Saturday, January 24, 2009

Some Old Charges for a New Religion

As a graduate student I sometimes hired Iranian students to assist me with translating certain Persian Baha'i histories. My preference, of course was to use Iranian Baha'is who would be more familiar with the vocabulary specific to our Faith, but there were occasions when I resorted to non-Baha'is. On one occasion­ an intelligent, rather secularized young man of Muslim background was reading a Baha'i text in Persian with me when he awkwardly asked me the following question: “Is it true that Baha'is believe that before a man gives away an apple, he should taste it first.”

I knew better than to take his question literally, but I wasn't about to guess at what he meant, so I said, “Farhad if you want an answer to your question you're going to have to be clearer.” After fumbling around a bit he finally asked me if it were true that Baha'is believed that a father should sleep with his daughter before he gave her away in marriage. At that point I said, “Think for a minute, Farhad. If you were going to make up stories to discredit a religion, what sort of things would you say?” He then admitted that he had figured the stories weren't true but he couldn't be sure.

This story, as fantastic as it might appear is all too typical of the rumors and slander that are spread in Iran about Baha'is and sometimes believed even by those with no love for Islamist regime now ruling there. The Nineteen Day Feast where Baha'is gather to say prayers, read from their scriptures, discuss the affairs of the community and share refreshments and food are rumored to be sexual orgies. The Baha'i Faith itself is thought to have been a Russian and British plot to destroy the unity of Islam, notwithstanding the unlikelihood of those two countries having colluded on anything in the 19th century. Nowadays it is imagined that Baha'is are receiving their support from Zionists or the US government.

Although the Baha'i Faith is a new religion, charges such as these are really very old. For this reason I would like to discuss the significance of such stories and the function they have played in Islamic history. Aside from the Baha'i Faith itself, Islam has historically been the most tolerant of the world's religions. This is mostly owing to the fact that Qur'an itself asserts that there is no people to whom a prophet has not been sent. (Qur'an 35:24, 16:24.) This opened the door for the acceptance of the legitimacy of nearly all the previous religions, even those not formally considered People of the Book (i.e. Christians and Jews.) Much more problematic has been the acceptance of any claims to revelation after Muhammad. No religion likes to be superseded, but in Islam particularly the notion that there would be no revelation after the Qur'an came to be seen as every bit as fundamental to the religion as the Oneness of God and the Prophethood of Muhammad. Because of this any religious movement arising after Islam had to be explained away as something other than a religion. The stock explanation came to be that such movements were really political in nature, usually instigated by an outsider, often a Jew, aimed at creating disruption (fitna.) For instance, Sunni Muslims hold a Yemenite Jew, Abdallah ibn Saba, responsible for the founding Shi'ism, a belief that goes back at least as far as al-Tabari (d. 934 A.D.)

A classical work which illustrates the manner in which Muslims came to view religious dissidence is in Nizam ul-Mulk's Siyasat-Name or Treatise on Government. Nizam u'l-Mulk served as Grand Vizier to the Seljuks who had invaded the Middle East under the pretext of saving Islam and the Caliphate from Shi'ite heretics. Most especially Nizam u'l-Mulk had to contend with the Ismaeli Assassins, to whom according to some accounts he eventually fell victim. The Siyasat Name presents the Sassanid ruler Khosrau the Just as the ideal ruler and one of the acts which is depicted as bringing him to power was his supression of the Mazdakite heresy. Nizam u'l-Mulk presents the Mazdakite religion as a Manichean-type dualism which was especially dangerous for its social program of community of property and wives. It is difficult to know at this distance if the historical Mazdak really had anything more radical in mind than a more equal distribution of property and ending the practice of the wealthy having several wives while the poor could afford none, but the notion of communism and wife-swapping came to be associated not only with his heresy but with subsequent religious dissidence as well. The Ismaelis, as well as the Babis, were accused of engaging in such practices. While the economic prosperity of the Baha'is of Iran during the Pahlavi period may have dissolved any notion that Baha'is were communists, the idea that Baha'is practiced a 'community of wives' lived on in lurid stories about Baha'i sexual orgies.

As in Christianity, Manicheanism came to be seen in the Islamic world as the paradigmatic heresy, and in works like al-Tabari, it came to be associated with incest as well. Such charges have echoed down the ages and been associated with virtually any dissident religious movement which arose thereafter, especially in Iran.

It is within this context that one must understand the stories which are often spread about Baha'is in the Islamic World, especially the charges that they are tied to Zionism. The truth is that it was largely an accident of history that the Baha'i World Centre ended up in Haifa, Israel, and not because of any ties it might have with Zionism. Baha'u'llah was exiled to Palestine when it was under the rule of the Ottoman Empire where He was imprisoned in Akka across the bay from Haifa, which was then a small fishing village.

Recently there has been a renewed  effort in Iran to fabricate links between Baha'is and Zionism. The propagandists have gone so far as to masquerade as Baha'is on internet sites such as run by someone using the name Yohanna, where misleading information is posted regarding the relationship of Baha'is to both Judaism and Zionism. Photos are included supposedly picturing Jewish-Baha'is in New York that in fact depict Baha'is of Christian background in London.

If the Baha'i Faith is not part of a Russian-British-American-Zionist plot to destroy the unity of Islam, what then is its attitude towards its sister religion? I think this can best be summarized in Shoghi Effendi's statement written in the Promised Day is Come that:

"As to Muhammad, the Apostle of God, let none among His followers who read these pages, think for a moment that either Islam, or its Prophet, or His Book, or His appointed Successors, or any of His authentic teachings, have been, or are to be in any way, or to however slight a degree, disparaged."

(Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 108)

Indeed, in his correspondence with the Western Baha'is, the Guardian of the Baha'i Faith repeatedly stressed that:

"They must strive to obtain, from sources that are authoritative and unbiased, a sound knowledge of the history and tenets of Islam -- the source and background of their Faith -- and approach reverently and with a mind purged from preconceived ideas the study of the Qur'án which, apart from the sacred scriptures of the Bábí and Bahá'í Revelations, constitutes the only Book which can be regarded as an absolutely authenticated Repository of the Word of God."(Compilations, Scholarship, p. 27)

He even went so far as to predict that the Western Baha'is would become the defenders of Islam. One of the earliest Baha'is to do so was Stanwood Cobb who wrote Islamic Contributions to Civilization.

Since then there has been a stream of academically trained Baha'is, including myself, who have gone on to teach Islam in western universities, seeking to stem the tide of prejudice against the religion. Baha'u'llah's son Abdu'l-Baha was held in the highest esteem by some of the most noted Muslim intellectuals, including Muhammad Abduh and Muhammad Iqbal. Yusuf al-Khatib, a well-known Muslim orator, said the following at Abdu'l-Baha's funeral:

O concourse of Arabians and Persians! Whom are ye bewailing? Is it he who but yesterday was great in his life and is today in his death greater still? Shed no tears for the one that hath departed to the world of Eternity, but weep over the passing of Virtue and Wisdom, of Knowledge and Generosity. Lament for yourselves, for yours is the loss, whilst he, your lost one, is but a revered Wayfarer, stepping from your mortal world into the everlasting Home. Weep one hour for the sake of him who, for well nigh eighty years, hath wept for you! Look to your right, look to your left, look East and look West and behold, what glory and greatness have vanished! What a pillar of peace hath crumbled! What eloquent lips are hushed! Alas! In this tribulation there is no heart but aches with anguish, no eye but is filled with tears. Woe unto the poor, for lo! goodness hath departed from them, woe unto the orphans, for their loving father is no more with them! "

Likewise the Mufti of Haifa said:

I do not wish to exaggerate in my eulogy of this great one, for his ready and helping hand in the service of mankind and the beautiful and wondrous story of his life, spent in doing that which is right and good, none can deny, save him whose heart is blinded...

O thou revered voyager! Thou hast lived greatly and hast died greatly! This great funeral procession is but a glorious proof of thy greatness in thy life and in thy death. But O, thou whom we have lost! Thou leader of men, generous and benevolent! To whom shall the poor now look? Who shall care for the hungry? and the desolate, the widow and the orphan?”

Baha'u'llah and Abdu'l-Baha do admittedly have some harsh words to say about some of the clerics of religion, including Islam. These are mostly aimed at those who have taken advantage of their followers and interfered in the political affairs of Iran. Let's keep in mind however, that Muhamamd spoke even more harshly of them:

"The Apostle of God said: `There will come a time for my people when there will remain nothing of the Qur'an except its outward form and nothing of Islam except its name and they will call themselves by this name even though they are the people furthest from it. The mosques
will be full of people but they will be empty of right guidance. The religious leaders (Fuqaha) of that day will be the most evil religious leaders under the heavens; sedition and dissension will go out from them and to them will it return.' " -ibn Babuya, Thawab ul-A'mal

If one searches through the internet one will find dozens of Muslim-sponsored sites attacking the Baha'i Faith, many of the sponsored by the Iranian government. You willl not, however, find any anti-Islamic sites by Baha'is because they respect Islam and revere Muhammad. Given the amount of persecution Baha'is have suffered at the urging of certain members of the Islamic clergy, this attitude is truly remarkable. Baha'is accept the divine nature of all these religions,  and wish only to promote unity amongst them. We consider the founders of other religions as occupying the same station as our own Founder. As Shoghi Effendi puts it:

“The Revelation, of which Bahá'u'lláh is the source and center, abrogates none of the religions that have preceded it, nor does it attempt, in the slightest degree, to distort their features or to belittle their value. It disclaims any intention of dwarfing any of the Prophets of the past, or of whittling down the eternal verity of their teachings. It can, in no wise, conflict with the spirit that animates their claims, nor does it seek to undermine the basis of any man's allegiance to their cause. Its declared, its primary purpose is to enable every adherent of these Faiths to obtain a fuller understanding of the religion with which he stands identified, and to acquire a clearer apprehension of its purpose. It is neither eclectic in the presentation of its truths, nor arrogant in the affirmation of its claims. Its teachings revolve around the fundamental principle that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final. Unequivocally and without the least reservation it proclaims all established religions to be divine in origin, identical in their aims, complementary in their functions, continuous in their purpose, indispensable in their value to mankind.

"All the Prophets of God," asserts Bahá'u'lláh in the Kitáb-i-Íqán, "abide in the same tabernacle, soar in the same heaven, are seated upon the same throne, utter the same speech, and proclaim the same Faith." From the "beginning that hath no beginning," these Exponents of the Unity of God and Channels of His incessant utterance have shed the light of the invisible Beauty upon mankind, and will continue, to the "end that hath no end," to vouchsafe fresh revelations of His might and additional experiences of His inconceivable glory. To contend that any particular religion is final, that "all Revelation is ended, that the portals of Divine mercy are closed, that from the daysprings of eternal holiness no sun shall rise again, that the ocean of everlasting bounty is forever stilled, and that out of the Tabernacle of ancient glory the Messengers of God have ceased to be made manifest" would indeed be nothing less than sheer blasphemy.”

(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah, p. 57)