BAHA'IS AT HARVARD:
Uniting the World One Heart at a Time
Imagine a world of peace, unity and oneness. A world where racial and religious strife has ceased to exist, where people worship, govern, and even speak as one. To more than three million people around the globe today this is not some unattainable utopia, but a vision destined to become reality.
The guardians of this ideal are the Baha'is, followers of the Persian prophet Baha'u'llah and the Baha'i faith, which at 142 years old, is considered to be one of the world's newest religions. Since then the numbers of his followers have continued to grow, and now number close to three million. Although their numbers are not comparable to other world faiths, Baha'is are widespread and have representatives in far-flung corners of the world.
One of these corners is Harvard. Baha'is in the university community now number about 15, most of whom comprise the Harvard Baha'i Association, which has been in existence since at least the 1950s, says Gisu Mohadjer '83, a Business School student who was the club's president as an undergraduate.
At Harvard, the Baha'i group is "an association of students who are Baha'is and are interested in the faith who work to promote the principles of the Baha'i faith," says Lowell House resident Robert Wallace Cook '88, the current president of the Harvard Baha'i Association.
"We're not here to convert the Harvard population," Cook, of Vermont, says about his group's relatively small presence on campus. "Our primary goal is to make people aware of us and understand what we stand for."
Faith Like No Other
This faith is like no other in the Western world. There are no clergy, no religious hierarchies, and no large church buildings. Baha'i don't even use a traditional 12-month a year calendar, preferring instead a 19-day a month system.
Among the Baha'i ideals are "the oneness of God, the oneness of mankind, and the oneness of religion," says Toni Lynne Andrews '87. These beliefs include the equality of men and women and the cessation of racial and religious strife. The Baha'is believe that all religions are one. In their teachings, one member says, God is metaphorized as a sun and the prophets as mirrors reflecting the same light. Baha'u'llah is the last in a line of prophets including Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.
"We feel it's our responsibility to make people aware of the Baha'i faith," says Mohadjer. "It's my responsibility to respond to [people's] questions and it's my responsibility to be aware myself and to be able to respond. We can't fall short of our duty in helping people find out about that message [of Baha'u'llah]."
One method the group uses to teach others about the faith is "firesides," bimonthly discussion sessions open to non-Baha'is--as are most of the group's activities--which center around a particular topic such as "If There is Only One God Why Are There So Many Religions?"
Baha'is emphasize, however, that they don't force people to learn about their faith, but encourage individuals to question its ideas for themselves. "We don't force people to become Baha'is because one of our principles is that you have to investigate independently [to find truth]," says Farshid Sadeghi '90.
"We're not trying to convert the whole world; we're just trying to help it understand what's happening to it," Jill N. Harrison '90, a Holworthy Hall resident, says.
On campus, people appear to be receptive to Baha'i ideas, Harvard Baha'is say. Mohadjer says she thinks the college campus is a good place to spread the values of the faith.
"People are open to new ideas, more interested, and people live a thoughtful life," she says. "When you're in college you're so acutely aware of everything around you."
"Academic communities tend to be very easy [to spread beliefs in] compared to other parts of America. [There are] more open minds, more of an intrigue in what's unusual. College campuses are generally quite productive places for people to become Baha'i," says Rhett Diessner, a second-year student at the Graduate School of Education. One becomes a Baha'i by making a declaration of faith, which can occur as early as age 15.
A Logical Appeal
Baha'is give a variety of reasons for adopting their chosen faith, but one in particular stands out: the logicality and open-mindedness which they find in their religion.
"It makes sense in our society," Andrews says, adding that she thinks that quality is responsible for the appeal the faith holds for many.
"We believe science and religion have to agree, so it's very logical--no superstitions. If science and religion don't agree, either religion is being misinterpreted or science hasn't developed that far yet. That made a lot of sense to me," Harrison says.
Many Harvard Baha'is come from Baha'i families, but members stress that no one is supposed to accept the faith merely because it is practiced by his family. Sadeghi says he had been "immersed in the Baha'i faith" all his life, but adds that "I never accept anything until it's proven. What I like best [about the Baha'i] is that anything can be questioned--you're encouraged to ask why."
Constance M. Chen '90, a Baha'i who lives in Canaday Hall, joined the religion with no previous family background in the faith after learning about it from friends. "I started learning more about their beliefs," she says, "and it all seemed so obvious, but I didn't really believe in God. I didn't want to be a dope and believe in something that didn't exist--[I was] agnostic."
But she says the hurdle of disbelief was conquered when "I realized [God] is something you don't really understand. If you could comprehend it, it would become non-existent. [Then] everything became more clear."
