Race and Racism: Perspectives from Bahá'í Theology and Critical Sociology

By Hughey, Matthew | The Journal of Baha'i Studies, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Race and Racism: Perspectives from Bahá'í Theology and Critical Sociology


Hughey, Matthew, The Journal of Baha'i Studies


It is hoped that all the Baha'i students will. . . be led to investigate and analyse the principles of the Faith and to correlate them with the modern aspects of philosophy and science. Every intelligent and thoughtful young Bahá'í should always approach the Cause in this way, for therein lies the very essence of the principle of independent investigation of truth.

- Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, 6 August 1933.

INTRODUCTION

Largely recognized as one of the core principles of the Bahá'í Faith, the "condemnation of all forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class, and national" stands paramount, particularly within North American Bahá'í communities (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By 281). In the speeches and Writings of the Central Figures and Institution of the Bahá'í Faith, there are varied references to "race," "racial," and "racial prejudice."1 Moreover, a number of statements by various Bahá'í bodies and individuals emphasize racialized issues, as can be seen in J. E. Esslemont's Bahâ'u'llâh and the New Era (1937), Glenford E. Mitchell's "The Most Challenging Issue: Teaching Negroes" (1967), the statement by the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States titled "The Vision of Race Unity: America's Most Challenging Issue" (1991), the Bahá'í International Community's publication of Bahá'u'lláh (1992), a statement by the Bahá'í International Community titled Turning Point for All Nations (1995), and the Universal House of Justice's publication of Century of Light (2001).

The animating thread woven throughout these statements is the absolute rejection of racial prejudices, for they stand as a supreme hindrance to the achievement of peace, civilization, and equitable material values and spiritual virtues. For instance, while in Paris, France, in 1911, Abdu'l-Bahá gave a talk in which He stated:

All prejudices, whether of religion, race, politics or nation, must be renounced, for these prejudices have caused the world's sickness. It is a grave malady which, unless arrested, is capable of causing the destruction of the whole human race. Every ruinous war, with its terrible bloodshed and misery, has been caused by one or other of these prejudices. (Paris Talks 146)

While the principle evoked is precise (the universal abolition of prejudice), the very terms under discussion (i.e., "race" or "racial prejudice") are rarely defined and are relatively fresh on the historical scene, given that the English terms "racism" and "race" first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary in 1902 and 1910, respectively.2 Moreover, both the connotations (the various social overtones, cultural implications, and affective meanings) as well as the denotations (the explicit or referential meanings of the terms) require that the reader rely on inference and personal interpretation.

These issues gesture toward important questions. When reading these Bahá'í texts, what is meant by "race" or by characterizing something as "racial"? What do "racial prejudice," "racial discrimination," and/or "racism" mean? And how do they relate? There have been nearly eighty years of social scientific advancement on, and illumination of, these concepts since Shoghi Efendi wrote in The Advent of Divine Justice that "racial prejudice" is the "most vital and challenging issue confronting the Bahá'í community at the present stage of its evolution" (33-34). Accordingly, in Section I, I review the historical development of "race" concept. In Section II, I provide an overview of and attempt to correlate the Bahá'í theological3 and sociological views on "race."4 In Sections III and IV (which mirror Sections I and II), I first survey the concept of racism and then compare the Bahá'í theological and sociological understandings of it. In Section V, I offer a sociological understanding of how the concepts of race and racism are inextricably intertwined in five key dimensions: ideologies, institutions, interests, identities, and interactions, what I have elsewhere called the "Five I's" (Hughey, "The Five I's" 857-71). …

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