Religion, Inclusion, and Secularism: A Baha’i perspective

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Since its emergence in the mid-19th century, the Baha’i Faith has faced systemic suppression; its adherents have endured violent persecution. Baha’i teachings, however, are radically humanistic and very applicable in today’s polarised world.

 

 

If one were to wonder why religions are founded, one must look at the socio-historical context within which these religions came to be. I will focus on the circumstances in which the Baha’i Faith emerged in Iran in the mid-19th century. Just as Buddhism was founded within the Hindu matrix or Christianity within the Judaic matrix, the Baha’i Faith rose out of the Islamic religious tradition, although it is independent of its parent religion and not a sect of the same.

Much like John the Baptist, who was the forerunner of Jesus Christ, Siyyid Ali Muhammad was the forerunner of Baha‘u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith. In 1844, the young 25-year-old Iranian Siyyid of Shiraz chose the title “Bab” for himself, which translates to “Gate”, as he proclaimed that he was the portal through which people would be ushered into the light of a new Messenger of God, one who would bring about new teachings based on the exigencies of the time.

The Bab belonged to a milieu steeped in religious dogma and intolerance, so much so that, within 6 years of his ministry, at the age of 31, he was executed by a firing squad for being a heretic. Subsequently, Baha‘u’llah, the promised Messenger, was exiled to 3 different continents and imprisoned for 4 decades under the joint rule of two Islamic empires, the Persian and the Ottoman. If we look at the major religions in the world and try and understand the milieus within which they were founded, we will realize that most, if not all, adherents were illiterate. This brought about the necessity of having religious leaders, making them accountable for preaching and imparting religious education. Most importantly, they made religious scriptures accessible to the masses and assumed the role of intermediaries between the prophet and the people.

However, with more access to education over the centuries, the staggering majority of people today are educated, allowing them to read and understand scripture for themselves. This is why, based on the requirements of the time, Baha‘u’llah has abolished priesthood and has made the independent investigation of truth one of the twelve principles of this religion. A spiritual seeker can study any religion independently, without the biased interpretation of any particular clergy, who may or may not make problematic inferences. Conflicting interpretations of scriptures lead to a lack of clarity, sectarianism, and, therefore, division and intolerance within the adherents of the same religion.

Despite the absence of professional religious clerics in the Baha’i Faith, there is an administrative system comprised of administrative bodies at the local, regional, national, and international levels, members of which are democratically elected in a spiritually-driven manner. Yet, there is absolutely no room for candidacy or material incentive. In fact, the members of such elected administrative bodies do not hold any individual power or position in the community.

This new law – the abolition of anointed religious leadership – was revolutionary during the Qajar Dynasty of Iran (1794 – 1925) as it threatened the position of the Ulama (Islamic clergy), whose violent reactions caused suffering to the “Twin Manifestations” (The Bab and Baha‘u’llah) and their adherents – the Babis, who later came to be known as Baha’is. Over 20,000 adherents have been executed, and the Baha’i community continues to be the most persecuted religious minority in Iran today, where they are stripped of their fundamental human rights, such as the right to higher education.

In other words, a “religion” that causes more harm than good, a “religion” that creates dissension and strife, a “religion” that plunders, violates, abuses, persecutes and executes in the name of that “religion”, which is what usually happens when religion enters the sphere of politics, should be let go of.

What makes religious adherents of previous dispensations particularly intolerant towards members of a newer religion is the staunch belief that the laws imparted in their holy scriptures can withstand the test of time. Baha’is, however, believe that while a code of conduct is indeed timeless – after all, such moral teachings are always the same in every religious tradition, e.g. honesty, forbearance, steadfastness, kindness, etc. – the social teachings and laws are prone to become obsolete at one point in time or the other.

I would like to take the liberty of using an analogy here to solidify my point. Just as a child must go through a school system – from preschool to primary school, from primary school to middle school, from middle school to high school, and then from high school to college – in order to gain more knowledge as they develop cognitively and mature in every sense of the word, the world of humanity also goes through various stages of maturity, which makes societal laws prone to change.

For example, in this day and age, one equipped with logic and scientific reasoning cannot deny that anyone, irrespective of gender, has the potential to excel at something if allowed to do so. So even though scientists such as Charles Darwin, the evolutionary biologist, claimed that women were intellectually inferior to men (Darwin, 1882), scientific theories, as witnessed all throughout history, are susceptible to be debunked with time.

That is the beauty of scientific discovery. So while the equality of the sexes was not established by religions of previous dispensations due to lack of human maturity, it has been done so in the Baha’i Faith because the human race was ready to accept and embrace such a revolutionary idea, despite some opposition of course, starting from the mid-19th century, when this religion was founded.

Moreover, the harmony between science and religion – another one of the twelve Baha’i principles – establishes the need for gender equality. In hindsight, no religion can be the last, and no scripture can withstand the test of time. Change is the only constant, and spiritual rejuvenation is necessary through newer teachings. The beauty of God’s divine revelation is such that there will be no end to His Word and that the human race shall receive His bounty through His Messengers (plural) as and when needed.

