Thursday, September 27, 2018

Children of the Bab

Bahai is a new religion, which emerged in Iran during the 19th century and went global during the 20th. This book, "Introduction to the Bahai Faith", written by a Bahai scholar, is a good but uncritical introduction to the faith.

Bahai considers the so-called Babi faith to be its immediate predecessor, but it's obvious even from this account that the Babis were very different from the later Bahais. Named after their leader's religious pseudonym (Bab or “The Gate”), the Babis were an ecstatic, mystical and millenarian movement still within the orbit of heterodox Shia Islam and Sufism. After a violent struggle, the Bab's followers were suppressed by the Persian authorities and the Bab himself executed (this event took place in 1850). The movement was then reorganized by Bahaullah (1817-1892), who claimed to be the Bab's legitimate successor. Bahaullah was also an accomplished mystic, even to the point of seeing the Divine in the form of a female apparition. However, his message was really very different from that of the Bab and also from traditional Islam, renouncing millenarian violence and calling for a liberal new world order. Bahaullah and his successor Abdul-Baha (1844-1921) spent most of their lives in Ottoman exile. Abdul-Baha in turn was succeeded by Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), titled the “Guardian of the Faith”. After his death, no new Guardian was appointed, the Bahai faith instead being governed by a collective leadership body known as the Universal House of Justice (UHJ). Until the 1950's, 90% of all Bahais were Iranians, while today, India is the strongest bastion of the Bahai faith. The cover of this book shows an Indian temple. The faith has a presence all over the world, with the exception of North Korea and the Vatican City. Since the time of Bahaullah, its international headquarters (including a mausoleum housing the Bab's earthly remains) are in Haifa, now on Israeli territory.

Bahai still has certain Shia Muslim traits, including the idea that Muhammad's true successors were the Shia Imams, beginning with Muhammd's cousin and son-in-law Ali, and that Bahai succession should ideally be within Bahaullah's family (since most of his family apostasized, however, this is no longer possible). Bahaullah claimed to be the spiritual return of the martyred Imam Husayn. Bahai also acknowledges the past greatness of Islam and Muslim civilization. Bahai blends these traits with a political (or perhaps quasi-political) program of a decidedly modernist, liberal and “progressive” bent. Thus, Bahai supports the United Nations, calls for a world federation, universal disarmament, Western-style democracy, racial equality, gender equality and even an international auxiliary language (many Bahais supported Esperanto and Zamenhof's daughter even converted to the new religion). It looks *very* strange to read a liberal peace program which claims to be literal divine revelation from a Persian mystic!

The more religious tenets of the message strike me as contradictory in some ways. Thus, angels and good disembodied souls are said to exist, but not demons. Evil humans turn into evil spirits at death, but have no influence upon the living. There is no reincarnation, yet Hinduism and Buddhism are recognized as prophetic religions, Buddha and Krishna even said to be Manifestations of God. The virgin birth of Jesus and his sacrificial death are affirmed, but not his casting out of demons nor his resurrection, which is said to be purely symbolic. Dead men apparently don't rise, but how can they be born of a virgin? Overall, there is a tendency to do away with, or play down, the miraculous side of religion.

While Peter Smith doesn't discuss his religion from a sociological or historical-critical angle, I think it could be used as a telling case study of the “routinization of charisma”. The Bab and Bahaullah were charismatic mystics, while Abdul-Baha did more to institutionalize the faith, introducing the concept of “Covenant-breakers” (everyone who questions Abdul-Baha). Under Shoghi Effendi and the UHJ, the bureaucratic side of the organization seems to have been emphasized to ridiculous lengths, the Administrative Order in effect being seen as divinely inspired. Historically-critically, it's intriguing to note that most Babis accepted Bahaullah as the true successor of the Bab, despite their messages being so obviously dissimilar. Here, we can make parallels to how Paul, who never met Jesus in the flesh, nevertheless managed to reform the Jesus Movement, dragging Peter and Jacob with him as he went. Yet, Peter and Jacob presumably *had* met Jesus in the flesh! It's also interesting to note that a small group around one Azal, who upheld the original message of the Bab, was declared heretical by Bahaullah (the real heretic). On many interpretations, a similar fate befell the Jewish-Christians in the early Church…

There are two other issues not dealt with thoroughly in this book. First, I wonder about the political dimensions of the Bahai faith, since Bahaullah seems to have had good contacts with Czarist Russia, Ashkhabad being a Bahai stronghold until the October Revolution. Russia was an enemy of both Persia and the Ottoman Empire. Abdul-Baha enjoyed good relations with the British, who took over Palestine after World War I. Second, the similarities between Bahai and certain forms of liberal Protestantism are striking, including systematic missionary activity (often directed at “Native” peoples), the liberal-globalist program, and the “Biblical” language, Bahaullah apparently being well-versed in the Bible (something very unusual for Muslims, both then and now). I'm not saying the book is “bad” for leaving this out – it's an introduction, after all – but I sense that perhaps these issues can be somewhat contentious…

In the end, I nevertheless give this material four stars.

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