The Baháʾí (pronounced bah-HIGH) faith is one of the world's youngest religions. It began in mid-nineteenth-century Persia (modern-day Iran). Its founder, Mirza Husayn ʿAli Nuri (1817–1892), took the name Baháʾuʾlláh ("Glory of God" in Arabic) and declared that he was a prophet, God's chosen messenger. Baháʾuʾlláh's writings and teachings form the basis of the Baháʾí religion. The central belief of the Baháʾí faith is the oneness of all divinity, meaning that all faiths contain visions of the ultimate truth. Baháʾís, the followers of Baháʾuʾlláh, also believe in the unity of all humankind. There is only one human race, and all humans should be treated equally.
There are more than seven million Baháʾís worldwide. Followers can be found in 247 countries and include more than two thousand ethnic, tribal, and racial groups. While the United States and Europe were among the first areas outside the Middle East to have Baháʾí congregations (worshippers), the fastest growth in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries has been in Asia and Africa. By 2002 there were 3.6 million Baháʾís in Asia and 1.8 million in Africa, with about 150,000 members of the faith in the United States, 15,000 in Canada, and 130,000 in Europe.
History and development
The Baháʾí religion developed over a period known as the Heroic Age of the Baháʾí Faith, which lasted from 1844 to 1921. The Baháʾí religion emerged from an earlier faith, Babi (pronounced BAH-bee), a Muslim sect. (A sect is a small religious group that has branched off from a larger established religion.) The Babi sect was founded in Persia by Sayyid Ali Muhammad of Shiraz (1819–1850). In 1844 Ali Muhammad, a twenty-five-year-old merchant, proclaimed himself a messenger of God, taking the title the Bab, or "Gate" in Arabic. He considered himself a gateway through which God could communicate divine truth. The Bab called for spiritual and moral reform, the equality of women, and help for the poor. His message was a powerful force in nineteenth-century Persia, which was torn between the competing influences of the Russian and British empires. In his most important work, Bayan, or Declaration, the Bab explained that he was only the first of two of God's messengers. The second prophet would bring a new age of peace and justice to the world.
WORDS TO KNOW
- Disrespectful comments or actions concerning a religion or its God.
- In religion, a covenant refers to an agreement between God or a messenger of God and His followers.
- To exclude or officially ban a person from a church or other religious community.
- A person whose beliefs oppose his or her religion's official doctrines, or defining principles.
- Religious communities.
- A person chosen to serve as God's messenger.
- A religious ritual that conveys spiritual blessing.
- A small religious group that has branched off from a larger established religion.
The Bab gathered eighteen disciples, or followers, making nineteen believers in all. This became a sacred number to the Babi and, later, for the Baháʾí faith. The Bab's message of love and compassion soon gained many other followers. A popular belief spread that the Bab was the Qáʾim, a Messiah-like figure important in the tradition of the Shiite Islam practiced in Persia. (A messiah is a messenger from God.) Persian leaders began to worry that the Bab was gaining too much power and might lead a rebellion. Because of such suspicion the Bab spent much of the last years of his life either under house arrest or in prison. In 1848 revolts led by the Babi broke out and over the next three years they were brutally suppressed. The Bab was executed by firing squad in 1850. According to legend, the first round of shots left him unmarked and only cut the ropes that bound him. It took a second round to kill him. His remains were later transferred to the Shrine of the Bab on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel.
The rise of Baháʾuʾlláh
Two early followers of the Bab were Mirza Husayn ʿAli Nuri, son of a well-respected nobleman who held a position at the court of the king of Persia, and his half-brother Mirza Yahya (1830–1912), better known as Subh-i Azal. By 1845 Mirza Husayn, known for his charitable good works, had given up his social standing, assumed the name of Baháʾuʾlláh, and joined the Babi religion. One of the movement's most influential speakers, Baháʾuʾlláh soon fell under suspicion.
