have shed the light of the invisible Beauty upon mankind, and will continue, to the "end that hath no end," to vouchsafe fresh revelations of His might and additional experiences of His inconceivable glory. To contend that any particular religion is final, that "all Revelation is ended, that the portals of Divine mercy are closed, that from the Daysprings of eternal holiness no sun shall rise again, that the ocean of everlasting bounty is forever stilled, and that out of the Tabernacle of ancient glory the Messengers of God have ceased to be made manifest" would indeed be nothing less than sheer blasphemy.[57]

Clearly then, the Bahá'í writings recognize the existence of vast numbers of prophets or manifestations whom have appeared in all cultures throughout the entire history of the human race. Thus, given such references, the phrase "all the prophets" is best interpreted as broadly and as open ended as possible. Such an interpretation would include all known historical prophets, messengers and founders of the world's religions, whether of the past, present or future, together with all those whose identity has now been lost. Likewise, the phrase "all religions" should also be interpreted in the widest possible context to include all known existing religions together with those which are no longer practiced.


    [1] Qtd. in Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980), p. 119.
    [2] God Passes By (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1944), p. 281 and The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 43.
    [3] Qtd. in Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 39.
    [4] The Promised Day is Come, p. v.
    [5] John Hick notes that the principle of religious unity, whether inclusivistic or pluralis tic (see Chapter 3 for the definitions of these terms) are found "within each of the world's religions, although not as central themes" ("Religious Pluralism," Encyclopedia of Religion, Vol. 12, p. 331).
    [6] The Kitáb-i-Íqán together with the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Ar. "The Most Holy Book," the book of Bahá'í law) are considered the two most important works of Bahá'u'lláh. In addition, numerous individual writings of both Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá discuss the concept of religious unity. This principle is also one of the constant themes in the public talks given by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and it is also discussed in some length in the letters of Shoghi Effendi.
    [7] William S. Hatcher and J. Douglas Martin. The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1984), pp. 81-84.
    [8] The Promulgation of Universal Peace (1939; rpt. Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982), p. 454.
    [9] Paris Talks, 11th ed. (1912; rpt. London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1972), p. 53.
    [10] The Báb, Selections from the Writings of the Báb (Bahá'í World Centre (Haifa, Israel: Bahá'í World Centre, 1976), p. 139 and Bahá'u'lláh, The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976), p. 13. The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf was written in 1892, about a year before Bahá'u'lláh's death, making it the last of His books. It is significant in that it represents Bahá'u'lláh's own summary of the salient features and central themes of the religious process He Himself set in motion.
    [11] Kitáb-i-Íqán, p. 153.
    [12] The Kitáb-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book (Haifa: Israel: Bahá'í World Centre, 1992), p. 32, #35.
    [13] The Transcendent Unity of Religions (Wheaton, IL: Theosophical Publishing House, 1984). Even Schuon's phrase "transcendent unity" appears frequently throughout the writings of Bahá'u'lláh. See for instance Prayers and Meditations by Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974), pp. 89, 192-193, 307, and 334.
    [14] The Transcendent Unity of Religions, p. 17.
    [15] Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1952), pp. 117-18.
    [16] Ibid., pp. 79-80.
    [17] The Fragile Universe (New York: Barnes and Noble, 1979), pp. 40, 57.
    [18] Gleanings, p. 79-80, #34. See note 51, p. 39 in this chapter for a fuller discussion of the Bahá'í concept of the prophet or manifestation of God.
    [19] Promulgation, pp. 168-169.
    [20] 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity (Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1945), pp. 92, 82.
    [21] The Bahá'í writings include among these virtues such traits as mercy, compassion, equity, trustworthiness, wisdom, knowledge (including scientific knowledge), courtesy, and kindness. So important is the acquisition of these virtues that when 'Abdu'l-Bahá, was asked in Paris, "What is the purpose of our lives?", He responded, "To acquire virtues" (Paris Talks 177). For a Bahá'í discussion on the universality of the so-called "golden rule," see H.T.D. Rost, The Golden Rule: A Universal Ethic (Oxford: George Ronald, 1986).
    [22] An Interpretation of Religion: Human Responses to the (New Haven, CT: Yale, 1989), p. 316. Hick devotes the entire eighteenth chapter of this work demonstrating the universality of this point.
    [23] Promulgation, p. 151.
    [24] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, Towards a World Theology: Faith and the Comparative History of Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster Press, 1981),pp. 4-5.
    [25] Primitive Mythology, Vol. I of The Masks of God (New York: Penguin Books, 1969), p. 32.
    26 Kambiz Rafraf, conversations with the author, March 1992.
    [27] Concise Encyclopedia of Islam (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), p. 187.
    [28] Excerpts from the Writings of the Guardian on the Bahá'í Life, comp. by The Universal House of Justice (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Canada, n. d.), pp. 18, 10; and Hornby, Lights of Guidance, p. 418, #1139.
