Monday, August 4, 2008

OMG! Maybe I'm really Baha'i!

Why visit only the holy places of the world’s three major monotheistic religions? I had the chance recently to get to know one of the minor monotheistic groups a bit better as well by visiting the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa. Somewhat incongruously, given Israel’s identification as a Jewish state, Haifa and Akko, both on Israel’s uppermost northern coast, serve as the world center of the Baha’i faith. The Baha’i have a shrine in Haifa to one of their prophets; the remains of its other prophet are buried in Akko. The Haifa shrine is surrounded by a kilometerlong garden, which is made up of eighteen terraces running straight up the side of Mount Carmel, the mountain on which Haifa is built.

I knew little of the Baha’i before going, so I found the Baha’i’s central principles on the web. Here they are:

-- Abandonment of prejudice
-- Full equality between the sexes
-- Recognition of the oneness and commonality of the world’s religions
-- Elimination of extreme poverty and wealth
-- Universal compulsory education
-- The responsibility of the individual to search independently for truth
-- Establishing a world federal system
-- Recognizing that faith and reason should be in harmony.

Hey! That sounds just like what I believe! Individuality, fairness, thoughtfulness, equity – those are my values too! (Well, to be fair, I’ve never really considered the idea of a world federal system, but I am for government-run universal health care, which would be a start, wouldn’t it?) And to top it off, there are no churches, synagogues, or mosques, and the Baha’i administrative structure is very limited. That all works out great, because I don’t deal well with bureaucracy and I’ve always hated going to church. Plus, the Baha’i have gardens. And I like to garden! This was starting to sound like a good match.

(Great, my husband responded when I shared the revelation that I may, at root, be Baha’i. You’ve managed to find the only religion on earth whose members have been persecuted almost as much as the Jews.)

But back to my trip to the Baha’i Gardens. I tried to get into the shrine, which is supposed to be stunning, but was turned away. (This was disappointing, especially since I was still residing in the mental penumbra of my failed Dome of the Rock visit. How many more religions, I wondered, will reject my attempts to honor their holy sites before I leave Israel?)

So I took the garden tour instead. These gardens were unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Everything in them is exactly symmetrical and perfectly ordered. Red geraniums, orange marigolds, purple petunias, flowering cactuses, and white stone – every one impeccable, and offset by the greenest possible grass. They are also the most manicured gardens I have ever visited. There was not so much as a single blade of grass out of place. Even in the midday heat, I saw at least 20 people tending the gardens, a task that must take place around the clock. I got the sense that it must be one person’s job to stand near the bushes to catch any errant leaf that shows the temerity to fall – the gardens are that perfect. One of the jobs of the missionaries who come to Haifa, my non-Baha’i tour guide tells me, is to wash by hand the hundreds of lights that run the length of the gardens. (It’s hard for me to believe that that is true, but the gardens are so perfect that the claim is at least plausible.)

There’s a fastidiousness about it all that seems at odds with my understanding of the Baha’i. They prize individuality of thought, yet the central showcase of their religion is managed in such an uptight manner? Not only are the gardens themselves impeccable, access to them is controlled carefully. The shrine itself is open very few hours of the day. And more than one guard stands at each gate to the shrine and its gardens, making sure that those who enter are wearing respectful clothing. No visible knees, shoulders, or anything remotely suggesting cleavage are permitted in the garden or shrine, which are for the Baha’i a holy place. Both men and women are asked to employ the top buttons on their shirts, and women with shirts that show even the area just below their necks seemed to wind up wearing shawls. I respect the need to maintain dignity at a holy place, but it strikes me that the Baha’i are much more fastidious about their holy place than other faiths have been about theirs when I’ve visited them here in Israel.

There is definitely more for me to understand about this religion, about which I currently know so little. Its values – the emphasis on commonality, oneness, reason, and individual thought – sound so appealing. Yet the little bit of its world center to which I gain access could come across as the world’s single most visible monument to obsessive-compulsive disorder. At the end of the day, I’m just not sure what to make of it.


AdibM said...

Hello! I found out about this blog via a Google alert and I've gotta say it really resonated with me. I had the same experience when I visited Haifa and Akka three years ago, but I've been a Baha'i all my life. :P

I'd love to talk about the faith with you and any pertinent questions or concerns you have about it, if you're interested. My e-mail is

Take care. :)

Best wishes,

Massih said...

Dearest Pilgrim,

I was thrilled to read your blog. The detailed account of your recent visit took me back some 20 years when i did a year of voluntary service at Baha'i Gardens and its World Center. Wow, i actually envy you at the moment for the freshness of your visit. The Holy Land, as cradle to all of the monotheistic religions, is indeed a special place for humanity.

As a young man who took time off his studies to go to Baha'i Gardens in the 80s, i sought spiritual enlightenment. I felt that the cleaning of floors or any other task was a privilege in itself; it was a way to manifest my love for the Faith. I recall, in particular, the selfless devotion and diligence with which the gardeners worked to beautify the grounds on which the beloved Founders of their faith walked upon. What else could it be? They received no rank, no title, no salary. Their motivation, i suppose, is the reason the Gardens are so meticulously taken care of. It stems from the caring of each individual, coming from various parts of the world, speaking different languages, and having different cultures.

You touched on the persecuted followers of the Baha'i Faith in Iran. As Iran's largest non-Muslim minority religion, the fanatics often hurl accusations of impropriety and immodesty to our standards, as we do not accept the subjugated role of women in society. i won't even mention the words they use from the pulpits to call those pure souls for not advocating the wearing of veils.

Modesty then i suppose is relative to its cultural setting. Modesty and propriety are good values, though i am not familiar with the dress code you mentioned. i couldn't employ the top button of my shirt these days if my life depended on it. haha.... i'm going on diet soon!

Anyway, God bless you and thank you for the post. i know the spiritual efficacy of your visit will last for a long time, as it did for me.

With regard from Atlanta,

SMK said...

There's a website devoted to the Terraces and Gardens and also has an archive of the celebratory opening in 2001 (to help with the turn of the Millenium!) Also note btw that at the edges of the gardens the lands are more natural and not formal - see here

Priscilla Gilman said...

Very interesting observations. If you look into the Baha'i Faith more, I'll be curious to read more.

Mitko said...

Dear soul,

Thanks for sharing your observations. I truly envy you for having been in all those holy places so recently. I was on a Baha'i pilgrimage last summer and experienced the same awe. In my limited understanding, the reason the gardens are maintained in such an impeccable way is to represent symbolically our reverence for the spiritual teachings of the founders of the Baha'i Faith. By the way, the shrine of the Bab is open to all but during certain hours -- in the morning, if I am not wrong. The reason is simple -- to allow a bit private prayer time for the Baha'i pilgrims in the afternoon.
In the U.S. there is a Baha'i House of Worship near Chicago, IL. It is open to all throughout the day. Best wishes to you and your family in your spiritual quest!