The Paradox of the Baha’i Faith
In 1891, Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, a Persian nobleman in exile who called himself Baha’u’llah (“The Glory of God”), wrote the following words, claiming to be revealing God’s message for a new era of human civilization:
The first Glad-Tidings… is that the law of holy war hath been blotted out from the Book [i.e. the scriptures of religion]…. The sec¬ond Glad-Tidings: It is permitted that the peoples and kindreds of the world associate with one another with joy and radiance. O people! Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.1
In his last will and testament, Baha’u’llah wrote:
Every receptive soul who hath in this Day inhaled the fragrance of His garment and hath, with a pure heart, set his free towards the all-glorious Horizon [i.e. the highest heaven] is reckoned among the people of Baha [i.e. as Baha’is]… The religion of God is for love and unity; make it not the cause of enmity or dissension.1 & 2
- Lawh-i-Bisharat (“Tablet of Glad-Tidings”). Official Baha’i translation in Tablets of Baha’u’lldh Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas (Wilmette, III.: US Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1988 pocket-size edition), pp. 21-22.
- Kitab-i-Ahd (“Book of the Covenant”). Official Baha’i translation in ibid., p. 220.
Baha’u’llah’s first son and successor, Abbas Effendi, who called himself ‘Abdu’l-Baha (“Servant of the Glory”), wrote the following in his own will:
So intense must be the spirit of love and loving kindness, that the stranger may find himself a friend, the enemy a true brother, no difference whatsoever existing between them. For universality is of God and all limitations earthly….
Consort with all the peoples, kindreds and religions of the world with the utmost truthfulness, uprightness, faithfulness, kindliness, good-will and friendliness, that all the world of being may be filled with the holy ecstasy of the grace of Baha, that ignorance, enmity, hate and rancor may vanish from the world and the darkness of estrangement amidst the peoples and kindreds of the world may give way to the Light of Unity. Should other peoples and nations be unfaithful to you show your fidelity unto them, should they be unjust toward you show justice towards them, should they keep aloof from you attract them to yourselves, should they show their enmity be friendly towards them, should they poison your lives, sweeten their souls, should they inflict a wound upon you, be a salve to their sores. Such are the attributes of the sincere! Such are the attributes of the truthful. 3
However, in the very same document, ‘Abdu’l-Baha also wrote:
And now, one of the greatest and most fundamental principles of the Cause of God is to shun and avoid entirely the Covenant-breakers, for they will utterly destroy the Cause of God, ex-terminate His Law and render of no account all efforts exerted in the past….
Beware lest ye approach this man [i.e. the chief of the “Covenant-breakers”], for to approach him is worse than approaching fire! …
A thousand times shun his company…. Watch and examine; should anyone, openly or privily, have the least connection with him, cast him out from your midst, for he will surely cause disruption and mischief. 4
He was spealdng of his own brother Mohammed Ali Bahai, and most of the rest of their family, their father’s lifelong secretary, and numerous friends and supporters of Mr. Bahai, all of whom he had expelled from the new religious community. What was this “Covenant¬breaking” that was so grave an offense that it would cause ‘Abdu’l-Baha to make a special exception to his own teachings of universal fellowship and forbearance, and instead urge his followers to enter into the sort of adversarial stance he had described as the “darkness of estrangement”?
The specific accusations by ‘Abdu’l-Baha against Mr. Bahai are out-lined in his will, and were the basis for denying this younger brother the successorship that their father had envisioned for his second son, who, like Abbas Effendi, had been an active leader in the formative years of the Baha’i faith. The accusations are serious and will be ad¬dressed in this book—both what ‘Abdu’l-Baha alleged, which has been portrayed as unchallenged fact in official Baha’i histories and commentaries about the religion’s “Covenant” of institutional authority, as well as Mohammed Ali Bahai’s responses to the charges, which have never before been published—and furthermore, some of the counter-charges made by partisans of Mr. Bahai against ‘Abdu’l-Baha.
