Keys to the Proper Understanding of Islam in The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh
First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #30
Louhelen Bahá'í School: Michigan, USA
October 6–8, 2000
(see list of papers from #30)
published in Lights of Irfan, volume 2, pages 135-148
© 2001, Irfán Colloquia
The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, Shoghi Effendi's concise statement of the fundamental verities of Bahá'í belief, contains a number of important keys which lead Bahá'ís to a more complete understanding of Islam.
The Dispensation makes direct reference to other Bahá'í writings that shed light on Islam, including the Kitáb-i-Iqán (which quotes extensively from the Qur'án) and Nabíl's Narrative. God Passes By, a later work by Shoghi Effendi, envisioned in The Dispensation, traces the death-knell of the law of Islam back to trumpet-blast sounded by Tahirih at the conference of Badasht and predicts the universal recognition and acceptance of Bahá'u'lláh by the Muslim world. In The Promised Day is Come, the Guardian analyzes the impact on Islam. of its refusal to accept the Message of Bahá'u'lláh, including the collapse of the Caliphate, the abolition of the Sultanate, and the annulment of Shariah canonical law.
The Dispensation upholds Islam as an independent religion and confirms the Imams as the legitimate successors of Muhammad. `Alí's appointment by Muhammad as His successor was made verbally and is not to be found in the Qur'án. The split of Islam into Sunni and Shi'ah branches, a schism which the Guardian has characterized as "permanent and catastrophic," can be traced to the lack of a written document from Muhammad establishing 'Alí as His successor. The lack of written Covenant, Taherzadeh argues, should not be viewed as a failure of the previous Manifestations, but is due to the immaturity of the people of previous ages who could not have sustained the rigors of such a Covenant.
Errors that have crept into Islam are due to two sources: misinterpretation of the Qur'án (which is authentic) and the use of hadíth, which are the reported sayings of Muhammad and the Imams. Several errors addressed in The Dispensation include the finality of Revelation (since Muhammad is the "Seal of the Prophets" His Revelation is final), and the non-belief in the crucifixion of Christ. The Dispensation confirms that the process of Revelation is ongoing and eternal and that Christ was crucified, as attested to by Bahá'u'lláh Himself.
The Bahá'í Faith, being the latest Revelation from God, provides for religious and administrative features not found in earlier religions, including Islam. These include the Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh, which establishes in written documents the succession, the unique station of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and the Bahá'í Administrative Order. The Bahá'í Administrative Order includes the Guardianship, the Universal House of Justice, a system of elected administrative bodies, a series of appointed positions, and a comprehensive and authoritative body of administrative principles and guidelines laid down by Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi. The Qur'án, while laying down the basic laws and ordinances of Islam, is silent on the questions of succession and administration. There exists no provision in Islam, such as the Universal House of Justice, to provide for ongoing authoritative legislation.
Finally, the Bahá'í Faith seeks not to undermine Islam, but to restore and reinvigorate it and to assist in the realization of its highest aspirations. To be true to the Message of Bahá'u'lláh, we must view Islam and the Bahá'í Faith as essentially different stages of one and the same religion. "This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future."
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The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh is Shoghi Effendi's masterful and
concise statement of Bahá'í theological principles, or fundamental verities as
he calls them:
My chief concern at this challenging period of Bahá'í history is rather to
call the attention of those who are destined to be the champion-builders of the
Administrative Order of Bahá'u'lláh to certain fundamental verities the
elucidation of which must tremendously assist them in the effective prosecution
of their mighty enterprise.
One generally overlooked aspect of this wonderful letter is the way it helps us
to develop a correct understanding and perspective on Islam, the religion which
gave birth to both the Babi and Bahá'í Faiths. This is especially important to
Bahá'ís from a Western Christian background because information on Islam is
often highly distorted, difficult to obtain, or not stated in terms that are
readily comprehensible by the Western mind. Charles Le Gai Eaton has
described this problem in his thoughtful book, Islam and the Destiny of
Most Muslim scholars seem to agree, at least in private, that there has been
a singular failure to communicate across the cultural frontier. The actual
means of communication--the way in which religion needs to be presented
nowadays--have been forged, not out of Islamic materials, but in the West. The
Muslim writer finds himself obliged to work with instruments which do not fit
comfortably in his hand. Moreover, traditional Muslims, who have escaped the
influence of `modern', that is to say, occidental education have no
understanding of the occidental mind, which is as strange to them as it would
be to a Christian of the Middle Ages....
The traditional Muslim writes with authority and conviction, but he does not
know how to answer the questions which dominate Western thought in the
While The Dispensation does not devote a very large percentage of its
pages to Islam, and certainly cannot be called a treatise on the subject, it
does provide a number of significant keys that help Bahá'ís, especially Western
Bahá'ís, understand Islam and put it into a proper perspective. Shoghi
Effendi, combining as he does the qualities of authorized interpreter and
spiritual successor of `Abdu'l-Bahá, Western-trained scholar, and a singular
genius for historical analysis, is uniquely qualified to this task. However,
Shoghi Effendi's highly condensed exposition is a mix of the explicit and
implicit. Some important elements are contained in fleeting allusions. Vast
theological vistas are often only briefly hinted at, and the reader is left
wanting more than the Guardian can possibly convey in a 60-page letter. This
being the case, the "keys" to Islam contained in The Dispensation can
and should be amplified by a careful study of other Bahá'í texts, including
Shoghi Effendi's other letters and messages.
In brief, The Dispensation provides the following "keys" to help us
understand Islam from a Bahá'í perspective. Each one of these will be explored
in detail in the later sections of this paper:
- The Dispensation makes reference to Bahá'í
Scriptures and other writings that shed light on Islam, including the
Kitab-i-Iqan, God Passes By, The Promised Day is Come, and
- The Dispensation upholds Islam as an independent religion and
confirms the Imams as the legitimate successors of Muhammad.
