An Introduction to Baha'i faith

Edited from
Encyclopedia of Religion
Second Edition
by Lindsay Jones (Editor)

BAHAIS follow the teaching of the Bab and Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, later known as Baha Allah (Baháulláh, according to Bahai orthography), the Bab’s successor and “the one whom God shall manifest” (man yuzhiruhu Allah). The religion spread from Iran and the Middle East all over the world starting at the end of the nineteenth century.

MIRZA HUSAYN ALI NURI, BAHA ALLAH. Born into a noble Tehran family, Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri (1817–1892) and his younger half brother Mirza Yahya Nuri (1830–1912), known as Subh-i Azal, came in touch with the Bab soon after his revelation in 1844. But during the first years neither brother took a dominant position among the Babis. At the meeting at Badasht in the summer of 1848, Baha Allah supported Qurrat al-Ayn’s position regarding the abrogation of the shariah but did not share her other radical views. During the following year Subh-i Azal was designated as the leader of the Babis because the Bab appreciated his knowledge and thought him an able leader to succeed him. During the persecution of the Babis following the attempt to assassinate Nasir al-Din Shah in 1852, Baha Allah was imprisoned in Tehran in a jail known as Siyah Chal, the “Black Hole.” There for the first time Baha Allah became aware of his future mission as a divine messenger. In 1853 Baha Allah was exiled to Baghdad, where other Babis, including Subh-i Azal, already resided.

Although Baha Allah accepted the leading position of his half brother, in Baghdad the first tensions between the two became evident, partly fostered by differences in interpreting the bayan, which Baha Allah saw in a more mystical or ethical light. As a result he left Baghdad on April 10, 1854, to live as a dervish in Kurdistan near Sulaymaniyah for two years. After his return to Baghdad, his influence on the Babi exiles increased. Famous works authored by Baha Allah in those years include mystical books, like the Seven Valleys, the Four Valleys, and the Hidden Words (1858). Theological arguments that the Bab saw himself as a prophet announced in the Qur'an are the main contents of the Book of Certitude (1862; Kitab-i Iqan). These writings foreshadowed Baha Allah as the divine messenger whom the Bab had foretold.

Shortly before the Ottoman authorities removed him from Baghdad to Istanbul, Baha Allah declared himself to be this promised figure on April 8, 1863, in a garden called Bagh-i Rizvan (Garden of Paradise) in the precincts of Baghdad. After some months in Istanbul, Baha Allah and the other exiles were sent to Edirne, where they stayed for about five years. In the Surat al-Amr, Baha Allah informed his half brother officially about his claim to be “the one whom God shall manifest” (man yuzhiruhu Allah). The writings of Baha Allah that originated from the time spent in Edirne make it clear that he was the promised prophet. One of the important writings is the Kitab-i Badi (Wondrous book), but he also wrote letters (alwah , tablets) to political leaders during these years. Conflicts arose among the Babis, who had to decide whether to side with him or with Subh-i Azal. Therefore the Ottoman authorities banished the Bahais, as the followers of Baha Allah were called, to Acre in Palestine, whereas the followers of Subh-i Azal, the Azalis, were banished to Cyprus.

In August 1868 Baha Allah and his family arrived at Acre, where Baha Allah was imprisoned for the next nine years before he was allowed to move to a country house at Mazraah. In 1880 he moved to Bahji near Haifa. During more than two decades in Palestine, Baha Allah was revered by his followers, who came from as far away as Persia to catch sight of him for a moment. He finished the most holy text of the Bahais, the Kitab-i Aqdas, in 1873. This book primarily relates to sacred and civil laws for the Bahais, thus abrogating the Bab’s bayan for the legal aspects of the religion. The Arabic texts of the Kitab-i Aqdas are meant to be stylistically close to the classical style of the Qur'an. Further letters to individual Bahais and political leaders as well as other writings also originated in these years. Close to the end of his life, Baha Allah wrote Epistle to the Son of the Wolf (Lawh-i Ibn Dhib), which reflects the main topics of Bahai teachings and aspects of its history once more. The Kitab-i Ahd, Baha Allah’s will, set out that his son Abbas Effendi, better known as Abd al-Baha (Servant of the Glory [of God]), would be his only legitimate successor and the infallible interpreter of his father’s books. On May 29, 1892, Baha Allah died at Bahji.

FURTHER HISTORICAL DEVELOPMENTS. According to Bahai tradition, Abd al-Baha (Abdul-Baha according to Bahai orthography) was born in the same night when Sayyed Ali Muhammad declared himself in Shiraz to be the Bab to the hidden Imam on May 23, 1844. He was close to his father from the days of his childhood, and at least since the period of Baha Allah’s imprisonment in Acre, he was the person who maintained contact between Baha Allah and the community. In the Kitab-i Ahd he was bestowed the title markaz-i ahd (the center of the covenant), thus marking his elevated position within the Bahai faith. But Abd al-Baha never was considered a prophet, only the interpreter of Baha Allah’s revelation. During the first years of Abd al-Baha’s leadership, the Bahais faced another crisis as another son of Baha Allah, Muhammad Ali, contested Abd al-Baha’s position. It took about one decade to settle this dispute.

