Acknowledgements: I would like to acknowledge the
invaluable assistance received in preparing the English translation of this
work. I owe a debt of gratitude to Gerald C. Keil of Germany, who
translated the entire text from German to English; to Jack McLean of Canada for
his reviewing the content of the manuscript and for contributing the
introduction; and to Doug Barding of the United States, Dr. Loni
Bramson-Lerche of Belgium, Dr. Charles Lerche of Belgium, and Dr. Peter Smith
of Thailand for their reviewing the translation. This has truly been an
international collaborative effort.
West Germany, June, 1988
During the 1980s, the
Bahá'í Faith came to know a greater measure of public
recognition. This significant turn of events was brought about mainly through
the plight of a beleaguered community in Iran, a plight which attracted world
attention. The publication of the peace statement, "To the Peoples of the
World," by the Universal House of Justice, as well as the efforts of dedicated
teachers of the Faith everywhere, must also be added as factors in this growing
these advances, however, the general recognition of the Bahá'í
Faith as an independent world religion is far from being a foregone conclusion. Large numbers of people still ignore the existence, general aims, and
purposes of this youngest of the world's great religions. Even in
academic circles, despite the increased public exposure, the Bahá'í
religion continues to be classified in some courses of study as just another in
the plethora of contemporary religious movements, although an increasing number
of qualified scholars have at the same time vouched for the independent status
of the Bahá'í Faith and have made fair and accurate appraisals of
its history and teachings.
this general recognition of the independent character of the
Bahá'í Faith has been a slow process is due, in part, to the
erroneous perception early observers of the Faith held. Early treatments
and mentions of the Faith, viewing it mainly in terms of its religious and
cultural antecedents, often referred to the Bahá'í religion as a
sect or reform movement within Islam. Other accounts, less charitable in
their aims and purposes, and originating mainly in ecclesiastical and
missionary circles, attempted to discredit the founders of the Faith and their
teachings, either through deliberately distorted or poorly informed
1980s have also witnessed the birth and renewal of hundreds of sects,
denominations, cults, metaphysical belief systems, spiritual disciplines, and
mental and occult practices of all kinds. So numerous are these movements that
some have dubbed them as "The New Age" movements. Whether the
label is apt or not, it now takes a discerning eye to recognize how the Faith
of Bahá'u'lláh may be distinguished from this welter of religious
and parareligious groups on the scene. These movements display an
astonishing variety in outlook, belief, and practice, aiming as they do for
points of special interest along the whole psychospiritual spectrum. Some
of them can challenge the limits of human credulity, and a few of them have
their dark side.
Schaefer's study comes at a timely moment, then. For his purpose here is
to assist the reader in more accurately defining the distinguishing features of
the Bahá'í Faith as seen against the backdrop of the spiritual
movements of the day. His main purpose, alluded to above, is to
demonstrate the independent status of the Bahá'í Faith as a
revealed world religion. He does not attempt to compare it to all of the
movements already mentioned, for this could scarcely be done within the scope
of this paper. Instead, he examines and rejects the point of view which
would still classify the Bahá'í Faith as a sect, however
Dr. Schaefer's study offers convincing argument that the Bahá'í
Faith deserves the noble rank and title, not of sect, but of world religion. He validates his thesis through a thorough examination of data taken mainly
from the sociology of religion. He argues that according to the criteria
established by scholars, the Bahá'í Faith does not meet the norms
set down to identify a sect. Instead, it meets those criteria that would
identify the Faith as a world religion. The author's thesis is well
documented, and his method is orderly and systematic throughout.
Schaefer belongs to a great tradition of German scholars, dating back to the
late nineteenth century, who have distinguished themselves in the field of
religious studies. It was German-speaking scholars who, in the latter part of
the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, laid much of the foundation work
for "Religionswissenschaft" (literally, the science of religion) to form
the basis for what have now become the diverse branches falling under the
umbrella phrase Religious Studies. In Comparative Religion, Islamic
studies, Hebrew and Christian biblical studies, Far Eastern studies, and
theology, names like Max Müller (the father of comparative religion),
Theodor Nöldeke, Ignaz Goldziher, Julius Wellhausen, Hermann Oldenberg,
Heinrich Zimmer, and Adolf von Harnack are all recognized as founding fathers
in the field.
early in its development, the merit of Comparative Religion, as it is known in
Anglo-Saxon countries, was recognized by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of
Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith.
During a public address given in Washington, D.C. in 1912, `Abdu'l-Bahá
pointed out the potential that exists for interfaith understanding through the
study of comparative religion — a potential that has not yet been fully
understood and exploited:
be to God! You are living in a land of freedom. You are blessed with men
of learning, men who are well versed in the comparative study of religions. You
realise the need of unity and know the great harm which comes from prejudice
be valid, any attempt at interfaith understanding must begin with, or at least
take into account, the characteristic self-understanding of the religion(s)
under study. In other words, one of the first questions to be raised is
how this Faith defines and views itself. Even though any individual is
free to make evaluations of the faith of others, the observer will not do
justice to the evaluation until he or she has taken into account the
perceptions of the participant — the one who looks at that faith from "the
inside out." Udo Schaefer's paper helps to ensure that the
self-understanding of the participant-faith is taken into account-As the public
awareness of the Bahá'í Faith continues to grow, studies like the
present one will continue to be of value for all who seek to better understand
the Bahá'í Faith as a full-fledged member of the community
of world faiths.
'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, comp. Howard
MacNutt, 2nd ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust,
The reaction of modern society to the question
of religion is curiously divided. On the one hand, our society is infused
with the spirit of the Enlightenment; we have become secular and indifferent to
religion. Traditional religion has lost its impetus, and the outstanding
characteristic of modern history is, as Nietzsche so clearly
predicted, the desertion of the masses from religion. On the
other hand, the Enlightenment, together with science and technology, has led to
a sense of anomie, alienation, and purposelessness; to a yearning for spiritual
values and for religious forms and symbolism. The question of religion has long
enjoyed the attention of those who seek the alternative society. Many young
people view the established and institutionalized forms of religion as
unsatisfactory and weighed down by the burdens of history. Their
attention is directed toward new promises of salvation — of which there is
currently a bewildering variety. It is often the strange and bizarre
forms of religion which most quickly attract a following, and then just as
quickly fall out of fashion. The fact that the name of
religion is often used to conceal essentially material goals and is perverted
to evil purposes has become widely recognized since the Jonestown affair in
Guyana, and the phenomenon has been subjected to scientific
To a casual observer, the
Bahá'í religion might appear to be just another of these new
paths to salvation. It is true that the Bahá'í Faith is an
alternative to the inherited forms of religion, but it is demonstrably not one
of those fads which quickly appear in response to ephemeral spiritual needs.
The history of the Bahá'í religion stretches back into the middle
of the nineteenth century. From its genesis in Iran, it has spread and taken root
in nearly every country in the world. In Iran, Bahá'ís represent
by far the largest religious minority. Although their number is still
relatively small in the West, Bahá'ís have recently been
mentioned frequently in Western newspaper
1. Nietzsche, The Joyful Wisdom 125, 343; Thus Spake Zarathustra, Part
I, "Backworldsmen"; The Will to Power 1.2; for further details
see Schaefer, The Imperishable Dominion 4-7.
2. There has,
however, been a recent resurgence of Protestant fundamentalism in the United States.
Already in 1936 Shoghi Effendi described this development: "So marked a
decline in the strength and cohesion of the elements constituting Christian
society has led, in its turn, as we might well anticipate, to the emergence of
an increasing number of obscure cults, of strange and new worships, of
ineffective philosophies, whose sophisticated doctrines have intensified the
confusion of a troubled age. In their tenets and pursuits they may be said to
reflect and bear witness to the revolt, the discontent, and the confused
aspirations of the disillusioned masses that have deserted the cause of the
Christian churches and seceded from their membership" (The World Order
of Bahá'u'lláh 184).
Jim Jones, the leader of a cult, caused his community of nearly one thousand
people to commit collective suicide in 1978. A film in the United States made
several years ago suggested that Jones's followers were murdered. That is, they
were forced at gunpoint to drink the poison.
Cf. Müller-Küppers and Specht, Neue Jugend-"religionen";
Parents' Initiative Working Group, Dokumentation über die
Auswirkungen der Jugendreligionen auf Jugendliche in Einzelfällen; Haack,
Die neuen Jugendreligionen; Haack, Jugendreligionen — Ursache,
Trends, Reaktionen; Zaretsky and Leone, Religious Movements in
as a result of the brutal persecutions carried out against this minority by the
current Islamic Republic. In these reports, the
Bahá'í religion is generally referred to as a religion, but
occasionally also as a sect.
Bahá'ís make the claim that their belief is based on revelation
and that the religion was founded by God through his messenger, Bah'a'u'll'ah.
