Bahá'í Library Online
.. . .
Back to Newspaper articles archive: 1970-1995

Baha'is Establish Israel's Second Holy Mountain

Baha'is are found in every corner of the world, but Haifa, Israel, is their world center. They believe that Mount Carmel, not the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, is where, according to the prophet Isaiah, "the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it."

But the Baha'i faith, one of the world's newest and fastest growing religions, actually started in nineteenth-century Persia, when a Shiraz merchant, Siyyid Ali-Muhammed, known to history as the Bab ("Gate"), announced in 1844 that the Day of God was at hand and that he was the person whom Islamic scripture had ordained to bring this message. The world, said the Bab, was about to undergo enormous changes, and it was God's will that the human race embrace these through a transformation of moral and spiritual life. Finally, the Bab forecast the arrival of a universal messenger of God, a kind of Messiah.

This message was warmly received by many individual Persians, but it greatly antagonized the Shiite clergy, who believed that the process of divine revelation had ended with Muhammad. So the new movement was repressed, and many of its members, as well as the Bab himself, were put to death.

Today, the western side of Mount Carmel is dominated by the golden dome of the Shrine of the Bab, which serves as the cornerstone of a multicultural religious movement whose philosophy has attracted followers from a variety of religious backgrounds. Nevertheless, modern-day missionaries of the Baha'i faith, known as "pioneers," must overcome this legacy of persecution in order to practice their beliefs.

Evolution and beliefs

One follower who survived the Persian persecutions was Husayn-Ali, who eventually became known as Baha'u'llah ("Glory of God"). In the eyes of Baha'is, he is the messenger of God of whom the Bab spoke. Though saved from the executioner, Baha'u'llah was thrown into a vermin-infested Tehran dungeon and later sent into exile, first in Iraq, then in Turkey, and finally in the Holy Land.

On August 31, 1868, Baha'u'llah was put ashore at Acre, north of Haifa, and imprisoned in the citadel with sixty-six members of his family and close followers. He was later allowed to reside in a number of private residences in that city (albeit under house arrest).

Still, Baha'u'llah visited Mount Carmel several times. On the last visit, in 1891, less than a year before his death, he indicated to AbdulBaha, his oldest son and designated heir, the precise spot on Mount Carmel where the remains of the Bab should be interred and a mausoleum erected. Today, that mausoleum and the tomb of Baha'ullah near Acre are major attractions for those making both secular and religious pilgrimages to Israel.

Baha'u'llah was also responsible for writing the hundred-some texts in which the basic tenets of Baha'ism faith were originally set down. A few of these were long works, but the majority, known as "tablets," were written in response to questions from individual followers.

Baha'u'llah's principal exposition of his doctrines is found in a book titled Kitabi lqan (The book of certitude). It deals with some of the central questions that are at the heart of religion: God, the nature of humanity, the purpose of life, and the function of revelation.

The writings of Baha'u'llah were subsequently amplified by his son and heir, Abdul-Baha, and then by his great-grand-son and the third leader of the Baha'is, Shoghi Effendi Rabban, who also prepared elegant English translations of material originally written in Arabic or Persian.

Perhaps the central feature of the Baha'i faith and one that sets it apart from other religions is its view that there is a process of progressive revelation through which God, using a series of emissaries, has brought enlightenment to the world. Thus, Baha'is not only respect and honor Baha'u'llah but also Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Krishna, Christ, and Muhammad. Even more unusual, when they pray, they are apt to include prayers from other faiths as well as from their own.

At the same time, their belief that Baha'u'llah was himself the Manifestation of God (a term they prefer to Messiah), whose arrival was anticipated by previous religions, isn't likely to endear them to adherents of those religions.

