Monday, September 24, 2018

The Book of Hearsay: What Bahais really believe

For quite some time, I regarded Bahai as a liberal, universalist, near-secularist and tolerant faith. Nothing for me (I was a woke atheist at the time), but they seemed harmless. Years later, I realized that Bahai was weird and cultic. David Piff's voluminous compilation “Unofficial Bahai Lore” confirms this impression. This is somewhat ironic, since Piff is a Bahai himself! The picture emerging from this book is that of a bizarre apocalyptic cult, intolerant of competing religions, paranoid about “Covenant-breakers” (critics who left the movement), with a membership steeped in rank superstition. The ethos of the movement seems to be a strange blend of early 20th century Protestantism and heterodox Shia Islam. While the lore collected by the author is said to be unofficial, I did get the distinct impression that many Bahais do believe in it.

Particularly appalling is the strong emphasis on shunning “Covenant-breakers”, who are said to be intrinsically evil. Indeed, in a religion that doesn't believe in the Devil or evil spirits, the Covenant-breakers are a de facto substitute. Their unattended graves radiate a dark energy, and only weeds and cacti grow there. Living Covenant-breakers emit a strong, nauseating odor, and so do books written by them (i.e. books criticizing the official Bahai faith). Books and letters from apostates emit a strongly negative aura, and so do rooms or houses in which apostates have lived, or their portraits. It's strong enough to make true believers ill! Interestingly (and typically for a cult), Bahais believe that educated people with a broad knowledge of the Bahai faith are *more likely* to become Covenant-breakers than the simple believers (probably a true observation – it takes a lot of sancta simplicitas to be a true believer). A particularly popular story tells of a Bahai waitress who refused to serve a group of apostates, and immediately left the restaurant (and her job) when her employer insisted that she does so. Covenant-breakers and other critics of the Bahai faith are said to be punished by God in various ways, sometimes by having accidents, fall ill or simply drop dead. It should be noted that Bahais are officially forbidden to socialize with Covenant-breakers, even if they are close family.

Divine retribution isn't limited to apostates and heretics, however. The Jews were punished by thousands of years of suffering for crucifying Jesus and persecuting Muhammad. If this piece of lore expresses a commonly held position within the group, it's extremely ironic, since the Bahai faith is headquartered in Israel! The Shia Muslims will suffer even more than the Jews ever have, as punishment for having persecuted the Bahai faith in Iran. Nor will the Sunnis be spared God's whip, since Israel (sic) will take over all Arab territory between the Nile and the Euphrates. The Catholic Church will supposedly start persecuting Bahais in the future, but be cowed into submission by the Bahai leaders, who know the true location of Christ's tomb – and the fact that Christ's remains are still in it! The Church will stop the persecutions, fearing that the Bahais will otherwise reveal the truth. Homosexuality isn't popular either – one piece of lore claims that AIDS is a divine retribution for this “sin”. Much lore deals with the Calamity, the Bahai apocalypse, which will destroy all coastal cities in the United States, and make large portions of the world uninhabitable. Billions of people will perish, and only converts to Bahai will survive. The Calamity has periodically been taken very seriously by Bahais, in the manner of apocalyptic cults or survivalists.

There is also a large body of Bahai lore associated with the faith's missionary activity. The most comic statement is that Greenland will warm up and become green and lush as a result of Inuit conversion to Bahai! The Bahai are aware of the rising sea levels this will cause all over the world, and some therefore connect the Greenland stories to the Calamity. There is a lot of speculation which nation will be first in officially embracing Bahai as its state religion. Ireland, Guyana and Belize are some of the contenders, while others point to Tuvalu. There are also a lot of rumors about which celebrity or high-ranking politician is “really” Bahai or at least friendly to the faith. The list includes luminaries such as Pope John XXIII, Mikhail Gorbachev, Barbara Bush, and Tom Selleck (despite starring in a film which in passing attacks the Bahai faith). More weirdly, some Iranian Bahais believed that Ayatollah Khomeini, of all people, wasn't really hostile to their faith, and tried to protect them. The Bahais are intensely jealous of the successes of the Mormon Church, and some lore therefore states that Mormons will be the first to convert to Bahai en masse, at which point Salt Lake City will become mostly Bahai.

Despite its liberal-modernist message, the Bahai faith is strikingly archaic on many points. The faith's leadership body, the Universal House of Justice, is all-male. Bahais need the consent of their parents to get married. Polygamy and various forms of hudud punishment will be allowed in the future, when Western Bahais are ready for it. In secret, the Bahai prophet and founder Bahaullah is regarded as God, in a way similar to how heterodox “Ghulat” sects of Shia Islam regard Imam Ali. Bahaullah's successors Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi are (also in secret) regarded as prophets, while officially they have a somewhat lower status. A large portion of lore deals with the supernatural powers of Bahaullah and Abdul-Baha.

“Unofficial Bahai Lore” may be of interest only to cult-watchers (or NRM-watchers, if you like), but if you belong to that category, I think it deserves five stars. Let's be careful out there…

No comments:

Post a Comment