    [29] Excerpts p. 12.
    [30] Qtd. in Hornby, Lights of Guidance, p. 418, #1139.
    [31] Ibid., p. 81, #247.
    [32] Ibid., p. 417, #1136.
    [33] From a letter dated September 30, 1949, in Hornby, Lights of Guidance, #1159.
    [34] Qtd. in Vivekananda, Ramakrishna and His Message, 1971., p. 25.
    [35] For a full account of this analogy see Ronald Eyer's illuminating discussion in his book Ronald Eyre on the Long Search (Cleveland: William Collins, 1979) pp. 275-76.
    [36] Problems of Religious Pluralism (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1985) pp. 36-37.
    [37] Teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, compiled by Swami Abhedananda (1905; rpt. Calcutta: Advaita Ashrama, 1975), p. 248, #686, p. 251, #694.
    [38] Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (New York: New American, 1963), p. 168.
    [39] Ibid., p. 53.
    [40] Promulgation, p. 41.
    [41] Paris Talks, pp. 120-21.
    42 For example, see Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, pp. 80, 158; Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 22, 87, 205; and Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Íqán, p. 40.
    [43] Todd Lawson, letter to the author, dated May 28, 1992.
    [44] H. A. R. Gibb and J.H. Krammers, eds., "Dín" and "Milla," Shorter Encyclopedia of Islam, 1953.
    [45] F. Buhl and C. E. Bosworth, "Milla," The New Encyclopedia of Islam, 1990. The word milla, as far as I know, is not used in the Bahá'í writings.
    [46] From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi dated July 28, 1936, quoted in Hornby, Lights of Guidance, #829. 'Abdu'l-Bahá also mentions these religions in many of his public talks in America and Europe (see Paris Talks and The Promulgation of Universal Peace).
    [47] From two letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi. The first is dated October 28, 1949 and the other is dated July 28, 1936. Both letters are in Hornby, Lights of Guidance, #831 and #829.
    [48] In reference to the "Confucianists," 'Abdu'l-Bahá attests that "Confucius renewed morals and ancient virtues ...", however, He goes on to argue that the beliefs and rites of the Confucianists have diverged greatly from the fundamental teachings of Confucius (Some Answered Questions [Wilmette, IL.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981], p. 165. In the so-called "Tablet of Purity," 'Abdu'l-Bahá, while not mentioning the Sikhs by name, commends then as a community of people "far and away superior to others" due to their strict avoidance of alcohol, opium and tobacco, as well as for their strength, courage, health, and physical beauty (in Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá [Haifa, Israel: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978], p. 150). In the Tablets of the Divine Plan, 'Abdu'l-Bahá compares the Native American Indians of today with the seventh century pre-Islámic Arabs who, when inspired by the teachings of Muhammad, illumined the whole world" ([Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1977], p. 32-33). Elsewhere in the writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi predictions are made that the Aboriginal peoples of the Americas will play a major role in the spiritualization of the planet.
    [49] Concise Encyclopedia of Islam.
    [50] Barrett, David B. "World Religious Statistics." 1992 Britannica Book of the Year.
    [51] The Bahá'í concept of the "manifestation" of God is not one of divine incarna tion (Ar. hulul, lit. "indwelling") where the essence of God descends into human form like the Christian concept of Christ or that of the avatara in the Vaishnavite tradition of Hinduism. Rather, the Bahá'í view likens the manifestation of God to a perfectly polished mirror which reflects or manifests the attributes of God. Thus, in such a view, God remains utterly transcendent, above ascent or descent, incarnation or indwelling, while the manifestation of god is understood as a unique human being capable of reflecting a perfect image of the attributes of God. Bahá'u'lláh, in a discussion of the nature of the manifestation, explains: "However, let none construe these utterances to be anthropomorphism, nor see in them the descent of the worlds of God into the grades of the creatures; nor should they lead thine Eminence to such assumptions. For God is, in His Essence, holy above ascent and descent, entrance and exit; He hath through all eternity been free of the attributes of human creatures, and ever will remain so" (The Seven Valleys [Wilmette, IL: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1975], pp. 22-23). For a more complete discussion of the Bahá'í concept of the manifestation see Juan Ricardo Cole, "The Concept of Manifestation in the Bahá'í Writings," Bahá'í Studies, Vol. 9 (Ottawa: Association for Bahá'í Studies, 1982).
    [52] Glasse, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, p. 318.
    [53] Lawson, letter to the author, dated May 28, 1992. A good discussion of these terms is also found in Seena Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir, "A Bahá'í Approach to the Claim of Finality in Islam," which will be published in a forthcoming volume of the Journal of Bahá'í Studies.
    [54] Jesus in the Qur'án (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 40.
    [55] Glasse, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, p. 318.
    [56] An excerpt from the Dalá'il-i-Sab'ih (Ar. "The Seven Proofs"), in Selections from the Writings of the Báb, p. 125.
    [57] World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 58.
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