- The Dispensation explicitly or implicitly corrects
misunderstandings that have crept into Islam.
- The Dispensation identifies new features of the Bahá'í
Dispensation for which there are no parallels within Islam.
- The Dispensation establishes the goals of the Bahá'í
Revelation in relation to Islam.
II. References to Other Bahá'í Writings That Shed Light on Islam
The Dispensation quotes extensively from the Writings of the Bab,
Bahá'u'lláh, and `Abdu'l-Bahá. A number of quotations are from the
Kitab-i-Iqan, Bahá'u'lláh's masterful treatise on the nature of
religion. The Kitab-i-Iqan itself makes numerous references to the
Qur'an, as well as to sayings of `Ali, Husayn, and Sadiq (first, third, and
sixth Imams, respectively). Not only is the Western reader of the Iqan
exposed to the rhythm and tone of the Qur'anic verses (in Shoghi Effendi's
beautiful English translation), but a later Manifestation of God Himself
(Bahá'u'lláh) uses these verses to support His religious arguments in support
of the Bab's Revelation. While not offering a comprehensive study of the
Qur'an, Bahá'u'lláh's references to the Qur'an in the Iqan and in His
other works such as The Seven Valleys provide Bahá'ís a compelling and
dramatic exposure to the sacred book of Islam.
And a dramatic exposure to the Qur'an for non-Arabic speaking Westerners is no
small feat, as evidence by the following quotations from Muhammad, a
biography by Karen Armstrong:
In the case of the Qur'an there is also the problem of translation. ...There
is something about Arabic which is incommunicable in another idiom: even the
speeches of Arab politicians sound stilted, artificial and alien in an English
translation. If this is true of ordinary Arabic, of mundane utterance or
conventional literature, it is doubly true of the Qur'an which is written in
highly complex, dense and allusive language....
This does not mean that we should dismiss the Qur'an arrogantly. It is not
meant to be read like other books. If approached in the right way, believers
claim, it yields a sense of divine presence. This is difficult for somebody
who has been brought up in the Christian tradition to understand because
Christians do not have a sacred language, as Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Arabic are
sacred to Hindus, Jews, and Muslims.
...Western people tend to find the Qur'an tediously repetitive, because it
seems to go over the same ground again and again, but the book was not designed
for private perusal but for liturgical recitation. When Muslims listen to a
sura in the mosque, they are reminded of the central tenets of the faith in a
Shoghi Effendi also describes the problem facing Western Bahá'ís in this
It is certainly most difficult to thoroughly grasp all the Surihs of the
Qur'an, as it requires a detailed knowledge of the social, religious and
historical background of Arabia at the time of the appearance of the Prophet.
...For the present, the Guardian agrees, that it would be easier and more
helpful to study the Book according to subjects, and not verse by verse and
also in the light of the Bab, Bahá'u'lláh and Abdu'l-Bahá's interpretation
which throw such floods of light on the whole of the Qur'an.
In addition to referencing the Qur'an itself, the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, and
those of the Bab and `Abdu'l-Bahá introduce us to and familiarize us with
Islamic terminology and concepts. In fact, any Bahá'í who makes a serious
study of Islam will be amazed to find very many phrases and terms, which he
thought previously to be Bahá'í-specific, actually originate in Islam. The
beauty of this situation is that Bahá'ís who read the Writings of the Central
Figures are automatically taken to the spiritual heart of Islam.
B. God Passes By
The Dispensation actually presages later works by the Guardian in
the following passage:
It is not my purpose, as I look back upon these crowded years of heroic
deeds, to attempt even a cursory review of the mighty events that have
transpired since 1844 until the present day. Nor have I any intention to
undertake an analysis of the forces that have precipitated them, or to evaluate
their influence upon peoples and institutions in almost every continent of the
These works are none other than God Passes By (written in 1944), and
The Promised Day is Come (written in 1941). Speaking of a future time
of conversion to the Faith by Muslims, God Passes By describes in
several places a truly remarkable prophecy of `Abdu'l-Bahá's that the "banner
of Ya Baha'u'l-Abha ... must float from the pinnacles of the foremost seat of
learning in the Islamic world." The
reference here is to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the most famous Islamic
university and seminary.
In another amazing passage in this same book, the Guardian traces the
extinction of Islamic law, the decline and secularization of Islam, and the
ultimate conversion of all Muslim peoples to the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh, to the
trumpet-blast of the New Dispensation sounded by Tahirih at the Conference of
A little over four years had elapsed since the birth of the Bab's Revelation
when the trumpet-blast announcing the formal extinction of the old, and the
inauguration of the new Dispensation was sounded.... The arena was a tiny
hamlet in the plain of Badasht on the border of Mazindaran. The trumpeter was
a lone woman, the noblest of her sex in that Dispensation, whom even some of
her co-religionists pronounced a heretic. The call she sounded was the
death-knell of the twelve hundred year old law of Islam.
Accelerated, twenty years later, by another trumpet-blast, announcing the
formulation of the laws of yet another Dispensation, this process of
disintegration, associated with the declining fortunes of a superannuated,
though divinely revealed Law, gathered further momentum, precipitated, in a
later age, the annulment of the Shari'ah canonical Law in Turkey, led to the
virtual abandonment of that Law in Shi'ah Persia, has, more recently, been
responsible for the dissociation of the System envisaged in the Kitab-i-Aqdas
from the Sunni ecclesiastical Law in Egypt, has paved the way for the
recognition of that System in the Holy Land itself, and is destined to
culminate in the secularization of the Muslim states, and in the universal
recognition of the Law of Bahá'u'lláh by all the nations, and its enthronement
in the hearts of all the peoples, of the Muslim world.
