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Light after Death:
The Baha'i Faith and the Near-Death Experience

by Alan Bryson

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Chapter 1

Overview of the Bahá'í Faith

Bahá'ís hold all of the great religions to be divine in origin and progressive in nature. In the Bahá'í view Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad, the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh are divine intermediaries of equal station, linking humanity to a common Creator. All of them propagated teachings which restated the same basic spiritual truths, adapting them to the needs and circumstances of the ages in which they were revealed. While confirming past religions, the Bahá'í Faith advances a claim to be the faith for a modern age. Currently there are over 5 million Bahá'ís worldwide residing in over 120,000 different locations and representing over 2000 different ethnic groups. The Bahá'í Writings have been translated into more than 800 languages and according to the Britannica Yearbook it is geographically the most widely diffused of the world religions after Christianity. On May 27, 1972 the Bahá'í International Community was accredited in consultative status with the United Nations. Some of the fundamental principles of the Bahá´í Faith include:

The unbiased and independent investigation of truth.

The elimination of all forms of prejudice.

The awareness of the unity of religious truth and a recognition that each of the world religions was tailored to the needs of a particular age and people.

An affirmation that religion cannot be at odds with science and reason.

The adoption of a universal auxiliary language to be taught in all the schools of the world along with the mother language.

Universal compulsory education.

The equality of woman and man.

The elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty.

The establishment of a world federation of nations.

The establishment of a world court to peacefully settle disputes between and among nations.

Disarmament and the establishment of world peace based upon a common mutual security agreement.

In addition the Bahá'í Faith has neither priesthood nor clergy, correspondingly, it has only a few simple rites and ceremonies which are expressly mentioned in its religious texts, e.g. an obligatory daily prayer, a marriage ceremony and a specific prayer to be used at funerals. While the Bahá'í Faith has clear and profound tenets and principles, it shuns any attempt to enshroud them with any form of rigid and exclusive dogmas.

On May 24, 1844 Samuel Morse opened the door to world communication when he transmitted the first telegraphic message, "What hath God wrought!" !" On the previous day, nearly halfway around the world an even more momentous event occurred. A young Persian who assumed the title of the Báb (the Gate) proclaimed the imminent appearance of the Messenger of God foretold in the scriptures of the major world religions. His purpose, He declared, was to prepare mankind for the advent of the promised one. He proclaimed:

"I am the Mystic Fane which the Hand of Omnipotence hath reared. I am the Lamp which the Finger of God hath lit within its niche and caused to shine with deathless splendour."

He entreated His followers:

"You are the witnesses of the Dawn of the promised Day of God. You are the partakers of the mystic chalice of His Revelation...Purge your hearts of worldly desires, and let angelic virtues be your adorning...Scatter throughout the length and breadth of this land, and, with steadfast feet and sanctified hearts, prepare the way for His coming. Heed not your weaknesses and frailty; fix your gaze upon the invincible power of the Lord, your God, the Almighty."

Transformed by the grandeur of His words and the resplendence of His person, His disciples set out with selfless devotion and undaunted spirits. The Báb's message was rapidly diffused throughout Persia due to the selflessness of their motives and the radiance of their spirits.

Lord Curzon, the 19th Century historian wrote:

"If Bábism continues to grow at its present rate of progression, a time may conceivably come when it will oust Muhammadanism from the field in Persia." Lord Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question, vol. 1. p. 503 (Longmans, Green and Co., London, 1892)

Cognizant of the repercussions which this movement boded for their privileged position, the forces of authority combined to extinguish this new light. In 1850 the Báb was executed in the public square of Tabriz before the gaze of 10,000 onlookers. Over 20,000 of His followers were subsequently massacred in a wave of persecution instigated by the Muslim clergy.

Just as the beheading of John the Baptist, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the persecution of His followers failed to stifle Christianity, the religious and civil authorities of Persia were thwarted in their attempt to hamper the spread of the Báb's message. Indeed, not only did such unmitigated cruelty and opposition fail to eradicate the Bábi Movement in Persia, rather it attracted the attention of Western observers who spread its message beyond the boarders of Iran:

In 1889 Professor E.G. Browne writing in the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society deemed the Bábi movement, "a religious body which appears to me to constitute one of the most remarkable phenomena of the present century." Further he considered it, "destined to leave a permanent mark in the world." (Art. VI-The Bábis of Persia)

Dr. J. Estlin Carpenter regarded it as, "...the most remarkable movement which modern Muhammadanism has produced..."

The French historian, A.L.M. Nicolas wrote of the Báb, "his life is one of the most magnificent examples of courage which it has been the privilege of mankind to behold...He sacrificed himself for humanity, for it he gave his body and his soul, for it he endured privations, insults, torture and martyrdom...Like Jesus, he paid with his life for the proclamation of a reign of concord, equity and brotherly love."

