God Passes By


- Chapter XXIV -

Emancipation and Recognition of the Faith and its Institutions

While the initial steps aiming at the erection of the framework of the Administrative Order of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh were being simultaneously undertaken by His followers in the East and in the West, a fierce attack was launched in an obscure village in Egypt on a handful of believers, who were trying to establish there one of the primary institutions of that Order—an attack which, viewed in the perspective of history, will be acclaimed by future generations as a landmark not only in the Formative Period of the Faith but in the history of the first Bahá’í century. Indeed, the sequel to this assault may be said to have opened a new chapter in the evolution of the Faith itself, an evolution which, carrying it through the successive stages of repression, of emancipation, of recognition as an independent Revelation, and as a state religion, must lead to the establishment of the Bahá’í state and culminate in the emergence of the Bahá’í World Commonwealth.

Originating in a country which can rightly boast of being the acknowledged center of both the Arab and Muslim worlds; precipitated by the action, taken on their own initiative, by the ecclesiastical representatives of the largest communion in Islám; the direct outcome of a series of disturbances instigated by some of the members of that communion designed to suppress the activities of certain followers of the Faith who had held a clerical rank among them, this momentous development in the fortunes of a struggling community has directly contributed, to a considerable degree, to the consolidation and the enhancement of the prestige of the Administrative Order which that community had begun to erect. It will, moreover, as its repercussions are more widely spread to other Islamic countries, and its vast significance is more clearly apprehended by the adherents of both Christianity and Islám, hasten the termination of the period of transition through which the Faith, now in the formative stage of its growth, is passing.

It was in the village of Kawmu’ṣ-Ṣa‘áyidih, in the district of Beba, of the province of Beni Suef in Upper Egypt, that, as a result of the religious fanaticism which the formation of a Bahá’í assembly had kindled in the breast of the headman of that village, and of the grave accusations made by him to both the District Police Officer and the Governor of the province—accusations which aroused the Muḥammadans to such a pitch of excitement as to cause them to perpetrate shameful acts against their victims—that action was initiated by the notary of the village, in his capacity as a religious plaintiff authorized by the Ministry of Justice, against three Bahá’í residents of that village, demanding that their Muslim wives be divorced from them on the grounds that their husbands had abandoned Islám after their legal marriage as Muslims.

The Opinion and Judgment of the Appellate religious court of Beba, delivered on May 10, 1925, subsequently sanctioned by the highest ecclesiastical authorities in Cairo and upheld by them as final, printed and circulated by the Muslim authorities themselves, annulled the marriages contracted by the three Bahá’í defendants and condemned them as heretics for having violated the laws and ordinances of Islám. It even went so far as to make the positive, the startling and indeed the historic assertion that the Faith embraced by these heretics is to be regarded as a distinct religion, wholly independent of the religious systems that have preceded it—an assertion which hitherto the enemies of the Faith, whether in the East or in the West, had either disputed or deliberately ignored.

Having expounded the fundamental tenets and ordinances of Islám, and given a detailed exposition of the Bahá’í teachings, supported by various quotations from the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, from the writings of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá and of Mírzá Abu’l-Faḍl, with special reference to certain Bahá’í laws, and demonstrated that the defendants had, in the light of these statements, actually abjured the Faith of Muḥammad, his formal verdict declares in the most unequivocal terms: “The Bahá’í Faith is a new religion, entirely independent, with beliefs, principles and laws of its own, which differ from, and are utterly in conflict with, the beliefs, principles and laws of Islám. No Bahá’í, therefore, can be regarded a Muslim or vice-versa, even as no Buddhist, Brahmin, or Christian can be regarded a Muslim or vice-versa.” Ordering the dissolution of the contracts of marriage of the parties on trial, and the “separation” of the husbands from their wives, this official and memorable pronouncement concludes with the following words: “If any one of them (husbands) repents, believes in, and acknowledges whatsoever … Muḥammad, the Apostle of God … has brought from God … and returns to the august Faith of Islám … and testifies that … Muḥammad … is the Seal of the Prophets and Messengers, that no religion will succeed His religion, that no law will abrogate His law, that the Qur’án is the last of the Books of God and His last Revelation to His Prophets and His Messengers … he shall be accepted and shall be entitled to renew his marriage contract…”

