Bahai-Faith.com has presented my views on the Baha'i faith over the years, and it has gone through various incarnations as I have continued my spiritual journey and my perspective has changed. Several years ago I was known as an outspoken critic of the Baha'i faith, but I long ago moved beyond any feelings of anger or an oppositional stance toward my former religious community or its leaders. When I expressed disagreement with the religion I used to believe in, I generally did so in a fair and reasonable way – especially after I had been an ex-Baha'i for more than a couple years. Now that I have regained some degree of belief or support for the Baha'i faith, my aim is to provide a more liberal perspective on this religion that is compatible with my Unitarian Universalist beliefs.
Like all religions, the Baha'i faith has its weak points and flaws – but it also has its beautiful and brilliant aspects. I think Baha'is need to be more open to consider that their religion, its organization and leadership are not perfect. They need to accept that some former Baha'is may have legitimate concerns or criticisms which led to their withdrawal from the religion or its community; that some Baha'is have different interpretations of the faith than the official views; that some, despite believing in the prophethood of Baha'u'llah, choose not to belong to an organized Baha'i community; and that some belong to Baha'i communities which are not affiliated with the Haifa, Israel-based organization. These disagreements are normal and acceptable phenomena for any significant religion, rather than something that mainstream Baha'is should get angry about or oppose.
Even though I am not a Baha'i, per se, I would describe myself as a friend of the faith and one who cares deeply about its future development. I believe the world is a better place because the Baha'i faith exists – but I also believe this religion is desperately in need of reform.
Introduction: What Is the Baha'i Faith?
The Baha'i Faith (with a capital "F") is a religious organization representing most Baha'is around the world. This organization claims there are 6 million adherents of the Baha'i religion, most of whom are found in Iran, India, and the United States, with others scattered among many other nations. The Baha'i faith (the religion, not the organization), is also commonly spelled Bahai and sometimes called Baha'ism or Bahaism, especially by non-Baha'is and liberal Baha'is. It was founded by Baha'u'llah (1817-1892), a Persian aristocrat in exile who in 1863 declared himself to be a new messenger of God. Baha'u'llah was born Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, was raised a Shi'ite Muslim, and in his young adulthood followed the radical millennarian movement of another contemporaneous Persian claimant to prophethood known as the Bab.
The Baha'i faith is above all an attempt to build a more universal spiritual paradigm out of the foundation of Islam. Much in the way Christianity emerged as a Jewish reform movement and a project to spread the core principles of Judaism into the Greco-Roman world, Baha'ism was born from an Islamic matrix as a project to modernize and spread the central ideas and practices of Islam to the whole world.
I would recommend to any Muslim, or anyone interested in new religious movements, to study the Baha'i faith as an example of one possible way that people have attempted to update Islamic spirituality for a more progressive and globalized age. Based on my own study and on conversations I have had with Muslims who have looked into Baha'ism, I can say it bears a striking resemblance to Shi'ite Islam while going in somewhat of an esoteric Sufi direction, and it rejects the finality of Muhammad's prophethood as a way of introducing new ideas such as including followers of non-Abrahamic religions as "people of the Book" and expanding the rights of women.
Despite the liberalizing inclinations of Baha'u'llah, and of his son and successor Abdu'l-Baha who spread Baha'ism to Europe and America, these men nevertheless were firmly rooted in a 19th century Middle Eastern paradigm – as one would expect considering their upbringing in that time and society. They literally believed and taught ideas such as direct divine revelation of the Qur'an and their own verses and books; strict obedience to prophets and religious law codes; and total opposition to "vices" such as alcoholic beverages and sex outside of marriage.
On the other hand, Baha'u'llah and his successors criticized the Islamic concept of military jihad or holy war; promoted the idea of peaceful cooperation among nations; advocated the use of one global auxiliary language to help people from different backgrounds communicate and understand each other; and made strides in the direction of gender equality – though in a noteworthy departure from this principle, Abdu'l-Baha refused to allow women to serve on the highest leadership institution of the Baha'i Faith organization, a prohibition which remains to this day.
