Baha'i Library Online

See original version at

COLLECTIONSPublished articles, Introductory
TITLEIs the Bahá'í Faith a World Religion?
AUTHOR 1Seena Fazel
TITLE_PARENTJournal of Bahá'í Studies
PUB_THISAssociation for Bahá'í Studies North America
ABSTRACTExamination of the terms "world religion" and "new religious movement" to demonstrate that the Bahá'í Faith is best categorized as a "world religion."
NOTES Also available as a formatted PDF from
TAGSBahá'í Faith, Sect, NRM or World Religion; Introductory; New religious movements (NRM); World religions
Abstract: This article will explore some of the issues involved in the sociological analysis of the status of the Bahá'í Faith. It will endeavor to present criteria for the labels "world religion" and "new religious movement," as well as explore to what extent the Bahá'í Faith fulfils these criteria. It will attempt to demonstrate that the Bahá'í Faith is best categorized as a "world religion."

In a statement to the United Nations Commission on Palestine in 1947, Shoghi Effendi stated that the Bahá'í Faith "can be regarded in no other light than a world religion" (Faith 219-20). However, today, despite the increasing expansion and influence of the Bahá'í Faith since Shoghi Effendi made that statement, its status outside the Bahá'í community remains controversial. In academic circles, it has shed the label of a sect of Islam,[1] but there is no consensus about its present standing. A 1992 textbook on the world's religions describes the problem:
The question of how to "place" Bahá'ísm [sic] is a little problematic. Although it originated as a sectarian movement within Shi`ite Islam, there is now no sense in which Bahá'ís would regard themselves as Muslims, nor would they be recognized as such by any branch of Islam. Bahá'ís themselves have for some time now proclaimed their faith to be a "world religion" on a par with Islam, Christianity, and other established creeds. This however, presents obvious problems in the case of a movement at most 150 years old, without a distinct culture, and lacking a major presence in any one country. ("Bahá'ís" in Contemporary 95-96)
Many examples exist of varying opinions on the status of the Faith among academics who have studied the Bahá'í community. Jacques Chouleur, a specialist in the history of North American religions at the University of Avignon, asserted in 1977 that "the credibility of the Bahá'í Faith as a major world religion remains doubtful" (World Religion 17). Denis MacEoin has long argued that the classification of the Bahá'í Faith as a world religion is how Bahá'ís themselves regard their movement: "the notion of Bahá'ísm [as] a `world religion' is an ontological assumption for adherents rather than a statement of observable or meaningful fact" (Permanent 88)--a classification which MacEoin sees as "historically, sociologically, and conceptually misleading," prefering instead the term "new religious movement" (Review 453). In contrast, Mircea Eliade, the late professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago, editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of Religion, and one of the most influential individuals in the academic study of religion this century, wrote in a 1991 survey of the religions of the world that the Bahá'í Faith is a "World Religion founded by the Persian aristocrat Bahá'u'lláh" (Eliade Guide 264).[2]

The problem of how to classify the Bahá'í Faith has also been addressed by the wider community. In defending the persecution of Bahá'ís in Turkey in 1961, the Bahá'í community endeavoured "to prove and establish the status of the Faith as an independent world religion" in contrast to the prosecuting authorities who were trying to demonstrate that it was "a forbidden sect of Islam" (Ministry 307). More recently, the Interreligious Council of Southern California admitted membership of the Bahá'í community in 1976 while simulataneously rejecting the application of the Church of Scientology "because it does not meet the requirement of being an `historic world religion'" (Vadakin, Southern 511), and the Bahá'í Faith was formally accepted in 1987 into the Conservation and Religion Network of the World Wide Fund for Nature. In contrast, the St. Mungo Museum of Religion and Art in Glasgow, which opened in 1993 and is reputed to be the only museum in the world dedicated to comparative religion, does not include the Bahá'í Faith in its major displays.[3] Bahá'ís were not invited to participate in a 1986 interreligious prayer meeting for world peace organized by Pope John Paul II in Assisi, but were among the religions represented at the 1993 World Parliament of Religions along with Buddhists, Christians, Confucians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs, Unitarians, Zoroastrians, and indigenous religions. This article will explore some of issues involved in the sociological analysis of the status of the Bahá'í Faith.

World Religion?

There is no clear definition of the term "world religion."[4] On a simplistic level, the term refers to independent religious traditions practiced throughout the world. World religion books tend to include a core of five--Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The addition of others, such as Sikhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and the Bahá'í Faith, is variable. In contrast, there is the category "traditional/indigenous/primal religion," which refers to the Australian Aboriginal, African, Melanesian, Maori, and North American, Mesoamerican, and South American Indian religions. The label "traditional" "is not meant to suggest that these religions are static and unchanging, but is simply one way of distinguishing them from the major world religions which have spread themselves more widely across many different cultures and which tend to be, therefore, less confined to and by any one specific socio-cultural matrix" (Clarke, Traditional 63). Geographical distribution would then appear to be the primary criterion by which to judge world religion status.

