Bahai News -- ABC TV - Baha'is: Followers of the Light

Baha'is: Followers of the Light

Sunday May 11 2003

Summary:

A survey of the history and beliefs of one of the 20th Century's most interesting spiritual experiements.

Story:

TRANSCRIPT

Geraldine Doogue
Hello I’m Geraldine Doogue, welcome to Compass. With a story tonight of a faith that claims to be the youngest in the world. Founded a century and a half ago and with five million followers globally, the Bahai faith also claims to be among the fastest growing, second only to Christianity in its international influence.. testament to its message of world citizenship, crossing the divides of country, class and creed. Tonight we look at how some of the relatively small Australian Baha’i communities live out ….Moral and ethical standards.

Pouya Ehsani
As a Bahai youth I think one of the key drives needs to be an agent of social change.

Arezo Malakooti
It's a religion that's very accepting and kind of brings together all the other religions.

Kambiz Fanaian
Sometimes you have to go very very strongly against what your body requires.

Chris Hartney, Dept of Religious Studies (Uni of Sydney)
When we look at the morality that is being proposed it's one in which, it's one that we find very conservative.

Narr
The Choir at Sydney’s Baha’i House of Worship sing words written by their founding prophet Baha’ullah.
The singing is unaccompanied. Instruments, it’s believed, are without souls and therefore inappropriate for making music during worship. The nine sides of the temple represent what Baha’is believe are the nine manifestations of God. They include Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Buddha , Jesus and Muhammad.
The readings come from the sacred texts of many faiths ,the worship is free of preaching and clergy and has no formal religious ritual.


Bijon Samali
The Baha’i service of worship is free from ritual. The reason is that because everyone is welcome to come and pray their own way, we could not insist on a particular way of praying.

Narr
To date, Baha’is have concentrated on developing their faith among the community. Building of Houses of Worship is not a priority globally. The Sydney temple is one of only seven in the world. They function primarily as a symbolic meeting place.


Chris Heggie
The Baha’i Temple is really the public face of the faith. We like to attend because of that and we get support from being amongst Baha’is. Most of our personal worship though is done in our homes or in communal groups.

Narr
Personal worship includes the simple daily obligations of prayer, and reading and reflection on Baha’i and other scriptures.
An additional requirement is to morally bring oneself to account at the end of the day.


Stephen Hall, Secretary of National Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is Australia
That's not whipping oneself and being critical of oneself, but simply to reflect on what did I achieve in that day and how could I achieve it even more effectively in the future.

Narr
Stephen Hall is the elected Secretary of Australia’s National Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is. For him , the absence of formal confessions reflects the democratic ethos of the faith.


Stephen Hall, Secretary of National Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is Australia
Confession in the Bahai faith is forbidden because it would assume that there is an individual or an agency which is above the individual.
Whereas the Bahai teachings teach that there are no individuals who have authority and who have a station higher than others.

Narr
As the only paid office holder in the Australian administration Stephen would appear to hold high office. His job however, like all Baha’i administrative positions nationally and internationally, is an elected one. As a Baha’i, he is forbidden to do any campaigning when he is up for re-election each year.


Stephen Hall, Secretary of National Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is Australia
For an individual to advocate their suitability is really the antithesis of what it is to be a Bahai. The notion being that any position of responsibility is there to be of service to others. There's no status associated with that position, it's purely a position of service.

