What is Bahá’í

Bahá’í  is a religion whose members follow the teachings of its founder Bahá’u’lláh. Its central theme is that humanity is one single race and that the day has come for its unification in one global society.

Bahá’u’lláh, a Persian whose name is Arabic for “the Glory of God”, taught that there is one God who progressively reveals his will to humanity. In the Bahá’í view, each of the great religions brought by the Messengers of God — such as Moses, Krishna, the Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad, and the Báb — represents a successive stage in the spiritual development of civilization. Bahá’ís believe that Bahá’u’lláh is the most recent Messenger in this line, and that he has brought teachings which address the moral and spiritual challenges of the modern world.

Bahá’í , according to The Britannica Book of the Year (1992), is the second most widespread of the world’s independent religions in terms of the number of countries in which it is represented; it is established in 247 countries and territories throughout the world. Bahá’ís come from over 2,100 ethnic, racial, and tribal groups and are numbered at approximately seven million adherents worldwide. The central works of the Bahá’í Scriptures have been translated into 802 languages.

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The Báb

In 1844 the Persian prophet-herald Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad, who adopted the title “the Báb”, which means “the Gate” in Arabic, established a new religion. It is distinct from Islam but grew out of the Islamic matrix in the same way that Christianity grew out of Judaism, or Buddhism out of Hinduism. Followers of the Báb were known as Bábís and their religion as “the Bábí Faith.” The Bábí Faith has its own scriptures and religious teachings, but its duration was very short. According to the Báb, His primary purpose was to prepare the way for “Him whom God shall make manifest,” the one promised in the scriptures of all of the world’s great religions.

As the Báb’s teachings spread his followers came into increasing conflict with the state religion, and in several instances this led to violence. Bahá’ís emphasize the persecution of the Faith and the torture and execution of large numbers of Bábís. The Báb was imprisoned and eventually executed by a firing squad in Tabriz, Persia (present-day Iran) on July 9, 1850. His mission lasted six years.

His tomb, the ‘Shrine of the Báb’, located on the slope of Mount Carmel in Haifa is an important pilgrim place for Bahá’ís. The remains of the Báb were brought secretly from Persia to the Holy Land and were eventually interred in the Shrine built for them in a spot specifically designated by Bahá’u’lláh.

Bahá’u’lláh

Mírzá Husayn-`Alí, known as Bahá’u’lláh, was the son of a Persian nobleman who became one of the early followers of the Báb. He was arrested and imprisoned during a period of severe persecution in 1852. He claimed that while incarcerated in the dungeon of the Síyáh-Chál in Tehran, he received the first intimations that he was the One anticipated by the Báb. Eleven years later, in 1863, while exiled in Baghdad, he formally announced his mission to his family and a small number of followers.

Problems with the Persian and Ottoman authorities took Bahá’u’lláh further and further into exile, from Baghdad to Istanbul (Constantinople), then to Edirne (formerly Adrianople, also within the Ottoman Empire), and finally, in 1868, to the penal colony of Acre (in present-day Israel), on the very edge of the Ottoman Empire. Bahá’u’lláh remained there until his death on May 29, 1892, after forty years of exile and imprisonment. Bahá’ís regard his resting place outside the city as the holiest spot on earth, the Bahá’í Qiblih to which they turn in prayer each day.

During his lifetime, Bahá’u’lláh wrote the equivalent of more than one-hundred volumes of what Bahá’ís believe are divinely inspired writings in Arabic and Persian, including the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, “the Most Holy Book”, the main repository of Bahá’í teaching, written in 1873.

`Abdu’l-Bahá

Bahá’u’lláh was followed by `Abdu’l-Bahá, as his successor and the sole interpreter of his teachings, designated as the “Centre of the Covenant” and Head of the Faith Abdu’l-Bahá had shared his father’s long exile and imprisonment. This imprisonment continued until `Abdu’l-Bahá’s own release as a result of the “Young Turk” revolution in 1908.

Following his release he led a life of travelling, speaking and maintaining correspondence with communities of believers and individuals, expounding the principles of the Bahá’í Faith.

