Faith anchored in the hills of Haifa
Friday, May 11, 2001 -- The Bahai: The Religious Construction of a Global Identity by Michael McMullen. New Brunswick, Rutgers University. 288 pages. $29
I congratulated myself that - from a visit 10 years back - I easily
identified the ornate, domed structure on the cover of this book as
the Shrine of the Bab at the Baha'i Center in
Wrong again, Chertok.
The cover photo depicts its fraternal twin: the Baha'i
House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois.
Most Israelis, I expect, know precious little about this Ali-Come-Lately
among religions, whose holy sites are within Israel. And much of what they
do know is inaccurate. Any outsider would surely learn a great deal about
these religious "globalists" from this study, adapted from a Ph.D
dissertation on the Metropolitan Atlanta Baha'i
community by sociologist Michael McMullen, himself a Baha'i
The origins of this faith - which views itself as a model for a future
world order - date back to 1844, when Sayyid Ali-Muhummad (the
"Bab"), a Persian merchant, heralded the imminent coming of a
new religious movement.
The Bab was martyred in 1850 - the mullahs of contemporary Iran still
routinely persecute Baha'i adherents - but one
of his imprisoned followers soon revealed himself as the Baha'u'llah, or
the "Enlightened One, " latest in a line that embraced Buddha,
Moses, Zoroaster, Jesus, and Mohammed.
Although Baha'is believe that revelation is
progressive, they maintain that unlike Baha'u'llah's predecessors, he would
succeed in finally establishing the Kingdom of God on earth.
Exiled from Persia, in 1868 Baha'u'llah and a small band of followers
arrived in Acre where he wrote what would become Baha'i
scripture and established the spiritual centers of the new religion.
Baha'i faith is universalist. It
encourages racial harmony and equal rights for men and women, two ideals
which potentially conflict with the mandate to obey the laws of the country
where one lives. The spiritual life of an active Baha'i
revolves around private prayer, a month of fasting (similar to
Ramadan), pilgrimage to Haifa, and devotional gatherings on the first day
every Baha'i month held in the home of a member.
A Baha'i year contains 19 "months,"
each of which lasts 19 days.
Through its "teaching activities," Baha'i
is one of the world's fastest growing religions, now claiming five
million adherents. In Israel we are sheltered from the proselytizing face
of Baha'i: Baha'ullah forbade the teaching of the
The Baha'i presence in Haifa and Acre consists
of its supreme body - the Universal House of Justice - administrative staff
and their families, all of whom number several hundred, and a steady flow of
pilgrims who generally remain in the country for nine days to visit their
McCullen focuses on the Baha'i of Atlanta in
order to demonstrate how the faith confers upon its members "a global
religious identity in response to rapid social change."
Although Baha'i are universalists, unlike
Unitarians they are enjoined from participation in "political
activity" wherever they are "situated." Nevertheless, on
racial matters they cannot be quietists, and McMullen recounts instances
when the Baha'i of Atlanta worked to encourage
racial harmony. Overall, Atlanta's Baha'i community
is about one-third white, one-third African American, and one-third Persian.
A closer look reveals discord among its three Local Spiritual
Assemblies (LSA's) each, based upon local housing patterns, predominantly
African American or white. When a proposed administrative merger would have
blurred racial divisions, McCullen ruefully describes the resistance of most
members of white-dominated LSA's to change.
Rapidly expanding in the less developed world, McMullen downplays the
relative insignificance of the faith in the West. There seem to be only
around 100,000 active Baha'i in the United States.
To account for the meagerness of this presence, McMullen notes but makes
too little of, I think, the absence of any Baha'i
Further, especially among African Americans, churches play a vital
social function in American life which LSA's are not capable of filling.
The faith runs its affairs along democratic lines. The
Baha'i espouse open-mindedness, education, and equality
between the sexes.
However critical exceptions occurs at the highest level: no women are
(yet) permitted to serve on the nine- member Universal House of Justice
(UHJ), elected at five year intervals by the members of the world's National
Spiritual Assemblies convened in Haifa. Moreover, the Word, as disseminated
by the UHJ to Baha'is around the world, is taken to
be divinely "inspired," hence, like the Pope on matters of faith
and morals, immune from error.
McMullen has produced a competent guide to the mental universe of these well-intentioned, colorful universalists in our midst.
©Copyright 2001, Jerusalem Post