BBC Radio Hosts Frank Discussion on the Baha’i Faith

Recently BBC Radio 4′s “Beyond Belief” program hosted by award winning host and producer, Ernie Rea held a surprisingly frank discussion on the Baha’i Faith.

ernie rea

Ernie Rea

This type of program is rather rare but hopefully not for much longer. Usually media mentions of the Baha’i Faith tend to be public relations type story plants which announce an important milestone or event like the recent completion of the multi-year renovation of the Shrine of the Bab.

Most general media audiences are not familiar with the Baha’i Faith making it a low priority for most journalists. Even more esoteric are the relatively new challenges and frictions within the worldwide Baha’i community.

This program features Denis MacEoin, a Babi, Baha’i and Muslim scholar who left the Faith in the 1980′s as a result of the infamous clashes that occurred between academics and various persons within the Baha’i institutions at the time. Although he was half a world away, MacEoin participated in the LA Baha’i Study Class of the mid to late 1970′s. Ernie Rae’s panel also includes Moojan Momen and Lil Osborn, both Baha’is. As well as Fidelma Meehan, a member of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United Kingdom who recounts how she learned of the Faith in university. The complete audio of the program and transcript is below. I welcome your thoughts and comments.

It make more sense to listen or read the program before reading my reactions. Several important points jumped at me as I listened. First, I’m surprised that someone as knowledgeable as MacEoin would claim that the Bab wasn’t really concerned about the next Manifestation of God. I’m also surprised that MacEoin says that the Bab was the first to lay claim to being the “Mahdi” or Qaim, the 12th Imam or the Hidden Imam. There were in fact 8 previous claimants going back as far as the 8th century and 6 other claimants after the Bab – Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the founder of the Ahmadiyyiha movement being the most famous and successful among this group. Even today there are people making the claiming.

It is also surprising that neither Momen nor MacEoin take this opportunity to raise the issue of Momen’s irredeemable paper “Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha’i Community” which resulted in an unprecedented editorial response from the publication declaring:

This incident clearly points to the absence of a code of research ethics in our ?eld. The fact that so many individuals felt a need to protest against what they perceive as misrepresentation illustrates the need to take potential dangers to the in-tegrity of persons more actively in to account in the review process and editorial decisions. Possibly, we need to change our procedure in cases where people are targeted in ways that go beyond the usual forms of scholarly discussion (such as in reviews). The editors of Religion have begun discussing the possibility of dedicating a special issue on research ethics in the study of religion(s).

Religion subsequently published several responses, including one from Denis MacEoin, (as well as Momen’s own rebuttal): Challenging apostasy: Responses to Moojan Momen’s ‘Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha’i Community’

It is unfortunate that the discussion about the “paradox” of the exclusion of women from the House of Justice does not touch on the points raised in such papers as The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith. Of course I don’t expect Momen, Osborn or Meehan to bring it up but MacEoin doesn’t either.

Momen’s defense of the Baha’i institutions is equally puzzling when he claims: “All of the institutions of the Faith are elected…”. Only one pillar out of two is elected, the other is appointed. Furthermore, in recent years we have seen a phenomena where the appointed bodies have come to have more prominence and clout. And the members of the Universal House of Justice sourced from the very same group of individuals the House of Justice itself appoints! This circular administrative order at the top of the Baha’i leadership is most definitely not “democratic”. Point to MacEoin – if anyone is keeping score.

The claim that the Baha’i Faith envisions the world governed by one world government does not mean that that government would be either Baha’i in nature or a theocracy. For more, see Baha’i Views on Church and State. The treatment of Baha’i publication review is equally superficial with no acknowledgement that the Faith is now engaged with a dynamic global audience that is able to ascertain fact from fiction and to differentiate between a person’s opinion or actions and the official policies of their respective religious authority. Do you think any of the 99% of the Catholics who use contraception need to be coddled about how one individual Bahai’s opinion about a matter may not necessarily match with that of the Universal House of Justice?

Another golden opportunity would have been the paper written by another member of the NSA of the UK, Barney Leith arguing that it is now time to do away with publication review (written in 1995!): Baha’i Review: Should the ‘red flag’ law be repealed?

Of course many other fascinating points of discussion were also ignored. For example, the view of the Baha’i Faith on homosexuality.

Audio:


Transcript:

Ernie: Hello, members of the Baha’i Faith hold to three cardinal beliefs: the unity of God, the unity of religion and the unity of humankind. Human beings are here to learn to love God and to be of service to others; universal principles. But Baha’is have suffered dreadful persecutions for their beliefs in places like Iran, Egypt and Afghanistan. So who are the Baha’is? what do they believe? and why do they attract such opposition in some Islamic countries? and what challenges does modernity pose to their own principles of equality and tolerance?