This passage leaves us absolutely breathless, combining as it does prophecy,
historical analysis undreamt of by secular historians, and a dramatic
recounting of the facts.
C. The Promised Day is Come
The Promised Day is Come, in which Shoghi Effendi analyzes the
impact of the world's refusal to accept the Message of Bahá'u'lláh, is able to
devote more pages to these themes. It is beyond the scope of this paper to
adequately describe the Guardian's analysis, but some of the topics covered
include the following:
- The general decline of Religious Orthodoxy (pp 76 -
- The Bab and Bahá'u'lláh's castigation of the Muslim religious
divines, who have been responsible for the people's rejection of the New
Dispensation (pp. 87 - 93).
- A description of the decline of the Shi'ah ecclesiastical order (pp.
93 - 98).
- The collapse of the Caliphate (pp. 98 - 99).
- The abolition of the Sultanate (p. 99).
- The annulment of the Shari'ah canonical Law and the promulgation of
a civil code in its place (p. 101).
- The de-arabization and de-Islamification of Turkey (p.
Writing of the fortunes of Sunni Islam in the 20th century, Shoghi
Effendi describes the Caliphate as an institution that "vanished like a smoke",
leaving more than 200 million Muslims without a leader:
Strange, incredibly strange, must appear the position of this most powerful
branch of the Islamic Faith, with no outward and visible head to voice its
sentiments and convictions, its unity irretrievably shattered, its radiance
obscured, its law undermined, its institutions thrown into hopeless confusion.
This institution that had challenged the inalienable, divinely appointed rights
of the Imams of the Faith of Muhammad, had, after the revolution of thirteen
centuries, vanished like a smoke, an institution which had dealt such merciless
blows to a Faith Whose Herald was Himself a descendant of the Imams, the lawful
successors of the Apostle of God.
Lest we misinterpret these harsh descriptions, dire prophesies, stern rebukes
and warnings to be a general rejection or disparagement of Muhammad, the
Qur'an, or Islam, the Guardian reminds us again of the fundamental verities of
As to Muhammad, the Apostle of God, let none among His followers who read
these pages, think for a moment that either Islam, or its Prophet, or His Book,
or His appointed Successors, or any of His authentic teachings, have been, or
are to be in any way, or to however slight a degree, disparaged. The lineage
of the Bab, the descendant of the Imam Husayn; the divers and striking
evidences, in Nabil's Narrative, of the attitude of the Herald of our Faith
towards the Founder, the Imams, and the Book of Islam; the glowing tributes
paid by Bahá'u'lláh in the Kitab-i-Iqan to Muhammad and His lawful Successors,
and particularly to the "peerless and incomparable" Imam Husayn; the arguments
adduced, forcibly, fearlessly, and publicly by Abdu'l-Bahá, in churches and
synagogues, to demonstrate the validity of the Message of the Arabian Prophet;
and last but not least the written testimonial of the Queen of Rumania, who,
born in the Anglican faith and notwithstanding the close alliance of her
government with the Greek Orthodox Church, the state religion of her adopted
country, has, largely as a result of the perusal of these public discourses of
Abdu'l-Bahá, been prompted to proclaim her recognition of the prophetic
function of Muhammad - all proclaim, in no uncertain terms, the true attitude
of the Bahá'í Faith towards its parent religion.
D. Nabil's Narrative
Finally, Nabil's Narrative, which Shoghi Effendi translated and
edited, offers "striking evidences" "of the attitude of the Herald of our Faith
(the Bab) towards the Founder, the Imams, and the Book of Islam." This book also serves to introduce us to the culture of
Shi'ah Islam, as it existed in nineteenth-century Persia, and helps us to
understand the ferocity of the attacks launched against the Babi and Bahá'í
Faiths in the land of their birth. Shoghi Effendi makes several references to
Nabil's Narrative in The Dispensation.
III. Islam as an Independent Religion and the Imams as the Legitimate
Successors of Muhammad
In discussing the Master's explanation of an ancient Zoroastrian
prophecy, Shoghi Effendi makes the following statement in The
From the text of this explicit and authoritative interpretation of so ancient
a prophecy it is evident how necessary it is for every faithful follower of the
Faith to accept the divine origin and uphold the independent status of the
Muhammadan Dispensation. The validity of the Imamate is, moreover, implicitly
recognized in these same passages - that divinely-appointed institution of
whose most distinguished member the Bab Himself was a lineal descendant, and
which continued for a period of no less than two hundred and sixty years to be
the chosen recipient of the guidance of the Almighty and the repository of one
of the two most precious legacies of Islam.
This passage confirms the divine origin and independent status of Islam and
upholds the validity of the Imamate. The legitimacy of the Imams is also
upheld in the previously quoted passage from The Promised Day is
Amazingly, some so-called Bahá'í scholars dispute these statements proclaiming
the Imams to be the legitimate successors of Muhammad. Instead, they claim the
Faith's stance on the Imams is part of a general "Shi'ah bias" that exists
because the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh came out of a Shi'ah Islamic background.
A central problem for Islam is that Ali's appointment as Muhammad's successor
was not put into writing and is not contained in the Qur'an:
Can any passage of the Qur'an, which in respect to its legal code, its
administrative and devotional ordinances marks already a notable advance over
previous and more corrupted Revelations, be construed as placing upon an
unassailable basis the undoubted authority with which Muhammad had, verbally
and on several occasions, invested His successor?
