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Strive ye with all your might, O people, that ye may bring forth that which shall truly profit you in the worlds of your Lord, the All-Glorious, the All-Praised.
Baha'u'llah, Writings on Huququ'llah
(translation of Arabic calligraphy)
To learn about the Bahà'i faith and its place in today's world, we interviewed Dr. Robert Stockman, a member of the faith who teaches world religion at DePaul University.
Julia: In understand that the Bahà'i faith is relatively young. Can we begin with background information about the founders and the faith?
Robert: It began about 150 years ago with two founders, the Bab and Baha'u'llah. Bahà'i is an independent world religion, and is now the second largest religion in the world, with five million members in 232 countries.
Bahai is a Middle Eastern faith that came out of Islam. It incorporates elements of Sufism, Christianity, and Islam. Just as a physician or great healer would use the tools and medicines of his time, so the Baha'u'llah incorporated the great scripts or texts of his time into his teachings.
The history of Bahà'i faith began with the Bab, or Ali-Muhammed, and Bah'u'llah (Mirza Husayn-'Ali). Bab means "the Gate," and Bah'u'llah means "Glory of God." Bah'u'llah and the Bab were believed to be manifestations of God.
The Bab was born in 1814. Baha'u'llah was born in 1817 and became the Bab's follower. Both were born in Persia, or modern-day Iran, as Shi'ite Muslims.
The Bab originated the teachings. He believed that he was the Promised One, the Mahdi expected by the Muslims. The Bab was persecuted for spreading this teaching. He announced his mission in 1844, and Baha'u'llah became his follower at this time.
Baha'u'llah was the son of a highly placed politician and was able to protect many of those who were persecuted. Eventually, his power to influence the government officials waned, and he, too, was persecuted. The government killed thousands of followers, and The Bab was executed in 1850.
Baha'u'llah left Persia after the Bab's death, and spent two years in the mountains, seeking solitude. During this time, he came in contact with the Sufis and produced very beautiful writings. He returned to Baghdad and was persecuted by the government. He was thrown into a prison known as the "Black Pit" in 1853, and he received the revelation that would begin his mission. In the vision, he saw the Maiden of Heaven, who spoke with him.
In 1861, he wrote the Book of Certitude, a view of Progressive Manifestation. He publicly declared himself as a Messenger of God or Divine Teacher in 1863. Baha'u'llah spent the remainder of his life in exile and prison. His faith spread quickly after his death to India, Sudan, Egypt, and throughout the Middle East.
He and the Bab produced voluminous works. Much of the Bab's work was destroyed, however, and thus was lost. Baha'u'llah wrote over 15,000 documents. His writings encompass legal documents, poetry, commentary on the Koran, prayers, and other religious works.
Julia: Can you tell me a little about the faith and its principles?
Robert: There is a belief in Progressive Manifestations, or beings who come to the Earth as manifestations at certain intervals to share their enlightenment or understanding of God. The Bahà'i also believe that the teachings of God are all-encompassing of all faiths.
Baha'u'llah said that there are contradictions between the great religions, but all of the religions are equally valid.
What is the difference in the revelations given by different prophets? Surely, the absolute truth is One, and it cannot change. As one draws closer to God, the contradictions lose their meaning. All of the different mystical stages are valid. The same truth is in everything. There is Unity in the Oneness of God.
Julia: The Bahà'i faith seems different from many others in this belief about Progressive Manifestations of God in human form; that these Manifestations of God are different from other human beings, and that they are unique in that their messages are for people on Earth at a certain time. Can you tell me more about that?
Robert: Baha'u'llah wrote the Book of Certitude, which presents his view of Progressive Manifestation. The idea of Progressive Manifestation is that a special class of human beings exists. They come periodically as God's manifestation on earth to found major religions and to prophesy. They lead exemplary moral lives.
This group of individuals has a different type of soul from the rest of us. Their souls have existed since eternity, and they are a distinctive part of God.
The Bahai list fourteen individuals as Manifestations. They are: Adam, Noah, Salih, Hub, one whose name is unknown, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Krisha, Buddha, Zoroaster, the Bab, and Ba'hu'llah. There are numerous other Manifestations whose names have been lost through time.
The Ba'hu'llah also prophesized another Manifestation who would appear in approximately one thousand years.
Julia: What is the difference between the Manifestations, other holy persons, and the ordinary individual?
Robert: The Manifestations have existed since the Beginning. These are a special class of Beings. They are part of God. For the other people, like ourselves, the soul came into existence when we came into being. Baha'u'llah said, "God conferred upon the essence of the Spirit, Who was known among the people as ...the glory of Prophethood and made Him His testimony unto all that are in heaven and on earth."
The Bahà'i faith does believe that there are prophetic figures, as well such as Jeremiah, for instance but these are lower levels of prophets. There also is the belief that all individuals can receive divine inspiration, but that this inspiration is on a lower level than that received by the prophets or the Manifestations.
Julia: Can you tell how the Manifestations are uniquely suited for the Earth at the time at which they appear?
