Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call: 200th Anniversary of the Baha'i Faith

200th Anniversary of the Baha'i Faith

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Payam Akhavan, associate professor of law at McGill University, commemorates the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah with a discussion on the Baha’i faith, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.

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Payam Akhavan

Associate Professor of Law, McGill University


Irina A. Faskianos

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website,, and on our iTunes podcast channel, Religion and Foreign Policy.


We’re delighted to have Payam Akhavan with us to talk about the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith. Payam Akhavan is an associate professor of law at McGill University. Prior to joining McGill, he was a senior fellow at Yale Law School and a UN prosecutor at The Hague, where in 2016 he was appointed a member of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. In 2017, he delivered the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s Massey Lectures, In Search of a Better World: A Human Rights Odyssey. He has published extensively in leading journals on the topic of genocide and is the author of the 2005 UN Report on The Work of the Office of the Special Adviser to the Secretary General on the Prevention of Genocide. He also served as the first legal advisor to the Prosecutor's Office of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda at The Hague, and has made significant contributions to its foundational jurisprudence. Professor Akhavan is a founder of Iran Human Rights Documentation Centre, Prosecutor of the Iran People’s Tribunal, and speaks frequently on topics related to Baha’i faith, including Baha’i spirituality and the state of Baha’is living in Iran. So Payam, thank you very much for being with us. We very much appreciate it. And it would be terrific if you could share with us the significance of the 200th anniversary of the founder of the Baha’i faith.


AKHAVAN: Thank you very much, Irina. I’m very grateful to the Council on Foreign Relations for giving me this opportunity to share some reflections on the significance of the bicentenary of the birth of Baha’u’llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha’i faith.


I will begin with the remarks of the distinguished orientalist, Professor Edward Browne of Cambridge University, who visited Baha’u’llah in 1890 in Bahji in the vicinity of Haifa in what was then the Ottoman province of Syria. He recorded his encounter in these words: “The face of him on whom I gazed I can never forget, though I cannot describe it. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one’s very soul; power and authority sat on that ample brow. No need to ask in whose presence I stood as I bowed myself before one who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain!”


Professor Browne recounted the words of Baha’u’llah to him as follows: “Thou hast come to see a prisoner and an exile…We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations…That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled—what harm is there in this?”


Reflecting on the wars that were then prevalent among the European powers, Baha’u’llah said to Professor Browne: “These fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come. Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind.”


So I begin with this historic exchange from 1890 because it’s a befitting point of departure in appreciating the life and teachings of the prophet-founder of the Baha’i faith, the bicentenary of whose birth in 1817 was celebrated across the world last year, in 2017. And that exchange between Professor Browne and Baha’u’llah captures the stark contrast between religious tolerance, war, violence, violent persecution on the one hand, and the vision of the unified world civilization based on a transcendent ethos on the other. And we have to bear in mind that Baha’u’llah’s comments were made amidst the dark forces that were gathering momentum in the 19th century that would lead to the unprecedented calamities of the 20th century.


So Baha’u’llah was born on November 12, 1817, in Tehran, the capital of what was then the Persian Empire, which we know today as Iran. His birth name was Mirza Husayn Ali, and he came from a noble and privileged family and, possessed of exceptional knowledge and wisdom, he was expected to pursue a career in the royal court. Instead, he busied himself with serving the poor and showed no interest in political power.


Beginning in 1844, the Babi faith, which was a modern messianic movement that declared the imminent arrival of the new post-Islamic religious dispensation, shook the pillars of the Iranian Empire, which was founded on the alliance between the Qajar monarchy and the Shiite clerical establishment. The British statesman, George Curzon, wrote in 1892 in his book, Persia and the Persian Question, what he described as a creed of common humanity that espoused freedom from bigotry and friendliness even to Christians, and claimed that it had almost a million followers, which would have been a sizeable proportion of the Iranian population in the 19th century, observing that, “They are to be found in every walk of life, from the ministers and nobles of the Court to the scavenger or the groom, not the least arena of their activity being the Mussulman priesthood itself.”


