A Unitarian Universalist Visits the Bahai Temple

By Eric Stetson

I was an enrolled member of the Baha’i Faith from 1998 to 2002. Although I was very serious about my faith and took two trips halfway across America for evangelistic purposes (“travel teaching” in Baha’i lingo), I never visited the North American Bahai House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois — or any of the several other Bahai temples around the world — until now, eight years after I left the Baha’i Faith. I was inspired to visit the temple because of my renewed interest in Bahaism and the fact that it was on my way to Minneapolis, Minnesota, where I was traveling to attend the 49th annual Unitarian Universalist General Assembly.

Last week, a friend of mine who lives near Milwaukee, Wisconsin and who had been to the Bahai temple before, drove down to meet me there. She has been a Bahai for more than 40 years, but resigned her official membership in the Baha’i Faith a few years ago and now attends Unitarian Universalist and Sufi meetings, while continuing to believe in the prophethood of Bahaullah. Both of us thought it would be best not to mention to anyone at the temple that we are former members of the Baha’i organization, since this tends to produce a reaction of coldness and suspicion among enrolled Baha’is. Therefore, my friend described herself to people there as simply “a Bahai” and I described myself as “a Unitarian Universalist,” mentioning that I share many beliefs in common with Bahais but saying nothing about the Unitarian Bahai Association or my encouragement of Bahais to join UU churches.

I found the temple to be impressively beautiful, more on the outside than within, but even the inside was a sight to behold. The gardens were lovely — filled with fragrant roses, lavender, and various other flowers and plants, plus bubbling fountains. Some of the gardens are under construction and this detracted a little bit from the atmosphere, but it’s good to see that the Baha’i Faith is continually improving the property.

There was an underground visitor center beneath the temple with promotional displays and videos aimed at the general public, and a bookstore selling Bahai books, publications, paraphernalia and souvenirs. Brochures were available in a multitude of different languages. My friend, a fluent Spanish speaker, expressed concern that there was a very limited selection of Spanish language materials in the bookstore. I found the videos we watched, which described the Bahai faith and the history of the temple, to be kind of hokey and seemingly low-budget productions. Other than that, the visitor center was okay.

Proceeding to the temple itself, the first thing I noticed was how empty it was. Only a handful of people were sitting inside it, despite that a daily scheduled worship service was about to begin. In the huge Chicago metropolitan area, could there really be this few Bahais and curious visitors wanting to take in a Bahai worship service? My friend and I sat in silence waiting for the service to start, listening to the peaceful and heavenly singing of birds who were trapped inside the vast interior space of the sanctuary and apparently lived in there. For me, a bird lover, the birdsong was the high point of the worship service — I would soon find out why so few people come to these events.

Two employees of the Baha’i Faith began to take turns walking up to a lectern where they recited verses from the Baha’i holy writings. They did so in restrained, unemotional voices. This went on for about 20 minutes, with no musical accompaniment, no choir, no recitations from the scriptures of other religions, and no original speech. When the service suddenly ended, my reaction was “That’s it?” It seemed that in such a spectacular building that has taken a monumental investment of time, energy, and money to build and maintain, not enough thought and attention are being paid to using this space for high-quality worship meetings that can energize and inspire souls.

The overall vibe of the Bahai temple felt like a tomb or a historical place, not a living home of the Holy Spirit. I got a sense of how secular Europeans must feel when they visit the great old churches of their continent — empty, silent places that are heavy with lingering karmic energy from the past but not much Spirit moving there today. I was left with a strong impression of “wasted potential” — that the Bahais could be doing so much more with this beautiful and impressive facility, such as regularly holding interfaith worship services in partnership with Unitarian Universalists, liberal Christians, Sufis, and other open-minded religious groups throughout the greater Chicago area, rather than letting their temple go largely unused as some kind of relic or visual advertisement of their religion.

After attending the 20-minute bare-bones worship service, spending some time enjoying the gardens and then returning to sit in the temple for private prayer and meditation, my friend and I encountered an older Persian lady on the temple steps who turned out to be a volunteer greeting visitors. We struck up a conversation with her, and I mentioned that I am a Unitarian Universalist and agree with many aspects of the Bahai faith. Her response to this was to tell me that Bahaullah is God’s messenger for our time, that he is descended from kings, and that the difference between the Baha’i Faith and the Unitarian Universalist church is that one of these traditions (her preferred spiritual affiliation) is “from God” while the other (mine) is “manmade.”

North American Bahai temple, Wilmette, Illinois

The Bahai temple rises above the harbor of Wilmette, Illinois, on Lake Michigan

Despite her condescending remark, this woman genuinely seemed like she wanted to be nice and helpful — she even spent 15 minutes guiding my friend and me to a park where we could see a spectacular view of the temple from a harbor on Lake Michigan. I don’t think she realized that the triumphalistic tone she used in presenting her faith and characterizing the religion of a visitor would be a major turnoff to the average open-minded spiritual person. Most Unitarian Universalists who had never heard of Bahaism, for example, would likely have come away from a similar encounter as I had with this Baha’i volunteer by forming the impression that Bahais think their religion is the only divinely inspired modern spiritual tradition and that other new religious movements such as UUism are fundamentally inferior. Certainly if Haifan Baha’is wish to grow their faith and win friends outside their own religious community, they need to show greater respect for other people’s spiritual paths — especially those such as UUs who share a generally compatible pluralistic view of religion.

My friend and I met a Baha’i couple visiting the temple from out of state, and we ended up having dinner with them. They were nice people and we all enjoyed the time together. However, I did find some things they said a bit disturbing. For example, when discussing our respective religious commitments, I mentioned that one of the reasons I prefer the Unitarian Universalist church to the Baha’i Faith despite my agreement with many Bahai principles is that the Baha’i organization forbids its members from participating in political activism, whereas the UU church emphasizes individual freedom of conscience and action in all arenas of society. They denied or downplayed the restrictions on involvement in politics by individual Baha’is; and this indicated either that they are misinformed or trying to make their religious organization seem more palatable to outsiders — something I myself remember doing when I was an enrolled Baha’i talking to potential converts.

More disturbing was how the Baha’i couple described their Baha’i community encouraging its children to associate with children of other religions for the purpose of “teaching the faith.” I politely replied that I think such relationships of Bahai children should be primarily focused on learning about other faiths, since Bahais are supposed to believe in the validity and importance of various religions rather than just their own. What I was thinking but didn’t say was: Baha’i children are being encouraged to develop relationships with other children for proselytizing? Has the culture of the Baha’i Faith really become this cultish?

We had some frank talk about my concern that all religions and religious groups inevitably get corrupted, the Baha’i Faith being no exception, and that Bahais therefore need to be ever watchful to ensure that their faith moves in the right direction and doesn’t get bogged down in outdated policies such as censoring scholars and authors with different viewpoints. The Baha’i man replied that the Universal House of Justice ensures that the Baha’i Faith cannot become corrupted because it is divinely inspired, and that “the Covenant-breakers” have tried to corrupt the faith but have been unsuccessful. I replied that the leadership organ of every religion believes it is divinely inspired — the Baha’i Faith is not unique in this regard — but this doesn’t prevent major internal problems and the need for periodic reform. I made a point of emphasizing how wonderful it is to have total freedom in the Unitarian Universalist church, to believe, worship, speak and act according to one’s own conscience, and that I wished the Baha’i Faith would become more that way. There was some tension in the air but we maintained a cordial, enjoyable, and very interesting discussion.

