Formatted by Jonah Winters.
Reconciling the Other:
Faith in America as a
Successful Synthesis of Christianity and
by Anthony A. Lee
A number of scholars have commented on the Islamic
elements of basic Baha'i theology and practice as found in Europe and America.
In fact, the study of the Baha'i religion, even in the West, continues to be
thought of academically in terms of Islamic Studies. And yet, the Baha'is
themselves, in the United States and elsewhere, are quick to deny that their
religion is Islamic. Indeed, many ordinary Baha'is are even unaware of the
Islamic roots many Baha'i teachings, and they experience them instead as the
fulfilment of Christianity.
It appears then that the
Baha'i Faith in America, at least, has developed historically as a successful
systhesis of Christianity and Islam. In fact, this may be the only successful
synthesis of the two traditions which exists as a living religion. Naturally,
a reductionist argument is not being made here: The Baha'i Faith is more than a
Christian-Muslim syncretism. Nonetheless, basic elements of both religions
have been harmonized in current Baha'i thinking and practice.
This paper will seek to identify some Muslim elements in
the Baha'i religion as it is practiced in the United States and demonstrate how
these elements have been Christianized in Baha'i practice. It will comment on
the power of religion to achieve one of its fundamental purposes--to dissolve
contradictions and reconcile the unreconcilable.
The origins of the Bahá'í religion are
firmly rooted in Islam. Bahá'ís mark the beginning of their
history with the declaration of the Báb in Shiraz, Iran, on May 22,
1844. Sayyid 'Alí-Muhammad, who later took the title of the Báb
(meaning Gate), claimed to be the return of the long-awaited Qa'im, the
Imám Mihdí, the Hidden Imam whose return in the flesh had been
awaited for a thousand years by pious Shí'ís. The Bábí movement quickly gained a following
among the scholars of the Shaykhí school within the ulema, and
eventually a wider following among ordinary Muslims in Shí'í
Iran. The followers of the Báb were declared heretics by the orthodox
Muslim clergy, persecuted and scattered. The Báb himself was imprisoned
and eventually executed in 1850.
The brutal suppression
of the Bábí religion within Iran by an alliance of clergy and
government, the failure of armed resistance, and the extermination of
Bábí leaders, left the movement ripe for reinterpretation. This
was eventually provided by Bahá'u'lláh, Mírzá Husayn-'Alí Núrí
(1817-1892), who from exile in Ottoman realms reshaped Bábí
teachings into a new quietist and liberal religion with universal ideals.
Bahá'u'lláh claimed to be the appearance of the
Bábí messiah who had been enigmatically designated as "He Whom
God shall make manifest" (man yuzhiruhu'lláh) by the Báb.
Bahá'u'lláh also claimed to be the embodiment of other messianic
figures, particularly the return of the Imám Husayn promised in popular
majority of Bábís (followers of the Báb) in time delivered
their allegiance to Bahá'u'lláh, designating themselves
Bahá'ís. The Bahá'í Faith established itself as a
tiny and persecuted minority religion in the Middle East, but still the largest
(non-Muslim) religious minority in Iran.
At first glance, all this would seem
to have nothing to do with Christianity. Yet, from before the turn of the
century there have been significant numbers of Christian converts to the
Bahá'í Faith in Europe and America who have accepted their new
religion as the fulfilment of Bible prophecy. Even Shoghi Effendi Rabbani
(1897-1957), the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith (from 1921),
remarks on the "momentous happenings" which "transformed a heterodox and
seemingly negligible offshoot of the Shaykhí school of
Ithná-'Asharíyyih sect of Shí'ah Islám into a world
religion whose unnumbered followers are organically and indissolubly united."
The dissonance which is
presumed to exist between the Islamic origins of the Bahá'í Faith
and its Christian converts in the West has been commented on by a number of
writers, and particularly by Christian ministers. In a scholarly context, Denis MacEoin has raised this
issue as problematic. He says, for example:
Among the new
religious movements clamouring for attention in the modern West,
Bahá'ísm (the Bahá'í faith) stands out as something
of an anomaly. The movement originated in the 1860s as a faction within
Bábísm . . ., a messianic sect of Shi'a Islam . . . that began in
Iraq and Iran in 1844. The founder of Bahá'ísm, Baha' Allah
(1817-92), claimed to be a new prophet and expounded his religion as the latest
in a long line of divine revelations. Confined to the Middle East, it is
likely that Bahá'ísm would have joined the ranks of the numerous
heterodox Islamic sects there, with most of which it shares common features.
