Chapter 14, "Bahá'í"Religions of the World, pages 427-437
New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1987
Bahá'í began as a sect of Islam but has moved so far away from that religion as to be considered a separate religion altogether. Several themes are central to Bahá'í. Bahá'í assumes that all the religions of the world spring from one source, that there is a basic unity of all religious truth, and that all the prophets have had a partial message from the one God. Bahá'í further maintains that religion must work in harmony with science and education to provide a peaceful world order; Bahá'ís also believe in the equality of opportunity among the races and between the sexes. By emphasizing these themes, Bahá'í has attracted followers in many of the nations of the world.
The Shi'ite sect of Islam, particularly in Persia, has always taught that there were twelve legitimate descendants of Ali, the son-in-law and legitimate successor to Muhammad. These twelve imams were often referred to as "gates" whereby the believers gained access to the true faith. The twelfth of these successors disappeared in the ninth century A.D., and the Shi'ites have always believed that one day he would reappear as a messiah.
In 1844, a Shi'ite Muslim, named Mirza Ali Muhammad, declared that he was the promised twelfth imam and called himself Bab-ud-Din ("the gate of faith"). He advocated sweeping religious and social reforms, such as raising the status of women, and thus the Bab gathered around him a group of disciples, who called themselves Babis. The movement was short-lived as both the religious and political forces of Persia moved to crush it. The Bab was publicly executed in 1850, and many of his disciples were imprisoned or executed. Before he died, however, the Bab predicted that he had prepared the way for one yet to come who would found a universal religion. The body of the Bab was rescued by some of his followers and preserved for several years. Ultimately it was transported to the city of Haifa, in Palestine, where it was finally buried.
One of the Bab's imprisoned disciples was a man named Mirza Husayn Ali, the son of one of the most distinguished families in Persia. Because of his family Mirza was not executed with the Bab but was
imprisoned in Tehran. In 1852, another of the Bab's followers attempted to assassinate the Shah of Iran, and this brought further persecution upon the group. Mirza Ali was exiled to Baghdad, and there he spent the next ten years of his life. During his imprisonment and exile it was revealed to Mirza that he was the one whom the Bab had foretold. In 1863, Mirza and the remaining Babis were exiled from Baghdad to Constantinople, and on the eve of their departure he revealed to the Babis that he was the one promised by the Bab. This revelation was made in Ridvan, near Baghdad, and today is commemorated annually by Bahá'ís, with a feast. Mirza assumed the name Bahaullah ("the glory of God"), and those Babis who accepted him and followed his teachings became known as Bahá'ís.
In the following years Bahaullah and the Bahá'ís were forced from one capital city in the Middle East to another. From Constantinople they went to Adrianople. Finally, they were banished to the Turkish prison city of Acca, in Palestine. At first Bahaullah and about eighty of his followers were incarcerated for two years in an army barracks, where they suffered from hunger and disease. After this period the group was transferred to other quarters, which were somewhat more comfortable. Eventually, more freedom was given to Bahaullah, but he spent the remainder of his life as a prisoner of the Turkish government in Acca. Although he was imprisoned during his years in Acca, Bahaullah was able to send out missionaries and receive guests and thus spread his teachings of unity and world peace. During this period he wrote many letters and books. One series of letters was sent to the pope and to the world heads of state, announcing his mission and calling for their help in furthering world peace. He wrote books such as the Kitab-i-Aqdas ("The Most Holy Book"), the Kitab-i-Iqan ("The Book of Certitudes"), and The Hidden Words. He died in Acca in 1892, at the age of 75.