The day ended pleasantly, and I felt that I learned a lot about the current state of affairs and attitudes in the mainstream Haifan Baha’i Faith community. Much of what I learned confirmed things I already suspected, but some of it was new. Overall, I would have to say that after my experience visiting the North American Bahai temple I feel more certain that Bahaism has taken a seriously wrong turn in its development but that there was once a lot of inspiration and passion in this spiritual tradition worth celebrating. A great deal of grassroots effort went into planning and constructing this great edifice in Wilmette, Illinois; but that was in another time, almost a century ago, when Bahaism was on the cutting edge and attracting Americans of high capacity, creativity and free thought — unlike today, when it seems to be on the decline and has made itself unattractive to religious liberals. This conclusion does leave a person with sadness, but I think it may also inspire us to positive action to reclaim the good that has been lost and eventually bring the stagnant stream of Bahaism back into the great ever-flowing river of modern progressive spirituality.

I continued on my journey up to Minneapolis where I attended the Unitarian Universalist Association conference. The opening worship service was passionate and relevant, with folk music, choir music, and an all-embracing, peace-creating message that “Everything is Holy Now.” I powerfully felt the Holy Spirit moving in the stadium-sized room with several thousand people on their feet singing “Earth come rising; Life come rising; God come rising up inside of me!” I listened to people and met people doing all kinds of amazing, tangible work to build what Bahais or Christians would call “the Kingdom of God on earth” — a world of universal love, justice, peace, freedom, higher consciousness and conscience – without resorting to tribalistic arguments about which religious creed or organization is God’s chosen one.

If, as the Persian lady at the Bahai temple exclaimed, the Baha’i Faith is from God and the Unitarian Universalist church is manmade, then God seems rather human and humans quite divine.

Addendum: It has been pointed out to me that there is choir singing in the temple three Sundays per month. That’s good! If I go back for another visit, I’ll be sure to go on one of those Sundays. However, the weekday worship services are very bland, and I would suggest to the temple staff that they spice it up a bit or risk giving a poor impression to visitors. There’s nothing wrong with a little creativity in planning a worship service — even a short one of 15 to 30 minutes. Including some singing, somebody playing a musical instrument, or some other type of variety besides just recitations from Bahai scripture from beginning to end, would give a better impression and probably be more inspiring. And if they insist on limiting it just to scriptural recitation, how about some call and response or other techniques to get the congregation more involved in the readings rather than totally passive?

Why Bahaullah Should Matter to UUs

Bahaullah

Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, Bahaullah

By Eric Stetson

His Holiness Bahaullah (also spelled Baha’u’llah or Baha’ullah; pronounced ba-HAH-oo-lah), is the founding prophet of the Bahai faith. He lived from 1817 to 1892. He was a Persian aristocrat who spent most of his life in exile and under house arrest, in various countries of the Ottoman Empire, because of his controversial religious beliefs and claims.

Bahaullah came from a Shiite Muslim background, but he claimed to bring a new revelation from God. This was seen as a great heresy in his culture, for mainstream traditions of Islam do not allow anyone to claim prophethood after the Prophet Muhammad, until the Day of Judgment when they believe the world as we know it will end. Bahaullah interpreted the Day of Judgment in a metaphorical way rather than literally, arguing that every time a new religion arises on earth, it is “Judgment Day” for all the people, who must either open their minds and hearts to new divine revelation and thus enter the “paradise” of reunion with God, or close themselves off to the possibility of growth and change and thereby enter “the fire” of remoteness and destruction.

The new message that Bahaullah brought to the world — which he claimed was inspired by God and should form the basis of a great new religious movement — was the idea that people of all nations, religions, races, and languages are in fact one people and should not allow their differences to divide them. We are all human, and this is what really matters. It is time for the whole planet to unite in love, peace, and mutual cooperation, putting aside what has formerly divided us to seek what is good for all. We must work together to create a global civilization in which religious affiliation, patriotism, tribalism, and other historical sources of conflict are quenched by the common understanding that God has created us all in our glorious diversity and does not intend for one group to triumph over another but for all to coexist harmoniously.

Today is the twelfth and last day of Ridvan, the annual festival during which Bahais celebrate the declaration of Bahaullah’s mission. In 1863, in a garden near the Tigris River in Baghdad, Iraq, Bahaullah proclaimed to his companions and to guests from all over the city that he had been invested with a divine cause — a cause through which the world would be transformed. He claimed authority from God for his message and ministry.

In its inaugural Ridvan message, the Unitarian Bahai Association writes:

Is Bahaullah’s claim of a divine revelatory station still relevant today, beyond his own time and culture? Its relevance is not because of who Bahaullah may or may not have been, but because of the quality of what he taught and its continuing importance. Even the greatest ideas rarely gain significant power in people’s hearts and translate into bold actions that produce meaningful and lasting changes in the world, unless they are imbued with or perceived as having a divine character. People must believe that a Higher Power has inspired their cause — that it is in some sense “the Will of Heaven” — in order for it attain sufficient motivational energy, drive, passion, and therefore results. …

Today, there are many people in the world who believe fervently in the causes of fundamentalist religion…. Progressive people also have a prophetic voice to inspire us and move us to fight just as hard for what the modern world really needs: interfaith reconciliation, racial and ethnic harmony, civil rights for all, limitation of the power and influence of clergy, equal rights for women, respect for science, international peacemaking institutions, and more. That voice is Bahaullah — a man who claimed that such teachings were not just his own good ideas, but were actually the will and command of God.

A former member of the Haifan Baha’i Faith and current Unitarian Universalist writes that “Unitarian Universalists need to get EVANGELICAL!”:

Christians, Baha’is and members of other religions are more than willing to thrust themselves into the marketplace of ideas, even in places where they may not be appreciated. Maybe its time Unitarian Universalists (UUs) also got a little militant, instead of just sitting in their churches and waiting for refugees broken and disillusioned from authoritarian religion to come to their churches. If lost souls learn about us faster, they can also heal faster. …

So how about it? Wouldn’t our world be better if there were as many UUs in it as there are Roman Catholics or Muslims now? I think so!

I think so too.  And I think a big part of spreading Unitarian Universalism is to have a coherent and powerful message to share with a hurting world. The progressive principles articulated by Bahaullah more than a century ago are largely the same as our cherished Unitarian Universalist principles — but the main difference is that Bahais have a prophet who claimed that these principles are not just good ideas, but are the message of God for our time. That’s something with real substance and power, something that can make people care and move people to action.