That the Bahá'í Faith is an independent religion, rather than a
sect, is a claim whose justification in religious-scientific terms (religionswissenschaftliche
Begründung) cannot be expounded in a few words. The answer reaches
into the very center of the conceptual realm of theology and religious studies.
The Concept of
exist few words whose common usage differs so radically from their scientific
denotation as does the word sect. The layman in religious studies
quickly ascribes a meaning to the word: religious communities outside the large
churches and world religions are labelled 'sects' most readily when their
membership is relatively small. These sects in turn — whether the appellation is
accurate or not — invariably deny the charge vehemently. If usage were to depend
solely on the sociological self-interpretation of the individual religious
communities themselves, there would be no sects at all. The reason for this
emotionally negative reaction is that the word sect, far from
being neutral, conveys a wealth of historical undertones and is considered to
be pejorative. That this is the case is even clearer from the word's
derivative, sectarian, a term which invokes unambiguously negative
associations and which in common usage is only used polemically and
word sect, originally a neutral term to describe individual
political, philosophical, and religious groups, was already employed
polemically in the early Christian era. At first, the Christian community was
itself labeled a 'sect' by the Jews. The history of the Apostles
reports how the high priest Ananias denounced the Apostle Paul before the Roman
representative, calling him a "pestilent fellow," a
In its resolutions of 19 September 1980 and 10 April 1981, the European
Parliament pilloried and condemned the executions, abductions, and manifold
acts of suppression of the Bahá'ís in Iran. In its session of 25
June 1981 (printed item no. 9/614, minutes to the meeting, p. 2697), the German
Bundestag also condemned the injuries to human rights with respect to
the Bahá'í community and petitioned the Iranian government to
extend to the Bahá'ís its protection and the official recognition
vouchsafed them by the UNO Convention on Human Rights; it furthermore
petitioned the foreign ministers of the European Community to lodge a complaint
with the Iranian authorities. For fuller background information, see also
Martin, "The Persecution of the Bahá'ís of Iran,
1844-1984," Bahá'í Studies, application of the
Association for Bahá'í Studies, vol. 12/13, Ottawa, Canada: 1984.
For information about the history of the Bahá'í religion see:
Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, Balyuzi, Bahá'u'lláh:
The King of Glory; Balyuzi, `Abdu'l-Bahá: The Centre of the
Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh; Balyuzi, The Báb: The
Herald of the Days. Concerning the teachings, see: Esslemont, Bahá'u'lláh
and the New Era; Huddleston, The Earth is but One Country; Ferraby, All
Things Made New: A Comprehensive Outline of the Bahá'í Faith; Sabet,
The Heavens are Cleft Asunder; Vahman. "Bahä'ismus," in TRE
Theologische Realenzyklopädie; Schaefer, The Imperishable Dominion:
The Bahá'í Faith and the Future of Mankind; Hatcher and
Martin, The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion.
In German, Sektierer, sektiererisch, and in French, sectaire, are
synonymous with narrow-minded, hidebound, fanatical, borné.
9. From Latin, secta
(guiding principle, party, school of thought).
10. Acts 24:1ff.,
of sedition" and "ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes."
Thus, the Christian community was considered to be an heretical splinter-group
of Judaism. In the letters of Paul, the word sect
is used in the purely negative sense. Here, we already find that
meaning which the Latin word secta has assumed in the course of its
history: false teaching, splitting from the (mother) community. The word
found its way into the German language through Martin Luther, from whose
writings it has been carried over into the linguistic usage of religious
studies. Kurt Hütten stressed the fact that the concept is so
loaded with negative connotations that one might be well advised
to find another translation, one which "does not bring with it such heavy
historical baggage." The dilemma, however, lies in the
fact that the word is indispensable because it has become an accepted term in
the sociology of religion, indicating specific criteria as established in the
study of modern sociology of religion. Moreover, the unscientific use of the
word sect has led to a confusion of concepts: religious and
pseudoreligious communities that flock around a living guru, for example, Jim
Jones's Jonestown community in Guyana, or that of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, or
the so-called new religious movements, are often referred to as 'sects',
even though in religious-scientific terms they are phenomenologically and
sociologically distinguished structurally from sects and should more properly
be called cults. It is clear that the proliferation of such
phenomena into general usage has further overloaded the meaning of the
the above observations, it is clear that, in ordinary linguistic
usage, only one distinguishing characteristic is implied: the number of
adherents. Numerical strength, however, is not a decisive
criterion for a classification: "There are large and small ecclesiastical
bodies, large and small denominations and large and small sects."[15
]The following consideration demonstrates how useless the criterion of
numerical strength really is.
was in the beginning a little flock and was initially belittled as
a Jewish splinter-group. Was therefore Christianity at first a sect,
only gradually becoming a "religion"? Can a sect become a religion at all?
This question must be answered in the negative if, as we will shortly see, the
essential characteristic of sects is that they are particularistic (whereas revealed
religions are generally universalistic) in nature. The general cannot be
derived from the particular, though indeed the particular can be derived
from the general." That which Christianity became — a universal religion — was
established by virtue of its entelechy. Finally, there remains the
question of whether such widely differing phenomena as the Jonestown community,
11. 1 Corinthians 11:19; see also 2 Peter 1ff.
12. In Greek, hairesis.
13. Hütten, Seher, Grübler,
14. For more on this point, see pp. 6, 8-9, and
15. Wach, Church, Denomination and Sect 19.
16. Luke 12:32.
17. Which point Smith fails to recognize (see
footnote 35 below).
From the Greek word, entelecheia, in Aristotelian philosophy the immanent
force, the potentiality which contains the goal and end result within itself,
for instance, the force that causes a walnut to become a walnut tree.
Meditation, and the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia should be thrown together into the
same terminological pot.
The Concepts of
'Sect' and 'Church' in the Sociology of Religion
sociology of religion has developed criteria by which it is
possible to distinguish a sect from other forms of religious community, that
is, from church and from cult. It must be borne in mind,
however, that this terminological apparatus is tailored to the context of the
specific sociology of occidental Christianity. That the
term sect is defined sociologically in terms of a contrast between
idealized forms of the notions of 'sect' and 'church' shows just how dependent
this definition is on the Western Christian perspective.
cross-cultural transfer of this latter concept presents problems. It is
terminologically inaccurate to apply the term church to organized
non-Christian communities, since with respect to both the
teachings and the legal foundations of the church, its central figure is the
person of Jesus Christ: Ubi Christus ibi ecclesia.
Elimination of the modifier, "Christian," is thus impossible
because it is the defining characteristic of the concept of an ecclesiastical
body. On these grounds, it is terminologically contradictory to
describe the legally organized Bahá'í world community as, say,
the "Bahá'í Church," or to speak of its "churchification"
[Verkirchlichung], quite independently from the fact that
the community of Bahá'u'lláh, while being a community governed by
faith and legal institutions, is fundamentally different in
nature and structure from an ecclesiastical body of the church type.
The basic fundamentals are to be found in Troeltsch, The Social Teaching of
the Christian Churches; Weber, "Sect, Church and Democracy";
Mensching, Soziologie der Religion.
Another notion, "denomination" as the American churchform, may be
left out of consideration as it is beyond the scope of this treatise. (See De
Jong, "The Denomination as the American Churchform.")
Most notably in Weber, "Sect, Church and Democracy"; Wilson,
"Eine Analyse der Sektenentwicklung."
Rudolph also emphasized the "typically European Christian bias" of
the concept of sect, "specifically the basing of the notions of 'sect' and
'sectarian' on the legal concept of the institution of the Church"
("Wesen und Struktur der Sekte" 243). That is evident in Wach's, Church,
Denomination and Sect.
If by "churches" they mean the legally organized congregation of these
religions, religious scholars do an injustice when they speak of Jewish,
Taoistic, Confucian, Tibetan, Buddhist, Lamaistic, or for that matter Islamic
"churches" (Mensching, Soziologie der Religion 251ff.; for
references to a Lamaistic "church," see Schulemann, Die Geschichte
der Dalai Lamas 78; for references to Zoroastrian "churches," see Wach, Sociology
of Religion 145; for references to an Egyptian "church," see
Otto, Priester und Tempel im hellenistischen ägypten II:281ff.; for
references to an Islamic "church" see Goldziher, Vorlesungen
über den Islam 215).
Sohm (Kirchenrecht 2:12) offers the following definition: "A church
is a religious community based on the declared belief in Christ."
Christ is, there is the Church."