Much more important than any of these accusations, however, is that in the formal excommunication of his brother, ‘Abdu’l-Baha severed one of the most significant veins of Baha’i thought from the continued development of the faith. Mr. Bahai was an articulate and respected voice for an interpretation of Baha’ism centered on individual conscience and freedom from authoritarian religious leadership. His supporters called themselves “Unitarian” Baha’is, because of their emphasis on the oneness of God and the non-divinity and essential fallibility of the human leaders of religions—including ‘Abdu’l-Baha. In contrast, mainstream Baha’is today believe that ‘Abdu’l-Baha and his chosen successor Shoghi Effendi Rabbani—known in Baha’i parlance as the “Master” and the “Guardian” respectively—were infallible and that their teachings can never be changed by future Baha’i leaders. This belief has locked in the mainstream Baha’i community to some interpretations and policies that are difficult to defend in the 21st century, most notably, the absolute exclusion of women from serving on the highest Baha’i institution, the Universal House of Justice.
The estranged relationship between Baha’u’llah’s sons, more than any other feet or thread of Baha’i history, changed the Baha’i faith from what might have become an Islamic-inspired liberal spiritual tradition analogous to the Christian-sprung free-thinking pluralism of the Unitarian Universalist church, into what Dr. Juan R. I. Cole, professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan, has described as a faith community with strict “social control mechanisms” such as “mandatory prepublication censorship of everything Baha’is publish about their religion, administrative expulsion, blackballing, shunning and threats of shunning.”6 Dr. Cole, a former member of the Baha’i community who left in 1996 under threat of excommunication and shunning, is one of the foremost scholars of a faith he considers to be “curiously off-limits to careful investigation.”7 Other distinguished Baha’i scholars, such as Drs. John and Linda Walbridge, likewise have resigned their membership after being threatened by Baha’i officials for seeking greater openness of scholarly dialogue and administrative reform of the faith. 8
3. The Will And Testament of‘Abdu’l-Baha (Wilmette, 111.: US Bahai Publishing Trust, 1990 reprint), Part One, pp. 13-14.
4. Ibid., Part Two, pp. 20-21.
5. Baha’u’llah wrote in his will, “We have surely chosen the Mightiest (Akbar) [i.e. Mohammed Ali Bahai] after the Greatest (A’zam) [i.e. Abbas Effendi] as a command from the All-Knowing, the Omniscient.” See the last section of Chapter 6.
6. “The Baha’i Faith in America as Panopticon, 1963-1997.” Originally published in The Journalfor the Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 37, No. 2 (June 1998): 234-248. Available online at http://www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/Bahai/ 1999/jssr/bhjssr.htm
8. Dr. John Walbridge is a professor of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Indiana University. His late wife, Dr. Linda Walbridge, served as deputy di-rector of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University in the 1990s and taught anthropology at Indiana University. The issues and events that led them, Dr. Cole and others to leave the Baha’i faith are described in an academic article by Karen Bacquet, “Enemies Within: Conflict and Control in the Baha’i Community,” originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 18:109.
The Need for Critical Baha’i Scholarship
Although Juan Cole and the other reform-minded Baha’i scholars did not call for a reevaluation of the great schism that occurred in the Baha’i faith between the followers of two of Baha’u’llah’s sons—focus¬ing instead on modern debates—a fresh and open-minded examina¬tion of the earliest debate about the nature and extent of Baha’i insti¬tutional authority is in fact long overdue, and could shed much light on how this religion, which paradoxically began as a movement against the stultifying authoritarianism of Shi’ite Islam, eventually adopted some similar characteristics. Other alternative Baha’i groups and re¬form movements have come and gone, none ever enjoying the kind of credibility and potential that the Unitarian Baha’is had in their heyday. After all, most of Baha’u’llah’s own children and grandchildren were Unitarian Baha’is—a circumstance and significance that cannot be rep¬licated.