Unitarian Universalists have not always been as politically correct and reluctant to invoke the name of God in connection with our beliefs and ideas. In fact, the history of our church is replete with examples of zealous and fiery preachers who stood up with passion for religious liberalism and taught that the Unitarian and Universalist movements are the next phase in humanity’s spiritual evolution. Where is this fire in the UU churches today? Why does it seem that more often than not, we are afraid to take a stand for the idea that Providence, the Source of Being, the Guiding Hand of Reality, the Great Spirit, the Almighty God — whatever one may choose to call Him, Her, or It — is on our side rather than that of the fundamentalists who preach hatred, division, and backwardness?

Bahaullah should matter to UUs because he was a religious leader from a conservative culture who taught progressive ideas, boldly taking a stand for the advancement of spiritual thought and human civilization, and making many sacrifices in his life to do so. He believed he had a message that the world desperately needed to hear, and he was not shy to proclaim it. He believed that God had given him a message and a mission, that he was inspired in his cause; and he said so without fear, trusting that if he truly was doing the work of the Divine, it would blossom and bear fruit regardless of the criticisms of those who rejected his claims.

I believe that we Unitarian Universalists today have something to learn from Bahaullah. We should look to his example, celebrate his life and his teachings, and find a little bit of the spiritual fire of the Middle Eastern prophets within ourselves. In doing so, we will transform our churches and ensure that our religious denomination doesn’t continue to decline, especially among youth. After all, most people nowadays don’t bother to attend religious meetings unless they are — well — religious.

Peter Morales, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, writes that “The key to the future for every single congregation and for Unitarian Universalism as a movement is whether we can ‘get religion.’ If we ‘get religion’ we will thrive. We will touch lives and change the world. If we don’t, we will decline.” I couldn’t agree more.

A man in Tennessee recently visited a UU church for the first time and wrote about it on his blog. Although he generally liked the UUs, their attitude and their congregation in Murfreesboro, this is what really jumped out at me:

I was hoping for something with a bit more substance, but I found it intriguing nonetheless. What was REALLY interesting was the lack of reference to any religious language. The words prayer, Jesus, God, faith, belief, and the like were completely absent. In fact the whole service was completely devoid of any religious symbolism (except for their string of flags representing the various faiths hanging above the podium) that I began to wonder what these people got from being Unitarians.

This blogger concludes that he realized what the UUs in this congregation got out of it was “the sheer pleasure of congregating.” Although I can sympathize with the general desire for community fellowship, the reality is that churches and religious communities don’t tend to grow and gain influence in society unless they are held together by common beliefs that are sufficiently strong to motivate the congregants.

I recently attended a UU church in Bangor, Maine, while on vacation visiting family, and I have to say that the congregation there had a much different flavor. It seemed far more religious, imbued with a tangible and substantive interfaith spirituality that resonated on the level of my soul. I think the future of Unitarian Universalism is not in the churches that avoid God language and strong beliefs, but the ones that openly celebrate the many paths to the Divine and eschew the tired path of bland secular humanism.

Bahais can help to move the Unitarian Universalist Association and its churches in this positive and meaningful direction. Bahais are both Unitarian and Universalist, in the theological sense of the words. One might say that Bahaism and UUism are a match made in heaven. I fully expect that Bahaullah, his spirit and his faith will be brought into the UU churches by numerous liberal Bahais in the coming decades, and I think this will be a very good thing both for Bahais and for UUs. Bahaism could stand to become less doctrinaire, and UUism needs a healthy dose of religious conviction and fervor.

In any case, a good first step would be for UUs to study the life and teachings of Bahaullah. Though coming from a conservative Islamic background and speaking the language of radical 19th century Middle Eastern millennarianism, Bahaullah can be regarded as a Unitarian Universalist prophet as much as anything else. And the commanding style in which he presented his progressive teachings is an inspiring mirror image of conservative religious leaders who unabashedly claim to speak for God as they promote their outdated notions.

UUBahai.com Restored After Unexplained Shutdown

For three days last week, this blog was inaccessible and the address UUBahai.com was redirected by our web hosting company to a different website owned by one of our editors. A significant amount of data was lost by the hosting company, and yesterday we manually restored it to the blog’s database. Permalinks and the RSS feed were unavailable all week.

We were told by our hosting company that the shutdown and data loss were due to problems on the hard drive of the server that hosts UUBahai.com. However, no explanation was given for what actually caused these things to occur or why the company failed to back up the data as is normally done. We suspect it may have been a case of hacking, because some people with staunch religious beliefs would have a motive to see this blog disappear from the internet — but we don’t know and probably never will know whether or not that is what happened.

Please excuse the temporary unavailability of the Unitarian Universalist Bahai Blog and any confusion that resulted. All content has now been restored. However, if you registered as a user of the blog you will need to re-register, because all registration information was permanently lost. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Ghusn-i-Akbar, the First Unitarian Bahai — Part 2: His Significance

In the first article of this two-part series, we discussed some basic facts about Mirza Muhammad Ali Bahai Ghusn-i-Akbar and the conflict between him and his elder brother, Abbas Effendi Abdul-Baha, over the leadership of the Bahai faith and its community.

To recap, Abdul-Baha was appointed by the Prophet Bahaullah as his first successor and Ghusn-i-Akbar as the next in rank and next in line for the successorship. Abdul-Baha claimed that his appointment gave him absolute authority over the Bahais, that his writings were to be regarded as the equivalent of scripture, and that he was morally blameless or infallible; whereas Ghusn-i-Akbar did not accept these claims and argued instead that the focus of the faith should remain on Bahaullah and his writings and teachings rather than that of any successor. The dispute between the brothers grew bitter and eventually resulted in Abdul-Baha excommunicating Ghusn-i-Akbar and all members of their family who supported or sympathized with him, which was nearly all the descendants of Bahaullah. Abdul-Baha appointed his own grandson, Shoghi Effendi, to become his successor — an appointment that Ghusn-i-Akbar and his supporters never accepted as legitimate. Ghusn-i-Akbar briefly led a Bahai denomination in the 1930s, which gained a significant following in the United States due to the evangelistic activities of his son, Shuaullah Behai; but the larger numbers and better developed organization of Shoghi Effendi triumphed and became the only major Bahai denomination.

Ghusn-i-Akbar is highly significant to different groups of people for different reasons. For Haifan Bahais, his significance is as the Scapegoat of their religion, the projection of their own shadow side, which for whatever reason God has used to make a very big point.

Shoghi Effendi, designated the “Guardian” of the Bahai faith in Abdul-Baha’s will, was unable to appoint a successor Guardian according to the terms of that will, because he was unable to have children of his own and either he or Abdul-Baha before him excommunicated every single descendant of Bahaullah (other than themselves). All potential successors were declared “Covenant-breakers” and therefore ineligible for appointment, because they all sympathized with Ghusn-i-Akbar or his view that the successors of Bahaullah are limited in their authority rather than having total control as Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi believed and expected the Bahais to agree with.

