My post about the Baha’i Faith will include both compliments and criticisms of the religion and its prophets. Let me first preface my remarks by saying that my reasons for discussing the Baha’i Faith in such great detail is not to single them out for criticism. The Baha’i Faith is no better and no worse than any other major religion—in fact the Baha’i Faith has not reached the point in its young age where it has been responsible for any major atrocities involving massive loss of life. But it doesn’t hold significant power in any region of the world, either, and as such, it is difficult to say what would happen were the Baha’is to gain such power anywhere. The Baha’i Faith has sought to separate itself from the cycles of religion in some ways, but at the same time the Baha’i Faith has repeated many of the same mistakes of past religions. The concept of prophethood reveals the Baha’i Faith’s flaws. These flaws mirror that of most of the other major religions.
As a religion that developed at the dawn of the Industrial Epoch, there is a remarkably high amount of documentation from both its leadership—all the way back to its twin founders of the Faith, the Báb and Baha’u’llah, and followed by Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. Many third party observers have also observed the evolution of this religion. Literacy was at a much higher rate in the 19th century than it had been in previous centuries, and there was more travel between different parts of the world than before With many people being able record the religion’s evolution so closely, we can develop a good idea of how the Baha’i Faith and probably other religions developed. We can also observe where it has mirrored other actions that have caused religions to stray from their original purpose. Through the Baha’i Faith, we can illustrate the problems of religion up until this point.
The Báb, considered one of the two founders of the Baha’i Faith, announced his status as “the gate” to the new leader of Islam to Mulla Husayn on May 23, 1844. Later, he declared himself as the new leader of Islam itself, then a prophet in his own right and finally the “essence of God” shortly before he was executed. The circumstances surrounding his rapid rise included a remarkable ability to interpret the Qu’ran and ease in ability to quote chapter and verse. He made his declaration a little more than fifty years after the Shayki movement—a movement which predicted the rise of a spiritual figure like him—came into being. He reportedly answered questions asked of him by Mulla Husayn and other future followers to their complete satisfaction. His execution on July 9, 1850, witnessed by many Westerners, shocked people when he and a companion survived the first firing squad completely unscathed and were only subdued by the second firing squad. This incident is widely regarded as a miracle and certainly would appear to be.
The Babi movement fell into great disarray after the Báb’s death. Slowly, however, a man who would come to be known as Baha’u’llah would emerge, gaining followers and eventually declaring himself to be the “Promised One of All Religions” on April 21, 1863. He said he had the first revelation of him receiving this station in 1852 when he was imprisoned under severe conditions. Like the Báb, Baha’u’llah was renowned for his knowledge of the Qu’ran. The Kitab-i-Iqan, written in 1861, is perhaps his most remarkable work. In it, he analyzes the repeated ascension of new religions from Abraham through Muhammad, and talks about the commonalities of the pattern. In doing so, he asserts the importance of God’s continuing revelation. It is a remarkable and insightful piece of work.
Clearly, the Báb and Baha’u’llah were prophets of great insight who contributed much to the spiritual discourse of the world—not only in their own times but in generations to come. I believe it would be appropriate to call them prophets.
But what is a prophet?
Those of us who grew up in cultures dominated by one of the Abrahamic religions are taught about specific prophets, though these religions differ somewhat in whom they consider to be prophets. Abrahamic religions often trace their roots to Abraham, and include not only the religion that Abraham founded but also Judaism, Christianity, Islam, the Baha’i Faith, and Rastafarianism. These religions all recognize the prophethood of Noah, Abraham, Moses, four of them recognize Jesus Christ as a prophet, and three of them recognize Muhammad as a prophet, though many of these religions also have other prophets they recognize.
Where I believe many if not all of these religions make their mistake is in the way they choose to regard their founders. In Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the Baha’i Faith, they choose to regard their prophets as infallible—at least from the point where God apparently communicated with them. When Christianity emerged from being an underground religion to a mainstream religion within the Roman Empire in the 4th century AD or Common Era (CE), great effort went into determining the precise nature of Jesus’s station. Great debates were had until it was decided that Jesus was the Son of God, and part of a trinity that included God, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Part of this understanding meant that Jesus was infallible and always infallible. Afterwards, people who didn’t subscribe to this precise description of Jesus’s station could be murdered for heresy. For many centuries, this station of “infallibility” was extended to the Popes who headed the Catholic Church. This status extended pretty much all the way from the 4th through 20th centuries CE, (note that Jesus was alive in the 1st century CE) though a very large percentage of Christians stopped believing in papal infallibility starting with the advent of the Reformation in the 16th century CE. Today, even a significant portion of Catholics no longer believe in papal infallibility.