Narr
This democratic administration is the legacy of Shoghi (“show gee”) Effendi, the Oxford educated great grandson of the faith’s founder Baha’ullah. He was the last hereditary guardian and interpreter of his great grandfather’s teachings. The faith arose from the Babis, a reformist Islamic sect that spread in nineteenth century Iran. Its founder took the name the Bab or gateway because, at the age of 25, he declared himself a messenger of God who would serve as a gateway to an even greater messenger . That second messenger was to be called Baha’ullah or the Glory of God . He was a young nobleman who came from the ranks of the many Babis who were suffering terrible persecution at the hands of religious and government authorities. Baha’ullah declared his mission after a vision in a Teheran dungeon in 1852, two years after the Bab’s martyrdom by a firing squad . Baha’ullah was expelled from Iran and spent the rest of his life in exile ending up in the Ottoman Turkish penal City of Akka. It was here and later at a villa called Bahji near Haifa that he wrote his most important work . The core teachings were laid down by Baha’ullah, in some 100 volumes of text. It was his son and successor Abdul Baha who began taking his message to the world. In 1921 Abdul Baha died and was succeeded by his grandson Shohgi Effendi. The succession of both Abdul Baha and Shohgi Effendi caused bitter disputes within Baha’ullah’s family. Some tried to form breakaway sects and were excluded from the faith. This experience was the antithesis of the Baha’i faith’s focus on unity.


Stephen Hall, Secretary of National Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is Australia
The fact that we have as a community transcended those challenges and those difficulties is in itself testimony to the voracity of those central figures. They withstood opposition, they withstood behaviour that is totally the antithesis of the Baha’i teachings, from those who sought a power, who sought to pursue their own agenda if you like, within the Baha’i community. But what is very significant is that despite that the Baha’i faith essentially remains as one religion. There's no sects if you like within the Baha’i community.

Narr
After the death of Shoghi Effendi in 1957, the guardianship of the faith, according to his wishes, was eventually handed to a body of nine Baha’is elected every five years by the global community. Called The Universal House of Justice, they meet here, near the shrine of the Bab in Haifa, Israel. They have the power to make decisions on spiritual issues and to legislate on all matters not explicitly addressed by Baha’ullah himself. Individually members have no power or authority but collectively they are held to be divinely inspired and, as such, infallible. Based on his own experiences, Stephen Hall does not equate their infallibility with heavy handed orthodoxy.


Stephen Hall, Secretary of National Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is Australia
Essentially its role is to govern the affairs, the international affairs of the Bahai community, which incidentally tends to do in a very hands off way. And I'm yet to see any guidance coming from that institution which ascribes the answer, rather it tends to identify the principle that need clarifying, but puts the ball very much back in the court of the individual or of the institution to work out its own decision based on that.

Narr
For observers like Chris Hartney from the Religious Studies Department of Sydney University, however, there is one thing about the International House of Justice that seems to contradict a core Baha’i principle of gender equality.


Chris Hartney, Dept of Religious Studies (Uni of Sydney)
The Bahais really preach strongly this idea of equality of the sexes. Yet there's one slight anomaly and that is the Universal House of Justice which is the guiding body of the Bahai faith globally. It consists of nine men. There is no specific understandings within the Bahai faith in the teachings that we have before us that tells us a rational reason why the aren't women allowed to be elected to the Universal House of Justice. We are told, and again it's an act of faith and belief in Baha Allah, that in the fullness of time the reason for that will become as plain as day. And I've not yet heard an explanation which makes it as plain as day.

Narr
The day begins slowly for this group of aboriginal kids at their bush camp near Menindee in far Western New South Wales. The 160 kilometre trip from their home in Wilcannia the night before was delayed by a bus breakdown. Some of them are Baha’is, some are not. With them is Kelvin Thornycroft. He left the city over 2 years ago and took a job in Wilcannia to live amongst the small community there .


Kelvin Thornycroft
They're fairly new to the faith and so I moved out there to assist in their consolidation and deepening and understanding of the functioning and administration of the faith. As service for the faith which is one of the wonderful things that I am able to do as a Baha’i.

Narr
With the children outside, some of the adults take time out to reflect on Baha’ullah’s teachings. Kelvin is what the Baha’is call a pioneer. As Baha’ullah forbade aggressive proselytising, pioneers don’t see themselves as missionaries.


Kelvin Thornycroft
Pioneers aren't missionaries in the usual sense of the word. We're there to help, we don't go out to convert people, we share the message if people want to know about it and make that freely knowledgeable.