Robert: The Manifestations of God are in harmony with the time in which they appear. The Manifestations cannot possibly transmit or share all of the knowledge or wisdom that they have, so the information that is written or shared is that which can be perceived by the population of the time.
We also have to consider the anthropological point of view of the early culture. Vocabularies were smaller their uses were less complicated and subtle. As a language develops, subtleties and more words come into play. There are only about ten thousand words that are used in the Old Testament. So when we look at the external written or recorded teachings, we have to consider that as language develops, the Manifestation has a subtler tool.
Baha'u'llah said that just as milk is given to a babe and food is given to an older child, words are given according to capacity. He believed that the religion of God is a growing and changing thing with life, not lifeless or unchanging.
One example of changing spiritual truth would be the ten laws that Moses gave that involved capital punishment. This code was not needed at the time of Christ. Another example is changing values around marriage. The laws that governed marriage have changed through time, and the laws that were appropriate in one time are not necessarily correct for ours.
Bah'u'llah also believed that our earlier, imperfect ideas will be replaced as our state of Grace in God grows.
Julia: What is the major text for the Bahà'i faith?
Robert: The many writings of Baha'u'llah are interpreted both through the writings of his son and the National Spiritual Assembly. Baha'u'llah indicated that his son, Abdu'l-Baha', was to direct the Cause after his death. He referred to him as the "Branch from the Ancient Root." He promulgated the faith in the East and West, and he was the exponent of the words of Baha'u'llah. He interpreted the meaning of many of the writings and expounded upon them. The National Spiritual Assembly oversees vital issues such as the translation of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, the Teaching Work, and the other writings.
Julia: The Bahà'i writings say that women are invaluable to society and human interaction, bringing qualities associated with the feminine side of our nature such as compassion, nurturing, cooperation, and empathy and that these qualities are necessary in creating a peaceful world civilization. Can you enlarge on this?
Robert: The Bahà'i faith extols women. The advancement of women benefits all of society. Women compose about 30 percent of the elected leadership in the Bahà'i faith. One of early followers of the Bahà'i Faith was Tahirh, a Persian poet and scholar. She died in 1852 because of work for the emancipation of women and her right to lay aside the veil. So the role of emancipation of women has existed since the beginning of the Faith.
Woman, after all, educate the child in the family structure. The mother is more important because she holds the family structure. If the mother is educated, she will influence the children. It is said that if a family has both a boy and girl and only enough income to educate one child, it is more important to educate the girl.
Studies in Africa have shown that when the woman is educated, the entire family benefits. The children receive a higher level of education and success in life. The mother can make an income that benefits the family financially. The mother is more likely to use birth control, and this limits the size of the family.
Women are believed to excel in all fields of endeavor and in many things, they are better and excel more than men. Women do participate in the social and administrative areas of the Bahà'i faith. It is believed that until women take their rightful place in society the world will remain imbalanced and imperfect.
Julia: So there is a great emphasis on education in the Bahà'i faith. Can you tell me what the Bahà'i see as the best methods of education?
Robert: There are two kinds of education, secular and spiritual. In the secular realm, we value abilities of learning to read and write. Reading is necessary for access of the revelations of the prophets, and certainly it is necessary to progress in the world.
On the spiritual level, we teach our children prayers. We raise our children to develop virtue, then to read and write. We believe that the development of virtue is more important than reading and writing. The Words of Wisdom say that the source of all learning is the knowledge of God. You can be intelligent and function well in the world without the realization of the spiritual, and we value spirituality above intellectualization.
There is also emphasis on developing one's special talents. Abdu'l-Bahai said that every mind and type of comprehension is different. But education can have the power to polish the human gem, to produce and develop virtue and capacities in the human reality.
Julia: I understand the Bahà'i believe that spiritual progress involves discovering the "image of God within," with the idea of developing the character and divine qualities as we draw closer to God. Can you tell us more about these principles?
Robert: By discovering the image of God within, we are able easily to live out the qualities of the God nature. The attributes include non-judgment, kindness, fairness, tenderness, fellowship, empathy, and honesty.
In the Book of Certitude, it is said that knowledge brings forth the fruit of patience, true understanding, and love. Obscure or vain thoughts bring about arrogance and conceit.
Julia: What about the idea that there are two powerful effects on health the patient's mental or emotional state, and the Holy Spirit's ability to heal through the person who is offering prayers? That spirituality can be transmitted to overcome physical weakness?
Robert: There are many dimensions to healing. One must be mentally confident that he or she is involved in a healing. This is a state of mind-over-matter that physicians today know about. If patients have confidence that they will be healed or believe that they will be healed, the odds of their receiving a cure are higher.
There is also the dimension of prayer, the faith of the person praying, their ability to call in the Holy Spirit.
And there is the physical level. Healing can be received on the physical level, too. There are laws that rule physicality, and these, too, are important.
Every individual has divine qualities, but these attributes must be actuated and developed. The heart has been cleansed, and one must move away from earthly teachings. We must use our free will to choose the struggle of polishing the Divine and removing the dross.
Julia: There is a spiritual view of work for the Bahà'i that involves a period of growth to focus one's capacities in order to profit all of mankind. Would you explain the Bahà'i view of the proper development of human beings through this kind of work?
