Monday, August 29, 2011

Laurence Oliphant on the Baha'i

One of the interesting features of the modern day State of Israel that usually gets overlooked, with all the talk about Jews versus Arabs and the land being holy to three religions, is that Israel is sacred for a fourth religion, the Baha'i, who have their headquarters in the Northern city of Haifa.

Baha'i is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, though unlike modern day Shiism, Baha'i is non violent and preaches tolerance for other religions. How the Baha'i, who mostly live in India, came to be involved with Israel is an interesting story. Essentially after the founder of the religion,  Siyyid `Alí Muḥammad Shírází , the Bab, was executed by the Persian government in 1850, (this seems to be a pattern in the founders of majors religions) his successor, Ṣubḥ-i-Azal, was exiled to Palestine from where he served the nascent Baha'i movement.  

Laurence Oliphant, the nineteenth century Christian Zionist met Azal's son and talks about the Baha'i in his travelogue book, Haifa or Life in Modern Palestine.

It is now forty-eight years since a young man of three-and-twenty appeared at the shrine of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet, who made a martyr at Kerbela. He was said to have been born at Shiraz, the son of a merchant there, and his name was Ali Mohammed. It is supposed that he derived his religious opinions from a certain Indian Mussulman, called Achsai, who instituted a system of reform, and made many disciples. Whether this is sor or not, the young Persian soon acquired a pre-eminent reputation for sanctity, and the boldness and enthusiasm of his preaching and the revolutionary sentiments he uttered attracted many to his teaching. So far as I have been able to judge, he preached a pure morality of the loftiest character, denouncing the abuses of existing Islam as Christ did the Judaism of his day, and fearlessly incurring the hostility of Persian Phariseeism. A member himself of the Shiite sect of Moslems, he sought to reform it, as beign the state religion of Perisa, and finally sent so far as to proclaim himself at Kufa the bab, or door, through which alone man could approach God. At the same time he announced that he was the Mahdi, or last Imaum, who was descended from Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, and whom the Shiites believe to have been an incarnation of the Deity. Mahdi is supposed by all Persian Moslems not to have died, but to be awaiting in concealment the coming of the last day. 

As may be imagined, the sudden appearance after so many centuries of a reformer who claimed to be none other than the long-expected divine manifestation, created no little consternation throughout Persia, more especially as, according to tradition, the time had arrived when such a manifestation was to be looked for, and men's minds were prepared for the event. The Persian enthusiast, as soon as his preaching became popular and his pretensions vast, roused the most violent hostility, and he was executed at Tabriz in 1849, after a brief career of fourteen years, at the early age of thirty-seven. The tragic circumstances attending his death enhanced his glory, for he was repeatedly offered his life if he would consent to abate his claims, or even leave the country. He preferred, however, a martyr's crown, and was executed in the presence of a vast multitude, leaving behind him a numerous and fanatic sect, who have since then been known as the Babs, and whose belief in the founder subsequent persecutions on the part of the government have only served to confirm.
The Bab before his execution gave it to be understood that though be was apparently about to die, he, or rather the divine incarnation of which he was the subject, would shortly reappear in the person of his successor, whom, I believe he named secretly. I do not exactly know when the present claimant first made known his pretensions to be that successor, but, at all events, he was universally acknowledged by the Bab sect, now numbering some hundreds of thousands, and became so formidable a personage, being a man of high lineage — indeed, it is whispered that he is a relative of the Shah himself that he was made prisoner by the government and sent into exile. The Sultan of Turkey kindly undertook to provide for his incarceration, and for some years he was a state prisoner at Adrianople. Finally he was transported from that place to Acre, on giving his parole to remain quietly there and not return to Persia, and here he has been living ever since, an object of adoration to his countrymen, who flock hither to visit him, who load him with gifts, and over two hundred of whom remain here as a sort of permanent body-guard.
He is visible only to women or men of the poorest class, and obstinately refuses to let his face be seen by any man above the rank of a fellah or peasant. Indeed, his own disciples who visit him are only allowed a glimpse of his august back, and in retiring from that they have to back out with their faces towards it. I have seen a lady who has been honoured with an interview, during which he said nothing beyond giving her his blessing, and after about three minutes motioned to her to retire. She describes him as a man of probably about seventy years of age, but much younger- looking, as he dyes both his hair and his beard black, but of a very mild and benevolent cast of countenance. He lives at a villa in the plain, about two miles beyond Acre, which he has rented from a Syrian gentleman of my acquaintance, who tells me that he always turns away so that his face shall not be seen. Indeed, the most profound secrecy is maintained in regard to him and the religious tenets of his sect. 

Not long ago, however public curiosity was gratified, for one of his Persian followers stabbed another for having been unworthy of some religious trust, and the great man himself was summoned as a witness.
"Will you tell the court who and what you are?" was the first question put. "I will begin," he replied, "by telling you who I am not. I am not a camel driver" this was an allusion to the Prophet Mohammed "nor am I the son of a carpenter" this in allusion to Christ. "This is as much as I can tell you to-day. If you will now let me retire, I will you tomorrow who I am."
Upon this promise he was let go; but the morrow never came. With an enormous bribe he had in the interval purchased an exemption from all further attendance at court.
That his wealth is fabulous may be gathered from the fact that not long since a Persian emir or prince, possessing large estates, came and offered them all, if in return he would only allow him to fill his water-jars. The offer was considered worthy of acceptance, and the emir is at this moment a gardener in the grounds which I saw over the wall of my friend's villa. This is only once instance of the devotion with which he is regarded, and of the honours which are paid to him: indeed, when we remember that he is believed to possess the attributes of Deity, this is not to be wondered a. Meantime his disciples are patiently waiting for his turn to come, which will be on the last day, when his divine character will be recognized by unbelievers. (Pg. 105-07)

1 comment:

DF said...

Intereting. I'm not really sure if Bahai is actally a religion, as that term is commonly undersstood. It may have started out that way, but today - or at any rate, all newcomers to the fold - see it as just a cool way to classify their political opinions. According the Bahaicleveland wesbite, the following are "The Principles of the Bahai Faith", verbatim.


The abandonment of all forms of prejudice

Assurance to women of full equality of opportunity with men

Recognition of the unity and relativity of religious truth

The elimination of extremes of poverty and wealth

The realization of universal education

The responsibility of each person to independently search for truth

The establishment of a global commonwealth of nations

Recognition that true religion is in harmony with reason and the pursuit of scientific knowledge