The Bahá'í Faith grew out of the messianic Babi Movement that began in 1844. While the founder of Babism, Ali Muhammad, the Bab, fit
the model of other Shi'ite reformers and claimants to the title of Mahdi,
the prophet/founder of the Bahá'í religion, Mirza Hussein Nuri,
Bahá'u'lláh, presents a different pattern of leadership. While he and
his followers experienced intense persecution, he himself was not
martyred. He lived to a relatively old age. Thoughout much of his adult
life he was, first, the leader (whether officially or not) of the Babis
after the execution of the Bab, a holy man/lawgiver, and a social
reformer. Drawing on models of Shi'i leadership as well as modern,
western administration, he sought to provide the world with an orderly,
rational system that combined democratic principles with sacred
leadership. In a sense, this amounted to an Imamate with a parliament.
While the Bahá'í Faith is now an independent religion that has spread
worldwide and lost a great deal of its Shi'i "flavor" it is possible to
see this religion as an experiment in Shi'i reformation, especially in
terms of how the religion is administered.
Reforminst/modernist Shi'a, in attempting to bring their
institutions in line with rationalist modes of organization are currently
discussing some of the same themes that Bahá'u'lláh and his successors,
Abdu'l Baha (Abbas Effendi) and Shoghi Effendi Rohani, addressed. It is
instructive to look at the model(s) that have emerged in this religion in
order to see the possible directions that both the Shi'a and the Bahá'í
communities may follow. This paper will deal with some comparisons
between the Marja'iyya and Bahá'í institutions. It should be noted that
this is not an exhaustive, detailed comparison but one that should
provoke thought and discussion in both communities.
Becoming a Marja' Taqlid
Before proceding with the comparison, it may be helpful to briefly
discuss how one becomes the leader of the Shi'i community. In theory one
mujtahid is supposed to be so outstanding in knowledge and piety that he
will surpass everyone and be recognized by his peers as the focal point,
the one that all Shi'a will then emulate. Traditionally there are no
elections. There simply is someone so obvious that the Shi'a will simply
turn to him. He is the representative of the imam and as such should
have a certain sanctity about him. Whether or not he does depends on
whether or not the Shi'a will grant him this sanctity. He does not have
it by virtue of an office. He has it because people are willing to
accept him as having it.
Sometimes there are these truly obvious mujtahids whose degree of
knowledge is really unsurpassed. It is generally stated, for example,
that Ayatollah Burujerdi was the marja' taqlid of the Shi'i world.
Ayatollahs Hakim and Khu'i in Najaf are also referred to as men who were
the sole maraja' of their time.
In practice it never works like this. There are always multiple maraja.
Even when Borujerdi was alive there most of the Arabs followed Hakim.
While Hakim was the senior marja' in Najaf, there were those in the
Isphahan are who were following Abul Qasim Isfahani. Also, during
Hakim's reign, there were others, such as Mehdi Shirazi, the father of
Mohammad Shirazi, the spiritual head of the Amal movement of Iraq who now
lives in Qom, who was the recognized marja' of Karbala. Often we have
major maraja and minor ones. Minor ones will often be local maraja'.
At other times there is fearsome competition between major figures as in
the case of Khu'i and Khomeini. And today there is considerable
competition among several men in Iran and Iraq.
Be that as it may, the Shi'a themselves tend to ignore these rivalries
and considerations and follow a marja' as if he were the only one. When
they are aware of the fact that there are rivalries, they downplay this.
As long as the rivalries are not political, they are comfortable with
having the competition, a competition that is ultimately alleviated as
the senior ayatollahs die, leaving only one as the senior living
mujtahid. Such was the case when Ayatollah Gulpaygani became recognized
as THE marja'taqlid after the deaths of Shariatmadari, Marashi-Najafi,
Khomeini, and Khu'i.
What does the marja' do? The marja's activities are limited in terms of
where he performs them and the variety of activities in which he
engages. He teaches in one of the hawzas found in the holy cities these
days he will be found in either Najaf or Qom and he writes a great deal.
