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Temples, Bahá'í

by Vahid Rafati and Fariborz Sahba

published in Encyclopaedia Iranica, Volume 3
New York: Columbia University, 1989
Although the faith originated in Iran, no Bahai temple was ever built in that country, due to local antagonism. However, since the time of Bahāʾ-Allāh, the Bahais of Iran have gathered in private Bahai homes to pray and to read the writings of the faith.

The Bahai temple, designated in Bahāʾ-Allāh’s Ketāb al-aqdas (Most holy book) as Mašreq al-aḏkār (lit. Dawning place of the mention of [God]), is known usually in the West as “House of Worship.” Although the faith originated in Iran, no Bahai temple was ever built in that country, due to local antagonism. The history of the faith, however, shows that since the time of Bahāʾ-Allāh until the present, the Bahais of Iran have gathered in private Bahai homes to pray and to read the writings of the faith.

Although the basic spiritual and physical characteristics of the Bahai temple were described in the writings of Bahāʾ-Allāh, their details were gradually elaborated on numerous occasions in the writings of his son and successor, ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ (d. 1921). It was during the latter’s ministry that the atmosphere of religious tolerance in Ashkhabad (ʿEšqābād) inspired the Bahais to build the world’s first Bahai temple under the personal guidance and close attention of ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ. While in the Chicago area in 1912 he also laid in Wilmette the corner-stone of the second Bahai temple.

During the ministry of ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ’s grandson and successor, Shoghi Effendi (1921-57), purchasing land for the construction of future temples became an important goal for many Bahai communities and the construction of the temples in Germany (Europe), Uganda (Africa), and Sydney (Australia) were assigned to the Bahais of these countries. Since 1963 the Universal House of Justice, the supreme elected governing body of the Bahais of the world, has called for the construction of three additional temples in Panama City (Latin America), Samoa (Pacific Ocean), and New Delhi (India).

Bahai laws prescribe that a temple be built with the utmost possible perfection in each town and village, and emphasize that its doors be open to all regardless of religion, race, color, nationality, sex, or other distinction; that only the holy scriptures, of Bahai or other religions, be read or chanted therein, in any language; that no musical instruments be played although readings and prayers set to music may be sung by choirs; that no pictures, statues, or images be displayed within the temple walls; that no sermons be delivered and no ritualistic ceremonies practiced; and that no pulpits or altars be erected as an incorporated architectural feature, although readers may stand behind a simple, portable lectern. There being no clergy in the Bahai faith, readers are selected from the community, none serving as a permanent reader. The architect of a Bahai temple could be a Bahai or not, and the submission of designs by the public is permissible. The spirit of the Bahai laws emphasizes that a Bahai temple is a gathering place where the followers of all faiths may worship God without the imposition of denominational practices or restrictions. Since the act of worship is deemed to be purely individual in character, rigidity and uniformity are avoided in Bahai temples.

As stipulated by ʿAbd-al-Bahāʾ, the essential architectural character of the temple requires a nine-sided, circular shape. Although a dome has so far been a feature of all Bahai temples, it is not regarded as an essential part of their structure. It has been advanced that the number nine, as the largest single digit representing comprehensiveness and unity, stands as the numerical value of the Arabic word “Bahāʾ,” from which the words Bahāʾ-Allāh and Bahai have been derived. Existing Bahai temples, surrounded by gardens and often referred to as “silent teachers,” have played an important role in familiarizing the public with Bahai history and teachings, and because of their unique designs reflecting the indigenous cultural, social, and environmental elements of their locations, they continue to attract large numbers of the public.

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