For further information, see Schaefer, "Die Grundlagen der Verwaltungsordnung
der Bahá'í"' 82-85, which also quotes further sources in the
27. As Hütten (Seher,
Grübler, Enthusiasten 319) and Rosenkranz (Die Bahá'í
The believers are not only united by the bond of faith and love but also by the
bond of law. For further elucidations, see Schaefer, The Imperishable Dominion
constituent element in the nature of a church is its function as administrator
of sacraments [Anstaltscharakter]: the church according to its
self-evaluation is custodian of sacramental grace [sakramentale
Gnadenanstalt]. Sacraments belong to its organization as essential
instruments in the dispensation of grace. The church sees itself in possession
of an objective treasury of grace, which the church officials — the
priests — administer. The priesthood is therefore an immanent institution
of the church. Administration of the Word and the Sacrament pervades the
whole nature of "churchness": "Where there is the Word and the
Sacrament, there is the Church." The
Bahá'í community administrates the Word but no sacraments and,
since there are no objective dispensations of grace, possesses no priesthood. The Bahá'í community is not a transcendental administrant of
the criteria established by the sociology of religion for the application of
the term sect must, in light of historical associations, be employed
with caution. Worth mentioning in this connection is a suggestion by Joachim
Matthes that "all specifically religious-sociological terminology should
be avoided," because "a sociology of religion is only possible as a
sociology of Christianity." Furthermore, Joachim Wach
emphasizes that in reality the three types of Christian fellowship:
ecclesiastical body, denomination, and sect, "are not always found in
unadulterated purity." Nonetheless, there is no alternative
available for the concept of 'sect', and therefore its use in the
religious-scientific classification [religionswissenschaftliche
Begründung} of religious groupings cannot be avoided.
additional point must be borne in mind: the unbiased and sensitive appraisal of
the status of a religious community is not possible without taking its
theological content and its theological self-interpretation into account.
By that is meant not sociological self-interpretation, but rather religious
consciousness, the inner understanding [Verstehen] of the community's
own teachings. The mere claim of a religious group for membership to one or the
other category (church, sect, religion) is irrelevant — not so, however,
statements concerning the genesis and the goals of the respective community. Of
decisive relevance is whether a religious community considers itself to lie
within the fold of the religion from which it came into being; whether it
claims to have arisen in the spirit of reform, returning to the true,
unfalsified teachings of the religious institution within which it has arisen;
or indeed, whether it appeals to a new revelation from God, renewing the
ancient covenant and thereby cutting the umbilical cord that bound it to the
"mother religion." Understandably, the claim to ultimate truth
must remain outside consideration here. This question lies beyond the
reach of scientific investigation.
29. Ex opere
30. Troeltsch, The
Social Teaching of the Christian Churches 478.
31. See Schaefer,
"Die Grundlagen der Verwaltungsordnung der Bahá'í"
32. Matthes, Religion
und Gesellschaft 117.
33. Wach, Church,
Denomination and Sect 18.
Flasche, Die Religion der Einheit und Selbstverwirklichung der Menschheit 188;
Wach, Sociology ofReligion 19ff., 197; Rudolph, "Wesen und Struktur
der Sekte" 249.
is clear from this last point that a mere description of the sociological
structure and appearance of a religious community is of little help. Such
an approach falls to recognize that a religious community is more than the sum
of its empirically observable characteristics. This point is all the more true
for a young religion, whose essential nature is often at best only barely
observable from its structure. The fact that "cognitive
minorities" — in other words, diminutive communities — often
appear "sect-like" to the uninitiated, implies little about the true
nature of these religious communities.
most obvious criterion for the recognition of sects is their particularistic tendency,
the "characteristic of being a part of the religious community and of its
dogmatic foundations." Sects are possible only as elements of
a closed system. There are Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Buddhist sects, but
there are no sects in their own right [Sekte a« sich]. For that
reason alone, it is not possible to apply the concept of sect to religious
communities that view themselves as complete and independent systems, and not
as variants of already existing major religions. Buddhism is not a sect
of Hinduism, from within which religion it developed. Neither is
Christianity a sect of Judaism. Both Buddhism and Christianity have
their own core. However, a particularistic tendency is not in itself sufficient
justification for the application of the term sect. In particular, the
concept of 'sect' cannot correctly be applied to phenomena that are more aptly
described as cults, to which belong a large proportion of the
pseudoreligious communities mentioned earlier.
basic motivation of a sect is to reform. Its attention is directed backwards,
into the past, back to the origins of the whole of which it is apart, back to
the pure teachings of the early period, back to the source of revelation. All
Christian sects share the claim that they represent the true, unsullied, living
spirit of Christianity. Each Islamic sect
Failure to recognize this point can lead to extraordinary conclusions, such as
those of Peter Smith, who describes the Bahá'í communities in
Iran as "church-like" and those in the West "sect-like"
(Smith, "Motif Research, Peter Berger and the Bahá'í
Faith" 210-34): a consequence of scientific positivist thinking that sees
only the surface features and fundamentally excludes any search for the essence
of the matter, which in essence surely cannot vary from one to another example
of the same phenomenon.
36. See Berger, A
Rumor of Angels 1ff.
The image of the early Bahá'í communities in the West at the turn
of the century was without doubt in many ways reminiscent of sects. In the
natural course of the process of growth of the community and development of its
teachings, however, these characteristics were, or are being, progressively
38. Mensching, Soziologie
der Religion 238.
39. See pp. 3, 8-9,
and footnote 3.
This applies also for the Mormons. Although they claim (a post-Christian)
divine revelation for their Book of Mormon, they are nevertheless a
Christian group. According to their self-interpretation, the Church of Mormon
is the "re-establishment of the original Church of Jesus Christ"
(Hütten, Seher, Grübler, Enthusiasten 626). Joseph Smith did
not claim to found a new dispensation that would disassociate itself from the
Christian one (unlike the early Church, which clearly disassociated from
Judaism and unlike the Bahá'í Dispensation in Iran, which clearly
disassociated itself from Islam). After all, Joseph Smith is not the central
figure of the Mormon Faith, Christ is.
to point the way to the pure faith of earlier times, to early Islam,
unfalsified by human embellishments. The Christian Adventists, the
Jehovah's Witnesses, the Baptists — all appeal to the New Testament, just as the
Qur'án is the source of belief and law for the Isma'ilis, the Wahhabis,
and all the other Islamic sects.
Elements of Faith
is a common feature of all sects that they raise certain elements of faith to a
position of central thematic importance, elements which are present in the
religion but which had been neglected in the wider community, for example,
healing, awakening, and eschatology.
Christian sects thus share the characteristic that they emphasize particular
passages of the Gospel and of the articles of faith of the church, which have
perhaps been neglected by the church hi favour of others, and raise these for
the most part to the one-sided central principle of their teaching and their
degree of one-sidedness and narrowness of thinking is often the observable
result of this shift of emphasis: "A certain monomania is thereby a
peculiarity of the sect in contrast to the universalism of the main community."
further characteristic of the sect is its ethical rigor, which manifests itself
chiefly in seclusion from the world and rejection of secular civilization: "The sect turns its back ascetically to the world."
It tends "radically to reject the social order and to give vent to this
rejection either through seclusion or through active protest," 
while mass organization is "always worldly." The
condemnation of outsiders may be based "on intellectual or moral criteria
(incapacity or unwillingness to see or acknowledge the truth, 'worldliness',
and so forth). It expresses itself in more or less definite rules,
avoidances and taboos." Thus, the community of the sect
functions as a "selection apparatus for separating the qualified from the
unqualified." These groups are characterized by a
"rigid exclusiveness." Max Weber
cites the elitist exclusivity of the examen rigorosum as
characteristic, with its scrutiny of the previous lifestyle
41. Mensching, Soziologie
der Religion 239.
42. Mensching 239.
Troeltsch treats the rejection of secular civilization as the essential
characteristic of sects (The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches 381;432
44. Mensching, Soziologie
der Religion 241.
Fürstenberg and Mörth, Religionssoziologie 25. "It is the
sect which will be most radical in the criticism of civil authority due to its
rigid or even extravagant standards" (Wach, Sociology of Religion 23).
46. Mensching, Soziologie
der Religion 241.
47. Wach, Sociology
of Religion 18.
48. Weber, Sect,
Church and Democracy 1204.
49. Wach, Sociology
of Religion 17.
50. Weber, Sect,
Church and Democracy 1205-6.
51. A rigorous,
methodical scrutiny of one's conscience.
an initiate, and with corresponding monitoring and exhortation of its members. Worldly activities such as theater, cinema, and dancing are often denounced. This behavioral rigor encourages the sense of belonging to an elite
minority which is, because it is in possession of the Truth, protected from the
threatening Last Judgment.
principle of free choice, compared to the coercive nature of the church, is
often seen as a further characteristic of sects. This principle is included
among the criteria of most exercises in typology. Thus, for example, the
Baptists require adult baptism because membership requires the personal consent
of the individual. One is not born into the organization.
The free choice community stands in contrast to the church of birth and
elitist exclusivity and cultural estrangement of the sect implies its lack of
universality. "The sect is a group whose very nature and purpose
structural principle of the sect is its rejection of the charisma of
office. Authority is assumed much more on the basis of individual
pneumatic gifts and recognition, in other words, on the power of
personal charisma, on "pneumatic spontaneity ('prophecy'),"
than is the case with legally constituted institutions. Leadership of
the community is determined in some sects through specific pseudoprophetic
inspiration on the part of individuals apparently infused with the Holy Spirit.
In place of a rule of order, the community is governed by "pneumatic
anarchy," it is considered as a "pneumacracy":
"The services of the Quakers are a silent waiting in order to see whether
the Divine Spirit will overcome a member on this day. Only he will speak up to
preach or pray."
is a common feature of all sects that their doctrines and dogmas are
uncomplicated but nonetheless oriented toward the basic teachings of the major
religion to which they claim membership. This orientation distinguishes the
sect from the cult. The
"To the extent to which exclusive claims give way to a more relativistic
recognition and tolerance of other views, practices and fellowship (though they
may appear inferior in sectarian eyes) the sect assumes denominational
features, Quakers, Disciples, Brethren, Christian Science, Swedenborgians"
(Wach, Sociology of Religion 18).
53. Mensching, Soziologie
der Religion 241.
Weber, Sect, Church and Democracy 1204; see Troeltsch, The Social
Teaching of the Christian Churches 380; Mensching, Soziologie der
55. From Greek, pneuma:
breath; in theology: the Holy Spirit; pneumatic: full of Holy Spirit.
56. Cf. Wach, Sociology
of Religion 27ff.
A community without legal institutions, without rule of men over men, solely
governed by the pneuma; i.e., the Holy Spirit. Cf. Barion, Rudolf
Sohm und die Grundlegung des Kirchenrechts 9; Sohm, Wesen und Ursprung
des Katholizismus viii.
58. Weber, Sect,
Church and Democracy 1207.
possesses a theology, be it ever so grossly simplified; whereas the sign of the
cult is a minimum of theology. Here, great significance is placed on
esoteric knowledge, ritual, and magic; on personal contact with a living guru
or group rather than in institutions and issues of belief: "Its hunger is
a hunger for ritual and mythos." A notable characteristic
of pseudoreligious cults is the severing of ties to the external world. Initiates
are required to give up all contact with home, family, former occupation, and
friends and to dedicate themselves instead to the living heads of the
respective communities — requirements that can have disastrous
consequences. On the basis of these criteria, Rudolph
defined the sect as follows:
A sect is a religious group
or community founded within the framework of another religion (itself based on
a founder, book, revelation or confession); in membership and in distribution
it is generally overshadowed by, and in terms of its articles of teaching
stands in deficit to, the official main community ("church"). In
short, the sect is from a theological point of view a "sub-community"
in contrast to the dominating "main community."
Bahá'í Faith — A Sect?
the basis of these criteria, one might try to describe the Bahá'í
religion as a sect of Islam: it arose after all from within the Islamic cultural
context and is in many ways — in history, in language and terminology, and
partly also in theology — closely associated with Islam. For that reason,
Islamic studies in the past generally treated the Bahá'í Faith
under the rubric of Islamic sects.
fact that Bahá'ís themselves refuse to characterize their faith
as a sect is in itself not sufficient grounds for exonerating them from this
label. Rather, the Bahá'í Faith is not a sect precisely because
it fails to fulfill the aforementioned criteria for sects.
theology and teaching, the Bahá'í Faith is not a special movement
within Islam. Neither does it claim to be a type of Islamic renaissance.
Instead, the Bahá'í Faith claims to have its origin in a
new revelation from God. This claim disqualifies the Bahá'í Faith
from being a sect, since the sect always chooses to remain identified with the
basis of the Bahá'í Faith and of its law is the writings of
Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í religion. The Qur'án is relegated to salvation history. As true
documentation of religious history, the Qur'án is accepted as a holy
book — a sort of "Old Testament" — but serves neither as
the theological basis of the Bahá'í religion nor as the source of
Bahá'í law. According to Bahá'í teaching, the
dispensation of Muhammad terminated in the year A.H.1260 (A.D. 1844) with the dawning of a New World Era. Already in the year 1848,
at the conference of Badasht, some of the followers of the Báb,
recognizing the full implications of the new revelation, declared the
abrogation of Islamic law. Therefore, the law of the Qur'án and the
incontrovertible articles of faith of orthodox Islam (and its derivatives),
such as the finality of
59. Bell, The
Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism 168.
60. See the references
cited in footnote 5 above.
"Wesen und Struktur der Sekte" 253.
62. And sometimes
even in modern times (e.g., Khouri, Einführung in die Grundlagen des
revelation of Muhammad, are not recognized by Bahá'ís. The
Bahá'í claims neither to be Muslim nor to have reverted to early
Islam. Bahá'u'lláh, not Muhammad, occupies the central
position of his religion. Missing is the purely reformatory, backwards-oriented
attitude that has been recognized as a significant criterion for sects.
This fact has long been recognized in Islamic courts of law as the following
May 10, 1925, the religious Court of Appeals in Beba, in the province of Beni Suef
in Egypt, declared three marriages to be invalid because the partners were
Bahá'ís. In the court summary, it was explained that
Bahá'í Faith is a new religion, entirely independent, with
beliefs, principles and laws of its own, which differ from, and are utterly in
conflict with, the beliefs, principles and laws of Islam. No
Bahá'í, therefore, can be regarded a Muslim or vice-versa, even
as no Buddhist, Brahmin, or Christian can be regarded a Muslim or vice-versa.
pronouncement concludes with the following words:
any one of them [husbands] repents, believes in, and acknowledges whatsoever...
Muhammad, the Apostle of God...has brought from God...and returns to the
august Faith of Islam...and testifies that...Muhammad...is the Seal of the
Prophets and Messengers, that no religion will succeed His religion, that no
law will abrogate His law, that the Qur'án is the last of the Books of
God and His last Revelation to His Prophets and His Messengers...he shall be
accepted and shall be entitled to renew his marriage contract... 
response to the question whether Bahá'ís be permitted to bury
their dead in Islamic cemeteries, the Egyptian Ministry of Justice sought
instruction from the Muft'i, in whose testimony of 11 March 1939
hereby declare that this Community is not to be regarded as Muslim, as shown by
the beliefs which it professes. The perusal of what they term "The
Bahá'í Laws affecting Matters of Personal Status,"
accompanying the papers, is deemed sufficient evidence. Whoever among its
members had formerly been a Muslim has, by virtue of his belief in the
pretensions of this community, renounced Islam, and is regarded as beyond its
pale, and is subject to the laws governing apostasy as established in the right
Faith of Islam. This community not being Muslim, it would be unlawful to bury
its dead in Muslim cemeteries, be they originally Muslims or otherwise.
It must not be overlooked in this connection that all revealed religions have
striven for the purification of previous religions and the rehabilitation of
the truth. The message of Jesus Christ is also directed against the Jewish
scriptural scholarship (Luke 11:39-51; Matt. 23:1 -36), while Muhammad
condemned the Christian dogma of the Trinity (Qur'án 19:91-94; 2:110;
4:169-171; 5:76-80). Thus the divine revelation is also a divine reformation.
64. Quoted in Shoghi
Effendi, God Passes By 365.
65. Quoted in Shoghi
Effendi, God Passes By 365-66.
Islamic legal scholar who submits authoritative legal judgments (fatáwin)
in issues concerning religious law (Sharí'ah).
67. Quoted in Shoghi
Effendi, God Passes By 368.
do the remaining criteria of the sociology of religion's definition of 'sect'
apply to the Bahá'í religion. A study
of Bahá'í teachings reveals neither a dogmatic one-sidedness nor
an individualistic peculiarity, not to mention animosity toward worldly culture
or any sort of elitist arrogance.
Bahá'í religion is a universal religion. The message of
Bahá'u'lláh is directed toward all of mankind. The forerunner and
herald of Bahá'u'lláh, the Báb, had Himself appealed to
the peoples of the West to become "as true brethren in the one and
indivisible religion of God, free from distinction,' and
thus had not confined Hun-self to his own cultural context.
Bahá'u'lláh seeks to lead all of mankind to unity. The only
remedy for a mortally sick world, and therefore for the survival of mankind, is
the spiritual and political unification of all peoples in a worldwide federation
and in a common belief, free of the distortions of the past:
which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument
for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one
universal Cause, one common Faith.... The well-being of mankind, its
peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly
The extension of
the principle of love to all mankind and the creation of a world-consciousness
represent a central tenet of Bahá'u'lláh’s teachings:
one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire
human race. The Great Being saith: Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to
promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth....It is
not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who
loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens. ...The utterance of God is a lamp, whose light is these words: Ye are the
fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with
the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship... So
powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth.
