Historical Note on the Bahá'í Faith and Islam
To assert that a religion is independent of other faiths is not to argue that it began in a religious vacuum. Buddhism emerged from a traditional Hindu background, and only after it had crossed the Himalayas did it assume its full character as a separate faith destined as a major cultural force in China, Japan, and the lands of Southeast Asia. Similarly, Jesus Christ and his immediate followers began their mission within the context of Judaism, and for some two centuries the movement was regarded by neighbouring peoples as a reformed branch of the parent religion. Christianity did not appear as a distinct religion with its own scriptures, laws, institutions, and rituals until it had begun to attract large numbers of adherents from the many non-Semitic races in the Mediterranean world.
The religious matrix of the Bahá'í Faith was Islam. Much as Christianity was born out of the messianic expectations of Judaism, the religion that was to become the Bahá'í Faith arose from eschatological tensions within Islam. Just like Christianity, however, the Bahá'í Faith is entirely independent of its parent religion.1
At the same time, there are some tenets of Islam that are important to a clear understanding of the Bahá'í Faith. Like Muslims, Bahá'ís believe that God is One and that His essence is transcendent. And there are still other aspects of Islam which influenced the development of the new religion and which dictated Muslim reaction to it.
Like Christianity before it, Islam gradually divided into a number of major sects. One of the most significant of these is the Shiah sect, which believes that Muhammad intended for his descendants to inherit the spiritual and temporal leadership of the faithful. These chosen ones, called Imams, or "leaders," were believed to be endowed with unqualified infallibility in the discharge of their related responsibilities. However, the great majority of Muslims rejected such claims, believing that the sunna--the "way" or mode of conduct attributed by tradition to the Prophet Muhammad--was a sufficient guide. Those who subscribed to this latter belief became known as Sunni. Although Sunni Muslims vastly outnumber the Shiah today and are usually referred to by Western scholars as "orthodox" (as opposed to "heterodox" Shiah Muslims), Shiah Islam has a long and respected tradition, a tradition that only recently has become the object of serious study among a growing group of non-Muslim scholars.2
By 661 A.D., only 29 years after Muhammad's death, power in the Muslim world fell into the hands of the first of a series of dynastic rulers, theoretically elected by the faithful, but in fact representing the dominance of various powerful families. The first two of these Sunni dynasties, the Umayyads and the Abbasids, regarded the Imams as a threat to their own claim to legitimacy. Consequently, according to Shiah accounts, one Imam after another was put to death, beginning with Hasan and Husayn, grandsons of Muhammad. These Imams, or descendants of the Prophet, came in time to be regarded by Shiah Islam as saints and martyrs.
Although Shiah Islam began among Arabs, it reached its greatest influence in Persia.3 From the beginning, Persian converts to Islam were attracted by the idea of the Imam as a divinely appointed leader. Unlike the Arabs, Persians had a long heritage of being governed by a divinely appointed monarch, and their allegiance to this figure in time converged on the Prophet's descendants and appointed successors. After centuries of oppression by Sunni caliphs, the tradition of the Imamate eventually triumphed in Persia through the rise of a strongly Shiah dynasty, the Safavids, in the sixteenth century.
By this time, however, the line of Imams had ended. One of the features of Iranian Shiah tradition is that, in the year 873, the twelfth and last appointed Imam--only a child at the time--withdrew into "concealment" in order to escape the fate of his predecessors. It is believed that he will emerge "at the time of the end" to usher in a reign of justice throughout the world. This eschatological tradition (doctrine of "last things") has much in common with the Christian expectation of the return of Christ and Mahayana Buddhism's promise of the advent of Maitreya Buddha, "the Buddha of universal righteousness." Among other titles Muslims have assigned to this promised deliverer, the "Hidden Imam," are Mahdi (the Guided One) and Qá'im (He Who Will Arise, i.e. from the family of the Prophet).
For a period of 69 years following his disappearance, the twelfth, or Hidden, Imam was said to have communicated with his followers through a series of deputies. These intermediaries took the title "báb" (gate) because they were the only way to the Hidden Imam. There had been four bábs up to the year 941 when the fourth one died without naming a successor.
The refusal of either the Imam or the final báb to name a successor implied that the faithful were to leave the matter entirely in the hands of God. In time, a messenger or messengers of God would appear, one of whom would be the Imam Mahdi, or Qá'im, who would again provide a direct channel for the Divine Will to human affairs. It was out of this tradition that the Bahá'í religion and its forerunner, the Bábí Faith, appeared in the mid-nineteenth century.
- The validity of this view of the Bahá'í Faith's independence has been upheld even by Muslim authorities. As early as 1925, the religious court of Beba, Egypt, issued the following decision: "The Bahá'í Faith is a new religion, entirely independent, with beliefs, principles and laws of its own, which differ from, and are utterly in conflict with, the beliefs, principles and laws of Islam. No Bahá'í, therefore, can be regarded a Muslim or vice-versa, even as no Buddhist, Brahmin, or Christian can be regarded as Muslim or vice-versa." Quoted in Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 3rd ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 365.
- Why this attribution of orthodoxy to the Sunni branch of Islam should have been so fostered by non-Muslim authors is itself unclear.
- Under the Pahlavis (1925-1979), the ancient name Iran replaced the designation Persia. In this discussion, "Persia" is used in describing events of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and "Iran" in reference to more recent ones.
* Adapted from William S. Hatcher and Douglas Martin, The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), pp. 1-5.