Following the execution of the Bab in 1850, several Babis, working independently of the rest of the followers, tried to assassinate the king of Persia. The government responded with the massacre of thousands of Babis. Baháʾuʾlláh was imprisoned in a dungeon in Tehran known as the Black Pit. There he received a vision from a Maiden from God, who told him that he was the prophet of whom the Bab had spoken. He kept this to himself after his release several months later and went into exile, along with other Babis, to Baghdad, in present-day Iraq.
Although Baháʾuʾlláh knew that he was the one the Bab had said would come, he did not speak of his visitation and the leadership of the Babi religion passed to his half-brother, Subh-i Azal. The Bab's will had recognized Subh-i Azal as his successor, but in Baghdad Subh-i Azal remained hidden in his house, allowing Baháʾuʾlláh to make most of the public appearances to the Babi. Tensions grew between the two brothers when new followers to the religion and those visiting Baghdad recognized Baháʾuʾlláh, not Subh-i Azal, as their spiritual leader. In order to avoid conflict, Baháʾuʾlláh went into isolation in the mountains of Kurdistan far to the north of Baghdad. He stayed there for two years, coming into contact with members of Sufi orders, a mystical Muslim sect. He became known as a wise man of the mountains and wrote one of his first books, Four Valleys, during this time.
When Baháʾuʾlláh returned to Baghdad he discovered that twenty-five people had already claimed to be the messenger from God that the Bab had predicted and that Subh-i Azal had had several of his opponents killed. Baháʾuʾlláh spent the next seven years in Baghdad and his fame began to spread. He continued writing about his spiritual discoveries. Some of the most important of these texts were the Kitab-i-Iqan, or The Book of Certitude (freedom from doubt), and Kalimat-i-Maknunih, or The Hidden Words. With Kitab-i-Iqan completed in 1862, Baháʾuʾlláh finished the Bab's Bayan, which had been left incomplete, with only eleven of its proposed nineteen chapters written. In completing the Bab's work, Baháʾuʾlláh was also claiming leadership of the Babis.
In an attempt to strengthen his position as leader, Subh-i Azal also claimed to have completed the Bab's work. Relations between the two brothers worsened as support of Baháʾuʾlláh increased in Baghdad and in his native country, Persia. Persian leaders once again grew concerned about Baháʾuʾlláh's growing influence. They persuaded the Ottoman government, which controlled Baghdad and much of what is now Turkey, to banish the holy man from Baghdad, where he had attracted so many followers. In 1863, before his exile from Baghdad, Baháʾuʾlláh told a small group of followers about his visitation eleven years earlier, announcing for the first time that he was the long-awaited messenger of God. This declaration took place in the Garden of Ridvan, near Baghdad, and was later celebrated in one of Baháʾí's main holy days, the Festival of Ridvan.
The Baháʾí religion is born
Baháʾuʾlláh, along with his family and a small group of followers, traveled to Constantinople (modern-day Isanbul, Turkey) and then on to Adrianople (modern-day Edirne, Turkey), where he publicly declared, in 1866, that he was the messenger of God and a prophet, as Muhammad and Jesus had been before him. He wrote official letters to world political and religious leaders, such as Pope Pius IX (1792–1878) and Queen Victoria of England (1819–1901), announcing his presence. This led to a complete break with the Babis and Subh-i Azal, who also proclaimed himself the messenger of God about whom the Bab had spoken. Not long after, Baháʾuʾlláh was poisoned. Though he survived the attempt on his life, the poison left a tremor, or shaking, in his hand until his death. Suspicion fell on his half-brother, Subh-i Azal. The year 1866 saw the final split between followers of the two men. Those who sided with Baháʾuʾlláh called themselves Baháʾís, while followers of Subh-i Azal first referred to themselves as Azalis, then Bayanis. The Baháʾís went on to become the thirteenth-largest religion in the world. In the early twenty-first century the Bayanis had only a few thousand believers, mainly in Iran.
In 1868 Baháʾuʾlláh, his family, and followers were transported by the Ottoman government that controlled Edirne to the prison city of Acre in Palestine, now Akko, Israel. Baháʾuʾlláh remained in prison for nine years, writing Kitab-i-Aqdas, or the Book of Laws, the most holy book of Baháʾís. With the death of the old Ottoman sultan, or leader, Baháʾuʾlláh was finally released from prison in 1877. He settled in nearby Bahji. He lived out the rest of his life there, continuing his writing and teaching. Baháʾuʾlláh died of a fever in 1892.