Baha’u’llah was among the early adherents of the Babi faith, and this choice would fundamentally alter the course of his life. Following the pogroms in the late 19th century in which thousands of Babis were massacred, Baha’u’llah was imprisoned in a notorious subterranean dungeon that was known as the Black Pit, and it was in this grim setting—according to the belief of Baha’is—that Baha’u’llah became aware of his divine mission as a manifestation of God. So according to the idea of progressive revelation, there is only one religious truth, progressively revealed to humankind through successive prophetic figures corresponding to the capacity and historical evolution of humankind. So while accepting past religions—whether the Abrahamic religions such as Judaism, Christianity or Islam, or even Zoroastrianism, Hinduism and Buddhism—the Baha’is consider Baha’u’llah as the divine educator for this unique period in the historical evolution of humankind.


Following his incarceration in Tehran, Baha’u’llah was exiled to Baghdad, then in the Ottoman Empire, and the purpose of his exile was to prevent the spread of the Babi religion. But his fame continued to spread, even in Baghdad, and it aroused the enmity of the orthodox religious cleric who were fearful that the new faith would undermine their power and influence. So in 1863, Baha’u’llah was banished further to Constantinople, which today of course we know as Istanbul, which was the seat of the Ottoman Empire. Before leaving Baghdad, though, on the banks of the Tigris River, in the company of the many who looked to him for spiritual inspiration and leadership, Baha’u’llah proclaimed that he was the promised one that the Bab had foretold, and this gave rise to the transformation of the Babi religion into the Baha’i faith. And the title Baha’u’llah means, in Arabic, glory of God, and a Baha’i is a follower of the teachings of Baha’u’llah.


During this period of exile in Baghdad, and also in the wilderness of Kurdistan in Sulaymaniyah where he spent a prolonged period in isolation, Baha’u’llah wrote some of his most important works, including The Seven Valleys, and The Hidden Words. The Seven Valleys, which was written in response a letter from a Sufi, is a mystical work describing the journey of the soul to union with its creator in terms of seven valleys. These valleys are of search, love, knowledge, unity, contentment, wonderment, and ultimately, the valley of true poverty and absolute nothingness, signifying the death of the ego.


The Hidden Words, another one of his works written during this period, is a compilation of ethical teachings, a distillation of spiritual guidance common to all religious traditions. By way of example, the first of these says, “Oh, Son of Spirit! My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable, and everlasting.”


Another says, “Oh, Son of Justice! Whither can a lover go but to the land of his beloved? and what seeker findeth rest away from his heart’s desire? To the true lover reunion is life, and separation is death. His breast is void of patience and his heart hath no peace. A myriad lives he would forsake to hasten to the abode of his beloved.”


But beyond this transcendent, mystical and ethical core which is common to all the religions of the world, Baha’u’llah’s teachings also had a far-reaching message for the contemporary world, just as it was in the throes of the period of unprecedented upheaval and revolutionary change. So Baha’u’llah said, “Soon will the present day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead.” He foretold the advent of the coming of age of humankind, or the consummation of our social evolution into a world civilization embracing all peoples. Amidst divisive ideologies, and ruinous wars, and colonial domination, and subjugation of women, and what was still the primitive technology that characterized the 19th century, Baha’u’llah wrote, and I quote, “the world’s equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind’s ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System—the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed.”


Beginning in 1867, from his exile in Constantinople and Adrianople, Baha’u’llah wrote a series of letters to the kings and rulers of the world. This included Queen Victoria; the French emperor, Napoleon III; the German emperor, Wilhelm I; the Russian czar, Alexander II; the Austrian emperor, Franz Josef; the Ottoman sultan, Abdulaziz; and the Persian, Naser al-Din Shah. In these letters he called for disarmament and social justice, and end to strife and war, and the establishment of a commonwealth of nations founded on the principle of collective security—all this in the late 19th century. His message was that, in this new age, humankind was destined to move towards a world civilization, and a choice of the rulers was whether this would be achieved by an act of volition or only after unimaginable catastrophes.


In his letter to Kaiser Wilhelm, he said, “Oh, banks of the Rhine! We have seen you covered with gore, inasmuch as the swords of retribution were drawn against you; and you shall have another turn. We hear the lamentations of Berlin, though she be today in conspicuous glory.”


In 1868, Baha’u’llah was exiled further to the notorious prison city of Acre, which is today just north of Haifa in Israel, and he would spend the rest of his earthly life in the environs of Acre in Bahji, where he would pass away in 1892, and it was in that place that Professor Browne had met with Baha’u’llah in 1890. During this period he wrote his most important book, known as the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, which means The Most Holy Book, in which he set forth the essential laws and principles of the Baha’i faith and established the foundations for what would in time become the Baha’i global administrative order.