A young Persian nobleman, Bahá'u'lláh, sacrificed His wealth and position to follow the Báb. At the tender age of 27 the young family father who had until then busied himself with philanthropic pursuits suddenly embarked on course which would result in forty years of imprisonment and severe persecution. A neck which had grown accustomed to the texture of silk was abruptly placed in chains whose galling weight left him scarred for life. In 1853 He was imprisoned in a subterranean dungeon known as the Black Pit, which had originally served as a water reservoir for one of the public baths in Tehran.

"We were consigned for four months to a place foul beyond comparison. As to the dungeon in which this Wronged One and others similarly wronged were confined, a dark and narrow pit were preferable. Upon Our arrival We were first conducted along a pitch-black corridor, from whence We descended three steep flights of stairs to the place of confinement assigned to Us. The dungeon was wrapped in thick darkness, and Our fellow-prisoners numbered nearly a hundred and fifty souls: thieves, assassins and highwaymen. Though crowded, it had no other outlet than the passage by which We entered. No pen can depict that place, nor any tongue describe its loathsome smell... God alone knoweth what befell Us in that most foul-smelling and gloomy place!" (From the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh.)

Under these circumstances He received an intimation that He was the Promised One Whose appearance the Báb had foretold. He recounts:

"I was but a man like others... when lo, the breezes of the All-Glorious were wafted over Me, and taught Me the knowledge of all that hath been. This thing is not from Me, but from One Who is Almighty and All-knowing... This is but a leaf which the winds of the will of thy Lord, the Almighty, the All-Praised, have stirred. Can it be still when the tempestuous winds are blowing?... His all-compelling summons hath reached Me, and caused Me to speak His praise amidst all people. I was indeed as one dead when His behest was uttered. The hand of the will of Thy Lord, the Compassionate, the Merciful, transformed Me."

"Can anyone speak forth of his own accord that for which all men, both high and low, will protest against him?"

Bahá'u'lláh, the Prophet founder of the Bahá'í Faith, proclaimed that the pivotal issue for the current age is the recognition of the oneness of mankind. He predicted that the unrestrained growth of secular material civilization would result in chaos and an array of problems of global proportions. According to His teachings the appearance of justice and unity among mankind is the key to solving such problems as human degradation, environmental exploitation, economic inequities, nationalism, racism and religious fundamentalism.

To be able to fully appreciate the extraordinary insight with which His revelation is endowed one needs to reflect on the age in which Bahá'u'lláh appeared. The mid-nineteenth century was a time of unbridled nationalism and militarism, instituitionalized racism, sexism, colonialism, and virtually unrestrained worker exploitation. In like manner, the gap between religion and science was growing ever wider. When we continue to narrow our focus with respect to place, we encounter in nineteenth century Iran, the birthplace of the Bahá'í Faith, a religious climate of unrivalled bigotry, intolerance and fanaticism. One can hardly conceive of a more fitting place to demonstrate the transforming power of a fresh revelation. What greater proof of the prophetic power of the Bahá'í Revelation could be imagined than the fact that an individual reared in nineteenth century Persia could proclaim that Faith in God should be expressed through service to humanity, aided by scientific knowledge, built upon a foundation of love, justice, tolerance and reason, tempered with wisdom, and dedicated to the unification of humanity?

In order to stifle Bahá'u'lláh's ever growing influence, He was tortured, imprisoned and finally exiled to the Holy Lands in 1868. The renowned orientalist of Pembroke College, Cambridge, Professor Edward Granville Browne (not a Bahá'í) was received in Bahji (Bahá'u'lláh's residence near Akká) in 1890 and left us the following account:

"So here at Bahji was I installed as a guest, in the very midst of all that Bábism accounts most noble and most holy; and here did I spend five most memorable days, during which I enjoyed unparalleled and unhoped-for opportunities of holding intercourse with those who are the very fountain-head of that mighty and wondrous spirit which works with invisible but ever-increasing force for the transformation and quickening of a people [the Persians] who slumber in a sleep like unto death. It was in truth a strange and moving experience, but one whereof I despair of conveying any save the feeblest impression. I might, indeed, strive to describe in greater detail the faces and forms which surrounded me; the conversations to which I was privileged to listen, the solemn melodious reading of the sacred books, the general sense of harmony and content which pervaded the place, and the fragrant shady gardens whither in the afternoon we sometimes repaired; but all this was as nought in comparison with the spiritual atmosphere with which I was encompassed..."