This statement by the Guardian confirms that `Ali was verbally appointed by
Muhammad on several occasions, but as history reports, after Muhammad's passing
he was passed over in favor of Abu Bakr.
`Ali finally became the fourth Caliph after the death of Uthman, but Islam's
unity had by that time been irreparably shattered and the seeds sown for the
division into Sunni and Shi'ah sects. After `Ali's assassination by His
enemies, the leadership of Islam was seized by Mu'awiyah, the son of Muhammad's
principle Meccan enemy, Abu Sufyan. Thus began the period of the Umayyad
Caliphs. A minority of Muslims who followed `Ali and his descendents, the
Imams, became known as the Shi'ahs.
The Shi'ah accounts of Muhammad's last pilgrimage to Mecca describe His
appointment of `Ali as His successor:
Shi'ah tradition has it that on the way back to Medina, at urgent bidding
received from God, Muhammad made, all of a sudden, a forced halt by the pool of
Khum, a most inconvenient place; had a pulpit raised with saddles, and from
this announced `Ali as His successor, requiring the large body of Muslims who
were with Him to pledge their loyalty to `Ali. One can look in vain in other
sources for any reference to this episode, which looms large in the writings of
the Shi'ahs. They preserve total silence.
Another episode concerns Muhammad's death-bed request for writing materials in
order to leave a will--a request which was refused by `Umar who reportedly
said: "The Book of God is sufficient unto us." We know this actually happened
because `Abdu'l-Bahá describes the awful consequences of these words in the
Lawh-i-Hizar Bayti (Tablet of One Thousand Verses):
`Abdu'l-Bahá states that it was this very statement which caused the
foundation of the religion of God in the Islamic Dispensation to be shattered
and the ignoble worshippers of self and passion to rule over the righteous
souls. It became a deadly weapon with which the Imam `Ali himself was
martyred, which caused great divisions within the nation of Islam, and which
changed the loving spirit of that nation to that of warriors armed with sword
and weapon. As a result of this statement, the head of Imam Husayn, the most
illustrious of the Imams, was decapitated on the plain of Karbila, the other
holy Imams were inflicted with great sufferings, imprisonment and death, and
the blood of countless innocent souls was shed for well nigh twelve hundred
`Abdu'l-Bahá further affirms that this statement uttered by `Umar was
transformed into the hundreds of bullets centuries later which pierced the
breast of the Bab in Tabriz, that this statement became the chains which were
placed around the blessed neck of Bahá'u'lláh, and brought about the untold
sufferings inflicted upon Him in the course of His successive exiles.
Much, much more can be said on this topic. However, as confirmed by the above
quotations and many others as well:
It is a fundamental belief of the Bahá'ís that Imam `Ali was the lawful
successor of the Prophet of Islam. After him his lineal male descendents known
as the `holy Imams' led the Shi'ah community until the year 260 AH.
Bahá'u'lláh regarded the Imams as the legitimate successors of the Prophet,
acknowledged the value of their work in the elucidation of the Qur'an,
confirmed many of their sayings as recorded in the books of `Ahadith
(traditions), quoted several of these in His Writings, interpreted their words,
extolled their station (especially that of Husayn, the third Imam) in glowing
terms, and referred to them as `those unquenchable lights of divine guidance'
and `those lamps of certitude'.
IV. Correcting Misunderstandings that Have Crept into Islam
A. Misunderstandings in Islam
As with each religion, Islam has over time departed from the pristine
purity of its original teachings. Religious misunderstandings and erroneous
interpretations have crept into the religion and are now accepted as orthodox
teaching. This process is well described in the Bahá'í Scriptures, especially
in the talks of `Abdu'l-Bahá, and constitutes the main reason why a new
Revelation is needed every thousand years or so. The new Manifestation
restates the eternal truths, brings new teachings for the people of His Day,
and clears away misunderstandings from previous religions.
In the case of Islam, we know the text of the Qur'an is authentic which is an
advancement over the older Faiths:
We cannot be sure of the authenticity, word for word, of any of the past Holy
Scriptures except the Qur'an, as they were either not written down during the
Prophet's lifetime or have been changed in the course of time and the originals
Thus, the two main sources of religious error in Islam are misinterpretation of
the Qur'an (the words are authentic but their meaning is lost or misconstrued),
and Hadith (reported sayings of Muhammad and the Imams). It is interesting to
note how both of these sources of error are dealt with in the Bahá'í Faith:
Bahá'u'lláh has forbidden oral tradition as a basis for His religion, and
misinterpretation of the scriptures is prevented by operation of His Covenant
(see next section of this paper for a fuller discussion).
Several Islamic misunderstandings are explicitly or implicitly addressed in
- The claim of finality of Revelation (Muhammad is the `Seal
of the Prophets')
- The Crucifixion of Christ
B. Finality of Revelation
The first issue is addressed in the following passage from The
Indeed, the categorical rejection by the followers of the Faith of
Bahá'u'lláh of the claim to finality which any religious system inaugurated by
the Prophets of the past may advance is as clear and emphatic as their own
refusal to claim that same finality for the Revelation with which they stand
identified. "To believe that all revelation is ended, that the portals of
Divine mercy are closed, that from the daysprings of eternal holiness no sun
shall rise again, that the ocean of everlasting bounty is forever stilled, and
that out of the tabernacle of ancient glory the Messengers of God have ceased
to be made manifest" must constitute in the eyes of every follower of the
Faith a grave, an inexcusable departure from one of its most cherished and
The quotation in italics is from the Kitab-i-Iqan. In that same book,
Bahá'u'lláh forcefully challenges the Muslim view that since Muhammad is the
"Seal of the Prophets", a later Revelation from God is not possible. Not only does Bahá'u'lláh affirm the Bab's
Revelation as the next valid religious Dispensation after Islam, but He also
emphatically states that the process of Divine Revelation will continue
C. Crucifixion of Christ
The crucifixion of Christ is an important topic, since it demonstrates a
clear example of a misinterpretation of the Qur'anic verses. To virtually
every Christian denomination and sect, Christ's crucifixion represents the
pivotal event of His ministry in which He died on the cross to atone for the
sins of all humanity. And yet, the majority of Muslims rejects the historical
fact of the Crucifixion of Christ:
The Quranic teaching is that Christ was not crucified nor killed by the Jews,
notwithstanding certain apparent circumstances which produced that illusion in
the minds of some of his enemies; that disputations, doubts, and conjectures on
such matters are vain; and that he was taken up to God.
