A story untold : Egypt’s Baha’is

Posted: April 22, 2008 in Journalism, Politics, Society

New Year for a New Faith

 

As the moon raced to fullness, the Muslim world rejoiced the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Falling on March 20 this year, his birth happened 1438 years ago, in ‘Aam al fil [the year of the elephant].

 

Sunset March 20 also signaled the start of the Persian and Bahá’í Nayruz or Naw ruz, [new year], which is celebrated on the 21st and coincides with the vernal equinox. Announcing spring, it marks the point where night and day are balanced, before the days start growing longer.

 

Bahá’ís believe this symbolizes the day God created the world according to Qor’anic verse 7:54- ‘Khalaq Alsamawwati wa Alardha fi sittati Ayyam thumma Astawa ‘Ala Al ‘Arsh‘ [He created the heavens and earth in six days then equated (himself) upon the throne].

 

It also symbolizes a new and fresh start to a blessed year, as Persians, Zoroastrians, Phrygians, Gnostics, and Egyptians have celebrated over time. Mother’s day, anyone?

 

This March 21st also happened to be Good Friday, the day Jesus is said to have died on the cross. People all over the world1 celebrated in remembrance of his journey to Golgotha with symbols of sacrifice, the cross, death, and resurrection.

 

All of this was perfectly timed with the sun signaling a new season of growth and budding opportunity. From this conglomerate of celebrations for different faiths, we bring you the story of one: the Bahá’í.

 

The story of Baha’is starts in 1844 with the appearance of Sayyed Ali Mohamed known as the ‘ Báb ‘ [or Gate] in Shiraz, Persia. The Báb is said to have spoken of the coming of someone who bears a new faith that will further on the spiritual path undertaken by Adam and his messenger sons including Abraham, Moses, Jesus & Muhammad. Though never explicitly named, Baha’is have taken the esoteric signs to point to Hadrat Bahá’u’lláh as the bringer of the new faith. On one occasion it is said that the Bab sent to Bahá’u’lláh a letter containing 360 derivatives of the root of the word ‘Bahaa’ [meaning "glory" or "splendor"].

 

 

******

 

About the Bahá’ís (from www.bahai.org)

 

"The Bahá’í Faith is the youngest of the world’s independent religions. Its founder, Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892), is regarded by Bahá’ís as the most recent in the line of Messengers of God that stretches back beyond recorded time and that includes Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad."

“The central theme of Bahá’u’lláh’s message is that humanity is one single race and that the day has come for its unification in one global society. God, Bahá’u’lláh said, has set in motion historical forces that are breaking down traditional barriers of race, class, creed, and nation and that will, in time, give birth to a universal civilization. The principal challenge facing the peoples of the earth is to accept the fact of their oneness and to assist the processes of unification.

“Among the measures which the Bahá’í community advocates as contributions to world unity are a federation of nations, an international auxiliary language, the coordination of the world’s economy, a universal system of education, a code of human rights for all peoples, an integrated mechanism for global communication, and a universal system of currency, weights and measures."

 

*****
 

Past the Gate

 

 

 

Sometimes the best lead on the present is found in the past. We went to pay our respects to the tenants of the last remaining Bahá’í cemetery in Egypt, in the hope of reaching a better understanding of the past, and therefore present situation of Bahá’ís in Egypt.

 

 

Saturday 22 March, 08.

A sunny day. Birds provide the music. Thin film of leaves on the graves adds a touch of sadness.

Egyptian Bahá’í Shady Samir points at a grave of an American Bahá’í:

 

Lua Getsinger, d. May 2, 1916.

"During his time in America, and at the start of his term in caring for the Baha’is, Shoghi Effendi [Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith] laid the foundations for his ’10 year missionary plan.’” For 10 years Bahá’ís in America headed all over the world to spread word of their faith and form Bahá’í communities—especially in Africa, Asia and South America.

 

Lua Getsinger was a pioneer in answering Shoghi Effendi’s call to spread the Bahá’í faith; hence the epitaph inscribed on her gravestone: ‘Mother teacher of the West’. In the Bahá’í faith, the deceased should be buried no further than two hours traveling time from where they passed away. Lua happened to be in Egypt when her time came.

 

We notice that this final Bahá’í resting place is populated by a wide spectrum of ethnic backgrounds. It was perhaps the first time I’d seen Christian and Moslem-sounding names on graves side by side. With the faith boasting a diverse body of over 5 million followers, from over 2,100 ethnic groups all over the world, its existence today challenges many theories regarding human interaction.

 

Numbering around 2000, Egypt’s Bahá’ís are mainly spread over Ismailiya, Port Said, Alexandria and Cairo. The first Bahá’ís in Egypt were Persian merchants who settled in Alexandria. In time the numbers of Egyptian Bahá’ís increased, especially with Bahá’u’lláh’s son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá living here for periods of time2. The increase in Baha’i population happened despite the opposition of some Azhar scholars and despite the fact that Bahá’ís sometimes faced media allegations of being colonialist or Zionist agents.

 

With decree 263 of 1960, Nasser ordered that all Bahá’í assemblies and centers be disbanded, and their activities discontinued. Nasser’s decree is said to have been aimed primarily at denouncing the Muslim Brotherhood, yet resulted in the disallowing of any ‘other’ religious body in its wake. Since the mid-90’s, Bahá’ís have faced difficulties registering newborns and renewing ID cards, because they do not belong to one of the three religions recognized by government: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. All of this, Bahá’ís argue, impedes their citizenship rights including access to education, legal registration, and health care.

 

*****

 

Mohamed Toqqi Asfahani, d. December 13, 1946.

One of “the hands of the cause of God.” This title was given in recognition of sacrifices and services rendered to the Bahá’í faith. The ‘hands’ took up the reigns of the Bahá’í faith when Shoghi Effendi passed away in 1957, and directed the elections for the First House of Justice, when nine internationally elected Bahá’ís become the highest authority in the faith. Bahá’ís everywhere vote every year to elect these representatives in the local and national spiritual assemblies. Those elected undertake various administrative tasks from marriage, to registration and licensing.

 

*****

 

 

Realms of Body & Spirit

 

 

"There are three different forms of prayer. They are the kubra, the wusta, and the sughra [long, medium and short prayers]. The kubra lasts ten to fifteen minutes and includes kneeling, prostration and lifting of the palms in prayer in the direction of the qibla in Acre, ‘Akka. You are required to perform any one of the three daily."

 

"In our faith there is no such thing as the spirit aggregating misdeeds or sin. There is only the positive evolution of the spirit through virtuous action. Anything else delays the spirit acquiring the characteristics that it needs to exist comfortably once it leaves this physical world. The more you try to get closer to God in this world, the closer you are already in the spiritual existence."

 

…"We believe the spirit of the deceased is still present and attached to this world until the body is buried. Thus we believe in hastening the burial of the dead, because the spirit gravitates around the body wanting to be released from this physical world and move to the next plane—we are clear about the spirit’s life after death."

 

…"A mghassil is commissioned [person who ritually prepares body for burial]. A Muslim whose learned our rituals; he wraps the body threefold in silk, between each layer rosewater is sprinkled, and of course the deceased wears a ring carrying ismu-llah al aa‘zam [God’s great name]. The coffins are obtained from a Christian coffin maker, as Muslims don’t bury their dead in coffins. He removes the crosses from the lid. Him and the mghassil know us and know how things are done, so we always use them.

 

*****

 

"We don’t believe in reincarnation…We believe the body belongs to this material world and thus should remain in it. [After burial], the body is no longer of any value to one’s spirit. You need nothing physical to interact in that world.

 

…"Our concept of heaven and hell is summed up in our belief that our heaven is in our proximity to God, and that our pain, hell and torture lie in our distance from Him. You fully realize this when your spirit runs free in the spirit world, you can sense the difference in your spiritual status and proximity to God, and thus heaven. You realize your spiritual status when you’re dying as well. You are greeted by those who went before you. And you, as an individual such as you or me, keep that individuality in spirit. Even any love you share in this world carries on in the next plane, because it is based in love and good intention, and love is spiritual in essence. Couples that are in love in this world are not married per se there, but they keep a strong spiritual bond.

 

*****

Hussein Bikar, d. November 2002.

"The famous artist was one of the last members of the spiritual council in Egypt before it was disbanded. Naturally, when the council was discontinued, people still directed their queries to the last elected council members, like Hussein Bikar. As he grew older, he appointed people to help him with his growing responsibilities towards the Bahá’í faith. Naturally, when Bikar passed away, people looked to his personal aides for answers.”

 

The cemetery caretaker interrupts to hand Shady a folder. "This is the book we pray from for the dead," says Shady, fingering the pages. "It starts with two similar verses, on opposite pages, but one is said for males and the other is for females. Someone then steps forward—their basic role is to lead the prayer. This person then starts every stage of the prayer by saying Allahu Abha’ [Allah is most pleasant]. We follow by repeating the affirmation inna kullun li-llahi ‘aabiduun [we are all in worship to Allah],repeated 19 times. The person leading the prayer then says Allahu Abha’, and we move on to sajiduun, qanituun, then dhakiruun, shakiruun, and sabiruun".

 

 

"Let’s sit down here in the shade. This is where the people come and sit to read after they’ve prayed."

 

*****

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