Bahai News - Faith anchored in the hills of Haifa

Faith anchored in the hills of Haifa

By: Haim Chertok

Friday, May 11, 2001 -- The Bahai: The Religious Construction of a Global Identity by Michael McMullen. New Brunswick, Rutgers University. 288 pages. $29

I congratulated myself that - from a visit 10 years back - I easily identified the ornate, domed structure on the cover of this book as the Shrine of the Bab at the Baha'i Center in Haifa.

Wrong again, Chertok.

The cover photo depicts its fraternal twin: the Baha'i House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois.

Most Israelis, I expect, know precious little about this Ali-Come-Lately among religions, whose holy sites are within Israel. And much of what they do know is inaccurate. Any outsider would surely learn a great deal about these religious "globalists" from this study, adapted from a Ph.D dissertation on the Metropolitan Atlanta Baha'i community by sociologist Michael McMullen, himself a Baha'i convert.

The origins of this faith - which views itself as a model for a future world order - date back to 1844, when Sayyid Ali-Muhummad (the "Bab"), a Persian merchant, heralded the imminent coming of a new religious movement.

The Bab was martyred in 1850 - the mullahs of contemporary Iran still routinely persecute Baha'i adherents - but one of his imprisoned followers soon revealed himself as the Baha'u'llah, or the "Enlightened One, " latest in a line that embraced Buddha, Moses, Zoroaster, Jesus, and Mohammed.

Although Baha'is believe that revelation is progressive, they maintain that unlike Baha'u'llah's predecessors, he would succeed in finally establishing the Kingdom of God on earth.

Exiled from Persia, in 1868 Baha'u'llah and a small band of followers arrived in Acre where he wrote what would become Baha'i scripture and established the spiritual centers of the new religion.

Baha'i faith is universalist. It encourages racial harmony and equal rights for men and women, two ideals which potentially conflict with the mandate to obey the laws of the country where one lives. The spiritual life of an active Baha'i revolves around private prayer, a month of fasting (similar to Ramadan), pilgrimage to Haifa, and devotional gatherings on the first day every Baha'i month held in the home of a member.

A Baha'i year contains 19 "months," each of which lasts 19 days.

Through its "teaching activities," Baha'i is one of the world's fastest growing religions, now claiming five million adherents. In Israel we are sheltered from the proselytizing face of Baha'i: Baha'ullah forbade the teaching of the faith here.

The Baha'i presence in Haifa and Acre consists of its supreme body - the Universal House of Justice - administrative staff and their families, all of whom number several hundred, and a steady flow of pilgrims who generally remain in the country for nine days to visit their shrines.

McCullen focuses on the Baha'i of Atlanta in order to demonstrate how the faith confers upon its members "a global religious identity in response to rapid social change."

Although Baha'i are universalists, unlike Unitarians they are enjoined from participation in "political activity" wherever they are "situated." Nevertheless, on racial matters they cannot be quietists, and McMullen recounts instances when the Baha'i of Atlanta worked to encourage racial harmony. Overall, Atlanta's Baha'i community is about one-third white, one-third African American, and one-third Persian.

A closer look reveals discord among its three Local Spiritual Assemblies (LSA's) each, based upon local housing patterns, predominantly African American or white. When a proposed administrative merger would have blurred racial divisions, McCullen ruefully describes the resistance of most members of white-dominated LSA's to change.

Rapidly expanding in the less developed world, McMullen downplays the relative insignificance of the faith in the West. There seem to be only around 100,000 active Baha'i in the United States. To account for the meagerness of this presence, McMullen notes but makes too little of, I think, the absence of any Baha'i clergy.

Further, especially among African Americans, churches play a vital social function in American life which LSA's are not capable of filling.

The faith runs its affairs along democratic lines. The Baha'i espouse open-mindedness, education, and equality between the sexes.

However critical exceptions occurs at the highest level: no women are (yet) permitted to serve on the nine- member Universal House of Justice (UHJ), elected at five year intervals by the members of the world's National Spiritual Assemblies convened in Haifa. Moreover, the Word, as disseminated by the UHJ to Baha'is around the world, is taken to be divinely "inspired," hence, like the Pope on matters of faith and morals, immune from error.

McMullen has produced a competent guide to the mental universe of these well-intentioned, colorful universalists in our midst.


©Copyright 2001, Jerusalem Post

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