Disclaimer: This article aims neither to endorse or oppose any Bahá’í or other religious or spiritual doctrine, but rather to provide information to the NYU Shanghai community about one of the youngest world religions. Any misrepresentation of Bahá’í or any other religious or spiritual doctrine is the fault of the author. Certain details are left out for the sake of brevity. Even students who aren’t particularly interested in religion might take interest in the article, as it touches on social issues, Marxism, and LGBTQ+ issues.
An Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith
In 1844, “the Báb,” declared that he was the bearer of a divine revelation from God. He soon gained a notable following, but was executed in 1850 by the Qajar Dynasty of Persia, which feared a growing Bábí religious minority. A young adherent to Bábism, Mirza Husayn-‘Alí soon grew to prominence in the Bábí community. He called himself Bahá’ulláh, meaning the Glory of God in Arabic. Bahá’ulláh was exiled several times in his life, first from Persia, then from Baghdad and from Constantinople (Istanbul), before ending up in Acre, modern day Israel. Before leaving Baghdad, Bahá’u’lláh and his followers lived for twelve days in a garden on the banks of the Tigris River. Bahá’u’lláh would rename this place the Garden of Ridván, or “paradise.” In the Garden of Ridván, Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed that he was the Messenger of God that the Báb had prophesied would come. This represents the founding of the Bahá’í Faith as a distinct movement from Bábism.
Before passing away in 1892, Bahá’u’lláh named his eldest son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as his successor in his will. During his lifetime, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá traveled from Haifa in modern day Israel all over the world to spread Bahá’í teachings. He began the project of constructing a tomb for the Báb in Haifa, and spoke of the “need to create the social conditions and the international political instruments necessary to establish peace.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá passed away in 1921. Among his contributions to the Bahá’í Faith, were “Vital Truths,” which include: the condemnation of all forms of prejudice, the harmony which must exist between religion and science, the equality of men and women, and the abolition of the extremes of wealth and poverty.
After ‘Abdu’l-Bahá passed, the leadership of the Bahá’í Faith no longer fell to one individual, but to an executive and legislature––the Universal House of Justice. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá named* Shoghi Effendi as the “Guardian” of the Bahá’í Faith. In theory, Effendi was to appoint a successor in his will, but he died before he could do so. The Universal House of Justice, for which membership is notably only open to men, is now the international governing council of the Bahá’í Faith, and has supreme interpretive power over major faith doctrine.
According to the religion’s own statistics, today there are about five million Bahá’ís worldwide. The country with the highest number of adherents is India, where there are over a million Bahá’ís. The Bahá’í Faith is the most geographically widespread religion in the world after Christianity. Some of those five million believers are present among us in the halls and study rooms of NYU Shanghai. At least two professors at NYU Shanghai are adherents of the Bahá’í Faith, and a number of students––both Bahá’í and non-Bahá’í––have taken interest in the message the faith has for the world. Professor Glen Cotten sat down with OCA to discuss Bahá’í teachings, the Bahá’í message for the world, and his own personal experience in the faith. Professor Cotten teaches English for Academic Purposes (EAP) and has taught a course on ‘Community Development and Service Learning’ for NYU Shanghai’s Dean Service Scholars Program.
*Reform Bahá’ís dispute the authenticity of Shoghi Effendi’s guardianship
OCA: How did you first hear about the Bahá’í Faith? Did you grow up with it or did you find the faith on your own?
Cotten: “The short answer is both. My father is a Bahá’í, but I found it on my own. For the most part, I didn’t grow up in places where we had the advantage of participating in a Bahá’í community where I could have regularly attended children’s classes or participate in community life as a child. I just knew that my father was a Bahá’í, and when I was searching, there were phases in my search. I guess the first one was when I was quite young. I asked my father questions about God as an elementary school student––and these [were] my own questions. I remember he told me some of the basic Bahá’í teachings––that there is this mystery to the universe, which we can never completely grasp. It’s beyond our knowing––our ability to know, except we can know it by its qualities––one of the most important qualities being love. We know that it has a lot to do with love.”
“The idea that we are created because of this force of love––in fact the whole universe was created out of love and that we human beings were especially created to know the source of it, to be attracted to the source of that love and to want to know God and worship God. Paradoxically, we can’t ever fully know God, but we are here to strive to know God. So, my father gave me a few prayers, and for this I’m very grateful. [The prayers] were revealed by some of the prophets of our faith––some of the simple ones that I memorized. I used them as a child. For example, one of them was: ‘I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth. There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.’”
