History of the Bahá’í Community of Egypt

The Bahá’í community of Egypt was once among the most vibrant and active in the Middle East, with Spiritual Assemblies and local groups established throughout the country, and an impressive array of administrative, educational, and social institutions.

The community was among the first to be established outside of Iran, birthplace of the Faith’s Founder, Bahá’u’lláh. Bahá’í merchants settled in Alexandria and Cairo in the 1860s. In the mid-1890s, one of the most respected early Bahá’í scholars, Mirza Abu’l-Fadl Gulpaygani, arrived in Cairo. He subsequently lectured at Al-Azhar, where his scholarship attracted many adherents to the Faith.

By 1900, a number of Arabic language Bahá’í books were being published in Cairo, and Egypt had become a transit point for Western Bahá’ís coming to and from Acre in what was then Palestine, where the son of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, was imprisoned.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, himself, visited Egypt in September 1910, shortly after his release from prison, and there made the acquaintance of a number of intellectuals and other influential figures. He had already won the sympathy and interest of the most prominent of these liberal Islamic thinkers, Muhammad Abduh, who had spent time with him in Beirut during the 1880s. The two had subsequently maintained a correspondence on the subject of Islamic reform. On his return to Egypt, Abduh was appointed Grand Mufti and became a leading teacher at Al-Azhar University.He extended a particularly warm welcome to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, despite the opposition of some of the more insular elements in his own intellectual circle.

Significantly, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spent a total of almost two years in Egypt, visiting on two other occasions. He became quite well known and influential — as evidenced by extensive press coverage in Egypt of his funeral in 1921. For Bahá’ís around the world, the extended visits of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá give Egypt a special significance.

The Bahá’í community of Egypt grew steadily among the general population during the period from the turn of the century to the mid-1920s, and included individuals from minority groups such as those of Kurdish, Coptic, and Armenian origin. A photograph from the early 1920s, for example, shows some 47 Bahá’ís in Port Said. And Bahá’í communities in Cairo, Port Said, and Alexandria were sufficiently prosperous to be able to send to the United States of America a donation to help fund the construction of a Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois, the first Bahá’í House of Worship in the West.

In 1924, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Egypt was formed. This represents the highest administrative body on a national level in the Bahá’í Faith, a sign of a community’s maturity.

Opposition Grows

The growth and progress of the Bahá’í Faith in Egypt, however, did not come without opposition. In particular, fundamentalist Muslims launched periodic attacks on the Faith and its followers throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

A 1925 court proceeding, over whether the marriages of Muslim women to Bahá’í men should be annulled, focused the issue of whether the Bahá’ís should be considered heretics. Its proceedings offer a glimpse into the one of the main reasons for Muslim intolerance for the Bahá’í Faith in Egypt — and, in an ironic twist, its resolution did much to establish the independent nature of the Faith.

In handing down its opinion over whether three Muslim women in the province of Beni Suef in Upper Egypt should be forced to divorce their Bahá’í husbands, the Appellate Court of Beba wrote:

…God sent His Messenger and Prophet, Muhammad, as a blessing to the world. This blessing He put in the form of the religion of Islam, the last of the heavenly religions. It has abrogated all other religions and can be repealed by none, until the world shall perish…. To depart from Islam is heresy and… religious law states that heresy dissolved the contract of marriage.

At the same time, however, the Court also undertook a careful study of the Bahá’í Faith and concluded that: 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.

This opinion, that the Bahá’í Faith is indeed independent from Islam, ultimately contributed to the wider recognition of the Faith by government authorities. At one point in the 1930s, a member of the Egyptian Parliament made a public tribute to the Faith. And in 1934, the National Spiritual Assembly achieved legal incorporation. As well, authorities allocated four plots to serve as Bahá’í cemeteries in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, and Isma’iliyyih, having decided it would not be lawful for Bahá’ís to be buried in Muslim cemeteries.

In May 1944, the community celebrated the Centenary of the Faith’s founding in an impressive and newly completed national headquarters building in Cairo. More than 500 Bahá’ís from around the country attended, along with some 50 guests who were Christians, Muslims, and Jews.

At the same time, however, such progress disturbed fanatic elements in Egyptian society. In the early 1940s, the custodian of the national headquarters building was at one point beaten, suffering a broken arm. In Tanta, a Muslim leader lectured against the Faith, leading to violent demonstrations against the small Bahá’í community there.

Post-war Flourishing

By 1946, local Spiritual Assembles — freely elected local governing councils that oversee all spiritual and administrative activities in a given locality — were functioning in seven cities. In a number of cities, women were elected as members. Also, Bahá’ís had founded libraries in many of those cities, and several Bahá’í cemeteries had also been established. In another sign of the community’s vitality, money was frequently given in support of Bahá’í projects in other parts of the world.

During the 1940s and 1950s, as well, Bahá’í festivals and public meetings were commonly publicized in the media and regular Bahá’í meetings were open to the public. Official statistical publications listed the Bahá’í Faith among the religious movements active in Egypt. In April 1955, the community purchased some 17,000 square meters of land on the banks of the Nile for use as the future site of a Bahá’í House of Worship. By the late 1950s, local Assemblies had been established in 13 cities and towns, and Bahá’í groups existed in another 11 localities. By one count, there were more than 5,000 Bahá’ís in Egypt at this time.

All of this changed without warning or explanation in 1960 when President Gamal Abdul Nasser signed a short, six paragraph Decree stating that “all Bahá’í Assemblies and Centres” are “hereby dissolved, and their activities suspended. Individuals, bodies and institutions are warned to refrain from any activity.” All Bahá’í properties — including the national headquarters building, the libraries and cemeteries — as well as all Bahá’í funds and assets were confiscated. The assets have not been returned to this day.

The government promised that individuals would remain free to practice their religion. In keeping with the Bahá’í principle of obedience to government, the Bahá’ís of Egypt duly disbanded their institutions immediately. The Faith’s members shifted to a footing that emphasized quiet worship by individuals and families, with limited social and educational activities focused on internal development. Unfortunately, they have nevertheless faced episodes of harsh persecution, along with continuous restrictions on their personal, religious and social activities.

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