Published with minor revisions in the Journal of Bahá'í Studies 6:1 (1994): 1-16. Copyright restrictions apply.
This article will explore some of the issues involved in the
sociological analysis of the status of the Bahá'í Faith. It will
endeavor to present criteria for the labels "world religion" and "new religious
movement," as well as explore to what extent the Bahá'í Faith
fulfils these criteria. It will attempt to demonstrate that the
Bahá'í Faith is best categorized as a "world religion."
Cet exposé explore quelques questions ayant trait à l'analyse
sociologique du statut de la foi bahá'íe. Il tente de
présenter des critères visant à définir ce qui
constitue une "religion mondiale" et un "mouvement
religieux nouveau", puis examine dans quelle mesure la foi
bahá'íe satisfait à ces critères. Enfin, il tente
de démontrer que la foi bahá'íe est mieux décrite
comme étant une "religion mondiale".
Esta disertación sondea algunos de los temas que
preocupan el análisis sociológico de la condición de la Fe
Bahá'í. Buscará presentar criterios para las
clasificaciones "religión mundial" y "movimiento religioso nuevo" como
también explorar hasta que punto la Fe Bahá'í cumple con
estos criterios. Tratará de poner en claro que la Fe
Bahá'í se categoriza mejor como una "religión
In a statement to the United Nations Commission on Palestine in 1947,
Shoghi Effendi stated that the Bahá'í Faith "can be regarded in
no other light than a world religion" (Faith
219-20). However, today,
despite the increasing expansion and influence of the Bahá'í
Faith since Shoghi Effendi made that statement, its status outside the
Bahá'í community remains controversial. In academic circles, it
has shed the label of a sect of Islam,
there is no consensus about its present standing. A 1992 textbook on the
world's religions describes the problem:
The question of how to "place" Bahá'ísm [sic] is a little problematic.
Although it originated as a sectarian movement within Shi`ite Islam, there is
now no sense in which Bahá'ís would regard themselves as Muslims, nor would they
be recognized as such by any branch of Islam. Bahá'ís themselves have for some
time now proclaimed their faith to be a "world religion" on a par with Islam,
Christianity, and other established creeds. This however, presents obvious
problems in the case of a movement at most 150 years old, without a distinct
culture, and lacking a major presence in any one country. ("Bahá'ís" in
Many examples exist of varying opinions on the status of the Faith among
academics who have studied the Bahá'í community. Jacques
Chouleur, a specialist in the history of North American religions at the
University of Avignon, asserted in 1977 that "the credibility of the
Bahá'í Faith as a major world religion remains doubtful"
17). Denis MacEoin has long argued that the
classification of the Bahá'í Faith as a world religion is how
Bahá'ís themselves regard their movement: "the notion of Bahá'ísm
[as] a `world religion' is an ontological assumption for adherents rather than
a statement of observable or meaningful fact" (Permanent
classification which MacEoin sees as "historically, sociologically, and
conceptually misleading," prefering instead the term "new religious movement"
453). In contrast, Mircea Eliade, the late professor of the
history of religions at the University of Chicago, editor-in-chief of the
Encyclopedia of Religion,
and one of the most influential individuals in
the academic study of religion this century, wrote in a 1991 survey of the
religions of the world that the Bahá'í Faith is a "World Religion
founded by the Persian aristocrat Bahá'u'lláh" (Eliade
The problem of how to classify the Bahá'í Faith has also been
addressed by the wider community. In defending the persecution of
Bahá'ís in Turkey in 1961, the Bahá'í community
endeavoured "to prove and establish the status of the Faith as an independent
world religion" in contrast to the prosecuting authorities who were trying to
demonstrate that it was "a forbidden sect of Islam" (Ministry
recently, the Interreligious Council of Southern California admitted membership
of the Bahá'í community in 1976 while simulataneously rejecting
the application of the Church of Scientology "because it does not meet the
requirement of being an `historic world religion'" (Vadakin, Southern
511), and the Bahá'í Faith was formally accepted in 1987 into the
Conservation and Religion Network of the World Wide Fund for Nature. In
contrast, the St. Mungo Museum of Religion and Art in Glasgow, which opened in
1993 and is reputed to be the only museum in the world dedicated to comparative
religion, does not include the Bahá'í Faith in its major
Bahá'ís were not
invited to participate in a 1986 interreligious prayer meeting for world peace
organized by Pope John Paul II in Assisi, but were among the religions
represented at the 1993 World Parliament of Religions along with Buddhists,
Christians, Confucians, Hindus, Jains, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, Sikhs,
Unitarians, Zoroastrians, and indigenous religions. This article will explore
some of issues involved in the sociological analysis of the status of the
There is no clear definition of the term "world religion."