OCA: How did this understanding evolve as you grew older?
Cotten: “There was another stage in my search when I was in 7th grade. We were in Southeast Asia at that time. My father was working in Vietnam––this is in the 1970s. My mother and sister and I were living in Bangkok, Thailand and at that time, my mother––who is German––was active in the Bahá’í Faith. She took us to some of the Bahá’í meetings at the Bahá’í center in Bangkok, and I was very touched. In the Bahá’í Faith, there’s no Sunday or Friday worship service. The regular meetings of the community are every nineteen days… the Bahá’í calendar is made up of nineteen months, each with nineteen days. Nine is a very special number in the Bahá’í Faith––every house of worship has nine sides. Nine is simply the number of highest unity––the largest single digit number. But anyway, we were in Thailand, and I met some very special people in Thailand. We joined my father in Vietnam in 1974 and ‘75, and I met some very special Bahá’ís there. I was young, but I was very interested in the spiritual stories, and very much interested in the history. I read about Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb. I read about ‘Abdul Bahá, the son of Bahá’u’lláh. (more information below) Their lives were so beautiful, so perfect. Their ability to love everyone unconditionally. Their ability to perfectly respond to the needs of the people that were around them, and to see into their hearts and their souls. And to me it was a proof of God’s existence and power. People couldn’t be like this without a transcendent power of sorts that animated them. So, in my early years, my recognition of God’s presence occurred in two ways: one was seeing beauty in nature; and the other was the beauty of the lives of these people.”
“Another thing that really stuck with me was the Bahá’í teaching that all religions are one. Sometimes Bahá’ís refer to the ‘three onenesses;’ [this] is kind of a simple summation of the essential teachings. It’s not the only one possible way that you could summarize them, but it’s useful. The three onenesses are: the oneness of humanity, the oneness of religion, and the oneness of God. And the idea of the oneness of religion––my dad drew me this chart… this was again when I was a child… he drew me this little picture of the sun (symbolizing God), and light coming from the sun hitting several mirrors, which then reflecting the light to the human race. And on each mirror he wrote a different name––Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad, the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. And for each of those special Beings, their appearance in history is like a sunrise in human consciousness––these are the Manifestations of God. They are human, but at the same time they stand out from human beings, they show signs, even from early childhood that they are different from other human beings, for example, of knowing things they couldn’t possible have learned in normal ways.”
“To be a Bahá’í is to have recognized in Bahá’u’lláh the fulfillment of Christianity, the fulfillment of Islam, the fulfillment of all the religions, or their ‘updates.’ Certainly Bahá’´ís are encouraged to be aware of the scriptures of the previous religions. If you go to a Bahá’í devotional meeting or holy days or services in the Bahá’í house of worship, they all usually include some verses from other scriptures––from the Bible, Buddhist scriptures, and the Qur’ān, the Bhagavad Gita, and so on. So, we regard all religions as one, and very definitely we see there are certain spiritual teachings that are eternally true and essentially the same in every major religion. At the same time, the Bahá’í term is ‘progressive revelation.’ Each new Revelation of God contains some new understandings, new social and moral teachings, new explanations of the eternal truths more suited to the needs and capacity of human beings at that time––what it meant to be just or ‘to love your neighbor’ 2,000 years ago, is not exactly the same as what it means today. There are new implications now for what these things mean in a global interconnected society. Bahá’u’lláh updates it––what does it mean––a lot of that has to do with creating new institutions, new economic, political, social institutions that reflect the understanding that we are one human family, profoundly and inherently interconnected and that we share one planet, one common homeland.”
“The Bahá’í Faith teaches that science and religion are the two main systems of knowledge, or ways of knowing, that give human beings insight into reality, and that guide the development of civilizations. They are complementary and need each other, like a bird requires two wings to fly. And just as it wouldn’t make sense to divide the pursuit of science into conflicting sciences, religion should not be divided into separate religions. That we have historically done this, that we have seen Buddhism, Christianity and Islam as separate religions in conflict with each other, is due to the immaturity of our vision.”
OCA: What was the next ‘phase’ of your journey?
“I would say it was in the end of high school and the beginning of college that I actually decided I was a Bahá’í. I joined a Bahá’í community.”
OCA: Is there a ceremony that marks your entrance into the Bahá’í Faith?
“No. You’ll see in the Bahá’í Faith there’s a minimum of ceremony or ritual. In fact, there’s almost none. There’s a few practices that all Bahá’ís do that are recommended by Bahá’u’lláh, such as prayer and fasting.”