Baháʾuʾlláh left a will and testament that named his son, Abduʾl-Baha ("Servant of Baha" in Arabic; 1844–1921), as his successor. Another son, Muhammad ʿAli, claimed that the will was a fake, and that he was the next rightful leader of the Baháʾís. Muhammad ʿAli even took his claims to the Ottoman authorities. Abduʾl-Baha eventually excommunicated his brother, officially banning him from membership in the faith.
In 1908 a group of rebels known as the Young Turks led an uprising against the Ottoman Empire. After the successful rebellion, political prisoners were freed, and Abduʾl-Baha was permitted to travel to other countries to spread the word of Baháʾí. In 1910 he set out on a three-year tour that included Egypt, the United States, and Europe. During his visit to the United States, the foundation stone for a Baháʾí house of worship was laid in Wilmette, Illinois. This was the first place of Baháʾí worship in the Western world. The Baháʾí faith had, in fact, begun in the United States as early as 1894, when a Lebanese immigrant, Ibrahim George Kheiralla (1849–1929), converted a group of Americans. Under Abduʾl-Baha, the Baháʾí faith became an international religion.
Abduʾl-Baha wrote many books and spoke widely. However, he was never considered a prophet, as was his father. Rather, he served as an interpreter of the words of Baháʾuʾlláh. In 1920 Abduʾl-Baha was knighted, or granted a rank of honor, in Great Britain for his humanitarian work during World War I (1914–18; a war in which Great Britain, France, the United States, and their allies defeated Germany, Austria-Hungary, and their allies). Abduʾl-Baha died in 1921 and was buried in the Shrine of Bab on Mount Carmel, in Haifa, the city in modern-day Israel that has become the international center for the Baháʾí faith. In his will Abduʾl-Baha appointed his grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1897–1957), as Guardian, or leader, of the Baháʾí religion.
Heroic Age ends
Abduʾl-Baha's death marked the end of the Heroic Age of the Baháʾí Faith. Shoghi Effendi, who was educated at Oxford University in England, carried on the work of the earlier leaders. He focused his efforts on the organization and administration of the religion. He also worked to establish an international structure to support and connect Baháʾís around the world through a network of local and national spiritual assemblies. Although Shoghi Effendi died suddenly in 1957, a governing body called the Universal House of Justice, was established according to his directions in Haifa in 1963. The Universal House of Justice is the supreme ruling body of the Baháʾí faith worldwide. Its nine members are elected every five years by representatives of the National Spiritual Assemblies.
In addition to establishing the administrative system of the Baháʾí faith, Shoghi Effendi also translated many of the writings of the Bab, Baháʾuʾlláh, and Abduʾl-Baha and helped to spread the religion around the world. When he became the Guardian in 1921, there were 100,000 members worldwide. At the time of his death in 1957, there were 400,000 members. In addition, he wrote God Passes By, which tells the story of the first century of the Baháʾí faith. His death caused a crisis in leadership, as the role of Guardian was meant to be a hereditary one, passed on from one family member to another. But Shoghi Effendi had no children, and most of his immediate family had rebelled against his authority and had been excommunicated. Power thus passed for several years to a group of fifty-two people who had been selected to protect the Baháʾí religion, called Hands of the Cause of God.
- Belief. Baháʾís believe in the oneness of all things: one world one human race, one religion.
- Followers. Baháʾí is the thirteenth-largest world religion, with 7.5 million followers in 247 countries.
- Name of God. Baha, the Persian word meaning "gloy" or "splendor," is sometimes used to refer to God. More common usage is simply God. For Baháʾí s, all gods are merely various perceptions, or views, of the one God.
- Symbols. The nine-pointed star is the primary symbol of the Baháʾí faith.
- Worship. There is no clergy in the Baháʾí faith, Services are held at the first of the month in homes or simple buildings and in Houses of Worship around the world.