Why I Joined and Left the Baha'i Faith
I was introduced to the Baha'i faith during my first year in college, by my next-door neighbor in my dorm. I decided to attend a Baha'i meeting because it sounded interesting. I had always been very interested in various religions and philosophies ever since I was old enough to begin exploring these things for myself. The Baha'is I met at the meeting seemed like nice people, and they held an idealistic view of human potential, emphasizing ideas such as world peace, racial reconciliation, and respect for all major religions. I would say that two things attracted me most to the Baha'is and their religion: the people themselves and their optimistic spirit about the future of humanity.
I decided to believe in Baha'ism and join the organized Baha'i Faith after a few months of studying the religion and socializing with Baha'is. Looking back, I would say that there were many details of Baha'i beliefs and practices that I wasn't aware of when I joined, which if I had known about might have prevented me from joining their religious organization. It was the overall spirit of the Baha'is and their faith – the big picture view – that drew me in, and at that time I probably would not have even wanted to know anything about the Baha'i Faith that would have turned me off from it!
Throughout my college years, I was an active and serious Baha'i. I participated in local Baha'i community meetings and Baha'i college club meetings. I followed the religion's rituals of daily prayer and the annual period of fasting. I enthusiastically tried to share my Baha'i faith with other people, because Baha'is place a great emphasis on "teaching" the faith (trying to educate people about the existence of the Baha'i faith and encourage them to study it and join). I even went on two Baha'i "teaching trips" to a rural, impoverished area where we attempted to befriend and evangelize Native Americans and other people living in poverty. I also wrote a draft of an introductory book presenting the Baha'i faith for a Christian audience (but I left the faith before seeking a publisher).
As I became more and more involved in the Baha'i Faith community, I began to notice some things that bothered me. There were two things in particular that troubled me the most: first, that Baha'i Faith members overemphasize obedience to their religious institutions and believe the highest leadership organ of their religion is directly guided by God and infallible in all its decisions; and second, that they tend to have an unhealthy liking for bureaucracy and downplay the importance and benefits of individual free thought and activity. I strongly disagreed with the long-standing policy that all Baha'i scholars and writers must submit everything they write about the faith to a Baha'i "pre-publication review committee" for official approval. I was also frustrated by the fact that the Baha'i Faith organization prohibits its members from participating in politics, since political activism had previously been an interest of mine.
After a few years, I decided to leave the Baha'i Faith for these reasons as well as others. At the time, I regarded the Baha'i Faith organization and the faith itself to be basically synonymous – as most Baha'is do – so I didn't think much about the possibility of remaining a Baha'i without in some way supporting the dominant Baha'i tradition (which is sometimes called "Haifan" Baha'ism, because the organization representing this tradition is based in Haifa, Israel). I did briefly feel compelled to try to promote some ideas for reforming the religion and its institutions, but I did this in an arrogant and ineffective way and soon gave up on it.
I began to feel attracted to Jesus more than any other great historical religious leader, so I decided to become a Christian, got baptized, and joined the Assemblies of God church. However, my broad-minded attitude prevented me from fully buying into Evangelical Christianity, and over the years I have grown increasingly liberal and universalist in my understanding of the Gospel. I can say that the Baha'i faith had a positive influence on me in helping me to see the value in all religious paths, but that I found organized Haifan Baha'ism to be too fundamentalist and restrictive for my free-thinking mind and mystical heart.
Issues in the Baha'i Faith: "Manifestations of God"
There are some theological reasons why I left the Baha'i faith – it was not only because of disagreements with the Baha'i Faith organization. When I first became a Christian, I did so in large part because I had come to the conclusion that Jesus Christ was far greater than any other prophet, such as Moses, Muhammad or Baha'u'llah. Contrary to Baha'i doctrine, I believed that Jesus occupied a special place as the unique "Son of God" – the only human being who ever was the perfect Manifestation of Divinity. I did not believe that other founders of religions were on the same level as Jesus.
Over time, my views have evolved. Today, I still believe that Jesus was the greatest example of the fusion of the human and the divine that is known to history, but I have come to believe that all human beings are "manifestations of God" in some sense or to some degree. I no longer believe in the Trinitarian notion that Jesus was divine and everyone else isn't; instead I believe in the Unitarian view that he was a great spiritual master but human like the rest of us, and that there have been others similar to him who are great examples of divine qualities in human beings.