The Baha’is have not committed violence in an effort to enforce beliefs. It is difficult to say whether they would if they were to attain a significant amount of power in society. But the Baha’is have often committed acts of shunning and excommunication. Both Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha had rival claimants to the stations they held within the Baha’i Faith and with religion in general. This rivalry often caused severe divisions, in the same way that Sunni and Shi’a divided within Islam not long after the Prophet Muhammad’s death. However—perhaps because of their knowledge of such a division in Islam, the religion out of which they evolved–the Baha’is quickly chose one successor over another, and were effective at keeping rival claimants from gaining a significant following. It must be said that the bitterness over the rival claimants—one which causes most of Baha’u’llah’s immediate family to be excommunicated from the Baha’i Faith—is evident in the writings of Abdu’l-Baha’s successor Shoghi Effendi.
The Baha’is have declared a special role for the chief prophets throughout history, referring to them as Manifestations of God. As has been true of other Abrahamic religions, Baha’is believe that people who have held these stations are considered infallible from the moment they achieve such stations.
But is this so?
Baha’u’llah said two things that were very relevant and perhaps revolutionary in and of themselves—two things that might, in fact, give people good reason to question his and the Báb’s reported infallibility. Baha’u’llah counseled people not to pay attention to miracles performed by others or regard such magic as proof of the divinity of the person. He understood that there are many magicians and illusionists out there and many people who can tap into spiritual phenomena that might look remarkable to human eyes, but which might come from a source that is far from Divine. This counsel is certainly wise.
Baha’u’llah also said that the major measure of the validity of a prophet’s claims should be the nature of the claim itself. He said that the transformational power of what a person communicates should be in and of itself proof of the divine nature of that communication. This counsel is also certainly wise.
As such, precious gems of wisdom from Jesus such as “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” survive through millenia and through many translations based on the power of the words themselves. This admonishment that Jesus gave to a mob wishing to stone a woman to death for her alleged sins is enormously powerful. Sadly, many people who have called themselves Christians have failed to understand this simple principle.
I am certain that the Kitab-i-Iqan written by Baha’u’llah is a spiritual classic that will be referenced through the centuries. But does it then follow that everything he has written is similarly divinely inspired?
Baha’u’llah wrote the Kitab-i-Aqdas in 1873, but its English translation was not revealed to western Baha’is until 1992–a delay of 119 years! The Kitab-i-Iqan, written in 1861, was translated to English in 1904. Why was there an 88 year difference between the revelation of the Kitab-i-Iqan and the Kitab-i-Aqdas to the English speaking world when the books were written just twelve years apart? The Baha’i Faith had a strong community in the United States early in the 20th century. In 1912, Abdu’l-Baha traveled to Wilmette, Illinois in the U.S. to lay the cornerstone of what is currently the oldest Baha’i House of Worship in the world. Why the long wait for “The Most Holy Book?” as the Kitab-i-Aqdas is referred to?
I should note that as I was learning about the Baha’i Faith and trying to decide whether to join it, I was curious about the Kitab-i-Aqdas. As I looked for the book, a senior member of the local Baha’i community tried to steer me away from it. He put in my hands a copy of another book by Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, and urged me to read it instead.
When I finally did read the Kitab-i-Aqdas, I noticed that there were pages and pages of footnotes. About half the book was footnoted with explanations of what he was “really” saying—much moreso than the Kitab-i-Iqan. One of the most potentially controversial statements in the Kitab-i-Aqdas was that no man should have more than two wives at a time. Western Baha’is were taught that no polygamy was permitted at all. How to reconcile the two statements? The footnote added to that statement a quote from ‘Abdu’l-Baha claiming that this was a riddle from Baha’u’llah because he added the caveat that two wives permitted as long as they were treated equally justly, with the catch being that no man could ever treat two wives equally and justly.
Baha’u’llah had, in fact, three simultaneous wives, though these marriages preceded his writings on marriage in the Kitab-i-Aqdas. However, Baha’u’llah remained married to all three wives well after the publication of the Kitab-i-Aqdas. A rational argument, could, of course be made that it would have been unjust for Baha’u’llah to divorce one of his wives as a result of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, given the difficult emotional and financial situation she and her children would have been left with. Baha’is will say that this was part of a gradual transition from the Islamic Dispensation (which they began when Muslims believe it began, with the Hegira) and ended when the Báb made his declaration.