But in 1894 the movement became one of the first missionizing Eastern religions
to reach the West . . . Unlike Ahmadiyya and some recent Sufi groups that have
sought converts in Europe and America, the Baha'is had consciously broken their
connections with Islam . . . Indeed, even though the
Bahá'í Faith has been established in the Western world for over
one-hundred years now, the academic study of the religion is still most often
thought of in terms of Islamic Studies.
The majority of Baha'is today are
converts from non-Islamic backgrounds and, as a result, there is widespread
ignorance within the community of the extent to which the basic doctrines of
the religion are Islamic (and, in particular, Shi'ite) in origin. Leaving
aside for the moment the question of individual doctrines, it is
incontrovertable that the context within which these operate differs in no
radical sense from the central presuppositions of Islam. History is a process
directed by periodic divine intervention, the purpose of which is to reveal the
will of God in the form of a shari'a, a comprehensive ethical, legal and
social system designed to fashion and regulate the affairs of society at all
levels. . . . In practice, only a small portion of Baha'i law is either known
or acted on [by Baha'is] outside Islamic countries.
Nonetheless, American Bahá'ís are quick to
point out that their religion is not Islamic. It is a fundamental tenet of
belief that the Bahá'í Faith is an independent, world religion
which has no greater connection with Islam than with any other world religion.
MacEoin approaches this matter as a question of the simple "ignorance" of
Bahá'ís in the West of the Islamic origins of their religious
practice. I find this approach rather sterile. It falls into the old trap of
Orientalist assumptions, whereby the scholar is presumed to know more about the
"true nature" of Islamic religion than do those who practice it. It reduces
all American Bahá'í practice to mere ignorance, and of course
thereby leaves nothing to study.
I propose that the
actual experience and practice of American Bahá'ís is not a mere
imperfect reflection of Islamic contexts, but is a living religion in which the
traditions and religious assumptions of both Islam and Christianity have been
blended in organic unity. This mix does not arrive from some artificial,
deliberate synchretism which has been imposed on the community, but from the
unique history of the Bahá'í Faith in America and from the lived
experience of Bahá'ís who bring Christian assumptions to their
new Faith. American Bahá'ís do not experience the basic
doctrines or practices of their religion as essentially Muslim, but as the
extension and the fulfilment of Christianity. It seems that the
Bahá'í Faith, in America at least, has developed historically as
a successful synthesis of Christianity and Islam. In fact, this may be the
only successful synthesis of the two traditions which exists as a living
This paper will seek to identify a few of the
elements of the Bahá'í Faith in the West which scholars like
MacEoin would regard as essentially Islamic. The paper will argue that,
despite undeniable roots in Islam, these elements have been throughly
Christianized in contemporary American Bahá'í practice. Without
being blind to the Islamic locus of the early history of their religion,
American Bahá'ís nonetheless regard that history as the
realization of Christian eschatology and identify closely with early Muslim
Bábís and Bahá'ís without difficulty.
Since in the Christian West, one of the strongest images
of "the Other" has been the "Muslim infidel" for several hundred years, the
Bahá'í community may be said to have realized a remarkable
feat--the reconciliation of Christian and Muslim identity. I believe that this
experience might help us understand the power of religion to accomplish its
primary function in human life--to dissolve contradictions and to reconcile
The Bahá'í teachings were first
introduced to the United States by accident, not by design. Ibrahim George
Kheiralla, a Syrian Christian who had converted to the Bahá'í
Faith while living in Egypt, was the first Bahá'í to actively
teach the religion in this country. In the early 1890s, Americans were
actively recruiting Egyptian businessmen to participate in the World's
Columbian Exposition that was to be held in Chicago during 1893. Kheiralla and
his business partner, Anton Haddad, a Lebanese Christian who had also become a
Bahá'í, traveled to Chicago to make their fortune at the
Exposition. Their business ventures failed, causing Kheiralla to open a
practice in alternative medicine in Chicago which put him in touch with the
active and thriving metaphysical and cultic melieu of the city. He soon began
highly successful classes on the Bahá'í teachings which attracted
hundreds, and eventually thousands, of American converts.
Being a recent convert, Kheiralla had
only a limited understanding of the Bahá'í Faith and its history.
He had little access to Bahá'í scripture and shaped his classes
around the notion that the truth of the Bahá'í teachings could be
proven from the Bible, and "by science and logic."