Most Baha'is interpret their faith as teaching that only the founders of the great religions are Manifestations of God and all others are mere servants, just as most Christians believe only Jesus is the Son of God and all others must bow down to him as Lord. I disagree with this idea. I think all humans fall on a continuum of spiritual development, rather than being divided neatly into categories of "Manifestations" of the divine attributes or "Non-Manifestations."
All human beings are manifestations of divinity, because we were all created in the image of God and we are all God's children. This teaching is found in the Old Testament, the New Testament, and in the writings of many modern spiritual leaders. Conservative Baha'is (which is most Baha'is) draw an ontological distinction between Manifestations of God and regular human beings, but there is no such distinction. There may be a small number of people whose special role in history was to found religions, but they were imperfect and fallible like all other humans. All humans are on a journey which begins when one's eternal spirit is birthed from the Womb of God, comes to earth in a physical body, and continues after death in other lifetimes and/or other dimensions of existence as we grow from spiritual infancy through stages of childhood, adolescence, and eventually adulthood. Given enough ages for development, everyone will ultimately reach the level of great spiritual masters such as Jesus, Buddha, etc. Even Jesus himself promised this! (see Luke 6:40).
It may be possible for Baha'ism to be reinterpreted in this way, since one of the core Baha'i beliefs is the idea of the continual progress of all souls in the afterlife. The Baha'i faith teaches that no soul is forever lost, and all will keep progressing toward God through ages of time. Perhaps the Great Prophets or "Manifestations" of God are at a much higher level than other souls, because they have existed for far longer back in time than most people alive on earth. Perhaps, as Buddhists believe about the Boddhisattvas, they consent to return to earth when religion needs to be renewed – even though they have already ascended to higher levels of spiritual existence.
Issues in the Baha'i Faith: "Progressive Revelation"
The Baha'i faith sees all major world religions as being part of a dispensational progression of spiritual knowledge revealed by God. While this idea has some merit, it is an oversimplification of human spiritual history. The Baha'i faith, as it is interpreted by most of its followers, ignores some important religious traditions such as Taoism and Sikhism; excessively downplays the very real differences that exist between religions; and puts all religions on one track of progressive development, when in fact they emerged on more than one parallel tracks and on different timelines in different parts of the world.
The Baha'i concept of "progressive revelation" is true as a big picture idea – that humans have gradually come to apprehend the Divine in more mature and sophisticated ways over time – but the specific details taught by Baha'u'llah and his successors are too limited to an Abrahamic paradigm. Baha'u'llah's background was Islam, which envisioned religion as progressing by means of a discrete series of prophets chosen by God. He seems to have known little about Eastern religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism, Taoism, and Confucianism. He wrote almost nothing about these, even though billions of human beings have followed and been inspired by these traditions – probably because he had little contact with people from those parts of the world and most of his followers were Muslims.
Abdu'l-Baha and his grandson and successor Shoghi Effendi expanded the Baha'i view of religious unity to include acceptance of the divine inspiration of some of the Eastern religions, because they sincerely believed in the goal of uniting all humanity with one interfaith vision of truth. This was Baha'u'llah's goal too, but the time and culture in which he lived defined the way he presented the message. He simply didn't have much of any exposure to ideas from outside of Islam, Christianity and Judaism.
If we are to be intellectually honest, we must admit that the linear Baha'i concept of God sending a "new Manifestation" to "reveal" a "new Dispensation" with a "new Book" for the world roughly every 1000 years does not take into account all the great diversity and complexity of historical religious development. This idea comes directly from Islam and has a heavy Abrahamic bias. Baha'ism has attempted to embrace some non-Abrahamic religions by fitting them into the Islamic paradigm of religious history. This is a nice theoretical attempt with good motivations behind it, but I think it needs to be reevaluated.
The Baha'i concept of progressive revelation makes sense if it is interpreted in a broader way, focusing on the archetypal journey of human beings continually seeking The Source and periodically creating new religions reflecting their evolving perspective on life and existence. In fact, to embrace this basic idea as the core of how we understand the phenomenon of religion – that it is not static but evolutionary, representing a never-ending dance between the Human and the Divine – is a beautiful way of thinking. The Baha'i faith has the potential to conceive of religious history through this liberal lens, if fundamentalist interpretations of Baha'i theology are cast aside.