Bahá'í religion is thus universalistic in its origin and in its nature.
The traditional religions such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are all
universal religions because they direct their message to all of mankind and
because, in their view, the world as a whole is to be moulded according to the
message of God. This universalism is further enhanced in the message of
Bahá'u'lláh through his concrete appeal for the political and
spiritual unity of mankind and through the presentation of a structural order
that is the framework for this unity.
characteristic that fits poorly with the image of sect is the
Bahá'í religion's active concern with the state of worldly
society. One who is only concerned with personal salvation and who is
blind to the social needs of the world — an egoistic attitude which moved Karl
Marx to his critical theses against religion — is renounced in the
Bahá'í teachings. All aspects of life are encompassed by
the divine message.
68. Qayyúmu'l-Asmá' in the
Báb, Selections from the Writings of the Báb 56.
69. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 255;
70. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 250.
71. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 288.
as a whole, and not only the individual, is subject to redemption through the
Will of God.
the message of Bahá'u'lláh is, like every revelation of God, first
and foremost a guide to the individual. It is the ancient path, cleansed
of the encrustments and encumbrances of the past, along which man can achieve
life with God, enlightenment, and spiritual rebirth. The revelation of
Bahá'u'lláh is not, however, limited to this "vertical"
dimension. The Bahá'í religion is not merely a "creed";
it is a religion in an all-embracing sense, as it also has a fully developed
"horizontal," a "political" dimension.
According to Bahá'u'lláh, both the individual as well as
the whole of humanity need enlightenment and guidance by the divine
manifestations. These two dimensions can be found in the following
verses of Bahá'u'lláh:
purpose in sending His Prophets unto men is twofold. The first is to liberate
the children of men from the darkness of ignorance, and guide them to the light
of true understanding. The second is to ensure the peace and tranquillity of
mankind, and provide all the means by which they can be established.
stresses the outstanding and indispensable function of religion for society,
law, and order: "Religion is, verily, the chief instrument for the
establishment of order in the world, and of tranquillity amongst its peoples." "...religion is a radiant light and an impregnable stronghold
for the protection and welfare of the peoples of the world." 
Bahá'u'lláh laid the keystone of a new order in which all
peoples, united by their common belief in God and his revelation, will live
together in peace and justice. He has come to establish the promised
Kingdom of God: "...the establishment of world peace and unity
represents the establishment of God's Kingdom on earth, the ultimate triumph of
good over evil as anticipated in symbolic terms in past religions."
This kingdom will be a World Order, structured according to the revealed law of
God and encompassing all of mankind. Its fruits will be the "Most
Concerning the horizontal dimension and society's need for salvation, see
Schaefer, The Imperishable Dominion 121 ff.
The term political is here used in the Aristotelian sense: the total
complex of relations that bind together the members of society, the art of
science of government, oriented towards the idea of justice and the common
weal. This political goal of world unity and a new world order, however, is not
to be strived for using the political means at hand; rather, it is to be
achieved through fundamental changes in consciousness and the development of
new social and political structures based on the new message of God. The often
emphasized non-political character of the Bahá'í Faith should by
no means be misunderstood as the absence of political goals and indifference to
society: the idea of the unity of mankind and the foundation of a world federal
state is, far from a mere pious hope, an eminent political goal. The
Bahá'ís are nevertheless committed to party political neutrality.
They are obliged to shun the struggle for power and to refrain from political
partisanship and participation in party politics (for particulars, see
Schaefer, The Imperishable Dominion 148-51; Lee, Circle of Unity:
Bahá'í (Approaches to Current Social Issues, Introduction,
Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 79-80.
Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf 28.
Bahá'u'lláh, "Ishráqát," Tablets
77. Hatcher/Martin, The
Bahá'í Faith 137.
Peace." It is God's Will, to bring about this
world order. But the Kingdom of God will not occur solely by an act of
God, instantly, magically, and supernaturally, changing everything at once, as
Christian fundamentalists, interpreting the Bible literally, expect, but rather
through the active participation of mankind in an historical process of radical
transformation that encompasses the individual as well as the whole human race.
This perspective differentiates the Bahá'ís from the
adherents of those Christian sects which stress the notion of the Parousia and
of the coming of the Kingdom of God, which naively and enthusiastically await
the occurrence of a miraculous event in the visible heaven — the return of
Christ, upon Whose entrance those who are not damned are redeemed and live
together in blissful goodness.
In this connection, we realize another striking difference in a
central theological view of the Bahá'í Faith and previous
religions: while the past religions and all their sects are still expecting the
eschatological events proclaimed in their sacred writings, for the
Bahá'ís the eschatology of all the world religions has been
fulfilled. The Christian sects still await the Second Coming of their Lord, the
Muslim sects the coming of "the Hour," of the "Great
Announcement," while the Bahá'ís proclaim that
these events have occurred in Bahá'u'lláh, inaugurating the
coming of the Kingdom of God.
Another characteristic of the sect, seclusion from the world, from
society with its accompanying attitude of antiworldliness, does not apply to
the Bahá'í Faith. Clearly, the teachings of
Bahá'u'lláh encourage a positive attitude toward the world and
toward human civilization. It is true that Bahá'u'lláh,
like the prophets of the past, points to the vanity of the world and the
transitory nature of human affairs and earthly riches.
"Der lange Weg zum Grössten Frieden," Bahá'í-Briefe
50:128ff. and 52:107ff.
For more details, see Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of
Bahá'u'lláh 157,162ff., 203ff.; Shoghi Effendi, The
Promised Day is Come 121ff.; Hatcher/Martin, The Bahá'í
Faith 127ff.; Schaefer, The Imperishable Dominion 127ff., 139ff.
For more complete coverage of this theme, see Schaefer, The Imperishable
Dominion 127-44; regarding Doomsday expectations, 93-94.
6:31, 7:187, 79:42.
Bahá'u'lláh Himself in his tablet to Pope Pius IX proclaimed to
fulfil Jesus' prophecy on his return: "O Pope! Rend the veils asunder. He
Who is the Lord of Lords is come overshadowed with clouds, and the decree hath
been fulfilled by God, the Almighty, the Unrestrained...He, verily, hath again
come down from Heaven even as He came down from it the first time. Beware that
thou dispute not with Him even as the Pharisees disputed with Him (Jesus)
without a clear token or proof..." (Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is
Come 30). On the meaning of the "return of Christ," see
Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitáb-i-íqán 150,
151, 158-60; Schaefer, The Imperishable Dominion 93-94, n. 42.
"The world is continually proclaiming these words: Beware, I am
evanescent, and so are all my outward appearances and colours. Take ye heed of
the changes and chances contrived within me and be ye roused from your
slumber" (Bahá'u'lláh, Tablets 258). "The world
is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of
reality. Set not your affections upon it. Break not the bond that uniteth you
with your Creator, and be not of those that have erred and strayed from His
ways. Verily I say, the world is like the vapour in a desert, which the thirsty
dreameth to be water and striveth after it with all his might, until when he
cometh unto it, he findeth it to be mere illusion" (Bahá'u'lláh,
The shortness of life and the transitory nature of worldly goods is a
subject often repeated in his writings. Nevertheless, these
verses should not be misconstrued as escapist otherworldliness. Ascetic renunciation
of the world is unambiguously condemned: "Eat ye, O people, of the good
things which God hath allowed you, and deprive not yourselves from His wondrous
bounties." This positive attitude towards culture is
clearly evident from the fact that the Bahá'í Faith views the
progressive development of human civilization as a consequence of the creative
impulse of the past revelations of God. The development of human culture
is intimately connected with religion: "All men have been created to carry
forward an ever-advancing civilization."
Exactly how little the Bahá'í religion is individualistic
is demonstrated by the exclusion of individualistic and spiritualistic claims,
and by the rejection of every form of pneumatic authority. Legal norms and legal
institutions are the basis of order and of the community. The decision-making
power and spiritual authority is vested in this constitutional order.
Charismatic individuals and pneumatic spontaneity are subordinated to these
institutions. The charisma of divine guidance resides solely in the
institutions appointed by Bahá'u'lláh and democratically elected
by the community of the believers — not in the individuals who hold these
Furthermore, the Bahá'í' community does not see itself as
an elitist group. It is expected that every believer live according to the
teachings and commandments of Bahá'u'lláh, adopt spiritual
virtues, be oriented toward the imperatives of the new ethic, gain
self-knowledge, and strive for perfection. No prior achievement of a
particular degree of perfection, however, is required of anyone who joins the
community of Bahá'u'lláh. No one is required to give account for
his or her prior life, no one other than God has the right to pass judgment on
the morality of another. The fact that Bahá'ís consider
the recognition of the message and of its bearer, Bahá'u'lláh,
"Rejoice not in the things ye possess; tonight they are yours, tomorrow
others will possess them.... The days of your life flee away as a breath of
wind, and all your pomp and glory shall be folded up as were the pomp and glory
of those gone before you. Reflect, O people! What hath become of your bygone
days, your lost centuries? Happy the days that have been consecrated to the
remembrance of God, and blessed the hours which have been spent in praise of
Him Who is the All-Wise. By My life! Neither the pomp of the mighty, nor the
wealth of the rich, nor even the ascendancy of the ungodly will endure. All
will perish, at a word from Him" (Bahá'u'lláh, Kitáb-i-Aqdas,
Synopsis and Codification no. 6, 15 [also Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings
Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 276.
Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 215.
Shoghi Effendi made it very clear that such charismatic personalities
"should never be allowed to eclipse the authority, or detract from the
influence of the body of the elected representatives in every local community.
Such an individual should not only seek the approval, advice, and assistance of
the body that represents the Cause in his locality, but should strive to attribute
any credit he may obtain to the collective wisdom and capacity of the Assembly
under whose jurisdiction he performs his services. Assemblies and not
individuals constitute the bedrock on which the Administration is built....To
no one of the believers such a station has been conferred, which can place him
outside and above the jurisdiction of any Assembly. Such an attitude...runs
counter to the very spirit and purpose of the Administrative Order" (Shoghi
Effendi through his secretary, in Principles of Bahá'í
Administration 19). Nevertheless, it is certain that decisions without a
motivating spiritual power to put them into practice are ineffectual. There is
no doubt that the Bahá'í Faith is much indebted to numerous
charismatic individuals using their gift to work in the service of the Cause.
to be of salvational significance is neither in itself unique, nor is
it a sign of elitist arrogance. Belief is a necessary prerequisite of
salvation in other religions as well. According to Catholic
teaching, salvation is available exclusively to members of its own community,
to adherents of the Church in its role as mystical Corpus Christi. The
Bahá'í receives no entrance ticket into the Kingdom of Heaven
solely as a result of an act of belief, nor is the
Bahá'í thereby spared the Judgment which
Bahá'u'lláh proclaimed for mankind.
There remains the principle of free choice, which the sociologists of
religion consider to be a criterion for sects. Is that true? Does this
principle apply to the religious community of the Bahá'ís? And if
that is the case, is that sufficient grounds for labelling this community a
'sect'? Evident in this principle of free choice is a point examined at the
beginning of this paper, namely, sociology of religion typology's dependence on
Christian occidental forms of religion, on a dichotomy of 'church' and 'sect'
which cannot be easily superimposed on any religious community that confounds
these alternatives because its legal structure does not conform to the existing
Judaism shows that coercion and free choice are unsuitable criteria by
which to distinguish a sect. The child of a Jewish mother is Jewish by birth;
he or she is born into that religion. But this is also the case in the
Jewish sect. Should the principle of free choice be considered an
unerring characteristic of sects, then it would follow that there are no Jewish
sects, since all special movements within Judaism, even the most extreme
Hassidic groups, recognize the Jewish law that a Jew is one who has a Jewish
mother-In Christianity, it is by no means the case that one is, as Gustav
Mensching put it, "born into" the organization of the Church. One
becomes a Christian through baptism, which imparts a character indelebilis and
which stands according to canon law as irrevocable incorporation
into the organization of the Church. The coercive nature of
baptism — ignoring, of course, the fact that according to Church law it is
Cf. John 3:17-18; Qur'án57:7,48:28,2:59. That even in Zoroastrianism
redemption from sin results only from repose in the "Mazdiasni
religion," appears from the Dinkard where we read: "Be it known that
a man becomes good in many ways: especially by putting faith in the religion of
Ahurmazd; and thereby he becomes a holder of greater relations with the Creator
Ahurmazd" (1:55). "Be it known that a man becomes through all his
works and behaviour, possessed of thought and relating to the other world and
fit for it, by reposing faith in all holy thoughts, i.e., the ordinances of the
Mazdiasni religion" (2:68). For further explanation, see Schaefer, The
Imperishable Dominion ch. 6.
While for many centuries Cyprian's Extra ecclesiam nulla salus was
valid, the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council has, for the first time in
history, adopted a more conciliatory position in its explanation of the
attitude of the Church to the non-Christian religions (Declaration on the
Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, no. 3).
A Bahá'í should "forgive the sinful, and never despise his
low estate, for none knoweth what his own end shall be. How often hath a
sinner, at the hour of death, attained to the essence of faith, and, quaffing
the immortal draught, hath taken his flight unto the celestial Concourse. And how
often hath a devout believer, at the hour of his soul's ascension, been so
changed as to fall into the nethermost fire" (Bahá'u'lláh, The
92. Can. 96, Corpus
luris Canonici (CIC).
christianus, semper christianus [Once a Christian, always a Christian].
to rescind membership — is evident only in infant baptism. To
be converted, to join the Church by submitting oneself to adult baptism, is an
act of free choice. In the early years of Christianity, and today where
Christianity is expanding and still gaining converts, baptism occurs as a
result of a free act and decision. Under these conditions, the principle
of free choice applies to the Church. Only where Christianity has long been
established and is firmly rooted, where it is passed down through the
generations, does the principle of forced membership by virtue of infant
is evident that sociologists of religion have considered this latter
circumstance to be the normal case and oriented their criteria accordingly. A
recent tendency, at least in German Protestant churches, is to view infant and
adult baptism as equal in standing. All this demonstrates that the
principle of free choice is, as a criterion for discriminating between 'sect'
and 'church', highly unreliable, and, as Joachim Wach aptly states, "not
are not born into the Bahá'í community. One becomes a
Bahá'í through accepting the message of
Bahá'u'lláh, whether this occurs as the consequence of personally
motivated search or of parental education. There is no initiation, no
ritual to which one is subjected without one's prior knowledge or consent. One
becomes Bahá'í' voluntarily, through personal choice. The
Bahá'í principle of individual, independent search for truth,
alone, rules out coerced membership in the community of
Bahá'u'lláh, in whatever guise. If one were to call the
Bahá'í religion a sect on the basis of this characteristic, then
one must also call Islam a sect, where the conditions with respect to this
criterion are similar.
The Judgment of
Contemporary Religious Studies
the Bahá'í religion is mainly referred to in older works as a
sect, more recent literature demonstrates a clear shift of opinion in the
direction of the Bahá'í Faith's self-understanding as an
independent religion. In his 1949 book about the Bahá'ís, the
Protestant theologian and religious scholar, Gerhard Rosenkranz, made it quite
clear, despite his own personal critical distance, that the Bahá'í
Faith "from a religious-historical point of view, was in its earliest
stages a true prophetic movement," a "new religion" growing out
of Islam. Rosenkranz stresses "that with Bahá'ísm we are confronted not
with one of those modern pseudoreligions such as one encounters in the West,
but a genuinely original religious movement." In the Enciclopedia
Cattolica, published by the Vatican, the Bábí religion is
described by Alessandro Bausani under the keyword Babismo as "nuova
religione," whereas the Bahá'í' religion is described as
"religione sviluppatasi dal Babismo." Rudolf
Resignation from the Church, which is impossible in Catholic Church law, first
became possible through the secular State. Cf. Eichmann-Mörsdorf, Lehrbuch
des Kirchenrechts aufgrund des Codex luris Canonici 1:183-84; 3:282-389; Lexikon
für Theologie und Kirche 6:197-98, "Kirchenbann"; Münsterischer
Kommentar zum Codex luris Canonici, Can. 1086
"Religionsverschiedenheit," no. 9.
95. Wach, Sociology of Religion 30.
96. Rosenkranz, Die Bahá'í l,
97. Vol. 2: 640, 692.
and Joachim Wach come to the same conclusion. Even Kurt
Hütten, former head of the Evangelische Zentralstelle für
Weltanschauungsfragen [Protestant Centre for Ideological Concerns] in
Stuttgart, treated the Bahá'í religion as a religion rather than
as a sect in his book, despite an otherwise sharply critical
stance. The late Helmut von Glasenapp, renowned scientist, who in 1957
had already treated the Bahá'í' religion as a religion rather
than a sect, gave the following expert testimony on 3 October
is true that the religion of the Bahá'ís has its roots in Islam,
but it represents an independent form of worship, not an Islamic sect. Otherwise
one would have to consider Christianity to be a Jewish sect on the grounds that
it has grown out of Judaism.
his statement of 10 October 1961, Gerhard Rosenkranz elucidated his earlier
stated position once again:
the recent history of religion, Bahá'ísm stands as an example of
how a movement can arise out of an existing world religion — in this case
Islam — which not only raises the claim of itself being a world religion, but
which in addition has all the religious-phenomenological characteristics of one.