Kheiralla taught that
Bahá'u'lláh had been the incarnation of God the Father, and that
his eldest son, 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921) living in exile in Palestine and by
then the Head of the religion was the return of Jesus Christ. Of course, such
ideas did not square with Bahá'í scripture; they eventually
shocked Middle-Eastern Bahá'ís and were repudiated by
'Abdu'l-Baha. But for their early
Christian audience they had great resonance and formed the basis of a new,
electrifying and successful Message: that God had returned and that Jesus
Christ was alive and imprisoned in the Holy Land. Such ideas were to remain
current in the American Bahá'í community for many decades to
come, no matter how many times they were modified or repudiated by
Bahá'í authorities. This, and reference to Bible proofs and
prophecies, which teachings 'Abdu'l-Baha accepted and elaborated, formed the
Christian base of the new American Bahá'í
At this point, it is useful to ask how the new
American Bahá'ís viewed their relationship to Islam, since the
persons that they now accepted as the Incarnation of God and the Return of
Christ had clearly been Muslims. The early Bahá'í attitude is
difficult to recover with any certainty. However, nineteenth-century
Bahá'ís managed to distance themselves from Islam, at least
publicly. In 1899, when the Bahá'ís in Kenosha, Wisconsin, were
denounced in their churches (and eventually expelled from them) for spreading
Islamic teachings, their reply in the newspapers included this rebuttal:
He [Stoyan Vatralsky, the minister who had denounced the
Bahá'í Faith from the pulpit] says we are teaching Mohammedanism.
I will say right here, we are teaching God's truth and teaching it from the
Bible. If this is so how can we be teaching Mohammedanism? Mohammedanism is
not taught from the Bible, but from the Koran, which is the most corrupt of all
bibles and the most corrupt of all religions. Nonetheless, Kheiralla had
clearly taught the Bahá'ís that Muhammad was a prophet of God,
and Islam a true religion. In the major book which summarizes his teachings
(which was published in the same year as the above disclaimer), Kheiralla makes
no secret of this fact. He writes:
At the time of Mohammed's
appearance, the Arabian tribes were idolators. God appointed this great
messenger to teach them the same truth which Abraham, Moses and Christ had
uttered. . . . If we judge Mohammed without prejudice, we will find his
character equally lustrous as any of the great prophets who are esteemed as our
highest examples. If Mohammedanism was carried by the edge of the sword, it
was the outcome of material desires and preference for earthly power evinced by
Mohammed's followers, who, in their fanaticism and inhumanity, violated the
spiritual principles and lofty teachings of God's appointed prophet. After
Mohammed's death, the true Koran was rejected, and the present spurious version
Again, this last sentence would have scandalized Bahá'ís from
Muslim backgrounds and forms no part of the teachings of
Bahá'u'lláh who accepted the received Islamic Qur'an as authentic
scripture. This early doctrine of a "spurious" Qur'an would be rejected even
by American Bahá'ís within a few years. But initially it appears
that the idea allowed Kheiralla to both accept Islam as a true religion and at
the same time dismiss its scripture as corrupt and irrelevant to
Bahá'í teachings. In any case, his own version of the
Bahá'í Faith was fully Bible centered. Even the writings of
Bahá'u'lláh himself, being mostly unavailable, had little role to
play in these early years.
However, around 1900 a crisis developed in the American
Bahá'í community which eventually resulted in the introduction of
strong, new Persian and Islamic influence on Bahá'í belief and
practice. Kheiralla's increasingly unsatisfactory leadership and his disputes
with the 'Abdu'l-Baha eventually lead to his expulsion from the
Bahá'í community. During the years 1900 to 1904, several
prominent Iranian Bahá'í teachers were sent to America to
consolidate the believers in the wake of Kheiralla's defection and to provide a
source of orthodox Bahá'í teaching.
of these Iranian teachers were, of course, from a Muslim background--as opposed
to Kheiralla's Christian heritage. Perhaps the most important,
Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl Gulpaygani, who remained in the United States
for three and a half years, had been an important Shí'í cleric, a
mujtahid, before becoming a Bahá'í in Iran in 1876. Trained in
the legal tradition of Islam, Abu'l-Fadl had little patience for the
metaphysical bent of many American Bahá'ís, whom he regarded as
"ghostchasers." His systematic presentation of the Bahá'í Faith
in lectures and books stressed the independent and organized nature of the
religion and emphasized its (Muslim-based) laws, obligations, and rituals.
Naturally, the context of his teaching was Islamic.
Nonetheless, 'Abu'l-Fadl as much as the other Iranian teachers had to
accommodate his message to an American Bahá'í audience.
Christian assumptions and "proofs" from the Bible had to be utilized. While the Qur'an was respected, the more
urgent task was to introduce the American Bahá'ís to authentic
Bahá'í scripture. And so, in effect, the Qur'an was ignored as a
source of scripture or belief. Indeed, Peter Smith has suggested that the
presence of Iranian patriarchal figures, come from the Holy Land, wearing
Oriental robes and speaking through interpreters, may well have reinforced the
sense which many American Bahá'ís felt of being like the early
disciples of Christ, seeing themselves as the prototypical Christians. While the Muslim origins of their new
religion were not lost on them, the Bahá'í message was received
and intepreted in a Christian context.