Narr
Outside, the message is shared via coloring books and the story of Baha’ullah’s journey into exile. Its day one on the camp and helper Shireen Zien (“Zane”) concedes that the methods are still a matter of trail and error.


Shireen Zien
Sure the formula might be the same old. And we don't have the perfect formula to transform the world, but we're certainly trying. And just to try a little bit of everything you know and see what works. If it doesn't work we'll change it, see what they want to do. If they don't want to do that we'll change that as well. And just giving things a go. But I think in the end the message is different.

Pouya Ehsani
I think the fundamental difference between this and a missionary type activity is that there's no clergy here. There is no one who knows the absolute truth. What we have is the writings of Baha Allah to guide us, and everyone's free to look at how that affects their lives individually. And I guess principally the idea is that together we try to make or achieve spiritual and material progress happen for the people here.

Narr
Making material progress and striving for social justice doesn’t mean for Baha’is however, political activism which is forbidden.


Pouya Ehsani
Being a Bahai we can't engage in partisan politics or following a particular party and supporting that party all the way through. But I think the Bahai community as a whole is very active, even politically active. Because the issues that we are addressing are political ones in the broader sense, not in terms of ballot boxes and votes. If you look around it's very obvious that there are very many immediate social needs here. But to get to the core of it is to address the spiritual foundation of these needs. And by doing that then everything else will be effected as a result.

Narr
There are only 35 Baha’is in Wilcannia. The Aboriginal community there faces major challenges. Some children in the group have struggled with petrol sniffing.


Teegan Jones
I just seen Kelvin and I'm going all the time and he asks me all the time.
I used to be a petrol sniffer and he asked me and so I said yes. I gave it up and it made me happy

Maureen Brown
I had problems with my grandma and ….they come to help me out because my grandma passed away I felt sad and everything and I'm going to give up on everything and that till one of the Bahais from Wilcannia come and talked to me and sort of got me out of my ……. Feel happy now.

Narr
Both Maureen and Tegan are converts. They join a growing number of Aboriginal Baha’is who come to a faith which has at its core the unity of all humankind, and as such, totally rejects any kind of racial prejudice.
Baha’is don’t regard aboriginal spirituality as being at odds with their faith. They believe that all religions have at their heart the same God and that Baha’ullah is the most recent messenger of God and the most relevant to our age. The understanding Baha’is have of other faiths and their great teachers or “manifestations of God” as they call them does, however , raise theological eyebrows.


Chris Hartney, Dept of Religious Studies (Uni of Sydney)
It's very interesting to me that divine beings or teachers such as Krishna and Buddha who at the heart of what they're talking about is the reincarnation system are then included in what is for the Bahais a very monotheistic concept of the world in which reincarnation is not a theological issue. So they fit a little uneasily into this line. It's also very interesting that, concerning the example of Christianity we have with Christ in the Christian understanding of him, not only teacher and prophet but part of the Godhead, a son of God himself. And the Baha’is consider Christ to be one of these divinely inspired teachers but not the Son of God himself. More an Islamic attitude to Christ as a religious figure not as a Christian would have it.

Stephen Hall, Secretary of National Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is Australia
Baha‘ullah has written at length about the station of other manifestations of God, and it is that interpretation and it is that explanation which Baha’is adhere to. And whilst it does differ undoubtedly differs from other interpretations and by no means should be the cause of enmity or conflict, it's one that we adhere to.

Narr
Tragically these differing interpretations have been more than a theological matter for some Baha’is. In Iran, they form the largest religious minority outside Shia Islam. They have long been regarded as heretics there because Muslims believe Mohammad to be the last messenger of God and that Baha’ullah is a false prophet. Since the Islamic revolution of 1979, Baha’is have been stripped of basic human rights, and denied employment and education in what they regard as a process of cultural genocide. Over 200 have been executed or killed by the regime


Olya Roohizadegan
We had no rights, even at school as a child I was studying in school and teacher told me you are Baha’i, you are untouchable. You cannot mix with other students because you are Baha’i and you are untouchable.