Does the Bahá'í Faith meet this criterion? Sociological evidence that it does is provided in a study of the contemporary developments of the Bahá'í Faith by Peter Smith and Moojan Momen in their article in Religion. In a survey of the growth, expansion and development of the Bahá'í Faith from 1955 to 1987, they conclude that it appears to have earned the label of a world religion:
. . . massive expansion of the religion has occurred [in the last thirty years], so that Bahá'í claims to the status of a world religion now begin to appear credible. This expansion has also completely transformed the religion's social basis: what was formerly a predominantly Iranian religion with a small but significant Western following has become a world-wide religious movement, with its major membership in the Third World and with an enormous diversity of followers in terms of religious and ethnic backgrounds. (Smith, Survey 83)
In support, Smith and Momen compare the numbers of Bahá'ís in eight different `cultural areas' of the world in 1954, 1968, and 1988. The striking change occurs from 1954 to 1968. In 1954, Bahá'ís in Iran composed ninety-four percent of the total worldwide Bahá'í population. In 1968 this had dropped to twenty-two percent and to six percent in 1988. In contrast, the numerical dominance of the Third World is now clear, with ninety-one percent of Bahá'ís living in these areas in 1988 (Survey 72-73). The same impression is given by comparing the distribution of Local Spiritual Assemblies and localities throughout the world. Smith compares the percentage of LSAs in the three `cultural worlds'--the Islamic heartland, the West, and the Third World--in 1928, 1945, 1968, and 1983. Again the significant difference is the period 1945 to 1968. In 1945, only 9.9% of the LSAs were in the Third World compared to 79.9% in 1968 (Smith, Babi and Bahá'í 165). Smith suggests that the breakthrough into the third `cultural world'--the Third World--only started to occur in the late 1950s. In 1950, for example, there were not more than a dozen Bahá'ís in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, while in 1968, the proportion of LSAs that were formed in sub-Saharan Africa was 29.8% of the whole Bahá'í world (Smith, Babi 190, 168). This geographical change was accompanied with an increase in the diversity of the sociocultural background of the Bahá'í community. Large numbers of tribal minorities and rural illiterates became Bahá'ís. Smith argues that the expansion of the Bahá'í Faith into the Third World is one of the most important aspects of the religion's development, "vastly changing the social composition of its adherents and realistically establishing its claims to be a world religion" (Smith, Babi 190).

By comparing the geographical distribution of the world's religions, Barrett's statistical analysis complements the above work. This demonstrates that in mid-1992, the Bahá'í Faith had "a significant following" in 220 countries with a worldwide membership of 5.5 million. This geographical distribution is second only to Christianity, which has a following in 252 countries, and greater than Islam (184 countries), Judaism (134 countries), Hinduism (94 countries), and Buddhism (92 countries). In contrast, "New-Religionists," which include followers of "20th century Asian religions and new religious movements," have only spread to twenty-seven countries (Barrett, World 270).

A number of writers have concluded that the Bahá'í Faith is a world religion because of its widespread geographical distribution. Elvin Johnson, in a doctoral thesis at Baylor University on the development of the Bahá'í Faith, states that "Since its birth in 1844 the Faith has spread to all parts of the world and may be called quite appropriately a world religion" (Johnson, Challenge 39). The Chambers Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions notes that "Since World War II, and especially in recent years, it has expanded significantly into the Third World, where it now has its main strength, and for this reason it is fair to call Bahá'ísm a world religion in its own right" (55). Even the Reverend William Miller, an author of anti-Bahá'í polemical literature, has admitted that "Whoever peruses the thousands of pages of the thirteen volumes of The Bahá'í World will be impressed by the fact that the Bahá'í Faith is indeed a world faith" (Bahá'í 349).

There are, however, two major criticisms of the criterion of geographical distribution. MacEoin, in arguing that the Bahá'í Faith is not a world religion, has contested that Bahá'í statistics on geographical distribution are misleading because the spread of the Bahá'í Faith has been "the result of conscious, somewhat forced planning . . . rather than natural or sustained growth" (Permanent 88). It would appear then that he is suggesting that growth by "unconscious planning" is a necessary condition for a world religion. Notwithstanding the fact the notion of "unconscious planning" is oxymoronic, the connection between the consciousness of a religion's planning and its status as a world religion is hard to fathom. Why exclude, by definition, proselytizing religions (Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism) from the category of world religion? Which religions have expanded unconsciously? What MacEoin may have intended to say is that the growth of the Bahá'í Faith has been by centralized planning. But the same question applies: If Christianity has grown by centralized planning, why should it diminish its claim to be a world religion?[5] Nevertheless, MacEoin has identified a number of legitimate problems with these statistics, including the "lack of accurate figures for disaffiliated and inactive believers," difficulty in estimating "how successful post-registration consolidation has been in mass-conversion areas in the Third World," and "the problems of multiple affiliation" in some areas (Bahá'ísm 493). Presumably these difficulties are not confined to statistics on the Bahá'í Faith alone.