This meant that the “Universal House of Justice,” the supreme Bahai leadership institution envisioned by Abdul-Baha, could never exist according to his instructions, because he wrote in his will that the Guardian is the permanent head and chairman of that body. Therefore, the Haifan Baha’i Faith’s highest leadership organ is incomplete according to writings Haifan Bahais believe to be scripture, and this has led many Bahais to question its claim of infallibility or even its legitimacy.

Had it not been for Ghusn-i-Akbar standing up for his beliefs and gaining the support of nearly every descendant of Bahaullah, this problem — or this blessing to Bahaism, from the perspective of anti-authoritarian Bahais — would not have occurred. Whether the loss of the Guardianship is viewed in a positive or negative light, it can thus be traced back to Ghusn-i-Akbar, who ironically taught that the whole concept of a “Guardianship” of the faith and Shoghi Effendi’s position as supreme Bahai leader was illegitimate. In this sense, it seems that the man Bahaullah chose as his second and final successor had the last laugh.

The First Heretic

Personification of evil, chaos, and the Fall: a Haifan Bahai view of Mirza Muhammad Ali?

It can also be said that the demonization of Ghusn-i-Akbar and anyone who sympathized with him was what led to the downfall of the vision of Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi for a line of “Guardians” leading the Bahai religion for centuries to come. Their own partisan fury and determination to expel from the faith all those who associated with or held friendly views toward those they regarded as “Covenant-breakers” brought about the end of their line of successorship. Perhaps Haifan Bahais could learn a lesson from this and consider the possibility that their visceral hatred of so-called Covenant-breakers has hurt their faith tradition in the past, may be hurting it today, and could do serious damage to their organization in the future, as the world becomes increasingly tolerant of differing religious views and groups and less tolerant of those who are blatantly intolerant and discriminatory.

But Ghusn-i-Akbar’s significance is not limited only to Haifan Bahais. He is highly significant for all Bahais who have ever sought to reform or liberalize the Bahai religion. Bahai liberals and reformers throughout history until the present day — Ruth White, Ahmad Sohrab, Juan Cole, Karen Bacquet, Alison Marshall, Frederick Glaysher, and others — have all echoed many of the same ideas that were originally taught by Ghusn-i-Akbar, either not realizing it or choosing not to invoke his anathematized name.

The basic concept that is at stake in the dispute between conservative/fundamentalist and liberal/reform-oriented Bahais is what the Haifan tradition calls “the Covenant” — the idea that Bahaullah supposedly intended to found a religion led by infallible successors and a religious “Administrative Order” claiming to be perfect, free from error, and forbidden to be challenged on any issue. Any Bahai who has ever argued that this was not the true intention of Bahaullah for the Bahai faith — that he really meant for his religion to evolve in a more free-spirited fashion and for its leaders to be more humble in their claims — has either intentionally or unintentionally been supporting the position first articulated by the man whom Haifan Bahais consider the “Arch-breaker of the Covenant”: Mirza Muhammad Ali, Ghusn-i-Akbar. It may be useful for this reality to be openly discussed, so that everyone involved in Bahaism will know where they really stand and act accordingly with boldness and conviction.

Even further, Ghusn-i-Akbar is significant to Unitarians and Unitarian Universalists, and indeed to all religious liberals, for he was a historical voice emerging from the traditional Islamic world who, in the early 1900s, spoke forcefully for a vision of religion and human civilization that was decades ahead of his time and transcended the conservative culture in which he was raised. He honored his prophetic father and taught a version of his forward-looking faith based on emphasizing the values of individual investigation of truth, personal religious conscience, reason and objectivity, and constructive engagement with the world to apply Bahai principles without necessarily making converts to a Bahai religious organization.

A recurring theme of Ghusn-i-Akbar’s writings is the importance of rational thought and the damaging tendencies of fundamentalist religion. In an essay On Religious Conflict and Religious Liberalism, which he described as “a message to the people of understanding throughout the world,” Ghusn-i-Akbar argues passionately for interfaith reconciliation as the cornerstone of Bahaullah’s spiritual message and rails against the corruption of religion’s true purpose by leaders hungering for power over the people. He writes:

The Fountainhead of Knowledge [Bahaullah] said: “O different creeds! Look forward to agreement and be enlightened by the light of concord. For the sake of God assemble together and remove from among you that which is the cause of conflict.”

Although each different creed teaches unity, accusing others of dissension and strife, if they would observe with a keen eye and speak with the tongue of justice, they must testify that now, as in past ages, religious hatred is the foundation and cause of many unspeakable events.

The spiritual teachings given to humankind through the inspired sages, which are revealed for the purpose of enlightening the understanding and elevating the souls of humanity out of the mire of ignorance and superstition, became the whips of the leaders of the many creeds — whips that were used upon innocent, undeveloped and unenlightened individuals, exploiting and oppressing the people who sincerely followed them. Paying dearly with their lives and fortunes. Oh! Religion — what atrocious crimes have been committed in your name! …

Free souls, yet remaining enslaved, allowing themselves and others to be caught in the meshes of religious superstition, to be ruled over by a small group of hand-picked leaders. O friends and brothers, withdraw from your deluded seclusion and become your noble selves. Arise with great energy and vigor and fly in the vast and unlimited space of freedom. Think, and allow not yourself or your fellows to become entangled in the cobwebs of imagination and religious intrigue. …

THINK! my brothers; and may peace and happiness encompass you at all times.

In an essay outlining Bahaullah’s Political and Social Teachings, Ghusn-i-Akbar explains the rise of the Bahai faith as a much needed, corrective reaction to the excessive power held by religious leaders in the 19th century Middle East:

Religion, which was established solely for the purpose of the betterment of the nations and of the manners and morality of humankind, was made the greatest cause for the attainment of personal interests and selfish desires, and used as a stepping stone for gaining power and ruling the people. The influence and power of the religious leaders were so great that government itself was but a tool in their hands, and thus fulfilled the orders they would dictate. Therefore no act of the government could be passed and executed without its being first sanctioned by these religious authorities. The poor nation, being powerless and wholly in the hands of these authorities, had no choice but to abide by their wishes and thus be deprived of promotion and success. They were completely overcome and unable to take a single step for their own welfare or even breathe of any reform or advancement of civilization.

Because these corruptions were carried out under a moral pretext, and as the religious authorities had found in and made of religion a means of furthering their worldly interests and desires and of spreading their deviancy, there was no other alternative but to remove these diseases by uplifting the morality and strengthening the spiritual tendencies of the people. It was both an instructive cause and a natural tendency that brought about the renewal. It was a spiritual reality that appeared in corporeal form, and an illumined state of consciousness that worked to reform the defects and remedy the diseases.

Ghusn-i-Akbar thus frames Bahaullah’s cause and the overall purpose of Bahaism as a means of overcoming the domination of society by corrupt clergy and authoritarian religious leaders who stand in opposition to the advancement of secular and truly spiritual civilization.