The last books by adherents of Mohammed Ali Bahai were pub¬lished in the early 1900s, before his sect gradually faded away into ob¬scurity and disappeared. Since then, the only book I am aware of that even attempts a degree of objectivity in presenting their point of view was The Baha’i Faith: Its History and Teachings, by William McElwee Miller, published in 1974. Rev. Miller was a Christian minister whose purpose was, at least somewhat, to deter people from converting to the Baha’i faith, and therefore his book should not be taken as the last word on these issues. Moreover, it is a broad overview of the Baha’i religion which was not intended to delve deeply into the lives, testimonies, and arguments of the various members of Baha’u’llah’s family and other key figures in the faith during the period of open schism—though to its credit, it does at least discuss the schism and the basic position of both sides, which is more than can be said for most introductions to the Baha’i faith. New and more extensive scholarship on this specific sub¬ject has been needed for decades, and finally is brought forward in A 140. Available online at http://www.angelfire.com/ca3/bigquesti0ns/enemies .html. See also “The Talisman Crackdown” at http://www.angelf1re.com/ca3/ bigquestions/talisman.html
Lost History of the Baha’i Faith—which hopefully will not be the last book to cover this critical ground with the goal of objectivity.
What makes this new book special—other than the fact that its in-triguing subject matter has mostly been ignored for nearly a century— is that most of its contents were written by the immediate family of the Baha’i prophet himself. It is thus a unique and crucially important com-pilation of the -views and memories of people who intimately knew the founder of the Baha’i faith, who believed him to be the new messenger of God for modern times, yet who, because of some combination of doctrinal disagreements and personal quarrels, were not allowed by their own relatives to participate in the religious community bearing his name. I contend that it is impossible to have a clear and balanced understanding of the Baha’i faith, its historical development, its cur¬rent challenges and future potential, without reading A Lost History of the Baha’i Faith with a sincerely open mind.
As editor, I have attempted to order and annotate the primary source materials that comprise this book in a way that presents a co¬herent narrative and which makes them accessible and understandable to everyone, including people who know little about the Baha’i faith. Thus, this book can serve as a first introduction to this fascinating re¬ligion of the modern era, while at the same time bringing to light— rather than avoiding or glossing over—some of the most controversial episodes and debates of its history.
Manuscript by Shua Ullah Behai
Most of the chapters of this book are reproduced, in some cases nearly verbatim, from an unpublished English-language book written in the mid 1940s by Shua Ullah Behai. The manuscript, titled simply Bahai Faith, included not only his own writings but also writings by other family members, especially Mohammed Ali Bahai, his father; ‘Abdu’l-Baha, his uncle; and Baha’u’llah, his grandfather; as well as sev¬eral other early Baha’is and historians of the faith. Many of these writ¬ings, including some of the words of Baha’u’llah, are original transla¬tions by Mr. Behai.
Shua Ullah Behai’s manuscript was not a highly sectarian or polem¬ical work. Although it is impossible for anything a believer writes about religion to be completely objective, Mr. Behai attempted to tell the Baha’i story in a way that was respectful of people he disagreed with, and focused on presenting facts rather than making judgments. Al¬though his book reflected the overall perspective of the Unitarian Baha’i tradition he favored, it was not a one-sided account of the Baha’i faith but a compilation of various points of view including his own.
A Lost History of the Baha’i Faith includes most of the book Shua Ullah Behai wrote and compiled, as well as some additional texts that are relevant to the narrative. This book is an attempt to expand upon and update Mr. Behai’s work in keeping with the spirit of his manu¬script, letting key figures and witnesses of Baha’i history speak for themselves—especially those whose voices were suppressed and whose stories have been forgotten or neglected.
