Read: Religious Pluralism and the Bahai Faith


The Bahá'í Faith, an independent world religion founded in mid-nineteenth century Middle East by Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, known as Bahá'u'lláh,[1] draws on a rich textual tradition of philosophical theology. Within Bahá'í studies, there has been recent discussion of its relationship to other religions, and most writers have drawn on the Book of Certitude,[2] Bahá'u'lláh's most important doctrinal work, and the interpretations of its contents by the religion's two subsequent leaders (`Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi), whose interpretations are viewed as authoritative by Bahá'ís. A number of prominent theologians have viewed the Bahá'í position as embracing pluralism (Hick 1999, Coward 2000), while others have seen it in terms of an exclusivist orientation and background.[3]

Exclusivist and Inclusivist Currents

Assuming that religious pluralism is understood to mean that the great world religions constitute varying conceptions of, and responses to, the one ultimate, mysterious divine reality, this essay will discuss pluralism from a Bahá'í viewpoint by comparing it with its two main conceptual rivals, exclusivism and inclusivism.

Although there are instances in Bahá'í scripture capable of exclusivist development, exclusivism — the view that one particular tradition alone teaches the truth and constitutes the way to salvation or liberation — is not supported by a reading of the Bahá'í writings in context. A fundamental tenet of Bahá'í belief is the common foundation of all the world's revealed religions. Bahá'u'lláh states:

"There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God."[4]

With this perspective, the superiority of one religious tradition over another is denied. Shoghi Effendi summarises the Bahá'í position: "One cannot call one World Faith superior to another, as they all come from God."[5]

Inclusivist theologies and religious philosophies state that one particular tradition presents the final truth while other traditions, instead of being regarded as wrong, are seen to reflect aspects of, or to constitute approaches to, that final truth. The Bahá'í writings do not appear to describe an inclusivist outlook and criticise such a reading of previous scriptures. Bahá'u'lláh writes in the Book of Certitude that the "people of the Qur'an...have allowed the words `Seal of the Prophets' to veil their eyes…to obscure their understanding, and deprive them of the grace of all His manifold bounties." The view that, "all Revelation is ended, that the portals of Divine mercy are closed" is described as an "idle contention" and represents "a sore test unto all mankind."[6] This critique of finality is extended to the Bahá'í position, and Shoghi Effendi states that Bahá'ís "claim no finality for the Revelation with which they stand identified."[7] Inclusivist trends, however, do exist in the Bahá'í writings in that the revelation asserted by Bahá'u'lláh marks for his believers "the last and highest stage in the stupendous evolution of man's collective life on this planet" (WOB: 163). Humanity's individual life will "continue indefinitely to progress and develop," but the Bahá'í social programme represents "the furthermost limits in the organization of human society" (WOB: 163). This should be attributed not to "any inherent superiority" (WOB: 166) or "superior merit" (WOB: 60) of the Bahá'í Faith, but rather to the fact that the present age is one which is "infinitely more advanced, more receptive, and more insistent to receive an ampler measure of Divine Guidance than has hitherto been vouchsafed to mankind" (WOB: 60). Therefore, a perspective consistent with Bahá'í texts and interpretations is that it is the present age, not the religion of the age, which is superior.

Pluralist perspectives

Explicit pluralism accepts the more radical position implied by inclusivism: the view that the great world faiths embody different perceptions and conceptions of, and correspondingly different responses to, the Real or the Ultimate, and that within each salvation occurs. Not all Bahá'í texts seem to support such a position. It is sometimes implied that the diversity of religions will come to an end when, in the future, all believers will become Bahá'ís. In a letter to Queen Victoria, Bahá'u'lláh states:

"That which the Lord has ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith."[8]

Bahá'u'lláh is reported to have said to Professor E. G. Browne, the renowned Cambridge orientalist, that there would come a time when "all nations should become one in faith" and when "diversity of religion should cease."[9] `Abdu'l-Bahá wrote in 1906:

"The fourth candle [of unity] is unity in religions (Persian, vahdat-i-din) which is the corner-stone of the foundation itself, and which, by the power of God, will be revealed in all its splendour. (WOB: 39)"

Another passage from `Abdu'l-Bahá's writings forecasts a time when "All men will adhere to one religion, will have one common faith" (WOB: 205).

