Israel: World Center for Three Great Faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Bahaism

by Norman Berdichevsky (May 2011)

Any mention of Israel by the media as “The Holy Land” almost always entails a colossal verbiage of trite conventional wisdom replete with accolades to the three great monotheistic “Abrahamic religions,” Judaism, Christianity and Islam that all regard it as their world center. This is simply patently false, elevating Islam’s regard for Jerusalem (not mentioned by name even once in the Koran compared to more than 800 times in the Old Testament) and ignoring the continued and historic presence of the Bahai faith in Haifa and Acre, places of pilgrimage and universal inspiration for the world’s five million Bahais.

To call Islam’s regard for Jerusalem as the “third holiest site after Mecca and Medina” is analogous to two contenders in a World Series with the basement finishing team in class C minor league baseball. For the record there is no evidence at all that Muhammad ever visited Jerusalem or The Land of Israel. In Muslim tradition just before his death Mohammad was carried to “The Farthest Place” (Sura 17), This chapter recounts the story of a dream Mohammed had where he is borne by his flying horse (al-Buraq) which had the face of a woman, the body of a horse and the tail of Peacock. The narrative of the Koran in Sura 17 describes it as follows:

“Glory be to Him, who carried His servant by night from the Holy Mosque (in Mecca) to the further mosque (al-masjid al-Aqsa), the precincts of which we have blessed.”

Since no mosque existed at all in Jerusalem at the time of Mohammad’s death, al-Aqsa can be understood metaphorically, or as a place in heaven. Only later, more than fifty years after Mohammad’s death, did the Umayyids claimed that the actual site of al-Aqsa was in fact the Temple Mount. The Koran then narrates how Mohammed, having arrived at al-Aqsa, ascended to heaven (al-Mi'raj “the ascension”) accompanied by the angel Gibril (Gabriel), where he traveled around and spoke with Allah and other prophets including Moses and Jesus.

For Christianity, a score of sites are hallowed in connection with the life of Jesus and the imagery of Christianity is deeply attached to them and familiarity with their significance in the Hebrew language such as Bethlehem (Beit Lehem, House of Bread), Nazareth (from the root NaTZaR meaning watch or keep), Capernaum (Kfar Nahum), etc. A number of Biblical scholars believe that the original text of the New Testament was written in Hebrew and was then translated into Greek. Thousands of Christian churches the world over bear Hebrew geographic place names from locations in the Land of Israel such as Galilee, Jordan, Canaan, Jericho, Mount of Olives, (Har ha-Zeytim), Shiloh, Rose of Sharon (Plain) and Lilly of the Valley (Havatzelet haSharon), Gethsemaneh (Gat Shmeinim, “Oil Press”), Judah, Zion, Mt. Zion, Mt. Sinai, Mt. Tabor, Mt. Horeb, Mt. Moriah, Gilead, Beth-EL (House of God), Beth-Tzidah,(“House of Fishing), Bethania (Beit Tienah “House of Figs”). Even the Koran explicitly recognizes God's original benificence towards the Jews and and refers to the Holy Land as ….The land that Allah had decreed for them and promised to Moses (5:20-5:26)

The State of Israel’s own “hasbara” (information) efforts aimed at explaining the care taken to protect all holy sites shortsightedly often ignores the Bahais. The deep Bahai connection to the Land of Israel and the State of Israel's religious diversity deserve to be much more widely known; all the more so when compared to the atrocious record of persecution and discrimination displayed by Iran, birthplace of the founders of this universal faith, and the rest of the Muslim World as well.   

Anyone who visits Israel and fails to visit Haifa and Acre misses out on a sublime spiritual, aesthetic-artistic experience of the yearning for a vision of humanity as a single global family in which one creed has succeeded in embracing nations, cultures, races, and classes in the heart of that region which has all too often been the focus of religious hatreds, war and intolerance. 

Following its founders, the Bahai Faith has no clergy, promotes the abandonment of all forms of prejudice, demands assurance that women have full equality with men, the elimination of extreme differences in wealth and poverty, the realization of universal brotherhood and education, the responsibility of the individual to search for truth, the establishment of a world community of nations, the promotion of a universal neutral language, recognition that true religious faith is in harmony with reason and the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Each one of these principles made it an anathema to both the Shi’ite and Sunni religious establishments and the indigenous political powers throughout the Dar-al-Islam (nations subject to Islamic rule). Born in Iran in 1817, the founder of the Bahai faith, Baháu’llah (Glory of God), like Buddha, was a member of a great patrician family possessing great wealth and magnificent vast estates and like Jesus who followed in the path of John the Baptist, he embraced a vision of an earlier prophet, known as “The Bab” (The Gate), whose real name was Siyyid `Ali-Muhammad, 1819-1850. The wellspring of the Bahai faith may be regarded as the attempt at a Muslim Reformation, one that failed, but gave birth to a new faith.

The Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel

The Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel

Messianic expectations have periodically gained mass followings in the history of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. A  wave of enthusiasm swept Persia in the early 19th century notably among many in the religiously educated class of Shi`ah Muslim society envisioning the fulfillment of prophecies in the Koran and the Islamic traditions was at hand. One such ardent seeker announced that, he was the Bab, on the night of 22-23 May 1844 proclaiming that he was the Bearer of a Divine Revelation and the harbinger of a divine messenger – a prophet destined not simply to transform Islam but to establish a new direction and priorities for all of humankind.

As might be expected, opposition was immediate and both the Islamic clergy and state authorities regarded such preaching as heresy, resulting in the martyrdom of the Báb and the massacre of 20,000 of his leading disciples and followers. Such has been the fate of countless other End-of-Days prophets and attempts at reform within Islam. The virtual extinction of the new religious system was certain to follow yet a successor movement emerged, the Bahá'í Faith, that has since diffused throughout the world.

Its great ethical standards, reminiscent of Judaism without a meticulous devotion to The Law or ethnic claims, the sublime charity of Christianity without the doctrines of miraculous virgin birth and resurrection and the divine appeal of a triumphant Islam without coercion and blind obedience established its claim to represent a new and independent world religion.

For the Bahais, religious truth is held to be progressive and that God has educated mankind through a series of prophets who have appeared to guide its destiny and progress, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad and Ba’háu’lláh.

The successor to the Báb was Bahá'u'lláh (Mirza Husayn-`Ali, 1817-1892). It is to him that the worldwide Bahá'í community looks as the source of its spiritual and social teachings, the authority for the laws and institutions that form its community and his exile in the Land of Israel that has made that country the true ‘Holy Land’ of a Third Universal Religion to which millions of Bahá'ís around the world daily direct their thoughts when they turn to God in prayer.

The Báb was arrested, beaten, imprisoned and executed in the public square in the Persian city of Tabriz on July 9, 1850. His earthly remains now rest in The Shrine of the Báb, the golden domed temple midway up the slope of Mount Carmel, Haifa. In a rare display of cooperation, the Ottoman Sultan Abdu’l-‘Aziz and Persian Shah Nasir’i d-Din Shah agreed to banish Ba’háu’lláh and keep a close watch on his activities. Both Muslim rulers were aware of the outrage the massacres had provoked in Europe and wanted to avoid further criticism of Islamist intolerance and mob driven persecution and massacres against any heresy.

From 1853, Ba’háu’lláh and a small band of devoted followers endured a series of banishments with stays of varying lengths in Baghdad, Constantinople and Adrianople and finally on August 31, 1868 arrived at Haifa and then transferred to Acre, then a remote desolate outpost of the Ottoman Empire where they were imprisoned in a citadel that had been a Crusader fortress. Although held in close confinement, Ba’háu’lláh was allowed to occasionally make visits to Haifa and on the last such visit in 1891, less than a year before his death, he delegated the precise spot on Mt. Carmel where the remains of the Báb should be interred and mausoleum erected. This beautiful temple and the tomb of Ba’háu’lláh are the world center and point of pilgrimage for the world’s Bahai community.

Ba’háu’lláh’s grandson known as Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (who remained a resident of Haifa until his death in 1957) helped both his father, 'Abdu'l Baha, known as Abbas Effendi, and his grandfather turn the Bahai presence in the twin cities of Haifa and Acre into world pilgrimage sites that welcome many thousands of pilgrims annually who come in small discrete groups of a hundred or so for two weeks and are encouraged to visit the holy sites of the other three great monotheistic religions to honor their prophets and civilizations.

The Archives building, the Universal House of Justice and stunning gardens provide a charming, graceful setting and are set off by the beautiful Italian Chiampo marble stone of the magnificent golden dome shrine (built over five years 1948-53) surrounded by a colonnade formed of rose Raveno granite with Corinthian columns. The spectacular golden dome was made in Holland by a process of fire glazing 12,000 fish scale tiles over gold leaf (recently renovated). The Shrine of the Báb, is a U.N. recognized World Heritage Site. It is the mausoleum containing the mortal remains of the Báb (smuggled out of Persia), buried in the central chamber of a square nine room building. Two adjacent rooms look on to the central shrine through arches. White marble tombs mark the graves of Ba’háu’lláh’s immediate family.

