Who Are The Baha'is?
By IRA RIFKIN
(c)1997 Religion News Service
The Baha'i faith, an outgrowth of Shiite Islam, claims a worldwide
membership of more than 5 million people living in more than 200 nations
and territories.About 2.5 million Baha'is live in India.
In Iran -- where the faith first emerged in the 1840s when Baha'u'llah
proclaimed himself to be the divine manifestation for the modern era -
there are about 300,000 Baha'is. Considered heretics by the Muslim
authorities, they live as a persecuted minority.
The heresy charge stems from Baha'u'llah's claim to prophet status some
1,200 years after Muhammad, the founder of Islam, proclaimed himself
God's final prophet.
In the United States, Baha'is claim some 130,000 members -- a third of
whom are African-Americans. About 21,000 live in California, with the
largest concentration -- more than 6,000 -- in greater Los Angeles.
Baha'is are also relatively strong in South Carolina, Texas, Florida,
Georgia, North Carolina, Illinois, Arizona and Washington state.
However, Baha'i critics say the religion's membership numbers are wildly
inflated. Citing friendly but unnamed sources at Baha'i headquarters in
Wilmette, Ill., the dissidents say no more than 30,000 names represent
active Baha'is with verifiable addresses.
A 1993 book on Americans' religious affiliations, "One Nation Under God"
by demographers Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman, estimated the number
of adult Baha'is in the United States at about 28,000.
A cornerstone of Baha'i beliefs is the principle of progressive
revelation, which holds that God repeatedly sends divine messengers to
Earth and that the latest in a line running from Abraham to Jesus and
Muhammad was the 19th-century Persian prophet known as Baha'u'llah.
Missionary-minded and pacifist-oriented, the Baha'i faith teaches the
unity of mankind and the commonality of all religions. It also
emphasizes the harmony of science and religion, rejection of all
prejudice, independent investigation of truth, equality of the sexes and
"The Baha'i Faith's progressive approach to human society originates
with Baha'u'llah's emphasis on unity," said a 1992 official profile of
the movement. "Indeed, if one were to characterize His teachings in a
single word, that word would be unity."
Baha'is have no ordained clergy and little ritual, and are led by
elected officials. Despite the declaration of sexual equality, the
international authority, the Universal House of Justice based in Haifa,
Israel, is doctrinally an all-male body. Bahai's consider the House of
Justice to be infallible.
National Spiritual Assemblies direct Baha'i affairs in individual
countries. U.S. Baha'i headquarters are in the Chicago suburb of
Wilmette, Ill., site of one of seven Baha'i Houses of Worship scattered
around the globe.
Baha'is believe the world is destined to have one government, which will
be led by Baha'is and will be based on the faith's administrative
The Baha'i faith grew out of Shiite Islam, and like Muslims, Baha'is are
not supposed to consume alcohol and are to adhere to a strict moral
code. They also believe in the sharing of wealth and the adoption of a
Considered heretics by Muslims, Baha'is have long been persecuted by
Islamic leaders, particularly in Iran. Baha'u'llah spent much of his
life in prison or under house arrest. He died while under house arrest
near Acre, just north of Haifa, which was then part of the Ottoman
Since 1980, more than 200 Iranian Baha'is have been executed and
thousands have been imprisoned, according to reports, leading to
frequent condemnations of Teheran by the U.S. State Department. Because
of this persecution, the recently organized, 20-member Secretary of
State's Advisory Committee on Religious Freedom Abroad has a Baha'i
Copyright ©1997, Religion News Service