by Ninian Smartpublished in Religious Experience of Mankind, pages 417-418
New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1969
Another syncretistic movement with a Shiite background is that of the Bahai. Although it is Muslim in origin, it has moved so far away from orthodoxy as to lie right outside Islam. It is in effect a new and separate faith. It originated with the teachings of Ali Muhammad, who himself belonged to an earlier sect known as the Shaikiya. The Shaikiya believed that there must be a means of communication with the "hidden Imam". The earlier twelve Imams were "gates" through which the faithful entered into the truth: and in this later age another human "gate" was needed. It was this that Ali Muhammad proclaimed himself to be, at Shiraz in Persia, at the end of 1844. He was then twenty-five years old. He preached social reforms, including the raising of the status of women. He also promised that one greater than himself would come to carry on and complete the work of reforming religion.
The wide following which the Bab ("Gate") attracted and his heretical views brought on him the hostility of the religious and political establishment of Persia, and he was executed in 1850. Two years later a follower of his attempted to assassinate the Shah of Persia, and widespread persecution of the Babis followed. Among the Babis was a member of the upper class and son of a minister of the government, one Mirza Husein Ali, who was banished to Baghdad. In 1863 he proclaimed himself the Messiah of whom the Bab had spoken. Most of the Babis accepted his leadership. He assumed the name of Baha Ullah ("Glory of God"), and it was from that name that the adherents of the faith came to be called Bahais. Baha Ullah was interned by the Turkish (Ottoman) government from 1868, first at Adrianople and then at Acre, but he continued to inspire and organize his followers through an extensive correspondence. He died in 1898. His successor, Abbas Effendi, undertook missionary journeys in the Middle East, Europe, and America, giving further impetus to the spread of the movement beyond the borders of Islam. His successor reorganized the administration on a more democratic basis, establishing national councils of the Bahai in the various countries where it had taken root.
Teachings of Baha Ullah
It was Baha Ullah who gave shape to the teachings of the new faith. Social and religious reform went hand in hand, and gave inspiration to a worldwide movement which was to help usher in a new age of peace. Baha Ullah considered that divine revelation had been vouchsafed to the great religious figures of
the world's history—to Christ, to the Buddha, to Krishna, to Moses, to Zarathustra, and, of course, to Muhammad. This revelation was essentially monotheistic. But the Qur'an held pride of place among the sacred writings of the world after the writings of the Bab and of Baha Ullah. In short, though this was to be a world faith, it had positive roots in Islam. Yet Baha Ullah did not accept a traditional account of Islam. He rejected polygamy, slavery, and the concept of holy war (jihad). Like the Bab, he was strongly in favor of equality between the sexes.
At the religious level, ritual practices of.the Bahai were simplified: prayer and devotional meditation were the core of religious activity, together with the pursuit of virtue. Much of the Qur'anic teaching was modified or explained in an allegorical or metaphorical sense. Thus belief in angels and evil spirits was dropped. Heaven and hell were treated symbolically. In these and other ways the monotheism of Muhammad was liberated from the particular thoughtforms and regulations natural at the time of the Prophet, and were given a new look. This faith could be accepted by rational and pious men of all nations. Moreover, it had a political message that was not confined to Islam. It was a political vision of a world community united under a federal world government. The Bahais also advocated a world language as a means of promoting human unity.
Bahaism was an interesting offshoot of Islam, for it embraced modernism and yet had its origins in a messianic movement. Its social platform gave it a strong appeal to the underprivileged, but at the same time its emphasis on education and the reconciliation of science and religion gave it an appeal to the educated. But from the Muslim point of view it sacrificed too much in pursuit of these objectives. The Qur'an's status was in effect lowered. No longer was Islamic brotherhood prized as such. In its syncretism it went beyond the creed "There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his Prophet." It therefore became a new faith, outside the stream of Islam where it had its origin.
Baha Ullah, in assigning to himself a messianic role, had been able to draw on reserves of religious expectation created and maintained by the Shia belief in the hidden Imam. It was natural in a period when all was not well in the Islamic community that the expectations of the people should become fervid. As illustration, in relatively recent times there were two uprisings of a military nature under the Mahdis—one in the Sudan which culminated in the battle of Omdurman, and the other in Somaliland. In the changing conditions of the modern world this fervidness has been manifested in a slightly different way.