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1998-04-03: Story of the Baha'i

The Fourth Faith

Who are the Baha'i's and why did they put their sacred shrine in Haifa?

By Donald H. Harrison

Haifa, Israel (Special) -- Gathered on the deck of the cruise ship Island Princess, as it docked in Haifa, passengers pointed to a prominent gold domed building situated at mid-level of Mount Carmel. Beautifully terraced green gardens were easily discernable on the slope above and below the building.

"What is it?" many passengers asked. "Is it the City Hall? Or some important Jewish temple?"

In fact, it was the Shrine of the Bab--one of the holiest sites of the Baha'i faith--burial place for the mortal remains of the man who foretold the coming of the Baha'u'llah, the founder of the Baha'i faith.
The Bay of Haifa describes a wide semi-circle. As the passengers faced the Shrine of the Bab, their backs were turned to the Israeli city of Acre ("Akko" in Hebrew) located across the bay. At an estate called Bahji, just outside Acre, the Baha'u'llah himself is buried. 

It is well-known that Israel is the Holy Land for Jews, Christians and Muslims. But less well-known is that the land also is esteemed by the estimated 5 million Baha'is who live throughout the world. Just as Jews face toward Jerusalem when they pray, and Muslims face Mecca, so do Baha'is face Bahji.

As a journalist, I was interested in learning more about this fourth major faith of Israel. We Jews have constituted a small minority religion in many lands of the Diaspora, and our relationships with the governments of those lands have been a key component of 2,000 years of Jewish history. Now that there has been a Jewish state for 50 years, how does Israel treat members of a minority faith?

The Shrine of the Bab--rather than the Shrine at 

 Menorah and Shrine of the Bab as seen from
 the deck of the Island Princess at Haifa dock
Bahji--was the best place to ask questions about the Baha'i faith. 

Not only does the story of their religion start with the man called "the Bab"-- an Arabic word meaning "The Gate --but the administrative headquarters of the Baha'i faith are on the same terraced grounds as the Shrine of the Bab.

According to Baha'i histories, Siyyid 'Ali-Muhammad, a 25-year-old merchant living in the Iranian city of Shiraz, announced on May 23, 1844 that he had been appointed by God as the gateway--or Bab--for a universal Messenger of God, who would follow him. Some people draw an analogy between the role played by the Bab and that played many centuries before by John the Baptist whom Christians believe was divinely inspired to foretell the arrival of Jesus.

The religious movement that grew up around the Bab was called the Babi faith, and it attracted both followers and powerful detractors in Persia, which then, as now, was dominated by the Shi'ite branch of Islam. In three ways the Bab ran afoul of traditional 19th century Muslim thinking. By declaring that a new messenger of God was coming, the Bab contradicted Muslim belief that Muhammad was God's final messenger. The status of women in traditional Islamic societies was sharply proscribed, yet the Bab preached their equality. He also welcomed the inquiries of science into the origins of the world, rejecting traditionalist religious beliefs that various scientific theories were blasphemous.

The Bab was judged a dangerous heretic and was executed on July 9, 1850 in the courtyard of the Tabriz Army barracks in Persia, a country known to the world today as Iran. According to Baha'i belief, the circumstances surrounding the execution were miraculous. It is told that a regiment of 750 Armenian soldiers, in three files of 250, fired at the Bab and a companion, producing a dark cover of smoke so dense that nothing could be seen.

When the smoke cleared, the companion was standing alone, unhurt, and the Bab was nowhere in sight. A search found the Bab back in his cell, calmly dictating instructions to a disciple. He reportedly told his guards that until he had completed his mission, no earthly power could stop him. But now that he had given his instructions, the execution could proceed. 

The Baha'i account continued that the stunned Armenian riflemen refused their orders to try again, so a Muslim firing squad had to be assembled. The bodies of the Bab and his companion were shredded by the gunfire. However, the faces of the two men were untouched.

According to Baha'i teachings, Mizra Husayn Ali, who was born to a wealthy family in Teheran on Nov. 12, 1817, became so committed to helping the poor that he turned his back on his life of privilege. He was drawn to the teachings of the Bab, and remained a committed member of the Babi faith after the Bab's execution. 

