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COLLECTIONUnpublished articles
TITLEReconciling the Other: The Bahá'í Faith in America as a Successful Synthesis of Christianity and Islam
AUTHOR 1Anthony Lee
ABSTRACTAlthough many ordinary Bahá'ís are unaware of their religion's Islamic roots, seeing it instead as the fulfilment of Christianity, we may regard the Bahá'í Faith in America as a successful synthesis, harmonizing Christianity and Islam.
NOTES Paper submitted for the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, Western Region, March 30-April 1, 1995, "Islamic Studies" section.
TAGS- Christianity; - Interfaith dialogue; - Islam; United States (documents)
Abstract:  A number of scholars have commented on the Islamic elements of basic Bahá'í theology and practice as found in Europe and America. In fact, the study of the Bahá'í religion, even in the West, continues to be thought of academically in terms of Islamic Studies. And yet, the Bahá'ís themselves, in the United States and elsewhere, are quick to deny that their religion is Islamic. Indeed, many ordinary Bahá'ís are even unaware of the Islamic roots many Bahá'í teachings, and they experience them instead as the fulfilment of Christianity.

It appears then 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 religion. Naturally, a reductionist argument is not being made here: The Bahá'í Faith is more than a Christian-Muslim syncretism. Nonetheless, basic elements of both religions have been harmonized in current Bahá'í thinking and practice.

This paper will seek to identify some Muslim elements in the Bahá'í religion as it is practiced in the United States and demonstrate how these elements have been Christianized in Bahá'í 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.[1] 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,[2] 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 Shí'í eschatology.

      The overwhelming 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.[3]

      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."[4]

      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.[5] 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, Bahá' 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 Bahá'ís had consciously broken their connections with Islam . . .[6]

The majority of Bahá'ís 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 Bahá'í law is either known or acted on [by Bahá'ís] outside Islamic countries.[7]
      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.[8]

      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 religion.

      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 opposites.

      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.[9]

      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."[10]

      Kheiralla taught that Bahá'u'lláh had been the incarnation of God the Father, and that his eldest son, 'Abdu'l-Bahá (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-Bahá.[11] 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-Bahá accepted and elaborated, formed the Christian base of the new American Bahá'í community.

      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.[12]
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 adopted.[13]

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.[14]

      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-Bahá 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.

      All 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.[15] 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.[16] While the Muslim origins of their new religion were not lost on them, the Bahá'í message was received and interpreted 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 American believers.

      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 preceded 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.[17] 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.[19]

      American Bahá'ís, 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 Bahá'í law.

      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. . . .

      Prayer 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 praying.

      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.[20]

Here, the Islamic distinction between ritual prayer and personal communion has been completely erased.

      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 history.

      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.[21] The obligatory prayer is explained in a paragraph in the section titled "Prayer is Indispensable and Obligatory."[22]

      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.[23]

      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.[24] 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 uncommented upon.

      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.[25] She had been a Mormon.

      Four popular volumes that provide summaries of the Bahá'í teachings were consulted concerning their approach to this Bahá'í law.[26] 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 yield 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 colleagues 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.[27] 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 Imams.

      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[28]), and reference to the Shí'í Imams is at best an historical detail.[29] 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[30] and, in any case, would find it irrelevant to their belief system.

      American Bahá'ís 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[31] 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.[32]

      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.[33]

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 prayers.[34]

      Yet for 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 significance.

      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.[35] 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 compared.

      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.[36] 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 religious belief.

      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.

      The 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 Christian expectations.

      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.


[1]  Of course, there is a considerable literature on the Babi movement. The best academic treatment is to be found in Abbas Amanat, Resurrection 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).
[2]  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).
[3]  The Bahá'í population in Iran is currently estimated at around 300,000. (Roger Cooper, The Bahá'ís of Iran, Report No. 51 [London: Minority Rights Group, 1982]) I believe that, for various reasons, the current population of Bahá'ís 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 communication)
[4]  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.
[5]  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 character.
[6]  Denis MacEoin, "Bahá'ísm" in A Handbook of Living Religions, edited by John R. Hinnells (New York: Penguin Books, 1984) p. 475.
[7]  Ibid., p. 487.
[8]  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 establishment, 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.
[9]  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.
[10]  Ibrahim Kheiralla, Bab-ed-Din: The Door of True Religion (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr and Co., 1897) p. 9.
[11]  In a later Tablet (letter) 'Abdu'l-Bahá expresses his exasperation with the American insistence 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 Bahá'ís 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 Trust, 1938])
[12]  Kenosha Kicker, 26 October 1899, from a letter to the editor.
[13]  Ibrahim George Kheiralla, Behá 'U'lláh (The Glory of God), Second Edition (Chicago: The Goodspeed Press, 1899).
[14]  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.
[15]  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]).
[16]  Peter Smith, "The American Bahá'í Community." p. 114.
[17]  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.
[19]  See, for example, Bahá'u'lláh, Prayers and Meditations of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1938).
[20]  Gloria Faizi, The Bahá'í Faith: An Introduction (New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1971).
[21]  John Esslemont, Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era. 1970 Edition (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970 [First Published 1923]) pp. 88-100.
[22]  Ibid., pp. 92-93.
[23]  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.)
[24]  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.
[25]  Anna Stevenson to the author. Personal communication.
[26]  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).
[27]  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.
[28]  'Abdu'l-Bahá's vehement rejection of this title and station eventually had their effect. All Bahá'ís 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-Bahá 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. [1940]) p. 134; and especially Juliet Thompson, The Diary of Juliet Thompson (Los Angeles: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983) passim.
[29]  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).
[30]  The fact is mentioned in passing in Shoghi Effendi's official history of the Bahá'í revelation, God Passes By, p. 94.
[31]  The Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi.
[32]  See, for example, the list provided in the popular pamphlet One Universal Faith (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, n.d.).
[33]  Brent Poirier to the author. Via e-mail, February 16, 1995.
[34]  Cf. Nabíl-i A'zam, The Dawn-Breakers, pp. 47-65.
[35]  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]).
[36]  Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice (Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1939) and God Passes By, p. 256.
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