Saturday, December 02, 2006

The Bahai vision of unity

I was walking through a local arcade recently when I came across a pamphlet from the Bahai church.

I'd heard of the Bahais before but didn't know much about them. I was surprised to discover just how intensely liberal the Bahai faith is.

The Bahai church originated in Persia in the mid-nineteenth century. It operates now in many countries, including America and Australia, and claims a membership of around 6 million.

The central tenet of the Bahai faith is the unity of mankind. The idea seems to be that as God made us out of a single substance we are to aim at a kind of single identity.

Thus one of the Bahai prophets is recorded as saying:

Since we have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land, that from your inmost being, by your deeds and actions, the signs of oneness and the essence of detachment may be made manifest.

The result of this belief is that Bahais must attempt to transcend particular forms of identity in favour of a single universal one. As the Bahais themselves put it:

Bahais see unity as the law of life ..."

Guided and inspired by such principles, the Bahai community has accumulated more than a century of experience in creating models of unity that transcend race, culture, nationality, class, and the differences of sex and religion, providing empirical evidence that humanity ... can live as a unified global society.

What's interesting is that the Bahais have arrived, through their religious beliefs, at a similar political outlook as Western liberals. Western liberals also want the individual to transcend particular forms of identity, as these are believed to impede our self-creation through individual will and reason.

In fact, Bahai writings sound remarkably like liberal ones, promising that the abolition of particular distinctions will bring about peace, liberation, equality and progress.

The thing is, though, do we really want to abolish particular forms of identity? Would we really want to live in a world in which, according to the Bahais, there would only be "one common fatherland," "one universal langauge," and the abolition of anything, including "cultural expression" which would make one portion of humanity "intrinsically distinct from another portion."

Think about what this would mean. We would no longer be able to enjoy a special sense of connection to our own particular national tradition, nor appreciate contact with other distinctive national cultures.

We would no longer be able to enjoy the more positive aspects of gender difference, nor identify in a positive way with our own sex (one Bahai pamphlet specifically outlaws the practice of men identifying as being a "masculine soul in a male body").

We would no longer be able to uphold the positive aspects of class cultures within our own countries. These class cultures traditionally provided standards of behaviour and distinctive forms of culture within a national community.

What we would have, instead, is a further descent into a society built on atomised, rootless, denatured individuals. Such societies seem to be easily dominated by a globalised commercial culture of little depth. They are not characterised, as the Bahais would have as believe, by a profound spiritual life.

In short, what the Bahai church offers is a religious pathway into liberal political activism. Even though the origins of Bahai lie outside Western liberalism, by asserting an absolute and abstract unity between people, the Bahai faith requires, just as Western liberalism does, the abolition of particular distinctions - an abolition of the very things which enrich our lives spiritually and which a church concerned for the spiritual life of its adherents should seek to support.

(This is one from the archive. It was first published at Conservative Central on 24/09/2003. It's the busiest few days of the year for me professionally, so I hope readers don't mind me cross-posting.)


  1. The Baha'is don't share the modern liberal fascination with the promotion of Sodomy and unchasity.

  2. One of the best definitions I heard so far about the Baha'i Religion is that it is SOCIALLY liberal and MORALLY conservative.

    The ideas of world unity and seeing the World as one country is a vrey liberal one; but Baha'i teachings concerning issues like marriage, abortion and homosexuality are very conservative.

  3. Mark there is nothing wrong with a little recycling :o)

  4. Dear Sir,

    There are a few parts of your post in particular that I think are quite innacurate views of the Baha'i vision of unity:

    1. We would no longer be able to enjoy a special sense of connection to our own particular national tradition, nor appreciate contact with other distinctive national cultures.