Nevertheless, the Baha'i philosophy has interdenominational appeal. For example, Baha'is of Jewish backgrounds see Baha'u'llah as the promised "Lord of Hosts" who has come to lead the way for nations "to beat their swords into plowshares." For Baha'is of Buddhist origin, Baha'u'llah fulfills the prophecies of the coming of "a Buddha named Maitreya, the Buddha of universal fellowship" who will, according to Buddhist tradition, bring peace and enlightenment for all humanity. Baha'is of Hindu background view Baha'u'llah as the new incarnation of Krishna, the One who "when goodness grows weak" returns in every age to "establish righteousness" as promised in the Bhagavadgita. Those coming from a Christian background believe that Baha'u'llah fulfills the paradoxical promises of Christ's return "in the glory of the Father" and as a "thief in the night." In Baha'u'llah's teachings, Baha'is see the fulfillment of Christ's promise to bring all people together so that "there shall be one fold and one shepherd." Finally, Baha'is of Muslim origin believe Baha'u'llah fulfills the Koranic promise of the "Day of God," when He will come down "overshadowed with clouds."

The Baha'is also have their own holidays and, indeed, their own calendar, which has nothing in common with the calendars of other faiths. They divide the year into nineteen months of nineteen days each and make up the difference between their years and everybody else's during the AyyamI-Ha period, which occurs between February 26 and March 1. They have nine holy days, all of which, with the exception of their New Year, mark key events in the life of the Bab, Baha'u'llah, and Abdul-Baha.

Once every Baha'i month, the members of each community meet to deal with administrative questions, pray, and socialize. Those elements are always present, though the specific ways in which people socialize vary.

The same diversity exists in regard to prayers. There are sacred texts but no regular prayer books to be automatically followed when Baha'is pray in groups or as individuals. Even, for instance, when marriages are performed, there is a lot of variation from one ceremony to another.

Baha'is are not unduly disturbed by the fact that their calendar sets them apart from other peoples and that it may be impossible for them to take days off to celebrate their major holidays. If that proves to be the case, holiday ceremonies are simply postponed to the evening hours.

A United Nations in Haifa

One place Baha'is can live by their own calendar is their international center in Haifa, where, at the moment, there are over 650 Baha'is from sixty countries. They range from highly educated adult administrators to several dozen high school graduates who do much of the cleaning and gardening. All are volunteers; they receive living allowances and housing but no salaries.

Yet for all their egalitarianism, there is a clear "table of organization." At the pinnacle is the Universal House of Justice, an elected body set up to govern the affairs of the international Baha'i community after the death of Baha'u'llah's great-grandson, Shoghi Effendi, in 1957. And because Baha'is have no clergy, the Universal House of Justice has relatively more power than do lay bodies in other religions.
Playing a key role in day-to-day administration is former New Zealand parliamentarian Murray Smith, deputy secretary general of the Baha'i International Community. On becoming a Baha'i six years ago, Smith not only abandoned his political career but politics altogether, as members of the faith are forbidden to engage in partisan political activity. The skills that Smith developed in the political arena, however, are still important to him. They help him to work with a very diverse group of people and, in another sphere, to explain the tenets of his religion. Like those of any other faith, they are not always consistent.

To give one example, it is hard for an outsider to understand why a faith based on full equality for women does not allow them to serve on its highest governing body, the Universal House of Justice. Smith's explanation: Baha'u'llah, guided by divine inspiration, decided on this one exception to gender egalitarianism.

When asked about Baha'i finances, Smith replies guardedly. While emphasizing that Baha'is fund their various independent projects solely with money given by their own members, he doesn't say how much it costs to maintain their temples, schools, educational programs, and community-development efforts, or who exactly provides the required cash. As most believers live in poor countries--two million of them in India alone--there must be some very generous Baha'is elsewhere.

Smith is more forthcoming when it comes to discussing the niles and regulations of Bahaism, which give more leeway to the ordinary member than do those of many long-established religions. Infants, he points out, are not "inducted" into the group as are Jewish newborn (through the circumcision ceremony) or most Christian newborn (through baptism soon after birth). Only at the age of fifteen does the child of Baha'i parents decide whether he wants to follow in their footsteps.

There was no question in the mind of American Andra Grant, now in Haifa, about whether she wanted to be a Baha'i. Indeed, she is proud of the fact that her parents helped foster the growth of Bahaism in Uruguay and the Dominican Republic and that even her grandmother was a Baha'i.

A graduate of George Mason University in Virginia, where she was one of only a half-dozen Baha'is in a 23,000-strong student body, Grant is enjoying the opportunity to be in a Baha'i environment. She works in the accommodations office of the Baha'i World Center, and her brother Sean is helping to handle Baha'i property in Haifa. When she finishes her period of service two years from now, she will either return to the United States to earn a Ph.D. in international relations or, like her parents, bring the Baha'i message to one country or another.