Taken at face value, these statements must be tempered with the condition that any predictions of the future religious development of the world will be largely inaccurate. The anticipated Bahá'í "world order" will not reflect any present-day conceptions of Bahá'ís according to Shoghi Effendi:

"All we can reasonably venture to attempt is to strive to obtain a glimpse of the first streaks of the promised Dawn that must, in the fullness of time, chase away the gloom that has encircled humanity." (WOB: 35)

However, these statements about "one religion" can be better understood as symbolic ones, and simply denoting the religion of God. Shoghi Effendi explains that the different religions are like "stages in the eternal history and constant evolution of one religion, Divine and indivisible, of which it itself forms but an integral part" (WOB: 114). The founders of the past religions have shed, according to Bahá'í belief, "with ever-increasing intensity, the splendour of one common Revelation" (WOB: 166), and "allegiance to one common Revelation…is the goal towards which humanity, impelled by the unifying forces of life, is moving" (WOB: 204). From a Bahá'í perspective, it is as humanity awakens to the realization that there is ultimately only one religion, "the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future,"[10] that religious conflict and strife will be removed. This is analogous to Bahá'í explanations of the Qur'anic verses 3: 19 and 3: 85, which state, "The religion with God is Islam" and "Whoso desires a religion other religion than Islam, it shall not be accepted of him." In these passages, "Islam" is interpreted as denoting faith in God and submission to his will, rather than the Islamic faith as practised historically by Muslims, a reading consistent with some scholars of Islamic theology.[11] It has been argued that other exclusivist currents in the Bahá'í writings are misreading their original intention as primarily devotional and confessional texts.[12]

The allied Bahá'í principle of freedom of religion lends weight to the view that the Bahá'í Faith will not become imperialist. Consequently, to Bahá'ís, non-Bahá'ís are not considered in any way impure. They do not need to pay a poll tax, nor are there are any rules limiting their freedom of work, education, habitation, or marriage with Bahá'ís. Freedom of religion renders the concept of apostasy meaningless to Bahá'ís. Therefore children born into Bahá'í families are free to remain Bahá'í or to leave the religion of their parents when these children reach the age of fifteen. In conjunction with this freedom, they have the obligation to investigate the truth independently, and they are discouraged from imitating others in matters of religion.

What unifies these religious traditions? The Bahá'í view is that they are centred on the spiritual transformation of human beings. One of Bahá'u'lláh's most important statements in this regard asserts:

"Is not the object of every Revelation to effect a transformation in the whole character of mankind, a transformation that shall manifest itself both outwardly and inwardly, that shall affect both its inner life and external conditions?"[13]

It is a soteriocentric view of these religions, rather than a theocentric one, that is consistent with the world's religious diversity. The focus of this transformation is the adoption of spiritual and ethical values common to religious traditions, such as moderation, trustworthiness, justice, and compassion. Bahá'u'lláh summarises these in his Hidden Words, a collection of ethical aphorisms "uttered by the tongue of power and might, and revealed unto the Prophets of old."[14] `Abdu'l-Bahá has explained that the essential teachings of religion "are faith in God, the acquirement of the virtues which characterize perfect manhood, praiseworthy moralities, the acquisition of the bestowals and bounties emanating from the divine effulgences — in brief, the ordinances which concern the realm of morals and ethics."[15] There are other features of these religions that unite them, such as similarities in the lives of their founders,[16] an apophatic theology[17] and their civilising power.