As he was one of the few Westerners to come into the presence of Bahá'u'lláh, his pen portrait is of inestimable historical value:

"... my conductor paused for a moment while I removed my shoes. Then, with a quick movement of the hand, he withdrew, and, as I passed, replaced the curtain; and I found myself in a large apartment, along the upper end of which ran a low divan, while on the side opposite to the door were placed two or three chairs. Though I dimly suspected whither I was going and whom I was to behold (for no distinct intimation had been given to me), a second or two elapsed ere, with a throb of wonder and awe, I became definitely conscious that the room was not untenanted. In the corner where the divan met the wall sat a wondrous and venerable figure ... The face of him on whom I gazed I can never forget, though I cannot describe it. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one's very soul; power and authority sat on that ample brow, while the deep lines on the forehead and face implied an age which the jet-black hair and beard flowing down in indistinguishable luxuriance almost to the waist seemed to belie. No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before one who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain!"

"A mild dignified voice bade me be seated, and then continued: -'Praise be to God that thou hast attained!... Thou hast come to see a prisoner and an exile... We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations; yet they deem us a stirrer up of strife and sedition worthy of bondage and banishment...That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and differences of race be annulled- what harm is there in this?...Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the 'Most Great Peace' shall come...Do not you in Europe need this also? Is not this that which Christ foretold?...Yet do we see your kings and rulers lavishing their treasures more freely on means for the destruction of the human race than on that which would conduce to the happiness of mankind...These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family...Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind...' "

"Such, so far as I can recall them, were the words which, besides many others, I heard from Behá. Let those who read them consider well with themselves whether such doctrines merit death and bonds, and whether the world is more likely to gain or lose by their diffusion."

Bahá´u´lláh instructed His followers to turn to His eldest son, ´Abdu´l-Bahá, for guidance after His passing. At the age of nine ´Abdu´l-Bahá, in the company of his father, began a life of exile and imprisonment which was to last until the age of sixty-four. After over fifty years as an exile and a prisoner ´Abdu´l-Bahá was released from captivity by a general amnesty granted after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Shortly thereafter, at the age of sixty-seven, he travelled to Europe and North America to proclaim the message of Bahá´u´lláh to the peoples of the West. Although deprived of a formal education ´Abdu´l-Bahá exhibited an almost supernatural knowledge and wisdom which, coupled with a saintly character and a demeanour described as majestic yet exceedingly humble, seldom failed to win the respect of those with whom he came in contact--from the mission poor to the university president. His words are not divine Revelation and thus are not considered equal in rank to those of Bahá´u´lláh, however, according to Bahá´u´lláh, they do possess equal validity. Professor Edward Granville Browne left us with this description of ´Abdu´l-Bahá.

"Seldom have I seen one whose appearance impressed me more. A tall strongly-built man holding himself straight as an arrow, with white turban and raiment, long black locks reaching almost to the shoulder, broad powerful forehead indicating a strong intellect combined with an unswerving will, eyes keen as a hawk's, and strongly-marked but pleasing features-such was my first impression of 'Abbás Effendí, 'the master' as he par excellence is called by the Bábís. Subsequent conversation with him served only to heighten the respect with which his appearance had from the first inspired me. One more eloquent of speech, more ready of argument, more apt of illustration, more intimately acquainted with the sacred books of the Jews, the Christians, and the Muhammadans, could, I should think, scarcely by found even amongst the eloquent, ready, and subtle race to which he belongs. These qualities, combined with a bearing at once majestic and genial, made me cease to wonder at the influence and esteem which he enjoyed even beyond the circle of his father's followers. About the greatness of this man and his power no one who had seen him could entertain a doubt."

In his will and testament ´Abdu´l-Bahá appointed his grandson, Shoghi Effendi, as the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith. From 1921 until 1957 he guided the affairs of the steadily growing Bahá'í World Community and helped solidify the administrative institutions outlined in the writings of Bahá´u´lláh and ´Abdu´l-Bahá. Shoghi Effendi's other contributions to the Bahá'í Faith include his translations of the Sacred Writings from Persian and Arabic into English (plus the account of the early history of the faith written by the historian Nabil) as well as his own history of the development of the Bahá'í Faith. In addition he established the World Centre of the Bahá'í Faith in Haifa, Israel, acting simultaneously as architect, project manager, landscaper, diplomat and the administrative head of the Bahá'í World Community. His writings are not held in the same rank as those of Bahá´u´lláh or ´Abdu´l-Bahá, but their validity is explicitly attested by ´Abdu´l-Bahá.

In the year 1963 the Universal House of Justice was established, the institution envisioned by Bahá´u´lláh to guide the affairs of the Bahá'í Community and to rule upon matters not specifically addressed in the Sacred Writings. It is currently composed of nine members who are democratically elected by the members of the Bahá'í Spiritual Assemblies of the nations of the world, who gather every five years in Haifa, Israel for this purpose. The seat of the Universal House of Justice and the World Centre of Bahá'í Faith are situated on Mount Carmel in Israel.

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