Sunday, May 14, 2006

The others … speak – Part One

Remarks on the article titled “The others” published in the Al-Ahram weekly online by Jihan Shahine

The Egyptian Bahá'ís and their struggle to acquire their civil rights has been the highlight of many articles written recently in the Egyptian and Arab media. After the recent ruling of the Supreme Administrative Court of Egypt allowing them access to what their fellow citizens of other faiths freely enjoy, the Egyptian Parliament met recently and decided not to recognize the Bahá'í faith as an official religion in Egypt. This means the Egyptian Bahá’ís cannot have their religion written in the religion field mandated in many of the official documents of the state such as birth certificates and passports, hence they are not allowed to receive the issue of such significant civil documents and rights.

In an article published May 11, 2006 in the Al-Ahram Weekly issue No. 794, titled “The others”, Ms. Gihan Shahine, presented commentaries about the situation of the Egyptian Bahá’ís and raised good points such as how the Bahá'ís believe that the Will of God is revealed progressively through the ages and she alluded to some historical facts that were accurate for the most part.

Ms. Shahine as a journalist knows how important it is to maintain one’s own integrity and independent investigation of facts to protect her credibility and the authenticity of her information. This is a principle all of us writers aspire to in order to effectively carry out the trust placed on us. We know she carries no exception to that rule in her heart.

Keeping this principle in mind, there were factual errors in the article that we hope to present, in the spirit of protecting the credibility of the profession and provide the readers with what can be considered a more balancing view.

The first of two articles in this series will address the concept of a “cult”, the alleged relationship between the Bahá'ís and Zionism and The position of the Al-Azhar regarding the Egyptian Bahá'í community.

The Concept of a “cult”

The Bahá'í Faith is an independent monotheistic religion with a worldwide population of some 5 million people. They come from more than 2,000 different tribal, racial, and ethnic groups and live in 235 countries and dependent territories.[1] The Britannica Book of the Year (1992) referred to the Bahá'í Faith as the second-most geographically widespread religion in the world, after Christianity.

Ms. Shahine’s article referred to the Bahá’ís as a “cult”. This is a term incorrectly used by some other articles as well. The Cambridge dictionary identifies cults as “a religious group, often living together, whose beliefs are considered extreme or strange by many people”. By a quick look at the core beliefs of the Baha’is it is evident by talking to them or by reading their books available online[2], they follow similar course to Islam and the Judeo-Christian traditions. The Bahá'í doctrine testifies to the “Oneness of God”[3] and the truth of Prophet Muhammad, Jesus Christ and Moses as well as other divine Messengers and Prophets[4]. The Bahá'ís worship God through prayers and fasting. Those who can, go on pilgrimage to visit the Bahá’ís Holy sites and contribute funds to the poor and the needy. This indeed is the very same definitions and practices that Islam has as well as Christianity. It is inaccurate then to use the term “cult” to describe the Egyptian Bahá'í community living in a majority of a Muslim community as it is inaccurate to use it to describe Muslim communities living in western communities where they are the minority.

Please refer to this article by Stephen Vaccaro for a very detailed comparative study of the concept of "cults" and the Bahá'í faith.

The Alledged relationship between the Bahá'ís and Zionism

The Al-Ahram article mentions several time that the Bahá'ís are an Israeli driven group, with an Israeli leadership. This assumption has been erroneously made by several other articles as well. This confusion is probably due to the fact that the Bahá'í World Centre is in the state of Israel.
The establishment of the World Centre of the Bahá'ís in Israel has nothing to do with the state of Israel itself or Zionism. Bahá’u’lláh, the Messenger of the Bahá'í religion, as many historical records indicate, was exiled against His will from Iran to Iraq under the Persian regime at the Time. He was then exiled again to Istanbul, Adrianople and finally reaching the city of Akka in 1869 under the authority of the Turkish Regime that occupied the Arab countries at that time.

The decree signed by Sultan Abdu’l-Aziz to send Bahá’u’lláh to that prison city cannot be considered an act of willingness on Bahá’u’lláh’s part to travel to Palestine. Since he was buried in Akka after his passing, the Bahá'ís consider his shrine a blessed spot regardless of its existence in Israel. It is also worth noting that Bahá’u’lláh passed away 1892, over 50 years before the establishment of the Zionist state in 1948. This is why Bahá'ís have the World Centre of their non-political religion there.

This is no different than the Muslims revering Al-Masjid Al-Aqsa in Israel, since the relationship to that holy site exists before and after the creation of Israel. It is also important to note that Jews, Christians, Muslims and Bahá'ís are united in their views in considering that territory holy. Based on that, the Bahá’ís are not agents of Zionism more than Muslims and Christians who worship there are.

Another claim was made in the article that the Bahá'ís are calling for a global government to be situated in Israel. This is another claim where neither the Bahá'í writings published online and available in bookstores in the free world make, neither Bahá'ís themselves have made such claims.

The Bahá'í faith is a religion not a political movement. It does not degrade itself with the struggle for power and control. Its followers do not debase themselves with chaos of the political enterprise. The politics it involves itself with is what can be described as “divine politics”.

It focuses on the establishment of justice in the human form and in the society, the elimination of the extremes of wealth between rich and poor, the observance of chastity, charity and humility, the equality between man and woman, the education of the children especially the girls due to their essential role in educating the coming generations, the rejection of prejudice in all its forms, calling for kindness and compassion, piety and faith, articulating the fundamental unity in understanding between science and religion, the tools of human understanding. These principles are under the canopy of the main objective of the Bahá'í faith, the unity of mankind with all its races, creeds, tribes, countries and regions since everyone is essentially of God’s creation.

The opinion of the Al-Azhar towards the Bahá'ís faith

Ms. Shahine mentions in her article that the “grand sheikh of Al-Azhar said that Islam recognizes Christianity and Judaism as divine religions and defined Bahaism as a sacrilegious dogma followed by a deviant sect of atheists.” This issue if of particular importance since it is also an argument that gets repeated often in other media.

Al-Azhar was built in the 10th century as a mosque then as a university by the Fatimds, a Shi'i government that ruled in the Middle East from the 10th to the 12th century A.D. Al-Azhar gained its name as an attribute to Fatima Al-Zahraa, the revered daughter of the Prophet. It was erected to propagate the school of Isma'iliya madhhab. Later on and since the Ayyubids ruled Egypt it has become an institution for Sunni jurisprudence.

The Al-Azhar institution is erected as a human response trying to understand God’s message and His laws prescribed in Islam. That institution has never been a divine institution that was created by the Prophet nor is it infallible. It only represents an effort by Muslim clergy to make sense of the blessed verses of the Quran and Hadith and teaching Islam to its Sunni followers. Thus not all factions and sects of the Muslim community follow the efforts of the Al-Azhar.

When a Fatwa is made by the Al-Azhar, it should be viewed in the light of this understanding. It is neither the Word of God nor His Blessed Prophet. It is an Ijtihad, an effort to understand and act. Muslims are not bound by it as they are more severely bound by the Quran and its laws.

There have been many examples in the past where the Al-Azhar had come under serious criticism for its policies and the grand sheikh was attacked personally for his views. I would like to remind the reader with articles written by Ms. Shahine herself in this very same publication where she quotes views such as:

Regarding the unacceptable cartoons made about Prophet Muhammad in a Dutch newspaper:
“Many Egyptians were upset at what they called the "shamefully weak stance" of Al-Azhar, the Sunni world's foremost seat of learning. Al-Azhar's grand imam, often criticised for toeing the government line, had not been one of the first to speak up about the offensive cartoons”[5]

Speaking of the Al-Azhar:
“El-Ghitani said not many people are willing "to listen to an official discourse that lacks depth, and is widely known for its government support." That, according to El-Ghitani, has left "a serious gap for anyone to fill -- including, perhaps, a carpenter issuing a fatwa calling for the killing of innocent civilians."[6]

Refering to the standard of education in that institution:
“The declining standards of an Al-Azhar education, according to Abdel-Fatah, have meant countries like Tunisia and Turkey do not even acknowledge the ancient university's degrees anymore. Many students now opt for alternative Islamic universities in Syria, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco.”[7]

The internal struggle for control:
“Al-Azhar has been bogged down in a heated controversy over the past few weeks, after its Grand Imam Sheikh Mohamed Sayed Tantawi, retracted a fatwa by senior Al-Azhar cleric Sheikh Nabawi Mohamed El-Esh which urged Muslim and Arab states to boycott the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC). El-Esh, who was allegedly dismissed after facing an internal disciplinary hearing, arrived at his edict on the grounds that the IGC was "selected by the occupation forces and thus has no religious legitimacy"[8]

Accusations against its leadership:
“Tantawi has been repeatedly lambasted as a government official willing to compromise the principles of Islam for the sake of state policies. In the run-up to Egypt's 25 May referendum on the amendment of Article 76 of the constitution, Tantawi surprised many by issuing a controversial edict that equated the boycotting of elections with "withholding a testimony.”[9]

Perhaps one of the hardest controversies in the ruling of the Al-Azhar is the fact that it embraces the claim that the Bahá'ís are supporters of Israel and often accuses them of beings agents of Zionism. This misleading fact is often quoted by newspaper articles. However in the same publication, Ms. Shahine points out that the Al-Azhar itself is a supporter of the relationship with Israel. She quotes Mr. Tantawi saying:

“Islam does not prohibit normalisation with other countries, especially Israel, as long as this normalisation is in non- religious domains and serves some worldly interests," Tantawi told a gathering at a festival held to mark the national day of Al-Sharqiya governorate.”[10]
Mr. Tantawi had to face a reaction from “Prominent Palestinian Islamic scholar Sheikh Hamed Al-Beitawi, who is also head of the Palestinian Scholars League (PSL), was quick to denounce the fatwa on the grounds that it "greatly serves the Israeli occupation, which is unacceptable in Islam," and urged the Grand Imam to retract it.”[11]

The previous was but some of the many examples that plagued the Al-Azhar and its leadership in the past few years and weakened its stance. These examples clearly show, as we have indicated above, how human are the attempts of that institution in releasing Fatwas and directing Muslim jurisprudence.

This is not a criticism, but an evaluation of the lack of neutrality of the Al-Azhar and the subjection of its leadership to the politics and social trends of its time.

Keeping all this in mind and knowing that the core belief of the Bahá'ís revolves around the Oneness of God as was indicated earlier, the comment Mr. Tantawi’s made that the Bahá'ís are “atheists” is unfounded. Furthermore Mr. Tantawi should be reminded of the call to those who “have attained to faith” in the Quran to: “do not - out of a desire for the fleeting gains of this worldly life - say unto anyone who offers you the greeting of peace, "Thou art not a believer" for with God there are gains abundant. You, too, were once in the same condition but God has been gracious unto you. Use, therefore, your discernment: verily, God is always aware of what you do.”[12]

This attitude of compassion and love commanded in the Quran, should be extended towards the Bahá'ís in all the 235 countries and dependent territories of the world who wholeheartedly believe in Prophet Muhammad and love Him dearly no matter what their backgrounds may be and hold Him in an incredibly exalted station.

It is also important to remember that in the entire history of religions there has never been an example of a religious leadership of a former religion that recognized the authenticity of a latter religion. The Jewish leadership never recognized Christianity or Islam. The Christian leadership never recognized the authenticity of Islam. Now the Muslim leadership is not recognizing the validity of the Bahá'í faith. The Quran is full of stories about oppositions the Prophet of God always had to face from their own people.

Could it be possible that these stories were written in the holy book to aid Muslims to learn and not to repeat the past? Could it be that these stories serve as an example and guidance from God to help His people to do better the next time He sends a messenger?

Please join us in part two of this series as we discuss some of the legal issues facing the Egyptian Bahá'ís in Egypt today and the alleged connection between the Bahá'ís and imperialism.

[1] Britannica online, Encyclopedia.
[2] Check for Arabic version of Bahá'í books and for the English translations.
[3] The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Bahá’u’lláh, p. 60
[4] “The Word of God revealed in every age and dispensation. In the days of Moses it was the Pentateuch; in the days of Jesus, the Gospel; in the days of Muhammad, the Messenger of God, the Qur’án;” Gleanings From the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’u’lláh, p.271
[5] Jihan Shahine, Al-Ahram Weekly Online, Issue No. 780, Feb 2nd, 2006, Titled “Cartoon battle turns uglier”
[6] Jihan Shahine, Al-Ahram Weekly Online, Issue No. 758, Sep 1st , 2005, Titled “Leaving a serious gap”
[7] ibid
[8] Jihan Shahine, Al-Ahram Weekly Online, Issue No. 655, Sep 11th , 2003, Titled “In the eye of the storm.”
[9] Jihan Shahine, Al-Ahram Weekly Online, Issue No. 745, Jun 2nd , 2005, Titled “Anger of Azhar response”
[10] Jihan Shahine, Al-Ahram Weekly Online, Issue No. 761, Sep 22nd , 2005, Titled “Not Normal”
[11] ibid
[12] Quran, Surat Al-Nisaa, verse 94, “وَلاَ تَقُولُواْ لِمَنْ أَلْقَى إِلَيْكُمُ السَّلاَمَ لَسْتَ مُؤْمِنًا تَبْتَغُونَ عَرَضَ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا”


Anonymous yassine said...

من المؤسف جدا أن أخبرك أني قد تهجمت على البهائيين باعتبار ما يدينونن به مجرد خرافة و منه لم يسلموا من السب

لذا أدعوك إلى حوار رزين للمناقشة على صفحات مدونتي المتواضعة

مع محبتي /يس

9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Baha'i Digital Library :

Books in Arabic, Persian & English Languages

4:53 AM  

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