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Abstract:
Summary prepared for the Virginia Commonwealth University website on religious movements. Includes short history, doctrines and beliefs, Baha'i practices, issues and challenges, and references.

A Short Introduction to the Bahá'í Faith

by Peter Smith

2013

Timeline

1844The Bab’s declaration of mission to Mulla Husayn (22-23 May).
1848-51Three separate conflicts between groups of Babis and the authorities.
1850The Bab is executed (8/9 July).
1852The Babi remnant splits into factions, one of which makes an attempt on the life of Nasiri’d-din Sháh (15 August).
1856-63Baha’u’llah gradually revivifies the Babi community, and his writings are widely circulated. He becomes the dominant Babi leader, overshadowing his half-brother Subh-i Azal.
1863Baha’u’llah is moved to Istanbul and then Edirne. Claims to divinely-bestowed authority become prominent in his writings.
1866Baha’u’llah makes formal announcement to Subh-i Azal to be the promised one foretold by the Báb and refers for the first time to his followers as Baha’is. Most of the Babis become his followers.
1892Death of Bahá'u'lláh (29 May). He designates his eldest son ‘Abdu’l-Baha as head of the Faith.
1894Ibrahim Kheiralla begins Baha’i teaching activity in Chicago. Conversion of the first American Baha’is.
1911-1913‘Abdu’l-Baha two tour of Europe and one of North America.
1921`Abdu’l-Baha dies (28 November).
1922Shoghi Effendi is publicly named as Guardian (January) and begins the process of consolidating the system of Bahá'í administration.
1934Bahá'í schools in Iran closed. Purge of Bahá'ís in government employment. Mounting campaign of official persecution (-1941).
1937First American Seven Year Plan (-1944) marks beginning of a systematic Baha’i teaching campaigns. The Bahá'í Faith is banned in Nazi Germany.
1938Mass arrests and exile of Bahá'ís in Soviet Asia.
1953-1963Ten Year ‘Global Crusade’ marks beginning of a series of international teaching plans.
1957Death of Shoghi Effendi in London (4 November). The Hands of the Cause assume leadership of the Bahá'í world.
1963Establishment of the Universal House of Justice (Haifa, 21-22 April). First Bahá'í world congress (London, 28 April-2 May).
1970All Bahá'í institutions and activities are banned in Iraq. The Baha’i International Community gains consultative status with the United Nations' Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
1972The Universal House of Justice adopts its Constitution.
1979Islamic revolution in Iran. Major persecution of Bahá'ís begins. The House of the Báb is destroyed.
1983Baha’i Office of Social and Economic Development established. The Bahá'í Faith is officially banned in Iran.

I. A SHORT HISTORY

1. The Babi movement. The Baha’i Faith developed out of the earlier Babi movement (Amanat; Lawson; MacEoin; Smith, 1987: 5-56; Smith, 2007: 3-15). This centred on a young Iranian merchant, Sayyid ‘Ali-Muhammad Shirazi (1819-1850), who was initially widely regarded as claiming to be the Bab (Gate) to the messianic Hidden Imam of Shi’i Islam (May 1844) – his followers thus coming to be called Babis. Later the Bab made explicit claim to be the Mahdi – the return of the Imam himself, but even the claim to be the Bab was revolutionary in a Shi’i context, as in the presence of the Imam all other authorities – religious and secular – could only retain legitimacy by obedience to him.

From the beginning, Babi missionaries were opposed by high-ranking Shi’i clerics and several violent incidents occurred. Meanwhile, the Bab sought to gain the support of the Persian king, Muhammad Shah, but was instead imprisoned by the powerful chief minister in remote fortresses. In the confusion following the death of the Shah in September 1848, an armed conflict broke out in one of the northern provinces between a large band of Babis and their religious opponents, the Babis fighting what they saw as a defensive and sacrificial struggle against the forces of unbelief in an apocalyptic battle heralding the day of judgement. State intervention led to the extirpation of the Babi band, but two further conflicts between the Babis and their enemies convinced the vizier of the new shah to have the Bab executed as a means of destroying the movement’s primary inspiration (July 1850).

The surviving Babis continued their activities in secret and broke into several factions following various secondary leaders. One of these factions decided to assassinate the new shah as an act of revenge (August 1852). The attempt was badly bungled, and many Babis were rounded up and imprisoned or killed, including several prominent leaders who were not involved in the assassination plot. The Babi Movement seemed to have been destroyed.

