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.
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.
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.