Sectarianism and the Bahá'í Faith

By Iraj Ayman

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #15
Bahá'í National Center: Wilmette, Illinois, USA
August 9–10, 1997
(see list of papers from #15)

    A striking difference between the Bahá'í Faith and other religions and creeds is the built-in unity of the Bahá'í community protecting it from schism and sectarianism. Communities belonging to other religions are usually divided into sects, denominations, or factions. While all such groupings within one religion share certain verities and principles and consider themselves to be true followers of the founder of the religion, they differ from each other in terms of interpretation of the scriptures or manners of practicing their religion. In the absence of a binding injunction keeping the adherents united in one community, various religious leaders or scholars advocate their own personal understanding of the teachings of the founder of the religion and contentiously add to the number of sects and denominations within their religion.

    Bahá'u'lláh, founder of the Bahá'í Faith, by making a clear and unequivocal covenant with His followers, has made it impossible for them to branch out into various sects or denominations. In other words, it is impossible for a person to confess that Bahá'u'lláh is the Manifestation of God and claim to accept and follow His revelation but not be a member of the mainstream community of Bahá'ís. While individual Bahá'ís are free to have their own personal understanding and interpretation of the words and message of Bahá'u'lláh, they are strictly forbidden to propagate their views for the purpose of forming a group of fellow travellers and split the community into sects and factions. Giving the official guidelines is the prerogative of the central institution expressly stated in the text (mansús). This is a unique characteristic of the Bahá'í Faith that calls for both theological and sociological considerations.

    There have been and presently there are certain groups of people who use the word. "Bahá'í" as part of their designation and claim to be adherents of Bahá'u'lláh. The mere adopting of the name does not justify their claim because the Bahá'í Faith is structured in a way that one cannot be a Bahá'í without accepting the legitimacy and authority of the unitary world center of the Bahá'í Faith. In other words, the Bahá'í Faith is an integral entity and is indivisible. This presentation attempts to describe this unique aspect of the Bahá'í Faith, identify various categories of those who have either stopped to follow the succession line or rejected the legitimacy of the center of the Faith, and demonstrate that while there are religious groups that subscribe to certain parts or aspects of the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh they cannot be classified as "Bahá'í sects."

    Dr. Iraj Ayman received D.Ed from Edinburgh University (Scotland) and Ph.D. from the University of Southern California. He completed post-doctoral studies at Harvard University. He is professor emeritus of the University of Teacher Education in Iran and has been visiting professor of education and management at the University of Tehran, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Philippines (Manila). He has served at UNESCO as Regional Advisor and Chief of the Center for Educational Planning and Management for Asia and the Pacific Region and Chief of Training Educational Personnel Center, in Paris, France. Dr. Ayman is the founder and served as the first director of the Landegg Academy and is presently serving as the consultant to the Office of Education and Schools at the United States' Bahá'í National Center. He is a member of the faculty and a member of the Board of the Wilmette Institute as well as a member of the Board of Directors of the Religious Education Association.

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