Some of the material I have added is more partisan in taking the side of Mr. Behai’s father and portraying ‘Abdu’l-Baha in a negative light, compared to Mr. Behai’s own writings and especially those of the elder Mr. Bahai, who took pains to avoid harsh criticisms or judgments of his brother from whom he had been estranged. I have included the more partisan material for three reasons: First, the main purpose of Shua Ullah Behai’s book was to provide important historical testimonies that would otherwise be ignored, and I feel that the passage of time and my distance from the Baha’i family feud make me capable of dis¬cussing material which he may have been reluctant to include out of respect for his famous uncle’s reputation or for fear of coming across as personally biased—material which nevertheless ought to be presented in context and considered by anyone who wants to investigate the is¬sues objectively. Second, I feel that it is instructional for the reader to observe the differences in tone and content between Mohammed Ali Bahai’s own statements and some other critics of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, as this sheds light on the character of the man Baha’u’llah intended to become his second successor and the significant and perhaps under-recognized role that other Baha’is played in the schism. Third, the testimonies of two of the writers I added, Mohammed Jawad Gazvini and Rosamond Templeton, corroborate Mr. Bahai’s claim that ‘Abdu’l-Baha sought to hide part of Baha’u’llah’s will and would not permit the document to be disseminated without his own editorial control—a disturbing possibility that deserves scholarly consideration of all sources available which may either refute or confirm its likelihood.
The focus of A Lost History as I have reconstructed it is to relate the early history and teachings of the Baha’i faith through the eyes of some of its most intimate and marginalized adherents. To keep this the main focus and reduce distractions from the flow of the story, I have tightened up some chapters which contained lengthy unabridged selections from writings already published elsewhere. I have also somewhat reordered the contents of Mr. Behai’s manuscript. Minor editing has been done to all the documents included in this new version of the book, to modernize and improve the English writing of the authors and translators, who were not native speakers; but I have tried to avoid the kind of editing that would significantly alter their writing style.
Throughout the book, text enclosed in parentheses is either original to the author of the primary source document or, in most cases, explanatory additions by the translator (e.g. Shua Ullah Behai). Bracketed text and footnotes have been added by this editor to further assist the reader. I have extensively annotated some chapters, in particular, where detailed explanations are needed either to clarify or raise doubts about the meaning of the author, or to provide relevant background information.
How Unitarian Were the Unitarian Baha’is?
Editing Shua Ullah’s Behai’s manuscript required grappling with an interesting theological issue. Both Mr. Behai and his father were native speakers of Persian and Arabic, the script of which does not have capi¬tal letters. As a result, Mr. Behai’s English writings as well as his translations of his father’s writings exhibit excessive and irregular capitali¬zation of words. This has been corrected in the edited version. However, he was also inconsistent in capitalizing pronouns in reference to the religious leaders regarded by Baha’is as “Manifestations of God,” in¬cluding Baha’u’llah, which means that the editor could either leave the irregularities in the text (annoying the reader) or decide on a single, consistent style (obscuring the authors’ diverse and complex views). Instead of these problematic options, I have edited the text to use either capital or lowercase “he” based on what I have been able to determine about the beliefs and intentions of the author at the time when each document was written. In some cases it depends on the tenor and purpose of a particular document or its intended audience. In other cases it depends on the author, since some authors demonstrated an obvious tendency to deify Baha’u’llah whereas other authors did not present him that way. For documents included in this book that have already been published elsewhere, I have been less inclined to change the capitalization of pronouns, but have done so occasionally.
The capitalization pattern in the original documents written or translated by Mr. Behai is worth noting: more frequent capitalization of pronouns in reference to Baha’u’llah, less frequent capitalization in reference to other Manifestations of God; more frequent capitaliza¬tion in reference to Baha’u’llah in his earlier writings, and no capital¬ization at all of pronouns referring to Manifestations in the last extant document he is known to have written (a speech he gave in 1947). The theological significance of these facts may be debated, but it is my con¬sidered opinion that the observed patterns and changes are not accidental.
In the early 1900s, the Unitarian Baha’is tended to exalt Baha’u’llah’s divinity as greater than that of other great religious leaders, with the possible exception of Jesus Christ. A prominent advocate of this view was Ibrahim Kheiralla, the first Baha’i missionary to the United States, who emphasized Baha’u’llah’s station as the Return of Christ and the “Everlasting Father” of Biblical prophecy, and downplayed the station of Baha’u’llah’s forerunner the Bab and other religious figures usually thought by Baha’is to be Divine Manifestations rather than mere prophets.