- Dress. Baháʾís have no official dress.
- Texts. Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Book of Laws, written by the founder, Baháʾuʾlláh, is the primary text for the religion.
- Sites. The Shrine of Baháʾuʾlláh in Israel is considered the holiest site for Baháʾís.
- Observances. The most important holy period for Baháʾís is the Festival of Ridvan, held from April 21 and 29 through May 2. Naw-Ruz, or New Year's Day, on March 21, is also an important holy day.
- Phrases. "Baha" is sometimes used by members to address one another.
Baháʾís have faced persecution for their beliefs. Persecution is to mistreat others because of different beliefs or other characteristics. The Baháʾí faith grew out of a region dominated by Islam. For Muslims, the prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632) was the last of God's messengers. Baháʾuʾlláh's claim to be a prophet is blasphemous, or an insult to the Muslim faith. Baháʾí persecution has been particularly harsh in Iran. In 1978 a Muslim government was established in Iran and hundreds of Baháʾís were killed, while hundreds more were imprisoned. Although Baháʾís respect all religions and their holy books, they have faced repression, imprisonment, and even death for professing their own faith.
Sects and schisms
The Baháʾí faith is itself the result of a schism, or separation, from the Babis, and that faith was itself an Islamic sect. Since the religion was established there have been several disputes over leadership. The first of these disputes occurred after the death of Baháʾuʾlláh, who had established the Covenant of Baháʾuʾlláh. This Covenant was a promise to his followers guaranteeing the unbroken continuation of the Baháʾí faith by creating a clear transfer of leadership from one generation to another.
At his death Baháʾuʾlláh named his eldest son, Abduʾl-Baha, the next leader of the Baháʾí community, or the Center of the Covenant. But another son from a second marriage, Muhammad ʿAli, tried to claim leadership of the Baháʾí. He established a competing sect, the Unitarian Baháʾís, though it attracted few followers. Finally, Abduʾl-Baha excommunicated his brother and most of the family from Baháʾuʾlláh's second and third marriages from the religion, calling them Covenant breakers, or heretics, people whose opinions oppose the religion's defining principles. The term Covenant breaker has been used ever since to excommunicate those who have opposed the leadership of the Baháʾí faith.
Abduʾl-Baha, in turn, established a continuation of the original Covenant with the creation of a Guardian, who serves as the hereditary leader of the religion, passing control from generation to generation. Abduʾl-Baha named his grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, as his successor. Although he was young when he was named the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi was generally accepted by the faithful. His marriage to a Westerner, Mary Maxwell, a Baháʾí from the United States, and his growing international focus led to complaints from his immediate family, many of whom began disobeying him and marrying Covenant breakers. This did not result in the creation of more sects, but it did force Shoghi Effendi to excommunicate several family members.
With the death of Shoghi Effendi, the hereditary office of Guardian came to an end. Leadership was supposed to be passed to the oldest son, but Shoghi Effendi had no children, and other members of the family had already been excommunicated as Covenant breakers. For a time control fell to a small body of advisers, the Hands of the Cause of God, until the Universal House of Justice was established in 1963. In 1960 one of the members of the Hands of the Cause of God, Mason Remey, claimed that he was the Second Guardian because Shoghi Effendi had named him president of the International Baháʾí Council, a forerunner to the Universal House of Justice. He formed the Orthodox Baháʾí sect. Although he was expelled from the mainstream religion, Remey managed to attract followers to his cause. By 2005 the Orthodox Baháʾí had established seventy-two local chapters. This sect, in turn, suffered several schisms, but most of those breakaway groups were short-lived.
Later disagreements in the Baháʾí faith have been mainly between the more liberal members of the religion in the United States, New Zealand, and Canada and the conservative national offices. A great deal of criticism has focused on the difference between the Baháʾís' stated belief in the equality of the sexes, while only allowing men to serve in the Universal House of Justice. Another point of criticism has been the requirement that a Baháʾí who wishes to publish something about the faith must first have the material reviewed by a Baháʾí committee. Much of this discussion and argument has been carried out publicly on the Internet, leading to the excommunication of some and the resignation of others from the religion. One result of this controversy was the creation, in 2004, of another sect, the Reform Baháʾí faith, by Frederick Glaysher.