God’s divine Word cannot be a one-time blessing but a blessing in parts, based on how much the world of humanity has the capacity to receive. Religion is continuous – an eternal river of guidance that shall never stop flowing, and as soon as the waters begin to get depleted, a flood of spiritual rejuvenation is bestowed upon us to quench our spiritual thirst and wash away the wildfires of animosity and conflict, the droughts of disharmony and unrest, and the erosion of morality and ethics. The Baha’i writings also testify to this, promising the coming of another messenger who will appear in the fullness of time and that such bringers of spiritual springtime will keep appearing and carrying divine guidance from age to age.

Speaking of a spiritual rejuvenation that aims to nurture the human consciousness in a conflict-ridden world, let us look at how Baha‘u’llah dealt with the political and religious rulers and crowned heads of his time. While in exile in Adrianople of the Ottoman Empire, modern-day Edirne of the European part of Turkey, between 1868 to 1870, Baha‘u’llah wrote to the monarchs and rulers of the world, including Queen Victoria of England, Napoleon III of France, Kaiser William I of Germany, Tzar Nikolaevich Alexander II of Russia, Sultan Abdul Aziz of the Ottoman Empire, Francis Joseph – Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, Nasiri’d-Din Shah of Persia, and Pope Pius IX of the Roman Catholic Church.

In his tablets to these rulers, Baha‘u’llah invited them to resolve their differences and work towards establishing world peace. He advised disarmament, cessation of war, the formation of a global parliament, warnings against stripping people of their human rights, and other pressing issues that concern us today just as well as they applied to the world 150 years back. Since the key principle of the Baha’i Faith is that of the unity of humankind – something that Baha‘u’llah focused on in his tablets to the rulers of his time, I find it apt to share an anecdote from his life, shortly after the Bab’s execution (1850).

In 1854, during his banishment in Iraq and before he publicly declared himself to be the one whose coming the Bab had promised, Baha‘u’llah had become extremely saddened by some of the Babis, who, envious of Baha‘u’llah’s superior knowledge and magnetic personhood, began to spread rumors about him, which led Baha‘u’llah to leave for the mountains of Sulaymaniyyih in Kurdistan, unannounced, where he lived as a hermit for 2 years, before he was actively sought out and earnestly requested to return.

He later justified his self-inflicted retirement and seclusion as an essential step to “avoid becoming a subject of discord among the faithful, a source of disturbance unto Our companions, the means of injury to any soul, or the cause of sorrow to any heart”. In a way, he let go of his destiny and mission because the absence of conflict and disunity were dearer to him.

It is clear, then, that unity is the most valued precept in the Baha’i Faith. In fact, as mentioned earlier, Baha’is continue to be the most persecuted religious minority in Iran, and yet they did not, do not, and will not resort to violent protests because Baha‘u’llah clearly showed, through his own living example, that one cannot end hate with more hate. However, in a world where distaste for religion has become increasingly rampant, many tend to see religion as a tool that causes disunity and as the catalyst that breeds intolerance.

Unfortunately, religious groups oust the “other”, be it those with different religious beliefs, those who lack a belief, or those with a “deviant” sexual orientation. But any law that implants animosity needs to be flushed. We learn from the writings of Abdu’l-Baha, son and successor of Baha‘u’llah: “If a religion becomes the cause of hatred and disharmony, it would be better that it should not exist. To be without such a religion is better than to be with it” (Abdu’l-Baha in London, 1982, p. 28).

In other words, a “religion” that causes more harm than good, a “religion” that creates dissension and strife, a “religion” that plunders, violates, abuses, persecutes and executes in the name of that “religion”, which is what usually happens when religion enters the sphere of politics, should be let go of.

Among those who are “othered” by religious groups are the “infidels”, and such a derogatory term does not exist in the Baha’i dictionary because no matter who one is or how different one’s choices may be, the undeniable fact is that we are all anatomically (and therefore scientifically) human. We are all bestowed with the human spirit or the rational soul. Just as a garden looks beautiful despite the differences in various species, shapes, hues, and fragrances of its flowers, the garden of humanity is perfect the way it is because of our differences.

And just as a good gardener tends to his flowers with equal care, the divine gardener (i.e. God) loves His creation equally. Just as an orchestral musical composition is made up of various notes played on several instruments that together bring about a beautiful symphony, the world of humankind is made up of different kinds of human beings – of a variety of races, ethnicities, and colors, speaking different languages, following various cultures and customs, and having diverse sets of belief systems and identities – and collectively, they have the potential to coexist and live in harmony, if only they can “burn away the veils which have shut [them] out from [God’s] beauty” (Baha’i long obligatory prayer), i.e. the beauty of His creation.

The Baha’i attitude is such that, while there is a “you” and there is an “I”, the goal is that together, “you” and “I” can work together and be a better version of “us” so much so that a Baha’i can marry a non-Baha’i person without the latter having to convert. In fact, the word “conversion” is not used in the Baha’i community owing to the fact that one does not need to go against one’s previous beliefs to accept Baha’i teachings; if one wishes to identify as Baha’i, one simply accepts to follow a newer chapter in the book of God’s unending revelation.