That the movement survived was primarily the achievement of Mirza Husayn-‘Ali Nuri (1817-92), eventually generally known by his title ‘Baha’u’llah’ (The ‘Glory of God’) (Momen; Smith, 1987: 57-66; Smith, 2007: 16-23). Although uninvolved in the plot against the Shah he was thrown into prison and later exiled to what was then Ottoman Iraq from where he began to correspond extensively with the scattered Babis in Iran. His writings conveyed his own sense of the divine presence and gave reassurance to the demoralized Babis. Less esoteric than the writings of the Báb, they often emphasized the importance of practical morality as well as the mystic path. Increasingly, the movement centred on him – to the distress of his young half-brother, Mirza Yahyá, ‘Subh-i Azal’ (the ‘Morn of Eternity’, 1831/2-1912), who explicitly claimed leadership of the Babis but led a secret existence separate from them.

2. The emergence of the Baha’i Faith. The revival of the Babis attracted the attention of the Ottoman authorities, who moved Baha’u’llah and his immediate followers away from close proximity to the Iranian border to the city of Edirne in the Balkans (1863). Here Baha’u’llah made explicit claim to be the promised redeemer prophesied by the Bab (1866), his followers – who soon came to include most of the remaining Babis in Iran, coming to call themselves Baha’is, whilst a small minority followed Subh-i Azal and became known as Azali Babis.

Further exile in 1868 saw Baha’u’llah transferred to the prison-city of Akka (Acre) in what was then Ottoman Syria. He remained in or near Akka for the rest of his life, during which period the Baha’i Faith took shape as an organized religion. Baha’u’llah continued to write extensively, revealing his own code of divine law; outlining his vision for a united and just world; and sending a series of letters to some of the major world leaders proclaiming his mission. Meanwhile, Baha’i migrants and teachers established Baha’i groups in various parts of the Ottoman Empire, as well as in Egypt, Russian Turkestan, and British India and Burma. Effective organization ensured that the now multinational Baha’i groups remained in close contact with Baha’u’llah and that copies of his writings were widely distributed. There was also some printing of Baha’i literature (in India) (Cole; Momen; Smith, 1987: 66-99; Smith, 2007: 23-41).

3. Baha’i leadership since 1892. Baha’u’llah appointed his eldest son, ‘Abbas, ‘Abdu’l-Baha (the ‘Servant of Baha’, 1844-1921) to lead the Baha’is after his death (Balyuzi; Smith, 2007: 43-54). ‘Abdu’l-Baha was then almost fifty, well known to the Baha’is, and greatly respected as his father’s chief assistant, so the appointment was readily accepted, despite opposition from his own half-brother, Muhammad-‘Ali (1853/4-1937), and a small band of supporters.

The almost thirty years of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s leadership was a crucial period of change for the Baha’i Faith, most dramatically with the growth of small Baha’i communities in North America and Europe. Although only a few thousand in number, the new Western Baha’is vividly demonstrated the international nature of the Faith and became an extremely active element in Baha’i publishing and teaching activities (Smith, 1987: 100-114; Smith, 2004). ‘Abdu’l-Baha himself was able to visit the Western Baha’is in two lengthy tours in 1911-13. Meanwhile, in Iran, despite worsening persecution, the Baha’is were able to impress an increasing number of ‘progressive’ Iranians with the relevance of their ideas of social reform, as well as successfully establishing a number of Baha’i schools and furthering the emancipation of women within the community.

With no living sons of his own, ‘Abdu’l-Baha was in turn succeeded by his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1897-1957), who served as the first in a projected line of ‘Guardians’ of the Faith from January 1922 until his death (Smith, 1987: 115-128; Smith 2007: 55-69). During his Guardianship, Shoghi Effendi consolidated a system of elected local and national Baha’i councils (‘spiritual assemblies’) to administer the affairs of the Faith; produced a number of significant English-language translations of the writings of Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha; defining matters of Baha’i doctrine; and oversaw the extension of the buildings and gardens of the ‘Baha’i World Centre’ in the Haifa-Akka area. He also directed a series of increasingly ambitious expansion plans to spread the Faith throughout the world.

Shoghi Effendi died suddenly in 1957. He had no children, and a body of twenty-seven senior Baha’is whom he had recently appointed as ‘Hands of the Cause’ assumed temporary leadership of the Faith pending the election of the Universal House of Justice (an international council referred to in the Baha’i scriptures) in 1963. With successive changes in its elected membership, the Universal House of Justice has remained in charge of the Baha’i community since 1963 (Smith, 1987:128-135; Smith, 2007: 68-77).

