RELIGION & ETHICS
Becoming a Bahá'í
Membership of the Bahá'í faith is open to all those who believe that Bahá'u'lláh is the latest Manifestation of God and who accept the Covenant Bahá'u'lláh made with His followers about His Successor and Interpreter, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and the administrative institutions that govern the Bahá'í community.
A convert is not required to renounce their previous faith, but merely to recognise that their previous faith was in need of regeneration. However they cannot actually remain a member of their previous faith.
A person becomes a Bahá'í when they accept Bahá'u'lláh. This is something between the person and God and is very much a matter of individual conscience.
An essential part of being a Bahá'í is being part of the Bahá'í community. A person who has (as Bahá'is say) declared his faith then indicates to the Local Spiritual Assembly (or the National Spiritual Assembly, if there's no Local Assembly) that he/she would like to be part of the Bahá'í community.
Detailed procedures differ from country to country - it is left up to National Assemblies to determine how to process these requests.
In the UK, a person can indicate verbally to a Bahá'í friend or in writing or by email that they consider themselves a Bahá'í and wish to be part of the community. Unless there is some very good reason for not doing so, their enrolment in the community is accepted without question.
Enrolled Bahá'ís can serve on the Local Assembly (if elected) or in other Bahá'í administrative roles; they can also attend the Nineteen Day Feast. Almost every other Bahá'í meeting is open to anyone.
A service at the Sydney House of Worship
Bahá'ís see themselves as a people with a mission to bring harmony and unity in the world, and this is reflected in their spiritual practice.
The main purpose of life for Bahá'ís is to know and love God.
'Meditate profoundly, that the secret of things unseen may be revealed unto you, that you may inhale the sweetness of a spiritual and imperishable fragrance...'
Service to Others is Worship
Absence of Ritual
There are only three Bahá'í rituals:
There are two reasons Bahá'ís avoid ritual:
Shoghi Effendi wrote in 1949...
"Baha'u'llah has reduced all ritual and form to an absolute minimum in His Faith. The few forms that there are - like those associated with the two longer obligatory daily prayers - are only symbols of the inner attitude."
Events and Celebrations
US House of Worship
Bahá'ís have no liturgy, since the minimising of ritual makes it impossible to develop one.
The emphasis on prayer and meditation, and on social action in Bahá'í thinking means that congregational worship plays a much smaller part in Bahá'í life than it does in other faiths.
Bahá'í services are very simple with readings from the scriptures, along with interpretations of them and prayers. Hymns and poetry are allowed, but not common. The atmosphere is usually dignified.
Bahá'ís are encouraged to come together in communal worship, but there are no congregational prayers (apart from the Obligatory Prayer for the Dead, which is recited by one person in the presence of the congregation).
One person will recite prayers on behalf of everyone present.
This is because prayer is seen essentially as a private duty, and because there are no professional clergy within the Bahá'í faith.
Nineteen Day Feast
Bahá'ís believe that prayer is more than making requests to God; it's more like a conversation with God (in contrast to meditation, which is like a conversation with one's inner spirit).
So they believe that it is not the language which is important, but rather the attitude of mind in which prayer is made.
Baha'u'llah said that brief and joyful prayer was better than long but wearying prayer.
The aim and results of prayer
Bahá'ís do pray to change things. But the highest form of prayer is to change oneself, to come closer to God and to give praise to God.
The purpose of the obligatory prayers is to cultivate humility and devotion.
Prayer and Action
Prayer is not seen as an end in itself nor as sufficient on its own for a Bahá'í to grow. Shoghi Effendi wrote in 1944:
Prayer and meditation are very important factors in deepening the spiritual life of the individual, but with them must go also action and example, as these are the tangible results of the former. Both are essential.
There are prayers for general use, for healing, for community life and for marriage.
Abdu'l Baha wrote
Prayer need not be in words, but rather in thought and attitude... words without love mean nothing.John Walbridge describes these Bahá'í prayers as usually being 'in a classical Arabic style reminiscent of the Qur'an and the Shi'i prayers, generally in a less complicated style than the prayers of the Bab. The tone is austere and lofty'.
Since prayers written by Baha'u'llah, the Bab, or Abdul-Baha are regarded as the words of God, and as having special spiritual power, no change can be made to the words, even to correct gender specific language.
It is quite acceptable for Bahá'ís to make up their own prayers for use in their private prayer.
To whom do Bahá'ís pray?
Bahá'í believe that through meditation 'the doors of deeper knowledge and inspiration may be opened,' but they avoid any superstitious or 'New Age' ideas about meditation.
There are no set forms of meditation or rituals prescribed in Baha'u'llah's teachings
Each day, one of three obligatory prayers should be said:
These prayers must not be said in a congregational group, although they don't have to be said in private.
The Short Prayer
I bear witness, O my God, that Thou has created me to know Thee and to worship Thee.
Prayer can be preceded by ritual ablutions and should be said in the direction of the tomb of Baha'u'llah. Two of the set prayers involve rituals and prostration, but the short prayer does not.
There is no punishment for not carrying out the obligatory prayers each day - the only penalty is the spiritual one of knowing that one has failed in one's duty to God.
Exemptions from Obligatory Prayer
Travellers and women during their periods are partially exempt.
Reciting one obligatory prayer a day is not the only form of prayer; Baha'u'llah taught that one's whole life should be prayerful and lived in the right spirit.
A Spiritual Fast
Abstaining from food is not an end in itself but a symbol, and if it doesn't result in improvements in character and concern for others then it has not been undertaken in the right spirit.
Fasting was practiced by all the prophets revered by Bahá'ís.
The Nineteen Day Fast
The fasting is seen as a period of spiritual preparation and regeneration for the new year ahead. In the Western calendar, this occurs between 2nd and 21st March (the Bahá'í month of Ala meaning 'loftiness').
Exemptions from fasting
If a Holy Day occurs during the traditional period of fasting, then the fast is not obligatory on those days.
The Nineteen Day Feast
The Feast begins with prayers and readings from Bahá'í texts and those of other religions. After this there is a discussion of practical community issues. Finally, the Bahá'ís enjoy a social occasion.
Bahá'ís regard it as important (a 'duty and privilege') to attend the Nineteen Day Feast, as coming together as a community helps to build the unity that is fundamental to Bahá'í belief.
Although there usually are refreshments at the Feast, the name is given because the spiritual activities and socialising are seen as food for the spirit.
©Copyright 2003, BBCi (United Kingdom)