He was thrown into a prison commonly known as Teheran's "Black Pit" where, while in chains and stocks in this dank, dark, foul subterranean nest, he had a vision: God told him that he was the Messenger whom the Bab had prophesied. Although he temporarily kept this vision a secret, he chose for himself the name "Baha'u'llah," which means "The Glory of God" in Arabic.

After his release from prison, the Baha'u'llah was exiled from Teheran to Baghdad, then part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire and today part of the nation of Iraq. From there, he went to nearby Kurdistan where he encamped in the wilderness for two years, contemplating his religious mission. At the urging of the Babis of Baghdad, he returned to that city in 1856, becoming one of their leaders.

From April 21 to May 2, 1863, the Baha'u'llah and his followers camped in a garden on the banks of the Tigris River, and there for the first time the Baha'u'llah revealed himself as the Messenger of God. The 12-day sojourn in the Garden of Ridvan (Arabic for "Paradise") is celebrated by Baha'is around the world as the Ridvan Festival.

Thereafter as an exile, the Baha'u'llah and his family embarked on a five-year journey through the Middle East that eventually brought them to the Ottoman Empire's prison city of Acre on Aug. 31, 1868 -- the city in which he spent the remainder of his life and where he is buried. At first, he was shut up in the prison that had been built in Crusader times, and Baha'i legend says the air above the prison was so foul that birds flying over would drop, poisoned, to their deaths.

Eventually Baha'u'llah became popular with both prison officials and local clergy and he was permitted to move to a house adjoining the prison. Later, he was permitted to move to Badji, the estate that is now the holiest shrine of the Baha'i.

In Acre, Baha'u'llah wrote the Kitab-I-Aqdas (Persian for "The Most Holy Book") as well as other texts and letters which laid down the principles of Baha'i belief. Ten basic tenets of the Baha'i faith, as set down by the Baha'u'llah, are: 1) the oneness of humanity; 2) the equality of women and men; 3) the elimination of prejudice; 4) the elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty; 5) the independent investigation of truth; 6) universal education; 7) religious tolerance; 8) the harmony of science and religion; 9) a world commonwealth of nations, and 10) a universal auxiliary language.

The Baha'u'llah's oldest son, Abdu'l-Baha, was born May 23, 1844, the same day that the Bab had announced in Shiraz that he was the Gateway to a New Messenger of God. The son travelled with his father in exile, eventually becoming his secretary and chief aide de camp. Baha'i histories report that when many Baha'i became ill in Acre, Abdu'l-Baha nursed them back to health, exposing himself to typhoid, malaria and dysentery, from which he sickened but later recovered. 

On a visit to Mount Carmel, across the bay from Acre, the Baha'u'llah stood with Abdu'l-Baha under a grove of cypress trees and pointed to a barren spot a short ways down the hillside. There, he told his son, should be built a mausoleum for the Bab, whose remains should be transported from Persia to Mount Carmel. 

After designating his son to serve as his successor, and as the "The Master" of the Baha'i faith, the Baha'u'allah died on May 29, 1892.
Abdu'l-Baha, like his father, technically remained under house arrest by the Ottoman Empire, but in 1909 he was able to have the Bab's remains interred in a small tomb building. The superstructure over the tomb, including the gold dome, was built between 1948 and 1953.

In 1911, Abdu'l Baha was given his freedom by the Ottoman government, and embarked upon a world tour that helped to spread the Baha'i faith. Before his death on Nov. 28, 1921, Abdu'l-Baha designated his grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, to serve as the "Guardian" of the Baha'i faith.

Shoghi Effendi, who then was a student at Oxford University in England, developed the unique administrative rules of the Baha'i faith. The worldwide religion is governed by Local Spiritual Assemblies, National Spiritual Assemblies and, since Shoghi Effendi's death on Nov. 5, 1957 in London, by a Universal House of Justice which serves, in effect, as the international spiritual assembly. 

