Schisms and Sects

Since the Baha'is claim to be trying to bring unity to the world, it would obviously not make a great deal of sense for the religion itself to be divided into sects. Therefore the founder of the Baha'i Faith and its successive leaders took steps to prevent the formation of schisms and sects. The successive stages in the leadership of the Baha'i Faith have been guaranteed by written documents conferring this succession. This has made it difficult for anyone else to set up an alternative leadership.

During his lifetime, Baha'u'llah faced opposition from some Babi followers of his half-brother Mirza Yahya Azal (1832-1912), who claimed leadership of the Babi movement. Some individual followers of Azal played important political roles in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1906 and after, but this group never really formed a religious community although there is a scattering of individuals who still adhere to it.

'Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'u'llah's successor, was opposed by his half-brother, Mirza Muhammad 'Ali (1853-1937), who claimed that 'Abdu'l-Baha had exceeded his authority and station and who tried to set up an independent center of leadership in the Baha'i community. Although at first he attracted a number of prominent Baha'is to his side, this group within a few years went into sharp decline and was never able to establish an independent religious community. When Shoghi Effendi took on the leadership of the Baha'i Faith, he faced only a minor challenge from Mirza Muhammad 'Ali.

During Shoghi Effendi's period of leadership, there were a number of Baha'is who objected to the administrative order that he was establishing in the Baha'i community. Some of these set up the New History Society in the United States and were successful in hosting a number of meetings and forming an international pen-pal club based on Baha'i teachings. These initiatives lapsed with the deaths of the founders.

Since the death of Shoghi Effendi in 1957, the most significant attempt to create a schism in the Baha'i community was by Charles Mason Remey (1874-1974) who claimed to be the second guardian in succession to Shoghi Effendi. Although a number of Baha'is in the United States, France, and Pakistan followed him, Remey was never able to gain significant support and after his death, the movement split several times into a number of very small factions, some of which still survive. There have also been some smaller groups who have come out in opposition to the Baha'i administration, mainly in Germany and the United States. In summary, the small dissident groups formed over the last century have not been successful in establishing themselves as independent religious communities and most have not survived long after the death of their founders.

The internet has allowed some of these dissident groups to achieve a level of presence and interaction that would have been impossible before because of their small numbers and geographical spread. Despite this newfound ability to contact each other, however, none of these groups has ever grown to any appreciable extent and none has gone beyond attacking the main Baha'i community. None of them, for example, have forged a separate identity, developed a body of literature, created a viable community, or produced a distinctive way of being a Baha'i. It would not, therefore, be correct to call any of these existing dissident groups sects of the Baha'i Faith. Today more than 99.9 percent of those calling themselves Baha'is belong to the main group.

While other religions may have as their focus assent to a creed or the following of a holy law, the central focus of the Baha'i Faith is the doctrine of the Covenant, which requires that all Baha'is pledge their loyalty and obedience to the central leadership of the Baha'i Faith in each stage of its evolution; this is currently the Universal House of Justice. This latter body directs and coordinates activities in the Baha'i world and can legislate when this is needed. It does not however set doctrine.

This means that individual Baha'is are free to investigate and come to their own understanding of spiritual truth (one of the major teachings of the Baha'i Faith). They are not free, however, to assert that their understanding is the correct one or to try to form a sectarian group around themselves. Indeed the Baha'i institutions act to prevent the setting up of factions or parties with a political or sectarian platform. Those with separatist tendencies, such as those at the extreme ends of the fundamentalist or liberal spectrum, are encouraged to engage with the mainstream of the community rather than maintain an isolated dialogue with like-minded individuals, since the latter path is seen as likely to end in conflict with the main body and eventually secession. Dialogue and consultation are seen as the best way not only of resolving differences, but of generating creative energy leading to the unfolding of a higher level of truth: "The shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions." However this result can only emerge if the "clash of differing opinions" occurs within an overall context of unity.

The operation of the Covenant at the present time means effectively that if any individual or group of Baha'is is in dispute or disagreement with any other, they should refer this to the Universal House of Justice, which is the ultimate arbiter of any such disputes and all must abide by its decision.

Study Questions:
     1.     The leaders of the Baha'i Faith have faced internal opposition to their leadership. What reasons have each of these opponents given for their opposition?
     2.     What success have these opposition groups had?
     3.     Explain the doctrine of the Covenant.
     4.     What maintains the unity of the Baha'i community?

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