CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne


Accusations Against Baha'is Within the Context of Islamic Heresiography

by Susan Maneck (Jackson State University)
A paper presented at The 2009 CESNUR Conference, Salt Lake City, Utah, June 11-13, 2009

The Baha'i Faith is an independent world religion which began in the Iran in the 19th century.  In 1844 (1260 A.H.) Siyyid Ali-Muhammad Shirazi, declared himself to be the Hidden Imam, the Qa'im or Mahdi expected by Shi'ite Muslims. In 1850 the Bab was executed in Tabriz and for a number of years the Babi community was in disarray until in 1863 Baha'u'llah declared himself to be not only He Whom God Shall Make Manifest foretold by the Bab [man yazhirullah], but the Promised One of all religions. The Baha'i Faith therefore bears the same relationship to Islam that Christianity has to Judaism. Baha'is believes in the divine origin of all religion, but sees their social teachings of revelation as varying according to the needs of the time and place.

As a graduate student I sometimes hired Iranian students to assist me with translating certain Persian Baha'i histories. My preference, of course was to use Iranian Baha'is who would be more familiar with the vocabulary specific to our Faith, but there were occasions when I resorted to non-Baha'is. On one occasion­ an intelligent, rather secularized young man of Muslim background was reading a Baha'i text in Persian with me when he awkwardly asked me the following question: “Is it true that Baha'is believe that before a man gives away an apple, he should taste it first.”

I knew better than to take his question literally, but I wasn't about to guess at what he meant, so I said, “Farhad if you want an answer to your question you're going to have to be clearer.” After fumbling around a bit he finally asked me if it were true that Baha'is believed that a father should sleep with his daughter before he gave her away in marriage. At that point I said, “Think, for a minute, Farhad. If you were going to make up stories to discredit a religion, what sort of things would you say?” He then admitted that he had figured the stories weren't true but he couldn't be sure.

This story, as fantastic as it might appear is all too typical of the rumors and slander that are spread about Baha'is in various places throughout the Islamic world. [1] The Nineteen Day Feast where Baha'is gather to say prayers, read from their scriptures, discuss the affairs of the community and share refreshments and food are rumored to be sexual orgies. The Baha'i Faith itself is thought to have been a Russian and British plot to destroy the unity of Islam, notwithstanding the unlikelihood of those two countries   having colluded on anything in the 19th century. Nowadays it is imagined that Baha'is are receiving their support from Zionists or the US government.

A plethora of  largely fabricated evidence has been published to support such charges, the most famous being the forged memoirs of  Prince Dolgorukov which are aimed at proving the Baha'i Faith to be a Russian plot.[2]  Similarly, Firaydun Adamiyyat, in his biography of Nasser-al-Din Shah's first Prime Minster, Amir Kabir states that  a British intelligence officer claims Arthur Conolly admits to recruiting Mulla Husayn as a spy  in his traveler's narrative  Journey to the North of India Overland from England through Russia, Persia, and Affghaunistaun, however there is no mention of Mulla Husayn or the Báb there.[3] As was the case with Dolgorkov's forged memoirs there was a problem with the chronology.  The meeting supposedly takes place in 1830 when Mulla Husayn would have been 17 and the Bab ten years of age. Connolly died two years before the Bab declared his mission to Mulla Husayn. After Adamiyyat was confronted with these facts, this allegation was removed from subsequent editions of the book.

In 2003 a somewhat more imaginative version of these charges was published by Abdullah Shahbazi in the Quarterly Journal of the Institute for Iranian Contemporary Historical Studies. The article entitled “History of Baha’ism in Iran” argues the Bab had been approached by Anglo-Jews companies to make claims which which disrupt the Islamic world.[4] The article has a rather unique take on an incident which took place in 1839 wherein the Jews of Mashhad were forcibly converted to Islam after accusations of blood libel.[5]  Shahbazi's position is that these Jews voluntarily converted en mass in order to subsequently become Babis in order to provide a false impression that numerous Muslims were converting to the Bab's religion. About sixty of these crypto-Jews did become Babis and subsequently Baha'is, but the majority did not.[6]  They make up only a minuscule portion of the Baha'is of Muslim background in Iran.

