The Dimensions of the Bahá’í Religion in South Africa

This entry looks at the Bahá’í religion in South Africa. In particular, Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions have been applied to the religion.

Originating in Iran through the teachings of its founder, Mírzá Ḥusayn-ʻAlí Núrí (later named Bahá’u’lláh), Bahá’í is an independent religion with several million members worldwide (1). This religion emerged in South Africa in 1911 and later gained momentum in the 1950s when several devotees visited the country (2). It is also a very small local community. According to the 2013 General Household Survey, Bahá’í membership is fewer than 16 992 citizens (3).

The South African Bahá’í community is united on Bahá’u’lláh’s vision, which is for all to live in a society free from prejudice. The oneness of humanity, notably in matters of race and religion, is a core pillar of the Bahá’í’s Doctrinal dimension. This unity affirms that all religions point to a single heavenly Source, thus affirming a relativity to religious truth. Bahá’u’lláh taught that he is the latest “Manifestation” of God, which places him as the seal in a line of reputable figures such Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and others. These major founders of religion, all perceived as Manifestations, were sent by God to provide revelation to humanity. Doctrine is thus universalist in embracing the great diversity inherent in religions and humanity. Bahá’ís hold to a monotheistic God who is the creator of all things. God can be drawn close to although his unknowability is emphasized.

The Narrative side of Bahá’í is rich despite the religion’s short history. There is the story of a merchant Siyyid `Alí Muhammad Shírází (1819-1850) (who renamed himself the Báb) prophesying the coming of a Messenger who will bring peace and justice (4). This prophesied figure is Bahá’u’lláh who Bahá’í’s believe pointed towards a world situation in which everyone will be equal. Also part of this dimension, perhaps remembered more painfully, is the bravery and dedication to the truth on behalf of the early devotees, including the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh. Stories of these leaders and their followers tell of persecution at the hands of Shi’ite Muslim authorities and leaders. According to tradition, Bahá’u’lláh was imprisoned, tortured, and eventually exiled. The Báb was earlier executed by firing squad. The Bahá’í community in South Africa has its own stories of brave early believers, such as William Mmutle Masehla, Dorothy Kedibone Senne, and Bertha Mkhize, all remembered for their distinguished services in spreading the faith within an oppressive era. Masehla is remembered for his active involvement in missionary activities despite an illness that culminated in his death in 1983. Mkhize not only accepted the faith at the age of seventy, suggesting it is never too late to accept the truth, but is also well-remembered for her efforts in fighting for the rights of Africans and women, a narrative no doubt of great reminiscence given the Bahá’í’s doctrinal emphasis on racial unity.

Institutionally, the Bahá’í religion, its devotees, and temples are guided by the Universal House of Justice located in Haifa, Israel. This lead organization functions as a council overseeing the religion’s projects promoting education, peace, human welfare, and the religion itself. The organization cares for the interests of the Bahá’í community and if required will take steps to remedy internal disagreements. It also provides guidance in areas of practical ethical concern, such as on abortion, marriage, and so on. In South Africa, there is the Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs (BOPA). BOPA is the official organization representing the local community in the media, civil society, in interfaith dialogue, and that commits to matters of social progress and justice (5). Locally there are Spiritual Assemblies where devotees gather in community although these do not have a clergy. At some meetings, devotees discuss strategies about how to uplift their local communities and reflect on the status of current projects. Representatives in these meetings, as well as on national level, are selected by vote.

The Ethical dimension of the local Bahá’í community is strong given its emphasis on moral and ethical behaviours. Moral values such as generosity, compassion, love, trust, and fairness, believed by devotees to have been embodied in Bahá’u’lláh, are expressed in the Bahá’í community’s projects combatting social issues such as racism, gender inequality, gender based violence, and poor education (6). Ethics is inextricably bound to the unity of humanity doctrine: if all persons possess souls and are the creations of God then they ought to be appreciated and respected as such. Local Bahá’ís therefore get behind initiatives involving education, which they believe to be a divine mandate since God himself sent Manifestations to teach humanity divine truth (7). Spiritual education, which Bahá’í serve to members of their communities to promote social harmony, is imperative in light of contemporary society’s progressive complexity manifesting new social challenges. A social issue local Bahá’ís feel particularly strong about is the equality of men and women. Achieving gender equality is a major step in the direction of establishing a just, non-violent, and non-prejudicial society, especially in South Africa where violence against girls and women is common. Although the Bahá’ís respect cultural and religious diversity, they ultimately wish to establish a global community in which no-one is superior or inferior to any other along racial, gender, and religious lines.

The Ritual dimension includes daily prayer, meditation, and the reading of scriptures, such as the Holy Writings (8). Prayer is devotional in both private and communal capacities. It is also obligatory and some can be general, such as asking for good fortune or for daily assistance, and others sacred, such as the prayers of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb. Three prayers were given by Bahá’u’lláh in varying lengths: a large one to be prayed once every day; a medium sized one to be said three times daily; and a small prayer to be said between midday and sunset. Meditation is practiced during the reading of scripture and many Bahá’ís meet in study groups called study circles. In study circles, devotees, all of whom must be fifteen years or older, study the Holy Writings, think through the practical application of their beliefs, and discuss the challenges and realities facing their communities. Across the country, Bahá’ís host devotional meetings. These gatherings bring persons of various faiths, cultures, and races together to collectively engage in worship and prayer. There are several youth initiatives and educational programmes. These have the purpose of serving children through spiritual and moral education, usually in creative, child-friendly environments where children sing, play games, and listen to story telling. Local Bahá’ís fast, from sunrise to sunset, for the first half of the month of March (from the second until the twentieth) as this keeps them mindful of spiritual reality and to never become too attached to the material world. They also celebrate Ridvan, a festival lasting twelve days commemorating their founder’s declaration as a Manifestation of God.

The deep feeling of God’s nearness to the devotee is a pillar of the Experiential dimension. Although God is transcendent and far beyond human beings, devotees have been given the gift of drawing close to him. This closeness is cultivated through rituals, including meditation, reading of scriptures, fasting, and prayer, all felt to have great spiritual power in establishing a vibrant human-God connection. Music also functions to facilitate this connection and awe of God’s transcendence. The local Bahá’í community has musicians and vocalists, such as the Diversity Choir, who perform on important days for the community.

The Material dimension is lacking the most. Although in many other countries one can find numerous decorative temples and Houses of Worship with motifs from various world religions, there are no such structures in South Africa. There is the National Bahá’í Centre in Randburg where devotees perform choral singing that implements prayers from the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb. Despite this tradition’s lack of material presence, devotees still convene at Spiritual Assemblies in the various provinces.

The Unconventionality of the Bahá’í Religion

The Bahá’í religion is marginal in all areas of the globe. Even more unfortunate is that they are often the victims of persecution in a several countries, especially in its land of origin, although its South African community is much better off. However, any tradition with a few thousand members will inevitably find itself misaligned and marginalized across the social, culture, and religious spheres. Local awareness of this tradition is sorely lacking, although the religion claims to be present in all nine provinces and across villages, townships, towns, and cities (9). The Bahá’í community has fortunately received positive exposure through the media, primarily for its community upliftment projects. Members have received the Mandela Award for their efforts in improving healthcare within disadvantaged populations (10). What little attention this community has received has been largely positive.

References

  1. Smith, Peter., and Momen, Moojan. 1989. “The Bahá’í Faith 1957-1988: A Survey of Contemporary Developments.” Religion 19:63-91. p. 64.
  2. Bahá’í Community of South Africa. 2020a. “Serving Communities Together.” Accessed 16 April 2020. https://www.bahai.org.za/serving-communities-together/
  3. Schoeman, Willem J. 2017. “South African religious demography: The 2013 General Household Survey.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 73(2):1-7. p. 3.
  4. Bahai.org. The Bab. Available.
  5. Bahai. 2020. “Participating in the Discourses of Society.” Accessed 16 April 2020 https://www.bahai.org.za/contributing-to-discourse/
  6. Bahá’í Community of South Africa. 2020b. “History of the Bahá’í Faith in South Africa.” Accessed 16 April 2020. https://www.bahai.org.za/bahai-history-south-africa/
  7. Abedian, Iraj. 2011. “Religion and Social Progress: Beyond the Clash of Extremes.” Helen Suzman Foundation: Religion and Society 62:1-7. p. 5.
  8. Bahá’í Community of South Africa. 2020c. “The Vibrant and Diverse Bahá’í Community of South Africa.” Accessed 5 May 2020. https://www.bahai.org.za/
  9. Bahá’í Community of South Africa. 2020c. Ibid.
  10. Onecountry. South African Baha’i wins Mandela Award. Available.

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