                                 The Shrine of the Bab
Shoghi Effendi was the last hereditary leader of the Baha'i faith. Since his passing, the nine-member Universal House of Justice--which meets in a Greek-style colonnaded building near the Shrine of the Bab--is the ultimate interpreter of Baha'u'llah's writings. 

Although the Baha'i have no clergy, the elected members of the Universal House of Justice to some extent resemble a Jewish halachic court. As rabbis make rulings based on their study the Torah and Talmud, so too do the nine members of the Universal House of Justice study the Kitab-I Aqdas and other sacred Baha'i writings for guidance on how Baha'is should live. 

Members of the Universal House of Justice serve for five year terms whereas members of Local Spiritual Assemblies and National Spiritual Assemblies are elected for one-year terms. Members of the Universal House of Justice have no individual authority; their decisions can be taken only when they meet together as a group.

 * * *

Before embarking on the Island Princess cruise that would take Nancy and me from Bombay to Haifa and then on to Italy, I had the opportunity in San Diego to interview Jane Senour, a spokeswoman for the Baha'i congregation whose meeting hall is in the Linda Vista neighborhood, , a few blocks from the University of San Diego campus.
Senour, a former public school principal, had served as a member of the Local Spiritual Assembly in San Diego and will represent San Diego Baha'is this month at a convention in Wilmette, Ill., at which next year's National Spiritual Assembly of the United States will be chosen. The Baha'is have a large temple building in Wilmette.

Each of the governing bodies--Local Spiritual Assembly, National Spiritual Assembly and the Universal House of Justice--is comprised of nine members. 

                 San Diego's Bahai Center
The number nine has special significance among Baha'i. It is the highest number that is still a single digit--symbolic of the oneness of humanity. 

Nine also is the number of prophets whom Baha'i believe God sent to the earth in His continuous revelations. According to the Baha'i, the prophets were not intended to found separate religions; each in his time was articulating God's unified message for humanity, phrased in the language and addressed to the needs of their specific times.

The nine prophets recognized by Baha'i as links in the chain of God's unfolding revelations are, in chronological order: 1) Abraham; 2) Krishna; 3) Moses; 4) Zoroaster; 5) Buddha; 6) Jesus; 7) Muhammad; 8) the Bab, and 9) Baha'u'llah.

"Because God is unknowable and because we are incapable of understanding, these teachers come every once in awhile to help us get a handle on what it is that God is saying that we should do," Senour explained.

"That is why social messages, if you will, change over time. But the basic foundation of God's message hasn't changed: that we should love one another and love God. That seems to be true in every one of the religions, even though other things change."

Senour, a gentle woman seemingly possessed of an endless supply of patience for answering questions, said that among Baha'is, it is prohibited to campaign for election to any of the spiritual assemblies.

Instead, she said, at a designated time each year, the local Baha'is come together and after a period of prayer, reflection and readings from the great works of many religions, they write down the names of nine people whom they believe should serve on the govenring board. Each Baha'i fills out a ballot without consulting with anyone else. 

Such elections are a "spiritual happening," Senour said. "Our writers are very clear what criteria we should use. We are to look for people who embody the characteristics of being Baha'i--good character and peacefulness. We are to think of people who have demonstrated by their activities that they are willing workers."

Those people who have received the most votes have a "sacred duty" to accept the leadership positions, Senour said. In the event that there is a tie for the ninth position, Baha'is are instructed to embrace diversity. If a majority of the people elected are men, and the tie is between a man and a woman, then the woman should be chosen, or vice versa, Senour explained.

Depending on where in the world the election is being held, efforts to assure diversity might mean choosing a member of a minority racial, tribal or language group, Senour said.

At the national conventions, and even at the international conventions, the same process of balloting is employed, Senour said. 

At the local and national levels, the spiritual assemblies tend to such administrative details as the upkeep and maintenance of Baha'i property, finding opportunities to spread the faith, officiating at Baha'i wedding ceremonies and the like. 

Determining the positions of the Baha'i on human cloning, or on how to establish priorities for organ transplants, or on other issues that theology must confront in an age of technology, is left to the left for the Universal House of Justice.

Decisions of the Universal House of Justice then are made known to the Baha'i of the world through the national and local spiritual assemblies.

Senour was asked how the Baha'i view such highly-charged issues as abortion and gay rights.

She replied that Baha'is believe that life begins at conception, but that the decision whether to abort or to carry a baby to term is one that must be made by a woman in consultation with her husband and God. As for homosexuals, Baha'is believe all people are equally deservant of human rights. However, Baha'is say sexual relations should occur only within a marriage between a man and a woman. Whosoever is not married should remain chaste.

Baha'is are instructed to seek unanimity in their spiritual assemblies, Senour said. Suppose "you have this wonderful idea that you know is the right answer and you share the idea, and the people don't pick up on it," she postulated. 

"Even though you may be right, for the sake of the group it is more important that we make a decision in a unified way than to hang onto this idea that you are right," she said.

I asked if the emphasis on unity ever could lead to an intolerance for dissenters, or even to "mob rule."?

"Baha'i groups are trying to make decisions on spiritual principles, and spiritual principles have to do with the oneness of human kind," Senour responded. 

"So when you make a decision that is going to be great for one party of people, but which squelches someone else, that is not a spiritual principle. Right away you would be denying a fundamental belief of the Baha'i faith. 

"We try to make decisions based on such principles as eliminating prejudice, and the equality of men and women."

 * * *

In Haifa, I found Ann Boyles and Anne Wong--two public relations officers at the Bahai's World Centre--to possess the same kind of peacefulness and gentleness about them that I had so admired in Jane Senour.

A majority of the Baha'i around the world have converted to the faith from other religions, including Senour who was raised Presbyterian; Wong whose parents believe in a Chinese version of ancestor worship, and Boyles, a Protestant who had flirted with Zen Buddhism before embracing Baha'i.

Wong, who comes from Liverpool, England, and Boyles, a native of Prince Rupert Island, Canada, are among 700 volunteers at the World Centre, who receive no salary for their work, only a living stipend. Except for these volunteers, who are admitted to Israel on religious worker visas, there is no Baha'i community in Israel. 

Nor is there ever likely to be such a community, as the Baha'u'llah left explicit instructions to neither seek nor accept converts in lands where such a course of action might result in controversy. In the Baha'u'llah's time, Mount Carmel and the town of Haifa were under the rule of the Ottoman Turks, who forbade anyone to seek converts among Muslims. As religion is a flashpoint in the modern Jewish state, the "no converts" rule still applies here.

I couldn't resist painting a scenario to preface my next question. What if an Israeli walked through the Baha'is beautiful public gardens, then happened to take off his shoes and go into the serene candalabra- and flower-filled chamber inside the Shrine of the Bab and read the meditation hanging on the wall? What if that Israeli then requested literature and finding it compelling, decided he wanted to become a Baha'i? In any other country, conversion is as simple as signing a declaration of belief in Baha'u'allah and recognition of the Bab. Did Wong and Boyce mean to suggest that an Israeli would be turned away?

Yes, said Boyce, that is exactly what they meant. "We say we are sorry because we neither seek nor accept converts to the Baha'i faith in the State of Israel. It is a teaching of the Baha'u'llah, not anything that the government has imposed upon us. It is something the Baha'u'llah said over 100 years ago, and through the line of succession up to the present day that directive has never been rescinded, so we still do not teach to people in this country."

If the person persisted, she added, "we would tell the person 'God knows what is in your heart. If you are really attracted to this faith; that is wonderful. God knows that. Although there is no Baha'I community here in which you can participate, your belief is something that is personal to yourself, and that is wonderful."

What are Baha'i teachings concerning intermarriage? Boyce was asked. She replied that Baha'is will recognize a marriage of one of their members to a person of any faith--with one very important proviso. The parents of the bride and groom must give their consent to the marriage, because the Baha'u'llah teaches that matrimony is intended not only to join individuals but to create unity among families. 