The second problem inherent in focusing solely on geographical distribution is it would imply that the religions which are predominantly confined to a single people or ethnic group, the "ethnic religions," but have dispersed, such as Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Sikhism, are world religions. These religions are still limited largely by one specific sociocultural matrix suggesting that they are not truly world religions. This point was made over 100 years ago by Kuenen, a professor of theology at Leiden, in the 1882 Hibbert Lectures, in which he argued that there must be a "genuine universalism" for the world religions: "[T]hat which is to combine with every nationality, satisfying the special needs of each, must not be inseparably bound to any one nation" (Kuenen, National 8). This would suggest that geographical distribution is a necessary rather than a sufficient condition in defining world religion. The other necessary condition is thus sociocultural diversity.[6] The Bahá'í Faith meets both these conditions. Not only has it spread to at least 232 countries and dependent territories, the Bahá'í world community is also represented by over 2,100 tribes, races, and ethnic groups (The Bahá'ís 7), possibly second only to Christianity in its ethnic diversity.

Relevant to this discussion are the qualities of a religion that enable it to emancipate itself from the boundaries of one particular social and cultural unit. Timothy Fitzgerald notes in his article in Religion that there is "one crucial qualification" for a religion to become a world religion: "it must develop a universal message, a doctrine of salvation that is sufficiently transparent to be potentially available to adherents in a variety of cultural contexts" (Hinduism 104). This is the theological sense in which a particular religion is a world religion. The example of Christianity, world religion's `ideal type', is instructive. Christianity started off as a religious movement of Palestinian Jews but soon spread beyond this. The universalist claim of Christianity led to the development of some degree of theological abstraction and institutional flexibility so that its message of salvation could be exported and transplanted into different social groups who then could interpret and act upon it according to the context of their own cultural life (Fitzgerald, Hinduism 109). The role of theologians, such as St. Paul and Origen, was central to its transformation to a world religion:
It [Christianity] was, from the beginning, universalist in scope and aim. St Paul, by giving it an internationalist thought-structure, made it a religion of all races; Origen expanded its metaphysics into a philosophy of life which won the respect of the intellectuals while retaining the enthusiasm of the masses, and so made Christianity classless as well as ubiquitous. (Johnson, History 515)
Related to the theological qualifications above are practical measures that enable a religion to leave its sociocultural background. Fitzgerald describes these other necessary conditions: it needs to be literate; have scriptures that can be translated into different languages; have a special class of interpreters who can act as missionaries; to appeal to large numbers of people; and to appear to transcend cultural boundaries (Hinduism 104).[7]

Therefore the study of world religions needs to start with the theology of the religions - Do they offer salvation to all peoples? Can they appeal to people of different cultures and social backgounds?[8] Do they have the flexibility to allow for diverse expressions of spirituality? In this sense, the Bahá'í Faith has clear theological qualifications for world religion status. There are the explicit and many universalist claims in Bahá'í scripture,[9] the adaptation of Bahá'í teachings by `Abdu'l-Bahá to the concerns of Christians and Westerners, and later, Shoghi Effendi's co-ordination of the diverse activities, from translating the Bahá'í writings to setting missionary goals, that progressively led to the establishment of the Faith throughout the world.

In summary, I have argued that the necessary conditions for a world religion include theological confirmation of universalist aims and possibilities in addition to the empirical evidence demonstrating widespread geographical distribution and sociocultural diversity. With the expansion of the Bahá'í Faith into the Third World in the late 1950s, its potential as a world religion was fulfilled. Three sets of statistics demonstrate this conclusion--the changes in the worldwide distribution of Bahá'is, their Local Spiritual Assemblies, and the number of countries that the Bahá'í Faith has a significant following.


However convincing the case for the Bahá'í Faith as a world religion, most textbooks of religion and academic writing on comparative religion do not treat it as one. Introductory surveys of the world religions rarely discuss the Bahá'í Faith in depth, some not at all. For instance, in 1946, there was no mention of the Bahá'í Faith in Jurgi's The Great Religions of the Modern World, and only one passing reference in Smith's 1958 The Religions of Man. More recently there was no mention in Open University's 1978 resource volume Man's Religious Quest, the 1974 Historical Atlas of the Religions of the World, Neilsen's 1988 Religions of the World, and Raush's 1989 World Religions. There are only three sentences about the Faith in both the thousand page The World's Religions published in 1988 and in Hutchison's Paths of Faith. Thematic books such as Bowker's Problems of Suffering in the Religions of the World, Parrinder's Mysticism in the World's Religions, Thompson's World Religions in War and Peace, Coward's Pluralism: Challenge to World Religions, Cooey's After Patriarchy, Feminist Transformations of the World Religions, Cohn-Sherbok's World Religions and Human Liberation, and Slater's World Religions and World Community have included no discussion whatsoever on Bahá'í teachings on these issues.[10]