Abdu’l-Bahá died in Haifa on November 28, 1921 and is now buried in one of the front rooms in the Shrine of the Báb.

The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh

In the Bahá’í Faith, “Covenant” refers to the God’s promise to send prophets to be his mouth-piece, as well as to the succession of authority from Bahá’u’lláh to `Abdu’l-Bahá, and from `Abdu’l-Bahá to the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice. Those who publicly rebel against this established succession of authority with the intent of taking its leadership are sometimes declared “covenant-breakers”, and subsequently expelled from the Bahá’í community. According to Bahá’í religious teachings, the purpose of the Covenant is to safeguard the unity of the Bahá’í community.

Since its early days when emerging from the framework of Bábism, the Bahá’í Faith has not been without controversy. During the time of Baha’u’llah, a split occurred between him and his younger half-brother Mirza Yahya, Subh-i-Azal, whom the Báb had appointed as a nominal head of the Bábi community, but had allowed the idea of religious power to pursue his own personal gain. The followers of Subh-i-Azal became known as Azalis while the followers of Bahá’u’lláh became known as Bahá’ís. By the early 20th century, the Azalis as a group had ceased to exist.

Bahá’í theology asserts that any permanent schism in the Bahá’í Faith is impossible, even while recognizing that attempts would, as in prior religious history, be made in this direction. Efforts to break away or take over the Bahá’í Faith have existed since the faith’s inception and with the passing of each central figure or authority. Bahá’ís belonging to the majority group headed by the Universal House of Justice in Haifa believe that through the history of the Faith, each of these attempts to attack the Faith have faded away into obscurity through the protection of the “Covenant”, which is essentially the written Will and Testaments of the respective Centres of the Covenant. Included in these written wills were instructions on how Bahá’ís can resolve differences of opinion should they arise.

Brief chronology

  • November 12, 1817, Birth of Bahá’u’lláh
  • October 20, 1819, Birth of the Báb
  • May 23, 1844 Declaration of the Báb in Shiraz, Iran.
  • July 9, 1850, Martyrdom of the Báb in Tabriz, Iran.
  • October 15, 1852, While imprisoned for four months in an underground dungeon in Tehran, Bahá’u’lláh claims that he receives the first intimations that he is the One foretold by the Báb.
  • January 12, 1853, Exile of Bahá’u’lláh from Tehran to Baghdad.
  • April 23, 1863, Declaration of Bahá’u’lláh in Garden of Ridwán in Baghdad on the eve of his exile to Constantinople.
  • August 31, 1868, arrival of Bahá’u’lláh into the Prison-city of Acre in the Holy Land.
  • May 29, 1892, Death of Bahá’u’lláh (celebrated as Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh).
  • 1893 First newspaper mention of the Bahá’í Faith in United States.
  • 1898 First pilgrimage by Western believers, including Phoebe Hearst and the first African-American believer, Robert Turner, to the Holy Land where they visited with `Abdu’l-Bahá in prison.
  • September 1908, `Abdu’l-Bahá is released from a lifetime of exile and imprisonment at 64 years of age.
  • April-December 1912, Travels of `Abdu’l-Bahá in North America.
  • 1914-1918, World War I. `Abdu’l-Bahá writes the Tablets of the Divine Plan.
  • April 27, 1920, `Abdu’l-Bahá is knighted by the British Empire in recognition of his humanitarian work during WWI.
  • November 28, 1921, Ascension of `Abdu’l-Bahá in Haifa. (This date marks the close of the “Heroic Age of the Bahá’í Faith” and the opening of the “Formative Age.” according to Shoghi Effendi)
  • 1937, Shoghi Effendi launches the “Divine Plan” for the diffusion the Bahá’í Faith across the globe.
  • 1944, Publication of “God Passes By” by Shoghi Effendi.
  • 1951, Eleven functioning National Spiritual Assemblies.
  • 1951-1957, appointment of 32 additional “Hands of the Cause of God” by Shoghi Effendi.
  • November 1957, Death of Shoghi Effendi.
  • 1957-April 1963. Faith is guided by 27 remaining Hands of the Cause.
  • April 1963, Election of first Universal House of Justice by representatives of 56 National Spiritual Assemblies gathered in Haifa.