MIT senior David Jull, originally from an Anglican family, became Baha'i within the last year after hearing about the faith from a receptionist in his chiropractor's office who encouraged him to attend a fireside. Jull says that for him, the faith linked ideas and beliefs that had long been a part of his value system.
"Many of these things I had already accepted as being true and I needed something that tied them together, and made [them] into one piece," Jull says.
Peace on Earth
One of the main concerns of the Baha'i may already be shared by many at the present time--world peace. A booklet entitled "The Promise of World Peace" was published this year for the first time by the Universal House of Justice, a group of nine elected representatives who comprise the highest governing body of the Baha'i faith.
The booklet has been distributed to major world leaders, including President Reagan, and Baha'is on campus are trying to arrange a meeting to present it to Harvard President Derek C. Bok, Cook says.
Baha'is believe world peace will eventually be reached via a two-stage process: a lesser, or political, peace and a greater, or religius, peace. By the year 2000, the lesser peace will be achieved, Andrews says, quoting Baha'i writings.
"Before that time a lot of turmoil and changes are going to be happening in the world. We don't believe the world will self-destruct. Through it all we're going to reach world peace, but a lot of us won't be here for it," she says.
"Things are going to get really bad before the year 2000--unimaginable horrors--we will end up with some kind of peace but it won't be because we love each other, it will be because we have to exist," Harrison says.
"We're not saying, 'everybody, go hide in your basements.' [We're saying] just try to love each other a little so the lesser peace won't be so bad," she says.
But Harrison says beliefs concerning the intensity of the lesser peace vary among the Baha'i and are very much a matter of self-interpretation. "Some people believe it'll just be bad weather," she says.
Although public awareness of the faith is not great, Cook says he feels people on campus react positively to Baha'i ideas. "I think our ideas are of such a nature that they don't really conflict with anyone's viewpoints enough to cause hostility," he says.
Save for a symbolic ring which many members wear, there are no outward traits which imply membership in the Baha'i; but that doesn't mean there are not distinguishing features of the faith which set members apart.
Practicing Baha'is are forbidden to drink, smoke, take drugs, or engage in premarital sex. Marriage itself is only sanctioned if it has the approval of both partners' families, because of the importance of family unity within the faith, Andrews says.
But there is also a Baha'i law against being fanatical, Diessner says. "We do seek advice of physicians when ill and consider anything a physician prescribes [to be] okay."
Baha'is on campus say the ability to deal with the restrictive laws varies according to one's background. "If you were a party animal before you realized that you should get serious about your life, then I'd see that could be a problem," Diessner says.
"All of these laws have reasons behind them," Harrison says. "Baha'i writings say the bond between two sexual partners is stronger than any other bond that can be imagined," which explains the ban on premarital sex.
"My understanding of the laws [against drinking and drugs] is the principle that drugs that intoxicate the brain have an effect of not letting your behaviors interact with your soul," Diessner says. "They interrupt the dialectic between the soul and the body."
Reasons do not eliminate the difficulty of dealing with social restrictions, however. "It's hard, especially [at] college where so much of the social life is based on drinking," Andrews says. "But it seems like such a little sacrifice when you realize what God has done for you."
"Giving up drinking was something I had to consciously go through, and I haven't been perfect about that. It's not something that's immediately ended," Jull says.
Jull says that when he first became a Baha'i a year ago he faced some skepticism from friends whom he'd gone drinking with before, but adds that he thinks their cynicism soon changed to respect."
Premarital sex is "one of the most frequently discussed topics of college-age Baha'is Mohadjer says, adding that when in college, she foundthat to be the area of most peer pressure. "Peopledidn't understand that for me it was never anissue," she says. "You have to be very careful howclose you get to people. You have to be firm aboutit earlier rather than later because later is muchtoo late."
Others view the restrictions with greaternonchalance. Nikki Abrashamian, who comes from aBaha'i family in Iran where the prevailing Muslimculture also exercises strict regulatory laws,says the restrictions pose no problems for her.
"It didn't matter at all when I came [toAmerica]," she says. "I guess my beliefs werestronger than the peer pressure so it was veryestablished in me that I should abide by the lawsthat I believe."
Chen also says the laws are no problem for her."Before I became a Baha'i I partied so hard--thenI got it out of my system so there's absolutely notemptation now."
Even the restrictions can serve as a way ofspreading the faith, Sadeghi says. "I think thebest way to teach is to be a good example. Whenpeople see me not drinking they're curious andthat in itself is a teaching method.