While this lack of inclusion seems to imply that the Bahá'í Faith is not a world religion, one is hard pressed to find explicit arguments justifying the exclusion of the Bahá'í Faith. Among writers that do provide some arguments, there are two types--on quantative and qualitative grounds--against its classification as a world religion. An example of the first argument is mentioned in a textbook, which states that the Bahá'í Faith lacks "a major presence in any one country" ("Bahá'ís" in Contemporary 95-96). This criterion appears peculiar - what does a major presence in one country have to do with being a world religion? Would this mean that Chondogyo (14% of North Koreans) and Shintoism (40% of the Japanese) have claim to world religion status? (Chambers 584, 587). Even if we adopt this criterion as a necessary condition (which I am not proposing), this same textbook that lists Tokelau as having 10% of its population Bahá'í (Contemporary 449). Iran and India also have a major presences of Bahá'ís, with approximately 300,000 and 1,000,000 respectively.

Chouleur "remains doubtful" because he is not convinced that "a scattering of believers, a handful of `Pioneers of the Cause' [will] ever secure a majority on this planet" (Bahá'í 17). This condition appears peculiar in light of the fact that none of the world religions has ever secured "a majority on this planet."

Other quantative counterarguments are made by MacEoin who contends that the realities of "Bahá'í membership" and "chronological span" make world religion "a problematic category" (Review 453). He argues that in terms of numerical size, the Bahá'í community is not comparable to the other world religions. It is relatively uncontroversial to suggest that numerical size is a characteristic of world religions but it is clearly not a sufficient condition. If it were, it would present the bizarre hypothesis that Chinese traditional religion with a membership of 187 million was more of a world religion than Judaism with seventeen million followers (Barrett, World Religious 270). If MacEoin is proposing that it is a necessary condition, then it is unclear what numerical size would be the threshold for a world religion, and the relationship between numerical size in one country compared to worldwide numbers. The same argument can be used against the criterion of "chronological span." It is not used by sociologists of religion. If it were, indigenous religions would be in the unlikely position to have more claim to world religion status than Islam or Christianity.

Qualitative counterarguments have been put forth by Chouleur who is not certain that "a scattering of believers . . .[will] even develop into a strong enough minority to play a decisive part in the creation of a higher civilization" (Bahá'í 17). The problem with his argument is that it is not clear what "higher civilization" means and Choleur himself does not provide a definition. It is inappropriate to use a vague concept in a definition when the latter is trying to be clarified. Even if we construct a definition for him, the Bahá'í community would appear to fulfil it in terms of its contribution to socioeconomic development. Since Choleur's article was written in 1977, the international Bahá'í community has focused more of its energies on the "creation of a higher civilisation" attested by the 1300 educational, environmental, social, and economic development projects launched by Bahá'í communities worldwide.

MacEoin also notes that lack of Bahá'í "cultural influence" makes world religion "a problematic category" (Review 453). Even though cultural influence forms only part of the "material dimension" of Smart's seven dimensions of the world's religions, Smart mentions the distinctive architecture of Bahá'í temples as a significant cultural expression (World's Religions 479). The interest generated in the architectural community by the construction and design of the House of Worship in New Dehli supports this observation.[11] Besides the Persian and Arabic sacred writings themselves in the field of literature, the contribution of the poetry of Táhirih and Robert Hayden, the calligraphy of Mishkín-Qalam, the art of Mark Tobey, and the pottery of Bernard Leach are other examples of Bahá'í artistic influence across different cultures. Significantly there are Bahá'í hymns, used by the American Bahá'ís earlier this century, Bahá'í Bhajans, traditional devotional songs used by Indian Bahá'ís in mass teaching campaigns, and Bahá'í Haiku, short mystical Japanese poems.[12] Diverse cultural expressions of a particular religion would be a natural consequence of a religion spreading around the world and not being bound by one culture, and it would seem reasonable to suggest that it is a necessary condition for a world religion. Indeed, the necessary condition discussed above of sociocultural diversity should embrace this aspect of a religion's influence.

In summary, there are two types of counterarguments to the Bahá'í Faith's claim to be a world religion. The first type involves quantative measures such as a major presence in one country, overall numerical size, and length of history. The second type relates to qualitative aspects such as cultural influence. In each case, the appropriateness of the criteria for the definition of world religion is discussed. Of these, the diversity of a religion's cultural expression is the only condition to correlate with its status as a world religion.

Contemporary Judgements

Encyclopedic references on the Bahá'í Faith in the seminal Encyclopedia of Religion, Encyclopaedia Iranica, The Canadian Encyclopedia, and New Twentieth-Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge describe it as a "world religion". The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam calls it a "universal religion." The entry in Theologische Realenzyklopädie argues that because the Bahá'í Faith appeals to all humankind and that it has established itself in most countries, it can already be considered among the world religions.