Administrative order

Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament is the charter of the Bahá’í administrative order. In this document `Abdu’l-Bahá established the twin institutions of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice, and he appointed his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi, as the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith. Again, because of the clear directions in the Will and Testament, there was no question as to the succession of leadership in the Faith.

Shoghi Effendi, who was a student at Oxford University at the time of his grandfather’s passing, served as the Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith until his passing in 1957. For thirty-six years he developed the Bahá’í community and its administrative structure in order to prepare it to support the election of the Universal House of Justice. Because the Bahá’í community was relatively small and undeveloped when the Guardian assumed the leadership of the Faith, it took many years to strengthen it and develop it to the point where it was capable of supporting the administrative structure envisioned by `Abdu’l-Bahá. Shoghi Effendi pursued this goal energetically and systematically.

As outlined in the Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá, the roles and functions of the institutions of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice were clearly complementary: the Guardianship’s function was interpretive, while the function of the Universal House of Justice was legislative. Neither should infringe upon the role of the other. Throughout the period of the Guardianship, Shoghi Effendi exercised his interpretive function. He translated the sacred writings of the Faith; he developed global plans for the expansion of the Bahá’í community; he developed the World Centre of the Bahá’í Faith in Haifa; he carried on a voluminous correspondence with communities and individuals around the world; and he built the administrative structure of the Faith, preparing the community for the election of the Universal House of Justice.

The Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá clearly anticipated that there would be a succession of Guardians, but this was not to be. `Abdu’l-Bahá had indicated that the first born of the Guardian should be his successor, but if that individual did not inherit the Guardian’s spiritual qualities, then he should appoint another male descendant of Bahá’u’lláh. However, Shoghi Effendi did not have children, and through the years all of the members of his family had rebelled against the authority conferred upon him, becoming “Covenant-Breakers”. Thus, it was not possible for him to appoint a successor as Guardian. It was also clear from `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament that only the Universal House of Justice had the authority to resolve questions not explicitly dealt with by either Bahá’u’lláh or `Abdu’l-Bahá, and this issue would obviously need to be taken up by that body. And so Shoghi Effendi had laid the foundations for the election of the Universal House of Justice. This nine-member body, which governs the international Bahá’í community, was first elected in 1963. That same year, it determined that there was “no way to appoint or to legislate to make it possible to appoint a second Guardian to succeed Shoghi Effendi.” Bahá’ís all over the world, loyal to the Covenant first established by Bahá’u’lláh and then carried forward by `Abdu’l-Bahá, accepted this decision made by what they believe is the divinely guided central authority of their Faith.

There is no clergy in the Bahá’í Faith. At the grassroots level, Bahá’í communities are governed by freely elected nine-member councils called “Local Spiritual Assemblies”. Similarly, National Spiritual Assemblies direct and coordinate the affairs of national Bahá’í communities. The Bahá’í electoral process is unique. There is no system of candidature, electioneering or campaigning, and the purpose is to elect members who best possess those spiritual qualities that enable them to serve the community. Both men and women age 21 or over are eligible to elect and be elected to the local and national assemblies, while the Universal House of Justice is male only.

Social principles

The following 14 “principles” are frequently listed as a quick summary of the Bahá’í teachings. They are derived from transcripts of speeches given by Abdu’l-Bahá during his tour of Europe and North America in 1912.

  • The Oneness of God
  • The Oneness of religion
  • The Oneness of mankind
  • One World Government
  • Equality of women and men
  • Elimination of all forms of prejudice
  • World peace
  • Harmony of religion and science
  • Independent investigation of truth
  • The need for universal compulsory education
  • The need for a universal auxiliary language
  • Obedience to government and non-involvement in party politics
  • A spiritual solution to economic problems (elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty)

Another Bahá’í principle is that of moderation in all things (specifically liberty, civilization, religious zeal and scriptural literalism.) The Bahá’í teachings also reject asceticism and monasticism.

