What is Baha'i?
The shrine of the Bab is located in Haifa, Israel. The garden
terraces leading to the shrine were dedicated in May. (Special
to the Democrat-Gazette/Bahai International Community)
When a friend asked Dr. Alan Clark of Springdale what his religious affiliation is, Clark replied, "Bahai." Thinking it was a joke, the friend laughed at Clark's answer, assuming he had made up the word on the spur of the moment.
While the Bahai faith may not be well known in the United States, particularly in the South, it is one of the world's fastest-growing religions, with an estimated 5 million followers worldwide.
Adherents.com lists Bahai as one of the top 10 "international religious bodies." (The Catholic Church ranks first in this group of religious bodies that have at least 30 percent of their membership outside of the "core country," or the country with the largest membership.)
The Bahai faith was founded in 19th-century Persia (modern-day Iran) by Mizra Husayn Ali Nuri, known to his followers as Bahaullah. Adherents of the Bahai faith consider Bahaullah the latest in a line of messengers from God that includes Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Krishna, Zoroaster and Muhammad.
Bahais come from many races, ethnic groups and nationalities and are found in 233 countries throughout the world. In the United States alone, more than 1,700 local councils and assemblies combine for a membership of more than 140,000.
Some statistical lists show the Bahai membership to be much higher. The 2000 Britannica Book of the Year claims there are more than 700,000 Bahais in the United States, but according to the Office of Public Information for the U.S. Bahais, the number is closer to the lower estimate.
The heart of the religion is a belief in the oneness of humanity. Bahais wholeheartedly embrace the equality of men and women and advocate religious tolerance.
Other Bahai principles include striving for the elimination of prejudice and of extremes of wealth and poverty, and the need for harmony of science and religion.
Bahais also advocate universal education and a commonwealth of nations, as well as a universal auxiliary language to facilitate communication among people of all countries and languages. The plan would be for adherents to speak their own native language but also learn a second, worldwide language.
The religion found its way to the United States during the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. Since that time, the religion has grown, with local Spiritual Assemblies scattered throughout the nation.
Spiritual Assemblies are local groups or communities of Bahais. Each community elects a nine-member panel to help lead the group for a year. The religion has no clergy, and each member participates equally and has an equal voice in making decisions. Bahais are led by the Universal House of Justice based in Haifa, Israel.
UNITY IS THE GOAL
Clark, a dentist, is a fourth-generation Bahai. He traces his religious heritage to his great-grandmother. In 1903 she wrote to the son of Bahaullah, Abdulbaha, to request permission to study the Bahai faith; at the time, obtaining such permission was a requirement for study.
Clark, 48, chose to become a follower of the religion as a teen-ager. He says the essence of the faith is unity.
"There is only one God, and mankind is one," Clark says. "We are a family, and religion is one."
Clark says Bahais believe the divisions that occur within religion are manmade. He says many from other faiths have difficulty accepting messengers of God beyond the one they follow. Clark says Bahais believe the purpose of religion is to unify and bind together, not divide.
As a Bahai, Clark says he initially didn't feel the need to read the Bible, but later changed his mind.
"I realized it was important so I could converse on the same level with my Christian friends," he says. "I found it very intriguing as I became aware of the Christian origins [in the faith]. As I've matured I have come to love the previous messengers [like Jesus] in a way that makes sense."
Through the years, Clark says he has watched and noticed the types of people attracted to the Bahai faith.
"It seems people come from everywhere, not a specific group. Some are Jewish, Muslim, older and younger."
During the 1960s and 70s, Clark says hippies were even drawn to the religion despite the religion's views against drugs and alcohol.
"But they were willing to change because now they had a reason," he says. "There's no particular kind of person in terms of race or religious background. They are recognizing there is a family of man."
Bahais believe man's essential nature is spiritual and that warfare is a perversion of the human spirit, Clark says.
"Bahais believe our nature is essentially spiritual and no plan will have a basis in reality until we understand that. Bahaullah laid down an entire system of world government so we can rise above petty differences."
Locally, Clark estimates Northwest Arkansas has about 75 active members.
Central Arkansas also has Bahai groups in Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County. Other assemblies and groups are scattered throughout the state.
Lisa Armstrong of North Little Rock has been a Bahai since 1973. Armstrong says she had been a seeker of religion since the age of 12. She truly began searching during her senior year at high school.
"I found the golden rule was the same in all [the major religions]," Armstrong says. For her 18th birthday she received a record album by singers Seals and Croft that included music inspired by some Bahai writings. Armstrong was intrigued with the music and began reading about Bahai.
After a few months, she and a friend decided to attend a Bahai gathering. Not knowing what to expect, they made a pact to leave immediately if the group seemed "really weird."
"We were scared," she says. But their fears were soon alleviated.