In his Proposal for a Representative Democratic World Assembly, Ghusn-i-Akbar advocates the establishment of an assembly of the world’s people based on principles of representative democracy, egalitarianism, interfaith and international cooperation. His idea was more advanced and idealistic than today’s United Nations, and we would do well to work for the fulfillment of his vision. In the same essay where he outlines this proposal, Ghusn-i-Akbar also teaches strikingly modern and progressive ideas about law, social justice and civil rights, and the separation of religion and state:

All laws, whether spiritual or civil, are to be bringing about union, brotherhood, liberty and equality. The union of the nation is the foundation on which the pillars of politics are erected and its laws promulgated; and union is only obtained through brotherhood, liberty and equality.

The world is not devoid of differences in ideas, beliefs and aspirations, but I think that the differences of religious belief must be confined to places of worship. Every person is free to believe however and in whomsoever he wishes, and these different doctrines have nothing to do with human society. After finishing our prayers in our different places of worship, we are all one in humanity and brotherhood, and must consequently be on terms of equity in our mutual relations and in civil rights. In this respect Bahaullah says, “You are the fruits of one tree, and the drops of one sea.”

Is the promulgator of such enlightened teachings and ideas a man of whom it could fairly be said that “his death was better than his life,” as was recently written by one well-known Bahai theologian who supports the Haifan Baha’i Faith tradition?

How easy it is to create mythical narratives about historical religious figures, either canonizing or demonizing them depending on one’s preference. Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi systematically demonized Ghusn-i-Akbar and his supporters, and Unitarian Bahais could do the same to them and the Haifan organization they created. There is more than enough evidence to show that these men did some very disturbing things in the context of their conflict with Ghusn-i-Akbar and his supporters; such facts could be presented in isolation and blown out of proportion, just as Haifan Bahai leaders, writers and theologians have done against the man whose side they oppose.

But this is not the path of justice. We should recognize the strengths and positive contributions of both sides and their leading proponents, while acknowledging their respective weaknesses, failings, and morally wrong actions. In short, we should move beyond the immature fundamentalist tendency to draw caricatures and instead do what we can to move Bahaism into a mature, liberal religious view of its own history — a view that values accuracy above mythmaking, and mutual forgiveness and reconciliation for the sake of our common faith rather than endless conflict.

One Tree, Two Branches

Bahaism: one tree with two great branches

Bahaullah’s choice of words when he referred to his two eldest sons whom he chose as his two successors, one after the other, may also be very significant in an archetypal or metaphorical sense. He called Abbas Effendi (Abdul-Baha) by the title Ghusn-i-Azam, “the Greatest Branch”; and he called Muhammad Ali by the title Ghusn-i-Akbar, which also means “the Greatest Branch.” The two words have slightly different connotations, the former implying greatness in terms of power and the latter signifying greatness in terms of size. Sure enough, shortly after Bahaullah’s passing, Abdul-Baha assumed all the power over the Bahai faith, and Ghusn-i-Akbar’s following was much larger at least among the immediate family of the prophet.

Over time, the first branch of Bahaism, that of Azam, became not only mighty but also far larger than that of Akbar. Could it be possible that this is just a temporary state of affairs, and that the type of Bahaism inspired by Ghusn-i-Akbar will eventually become very large as well, maybe even surpassing in adherents and friends the Haifan Bahai tradition? If the titles Bahaullah gave to his two intended successors are prophetic, then the answer should be yes.

Why might this be, and why might Bahaullah have appointed Abdul-Baha to lead the faith first, followed by Ghusn-i-Akbar? Let us consider the example of Saint Paul of Tarsus, the greatest apostle of early Christianity. Paul obviously had a big ego and an authoritarian streak, but he was invaluable to the establishment of the Christian faith and church beyond Israel, throughout the Greco-Roman world — very similar to the ambitious and domineering Abdul-Baha who spread Bahaism beyond the Middle East and established it in the West. Paul wrote to one of the churches he founded that “even if… an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! … If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (Gal. 1:8-9). The original Greek word translated as “eternally condemned” is anathema, meaning cut off, cast out from the community of faith, spiritually dead. This is exactly what Abdul-Baha said to Bahai communities: that anyone who taught a different interpretation of Bahaism (such as his brother Mirza Muhammad Ali) is a “Covenant-breaker,” meaning excommunicated and condemned as a violator of the true Bahai leader.

New religions thrive with this kind of person as a leader. That heady mixture of charisma and fanaticism that both Saint Paul and Abdul-Baha possessed is a mighty and powerful thing, perhaps even a necessary thing if a new religious movement is to spread quickly and develop a clear and distinctive identity and community. But as religions continue to mature, grow, and settle into their place in the world, they require other heroes, those who speak for free thought and questioning internal authority — or else they risk sclerosis and eventual necrosis.

It is for this reason that the Akbar branch of Bahaism is indeed so very great, as small as its numbers or institutional power may be; and for this reason it was intended by Bahaullah to come after the Azam branch founded by Abdul-Baha. Because Ghusn-i-Akbar represents exactly what the Bahai religion needs at this later phase in its development: the voice not of yes-men parroting quasi-clergy ensconsed in marble buildings, but of stubborn skeptics and heretics who refuse to stop thinking for themselves and speaking truth to power.

If Bahaism is ever to take its place as one of the truly great world religions with hundreds of millions or even billions of supporters, it will only be through the Unitarian Bahai tradition inaugurated by Bahaullah’s second son, as being revived and made relevant again today by groups such as the Unitarian Bahai Association. That is especially true in this new era of progressive thought, globalization and the necessity of tolerance for diversity, and rapid advancement of civilization beyond the limitations imposed by old assumptions and rigid ways of thinking. Haifan Bahaism needs competition from a more liberal branch of the faith — another branch growing from the same tree of Bahaullah — that this religion may remain a cause of spiritual and social progress in the world. It is for this reason that the life and teachings of Ghusn-i-Akbar should be celebrated, not mischaracterized and reviled or forgotten.

Ghusn-i-Akbar, the First Unitarian Bahai — Part 1: The Facts

Mirza Muhammad Ali Bahai Ghusn-i-Akbar

This is the first of a two-part series about Mirza Muhammad Ali Bahai, who was called Ghusn-i-Akbar by his father, the Prophet Bahaullah. In this article we will present some basic facts about this man, who can be regarded as the first Unitarian Bahai. The second article, which will be posted a couple weeks from now, will deal with the significance of Ghusn-i-Akbar — in other words, why he matters today to Unitarian Universalist Bahais and Bahais in general.

Much of this article deals with the conflict between Ghusn-i-Akbar and Abdul-Baha, two brothers who were at odds with each other in the early history of Bahaism. One of the basic principles of religious liberalism is to be willing to consider both sides of every story — especially when it comes to the historical narratives of religions, which are notorious for being based more on exaggeration, wishful thinking or mythological fantasy than objective facts. Conservative or fundamentalist religious people have a tendency to construct and uphold black-and-white narratives, driven by passionate emotion arising from the longing to “know the truth and believe” — even when the truth may be unclear or impossible to know for certain. Such narratives identify “good guys” and “bad guys” in the story of their faith or of religion in general, fitting complex human beings into these simplistic roles.

