Dr. Keith Munro talks about faith as Baháʼís commemorate ‘Abdu’l-Bahá - ‘It is about the oneness of God, of mankind and of religion’
On Sunday Bahá’is the world over commemorated the 100th anniversary of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá - one of the central figures of the faith.
Last Thursday in the Verbal Arts Centre there was a special screening of ‘The Exemplar’ - a film which documents his life and teachings.
Born in Qajar Tehran in 1844 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá died in Haifa, Palestine, on November 28, 1921.
Among those marking the centenary was perhaps the best known local adherent of the faith, the retired GP and forensic medical officer Dr. Keith Munro. The ‘Journal’ spoke to him to gain an insight into one of the lesser known and understood faiths being followed in Derry.
“‘Abdu’l-Bahá is a title which in Arabic means ‘servant of Baha.’ Baháʼu’lláh, his father, was the founder of the Baháʼí faith.
“If you asked me what the Baháʼí faith is, it is - the oneness of God, the oneness of mankind as one family, and the oneness of religion. It is our belief that God, in fact, revealed the one religion over thousands of years according to the needs of the people at various stages of time.
“We would accept Abraham and Moses from the Jewish background. We accept Jesus Christ and his title - the Son of God. We happen to believe there are other Sons of God. There are all these great prophets or reflections of what the will of God is for that age: Muhammad, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha - those are the main ones,” he explains.
Before moving to Derry in the 1960s Dr. Munro was raised in a free-thinking Presbyterian home in Belfast.
These foundations and a thirst for meaning eventually led him to Baháʼu’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Báb - a third important prophet of the religion - by an admittedly circuitous route.
“I was raised a Presbyterian. I was very glad of Sunday School. I learned about Jesus. I was in a household where I was allowed to think for myself. I studied other things: Theosophy, Zen Buddhism,Rosicrucianism, you name it. I got a course on Catholicism, plain brown envelopes, one every week for 20 weeks and I learned a lot.
“So I was a seeker. One day in the early 1960s this young Indian girl was being interviewed on TV and she gave the principles of the Baháʼí faith - equality of science and religion, man and woman being like two wings of one bird of humanity. I went to a meeting and decided I would look into it in more depth.
“In June 1964 I became a member of the Belfast Baháʼí community. I qualified as a doctor and came to Derry and the rest is history.”
As someone who has followed the faith for almost 60 years Dr. Munro explains that its central tenets are not far removed from those of the better known world religions including the Christian faith most widely practised in Ireland.
“The central core is the same message as ‘love thy neighbour.’ The awareness of the oneness of humanity. It’s tremendously profound. It’s a very close relationship between fellow humans. There are no real barriers. It is man who has created barriers, borders and things. We are learning to do away with these.”
Unlike many religions, however, there are no clergy among the Baháʼí. The writing of both ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and his father Baháʼu’lláh (Mírzá Ḥusayn-Alí Núrí) a high-born Persian nobleman did nonetheless provide a template for a structure and organisation.
“Baháʼu’lláh means ‘Lord of God’. In Baháʼu’lláh’s ‘Will and Testament’ he named ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as the ‘Centre of the Covenant.’ After Baháʼu’lláh died or ascended in 1892 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the centre of the faith until he died in 1921. That’s what we are commemorating.”
Dr. Munro says the central revelation of Baháʼu’lláh is contained in the Kitāb-i-Aqdas - one of the most holy books of the religion that was written in 1873.
“Kitāb-i-Aqdas means ‘Book of Laws’ but Aqdas also means purity so it is not just a book of laws it is a book of purification for mankind. The laws he gives help mankind to come together and find unity.
“He said that eventually there would be elected a Universal House of Justice. In 1963 this was elected in Haifa and sits at Mount Carmel and is elected every five years. So the structure comes from national spiritual centres and local spiritual centres.”
As well as the three onenesses of God, mankind and religion there is an emphasis within the Baháʼí faith on equality between the sexes, Dr. Munro maintains.
“Man and woman are equal. That is very important to us and has been practised right from the beginning of the faith in the 1840s. In 1985 the Universal House of Justice released a letter for the people’s of the world. It’s called ‘The Promise of World Peace’. There is a very powerful paragraph about the equal opportunity of man and woman that refers to two wings of one bird. If you have a weak wing you will fly in circles.”
Equally Baháʼís do not believe in profligate wealth.
“The abolition of extremes of wealth and poverty is a principle,” says Dr. Munro. “It’s not communistic in the sense that everyone is equal and everyone wears the same clothes. The actual metaphor is different coloured flowers in a garden. There is nothing inherently wrong in someone being rich but God would say in the writings that you should use your riches for the service of mankind.”
A balance between rationality and faith is also sought.
“Science and religion are again seen as the two wings of a bird. If we only have science we end up with materialism and atheism and if you only haver religion you can become very superstitious and lots of things get added on that are illogical and unreasonable. To us science and religion are of the same creation.”
A sense of awe in the mystery of God is another element that the Baháʼí faith shares with its sister religions.
“God in his essence is unknowable. God communicates with his creation through these special people on this planet and on other planets. We believe there is life throughout the universe which makes sense. We have moved from the flat earth to the realisation that the earth is not the centre of the universe.
“The greatest metaphor that I have seen in the writings is this: Imagine you are in the womb of your mother. For nine months you are being prepared for this world. You are getting everything you need and it is cosy and it’s warm and you are safe.
“Imagine being able to talk to that infant and explain that those things that you call legs you will be using them to run around. You will be climbing a tree. For the infant they have no concept of these things. No concept of what this world is like until they are born.
“So when we die, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá himself said, the next world is as different to this world as this world is to the womb of the mother. Sometimes we get glimpses in a dream or someone with a gift or in a near death experience, very genuine ones, but by and large we don’t see the next world until we pass over. It will be different and we will have to get used to it once we are born there.”
If you missed The Exemplar in the Verbal Arts it is available to view at https://youtu.be/pXc0cOhrcW4