4. Aspects of Baha’i development since 1892. The most obvious characteristic of the modern Baha’i Faith is perhaps its internationalization, particularly since the 1950s, with the establishment of Baha’i communities in virtually every country in the world and the gaining of converts from an enormous diversity of cultural and religious backgrounds, with a global following now estimated to be around 5 million. Although the Iranian Baha’is (themselves severely persecuted since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979) remain an important part of the global Baha’i community, the Baha’is can now rightfully claim to be a worldwide religion, with particularly large memberships in India and parts of Africa and Latin America. Linked to this development is an increasing range of Baha’i literature addressing a great variety of religious and secular issues (Smith, 1987: 146-54, 157-195; 2007: 78-96).

A second characteristic is the maintenance of the religion’s unity despite challenges to each of the leaders since Baha’u’llah from small and relatively transient dissident groups. This is seen by Baha’is as evidence of the importance of their doctrine of a Covenant of succession. A third characteristic, evident in Iran since the late nineteenth century and elsewhere particularly since the 1960s, has been the increasing importance of educational and other socio-economic development projects within the Faith.

II. DOCTRINES AND BELIEFS

1. Baha’i texts. Authoritative Baha’i teachings are derived from the original writings of the successive leaders of the Faith, and in the case of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, approved transcripts of his public talks. Some eyewitness accounts of what the leaders said and did are widely circulated for their inspirational value, but they are explicitly discounted as sources of Baha’i doctrine. Excluding compilations, there are now over forty volumes of the Baha’i writings in English, and it is relatively easy for all Baha’is to identify ‘official’ Baha’i teachings (Smith, 2007: 99-105).

There is no Baha’i sacred or liturgical language. Arabic, Persian and English have a special status as the languages of the original writings of the Baha’i leaders, but access to and understanding of the texts is what is regarded as of primary importance, with the result that extensive translation programmes of Baha’i scriptures and other literature have long been an important part of Baha’i endeavour. All Baha’is are also strongly encouraged to become literate (and to ensure that their children become literate), in part so that they can have access to the Faith’s writings.

Baha’is recognize that individuals will have their own particular understandings of the Baha’i teachings, but are warned not to allow differences in interpretations of the Baha’i writings to become a cause of disunity. Each individual has a right to his or her own understanding, but no one has a right to force their views on others.

There is a massive Baha’i secondary literature in many languages, particularly in English, including commentaries on Baha’i texts and expositions on numerous aspects of the Baha’i belief and practice, but none of them have any authoritative status as guides to Baha’i belief.

2. Theology and metaphysics. The Baha’i Faith is strictly monotheistic. Some understanding of God can be gained from ‘his’ names and attributes (He is Almighty; All-Loving; the Help in Peril, and so on). However, God in essence is unknowable, so that all human conceptions of God are mere imaginations, which some individuals mistake for reality. Therefore, knowledge of God is primarily to be achieved by way of his messengers: the ‘Manifestations of God’.

According to the Baha’i view, these Manifestations of God represent the divine presence to humankind. They include Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Zoroaster, Krishna and the Buddha, and for the present age, the Bab, and Baha’u’llah. Each has his own specific mission, but they all also share an ‘essential unity’ which transcends the diversity of the world’s various religions. Each is authoritative and infallible.

For Baha’is, the development of the Baha’i Faith forms part of a single overarching history of religion on this planet (symbolically starting with Adam, seen as the first known Manifestation of God). The major world religions recognized by the Baha’is (Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam in the west; Hinduism and Buddhism in the east) are incorporated into this schema and their founders honoured as divine Manifestations with a fundamental unity of mission.

The unity of these religions is seen as both recurrent and progressive. Thus, on the one hand, each of the divine religions expresses eternal moral and spiritual truths which are proclaimed and renewed by their founders. At the same time, each religion represents an evolutionary stage in a single and eternal religion of God, progressively revealed to humankind (a process which Baha’is term ‘progressive revelation’). This schema also accounted for differences between the religions, in that each of the Manifestations of God brought divine teachings appropriate to the spiritual capacity, intellectual frameworks and social needs of the people of their own particular time and place.

Some of the religions are also linked together by prophecy, with the coming of the next divine messenger being predicted in the scriptures of the past – most notably in the case of Baha’u’llah, whose coming is believed to foretold in all religious traditions (Smith, 2007: 106-111, 124-132).

Of Baha’i descriptions of the nature of reality, the most striking perhaps is the view that evil has no objective reality other than in the evil deeds of human beings. There is no devil or satan, nor evil spirits nor demonic possession. Rather God’s creation is good. It is human rebellion against God which generates evil.