A Bahá'í theory of religious pluralism

How is religious pluralism articulated philosophically? This started to be discussed in Bahá'í studies in the 1990s. What is needed is a theory that fully acknowledges the vast range and complexity of the differences apparent in the phenomenology of religion while at the same time one that understands the major streams of religious experience and thought as embodying different awarenesses of one ultimate reality. Such a theory will be based on the fundamental principle of the Bahá'í Faith that religious truth is relative.

The principle of the relativity of religious truth leads to a belief that any absolute knowledge of ultimate reality is impossible, so that human being has no access to absolute truth. Bahá'u'lláh states of God:

Exalted, immeasurably exalted, art thou above the strivings of mortal man to unravel Thy mystery, to describe Thy glory, or even hint at the nature of Thine Essence. (Gleanings, p. 4)

Consequently all descriptions, all schemata, all attempts to define the nature of God, are limited by the viewpoint of the particular person making them. All such attempts "are but a reflection of that which hath been created within themselves" (Ibid. p. 204). This has led to the theory of "cognitive relativism," as an approach to deal with conflicting truth claims between the religions.[18]

The Bahá'í writings discuss two important concepts based on relativism that provide some explanation of religious diversity. The perspective of one is from that of the social evolution of humankind and the development of society. This is the view that some of the differences between religions can be ascribed to the varying requirements of the times into which they were born. Bahá'u'lláh states:

"The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed." (Gleanings, p. 217)

The social part of religion that administers to the material needs of society "is modified and altered in each prophetic cycle in accordance with the necessities of time."[19] `Abdu'l-Bahá, for example, uses this explanation to account for the differences in the laws of capital punishment and divorce between Judaism and Christianity. Shoghi Effendi explains that the central themes of Christianity and the Bahá'í Faith have differed because of the conditions of society: "The fundamental distinction between the Mission of Jesus Christ" and that of Bahá'u'lláh is that the former "concerns primarily the individual," whereas the latter is "directed more particularly to mankind as a whole."[20]

Other differences between the religions can be explained by the increasing spiritual maturity and receptivity of humanity. Bahá'u'lláh declares that the religions differ "only in the intensity of their revelation and the comparative potency of their light" (WOB: 58). Bahá'u'lláh uses the analogy of feeding children to explain this principle:

"Words are revealed according to the capacity so that the beginners may make progress. The milk must be given according to measure so that the babe of the world may enter into the Realm of Grandeur and be established in the Court of Unity."[21]

Another consequence of cognitive relativism is the resolution of the seemingly contradictory ontological statements of monism and dualism in the different world religions. `Abdu'l-Bahá states in his commentary of the Islamic tradition; "I was a Hidden Treasure and wished to be known, and so I created the world," that no matter how hard an individual strives in his efforts to gain knowledge of the Absolute, the only success is to achieve a better knowledge of his own self. `Abdu'l-Bahá likens this state of affairs to a compass: no matter how far the compass travels, it is only going around the point at its centre and, similarly, however much men may strive and achieve within the realms of spiritual knowledge, ultimately they are only attaining a better and greater knowledge of themselves, not of any exterior Absolute.[22]

One stream of Bahá'í theology has recognized the importance of the literary structures of religious writings to account for their seeming differences. An important effort in this regard has been to make sense of Bahá'u'lláh's use of biblical themes.[23] It has been argued that references to Jesus and the Gospel in Bahá'u'lláh's writings helped relativize the Islamic legacy. This view proposes that by taking the New Testament seriously, Bahá'u'lláh helped put Islam in perspective, as one religious civilization among many. By quoting the New Testament in texts such as the Book of Certitude, Bahá'u'lláh evoked the rich texture of Jesus' life as revealed in the Gospels. The French linguist Saussure suggested the metaphor of the chessboard for some kinds of linguistic change, arguing that when one piece changes position, it completely reconfigures the board, affecting all the other pieces. The suggestion is that the insertion of the New Testament into Arabic and Persian religious discourse by Bahá'u'lláh functions in a similar manner, causing other texts, including the Qur'an, suddenly to look very different.(Ibid.)