Mohammed Ali Bahai held and expressed what might, in Christian terms, be termed a “high Christology” regarding Baha’u’llah—perhaps to some degree as a way of drawing a sharper distinction between the station of the Manifestation and that of‘Abdu’l-Baha, his successor. Because Mr. Bahai was regarded by Unitarian Baha’is as an authoritative successor to Baha’u’llah, this view carried a lot of weight among his fol-lowers during his lifetime.
After his death, however, it appears that a true theological unitaryanism began to emerge within the Unitarian Baha’i tradition. Among adherents of the tradition who left behind writings, both Baha’u’llah’s grandson ShuaUllah and granddaughter Kamar Bahai seemed to hu-manize all the prophets, including Baha’u’llah, in their presentations of the Baha’i faith near the end of their lives. In the mid 1900s, both of them come across as spiritual progressives even by today’s standards— fully embracing a liberal, open-minded view of religion while continu¬ing to believe in its divine inspiration. Today, Negar Bahai Emsallem, daughter of Kamar and niece of Shua Ullah, could be fairly described as a liberal Baha’i, Unitarian and Universalist, who reveres but does not deify the founders of the great religions.
Motives and Intentions of the Editor
I feel that it would be appropriate for me to say a few words about why I have decided to compile and edit the primary source documents in this book and bring it to publication. The book was not published by a vanity press; I was paid for my work as editor. However, I would have been more than happy to serve in this capacity without compen¬sation, and in fact I began compiling the documents and exploring op¬tions for publication more than a year before Vox Humri Media took on the project and hired me.
My interest in helping to get this book into print is for three rea¬sons. First, I am a former member of the Baha’i faith community, but still believe in most of the principles taught by Baha’u’llah. I became a Baha’i in college and left the faith after about four years, in 2002, because I found organized Baha’ism to be too rigid in its doctrines and too focused on obedience to Baha’i religious leaders past and present. As a religious studies major who had been considering a career in academia, I was especially concerned about official Baha’i censorship of dissenting viewpoints, and the overall culture of intellectual conformity within the Baha’i community. It seemed inconceivable to me, for example, that any legitimate religious scholar could tolerate a policy such as “pre-publication review,” in which a committee of Baha’i officials must censor and approve all books and academic articles written by Baha’is about their religion. I felt that the Baha’i faith needed to be reformed, but reform was not something that Baha’is were allowed to discuss. Feeling my spirit called in other directions, I eventually became a liberal Christian and Unitarian Universalist.
A few years ago I read some out-of-print books on the internet, and was fascinated to discover that the earliest “Covenant-breakers” were expelled from the Baha’i community precisely because they shared the desire for a more free-thinking, liberal Baha’i faith. It is not easy to learn this, because the evidence for this fact has been omitted from recently published histories of the religion; and even in the past, the reason for the rebellion of some early Baha’i insiders was glossed over as simply a stubborn refusal to obey legitimate Baha’i leaders. Although many Baha’is in recent times have left the Baha’i community or even the faith itself for the same basic reason they did conscientious disagreement with Baha’i leaders’ claims to be the infallible representative of God— surprisingly little has been written by religious scholars or historians about the fact that this kind of dissent is nothing new, but is part of a long, rich tradition of liberal-minded “dissident” Baha’is led by members of Baha’u’llah’s own immediate family.
I believe this alternative Baha’i tradition of resistance to centralized, absolute religious authority, which dates back to the time of Baha’u’llah’s passing, should be brought to light, fully researched and discussed, and critically examined for the important role it has played in Baha’i history and its potential significance for future developments of the faith. A Lost History of the Baha’i Faith is my attempt to get the ball rolling and contribute to this process. It is my hope that Baha’is may come to a more historically accurate and nuanced view of their religion’s development and the key figures involved, why the Baha’i community struggles to attract and retain religious liberals among their membership, and how they might fix this problem by reevaluating internal debates of a century ago.
