BEIRUT: It’s widely known that Lebanon has 18 official religious sects. But neither the number 18, nor even the term sect, truly captures the country’s religious diversity.Spread across the country are several hundred members of the Baha’i faith.
Forbidden by doctrine to proselytize, their existence is often overlooked and their beliefs misunderstood. Despite this, adherents don’t seem to mind their lack of a sectarian label. They say they are not a sect, but rather an independent religion that incorporates those that came before it.
The Baha’i faith had its genesis in mid-19th century Persia, where its founder Mirza Husayn-Ali Nuri, known as Baha’ullah (“the glory of God”), was born. Baha’ullah was an early follower of Sayyid Ali Mohammad of Shiraz, known as the Bab (“the gate”), who claimed to be the 12th imam referenced in Shiite Islam. Eventually, after the Bab was executed for his beliefs and Baha’ullah himself was imprisoned and exiled, the Baha’i faith became a religion in its own right.
Baha’ullah said that he was a messenger of God, and Baha’is believe that the Baha’i faith is the last in a succession of religions. They believe in prophets including Abraham, Jesus, Mohammad, Buddha and the Bab and Baha’ullah. Main teachings include the unity of God – despite its acceptance of various prophets, this is a monotheistic religion – the unity of religion and the unity of mankind. In addition to the writings of Bah’uallah, Bahai’s also accept the holy texts of other religions such as the Bible, the Koran and the writings of Buddha.
After Baha’ullah was imprisoned by both Persian and Ottoman authorities, he died in Akka, now within the borders of modern-day Israel, where the religion’s headquarters are located. The religion spread and eventually made its way to Lebanon.
An early Lebanese convert was Sheikh Jaafar al-Tahhan, a Shiite cleric who, according to his great grandchildren Sawsan and Karim, learned about the religion while in Iraq and believed that it fulfilled the prophecies of Islam. Upon his return to the Bekaa Valley, he converted his family, and thus began one of the three or four Lebanese Baha’i families.
Despite being third-generation Baha’is, Sawsan and Karim explain that it was still a choice to follow the faith.
That’s because Baha’is must study other religions before officially becoming members of the religion at age 15. “I was in Christian schools, I went to Christianity lessons … we studied about Buddha, Mohammad,” and other religious figures, says Sawsan.
She also attended Baha’i classes and chose to become a Baha’i.
So did Karim. Growing up as a Baha’i, he says, “I studied most religions. [The Baha’i faith] made the most sense to me. Every question that I had, I found answers.”
The Baha’i faith forbids prejudice, promotes world peace, insists on gender equality, education and even eventually finding an international language that can be understood by all.
Sawsan says that with its emphasis on internationalism “the religion suits the needs of globalization.”
The siblings are seated on a couch at the home of Zena Ghamloush, a member of another Lebanese Baha’i family. They are at a devotional gathering, where Baha’is pray. There is no priest, sheikh, or the like, because Baha’is communicate directly with God. As one woman at the gathering explains, “If you love someone, you should talk to them.”
After chatting for a while, a dozen or so people settle down around Ghamloush’s spacious living room. Music plays softly in the background. There are prayers written in English and Arabic on cards on a table in the room. Some people take one, others speak from memory.
Karim starts the evening by reading a prayer in Arabic, and his sister follows suit. Another young woman, a kindergarten teacher, sings a song in English. Someone else reads from the Koran. Most listen with eyes closed.
Devotional gatherings often take place in homes like Ghamloush’s, and there is no Baha’i temple in Lebanon. There is a Baha’i Center in Montiverdi for large gatherings. The most important holiday in the Baha’i calendar, Ridvan, begins in late April. Baha’i New Year is in March.
Sawsan, Karim and Zena say that people are often curious and misinformed about their religion. “They think you are a Muslim sect,” says Sawsan. “Our family was a Muslim family, so we are labeled as Muslim.” Baha’is are registered by their family heritage, rather than their religious identity. For a Baha’i marriage to be legally recognized in Lebanon they must have a civil marriage, and they may intermarry.
“We get a lot of questions, from colleagues and new friends,” Ghamloush says. But outright discrimination is not a major problem, she says. She thinks that the sectarian mixture that is often blamed for conflict here is the reason that Bahai’s are mostly left alone.
“There are a lot of religions here, there are a lot of sects,” she says, so “they are used to the idea of diversity.”
Religion forbids Bahai’s from getting involved in politics, unless a government interferes with their right to worship. Baha’is are also required to obey the laws of the country they live in, says Ghamloush.
In Lebanon and some other Arab countries, this poses a particular set of challenges. The Baha’i World Center, and its holiest places, are in Israel. “The Lebanese government says we are not allowed to be in touch with Israelis, so as Baha’is we have to abide,” says Ghamloush. “So we don’t have any direct contact with the Baha’i World Center.”
“It’s a dream for me as a Baha’i individual to visit the holy places,” she says. “[But that will only happen] when the right time comes, because we cannot break the rules.”
But if Bahai’s can’t visit the holy sites, they can practice their religion in other ways. “Bahai’s try to implement the concepts [of the religion] in their local communities,” through volunteering, for example, says Ghamloush.
After the prayer finishes at Ghamloush’s place, the spiritually satiated group moves across the room for more earthly pursuits.
Red and orange jello, brownies, Arabic treats and tea accompany lively conversation. It’s a sweet mish mash, and seems appropriate for a religion that advocates peace, love and respects those that came before it.
As Sawsan puts it, the Baha’i faith has multiple religious sources. She smiles. “It’s sort of a summary.”