On 21 March members of the Baha’i faith celebrate their New Year, the Nawruz. The occasion reminds me of a tragic episode that occurred a few days into their New Year in 2009 when, on 28 March the Al-Haqiqa (The Truth) talk show broadcast on the independent Dream TV channel featured the Baha’i celebration of the Nawruz. The talk show anchor, Gamal Abdel-Rehim, was a member of the board of directors of the Journalists’ Syndicate and the guests were two Baha’is who talked about their faith and traditions. As the show came to its close Rehim accused the Baha’is of being apostates and said they must be killed. A few days later, Egypt woke up to the horrendous news that Muslim fanatics in the village of Shouraniya, Sohag, in Upper Egypt, had set aflame five homes of Baha’is in the village. The fire, which extended to the adjacent homes of two Muslim neighbours, forced the Baha’i families to flee the village, leaving behind everything they owned. I went to Shouraniya, an island on the Nile accessible only by daytime ferry and small boats, that day but I was not allowed to enter the village when the police learnt I was a journalist. I was able, however, to talk to a number of Shouraniya villagers.
How Islam sees Baha’is
A Muslim villager complained that many of the troublemakers had set the Baha’i homes on fire on the pretext of protecting Islam. “But they don’t perform any Muslim prayers nor do they even know the way to the nearest mosque,” he said. “They don’t work, they just hang around in coffee shops. But they suddenly got enraged and decided to ‘protect Islam and Muslims’. Does this make any sense?”
“What happened to these people [the Baha’is] is unfair, they are peaceful and never caused any harm. They lived peacefully with us for ages. They were abused and their houses destroyed, and were finally thrown out of the village for no reason at all. But I don’t dare say this in public, lest I be accused of being Baha’i myself,” said one of the villagers.
Soon afterwards I read a news report that the Endowments Ministry had announced it would hold training courses in the largest hall of the Nour Mosque in Abassiya to debate and combat Baha’i thought.
I asked a Muslim Sheikh about Islamic thought on the Baha’is; he summed it up in several points:
“Baha’i thought strives to undermine the word of Islam throughout the world, and bring about its end.
“The Baha’i call promotes atheism and obscenity.
“The Baha’i faith has political purposes, and it is the creation of colonialism and Zionism.
“The Baha’i religion is embraced by gullible people who can be easily seduced.
“The sources that fund Baha’i are suspicious.
“It has been alleged that al-Bab, who founded the Baha’i faith, repented in his final days and went back on his Baha’i call.”
Stormy history in Egypt
The first Baha’i probably arrived in Egypt in 1863. Baha’ullah, the founder of the religion, was himself briefly in Egypt in 1868 when on his way to imprisonment in Akka. A local Baha’i Spiritual Assembly was formed in 1924, representing the highest administrative authority for the community. The Baha’is lived freely and had no problems with the State. In 1934, the authorities allocated land for the Baha’is to have their own burial places in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and Ismailiya, since it was illegal for them to share cemeteries with Muslims. Following World War II, Baha’is were allowed to host Copts and Muslims at their public festivals, ceremonies, and meetings. They were also given permits for libraries in several towns. In 1950, local Baha’i councils were established in 13 towns, and the number of Baha’is in Egypt hovered around 5,000.
In 1960, the then-president Gamal Abdel-Nasser decreed that Baha’i assemblies should be disbanded, Baha’i activity banned, and their public property confiscated. No official reason was given for the move, but it was then taken to be part of the regime’s actions to debilitate all ‘non-conformist’ thought in the wake of the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to topple the regime. The Baha’is lost all rights as an organised religious community.
Relations between the Baha’is and the State further deteriorated in 1965 when 39 followers were arrested and accused of spreading the Baha’i faith by holding meetings in their homes calling on Muslims to convert.
In 1967, the primary court of Zeitoun district ruled that any studies or curricula based on Baha’i books were banned and that it was a crime punishable by law. That same year, and again in 1985, scores of Baha’is were arrested and accused of espionage for Israel and working to undermine the State; they were handed prison sentences.
Little more was heard about the Baha’is until 2004 when the State began digitising the civil register database. This called for issuing new legal papers for all Egyptians, and the new papers had to cite an Egyptian’s religion as one of the three ‘heavenly religions’: Islam, Christianity or Judaism. The Baha’is faced a dilemma; their religion was not among the computer entries available and they consequently were forced to identify themselves as belonging to a religion they did not belong to. This would undoubtedly have caused problems in issues of marriage, divorce, inheritance, and suchlike. The Baha’is took their case to court.