Bahá’ís believe that although the current age is quite dark, the future of humanity is gloriously bright and that world peace is inevitable. This bright future is generally seen by Bahá’ís as the fulfilment of prophecies in various older religions. Many Bahá’í beliefs are in harmony with those of the emerging global civilization (such as support for international organisations, universal standards of human rights, and the free movement of people and trade between countries). At the same time, the Bahá’í teachings differ in important ways from many values associated with westernization and its harmful effects (rejecting, for example, cultural uniformity, materialism, economic injustice and “loose” moral standards).

To be a Bahá’í means that a person believes that Bahá’u’lláh is the manifestation of God for this time. A Bahá’í strives to follow his teachings and observe his laws.

Rituals

There are very few rituals or traditions in the Bahá’í Faith, and rigidity is seen as a quality that must be avoided. However, there are a few basic religious observances that the Kitáb-i-Aqdas holds as obligatory:

  • There is a specified marriage declaration.
  • There are a few specified funerary practices.
  • Bahá’ís are enjoined to
    • recite an obligatory prayer each day, facing in the direction of the Qiblih (the Point of Adoration)
    • read the sacred writings of their faith each morning and evening

Other laws and ordinances

  • Bahá’ís in good health between the ages of 15 and 70 observe a nineteen-day sunrise-to-sunset fast each year March 2 to March 21, during the Bahá’í month of `Alá.
  • There are no dietary restrictions, but Bahá’ís are forbidden to drink alcohol or to take recreational drugs, as these interfere with an individual’s spiritual growth and progress. The use of tobacco is not forbidden but is discouraged.
  • Bahá’ís are generally expected to make a financial contribution to the faith, but soliciting of funds from individuals is prohibited and contributions from people who are not registered Bahá’ís are not accepted. Distinct from the general Bahá’í funds is the law of Huqu’u’llah (“Right of God”), which requires Bahá’ís to pay 19% of their net income (after subtracting all necessary expenses). In the case of both Huqu’u’llah and the general funds contributions are confidential and the amount paid is a matter of individual conscience.
  • Family life is, in the Bahá’í view, a cornerstone of society. Marriage is encouraged. Marriage is permitted only between a man and a woman; homosexual relationships are forbidden in Bahá’í law.
    • Couples wishing to marry must obtain the consent of all living natural parents, as the Bahá’í teachings state that marriage is more than a union of individuals; it is the union of families.
    • Inter-religious marriages are permitted, and interracial marriages are encouraged.
    • Chastity is required, i.e. sexual intercourse only within marriage.
    • Divorce is permitted, although regarded with the utmost seriousness, and is granted if, after a year of separation, the couple is unable to reconcile their differences.
    • Parents are required to provide an education to their children. If resources permit for only one child to be educated, the Bahá’í Faith says that a daughter should receive this education, as she is the first educator to her future children.
  • Bahá’ís should obey the decisions made by their elected local and national spiritual assemblies (elected religious councils) and the Universal House of Justice. If they continuously fail to do so in a way that endangers the faith they may be sanctioned: national assemblies are authorised to remove “administrative rights” (to vote and be elected, attend meetings with an administrative function and make financial contributions); the Universal House of Justice has the authority to expel members from the community and declare a person a “Covenant-Breaker”. In accordance with the instructions given by `Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’ís are expected to “shun” covenant-breakers, i.e. avoid personal contact. Most people who disobey the laws or institutions of the Faith are not considered “covenant-breakers”, however.

Calendar

The Bahá’í calendar was established by the Báb. The year consists of 19 months of 19 days, and 4 or 5 intercalary days, to make a full solar year. The New Year (called Naw Rúz) occurs on the vernal equinox, March 21, at the end of the month of fasting. Bahá’í communities gather at the beginning of each month at a meeting called a “feast” for worship, consultation and socializing. While the name may seem to suggest that an elaborate meal is served, that is not necessarily the case. Sometimes refreshments are plentiful, but they can be as simple as bread and water. Bahá’ís observe 11 Holy Days throughout the year, with work suspended on 9 of these. These days commemorate important anniversaries in the history of the Faith.

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Becoming a Bahá'í?

Joining the Bahá’í community does not require going through any ritual at all including any sort of baptism. Anyone wishing to become a member simply informs a representative of the Local Bahá’í Assembly.

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