Other individuals who refer to the Bahá'í Faith as a world religion include the Protestant theologian Friedrich Heiler. In looking at the life and claims of Bahá'u'lláh, he judged that "As an historical phenomenon, the Bahá'í religion therefore stands in equal status with the other universal religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism and Christianity" (qtd. in Schaefer, Bahá'í 17). The historian Arnold Toynbee noted in 1959 that "Bahá'ísm is an independent religion on a par with Islam, Christianity, and the other recognized world religions" (qtd. in The Bahá'ís 10). Peter Meinhold, professor of Protestant Theology at the University of Kiel, has argued that a particular religion can be called a world religion if it can demonstrate its contemporary relevance,[13] and concluded that the Bahá'í Faith meets this condition (Meinhold, Die Religionen 317-318). Roger Schmidt, who teaches comparative religion at a college in California, makes a distinction between the world religions and two "nascent world religions"--the Bahá'í Faith and Mormonism (Exploring 57). Warren Matthews of Old Dominion University also describes the Bahá'í Faith as one of the "more recent world religions" along with the Mormons, Theosophists, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (World Religions xv). Carsten Colpe, professor of Church history and dogma at the University of Kiel; Geoffrey Parrinder, professor of comparative religion at the University of London; Alan Dowty, professor of international studies at Notre Dame University; and Paul Allen, a human rights specialist, are other individuals who have referred to the Bahá'í Faith as a world religion in their publications.[14] A variety of educational materials for high school religious studies teachers and students also lists the Bahá'í Faith among the world religions.[15]

New Religious Movement?

As an alternative to world religion, the term "new religious movement" (NRM) has found widespread usage in the academic literature in the sociology of religion. Classifying the Bahá'í Faith as an NRM has been advocated by some writers. For example, MacEoin states that it is "almost certainly the largest and fastest-growing of the NRMs" (Emerging 1), and Ebaugh and Vaughn, sociologists at the University of Houston, present the Bahá'í Faith as "one of the `new religious movements' in the sense that the Bahá'í movement in the United States has gained momentum in the last twenty years" [written in 1984] (Ebaugh, Ideology 148). It would appear that the Protestant theologian John Hick is thinking similarly when he lists Bahá'u'lláh with the founders of other NRMs: "There are also lesser founders of new traditions or sub-traditions, such as Guru Nanak, Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, Bahá'ullah [sic], Annie Besant, Kimbangu, Mokichi Okada, and many others, whose movements presuppose and arise out of one or other of the existing traditions" (Problems 75). Hutchison of Claremont Graduate School treats the Bahá'í Faith as an NRM springing from Islam like Subud and Nation of Islam (Paths 516), as does the university textbook Man's Religions which places it among "various movements prophetic innovation and syncretism" along with Ahmadiya and the Black Muslims (Noss, Man's Religions 543-4). However, the 1993 State of Religion Atlas explains that "Bahá'ís do not consider themselves to be a sub-group of Islam" but still lists the Bahá'í Faith among NRMs (O'Brien, State 105, 135).

NRM serves as an umbrella term for an enormous diversity of phenomena ranging from doctrinal deviation within world religions to fleeting fashions and spiritual enthusiasms of a questionably religious kind. The Encyclopedia of Religion provides a useful definition of this term. In his overview article, Beckford, a sociologist of religion at the University of Durham, states, "The term new religious movement connotes the more or less simultaneous appearance in the 1960s of a number of separate innovations which together seem to amount to a new force in the field of religion." He adds that the term was first applied by social scientists to "the bewildering variety of spiritual enthusiasms that emerged in the West in the 1960s, gathered momentum in the 1970s, and that began to slacken in the 1980s" (Overview 391). The term NRM is applied to a set of newly observed groups, and Barker, along with some other sociologists, uses the Second World War as a starting point (Barker, New Religious 145). This would appear to be the first necessary condition for an NRM. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that disagreements over definitions are common, and as Barker explains, it is difficult to make any generalizations about NRMs due to the empirical diversity of these phenomena (Europe 405). Wilson, a sociologist of religion at the University of Oxford, for instance, argues that NRMs "have in common only their newness at a given point in time" (Social 216), and Clarke, who heads the Centre for New Religious Movements at King's College, University of London, contends that 1945 is this starting date:
The term new is employed chronologically to refer to all those religions that have established themselves in Western Europe, North America and Japan since 1945, and in Africa over a somewhat longer time-span. (New Religious 149)
Other necessary conditions have been proposed by Eileen Barker, a sociologist of religion at the London School of Economics, in her standard introduction to the subject. Simply put, NRMs share three common characteristics: a predominance of first-generation believers; a charismatic leader; a narrow distribution of members with respect to socioeconomic status (middle-class and upper middle-class) and age (young adults) (New Religious 11). As a worldwide historical phenomenon, the Bahá'í community fails to meet these conditions because:

1. There are large numbers of post-first generation believers in the Bahá'í community;

2. There is currently no centralized and clear-cut charismatic leadership in the Bahá'í community--arguably there has not been any since the death of `Abdu'l-Bahá in 1921;

3. The socioeconomic status of Bahá'í communities is quite varied. Although many communities are predominantly middle class, the largest Bahá'í community in the West--America--has a majority of rural African-Americans living in the southern states with lower than average socioeconomic status. And worldwide, the community is numerically largest in rural villages in developing countries. If we add the fact that the Faith does not fulfil the first necessary condition because it had established itself in the West before the Second World War, then it does not meet any of the necessary conditions for an NRM.

