Maryam Butson’s Testimony, Australia
Assalaamualaykum, I was born into a Baha’i family to parents from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds who had converted to the Baha’i Faith in the sixties, and spent my childhood being taught…
I was born into a Baha’i family to parents from Anglo-Celtic backgrounds who had converted to the Baha’i Faith in the sixties, and spent my childhood being taught about the different religions of the world through Baha’i-coloured glasses. I owe a debt of gratitude in that my parents brought me up firmly believing that prejudice was wrong, that one should live a moral and chaste life, to abstain from backbiting, drinking alcohol, as well as other sinful acts – and from an early age I became fascinated with religion. Apart from a brief period of rebellion in my early teens, I became extremely religious (although not fanatical), and made it my goal in life to become the best Baha’i I could be. At a comparatively young age for the office, I was appointed to be an Assistant for Propagation in my local community and was elected onto the Local Spiritual Assembly. As far as my career was concerned, I decided I wanted to serve the Baha’i Faith in some way, and thought of becoming a translator of Baha’i Scripture.
But a funny thing happened on the road to Damascus as they say. One night when I was traveling up in far north Queensland, doing what is called a Baha’i Youth Year of Service (a time when youth voluntarily give up a year to serve the Baha’i Faith in some capacity), I began to say my nightly prayers. The evening was very hot and I remember the hum of the fan and the tiny buzz of mosquitoes and flies attracted to my bedside lamp.
Something came over me, and I prayed the most unselfish prayer I had ever prayed. I gave my life to God and said that all I wanted in my life was His will. I was overcome with such a sense of love that I will never be able to explain it in words. He touched my life with a piece of heaven, something I will always remember to my last dying day. The next couple of days, I can’t remember precisely when, but it was within merely a few days, I got a burning urge to learn Arabic. Now granted I had thought of becoming a Baha’i translator but I had always made noises to learn Persian which was what I thought Baha’i Scripture was primarily revealed in. This urge to learn Arabic came from without and yet in hindsight I can see the working of Allaah in my life. So when I had a chance, I took up Arabic as a subject at my university. I just fell in love. I knew that this was my calling, to work with Arabic somehow, it just clicked. So changing my degree and having some spare subjects, I decided to take up Islamic Studies which my university also offered.
Al-Hamdulillah, the way Allaah guides a person to Himself is breathtaking. Before my classes I decided to get a sneak preview and had found an Islamic clothing shop opposite one of my bus stops with a sign in the window advertising Sisters’ classes. With more than a little trepidation I rang them up and asked if I could attend, stressing I was a Baha’i and had no desire to convert, merely to learn about Islam. So I began to attend a weekly usrah learning about Quran, Hadeeth, fiqh, seerah, with some exotic veiled creatures with “normal” Australian accents coming out from underneth their hijabs.
The pull I felt towards Islam was immense and terrifying. I wanted to join these women and belong with them to this religion I was starting to learn about, and yet every fibre of my being was resisting, reminding me I was a Baha’i – I couldn’t POSSIBLY convert to Islam. So after a couple of months, I left and didn’t return.
Convinced that this was a test from God, trying to strengthen me, trying to make me a better Baha’i. For two years I struggled with this desire to convert, reading anything I could get my hands on about Islam, then trying to understand it all through my Baha’i glasses. More and more though, I began to question. I found a lot of what I had thought or had been taught was unique to the Baha’i Faith, had it’s genesis in Islam: things like equality between men and women, although differentiation of social duty (admittedly this is more marked in Islam); abolition of racial prejudice; the exhortation to education and knowledge; the concept of progressive revelation; a divine administrative order which permeates society. These things I found already contained within Islam, so I began to search out what was different between the two faiths.
Something striking for me, was on whom the attention and focus was placed. For Baha’is, although professing belief in the oneness of God, I immediately noticed a great difference between attention placed on Baha’u’llah – a “Manifestation”; and attention placed on Allaah in Islam. I had always struggled as a Baha’i with the concept that it was “better” for my prayer to be prayed through Baha’u’llah, to seek his guidance and blessings etc.
Shoghi Effendi wrote: “You have asked whether our prayers go beyond Baha’u’llah; It all depends whether we pray to Him directly or through Him to God. We may do both, and also can pray directly to God, but our prayers would certainly be more effective and illuminating if they are addressed to Him through His Manifestation Baha’u’llah.” Directives from the Guardian_. p57-8
I found this very difficult to do, and mostly only prayed to God alone. So when I found in Islam how the focus was taken away from the Messenger and onto Allaah, it just seemed so natural, to fit so well. The concept of “Manifestation” itself seemed to me like the Christian “incarnation”. And yet all of a sudden, here was a religion saying that the Prophets were humans like other people (albeit pretty nifty chaps) and that it was Allaah alone who did the neat tricks. This was expressed in little things, like the constant repetition of Alhamdulillah or Subhannallaah throughout life, to the really fundamental tenant that God alone was to be worshipped. Tawhiidian monotheism I feel really *is* the most pure form of worship, and I believe the Baha’i Faith compromises this by having God as the Unknowable Essence that is approached through the human temple of the various Manifestations. Hate to say it, but this rings of shirk to me. Especially in retrospect. I must say as a Baha’i I did not find this to be an issue, usually as I really *did* only pray to God and saw the Manifestations as very very very special people.
However, I began to find Baha’i theology to be not quite honest at times in that I think in an effort to claim all the great religions of the world as part of the Baha’i paradigm , Baha’is either relegate to non-essential what people of other faiths consider primary issues, or they interpret it “symbolically” so as to fit Baha’i interpretations (a really good example of this is the Day of Judgment); or they make the contradictory statement that so little is known of what the original founder of the religion meant that they could dismiss what modern day followers believe – eg. with Buddhism and it’s atheistic core, whilst at the same time claiming in the Kitab-i-Iqan that it is unjust to assert the text of Scripture is perverted leaving humanity without access to the teachings and knowledge of the Prophet that brought that book.
What tends to happen is that any major or valid concerns between contrasting theologies are simply dismissed by saying “well we can interpret that symbolically”. Whilst there is certainly a place for allegorical parables, I think the over emphasis on this is exactly what Allaah warned about in Surah 3:7
“He it is Who has sent down to thee the Book: In it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are allegorical. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is allegorical, seeking discord, and searching for its hidden meanings, but no one knows its hidden meanings except God. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: “We believe in the Book; the whole of it is from our Lord:” and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding.”
Finally I decided I needed to make a decision. I was already trying to practice the Baha’i Faith Islamically, but it never quite gelled.
The straw that broke the camel’s back for me was to sit in the presence of hypocrisy: a simple women’s group *discouraged* from visiting the elderly in a local nursing home because it was not an arena in which the women could “teach”. That is, the nursing home had a policy against religions proslytising on its property. Because of this, other arena were sought out for the women’s group’s attention. I came to the realisation that what the Baha’i Faith had to offer was a golden dream, but it neglected the nitty gritty gutter work, the very stuff I had come to realise religion is *supposed* to address.
Shoghi Effendi wrote: “…In the first place every believer is free to follow the dictates of his own conscience as regards the manner in which to spend his own money. Secondly, we must always bear in mind that there are so few Baha’u’llah in = the world, relative to the world’s population, and so many people in need, that even if all of us gave all we had, it would not alleviate more than an infinitesimal amount of suffering. This does not mean we must not help the needy, we should; but our contributions to the Faith are the surest way of lifting once and for all time the burden of hunger and misery from mankind, for it is only through the System of Baha’u’llah –Divine in origin–that the world can be gotten on its feet, and want, fear, hunger, war, etc., be eliminated.
Non-Baha’is cannot contribute to our work or do it for us; so really our first obligation is to support our own teaching work, as this will lead to the healing of the nations.” _Directives from the Guardian_. p14-15 I contrasted this with Islam which said: “It is not righteousness that ye turn your faces Towards east or West; but it is righteousness- to believe in God and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfil the contracts which ye have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God-fearing.” 2:177 Volume 2, Book 24, Number 524:
Narrated Abu Burda: from his father from his grandfather that the Prophet said, “Every Muslim has to give in charity.” The people asked, “O Allaah’s Prophet! If someone has nothing to give, what will he do?” He said, “He should work with his hands and benefit himself and also give in charity (from what he earns).” The people further asked, “If he cannot find even that?” He replied, “He should help the needy who appeal for help.” Then the people asked, “If he cannot do that?” He replied, “Then he should perform good deeds and keep away from evil deeds and this will be regarded as charitable deeds.” Volume 2, Book 24, Number 497: Narrated Abu Masud Al-Ansar:
Whenever Allaah’s Apostle (sallallaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) ordered us to give in charity, we used to go to the market and work as porters and get a Mudd (a special measure of grain) and then give it in charity. (Those were the days of poverty) and to-day some of us have one hundred thousand.
Volume 2, Book 24, Number 492: Narrated Haritha bin Wahab : ‘I heard the Prophet saying, “O people! Give in charity as a time will come upon you when a person will wander about with his object of charity and will not find anybody to accept it, and one (who will be requested to take it) will say, “If you had brought it yesterday, would have taken it, but to-day I am not in need of it.”‘
And so, on the 9th November 1997 I made shahaada in front of those same Islamic women who had given me the first taste of Islam those two years before, and Al-Hamdulillaah became a Muslim. Allaahu Akbar!