So despite imprisonment in chains, forty years of exile, all manner of false accusations leveled against him, an attempt at poisoning him, the loss of his son, and many other forms of acute suffering, during these years Baha’u’llah wrote hundreds upon hundreds of books, and tablets, and letters, which provided both spiritual guidance and the vision of a new world civilization uniting all peoples. He called for the independent investigation of spiritual truth, for replacing the religious establishment with democratically elected councils, for the harmony of science and religion, an end to superstition and fanaticism. He called for recognition of the essential unity of all religions, for recognition that there is only one human race, for the attainment of equality between men and women, and for the creation of a world in which poverty and injustice would be eradicated.


But perhaps what is most significant was his vision that, however painful the process, humankind was destined to attain this world that prophets, and poets, and seers from time immemorial had dreamed of and, in short, his vision was that that promised day is come. This explains his prescient words to Professor Browne in that encounter in 1890 that “these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away and the ‘Most Great Peace’ shall come.”


Baha’u’llah encouraged his followers to spread his vision throughout the world, and today there are an estimated six million Baha’is spread in virtually every corner of the planet representing virtually every ethnic, racial, religious, tribal group. And my own background is that, on my father’s side, I come from an Iranian-Jewish heritage, and on my mother’s side, from an Iranian-Muslim heritage, and this sort of combination is not an uncommon occurrence within the Baha’i community where, for example, whites and blacks mixed at even the height of apartheid in South Africa and where members of different castes sit as equals in governing councils in India. So this transcendence of differences—although obviously a work in progress—is integral to the historical and communal experience of Baha’is, inspired by the vision of oneness that was bequeathed by Baha’u’llah.


Sadly, even 200 years after his birth, the Baha’is in Iran, which was the cradle of this faith, still face systematic religious persecution, and hate propaganda, and struggle to realize their human rights so they can contribute to the betterment of their people. But despite all of the violent persecution, Baha’i communities throughout the world labor in service to humankind, confident that the forces of history are forging humankind into an organically unified, interdependent, indivisible whole.


Just by way of conclusion, I wanted to share a story of one of the early efforts to teach the Baha’i faith in Egypt in 1889, which resulted in a Syrian Christian by the name of Ibrahim George Kheiralla becoming a follower of Baha’u’llah. Kheiralla, in turn, immigrated to the United States in 1892, and in 1894, in the city of Chicago, he became acquainted with one gentleman by the name of Thornton Chase, an insurance agent with Union Mutual, who had previously served as a distinguished soldier in South Carolina with the so-called United States Colored Troops during the American Civil War.


And according to Robert Stockman, who is a distinguished scholar of early American Baha’i history, Thornton Chase would have had access to the articles and books of Professor Browne based on his encounter with Baha’u’llah sometime earlier in Bahji in the Ottoman province of Palestine. So he would have had access to these books in the Chicago library. So thus it was that the religious faith that began with Baha’u’llah in the 19th century Persia found its way to the United States, with Thornton Chase becoming the first follower of the Baha’i faith, and today there are an estimated 100,000 Baha’is in the United States from all walks of life.


So, in celebrating the kind of bicentenary of Baha’u’llah’s birth, receiving tributes from leaders all over the world—ranging from the prime minister of India to the prime minister of Canada—Baha’is are mindful of the vital importance of reimagining a divided world in light of this vision of the new world civilization founded on an unshakable consciousness of the oneness of humankind, an awareness in a materialistic civilization that celebrates greed, that at the root of any lasting solution to the contemporary challenges confronting us is a profound understanding of how best to realize the spiritual potential that resides within us.


So, with those words, I will conclude this part of my presentation, and once again thank the Council on Foreign Relations and all of those who have filed in today for giving this opportunity to share the significance of the 200th anniversary of the birth of Baha’u’llah with you.


FASKIANOS: Wonderful. Thank you so much, Payam. We really appreciate it. Let’s open it up to questions and comments from the group.


OPERATOR: At this time, we will open the floor for questions.


Our first question comes from John Pawlikowski with Catholic Theological Union.


PAWLIKOWSKI: Well, thank you very much for the very, very clear presentation. I was wondering whether the Baha’i community in Iran has spoken out at all relative to the nuclear deal and where they might stand on it or is it simply impossible for them to take an active part in any discussion of political issues.