The central belief of Baháʾís is oneness. There is one God, all messengers of God and prophets have brought one message, and humankind is also united as one race. To Baháʾís, all religions are really just one religion, which is evolving and changing over time. It is therefore necessary that prophets and messengers from the one God appear from time to time to bring updated messages to humans. Each messenger or prophet is merely a new representative of the one eternal religion. Baháʾís see themselves within this cycle of continual change and evolution and recognize Baháʾuʾlláh as one messenger among many that have come before, including Moses, the Buddha, Jesus Christ, and Muhammad. According to the Kitab-i-Aqdas, another new messenger will reveal a better way to live a spiritual life, but this will not take place "before a thousand years." This sense of continual transformation is a key element to the Baháʾí faith and one that is unique to the religion.
Spiritual growth and social conscience
Baháʾís believe that the purpose of human life is to know God and to develop one's spiritual foundation in order to better advance civilization and bring about world peace. Concepts such as heaven and hell are, for Baháʾís, only a matter of distance from God. When a person dies, his or her soul works through spiritual levels to get nearer to an understanding of God. Although a person can never completely understand God, he or she can understand parts of the concept of a divine being through such divine qualities as wisdom and compassion. Education is thus extremely important for Baháʾís, as it teaches these qualities.
Education is emphasized not just for the study of the Baháʾí faith but also for general knowledge. In fact, Baháʾís believe that education should be required for all young people. They believe that there should be harmony between religion and science. They see no contradiction between reason and faith. Finally, Baháʾís believe that it is the responsibility of each individual to seek the truth.
The belief in the oneness of religions leads to tolerance of other faiths. Baháʾí teaches that all forms of prejudice, such as those based on religion, gender, class, and national origin, should be abandoned. Prejudice is an opinion or judgment made without informed knowledge, often resulting in hostility towards a person or group. As an example of how this belief was put into action, in 1915 Abduʾl-Baha, the son of Baháʾuʾlláh, advised members of the Baháʾí faith in the United States to arrange interracial or multiethnic marriages (marriages between people of different races and ethnic groups) to further this goal of the abandonment of prejudice. Baháʾís promote the adoption of an international language to encourage the unity of all humankind, and they have become active members of the United Nations since its founding in 1945. The United Nations is an international organization formed to help nations resolve their differences peacefully.
The Baháʾí Calendar
The Baháʾí calendar consists of nineteen months, and each month is nineteen days long. Between the eighteenth and the nineteenth month, an additional four days (five days in leap years) are inserted to create a year of 365 days (or 366 days in leap years), the usual solar-calendar length. The Baháʾí new year begins on March 21, which is the first day of spring. The nineteen months have Arabic names given for an attribute of God, such as Knowledge, Power, Dominion, and Grandeur. Though the Baháʾí calendar maintains a seven-day week, each month consists of only about two-and-a-half weeks. Saturday is the first day of the Baháʾí week. Its translated Arab name is Glory. The rest of the days of the week, in order, are Beauty, Perfection, Grace, Justice, Majesty, and Independence. Each day of the week begins at sundown and lasts until sundown of the next day, rather than midnight, as in the Western tradition.
The calendar was created in 1844. March 21, 1844, marked the beginning of the Baháʾí Era, or be. Thus, 1 be lasted from March 21,1844, to March 20,1845. For the Baháʾís, the year 2000 was partly 155 be and partly 156 be.
As part of their belief in creating a global community, Baháʾís also work with nongovernmental groups around the world for women's rights, education, and the environment. They sponsor after-school projects, the building of orphanages and health clinics in rural areas, the establishment of vocational programs, classes in health care, and tree-planting programs for the benefit of society.
Leadership and rituals
Baháʾuʾlláh did not trust ritual worship or a controlling clergy or priesthood. Thus, in the Baháʾí faith, there is no regular church service and no permanent clergy. Likewise, there are no initiation rituals to the Baháʾí faith and no sacraments, ceremonies that convey spiritual blessing.