This declaration of portentous significance, which was supported by incontrovertible proofs adduced by the avowed enemies of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh themselves, which was made in a country that aspires to the headship of Islám through the restoration of the Caliphate, and which has received the sanction of the highest ecclesiastical authorities in that country, this official testimony which the leaders of Shí‘ah Islám, in both Persia and ‘Iráq, have, through a century, sedulously avoided voicing, and which, once and for all, silences those detractors, including Christian ecclesiastics in the West, who have in the past stigmatized that Faith as a cult, as a Bábí sect and as an offshoot of Islám or represented it as a synthesis of religions—such a declaration was acclaimed by all Bahá’í communities in the East and in the West as the first Charter of the emancipation of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh from the fetters of Islamic orthodoxy, the first historic step taken, not by its adherents as might have been expected, but by its adversaries on the road leading to its ultimate and world-wide recognition.

Such a verdict, fraught with incalculable possibilities, was immediately recognized as a powerful challenge which the builders of the Administrative Order of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh were not slow to face and accept. It imposed upon them a sacred obligation which they felt ready to discharge. Designed by its authors to deprive their adversaries of access to Muslim courts, and thereby place them in a perplexing and embarrassing situation, it became a lever which the Egyptian Bahá’í community, followed later by its sister-communities, readily utilized for the purpose of asserting the independence of its Faith and of seeking for it the recognition of its government. Translated into several languages, circulated among Bahá’í communities in East and West, it gradually paved the way for the initiation of negotiations between the elected representatives of these communities and the civil authorities in Egypt, in the Holy Land, in Persia and even in the United States of America, for the purpose of securing the official recognition by these authorities of the Faith as an independent religion.

In Egypt it was the signal for the adoption of a series of measures which have in their cumulative effect greatly facilitated the extension of such a recognition by a government which is still formally associated with the religion of Islám, and which suffers its laws and regulations to be shaped in a great measure by the views and pronouncements of its ecclesiastical leaders. The inflexible determination of the Egyptian believers not to deviate a hair’s breadth from the tenets of their Faith, by avoiding all dealings with any Muslim ecclesiastical court in that country and by refusing any ecclesiastical post which might be offered them; the codification and publication of the fundamental laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas regarding matters of personal status, such as marriage, divorce, inheritance and burial, and the presentation of these laws to the Egyptian Cabinet; the issuance of marriage and divorce certificates by the Egyptian National Spiritual Assembly; the assumption by that Assembly of all the duties and responsibilities connected with the conduct of Bahá’í marriages and divorces, as well as with the burial of the dead; the observance by all members of that community of the nine Holy Days on which work, as prescribed in the Bahá’í teachings, must be completely suspended; the presentation of a petition addressed by the national elected representatives of that community to the Egyptian Prime Minister, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Justice (supported by a similar communication addressed by the American National Spiritual Assembly to the Egyptian Government), enclosing a copy of the judgment of the Court, and of their national Bahá’í constitution and by-laws, requesting them to recognize their Assembly as a body qualified to exercise the functions of an independent court and empowered to apply, in all matters affecting their personal status, the laws and ordinances revealed by the Author of their Faith—these stand out as the initial consequences of a historic pronouncement that must eventually lead to the establishment of that Faith on a basis of absolute equality with its sister religions in that land.

A corollary to this epoch-making declaration, and a direct consequence of the intermittent disturbances instigated in Port Said and Ismá‘ílíyyih by a fanatical populace in connection with the burial of some of the members of the Bahá’í community, was the official and no less remarkable fatvá (judgment) issued, at the request of the Ministry of Justice, by the Grand Muftí of Egypt. This, soon after its pronouncement, was published in the Egyptian press and contributed to fortify further the independent status of the Faith. It followed upon the riots which broke out with exceptional fury in Ismá‘ílíyyih, when angry crowds surrounded the funeral cortège of Muḥammad Sulaymán, a prominent Bahá’í resident of that town, creating such an uproar that the police had to intervene, and having rescued the body and brought it back to the home of the deceased, they were forced to carry it without escort, at night, to the edge of the desert and inter it in the wilderness.