On a simplistic level, the term refers to independent
religious traditions practiced throughout the world. World religion books tend
to include a core of five--Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and
Buddhism. The addition of others, such as Sikhism, Confucianism, Taoism,
Jainism, Zoroastrianism, and the Bahá'í Faith, is variable. In
contrast, there is the category "traditional/indigenous/primal religion," which
refers to the Australian Aboriginal, African, Melanesian, Maori, and North
American, Mesoamerican, and South American Indian religions. The label
"traditional" "is not meant to suggest that these religions are static and
unchanging, but is simply one way of distinguishing them from the major world
religions which have spread themselves more widely across many different
cultures and which tend to be, therefore, less confined to and by any one
specific socio-cultural matrix" (Clarke, Traditional
distribution would then appear to be the primary criterion by which to judge
world religion status.
Does the Bahá'í Faith meet this criterion? Sociological evidence
that it does is provided in a study of the contemporary developments of the
Bahá'í Faith by Peter Smith and Moojan Momen in their article in
. In a survey of the growth, expansion and development of the
Bahá'í Faith from 1955 to 1987, they conclude that it appears to
have earned the label of a world religion:
. . . massive expansion of the religion has occurred [in the last thirty
years], so that Bahá'í claims to the status of a world religion now begin to
appear credible. This expansion has also completely transformed the religion's
social basis: what was formerly a predominantly Iranian religion with a small
but significant Western following has become a world-wide religious movement,
with its major membership in the Third World and with an enormous diversity of
followers in terms of religious and ethnic backgrounds. (Smith, Survey
In support, Smith and Momen compare the numbers of Bahá'ís in
eight different `cultural areas' of the world in 1954, 1968, and 1988. The
striking change occurs from 1954 to 1968. In 1954, Bahá'ís in
Iran composed ninety-four percent of the total worldwide Bahá'í
population. In 1968 this had dropped to twenty-two percent and to six percent
in 1988. In contrast, the numerical dominance of the Third World is now clear,
with ninety-one percent of Bahá'ís living in these areas in 1988
72-73). The same impression is given by comparing the
distribution of Local Spiritual Assemblies and localities throughout the world.
Smith compares the percentage of LSAs in the three `cultural worlds'--the
Islamic heartland, the West, and the Third World--in 1928, 1945, 1968, and
1983. Again the significant difference is the period 1945 to 1968. In 1945,
only 9.9% of the LSAs were in the Third World compared to 79.9% in 1968 (Smith,
Babi and Bahá'í
165). Smith suggests that the breakthrough into the
third `cultural world'--the Third World--only started to occur in the late
1950s. In 1950, for example, there were not more than a dozen
Bahá'ís in the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, while in 1968, the
proportion of LSAs that were formed in sub-Saharan Africa was 29.8% of the
whole Bahá'í world (Smith, Babi
190, 168). This
geographical change was accompanied with an increase in the diversity of the
sociocultural background of the Bahá'í community. Large numbers
of tribal minorities and rural illiterates became Bahá'ís. Smith
argues that the expansion of the Bahá'í Faith into the Third
World is one of the most important aspects of the religion's development,
"vastly changing the social composition of its adherents and realistically
establishing its claims to be a world religion" (Smith, Babi
By comparing the geographical distribution of the world's religions, Barrett's
statistical analysis complements the above work. This demonstrates that in
mid-1992, the Bahá'í Faith had "a significant following" in 220
countries with a worldwide membership of 5.5 million. This geographical
distribution is second only to Christianity, which has a following in 252
countries, and greater than Islam (184 countries), Judaism (134 countries),
Hinduism (94 countries), and Buddhism (92 countries). In contrast,
"New-Religionists," which include followers of "20th century Asian religions
and new religious movements," have only spread to twenty-seven countries
A number of writers have concluded that the Bahá'í Faith is a
world religion because of its widespread geographical distribution. Elvin
Johnson, in a doctoral thesis at Baylor University on the development of the
Bahá'í Faith, states that "Since its birth in 1844 the Faith has
spread to all parts of the world and may be called quite appropriately a world
religion" (Johnson, Challenge
39). The Chambers Dictionary of Beliefs
notes that "Since World War II, and especially in recent
years, it has expanded significantly into the Third World, where it now has its
main strength, and for this reason it is fair to call Bahá'ísm a world religion
in its own right" (55). Even the Reverend William Miller, an author of
anti-Bahá'í polemical literature, has admitted that "Whoever