The community is open to all who want to participate, but members have certain duties that must be performed. These include daily prayer, avoidance of drugs and alcohol, and the practice of monogamy, or having only one marriage partner. Parents must grant permission for a marriage before it can take place. Baháʾís are expected to make financial contributions to the religion, but the amount is private and left up to each member. In addition, all healthy members between the ages of fifteen and seventy are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset for the nineteen days between March 2 and March 20 that precede the new year, which begins on the first day of spring.
The central book of the Baháʾí faith is the Kitab-i-Aqdas, or the Book of Laws. Written in 1873 by Baháʾuʾlláh, it is also called the mother book of Baháʾí teachings. The book established the laws of the religion, such as the requirement of daily prayer, the lack of clergy, and dietary rules. It also discusses the administration of the religion and deals with ethical questions and prophecies, or predictions of the future. In this book Baháʾuʾlláh describes the process of continual growth and evolution in religion. Each age needs a new message; even Baháʾuʾlláh himself was to be followed by another of God's messengers in one thousand years. Earlier works from Baháʾuʾlláh include the Kitab-i-Iqan (Book of Certitude), written in both Arabic and Persian in 1862, and, according to tradition, in only two days and nights. In this book Baháʾuʾlláh continues the work of the Bab, explaining the continual unfolding of the religion and stating that all religions are related to one another.
Baháʾuʾlláh wrote three more mystical works that are composed in short verses and provide spiritual truth. These include Kalimat-i-Maknunih, or The Hidden Words; Haft-Vadi, or Seven Valleys; and Chihar-Vadi, or Four Valleys. In The Hidden Words Baháʾuʾlláh compresses the basics of spiritual knowledge into short passages or prayers, seventy-one in Arabic and eighty-two in Persian. Baháʾuʾlláh wrote many more books and letters, and also spoke publicly on the faith's principles and ideas.
Three symbols are typically associated with the Baháʾí faith. The primary symbol is the nine-pointed star. The importance of that number to the religion is partly due to the tradition in Arabic of attaching numerical values to words. The number value for Baha (Glory) is nine. There are also nine openings in the human body. (Nineteen is another sacred number for Baháʾís, representing the number of original disciples of the Bab plus the Bab himself).
A second major symbol is an Arabic inscription, "Ya Bahaul Abha," meaning "O Glory of the Most Glorious." This symbol is referred to as the Greatest Name and was created by a Baháʾí calligrapher, or letter designer. The nine-pointed star often has this inscription in its center. The third major Baháʾí symbol is the ring-stone symbol, etched on rings worn by Baháʾís. Designed by Abduʾl-Baha, it features two stars, between which is a stylized version of the Persian word Baha.
Baháʾí has no permanent clergy or priesthood. Monasticism, or separation from the world, is forbidden. There are seven Houses of Worship, or Mashriquʾl-Adhkar, around the globe. Baháʾís also gather in private homes or modest facilities for their services, which include the study of texts, prayer, and the recitation of passages from sacred works. Baháʾís see no distinction between daily life and their religion, and part of their spirituality is performing useful work in the world.
The seven Houses of Worship are large and symbolic structures, each nine-sided and topped by a dome. Local materials and individual inspiration have determined each structure's appearance, from the Baháʾí Temple in Wilmette, Illinois (near Chicago), which is made of cast concrete and is of classic proportions, to the temple near New Delhi, India, completed in 1986, which resembles a lotus flower. This Indian House of Worship has attracted more than fifty million visitors since its completion, making it one of the most visited buildings in the world. Other Houses of Worship are located in Kampala, Uganda; Sydney, Australia; Frankfurt, Germany; Panama City, Panama; and Apia, Samoa. Around the world 120 sites have been identified as locations for future Houses of Worship.