Issues in the Baha'i Faith: The "Most Holy Book"
One of the reasons I decided to leave the Baha'i faith was because of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, which in Arabic means the Most Holy Book. Baha'u'llah wrote this book to establish a set of laws, commandments, regulations, and rituals for the Baha'i religion which would differentiate it from Islam. Baha'u'llah said that the whole world should follow the teachings of his Most Holy Book for the next 1000 years.
While some ideas in the Aqdas are good and represent significant progress beyond the laws of the Qur'an and Islam, some of them are simply unsuitable for modern 21st century civilization and show that Baha'u'llah's mentality was to some degree limited by the standards of the time and culture in which he lived. For example, Baha'u'llah commands in his Most Holy Book that a thief should have a visible mark put on his forehead after the third offense – presumably some kind of brand or tattoo. This is much better than the Qur'anic punishment for stealing (amputation of a hand), but it's hardly compatible with the values of modern times.
I also disagree with Baha'u'llah's claim that all people must recognize his absolute spiritual authority and must accept and follow all the laws and teachings in his book. I do not believe in an infallible Bible nor an infallible Qur'an or any other scripture that conservative religious people believe is perfect. Although I think Baha'u'llah taught many beneficial and inspiring things in his writings, there are some things he taught that I simply disagree with – just as I disagree with some things taught by Moses, Jesus, Saint Paul, Muhammad, Buddha, or any other spiritual teacher who has left behind writings or sayings. I wish that Christians, Jews, Muslims, and people of all faiths would would move beyond the idea of rigid support for every law and teaching contained within their own preferred religious scripture.
Some ideas in the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Qur'an, and other scriptures are outdated and should no longer be followed. Similarly, some of Baha'u'llah's ideas in his Aqdas have already passed into the realm of the historical rather than the currently applicable – before they were ever even applied. Baha'is should take a fresh look at the Kitab-i-Aqdas and be honest with themselves about which parts of it should still be followed; which parts should be followed but need to be reinterpreted in a more modern or liberal way; and which parts of it ought to be put aside as relics of a past era. There are many positive and relevant aspects of the Baha'i spiritual tradition – including in the Most Holy Book of the Baha'i faith – but in order for these to shine forth more fully, Bahais need to be willing to engage in modern liberal hermeneutics, textual criticism, and historical contextualization of their scriptures. This is what progressive adherents of all other religions are doing, and it is necessary to keep any religion relevant in changing times and cultural settings.
Issues in the Baha'i Faith: The "Covenant" and "Covenant-breakers"
By far, the worst problem with the Baha'i faith as most Baha'is understand it today is the Baha'i concept called "the Covenant" and the treatment of Baha'is who are considered heretics, called "Covenant-breakers." Ever since Baha'u'llah passed away and his eldest son Abdu'l-Baha became the leader of the faith, Baha'is have had the notion of a special "Covenant" between God and the Baha'is, that the Baha'i religion will always remain united under one organization and will always have a perfect and infallible source of divine guidance in this world in the form of the highest Baha'i leader or institution. Baha'is who do not believe this, or who support alternative Baha'i organizations, may be declared to be Covenant-breakers and shunned by all members of the Haifan Baha'i Faith organization.
This fundamentalist, even cultlike idea and practice originated in the teachings of Abdu'l-Baha, who claimed that his appointment to lead the Baha'is after Baha'u'llah meant that all Baha'is must regard him as morally perfect and infallible; that all his writings were to carry the same authority as scripture; and that he had the authority to tell all Baha'is what to believe and do. His younger brother, Ghusn-i-Akbar (usually called by his given name, Muhammad Ali), objected to these claims of Abdu'l-Baha and believed that no religious leader other than the Manifestations of God should have that much authority. Ghusn-i-Akbar had been appointed by Baha'u'llah in his Will and Testament to become his second successor, after Abdu'l-Baha. Instead, Abdu'l-Baha declared him a heretic, excommunicated him, and demanded that all Baha'is shun him. Most of Baha'u'llah's children and other descendants and relatives sympathized with Ghusn-i-Akbar and disagreed with Abdu'l-Baha's claims, and they were also excommunicated and shunned by the majority of Baha'is, who were loyal to Abdu'l-Baha.