The following quotations are two different translations of the Qur'anic verses
which have led Muslims to this conclusion (4:157-158):
That they said (in boast),
"We killed Christ Jesus
The son of Mary,
The Apostle of God"; -
But they killed him not,
Nor crucified him,
But so it was made
To appear to them,
And those who differ
Therein are full of doubts,
With no (certain) knowledge,
But only conjecture to follow,
For of a surety
They killed him not;--
Nay, God raised him up
Unto Himself; and God
Is Exalted in Power, Wise;--
...and for their saying, `We slew the Messiah,
Jesus son of Mary, the Messenger of God' -
yet they did not slay him, neither crucified him,
only a likeness of that was shown to them.
Those who are at variance concerning him surely
are in doubt regarding him; they have no knowledge
of him, except the following of surmise;
and they slew him not of a certainty--
no indeed; God raised him up to Him; God is
Bahá'u'lláh refutes this interpretation in several places in His Writings. In
The Dispensation, a prayer of Bahá'u'lláh is quoted in which He says:
"Again I was crucified for having unveiled to men's eyes the hidden gems of
Thy glorious unity, for having revealed to them the wondrous signs of Thy
sovereign and everlasting power."23 In this prayer He
identifies Himself with the sufferings experienced by past Prophets and Holy
Ones, including Noah, Moses, Jesus, and the Imam Husayn.
An even more pointed reference to the historical event of Christ's crucifixion
is made in the following quotation from Gleanings:
O Jews! If ye be intent on crucifying once again Jesus, the Spirit of God,
put Me to death, for He hath once more, in My person, been made manifest unto
D. Other Misunderstandings Not Addressed in The Dispensation
There are numerous other misunderstandings or errors that have entered
Islam, such as attitudes towards women,
certain Hadith that encourage the
execution of apostates, etc. These and other examples are dealt with in other
places in the Bahá'í Revelation, but are not covered in the Dispensation of
Bahá'u'lláh. Once again, The Dispensation is not a general
treatment of Islam.
V. New Features of the Bahá'í Dispensation Not Found in Islam
A. The Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh
We have already discussed in Section III of this paper the lack of a written
will appointing `Ali as Muhammad's successor, and the resulting schism into
Sunni and Shi'ah branches - a schism which the Guardian has characterized as
"permanent and catastrophic".
Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant, as documented in the Kitab-i-'Ahd and
`Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament, has resolutely resolved the question
of succession, and has conferred the mantle of authority, interpretation, and
infallibility on both `Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. This is unprecedented
in the history of religion:
Nowhere in the sacred scriptures of any of the world's religious systems, nor
even in the writings of the Inaugurator of the Babi Dispensation, do we find
any provisions establishing a covenant or providing for an administrative order
that can compare in scope and authority with those that lie at the very basis
of the Bahá'í Dispensation. Has either Christianity or Islam, to take as an
instance two of the most widely diffused and outstanding among the world's
recognized religions, anything to offer that can measure with, or be regarded
as equivalent to, either the Book of Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant or to the Will and
Testament of Abdu'l-Bahá? Does the text of either the Gospel or the Qur'an
confer sufficient authority upon those leaders and councils that have claimed
the right and assumed the function of interpreting the provisions of their
sacred scriptures and of administering the affairs of their respective
communities? Could Peter, the admitted chief of the Apostles, or the Imam Ali,
the cousin and legitimate successor of the Prophet, produce in support of the
primacy with which both had been invested written and explicit affirmations
from Christ and Muhammad that could have silenced those who either among their
contemporaries or in a later age have repudiated their authority and, by their
action, precipitated the schisms that persist until the present day?
Bahá'u'lláh Himself testifies to the power of His Covenant in the following
words: "So firm and mighty is this Covenant that from the beginning of time
until the present day no religious Dispensation hath produced its like." One may wonder why this is true - why have
past religions, including Islam, suffered catastrophic schisms for lack of a
firm and documented Covenant? One explanation has been offered in Taherzadeh's
monumental work, The Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh:
In past Dispensations the Prophets did not establish a firm and unequivocal
Covenant with their followers concerning their successors, nor did they leave
behind clear guidance as to how to conduct the affairs of the community after
their departure from this world. Consequently, religions became divided into
many sects resulting in conflicts and disunity among the followers. But the
non-existence of a clear Covenant and lack of guidance should not be construed
as a failure on the part of the Founders of religions. To attribute to the
Manifestations of God a lack of understanding, of vision and knowledge, is
tantamount to attributing shortcomings and imperfections to God Himself...