Leadership of the movement passed to the son of Bahaullah, Abbas Effendi, who became known as Abdul Baha (the servant of Baha). Abdul Baha carried on his father's program of writing, and in 1908 he was freed by the Turks. For the remaining years of his life he traveled widely in Europe and North America preaching the doctrines of Bahá'í and establishing Bahá'í assemblies in many nations. In 1920, the British conferred the knighthood of the British Empire upon Abdul Baha because of his work for world peace. Upon Abdul Baha's death in 1921, leadership of the movement was passed to his grandson, Shoghi Effendi, who continued the work of establishing local and national assemblies in many nations, until his death in 1957. At this point Bahá'í came to be governed, not by one of the descendants of Bahaullah, but by a body elected from Bahá'ís all over the world.
Although Bahá'í originated within the Shi'ite sect of Islam it soon came to differ radically from it. Bahá'í does not revere the Quran to the same degree that Islam does. Much of the Quran is modified, explained allegorically, or treated symbolically. Belief in angels and evil spirits has been discarded by Bahá'í, while heaven and hell are treated symbolically. The Quran takes its place, along with the Christian and Jewish bibles and the sacred writings of other religions, as a source for Bahá'í worship. This attitude toward the Quran has made Bahá'í most unpopular among Muslims, and it has even been outlawed in Iran, the land of its birth. Persecution against Bahá'ís in Iran became especially harsh after the so-called Islamic revolution of 1979.
The basic belief of Bahá'í is that all religions come from the same source. In nearly every era God has revealed his truth through prophets. Moses, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, Buddha, and Bahaullah were the prophets of God, and all presented a portion of the truth of God in their times, but Bahaullah, as the last and the greatest of these prophets, revealed the final truth from God. Bahaullah's greatest message was the oneness of the human race. All of humankind, all races, both sexes, and all religious truths are the work of the one God. In the words of Bahaullah:
There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source and are the subjects of one God.1On the basis of these religious truths found in the writings of Bahaullah, Abdul Baha went out from Acca to preach the following Bahá'í doctrines of the world.
2. J. E. Esslemont, Bahaullah and the New Era (Wilmette, Ii: Bahá'í Books, 1976), p. 85.
4. ibid., p. 165.
5. ibid., p. 202.
must advance and fulfill their mission in all departments of life, becoming equal to men.6
7. ibid., p. 170.
8. Bahaullah, Glad Tidings.
Unlike Islam and other Western religions, Bahá'í believes that heaven and hell are not places but conditions of the soul. The soul, which is the reality of humankind, is eternal and in continuous progress. When the soul is near to God and God's purposes, that is heaven, when the soul is distant from God, that is hell. Thus the descriptions of heaven and hell that are found in other religions are regarded as symbolic rather than actual. When Bahá'ís speak of the unity of humankind, they mean not only the unity of humanity in this life but unity of the living and the dead as well. Thus it is possible that the living and the dead may commune with each other. Abdul Baha believed that this was the reason for the peculiar powers of the prophets and saints to see into the other world and commune with it.
According to the Bahá'í belief in the total unity of God, there can be no such thing as positive evil. If God is one and all, there can be no Satan figure in the universe. Just as darkness is only the absence of light, so that which appears to be evil is only the absence of good. According to Abdul Baha:
In creation there is no evil; all is good. Certain qualities and natures innate in some men and apparently blameworthy are not so in reality.10
Chant (or recite) the Words of God every morning and evening. The one who neglects this has not been faithful to the Covenant of God and His agreement, and he who turns away from it today is of those who have turned away from God.11
10. Abdul Baha, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette, Ill: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1964), p. 250.
11. Bahaullah, Kitab-i-Aqdas.
Bahá'ís are also encouraged to fast for one of the nineteen months in their calendar. During the month of Ala (loftiness), which begins near the first of March, Bahá'ís are expected to fast for nineteen days. A full fast, with a complete abstinence from food, is not required; Bahá'ís must not eat during the daylight hours only. Since the fast occurs during the early spring each year, no food or drink is taken between about 6 AM. and 6 P.M. According to Abdul Baha:
Fasting is a symbol. Fasting signifies abstinence from lust. Physical fasting is a symbol of that abstinence, and is a reminder; that is, just as a person abstains from physical appetites, he is to abstain from self-appetites and self-desires. But mere abstention from food has no effect on the spirit. It is only a symbol, a reminder. Otherwise it is of no importance.12At other periods during the Bahá'í year, followers engage in certain feasts which celebrate various events in the history of Bahá'í. These
include the feast of the new year, celebrated on March 21, and the feast of Ridvan, celebrated between April 21 and May 2, which commemorates Bahaullah's declaration that he was the promised one.