The Baha’i conception of knowledge combines both a belief in the absolute authority of the Manifestations of God and the infallibility of the successive Baha’i leaders and (simultaneously) an emphasis on the importance of human reason and scientific enquiry in a manner that is intrinsically anti-dogmatic. Religion is proclaimed to be subject to the test of reason and opposition to knowledge and science is described as a sign of ignorance – with contemporary irreligion and the growth of secularism seen as developing because of the dogmatism and irrationality of many religious people (Smith, 2007: 111-116).

3. Being human. For Baha’is, human beings possess both a physical body and a non-material rational soul. The soul is the essential inner reality of each human being. It comes into existence at the time of conception, and enters a new existence after death. All human beings can realize their inherent spiritual potential if they turn to God and seek to acquire spiritual qualities. Each individual has God-given free will and the ability to make moral and spiritual choices during their lives.

Baha’is believe that human beings are innately selfish, but not that they are innately evil. The development of a moral sense therefore requires moral education and training from childhood onwards so that individuals can be motivated to make moral choices, control their baser instincts and spiritualize their lives.

Individuals achieve different levels of spiritual development as a consequence of their choices. These levels are symbolically described in terms of ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ – in reality states of soul rather than physical places. Thus, those who are close to God are in ‘heaven’, whilst those who are distant from him are in ‘hell’, a distinction which applies in both this life and the afterlife.

For Baha’is, humans suffer both because of their own stupidity (e.g. they overeat), or from harmful emotional states such as anxiety, depression, envy and rage which they should seek to avoid, or attachment to the transient material world. But some suffering is unavoidable and can be seen as a means to draw individuals closer to God. Whilst Baha’is should not be fatalistic – taking all wise precautions against adversity and working to eliminate poverty and disease – they should also seek to develop fortitude and patience in response to suffering.

Baha’is believe in the immortality of the soul and its eternal spiritual progress, but the Baha’i writings do not give a clear picture of the afterlife: it is presented as beyond the understanding of those who are still living, just as the present world would be incomprehensible to the unborn foetus. In this perspective, death and the decomposition of the body are a natural part of human life. Accordingly, whilst we may lament the death of those we love, we should also realize that death represented a potential liberation for them, freeing their eternal souls from the fetters of material existence. We may pray for the spiritual progress of those who have died.

In the afterlife, individuals will become aware of the consequences of their actions and choices. The doctrine of reincarnation is rejected, as is the belief in ‘earth-bound souls’ or ghosts (Smith, 2007: 117-123).

4. Social teachings and the vision of a new world order. For Baha’is, Baha’u’llah came to unite all the peoples of the world; bring together the followers of the world’s religions; and establish the future millennial age which has been prophesied in all religions (Smith, 2007: 133-147). The main elements of the Baha’i millennial and social vision include:

(i) The achievement of world peace in a united world in which all peoples are seen as the citizens of one country. Ideally, this would be the religiously-based ‘Most Great Peace’ referred to by Baha’u’llah, but the Baha’i leaders also referred pragmatically to a ‘Lesser Peace’ which could be achieved by existing governments learning to work together effectively to achieve more limited goals, including peace keeping, armament reductions and a system of collective security (Baha’is have therefore supported the work of the United Nations, despite its evident weaknesses). It is necessary to foster tolerance; freedom from all religious, racial, political, economic and patriotic prejudices; and the adoption of a universal auxiliary language.

(ii) The establishment of social order and justice. Ultimately Baha’is believe that this again requires a religious reformation of the whole human race, but pragmatically advocate the adoption of means to build up good governance; the rule of law; and the protection of the poor and downtrodden at national and international levels.

(iii) The advancement of women. For Baha’is, men and women are equal in the sight of God, and the importance of achieving gender equality in almost all areas of human life is repeatedly stressed in the Baha’i writings, the main exceptions being Baha’i opposition to allowing women to become combat soldiers or be elected on to the Universal House of Justice. The oppression of woman, so characteristic of many societies, is seen as a primary factor retarding the progress of humanity as a whole.

(iv) Education. Baha’is emphasize the importance of both religious and ‘secular’ education for the individual and for society as a whole. Children need to gain a sense of morality and the fear of God, but they also need to learn how to read and write and to study for a career. Baha’i parents are under an obligation to ensure that their children are educated and universal access to education is seen as a fundamental right. The education of girls – as potential mothers and hence their own children’s first educator – is of particular importance. Education is regarded as essential to social-economic development and the creation of a just society (Without education, the common people are not able to act effectively against misgovernment).