All Bahais know about the good things that Abdul-Baha taught and did; and those who know about Mirza Muhammad Ali typically only know him as the caricature of a “Covenant-breaker,” a stubborn and wicked heretic unworthy of any consideration. But is the story really so simple and monolithic? Is the saintly and inspired Abdul-Baha all good and that other guy a manifestation of satan?

Mirza Muhammad Ali was the first son of Bahaullah’s second wife, Fatima, upon whom Bahaullah conferred the title Mahd-i-Ulya (the “Supreme Cradle”). His title Mirza indicates his descent from a noble Persian family — just as Bahaullah himself had Mirza before his name (Mirza Husayn Ali).

Bahaullah gave the title Ghusn-i-Akbar to Muhammad Ali. He gave a nearly identical title, Ghusn-i-Azam, to Abbas Effendi (Effendi means “Sir”), who was the eldest son of his first wife, Asiya, upon whom he conferred the title Navvab (“Noble”). Both Ghusn-i-Akbar and Ghusn-i-Azam mean “Greatest or Mightiest Branch” — the words Akbar and Azam are synonyms and both are superlatives.

Muhammad Ali took the surname Bahai, which he passed on to his children. Abbas called himself Abdul-Baha (“Servant of Baha[ullah]”), rather than using the title given him by his father, and he did not take a surname.

Ghusn-i-Akbar at age 16

Ghusn-i-Akbar at age 16

Ghusn-i-Akbar was born in 1852 and Abdul-Baha was born eight years earlier, in 1844. Both were spiritual men, talented, proud, strong believers and diligent workers in their father’s cause from an early age.

As a young man, Ghusn-i-Akbar had an experience that surely left a mark on his psyche and influenced his belief system: He was chastised by Bahaullah for attempting to write verses in the style of religious scripture, imitating the prophetic writings of his father. Bahaullah impressed upon him that the station of divine messenger was not something that a prophet’s son could claim as a birthright.

Bahaullah assigned important roles and tasks to both Abdul-Baha and Ghusn-i-Akbar during his lifetime, based on their respective abilities and interests. Abdul-Baha was in charge of external affairs, using his charismatic personality to win friends and supporters for the new faith. Ghusn-i-Akbar was in charge of internal affairs, working as Bahaullah’s secretary, transcribing his writings, editing them and preparing them for publication and distribution.

Just two years before Bahaullah passed away, Ghusn-i-Akbar traveled to India on behalf of his father, where he arranged for the printing of the first edition of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Bahaullah’s “Most Holy Book.” Bahaullah left this world in 1892, turning over the affairs of his faith to his two most trusted sons.

In Bahaullah’s will, Ghusn-i-Akbar was chosen as second in rank, after his elder brother: “Truly, God has ordained the station of Ghusn-i-Akbar after the station of the former [Ghusn-i-Azam, Abbas Effendi]. We have surely chosen Akbar after Azam as a command from the All-Knowing, the All-Wise!” (literal translation from the Arabic, which differs from the Haifan Baha’i Faith translation that is designed to make it look like Ghusn-i-Akbar is inferior to Abdul-Baha).

This statement of Bahaullah was understood by all the family as meaning two things: (1) Ghusn-i-Akbar was given an important role to play alongside Bahaullah’s eldest son, which was not given to his two other living sons. (2) It was God’s intention that Ghusn-i-Akbar become Bahaullah’s second successor, after Abdul-Baha’s passing — according to an established tradition in Shiite Islam of spiritual inheritance passing from elder to younger brother, such as in the case of Imam Husayn succeeding Imam Hasan.

The Shiite background of Bahaullah’s family and the early Bahais, as well as an effusive tablet written by Bahaullah to Ghusn-i-Akbar, would have given the younger son the clear impression that he was destined to follow in his elder brother’s footsteps of leadership. In that tablet, Bahaullah proclaims and prays to God about his second son: “You know, O my God, that I desire him, as You have desired him, and I have chosen him as You have chosen him. Therefore assist him with the hosts of earth and heaven, and help, O my God, whoever helps him, whoever chooses him, and assist whoever comes to him. Then foresake whoever denies him and desires him not.” (modernized version of a translation of the original text).

This is only a short excerpt of the lavish praises and status Bahaullah conferred upon his second son. Bahaullah also praised his first son, Abdul-Baha in similar ways. The two brothers had ample reason to believe that their father wanted them both to have authority in the Bahai faith.

Bahaullah did indicate in his will that his eldest son’s rank was higher — at least while both sons were living. Abdul-Baha interpreted this to mean that all power and authority in the Bahai faith and its community was granted to himself alone, and he expected only obedience from Ghusn-i-Akbar. Ghusn-i-Akbar, on the other hand, interpreted the will to mean that he was supposed to be Abdul-Baha’s lieutenant and that a collegial relationship of power-sharing between the two brothers was intended by their father — a continuation of the arrangement in which he had served in a position of weighty responsibility and high rank under Bahaullah, alongside Abdul-Baha.

As time went on, it became increasingly clear that Abdul-Baha was not willing to share any power with his brother — and furthermore that he envisioned himself as occupying a station very similar to that of a Messenger of God. Abdul-Baha expected all the Bahais to regard him as morally blameless, perfect in his servitude to God and Bahaullah (hence the title he chose for himself, “Servant of Baha”); and he asserted that all his own writings carried the same authority as divine scriptures. Some of his interpretations of Bahaullah’s writings seemed more like changes to the laws and teachings of the religion rather than mere clarifications on obscure points. He expected Bahais to agree with or obey everything he said, wrote, did, or instructed them to do.

Ghusn-i-Akbar believed this went too far, and he refused to go along with some of Abdul-Baha’s claims. A major religious dispute erupted between the two brothers, based on Ghusn-i-Akbar’s emphasis on the Islamic concept of tawhid (the Unity of God and prohibition of joining partners with God, i.e. Unitarianism) vs. Abdul-Baha’s emphasis on his own divine inspiration, authority over the Bahais, and infallibility as the representative of God. Ghusn-i-Akbar’s party called themselves the “Unitarians.”

Ghusn-i-Akbar and Abdul-Baha mutually came to regard each other as heretics. The conflict grew bitter, and harsh accusations of blasphemous and corrupt acts were hurled back and forth against these two men by supporters of the respective sides. It was also a family feud, and one in which Abdul-Baha found himself nearly alone among the descendants of Bahaullah: All but one of the other children of the prophet and their families sided with Ghusn-i-Akbar, while Abdul-Baha could only count a single sister as his ally.

Ghusn-i-Akbar repeatedly proposed to Abdul-Baha that a conference be held to attempt to reconcile their differences by referring to the writings of Bahaullah for guidance, as did his son. These proposals were rejected or ignored. “I pleaded with him time after time, for a conference to discuss our differences, and solve the problems in accordance with the teachings of Bahaullah, as we are commanded,” wrote Ghusn-i-Akbar, “but unfortunately my requests were not granted and my pleadings were in vain.” (spelling and capitalization modernized).

