What is Baha’i Faith?Posted: November 26, 2011
As an introduction to a discussion of Bahaism and its claims, I will sketch briefly and simply its origin and history. Bahaism is derived from Babism. Babism has its roots in Shiahism, a soil impregnated with the doctrines of the Imamate and Mahdiism. The atmosphere is filled with millennial hopes and dreamy mysticism, with Sufi philosophies and allegorical fancies of its poets. This soil has been fruitful of many sects. The Shiahism of Persia is called the “Religion of the Twelve” because its fundamental doctrine is that the twelve Imams, the lineal descendants of Ali and Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed, were the rightful Caliphs of Islam, in succession to Mohammed. In the tenth century (329 A. H. or 940 A. D.) the Twelfth Imam disappeared into a well, and still lives in Jabulka or Jabulsa whence he is expected to reappear as the Mahdi or Kaim. After his concealment, four persons in succession were channels of communication between him and the faithful. The title given to these was Bab or the Gate.
Among the sects which sprang up among the Shiahs or were related to them were the Ismielis, Carmathians, Druses, Hurufis, Ali-Allahis or Nusairiyeh, Assassins, Batinis and many others. A group of these were called Ghulat, because they rendered excessive honour to the Imams, believing them to be incarnations of the attributes or essence of God. Those holding this view anticipated that the Imam Mahdi would be a divine Manifestation.2 At the beginning of the nineteenth century, a sect arose in Persia, called Sheikhis. It received its name from its founder, Sheikh Ahmad of Ahsa, 1752-1827. He taught that there was always in the world a “perfect Shiah,” who held communication with the absent Imam and revealed his will. Sheikh Ahmad was that “perfect one.” He was favoured by the Kajar Shahs and had a considerable following. His successor, Haji Kazim of Resht, near the time of his death, announced to his disciples at Kerbela that the Manifestation was at hand. One of his disciples was Mirza Ali Mohammed of Shiraz. When twenty-four years of age in 1844, he laid claim to be the “promised one.” He took the title of “Bab,” the Gate or Door of communication of the knowledge of God. His followers were called Babis. He soon advanced his station and claimed to be the Kaim or Mahdi. Still advancing he took the title of Nukta or Point of Divine Unity and announced his “Revelation” or “Bayan” as the abrogation of Islam and the Koran. From Shiraz he went to Mecca and proclaimed his manifestation. On his return he was imprisoned. Many of the Sheikhis became his zealous followers and by their active propaganda caused great agitation throughout Persia. The Bab was transferred to the extreme northwest of Persia and confined in prison at Maku and Chirik. His sectaries, oppressed and persecuted, rose in arms against Mohammed Shah, anticipating victory through divine interposition. The Bab was executed at Tabriz in 1850. The insurrections were put down and many of the brave captives were treacherously slaughtered. A few Babis, seeking revenge, attempted to assassinate the new Shah, Nasr-ud-Din. This led to cruel reprisals. Four score Babis were executed at Teheran. Others fled into exile, especially to Bagdad. Among these was Mirza Yahya whom the Bab had appointed his successor. His title was Subh-i-Azal, the Dawn of the Eternal, or His Holiness the Eternal.
A special point of the Bab’s teaching was the announcement of the coming of “Him whom God should manifest.” After his death a number of the Babis claimed to be the promised incarnation. There was a “chaos of divine manifestations,” including Hazret Zahib, Janab-i-Azim, Nabil and others. Among these claimants was Mirza Husain Ali, a son of Mirza Abbas, surnamed Buzurk, and his concubine. The father was steward or “vizier” of the household of Imam Werdi Mirza, Governor of Teheran. He was half brother to Mirza Yahya and thirteen years his senior. His title was Baha ullah, the splendour or glory of God. For many years Baha acted in Bagdad (1852-67) as factotum for Azal, and acknowledged him as supreme. Then he announced that he himself was “He whom God should manifest,” and took active measures to supplant Azal. About this time the Turkish Government transferred them to Adrianople. Here developed bitter jealousies, quarrels and foul play. The Sultan intervened and sent Subh-i-Azal to Famagusta, Cyprus, and Baha Ullah to Acca (Acre), Syria, August 1868. Both were granted pensions and kept under police surveillance as parties dangerous to religion and the state. Azal continued to be the head of the Babis, called henceforth also Azalis. Baha attracted most of the Babis to himself, and they became known as Bahais. Baha relegated the Bab to the position of a forerunner, and declared the “Bayan” and other books of the Bab to be superseded by his own “Revelations.” He changed in a measure the doctrines and laws of Babism, liberalizing its provisions. He put himself forward as the Lord of a new dispensation, the founder of a new religion.
During the next quarter of a century Bahaism made little stir in Persia. Its advancement was by no means as rapid as during the earlier years of the Bab. The zeal and devotion of the followers sensibly slackened. Tagiya (dissimulation regarding one’s religion) was allowed and practiced. The fierce warriors turned to professing the doctrines of expediency, condemning as unwise zealots the fighting Babis of the previous generation. During these years they escaped bloody persecutions except in rare instances. They tried to make their peace with the Shah, constantly emphasizing their loyalty, expurgating their books to suppress condemnation of the dynasty, and inducing the Sadr-Azam, the Prime Minister of Nasr-i-Din Shah, to tolerate and befriend them.
In Acca, too, Baha soon acquired considerable freedom, built a palace, called Bahja, in a delightful garden and freely received the pilgrims. He sent out many tablets, composed his Books of Revelation and had them published in Bombay. He died at Acca in May, 1892, in his seventy-fifth year. His temple tomb is near the Bahji.