"There were all ages, all races, and people were singing songs and talking about concepts, and I realized it was making sense how all the golden rules fit," Armstrong says. "There was a messenger of God named Christ, but also messengers who came after, and he [Bahaullah] praised them all."
Armstrong says the essence of the religion is the oneness of God, who revealed his message progressively through his messengers, as well as the oneness of humankind.
"The faith itself, people-wise, is not perfect, but the divine revelation is," Armstrong says.
Armstrong says the faith is evolving and always will because of new believers.
"With each new believer, we have a new perspective and a new awareness," she says.
Helena Ward of Little Rock can trace her family's ties to the Bahai faith to her great-granduncle who was the first Bahai in the family in the early 1900s. Her uncle even traveled with Abdulbaha, the son of the religion's founder, and served as a pallbearer at his funeral, she says.
"Usually in this area, people are interested in the Bible and Christ, and we feel Bahaullah is the return of Christ," Ward says. "He is the one that was promised, and he is the divine teacher for this day and time, and the faith is spreading through all countries of the world."
While Bahais believe Bahaullah to be the latest messenger, Ward says they also recognize the validity of other religions and previous messengers. Ward also acknowledges that Bahais believe Bahaullah is not the last messenger.
"Another will come in a thousand years to renew the message from time to time to move us forward," Ward says.
Ward, who has lived in Little Rock since 1968, says often people are curious about her faith, but some are also disturbed by it. "It depends on how open a person is," she says.
Ward says she believes the concept of progressive revelation is the most unique aspect of the Bahai faith: "That we are never left without a revelation of God and from time to time he sends us a messenger."
"To be part [of a religion] that accepts all messengers of the past, it's what I love about the faith," she says. "We don't stop our education -- our spiritual education continues and is constantly evolving and moving forward. That's the beauty of the Bahai faith."
Ward says Bahais are active in social issues, including striving for world peace and human rights.
"We want to see people in various countries getting along. It takes a deep spiritual education on the part of everyone to achieve that. The Bahai faith is the answer to the spiritual education that will lead to achieving world peace."
Although Bahais are forbidden to proselytize, the religion has grown rapidly, and Bahais do enjoy discussing their faith with anyone who expresses an interest. They do so through "firesides," or informal gatherings in their homes.
"We are not allowed to proselytize, but we are free to share," Clark says. "Our greatest joy is to share about our faith and what we know to those who are interested. But it's up to the individual to read for themselves and make their own decision to become participants of a world-transforming faith."
In Springdale, firesides are held on Saturday evenings to talk about the faith and share questions.
"There are no right or wrong people there," Clark says. "If someone comes with questions we don't say they are wrong. We teach that this is the latest in an eternal line of messengers from God."
Bahais are also instructed to be open with their children.
"We are instructed to teach our children about all faiths and at the age of 15 they can choose their own," Clark says.
Clark and his wife, Dacia Schileru, have three adult children. While the three have all chosen to live as Bahais, that is not always the case. Armstrong's two children are interested in other faiths.
Worship for Bahais is as varied as the communities and people involved. Bahais use no rituals during devotionals and have no clergy. Groups usually meet once a week to study.
While rituals are not a part of worship, the Bahais do have their own calendar of 19 months, each with 19 days. Worship for Bahais is held during the Nineteen Day Feast, held once every 19 days. During the "feast" Bahais have a devotion time with readings from Bahai writings, such as works of Bahaullah; Abdulbaha, the son of Bahaullah; and Shoghi Effendi, the grandson of Abdulbaha. A business meeting and time for discussing community affairs are also included, followed by a time of fellowship.
Bahais also have several holy days, including the commemoration of the birth and ascension of the Bab (a prophet of the religion) and Bahaullah. July 9 is a holy day to commemorate the martyrdom of the Bab. March 31 is the Bahai New Year, and Ridvan, a celebration to commemorate Bahaullah's declaration as a messenger of God, begins April 21.
Ayyamiha, celebrated from Feb. 26 to March 1, is a time of gift-giving and reflecting over the past year of spiritual growth. Clark says the gift-giving is used as a way to help others. The time is also used to prepare spiritually for a yearly fast.
Prior to the Bahai new year, Bahais fast for 19 days, from March 2-20. Those who are able fast from sunrise to sunset each day and spend the time reflecting on their spiritual lives.
Clark says to keep the religion pure, Bahais only accept funds from fellow members. He says the funding issue is why there are so few temples, but as communities grow, more temples will be built.
Only one Bahai temple is located in the United States. The temple in Wilmette, Ill., was built in 1953. Seven temples are located throughout the world, on every continent except Antarctica.
More information about Northwest Arkansas firesides is available by calling (479) 927-1866.
BAHAI AT A GLANCE
Founder: Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, known as Bahaullah (the Glory of God)
Source: The Bahai World at www.bahai.org and the Office of Public Information
©Copyright 2002, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette