Ask A Baha’i: Obligatory Prayer
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In one of the Paris Talks, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, “Rituals have no place in religion,” then why do Bahá’í have obligatory prayer? What is the meaning of obligatory prayer? Also, Bahá’ís believe in unity in diversity: how can Bahá’í help other world religion to know their true understanding?
Thank you for your question concerning ritual, obligatory prayers, unity in diversity, and interfaith relationships. As an individual Bahá’í giving my own personal understanding, here are some thoughts based on researching some pertinent Bahá’í writings on these topics.
In the compilation of an individual Bahá’í’s notes on talks ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gave while he was visiting Paris, France in 1911, called Paris Talks,‘ Abdu’l-Bahá seems to discuss rituals in relationship to two primary concerns.
First, that rituals — and their most accurate observance — often become a source of fighting, contention and dispute within a religion and sometimes between religious traditions. Sometimes the arguments are purely verbal, and not physical violence, and these ‘Abdu’l-Bahá calls “wearisome.”
As a student and teacher of religious studies, I might provide as examples of Christians (including Catholic Christians) sometimes fighting about how to perform Baptisms or the Eucharist. In Islam, Muslims — especially that of Shiites and Sunnis — sometimes contend over how to perform ṣalāt obligatory prayer. In more recent years, some groups of Muslims (e.g., the group commonly called “Wahhabi”/“Muwahhids” [monotheists]) who are highly concerned about possible forms of idolatry have been highly critical of fellow Muslims who revere Sufi shrines and pray at them.
From the Paris Talks, Abdu’l-Bahá is recorded as saying, “Now, these forms and rituals differ in the various churches and amongst the different sects, and even contradict one another; giving rise to discord, hatred, and disunion.”
The second concern was that individuals and groups become excessively concerned and focused on the outward forms, details, and precise procedures of rituals while neglecting their underling importance, purpose, and truth.
Abdu’l-Bahá is recorded to have said, “God has created us, one and all—why do we act in opposition to his wishes, when we are all his children, and love the same Father? All these divisions we see on all sides, all these disputes and opposition, are caused because men cling to ritual and outward observances, and forget the simple, underlying truth. It is the outward practices of religion that are so different, and it is they that cause disputes and enmity—while the reality is always the same, and one. The Reality is the Truth, and truth has no division. Truth is God’s guidance, it is the light of the world, it is love, it is mercy. These attributes of truth are also human virtues inspired by the Holy Spirit. So let us one and all hold fast to truth, and we shall be free indeed! The day is coming when all the religions of the world will unite, for in principle they are one already. There is no need for division, seeing that it is only the outward forms that separate them.”
As to rituals and ceremonies in the Bahá’í Faith, sometimes I have heard Bahá’ís repeat the statement that, “there are no rituals in the Bahá’í Faith.” Ironically, the repetition of this statement has become kind of ritualistic itself, in my opinion. Furthermore, the idea of “no rituals in the Bahá’í Faith” does not really have a basis in authoritative Bahá’í writings that I can find. Here is a concise and official statement on the Bahá’í Faith and rituals/ceremonies.
“It is not accurate to state that the Bahá’í Faith has no ceremonies. The marriage ceremony and the funeral service are examples of such observances in our teachings. It would be correct, however, to state that the Faith has certain basic laws and simple rites prescribed by Bahá’u’lláh and that its teachings warn against developing these into a system of uniform and rigid rituals by introducing into them man-made forms and practices… In carrying out the basic laws of our Faith the friends should always maintain a standard of utmost simplicity and observe flexibility in all matters of detail” – (From a letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of Colombia from the Universal House of Justice, August 31, 1967, quoted in Lights of Guidance, p. 137).
As to the meaning of Bahá’í Obligatory Prayers, along with the 19-day period of fasting, in my understanding of the guidance of the Bahá’í Writings, we complete these rituals not out of fear of going to hell but wholly for God’s sake, because we love God. Furthermore, just like God created us with physical needs, He gave us practices that spring directly from spiritual laws about the nature of our souls. In an analogous way, we human beings require regular (routine-esque) investments in time and attention to both feed ourselves, take care of our bodies, and nurture our family and social relationships, so do we need regular time and attention to nurture our dynamic relationship with God—one’s closest Companion, most intimate Friend, peerless Beloved—and nourish our souls.
Such regular pauses to especially focus on nurturing our relationship with God opens us to awareness of our utter dependence on God in all aspects of our existence. Bahá’u’lláh says that we human beings are like fish swimming in the ocean of God’s grace, “Their life dependeth upon the water, and yet they remain unaware of that which, by the grace of an omniscient and omnipotent Lord, sustaineth their very existence” (Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 40).
Likewise, we are as fruit-bearing-trees extending our branches and leaves to the sun each day and opening our roots to the waters of life. It is interesting to note that the Long Obligatory Prayer includes the genuflection of raising one’s arms towards God, which I often compare to a tree raising its branches towards the sun. In various Bahá’í Writings, God through His divine Manifestations (e.g., Bahá’u’lláh, Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, Moses) is called a Sun or Day-Star which quickens all spiritual life, just as the physical sun is the source of all material life.
In this regard, it is important for Bahá’ís not just “go through motions” with prayers, fasting, or the law to repeat Alláh-u-Abhá ninety-five times each day. Shoghi Effendi explains in a letter written on his behalf in 1925.
“Mere mechanical repetition of the syllables is not referred to. The utterance of the word must be accompanied by the turning of the heart to God. When we turn to God with our whole heart and invoke His Name, a spiritual connection is established through which we become a channel of divine influence,” (quoted by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, 15 September 2003).
Becoming a channel of divine influence is important, as for Bahá’ís, nurturing our relationship and connection with God through worship is important for its own sake but also that we human beings continually grow in our ability, commitment, and daily efforts to bless others with loving-kindness, care, compassion, collaborative teamwork, and working for justice and equity for all.
As to the part of your question, “how can Bahá’í help other world religion to know [rituals] true understanding?” I believe first it is most important to not be presumptive or paternalistic. We Bahá’ís ourselves need to remind ourselves that these rituals are not ends in themselves but channels to become closer to God’s presence and to become closer in friendship and kindness with our fellow human beings. When we practice this ourselves, we will more and more become a center of attraction for others to be encouraged to fulfill the true purpose of such rituals. At the same time, this will open up conversation between friends as equals exploring the meaning and purpose of such beautiful doorways God has given us, proceeding from His spiritual laws to nurture our souls.
For further reflection on the meaning of prayer and fasting in the Bahá’í Faith, I recommend a wonderful compilation of the Bahá’í Writings, called “The Importance of Obligatory Prayer and Fasting.”
Daniel Pschaida hails from San Diego and married into the Spokane area where he has made his home since 2017. Passionate about Spokane’s interfaith movement, basketball, Harry Potter books and nature hikes with his wife Tiara, he also teaches comparative religion at Gonzaga University and history at Eastern Washington University. You can also sometimes find his shared, personal reflections on the Baha’i writings on his blog.