The lack of interest on the part of Baha'i in seeking converts in Israel (though they have "pioneers" who create spiritual communities in other countries) is one reason that the Baha'i are well-loved in Haifa, said Samuel Propper, the administrative director of the Haifa Foundation, who met me at the shrine.

Another reason Haifa so well appreciates the Baha'i, he said, is that they have brought tremendous economic benefit to the city. Currently, the Baha'is are constructing two large buildings near the shrine: a Centre for the Study of the Texts and the Centre for International Counselors. Another project is an underground extension of the existing Archives Building.

Furthermore, the Baha'is are constructing nine monumental terraces below the Shrine of the Bab, and another nine terraces above it, reaching to the ridge of Mount Carmel. Overall, the construction projects will pump $250 million into Haifa's economy. This is money contributed strictly by members of the Baha'i faith as the religion does not accept contributions from outsiders.

But beyond the construction costs, the Baha'i are the source of a steady stream of pilgrims from around the world who come to Haifa and Acre for meditation and religious retreats. Additionally, the gardens are a lure for tourists of all faiths.

Between the Port of Haifa and the ninth terrace below the shrine is busy Ben-Gurion Street, which once was the site of a colony of German Templars, who settled in Haifa in the mid 19th-century in the belief that the End of Days was coming and that they should be in the Holy Land for that event. 

Today, with the help of three German sister cities, Haifa is renovating the old German colony in a project that will cut a swath of high tourist interest from the port to the German Colony up to the Shrine of the Bab and on up to the top of Mount Carmel, Propper said. A representative of the Baha'i World Centre serves on the citizen's steering committee for the project.

Boyce said that a third reason why Baha'i are well accepted in Israel is the Baha'i practice of declaring loyalty to whatever government is in power and in never participating in partisan politics.

"Our relations are very good with the Israeli government," Boyce said. "We have had Israeli presidents and prime ministers come here to visit." Additionally, schools send their students to the shrine on field trips, and new Israeli soldiers come there to be taught about their nation's diversity.

 * * *

If there is a measure of sadness among the Baha'i, it is because of what they say is happening in Iran, the nation where their faith was founded. They report that members of the Baha'i faith have been executed and discriminated against almost since the religion's beginning. Victimized during the time of the shahs of Iran, Baha'i have suffered even more persecution in the reign of the ayatollahs 

The homes in which the Bab and the Baha'u'allah lived in--considered shrines by Baha'i--have been destroyed by mobs. Additionally, a long list of restrictions which publications like the New York Times have likened to the nazi Nuremberg Laws preclude Baha'is from holding various kinds of jobs while excluding their children from many schools. 

Unlike Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians, who have a measure of protection under Iran's laws, Baha'i are treated as "unprotected infidels" and are subject to harassment, arrest, and even execution at any juncture, according to pamphlets distributed by the Baha'i here in Haifa.

Numerous United Nations declarations have expressed concern about the welfare of the Baha'i in Iran, and rather than try to deny that such discrimination exists, the Iranian regime has tried to justify it on various grounds. 

Some of the "justifications" for Iran's anti-Baha'i policies include the charge that the Baha'i supported the shahs; that they are enemies of Islam, and that they practice loose sexual morals. 

Baha'i spokespersons say all these charges are false. While Baha'i teachings about non-partisanship precluded the Baha'i from politically opposing the shahs, as their victims they certainly did not support the shahs. 

Rather than being enemies of Islam, Baha'i recognize Muhammad as one of God's great prophets, the Baha'i pamphlets point out. And the charge of sexual immorality stems from the fact that Iran refuses to recognize marriages performed under Baha'i religious auspices, so consider Baha'i couples to be living "in sin."

Of all the "justifications" for discriminating against Baha'i, one that is particularly favored by Iranian propagandists is the charge that members of that religion are "agents of Zionism."

Looking to the fact that the Baha'i World Centre is located in Israel, the Iranian propagandists pointedly ignore the fact that the religion was established in Haifa and Acre long before the Jewish State came into being.

©Copyright 1998, Jewish Sightseeing

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