According to another recent piece, the literary character of Bahá'u'lláh's writings, his use of presentation and narrative, of point of view, of techniques such as apostrophe, and a rich Persian heritage of allegory and metaphor, enabled his pluralist religious doctrines to become plausible to readers.[24] For example, in the Tablet of Blood, one of Bahá'u'lláh's earliest declarations of his status as a world-messiah, the sacrifice of Abraham, the travels of Joseph, the assassination of `Ali, and the martyrdom of Husayn, were enacted together. Bahá'u'lláh appealed to emotions aroused by traditional Shiite passion plays by setting a scene in which the dying Husayn lifts up his plaint to the heavens, identifying himself with Abraham, Joseph, Moses, John the Baptist, Jesus, Husayn, the Bab, and Bahá'u'lláh. The use of the first person throughout, such that Husayn speaks as Moses and as John the Baptist and as Bahá'u'lláh, underlined the unity of these prophetic or holy figures. The recounting of their stories so as to emphasize the similar plot structure in each further reinforces the message of unity, as does the repeated opposition of governmental and religious authority to the charismatic prophet (Ibid.).

In his Most Holy Book, Bahá'u'lláh provides the normative standard for Bahá'ís in their relation to other religionists: "Consort (Arabic, `ashíru) with all religions with amity and concord…"[25] "The second Taraz [ornament] is to consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship…"[26] This standard, repeated three times in Bahá'u'lláh's writings, provides the basis of a Bahá'í approach to other religions — that of dialogue. It has been argued that such dialogue will provide the intellectual and spiritual resources to develop an informed and refined Bahá'í approach to other religions, and lead to important transformations in the Bahá'í community.[27] "The shunning of the followers of other religions"[28] is therefore forbidden. `Abdu'l-Bahá encourages believers to visit each other's places of worship:

All must abandon prejudices and must even go to each other's churches and mosques, for, in all of these worshipping places, the Name of God is mentioned…All of the leaders must, likewise, go to each other's Churches and speak of the foundation and of the fundamental principles of the divine religions. In the utmost unity and harmony they must worship God, in the worshipping places of one another, and must abandon fanaticism.[29]

Integral to the Bahá'í peace programme is the vision of a future where "the causes of religious strife will be permanently removed," and the foundation of world peace in which "universal peace amongst religions" will be established.[30] Consequently a public statement released by the Bahá'í community urges religious leaders to explore ways to resolve conflicts between religions, and the means to cooperate to improve the lot of humanity:

"How are the differences between them to be resolved both in theory and in practice? The challenge facing the religious leaders of mankind is to contemplate, with hearts filled with compassion and a desire for truth, the plight of humanity, and to ask themselves whether they cannot, in humility before their Almighty Creator, submerge their theological differences in a great spirit of mutual forbearance that will enable them to work together for the advancement of human understanding and peace."[31]

In relation to this imperative to act, the Bahá'í writings challenge religious communities to act as the "propelling power"[32] toward the process of building peace between the religions. This call has been reiterated since the events of 9/11, and another public statement was released by the Bahá'í community in April 2002 which called on the world's religious leaders to reinvigorate the interfaith movement, acknowledge that "all the world's religions are equally valid in nature and origin" and renunciate "all those claims to exclusivity and finality" that have been made in the name of religion.[33]


Notes

[1] For an academically informed introduction, see Peter Smith, The Babi and Bahá'í Religions: From Messianic Shi`ism to a World Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

[2] For background and commentary to the Book of Certitude, see Chris Buck, Symbol and Secret: Qur'an Commentary in Bahá'u'lláh's Kitáb-i Íqán: Studies in the Babi and Bahá'í Religions, vol. 7 (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1995).

[3] See, for example, the remarks of Rev Dr Edward Carpenter, former president of the World Congress of Faiths, cited in C Gouvion and P Jouvion, The Gardeners of God (Oxford: Oneworld, 1993), p. 169.

