Lessons for the Christians in the History of the Bahai Faith

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By Adrian Worsfold 

Keywords

      Christianity, Jesus Christ, Bible, New Testament, John the Baptist, Paul, Babism, Bahaism, Bahai Faith, Bab, Baha’u’llah, Abdul–Baha, Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian, Will & Testament, Mason Remey, Hand of the Cause, Haifa, Universal House of Justice, UHJ, NSA, LSA, Bahai Election, Bahai Administration

  Introduction

          When I was confirmed into the Church of England in 1984 I asked some Bahais, whom I met at their firesides, to come along. None did. At the end I fell out with the Bahais, as I discovered academic material that presented their history differently from their own. They are very committed to the preservation of their history as manipulated and monitored by the Universal House of Justice (the nine seats male-only assembly, meant to be a religious decision making body for the world, elected without campaigns by the National Spiritual Assemblies below them, these NSAs elected respectively by delegates from the Local Spiritual Assemblies below them.) It is a very conservative system, a sort of democratic centralism: what the top level says goes effected.

  Origin and Background

           Very quick summarizing: the origin of the Baha’i Faith is in the Babi Faith, that is a deviating developed out of Shia Islam in Iran and Iraq. They were waiting for the return of the Hidden Twelfth Imam and a Holy War for the victory of Islam.

           In 1844 Ali Muhammed Shirazi claimed to be the Bab, the Gateway to the returning Imam. When his claimed Imam didn’t appear at Karbala, Ali Muhammed escalated his status in stages to the Imam, then the Prophet, and then superseding to a new Manifestation of God!

           The movement was surrounded by violence, and started much of it themselves. The Bab appointed Mirza Yahya (or Subh-i-Azal) to be his successor. But after the Bab was killed by the authorities, the violence continued and the movement was in severe decline. Subh-i-Azal’s half brother, Mirza Husayn Ali, a Persian convert, built up his own faction. In 1863 he, Baha’u’llah (Glory of God), announced himself as the  next Manifestation of God after Bab. The authorities never left either faction alone. The Azalis ended up in Cyprus and the Baha’is at Palestine.

         However, Baha’u’llah, in the course of the compulsory travels, read Sufi books and New Testament material, and completely remodeled the Babi faith, as it came into the Western orbit, making itself syncretistic in character, peaceful, and expecting the unification of the world.

           Baha’u’llah died in 1892, and Abbas Effendi, or Abdul-Baha, his eldest son, became the leader, the only interpreter, and the “Centre of the Covenant”. Here there was factionalism, as a group known as the Unitarians (people of the Book, not Abdul-Baha’s interpretations) broke out and were excommunicated.

          The Young Turks’ victory meant an end to restrictions, and Abdul-Baha became a traveler around the West; even more spiritualizing and Westernizing the movement, and was a charismatic figure as he attended the mosques, Christian, and Unitarian (the other sort) churches and synagogues.

           After he died Shoghi Effendi became the first Guardian. Some Bahais, including the German Bahai group, did not accept the validity of Abdul Baha’s “will” appointing him and so the Free Baha’is emerged for a time. Shoghi Effendi should have had a serving Universal House of Justice under him, but he did not set it up. He should have left a will, but either he didn’t or it never was found. So when he died in 1957, there was a crisis of leadership, after which in 1963 the Universal House of Justice was formed and took to itself powers of the Guardian, most importantly the sole power to interpret and the power to excommunicate.

            Mason Remey, the chief of the Bahai Hands of the Cause, and chairman of the International Bahai Council, a forerunner to the UHJ, thought he should be the new Guardian. Factions have arisen ever since from that branch, including one that now thinks the second Guardian was presumptive, but so was the Universal House of Justice taking power to itself.

  Entry by Troops, a Mass Conversion Program of UHJ

          The UHJ produces plans for growth. The millennial nature of the Bahai Faith is that it expects the most great peace to arrive (instead we had George Bush!) and a tipping point where “troops of people” convert to the Bahai faith. Unfortunately, the Bahai faith has been born in a rather irreligious age in Europe, and other than slight growth in some developing countries, Europe has been slow and with a high turnover of members.

           Plus, the UHJ in Haifa has a habit of turning into covenant-breakers the members who don’t submit to censorship panels. There are also quite a few people who find themselves mysteriously removed from the rolls of membership. But in the age of the Internet they continue their faith with new freedom, the name Baha’i being in the public realm.

           A problem for the Haifan Baha’is is that only they can raise money, and members who can participate in Feasts, as well as, firesides find themselves locked into administration details. The Baha’i faith is an “Administrative Order” after all. So at each stage of leadership transition elite groups have competed and been excluded, and it is reasonable to say that the quest for unity has been a failure because of its high cost in factions and breakaways. And now there is a more relaxed Bahaism emerging of excluded or drifter individuals. It matters not that the Universal House of Justice only recognizes itself as legitimate, because anyone can read the Kitab-i-Iqan and Kitabi-i-Aqdas and the published materials that Shoghi Effendi translated into his strained old-world English. Even infallibility is being questioned by individuals let loose.

 

  The Bahai Faith and Christianity

          The Bahai faith is useful for Christians and Christian theology in a number of ways. First of all we see something of a parallel in the Bab, as a kind of announcer of a new manifestation, although he became what he expected. He gets positioned like a John the Baptist, and probably John the Baptist was his own man too. Then, we have the central manifestation (Incarnation) figure, Baha’u’llah. Then, we have the very important St. Paul figure, who becomes such an important interpreter and spreader into new cultures and giving a further twist to the faith. Then, we have the issue of authority. There is something of the Pope in the Guardian, of course, but the UHJ is like Orthodoxy or Roman Catholic centralism –with knobs on. In fact, it is very Weberian-bureaucratic, and very pyramidal. Weber regarded such with great pessimism: it was against the life-giving enchantment that he thought religion supplied.

         The other lesson is that of allowing theology to grow organically and in diversity. There is a distinct double identity problem of Baha’i members scholarship in secular institutions, including that of religious studies departments. It does the Baha’i faith no favors. We see similar with some Roman Catholics. If Christians become more subject to such pressures of membership conformity, then there is a distortion to both the academic sphere, and to the representational sphere.

        I also suggest that Christians should express the truth, as they find it, even when it conflicts with doctrines or interpretations of the Bible. If there is some compelling finding about, say, the Jesus of history as an end time Jewish rabbi, then this should come first; or at least people should be honest about the layer-cake nature of doctrines; or how people interpret the Bible. Older faiths have developed more maturity with time. They can sit light and worry less about how their faiths are represented. Or at least this is what we thought, as the Christian world gave rise to a secular and plural world.

            There are pressures to go along a road of such as the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans. There is a narrowing of what is legitimate expression of a faith, and there are calls for excluding those who are not biblical enough. An Anglican Communion, properly understood, would become a World Wide Anglican Church with authoritative statements handed down, with again distant high-up forms of selection of those with centralized power.

           Who knows how these developments will work out? The Baha’is could not predict their own future, despite the claimed infallibility of the words of both their Manifestations and Center of the Covenant. So Anglicans cannot predict theirs either! Nevertheless, if secularisation and plurality lead down the road to authoritarianism and centralization, there are going to be quite a few Anglican Communion Covenant Breakers who will continue to define the faith in a broad way, however they organize, meet and link up together.

         A brief introduce of the editor: 

           Adrian Worsfold (Pluralist), has a doctorate in sociology and a master degree in contemporary theology. He lives near Hull, in northeast England and keeps the blog Pluralist Speaks.

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