Joining me to discuss the Baha’i Faith are Lil Osborn, herself a Baha’i and whose book on the Baha’is in Britain will soon be published. Moojan Momen a Baha’i researcher and writer and Denis MacEoin a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly who used to be a Baha’i but has left the Faith.
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UHJ on Priority for Elimination of Racial Prejudice

A recent letter from the Universal House of Justice (via the Secretariat) responding to a question from an individual Baha’i addresses the question of racial prejudice and the priority that the Baha’i community should place upon its elimination in the US.

We don’t have the actual question but from the reply we can infer that it juxtaposed the prominence that Shoghi Effendi placed upon it with the more recent exhortations from the UHJ and ITC on the “framework for growth”:

You indicate that some friends wonder whether the Guardian’s statement characterizing racial prejudice as ?the most vital and challenging issue confronting the Bah??’? community at the present stage of its evolution? still applies to the racial situation in the United States, since it was written so long ago. The House of Justice has determined that it is not productive to approach the issue in this manner, as it gives rise to an implicit and false dichotomy that, either what the Guardian said is no longer important, or it is so important that it must be addressed before or apart from all other concerns

Ultimately the House sides with themselves on the issue, writing that the framework for growth takes precedence:

Only if the efforts to eradicate the bane of prejudice are coherent with the full range of the community’s affairs, only if they arise naturally within the systematic pattern of expansion, community building, and involvement with society, will the American believers expand their capacity, year after year and decade after decade, to make their mark on their community and society and contribute to the high aim set for the Bah??’?s by ?Abdu’l-Bah?? to eliminate racial prejudice from the face of the earth.

I’m a bit puzzled by their claim that:

Even if such a community were to focus the entirety of its resources on the problem of racial prejudice, even if it were able to heal itself to some extent of that cancerous affliction, in the face of such a monumental social challenge the impact would be inconsequential.

Because one of the most famous quotes from Shoghi Effendi on teaching is this:

Not by the force of numbers, not by the mere exposition of a set of new and noble principles, not by an organized campaign of teaching – no matter how world-wide and elaborate in its character – not even by the staunchness of our faith or the exaltation of our enthusiasm, can we ultimately hope to vindicate in the eyes of a critical and skeptical age the supreme claim of the Abha Revelation. One thing, and only one thing, will unfailingly and alone secure the undoubted triumph of this sacred Cause, namely, the extent to which our own inner life and private character mirror forth in their manifold aspects the splendor of those eternal principles proclaimed by Bah??’u’ll??h.
The Bah??’? Magazine – Star of the West, September 1925, Vol. 16 No. 6, page 538

Doesn’t that explicitly contradict the UHJ? Especially since Shoghi Effendi excludes “an organized campaign of teaching – no matter how world-wide and elaborate in its character” and posits that the extent to which we live the Baha’i principles in our lives is the key? wouldn’t a community that “mirrors forth” the principle of the unity of mankind, with no racial prejudice, ultimately “secure the undoubted triumph” of the Cause?

As always, I’d like to hear your thoughts. For your consideration, here’s the full letter:

The Trouble with the World

I doubt my ability to doubt
The topic being discussed currently in various Baha’i forums is a speech given by Peter Khan, on July 3rd 2009 titled “Reflections on the Ridvan Message”. You can read the complete speech here.

There isn’t much remarkable about it but if you manage to hack through the thick underbrush of verbiage you’ll find that almost at the end Khan says:

The solution is childish simple; the solution is so simple, it [sic] hardly worth mentioning. The solution is no more and no less than unreserved acceptance of whatever the central authority of the Cause, in this case the Universal House of Justice decrees.

Unfortunately Khan doesn’t explain what he really means by ‘decrees’.

Does that mean anything the House decides? every word they write? every answer they give to a questioner? every letter of guidance to members or national administrative bodies? or does it mean what they decree as in their legislative authority within Baha’i administrative structure?

It would seem that Khan has a wide understanding of ‘decrees’ since he mentions the guidance for ‘direct teaching’, as well as the implementation of Ruhi courses as the only option within the institute process.

This obviously opens up the hornets nest of the infallibility of the Universal House of Justice.

Oy vey! Here we go again.

Brendan wrote a commentary: Second Thoughts on Peter Khan.

Karen is dispassionate.

Alison believes that Khan is overstepping.

As for your humble scribe, I’m not sure what else I can add to what has already been written before here and elsewhere on this topic. I’m not comfortable with the conviction that Khan has in an absolutist understanding of the decrees of the House of Justice and can’t help but think of this gem of a quip:

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.
Bertrand Russell

No advancement in any field would be possible if at least one person did not doubt if there was a better way to do things. If one person didn’t doubt the dogma of their day. If one person did not have so much doubt that they investigated other potential answers and avenues.