I find it important to discuss another aspect of the Baha’i Faith which leads back to the pivotal principle of the oneness of humankind – that of the law that forbids adherents of the Baha’i Faith from being involved in partisan politics and instead stand for secularism or the separation of religious and political institutions because “religion is concerned with things of the spirit, politics with things of the world” (Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, 1995, p. 132).

So while many believe that no religion can vouch for secularism because a religious republic or theocratic state may be the ultimate goal for every religious community, the Baha’i Faith is possibly the only independent religion that strongly advocates for secularism to ensure that a democratically elected government preserves equal rights for all citizens, which would, in turn be instrumental in establishing peace and order.

Abdu’l-Baha, Baha‘u’llah’s successor, stated: “When freedom of conscience, liberty of thought and right of speech prevail — that is to say, when every [person] according to [their] own idealization may give expression to [their] beliefs — development and growth are inevitable” (The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 1982, p. 197).

He goes on to say: “Interference with creed and faith in every country causes manifest detriment, while justice and equal dealing towards all peoples on the face of the earth are the means whereby progress is affected” (A Traveller’s Narrative, 1992, p. 87). This is in line with the European Enlightenment thinkers who made a case for universal tolerance and advocated the idea that freedom of conscience be granted to all, irrespective of what religion they practice, if any.

It calls to mind French philosopher Voltaire’s words on freedom of thought: “Liberty of thought is the life of the soul” and “think for yourselves and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too”, as well as his words on religious freedom: “So long as the people do not care to exercise their freedom, those who wish to tyrannize will do so; for tyrants are active and ardent, and will devote themselves in the name of any number of gods, religious and otherwise, to put shackles upon sleeping men,” which clearly emphasizes on the fact that a theocracy or a religious republic will resort to tyrannical methods in the name of religion and trample upon the rights and freedoms of people who are “by nature, free”.

Perhaps it is, therefore, easy to conclude that Baha’i ideology on issues about governance is in sync with the Enlightenment thinkers’ advocacy of secularism.

Since I’ve made several references to Abdu’l-Baha, without mentioning much about him, other than the fact that he was the son and successor of Baha‘u’llah, I would like to take up a little space to elaborate on his station and why the Baha’i Faith is sect-less, before ending the essay. What makes the Baha’i Faith non-denominational is the fact that Baha‘u’llah appointed his eldest son, Abdu’l-Baha, as his successor in his written Will and Testament, making the latter’s station unquestionable.

Abdu’l-Baha was also the sole interpreter of Baha‘u’llah’s writings as well as the one true Exemplar who, throughout his travels in spreading the message of unity, came to be known as the ambassador of peace in both the East and the West. Later, Abdu’l-Baha appointed his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi, as his successor in his own written Will and Testament, so once again, the Baha’is knew who their guardian would be after the passing of Abdu’l-Baha. Shoghi Effendi spent 36 years nurturing and strengthening the solidarity of the new Faith as it quickly grew to embody the diversity of humankind.

And since the passing of Shoghi Effendi, the Baha’is are guided by the Universal House of Justice – a democratically elected body of 9 individuals who look into the administrative affairs and work with regional, national, and local administrative bodies (also democratically elected). Most interestingly, Baha‘u’llah himself wrote about the Universal House of Justice in his book of laws, with clear guidelines regarding the duties and roles of the Universal House of Justice, such as its influence on human welfare, promotion of peace, education, and global prosperity, and the protection of human honor. This is how the Baha’i world community has been safeguarded against divisions and schisms.

To conclude, given that the Baha’i Faith is less than 200 years old, it makes sense that the precepts of this religion are suitable to the societal needs of the present time. Its views on the absence of priesthood, progressive revelation, unity, inclusivity, and secularism are among a few concepts elaborated in this essay, which makes this way of life temporarily applicable for now until the world of humankind is ready for another spiritual awakening.

 

 

References:

 Abdu’l-Baha (1982). Abdu’l-Baha in London. Baha’i Publishing Trust.

Abdu’l-Baha (1992). A Travelers’ Narrative (E. G. Browne, Trans.). Baha’i Publishing Trust (Original work published 1890).

Abdu’l-Baha (1995). Paris Talks: Addresses given by Abdu’l-Baha in 1911. Baha’i Publishing Trust.

Abdu’l-Baha (1982). The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks delivered by Abdu’l-Baha during his visit to the United States and Canada in 1912. Baha’i Publishing Trust.

Baha‘u’llah (1938). Baha’i long obligatory prayer (S. Effendi, Trans.). (Original work published 1887). Retrieved from www.bahai.org/documents/bahaullah/obligatory-prayers

Darwin, Charles. (January 9, 1882) [Letter from Charles Darwin to C. A. Kennard]. Darwin Correspondence Project, University of Cambridge. Retrieved from www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-13607.xml

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