By Eric Cohen
After the death of Baha’u’llah, the founder of Baha’i, his son Abbas Effendi became the leader according to his father’s will. According to the will, his half-brother Muhammad Ali was supposed to succeed him. However, the Baha’is split due to enmity between the two brothers. One group turned to the West and gradually separated itself completely from Islam; while the traditional group was trying to maintain its separation within the boundaries of basic Baha’i teachings and beliefs. In this article, we specifically focus on the more traditional faction, based in Acre, which today represents a kind of religious trend. Many members of the Baha’i family, and many of his closest associates, supported Muhammad Ali.
The leadership of Abdu’l-Baha in Acre
Abdu’l-Bahá apparently had the support of minor Baha’is in Acre and the majority of Baha’is outside Acre, but within a short time he succeeded in becoming the leader of the mainstream Baha’i movement. Abdu’l-Bahá, the leader of the Baha’is, was clearly in close contact with the British during the last years of Turkish rule in Palestine.
After the war, many of the Baha’is of Acre received land in the vicinity of Acre as a reward from the British Protectorate for their services to Britain. During that period, although the Baha’is of Acre were considered a sect, they remained a completely Muslim group. Before leaving Acre, during the last years of the Ottoman rule, Abdu’l-Bahá himself had a private room in the Grand Mosque of Acre, and at times, he was in charge of leading prayers in the mosque. The last surviving descendant of Bahaullah’s generation is still one of the serious attending client visitors to the mosque todays.
Shoghi Effendi and Acre Baha’is
Abdu’l-Bahá died in 1921 and appointed Shoghi Effendi, the youngest son of his eldest daughter, as his successor. The main group of Iranian Baha’is of Acre, even those who did not separate from Abdu’l-Bahá, did not approve of Shoghi Effendi‘s succession as the leader of the Baha’i Faith. Also, the other sons of Bahaullah were still alive at the time of Abdu’l-Bahá’s death. The most important of them was Muhammad Ali, who, according to Bahaullah’s will, was to succeed Abdu’l-Bahá.
When Shoghi Effendi came to power, some Baha’i families in Acre left the mainstream Baha’i stream in opposition to him. Others, including Shoghi‘s own relatives and family members, such as his mother and two brothers, were rejected and excommunicated by him because of their unwillingness to follow Shoghi’s arbitrary and arrogant orders. The early outcasts and violators gradually included almost all Iranian Baha’is living in Acre, and in fact Palestine!
Now the population of the city of Acre is 35,000, of which Jews constitute about three-fourths, and the rest are Arabs. Among the Arabs, about 80% are Muslims and the rest are Christians. Acre Baha’is are a very small group and are not involved in the turbulent political life of the society. Contrary to what is expected from a group related to the founder of the religion and his closest followers, they do not show any sign of special Baha’i religiosity. There is little socializing among Acre Baha’i families. The leaders of the Baha’i Organization of Haifa consider it expedient to ignore the existence of dissident Baha’is in Acre. An agreement has been reached between Israel’s Department of Religious Affairs and the Haifa Center, according to which Baha’is enjoy religious freedom in Israel, but they will refrain from preaching in this country, both among Jews and Arabs.
Rifts and divisions in Baha’ism
The phenomenon of internal rifts and divisions is a common one in sectarian movements. Though such divisions are usually clad in theological terms, they often express rivalries between competing leaders, each of whom becomes the head of an independent new group after the split. Among modern Christian and particularly Protestant sects, the factions emerging out of a schism often compete with each other as to which will be more radical or extremist in the interpretation of the original doctrine; they share basically the same theological position and compete for the allegiance of essentially the same religious public.
The schism in the Baha’i movement – and I suspect this applies to most sectarian schisms in traditional or modernizing societies – is characterized by an essentially different religious dynamics: the sect grew originally within the confines of a stagnant society and a rigid, doctrinaire religious establishment; it was feared and persecuted not only because of its heretical doctrine – i.e. the denial of the Islamic dogma that Muhammad is the last Prophet – but also because it threatened the established religious and social order. The feuding factions emerging from the two successive schisms within the sect in fact represent conflicting attitudes to the problem of the relationship of the new sect to the world and the surrounding social and religious order: whereas the more traditional factions, first the Azalis and later the adherents of Muhammad Ali were of a more quietist disposition and actually sought accommodation  within the existing order, the more progressive factions – Baha’u’llah‘s and later A Abdu’l Baha’s – were of a more activist and revolutionary disposition; they sought to usher in a New Era and thus, by implication, destroy the old order. The schism started, in both cases, as a traditional fraternal feud over inheritance of the leadership of the sect; but the factions quickly adopted opposing doctrinal positions. The more conservative faction was in each case supported by the older sectarian “establishment”, which apparently had a greater stake in the system than the more peripheral rank-and-file. It is important to note, also, that the more progressive faction turned in both cases to a radically different public than the traditional one – it sought its adherents outside the fold of Islam. This in turn brought forth the universalization of the faith and its separation from the mother religion.