Robert: Whatever you are doing can make a contribution to mankind. If you are making paper, which is pretty simple, you can make it with love, devotion, and sincerity. This attitude makes it worthwhile for humanity.
Julia: That sounds rather Zen, don't you think?
Robert: The attitude is Zen-like, but there are rules that accompany the Bahà'i idea of work. You can't own a liquor store or sell alcohol. That would be something you couldn't do as profitable work. So there are rules and principles that govern work. It's not as simple as just the attitude.
Julia: Some of the beliefs I read about regarding money were interesting, for example the abolishment of extremes of poverty and wealth. And yet there also are references to collecting wealth. Baha'u'llah said that people must respect the possessors of talent and accept their due reward. Can you address this?
Robert: Obviously there has to be a balance between poverty and wealth to obtain a spiritual balance in the world. It is also thought that as a human being evolves spiritually, he should be able to manifest his physical needs. You need tools to manifest your mission. You may need a laptop computer to write or a car to travel. This is a progression on the path of spirituality. So it is good to accumulate wealth if proper stewardship takes place. This is considered right and correct.
Julia: There seems to be an emphasis on balance and moderation in this belief. What is the attitude toward Good and Evil?
Robert: Sinfulness and forgiveness do exist in the Bahà'i faith. But rather than seeing it as Good and Evil per se, our view is that when a person spiritually progresses to a fork in the road, there will be a testing. One fork will be correct, and the other will not. A Christian might call choosing the wrong fork a sin.
We do believe in moderation and balance in all things. There are rules and moral expectations. If these are flaunted or broken, then the person would be turned out of our society.
The Bahà'i also believe that there is heaven and hell on earth. When we are in harmony with God's will and our fellow man, we experience heaven, because of the spiritual joy we experience. Hell is the absence of this state, the deprivation of this joy.
Julia: I know that Unity through spirituality and peace is one of the Bahà'i principles. What can you tell about how this is enacted in the Bahà'i community and throughout the world?
Robert: Unity is one of the key teachings of the Bahà'i faith. It has many layers. We discern a spectrum of levels on this subject. If you can imagine unity as the fingers of one hand, this is an analogy to the way God manifests in us. In many ways, there is one soul God in many bodies. Unity can range from collaboration to spiritual union.
Religious strife is thought to be the cause of innumerable conflicts, a major obstacle to progress. People are asked to surrender their differences, to focus on unity and work for human understanding and peace. When love of humanity as a whole is established, it will take the place of nationalism.
There is also globalization of unity, both internally in the community and externally in the larger world. There are distinctive communities that reflect our principles and work in the external world. The Bahà'i act for interdependence and global unity through work in the United Nations. We are supportive of globalization.
Internally, there is a democratic religious structure. The time for clergy is considered past. We have a Spiritual Assembly with specific prayers, and we pray for unity throughout the world. There are local Spiritual Assemblies for the community who work for the rights and happiness of the members. There are worldwide Spiritual Assemblies, and finally there is the Universal House of Justice, the legislative authority on the Bahà'i Faith. It legislates in areas not explicitly covered by the Bahà'i scriptures.
There is no campaigning or nominating for governing bodies. Everyone has a right to vote his conscience without interference. Partisanship is believed to be dangerous because it is violation of spiritual unity. We can't join political parties or run for election.
In the Bahà'i community, we have collaborative consultations. The consultations are a process through which a group of people works to discern truth. Those who assist to make the consultation process work are people known to be sensitive, respectful, and mature in speech. During this process, a positive view of the truth is found, and it is expressed in a positive way.
The outcome is voted upon, and a solution is found. If the solution is accepted by the majority and rejected by the minority, the solution will be acted upon. If the accepted solution, for some reason, does not work, then our attitude is not that one side is wrong and the other is right. It is that the solution, or "x," was not appropriate, and we will meet again to find another "x."
This is the way in which collaboration works in the Bahà'i society. Peace must come from recognizing spiritual unity and recognizing that we are all one. Peace is also thought to be a complex task requiring commitment to resolving issues and establishing unity between nations.
Julia: What did the Baha'u'llah prophesy for the future?
Robert: We know the prophecy, but we don't know how it will be enacted. The revelation of Baha'u'llah stated that a new Heaven and Earth will be created in a new dimension, and that the principles will be enacted as leaven to the lump of humanity as the faith is gradually accepted.
It was also written that the American nation would evolve to become a land of spiritual unity and servant of a lasting peace. Government and religion will exist in this future.
Dr. Robert H. Stockman received his doctorate in the history of religion in the United States from Harvard University in 1990. He is an instructor of religious studies at DePaul University, where he teaches world religion. He is also Coordinator of the Institute for Bah'ai Studies in Wilmette and administrator of the Wilmette Institute.
Dr. Stockman has taught primal religions, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Old and New Testaments for the Wilmette Institute. He may be reached by email at RStockman@USBNC.org
or by phone at 847-733-3425.
- Esselman, J. E., Bah'u'llah and the New Era.