AKHAVAN: That’s a very good question. And to the best of my knowledge, the Baha’i community, as such, has not pronounced itself on that specific issue, beyond calling for a division of a world in which wars should be avoided at all costs. The Baha’i community in Iran is in a very precarious position, where there has in recent months been a heightened persecution and violence and imprisonment and systematic disenfranchisement of the community. But at the same time as the Islamic Republic of Iran has intensified its persecution, there has been an unprecedented expression of support by prominent Iranians, including notable human rights figures and also notable religious figures, including Shiite ayatollahs, who’ve expressed their sympathy for the Baha’is. So Iran is going through a very volatile period. And for the most part, the Baha’is are staying out of divisive political issues and trying to focus on serving their communities to the best of their abilities.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Khosro Mehrfar.


MEHRFAR: Yes. Good afternoon, everybody. Thank you, Professor Akhavan, for your informative presentation. I have a question, it’s actually three parts, very quickly. You mentioned that there are six million population of Baha’is. Can you kindly let us know which country has the most number—most numbers and also in relative terms. That’s question one. Question two, very quickly, what are the fundamental similarities and differences between Islam and Baha’i faith? And my last question, I have heard from my Baha’i friends that they cannot participate in local or regional politics to run the society they run in. Is it true? And if it’s yes, why? Thank you.


AKHAVAN: These are all very good questions. And I will try my best to answer them very quickly. In response to your first question, to the best of my knowledge the biggest Baha’i community in the world, numerically, is in India, in which from what I understand there are approximately 2 million Baha’is, which would be approximately a third of the global population.


In response to your second question about the similarities between the Baha’i faith and Islam, as I explained the Baha’i faith accepts Islam, as it does Christianity and Judaism, and the other great world religions, as different expressions of, if you like, the progressive revelation of divine truth. So Baha’is would accept, in particular, the spiritual core that transcends the historical and cultural contexts, the specific context, within which these religions merged. But, at the same time, would believe that some of the principles and rules that may have applied 1,000 years ago, 2,000 years ago, are no longer applicable.


So, for example, the Baha’i principle on the equality of men and women is quite a central principle, which reflects the contemporary reality of humankind as it has evolved, which may not have been timely a thousand years ago. So I think that there are significant differences between the Baha’i faith and Islam, but still a belief that there is a mystical transcendent core that unites all of these religions and ties them together.


And in respect to your final point, Baha’is are prohibited from engaging in divisive, partisan political activities, but are by no means discouraged from becoming engaged in struggles for justice. So I, myself, have had a career in human rights. And there are many, many Baha’is who are involved in women’s rights, environmental issues, and a whole host of other forms of very, you know, profound and sustained engagement with the challenges confronting humankind. But Baha’is believe that pursuing these objectives through divisive means is not really a solution. So that’s how I would describe it.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Jean Bazin with Episcopal Diocese of Southeast Florida.


BAZIN: My question, today as we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, if the Baha’i faith nonviolent?


AKHAVAN: The answer to that is yes, in the sense that Baha’is don’t believe that social transformation and justice should be achieved through violence, but that it should rather be achieved through education, in particular spiritual education, and a spirit of service to humankind and social engagement. Having said that, I would not say that Baha’is are pacifists in the sense that, for example, as I explained, Baha’is believe in collective security. Baha’is believe that we need to have a United Nations with the means, when all other means have been exhausted, to use force to uphold international law. So, in principle, Baha’is don’t believe in violence as a means of bringing about change. But they do believe in principles of collective security for humankind.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question or comment.


OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Stanley Davis with the Council of Religious Leaders of Metropolitan Chicago.


DAVIS: Thank you very much for your excellent presentation. I have two questions. One is, while persecution seems to—of the Baha’i faith seems to be centered in Persia, are there other places where Baha’is are being discriminated against and persecuted? And secondly, I found your answer to supporting various governmental actions interesting. Is it—given the Baha’i concern for peace and so on, are—is specific legislation from the Baha’i standpoint viewed as, to use your words, divisive? In other words, could a Baha’i support gun control or—related to specific legislation? Or supporting those things that would support climate control? Thank you.