In August 2009, the Administrative Court issued a ruling that the religious box on the ID cards of Baha’is may either be left vacant or filled with a plain dash. Raouf Hindi (the spokesperson of the Baha’i community in Egypt and the first to have his ID problem solved) had gone to court demanding the right to have his twin children, Emad and Nancy, cited as Baha’is or as holders of ‘other’ religion—meaning other than the three heavenly religions recognised by the Egyptian Constitution—in their official identity documents. The other plaintiff in the same case was Hussein Hosni, a university student in Port Saïd who was expelled from his college because, having no ID card, he could not prove his identity. The Baha’i community was elated at the ruling.
Baha’is believe that there is one divine source for all the main religions in the world, and that the founders or messengers of these religions were sent by God. They believe that the aim of all religions over the ages has been to guide people towards right and living good lives.
Baha’is believe that just as Christianity is rooted in Judaism but is different from it, the Baha’i faith is rooted in Islam; but is not part of Islam. It has been an independent religion since its first beginnings and has its own holy books and jurisprudences.
The Baha’i call promotes peace and love, and loathes bloodshed. Baha’is believe that jihad for the sake of spreading the Baha’i religion is prohibited because peaceful submission to the State and governors is paramount.
Baha’is follow a solar calendar with the year composed of 19 months, each lasting 19 days (a total of 361 days), plus an extra period of intercalary days. The year begins with the vernal equinox, and years are counted with the date notation of BE (Baha’i Era); 21 March 1844 was the first day of the first year.
The Nineteen-Day Fast is held during the final month of Alaa (2 March – 20 March), and is preceded by the intercalary days, known as Ayyam al-Haa’. There are four intercalary days in a regular year, and five in a leap year. The month of fasting is followed by Nawruz, the New Year.
Baha’is should not work on holy (feast) days except when absolutely necessary.
There are three types of prayer: the short, the medium and the long; any of them would do in the others’ stead. The prayers do not have to be collective except in case of prayers for the dead.
Marriage is preceded by an engagement which should not exceed 95 days, and pre-requires a medical certificate proving that both man and woman intending to get married are free of any serious illnesses.
The marriage should be documented on a Baha’i form that is registered with the Baha’i assembly, but because there are no assemblies in Egypt, the husband keeps the contract. Divorce is allowed in case disagreement persists between the partners for over a year.
The Baha’i faith prohibits polygamy.
The Baha’i faith
Baha’i faith was founded in Iran in the mid-19th century by Mirza Hussein Ali Nuri, who is known as Baha’ullah, literally “Splendour of God”. The cornerstone of Baha’i belief is the conviction that Baha’ullah and his forerunner, who was known as the Bab, were manifestations of God, as were the founders of the world’s great religions. The principal Baha’i tenets are the essential unity of all humanity and religions; Baha’ullah’s peculiar function was to overcome the disunity of religions and establish a universal faith through the abolition of racial, class, and religious prejudices.
The forerunner Babi faith was founded in 1844 by Mirza Ali Mohammad of Shiraz in Iran, who preached the forthcoming appearance of a new messenger of God, and thus provoked strong opposition from Muslim clergy and the government. He was arrested and, after several years of incarceration, was executed in 1850. Large-scale persecutions of Babis followed and ultimately claimed 20,000 lives.
One of the Bab’s earliest disciples and strongest exponents was Mirza Hussein Ali Nuri who had assumed the name of Baha’ullah when he renounced his wealth and superior social standing and joined the Babis. Baha’ullah was arrested in 1852 and imprisoned in Tehran, where he became aware that he was the anticipated messenger of God.
Baha’ullah was released in 1853 and exiled to Baghdad where he revived the Babi community and, in 1863, declared that he was the messenger of God foretold by the Bab. An overwhelming majority of Babis acknowledged his claim and thenceforth became known as Baha’is.
Baha’ullah was subsequently confined by the Ottomans in Adrianople and then in Acre—present day Akka—in Palestine, where he died in 1892.
The Baha’i faith underwent a rapid expansion in the 1960s, and by the late 20th century boasted more than 150 national spiritual assemblies (national governing bodies) the world over and about 20,000 local spiritual assemblies.
The writings and spoken words of the Bab and Baha’ullah, form the sacred literature of the Baha’i faith. Every Baha’i is under the spiritual obligation to pray daily, abstain from narcotics, alcohol, or any substance that affects the mind, practice monogamy, obtain parental consent to marry, and attend the Nineteen Day Feast on the first day of each month of the Baha’i calendar. If capable, those between the ages of 15 and 70 are required to fast 19 days a year.
The seat of the Universal House of Justice is in Haifa, Israel, in the immediate vicinity of the shrine of the Bab, and near the Shrine of Baha’ullah at Bahji near Akka.
18 March 2015