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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 5


        The Bahá'í concept of religious unity is unique in the history of religion. Not only is it one of the most fundamental doctrines of the Bahá'í Faith, but more importantly, its direct and primary basis is found within its own sacred writings as opposed to commentaries on such writings. This doctrine affirms the existence of a common transcendent source from which the world's religious traditions originate and receive their inspiration. The Bahá'í writings view the religions of the world not as isolated and sporadic events, but as participants in a successively unfolding process called progressive revelation. The religious traditions of the world, from the most ancient to recent, have been initiated by countless manifestations.

        The Bahá'í view is remarkably similar to the thought of Frithjof Schuon, who argues for what he terms the "transcendent unity of religions" which lies at the heart of every religious tradition. The Bahá'í principle of religious unity does not claim that all the religions are the same. Instead it claims 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.

        In addition to the recognition of a transcendental 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. 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.

        Apparent differences between the different religions are explained by the Bahá'í view through a perspectivist approach grounded in a process metaphysics. The Bahá'í principle of religious unity does not conveniently fit into any one of the standard categories proposed for dealing with the problem of religious pluralism. Therefore, I have characterized the Bahá'í view as "process perspectivism" due to its incorporation of such concepts as transcendental unity (primordialism) and perspectivism, and on its placement of the various religions within an unfolding and progressive historical process.

        Radical pluralism is the greatest philosophical challenge to the Bahá'í principle of religious unity. According to this school of thought, truth is pluralistic and is therefore not reducible to some common essence. Therefore, no amount of perspectivist thinking can fully account for the incredible diversity exhibited by the world's religions. Furthermore, charge the radical pluralists, perspectivist theories are guilty of misinterpreting every religion in order to uncover points of unity. However, neither radical pluralism nor perspectivism can be conclusively proven. Choosing between these two schools of thought seems to be largely determined by one's initial presuppositions.





1.        Shahadah (Ar. from the verb shahida, "to observe," "to testify," "to witness"): The act of witnessing or attesting to the formula or creed (kalima): "There is no god but the God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God."

2.        Salah (Ar., "ritual prayer" or "worship"; Per. salat): All Muslims are expected to pray five times a day, at dawn, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and late evening). Before each prayer a Muslim performs wodu, ablutions (the ritual washing of the face hands and feet). Believers turn to face Mecca during prayer.

3.        Zakah (Ar. lit. "purification," Per. zakat): All Muslims are required to give part of their wealth (almsgiving) for those in need and to further the cause of Islám. It is a mandatory minimum tax (2.5% of a Muslim's gathered and dispensed under the auspices of the Islámic state.

4.        Sawm (Ar. "fasting"): All Muslims are expected to abstain from food, drink, smoking, and sexual relations during the daylight hours of the entire month of Ramadan (28 days). Ramadan commemorates the month when Muhammad first began to receive revelation from Allah. Three days of celebration follow this month of fasting.

5.        Hajj (Ar. "pilgrimage"): Every Muslim who is financially able is required to make a pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina once during their lifetime.

1.        There is no formalized creed, however, every Bahá'í is expected to affirm the absolute oneness of God and that Bahá'u'lláh is one of God's Manifestations.

2.        Obligatory Prayers (Ar. salah, Per. salat): "the believer is entirely free to choose any one of these three [obligatory] prayers, but is under the obligation of reciting either one of them" (Bahá'í Prayers 3). During the perfor mance of the "Long Obligatory Prayer," the believer is asked to perform ablutions. As in Islám, the believer must turn towards the qib lih ("point of adoration," for Bahá'ís, the shrine of Bahá'u'lláh).

3.        Huququ'llah (Ar., lit. "the right of God"): All Bahá'ís are expected to give part of their income (approximately 19% after necessary expenses are deducted) for the promotion of the Faith and for charitable purposes.

4.         Sawm (Ar. "fasting," Per. rozah): All Bahá'ís over the age of fifteen are expected to abstain from food and drink during the daylight hours of the entire month of 'Ala (March 2-20). Four days of celebration (Ayyám-i-Há) precede this period of fasting while the festival of Naw-Rúz concludes it.

5.         Hajj: Every Bahá'í who is financially able is required to make a pilgrimage (once during their lifetime) to the Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh (Akka, Israel), the house of the Báb (Shiraz, Iran), and the house of Bahá'u'lláh (Baghdad, Iraq).