This is how the concept of "Covenant-breaking" was born in the Baha'i faith. Abdu'l-Baha appointed his own grandson, Shoghi Effendi, to be his successor instead of Ghusn-i-Akbar, and called him the "Guardian" of the faith. He instructed him to appoint a successor before his death from among his own children or relatives to become the next Guardian. However, Shoghi Effendi found himself unable to have children of his own, and during his lifetime he declared all of his relatives to be Covenant-breakers because, in his view, they were not sufficiently obedient to his supposedly absolute authority over the Baha'is.
Therefore, the chain of succession of individual Baha'i leaders came to an end. Shoghi Effendi died suddenly without leaving a will, and did not provide specific instructions during his lifetime about who should lead the Baha'i Faith after his death. As one might imagine, this situation led to a power struggle. Ultimately, the vast majority of Baha'is consolidated under the authority of an elected institution called the Universal House of Justice. However, according to Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, this institution was required to have a Guardian as its chairman, who would have the right to insist on reconsideration of its decisions and to expel its members if necessary.
Therefore, a Baha'i who adheres to all the writings and teachings of the recognized successors of Baha'u'llah could legitimately question whether the current leadership organ of the Baha'i Faith known as the UHJ could possibly be perfect and infallible without a Guardian heading it. However, Baha'i Faith members are not allowed to question this or to regard the UHJ as merely a council of religious leaders making human decisions for the Baha'i Faith organization. Instead, they must profess belief that the Baha'i Covenant is still intact, that an infallible chain of succession of spiritual authority has never been broken. Baha'is are not supposed to disagree with any decision of the UHJ, since this institution is regarded as speaking for God.
I disagree with this on two levels: For one thing, it seems clear to me from the facts of Baha'i history that the Covenant did not pan out the way it was supposed to, first because the person who was originally supposed to become Abdu'l-Baha's successor was excommunicated unfairly; and furthermore because of the untimely death of his replacement, Shoghi Effendi, who did not appoint a successor.
Secondly, I simply do not believe there could ever be such a thing as a perfect chain of infallible spiritual authority. The Holy Spirit doesn't want to be limited to working through such a single channel, and what happened in the Baha'i faith ironically proves this. It's almost as if God Himself intervened to make sure that it would be impossible to believe, in a logical and intellectually honest way, in the fundamentalist Baha'i idea of "the Covenant." Also, since the time of Baha'u'llah there have been various other spiritual leaders and movements that were not part of the Baha'i faith, and some of these clearly were infused with divine inspiration. Examples include the Unitarians and Universalists, Transcendentalists, the New Thought and New Age movements, and the Charismatic movement.
Today, most Baha'is consider Baha'is who reject the claims of infallible authority by the Haifan Baha'i Faith's highest leadership institution to be "Covenant-breakers," terrible heretics who are reviled and shunned by "true" Baha'is. Two alternative Baha'i organizations were sued by the mainstream Baha'i Faith organization, simply because they use the word Baha'i to describe their beliefs. The Baha'i Faith's leaders actually had the audacity to claim that the word Baha'i is trademarked by their own organization and that such a trademark – on the name of a religion – is legitimate. It would be as if the Roman Catholic Church claimed that Protestants cannot describe themselves as Christian and sued their churches. Such attitudes among Baha'is are intolerant, fanatical, and characteristic of cults rather than the major world religion for modern times that the Baha'i faith aspires to be. In 2010, the court sided with the small Baha'i denominations and ruled that the name of the Baha'i religion is in the public domain.
Baha'is should put aside the notion of a special Covenant decreed by God that demands that all Baha'is must only support one Baha'i organization and always agree with its leadership. This idea has been disproved by Baha'i history, and it is incompatible with the modern, progressive ideals of religious tolerance and diversity that the Baha'i faith is supposed to stand for.