peruses the thousands of pages of the thirteen volumes of The Bahá'í
will be impressed by the fact that the Bahá'í Faith is indeed a world
There are, however, two major criticisms of the criterion of geographical
distribution. MacEoin, in arguing that the Bahá'í Faith is not a
world religion, has contested that Bahá'í statistics on
geographical distribution are misleading because the spread of the
Bahá'í Faith has been "the result of conscious, somewhat forced
planning . . . rather than natural or sustained growth" (Permanent
It would appear then that he is suggesting that growth by "unconscious
planning" is a necessary condition for a world religion. Notwithstanding the
fact the notion of "unconscious planning" is oxymoronic, the connection between
the consciousness of a religion's planning and its status as a world religion
is hard to fathom. Why exclude, by definition, proselytizing religions
(Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism) from the category of world religion? Which
religions have expanded unconsciously? What MacEoin may have intended to say is
that the growth of the Bahá'í Faith has been by
planning. But the same question applies: If Christianity has
grown by centralized planning, why should it diminish its claim to be a world
Nevertheless, MacEoin has
identified a number of legitimate problems with these statistics, including the
"lack of accurate figures for disaffiliated and inactive believers," difficulty
in estimating "how successful post-registration consolidation has been in
mass-conversion areas in the Third World," and "the problems of multiple
affiliation" in some areas (Bahá'ísm
493). Presumably these difficulties
are not confined to statistics on the Bahá'í Faith alone.
The second problem inherent in focusing solely on geographical distribution is
it would imply that the religions which are predominantly confined to a single
people or ethnic group, the "ethnic religions," but have dispersed, such as
Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Sikhism, are world religions. These religions are
still limited largely by one specific sociocultural matrix suggesting that they
are not truly world religions. This point was made over 100 years ago by
Kuenen, a professor of theology at Leiden, in the 1882 Hibbert Lectures, in
which he argued that there must be a "genuine universalism" for the world
religions: "[T]hat which is to combine with every nationality, satisfying the
special needs of each, must not be inseparably bound to any one nation"
8). This would suggest that geographical distribution
is a necessary rather than a sufficient condition in defining world religion.
The other necessary condition is thus sociocultural diversity.
The Bahá'í Faith meets both these conditions.
Not only has it spread to at least 232 countries and dependent territories, the
Bahá'í world community is also represented by over 2,100 tribes,
races, and ethnic groups (The Bahá'ís
7), possibly second
only to Christianity in its ethnic diversity.
Relevant to this discussion are the qualities of a religion that enable it to
emancipate itself from the boundaries of one particular social and cultural
unit. Timothy Fitzgerald notes in his article in Religion
that there is
"one crucial qualification" for a religion to become a world religion: "it must
develop a universal message, a doctrine of salvation that is sufficiently
transparent to be potentially available to adherents in a variety of cultural
104). This is the theological sense in which a
particular religion is a world religion. The example of Christianity, world
religion's `ideal type', is instructive. Christianity started off as a
religious movement of Palestinian Jews but soon spread beyond this. The
universalist claim of Christianity led to the development of some degree of
theological abstraction and institutional flexibility so that its message of
salvation could be exported and transplanted into different social groups who
then could interpret and act upon it according to the context of their own
cultural life (Fitzgerald, Hinduism
109). The role of theologians, such
as St. Paul and Origen, was central to its transformation to a world
It [Christianity] was, from the beginning, universalist in scope and aim. St
Paul, by giving it an internationalist thought-structure, made it a religion of
all races; Origen expanded its metaphysics into a philosophy of life which won
the respect of the intellectuals while retaining the enthusiasm of the masses,
and so made Christianity classless as well as ubiquitous. (Johnson,
Related to the theological qualifications above are practical measures that
enable a religion to leave its sociocultural background. Fitzgerald describes
these other necessary conditions: it needs to be literate; have scriptures that
can be translated into different languages; have a special class of
interpreters who can act as missionaries; to appeal to large numbers of people;
and to appear to transcend cultural boundaries (Hinduism
Therefore the study of world religions needs to start with the theology of the
religions - Do they offer salvation to all peoples? Can they appeal to people
of different cultures and social backgounds?
