© Roger M Tagg 2010
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I've read about Baha'ism because I've been wondering if there is an escape route here for thinking Moslems (men and women) who don't want to give up their basic religious approach to life, but who may be uncomfortable with tendencies in Islam to emphasize the "believe exactly what I say or be resurrected bodily to an eternity of hellfire" elements of the religion, and to try to transfer the culture of 7th century Arabia to a world that has developed enormously in the intervening centuries.
I'm personally not opposed to Islam in the way that many of its adherents practise it. As those who know me well are aware, my wife and I lived in Iran (Tehran) for two years and we have visited several other Islamic countries. We have found most people there friendly and considerate, and good advertisements for their religion. We only met one mullah who regarded our presence with suspicion, and that seemed to be because a schoolteacher we had met in Kerman was entertaining us for a cup of tea and it happened to be Christmas Eve.
Western history is respectful of the many benefits that Islamic scholars in the past brought to Western civilization; not least the preservation of the works of Aristotle, the mediaeval science of men like Avicenna (Ibn-e-Sina) and the astronomers whose observations led to the heliocentric model of our solar system as expounded by Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Kepler, Giordano Bruno and Galileo.
However somehow or other, the Islamic world did not keep up the pace of this golden age, and seems to have retreated into literalism and totalitarianism, with the result that technical and social developments, which enable much progress both material and spiritual, have bypassed many Islamic countries.
As an old Iran hand, I remember thinking at the time (1973-5) that it was a pity that Baha'ism was so ruthlessly suppressed in Iran in the late 19th century. It seemed to provide a natural route for Islam to bring itself up to date. We had Baha'is working in the government department where I worked; I don't expect they still have government jobs today. In fact any recent contacts I've had with Baha'is have all been in the West, some of them refugees from Iran's theocratic intolerance.
|Page||Quote or Extract|
|2||The basic aim in life is to be happy and content, but not to chase this world's material goals|
|3||"The world is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality." It's "a passing wave on the surface of the ocean", "a fleeting shadow". "If once this life should offer a sweet cup, a hundred bitter ones will follow."|
|4||"The true seeker ... must before all else cleanse and purify his heart from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge; ... must renounce the peoples of this earth" (RT: I'm not sure I go along with this!)|
|6||"He (the true seeker) will perceive within every atom a door that leads him to the stations of absolute certitude."|
|9||We should give up "vain imaginings"|
|10||We need "love for the spiritual world"|
|11-12||We have a constant struggle to ensure our higher side overcomes our animal side (because we humans, uniquely, can acquire all the God-like attributes)|
|13||Love - is OK, but it needs to be for all of humanity (RT: what about animals, the environment?)|
|15||Purity and chastity are good - but not asceticism|
|21||Misfortunes and difficulties shouldn't affect us - we have perpetual joy|
|22||Freedom - means "from the prison of self"|
|25||Fruit, nuts and grain will eventually replace the need to eat meat (RT: might be right!)|
|32||The Baha'i view of education seems pretty authoritarian|
|41||Baha'is are strongly pro the equality of women|
|43||All the same, women are excluded from the Universal House of Justice (UHJ) - Baha'ism's supreme council|
|45||Baha'is respect science, but in balance, and we should consider the environment|
|47||Both communism and free market capitalism have over-emphasized the individual|
|50||Baha'ism prefers constitutional monarchy as a type of national constitution|
|52||An individual does not have the right to exact vengeance|
|55||Economic problems are due to spiritual malaise - but Baha'is don't advocate any specific economic theory|
|56||The world needs justice in global economics (RT: compare Singer's "One World")|
|58a||Companies should share profits with employees|
|58b||Voluntary sharing is a major principle|
|63||We should show a balance in our concern, e.g. we should think less for a single driver killed while driving, and more for thousands dying of famine in Africa|
|70||Bahai's favour a UN-type world organization, but there should be a world-wide authority that covers more things|
|73||Worldwide development projects should also consider spiritual objectives|
|75||A voluntary wealth tax is enjoined on Baha'is - 19% (RT: not sure of what, and how often); this goes to the Baha'i World Centre|
|76||Baha'ism has no clergy or professional learned class; just the structure of organizations in various cities and countries|
|83||The Baha'i year has 19 months of 19 days (+ 4 or 5 extra days per year). New Year is Now Ruz as in Persian; there are a number of other Farsi-style names, including most months and festivals|
