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Bahá'í Communities

by Peter Smith

published in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Volume 3
New York: Columbia University, 1989
The development of the Bahai faith has been accompanied by a massive transformation of the religion’s social base. From being a religion predominantly composed of those of Iranian Shiʿite background, it has become a worldwide movement comprising people of a multitude of religious and national backgrounds. Of the contemporary Bahai population, probably fewer than one in ten are Iranians.

Overall pattern of Bahai expansion. A distinctive Bahai community may be said to have come into being during the 1860s and 1870s following the open rupture between the leaders of the Babi movement. Mīrzā Ḥosayn-ʿAlī Nūrī Bahāʾ-Allāh (1817-92) had already begun to successfully reanimate and coordinate the various Babi communities in Iran and Iraq. When he laid claim to be the promised one of Babism (1866), his message was widely accepted. Most Babis became Bahais, only a minority siding with Bahāʾ-Allāh’s half brother, Ṣobḥ-e Azal (see azali babism). Well coordinated, the emerging Iranian Bahai community possessed considerable dynamism. Successful missionary activity was soon undertaken, not only amongst Iran’s Shiʿite majority, but also amongst the Jewish and Zoroastrian minorities (from the 1880s). Further afield, small Bahai communities were established in Turkey, Syria, Egypt, India, and Asiatic Russia, mostly amongst expatriate Iranians.

Bahai expansion beyond the Middle East and the Iranian diaspora only began after the passing of Bahāʾ-Allāh (1892) and the succession of his son, ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ (1844-1921), as leader. In the 1890s, an active community developed in North America, Americans in turn establishing Bahai groups in England, France, Germany, Hawaii, and Japan. Groups were also later established in Australia and New Zealand. Western Bahais also traveled widely in the Middle East, India, and Latin America, significantly contributing to the sense of the world community among the Bahais.

Plans for a systematic global expansion of the Bahai religion had been outlined by ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, most clearly in his Tablets of the Divine Plan (1916-17). However, it was only under the leadership of his grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbānī (1897-1957), that such plans were actually implemented on any large scale. Devoting the early years of his ministry to consolidating and standardizing the system of Bahai administration (1922-early 1930s), Shoghi Effendi then employed this administration as a means of securing systematic expansion, at first only in selected countries, through a series of national and regional Bahai plans (1937-53), and then globally in an international Ten Year Crusade (1953-63). This approach has been continued since Shoghi Effendi’s death (1957), with a series of Nine, Five, Seven, and Six Year Plans (1964-73; 1974-79; 1979-86; 1986-92). The resultant expansion has led to Bahai communities being established in most countries of the world.

Expansion and distribution. Some indication of the extent of Bahai expansion can be gained from the statistics in Table 13. These figures indicate a slow rate of expansion during the 1928-52 period, rapid growth only occurring after 1952 and the introduction of international teaching plans. Other indices of expansion include the growth in the number of languages in which Bahai literature is produced, from 8 or so in 1928, to 70 in 1953, and 757 in 1986, and in the number of tribal and ethnic groups represented in the community, from 42 in 1952 to over 2,100 in 1986 (see Baháʾí World II, pp. 193-210; XII, pp. 775-827); Shoghi Effendi, The Bahaʾi Faith, 1844-1952; and Universal House of Justice, Department of Statistics, The Seven Year Plan, Statistical Report, Riḍván 1986).

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