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This paper is published in Word format at Hebrew University of Jerusalem website, where the author is the Chair in Baha'i Studies. Below is a short excerpt; download the full original at

Jewish Conversion to the Bahá'í Faith

by Moshe Sharon

[ excerpt; download the full original at ]

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The Messianic message of the Bahá’í Faith was, no doubt, one of the factors that attracted the Jews of Iran to the new religion. From ancient times, messianic expectations had flared up from time to time among the Jews in Iran. The Biblical figure of Cyrus, the Persian emperor who had urged the Jewish exiles to leave Babylon, return to the land of their fathers and re-establish their national independence and state, and build the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem under his protection was very much alive in the hearts of the Jews of Iran. They cherished the hope for the appearance, once again, of a new Cyrus who like the Cyrus of old, whom the Prophet Isaiah (45:1) called the Lord’s anointed, or The Messiah of the Lord, would save them from the degrading, humiliating life of fear and deprivation, of persecution and poverty imposed on them by the Shī˓ite Muslims of Iran. It is very possible that even in the 19th century residues of the Messianic hopes kindled by the false-messiah Shabbatai Zvi (1626-1676), who had influenced Iranian Jewry in the Safavid period, were still alive under the surface.

Bahá’u’lláh, however, was different kind of Messiah. He was Persian, “home made”, who could well be a new Cyrus. There was even more than a hint of that in his claim to be the direct descendant of the last Sasanian King of Persia, Yazdgird III, who had lost his Kingdom to the Arab Muslims. He also asserted to the Zoroastrians that he was the expected King-Messiah Shāh Bahrām (Buck, loc. cit.).

The Jews in Iran were among the first to convert to the Bahá’í faith, already in the seventies of the 19th century. In Hamadān the Jewish converts were particularly numerous, and it is estimated that that at least one quarter of the Jewish community in the city adopted the new religion. In Gulpayegān, where there was a particularly educated Jewish community, about 75% of the Jews became Bahá’ís. Similar processes of conversion, though not in such proportions, also occurred in other major cities of Iran such as Kashān, Tehrān, Kirmanshāh, Yazd, and Shīrāz. The only major town where the Jews did not adopt the Bahá’í faith was Iṣfahān because of the particular fanaticism of the Shī˓ah clergy and population, and the relentless persecution of the Bahá’ís in this city.

Walter Fischel, one of the first scholars to study the conversion of the Jews to the Bahá’í faith, regarded Messianic expectations as the main reason for this conversion. In all the studies and reports describing the Jewish attraction to the Bahá’í faith we find, more or less, the same reasons for this strange phenomenon in which Jews willingly exchanged one status of persecution with another. These reasons can be summed up as follows.

  1. The Jews had been suppressed by the Muslims and labeled by them as najis – ritually defiling, filthy - for centuries, and in particular since Iran became a Shī˓ite state. Suddenly they found themselves being treated by the Bahá’ís (who had been Muslims) as equal human beings, and even sought for as friends. They could share the once Muslim community life without being degraded, and no longer had to attach the special badge to their clothes, publicly displaying their Jewishness.
  2. The revolutionary, liberal ideas of the new religion were particularly attractive. The equality of all humans, the abolition of all signs of discrimination, religious, social or racial, the liberation of women, the rejection of all forms of violence, the striving for peace and other similar ideas were, for the Jews of Iran, as attractive as the ideas of the French Revolution were for the Jews of Europe (Fischel 1934; Netzer 2007:249).
  3. The idea of the oneness of religion was understood by them as meaning that becoming a Bahá’í did not involve forsaking one’s own religion. It was believed that the Bahá’í faith was a movement professing attractive ideas aiming at reforming society and morals, and that one could be Jewish and Bahá’í at the same time. This is what actually happened. Unlike the Jews who had converted to Islam and who were shunned by their family and the Jewish community at large, Jews who adopted the Bahá’í faith remained an integral part of their families and community. Most of them, in the first generation at least, continued observing the Jewish holidays, many went to the synagogue as usual on Sabbath, they were called to join a minyan (the quorum of ten men needed to perform public prayer), fasted on Yom Kippur, and some were even elected heads of the Jewish community.
  4. The humanistic and liberal ideas of the Bahá’í faith seemed to be compatible with the words of the prophets of Israel in the Bible, to whom Baha’u’lláh showed respect and whom he quoted as proof for the divine source of his own message. He acknowledged the greatness of Moses and the Torah, which he held valid and equal to the other Holy books of the world. He and his propagandists made an effort, when approaching Jews, to indulge in interpretations of Biblical prophetic texts in order to prove that his advent had been foreseen by the previous prophets. In many cases the Bahá’í propagandists knew the Biblical texts better than their Jewish listeners did. One of the most successful Bahá’í propagandists in this regard was Abū al-Faḍl Gulpayegānī, the erudite Bahá’í scholar, who, using these methods, was very active and successful in converting Jews in Hamadān.
  5. As already hinted, the poor condition of Judaism in Iran played a no less important part in the success of the Bahá’í propaganda among the Jews. For centuries, the Iranian Jews were virtually isolated from the rest of world Jewry. They were cut away from all the major centres of Jewish learning and developed nothing of their own. There was not even one Yeshiva anywhere, and consequently no proper Jewish religious leadership. The language, Persian, which the Jews spoke, was also a great hindrance since it cut them off completely from their nearest Arabic speaking Jewish neighbours. In this situation, the so-called Jewish rabbis in Iran that assumed the Muslim title of “mulla” were ignorant; they could hardly read Hebrew, and barely knew the basics of a very few Jewish laws. Jewish travelers who visited some of the Jewish communities tell amazing stories about the extent of the ignorance of the Jewish mullas and their flock. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Bahá’í emissaries to the Jews were far more knowledgeable than those “rabbis” who in many cases were themselves convinced to join the new religion. The younger generation, which had no spiritual leaders to look up to, drifted away from traditional Jewish life looking for something satisfying to fill their free time. There was nothing open to them outside the Jewish community since the Muslim society was closed to them if they did not choose to convert. The Bahá’í lecturers and instructors who came to the major towns such as Hamadān, Tehrān and Kashān, with their universal message of equality and fraternity, directed their activity particularly to the Jews, quoting the Bible and interpreting its messianic messages in an appealing and satisfying manner. For the first time, the Jews, including some of the “rabbis”, felt that there was a way to escape the confines of their community and mingle with a section of the general Iranian society, which seemed safe. Joining the Bahá’í faith, as indicated above, was not regarded as forsaking the religion of the ancestors. In time, of course, conversion to the new religion overcame the attachment to Judaism, and many Jewish converts became deeply involved in propagating the Bahá’í cause making a very valuable contribution to the spreading of the Bahá’í teachings among the Jews.
  6. The attitude of the Bahá’í leaders to Judaism also impressed many Jews. In 1891, Bahá’u’lláh wrote directly to Baron Rothschild, announcing to him the imminent return of the Jews to the Land of Israel. This idea remained constant in the messages to the Jews both in Iran and the United States that were delivered by ˓Abdu’l-Bahá during his visit there in 1912. In a letter, which ˓Abdu’l-Bahá wrote to the Jews in Iran in 1897, he did not leave any room for ambiguity about the messianic aspects which placed the Bahá’í faith in the heart of Judaism. This intimate relation between the two religions was emphasized even more by the fact that all the most important Bahá’í holy sites were located in the Land of Israel. (Faü 2004:267)

Although this is the general picture based on the available, mainly Jewish, sources, it is also clear from these sources that there were also negative reactions from Jewish educational institutions that began intensive activity in Iran in the second half of the 19th century. From 1875, the Alliance Israélite Universelle began its activity in Iran, and in 1880 opened the first schools in Ṭehrān and Iṣfahān, and the Sephardic New York organization Otzar ha-Torah, or in Persian Ganj-i-Dānesh (The Treasure of Knowledge), also opened schools for the Jews. Although the French orientated Alliance schools were not particularly interested in traditional Jewish education, nevertheless they, together with Otzar ha-Torah provided a higher level of education, and prepared the next generation of Jewish Iranian intellectuals with a better knowledge of Hebrew, and access to the Jewish sources. In the long run this led to a lowering of interest in conversion to the Bahá’í faith, towards the second decade of the 20th century, but not to abolishing it. There were many cases of Jews who received a superior education in the Jewish schools but whose education led them straight to the liberal ideas of the Bahá’í faith as it happened for instance with Eliah Sābet a son of a rabbi from Iṣfahān. Bahá’í children were also sent to these Jewish schools, in the same way that Jews went to the Bahá’í schools, which, as we shall see, were established at about the same period. This education was naturally very beneficial and it was available also to the poorer Jews of the ghetto. On the one hand it led to the second wave of conversion to the new faith between 1880 and 1898, but on the other it opened up great opportunities for the Bahá’ís and the Jews after the fall of the Qajārs and the establishment of the Pahlevī monarchy, and enabled the Jews and the Bahá’ís to enter into the highest governmental and economic posts in the country (Faü 2004:270).