Abbas Effendi Abdul-Baha

Abdul-Baha, elder half brother of Ghusn-i-Akbar

As the duly appointed leader of the Bahais, Abdul-Baha decided to pronounce an anathema on his younger brother, declaring him a “Covenant-breaker” because he did not agree with and obey the “Center of the Covenant” of Bahaullah, i.e. Abdul-Baha himself. Ghusn-i-Akbar regarded this as yet another example of Abdul-Baha going beyond the bounds of his authority, since Bahaullah had given him a high rank and appointed him to become his second successor. Could Abdul-Baha overrule what Bahaullah had written about Ghusn-i-Akbar, simply because he considered him a rebellious heretic?

Abdul-Baha also excommunicated all his family members who disagreed with the way he was leading the Bahai faith and sympathized with or supported Ghusn-i-Akbar. He cut off their financial allowances, which was a severe punishment. Since all of the family were exiled prisoners at the time, they depended on the financial help of Bahais for their livelihood. Abdul-Baha further directed that all Bahais were to shun Ghusn-i-Akbar and his supporters, and described them in dehumanizing terms such as comparing them to an infectious disease.

Abdul-Baha died in 1921. He wrote a will in which he appointed his own grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, to become his successor, thus passing over Ghusn-i-Akbar, whom Bahaullah had designated as the next in line after Abdul-Baha. Having no explicit authority from Bahaullah’s writings to take such an action, he justified it by accusing Ghusn-i-Akbar of terrible acts that would render him morally unfit to hold a spiritual office. It is unknown whether any of these allegations listed in Abdul-Baha’s will are true.

Ghusn-i-Akbar wrote the following in his own defense: “All the accusations in the said will and by other individuals towards me are hearsay, gross misrepresentation and without foundation. I have always lived in accordance with the commands of Bahaullah, glory be to him, and thus fulfilled my duties. I devoted my entire life to the service of the cause and the promulgation of his teachings. I have faced my enemies with a smile, hardships and calamities with endurance, and for those who wronged, misjudged and accused me falsely, I bear no feeling of animosity, but sincerely pray that God may forgive and guide them to the truth. He is the Merciful, the Forgiver.” (spelling and capitalization modernized).

Mirza Majdeddin, Bahaullah’s nephew and brother-in-law, wrote of Ghusn-i-Akbar: “This chosen son is a devout follower of the teachings [of Bahaullah] and a staunch believer in them. He is kind, gentle, patient and always ready to help the needy. … He is misjudged, wronged and falsely accused by so-called friends, those who satisfied themselves with hearsay without investigation.”

Shuaullah Behai

Shuaullah Behai, son of Ghusn-i-Akbar

Ghusn-i-Akbar did not accept his elder brother’s appointment of a different person to be his successor and lead the Bahai faith. He sent his own eldest son Shuaullah to America, where he published a magazine to teach the faith and gained the support of a significant number of people in the 1930s, based on a message of focusing on the writings and teachings of Bahaullah rather than the authority of any successor.

Ghusn-i-Akbar never denied that Abdul-Baha was the legitimate successor of Bahaullah. But he did believe and argue that he went way too far in his claims of authority. Indeed, despite the clear appointment of Abdul-Baha in his father’s will as the first leader of the Bahai faith, most of Bahaullah’s children — the people who knew Bahaullah, Abdul-Baha, and Ghusn-i-Akbar the best — supported Ghusn-i-Akbar’s position and believed Abdul-Baha had overreached in his claims and leadership style.

This continued into the next generations, in which nearly all of Bahaullah’s grandchildren and great grandchildren supported Ghusn-i-Akbar’s Unitarian interpretation of the Bahai faith rather than Shoghi Effendi’s demands of total obedience. So complete was the refusal of Bahaullah’s descendants to repudiate Ghusn-i-Akbar and give Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi the degree of exclusive loyalty they desired, that the latter, who was unable to have children of his own, could appoint no one to become his own successor according to the instructions in Abdul-Baha’s will — having excommunicated every one of his relatives who had not already been excommunicated by Abdul-Baha.

Regardless, Abdul-Baha’s great charisma, missionary activities, and beautiful writings and speeches ensured that most Bahais accepted all of his claims along with his negative portrayal of his younger brother, never even hearing the other side of the story. Furthermore, Shoghi Effendi’s intelligence and skill as a writer, organizational planner and administrator consolidated the dominant version of Bahaism that viewed Ghusn-i-Akbar as the “Arch Breaker of the Covenant” and the “Greatest Violator.”

Ghusn-i-Akbar died in 1937. The distinct Unitarian Bahai community and tradition he founded faded away. But the basic ideas he articulated — that the successors of the prophet do not have absolute authority, and that Bahais should “go back to Bahaullah” and focus on the prophet’s writings and teachings above the decrees of Bahai religious leaders — have remained a potent force in Bahaism and have been manifested repeatedly in various “liberal” and “reform” movements by Bahais in more recent times, without invoking his un-rehabilitated name.

In the next article, we will explore the ways in which Ghusn-i-Akbar is a highly significant figure in Bahai history, his great relevance for Bahais today, and the role he and his legacy may play in the future development of Bahaism. Also look forward to some quotes from his writings that are available in English.

Sources:

Not Interested

Do Unitarian Bahais support or oppose the organization that most Bahais belong to, the Haifa-based Baha’i Faith? To understand the answer to this question, a brief history lesson would be helpful.

During the 1980s and 90s, a number of liberal Bahais argued for reform of organized Bahaism. At first, they tried to work within the Haifan organization to promote some modest changes to make the Bahai community and its leadership more open and democratic. After the people who tried to do this were censored by Bahai leaders, another attempt was made in the form of a free-thinking online Bahai discussion list. Official Bahai institutions reacted to this by forcing the moderators of the discussion list to resign their membership in the Baha’i Faith organization, on pain of shunning if they refused to resign. One of those forced to resign was Dr. Juan Cole, Professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Michigan, who has since become a Unitarian Universalist.

A couple years later, a Bahai named Karen Bacquet left the Baha’i Faith organization and started an online discussion group called Unenrolled Baha’i, for people who considered themselves Bahai but chose not to belong to the organized Bahai community. This forum became very active during the mid 2000s, and hundreds of people joined it. Most of them were liberal, open-minded Bahais who were disappointed with the authoritarian doctrines and policies of the Haifan Baha’i Faith. Some remained hopeful that the mainstream Bahai organization would eventually reform, while others gave up that hope. A few unenrolled Bahais, such as Frederick Glaysher, decided to start an alternative organization called the Reform Bahai Faith. Others joined Unitarian Universalist churches or other progressive religious groups.

By the late 2000s, it had become clear that the Haifa-based Baha’i Faith was continuing its conservative path and was not amenable to any kind of reform. In early 2010, Stephen Birkland, the very Baha’i Faith official who had threatened Dr. Juan Cole with systematic shunning by the Bahai community about a decade earlier, was elected to a seat on the nine-man Universal House of Justice, the highest leadership institution of the Haifan Baha’i Faith — a powerful demonstration of how the conservatives won and the liberals lost the battle for the future of Haifan Bahaism.