It is noteworthy that none of the prominent sociologists of religion in the field of NRMs, such as Barker, Beckford, Wilson, Clarke, and Wallis[16] have included the Bahá'í Faith as an NRM in their published work. Indeed, a recent publication which lists the hundred significant NRMs in the United Kingdom does not include the Bahá'í Faith (Barker, New Religious 165ff.), nor does Barker include it in a list of the main NRMs in Western and African societies in The Penguin Dictionary of Religions (460). It is worth noting that this lack of mention is not due to ignorance of the Bahá'í Faith, which Barker cites in another context in New Religious Movements (43-44).[17] Furthermore, Turner, a sociologist from the University of Birmingham, explicitly omits the Bahá'í Faith from his survey of NRMs in Africa. He argues that NRMs "should be distinguished from the missions, churches or communities associated with these two faiths [Christianity and Islam], from other religious bodies that have more recently taken root in parts of Africa, such as Bahá'í, the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as from the original primal religions of the African peoples" (Turner, Africa 187).


This paper has demonstrated that there is no consensus as to the status of the Bahá'í Faith among specialists in the fields of religious studies and the sociology of religion. It has demonstrated that the criteria of geographical distribution with sociocultural diversity are the most appropriate ones for world religion, and that the Bahá'í Faith meets these criteria. The case against the classification of the Bahá'í Faith as a world religion is presented and shown to rely on criteria that are not integral to the classification of world religions. The related question of whether the Bahá'í Faith is an NRM is also discussed. It is argued that as a worldwide historical phenomenon, it cannot be classified as an NRM because it started a century before the Second World War and does not share the common sociological characteristics of NRMs. While acknowledging the difficulties in determining criteria for the classification of a particular religion as a world religion and an NRM, this article has presented the case that the Bahá'í Faith is best categorized as a world religion.

* I would particularly like to thank Arash Abizadeh, Stephen Lambden, Robert Parry and Peter Smith for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.

Works Cited

The Bahá'ís, A Publication of the Bahá'í International Community. Oakham: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1992.

Bahá'u'lláh. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. Rev. ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976.

___. Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978.

Barker, E. "New Religions: New Religions and Cults in Europe." In Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 10. Ed. Mircea Eliade et al. New York: MacMillan, 1987.

___. New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. London: HMSO, 1989.

Barrett, D. "World Religious Statistics." In 1993 Britannica Book of the Year. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1993.

Beckford, J.A. "New Religions: An Overview," in Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 10. Ed. Mircea Eliade et al. New York: MacMillan, 1987.

The Canadian Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. S.v. "Bahá'í Faith" by J.D. Martin. Ed. by J.H. Marsh. Alberta: Hurtig Publishers, 1988: 162.

Chambers Dictionary of Beliefs and Religions. Ed. R. Goring. Edinburgh: Chambers, 1992.

Chouleur, J. "The Bahá'í Faith: World Religion of the Future," World Order 12.1 (1977): 9-19.

Clarke, P. "Introduction to New Religious Movements." In The Study of Religion, Tradition and New Religions. Ed. P. Clarke and S. Sutherland. London: Routledge, 1991.

___. "Introduction to Traditional Religions." In The Study of Religion, Tradition and New Religions. Ed. P. Clarke and S. Sutherland. London: Routledge, 1991.

The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam. S.v. "Bahá'ís." Ed. C. Glasse. London: Stacey International, 1989: 62.

Conner, D.K. "Mani and Manichaeism: A Study in Religious Failure," World Order 11.2 (1976-77): 36-45.

Contemporary Religions: A World Guide. S.v. "Bahá'ís." Ed. I. Harris et al. Harlow: Longman, 1992.

Ebaugh, H.R. and S.E. Vaughn. "Ideology and Recruitment in Religious Groups," Review of Religious Research 26.2 (1984): 148-57.

Eliade, M. and I.P. Couliano. The Eliade Guide to World Religions. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

Encyclopaedia Iranica. Vol. 3. S.v. "The Bahá'í Faith (i. The Faith)" by J.R.I. Cole. Ed. E. Yarshater. London and New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1989: 438-46.

The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 2. S.v. "Bahá'ís" by A. Bausani. Ed. Mircea Eliade et al. New York: MacMillan, 1987: 40-42.

Fitzgerald, T. "Hinduism and the `World Religion' Fallacy, " Religion 20 (1990): 101-118.

Hick, J. Problems of Religious Pluralism. London: MacMillan, 1985.

Hutchison, J.A. Paths of Faith. 3d. ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Johnson, P. A History of Christianity. Repr. London: Pelican, 1980.