This judgment was passed as a result of the inquiry addressed in writing, on January 24, 1939, by the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior to the Ministry of Justice, enclosing a copy of the compilation of Bahá’í laws related to matters of personal status published by the Egyptian Bahá’í National Spiritual Assembly, and asking for a pronouncement by the Muftí regarding the petition addressed by that Assembly to the Egyptian Government for the allocation of four plots to serve as cemeteries for the Bahá’í communities of Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and Ismá‘ílíyyih. “We are,” wrote the Muftí in his reply of March 11, 1939, to the communication addressed to him by the Ministry of Justice, “in receipt of your letter … dated February 21, 1939, with its enclosures … inquiring whether or not it would be lawful to bury the Bahá’í dead in Muslim cemeteries. We hereby declare that this Community is not to be regarded as Muslim, as shown by the beliefs which it professes. The perusal of what they term ‘The Bahá’í Laws affecting Matters of Personal Status,’ accompanying the papers, is deemed sufficient evidence. Whoever among its members had formerly been a Muslim has, by virtue of his belief in the pretensions of this community, renounced Islám, and is regarded as beyond its pale, and is subject to the laws governing apostasy as established in the right Faith of Islám. This community not being Muslim, it would be unlawful to bury its dead in Muslim cemeteries, be they originally Muslims or otherwise…”

It was in consequence of this final, this clearly-worded and authoritative sentence by the highest exponent of Islamic Law in Egypt, and after prolonged negotiations, resulting at first in the allocation to the Cairo Bahá’í community of a cemetery plot forming a part of that set aside for free thinkers, residing in that city, that the Egyptian government consented to grant to that community, as well as to the Bahá’ís of Ismá‘ílíyyih, two tracts of land to serve as burial grounds for their dead—an act of historic significance which was greatly welcomed by the members of sore-pressed and long-suffering communities, and which has served to demonstrate still further the independent character of their Faith and enlarge the sphere of the jurisdiction of its representative institutions.

It was to the first of these two officially designated Bahá’í cemeteries, following the decision of the Egyptian Bahá’í National Assembly aided by its sister-Assembly in Persia, that the remains of the illustrious Mírzá Abu’l-Faḍl were transferred and accorded a sepulture worthy of his high position, thereby inaugurating, in a befitting manner, the first official Bahá’í institution of its kind established in the East. This achievement was, soon after, enhanced by the exhumation from a Christian cemetery in Cairo of the body of that far-famed mother teacher of the West, Mrs. E. Getsinger, and its interment, through the assistance extended by the American Bahá’í National Assembly and the Department of State in Washington, in a spot in the heart of that cemetery and adjoining the resting-place of that distinguished author and champion of the Faith.

In the Holy Land, where a Bahá’í cemetery had, before these pronouncements, been established during ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s ministry, the historic decision to bury the Bahá’í dead facing the Qiblih in ‘Akká was taken—a measure whose significance was heightened by the resolution to cease having recourse, as had been previously the case, to any Muḥammadan court in all matters affecting marriage and divorce, and to carry out, in their entirety and without any concealment whatever, the rites prescribed by Bahá’u’lláh for the preparation and burial of the dead. This was soon after followed by the presentation of a formal petition addressed by the representatives of the local Bahá’í community of Haifa, dated May 4, 1929, to the Palestine Authorities, requesting them that, pending the adoption of a uniform civil law of personal status applicable to all residents of the country irrespective of their religious beliefs, the community be officially recognized by them and be granted “full powers to administer its own affairs now enjoyed by other religious communities in Palestine.”

The acceptance of this petition—an act of tremendous significance and wholly unprecedented in the history of the Faith in any country—according official recognition by the civil authorities to marriage certificates issued by the representatives of the local community, the validity of which the official representative of the Persian Government in Palestine has tacitly recognized, was followed by a series of decisions exempting from government tax all properties and institutions regarded by the Bahá’í community as holy sites, or dedicated to the Tombs of its Founders at its world center. Moreover, through these decisions, all articles serving as ornaments or furniture for the Bahá’í shrines were exempted from customs duties, and the branches of both the American and Indian Bahá’í National Spiritual Assemblies were enabled to function as “religious societies,” in accordance with the laws of the country, and to hold and administer property as agents of these Assemblies.

