One of the major differences between the Baha’i Faith and Islam is that “traditions”—the reported statements of the prophets and founders of those Faiths—are not considered authoritative for Baha’i purposes, whereas the reported sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, generally referred to as Hadith literature, are considered binding. This “hearsay evidence,” for Baha’is, has no authority.

Both the Qur’an and the Hadith are held to be the authoritative sources for Islamic Shari’a law, as formulated in its several “schools.” This has led to misinterpretations, excesses and perversions, as can be seen in the radical application of Shari’a law by the so-called Islamic State today.

Another major difference: Islamic scholars have vested authority to interpret and issue various rulings, called fatwas. Muslims may “pick and choose” which fatwa to follow if a plurality of differing opinions exists. This is partly because Islam today lacks a central authority, called the Caliphate.

There is no Baha’i Hadith that could otherwise serve as an authoritative source of Baha’i law and doctrine; nor does the Baha’i Faith have any clergy or class of scholars with any kind of authority whatsoever.

How does all this relate to oral traditions in Baha’i history? For instance, there are many reported statements by Abdu’l-Baha that were taken down when he was in America and Canada in 1912. In all cases, to the best of our knowledge, Abdu’l-Baha’s talks were recorded in writing by secretaries in his entourage in the original language, Persian, while stenographic notes in English were noted by way of contemporaneous translation from Persian and English.

Abdu'l-Baha-in-New-York

Abdu’l-Baha in New York

Some of these Persian and English texts survive, and have been published in book form. Such texts may be read and appreciated for their edifying character, but are not accepted as “binding authority” for purposes of Baha’i law or doctrine.

One exception to this general rule is when Abdu’l-Baha would authenticate, review and edit any given Persian text of one of his talks. This is precisely the case with a Baha’i scripture, Some Answered Questions, a new translation of which was published in 2015.

The Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi, also authenticated and translated several Baha’i scriptures, among them this reported statement by Baha’u’llah on the spiritual destiny of America:

To this initial impulse given by the Herald of our Faith, whilst confined in the heart of faraway Asia, a still greater force was communicated, and a more specific direction given, when the Author of our Faith [Baha’u’llah] Himself, having already set foot on the fringes of the continent of Europe, addressed, in His [Most Holy Book], from behind the walls of the prison-city of Akka, some of the most celebrated passages of that Book to the Chief Magistrates of the entire American continent, bidding them “bind with the hands of justice the broken,” and “crush the oppressor” with the “rod of the commandments” of their Lord. Unlike the kings of the earth whom He had so boldly condemned in that same Book, unlike the European Sovereigns whom He had either rebuked, warned or denounced, such as the French Emperor, the most powerful monarch of his time; the Conqueror of that monarch; the Heir of the Holy Roman Empire; and the Caliph of Islam; the Rulers of America were not only spared the ominous and emphatic warnings which He uttered against the crowned heads of the world, but were called upon to bring their corrective and healing influence to bear upon the injustices perpetrated by the tyrannical and the ungodly.

To this remarkable pronouncement, conferring such distinction upon the sovereign rulers of the Western Hemisphere, must be added not only the passages in which the Author of our Faith clearly foreshadows the revelation of the “signs of His dominion” in the West, but also the no less significant verbal affirmations which, according to reliable eyewitnesses, He more than once made in regard to the glorious destiny which America was to attain in the days to come. – Shoghi Effendi, “Shoghi Effendi, ”A God-Given Mandate” (15 June 1946), Messages to America, p. 91; and This Decisive Hour: Messages from Shoghi Effendi to the North American Baha’is, 1932–1946, paragraph 158.3.

Here, Shoghi Effendi refers to “verbal affirmations,” in the plural, of statements by Baha’u’llah made “more than once” regarding “the glorious destiny which America was to attain in the days to come” as attested by “reliable eyewitnesses”—predictions “no less significant” than the authentic written statements on America’s future. This is quite a significant pronouncement. For the first time, a prophet of God references the future of the American democracy, seeking justice for the oppressed.