Secondly, after reading a variety of previously published and never- before-published primary source texts by Mohammed Ali Bahai, Shua Ullah Behai, and other writers in the Unitarian Baha’i tradition, I
reached the opinion that regardless of whether their religious views were “right” or “wrong,” these people have been unfairly maligned by mainstream Baha’i leaders and apologetic histories of the faith. Their character was attacked without sufficient evidence to support the allegations that led to their banishment from the religion they clearly loved. Therefore, because I was given exclusive access to unpublished documents they wrote, I felt I had a responsibility to help to bring these documents to print, so that their voices could be heard by the public. Only by studying their testimonies and teachings could Baha’is—or anyone else interested—even begin to form an intelligent and informed opinion about these historical figures, their beliefs, actions, values and motives. Only by considering the statements of both sides of a dispute can we attempt to move beyond hearsay and prejudice and strive for objectivity.
“Independent investigation of truth” has always been taught as a key principle of the Baha’i faith. A Lost History is a new and vital resource with which Baha’is may pursue such an investigation about some of the most important people and issues in their religious tradition—the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Baha’ u’llah, and their sincere and passionate arguments with each other about the meaning and message of the faith they so intimately knew and shared.
A third reason for my involvement as editor of this book is a more personal one. Over the past few years I have become friends with Negar Bahai Emsallem, a great-granddaughter of Baha’u’llah who lives in Haifa, Israel. She is the person who provided me with the documents that have never before been seen by the public—not even by anyone outside of her immediate family. I first contacted Mrs. Bahai in 2010, after I saw her interviewed in a controversial Israeli film about the Baha’i faith called Baha’is In My Backyard, and I was curious to speak with a descendant of one of the ostracized members of Baha’u’llah’s family to learn more about their point of view.
I am honored to count Mrs. Bahai as a friend. I have found her to be a woman of principle, decent, good-natured, kind and unassuming, with an open heart and an open mind. Her respect for all religions and
habit of interfaith dialogue and fellowship are extraordinary for someone who grew up in her generation in the Middle East. Wishing to avoid fruitless sectarianism, she does not enjoy talking about, in her words, the “unfortunate conflict” between her grandfathers Mohammed Ali and Badi Ullah and her great-uncle ‘Abdu’l-Baha; but she is firm in her conviction that they were good men and that her family’s side of the story deserves to be told.
As a personal friend of Negar, I desire to see her quite reasonable wish fulfilled before she passes on from this world. Thus I have found a publisher for her family’s writings and have done the best and fairest job I could as editor. In a better world, Baha’is on pilgrimage would disregard her status as an officially shunned “Covenant-breaker” and pay a visit to this dear elderly lady—living just a few blocks from Mount Carmel—who embodies a sensibility of mind and generosity of spirit of which her distinguished ancestor, the Baha’i prophet, would surely be proud.
The following message appears at the beginning of Shua Ullah Behai’s manuscript, and seems to this editor to be a genuine expression of his character, his reasons for writing the book and an accurate description of its contents:
Humbly I request every beloved Baha’i throughout the world to read this narrative unbiased and unprejudiced, irrespective of party affiliation, then to think and face the mirror of reality with the vision of investigation, answering this question: Am I a true Baha’i?
In this narrative the reader will find many events which hitherto have been withheld or misrepresented by some of the past Baha’i writers—those who satisfied themselves with hearsay, and passed judgment without investigation. I did not attempt to re-write the events, but I reproduced some of the articles which have been written by the well-known personages. I am not trying to prove the guilt or innocence of either party concerned. I am merely presenting the hidden facts, for the enlightenment of the seekers of truth and future historians.
O Son of Spirit!
Justice is loved above all; neglect it not, if thou desirest me. By it thou wilt be strengthened to perceive things with thine own eyes and not by the eyes of men, to know them by thine own knowledge and not by the knowledge of any in the world. Meditate on this—how thou oughtest to be.
Justice is of my bounty to thee, and of my providence over thee; keep it ever before thy sight.
 The Hidden Words, Arabic #2.