It is in the context of these developments that a new type of Bahaism is now emerging — Unitarian Bahaism — Bahais who share the liberalism of the Unitarian and Universalist religious tradititions and find community in UU churches. The Unitarian Bahai movement represents a decision on the part of many liberal and unenrolled Bahais to simply “move beyond” the desire to reform the Haifan Baha’i Faith, and accept that Haifan Bahais have chosen their path and we must choose our own path, independently of their organization and tradition. Instead of either remaining loyal to the Haifan tradition in theory without belonging to its organized community, as some unenrolled Bahais have done, or rising up in opposition to the Haifan Baha’i Faith and constantly arguing against it, as others have done, Unitarian Bahais are not interested.

That’s right, we neither support nor oppose the organization that most Bahais belong to. We’re just not interested. Instead, we are developing our own way of understanding and practicing the Bahai faith and, in the Unitarian Universalist Association, are finding a new religious home — a community that welcomes and celebrates our liberalism and open-mindedness.

Nigar Bahai Amsalem, the great granddaughter of the Prophet Bahaullah, was interviewed in a 2006 Israeli documentary about the Bahai organization in Haifa, Israel, called Baha’is In My Backyard. In this film she described how the international Bahai leaders – whose offices are located within walking distance of her house — have alternately denied that she and her family even exist, or instructed Baha’i Faith members to shun them.

Why have they done this? Because she and her family are unenrolled Bahais — they consider themselves Bahai but choose not to belong to the Haifan Baha’i Faith organization. Mrs. Bahai Amsalem’s grandfather, Muhammad Ali Bahai Ghusn-i-Akbar, was the second son of Bahaullah, and he advocated a Unitarian interpretation of Bahaism that sought to limit the power of Bahaullah’s successors and encouraged freedom of thought and conscience among Bahais. Most of Bahaullah’s descendants supported that liberal view of the faith, rather than following the organization created by Bahaullah’s eldest son, Abdul-Baha — and for that they are shunned.

“We are the family,” says Nigar Bahai Amsalem, “and they cannot say that we are not the family, as they tell their people that come from abroad: ‘Do not talk to them.’ But, I think, personally I think it’s very childish, because what are they so afraid of us for? What can we do against all them? We are not interested!”

We are not interested. What a wise lady. “We are not doing anything against them,” she goes on. “We are just living peacefully, and doing exactly what Bahaullah told us to do. So we are Bahais — we are true Bahais.”

Mrs. Bahai Amsalem, the UU Bahais are with you. We don’t want to fight with Haifan Bahais; we just want to live peacefully and do what Bahaullah told us to do: “Associate with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship. Whatsoever has led the children of mankind to shun one another, and has caused dissensions and divisions among them, has, through the revelation of these words, been nullified and abolished.”

That’s why we’re Unitarian Universalists. We don’t need a supposedly infallible religious “Administrative Order” led by nine men in Israel to tell us what to believe and do. Nor do we need to focus our spiritual life on opposing such religious leaders and institutions. We’re beyond all that. We have better things to do. We’re not interested.

Happy Naw Ruz!

Today is Naw Ruz — the Persian New Year — which is also a high holy day for Bahais and is celebrated on the vernal equinox, March 21, every year.

Naw Ruz is the first day of the year in the Bahai religious calendar. It is observed as a day symbolizing rebirth, renewal, new growth and awakening.

The Unitarian Bahai Association has posted a message for this year’s Naw Ruz on their blog for Feast Day and Holy Day messages, BahaiFeast.com.

Introducing the Unitarian Bahai Association

Bahai star with symbols of great world religionsAs the website address indicates, this blog is written by UU Bahais. A UU Bahai is a Bahai within the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) – just as there are UU Christians, UU Buddhists, UU Pagans, etc. The UUA is an interfaith community of over 1,000 congregations based on a tolerant, open-minded, all-inclusive worldview.

The Bahai faith is now represented among Unitarian Universalists by a new organization, recently founded in the United States, called the Unitarian Bahai Association (UBA). Not all the members of the UBA are UUs, but most are, or at least have some connection with UU churches or are inspired by the philosophy of Unitarian Universalism in addition to Bahaism.

As the website of the UBA states: “Bahaism, often called the Bahai faith, is a new religious movement started in the late 1800s by the spiritual teacher Bahaullah, an exiled Persian nobleman who devoted his life to proclaiming a universal message of peace, human rights, interfaith harmony, and ever-advancing global civilization. … Just as Bahaism grew out of Islam, Unitarian Universalism grew out of Christianity, and both traditions emphasize interfaith reconciliation and world-embracing social principles. Bahaism and UUism are thus like two sides of the same coin, one from the East and the other from the West, and are a natural complement to each other.”

The Unitarian Bahai Association is much more liberal in its understanding of the Bahai religion than the relatively conservative Baha’i Faith organization based in Haifa, Israel, to which most Bahais belong. Significant differences include that the UBA is open and affirming of gay and lesbian people, allows women to serve on its international board of directors, emphasizes freedom of belief and conscience rather than obedience to ecclesiastical authorities, and does not prohibit its members from participating in political activism or running for elected office.

The Unitarian Bahaism of the UBA also is characterized by a focus on the ministry, writings and teachings of the prophet Bahaullah, and interpreting and applying his teachings according to present-day knowledge and needs. Unitarian Bahais believe Bahaullah was a human being who received divine inspiration, not a divine being — according to the Unitarian tradition we reject the notion that he, or any other great spiritual teacher, is the equivalent of God. Unitarian Bahais also disagree with the Haifan Baha’i belief in the supposed infallibility of Bahaullah’s successors and the “Administrative Order” (dogmatic and bureaucratic religious institutions) they created.

Many liberal Bahais leave organized Bahaism because they feel that the Haifan Baha’i Faith organization has become too rigid, conservative and authoritarian — contrary to the original progressive spirit of the faith, which began as a sweeping reform of Islam suitable for modern times. Many former Bahais discover the Unitarian Universalist church and join it as an alternative to the Haifan Baha’i Faith. Now, with the Unitarian Bahai Association, liberal Bahais and UU Bahais have a group they can support that speaks for them and seeks to advance their modern, progressive, all-embracing view of how the Bahai religion should be understood and practiced.

This blog is based on the idea that Unitarian Universalists and Bahais should naturally have much in common and may wish to worship and fellowship together in UU churches. The authors and editors of UUBahai.com are themselves both UUs and Bahais — belonging to the UUA and the UBA rather than the Haifan Baha’i Faith, and choosing to practice Bahaism within the context of the Unitarian Universalist church rather than in the HBF community. We believe there are many UUs who would be interested in the Bahai faith tradition and who may wish to practice it in a UU context. We also believe there are many Bahais who, once they are aware of the newfound existence of the UBA and the option of being a Bahai within a UU congregation, will prefer this option.

Click here to learn more about this blog, its purpose and policies.