More recently there has been a renewed effort in Iran to fabricate links between Baha'is and Zionism. The propagandists have gone so far as to masquerade as Baha'is on internet sites such as http://jewbahais.blogspot.com run by someone using the name Yohanna, where misleading information is posted regarding the relationship of Baha'is to both Judaism and Zionism. Photos are included supposedly picturing Jewish-Baha'is in New York that in fact depict Baha'is of Christian background in London.

It is not my purpose here to refute these charges as they have been adequately dealt with elsewhere by abler writers than myself.[7] What I wish to do here is provide some insight as to the origins of such charges, and how they have been part of the standard repertoire used against religious dissidence in Islamicate culture for centuries. While some scholars have argued that many of the conspiracies theories regarding the Baha'i Faith  emerged only in 1940's and reflect  the propensity of Iranian society to "believe and endorse conspiracy theories,"[8] I would like to suggest that such charges are really quite old, much older than the Baha'i Faith itself and extend beyond the borders of Iran itself. In fact, I would go so far as to suggest that the charges being made against Baha'is by Shi'ites are virtually the same ones Sunnis have been making against Shi'ites for centuries within the Islamic world.

  Aside from the Baha'i Faith itself, Islam has historically been the most tolerant of the world's religions. This is mostly owing to the fact that Qur'an itself asserts that there is no people to whom a prophet has not been sent. (Qur'an 35:24, 16:24.) This opened the door for the acceptance of the legitimacy of nearly all the previous religions, even those not formally considered People of the Book (i.e. Christians and Jews.) Much more problematic has been the acceptance of any claims to revelation after Muhammad. No religion likes to be superseded, but in Islam particularly the notion that there would be no revelation after the Qur'an came to be seen as every bit as fundamental to the religion as the Oneness of God and the Prophethood of Muhammad, so much so that many Muslims erroneously believe that asserting the Finality of Prophethood is part of the shahadah or Islamic declaration of Faith. For this reason,  any religious movement arising after Islam or which departed from the common understanding of Islam, had to be explained away as something other than a religion,. . The stock explanation came to be that such movements were really political in nature, usually instigated by an outsider, often a Jew, aimed at creating disruption (fitna.) For instance, Sunni Muslims hold a Yemenite Jew, Abdallah ibn Saba, responsible for the founding Shi'ism, a belief that goes back at least as far as al-Tabari and is most famously cited in al-Shahristani's classical heresiogrpahy, Al-Milal wa al-Nihal.[9]

A classical work which illustrates the manner in which Muslims came to view religious dissidence is in Nizam ul-Mulk's Siyasat-Nameh or Treatise on Government. Nizam u'l-Mulk served as Grand Vizier to the Seljuks who had invaded the Middle East under the pretext of saving Islam and the Caliphate from Shi'ite heretics. Most especially Nizam u'l-Mulk had to contend with the Ismaeli Assassins, to whom according to some accounts he eventually fell victim. The Siyasat Nameh presents the Sassanid ruler Khosrau the Just as the ideal ruler and one of the acts which is depicted as bringing him to power was his suppression of the Mazdakite heresy. Nizam u'l-Mulk presents the Mazdakite religion as a Manichean-type dualism which was especially dangerous for its social program of community of property and wives.[10] It is difficult to know at this distance if the historical Mazdak really had anything more radical in mind than a more equal distribution of property and ending the practice of the wealthy having several wives while the poor could afford none, but the notion of communism and wife-swapping came to be associated not only with his heresy but with subsequent religious dissidence as well. Shi'ites, as well as the Babis, were accused of engaging in such practices. While the economic prosperity of the Baha'is of Iran during the Pahlavi period may have dissolved any notion that Baha'is were communists, the idea that Baha'is practiced a 'community of wives' lived on in lurid stories about Baha'i sexual orgies.[11]