For Bahá'ís, monogamy is the rule in marriage. Bahá'ís may marry only after they have the consent of both sets of parents. Bahaullah taught:
Verily in the Book of Bayan (the Bab's Revelation) the matter is restricted to the consent of both (bride and bridegroom). As We desired to bring about love and friendship and the unity of the people, therefore We made it conditional upon the consent of the parents also, that enmity and ill-feeling might be avoided.13Divorce is permitted for Bahá'ís, but only in extreme cases of incompatibility. At such a point the couple must wait for one full year and seek to re-establish their relationship. If this does not happen, then a divorce may be granted. If a Bahá'í couple have children, they are obligated to provide their children with the best possible education. Alcohol and narcotics are forbidden to Bahá'ís.
Bahá'í differs from many other religions in its manner of worship. The basic unit of worship is the Local Spiritual Assembly. This group may meet in the homes of members or in other buildings, but there are no special houses of worship as in other religions. Neither is there a special clergy to conduct the worship. Worship for Bahá'ís tends to be very simple, with a minimum of form and no ritual. A respected member of the community reads from the writings of Bahaullah and from the scriptures of other world religions. The remainder of the service consists of private prayers and readings. Bahá'í community worship is so simple in form that it rejects two elements that Christians and others often find essential, the sermon and the offering. While Bahá'ís are expected to contribute to the support of their religion, they refuse to take offerings from non-Bahá'ís.
Bahá'ís are organized on three levels. The most basic is that of the Local Spiritual Assembly already mentioned. In every community where there are nine or more adult Bahá'ís, a nine-member administrative body is elected each April 21 to govern the affairs of those Bahá'ís. As of 1968, there were 6,828 of these assemblies in the world. The second level of administration is the National Spiritual Assembly. This too is a nine-member body made up of people elected annually by delegates to the national conventions. In 1968 there were eighty-three National Assemblies. The top level of the Bahá'í organization is the Universal House of Justice. This is a nine-member body
elected by the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies throughout the world. These representatives serve a five-year term.
Although the Bahá'ís do not have local houses of worship they have constructed several magnificent temples around the world, and plan eventually to construct one on every continent. Those already in existence are located in Frankfurt, Germany; Sydney, Australia; Kampala, Uganda; and Wilmette, Illinois, U.S.A. Each of these temples reflects a somewhat different style of architecture, but all must be nine-sided and covered with a dome. The number nine is symbolic for Bahá'í because it is the largest unit number and thus represents the worldwide unity that Bahá'í seeks to develop. In addition to these temples, the world center of Bahá'í is located on Mt. Carmel in Haifa, Israel, near Acca, where Bahaullah spent his last days. In the midst of splendid gardens stand the gold-domed shrine of the Bab and the archive building.
Like other religions, Bahá'í has established its own calendar and its own holy days. The calendar is a solar one made up of nineteen months, each containing nineteen days. To achieve 365 days, four days are added after the last month of the year (five days are added in leap years). The new year begins on March 21, at the birth of spring. As is the case with the Jewish calendar, the day begins at sunset.
Although exact statistics are not available, it is estimated that there may be as many as five million Bahá'ís in the world today. Although still relatively small in terms of members, this religion appears to be growing.
Gleanings from the Writings of Bahaullah. Translated by Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1952.
Esslemont, J. E. Bahaullah and the New Era. Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Books, 1976.
Lee, Anthony A., ed. Circle of Unity: Bahá'í Approaches to Current Social Issues. Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1984.