Johnson, V.E. "The Challenge of the Bahá'í Faith," World Order 10.3 (1976): 31-42.

Kuenen, A. National Religions and Universal Religions. London: Williams and Norgate, 1882.

MacEoin, D. "Bahá'ísm." In A Handbook of Living Religions. Ed. John R. Hinnells. London: Penguin, 1984.

___. "Emerging from Obscurity: Recent Developments in Bahá'ísm," Religion Today 3.1 (1986): 1-5.

___. "A Permanent Bahá'í Studies Centre and Research Institute--Further Considerations," Bahá'í Studies Bulletin 3.3 (1985): 88-91.

___. Review of "The Babi and Bahá'í Religions: From Messianic Shi`ism to a World Religion by P. Smith," Journal of the American Oriental Society 103.3 (1989): 452-453.

Matthews, W. World Religions. St Pauls: West Publishing, 1991.

Meinhold, P. Die Religionen der Gegenwart. Freiberg: Herder, 1978.

Miller, W.M. The Bahá'í Faith: Its History and Teachings. Pasadena, Calif: William Carey Library, 1974.

The Ministry of the Custodians 1957-1963: An Account of the Stewardship of the Hands of the Cause. Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1992.

Momen, M. "Is the Bahá'í Faith a world religion?" In Soundings - Essays in Bahá'í Theology. Ed. S. McGlinn. Christchurch, NZ: Open Circle, 1989.

New Twentieth-Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge. S.v. "Bahá'ísm" by P. Hillyer. Ed. by J.D. Douglas. New York: Baker Book House, 1991: 55-56.

Noss, J.B. Man's Religions. 6th ed. New York: Macmillan, 1980.

O'Brien, J. and M. Palmer. The State of Religion Atlas. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.

Penguin Dictionary of Religions. Ed. J. Hinnels. London: Penguin, 1984.

Schaefer, U. "The Bahá'í Faith: Sect or Religion?," Bahá'í Studies 16 (1988): 1-24.

Schmidt, R. Exploring Religion. 2d. ed. Belmont, Ca.: Wadsworth, 1988.

Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By. Rev. ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974.

___. "The Faith of Bahá'u'lláh, a world religion," World Order 13.7 (1947): 219-27.

Smart, N. The World's Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Smith, P. The Babi and Bahá'í Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Smith, P. and M. Momen. "The Bahá'í Faith 1957-1988: A Survey of Contemporary Developments," Religion 19 (1989): 63-91.

Theologische Realenzyklopädie. Vol. 5. S.v. "Bahá'ísmus" by F. Vahman. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1980: 131.

Turner, H.W. "Africa." In The Study of Religion, Tradition and New Religions. Ed. P. Clarke and S. Sutherland. London: Routledge, 1991.

Vadakin, R.M. "Southern California Council Accepts Bahá'í Membership," The Journal of Ecumenical Studies 13.3 (1976): 510-11. Note.

Wallis, R. "North America." In The Study of Religion, Tradition and New Religions. Ed. P. Clarke and S. Sutherland. London: Routledge, 1991.

Wach, J. Sociology of Religion. London: Kegan Paul, 1947.

Wilson, B.R. The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism. Oxford: Pergamon, 1990.