Do they have the flexibility to allow for diverse expressions of spirituality?
In this sense, the Bahá'í Faith has clear theological
qualifications for world religion status. There are the explicit and many
universalist claims in Bahá'í scripture,
the adaptation of Bahá'í teachings by
`Abdu'l-Bahá to the concerns of Christians and Westerners, and later,
Shoghi Effendi's co-ordination of the diverse activities, from translating the
Bahá'í writings to setting missionary goals, that progressively
led to the establishment of the Faith throughout the world.
In summary, I have argued that the necessary conditions for a world religion
include theological confirmation of universalist aims and possibilities in
addition to the empirical evidence demonstrating widespread geographical
distribution and sociocultural diversity. With the expansion of the
Bahá'í Faith into the Third World in the late 1950s, its
potential as a world religion was fulfilled. Three sets of statistics
demonstrate this conclusion--the changes in the worldwide distribution of
Bahá'is, their Local Spiritual Assemblies, and the number of countries
that the Bahá'í Faith has a significant following.
However convincing the case for the Bahá'í Faith as a
world religion, most textbooks of religion and academic writing on comparative
religion do not treat it as one. Introductory surveys of the world religions
rarely discuss the Bahá'í Faith in depth, some not at all. For
instance, in 1946, there was no mention of the Bahá'í Faith in
Jurgi's The Great Religions of the Modern World,
and only one passing
reference in Smith's 1958 The Religions of Man
. More recently there was
no mention in Open University's 1978 resource volume Man's Religious
, the 1974 Historical Atlas of the Religions of the World,
Neilsen's 1988 Religions of the World,
and Raush's 1989 World
There are only three sentences about the Faith in both the
thousand page The World's Religions
published in 1988 and in Hutchison's
Paths of Faith
. Thematic books such as Bowker's Problems of Suffering
in the Religions of the World
, Parrinder's Mysticism in the World's
, Thompson's World Religions in War and Peace,
Pluralism: Challenge to World Religions
, Cooey's After Patriarchy,
Feminist Transformations of the World Religions
, Cohn-Sherbok's World
Religions and Human Liberation
, and Slater's World Religions and World
have included no discussion whatsoever on Bahá'í
teachings on these issues.
While this lack of inclusion seems to imply that the Bahá'í Faith
is not a world religion, one is hard pressed to find explicit arguments
justifying the exclusion of the Bahá'í Faith. Among writers that
do provide some arguments, there are two types--on quantative and qualitative
grounds--against its classification as a world religion. An example of the
first argument is mentioned in a textbook, which states that the
Bahá'í Faith lacks "a major presence in any one country"
("Bahá'ís" in Contemporary
95-96). This criterion appears peculiar - what
does a major presence in one
country have to do with being a
religion? Would this mean that Chondogyo (14% of North Koreans)
and Shintoism (40% of the Japanese) have claim to world religion status?
584, 587). Even if we adopt this criterion as a necessary
condition (which I am not proposing), this same textbook that lists Tokelau as
having 10% of its population Bahá'í (Contemporary
Iran and India also have a major presences of Bahá'ís, with
approximately 300,000 and 1,000,000 respectively.
Chouleur "remains doubtful" because he is not convinced that "a scattering of
believers, a handful of `Pioneers of the Cause' [will] ever secure a majority
on this planet" (Bahá'í
17). This condition appears
peculiar in light of the fact that none of the world religions has ever secured
"a majority on this planet."
Other quantative counterarguments are made by MacEoin who contends that the
realities of "Bahá'í membership" and "chronological span" make
world religion "a problematic category" (Review
453). He argues that in
terms of numerical size, the Bahá'í community is not comparable
to the other world religions. It is relatively uncontroversial to suggest that
numerical size is a characteristic of world religions but it is clearly not a
sufficient condition. If it were, it would present the bizarre hypothesis that
Chinese traditional religion with a membership of 187 million was more of a
world religion than Judaism with seventeen million followers (Barrett, World
270). If MacEoin is proposing that it is a necessary condition,
then it is unclear what numerical size would be the threshold for a world
religion, and the relationship between numerical size in one country compared
to worldwide numbers. The same argument can be used against the criterion of
"chronological span." It is not used by sociologists of religion. If it were,
indigenous religions would be in the unlikely position to have more claim to
world religion status than Islam or Christianity.
