Baha ʾism is a religion founded in the second half of the 1860s by an Iranian Babi, Mirza Hosayn Ali Nuri (1817–1892), known as Baha ʾullah (the Glory of God).
Bahaʾism grew out of the millenarian (messianic) Babi movement that began in the 1840s. Bahaʾullah, a Babi nobleman, had been exiled for his beliefs to Baghdad in the Ottoman Empire in 1853. He declared himself in 1863 to a small group of close relatives and disciples as the messianic figure promised in Babism, "He whom God shall make manifest." He was exiled to Istanbul (1863), to Edirne (1864–1868), and finally to Acre in Ottoman Syria (1868–1892). From about 1864 he began sending letters back to Babis in Iran, announcing his station. He later asserted that he was the fulfillment of millenarian hopes, not only in Babism, but in Islam, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and in other traditions as well. Within a decade or so the vast majority of Babis had become Bahaʾis.
Bahaʾullah, in an age of Middle Eastern absolutism, advocated parliamentary democracy. His own religion lacked a formal clergy, and he put executive power in the hands of community-steering committees he called "houses of justice," which later became elective bodies. Bahaʾullah preached the unity of religions, progressive revelation, and the unity of humankind. He urged peace, criticized states for engaging in arms races, and advocated a world government able to employ collective security to prevent aggression. He said all Baha ʿis should school their children, both boys and girls, and he improved the position of women, saying that in his religion women are as men. Bahaʾi women are not constrained to practice veiling or seclusion. The initial social base of the movement was the urban middle and lower-middle classes and small landowners who had been Babis. Merchant clans who claimed descent from the prophet Muhammad (Sayyids) emerged as especially important in the leadership of the Bahaʾi community in Iran. Substantial numbers of Shiʿites, Jews, and Zoroastrians also became Bahaʾis throughout Iran.
Bahaʾullah was succeeded by his eldest son, Abduʾl-Baha, who presided over the religion from 1892 to 1921. By 1900, the community had recovered from the persecution of the 1850s and had reached from 50,000 to 100,000 out of a population of 9 million. Shiʿite clerics and notables agitated against the Bahaʾi faith, and major pogroms broke out in 1903 in Rasht, Isfahan, and Yazd. In 1905, the Constitutional Revolution broke out in Iran. Abduʾl-Baha at first supported it, but later declared his community's neutrality. Nonintervention in party politics then became a Bahaʾi policy. The religion spread internationally. Restricted to the Middle East and South Asia in Bahaʾullah's lifetime, it now spread to Europe, North America, East Asia, Africa, and South America.
From 1921 to 1957, the Bahaʾi faith was led by Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, Abduʾl-Baha's grandson, from his headquarters in Haifa, Palestine/Israel. Thereafter, from 1963, the worldwide Bahaʾi community periodically elected a central body, the Universal House of Justice, as prescribed in Bahaʾullah's writings. The religion developed close ties with the United Nations, and it is recognized as a nongovernmental observer. In Iran, the rise of the Pahlavi state from 1925 to 1978, and a more secular policy had both benefits and drawbacks for Bahaʾis in Iran. Greater security and a decreased clerical influence produced less violence toward them, although they continued to face harassment. The authoritarianism of the Pahlavi state also led to tight restrictions on Bahaʾi activities and publications, and occasional state persecution, as in 1955.
By an accident of history (Bahaʾullah's Ottoman exile), the world headquarters of the religion since the nineteenth century, Haifa, are now in Israel, although less than a thousand Bahaʾis live in that country. Critics of the Bahaʾis in the region charge them with being Zionist agents, but Bahaʾis point to their principle of nonintervention in partisan politics. Israel has granted Bahaʾis freedom of religion, as it has other religious communities, and no evidence of political collusion has ever been produced. In the 1960s, the rise of authoritarian populist regimes stressing Arab nationalism led to the persecution of Bahaʾis in Egypt, Libya, Iraq, and elsewhere in the Arab world, a situation that continues to this day.
In Iran, by 1978, the Bahaʾi community numbered around 300,000 out of a population of 35 million. Most Bahaʾis were lower-middle and middle class, although they included a few prominent millionaires. The Islamic Republic of Iran launched an extensive campaign against the Bahaʾis from 1979 through 1988. Many Muslim clerics despised the Bahaʾis as heretics and apostates, whose beliefs posed a dire threat to traditional Islam. Iran executed nearly 200 prominent Bahaʾis for their beliefs and imprisoned hundreds more. Bahaʾi investments and philanthropies were confiscated. Bahaʾis were denied ration cards, excluded from state schools and universities, and often forced to recant their faith. After 1988, most were released from prison but still suffer widespread official discrimination in Iran.
As the religion has grown in India and the Americas, the often persecuted and constrained Middle Eastern communities have come to represent less than 10 percent of Bahaʾis worldwide—estimated in 2001 at 5 million.
see also arab nationalism; babis; constitutional revolution; muhammad; zoroastrianism.
Hartz, Paula. Baha ʾi Faith. New York: Facts on File, 2002.
Juan R. I. Cole
Claiming to be the promised one of all religions, and preaching a message of global socio-religious reform, Bahā'u'llāh initially drew his followers from amongst the Bābīs, most of whom became Bahā'īs. Significant expansion in the non-Muslim Third World began in the 1950s and 1960s, Bahā'īs from these areas now constituting the majority of the world's five million Bahā'īs.
Bahā'ī is monotheistic, but as God is regarded as in essence completely transcendent and unknowable, religious doctrine centres on the belief in a series of ‘Manifestations of God’ (mazāḥir-i ilāhī). These individuals reflect and manifest the attributes of God and progressively reveal the divine purpose for humankind. The Manifestations include Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, Jesus, Muḥammad, the Bāb, and for the present age, Bahā'u'llāh. At a societal level, the present age is regarded as unique. The unity of all the peoples and religions of the earth is the destined hallmark of the age.
Religious life centres on various individual acts of devotion (daily obligatory prayer and moral self-accounting, an annual nineteen-day fast), and a communal ‘Feast’ held once every nineteen days at the beginning of each month in the Bahā'ī calendar. Bahā'ī communities come together to commemorate various Holy Days, including the Bahā'ī New Year at the vernal equinox (usually 21 Mar.), and the Ridvān festival (21 Apr.–2 May) marking the anniversary of Bahā'u'llāh's first declaration of his mission (1863). With no priesthood, administration rests with locally and nationally elected councils (‘Spiritual Assemblies’), supreme authority resting with the Universal House of Justice.