[1] For a discussion of this question, see Schaefer Bahá'í.
[2] Reflecting the academic relevance of this debate, one of the set essays in the 1994 undergraduate religious studies course at the University of Edinburgh ("Religion 2") is entitled "Are the Bahá'ís a NRM or a major religious tradition?"
[3] The Interreligious Council of Southern California does not specify the reasons for this decision. However, the St. Mungo Museum does. In a letter to the Secretary of the Local Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Glasgow, the senior curator of the museum explained that the criteria used to select the religions in the central section of the museum were: "1. Those with the largest numbers of believers in Strathclyde. 2. Those with the largest numbers of believers in the world. 3. Those which were possible to represent with interesting objects. . . . Clearly the Bahá'í Faith does not meet these somewhat crude and simplistic criteria" (From a letter dated 6 May 1993 from Mark O'Neill to Allan Forsyth). The museum includes sections on Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhism in its major displays.
[4] Some academics have questioned the usefulness of the term altogether. Fitzgerald has argued that the idea of a "world religion" was created by liberal Christian theology in order to study and dialogue with other major religious traditions with universalists claims (Fitzgerald, Hinduism 104). Whatever the merits of this case, there are important practical implications of the term "world religion" in areas such as university religious studies, religious education, and interreligious dialogue and cooperation.
[5] One could argue that Christian missionary efforts over the last few centuries in order to spread the Gospel over the entire surface of the globe have been undertaken in a more "forced manner." The very nature of traditional missionary work differs sharply from Bahá'í pioneers who are generally expected to be self-supporting, and undertake employment in their new community. In addition, systematic planning was a characteristic of the early Christianity. To take one notable example, the New Testament documents the strategies of St. Paul to bring Christianity to the Gentiles (see Acts 16:1, 1 Thess. 2:2, Titus 1:5).
[6] For a delineation of the necessary conditions for a religion, see Wilson's 20 standard criteria (Social 279-281).
[7] Manichaeism, Christianity's main rival in the fourth and fifth centuries, possibly failed to sustain its early promise because it was not classless enough. While it spread from China to Spain during Mani's lifetime (216-276 C.E.), and by the sixth century had followers from the Pacific to the Atlantic, by the eighth century it had virtually disappeared. Conner explains its failure due a combination of its teachings (anti-social, extreme asceticism, too esoteric for the average believer) and its corrupted Church, which complicated doctrine beyond intellegibility (Conner, Mani and Manichaeism).
[8] Momen's "wider" definition of the term extends this to include all psychological and spiritual types: "We may now define world religion as one which satisfies the need and fulfills the expectations of all types of humanity, i.e. it must be true to the various viewpoints of the different types of human soul-psyche complex" (World 57).
[9] See Bahá'u'láh Tablets 222, Gleanings 243. Even the Qayyúmu'l-Asmá, the first revealed work of the Báb, challenged the rulers of the earth to deliver the Báb's message to "lands in both the East and West" (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By 7).
[10] See The Great Religions of the Modern World. Ed. E.J. Jurgi. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946; H. Smith, The Religions of Man. New York: Harper and Row, 1958; Man's Religious Quest - A Reader. Ed. W. Foy. London: Open University Press, 1978; N. Nielsen et al., Religions of the World. 2nd ed. New York: St. Martins, 1988; Raush, D.A. and C. Voss, World Religions - Our Quest for Meaning. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989; Historical Atlas of the Religions of the World. Ed. I. Faruqi. New York: MacMillan, 1974; The World's Religions. Ed. S. Sutherland. London: Routledge, 1988; J. Bowker, Problems of Suffering in the Religions of the World. London: Cambridge University Press, 1975; G. Parrinder, Mysticism in the World's Religions. London: Sheldon Press, 1976; H.O. Thompson, World Religions in War and Peace. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988; H. Coward, Pluralism: Challenge to World Religions. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985; P.M. Cooey, ed., After Patriarchy, Feminist Transformations of the World Religions. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992; D. Cohn-Sherbok,World Religions and Human Liberation. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992; R.L. Slater World Religions and World Community. NY: Colombia UP, 1963.
[11] See, for example, papers by R. Sabikki, "India Bahá'í temple," Architecture: The AIA Journal 76.9 (1987): 72-75; F. Sahba, "Bahá'í House of Worship, New Dehli, India," Architecture and Urbanization 206 (1987): 11-16; and T. Fisher, "A Second Sydney," Progressive Architecture 68.6 (1987): 28.
[12] See R. J. Armstrong-Ingram, Music, Devotions and Mashriqu'l-Adhkár (Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í History, vol. IV). Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1987.; W. Garlington, "Bahá'í Bhajans," World Order 16.2 (1982): 43-49; Y. Ishihara, "Bahá'í Haiku," Bahá'í Scholarship--Proceedings of the 1991 Annual Conference of the Association for Bahá'í Studies - Japan.
[13] a) The religion in question must lay itself open to the claim of representing a world-encompassing mission,
b) The modern experience of world unity must be part of its self-concept,
c) It must pose itself the question as to what part it can play in the solution of the world's problems,
d) The religion must come to terms with the plurality of religions and resolve this question in a way which does justice to today's worldview (qtd. in Schaefer, Bahá'í 18). Schaefer has demonstrated that all these criteria are fulfilled by the Bahá'í Faith (Bahá'í 9-20).
[14] See Schaefer, Bahá'í 18; G. Parrinder, What World Religions Teach 108 (London: George Harrap, 1963); A. Dowty, "Iran's Unholy war on the Bahá'ís," Church and State 42.2 (1989): 7-10; P.D. Allen, "Bahá'ís of Iran--A proposal for enforcement of international human rights standards," Cornell Int Law J 20.2 (1987): 337-61. Joachim Wach in his 1947 classic Sociology of Religion included "Babism" as a world religion "[i]n spite of the smaller numbers of adherents" (134). Presumably he meant the Bahá'í Faith.
[15] See World Religions: past and present by P. Balta et al. (London: Moonlight, 1991) 224; World religions in education: religion and story by the SHAP working party on religions in education (Cambridge: Hobsons, 1990); The Shap handbook on world religions in education edited by V. Barnett et al (London: CRE, 1987); World religions in education: humankind and the environment edited by C. Erricker et al (London: CRE, 1989) 9-11.
[16] See, for example, Wallis's survey of the North American NRMs in North America, 154-64.
[17] The Bahá'í Faith is also not listed in J. Gordon Melton's Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America (New York: Garland, 1986).
VIEWS24381 views since 1997 (last edit 2022-03-31 23:25 UTC)
PERMISSIONauthor and publisher
Home Site Map Links Tags Chronology About Contact RSS