(v) The role of religion. Baha’is emphasize the importance of combining ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ solutions to the world’s problems. Whilst praising many secular goals as a proximate means of improving an imperfect world, they hold that it is only through pure and revived religion – shorn of fanaticism, bigotry and superstition – that the necessary fundamental changes in human society can be achieved. In this context, the Baha’i social vision is ambivalent towards certain aspects of modernity, embracing what we might see as a liberal social reformism whilst at the same time strongly opposing materialism and secularism as destructive social forces in the modern world.

III. BAHA’I PRACTICES

1. The spiritual path. For Baha’is, spirituality and morality are linked together in the concept of the spiritual ‘path’, whereby the individual believer strives to develop spiritual-moral qualities (Smith, 2007: 151-156). Each individual faces his or her own challenges in pursuing this path. Rather than provide a rigid code of behaviour, the Baha’i teachings generally state general principles, with the idea that individual Baha’is should use their own consciences and understanding to apply these principles in the particular contexts of their own lives.

Central to this path is that Baha’is should turn to God and find the divine light that was present in all human beings within themselves. Prayer and contemplation of the Baha’i scriptures are means to this end. Prayer should lead to a transformation of character and greater strength in overcoming moral weaknesses – and Baha’is should review their own actions, bringing themselves to account each day.

Baha’is should try to free themselves from the ‘prison’ of self and the ‘fetters’ of worldly attachments; develop the qualities of humility and patience; control their passions; be chaste and modest; and exercise moderation.

Relationships with other people are a crucial part of the spiritual path. Baha’is should strive to be loving to all human beings of whatever religion, race, or community; and exercise such qualities as loyalty, compassion and selflessness, truthfulness and trustworthiness. They should completely avoid envy, malice, backbiting and in particular all forms of dishonesty.

Baha’is should be tolerant of others, particularly in matters of religion, associating with the followers of all religions in a spirit of ‘friendliness and fellowship’. They should free themselves of all prejudices in their dealings with those of a different race, class, or religion. Fanaticism and ‘unreasoning religious zeal’ are condemned.

2. Baha’i law and practice. Being a Baha’i also involves following Baha’i law (Smith, 2007: 158-174). The main elements of this can be summarized as follows:

(i) Personal obligations towards God include daily prayer and reading of Baha’i scripture; an annual nineteen day fast from sunrise to sunset for those who are fit and well; and payment of Huququ’llah (the ‘Right of God’), a form of tithe on capital gains for those who are sufficiently wealthy.

(ii) The Baha’i teachings emphasize the importance and sanctity of marriage and family life, both for the individuals involved and for society as a whole. All Baha’i marriages require the consent of both the couple and their parents – this latter permission being required so as to strengthen ties between family members and to prevent any enmity in the family. Baha’i marriage is monogamous. Child marriage is not allowed. Divorce is permitted, but strongly discouraged. The importance of parenthood and the responsibilities of parents to ensure the education of their children are greatly stressed. All forms of injustice and violence within the family are condemned.

(iii) Aspects of individual life. The Baha’i teachings insist that the sexual impulse can only be legitimately expressed in marriage. All forms of pre- and extra-marital sexual relationships are thus forbidden, as is the practice of homosexuality. Alcohol, opiates and other psychoactive drugs are seen as physically and mentally destructive for the individual and should thus be absolutely avoided unless prescribed by a physician. Tobacco smoking is discouraged but not forbidden.

There is no required use of Baha’i symbols of identity – no distinctive names or forms of dress, although many Baha’is wear a Baha’i ring or place ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s picture in their home.

(iv) In relationship to civil society and the state, Baha’is are required to follow the law of the countries in which they reside unless these laws require them to deny their faith or violate fundamental Baha’i principles; they must strictly avoid sedition and avoid any party-political involvement.

(v) Sanctions. In general, observance of most Baha’i laws is regarded as a matter of individual conscience, and it is only when there are relatively extreme and public breaches of the law that any sanctions are applied – normally in the form of depriving the individual of the right to participate in Baha’i elections and such activities as contributing to the Baha’i funds. Only national spiritual assemblies can deprive an individual or his or her voting rights, and as such action normally only occurs as a last resort after careful fact-finding and extensive consultations with all involved. Other than this, assemblies are instructed to be compassionate towards human frailty – offering counsel rather than blame.

3. Aspects of Baha’i community life. Being a Baha’i also involves membership of the Baha’i community, the various national spiritual assemblies maintaining lists of recognized Baha’is (Smith, 2007: 157-158, 187-197).

One focus for Baha’i identity are the variety of activities organized by local Baha’i communities. Of particular formal importance are the regular Nineteen Day Feasts and the commemorations of the Baha’i holy days commemorating events in the lives of the Bab, Baha’u’llah and `Abdu’l-Baha, but many communities also organize devotional, educational and social meetings.