And so it is
today. Certainly little enough work has been done on the various influences,
since the turn of the century, of American Christian and Iranian Muslim culture
on Bahá'í thought, practice, and identity in the United States.
But it is clear that the American Bahá'í community today reflects
an organic mix of such influences. Therefore, I think that it is a mistake to
suppose that the Bahá'í Faith, as it is practiced in America,
functions with Islamic assumptions or in an Islamic context. The situation is
much more complicated than that. Rather, the central elements of the
Bahá'í religion were originally articulated in an Islamic context
but were thoroughly Christianized (in context) as they were adopted by the
Let us take, for example, the
Bahá'í laws concerning obligatory prayer as they are practiced in
America. Islam makes a distinction between the daily ritual prayer
(salát; which is obligatory, must be said at certain times, must
be preceeded by ablutions to be valid, must be performed in accordance with a
prescribed ritual, and may be enforced on Muslims on pain of death, if
necessary) and personal, pious worship whereby the Muslim may commune with God
as he wishes. Bahá'í
scripture preserves this distinction: In the Kitáb-i Aqdas (Most Holy
Book) and its appendices, Bahá'u'lláh designates three obligatory
prayers--with instructions for ablutions, times for recitation, ritual
postures, and so forth (but without provision for congregational recital or
coersive enforcement)--any one of which may be used daily to satisfy the
requirement of salát.18 At the same time,
Bahá'u'lláh has written hundreds of prayers which
Bahá'ís may say as they wish.
however, recognize no such distinction. They experience their daily obligatory
prayers as being qualitatively identical to any other Bahá'í
prayers. Except for the requirement that one of them should be said every day,
there is no difference. And this requirement is understood in the context of
popular Christian piety, and certainly not as an extension of Muslim ritual,
even though the Muslim salát is clearly the historic root of the
Nonetheless, a popular
summary of Bahá'í teachings introduces the Bahá'í
obligatory prayers along with all other prayer and in the context of piety and
devotion familiar to a Christian audience. After discussing unity, love and
service in the life of the individual, the book begins its section on "Prayer":
Man can worship and give praise to God through his daily
work. But this is not sufficient. He should also consciously communicate with
his Creator. Prayer is food for the soul. . . .
in the Bahá'í Faith is not accompanied by any form of ritual.
What is important is sincerity of heart and concentration of mind, both of
which are often gradually attained only after one has made a regular habit of
In order to teach us how to pray
Bahá'u'lláh has written many beautiful prayers which have helped
thousands of people, though prayer can also be without words. . . .
Bahá'u'lláh asks His followers to pray
every day. Apart from the many different prayers which can be used on all
occasions, Bahá'u'lláh has revealed three obligatory prayers from
which a Bahá'í can choose one for his daily use.
Here, the Islamic
distinction between ritual prayer and personal communion has been completely
Precisely the same approach to prayer is taken
in the classic reference volume of Bahá'í teachings
Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era, first published in 1923. The
book devotes an entire chapter to the subject, a chapter which is prefaced by a
quotation from Muhammad: "Prayer is a ladder by shich everyone may ascend to
heaven." This is not a reference to Islamic practice, but rather an
acknowledgement of the place of Muhammad in Bahá'í salvation
The chapter itself makes no reference at all
to different kinds or orders of prayer. It begins by defining prayer as
"Conversation with God," the proper devotional attitude, the need for a
mediator between humanity and the Creator, and so forth. The obligatory prayer is explained in a paragraph in the
section titled "Prayer is Indispensable and Obligatory."
Neither book makes any mention of
the ablutions which should precede the Bahá'í obligatory prayer.
Indeed, American Bahá'ís almost universally ignore this provision
of Bahá'í law (as well as the need to face the
Bahá'í Qiblih, preferred postures, and so forth), though
recitation of the daily obligatory prayer is widespread and normative in the
community. The Bahá'í salát has been thoroughly
Christianized in current observance.
Another provision of Bahá'í law which has
obvious Islamic roots is the prohibition of alcoholic drinks.