|85||A Baha'i House of Worship is open to all, not just Baha'is. But there are not that many such houses; people mostly meet in each others' houses|
|88||There is very little dogma or creed. On should interpret the scriptures according to one's own understanding. There is a "Covenant", but it is a rule that no-one can claim that theirs is the only correct interpretation, or that it is authoritative. Baha'is are required to abide by decisions of the UHJ, but they can appeal|
|96||Daily observance: prayers should include one of 3 standard prayer plus one other; then one should read a scripture passage|
|99||Baha'ism encourages meditation|
|101||There is an annual fast (Ramadan-style) for one 19-day month|
|102||Baha'ism specifies monogamy, and "recognizes the value of the sex impulse". However marriage is not obligatory. Dowries are limited to a small sum only|
|104a||Baha'ism enjoins kindness to animals|
|104b||The following are expressly abolished: priesthood, holy war, asceticism, monasticism, confession, book burning, pulpits and regarding things or people as "impure"|
|106||Differences in view of the Absolute Reality (~God) are more a matter of viewpoints conditioned by different cultural or personal backgrounds. Baha'ism can take in Eastern religions as well as Western "God the superhuman" monotheism|
|108||Baha'is think that these particular viewpoints are pretty limited and inadequate anyhow|
|111||Prophets (including the Bāb, Baha'ullah and his successors) are referred to as "divine educators"|
|112||Consorting with followers of other religions is encouraged, and people who cause dissentions are "a nuisance"|
|116||Unity of all the prophets is absolute (RT: despite all their contradictions?)|
|117||Differences are due to different cultures|
|118||Baha'ullah was a unifying prophet who was foretold by many religions|
|119a||There may still be a further prophet to come, but Baha'ullah thought probably not for 1000 years (RT: maybe more than one, and maybe sooner?)|
|119b||Becoming a Baha'i doesn't mean you have to reject your former religion|
|125||The universe is governed by physical laws (RT: or processes?), but also by moral and spiritual laws (RT: but do these have as much strength?)|
|127||The purpose of suffering? It's to test you, toughen you up and take you towards maturity - so we should welcome it|
|129||The soul continues eternally, but that doesn't mean resurrection of the body|
|135||The Bāb (the precursor to Baha'ullah) started in Shiraz in 1844|
|139||Baha'ullah was the son of a nobleman in Tehran, and he was a supporter of the Bab|
|162||Capitalism and religious fundamentalism are both likely to fail in time, just as did nationalism, racism and communism|
|163||Although religious and spiritual, Baha'ism doesn't want to be fundamentalist|
|164||Baha'ism want to embrace politics, economics, the environment, social issues, administration, community development, ethical issues and spirituality|
There is a lot here that I would not find it difficult to go along with. The comments about global governance (see page 70 in the list above) accord quite well with the views of people like Peter Singer (the Australian philosopher and ethicist, now a professor at Princeton).
I have some problems with a couple of the statements from pages 3 and 4. "The world is but a show, vain and empty, a mere nothing, bearing the semblance of reality." Well, we may not be able to see or agree on what reality actually is, but I think this might give some readers an undesirable (maybe unintended) impression. We surely shouldn't give the impression that "it doesn't matter what happens in this world".
"If once this life should offer a sweet cup, a hundred bitter ones will follow." - Maybe this too is OK as a warning not to expect an unending sequence of nice things to happen to one. But it might be misconstrued to suggest blind fatalism and abandonment of personal responsibility.
As for "The true seeker ... must before all else cleanse and purify his heart from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge", I think this is an unnecessary slur on acquired knowledge. It sounds as if we are being asked to prefer a position of ignorance, which doesn't sound right. Surely some acquired knowledge is useful to understand and interpret both scriptures (p 88) and other works. And as the quote from p 164 says, Baha'ism wants to embrace all the main issues of this world.
"... must renounce the peoples of this earth". This appears to contradict pages 13, 63, 70, 112 and (again) 164. Maybe it just means that we shouldn't pander to the criteria by which other people in this world judge us (Kirkegaard would agree with that).
For thoughtful Moslems, especially women, isn't there an opportunity here? Isn't Baha'ism a natural development to traditional Islam, one which could open the path to co-existence not just with Christians and Jews, but also those who have been brought up in Eastern religions?
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This version updated on 19th January 2011
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