Baha’is have their own calendar, consisting of nineteen months each of nineteen days (361 days), with four or five ‘intercalary days’ to make a solar year. The beginning of each month is marked by a ‘Nineteen Day Feast’, in which members of the local Baha’i community come together to pray, consult on matters of concern and socialize. The new year is the ancient Iranian new year of Naw-Ruz, normally 21 March at the spring equinox. The first year of the calendar is 1844, the year of the Bab’s declaration, so the Baha’i year 170 began at Naw-Ruz 2013.

Holy places and pilgrimage. Various sites associated with the Bab, Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha are considered holy by Baha’is, the most important being the various holy places at the Baha’i World Centre in the Haifa-Akka area, and many Baha’is endeavour to make a pilgrimage to these sites at least once in their lifetimes. Some of these places are also open to the general public, the ‘Baha’i Gardens’ in Haifa, in particular, having become a major tourist destination. The Shrine of Baha’u’llah at Bahji is the Baha’i ‘qiblah’ – the ‘point of adoration’ – to which Baha’is throughout the world turn when the say their daily obligatory prayers. Important Baha’i sites in Iran are either inaccessible or have been destroyed by the authorities since the establishment of the Islamic Republic.

4. Baha’i activities and the wider world. There are two main aspects of Baha’i involvement with the wider world:

(i) All Baha’is are encouraged to ‘promote the Faith’ and gain new adherents through the teaching and proclamation of the Baha’i teachings, but this should be non-disputatious and avoid heavy-handed proselytism. Some Baha’is spend considerable periods of time as ‘travel teachers’, travelling from one place to another to teach their faith, whilst others ‘pioneer’ to commence or support Baha’i activities in new locations. There are no full-time professional Baha’i promoters of the Faith.

(ii) There is also a lot of Baha’i activity in support of the Faith’s vision of social reconstruction. This includes support for the United Nations; the promotion of religious tolerance and the coexistence of ethnic groups; the advancement of women; the development of education (there are a number of Baha’i schools and colleges worldwide open to people of all religions); literacy training; and socio-economic development – with particular emphasis on sparking change at the grassroots level (Smith, 2007: 198-210).

Organization. The various local and national Baha’i communities are structured around the Baha’i ‘Administrative Order’ under the overall guidance and direction of the Universal House of Justice (Smith, 2007: 175-186). It essentially comprises two branches: the system of annually elected nine-member local and national spiritual assemblies, which organize and administer the collective lives of the Baha’is in their communities, and the various ‘institutions of the learned’ (an International Teaching Centre in Haifa, and appointed individuals at continental and local levels), who are concerned with enthusing and advising the Baha’is.

The Baha’i writings frequently emphasize the need for the Baha’i administration to embody a specific ‘spirit’ of humility’ and devotion and not operate purely as a bureaucratic structure. One key element here is held to be the principle of free consultation, which ideally involves all community members and is regarded as an essential means whereby individual voices can be heard and a variety of views examined dispassionately. There are also appeals procedures for those Baha’is who wish to question the decisions of their local and national spiritual assemblies.

Funding for Baha’i activities comes from both the Huququ’llah system (above) and the voluntary contribution of the Baha’is to various funds at local, national, continental and international levels. All contributions are a strictly personal matter, determined purely by the dictates of conscience. Only Baha’is are allowed to contribute to funds supporting the direct work of the Faith.

IV. ISSUES AND CHALLENGES

The Baha’i Faith is now a worldwide movement and the challenges which face Baha’i communities in one part of the world may be quite different from those in another. For the Baha’is in the Middle East the key issue is religious freedom. In Iran, the Baha’is have faced an ongoing campaign of persecution ever since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Despite being the largest religious minority in the country, they have faced waves of arrests of their leaders and many of their most active members – around 200 of whom have been murdered and executed; the banning of all their activities; and the attempt to totally exclude them from all aspects of civic life (including education and the burial of their dead). Considerable difficulties have also been encountered by the Egyptian Baha’is, who have also been denied many civil rights.

By contrast, whilst the Baha’is in the West have often been able to gain considerable public attention and sympathy, their numbers have generally remained small, leading to anxieties in some circles about the failure to achieve a greater impact. Small but very vocal groups of Western Baha’is have also expressed discontent over Baha’i practices which they deem illiberal, notably the restriction of membership of the Universal House of Justice to men and the prohibition on homosexual activity (including marriage). Intellectual tensions have also surfaced about ‘academic’ interpretations of the Faith.

