Friday, November 12, 2010

The Baha'is

Today is the birthday of Mirza Husayn ‘Ali Nuri (1817-1892) but known to the world as Baha'u'llah (“Glory of God”), the founder of the Baha'i faith. Baha'u'llah saw the light in Tehran, in Persia. I thought I’d mark the day in memory of an old friend of mine, Bill Munson, who was both an ordinary American and a Baha'i. Bill passed away while still a young man thirty-some odd years ago. Because of our friendship, I got to know the Baha'i faith quite well, read some of its sacred books, and even attended some Baha'i events with him. That experience also served as my gateway to the much wider Islamic culture.

The Baha'i faith is by any measure the most liberal of any “descendants” of Islam but presents itself to the world as a new revelation—the most recent in a succession sent from God to guide humanity. This faith also has its pre-cursor figure, analogous to John the Baptist in Christianity, at least as the Baha'is believe. That man, from Shiraz in Persia, named at birth Siyyid ‘Alí-Muhammad (1819-1850), called himself the Bab, or “The Gate” in 1844. He was of the most populous branch of Shi'ite Islam, the Twelvers, who in those days—and still to this day—are awaiting the appearance of the Twelfth Imam. It seemed that the Bab laid claim to be the gate to the Twelfth Imam, preparing the way, as it were, but some discerned from his later writings that he claimed himself to be the hidden imam, now in the flesh. Baha'u'llah was one of his early disciples. In 1863, exiled to Baghdad, Baha'u'llah proclaimed his own revelation and mission, and said that he was the one whom the Bab had announced. Baha'u'llah did not claim to be the Twelfth Imam in the Shi'ite context but, instead, claimed to bring a new revelation, indeed a new religion, the central message of which was the unity of mankind under God.

The chief teachings are abandonment of all prejudice, full equality of women, the oneness of all religion, the elimination of extremes in all poverty and wealth, universal education, independent search for truth, a global commonwealth of nations, and a fundamental harmony between religion and science.

The Baha'is are democratically governed by groups of nine, its highest level being the Universal House of Justice located in Haifa, Israel. Not quite living up to the full equality claim, women are excluded from the top nine but may serve at lower levels like national assemblies and below. Alas. An inside-the-community explanation of this anomaly may be read here. The nine-pointed star is the Baha'i symbol.

The faith has around 5 million adherents in 236 countries. It is persecuted in the Islamic realm. Iran considers Baha'is a political movement and denies the Baha'i faith the status of a religion, even of a minority religion. The biggest center of the religion here is located in Wilmette, IL just north of Chicago.

I found it fascinating to encounter a genuine but a very young religion in my own time, the 1960s, thus about  a hundred years after it began. Back in those days I read a book I'm fairly sure was titled The Competitors of Christianity—although I can't find a reference to it on the web. And no, I don’t mean Christianity and its Competitors, a recent work. Every religion always insists that it’s the last—but all religions are also institutions, and these age, change, and decay. And others sprout. I wonder what our time will look like from the year 4000...

1 comment:

  1. An alternative book would be The Religions of the Oppressed by Lanternari.

    It is set in pre- and post- World War II era and informs us of the luxuriant hot house growth of belief groups we had never heard of.

    The news only cover the cults that "go bad".


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