Jewish Conversion to the Bahá'í Faith
by Moshe Sharon
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The Messianic message of the Bahá’í Faith was, no doubt, one of the factors that attracted the Jews of Iran to the new religion. From ancient times, messianic expectations had flared up from time to time among the Jews in Iran. The Biblical figure of Cyrus, the Persian emperor who had urged the Jewish exiles to leave Babylon, return to the land of their fathers and re-establish their national independence and state, and build the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem under his protection was very much alive in the hearts of the Jews of Iran. They cherished the hope for the appearance, once again, of a new Cyrus who like the Cyrus of old, whom the Prophet Isaiah (45:1) called the Lord’s anointed, or The Messiah of the Lord, would save them from the degrading, humiliating life of fear and deprivation, of persecution and poverty imposed on them by the Shī˓ite Muslims of Iran. It is very possible that even in the 19th century residues of the Messianic hopes kindled by the false-messiah Shabbatai Zvi (1626-1676), who had influenced Iranian Jewry in the Safavid period, were still alive under the surface.
Bahá’u’lláh, however, was different kind of Messiah. He was Persian, “home made”, who could well be a new Cyrus. There was even more than a hint of that in his claim to be the direct descendant of the last Sasanian King of Persia, Yazdgird III, who had lost his Kingdom to the Arab Muslims. He also asserted to the Zoroastrians that he was the expected King-Messiah Shāh Bahrām (Buck, loc. cit.).
The Jews in Iran were among the first to convert to the Bahá’í faith, already in the seventies of the 19th century. In Hamadān the Jewish converts were particularly numerous, and it is estimated that that at least one quarter of the Jewish community in the city adopted the new religion. In Gulpayegān, where there was a particularly educated Jewish community, about 75% of the Jews became Bahá’ís. Similar processes of conversion, though not in such proportions, also occurred in other major cities of Iran such as Kashān, Tehrān, Kirmanshāh, Yazd, and Shīrāz. The only major town where the Jews did not adopt the Bahá’í faith was Iṣfahān because of the particular fanaticism of the Shī˓ah clergy and population, and the relentless persecution of the Bahá’ís in this city.
Walter Fischel, one of the first scholars to study the conversion of the Jews to the Bahá’í faith, regarded Messianic expectations as the main reason for this conversion. In all the studies and reports describing the Jewish attraction to the Bahá’í faith we find, more or less, the same reasons for this strange phenomenon in which Jews willingly exchanged one status of persecution with another. These reasons can be summed up as follows.
Although this is the general picture based on the available, mainly Jewish, sources, it is also clear from these sources that there were also negative reactions from Jewish educational institutions that began intensive activity in Iran in the second half of the 19th century. From 1875, the Alliance Israélite Universelle began its activity in Iran, and in 1880 opened the first schools in Ṭehrān and Iṣfahān, and the Sephardic New York organization Otzar ha-Torah, or in Persian Ganj-i-Dānesh (The Treasure of Knowledge), also opened schools for the Jews. Although the French orientated Alliance schools were not particularly interested in traditional Jewish education, nevertheless they, together with Otzar ha-Torah provided a higher level of education, and prepared the next generation of Jewish Iranian intellectuals with a better knowledge of Hebrew, and access to the Jewish sources. In the long run this led to a lowering of interest in conversion to the Bahá’í faith, towards the second decade of the 20th century, but not to abolishing it. There were many cases of Jews who received a superior education in the Jewish schools but whose education led them straight to the liberal ideas of the Bahá’í faith as it happened for instance with Eliah Sābet a son of a rabbi from Iṣfahān. Bahá’í children were also sent to these Jewish schools, in the same way that Jews went to the Bahá’í schools, which, as we shall see, were established at about the same period. This education was naturally very beneficial and it was available also to the poorer Jews of the ghetto. On the one hand it led to the second wave of conversion to the new faith between 1880 and 1898, but on the other it opened up great opportunities for the Bahá’ís and the Jews after the fall of the Qajārs and the establishment of the Pahlevī monarchy, and enabled the Jews and the Bahá’ís to enter into the highest governmental and economic posts in the country (Faü 2004:270).
From 1865, the emissaries of the Alliance Israélite Universelle had begun sending their reports about the Jews in Iran, particularly Hamadān, to the headquarters of the organization in Paris. These reports supplied detailed information about the abysmal conditions of the Jews there, and helped, from time to time, in mobilizing influential Jewish leaders in the West, such as Sir Moses Montefiore, to use their influence with the French and British governments to intervene with the Iranian government and ease the pogroms or get some Persian Governmental protection for the Jewish quarters in some of the main towns.
From these reports it is clear that the situation of the Jews in Hamadān was particularly bad. Persecutions, pogroms, and forced conversion to Islam occurred repeatedly during the 19th century. Individual Jews were murdered and Jewish shops and homes were looted by the mob, incited on a regular basis by the Shī˓ite religious leaders, many of whom were personally involved in murdering Jews. This state of affairs continued until almost the second decade of the 20th century (Netzer 2007:234-240). Even as late as 1911, long after the constitutional revolution of 1906, severe persecution of Jews in Hamadān continued. Bahá’ís in Hamadān lived in or near the Jewish neighbourhoods, and sometimes one suffered because of the persecution of the other. However, much sympathy was shown by the Jews to their Bahá’í neighbours, and common danger brought them together.
Whatever the reason, the Jews of Hamadān, as mentioned above, were the first to accept the Bahá’í faith. There is a report that the first conversion of some Jewish individuals in Hamadān occurred already in 1852 (the year of the severe persecutions of Bábīs). The poetess Qurrat al-˓Ayn is said to have been the initiator of the conversion process in Hamadān following her visit to the city around 1847 . When still in Iraq she met a Jewish physician called Ḥakīm Masīḥ who later became a court physician to Muḥammad Shāh (died 1848). At this meeting, Masīḥ was very impressed by the eloquence of Qurrat al-˓Ayn and also by the liberal teachings of the Báb as presented by her. Apparently he converted to the Bábī faith in about 1860 after meeting an imprisoned Bábí named Mullā Ṣādiq-i-Muqaddas (Ismu’llah al-Asdaq), a survivor of the great battle of Shaykh Ṭabarsī. Thus he gained the place of the first Jew in the world to adopt the new faith. When the news reached Bahá’u’lláh he sent him a special epistle (in the Bahá’í language: “a Tablet was revealed by the Exalted Pen in honour of Ḥakīm Masīḥ.” The Bahá’í World, 15, 1976:430). In spite of the fact that Ḥakīm Masīḥ was an important personality, being the Shāh’s Physician, his influence on the Jewish community was negligible. Ḥakīm Masīḥ was the grand father of Dr. Luṭfu’llāh Ḥakīm (1888-1968) a member of the first Universal House of Justice. ( Ibid, 430-434; H. Balyuzi, Báb , Oxford 1975:165n.; idem, ˓Abdu’l-Bahá, Oxford, 1974:78n.) In spite of the conversions made so early, we still have to wait for the years 1877-1880 to witness the first wave of Jewish conversion en mass to the Bahá’í faith in Hamadān and elsewhere. As to the activity of Qurrat al-˓Ayn in Hamadān, it is reported that she conducted talks with two Jewish rabbis Mullā Iliyāhū (Eliyāhū) and Mullā Lāhizār (El˓azār) “which led to attracting members of the Jewish Faith to the Bábī fold. (Balyuzi, Báb, 165) If this piece of information is true, then the Jews in this case were extremely brave to join a movement that was deemed to be in open rebellion against the Shāh.
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