OCA: I’ve read about certain communities of Bahá’ís that use ID cards to identify themselves as Bahá’ís––is this true?
“In the U.S., that happens to be the way that the faith has been organized, and it’s a nice thing, because by signing that card in the U.S. you are saying in front of others––yes, I believe these things and I’m now declaring publicly that I’m a believer. It’s called a ‘declaration card.’ You’re declaring your faith. But that is not everywhere. There are several countries––including China––where there is no such thing. I was born in Buffalo, New York, but the U.S. Bahá’í community knows that I’m not in the U.S. anymore. So I’m no longer a member of the U.S. Bahá’í community. I am now––a Bahá’í living in China. And there are many other Bahá’ís in China––both foreign and Chinese Bahá’ís…”
“There’s something I feel that’s important to say. It is that the Bahá’ís––at this point in the evolution of the Bahá’í Faith and the work that we’re doing in the world––are de-emphasizing the distinction between who is Bahá’í and who is non-Bahá’í… Again, the point is see all humanity as one, to see all human beings ‘with the eye oneness,’ as the Bahá’í Writings say, and at the same, to appreciate and value our diversity. Unity, for Bahá’ís, does not mean sameness. We are all parts of one organic whole, and those parts should have different qualities for the whole to be healthy. What it is Bahá’ís are offering to humanity are teachings and new ways of doing things in the world that we recognize are greatly needed at this time. We are emphasizing grassroots education, grassroots moral and spiritual education, and the development of skills for service and approaches to transforming society. We are welcoming other people who are attracted to participate. It is our service. The way we’re trying to transform society is not about expanding a congregation or a club or getting people to convert. That goes back to the idea of redefining the idea of what religion is… it’s been [humanity’s] immature understanding of religion that has caused us to divide [religion] into Christianity and Buddhism, Islam, and so on.”
OCA: I’ve read that the Bahá’í Faith has been registered with the U.N. as a nongovernmental organization since 1948. It enjoys consultative status on the United Nation’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and with UNICEF, and works with a number of other U.N. specialized agencies, yes?
“Yes. In fact, it’s worth mentioning… Do you remember the Millennium Summit at the UN in the year 2000? There [were] the political leaders of course, but there was also a conference of world religious leaders. It was all part of the same millenium conferences and there was, for the first time, a global meeting of NGOs. That meeting was co-chaired by the Principal Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations––this was not even the conference of religious leaders, but the one for civil society. He was given that honor because the Bahá’ís have a reputation of being very globally-minded and very impartial. They wouldn’t be involved in the political disputes. This says something about the respect with which the Bahá’í International Community is held at the UN.”
OCA: I’d like to pivot to China. Is there a community of Bahá’ís in Shanghai?
“Yes, but we don’t meet as a whole community. The Chinese Bahá’ís are organized mostly in neighborhoods, and these are groups of people that have studied this sequence of ‘trainings for change’––the official name is the Ruhi Institute Courses. These are courses that are being offered by Bahá’ís in thousands of localities in nearly every country of the world and are open to the general public. You don’t have to be a Bahá’í to do it. It’s one of those grassroots educational efforts to help reorient people’s minds and hearts––to help people develop a new paradigm. The courses examine spiritual reality, and keys to spiritual growth, and, at the same time, help participants to develop skills that can help transform local communities and contribute to building a new global civilization.”
OCA: Are these groups considered study or worship?
“[Study and worship are] interrelated. Indeed, service to humanity IS worship in the Bahá’í understanding.”
OCA: How do Bahá’ís worship?
“In all countries in the world we meet in each others homes. In some larger localities there may be a center. In Durham, North Carolina, for example, where I lived before coming to China, there was a Bahá’í center there. There was a building that we met in, and then on each continent there is a House of Worship––they are beautiful. The most recent one was built in Chile. The architecture is just amazing. These Baha’i Houses of Worship each have nine doors (since nine is considered the number of highest unity, the largest single digit number that contains all others) and a dome. Inside there are no altars, and no sermons are given, since the Bahá’í Faith has no clergy. They are places for prayer and meditation open to people of all faiths and no faith.”
OCA: Could you comment on how you understand your faith living in the world’s largest atheist state?
“Well, the Bahá’í Faith has unusual status in China. It’s on good terms with the Chinese government. The Chinese government understands that Bahá’ís are law-abiding citizens in every country who seek the wellbeing of the nation and the government. This is a mandate wherever Bahá’ís live; they are friends to the government. We are law-abiding. We believe in the rule of law, and so actually Bahá’ís are highly regarded by certain authorities in the Chinese government. The Bahá’ís are totally transparent about their activities in China, and these activities have the approval of the Chinese government.