Another quote attributed to Baha’u’llah says, “we shrink, for very shame, from treating the subject of boys,” which was meant as outlawing pederasty—the practice of sexual relations between adult men and adolescent boys, which was common in that part of the world at that time. However Shoghi Effendi, who was given the role of the official interpreter of Baha’u’llah’s writings, said that this included all sex between persons of the same gender, regardless of whether they were men or women.
These two instances appear to be awkward transitions between the words of a prophet and the judgments of human beings who have succeeded the prophet in leading the religious organization. Religions will always find a way to cover up the apparent discrepancies within their own faith system.
The Kitab-i-Iqan has 102 pages followed by seven pages of glossaries and notes to add clarity to what he meant. By comparison, the Kitab-i-Aqdas has 88 pages followed by 80 pages of glossaries and notes—not written by Baha’u’llah himself–explaining what he meant. Sure, it’s rational to need explain the context of what he was saying given that he communicating laws that he expected followers to obey. But 80 pages of footnotes for an 88 page book??? And given that there was an 88-year delay between the release of the Kitab-i-Iqan and Kitab-i-Aqdas to the English speaking world—it would seem that something more is afoot.
Indeed, the tone of the Kitab-i-Aqdas is quite different from the tone of his previous books. It was written ten years after Baha’u’llah claimed to have attained the station of the Promised One of All Religions in 1863, though he claims to have been given that status when he was imprisoned in 1852. The other well know books he’d written included The Hidden Words in 1857, The Seven Valleys in 1860 and the Kitab-i-Iqan in 1861.
In the Kitab-i-Aqdas, his writing style is very different from his previous books. In my opinion, he appears to be straining to illustrate that these revelations are from “The Most Holy Book.” He refers to it as the unsealing the bottle of “the most choice wine” (even though Baha’is aren’t permitted to drink), and tries to remind us all throughout the book that this revelation is a momentous time in Earth’s history.
Could it be that the Kitab-i-Aqdas, isn’t as divinely inspired as his other writings, even though it is labeled “The Most Holy Book?”
People who believe in the infallibility of prophets would cringe at the thought, and Baha’is especially so. To Baha’is, he is the Manifestation of God, and furthermore, we are in the Baha’i Manifestation in which no other legitimate prophet will illuminate humankind until at least the year 2844.
Is it fair for me to say that one of Baha’u’llah’s books written after his declaration might not have been divinely inspired? Who am I to say such things? Who am I to judge Baha’u’llah?
But am I judging Baha’u’llah? Is it such a horrible thing to say that he was not infallible? Think of all the things that have been done in the name of religious infallibility through the centuries, and ask yourself whether being judged to be capable of error, to be human, might, in fact, be the highest compliment possible.
Truly, must all prophets be infallible in order to be prophets?
Moses was certainly a fallible human being. He killed an Egyptian man who was beating a Jew and fled Egypt to another country in order to escape punishment. Yet he nevertheless encountered the burning bush and was inspired by God to return to Egypt to free the Israelites. Granted, there is no consensus among historians on the actual existence of Moses, but even if not true, the story of Moses reveals profound wisdom that even a sinner can become a saint.
Can’t we appreciate the laws of Moses (even if he didn’t really exist), and the teachings of Jesus Christ, Muhammad, the Báb and Baha’u’llah, without claiming them to be infallible? Might not the claim of infallibility be a vestigial construct whose original intention was to get the masses to obey, but whose existence today creates more harm than good?
We cannot afford, in this day and age, to look to the first century CE) Israel as the sole source of guidance for dealing with the economic, sociologicial, and ecological crises of the 21st century. We have to see with our own eyes and deal with our own ears the problems of today. Yes, there is much to learn from the prophets of Abrahamic religions, and great wisdom that has endured through the ages, but we must never permit blind obedience to laws that arguably weren’t meant to be followed in a legalistic manner consistent with statutory law. The Universe is ever change and ever-evolving.
So criticize me if you must for saying that that to err is to be a prophet as well as to be human. Accepting that this might be the case might, in fact, be the best way to promote harmmony as the Industrial Epoch faces its final days.