Qualitative counterarguments have been put forth by Chouleur who is not certain
that "a scattering of believers . . .[will] even develop into a strong enough
minority to play a decisive part in the creation of a higher civilization"
17). The problem with his argument is that it is
not clear what "higher civilization" means and Choleur himself does not provide
a definition. It is inappropriate to use a vague concept in a definition when
the latter is trying to be clarified. Even if we construct a definition for
him, the Bahá'í community would appear to fulfil it in terms of
its contribution to socioeconomic development. Since Choleur's article was
written in 1977, the international Bahá'í community has focused
more of its energies on the "creation of a higher civilisation" attested by the
1300 educational, environmental, social, and economic development projects
launched by Bahá'í communities worldwide.
MacEoin also notes that lack of Bahá'í "cultural influence" makes
world religion "a problematic category" (Review
453). Even though
cultural influence forms only part of the "material dimension" of Smart's seven
dimensions of the world's religions, Smart mentions the distinctive
architecture of Bahá'í temples as a significant cultural
expression (World's Religions
479). The interest generated in the
architectural community by the construction and design of the House of Worship
in New Dehli supports this observation.
Besides the Persian and Arabic sacred writings themselves in the field of
literature, the contribution of the poetry of Táhirih and Robert Hayden,
the calligraphy of Mish
kín-Qalam, the art of Mark Tobey, and the
pottery of Bernard Leach are other examples of Bahá'í artistic
influence across different cultures. Significantly there are
Bahá'í hymns, used by the American Bahá'ís earlier
this century, Bahá'í Bhajans, traditional devotional songs used
by Indian Bahá'ís in mass teaching campaigns, and
Bahá'í Haiku, short mystical Japanese poems.
Diverse cultural expressions of a particular religion
would be a natural consequence of a religion spreading around the world and not
being bound by one culture, and it would seem reasonable to suggest that it is
a necessary condition for a world religion. Indeed, the necessary condition
discussed above of sociocultural diversity should embrace this aspect of a
In summary, there are two types of counterarguments to the Bahá'í
Faith's claim to be a world religion. The first type involves quantative
measures such as a major presence in one country, overall numerical size, and
length of history. The second type relates to qualitative aspects such as
cultural influence. In each case, the appropriateness of the criteria for the
definition of world religion is discussed. Of these, the diversity of a
religion's cultural expression is the only condition to correlate with its
status as a world religion.
Encyclopedic references on the Bahá'í Faith in the seminal
Encyclopedia of Religion
, Encyclopaedia Iranica
, The Canadian
, and New Twentieth-Century Encyclopedia of Religious
describe it as a "world religion". The Concise
Encyclopaedia of Islam
calls it a "universal religion." The entry in
argues that because the
Bahá'í Faith appeals to all humankind and that it has established
itself in most countries, it can already be considered among the world
Other individuals who refer to the Bahá'í Faith as a world
religion include the Protestant theologian Friedrich Heiler. In looking at the
life and claims of Bahá'u'lláh, he judged that "As an historical
phenomenon, the Bahá'í religion therefore stands in equal status
with the other universal religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Sikhism
and Christianity" (qtd. in Schaefer, Bahá'í
historian Arnold Toynbee noted in 1959 that "Bahá'ísm is an independent religion
on a par with Islam, Christianity, and the other recognized world religions"
(qtd. in The Bahá'ís
10). Peter Meinhold, professor of
Protestant Theology at the University of Kiel, has argued that a particular
religion can be called a world religion if it can demonstrate its contemporary
and concluded that the
Bahá'í Faith meets this condition (Meinhold, Die
317-318). Roger Schmidt, who teaches comparative religion at a
college in California, makes a distinction between the world religions and two
"nascent world religions"--the Bahá'í Faith and Mormonism
57). Warren Matthews of Old Dominion University also
describes the Bahá'í Faith as one of the "more recent world
religions" along with the Mormons, Theosophists, and the International Society
for Krishna Consciousness (World Religions
xv). Carsten Colpe, professor
of Church history and dogma at the University of Kiel; Geoffrey Parrinder,
professor of comparative religion at the University of London; Alan Dowty,
professor of international studies at Notre Dame University; and Paul Allen, a
human rights specialist, are other individuals who have referred to the
Bahá'í Faith as a world religion in their publications.