    The Baha'i Teachings specifically call for unity in diversity:

    "Its purpose is neither to stifle the flame of a sane and intelligent patriotism in men’s hearts, nor to abolish the system of national autonomy so essential if the evils of excessive centralization are to be avoided. It does not ignore, nor does it attempt to suppress, the diversity of ethnical origins, of climate, of history, of language and tradition, of thought and habit, that differentiate the peoples and nations of the world. It calls for a wider loyalty, for a larger aspiration than any that has animated the human race. It insists upon the subordination of national impulses and interests to the imperative claims of a unified world. It repudiates excessive centralization on one hand, and disclaims all attempts at uniformity on the other. Its watchword is unity in diversity such as ‘Abdu’l-Baha Himself has explained:
    “Consider the flowers of a garden. Though differing in kind, color, form and shape, yet, inasmuch as they are refreshed by the waters of one spring, revived by the breath of one wind, invigorated by the rays of one sun, this diversity increaseth their charm and addeth unto their beauty. How unpleasing to the eye if all the flowers and plants, the leaves and blossoms, the fruit, the branches and the trees of that garden were all of the same shape and color!" (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha'u'llah)

    2. In short, what the Bahai church offers is a religious pathway into liberal political activism.

    Baha'is are forbidden from participating in partisan politics. We are not liberal political activists. :)


  5. Anonymous, whenever I read Bahai publications I'm astonished at the close correlation with secular liberal beliefs. The terminology and most of the sentiments are identical.

    The quote you provide does talk about preserving diversity. But it's clear that the drive to "unity" overrides the concern with diversity.

    For instance, the official world Bahai site says:

    "The unity of the human race, as envisaged by Bahá'u'lláh, implies the establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded."

    I agree that here there is talk of preserving the autonomy of state members. But look at what follows:

    "This world commonwealth must, as far as we can visualize it, consist of a world legislature, whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind, ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations, and will enact such laws as shall be required to regulate the life, satisfy the needs and adjust the relationships of all races and peoples.

    A world executive, backed by an international Force, will carry out the decisions arrived at, and apply the laws enacted by, this world legislature, and will safeguard the organic unity of the whole commonwealth.

    So much for the autonomy of nation states!

    Then there's this piece of international socialism:

    "The economic resources of the world will be tapped and fully utilized, its markets will be coordinated and developed, and the distribution of its products will be equitably regulated."

    I notice too that when the Bahai church talks of unity in diversity, it doesn't mean preserving the traditional peoples of the West as part of maintaining and celebrating the world's diversity.

    What it means instead is opening up Western nations to multicultural diversity - just like the secular Western liberals wish to do.

  6. Having had considerable close contact with Baha'is and their teachings, I think I have to agree most with Mark Richardson's comments. Those of us who are truly conservative and who want to preserve our distinctive cultures and ways of life can't find much in the Baha'i faith to support that, no matter what the official apologists may say.
    I have no doubt that the majority of Baha'is are well-meaning people but I don't think traditionalists can hope to find much common ground with them.

  7. If you wish to see a truly liberal religion look at Unitarianism -

  8. Mild Colonial Boy, I followed the link - and you're right, the Unitarians really are out there in their liberalism.

  9. If the Baha'i's are so liberal, why do they deny women the right to sit on the Universal House of Justice? If they are so morally conservative, why do they allow bigamy?

  10. I think I had the same initial impressions about the Bahai faith (that they are really really tolerant and liberal) but the more I learned about it, the more I became aware of another side.

    A previous comment already mentioned the ban on women from their highest body.

    The Bahai rules also prohibit civil disobedience of any kind.

    And currently, any Bahai who wants to publish a book or article regarding the Bahai faith is required to submit the piece to the Bahai "church" for review before it can be published.

    And over the years there has a developed an odd dynamic between Bahai "dissidents" (typically writers and academics) who have expressed opinions regarding the Bahai faith, especially its hierarchy, and have ended up leaving the faith (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes involuntarily)

  11. Allah-u-abha! I hope you don't this plug, but some of us Baha'i bloggers, conservative, liberal, and leftist, are actually debating this very topic at the moment. Here's my view on the matter with links to another viewpoint: