published in Lights of Irfan, Book 3, pages 107-120 Wilmette, IL: Irfan Colloquia, 2002
In this paper, we will examine five characteristic features that are common to mystical orders whether these be in Buddhism, Christianity or Islam: (1) A hierarchical structure with a leader who is regarded as being farthest along the spiritual path and who is thought capable of guiding others along that path, together with the attendant practices of obedience and confession; (2) The insistence that it is only by personal, oral transmission of the teaching and experience of the community that one can really make progress along the spiritual path. It is not something that can just be learned from books; (3) An inclination towards monasticism or asceticism; (4) Practices that lead to altered states of consciousness; and (5) A tendency towards a monistic view of reality.
In the authoritative Bahá'í texts, mysticism is placed at the centre of the religion. In this paper, we will examine Bahá'u'lláh's attitude to these characteristic features of mystical orders. Rather than going along with the prevailing patterns that involve the organization of mystical orders as isolated groups among the believers, Bahá'u'lláh turns the whole of the Bahá'í community into a mystical fellowship. In doing this, he also introduces radical changes in the approach to the five characteristics delineated above, dealing with the leadership of the Bahá'í community and such issues as the transmission of knowledge and ways of organizing the community in ways that are very different to those of previous religions.