In Persia, where a far larger community, already numerically superior to the Christian, the Jewish and the Zoroastrian minorities living in that country, had, notwithstanding the traditionally hostile attitude of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities, succeeded in rearing the structure of its administrative institutions, the reaction to so momentous a declaration was such as to inspire its members and induce them to exploit, in the fullest measure possible, the enormous advantages which this wholly unexpected testimonial had conferred upon them. Having survived the fiery ordeals to which the cruel, the arrogant and implacable leaders of an all-powerful priesthood, now grievously humiliated, had subjected it, a triumphant community, just emerging from obscurity, was determined, more than ever before, to press, within the limits prescribed for it by its Founders, its claim to be regarded as an independent religious entity, and to safeguard, by all available means, its integrity, the solidarity of its members and the solidity of its elective institutions. It could no longer, now that its declared adversaries had, in such a country, in such a language, and on so important an issue, made so emphatic and sweeping a pronouncement, and torn asunder the veil that had for so long been drawn over some of the distinguishing verities lying at the core of its doctrine, keep silent or tolerate without any protest the imposition of restrictions calculated to circumscribe its powers, stifle its community life and deny it its right to be placed on a footing of unqualified equality with other religious communities in that land.

Inflexibly resolved to be classified no longer as Muslim, Jew, Christian or Zoroastrian, the members of this community determined, as a first step, to adopt such measures as would vindicate beyond challenge the distinctive position claimed for their religion by its avowed enemies. Mindful of their clear, their sacred and inescapable duty to obey unreservedly, in all matters of a purely administrative character, the laws of their country, but firmly determined to assert and demonstrate, through every legitimate means at their disposal, the independent character of their Faith, they formulated a policy and embarked in undertakings designed to carry them a stage further towards the goal they had set themselves to attain.

The steadfast resolution not to dissemble their faith, whatever the sacrifices it might entail; the uncompromising position that they would not refer any matters affecting their personal status to any Muslim, Christian, Rabbinical or Zoroastrian court; the refusal to affiliate with any organization, or accept any ecclesiastical post associated with any of the recognized religions in their country; the universal observance of the laws prescribed in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas relating to obligatory prayers, fasting, marriage, divorce, inheritance, burial of the dead, and the use of opium and alcoholic beverages; the issue and circulation of certificates of birth, death, marriage and divorce, at the direction and under the seal of recognized Bahá’í Assemblies; the translation into Persian of “The Bahá’í Laws affecting Matters of Personal Status,” first published by the Egyptian Bahá’í National Assembly; the cessation of work on all Bahá’í Holy Days; the establishment of Bahá’í cemeteries in the capital as well as in the provinces, designed to provide a common burial ground for all ranks of the faithful, whatever their religious extraction; the insistence that they no longer be registered as Muslim, Christian, Jew or Zoroastrian on identity cards, marriage certificates, passports and other official documents; the emphasis placed on the institution of the Nineteen Day Feast, as established by Bahá’u’lláh in His Most Holy Book; the imposition of sanctions by Bahá’í elective Assemblies, now assuming the duties and functions of religious courts, on recalcitrant members of the community by denying them the right to vote and of membership in these Assemblies and their committees—all these are to be associated with the first stirrings of a community that had erected the fabric of its Administrative Order, and was now, under the propelling influence of the historic judicial sentence passed in Egypt, intent upon obtaining, not by force but through persuasion, the recognition by the civil authorities of the status to which its ecclesiastical adversaries had so emphatically borne witness.

That its initial attempt should have met with partial success, that it should have aroused at times the suspicion of the ruling authorities, that it should have been grossly misrepresented by its vigilant enemies, is not a matter for surprise. It was successful in certain respects in its negotiations with the civil authorities, as in obtaining the government decree removing all references to religious affiliation in passports issued to Persian subjects, and in the tacit permission granted in certain localities that its members should not fill in the religious columns in certain state documents, but should register with their own Assemblies their marriage, their divorce, their birth and their death certificates, and should conduct their funerals according to their religious rites. In other respects, however, it has been subjected to grave disabilities: its schools, founded, owned and controlled exclusively by itself, were forcibly closed because they refused to remain open on Bahá’í holy days; its members, both men and women, were prosecuted; those who held army or civil service appointments were in some cases dismissed; a ban was placed on the import, on the printing and circulation of its literature; and all Bahá’í public gatherings were proscribed.