Narr
Olya Roohizadegan (“Roohee zah degan”) worked as a personnel officer with the Iranian National Oil Company in Shiraz, the birthplace of the Bab. She, like all Baha’is followed the teaching which obliges them to accept and obey the government of their country and continued as best she could. By 1983, things got worse. Graves in the local Baha’i cemetery had been desecrated , some were dug up, the remains burnt. The Bab’s house containing this room in which he declared his mission was destroyed by Islamic extremists. Because she would not renounce her faith, Olya was sacked from her job and eventually ended up in this prison with ten other young Baha’i women. There she was tortured in a further attempt to force her to renounce her faith. She recalls her darkest moment when her interrogator brought in her 3 year old son to entice her to choose life over martyrdom.


Olya Roohizadegan
I remember that day, it was very hard and painful for me because I have no any choice, choice my choice, deny my faith to be free, or be hanged. I kiss my three year old, I give to them. I said to them ‘you can kill my body but you cannot kill my soul, I am ready, you can kill me’ He was so angry, and he shouted ‘I will hang you, I will kill you with my hand’ I said ‘I am ready.

Narr
Miraculously, Olya succeeded in gaining a temporary release from prison by the court that had charged her with heresy. A short time after, with the help of Muslim neighbours,she fled Iran . Her ten fellow prisoners were all executed, martyrs to their faith. Olya vowed to tell their story to the world. In 1993 she published a book about her experiences. She helped to inform international agencies who eventually put pressure on the Iranian government. The executions and killings have since declined from 29 in 1984 to none in recent years. Despite her experiences Olya bears no ill feeling towards her persecutors.


Olya Roohizadegan
If I met them my interrogators I forgive them just I tell them I don't feel any hatred, I pray for them. In prison was best University for me, I lacked confidence, hope, trust in God. Each time when we feel we lose our feelings of spirituality we pray to God. We pray and we were so united together in prison. Unity, love, peace, the atmosphere in prison was I never feel anywhere, I know hard for get to an understanding about suffering but in prison my suffering make my heart bigger and bigger.

Collis Taee
It’s all very well for us being Baha’is to set up a bunch of constraints which we think is going to produce some kind of liberty but we’ve got to remember not everyone’s Baha’i not everyone’s going to feel these are the right constraints.

Narr
Above a motorcycle showroom a group of young Sydney Baha’is hold their regular Friday night discussions. Talk on freedom and responsibility leads to the issue of whether or not Baha’is’ high moral expectations are in step with the community at large.


Arezo Malakooti
I think at the same time there are certain spiritual laws that govern the soul that are natural the same way the laws of physics may govern the way the sun rises.

Narr
Baha’is are expected to aspire to a virtuous life based on the biblical commandments. Gossip and backbiting are specifically condemned because they are, in part , seen as a danger to unity. Alcohol and drugs are out, and the emphasis on personal chastity is uncompromising, forbidding extra marital sex.


Arezo Malakooti
We do live in a society that kind of upholds standards that are very different to what we believe in and are striving for, so it is definitely a challenge, but that's not to say that it's impossible or that it cannot be done.

Narr
Chastity also includes a ban on homosexual activity.


Kambiz Fanaian
The actual being homosexual is not a problem within the Baha’i faith. It's the actual act of a sexual contact or any form of sexual contact outside the confines of marriage which is outside the boundaries of chastity which the Baha’i faith dictates, which is really really something that the individual needs to assess with their personal beliefs in the Baha’i writings.

Narr
Despite the moral constraints which some may believe to be out of step with prevailing social attitudes, these young Baha’is believe their faith is very much for this time and speaks for young people.


Collis Taee
Bahai faith is quite new, it's quite modern. A lot of the laws are for this day and age. Where as a lot of other religions in my opinion seem to be old laws which they're trying to modernise, but it wasn't necessarily written right in the first place for this time, that's what was attractive for me.

Anisa Naziri
You look in the history of the faith and the very critical people that played a very important role, were in their youth doing that. And also the guidelines that have been given to us also highlight and emphasize that youth can in fact change the world, and it's very exciting.