As in Christianity, Manicheanism came to be seen in the Islamic world as the paradigmatic heresy, and in works like al-Tabari, it came to be associated with incest as well. Such charges have echoed down the ages and been associated with virtually any dissident religious movement which arose thereafter, especially in Iran, and especially in regards to any movement associated with Shi'ism. The association of heresy with incest appears to go back to the Arabs first encounter with Zoroastrianism. Certain Zoroastrian scriptures appeared to approve of next-of-kin marriages, though the extent to which this was actually practiced during the Sasanian period is a matter of debate. Nonetheless, since Islam had extensive definitions of what constituted incest (lit. mahram or taboo) Muslims found Zoroastrian beliefs in this area to be shocking. As Geert Jan Van Gelder points out in his article on “Incest and Interbreeding” in Encyclopedia Iranica,

Marriage rules help to define a religion and a culture; the alleged practices of the Zoroastrians are a recurrent motif in Muslim texts and are used to distinguish between “us” and “them.” Heretical sects are often credited with a sexual free-for-all or holding women as communal sex objects, with all the implications of possible incest.[12]

Shi'ites were particularly vulnerable to such charges. For instance, the Arabic poet and prose writer, Abu’l-ʿAlāʾ Maʿarri (d. 449/1058), accused the Carmathians of incestuous practices. Likewise the Ismaelis are accused by early Muslim heresiographers   with allowing “marriage with daughters and sisters, drinking wine, and all sorts of sensual pleasures.”[13]

 If we compare the attacks against Baha’is even today to those made by Sunni Islamists against Shiites we will see that they are virtually identical. For instance, someone writing under the name of Dr. Abdullah Muhammad al-Gharib warned of  Ayatollah Khomeini's rise to power arguing that he was in fact an American agent, working to support the cause of Zionism in order for Persians to wreck their revenge on Islam for the destruction of the Persian  Empire.  Al-Gharib insists “the day will comes when people will know that the Jews were behind [the Iranian Revolution] just like Ibn Saba’ was behind their emergence in the first place.”[14]

  In describing how it was necessary for Salah al-Din to defeat the  Fatimids before turning his attention  to the Crusaders he notes that despite the defeat of the Shi'ites they once again emerged:

with their old beliefs with only the names changed: the Safavids, the Baha’is, the Qadianis, the Druze, the Nusayris [‘Alawites], the Assassins, the Isma’ilis…. The [batinis] returned to support the enemies of Allah and to cooperate with them against Muslims. They cooperated with Britain, Portugal, France, and Czarist Russia…. They returned to shred Islamic unity all over again.[15]

Two months before the death of  Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, he preached a four hour sermon attacking the Shi'ites utilizing al-Gharib's work. In that sermon the Iran-Iraq War is blamed on a conspiracy on the part of the U.S., Iran, and Iraqi Shi'ites to destroy an Islamic nation. Even the Lebanese Hizbullah was labeled an “Israeli puppet.” The Shi'ites are accused of sexual corruption which includes, yes, accusations of incest.

It should be apparent by now that the charges being made against Baha’is have little to do with their own beliefs and practices but are instead drawn from a standard Islamic repertoire of what a heresy is supposed to look like and the assumed motives behind its origins and propagation. That Muslims might presume some of these things about Baha’is to be true, is perhaps not surprising. What is more disturbing is the fact that evidence is being deliberately fabricated primarily by Shi’ite ‘ulama (though sometimes Sunnis are also involved) to support such charges. One would hope that a religion sect born of oppression would refrain from utilizing the same weapons against Baha’is that been aimed against them. But alas, this appears not to be the case.

[1] For instance former Deputy Head of Al Azhar and Member of the Islamic Research Council Seif Mahmoud Ashour, stated the following in regards to Baha'is:

 “We hear they permit incest, that a man can marry his sister, pray with nineteen raq’aa , fast nineteen days a year and pray towards Acre (in Israel, resting place of Baha u llah’s remains) and not towards  Mecca”.The Daily Star,  December 7,2006.

 The truth of course, is that while Baha'is have a different Qiblih and fast for only nineteen days as opposed to the thirty days in Islam, incest is most certainly not not part of their religion, nor do they marry their sisters.

[2] Intrafamily-i siyasi ya yad-dashtha-yi Kinyaz Dulquruki [Political Confessions, or the Memoirs of Count Dolgoruki].' In Salnama-yi Khurasan [Khurasan Yearbook], Historical Section, 1st. Reprinted Tehran, 1323 Sh/1943-44. These fictitious memoirs of the former Russian ambassador to Iran (1846-1853) has the ambassador hatching this plot with Baha'u'llah and Mirza Yahya in the home of Hakim Ahmad Gilani. The problem with this scenario is that Gilani died in 1835, years before Dolgorukov ever set foot in Iran. Baha'u'llah would have been about 17 at the time while Mirza Yahya was only five. No Russian version of Dolgorukov's memoirs have ever been produced.  Some of the more egregious mistakes have been edited out of later editions, such as the one where Dolgorukov supposedly gives Baha'u'llah money to build a house in Akka. Dolgorukov died long before Baha'u'llah was exiled there.

[3] Amír  Kabír va Írán. Tihran in 1323/1944 (pp. 243-4)

[4] Abdullah Shahbazi, “History of Baha’ism in Iran” http://www.shahbazi.org/pages/bahaism2.htm

[5] Blood libel accusations against Jews have been historically connected with Christianity, not Islam, but they were introduced to the Islamic world in the 18th and 19th centuries by the French.

[6] When the state of Israel was formed in 1948 many members of this community immigrated there, the families which had become Baha'i, did not.

[7] cf. Momen, Moojan (2004), "Conspiracies and Forgeries: the attack upon the Baha'i community in Iran", Persian Heritage 9 (35) As if to prove that refuting such charges is child's play, an eighteen year old boy Adib Masumian has written a book doing so entitled Debunking the Myths (Lulu:2009.) Unfortunately such refutations cannot be made in the Iranian press where these charges are usually repeated.

[8] Eliz Sanasarian , "The Comparative Dimension of the Baha'i Case and Prospects for Change in the Future", in Brookshaw; Fazel, Seena B., The Baha'is of Iran: Socio-historical studies, (New York, NY: Routledge, 2008), p. 159.

[9] Al-Milal wa al-Nihal,  Ed. William Cureton in Books of Religions and Philosophical Sects. 2 vols. Leipzig: Otto Harrassowitz (reprint of the edition of London 1846), vol. 2, p. 11.

This story is recounted in numerous Sunni sources  such as the following from ImamAbu Hanifa's Musnad Imam-e-Azam p. 158:

"Abdullah ibn Saba was a Jew who accepted Islam during the time of Uthman and he urged the people of Egypt to kill Uthman and he would exhibit  much love for  Ali. He was a evil infiltrator  and whose  mission it was to spread corruption among the Muslims."

عبد اللّه بن سبا كان يهوديا فاسلم ايام عثمان وهوالذى 
حمل اهل مصر على قتل عثمان واظهر
الميل الى على وكان خبيث الباطن غرض الفساد بين المسلمين

[10] Hubert Darke, trans. The book of government, or, Rules for kings : the Siyar al-Muluk, or, Siyasat-nama of Nizam al-Mulk , (Surrey : Curzon Press, 2002) p. 192.

[11] Note this description from a Muslim website of Tahirih's proclamation at the Badasht which separated the early Babis from Islam:  “The ruling of Islamic sharee’ah no longer applied and it was permissible for the people – indeed prescribed for them – to share their wealth and women.” http://islamqa.com/en/ref/88689  Accessed June 8, 2009. Tahirih's proclamation did call for the abrogation of the shariah, but not mention was made of the community of wives and property.

[13] ʿAbd-al-Qāher Baḡdādi, al-Farq bayn al-feraq, ed. Mo?ammad Badr, (Cairo, 1910), p. 270.

[14] Al-Gharib, Wa ja’a dawr al-majus, [Then came the Turn of the Maajus] p. 296 from the internet edition available at www.d-sunnah.org

[15] Al-Gharib, Wa ja’a dawr al-majus, p. 78