...It was the singular achievement of Bahá'u'lláh that he
succeeded in extracting the basic elements from the independent religion
already present from the time of the Báb. He succeeded in freeing
these elements from their connection with the Shi'ite Faith and built upon them
the structure of the Bahá'í' religion, which makes the claim of
being the fulfilment of, indeed of surpassing, all other religions. With
this claim, through which it incorporates rather than rejects the other
religions, Bahá'ísm cannot but be recognized as a self-sufficient
Protestant theologian Friedrich Heiler also judged the Bahá'í
Faith to be a religion:
is the creator of a new religion. On the one hand, the relationship [of
the Bahá'í Faith] to Islam is comparable to that of Islam to
Judaism and Christianity. Categorizing the Bahá'í religion among
the Islamic sects or sub-communities is as inappropriate as describing Islam as
a Jewish or Christian sect. The very fact that Bahá'u'lláh, as
bearer of the latest and most exalted revelation, assumes the station which in
Islam is reserved for Muhammad, clarifies the independence of the
Bahá'í' religion with respect to Islam....As an historical
phenomenon, the Bahá'í religion therefore stands in equal status
with the other universal religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism
98. Jockel, Die
Lehren der Religion-Religion 104.
99. Wach, Sociology
of Religion 132.
100. Hütten, Seher,
Grübler, Enthusiasten 317ff.
101. von Glasenapp, Die
nicht-christlichen Religionen 60ff.
102. Published in
Briefe-Briefe 14 (October 1963): 340.
103. Quoted from
104. Expert opinion
of 4 Dec. 1961, published in Bahá'í-Briefe 29 (July 1967):
point of view has in the meantime found general acceptance. Rainer
Flasche treats the Bahá'í religion as being based on a
self-sufficient revelation [eigenständige Offenbarungsreligion]
Ernst Dammann cites the interpretation of classical texts, the presence of
a new Scripture, and the self-interpretation of a community [Selbstverständnis
der Gemeinschaft] as criteria for recognition of the quality of originality
of that religious community. The Bahá'í religion
fulfils these requirements. It possesses its own scripture, in the form
of the revealed writings of Bahá'u'lláh; it interprets the holy
writings, in particular those of the Old and New Testament and of the
Qur'án, with respect to the coming of Bahá'u'lláh, seeing
in Him the fulfilment of all the promises of earlier religions; and according to
its theology, it is a new message of salvation from God to mankind.
Colpe calls the Bahá'í religion a "world religion."
Peter Meinhold treats the Bahá'í religion similarly.
In justifying the application of this term, he appeals to the following
criteria: the religion in question must itself lay the claim of representing a
world-encompassing mission; the modern experience of world unity
must be part of its self-concept; it must pose itself the
question as to what part it can play in the solution of the world's problems;
and finally, the religion must come to terms with the plurality of religions
"and resolve this question in a manner which does justice to today's world
these criteria are met by the Bahá'í religion: The universalistic
nature of the Bahá'í religion has already been discussed. The
Bahá'í religion also provides an explanation for the plurality of
religions. The annoying rivalry between competing claims to truth loses
much of its poignancy when the various religions are understood, as
Bahá'u'lláh teaches, to be manifestations of a progressive,
cyclically recurring, and essentially indivisible divine revelation, in which
the light of God is presented anew at each recurrence in a manner appropriate
to the concrete cultural conditions of society at that time, to the state of
spiritual development of that society, and to the powers of comprehension of
its members: "Know of a certainty that in every Dispensation the light of
Divine Revelation hath been vouchsafed unto men in direct proportion to their
spiritual capacity." "For every age required! a
fresh measure of the light of God. Every Divine Revelation hath been
sent down in a manner that befitted the circumstances of the age in which it
hath appeared." "There can be no doubt whatever
that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive
105. Flasche, Die Religion der Einheit und
Selbstverwirklichung der Menschheit 188ff.
106. Dammann, Grundriss der
107. Colpe, "Drängt die Religionsgeschichte
nach einer Summe?" 221.
108. Meinhold, Die Religionen der Gegenwart 317-38.
109. Meinhold, 20.
110. Meinhold, 22ff.
111. Meinhold, 23.
112. Meinhold, 24.
113. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 87.
114. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 81.
inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The
difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed
to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were
fact that the diversity of teachings and forms of worship stands in apparent
contradiction to the essential unity of religion is a result of the divergent
spiritual, cultural, and social conditions under which religion has had to take
form, as well as a result of the centrifugal developments to
which all historical religions have been subjected, and whose consequences
could not be averted through human attempts at reformation. Abraham,
Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ, and Muhammad are all
"Messengers of God" Who have illuminated the world. All
religions have played their part in the history of salvation: indeed, the
history of religion is precisely the history of salvation. Goodwill alone is
not sufficient to dismantle the barriers dividing the different religions. An
atmosphere characterized by countering claims of exclusivity and finality
cannot foster a true dialogue and cooperation between the different world
religions. A necessary prerequisite to such a dialogue is the mutual
recognition of equal worth and standing. The historical interpretation
of the successive world religions as presented by the Bahá'í
Faith could well provide the basis for reconciliation of the various dogmas,
whose differences have instead so long divided humanity and fomented hate, strife,
war, and suffering. For that reason, Bahá'u'lláh enjoined
each and every one of the verses which the Pen of the Most High hath revealed,
the doors of love and unity have been unlocked and flung open to the face of
men. We have erewhile declared — and Our Word is the truth — : "Consort with
the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship."
Whatsoever hath led the children of men to shun one another, and hath caused
dissensions and divisions amongst them, hath, through the revelation of these
words, been nullified and abolished. From the heaven of God's Will, and
for the purpose of ennobling the world of being and of elevating the minds and
souls of men, hath been sent down that which is the most effective instrument
for the education of the whole human race.
Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings 217.
It is undeniable that in the course of time every religion has assimilated
disparate, heterogeneous elements, and thus was in danger of losing its very
centre. It was the purpose of the Reformation in Christianity to get rid of
those accretions and to return to the pure source of the divine revelation.
Moreover, in this endless process of reformation different groups focused on
very different elements of the faith, emphasizing different aspects of the
teachings, for example, the idea of healing, the advent of the Lord, baptism,
the Pentecost. The result of these processes, common to all world religions,
was the loss of the original unity of the believers and a variety of very
different sects, all claiming truth. All-reformations led finally to an
increasing theological pluralism and to a loss of the unity of the believers.
Human reformation cannot solve this problem, as it lacks the fundamental
prerequisites for any returns to the pure waters of divine revelation: a
binding standard and a generally acknowledged authority. The true reformation
comes from God. It is the new revelation, the "Straight Path" [As-sirätu'l-mustaqim].
(For more details, see Schaefer, The Light Shineth in Darkness 88ff.)
Bahá'u'lláh, "Lawh-i-Dunyá," Tablets 87.
As the message of Bahá'u'lláh is directed toward all of
humanity, the Bahá'í mission embraces the entire world. We
are now only in the year 145 according to Bahá'í reckoning;
yet, Bahá'ís have already established themselves in nearly every country on
earth. Bahá'ís live in over 112,000 localities around the
globe; there are over 36,000 Bahá'í communities and 148 national
bodies, called National Spiritual Assemblies. Ample evidence for the
universalistic nature of the Bahá'í religion is presented by the
fact that with its headquarters in Haifa, Israel, the Universal House of
Justice (an institution which was ordained by Bahá'u'lláh Himself
and which consists of members elected by all the National Spiritual Assemblies)
decides the destiny of the Bahá'í Faith for the entire globe. It
is amply justified to call the Bahá'í religion a world religion.
Contributors to modern encyclopaedias have reached the same
conclusion. In the Protestant Theologische
Realenzyklopädie, Fereydun Vahman rejected — with convincing
argumentation — the categorization of the Bahá'í religion under the
heading of 'sect', and maintained that
Bahá'ísm is to be ranked among the main religions of the world. In historic
terms, it is the most recently established of the prophetic religions. In light
of the fact that Bahá'ísm appeals to all of mankind and that it has established
itself in most countries of the world, it can already today be counted among
the world religions.
118. A.D. 1988/1989.
119. E.g., Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th
ed., s.v. "Bahá'í Faith," 1974.
120. Vahman, "Bahá'ísmus," Theologische
Báb, The. Selections from the Writings of the
Báb. Compiled by the Research Department of the
Bahá'í World Centre and translated by Habib Taherzadeh with the
assistance of a Committee at the Bahá'í World Centre. Haifa:
Bahá'í World Centre, 1976.
für Weltreligion und Weltbewusstsein." Edited by Der Nationale
Geistige Rat der Bahá'í in Deutschland e.V., Frankfurt/M.
Bahá'u'lláh. Epistle to the Son of the Wolf.
Rev.ed. Translated by Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'í
Publishing Trust, 1976.
— . Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh. Rev.
ed. Translated by Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, Illinois:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1978.
— . Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed after the
Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Compiled by the Research Department of the
Bahá'í World Centre and translated by Habib Taherzadeh with the
assistance of a Committee at the Bahá'í World Centre. Haifa:
Bahá'í World Centre, 1978.
— . The Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Extracts translated by Shoghi Effendi in Synopsis and Codification
of the Aqdas-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book of Bahá'u'lláh. Haifa:
Bahá'í World Centre, 1973.
— . The Kitáb-i-íqán. [The Book of
Certitude]. Rev. ed. Translated by Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, Illinois:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974.
Balyuzi, H.M. Bahá'u'lláh: The King of
Glory. Oxford: George Ronald, 1980.
— . `Abdu'l-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant of
Bahá'u'lláh. Oxford: George Ronald, 1974.
— . The Báb: The Herald of the Day of Days. Oxford:
George Ronald, 1973.
Barion, Hans. Rudolf Sohm und die Grundlegung des Kirchenrechts. Tübingen:
J.C.B. Mohr, 1931.
Bell, Daniel. The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism. London:
Heinemann, 1976. Benz, Ernst. Neue Religionen. Stuttgart: Klett, 1971.
Berger, Peter L. A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the
Rediscovery of the Supernatural. Garden City, New York: Doubleday &
Colpe, Carsten. "Drängt die Religionsgeschichte nach einer
Summe?" In Evangelische Theologie. 39. Munich: Kaiser, 1979.
Dammann, Ernst. Grundriss der Religionsgeschichte. Stuttgart:
De Jong, "The Denomination as the American Churchform." In
New Theology. Tijdschrift, 1938.
Dinkard, The. The original Pehlewi Text;
the same transliterated in Zend characters; translations of the text in the
Gujrati and English languages; a commentary and a glossary of select terms, by
Peshotun Dustoor Behramjee Sunjana, Bombay: Duftur Ashkara Press, 1874.
Eichmann, Eduard, and Klaus Mörsdorf. Lehrbuch des
Kirchenrechts aufgrund des Codex Iuris Canonici. Paderborn: Schoningh,
Encyclopaedia Britannica. 15th ed.
William Benton and Helen Benton, eds. 1974.
Enciclopedia Cattolica. Cittá del
Vaticano: G.C. Sansoni, 1948-1954.
Esslemont, J.E. Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era. 4th
ed. London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976.
Ferraby, John. All Things Made
New: A Comprehensive Outline of the Bahá'í Faith. London:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1986.
Flasche, Rainer. "Die Religion der Einheit und
Selbstverwirklichung der Menschheit." In Zeitschrift für
Missionswissenschaft und Religionswissenschaft. 61. Münster:
Aschendorf'sche Verlagsbuchhandlung, 1977.
Fürstenberg, Friedrich, and Ingo Mörth.
"Religionssoziologie." In René König, ed., Handbuch der
empirischen Sozialforschung. 14. 2d ed. Stuttgart: Enke, 1979.
Glasenapp, Helmuth, von. Die nichtchristlichen Religionen. Frankfurt:
Goldziher, Ignaz. Vorlesungen über den Islam. 3d. ed.
Heidelberg: Winter, 1963. Haack, Friedrich Wilhelm. Die neuen
Jugendreligionen. Munich: n.p., 1984. — . Jugendreligionen — Ursache,
Trends, Reaktionen. Munich: n.p., 1984.
Hatcher, William S., and J. Douglas Martin. The
Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion. San Francisco:
Harper & Row, 1984.
Huddleston, John. The Earth is but One Country. London:
Bahá'í' Publishing Trust, 1986.
Hutten, Kurt. Seher, Grübler,
Enthusiasten: Das Buch der Sekten. 10th ed. Stuttgart: Quell, 1966.
Jockel, Rudolf. "Die Lehren der Bahá'í-Religion."
Ph.D. thesis, Tübingen University, 1952.
Khouri, Adel-Theodor. Einführung in die Grundlagen
des Islam. Vienna: Styria, 1978.
Lanczkowski, Günter. Die neuen Religionen. Frankfurt:
Lee, Anthony A., ed. Circle of Unity: Bahá'í
Approaches to Current Social Issues. Los Angeles: Kalimát Press,
Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche. 2ded.
Vol. 6. Freiburg: Herder, 1961.
Lüdicke, Klaus, ed. Münsterischer Kommentar zum Codex
Iuris Canonici, Essen: Ludgerus, 1985.
Martin, Douglas. "The Persecution of the Bahá'ís
of Iran, 1844-1984," Bahá'í Studies 12/13, a
publication of the Association for Bahá'í Studies. Ottawa,
Matthes, Joachim. Religion und Gesellschaft. Reinbek:
Meinhold, Peter. Die Religionen der Gegenwart: ihre Herkunft — ihre
Besonderheiten — ihr Beitrag zur Lösung der Weltprobleme. Freiburg:
Mensching, Gustav. Soziologie der Religion. 2d ed. Bonn:
Müller-Küppers, Manfred, and Friedrich Specht.
Neue Jugend- "religionen." Zurich: n.p., 1979.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Joyful Wisdom. London: George Allen
& Unwin, 1924.
— . The Will to Power. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson,
— . Thus Spake Zarathustra. New York: Random House, n.d.
Otto, Walter. Priester und Tempel im hellenistischen
ägypten. Vol. 2. Leipzig: G. Teubner, 1908.
Parent's Initiative Working Group. Dokumentation über die
Auswirkungen der Jugendreligionenauf Jugendliche in Einzelfällen. Bonn:
Principles of Bahá'í Administration: A Compilation. 3d ed. London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1973.
Rosenkranz, Gerhard. Die Bahá'í: Ein Kapitel
neuzeitlicher Religionsgeschichte. Stuttgart: Kreuz, 1949.
Rudolph, Kurt. "Wesen und Struktur der Sekte." In Kairos:
Zeitschrift für Religionswissenschaft und Theologie. New Issue. Vol.
21, No. 4. Salzburg: Otto Müller, n.d.
Sabet, Huschmand. The Heavens are Cleft Asunder. Oxford:
George Ronald, 1975.
Schaefer, Udo. "Die Grundlagen der Verwaltungsordnung der
Bahá'í." Doctoral thesis. Ruprecht-Karl-Universität,
— . The Imperishable Dominion: The Bahá'í Faith and
the Future of Mankind. Trans. Janet Rawling-Keitel, David Hopper, and
Patricia Crampton. Oxford: George Ronald, 1983.
— . The Light Shineth in Darkness: Five Essays in
Revelation after Christ. Translated by Hélène Momtaz Neri and
Oliver Coburn. Oxford: George Ronald, 1977.
Schulemann, Günter. Die Geschichte der Dalai Lamas. Heidelberg:
Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By. 3d ed. Wilmette,
Illinois: Bahá'í' Publishing Trust, 1974.
— . The Promised Day is Come. Rev. ed. Wilmette, Illinois:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980.
— . The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh. 2d
ed. Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980.
Smith, Peter. "Motiv Research, Peter Berger and the
Bahá'í Faith." In Religion. Vol. 8. London: Routledge
and Kegan Paul, 1978.
Sohm, Rudolf. Kirchenrecht. Leipzig: Duncker and Humblot,
— . Wesen und Ursprung
des Katholizismus. 2d ed. Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1912.
Troeltsch, Ernst. The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches. London:
George Alien &Unwin, 1931.
Vahman, Fereydun. "Bahá'ísmus." In Theologische
Realenzyklopädie (TRE). Vol. 5. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1980.
Wach, Joachim. Church, Denomination and Sect. Evanston,
Illinois: n.p., 1946.
— . Sociology of Religion. Chicago: University of Chicago
Weber, Max. "Sect, Church and Democracy." In Economy
and Society. Vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
Wilson, Bryan R. "Eine Analyse der Sektenentwicklung." In
Friedrich Fürstenberg, ed. Religionssoziologie. Neuwied-Berlin:
Zaretsky, Irving I., and Mark P. Leone. Religious Movements in
Contemporary America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974.
UDO SCHAEFER, Dr. Jur., studied musicology,
Latin, and law at the Ruperto Carola University in Heidelberg, Germany. His
doctoral thesis was on the legal basis of the Bahá'í
Administrative Order in comparison with Canon Law and Protestant Church Law.
Dr. Schaefer resides in Hirschberg, West Germany, near Heidelberg, where he is
the chief public prosecutor. He is the author of The Light Shineth
in Darkness: Five Studies in Revelation after Christ (Oxford: George
Ronald, 1977) and The Imperishable Dominion: The Bahá'í Faith
and the Future of Mankind (Oxford: George Ronald, 1983). The latter
work is being translated into Chinese and Arabic. The present work,
"The Bahá'í Faith: Sect or Religion?", has been
published 1984 in Dutch, and is being translated into French and Spanish for
publication by the Association.