It is very difficult to make any generalizations about the very diverse Baha’i communities of the ‘Third World’. In a number there are certainly practical challenges in consolidating a national Baha’i community with limited resources and in dealing with harsh social realities – including the displacement of refugees, poverty and crime.

References

Amanat, Abbas. 1989. Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Balyuzi, H. M. 1971. `Abdu’l-Baha: The Centre of the Covenant of Baha’u’llah. London, George Ronald.

Cole, Juan R. I. 1998. Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha’i Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press.

Lawson, Todd. 2011. Gnostic Apocalypse and Islam. London: Routledge.

MacEoin, Denis. 2009. The Messiah of Shiraz: Studies in Early and Middle Babism. Leiden: Brill.

Momen, Moojan. 2007. Baha’u’llah: A Short Biography. Oxford: Oneworld.

Smith, Peter. 1987. The Babi and Baha’i Religions: From Messianic Shi‘ism to a World Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Smith, Peter. 2004. ‘The Baha’i Faith in the West: A survey’. In Baha’is in the West: Studies in the Babi and Baha’i Religions, vol 14, ed. Peter Smith, Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, pp. 3-60.

Smith, Peter. 2007. An Introduction to the Baha’i Faith, Its History and Teachings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Further reading

Brookshaw, Dominic Parviz and Fazel, Seena B. (eds.) 2008. The Baha’is of Iran: Socio-Historical Studies. London: Routledge.

Momen, Moojan. 1996. The Baha’i Faith: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld.

Momen, Wendi and Moojan Momen. 2005. Understanding the Baha’i Faith. Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press.

Smith, Peter. 2000. A Concise Encyclopedia of the Baha’i Faith. Oxford: Oneworld.

Warburg, Margit. 2006. Citizens of the World: A History and Sociology of the Baha’is in Globalization Perspective. Brill, 2006.

Official Baha’i Websites include:

    - The Baha’i International Community: the Baha’i Reference Library (reference.bahai.org).

    - Baha’i World News Service (bahaiworldnews.org).

    - One Country (onecountry.org).

A good source of research material is:
    - The ‘Baha’i Library Online’ (bahai-library.com).
Appendix: Some Studies of Baha’i Communities (A provisional list, May 2015).

This is a list of all the published academic studies of Baha’i communities that I have seen. I have excluded both those which seem not to be academic and those that are only available on-line (except for one in an on-line academic journal).

There are excellent monographs on the early Baha’i history of the United States (Robert H. Stockman, The Baha’i Faith in America. Vol. 1. Origins, 1892-1900 (Wilmette IL: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1985) and Vol. 2. Early Expansion, 1900-1913 (Oxford: George Ronald, 1995)) and Canada (Will C. van den Hoonaard, The Origins of the Baha’i Community of Canada, 1898-1948 (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1996); and a major sociological study which includes extensive material on the Danish community (Margit Warburg, Citizens of the World: A History and Sociology of the Baha’is from a Globalization Perspective (Leiden: Brill, 2006)). There are also studies of the Atlanta Baha’i community (Michael McMullen, The Baha’i: The Religious Construction of a Global Identity (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000)); an historical overview of American Baha’i history (William Garlington, The Baha’i Faith in America (Westport CT: Praeger, 2005)); a study of the early British Baha’is (Lil Osborn, Religion and Relevance: Baha’is in Britain, 1899-1930 (Los Angeles CA: Kalimat Press, 2014)); an account of the early development of the Baha’i religion in West Malaysia (A. Manisegaran, Jewel Among Nations: An Account of the Early Days of the Baha’i Faith in West Malaysia (Selangor: Splendour Publications, 2003)); and a study of the initial establishment of the Baha’i Faith in British Cameroons and eastern Nigeria (Anthony A. Lee, The Baha’i Faith in Africa: Establishing a New Religious Movement, 1952-1962 (Leiden: Brill, 2011). The first of a major two-part study of the Iranian Baha’i communities has just been published (Moojan Momen, The Bahá'í Communities Of Iran, 1851-1921. Volume 1: The North of Iran. Welwyn, Herts: George Ronald, 2015).