A careful study of the history of religions will enable us to realize that the
Manifestations of old, those embodiments of God's attributes, did not make an
unequivocal written Covenant with their followers because of the immaturity of
the people of the age, who could not have sustained the rigours, the tests and
the strict discipline which the observance of such a Covenant would inevitably
B. The Uniqueness of `Abdu'l-Bahá
As stated in The Dispensation, `Abdu'l-Bahá fulfills a unique
function for which there is no equivalent in past religions, including
...One Who, not only in the Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh but in the entire
field of religious history, fulfills a unique function. Though moving in a
sphere of His own and holding a rank radically different from that of the
Author and the Forerunner of the Bahá'í Revelation, He, by virtue of the
station ordained for Him through the Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh, forms together
with them what may be termed the Three Central Figures of a Faith that stands
unapproached in the world's spiritual history.
A glimpse of `Abdu'l-Bahá's uniqueness is offered by the Guardian's summary
description of His many qualities and titles:
He is, and should for all time be regarded, first and foremost, as the Center
and Pivot of Bahá'u'lláh's peerless and all-enfolding Covenant, His most
exalted handiwork, the stainless Mirror of His light, the perfect Exemplar of
His teachings, the unerring Interpreter of His Word, the embodiment of every
Bahá'í ideal, the incarnation of every Bahá'í virtue, the Most Mighty Branch
sprung from the Ancient Root, the Limb of the Law of God, the Being "round Whom
all names revolve," the Mainspring of the Oneness of Humanity, the Ensign of
the Most Great Peace, the Moon of the Central Orb of this most holy
Dispensation - styles and titles that are implicit and find their truest, their
highest and fairest expression in the magic name Abdu'l-Bahá. He is, above and
beyond these appellations, the "Mystery of God" - an expression by which
Bahá'u'lláh Himself has chosen to designate Him, and which, while it does not
by any means justify us to assign to Him the station of Prophethood, indicates
how in the person of Abdu'l-Bahá the incompatible characteristics of a human
nature and superhuman knowledge and perfection have been blended and are
It is interesting to note that Shoghi Effendi does not claim a similar
uniqueness of station for the Guardianship. In fact, in his discussion of the
Guardianship in The Dispensation he mentions "the hereditary principle
and the law of primogeniture as having been upheld by the Prophets of the
past." From this, one could infer a
correspondence in function between the Imams of Islam, and the Guardian. The
Imams, like the succession of Guardians envisioned in The Will and
Testament, passed the mantle of authority and succession from father to
son. Both the Guardian and the Imams provided interpretation of the scriptures
and spiritual leadership and guidance.
C. Administrative Order
The Bahá'í Administrative Order, the provisions of which have been laid down in
the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, `Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, is absolutely
unique in religious history:
The Bahá'í Commonwealth of the future, of which this vast Administrative
Order is the sole framework, is, both in theory and practice, not only unique
in the entire history of political institutions, but can find no parallel in
the annals of any of the world's recognized religious systems.
In rough outline, the Bahá'í Administrative Order contains the following
- A written Covenant, which specifies succession.
Bahá'u'lláh was succeeded by His eldest Son, `Abdu'l-Bahá, the Mystery of
God, Whom He appointed in His Book of the Covenant (Kitab-i-'Ahd).
`Abdu'l-Bahá fulfills a unique role in religious history as appointed
successor, infallible interpreter, Center of the Covenant, and perfect exemplar
of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings. `Abdu'l-Bahá was succeeded by His grandson, Shoghi
Effendi, whom He appointed in His Will and Testament to be the Guardian,
vested with the roles of head of the Faith and infallible interpreter.
- A series of elected bodies to administer the Faith (Local and
National Spiritual Assemblies, and the Universal House of Justice). The local
believers elect the Local Assembly annually through plurality vote; the
National Assembly is elected annually through a National Convention; the
Universal House of Justice is elected every five years by a plurality vote of
the members of all National Assemblies. A few years ago, the Universal House
of Justice created Regional Bahá'í Councils, which operate regionally.
- A series of appointed positions including Hands of the Cause,
Continental Counselors, Auxiliary Board Members and their assistants. These
individuals inspire and educate the believers, and focus on activities to
propagate and protect the Faith. They work hand in hand with the elected
institutions, but have no real power of their own.
- A series of Administrative principles and guidelines which
are enshrined in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, `Abdu'l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi.
These principles cover such topics as consultation, elections, community life,
the spirit of Bahá'í administration, guidance on the application of Bahá'í Law,
and the qualifications for service.
- Explicit infallibility conveyed upon the Center of the
Covenant (`Abdu'l-Bahá), the Guardian, and the Universal House of Justice.
- Explicit and exclusive right of interpretation conveyed to
both the Center of the Covenant and the Guardian.
- Ability for the House of Justice to legislate in areas not
covered by Bahá'u'lláh's Writings.
- Sphere of legislation of the Universal House of Justice
defined by the Guardianship.
- A specified mechanism to excommunicate those who attack the head of
the Faith and attempt to undermine the firmly established Covenant. These
individuals are called "Covenant Breakers".
We have seen in the previous sections of this paper that Islam lacked a written
Covenant resulting in a split into Sunni and Shi'ah sects. The Qur'an, while
providing laws and ordinances and the basis for a legal code, is silent on the
question of how the religion is to be maintained and administered after the
Prophet's passing. The Shi'ah and Sunni took different paths as explained by
this passage from Moojan Momen's excellent book, An Introduction to Shi'i
The Sunni concept of leadership of the Muslim community after the death of
the Prophet, the Caliphate, is essentially a temporal leadership. The Caliph
is the first among equals, elected ideally by consensus, although later the
hereditary principle became the norm. To others, the theologians and experts
in jurisprudence, is given the task of expounding upon religious questions.