He is judged by both of these activities. The more students he has and
the more prolific he is the more respect he has. He also has to be
prolific in another way - he should have an abudance of children. The
marja' needs sons, sons in law, and students to spread his marja'iyya.
He sends them to all areas of the Shii world so that they can spread his
reputation and also collect religious taxes, khums. The khums goes to
the central treasury of that particular marja' and then gets
redistributed. This money goes to building mosques and charitable
establishments or can be used to help the Shi'i communities in times of
great need. The more redistribution that occurs, linked to his name, the
more prestige he receives. The greater his prestige and following, the
more khums he collects. Of course, his sons and students will be among
the greatest beneficiaries. In anthropological terms the marja' is
somewhere on the continuum between a Big Man and a chief.
Is the marja' infallible? To certain Shi'a, especially those who are
very ulama oriented such as members of the Hizbullah, yes, the marja' is
infallible. To those who are very close to the marja', such as his
relatives and others who work closely with him, he is not. For those who
are quite distant physcially or intellectually, again, he is not.
The marja'iyya is, above all else, extremely informal. It is very much
linked on traditional kinship networks and on the M.E. image of the grand
patriarch - the great charismatic figure. People are going to vie to be
closely related to this patriarch or chief. Marriages are carefully
arranged and so you find a network of ulama who are related through marriage.
What is so interesting to us is that young Islamists - especially those
who were strongly influenced by the late Baqir as SAdr and today by
Seyyid Fadlallah in Lebanon are looking to institutionalize the
marja'iyya; i.e, institutionalize the charisma. They contend that the
current system leads to abuse of power and corruption - that there is no
accountability. Who gets to decide how money is spent? What limits are
placed on sons and sons-in-law who have their own charisma?
The issue of sons and power becomes particularly thorny when there are
half siblings involved, which is often the case, since polygynous
marriages are generally considered the prerogative of men in such
positions. Rivalries among wives and their children are commonplace in
these households as in any polygynous household. Issues of who controls
the money is particularly vexing in such cases. While the marja'taqlid
is not a hereditary institution (unlike the imamship), there are times
when families will select one son as being promising for the role of the
marja', such as in the case of the late Yousif Hakim who was killed by
Saddam, generally sons are not seen as possible contenders. They are the
eyes, ears and hands of the marja'.
The Situation in the Bahá'í Community
In the Babi/Bahá'í model, the central figures of the Faith are more in
the order of imams than prophets, though in different ways. The Bab
relied on his seyyid status for some of his prestige and stays very much
within the confines of the Shi'i paradigm. He breaks with laws and
traditions but, in some ways, no more radically than certain mujtahids
have in the past hundred years or so. As mentioned earlier,
Bahá'u'lláh's role is more complex. He is generally seen as the prophet in the true sense of the word - the one who breaks out of the old
paradigm and starts something new. Yet, even Bahá'u'lláh follows in the
pattern of the imam. He is not a seyyid but he is of royal blood. (a
descendent of Yazdigard) and this lineage is seen as important in
asserting his station. He was not famous by virtue of going out among
the flock and preaching. He did not use his own oratorical skills or his
personal charm to gain followers. Instead, he used his writings, his
sons and his "students" - an entourage of close followers to spread his
message. Bahá'u'lláh had three important "sons," Abdu'l Baha, Muhammad
Ali, and the Greatest Holy Leaf. The latter can be referred to as a son,
because in M.E. terms she did the work of a son and, by virtue of the
fact that she never married, she could take on the role of an honorary
male. It is through these individuals that the world comes to know
Bahá'u'lláh, as well as through his writings.
Abdu'l Baha is very much like a sons of Ayatollah Hakim, the grand marja'
in Najaf who died in 1970, in that they were generally loved and
revered. He does not exactly take on the mantle of his father, yet,
neither is he just a wakil (representative). Like some of the Hakim sons
he has his own basis of power, yet also shares in the charisma of his
father. Abdu'l Baha is more than sufficient to keep together the bulk of
the community in spite of the competition he has from his half-brother,
Mohammad Ali, whose mother was apparently quite active in the promotion
of her son.