To all administrative regulations which the civil authorities have issued from time to time, or will issue in the future in that land, as in all other countries, the Bahá’í community, faithful to its sacred obligations towards its government, and conscious of its civic duties, has yielded, and will continue to yield implicit obedience. Its immediate closing of its schools in Persia is a proof of this. To such orders, however, as are tantamount to a recantation of their faith by its members, or constitute an act of disloyalty to its spiritual, its basic and God-given principles and precepts, it will stubbornly refuse to bow, preferring imprisonment, deportation and all manner of persecution, including death—as already suffered by the twenty thousand martyrs that have laid down their lives in the path of its Founders—rather than follow the dictates of a temporal authority requiring it to renounce its allegiance to its cause.

“If you cut us in pieces, men, women and children alike, in the entire district of Ábádih,” was the memorable message sent by the fearless descendants of some of those martyrs in that turbulent center to the Governor of Fárs, who had intended to coerce them into declaring themselves as Muslims, “we will never submit to your wishes”—a message which, as soon as it was delivered to that defiant governor, induced him to desist from pressing the matter any further.

In the United States of America, the Bahá’í community, having already set an inspiring example, by erecting and perfecting the machinery of its Administrative Order, was alive to the far-reaching implications of the sentence passed by the Muslim court in Egypt, and to the significance of the reaction it had produced in the Holy Land, and was stimulated by the courageous persistence demonstrated by its sister-community in Persia. It determined to supplement its notable achievements with further acts designed to throw into sharper relief the status achieved by the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh in the North American continent. It was numerically smaller than the community of the Persian believers. Owing to the multiplicity of laws governing the states within the Union, it was faced, in matters affecting the personal status of its members, with a situation radically different from that confronting the believers in the East, and much more complex. But conscious of its responsibility to lend, once again, a powerful impetus to the unfoldment of a divinely appointed Order, it boldly undertook to initiate such measures as would accentuate the independent character of a Revelation it had already so nobly championed.

The recognition of its National Spiritual Assembly by the Federal authorities as a religious body entitled to hold as trustees properties dedicated to the interests of the Faith; the establishment of Bahá’í endowments and the exemption obtained for them from the civil authorities as properties owned by, and administered solely for the benefit of, a purely religious community, were now to be supplemented by decisions and measures designed to give further prominence to the nature of the ties uniting its members. The special stress laid on some of the fundamental laws contained in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas regarding daily obligatory prayers; the observance of the fast, the consent of the parents as a prerequisite of marriage; the one-year separation between husband and wife as an indispensable condition of divorce; abstinence from all alcoholic drinks; the emphasis placed on the institution of the Nineteen Day Feast as ordained by Bahá’u’lláh in that same Book; the discontinuation of membership in, and affiliation with, all ecclesiastical organizations, and the refusal to accept any ecclesiastical post—these have served to forcibly underline the distinctive character of the Bahá’í Fellowship, and to dissociate it, in the eyes of the public, from the rituals, the ceremonials and man-made institutions identified with the religious systems of the past.