AKHAVAN: A very good—two very good questions. In response to your first question, Baha’is have faced persecution in countries other than Iran. And this ranges from Nazi Germany, where obviously Baha’i views of the oneness of humankind was anathema to the Nazi ideology. And Baha’is were imprisoned and persecuted even in Nazi Germany. But today the persecution is particularly focused in the Islamic Middle East. And I want to say Islamic Middle East because in other countries—such as Pakistan, such as Bangladesh, such as Indonesia—Baha’is do not face persecution even though those are Muslim countries, and they’re the biggest Muslim countries in the world. But other than Iran, in Yemen there is now a very serious problem with one of the prominent members of the Baha’i community having been sentenced to death, and some of the Houthi leaders—probably under Iranian influence—calling for a violent campaign against the Baha’is.


And in response to your second question, I would say that, no, the Baha’is would not see specific pieces of legislation as necessarily being divisive. And there are many instances where Baha’i communities have been involved in promoting laws and policies that would support social justice, nonviolence, the adoption of legislation for example incorporating the torture convention into the laws of the United States, which is one example that I’m aware of. And surely, in my personal view—I’m not speaking on behalf of the Baha’i community as such—but surely gun control and making our societies less violent would be a transcendent objective beyond its politicization. So the question really is how can one pursue these objectives in a way that does not become politicized. And that is really a question of the circumstances in each particular situation.


FASKIANOS: Thank you. Next question.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Thomas Walsh with the Universal Peace Federation.


WALSH: I also add my appreciation to Professor Akhavan for the excellent presentation and answering these questions very carefully and clearly.


I’ll try to squeeze in two questions, but feel free to answer only one of them. But first is about kind of the theological genealogy. That my understanding is Baha’u’llah was a member of the religious movement of the Bab. And I’m just curious, does this kind of movement—both the Bab religion and the Baha’i faith, identify themselves as kind of emerging out of either Sunni or Shiite Islam specifically, in the same way that in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam there’s kind of, you know, a progression that’s—and each new manifestation kind of describes itself in relationship to that predecessor—Christianity vis-à-vis Judaism, Islam vis-à-vis both Christianity and Judaism. And I’m just wondering if one were to describe the kind of family tree—I realize the result is the appreciation of all the—all the traditions.




WALSH: So just comment a little bit about that.




WALSH: The second point, if time permits, is just what are some of the struggles internally? You know, most of our faith traditions, we often talk about disputes between faith traditions, but often the most difficult and challenging are intra-religious challenges. The community itself is struggling to maintain its unity amidst often deep disagreements, whether they are political or theological issues.


Thank you, sir.


AKHAVAN: Thank you for—these are excellent questions and very challenging to try to answer them briefly, but I will do my best. But in response to your first question on the theological roots, well, in particularistic terms, the Babi faith emerged amidst the messianic expectations of Shia Islam in the 19th century and it was preceded by the so called Shaykhi movement, so many of the Babis were anticipating—perhaps as the Adventists were in the Christian tradition—they were awaiting a messianic moment.


WALSH: Yeah.


AKHAVAN: And so in the mission of the Báb and then subsequently of Baha’u’llah, the fulfillment of those prophecies. But beyond this particular milieu within which the Baha'i faith emerged, it had a more universal transcendent claim to fulfilling the sort of prophetic expectations of the whole range of religious traditions. And that’s why I try to explain the whole idea of this being the promised day, the day in which humankind achieves its—the consummation of its social evolution in a planetary civilization is seen in that transcendent light.


WALSH: Yeah.


AKHAVAN: And your second question, but please forgive me, if you could just remind me.


WALSH: More about the, you know, internal struggles and the challenges that the community faces.


AKHAVAN: Yes, the unity within the community. Yes, well, the Baha’i community is extremely diverse, and you can imagine Baha'is come with very different perspective. And one of the central issues is how to maintain unity, not through uniformity but the watchword is unity in diversity. How can we have a diverse community in which people can have frank and open consultation without division?




AKHAVAN: And the administrative system of the Baha'i faith is central to maintaining that unity. So there are democratically elected councils at the local, national and global level, and they are vehicles for decision making within the community, and the principle is that there must be consultation on all matters affecting a community, but at the same time that consultation should not give rise to divisions and sectarianism. And as I explained, the Baha'i community is a work in progress.




AKHAVAN: And it is not a utopia. It is an incredibly diverse community that has, like any other community, its challenges, its growing pains, so to say. But the vision constantly is of one of maintaining unity through a consultative process.


WALSH: Thank you very much.


FASKIANOS: Thank you.


Next question.


OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Khosro Mehrfar with the Federation of Zoroastrian Associations of North America.