From 1865, the emissaries of the Alliance Israélite Universelle had begun sending their reports about the Jews in Iran, particularly Hamadān, to the headquarters of the organization in Paris. These reports supplied detailed information about the abysmal conditions of the Jews there, and helped, from time to time, in mobilizing influential Jewish leaders in the West, such as Sir Moses Montefiore, to use their influence with the French and British governments to intervene with the Iranian government and ease the pogroms or get some Persian Governmental protection for the Jewish quarters in some of the main towns.

From these reports it is clear that the situation of the Jews in Hamadān was particularly bad. Persecutions, pogroms, and forced conversion to Islam occurred repeatedly during the 19th century. Individual Jews were murdered and Jewish shops and homes were looted by the mob, incited on a regular basis by the Shī˓ite religious leaders, many of whom were personally involved in murdering Jews. This state of affairs continued until almost the second decade of the 20th century (Netzer 2007:234-240). Even as late as 1911, long after the constitutional revolution of 1906, severe persecution of Jews in Hamadān continued. Bahá’ís in Hamadān lived in or near the Jewish neighbourhoods, and sometimes one suffered because of the persecution of the other. However, much sympathy was shown by the Jews to their Bahá’í neighbours, and common danger brought them together.

Whatever the reason, the Jews of Hamadān, as mentioned above, were the first to accept the Bahá’í faith. There is a report that the first conversion of some Jewish individuals in Hamadān occurred already in 1852 (the year of the severe persecutions of Bábīs). The poetess Qurrat al-˓Ayn is said to have been the initiator of the conversion process in Hamadān following her visit to the city around 1847 . When still in Iraq she met a Jewish physician called Ḥakīm Masīḥ who later became a court physician to Muḥammad Shāh (died 1848). At this meeting, Masīḥ was very impressed by the eloquence of Qurrat al-˓Ayn and also by the liberal teachings of the Báb as presented by her. Apparently he converted to the Bábī faith in about 1860 after meeting an imprisoned Bábí named Mullā Ṣādiq-i-Muqaddas (Ismu’llah al-Asdaq), a survivor of the great battle of Shaykh Ṭabarsī. Thus he gained the place of the first Jew in the world to adopt the new faith. When the news reached Bahá’u’lláh he sent him a special epistle (in the Bahá’í language: “a Tablet was revealed by the Exalted Pen in honour of Ḥakīm Masīḥ.” The Bahá’í World, 15, 1976:430). In spite of the fact that Ḥakīm Masīḥ was an important personality, being the Shāh’s Physician, his influence on the Jewish community was negligible. Ḥakīm Masīḥ was the grand father of Dr. Luṭfu’llāh Ḥakīm (1888-1968) a member of the first Universal House of Justice. ( Ibid, 430-434; H. Balyuzi, Báb , Oxford 1975:165n.; idem, ˓Abdu’l-Bahá, Oxford, 1974:78n.) In spite of the conversions made so early, we still have to wait for the years 1877-1880 to witness the first wave of Jewish conversion en mass to the Bahá’í faith in Hamadān and elsewhere. As to the activity of Qurrat al-˓Ayn in Hamadān, it is reported that she conducted talks with two Jewish rabbis Mullā Iliyāhū (Eliyāhū) and Mullā Lāhizār (El˓azār) “which led to attracting members of the Jewish Faith to the Bábī fold. (Balyuzi, Báb, 165) If this piece of information is true, then the Jews in this case were extremely brave to join a movement that was deemed to be in open rebellion against the Shāh.

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[ end of excerpt; download the full original at ]
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