Many Chinese people often say when you ask them about religion that ‘we’re people with no belief.’ This seems to be part of the public discourse, and within this discourse there is also the recognition of some Chinese intellectuals that the absence of a religious belief is actually working to China’s detriment––that many of China’s social problems can be traced back to the absence of the belief in the transcendent and the strength of moral conviction and moral behavior that comes from this, that materialism is having a negative effects on Chinese society. For example, you may have heard about the “Death of Wang Yue.” In 2011, a little girl was crossing the street. She got hit by a car, and she layed there, and people were just looking at her and going by not doing a thing. Finally a street sweeper picks her up and takes her to the hospital, where she later died. I think her comment was then––‘What’s wrong with people? What has happened to us? What’s happened to our values?’ Of course there are complex reasons for that too, which go back to the Cultural Revolution. Unfortunately, that’s had a lasting impact on Chinese society. I’ve had one-on-one conversations with Chinese people that don’t identify as Bahá’í, but say that [the lessons of spirituality or religion are] what China needs––that Chinese society is experiencing a spiritual vacuum. And China is of course not unique in this regard. Every society, in some form or another, is suffering from a breakdown of values. Old institutions of society in every country are becoming increasingly dysfunctional, because they are not operating in ways that are sustainable and that acknowledge our interconnectedness and the fundamentally spiritual nature and inherent value of every human being. This is because, as Baha’i teachings state, humanity is going through a period of transition to an ultimately peaceful, just, sustainable global society. But the transition is necessarily turbulent and chaotic, involving the disintegration of older social systems and traditional worldviews at the same time that new ways of life and understanding of reality is emerging at the grassroots of society.”
OCA: Is there anything else you’d like NYU Shanghai to know about the Bahá’ís?
“I’d like to mention that there’s a very important date coming up in October of this year. It’s going to be the 200th Anniversary of Bahá’u’lláh’s birth––a very significant day for Bahá’ís. It’s Oct. 22. It will be celebrated to a greater degree than that holy day has ever been celebrated in the past, and we hope it will be an opportunity to help the world to become more aware of who Bahá’u’lláh is. Bahá’u’lláh has had a historical impact that is not widely acknowledged. For example, the League of Nations––it was influenced by the Bahá’í Faith and the Bahá’í teachings. Woodrow Wilson, perhaps the primary architect of that League, was aware of Bahá’í teachings. Bahá’í teachings also influenced the United Nations.”
OCA: Thank you for taking the time to sit down with OCA, Professor Cotten.
Reform, Persecution, and Dialogue
Like any widespread belief system, the Bahá’í Faith is not without its critics, reactionaries, and enemies. The Bahá’ís’ dialogues and disputes with other faiths and ideologies bring up a number of interesting questions not only regarding faith and theology, but also philosophy and methods of social change. This article will explore four of these intersections: (1) Reform Bahá’ís, (2) the Bahá’í Faith and Islam, and (3) the Bahá’í Faith and Marxism, and (4) the Bahá’í Faith and the LGBTQ+ community. Before diving into any of these subjects, one must have a basic understanding of Bahá’í history.
Protestants are to Catholics as “Reform Bahá’ís” are to Bahá’ís. Reform Bahá’ís reject Shoghi Effendi’s guardianship and resent the term “covenant breakers,” which Moojan Momen writes are “those who remain within the Bahá’í community, professing loyalty to the Bahá’í Cause and yet oppose the authorized leadership of the Bahá’í Faith or actively try to split the Bahá’í community by setting up an alternative center of leadership…”
Reform Bahá’ís reject the bureaucracy, authority, and interpretive finality of the Universal House of Justice, and disagree with any mention of a future theocratic Bahá’í democracy. Echoing Martin Luther, the Reform Bahá’í posted a list of Ninety-Five Theses on their website in response to the more mainstream Bahá’í Faith in 2004.
Of course, just as all Catholics don’t agree with all the interpretations of the Holy See, or as all Tibetan Buddhists don’t agree with every word of what the Dalai Lama says, not all Bahá’í adhere one-hundred percent to the words and publications of the Universal House of Justice. Nonetheless, in terms of organizational structure, the issue of final interpretation remains disputed among those who care about Bahá’u’lláh’s legacy.
