As I grew up, I looked forward to the day when a Baha’i House of Worship would exist on every continent on the planet.
Now, that has happened—each continent hosts a Baha’i Temple—and local Baha’i Houses of Worship have begun to materialize in villages, regions and countries around the world. As that building process has taken shape, I’ve grown ever more eager to learn how the spirit of worship and devotion would evolve and take shape in such diverse localities—particularly how the community and locality of these divinely ordained institutions would influence and inform the styles, sounds and melodies shared and heard inside these Houses of Worship.
So let’s examine the potency that the recitation of sacred texts has inside Baha’i Houses of Worship, the ways in which communities are encouraged to share sacred religious texts, and the parameters that Baha’i Institutions have put in place to ensure that we ‘adorn them with that which befitteth them.’
Recently the world has witnessed the inauguration of two new local Baha’i Houses of Worship. The first took place in Battambang, Cambodia and the second was not that long ago, in Norte Del Cauca, Colombia. Each inauguration ceremony consisted of a program befitting and relevant to the sacredness of the occasion—and to the locality. In The Most Holy Book, Baha’u’llah called attention to the potency of reciting the verses of God in all Baha’i Houses of Worship, identified by the Arabic name Mashriqu’l-Adhkar—which means “Dawning Place of the Mention of God:”
Teach your children the verses revealed from the heaven of majesty and power, so that, in most melodious tones, they may recite the Tablets of the All-Merciful in the alcoves within the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar. Whoever hath been transported by the rapture born of adoration for My Name, the Most Compassionate, will recite the verses of God in such wise as to captivate the hearts of those yet wrapped in slumber. Well is it with him who hath quaffed the Mystic Wine of everlasting life from the utterance of his merciful Lord in My Name—a Name through which every lofty and majestic mountain hath been reduced to dust. – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book, p. 74.
Typically, as a musician, when reading phrases like “melodious tones,” “recite the verses” and “captivate the hearts,” my mind and heart wanders to imagine the beauty and uniqueness that will be heard in every part of the world where these Houses of Worship are being established.
Baha’is have clear instructions regarding the nature of the gatherings and services that take place inside these spiritual spaces—that Baha’i Houses of Worship be used purely and exclusively for worship, that no forms, no rituals, no set customs be introduced over and above the bare minimum outlined in the Baha’i teachings. Gatherings in Baha’i Houses of Worship should be simple, dignified, and designed to uplift the soul. In a Baha’i House of Worship, you won’t hear speeches or sermonizing—only the sacred word of the world’s holy scriptures.
Baha’u’llah praised the use of melody, songs and tunes set to those sacred writings, and highly encouraged their use in Baha’i Houses of Worship:
Music is regarded as a praiseworthy science at the Threshold of the Almighty, so that thou mayest chant verses at large gatherings and congregations in a most wondrous melody and raise such hymns of praise at the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar to enrapture the Concourse on High. By virtue of this, consider how much the art of music is admired and praised. Try, if thou canst, to use spiritual melodies, songs and tunes, and to bring the earthly music into harmony with the celestial melody. Then thou wilt notice what a great influence music hath and what heavenly joy and life it conferreth. Strike up such a melody and tune as to cause the nightingales of divine mysteries to be filled with joy and ecstasy. – Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet translated from the Persian.
Because Baha’u’llah encouraged us to “chant sacred verses … in a most wondrous melody and raise such hymns of praise,” you’ll only hear vocal music alone, with no instrumental accompaniment, in a Baha’i House of Worship. You’ll hear either a solo singer or a group of singers, in acapella form, chanting and singing the sacred scriptures of the Baha’i Faith and other Faiths, too.
The fact that Baha’is only use music in the context of physical voices in the House of Worship speaks to the purity of such a sacred space, and turns our focus to the words being sung. The use of melodic arrangement, pitch, tone, inflections and spaces between words are encouraged, all in service to the sacred texts. The beauty of this is that it will vary from country to country, region to region. In a paper titled ‘Considerations in Setting Sacred Text to Music for the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar’ by Baha’i musicologist, scholar and author R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, he suggested that:
In terms of the (Baha’i) writings there is no ‘music’ in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar; there are only different ways of ‘reading’. – R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, Arts Dialogue, 1996.
The music in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar is to harness sensual means to assist understanding of text. If a music provides a comprehensible vehicle for the sacred text and attracts the heart of at least its singer it is probably acceptable music. If a music does not provide a comprehensible vehicle for text it is not suitable no matter how many people find it beautiful or moving. The primary function of Mashriqu’l-Adhkar music is to make the text more accessible than if it were spoken …. In short, the writings require that musics composed for, and selected for, use in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar aim at certain affective qualities while clearly delivering the sacred text. These requirements are not tied to any particular style of music belonging to any particular culture, and may be applied in any culture. They do make very specific demands, but demands referring to goals rather than means. – Ibid.
Reflecting on the words of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, the guidance of Shoghi Effendi, and reflections by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, I feel that using the human voice to chant the sacred words in Baha’i Houses of Worship provides the most pure vehicle possible for sacred music. Baha’u’llah encouraged us to:
Intone, O My servant, the verses of God that have been received by thee, as intoned by them who have drawn nigh unto Him, that the sweetness of thy melody may kindle thine own soul, and attract the hearts of all men …. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 295.
Using only the human voice in Baha’i Houses of Worship safeguards communities around the world, allowing them to develop their own creative powers of expression—informed by their own cultural practices and the parameters set by the Baha’i institutions—to authentically share how the Baha’i writings speak to them. We are already witnessing the emergence of sacred texts set to captivating melodies that are reflective of communities all over the world, further exhibiting the diversity of the international Baha’i community. In some ways, this could be viewed as the emergence of a new form of sacred music in history, but ultimately it will become a reflection of how each community, unique in their own way, is inspired by the revelation of Baha’u’llah.