MEHRFAR: Thank you so much, Professor Akhavan. I’m back again. (Laughs.) I apologize for another two questions.


A lot of my Muslim friends, if not all, believe that the prophet Muhammad has proclaimed that he is the last prophet from divine on planet Earth and nobody after him is going to be a prophet. And I think one of the fundamental roots of the conflict between Muslims and Baha'is might be this issue, this point. I would like to know your view, the Baha'is’ view, about this statement. And again, second question I have quickly is that the role of House of Justice in Haifa Israel, as far as the Baha'is of the world are concerned, what are their functions and their missions? Thank you so much.


AKHAVAN: Thank you.


Well, in response to your first question, my first observation is that people can have theological differences without recourse to violence. And in the early days of the Babi movement there were many sort of seminary-type debates between adherents of the Babi faith and Islamic religious clerics which were, you know, theological disagreements. But the transformation of those theological disputes into violent persecution, that’s the problem, not the fact that people can disagree on the interpretation of scripture.


The second point is that the idea of the Seal of the Prophets, Khatam an-Nabiyyin, it’s an interesting question of hermeneutics and interpretation of scripture for which there isn't much time. There are different interpretations of what that means and whether, you know, the Seal of the Prophets refer to a particular cycle in religious history, whether humankind will reach a point where there will be no further divine sort of revelation. And the Baha'is would believe that even after the Baha'i faith, there will be yet further divine manifestations because humankind is ever in need of spiritual guidance and inspiration as it evolves and reaches different levels of understanding and civilization.


So—and then of course there were the messianic expectations, certainly in the Shiite tradition, and the question also is how can one reconcile messianic expectations with the notion of the Seal of the Prophet. So that’s a whole other discussion. But the fundamental point is that there can be theological disagreements without violence and persecution.


In regard to the Universal House of Justice, that is the world’s governing council of the Baha'i community, and it’s based in Haifa, which, as I explained, has the significance in terms of where Baha'u'llah was exiled to beginning in 1868, and that is a place of pilgrimage for Baha'is, but the seat of this council, which is elected once every five years, is the institution which at the global level guides the Baha'i community throughout the world. And then underneath the Universal House of Justice there are a number of national spiritual assemblies, close to 200 in every corner of the world, and then there are thousands of local spiritual assemblies in localities where there are nine or more Baha'is, because each of these institutions has nine or more members. So there is a democratic basis for governance, and the task of the Universal House of Justice is to provide for the unity of this very diverse community throughout the world.   


MEHRFAR: Thank you.


AKHAVAN: Thank you.


FASKIANOS: Payam, in your 2017 CBC Massey Lectures you addressed five topics, including the knowledge of suffering, global justice, and intervention. How has your Baha'i faith and personal experience informed your views on those areas?


AKHAVAN: That’s a very good question, and the simple answer is it has profoundly affected my view. And I really, if I were to say that there was a thread which united all of these lectures, it was the notion of empathy, which I suppose is psychobabble for the more profound spiritual idea of oneness. Oneness is the capacity to feel the pain and suffering of others and to put ourselves in the shoes of those less fortunate than we are. So I think that my whole thesis is that we live in an age where we have emptied ourselves of a mystical, spiritual dimension to our existence, we live in a materialistic technocratic age and that we will not change the world through feel-good slogans and liberal platitudes, that we need to have a profound spiritual transformation in order to bring about meaningful change.


So I was trying to convey through the idea of the knowledge of suffering, through the idea of the oneness of humankind, why spirituality isn’t about some form of, you know, reclusive self-indulgence but it’s actually about social justice and social transformation. And I think that’s the challenge that religious communities face in trying to explain why spirituality is not only relevant but absolutely essential to motivating people to care, because the biggest problem we have is not that we don’t have the right, you know, brilliant theory or the right conceptual paradigm. The problem is people don’t care. People are indifferent to suffering and we’ve created a consumer culture which celebrates greed and narcissism, and we see the unraveling of civilization all around us. So that was the theme.


And I must say that I knew I would invite the scorn of the educated cynics in writing my book the way I did, but the response among the Canadian public was overwhelming. And I really think that there is, if you like, a deep spiritual yearning in a culture where people feel increasingly alienated, where we have a pandemic of anxiety and depression and stress and the link between living purposeful, fulfilling spiritual lives and achieving justice and progress is something that we need to bring to the surface and consider seriously.


FASKIANOS: Thank you.