Also working at the Baha'i World Center is Mehraeen Mavaddat, a Persian woman who might have ended up in Haifa anyway had her Jewish grandparents not become Baha'is. But they did, and she lived happily as a Baha'i in Tehran until the arrival of the ayatollahs in 1979. Two years later, her husband, a chemical engineer, was arrested and then executed on trumped-up charges of being a spy and a Zionist.

Fearful that her presence might endanger others, she fled to Pakistan, afterward continuing to Canada. Mavaddat came to Israel in 1990. She enjoys the country and her work as a translator from Persian to English, though she misses her children and grandchildren--now living in the United States and Australia--as well as her former home. She has resigned herself to the fact that she will probably never see Iran again.

Cameroonian Stephen Ako is employed in the center's reference library, which houses an enormous collection of Baha'i-related material. It also serves as a clearinghouse for Baha'i libraries in other countries.

Ako has enjoyed his five years in Haifa, not least because it allowed him to meet a lovely German girl, whom he married in February. This is quite in keeping with Baha'i beliefs: Members of the faith are not necessarily expected to marry across racial lines, but interracial marriages are warmly welcomed. Moreover, there is no great fuss made about those who "marry out." Smith says he and his wife are more than pleased with their non-Baha'i daughter-in-law.

In this context, people like Ako are apt to quote one of the sayings of Baha'u'llah: "He who is your Lord, the All-Merciful, cherishes in his heart the desire of beholding the entire human race as one soul and one body."

Still, the Baha'i appeal to multicultural understanding is not always welcome; in fact, being a Baha'i emissary can sometimes be dangerous. William Remollo, a Filipino presently in Haifa, points out that although Baha'i relations with his country's Catholic majority are good, this is not the case with its Muslim minority, members of which murdered two Baha'i pioneers from Iran some years ago.

Just last year, three Baha'is of Iranian origin, who had gone to South Africa to work for greater racial unity, were killed by militant blacks. The incident, as reported in the Baha'i newsletter One Country, began when the three came to a Baha'i center in the all-black township of Mdantsane for a discussion on family life. On their arrival they were marched into the building by four young black militants, separated from the Africans, and shot dead.

Ironically, one of those killed, Hoosh-mand Anvari, had recently established a tutorial school for young black children; a second, Dr. Shamam Bakhshandegi, was one of the few white doctors at the only major hospital in the township; and the third, Riaz Razavi, was director of finance at the all-black University of Fort Hare.

Nowhere has the persecution been more severe than in Iran. In 1983, ten Baha'i women were hanged after they refused to recant their beliefs and accept Islam. Overall, more than two hundred Baha'is have been executed and hundreds more imprisoned since the fall of the shah in 1979. The situation has improved somewhat recently, but the Iranian government still plans to uproot the country's remaining Baha'is.

Baha'is do not face such dangers in Israel, but they are not completely free to act as they please. Baha'is have agreed to forgo "pioneering" in the Jewish state. Hence, Israel has no indigenous Baha'i communities.

Baha'is seem to take such difficulties in stride. For example, Mavaddat refuses to be hateful when asked about her attitude toward those who currently rule Iran, saying, "peace can only come if you love your enemies." And when it is pointed out to Grant that--contrary to the predictions of Baha'u'llah the world hasn't become a more unified and tranquil place with the passage of time, she admits that there are "trials and tribulations." Yet she remains certain that "the people's desire for peace will win out in the end."

PHOTO (COLOR): Opposite: The Shrine of the Bab was built on the site indicated by Baha'u'llah on his last visit to Mount Carmel. Below: A multicultural group of attendees poses for a photograph at the Baha'i World Congress held in New York in 1992.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): Despite persecution, the Baha'i faith was actively represented in Persia until well into the twentieth century. Opposite below: Persian Baha'is with foreign visitors. Left: Western Baha'is with their Tehran brethren, circa 1920. Below: The 1916 Baha'i Ladies Committee in Tehran.