Problems really come when Abdu'l Baha died and left no sons. He is able
to keep most of the family together, yet, I daresay that it was the
activities of the Greatest Holy Leaf and Monireh Khanum who are very
crucial here as well. It is after their deaths that the real breaks in
the family occur. The critical patriarchal figure was gone and there was
nothing to really bind the family together. Shoghi Effendi was merely
one of a number of grandsons, albeit the eldest. But, while he was at
Oxford his cousins were at the American University of Beirut, putting him
a bit outside the family and certainly orienting him towards the West and
away from the thinking of the Middle East
So, what was Shoghi Effendi? Was he an imam? Was he a marja'?
In some respects he is neither. He is not the grand old learned man.
One could say he was "just a kid" when he assumed the role of leader of
the Faith. The Shi'a become furious when a young man tries to attain the
marja'iyya. Mohammad Shirazi tried it during the lifetime of Hakim and
has never been forgiven. Yet, in some respects he was the marja'. He
was the leader of the community. But he ventured out of that role as
well and took upon himself far more than any marja has ever dared to do.
The maraja' have generally restricted themselves to writing voluminously
on the most minute details of people's ritual lives. Of course, in
recent years some of them have also seen it as their role to lead a
charge against a particularly hated regime as in the case in Iran and
Iraq. But Shoghi Effendi went behond that. He tried to structure the
entire life of the Bahá'í community. Whereas in the Shi'i system people
had, in practice if not in theory, a choice of whom to follow and whether
or not to follow, this choice was totally obliterated with Shoghi
Effendi. People had one source and one source alone and that was Shoghi
Effendi. Shoghi Effendi, in an attempt to bring the "marja'iyya" into
the modern world tried to make a Western style institution out of it, to
regularize it and to ensure that the community acted as an organic whole
led firmly and uniformly by one individual so that it couldn't
disintegrate into sects.
Yet, even Shoghi Effendi - who seemed determined to break with the Middle
East system of doing things - understood the importance of marriage and
kinship. He initially tried to work with his cousins Ruhi and Suheil,
but this broke down, especially after the deaths of his parents, his
great aunt and grandmother. He knew that preserving the image of the
sanctity of the family was important for keeping some symbolic solidarity
at the top. Hence, his criticism of the mariage of "a low-born Christian
Shoghi Effendi, in fact, had to work with two models simultaneously - a
Middle East one and a Western one - and they were bound to conflict
Yet, this is not completely an East/West divide. While the Iranians were far less likely to enthusisastically accept the administrative order that
Shoghi Effendi was constructing than were the Bahá'ís of the West, the
Western Bahá'ís were not altogether ready to relinquish the charismatic
model that the Faith had originally been built on. So, there is a
fuzziness in the issue of leadership.
Shoghi Effendi's death led to what might have simply been a
parliamentary form of leadership. However, instead of simply endowing it with temporal leadership powers, the UHJ was also endowed with a sense of
sanctity and infallibility. Probably the fact that there was no
guardianship to co-exist with the House of Justice, emphasized its sense
of "sacredness." Also, the fact that House of Justice members tend to
spend many years as members of this institution, bestows on them as
individuals a sense of sacredness and infallibility..Furthermore, even at
this stage kinship networks are not altogether eliminated. We have the Nakjavanis, the Bananis and the Woolcots, for example.
The use of "khums"
The importance of the way in which khums is used is of extreme
importance in the marja'iyya. It has to be used in ways that the Shi'a
can benefit. If it is not, the people will complain and not pay khums.
People who pay large amounts of khums are recognized publicly by the
ulama and given special treatment. This encourages them to give more.
So long as the khums is being used in a way to benefit the rank and file this is generally acceptable, though it is still criticized. The rank
and file Shi'a want the khums money to be redistributed through the
marja' so that local mosques and institutions can be built.