Baháʾí Houses of Worship are open to all people and generally have a very plain interior so as not to distract from the worship of God. There are no statues, religious pictures, or stained glass. No sermons are allowed, and ordinary members of the community read from sacred texts. Prayers from many of the world's religions are also recited, some put to music. Worshipers sit in rows of chairs or stand at various times during these informal services. Members are free to kneel or stand for prayers, as they wish.
Observances and pilgrimages
Baháʾís observe eleven holy days during the year. The primary holy festival for Baháʾís is the Festival of Ridvan, celebrated on three days: April 21, the First Day of Ridvan; April 29, the Ninth Day of Ridvan; and May 2, the Twelfth Day of Ridvan. This festival celebrates the historical event when Baháʾuʾlláh told his followers that he was the messenger of God predicted by the Bab. This is the holiest and most significant of all Baháʾí holidays. On these days, Baháʾís gather at community centers or at homes to read from Baháʾí religious texts, eat together, and enjoy the companionship of one another. During Ridvan they also elect new leaders. If possible, Baháʾís do not work on these holy days.
Another important festival is Naw-Ruz, or the Baháʾí New Year (also the Persian New Year), which takes place on March 21, the first day of spring. Before this holy day, Baháʾís fast, going without food or drink from sunrise to sunset for nineteen days. The celebration of Naw-Ruz includes feasting and praying, and there is no work on that day. In addition, at the beginning of each Baháʾí month is the Nineteen-Day Feast Baháʾí. The meetings that happen on these days are divided into three parts: The first part is dedicated to prayers and the reading of religious texts. The second part is an administrative session when reports are given about local Baháʾí activities and community issues are discussed. During these administrative sessions all members of the community are encouraged to talk and share their concerns. The third part of these monthly meetings is the meal shared by all community members. Food served is as varied as the congregations themselves, representing 247 countries worldwide. Such meetings take place in individual homes or in community centers when available.
The Baháʾí year includes seven holidays. The Declaration of the Bab, marking the date when the Bab announced the coming arrival of a new messenger from God, is held on May 23 and is a day free from work. May 29 is the Ascension of Baháʾuʾlláh, marking the death of the founder of the Baháʾí faith. The death of the Bab, called the Martyrdom of the Bab, is celebrated on July 9 and is another day of rest. The birthdays of both the Bab and Baháʾuʾlláh, on October 20 and November 12, respectively, are days of rest as well.
The Day of the Covenant, on November 26, marks Baháʾuʾlláh's promise that Baháʾí would be a permanent religion. The Ascension of Abduʾl-Baha, the day on which he died, is November 28. Both the Day of the Covenant and the Ascension of Abduʾl-Baha are working days for the faithful. Members are still required to come together in prayer and recitation of passages from sacred works, as is done on other holy days.
Pilgrimage destinations for Baháʾís are primarily located in the Middle East. The holiest shrine for believers is the Shrine of Baháʾuʾlláh, located in Bahji, just north of Akko, Israel. It was there that Baháʾuʾlláh died, on May 29, 1892. The Shrine of the Bab, located on Mount Carmel in Haifa, is the second-most-important shrine and landmark of Baháʾís. Abduʾl-Baha is buried in the same shrine. Other popular places for Baháʾís to visit include the Mansion of Bahji, where Baháʾuʾlláh lived for a time.
The everyday lives of members of the Baháʾí faith are determined by the laws and rules established in the Kitab-i-Aqdas of Baháʾuʾlláh. These laws include dietary rules (no alcohol or drugs are allowed unless prescribed by a physician, and tobacco use is discouraged). They cover the giving of money to the religion (a one-time 19 percent wealth tax is required, along with regular voluntary contributions) and rules about marriage and family. Marriage is only between men and women and with the consent of parents. Marriage between faiths is allowed, and marriage between different races is encouraged. Divorce is discouraged. Family life is considered the foundation of society. Education is important, and parents are required to provide for the education of their children. If finances are tight and only one child can be educated, it is recommended that a daughter be selected instead of a son, as she becomes the first person to educate her children, the next generation.