[4] Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, trans. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976), p. 217.

[5] Shoghi Effendi, from a letter dated 19.11.45 cited in Lights of Guidance: A Bahá'í Reference File (New Dehli: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983), p. 371.

[6] Kitab-i-Iqan, The Book of Certitude, trans. Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983), pp. 162-63, 137.

[7] World Order of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974), p. 59, henceforward referred to as WOB.

[8] Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1968), p. 67.

[9] Quoted in J. E. Esslemont, Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980), pp. 117-18.

[10] The Kitab-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1992), p. 86.

[11] See Wilfred Cantwell Smith, "The Historical Development in Islam of the Concept Islam as an Historical Development," in On Understanding Islam: Selected Studies (The Hague: Mounton, 1981). On Bahá'í approaches to concepts of finality in Islam, see also S Fazel and K Fananapazir, "A Bahá'í approach to the claim of finality in Islam," Journal of Bahá'í Studies vol. 5 no. 3 (1993), pp. 17-40, online at www.bahai-library.com/articles/jbs.5-3.fazel.html.

[12] This idea is developed in Seena Fazel, "Understanding Exclusivist Texts," in Scripture and Revelation, ed. M. Momen (Oxford: George Ronald, 1997), online at www.bahai-library.com/articles/exclusivism.htm.

[13] The Book of Certitude, p. 240.

[14] Prologue to the Arabic Hidden Words (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1984).

[15] Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1984), p. 403. See also Seena Fazel, "Introduction to Abdu'l-Bahá on Christ and Christianity," Bahá'í Studies Review, vol. 3, no. 1 (1993), pp. 1-6, online at www.bahai-library.com/provisionals/abdulbaha.xity.intro.html.

[16] See Moojan Momen, "Bahá'u'lláh's prophetology: archetypal patterns in the lives of the founders of the World Religions," Bahá'í Studies Review, vol. 5, no. 1 (1995), pp. 51-64, online at www.bahai-library.com/articles/prophetology.html.

[17] See Stephen Lambden, "The background and centrality of apophatic theology in Babi and Bahá'í scripture," in Revisioning the Sacred: Studies in the Babi and Bahá'í Religions, vol. 7, ed. J. McLean (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1997).

[18] See Moojan Momen, "Relativism: A Basis for Bahá'í Metaphysics," in Studies in the Babi and Bahá'í Religions, vol. 5 (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1988), online at www.bahai-library.com/articles/relativism.html.

[19] Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1984), p. 48.

[20] The Promised Day is Come (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980), p. 119.

[21] Quoted in Esslemont, p. 122.

[22] Momen, op. cit.

[23] Juan R. I. Cole, "Behold the Man: Bahá'u'lláh on the Life of Jesus," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. 65, no. 1 (1997), pp. 47-71, online at www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/bhjesu.htm.

[24] Juan R. I. Cole, "I am all the Prophets: The Poetics of Pluralism in Bahá'í Texts," Poetics Today, vol. 14, no. 3 (1993), 447-76, online at www-personal.umich.edu/~jrcole/bahai/bhproph.htm.

[25] Aqdas, para 144. See Seena Fazel, "Interreligious dialogue and the Bahá'í Faith: some preliminary observations," in Revisioning the Sacred, ed. J. McLean (Los Angeles: Kalimat, 1997), online at www.bahai-library.com/articles/dialogue.fazel.html.

[26] Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh revealed after the Kitab-i-Aqdas (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1982), 34-5, see also p. 87.

[27] Fazel, "Interreligious dialogue," op. cit.

[28] Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 94

[29] Star of the West, vol. 9, no.3 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1978) p. 37.

[30] WOB: 204; Star of the West, vol. 4, p. 254.

[31] The Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1985), p. 14 online at www.bahai-library.com/published.uhj/world.peace.html.

[32] `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 12.

[33] The Universal House of Justice, statement to the World's Religious Leaders (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 2002).

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