The UHJ also collects khums. But it no longer acts like a
chiefdom. The informality has been eliminated and the entire drive is to
move into a kingdom - or a state system - whereby the center becomes the
glorious stage at the expense of the periphery. Yet, there is a problem here because the UHJ does not really have the apparatus to enforce the
payment of khums. It needs to rely on old fashioned methods of
attracting money. Once again, the issue of personal charisma and
rational, institutionalized form of government come into conflict.
The marja''s lack of formality and lack of institutionalization
has made it ephemeral. It has lacked accountability and has lent itself
to corruption. On the other hand, because it has relied on charisma,
rather than formal powers, it has built in flexibility. The believer decides how much power the institution has and can venture off into
different, non-ulama centered activities without fear of censure. This
gives it a certain cohesian because one can remain a Shi'i while holding
any number of types of beliefs. There is a core that holds people
together but much leeway for religious expression.
How about the UHJ? Actually, it functions far more like
Khomeini's vision of wilaat al-faqih than as the traditional marja'iyya. Shi'a give their own value to the marja'. They ascribe to him how ever
much authority they wish to give him. His power comes from his charisma
and from the redistribution of khums. One can disagree with the marja'
and not face any kind of penalty, except maybe disagreement with
neighbors. As Dr. Talib Aziz has written, there is no room for dissent
from the authority of the jurist holding the power of the wilayat al
faqih. Although his edicts are not divinely mandated as are the laws of the Prophet, they have virtually the same status and must be obeyed even
by other jurists who disagree with their textual authenticity or
derivation. This system of authority clearly contradicts classical
theory according to which all jurists are the rightful heirs of the imams
and the leading jurist is only a first among equals. The statists
counter this observation with the argument that an orderly society
requires a stable legal system. Thus the dissent of even other jurists must not be admitted, for the sake of the unity of the ummah and the
survival of the legitimate Islamic regime. If dissent is to be allowed
or expressed, ti should be within the close circle of jurists and in the
course of adjudication...such dissent must not spread to the public arena
where it could cause disorder....
Of course, the Bahá'í Faith has tried to rid itself of clergy in
the process of regularizing and institutionalizing leadership. So, what
one has is a de-clericalized wilaya. On the other hand, I wonder if it really makes that much difference that
the men on the UHJ are not clerics since they are accorded the type of
powers that usually come with being priests. In my view, they act as a
corporate body of priests, and, it can even be argued that they, as
individuals, are often treated as high-ranking priests. Muslims are also
insistent that they have no clergy, but I have yet to understand how they
are any different from priests, except that they do not perform
Actually, it is interesting to note that some Islamists - those
who take inspiration from Baqir as Sadr, for example - are not great
supporters of the marja' and want the clerics role to be very narrowly
defined, as does someone like Abdul Karim Soroush. They, like the
Bahá'ís, however, have not been able to settle on a very workable model.
They are up against long-held traditions and a religion that seems to
gain strength in having ill-defined lines and room - within certain
paramaters - for variation.
The Bahá'í model, then, appears to me as a very early Islamist
attempt to regularize religious leadership. The issues that are most
problematic for thinking Bahá'ís are the same ones that beset thinking
Shi'ites eager to modernize their religion and rid it of those aspects
that they feel are negative. Oddly, some of those qualities that they
view to be most negative are some of the things that have actually made
religious leadership in Shi'ism viable.
Like Khomeini's view of leadership and government, the Bahá'í
view is also utopian. Consquenly, one can never address the positive and
negative sides of ways of doing things in order to come out with some
adequate means of leading a religious community. Iran's attempt at
utopian government has largely been a disaster and is leading to the mass
exodus of Iranians from their Shi'i beliefs. They commonly talk about
finding a new source of religious meaning - often this means looking at
pre-Islamic or un-Islamic sources of inspiration, reminding me of some of
the discussions for religious experiences expressed among Bahá'ís.