During these years Abd al-Baha’s activities to further the religion were restricted to the area of Acre. But Bahais from the Middle Eastern countries went to Acre, thus strengthening the bonds between the “center of the covenant” and his followers. In 1898 the first American Bahai pilgrims arrived in Acre; the Bahai faith had been known in the United States since 1894. Abd al-Baha was imprisoned for participating in the revolt of the Young Turks against the Ottoman government, but with his formal release from prison in 1908, the situation changed. In 1909 the Bab’s corpse was buried in his shrine on Mount Carmel, thus making this shrine, in addition to Baha Allah’s grave at Bahji, a center for Bahai pilgrimage. In 1910 Abd al-Baha set out for his first missionary journey to Egypt. During the following year he visited Europe, and in 1912–1913 he traveled on missions to Europe and the United States. In 1912 the foundation stone for the “house of worship,” the first building of its kind in the West, was laid at Wilmette, Illinois.

With these missionary journeys, the Bahai faith became an international religion, and Abd al-Baha’s encounters with Westerners also brought new topics into his writings interpreting the revelations of his father. At least in his speeches delivered in the West, Abd al-Baha increased references to Christianity and reduced references to Islam. Abd al-Baha’s presence in the United States stimulated the first wave of growth of the American Bahai community, and he continued to send tablets to America after his departure. The Bahai faith had started in the United States in 1894, when Ibrahim George Kheiralla (1849–1929), a native of Lebanon, converted the first Americans to the faith. Several American converts spread the religion during the first decade of the twentieth century, helping establish the communities in India, Burma, and Tehran and introducing the religion to Paris and London. Therefore Abd al-Baha was impressed by the efforts of the still small American community during his visit. In his “Tablets of the Divine Plan” (1914–1916), he advised the American community regarding how to spread the new religion throughout America. Abd al-Baha admonished the American Bahais to arrange interracial or multiethnic marriages as an expression of the Bahai doctrine of the unity of humans.

The Bahai religion broadened and developed on a social level, which led to the humanitarian involvement of Abd al-Baha and other Bahais during World War I. In appreciation Abd al-Baha was knighted by the British government in 1920. Abd al-Baha died on November 28, 1921, in Haifa and is buried in the Bab’s shrine.

Abd al-Baha was succeeded by his grandson Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, born in 1897. Under Shoghi Effendi’s leadership Bahai communities existed in about twenty-two countries, from the Middle East to Europe, the United States, India, and Burma. Shoghi Effendi was educated at Oxford University, and in 1936 he married Mary Maxwell, also known as Ruhiyah Khanum (d. 2000). Shoghi Effendi is the infallible interpreter of Baha Allah’s and Abd al-Baha’s writings and the “guardian of the cause of God” (wali-yi amr Allah). His main achievements included establishing the administrative and institutional structure of the Bahai religion. Whereas most of the Bahai organizations are only indicated in short and general terms in Baha Allah’s Kitab-i Aqdas, Shoghi Effendi laid out the details. During his period as guardian, the number of National Spiritual Assemblies increased, thus creating a firm and uniform basis for the Bahai communities in different countries. These assemblies, later renamed National Houses of Justice, are headed by the Universal House of Justice, the governing body of all the Bahais worldwide, which was planned by Shoghi Effendi. The Universal House of Justice is a body of nine men elected to fiveyear terms by representatives from the National Spiritual Assemblies. No elections took place during Shoghi Effendi’s lifetime. In 1951 he named the first twelve Bahais to the Hand of the Cause, assigning them special tasks in teaching and missionary activities. Until his untimely death on November 4, 1957, Shoghi Effendi appointed further “Hands,” raising the total number to twenty-seven.

As Shoghi Effendi did not leave any will at his death, the Hands of the Cause assumed management of the religion and arranged the first election of the Universal House of Justice during the Rizvan festival in April 1963, one hundred years after Baha Allah proclaimed himself the man yuzhiruhu Allah in the Rizvan garden in Baghdad. The Universal House of Justice has subsequently led the religion with both legislative and executive powers and also with the task of commenting on the writings of the Bab, Baha Allah, Abd al-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi. However, the Universal House of Justice does not interpret Baha Allah’s scripture because Abd al-Baha and Shoghi Effendi were the definitive interpreters of those writings. Therefore, the Universal House of Justice’s infallibility is restricted to the juridical level and does not include the theological level, where only the writings from the Bab to Shoghi Effendi are definitive. In the early twenty-first century the Bahais number close to six million in more than two hundred countries all over the world. The number of adherents rose significantly in the late twentieth century from a little more than one million at the end of the 1960s to six million by end of the century. But the growth of the religion is not equally distributed. In Europe and North America the number is relatively stagnant, whereas in India, South America, and sub-Saharan Africa the Bahais attract large numbers of new converts. In Iran the situation of the Bahais has been critical through the ages, as they have faced increasing persecutions. Bahais sometimes face persecution in other Muslim countries as well, as the Bab’s and Baha Allah’s claims to bring revelation even after the prophet Muhammad are considered apostasy by Muslims.

