Defining Bahá'í:
A Sect, a New and Independent World Religion, or the Changeless Faith of God?

By Zaid Lundberg

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #28
London School of Economics: London, England
July 14–16, 2000
(see list of papers from #28)

    Who is to define whether Bahá'í is an Islamic sect, a new religious movement, a religion, a new and independent world religion, or the changeless Faith of God? According to some researchers (Pike & Harris) one useful and important methodological distinction is that between the emic (insider) and etic (outsider) perspectives. Hence, any religious community could be approached and defined from two major, but fundamentally different, perspectives. For example, from an etic perspective Ninian Smart states that it is possible to identify in every world-view (religious or nonreligious) six to eight major dimensions, one of which is the doctrinal dimension. Furthermore, Smart and other scholars of religion state that one essential feature of doctrines/creeds is that they define the religious community, i.e., they function as normative self-definitions. Consequently, it should in principle be possible, even from an etic perspective, to study how a religious community (in this case Bahá'í) normatively and emically defines itself.

    It is well known that the etic definitions of Bahá'í range from "an Islamic sect" to "a new religious movement" or "a world religion" and where the latter definition increasingly is becoming the more universally accepted one. What is less well known, however, are the emic definitions of Bahá'í as being simultaneously "a new and independent world religion" (Shoghi Effendi) and "the eternal Faith of God" (Bahá'u'lláh).

    In order to understand this wide array of definitions one may:

    1) etically employ G. H. Mead's idea of "a social self" since Bahá'í is normatively defined in terms of "significant others," especially older and/or dominant religious communities (Bábism, Shí'í Islam, Christianity, and Judaism); view what some scholars of religion refer to as "religious innovation" as a radical reinterpretation of' older and/or dominant religious world-views, or what David Tracy refers to as a fundamental change in the "root metaphors. From SL1tic perspective every religious community has, at an early stage, been involved in what can be labeled "interreligious hermeneutics."

    2) emically explain and solve--through the Bahá'í doctrine of progressive revelation--the apparent contradictions and paradoxes that Bahá'í is defined as both eternal, ancient, and yet new, or that various religions are fundamentally one Faith, interconnected, and yet independent from each other.

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