Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette, IL
Today is the celebration of the “Ascension of Bahāʾ-úllāh“, who died near ʿAkkā in Palestine in 1892. Bahāʾ-úllāh is the prophet and founder of the Bahá’í Faith, the final “revealed faith” in the line of Abrahamic religions which begins with Judaism, continues with Christianity, Islam, and–some may argue–Sikhism, with a few offshoot sects (Ahmadiyya Islam, Mormonism, and thousands of other varieties of Christianity) thrown in there.
Having branched off the Bábi movement of the Shí’a tradition of Islam, the religion originally had some of the mystical flavor of Sufism (that is, of a very progressive and tolerant version of Islam). I studied the Bahá’í Faith more than 20 years ago, and there are many aspects of it that are quite noble. It is a universalist monotheistic faith that promotes equality between the sexes, harmony between science and faith, the unity of all religions, the importance of universal education, encourages the independent investigation of truth, discourages national, racial and religious prejudices, and calls for the adoption of a global language for the sake of universal brotherhood–among other things.
One of my favorite features of the Bahá’í tradition is the fact that–unlike Christianity and Islam, which are linked to colonial, racist, slave-holding, and imperialist history–it’s post-colonial. In Thinking Through Images, we read an anthropologist’s account of the contrast between the racist Christian white missionaries’ disdain and denunciation of traditional customs in Papuan society–which generated great tensions with the locals–versus the Bahá’í missionaries’ tolerance for custom, traditional art, dances, funerary practices, and carvings, as a result of which Bahá’ís were well received in the town of Madina, and this allowed the Bahá’í Faith to fully syncretize and interweave itself into local culture. By way of contrast, white Christian missionaries adopted a policy of segregation and even washed their hands after each encounter with locals. The Bahá’í Faith has grown there and Papua New Guinea is one of the countries that is scheduled to build a new national Bahá’í temple in the coming years. I wish here to accentuate the relationship that can be observed between salvific / exclusivist theologies and imperialist attitudes and policies. The Bahá’í Faith is the first religion in the Abrahamic line that is at once universal and post-colonial. One God, innumerable tribes.
The Bahá’í doctrine of progressive revelation also seems to resonate with the modern theory of evolution: God has supposedly been educating humans from early on through different prophets, and all religions are like chapters of one book. This makes the faith unique in that it is both inherently ecumenical and tolerant in nature, as well as syncretistic.
Perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing aspect of the faith is the beautiful temples, of which there is one in each continent. They all have nine sides and–true to Bahá’í post-colonial theology–reflect the local architectural traditions and assimilate into local taste, rather than importing models from outside. The máshriq-ul-adhkárs (as they’re called) range from the award-winning Lotus Temple in India to the tribal-hut-like temple from the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. The North American temple is just north of Chicago, by the lake, and is truly a vision of paradise.
Fun fact: like many previous faiths, this one also has its own calendar. Today is the 13th day of the month of ‘Aẓamat of the year 175 of the Bahá’í Era.
However, in practice, I found six main inconsistencies in the religion. While the son of the prophet Abdul-Bahá was a highly revered man of God who followed the teachings of the faith in times of persecution in a manner worthy of praise, his own father Bahāʾ-úllāh did not live up to his own principles. While requiring his followers to practice monogamy, he himself had two (or three?) wives and–just like we find in the polygamist families of the Old Testament–we will see that this had the effect of producing enmity, jealousy, and disunion among his descendants. This reminded me of something I read in the Gospels.
They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. – Matthew 23:4
Secondly, there are questions about the nine prophets of the faith. Bahá’ís teach that Muhammad was one of the “manifestations of God”. In order to be a Bahá’í, one must understand the Muslim prophet as such, even if his teaching has been abrogated by the more recent faith of Bahāʾú’llāh. There are way too many issues with this, including the violent and intolerant nature of the Islamic prophet. For more on this, I would recommend reading either Robert Spencer’s The Truth About Muhammad or Why I Am Not a Muslim by Ibn Warraq, or visiting the Muhammad section of TheReligionofPeace.com. Other critiques can be produced about Moses (who had 3,000 souls massacred in Exodus 32), the Báb, Jesus and Abraham (who may or may not have lived).
Thirdly, the main scripture of the Bahá’ís, a Book of Laws known as the Aqdas, “forbids” homosexuality and demoralizes gays. For a religion that was supposed to hold the promise of tolerance, this is another inaccurate and inconsistent doctrine that has no foundation in a scientific and empirical understanding of sexuality, and keeps the faith from truly belonging in the 21st Century and onwards.
Fourth, more double-standards: the supreme governing body of the faith is made up of nine persons, who must all be male, and the “Guardian of the Faith” also must be a male descendant of the prophet. To be fair, the ten Gurus of the Sikh religion, all the Imams of Shí’a Islam, and Catholic priests are male. Judaism is the only major Abrahamic faith that has begun to train female rabbis en masse. But for a faith that stands out among the rest by calling explicitly from the onset for equality between the sexes–and many of whose women have been put in jail or killed in Iran for refusing to wear the veil–the Bahá’í Faith seriously betrayed its own moral guidelines, and wasted a chance to lead by example in this department.
Fifth, the prophet gave instructions for all to write a final will and testament, but when his own great-grandchild Shoghi Effendi failed to do so as the (first and last) Guardian of the faith, the entire institution of the Guardianship–which was set up in the main scripture of Aqdas–collapsed. It turns out that the prophet decided that only his male descendants would be eligible for the responsibility, but there WERE no male descendants when Shoghi Effendi died who had not been excommunicated for reasons of endless intra-familiar bickering, back-stabbing and intrigue. Perhaps if Bahá’ú’lláh had remained true to his own teachings, and allowed women into the UHJ and Guardianship, the faith would have had the first equivalent of a female Khalifa or Pope, the first Matriarch of any Abrahamic religion, as well as secured the intended continuity and leadership that the Guardianship was supposed to lend.
Finally, although it claims to accept science as being in unison with religion, it is a God-centered faith that attempts to deny the serious incompatibilities between Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and other faiths (all of whose prophets and founders it accepts). There is no scientific evidence for God, much less for the particular God of any of these faiths, and until / unless such evidence if found and is final, the claim that religion can be in harmony with science also has no solid foundation. The Bahá’í scripture called the Seven Valleys seems to indicate that God can be interpreted as pantheistic, where we would be able to equate God with Nature. If that were the case, the Bahá’í Faith could even be adaptable to Epicurean philosophy, but this is not consistent with what we find in other writings, some of which are heavily neo-Platonic.
And so, while the Bahá’í Faith is definitely a step forward from Islam and may have the potential to emancipate some societies from obscurantism to a great degree, ultimately the deficiencies due to having given too much credit to patriarchal assumptions and Platonic flights of fancy make the Bahá’í Faith another Abrahamic religion that appears to have failed to live up to its promise.
In closing, I must say that every religion has wonderful people who beautifully bear witness to the wholesome aspects of their religion, that some of the friends I made back in the day while studying the Bahá’í Faith were very sincere, kind-hearted people, and that I am 100 % in solidarity with the Bahá’ís of Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere in the Muslim world who experience daily mistreatment, persecution and injustices. That Iranian authorities categorize Bahá’í willingness to befriend Jews and Westerners as traitors and foreign agents says more about their particular, paranoid brand of tribalism than about the Bahá’í themselves.