The number of Bahais in the United States in the early twenty-first century is about 142,000 members with about 1,200 Local Spiritual Assemblies. About fifteen thousand Bahais live in Canada. A rough estimate is about one-third of these members were raised as Bahais, whereas approximately half of them may have been raised in a Christian confession or denomination. The Bahai faith experienced a major influx between 1969 and 1972, when about fifteen thousand rural African Americans joined the religion, motivated by the Bahai doctrine of racial equality. Also several hundred Native Americans in the Lakota and Navajo reservations embraced the faith in the late twentieth century.

BELIEFS AND PRACTICES. The central focus of Bahai theology is the idea of a threefold unity—there is only one God, all the divine messengers are one, and humankind is one. The strict monotheism of the Bahais brings them in line with older Jewish and Christian monotheism but most closely to Islam. This monotheistic trait clearly reflects the idea that there is only one religion, which develops according to human evolution. Therefore it is necessary that divine messengers and prophets appear in the course of time, but every prophet or divine manifestation brings the eternal religion, clothed in new garb. This evolutionary idea within Bahai faith is not totally new, as Manichaeism in Iran and Muslim groups have held similar views. But Baha Allah’s contribution lies in the concept that the Bahai religion is part of this cyclical evolution. Thus for Bahais in the future, but according to the Kitab-i Aqdas not before “a thousand years,” a new divine manifestation will appear to bring new knowledge from the one God, revealed in a way that is more suitable for the spiritual state of development of humankind then. As the one God is unchangeable but society changes, divine messengers appear, but they are also thought to be one at a spiritual level. They “seal” the period of every earlier religion, thus keeping up the Muslim idea of Muhammad as “seal of the prophets” (khatam al-nabiyin) but reducing it only to the period of Islam as religion in its worldly (or social or materialistic) form. An absolute “seal” exists for every kind of revelation that brings (the unchangeable) divine knowledge anew.

The third aspect of “oneness” relates to humankind. All people, men and women as well as different races, are considered one. Therefore Bahais not only proclaim their religion but also take actions to reduce differences among societies or disadvantages among people based on their race or sex. The Bahai the theological idea of the unity of humankind encourages social engagement to improve living conditions, for example, in less-developed countries or to give equal chances for education both to women and men, and they participate in projects for global peace or global ethics. Such attempts to reach unity among humans by preserving cultural values and differences as a kind of “unity within pluralism” make the Bahai religion attractive to a growing number of people.

For the individual believer, the prophet is the appointed representative of God in the created world. Whoever knows this has obtained all good in the world, as is stated at the beginning of the Kitab-i Aqdas. Thus living as a Bahai is a continuous journey toward God, and heaven and hell are symbols for coming close to God or being separated from him. As already indicated by the Bab’s teachings and taken up by Baha Allah, eschatology is no longer something of the future, but with the appearance of God’s new prophet on earth, eschatology, as predicted in earlier religions, has been realized. To behave according to this eschatological closeness to God, in ethical as well as cultic terms, is one of the main tasks for each Bahai.

Though elaborate rituals are not known within the Bahai community, some religious practices are noteworthy. Every believer is obliged to pray daily and to take part in the Nineteen-Day Feast that marks the beginning of every Bahai month according to the cultic calendar, made up of nineteen months with nineteen days each and four intercalculary days, a practice adopted from the Babis. The main festivals, the nine holy days of the Bahai faith, commemorate central events of the history of the religion: the Rizvan festival (April 21 to May 2), the day of the Bab’s declaration (May 22), the birthdays of the Bab (October 20) and Baha Allah (November 12) and the days of their deaths (July 9 and May 29, respectively), the New Year festival (March 21) at the spring equinox according to the solar calendar, the Day of the Covenant (November 26), and the day of Abd al-Baha’s death (November 28). The Houses of Worship are buildings dedicated only for devotions and readings from the Bahai Scripture. The month of fasting (Ala) in March and the qiblah, the direction during individual prayer to Baha Allah’s shrine in Bahji, retain phenomenologically some links to practices in Shii Islam. But on the whole the Bahai faith, though evolving with the Babis from a Muslim background, clearly defined its own doctrines and practices.


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