Baha’s haram consisted of two wives and a concubine. After his death, the sons of the different wives quarrelled regarding the succession. Abbas Effendi, the only son of the oldest wife, proclaimed himself the successor, the Interpreter, the Centre of the Covenant, the Source of Authority. Mohammed Ali and his brothers strenuously opposed Abbas and intense animosity was engendered which divided the followers in Acca and Persia. Abbas drew the greater number with him. He assumed the title of Abdul Baha (Servant of Baha). He has the ambition to make the faith a world religion and has inaugurated a propaganda in the West. After the proclamation of constitutional liberty in Turkey, he resided in Egypt. Later he made several journeys to Europe and one to North America. His visit to the Occident brought him into the lime-light. He was given good opportunity to present his cause.
The addresses of this “Infallible Interpreter” of the cult did not reveal clearly the real doctrines and aim of the movement. Abdul Baha confined himself mainly to the utterance of popular platitudes such as are stock-in-trade for a multitude of social and religious reformers, and most of which are original and accepted principles and precepts of Christianity. The real claims of Bahaism are set forth in the Books and Tablets (Epistles) of Baha Ullah and Abdul Baha, and in a considerable literature by Persian and American Bahais.
Abdul Baha is an intelligent, well informed man, of fair sagacity. He was educated at home after the custom of Persia. He says of himself, “I have studied Arabic profoundly and know the Arabic better than the Arabians themselves. I have studied the Persian and Turkish in my native land, besides other languages of the East. But when I visit the West I need an interpreter.” He said to Doctor Jessup, “Yes, I know your Beirut Press and your books.” His references to ancient and modern philosophers, to historical events and to European writers, quoting from the same, show some familiarity with literature. He repudiates the claims of some of his disciples that he has no literary culture, as that of Abul Fazl or of M. A. Lucas who says: “He has had no access to books, yet his knowledge is unbounded.” On this point Professor Cheyne remarks: “His public addresses prove that through this and that channel he has imbibed something of humanistic and even scientific culture. He must have had some one to guide him in the tracks of modern inquiry. I venture to hope that his expounding may not, in the future, extend to philosophic, philological, scientific, and exegetical details. Abdul Baha may fall into error on secular problems, among which it is obvious to include Biblical and Koranic exegesis.” “I am bound to say that Baha Ullah has made mistakes and the almost equally venerated Abdul Baha has made many slips.”
A word should be said about the number of Bahais. I have many data on this point, but can here give only a summary. Regarding their numbers, the Bahais have indulged in gross exaggeration. “Millions” is the usual figure used by American Bahais. Thus Phelps speaks of “the millions of Bahais in Persia.” MacNutt, in “Unity through Love,” declares that “His followers number millions from all the religious systems of the world.” Kheiralla says: “Abdul Karim, 1896, assured me that the believers in Baha were fifty millions. I wrote to Syria to ask. Sayid Mohammed, secretary of Abbas Effendi, said that the number was fifty-five million souls.” Kheiralla afterwards denounces it as a gross deceit. As to Persia, they place the proportion at one-third or one-half. Dreyfus writes,12 “Probably half the population of Persia is Bahai.” Some judicious non-Bahai writers allow them half a million or less in Persia on a basis of ten millions of population. American missionaries, as Jordan at Teheran, Frame at Resht and Shedd at Urumia, calculate that the number in Persia does not exceed 100,000 to 200,000. After careful inquiry I agree with this estimate.
As to other races and countries, let us see. Abul Fazl claims13 that “Jews, Zoroastrians, and Nusaireyah by thousands” are Bahais. M. Haidar Ali says: “The majority of Zoroastrians are recognized as Bahais in all sincerity.” On the contrary Professor Browne writes: “I had been informed that Zoroastrians were accepting Bahaism. However after much intercourse with the Zoroastrians of Yezd and Kerman for the space of three and a half months, I came to the conclusion that few, if any, had adopted the Bahai creed.” In India the proportion of Parsee-Bahais is very small.
As to Jews:—Remey says: “In Hamadan there is a large Israelitish following of Baha.” A census made by a European Jew showed exactly 59 parents and with their children 194 persons out of a population of 6,000 Jews. As to the United States, I give some particulars in the closing chapter. The census of 1906 reported 1,280 Bahais, which may have increased to two or three thousand.
In the Turkish empire they are few, for Sunni Moslems are utterly indifferent to Bahaism. The Egyptian Gazette says of Egypt where Abdul Baha resided for two years, “The new religion has made little perceptible progress; Islam remained indifferent, and the Christian community was ignorant of his presence.” Of Syria, Mr. Phelps wrote: “All the Bahais in Acca are Persians. No other nationalities are among them.” The inference is plain that no native of Acca had become Bahai through forty years of contact with Baha and his seventy followers. Bahais outside of Persia are probably all told not more than 15,000 and one-third of these are Persians in Russia. Abdul Baha gave the impression that many of the Christians of Persia are converts to Baha. Dr. J. H. Shedd wrote, 1894, “I have heard of no case of a Christian conversion to Bahaism.” Dr. G. W. Holmes wrote, 1903, “I do not know of a single Christian in Persia, who has been converted to Bahaism. Some Bahais who made a profession of Christianity turned back to Baha.” Rev. J. W. Hawkes declares that in his observation none of the members of the Syrian (Nestorian) or Armenian churches in Persia have become Bahais. I have known of one Armenian family in Resht and two men in Maraga, one of whom was a notorious ne’er-do-well, who kept up his opium using as before.