The Bahá’í Faith, Islam, and the Prophet Muhammad
Part of the reason Bahá’ís are targeted in Iran is theological disputes. In Islam, Muhammad is referred to as the “Seal of the Prophets” (khátam al-nabiyyín), the last messenger of God who brought to humankind Islam––the last and final religion. Many scholars believe that the “Finality of Prophethood” (khatm al-nubuwwa) is a major tenet of the Muslim creed, or aqidah, though varying interpretations exist. When the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh declared themselves to be messengers of God, many considered it to be an act of apostasy, or ridda.
In the Journal of Bahá’í Studies, Seena Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir responded to the above saying that Bahá’ís indeed believe in the “Seal of the Prophets,” but say that all major religious founders have in effect been the “seal” on their particular faith. Fazel and Fananapazir’s paper aims to “provide explanations of the central theological differences between the Islamic religion and the Bahá’í Faith,” in the hope that it may “contribute to the endeavour of Bahá’ís to explain their Faith to Muslims and relate the Bahá’í teachings to Islamic theology.” Those interested in reading the paper may click here.
When asked about his thoughts on theological dispute and its relation to the persecution of Bahá’ís in Iran, NYU Shanghai’s Professor Cotten had this to say:
“It creates an excuse, which can be used––the causes of it are very much political, and the Bahá’ís are used as scapegoats, and they have been since the Bahá’í faith began. [The clerics] do it to maintain their power, and that’s still the case today––in fact there was a murder of another Bahá’í in Iran just last month––the prejudice against the Bahá’ís stoked by the clergy, and of course there’s not a big distinction between the clergy and the government in Iran today. But’s it’s purely political. It’s all about power, not matters of the spirit.”
The Bahá’í Faith and Marxism
Considering NYU Shanghai is a Sino-American institute, it is worthwhile to compare and contrast the Bahá’í Faith to Marxism, one of the leading economic, social, and political ideologies of China. In 1986, with support from the Universal House of Justice, the Association for Bahá’í Studies held a conference at the Louhelen Bahá’í School in Michigan on the Bahá’í Faith and Marxism. A number of Bahá’í and Marxist scholars came together to exchange academic papers and to enter into dialogue about (1) the nature of the human being and society, (2) strategies for social change, and (3) social and economic development. The papers are collected in this book available online. However, the spoken dialogue in which the professors blended their ideas or disagreed was not recorded.
In short, to the Bahá’ís, the driving force of historical progress is the human soul and its relation to the Manifestations of God and its Creator. In contrast, the Marxian perspective is explained through historical materialism. The driving force of historical progress is the interaction between “the base”––the means of production and the relations of production––and the “superstructure,” which is borne out of the base and includes everything from law, to politics, to religion itself. To quote the paper, “[u]nfortunately, the difference [between Marxists and Bahá’ís] is not simply in words, it does affect both the proposed solutions to the human predicament and the methods and means chosen for the implementation of those solutions.” Though Bahá’í and Marxian thought differ radically in their basic assumptions, both ultimately look forward to a day when all people everywhere can realize their fullest potential on a global scale.
The Bahá’í Faith and the LGBTQ+ Community
One question that remains unanswered is where LGBTQ+ people fit into the Bahá’ís vision of universal peace. Many Bahá’ís are tolerant of LGBTQ+ people, and many Bahá’ís themselves identify as LGBTQ+, yet religious conservatism persists in the Universal House of Justice. In 2014, Sean Rayshel, a third generation Bahá’í and openly gay, received a lengthy letter from the Universal House of Justice when faced with a possible loss of his leadership role in the faith because of his same-sex marriage. An excerpt from the letter reads:
Marriage is a union between a man and a woman, and sexual relations are only permissible between husband and wife. These points are laid down in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi and are not subject to change by the Universal House of Justice. Bahá’u’lláh also prohibits certain sexual acts, including homosexual relations…
Of course, this tension between religious orthodoxy and the LGBTQ+ community is not unique to the Bahá’í Faith. In recent years, different religious leaders have come out in support of LGBTQ+ people’s rights and human dignity, while others have issued staunch condemnations against expanding LGBTQ+ visibility and rights.
As students of the Global Network University, it is our duty and privilege to learn about the many belief systems, traditions, and ideologies of our world. Forming part of the cosmopolitan educational project that is NYU Shanghai, we ought to reflect on the Bahá’í teachings and their implications for the world whether we are believers, nonbelievers, materialist or spiritual in our convictions. To quote the great Chinese thinker Confucius:
A virtuous man or woman aims at harmony, and not at uniformity. Small-minded people aim at uniformity, and not at harmony.