A variety of educational materials for high
school religious studies teachers and students also lists the
Bahá'í Faith among the world religions.
New Religious Movement?
As an alternative to world religion, the term "new religious movement"
(NRM) has found widespread usage in the academic literature in the sociology of
religion. Classifying the Bahá'í Faith as an NRM has been
advocated by some writers. For example, MacEoin states that it is "almost
certainly the largest and fastest-growing of the NRMs" (Emerging
Ebaugh and Vaughn, sociologists at the University of Houston, present the
Bahá'í Faith as "one of the `new religious movements' in the
sense that the Bahá'í movement in the United States has gained momentum in the
last twenty years" [written in 1984] (Ebaugh, Ideology
148). It would
appear that the Protestant theologian John Hick is thinking similarly when he
lists Bahá'u'lláh with the founders of other NRMs: "There are
also lesser founders of new traditions or sub-traditions, such as Guru Nanak,
Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy, Bahá'ullah [sic
], Annie Besant, Kimbangu,
Mokichi Okada, and many others, whose movements presuppose and arise out of one
or other of the existing traditions" (Problems
75). Hutchison of
Claremont Graduate School treats the Bahá'í Faith as an NRM
springing from Islam like Subud and Nation of Islam (Paths
516), as does
the university textbook Man's Religions
which places it among "various
movements prophetic innovation and syncretism" along with Ahmadiya and the
Black Muslims (Noss, Man's Religions
543-4). However, the 1993 State
of Religion Atlas
explains that "Bahá'ís do not consider themselves to be a
sub-group of Islam" but still lists the Bahá'í Faith among NRMs
NRM serves as an umbrella term for an enormous diversity of phenomena ranging
from doctrinal deviation within world religions to fleeting fashions and
spiritual enthusiasms of a questionably religious kind. The Encyclopedia of
provides a useful definition of this term. In his overview
article, Beckford, a sociologist of religion at the University of Durham,
states, "The term new religious movement connotes the more or less simultaneous
appearance in the 1960s of a number of separate innovations which together seem
to amount to a new force in the field of religion." He adds that the term was
first applied by social scientists to "the bewildering variety of spiritual
enthusiasms that emerged in the West in the 1960s, gathered momentum in the
1970s, and that began to slacken in the 1980s" (Overview
391). The term
NRM is applied to a set of newly observed groups, and Barker, along with some
other sociologists, uses the Second World War as a starting point (Barker,
145). This would appear to be the first necessary
condition for an NRM. Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that
disagreements over definitions are common, and as Barker explains, it is
difficult to make any generalizations about NRMs due to the empirical diversity
of these phenomena (Europe
405). Wilson, a sociologist of religion at
the University of Oxford, for instance, argues that NRMs "have in common only
their newness at a given point in time" (Social
216), and Clarke, who
heads the Centre for New Religious Movements at King's College, University of
London, contends that 1945 is this starting date:
The term new is employed chronologically to refer to all those
religions that have established themselves in Western Europe, North America and
Japan since 1945, and in Africa over a somewhat longer time-span. (New
Other necessary conditions have been proposed by Eileen Barker, a sociologist
of religion at the London School of Economics, in her standard introduction to
the subject. Simply put, NRMs share three common characteristics: a
predominance of first-generation believers; a charismatic leader; a narrow
distribution of members with respect to socioeconomic status (middle-class and
upper middle-class) and age (young adults) (New Religious
11). As a
worldwide historical phenomenon, the Bahá'í community fails to
meet these conditions because:
1. There are large numbers of post-first generation believers in the
2. There is currently no centralized and clear-cut charismatic leadership in
the Bahá'í community--arguably there has not been any since the
death of `Abdu'l-Bahá in 1921;
3. The socioeconomic status of Bahá'í communities is quite
varied. Although many communities are predominantly middle class, the largest
Bahá'í community in the West--America--has a majority of rural
African-Americans living in the southern states with lower than average
socioeconomic status. And worldwide, the community is numerically largest in
rural villages in developing countries. If we add the fact that the Faith does
not fulfil the first necessary condition because it had established itself in
the West before the Second World War, then it does not meet any of the
necessary conditions for an NRM.
It is noteworthy that none of the prominent sociologists of religion in the
field of NRMs, such as Barker, Beckford, Wilson, Clarke, and Wallis
have included the Bahá'í Faith
as an NRM in their published work. Indeed, a recent publication which lists the
hundred significant NRMs in the United Kingdom does not include the
Bahá'í Faith (Barker, New Religious
165ff.), nor does
Barker include it in a list of the main NRMs in Western and African societies
in The Penguin Dictionary of Religions
(460). It is worth noting that
this lack of mention is not due to ignorance of the Bahá'í Faith,
which Barker cites in another context in New Religious Movements
Furthermore, Turner, a
sociologist from the University of Birmingham, explicitly omits the
Bahá'í Faith from his survey of NRMs in Africa. He argues that
NRMs "should be distinguished from the missions, churches or communities
associated with these two faiths [Christianity and Islam], from other religious
bodies that have more recently taken root in parts of Africa, such as Bahá'í,
the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, as well as from the original primal
religions of the African peoples" (Turner, Africa
This paper has demonstrated that there is no consensus as to the status
of the Bahá'í Faith among specialists in the fields of religious
studies and the sociology of religion. It has demonstrated that the criteria of
geographical distribution with sociocultural diversity are the most appropriate
ones for world religion, and that the Bahá'í Faith meets these
criteria. The case against the classification of the Bahá'í Faith
as a world religion is presented and shown to rely on criteria that are not
integral to the classification of world religions. The related question of
whether the Bahá'í Faith is an NRM is also discussed. It is
argued that as a worldwide historical phenomenon, it cannot be classified as an
NRM because it started a century before the Second World War and does not share
the common sociological characteristics of NRMs. While acknowledging the
difficulties in determining criteria for the classification of a particular
religion as a world religion and an NRM, this article has presented the case
that the Bahá'í Faith is best categorized as a world religion.
* I would particularly like to thank Arash Abizadeh, Stephen Lambden, Robert
Parry and Peter Smith for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.
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For a discussion of this question, see
Reflecting the academic relevance of this
debate, one of the set essays in the 1994 undergraduate religious studies
course at the University of Edinburgh ("Religion 2") is entitled "Are the
Bahá'ís a NRM or a major religious tradition?"
The Interreligious Council of Southern
California does not specify the reasons for this decision. However, the St.
Mungo Museum does. In a letter to the Secretary of the Local Spiritual Assembly
of the Bahá'ís of Glasgow, the senior curator of the museum
explained that the criteria used to select the religions in the central section
of the museum were: "1. Those with the largest numbers of believers in
Strathclyde. 2. Those with the largest numbers of believers in the world. 3.
Those which were possible to represent with interesting objects. . . . Clearly
the Bahá'í Faith does not meet these somewhat crude and simplistic criteria"
(From a letter dated 6 May 1993 from Mark O'Neill to Allan Forsyth). The museum
includes sections on Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and
Sikhism in its major displays.
Some academics have questioned the
usefulness of the term altogether. Fitzgerald has argued that the idea of a
"world religion" was created by liberal Christian theology in order to study
and dialogue with other major religious traditions with universalists claims
104). Whatever the merits of this case, there are
important practical implications of the term "world religion" in areas such as
university religious studies, religious education, and interreligious dialogue
One could argue that Christian missionary
efforts over the last few centuries in order to spread the Gospel over the
entire surface of the globe have been undertaken in a more "forced manner." The
very nature of traditional missionary work differs sharply from
Bahá'í pioneers who are generally expected to be self-supporting,
and undertake employment in their new community. In addition, systematic
planning was a characteristic of the early Christianity. To take one notable
example, the New Testament documents the strategies of St. Paul to bring
Christianity to the Gentiles (see Acts 16:1, 1 Thess. 2:2, Titus 1:5).
For a delineation of the necessary
conditions for a religion
, see Wilson's 20 standard criteria
Manichaeism, Christianity's main rival in
the fourth and fifth centuries, possibly failed to sustain its early promise
because it was not classless enough. While it spread from China to Spain during
Mani's lifetime (216-276 C.E.), and by the sixth century had followers from the
Pacific to the Atlantic, by the eighth century it had virtually disappeared.
Conner explains its failure due a combination of its teachings (anti-social,
extreme asceticism, too esoteric for the average believer) and its corrupted
Church, which complicated doctrine beyond intellegibility (Conner, Mani and
Momen's "wider" definition of the term
extends this to include all psychological and spiritual types: "We may now
define world religion as one which satisfies the need and fulfills the
expectations of all types of humanity, i.e. it must be true to the various
viewpoints of the different types of human soul-psyche complex" (World
See Bahá'u'láh Tablets
243. Even the Qayyúmu'l-Asmá, the first
revealed work of the Báb, challenged the rulers of the earth to deliver
the Báb's message to "lands in both the East and West" (Shoghi Effendi,
God Passes By
See The Great Religions of the Modern
. Ed. E.J. Jurgi. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946; H.
Smith, The Religions of Man
. New York: Harper and Row, 1958; Man's
Religious Quest - A Reader
. Ed. W. Foy. London: Open University Press,
1978; N. Nielsen et al., Religions of the World
. 2nd ed. New York: St.
Martins, 1988; Raush, D.A. and C. Voss, World Religions - Our Quest for
. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989; Historical Atlas of the Religions
of the World
. Ed. I. Faruqi. New York: MacMillan, 1974; The World's
. Ed. S. Sutherland. London: Routledge, 1988; J. Bowker,
Problems of Suffering in the Religions of the World
. London: Cambridge
University Press, 1975; G. Parrinder, Mysticism in the World's
. London: Sheldon Press, 1976; H.O. Thompson, World Religions
in War and Peace.
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988; H. Coward, Pluralism:
Challenge to World Religions
. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1985; P.M. Cooey, ed.,
After Patriarchy, Feminist Transformations of the World Religions.
Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992; D. Cohn-Sherbok,World Religions and Human
. Maryknoll: Orbis, 1992; R.L. Slater World Religions and
. NY: Colombia UP, 1963.
See, for example, papers by R. Sabikki,
"India Bahá'í temple," Architecture: The AIA Journal
76.9 (1987): 72-75;
F. Sahba, "Bahá'í House of Worship, New Dehli, India," Architecture and
206 (1987): 11-16; and T. Fisher, "A Second Sydney,"
68.6 (1987): 28.
See R. J. Armstrong-Ingram, Music,
in Bábí and Bahá'í History, vol. IV). Los Angeles:
Kalimát Press, 1987.; W. Garlington, "Bahá'í Bhajans,"
16.2 (1982): 43-49; Y. Ishihara, "Bahá'í
Haiku," Bahá'í Scholarship
--Proceedings of the 1991 Annual
Conference of the Association for Bahá'í Studies - Japan.
a) The religion in question must lay
itself open to the claim of representing a world-encompassing mission,
b) The modern experience of world unity must be part of its self-concept,
c) It must pose itself the question as to what part it can play in the solution
of the world's problems,
d) The religion must come to terms with the plurality of religions and resolve
this question in a way which does justice to today's worldview (qtd. in
18). Schaefer has demonstrated that all
these criteria are fulfilled by the Bahá'í Faith
See Schaefer, Bahá'í
18; G. Parrinder, What World Religions Teach
108 (London: George Harrap,
1963); A. Dowty, "Iran's Unholy war on the Bahá'ís," Church and State
42.2 (1989): 7-10; P.D. Allen, "Bahá'ís of Iran--A proposal for enforcement of
international human rights standards," Cornell Int Law J
337-61. Joachim Wach in his 1947 classic Sociology of Religion
"Babism" as a world religion "[i]n spite of the smaller numbers of adherents"
(134). Presumably he meant the Bahá'í Faith.
See World Religions: past and
by P. Balta et al. (London: Moonlight, 1991) 224; World
religions in education: religion and story
by the SHAP working party on
religions in education (Cambridge: Hobsons, 1990); The Shap handbook on
world religions in education
edited by V. Barnett et al (London: CRE,
1987); World religions in education: humankind and the environment
edited by C. Erricker et al (London: CRE, 1989) 9-11.
See, for example, Wallis's survey of the
North American NRMs in North America
The Bahá'í Faith is also
not listed in J. Gordon Melton's Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in
(New York: Garland, 1986).