Bahá'u'lláh, in the Kitáb-i Aqdas, makes this prohibition
explicit. This Bahá'í law
has been widely observed by American Bahá'ís at least since the
1930s, and it is as fundamental to Bahá'í identity in the United
States as it is to Muslim identity in the Middle East. However, the Islamic
foundations of this practice remain irrelevant to Americans, either unknown or
Among Bahá'ís in the
United States the requirement that they abstain from alcohol has clearly been
accepted in the context of Protestant temperance sentiment. Most
Bahá'ís, as most Americans, probably abstained from alcohol
before their conversions, in any case. Again, this practice, like the
Bahá'í disapproval of the use of tobacco (which stops short of
prohibition), accords easily with pious Christian discipline. Many American
Bahá'ís tell of giving up alcohol before becoming
Bahá'ís, and without being told, as they considered conversion to
their new religion. I remember one venerable Bahá'í lady telling
me that she had found no problem at all with the prohibition of alcohol when
she became a Bahá'ís and would have been shocked if it had not
been forbidden in the Faith. She had been
Four popular volumes that provide summaries of
the Bahá'í teachings were consulted concerning their approach to
this Bahá'í law. None of
them so much as mention the Muslim prohibition of alcohol in this context. In
all volumes, the law is treated in a sentence or two--at most a paragraph,
almost as if the authors assume that the reader will readily agree that it is
normative for any religion. All of the books cite health concerns as a
justification for the law.
It is my intention here to
suggest that an investigation of other aspects of Islamic belief and practice
that have appeared to scholars to provide a context for American
Bahá'í religiosity will yeild similar results. It is beyond the
scope of this paper to investigate all such statements. But Muslim ideas,
those that have been incorporated into and mediated by the Bahá'í
Faith and so practiced (or believed) by American Bahá'ís, have
been fully transformed and reset in a new context in the United States. While
retaining Islamic roots which are often acknowledged, such ideas have been
Christianized in American Bahá'í practice.
In a conversation with one of my collegues at Cypress College while writing
this paper, I was struck by how completely this is so. My collegue, a
Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies, includes the
Bahá'í Faith in his introductory course on Western religion. He
mentioned to me recently that he found it necessary to first introduce the
students to Shí'í Islam and the concept of the Twelve Imams
before discussing the Bahá'í Faith. At first, I was puzzled by this approach. But, I
quickly realized that my friend saw no way to introduce the claims made by the
Báb and Bahá'u'lláh without reference to
Shí'í expectations of the Return of the
But it would certainly never occur to an American
Bahá'í to introduce the claims of Bahá'u'lláh (at
least to other Americans) on such a basis. For most of them,
Bahá'u'lláh is accepted as the Return of Christ (now the orthodox
Bahá'í position), and
reference to the Shí'í Imams is at best an historical detail. It certainly does not provide the
foundation of their faith, which is instead grounded in Christian tradition.
American Bahá'ís, for the most part, are unaware of
Bahá'u'lláh's claim to be the Return of the Imam Husayn and, in any case, would find it irrelevant
to their belief system.
are, of course, universally aware that the man they accept as Christ-returned
was a Shí'í Muslim. But, it seems that the mark of "the Other"
as it would normally be applied to a Muslim in a Christian context has been
erased from Bahá'u'lláh within the American Bahá'í
community. Naturally, Bahá'u'lláh is marked as a prophet (or
Manifestation) of God, and so he is set apart from themselves--but not by the
negative associations that normally label anything Islamic in American culture.
Here, I think, is the most remarkable aspect of the
Bahá'í synthesis. American Bahá'í culture has
succeeded, it seems, in completely eliminating the experience of "Other" with
regard to the primary figures of their
religion, as well as its early heroes, despite their clearly recognized Muslim
origins and identities.
Acceptance of things Islamic is
experienced by American Bahá'ís at a number of levels. The
religion of Islam, and Muhammad as its prophet, plays a basic role in even
popular Bahá'í salvation history. Prophets are believed to have
been sent by God periodically, bringing the laws and teachings which were
needed for their respective epochs. The standard list of such prophets would
include Krishna (for Hinduism), Buddha, Moses, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad, the
Báb, and Bahá'u'lláh.
Such a belief in the truth of
Islam, however, requires no more than a passing acknowledgement (still no small
feat for Christians). The mark of "the Other" remains. Upon learning of my
intention to write this paper, a Bahá'í friend wrote to me:
It took me the first decade of my Bahá'í life
to accept that Muhammad was a prophet. I had been raised Catholic, and that
poisoned my attitude towards Muhammad. For that first decade I only accepted
that Muhammad was a Prophet because Bahá'u'lláh said so.
Gradually as I learned more about Him, His words, this history of Islam, I
accepted this on His own terms. Perhaps not uncommon among
Bahá'ís of Christian background in the USA.
This is the testimony of a
prominent and active Bahá'í whose attitudes gradually moved over
a period of years from suspicion of Muhammad and Islam to full acceptance, at
least on Bahá'í terms.
But even in the
early stages of this story there is a selective reconciliation at play.