Another focus of pilgrimage is a house in Haifa on HaParsim Street (Steet of the Persians) where 'Abdu'l-Baha resided from 1910 until his death. Here he received pilgrims and visitors including General Allenby, and Sir Herbert Samuel, the First High Commissioner for the British Mandate. In old Acre, the most important site of Bahai pilgrimage is the Citadel, the barracks used as a prison where Ba’háu’lláh 's cell is located. It is located next to the cells where members of the Jewish dissident underground groups, the Irgun and Lehi (Stern Gang) were imprisoned before their executions by the British in 1946-47. The prison cells are now a museum. In 1896, four years after the death of his father Ba’háu’lláh, 'Abdul Baha was allowed to rent more comfortable quarters outside of the Citadel and it was from there that he and his family were allowed to receive visitors. A short distance outside of Acre, is a complex of buildings and surrounding gardens at 'Bahji' (from the Arabic al-Bahja, “Place of Delight”), that are frequently compared to Versailles. It is here that Shogi Effendi resided when not in Haifa and provided the landscaping. Many important Bahai documents are stored here including letters from Queen Marie of Romania telling of her embracing of the Bahai faith.    

Aware of the significance of “The Holy Land,” the preaching of the new faith is forbidden there to avoid any conflict or confrontation with the authorities or the pilgrims of other faiths. Nevertheless, the choice of these two cities and the reverence of Bahais for these sites and the cooperation with the State of Israel has exposed them to additional hatred and the mindlessly repeated obsessive charge of ‘Zionism’ by many in the Muslim world. Even before the fall of the Shah, extreme pressure and persecution had led many in the Bahai community in Persia to emigrate or seek anonymity in the big cities.

Lidja Zamenhof, the daughter of the founder of Esperanto, Ludwig Lazar Zamenhof, was an accomplished Esperantist who eventually embraced Bahai'ism, yet she perished as a Jew along with the rest of the Zamenhof family in the Holocaust. Earlier, before the war, in 1932, she visited Palestine where she was more impressed by the message of beauty and high ethical and moral ideals of the new faith than in the pioneering efforts of the Zionist settlers.

Numerous reports of the United Nations, European Union, United States and Amnesty International as well as peer-reviewed academic literature have stated that the members of the Bahai community in Iran have been subjected to numerous oppressive measures, unwarranted arrests, false imprisonment, beatings, torture, unjustified executions, confiscation and destruction of property owned by individuals and the Bahai community, denial of employment, denial of government benefits, denial of civil rights and liberties, and denial of access to higher education. Under the rule of the last two Shahs, the condition of the Bahais was much better but still regarded as one of severe discrimination. When the last Shah was confident and eager to impress the West with reforms that benefitted women, Jews and the Bahais, he was regarded as a modern progressive leader but during times of uncertainty and in the last years of his reign in order to appease religious extremists among the mullahs, he adopted measures to quell unrest by returning to traditional oppression and discrimination against all these minorities.   

Today, persecution of the Bahai community is rife throughout almost the entire Muslin community of 57 nations that have a majority Muslim population. Currently, seven prominent Bahais are in prison in Iran. They are in cramped cells with poor sanitation alongside common criminals, and were each given 20 years in prison. This was reduced to only 10 years to show how liberal and tolerant the Ahmadinejad regime is and then the original 20 year sentence was reinstated six months later in March 2011. As might be expected, they were charged with spying for foreigners, spreading corruption, undermining Islam and cooperating with Israel.

Nine major Houses of Worship have been constructed to maximize the geographic dispersal of the Bahai faith. The Bahai community in the United States steers clear of any involvement in politics except to lobby for the release of family members currently imprisoned in Iran. They welcome those who are interested in the faith but did not actively proselytize until the 1960s and 1970s when many young people, especially in the United States found the Bahai faith offered them a message they found inspiring in a time of great social change and ferment. More than ten thousand Bahai refugees arrived from Iran in the 1970s after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. There are estimates of between 150,000 and 200,000 Bahais in the U.S. with most located in California, especially Los Angeles. A campaign to attract African-Americans had some success in the 1970s, notably in South Carolina. In addition to the Haifa and Wilmette, Illinois Houses of Worship, seven other such magnificent temples have been built to demonstrate the geographic dispersion of the Bahai faith. They are located in Frankfurt, Sydney, Panama City, Kempala (Uganda), Delhi, Santiago (Chile), and Tiapapata Samoa.  

Baha'i House of Worship for the North American Continent

Bahai Temple
           Bahai Temple in Wilmette, Illinois


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Norman Berdichevsky contributes regularly to The Iconoclast, our Community Blog. Click here to see all his contributions, on which comments are welcome.



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