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.
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.
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.