Baháʾís are also required to pray and meditate daily. They are free to create their own prayers or use any of the ones created by the Bab, Baháʾuʾlláh, or Abduʾl-Baha. The one requirement of this daily prayer is that the faithful choose one of three Obligatory Prayers: the Long Obligatory Prayer, the Medium Obligatory Prayer, or the Short Obligatory Prayer. Such prayers can be spoken in a normal voice, chanted, or sung. The Short Obligatory Prayer states: "I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth. There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-subsisting."
This prayer is to be said once every twenty-four hours, at noon. The Medium Obligatory Prayer and Long Obligatory Prayer have the same core message, but with more elaboration and explanation. The medium is repeated in the morning, at noon, and in the evening, while the long is recited once a day, at any time. The faithful are required to wash their faces and hands before and sometimes during the saying of such prayers. Followers of the Baháʾí faith are also expected to read from religious texts and meditate, or deeply think, on the message they learn twice each day. Such meditation is hoped to clear the mind and spirit of daily concerns and allow the faithful to look at their own spirit more closely.
Baháʾís do not distinguish between their everyday life and their faith. For them, what they do in the world is an expression of their belief, and it is required that members do good work in the world. There is no particular uniform or style of dress for Baháʾís.
The Baháʾí belief in a united world ruled by peace has inspired members to become deeply involved in the United Nations (UN). Through the Baháʾí agency known as the International Community, Baháʾís have achieved consultative status with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), as well as with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and with the World Health Organization (WHO), among other organizations. While many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including other major religions, have achieved such consultative status, none have been so long or deeply involved in United Nations activities as Baháʾí. A nongovernmental organization is a privately run organization, not associated with a government. Such organizations often work in areas of economic development, the environment, and social issues.
Baháʾuʾlláh himself, well over a century ago, called for just such a system of international governance. He envisioned a form of world government based on the principle of collective security that would encompass all the nations of the world and lay the foundations for a lasting and universal peace. The United Nations was formed as an organization where problems could be peacefully resolved so that wars such as those of World War I (1914–18) and World War II (1938–45) could be avoided. Baháʾí representatives were present at the founding of the United Nations in 1945. Two years later the Baháʾí communities of the United States and Canada were recognized by the United Nations Department of Public Information, and in 1948 the Baháʾí International Community was recognized as an international NGO. In 1967 Baháʾís established a permanent office at the United Nations headquarters in New York City
Among other joint UN projects, the Baháʾí International Community has worked with the United Nations Development Fund for Women to increase awareness of women's issues around the world. Baháʾís are also involved with nongovernmental organizations engaged in peace-building activities, women's and human rights, education, health, and sustainable development (creating economic development without hurting the environment). Other efforts include helping to bring literacy to all populations, educating people about proper nutrition, and assisting with farming techniques. Baháʾís are involved, for example, in hands-on projects planting trees in barren parts of Africa, in educating African farmers about proper agricultural techniques, and in providing health care workshops and vocational training to Indian women. By 2002 Baháʾís operated more than 1,300 local development projects, from Mongolia to South America, and Africa to Australia. Such projects are a way to put the Baháʾí faith into action. For Baháʾís, social action is a spiritual activity.
For More Information
Baháʾuʾlláh. Kitab-iAqdas, the Most Hoy Book. Haifa, Israel: Baháʾí World Centre, 1992.
Faizi, Gloria. The Baháʾí Faith: An Introduction. Wilmette, IL: Baháʾí Publishing Trust, 1986.
Hartz, Paula. Baháʾí Faith: World Religions. New York, NY: Facts on File, 2002.
Hutter, Manfred. "Baháʾís." In Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Lindsay Jones. Detroit, MI: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005.
Meyer, Zoe. Children's Stories from the Dawn-Breakers. Wilmette, IL: Baháʾí Publishing Trust, 2000.
Momen, Moojan. A Short Introduction to the Baháʾí Faith. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 1997.
Smith, Peter. The Baháʾí Faith: A Short History. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publishing, 1996.
Ostling, Richard N. "Slow Death for Iran's Baháʾís." Time (February 20, 1984): 76.
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Baháʾí World News Service. http://news.bahai.org (accessed on May 8,2006).