Berger, in his analysis of the historical dynamics of the Baha’i movement, claims that the faction led by Muhammad Ali pressed for premature “legal-rational routinization”, whereas the one led by Abdu’l Baha experienced a gradual reduction of charisma from one leader of the faith to another.
Baha’i Faith or Baha’i organization?!
In the long run, however, the Haifa faction, rather than that of Acre, became the more “legally-rationally” routinized one, as attested by its complex and formal organizational structure; while (the Acre faction, though small in number and thus outwardly resembling a sect, sunk into a kind of ossification. I did not find in the literature an adequate term to describe the social structure of such a group; since I came across other groups with a similar structure. I propose a special term to describe this generic type of religious organization: “a residual religious community”. Such a community is either a remnant of a sect which was side-tracked by its rivals, or a once important religious organization, such as a church or a denomination, which has gradually been reduced to relative insignificance. The Baha’is of Acre are an example of the former. The Samaritans are a good example of the latter and others could probably easily be found among some of the old Eastern Christian churches and other remnants of once widespread religions in the Middle East. In spite of their diverse origins, such groups have several characteristics in common: they generally entertain a defensive attitude – they strive to protect their right to exist and their interests within the broader society; but they do not attempt to spread their belief. We have seen that the Baha’is of Acre established an organization mainly for the purpose of defending the interests of the dissenters against encroachment from Haifa. Their leadership admits its failure in the conflict with Haifa and has in fact given up hope of any radical changes in the future which could catapult it into world leadership of the Baha’is.
The defensive attitude of the ‘‘residual religious community” is often caused by its rather vague status within the broader society. Being a small group, it does not enjoy a clearly recognized separate religious status, and the danger of encroachment by a larger group always exists. Thus, the Baha’is of Acre are not officially recognized either as Muslims or as Baha’is. The Samaritans, though a distinct religious group, also have not been officially recognized as a separate religious community. Their precise relationship to the Jewish community remains vague.
Turning now to their internal structure, we find that such communities, rather than forming a solidary, unified group, are internally sharply divided. Such a division might be of old standing, but it continues to determine the relationship within the community: we have seen that the internal division of the Baha’is of Acre represents, so to speak, an ossified accumulation of the conflicts of the past. The Samaritans are also rigidly subdivided.
It is remarkable that some residual religious communities, in spite of small size, ossification and loss of religious élan, often remain preserved for centuries: the Samaritans are an extreme example of such a case. The Bahais of Acre, however, are threatened with extinction. The difference between these two cases is related to their different ability to maintain their “social boundaries”  i.e., to preserve a distinct identity, clearly circumscribed membership and a separate institutional system. I assume that this ability depends on the background of such communities. Those communities which are descended from past denominations or churches, like the Samaritans, would tend to preserve their social boundaries rigidly, while those which are remnants of sects which failed to “take-off”, like the Acre Baha’is, would keep fewer rigid boundaries and hence will more easily become assimilated or absorbed by the surrounding society.
I would still like to point out, in conclusion, that the fate of the Baha’is of Acre is by no means sealed. Whether they will accept the prospect of their demise stoically, or whether the full realization of that contingency will jolt them into an act of social and religious realignment and reunification, remains for the future to decide.
1- Such processes of fission of sectarian movements were, in recent times, particularly conspicuous among the Pentecostals; sec: B.R. Wilson: Religious Sects….op. cit., p. 78.
2- See B.R, Wilson: An Analysis of Sect Development, in B.R. Wilson (ed.): Patterns of Sectarianism, op. cit., p. 36. This phenomenon of sectarian schism should not be confused with the tendency of radical sects to split off from more conservative churches or denominations, which do not satisfy the religious needs of the adherents.
3- On the importance of “accommodation” as a factor which reduces the intensity of sectarianism, see W. Mulder: From Sect to Church, in: J.M. Yinger: Religion, Society and Individual, Macmillan, New York, 1957, pp. 480-488.
4- Berger, op. cit., p. 102.
5- The Samaritans are divided into five extended families which relate directly to three tribes of Israel. The author has studied the structure of the Samaritans, but the results have not yet been published yet.
6- For the concept of “social boundaries”, see Y. Cohen: Social Boundary Systems. Current Anthropology, Vol. 10, No. 1, 1969; F. Barth (ed.): Ethnic Groups and Boundaries. George Allen and Unwin, London, 1969.
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