Issues in the Baha'i Faith: The "Universal House of Justice"
Members of the Baha'i Faith organization not only believe that their Universal House of Justice is infallibly inspired by God and that all Baha'is must unquestioningly obey its decisions, but they also believe that eventually all the peoples and nations of the world should come under the authority of this Baha'i religious institution. Specifically, conservative Baha'i doctrine asserts that all matters of state should be referred to the House of Justice; or as they understand it, that the UHJ should one day hold a higher position of power than the governments of the world. This appears to be based on a misinterpretation of one sentence that Baha'u'llah wrote in a text appended to his Most Holy Book.
Haifan Baha'ism includes theocracy as one of it's teachings, but it is far from clear that this is how the faith should be interpreted. Some Baha'i scholars disagree with this interpretation, but they have either been expelled from membership in the organized Baha'i Faith or must keep quiet about their beliefs. Most of Baha'u'llah's writings clearly promote secular democracy rather than theocracy – in fact, there is a great deal of evidence to indicate that Baha'u'llah envisioned a world in which people of all religions would have equal rights and freedoms and would form democratic national parliaments to serve as a check on the power of kings, clergy, and other autocratic rulers. Despite this, a pro-theocracy view is almost totally dominant in the Baha'i Faith today, and looks to remain so, because this doctrine is promoted by the "infallible" UHJ itself.
As for the "Universal House of Justice" such as has been created as the head institution of the mainstream Baha'i Faith organization, this is only one possible interpretation of what Baha'u'llah wrote on the subject of democratic spiritual leadership. Baha'u'llah taught that a local institution called simply the Bayt al-Adl ("House of Justice") should be formed in each city, and he described it as something very similar to a New England town meeting. Such bodies were supposed to replace the institution of the clergy in previous religions – and presumably Houses of Justice could be created at national or international levels as well – but Baha'u'llah does not define it or limit it, except to say that at least nine people must participate in the meetings of each House. Women were not excluded in theory as they have been in practice (the restriction of the UHJ to men only was a later interpretation by Abdu'l-Baha), nor did Baha'u'llah say that a House of Justice necessarily has to be restricted only to Baha'is or members of a particular organized religious community.
It is very unlikely that the Haifa-based Baha'i Faith organization will ever grow large enough to begin pushing for the kind of sweeping political power that it desires, so non-Baha'is need not worry. But regardless of practical realities, the fundamentalist Baha'i theory of future theocratic governance is a bad idea. In my opinion – and the opinion of the vast majority of progressive-thinking people in the world today – the leadership organs of any one religion should not aspire to assert authority over government. Instead, there should be separation of religion and state. Humanity is moving away from the idea of having popes, bishops, shaykhs, imams, ayatollahs, or any other kind of religious leaders holding a great deal of worldly power – and this is a very good development for the progress of civilization!
Baha'is need to put aside outdated theories and ideas that are not even clearly taught in Baha'u'llah's own writings. It was Shoghi Effendi, the successor of Abdu'l-Baha, who wrote in favor of theocracy and interpreted the Baha'i scriptures in a way that fit with his own preference for a one-world government ruled by the Universal House of Justice of the Baha'i Faith. Baha'is should move beyond such fantasies that belong to a bygone era, and reinterpret the Baha'i faith's teachings about politics and government to be fully compatible with 21st century democratic values.
Moving Beyond a Fundamentalist View of the Baha'i Faith
The Baha'i religion, if believed in a conservative and dogmatic way as many Baha'is do, is just like so many other philosophies and religions that claim absolute truth and authority while falling short of that impossible level of perfection. Baha'ism has played a valuable role in human spiritual history and continues to benefit many people today, but spiritually mature individuals (whether they choose to consider themselves "Baha'i" or not) should be able to perceive and admit its flaws and refrain from adhering to this faith with a literalistic and fundamentalist attitude – just as we should avoid all fundamentalisms so that we may continue the never-ending search for greater knowledge, understanding, truth, and meaning.
If you agree with a lot of Baha'i principles – such as the unity of humanity, world peace, equality of women and men, racial equality, and interfaith reconciliation – but disagree with the conservative way the Baha'i faith has been interpreted in the mainstream organized Baha'i community, you may be interested to check out these groups and websites:
Blessings to you in your spiritual journey, and may God be with you always!
Love, Light, and Peace,
Contact Eric Stetson
Bahai-Faith.com founded November 2002. Last updated May 6, 2011.