To the Shi'is, however, the succession to the Prophet is a matter of the
designation by the Prophet of an individual (`Ali) as Imam. Each Imam
designates his successor during his lifetime. The authority of the Imam
derives from his designation by his predecessor to a spiritual station and is
independent of his temporal standing, i.e. it makes no difference to the Imam's
station whether he is acknowledged by the generality of Muslims or not, whereas
this quite clearly does not apply to a Sunni Caliph whose station is totally
dependent on such acknowledgement.
The Sunnis and Shi'is are basically in agreement with each other over the
nature and function of prophethood. The two main functions of the Prophet are
to reveal God's law to men and to guide men towards God. Of these two
functions, the Sunnis believe that both ended with the death of Muhammad, while
the Shi'is believe that whereas legislation ended, the function of guiding men
and preserving and explaining the Divine Law continued through the line of
In addition to the Caliphs and the Imams, both Islamic branches developed an
additional body of literature called Hadith, which represent the
reported sayings of Muhammad (Sunnis), and which for the Shi'ahs also include
the reported sayings of the Imams. Each branch also developed its own form of
Islamic jurisprudence as well their own system of clergy and theological
It is important to realize that no matter how much these elements have
contributed to the richness of Islamic history, culture, and religious thought,
absolutely none of it can be traced back to the explicit text of the Qur'an, a
book that is universally accepted as the Word of God by all Muslims. Thus,
`Ali's appointment as Muhammad's successor is not to be found in the Qur'an,
neither is any text that might form the justification for the Caliphate. There
is disagreement among Muslims as to which Hadith are authentic and which
are not (plus the Shi'ahs have Hadith for the Imams which of course are
not accepted by the Sunnis). The various schools of Islamic jurisprudence and
the various religious clergy have all been developed in response to the need of
the religion to deal with questions and situations not found in the Qur'an, to
ensure training and education of the people, and to provide for the ongoing
administration of the religion. An almost identical situation exists in
Christianity: the Bible contains almost no information about how to administer
the religion after the departure of Christ.
Neither Christianity nor Islam contains a mechanism for ongoing authoritative
legislation, which can be traced back to the Holy Book, such as exists with the
Universal House of Justice.
VI. Goals of the Bahá'í Dispensation in Relation to Islam
Bahá'u'lláh says: "This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the
past, eternal in the future. Let him that seeketh, attain it." As a befitting close to this paper, the following
quotation from The Dispensation seeks to establish the proper
relationship between Islam and the Bahá'í Revelation:
Nor does the Bahá'í Revelation, claiming as it does to be the culmination of
a prophetic cycle and the fulfillment of the promise of all ages, attempt,
under any circumstances, to invalidate those first and everlasting principles
that animate and underlie the religions that have preceded it. The God-given
authority, vested in each one of them, it admits and establishes as its firmest
and ultimate basis. It regards them in no other light except as different
stages in the eternal history and constant evolution of one religion, Divine
and indivisible, of which it itself forms but an integral part. It neither
seeks to obscure their Divine origin, nor to dwarf the admitted magnitude of
their colossal achievements. It can countenance no attempt that seeks to
distort their features or to stultify the truths which they instill. Its
teachings do not deviate a hairbreadth from the verities they enshrine, nor
does the weight of its message detract one jot or one tittle from the influence
they exert or the loyalty they inspire. Far from aiming at the overthrow of
the spiritual foundation of the world's religious systems, its avowed, its
unalterable purpose is to widen their basis, to restate their fundamentals, to
reconcile their aims, to reinvigorate their life, to demonstrate their oneness,
to restore the pristine purity of their teachings, to coordinate their
functions and to assist in the realization of their highest aspirations. These
divinely-revealed religions, as a close observer has graphically expressed it,
"are doomed not to die, but to be reborn..."
The Bahá'í Revelation seeks not to undermine Islam (or any other religion), but
to restore and reinvigorate it. To be true to the truths revealed by
Bahá'u'lláh, we must view Islam and the Bahá'í Faith as essentially different
stages of one and the same religion.
We have seen that The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, Shoghi
Effendi's concise statement of the fundamental verities of Bahá'í belief,
contain a number of important keys which lead Bahá'ís to a more complete
understanding of Islam.
The Dispensation makes direct reference to other Bahá'í writings that
shed light on Islam, including the Kitab-i-Iqan (which quotes
extensively from the Qur'an) and Nabil's Narrative. God Passes
By, a later work by Shoghi Effendi envisioned in The Dispensation,
traces the death-knell of the law of Islam back to trumpet-blast sounded by
Tahirih at the conference of Badasht and predicts the universal recognition and
acceptance of Bahá'u'lláh by the Muslim world. In The Promised Day is
Come, the Guardian analyzes the impact on Islam of its refusal to accept
the Message of Bahá'u'lláh, including the collapse of the Caliphate, the
abolition of the Sultanate, and the annulment of Shari'ah canonical law.
The Dispensation upholds Islam as an independent religion and confirms
the Imams as the legitimate Successors of Muhammad. `Ali's appointment by
Muhammad as His Successor was made verbally, and is not to be found in the
Qur'an. The split of Islam into Sunni and Shi'ah branches, a schism which the
Guardian has characterized as "permanent and catastrophic", can be traced to
the lack of a written document from Muhammad establishing `Ali as His
Successor. The lack of written Covenant, Taherzadeh argues, should not be
viewed as a failure of the previous Manifestations, but is due to the
immaturity of the people of previous ages who could not have sustained the
rigours of such a Covenant.
Errors which have crept into Islam are due to two sources: misinterpretation of
the Qur'an (which is authentic) and the use of Hadith, which are the
reported sayings of Muhammad and the Imams. Several errors addressed in The
Dispensation include the finality of Revelation (since Muhammad is the
"Seal of the Prophets" His Revelation is final), and the non-belief in the
crucifixion of Christ. The Dispensation confirms that the process of
Revelation is ongoing and eternal, and that Christ was crucified, as attested
to by Bahá'u'lláh Himself.
The Bahá'í Faith, being the latest Revelation from God, provides for religious
and administrative features not found in earlier religions, including Islam.
These include the Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh which establishes in written
documents the Succession, the unique station of `Abdu'l-Bahá, and the Bahá'í
Administrative Order. The Bahá'í Administrative Order includes the
Guardianship, the Universal House of Justice, a system of elected
administrative bodies, a series of appointed positions, and a comprehensive and
authoritative body of administrative principles and guidelines laid down by
Bahá'u'lláh, `Abdu'l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi. The Qur'an, while laying down
the basic laws and ordinances of Islam, is silent on the questions of
succession and administration. There exists no provision in Islam, such as the
Universal House of Justice, to provide for ongoing authoritative
Finally, the Bahá'í Faith seeks not to undermine Islam, but to restore and
reinvigorate it and to assist in the realization of its highest aspirations.
To be true to the Message of Bahá'u'lláh, we must view Islam and the Bahá'í
Faith as essentially different stages of one and the same religion. "This is
the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future."
Brian A. Wittman
Paper completed April 16, 2000.
 The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh,
Shoghi Effendi, paragraph 5. This letter forms a part of the book, The
World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 95-157, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1969.
 Islam and the Destiny of Man, Charles
Le Gai Eaton, State University of New York Press, The Islamic Texts Society,
1985. Le Gai Eaton is a Western Muslim.
 Muhammad, A Biography of the Prophet,
Karen Armstrong, Harper, San Francisco, 1992, pp. 49-50.
 Directives of the Guardian, Shoghi
Effendi, p. 64.
 Dispensation, paragraph 5.
 God Passes By, Shoghi Effendi, Bahá'í
Publishing Trust, 1974, p. 411. Also, see other references to this prophecy on
pages 302 and 315.
 Ibid, p. 34.
 The Promised Day is Come, Shoghi
Effendi, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1967, p. 100.
 Ibid, p. 112-113.
 Ibid, p. 112.
 Dispensation, paragraph 14.
 Ibid, paragraph 96.
 A discussion of Muhammad's passing and
the succession can be found in Muhammad and the Course of Islam, by H.M.
Balyuzi, chapter 19, and in An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, by Moojan
Momen, chapter 2.
 Muhammad and the Course of Islam,
H.M. Balyuzi, George Ronald Press, 1976, pp. 149-150.
 The Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh, Adib
Taherzadeh, George Ronald Press, 1992, pp. 157-158.
 Ibid, p. 157.
 Buddha, Krisna, Zoroaster,
compilation from the letters and writings of Shoghi Effendi, p.21.
 Dispensation, paragraph 44.
 See for example, the Kitab-i-Iqan,
pages 40, 162-163, 166, 169, 170, 174, 179, 213, 233, and 244.
 The Holy Qur'an, Text, Translation and
Commentary, A. Yusuf Ali, Amana Corp., 1983, note 663, p. 230.
 Ibid, p. 230.
 The Koran Interpreted, translation
by A.J. Arberry, Macmillan, 1955, p. 123.
23 Dispensation, paragraph 52.
 Gleanings from the Writings of
Bahá'u'lláh, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976, p. 101.
 For example, the relegation of women to
the back of the mosque occurred over time. Women worshipped in the mosque side
by side with men in Muhammad's day. The use of a chador or "head to toe"
shroud for women is not mandated by Muhammad or the Qur'an, other than general
exhortations for modesty in dress.
 Bukhari 88:1 states: "Whoever changes his
religion, kill him". Bukhari 87:6 also states that the life of a Muslim may be
taken in three cases, one of which is that "he forsakes his religion and
separates himself from his community." Bukhari is one of the well-known
compilations of Islamic Hadith. These traditions are not accepted by all
Muslims, especially the more liberal. See, for example, The Religion of
Islam, Maulana Muhammad Ali, S. Chand & Company, New Delhi, pp.
591-599, for a discussion of Apostasy. The Qur'an states: "Let there be no
compulsion in religion" (2:256).
 Dispensation, paragraph 96.
 Ibid, paragraph 98.
 The Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh, pp.
 Dispensation, paragraph 69.
 Ibid, paragraph 75.
 Ibid, paragraph 101.
 The line of Guardians ended with Shoghi
Effendi, since he had no heirs and none of his male relatives met the
qualifications in `Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament. This situation
created a theological test for the Bahá'í community, since a line of Guardians
is clearly envisioned the Will and Testament, which also describes the
Guardian as the permanent head of the Universal House of Justice, which had not
yet come into existence at the time of Shoghi Effendi's passing in 1957. Much
has been written on this topic elsewhere, and so a more detailed treatment is
beyond the scope of this paper. Briefly, the Universal House of Justice was
first elected in 1963, at the successful conclusion of Shoghi Effendi's 10-yr
global campaign to expand the Bahá'í Faith to all parts of the world. The
House of Justice, when elected, resolved the theological dilemma by legislating
that future Guardians were not possible. The supreme institution did explain
that the institution of the Guardianship continues to operate through the vast
and authoritative body of writings left by Shoghi Effendi. Although there was
only one Guardian in the person of Shoghi Effendi, the "hereditary principle"
mentioned in The Dispensation is fulfilled in the sense that Bahá'u'lláh
appointed His son, `Abdu'l-Bahá, who in turn appointed His grandson, Shoghi
 Ibid, paragraph 118.
 An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, p.
 Gleanings from the Writings of
Bahá'u'lláh, p. 136.
 Dispensation, paragraph 42.