This is true for scientific advancements of course. But it is equally valid in any field of human endeavor.

Do you think that anyone would have believed in the Bab if they first hadn’t a seed of doubt regarding the commonly accepted notion within Islam that Muhammad was the ‘last prophet of God’?

So I respectfully submit to you that believing that we can simply put away questions and do without further investigation of truth is the biggest mistake that Baha’is make.

Oldest Bible (Codex Sinaiticus) Now Online

Although in physical form it is in 4 separate locations around the world, the oldest known copy of the Bible is now completely online. The document dates back to Constantine I and is considered one of the world’s greatest written treasures. Now, thanks to the internet, everyone has equal access to this historical heritage.

To find out more about why this document is so important, you can read more about it here. Interestingly enough, there are many discrepancies between the contents of the Codex and what we consider as the Bible today. For example, it has no mention of a resurrected Jesus – a pivotal component of modern Christian doctrine.

Codex Sinaiticus detail

I took the image you see above while playing around with the controls at the Codex Sinaiticus website. As the image shows, you can zoom in to see quiet a lot of detail.

Even you are not a librarian or a photographer or an archivist, it isn’t difficult to imagine the daunting task of digitizing a 1,600-year old manuscript that is literally falling apart.

This monumental achievement reminded me of the massive volumes of Baha’i texts which are hidden away in vaults and not accessible by scholars (or anyone else). To give you an idea of what a similar project for Baha’i texts would look like, here is a low resolution image of an excerpt from the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf by Baha’u’llah (written in the handwriting of Mirza Aqa Jan, Baha’u’llah’s amanuensis):

excerpt from Epistle to Son of the Wolf Bahaullah (Mirza Aqa Jan handwriting)
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Can a Woah-man! Serve on the UHJ?

I was talking to a friend recently about her volunteer work within the GLBT community and something she said caught my attention: “gender is so over!”.

Now that statement may seem ridiculous, especially when you consider that everything in our Western society demonstrates and magnifies the divide between the two sexes.

Boys are given toy trucks, girls? Barbies. Even if the politically correct parents of today have moved beyond such cliches, I’m willing to bet that they may have read books like, Men are from Mars, Women from Venus.

There are two sexes: men and women. But is it that clear cut?

Turns out… no.

Science is slowly beginning to come to grips with the question of gender and the discoveries are nothing short of astonishing. Whereas we once thought of the world divided between two halves, the new paradigm is one where there is a continuum.

intersex

Recently I stumbled on this article: We’re all intersex where Gerald N. Callahan, the author of Between XX and XY: Intersexuality and the Myth of Two Sexes is interviewed about his research:

In between what we call the ideal biological male or ideal biological female, there’s a whole range of other possibilities that don’t differ from our basic preconceptions to the extent that we have names for them or call them a disorder. Just like with every other human trait, there are an infinite number of possibilities.

Of course this is nothing really new. There are other books, like Gender: An Ethnomethodological Approach, from 1978 which expound more or less the same ideas.

We’ve all heard of ‘hermaphrodites’ – persons which have both sexes. By the way, recently, intersexuality has replaced the more familiar, hermaphrodite, as the word of choice within the medical field. In any case, all of this made me think of an uncomfortable question:

Of what significant is the limitation of women’s capacity to serve on the House of Justice when the very definition of ‘woman’ is not black and white?

Can an intersex person be eligible? what if a person has both sets of genitalia? and biologically is both man and woman?

Would that mean that they are eligible? or ineligible? or both?

Huh?

If the Baha’i Faith didn’t have the principle of the unity of religion and science, we could easily brush this off; just like a fundamentalist Christian decrying the fossil records as ‘Satan’s trickery’. But, as Baha’is we have an incredibly high standard which requires us to abide by scientific truths, just as much as religious truths. They are, after all, twin paths to the same truth (or is it Truth?).

I’m not sure if this question has already been asked of the Universal House of Justice. If anyone knows, drop me a note so I don’t have to bother them by asking again. I’ve looked around the internet and haven’t been able to find anything substantial but that doesn’t mean something of significance isn’t out there somewhere floating about.

The only things I’ve found are others over the years wondering the same question and one Baha’i blogger who wrote such a bigoted tripe of an ‘essay’ that it deserves to not even be dignified with detailed mention.

For those that are new to this topic, currently, membership to the Universal House of Justice is restricted to male adults. But there is some disagreement with others believing that there is a sound theological basis for both women and men being eligible for membership to this institution.

But if science shows that gender isn’t that clearly defined into two subsections, doesn’t that make all this a moot point? that is, rendered irrelevant?

Let me know what you think about all this. I’m sure someone out there knows much more about this than I do.