Honor Your Parents
1.        Worship God, and join not aught with Him in worship. Be good to parents, and to kindred, and to orphans, and to the poor, and to a neighbour, whether kinsman or new-comer, and to a fellow traveller, and to the wayfarer ... (Qur'án 4:40)

2.        Have naught to do with adultery; for it is a foul thing and an evil way ... (Qur'án 17:34)

3.        He who claims what is not his is not of us. Let him take his place in the fire. (Hadith of Muslim, qtd. in Husain 1967, 115)

Backbiting and Slander
4.        And spy not on each other, nor speak ill of each other behind their backs. (Qur'án 49:12)

Whenever you speak, speak what is true. (Hadith of Bukhari, qtd. in Husain 1967, 103)

Intoxicants Forbidden
5.        All intoxicants are forbidden. (Hadith of Bukhari and Muslim, qtd. in Husain 1967, 109)

Honor Your Parents
1.        Say, O My people! Show honour to your parents and pay homage to them. This will cause blessings to descend upon you from the clouds of the bounty of your Lord, the Exalted, the Great. (Bahá'u'lláh, Family Life, #7)

2.        Ye have been forbidden to commit mur der or adultery, or to engage in backbiting or calumny; shun ye, then what hath been prohibited in the holy Books and Tablets. (Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p. 26 #19)

No sexual act can be considered lawful unless performed between lawfully married peoples. Outside of marital life there can be no lawful or healthy use of the sex impulse.... (Shoghi Effendi, in Hornby, Lights of Guidance, #683)

3.        The Kitab-i-Aqdas (the Bahá'í book of laws) expressly prohibits stealing, lying, murder, adultery, and so on.

Backbiting and Slander
4.        That seeker should also regard backbiting as grievous error, and keep himself aloof from its dominion, inasmuch as backbiting quencheth the light of the heart, and extinguisheth the life of the soul. (Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Iqán, p. 193)

Intoxicants Forbidden
5.        Become ye intoxicated with the wine of the love of God, and not with that which deadeneth your minds ... Verily, it hath been forbidden unto every believer, whether man or woman. (Bahá'u'lláh, qtd. in Effendi, 1966, p. 27)



Tawhíd (Ar.): The central concept around which all Islámic teachings revolve, is the absolute unity or oneness of God. God, is an utterly unique, absolute Reality, with no peer or likeness.

1.        This is, indeed, the essence of all truth; No deity is there, except God. And it is to God alone Who is Exalted, Wise! (Qur'án 3:62)

2.        Say: God is One, the Ultimate Source, He does not give birth, nor was He born (of anyone) and there is nothing comparable to Him. (Qur'án 112:1-4; This surah is entitled "At-Tawhíd," "the Unity," and it has been called the essence of the Qur'án)

3.        SAY: Praise be to God and peace be on His servants whom He hath chosen! Is God the more worthy or the gods they join with Him? Is not He who hath made the Heavens and the Earth, and hath sent down rain to you from Heaven, by which we cause the luxuriant groves to spring up? It is not in your power to cause its trees to spring up! What! A god with God? Yet they find equals for Him! Is not He, who hath set the earth so firm, and hath made rivers in its midst, and hath placed mountains upon it, and put a barrier between the two seas? What! a god with God? Yet the greater part of them have no

4.        Knowledge! Is not He the more worthy who answereth the oppressed when they cry to him, and taketh off their ills, and maketh you to succeed your sires on the earth? What! a god with God? How few bear these things in mind! (Qur'án 27:61-63)

The oneness of God is one of three central teachings which includes the oneness of religion and humanity. The absolute oneness of God is one of the most frequently mentioned concepts in the Bahá'í sacred writings.

1.        Regard thou the one true God as One Who is apart from, and immeasurably exalted above, all created things. The whole universe reflecteth His glory, while He is Himself independent of, and transcendeth His creatures. This is the true meaning of Divine unity. He Who is the Eternal Truth is the one Power Who exerciseth undisputed sovereignty over the world of being, Whose image is reflected in the mirror of the entire creation. All existence is dependent upon Him, and from Him is derived the source of the sustenance of all things. This is what is meant by Divine unity; this is its fundamental principle. (Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings, p. 166, #84)

2.        He is a true believer in Divine unity who, far from confusing duality with oneness, refuseth to allow any notion of multiplicity to becloud his conception of the singleness of God, who will regard the Divine Being as One Who, by His very nature, transcendeth the limitations of numbers. (Ibid., p. 166-167, #84)

3.        Beware, beware, lest thou be led to join partners with the Lord, thy God. He is, and hath from everlasting been, one and alone, without peer or equal, eternal in the past, eternal in the future, detached from all things, ever-abiding, unchangeable, and self-subsisting. (Ibid., p. 192, #94)


1.        If all the shrubs on earth were mobilized for pens and all the oceans, refilled seven times, were used for ink, the Glory of God could not be inscribed, for God doth surpass all wisdom. (Qur'án 31:27, see also Qur'án 18:109)

2.        Glory be to Him! And high let Him be exalted above that which they attribute to Him! Sole maker of the Heavens and of the Earth! How, when He hath no consort, should He have a son? He hath created everything, and He knoweth everything! This is your Lord. There is no God but He, the creator of all things: therefore worship Him alone; and He watcheth over all things. No vision taketh in Him, but He taketh in all vision: and He is the Subtle, the All-Informed. (Qur'án 6:100-103)

3.        Glory be to Him and His supremacy! Far, far above is He from their conjectures! (Qur'án 17:43)

4.        He knows what is hidden and what is open: too high is He for the partners they attribute to Him! (Qur'án 23:92, see also Qur'án 16:1)

5.        But far be the Lord of the Heavens and of the Earth, the Lord of the Throne, from that which they impute to Him! (Qur'án 43:82, see also Qur'án 37:180)

6.        Make no comparisons, therefore, with God. Verily, God hath knowledge, but ye have not. (Qur'án 16:76)

1.        He, in truth, hath, throughout eternity, been one in His Essence, one in His attributes, one in His works. Any and every comparison is applicable only to His creatures, and all conceptions of association are conceptions that belong solely to those that serve Him. Immeasurably exalted is His Essence above the descriptions of His creatures. He, alone, occupieth the Seat of transcendent majesty, of supreme and inaccessible glory. The birds of men's hearts, however high they soar, can never hope to attain the heights of His unknowable Essence. (Bahá'u'lláh, Glean ings, p. 193, #94)

2.        Behold, how immeasurably exalted is the Lord your God above all created things! Witness the majesty of His sovereignty, His ascendancy, and supreme power. (Ibid., p. 184, #93)

3.        Immeasurably exalted is He above the strivings of human mind to grasp His Essence, or of human tongue to describe His mystery. No tie of direct intercourse can ever bind Him to the things He hath created, nor can the most abstruse and most remote allusions of His creatures do justice to His being. Through His world-pervading Will He hath brought into being all created things. He is and hath ever been veiled in the ancient eternity of His own exalted and indivisible Essence, and will everlastingly continue to remain concealed in His inaccessible majesty and glory. (Ibid., p. 318, #148)



Islám: Bahá'í Writings of:
English name Qur'án Bahá'u'lláh 'Abdu'l-Bahá S. Effendi
1. Adam Adam X X X
2. Abraham Ibrahim X X X
3. The Báb   X X X
4. Bahá'u'lláh   X X X
5. Buddha     X X
6. Confucius     X  
7. Daniel     X X
8. David Da'ud X X X
9. Elijah Ilyas   X X
10. Elisha Alyasa      
11. Enoch Idris      
12. Ezekiel Dhu-i-Kifl   X  
13. Ezra Uzair      
14. Hud Hud X    
15. Isaac Ishaq X X  
16. Isaiah ? X X X
17. Ishmael Ishma'il X    
18. Jacob Ya'qub X X  
19. Jeremiah     X  
20. Jesus 'Isa X X X
21. Jethro Shu'ayb X    
22. Job Ayyub X X  
23. Joel   X    
24. John the Baptist Yahya X X X
25. Jonah Yunus      
26. Joseph Yusuf X X X
27. Joshua     X  
28. Krishna     X X
29. Lot Lut   X X
30. Luqman Luqman      
31. Moses Musa X X X
32. Muhammad Muhammad X X X
33. Noah Nuh X X  
34. Salih Salih X    
35. Solomon Sulayman X X X
36. Zachariah Zakariyya X    
37. Zoroaster     X X
         Legend:     Name        =        mentioned in the Bahá'í writings (32 Prophets)
            Name        =        mentioned in the Qur'án, but not in the Bahá'í writings (5 Prophets)


General Works

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