The Paradox of the Bahá’í Faith


           In 1891, Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, a Persian nobleman in exile who called himself Baha’u’llah (“The Glory of God”), wrote the following words, claiming to be revealing God’s message for a new era of human civilization: The first Glad-Tidings… is that the law of holy war hath been blotted out from the Book [i.e. the scriptures of religion]… The second Glad-Tidings: It is permitted that the peoples and kindreds of the world associate with one another with joy and radiance. O people! Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship In his last will and testament, Baha’u’llah wrote: Every receptive soul who hath in this Day inhaled the fragrance of His garment and hath, with a pure heart, set his free towards the all-glorious Horizon [i.e. the highest heaven] is reckoned among the people of Baha [i.e. as Bahá’ís]… The religion of God is for love and unity; make it not the cause of enmity or dissension.

           Baha’u’llah’s first son and successor, Abbas Effendi, who called himself ‘Abdu’l-Baha (“Servant of the Glory”), wrote the following in his own will: So intense must be the spirit of love and loving kindness, that the stranger may find himself a friend, the enemy a true brother, no difference whatsoever existing between them. For universality is of God and all limitations earthly… Consort with all the peoples, kindreds and religions of the world with the utmost truthfulness, uprightness, faithfulness, kindliness, good-will and friendliness, that all the world of being may be filled with the holy ecstasy of the grace of Baha, that ignorance, enmity, hate and rancor may vanish from the world and the darkness of estrangement amidst the peoples and kindreds of the world may give way to the Light of Unity. Should other peoples and nations be unfaithful to you show your fidelity unto them, should they be unjust toward you show justice towards them, should they keep aloof from you attract them to yourselves, should they show their enmity be friendly towards them, should they poison your lives, sweeten their souls, should they inflict a wound upon you, be a salve to their sores. Such are the attributes of the sincere! Such are the attributes of the truthful.

           However, in the very same document, ‘Abdu’l-Baha also wrote:And now, one of the greatest and most fundamental principles of the Cause of God is to shun and avoid entirely the Covenant-breakers, for they will utterly destroy the Cause of God, exterminate His Law and render of no account all efforts exerted in the past… Beware lest ye approach this man [i.e. the chief of the “Covenant-breakers”], for to approach him is worse than approaching fire! … A thousand times shun his company… Watch and examine; should anyone, openly or privily, have the least connection with him, cast him out from your midst, for he will surely cause disruption and mischief.

            He was spealdng of his own brother Mohammed Ali Bahai, and most of the rest of their family, their father’s lifelong secretary, and numerous friends and supporters of Mr. Bahai, all of whom he had expelled from the new religious community. What was this “Covenantbreaking” that was so grave an offense that it would cause ‘Abdu’l-Baha to make a special exception to his own teachings of universal fellowship and forbearance, and instead urge his followers to enter into the sort of adversarial stance he had described as the “darkness of estrangement”?

            The specific accusations by ‘Abdu’l-Baha against Mr. Bahai are outlined in his will, and were the basis for denying this younger brother the successorship that their father had envisioned for his second son,5 who, like Abbas Effendi, had been an active leader in the formative years of the Bahá’í Faith. The accusations are serious and will be addressed in this book—both what ‘Abdu’l-Baha alleged, which has been portrayed as unchallenged fact in official Bahá’í histories and commentaries about the religion’s “Covenant” of institutional authority, as well as Mohammed Ali Bahai’s responses to the charges, which have never before been published—and furthermore, some of the counter-charges made by partisans of Mr. Bahai against ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Much more important than any of these accusations, however, is that in the formal excommunication of his brother, ‘Abdu’l-Baha severed one of the most significant veins of Bahá’í thought from the continued development of the faith. Mr. Bahai was an articulate and respected voice for an interpretation of Bahá’ísm centered on individual conscience and freedom from authoritarian religious leadership. His supporters called themselves “Unitarian” Bahá’ís, because of their emphasis on the oneness of God and the non-divinity and essential fallibility of the human leaders of religions—including ‘Abdu’l-Baha. In contrast, mainstream Bahá’ís today believe that ‘Abdu’l-Baha and his chosen successor Shoghi Effendi Rabbani—known in Baha’i parlance as the “Master” and the “Guardian” respectively—were infallible and that their teachings can never be changed by future Bahá’í leaders. This belief has locked in the mainstream Bahá’í community to some interpretations and policies that are difficult to defend in the 21st century, most notably, the absolute exclusion of women from serving on the highest Bahá’í institution, the Universal House of Justice.

           The estranged relationship between Baha’u’llah’s sons, more than any other feet or thread of Bahá’í history, changed the Bahá’í Faith from what might have become an Islamic-inspired liberal spiritual tradition analogous to the Christian-sprung free-thinking pluralism of the Unitarian Universalist church, into what Dr. Juan R. I. Cole, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, has described as a faith community with strict “social control mechanisms” such as “mandatory prepublication censorship of everything Bahá’ís publish about their religion, administrative expulsion, blackballing, shunning and threats of shunning. Dr. Cole, a former member of the Bahá’í community who left in 1996 under threat of excommunication and shunning, is one of the foremost scholars of a feith he considers to be “curiously off-limits to careful investigation.” Other distinguished Bahá’í scholars, such as Drs. John and Linda Walbridge, likewise have resigned their membership after being threatened by Bahá’í officials for seeking greater openness of scholarly dialogue and administrative reform of the faith.

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