Bahá'u'lláh was clearly accepted, even as Muhammad and Muslims
were held at arm's length. This acceptance gradually extended itself to more
of Islamic culture, with years of study. The fascinating (perhaps paradoxical)
aspect of the story is that Bahá'u'lláh was also a Muslim, by
culture and religion (before being catapulted from Islam by his own claims to
prophethood). Nonetheless, for this Bahá'í, the experience of
Bahá'u'lláh as alien and other was absent from the start.
But even for less knowledgeable and studious American
Bahá'ís, who never make the difficult journey to full acceptance
of Islam, the initial identification with Bahá'u'lláh is typical.
Not only are American Bahá'ís ready to accept a Muslim as their
new guide and prophet, but they also inspired by the early (Bábí)
history of their religion in which all of the heroes and heroines are
Bábí Muslims. The story of the conversion of the first
Bábí, Mullá Husayn Bushrú'í, to the new
religion during his initial conversation with the Báb in 1844, is one of
the most emotive and powerful aspects of American Bahá'í culture.
Yet, the story abounds with Islamic markers. There are the Muslim names, of
course. But beyond this: Mullá Husayn is a Muslim cleric who begins his
journey in search of the promised Qa'im. He sets out from the
Shí'í holy city of Karbala, observes a Muslim fast for forty days
and journeys to Iran. There he meets the Báb, whom he has never seen
before, but whom he takes to be a fellow Shaykhí student. He accepts an
invitation to the Báb's house, where they perform the evening prayer
(salát) together. The Báb declares to his guest that he
is the Promised One of Islam. The two engage in conversation all night, until
interrupted by the call of the muezzin summoning the faithful to their dawn
all its Islamic trappings, there is no American Bahá'í for whom
this story does not carry profound personal significance. It has become one of
the foundational myths which support American Bahá'í identity.
The ubiquitous Islamic markers which would normally set off cultural alarms in
Americans (and command their avoidance) dissolve in the face of this
American Bahá'ís identify
closely with early Bábí heroes--Mullá Husayn, the first
believer; Quddús, the warrior-saint; Táhirih, the first woman
believer; and, of course, Bahá'u'lláh (during this period) the
hidden prophet. While their Muslim enemies and persecutors are vilified in
popular Bahá'í history, retaining all the brands of "alien" and
"other," these heroes carry no such markers for American
Bahá'ís. They are revered
and accepted--as saints and spiritual forebearers--much as a Christian might
identify with the early disciples of Christ, to whom they are often
Indeed, the Guardian of the
Bahá'í Faith has specifically identified the American
Bahá'ís as the spiritual descendants of the "dawn-breakers," the
early Bábí heroes and martyrs. Such a designation is enthusiastically accepted by
active American Bahá'ís. As they do so, they transform the
cultural label of these nineteenth-century Shí'í clerics from
"alien" to "ancestor" with the swiftness and clarity which perhaps only
religious faith can provide.
I believe that one of the
fundamental functions of religion is to resolve the chaos and contradiction
that is an inevitable (in fact, a necessary) aspect of human life and which
probably arises from the phenomenon of consciousness itself. The fundamental
designation of "self" and "other" must arise from that consciousness. Such a
catastrophic distinction is overcome with notions of marriage, family, clan,
tribe, nation, community, and humanity--each of which is sanctioned by
One of the most fundamental
designations of "the Other" in Western culture has been the Muslim, at least
since the Christian crusades of the Middle Ages. In fact, the very coherence
of Western European identity rested on vague notions of an imagined
"Christendom," opposed to the world of Islam. Such categories and distinctions
remain very much alive in our culture.
Bahá'í Faith, in America that is, appears to have overcome this
barrier within its specific context. The American Bahá'ís have
succeeded in forging a synthesis of Christian and Islamic traditions into a
living religious practice in which the truth and value of both faiths is
explicitly recognized--possibly a unique achievement. Bahá'í
practices with obvious Islamic roots are lived and experienced by American
Bahá'ís as an extension of Christian piety and a fulfilment of
Beyond this, modern American
Bahá'ís have succeeded in capturing at least a part of Muslim
history and claiming it for their own. Within this history, Muslims are not
experienced as "Other" and, indeed, become forebearers. This is an astonishing
testimony to the power of religion, both socially and historically, to
reconcile the unreconcilable.
Paper submitted for the Annual Meeting of the American
of Religion, Western Region, March 30-April 1,
Section: Islamic Studies
 Of course, there is a considerable literature
on the Babi movement. The best academic treatment is to be found in Abbas
Amanat, Ressurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran,
1844-1850 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989). The classic
Bahá'í chronicle of the period is Nabíl-i A'zam's The
Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl's Narrative of the Early Days of the
Bahá'í Revelation, trans. and ed. by Shoghi Effendi
(Wilmette, IL.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1932). See also, H. M.
Balyuzi, The Báb: The Herald of the Day of Days (Oxford: George
Ronald, 1973) and Peter Smith's sociological study, The Babi and
Bahá'í Religions: From messianic Shi'ism to a world religion
(Cambridge University Press, 1987).
 Unfortunately, less scholarly work has been
devoted to the ministry and religion of Bahá'u'lláh. There is as
yet to scholarly treatment of his life. In addition to the above, see: H. M.
Balyuzi, Bahá'u'lláh: The King of Glory (Oxford: George
Ronald, 1980) and Shoghi Effendi, God Passes by (Wilmette, Ill.:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1944).
 The Bahá'í population in Iran
is currently estimated at around 300,000. (Roger Cooper, The Baha'is of
Iran, Report No. 51 [London: Minority Rights Group, 1982]) I believe that,
for various reasons, the current population of Baha'is in Iran is considerably
lower than it has been historically. A Bahá'í census conducted
in Iran circa 1921 is reputed to have recorded a Bahá'í
population of 500,000. (Roy Mottehedeh to the author, personal
 An observation made by Shoghi Effendi Rabbani
in his official history of the Bahá'í Faith, God Passes By
(Wilmette, IL.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1944) p. xii.
 As for Christian ministers, see especially
two notorious attacks on the Bahá'í Faith: J. R. Richards,
The Religions of the Bahá'ís (London: Society for Promoting
Christian Knowledge, 1932) which is now outdated and William McElwee Miller,
The Bahá'í Faith: Its History and Teachings (Pasadena:
William Carey Library, 1974). But most evangelical reference works on other
religions ("cults," "counterfeits") include a section on the
Bahá'í Faith and make reference to its supposed Islamic
 Denis MacEoin, "Baha'ism" in A Handbook of
Living Religions, edited by John R. Hinnells (New York: Penguin Books,
1984) p. 475.
 Ibid., p. 487.
 Indeed, most serious scholarly work done on
the subject has come from the perspective of Islamic Studies, though this is
beginning to change. A few scholars are struggling to open a new field of
Bahá'í Studies. Note the establisment, for example, of the
Canadian Association for Bahá'í Studies (for some years now) and
the Institute for Bahá'í Studies centered in Wilmette, Illinois.
The scholarly series Studies in the Bábí and
Bahá'í Religions (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1982- )
has published its seventh volume, and promises to publish more.
 On Kheiralla and the early history of the
Bahá'í Faith in America, see Robert H. Stockman, The
Bahá'í Faith in America: Volume 1: Origins, 1892-1900
(Wilmette, Ill: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1985), Volume Two is
forthcoming from George Ronald, Publisher (Oxford) some time this year. Also
essential are: Richard Hollinger, "Ibrahim George Kheiralla and the
Bahá'í Faith in America" in Studies in Bábí and
Bahá'í History, Volume Two: From Iran East and West, ed. by
Juan R. Cole and Moojan Momen (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1984; Peter
Smith, "The American Bahá'í Community, 1894-1917: A Preliminary
Survey" in Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í History,
Volume One, ed. by Moojan Momen (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1982);
and, Richard Hollinger, ed., Studies in the Bábí and
Bahá'í Religions, Volume Six: Community Histories (Los
Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1992), especially the Introduction by Richard
Hollinger and "A History of the Kenosha Bahá'í Community,
1897-1980" by Roger Dahl.
 Ibrahim Kheiralla, Bab-ed-Din: The Door
of True Religion (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co., 1897) p. 9.
 In a later Tablet (letter) 'Abdu'l-Baha
expresses his exasperation with the American insistance that he must be the
Return of Christ. It is instructive to note that Shoghi Effendi,
'Abdu'l-Bahá's grandson and his successor, felt compelled to quote this
Tablet in his own explanations to the American Baha'is as late as 1934:
"You have written that there is a difference among the believers concerning
the 'Second Coming of Christ.' Gracious God! Time and again this question
hath arisen, and its answer hath emanated in a clear and irrefutable statement
from the pen of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, that what is meant in the prophecies by
the 'Lord of Hosts' and the 'Promised Christ' is the Blessed Perfection
(Bahá'u'lláh) and His Holiness the Exalted One (the
Báb). My name is 'Abdu'l-Bahá [the servant of
Bahá'u'lláh]. My qualification is 'Abdu'l-Bahá. My
reality is 'Abdu'l-Bahá. My praise is 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Thraldom to
the Blessed Perfection is my glorious and refulgent diadem, and servitude to
all the human race my perpetual religion . . . No name, no title, no mention,
no commendation have I, nor will ever have, except 'Abdu'l-Bahá. This
is my longing. This is my greatest yearning. This is my eternal life. This
is my everlasting glory." (Quoted in Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of
Bahá'u'lláh [Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing
 Kenosha Kicker, 26 October 1899,
from a letter to the editor.
 Ibrahim George Kheiralla, Behá
'U'lláh (The Glory of God), Second Edition (Chicago: The Goodspeed
 On the Bible-centeredness of early
Bahá'í teachings and identity, see Robert Harold Stockman, "The
Bahá'í Faith and American Protestantism," Th.D. dissertation,
Harvard University, 1990. See especially, Chapter 4.
 See, for example, Mírzá
Abú'l-Fadl, The Bahá'í Proofs
(Hujaja'l-Bahíyyih), Reprint of the 1929 Edition (Wilmette, Ill.:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983 [First published 1902]).
 Peter Smith, "The American
Bahá'í Community." p. 114.
 Cf. John Alden Williams, Islam (New
York: George Braziller, 1961) pp. 99-107.
18Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitáb-i Aqdas: The Most
Holy Book (Haifa: Bahá'í World Center, 1992) passim. The
historical evolution of the law is rather complicated. See introduction,
notes, and other explanatory materials in The Kitáb-i Aqdas for
an explanation, especially pp. 166-171.
 See, for example,
Bahá'u'lláh, Prayers and Meditations of
Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing
 Gloria Faizi, The Bahá'í
Faith: An Introduction (New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust,
 John Esslemont,
Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era. 1970 Edition (Wilmette, Ill.:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970 [First Published 1923]) pp.
 Ibid., pp. 92-93.
 And indeed with the sanctions and
blessings of the Bahá'í leaders who are careful to make a
distinction between which Bahá'í laws are "binding" on Western
believers and which are not. The laws regarding ablutions are not binding.
(Just what it would mean if they were binding is not clear, especially since it
is acknowledged that the norms regarding prayer, found in Bahá'í
law, cannot be enforced by the Bahá'í institutions.)
 Bahá'u'lláh, The
Kitáb-i Aqdas, K119, p. 62. The Muslim prohibition of all alcohol
is not, strictly speaking, quranic, since the Qur'an only indicates disapproval
of (date) wine. But the legal extension of this verse to all alcoholic
beverages is universal in Islam. It is fundamental to Muslim practice and
identity. Bahá'u'lláh explicitly forbids all intoxicating substances in
his Kitab-i Aqdas.
 Anna Stevenson to the author. Personal
 Esslemont, Bahá'u'lláh
and the New Era; Faizi, The Bahá'í Faith; John
Ferraby, All Things Made New: A Comprehensive Outline of the
Bahá'í Faith, Revised Edition (London: Bahá'í
Publishing Trust, 1975); and William S. Hatcher and J. Douglas Martin, The
Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion (San Francisco:
Harper & Row, 1984).
 Denis Hickey to the author. Personal
communication March 8, 1995. This observation, by the way, is not intended as
a criticism of Dr. Hickey, whose work I respect enormously.
 'Abdu'l-Baha's vehement rejection of this
title and station eventually had their effect. All Baha'is now accept that the
expectation of the Return of Christ is fulfilled in Bahá'u'lláh
and not in his eldest son. But, 'Abdu'l-Baha is still widely regarded as
"Christ-like" in Bahá'í piety. See, for example, Lady Blomfield,
The Chosen Highway (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, n.d.
) p. 134; and especially Juliet Thompson, The Diary of Juliet
Thompson (Los Angeles: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983)
 On Bahá'u'lláh's claims to
"multiple messiahship," see Christopher Buck, "A Unique Eschatological
Interface: Bahá'u'lláh and Cross Cultural Messianism" in
Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í History, Volume Two:
In Iran, ed. by Peter Smith (Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1986).
 The fact is mentioned in passing in Shoghi
Effendi's official history of the Bahá'í revelation, God
Passes By, p. 94.
 The Báb, Bahá'u'lláh,
'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi.
 See, for example, the list provided in the
popular pamphlet One Universal Faith (Wilmette, Ill.:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, n.d.).
 Brent Poirier to the author. Via e-mail,
February 16, 1995.
 Cf. Nabíl-i A'zam, The
Dawn-Breakers, pp. 47-65.
 There are many volumes of popular
Bahá'í history written by Americans. See, for example, William
Sears, Release the Sun Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing
Trust, 1960) and Martha Root, Táhirih the Pure, Revised Edition
(Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1981 [Originally published 1938]).
 Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine
Justice (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1939) and
God Passes By, p. 256.
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