Much of the early works of the Baha’i faith were in the form of letters to individuals or communities, mostly written by the ‘Bab’ or Baha’u’llah. These are termed tablets. Baha’u’llah’s Kitab-i-Aqdas or the Most Holy Book and Kitab-i-Iqan or The Book of Certitude are among his major writings or ‘revelations’.
The similarities between mystical aspects of the Bahai faith and Sufism is striking, which makes one wonder if the Bahai faith evolved from Sufism or is perhaps a consolidated form of Sufism without it’s numerous ‘tariqas’ and excesses which crept into its various orders with the passage of time. While Sufism focuses on individual spiritual growth, the Baha’i faith strives at spiritual unity of the entire humankind.
Baha’u’ullah interacted with many Sufis during his lifetime and also had Sufi followers who were called Baha’i darvishs or urafa, including the well known Darvish Sidq-`Ali, the Baha’i Sufi and companion of Baha’u’llah, Ahmad Yazdi, and Mishkin-Qalam (a member of the Ni`matu’llahi Sufi order). The Baha’i Sufis had community gatherings on the evening of May 22 to celebrate the declaration of the Bab, this involved prayers specifically revealed for this occasion and staying up most of the night, praying and chanting remembrances (dhikr) of God. In fact according to Baha’i sources certain teachings of Baha’u’llah called “Tablets of the Sacred Night (Alwah Laylat al-Quds)” were revealed by Baha’u’llah with the intention that Baha’i Sufis should treat that night as a festival and read these Tablets. The contents of this short Tablet, which is an extended prayer to God, has many parallels with Sufi thought and practice. However these customs, ordained by Baha’u’llah, were discontinued in the twentieth century Iranian Baha’i community, the reasons for which are unclear.
The mystical path in Sufism is characterized by a strong emotional component in worship. Baha’u’llah evokes this aspect of that path when he calls upon God to “fill their yearning with ardent passion.” Another goal of Sufism is to attain a mystical knowledge (`irfan) of God. In the beginning of the Most Holy Book, Baha’u’llah makes attainment of such mystical knowledge of God one of two prerequisites for salvation.
Sufis emphasize achieving a powerful understanding of God’s Unity (tawhid), which too is mentioned in the Tablets of the sacred Night. Moreover, Sufis often use ‘scandalous’ metaphors for the spiritual drunkenness they seek, and Baha’u’llah also evokes these literary themes in the Tablet when he says, “Yes, my Beloved: give them to drink of the cup of life from the hand of this Youth in this garden,” representing himself as the wine-server or “saqi.” He speaks of the worship of the Sufis, that they “may make mention of Thee at eventide and sunrise,” and such practices are also expected of all Baha’is in the Most Holy Book.
Sufis tended to seek to focus all their concentration upon God, finding Him in all things and using breathing and other meditation techniques to heighten their awareness of the divine. These practices are mentioned by Baha’u’llah in his writings. Continual awareness of God, in every spoken word, in every breath, and in every sight one sees, is an aspiration of mystics in many religious traditions apart from Sufism and Baha’i mysticism.
However there came a time in the history of Sufism when its forms were used and the contents forgotten. This led, for example, to “dervishes begging and expecting to be cared for because they were the holders of special, spiritual knowledge. Another problem was a feeling of superiority to recognized laws and codes of behavior which came about because they felt they had discovered the “real” truth of life. One of the beliefs that had crept in was that it was possible to experience God (the Divine Essense) yourself without a Mediator.
In his treatise called the Seven Valleys, Bahá’u’lláh talks to the Sufis of his day in their own symbols and forms. He uses the oldest form of the Sufi literature, the Seven Valleys (or Cities, as it is also known), of the Sufi poet Attar, to present his vision to the Sufis. His also quotes copiously from the great Maulana Rumi. In this mystical treatise Baha’u’llah sifts the wheat of Sufi teaching from the chaff that had crept in over the years. He says that mankind can have an experience of the Divine (Valley of Love), can grow in understanding (Valley of Knowledge), can experience the unity of all things (Valley of Unity), be content (Valley of Contentment), and experience amazement (Valley of Wonderment), but there is a veil between the Creator and the created which can only be penetrated by a Being of another quality than man. In other words a seeker of the Divine Essence can develop his consciousness considerably in this world, true contact with the Essence is impossible. Full development can only come through recognition of the Messenger and obedience to His Laws.
In recent years, the spread of Baha’i faith to various countries has led to increased organization within the international Baha’i community and ironically, a faith whose founder strived to do away with the ills of organized religions of the world, is itself facing similar problems. There are allegations, especially within the Baha’i community in the U.S. that the followers of this faith have become more fundamentalist in the last four decades. There seems to be an increased emphasis on doctrinal and behavioral conformity as a result, what was initially intended to be a liberal and universalistic tradition is shifting towards exclusivism and sectarianism. There are allegations of key sectors of Baha’i administration being run by Baha’i fundamentalists who misuse their authority to exclude Baha’i liberals in key posts.
There was a time when the Baha’i faith came to the aid of Sufism, perhaps it is time now for Sufism to come to the rescue of the Baha’is.