Of particular and historic importance has been the application made by the Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Chicago—the first center established in the North American continent, the first to be incorporated among its sister-Assemblies and the first to take the initiative in paving the way for the erection of a Bahá’í Temple in the West—to the civil authorities in the state of Illinois for civil recognition of the right to conduct legal marriages in accordance with the ordinances of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, and to file marriage certificates that have previously received the official sanction of that Assembly. The acceptance of this petition by the authorities, necessitating an amendment of the by-laws of all local Assemblies to enable them to conduct Bahá’í legal marriages, and empowering the Chairman or secretary of the Chicago Assembly to represent that body in the conduct of all Bahá’í marriages; the issuance, on September 22, 1939, of the first Bahá’í Marriage License by the State of Illinois, authorizing the aforementioned Assembly to solemnize Bahá’í marriages and issue Bahá’í marriage certificates; the successful measures taken subsequently by Assemblies in other states of the Union, such as New York, New Jersey, Wisconsin and Ohio, to procure for themselves similar privileges, have, moreover, contributed their share in giving added prominence to the independent religious status of the Faith. To these must be added a similar and no less significant recognition extended, since the outbreak of the present conflict, by the United States War Department—as evidenced by the communication addressed to the American Bahá’í National Spiritual Assembly by the Quartermaster General of that Department, on August 14, 1942—approving the use of the symbol of the Greatest Name on stones marking the graves of Bahá’ís killed in the war and buried in military or private cemeteries, distinguishing thereby these graves from those bearing the Latin Cross or the Star of David assigned to those belonging to the Christian and Jewish Faiths respectively.

Nor should mention be omitted of the equally successful application made by the American Bahá’í National Spiritual Assembly to the Office of Price Administration in Washington, D.C., asking that the chairmen and secretaries of Bahá’í local Assemblies should, in their capacity as officers conducting religious meetings, and authorized, in certain states, to perform marriage services, be eligible for preferred mileage under the provisions of the Preferred Mileage Section of the Gasoline Regulations, for the purpose of meeting the religious needs of the localities they serve.

Nor have the Bahá’í communities in other countries such as India, ‘Iráq, Great Britain and Australia, been slow to either appreciate the advantages derived from the publication of this historic verdict, or to exploit, each according to its capacity and within the limits imposed upon it by prevailing circumstances, the opportunities afforded by such public testimonial for a further demonstration on their part of the independent character of the Faith whose administrative structure they had already erected. Through the enforcement, to whatever extent deemed practicable, of the laws ordained in their Most Holy Book; through the severance of all ties of affiliation with, and membership in, ecclesiastical institutions of whatever denomination; through the formulation of a policy initiated for the sole purpose of giving further publicity to this mighty issue, marking a great turning-point in the evolution of the Faith, and of facilitating its ultimate settlement, these communities, and indeed all organized Bahá’í bodies, whether in the East or in the West, however isolated their position or immature their state of development, have, conscious of their solidarity and well aware of the glorious prospects opening before them, arisen to proclaim with one voice the independent character of the religion of Bahá’u’lláh and to pave the way for its emancipation from whatever fetters, be they ecclesiastical or otherwise, might hinder or delay its ultimate and world-wide recognition.

To the status already achieved by their Faith, largely through their own unaided efforts and accomplishments, tributes have been paid by observers in various walks of life, whose testimony they welcome and regard as added incentive to action in their steep and laborious ascent towards the heights which they must eventually capture.

“Palestine,” is the testimony of Prof. Norman Bentwitch, a former Attorney-General of the Palestine Government, “may indeed be now regarded as the land not of three but of four Faiths, because the Bahá’í creed, which has its center of faith and pilgrimage in ‘Akká and Haifa, is attaining to the character of a world religion. So far as its influence goes in the land, it is a factor making for international and inter-religious understanding.” “In 1920,” is the declaration made in his testament by the distinguished Swiss scientist and psychiatrist, Dr. Auguste Forel, “I learned at Karlsruhe of the supraconfessional world religion of the Bahá’ís, founded in the Orient seventy years ago by a Persian, Bahá’u’lláh. This is the real religion of ‘Social Welfare’ without dogmas or priests, binding together all men of this small terrestrial globe of ours. I have become a Bahá’í. May this religion live and prosper for the good of humanity! This is my most ardent desire.” “There is bound to be a world state, a universal language, and a universal religion,” he, moreover has stated, “The Bahá’í Movement for the oneness of mankind is, in my estimation, the greatest movement today working for universal peace and brotherhood.” “A religion,” is yet another testimony, from the pen of the late Queen Marie of Rumania, “which links all creeds … a religion based upon the inner spirit of God … It teaches that all hatreds, intrigues, suspicions, evil words, all aggressive patriotism even, are outside the one essential law of God, and that special beliefs are but surface things whereas the heart that beats with Divine love knows no tribe nor race.”

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