Essays include studies of the Baha’is in Australia (Graham Hassall, ‘Outpost of a world religion: The Baha’i Faith in Australia, 1920-1947′. Journal of Religious History 16/3 (1991): 315-38; Graham Hassall, ‘Outpost of a world religion: The Baha’i Faith in Australia, 1920-1947′. In Peter Smith (ed.), Baha’is in the West, Studies in the Babi and Baha’i Religions, Vol. 14 (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 2004), 201-226; Graham Hassall, ‘The Baha’i Faith in Australia, 1947-1963′. Journal of Religious History 36/4 (2012): 563-576); the Pacific (Graham Hassall, ‘The Baha’i Faith in the Pacific’. In Phyllis Herda, Michel Reilly and David Hilliard (eds.), Vision and Reality in Pacific Religion: Essays in Honour of Niel Gunson, (Canberra/Christchurch: Pandanus Press with the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies, 2005), 267-287); Samoa (Zoe Bryan, ‘Persecution of religious minorities in Samoa: The Baha’is struggle to face a common problem’. ISP Collection, #924 (SIT Graduate Institute, 2010)); Papua New Guinea (Graeme Were, ‘Thinking through images: Kastom and the coming of the Baha’is to northern New Ireland, Papua New Guinea’, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 11 (2005), 659-676; Graeme Were, ‘Fashioning belief: The case of the Baha’i Faith in northern New Ireland’, Anthropological Forum, 17/3 (2007), 239-253); Singapore (Foo Check Woo and Lynette Thomas, ‘Baha’is in Singapore: Patterns of conversion’. In Lai Ah Eng (ed.), Religious Diversity in Singapore (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), 167-194); Malaysia (Silvia Vignato, ‘Patience et discrétion des Baha’i de Malaisie: Histoire et stratégie de développement d’un groupe religieux’. Archipel, 56 (1998), 429-454); the Temiar people of Malaysia (Geoffrey Benjamin, ‘Rationalisation and re-enchantment in Malaysia: Temiar religion, 1964-1995’. Department of Sociology Working Papers. National University of Singapore, 1996); Bangladesh (Muhammad Jahangar Alam, ‘Baha’i Faith and tradition in Bangladesh’. In Bangladesh e-Journal of Sociology, 8/1 (2011), 87-92); the Malwa region of India (William Garlington, ‘The Baha’i Faith in Malwa’. In G. A. Odie (ed.), Religion in South Asia (London: Curzon Press, 1977), 101-17; William Garlington, ‘Baha’i conversions in Malwa, central India’. In J. R. Cole and M. Momen (eds.), From Iran East and West (Los Angeles CA: Kalimat Press, 1984), 157-185); Egypt (Daniele Cantini, ‘Being Baha’i in contemporary Egypt: An ethnographic analysis of everyday challenges’. Anthropology of the Middle East, 4/2 (2009), 34-51); Nigeria (Loni Bramson-Lerche, ‘The Baha’i Faith in Nigeria’. Dialogue & Alliance, 6/4 (1992-93), 104-125); Britain (Phillip R. Smith, ‘The development and influence of the Baha’i administrative order in Great Britain, 1914-1950’. In Richard Hollinger (ed.), Community Histories. Studies in the Babi and Baha’i Religions, Vol. 6 (Los Angeles CA: Kalimat Press, 1992), 153-215; Phillip R. Smith, ‘What was a Baha’i? Concerns of the British Baha’is, 1900-1920’. In Moojan Momen (ed.), Studies in Honor of the Late Hasan M. Balyuzi Studies in the Babi and Baha’i Religions, Vol. 5 (Los Angeles CA: Kalimat Press, 1988), 219-251; Ismael Valesco, ‘The Baha’i community in Edinburgh, 1946-1950’. In Peter Smith (ed.), The Baha’i Faith in the West, Studies in the Babi and Baha’i Religions, Vol. 14 (Los Angeles CA: Kalimat Press, 2004), 265-307); North America (Peter Smith, ‘The American Baha’i community, 1894-1917: A preliminary survey’. In Moojan Momen (ed.), Studies in Babi and Baha’i History, Vol. 1 (Los Angeles CA: Kalimat Press, 1982), 85-223); and the West in general (Peter Smith, ‘The Baha’i Faith in the West: History and social composition’. In Peter Smith (ed.), The Baha’i Faith in the West. Studies in the Babi and Baha’i Religions, Vol. 14 (Los Angeles CA: Kalimat Press, 2004), 3-60).

There are also two books of relevant essays: one on particular aspects of Iranian Baha’i history (Dominic Parviz Brookshaw and Seena B. Fazel (eds.), The Baha’is of Iran: Socio-Historical Studies (London: Routledge, 2008)), and another on (mostly American) local communities (Richard Hollinger (ed.), Community Histories. Studies in the Babi and Baha’i Religions, Vol. 6 (Los Angeles CA: Kalimat Press, 1992)).

Several biographic studies also include useful material on the environing Baha’i community – such as Robert Weinberg, Ethel Jenner Rosenberg: The Life and Time of England’s Outstanding Baha’i Pioneer Worker (Oxford: George Ronald, 1995).

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