Let me close by adding another disclaimer: Baha’is believe that America will not fulfill its spiritual destiny until it meets certain spiritual conditions. Basically, whatever America should do in order to promote world peace and international cooperation, all countries should do, not only unilaterally, but multilaterally. For the oneness of humanity to become fully realized, we must achieve a political, economic and scientific unity of nations. In other words, bringing about world peace requires an institutional transformation, carried forward as a sum total collective and cumulative effort by individuals to do what they can to bring about, in the course of human destiny, a true peace on Earth.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

3 Comments

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  • Jan 26, 2016
    You asked: “Is it possible that Bahau’llah was referring to the continent America and not to a particular country?” That’s a very good question! A qualified “Yes” and a qualified “No.” The answer is “Yes” when Baha’u’llah addresses “the sovereign rulers of the Western Hemisphere.” that said, the answer may be “No” with regard to “the no less significant verbal affirmations which, according to reliable eyewitnesses, He more than once made in regard to the glorious destiny which America was to attain in the days to come.” Yet, later in this section, Shoghi Effendi writes:
    “And finally, this apocalyptic vision ...of the consummation of the task entrusted to the American Bahá’í Community, as evoked by that same Pen in those same Tablets: “The moment this Divine Message is carried forward by the American believers from the shores of America, and is propagated through the continents of Europe, of Asia, of Africa and of Australasia, and as far as the islands of the Pacific, this community will find itself securely established upon the throne of an everlasting dominion. Then will all the peoples of the world witness that this community is spiritually illumined and divinely guided. Then will the whole earth resound with the praises of its majesty and greatness.”
    The meaning of “America” in the Baha’i Writings depends upon the context. Most of the passages regarding the spiritual destiny of America appear to privilege the United States of America. That said, here’s an excerpt from my 2015 book, God & Apple Pie, pp. 303–304:
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    There are actually a number of passages in Baha’i texts concerning the destiny of America. They are too numerous to treat here. While many, these statements reiterate salient themes. Throughout the remainder of this chapter, some of these themes will be highlighted. First, the term “America,” as found in Baha’i texts, needs to be contextualized geopolitically.
    Various configurations of the term “America” have rather self-evident geographical distinctions, such as “the Americas,” “the Continent of America,” “North America,” and then, “America,” which by itself most often is a metonymy (or synonym) for the “United States of America.” Similarly, the meaning of “America” in Baha’i texts is context-dependent, in that “America” variously represents: (1) the United States (including Alaska); (2) the United States and Canada; (3) North America; and (4) the Americas. In a talk delivered on September 5, 1912, at the St. James Methodist Church in Montreal, Canada, ‘Abdu’l-Baha indicates that Canada shares much the same destiny as the United States:”
    “Praise be to God! I find these two great American nations highly capable and advanced in all that appertains to progress and civilization. These governments are fair and equitable. The motives and purposes of these people are lofty and inspiring. Therefore, it is my hope that these revered nations may become prominent factors in the establishment of international peace and the oneness of the world of humanity; that they may lay the foundations of equality and spiritual brotherhood among mankind.
    This is a mission and mandate to both the United States and Canada alike, indicating that “international peace and the oneness of the world of humanity” and laying the “foundations of equality and spiritual brotherhood among mankind” is not the province of any one country alone, but—to varying degrees according to the respective capacity of each—of all countries. Returning to the meaning of “America” in Baha’i texts, one passage that offers a prime example of a range of meanings that “America” adumbrates (i.e., the United States, Canada, North America, and the Americas) is as follows: . . .
    Excerpt From: Christopher Buck. “God & Apple Pie: Religious Myths and Visions of America.” iBooks.
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  • Meg Stevens
    Jan 25, 2016
    Is it possible that Bahau'llah was refuring to the continent America and not to a perticular country?
  • Brett Zamir
    Jan 25, 2016
    Great article... Funny thing is that I had just come across the following letter today when perusing the letters collected by a fellow Baha'i:
    With the Guardian’s consent, the National Assembly publishes an excerpt from the letter written by him to Miss Juliet Thompson on November 21, 1940. In giving permission, the Guardian informed the Assembly that "it should be published only for the information of the friends, and does not imply any collective action to be taken by them.”
    "With regard to your question concerning the future position of America in the coming world war: it would be certainly ...premature to make any definite forecast at the present time, and the impression* that the Guardian meant that America would be necessarily drawn into the field of hostilities is also not correct. One thing, however, is absolutely certain, and which the Guardian himself has more than once emphasized, namely that nothing short of a full assumption by America of the grievous burdens, responsibilities and duties that naturally fall upon her as one
    of the leading nations of the world can enable her to fulfil the high political mission which she has been called upon to play in the future political and social reconstruction of mankind. The destiny of America is inseparably bound up with that of the rest of the world, and it would be impossible therefore to conceive of her taking, in the long run, a purely passive attitude in regard to political and social developments that transpire in and agitate the remaining four continents of the globe."
    * The impression that the last section of The Advent of Divine Justice means that America will inevitably enter the war.
    (In Baha'i News, issue 137, July 1940, p. 4, online at http://bahai.works/Baha'i_News/Issue_137 )
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