PHOTO (COLOR): Left: Pupils and teacher at a Baha'i school in South Africa. Below: A Naw-Ruz (New Year) gathering of Baha'is held in Slovenia in March 1992.

PHOTO (COLOR): Left: Paying respects at the Shrine of the Bab. Below: An illuminated Shrine of Baha'u'llah. Bottom: A gathering of the Knights of Baha'u'llah.

PHOTO (COLOR): Above: A central tenet of the Baha'i faith is its appeal to multicultural understanding. Opposite: Graduation at the Baha'i-run Maxwell International School in British Columbia.


By Nechemia Meyers

Nechemia Meyers is a veteran Israeli journalist who recently retired from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. He writes frequently for THE WORLD & I.


Inset Article


The Baha'i faith claims five million adherents worldwide. They reside in virtually every country, including the United States. In 1894, Thornton Chase, a Chicago insurance manager, became the first American Baha'i. Thirty-nine delegates were in attendance at the first Baha'i national convention in 1909, and by 1930 eighteen books of Baha'i scriptures were available in English.

Today, there are over 120,000 Baha'is in approximately seven thousand communities in the United States. Racially and culturally diverse, in part because of their strong commitment to overcoming racism, the Baha'is gather in 1,700 spiritual assemblies across the country, including the national spiritual assembly in Wilmette, Illinois. The nine-member board is the national administrative body for Baha'is in the continental United States and directs the activities of local Baha'i administrative bodies.

Curiously, while racial harmony and sexual equality are important aspects of their philosophy, Baha'is eschew partisan politics. Instead, they sit on interfaith counsels and civic beards and use other works of communityxi involvement to promote principles of unity and harmony.


By the Editor


Inset Article


Bahaism is banned in a number of Muslim countries, but it is welcomed in most lands. For example:

• The Federal Chamber of Deputies of Brazil held a special two-hour "solemn session" in May 1992, to observe the hundredth anniversary of the ascension of Baha'u'llah. Deputies representing twelve political groups paid tribute to his memory.

• On June 17, 1992, the prime minister of Mauritius addressed a gathering at the University of Mauritius to commemorate Baha'ullah's death a hundred years earlier. He said that the Baha'i founder "had given the world a strong spiritual basis for bringing about unity and peace among the human race."

The Baha'i faith has also gained widespread philatelic recognition. For instance:

• In 1992, a Baha'i stamp was issued by Trinidad and Tobago as part of a five-stamp series honoring the Interreligious Organization of Trinidad and Tobago and its efforts to foster harmony among the country's religious organizations.

• A series of postage stamps displaying an orchid design and overprinted with "Baha'i Holy Year 1992" was released by Guyana.

• Panama issued a commemorative envelope bearing the legend "Commemorations of the Baha'i Faith in 1992."

• A stamp featuring the seal of the Universal House of Justice was issued by the Philatelic Service of the Israel Postal Authority in 1993, as part of a series of stamps honoring the religions represented in the Holy Land.


By Nechemia Meyers


Inset Article


One of the striking things about the Baha'i faith is the way that it has long championed causes which only gained general acceptance in recent years. For example, Baha'i teachings have traditionally stressed the importance of protecting the environment, opposing racial prejudice, according full equality to women, and supporting the advancement of' science (the findings of which, they believe, are always in harmony with religion).

To be sure, the Baha'i aren't as progressive as some denominations when it comes to such things as divorce, abortion, and homosexuality, but they aren't as dogmatic on those issues as many other religious groups.

For examples, if a Baha'i marriage fails, divorce, while strongly discouraged, is nevertheless permitted. But the Baha'i couple must spend at least one year living apart and attempting to achieve a reconciliation (an effort supervised by the local Baha'i Spiritual Assembly). If, however, the situation hasn't improved after that "year of patience," then a divorce is permissible.

Their beliefs find practical expression, for example, among the Aymara people in the Andes Mountains of Bolivia, where the Baha'i have started a preschool for the children in isolated villages and brought in a new kind of inexpensive, solar-heated greenhouse, as well as in Swaziland, where they have developed low-cost technology for processing agricultural crops and making bricks.

All in all, Baha'i communities operate more than 1300 local development projects, the vast majority of them in developing countries.

©Copyright 1995, World & I (News World Communications, Inc.)

. .