The other question I wanted to see if you could explore is to talk about how active is the Baha’i faith in political and social efforts around the world, and are there particular areas of concern that mobilize this tradition.


AKHAVAN: I would say, based on my own experiences, that there are a disproportionate number of Baha'is, in terms of the numbers of the Baha'i community, that are engaged in one way or in the another in community building, in trying to effect social transformation. And it may not always be in the form of sort of very visible political activism, but it is in the form of literacy campaigns, in the form of study groups aimed at educating and empowering people to become agents of social transformation. I mean, the Baha'is in Iran is an example. You know, the young people who are denied a right to education, who face persecution are, you know, traveling to remote parts of the country where people are impoverished and they are helping literacy campaigns even as they are imprisoned for participating in this kind of social development activity.


I, for one, know, you know, disproportionate number of Baha'is that are involved in human rights issues, in issues of racial unity, where Baha'is in the United States were involved in racial unity issues going back to, you know, 1910, 1920s. Gender equality, once again, a very significant number of Baha'is involved in issues relating to women’s rights. So it’s part of one's upbringing, part of one's ethos as a Baha'i to struggle for social justice but to do so not just through superficial activism but in a way that is sustainable and that will bring about lasting change.


FASKIANOS: And today is actually a very important day. Today is April 4th and marks the 50th year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and it would be wonderful if you could reflect upon any lessons that you have drawn or the Baha'i faith draws from what Martin Luther King did and what he was preaching.


AKHAVAN: Yes, it’s a very good question, and I know that there are those that would be better suited to speak about this issue than I, but there were a number of Baha'is who were marching alongside Martin Luther King. And the issue of racial unity is a very fundamental part of the American Baha'i experience. And if I had time I would tell you about some of the wonderful people I know who are scholars and community activists, have been involved in this issue for many years.


But I think that one of the aspects of the experience of Martin Luther King that resonates with me personally was the way in which he related spirituality to justice and social transformation, and perhaps that’s a part of Martin Luther King’s legacy that is sometimes lost when we speak about the civil rights movement. So the idea that we can only bring about a profound and lasting change through touching people’s hearts, through deep spiritual contemplation, in my understanding was at the root of the campaign that Dr. King was leading. And I think that we are going to see the reemergence of that awareness as our society begins to grapple with the reemergence of some of these divisive, hateful ideologies in our midst.


So I thank you for reminding us that today is such an important occasion, and perhaps it underscores exactly what I’ve been trying to convey in my own remarks to all of you today.


FASKIANOS: I think it does.


And I would just ask for your final reflection on, as you look forward, what do you hope for the Baha'i faith.


AKHAVAN: Well, one of the aspects of being a Baha'i is not to attach too much importance to labels, and I don’t like to see myself as a Baha'i who is detached from the rest of humanity. And I think that, to me, being a Baha'i is just a label, and what it really stands for is being of service to humankind and making that the central purpose of one’s life.


And on the grave of my dear grandmother, who had an extraordinary story of survival beginning with the pogroms against the Bahai’s in Yazd, and exiled to czarist Russia, what an extraordinary story of struggle and sacrifice—on her grave is written a Baha'i prayer which says, “behold how the candle gives forth its life, it weeps its life away drop by drop in order to give forth its light.” So I think that the transcendent message which I would share with all of you who I’m sure understand it far better than I is that we need to, once again, make the idea of sacrifice and service to humanity the core, not only of our personal lives, but also of our collective experience at a time when the world is sinking into ever greater despair. So that would be my final reflection on why being a Baha'i is so central to my self-understanding.


FASKIANOS: Thank you very much. I really appreciate Payam Akhavan taking the time to share your valuable insights with us, your deep reflection on the Baha'i faith and obviously the connection with the movements that Martin Luther King started 50 years ago. So we really appreciate your being with us today and to all of you for your questions and comments.


AKHAVAN: Thank you, Irina, and thank you to the Council on Foreign Relations for this wonderful opportunity.


FASKIANOS: I encourage you to continue following professor Akhavan’s work at McGill, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and you can also take a look online at his 2017 CBC lectures, which are really moving. We also encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Program on Twitter, @CFR_Religion, for announcements about upcoming events, information about the latest CFR resources. And again, I would encourage you all to if you have ideas for topics that we should cover, people we should invite to speak, especially on this conference call series, please do drop us a line at [email protected].


So thank you, Payam, and thank you to all of you.




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