Narr
Children aren’t born into the faith. Even if they’re from Baha’i families, they’re encouraged to conduct a personal, independent investigation of the truth. At the age of 15, they are able to enter the faith or go their own way.


Jane Beckinsale, Co-ordinator Baha’i Education for State Schools
It's not the end of the world should a child not decide not to become a Bahai at 15. They have a whole bunch of growing to do. And many times yeah, it becomes their foundation.

Narr
Jane Beckinsale is teacher with the “ Pre Youth” holiday camp at the Baha’i centre in Yerrinbool, South West of Sydney. The children here are mostly from Baha’i families. Because the faith is relatively small in numbers and scattered, it’s programs like this that help the children get to know each other and form peer friendships.


Teacher, Holiday Camp
You have to equate the idea of baking the cake to morality , write out the recipe for morality and the process it requires for the cake of morality to bs e edible and well made….do you understand what I mean? Yep, The cake is the literal way and the morality is the unliteral way. Bama is going to show us the literal way and we have to report and describe the process when we get back to the group. What would margarine be? Love? What is love? Like kindness you need to make a foundation? Do you want to write that down in the recipe?

Narr
Although there are no Baha’i schools in Australia, their approach to broad moral and ethical teaching, devoid of religious dogma has found a place in NSW public schools . To date, about one thousand NSW primary students attend Baha’i run scripture classes.


Jane Beckinsale, Co-ordinator Baha’i Education for State Schools
We teach about all the world's religions. We teach strongly about the virtues of respect and courtesy and trustworthiness and those sort of fundamental virtues that are in all faiths. And it seems that for a lot of parents that's what they're looking for for their children. They don't particularly identify strongly with any one faith themselves. But they want their children to have tolerance and an understanding of other people and other people's lives and values.

Narr
With declining numbers in some other faiths, we might expect that secular pressures would overtake numbers of young would be Baha’is as they explore their options. But, according to Stephen Hall, that’s not the case.


Stephen Hall, Secretary of National Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is Australia
The number of Bahai children and Bahai youth who remain within the faith again really is a testimony. If you looked at - for want of a better word - retention rates, it's extremely high. And that again I think is reflected by the fact that these children, these youth make their own decisions and have a very leading role to play within the Bahai community.

Narr
Since it arrived here in the 1920’s the faith has enjoyed a slow and steady growth, bolstered in the last decades by Iranian refugees. Baha’ullah did teach over a century ago that there was to be no other prophets for another 1,000 years. Although Baha’is make much of the relative modernity of their teachings, this raises questions about how relevant and tolerant the faith will be in the future.


Chris Hartney, Dept of Religious Studies (Uni of Sydney)
This idea that from the death of Baha Allah onwards for a thousand years any other religious ideas or traditions that evolve in the way that the Bahai faith evolved out of this, well they're simply wrong. And this is a shutting off of acceptance and development.

Koorosh Rouhani
If there is a case where provision is not made because the time was, you know we're talking like 150 years ago and some requirement has been made 500 years down the line, and this matter was not legislated upon or was not considered back then, then it's upon the House of Justice to sit together, consult and legislate, and come up either with a law or a solution for that particular application.

Narr
Whether or not Baha’i teachings can meet the challenges of the next millennium remains to be seen. For now however, the pursuit of their core belief in the oneness of humanity under a universal God would seem of the moment in a fractious and divided world.


Stephen Hall, Secretary of National Spiritual Assembly of Baha’is Australia
Unity is not just some utopian ideal or a dream, it's something that we must work towards very practically. And the two pillars upon which the Bahai teachings talk about unity being established are the pillars of justice on one hand, and on the other the pillar of service. And that it is through those two pursuits of a more just society and a more equitable society at all different levels, and through the notion of this pursuit of individualism giving way to looking at the needs, collective needs, we believe that unity will come about.

END

©Copyright 2003, ABC TV (Australia)

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