BORN: November 12, 1817 • Tehran, Persia
DIED: May 29, 1892 • Acre, Palestine, Persia
Persian religious leader; writer
Baháʾuʾlláh, a Persian noble by birth, was the founder of the Baháʾí faith. Baháʾuʾlláh was a writer as well as a religious leader, and he produced hundreds of books, speeches, and essays during his lifetime. The most important of these works is the Kitab-i-Aqdas, or "Book of Laws," which is the primary sacred text for Baháʾís. Baháʾuʾlláh called himself the Messenger of God, claiming he was a prophet like the Buddha (563–483 bce; see entry), Jesus Christ (c. 4 bce–c. 30 ce; see entry), and Muhammad (c. 570–632; see entry).
A privileged childhood
Mirza Husayn ʿAli Nuri, later known as Baháʾuʾlláh, was born on November 12, 1817, in Tehran, Persia (modern-day Iran). He was the son of a well-respected nobleman who held a position at the court of the shah (ruler) of Persia, Fath-ʿAli Shah (1762–1834). His father was Mirza Abbas Nuri, better known as Mirza Buzurg, and his mother's name was Khadijih Khanum. The Nuri family traced its heritage back to a ruling family of Persia in the seventh century.
"The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens. The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established."
Nuri grew up in a wealthy household and was a sensitive and well-educated youth. According to his biographers, he began demonstrating an interest in spiritual matters at an early age. One story relates that while viewing a puppet show he was struck by how temporary and short life is, because when the show came to an end, all the puppets were quickly packed into a trunk and taken away. Like other young men of the Persian upper class, Nuri was trained in horsemanship, swordsmanship, calligraphy (fine writing), and classic poetry. He was brought up in the Muslim faith and belonged to the Shi ite branch of that religion, one of the two main sects of Islam. Some sources report that by the age of thirteen, Nuri was already having complex discussions with Muslim religious officials regarding spiritual issues and details in the Qurʾan, the Muslim holy book.
Nuri's father was a favorite at court and was appointed governor of two provinces in the late 1820s. When the old shah, or leader, died in 1834, however, one of his sons took over and wanted to show his independence from his father and all his old advisors. Mrza Buzurg was no longer a royal favorite and lost his positions and salary. He did manage to keep his family's lands near the village of Takur in the district of Nur, which was located in the province of Mazandaran.
Joins the Babis
Nuri married his first wife, Asiyih Navvab, in 1835. She was the daughter of another noble family, and together they had three children. Muslim law permitted polygamy, or having more than one spouse, so Nuri also wed two other women. He was the father of fourteen children in total, only seven of whom survived to adulthood. Despite the fact that his father was not liked by the new shah, Nuri was offered a post in the government. He turned it down and instead chose to work for the good of humanity by organizing various charities with his first wife. By the early 1840s his kind deeds had earned him the name "Father of the Poor," and he became highly respected in Tehran.
During this time Nuri was also becoming involved in the more mystical teachings of the Shiʾite Muslim religion. Shiʾites believe that there are divine successors to the Prophet Muhammad. Such a person is called an imam. Shiʾites are waiting for the return of the twelfth and final imam, who they believe went into hiding in the ninth century to avoid being killed by rivals. His return, according to the Shiites, will usher in a new golden age for the world, a belief similar to that held by Christians regarding the second coming of God's son, Jesus Christ. Indeed, during the first half of the nineteenth century, there were several movements throughout the world that claimed a new spiritual age was close to arrival. In the United States and Europe, many groups declared that Christ was about to return, while in the Muslim world some predicted a new messiah, or savior, would soon come to save the world. Some called this savior the Twelfth Imam while others referred to him as the mahdi, which translates as "he who is divinely guided."
In 1844 a holy man from Shiraz, Persia, announced that he was the Bab, or "gateway" to the Twelfth Imam. This man, named Siyyid ʿAli Muhammad (1819–1850), claimed to be the spokesperson for the purer spiritual age to come and criticized what he saw as the intellectual dishonesty of the Muslim religious leaders. He also promised that within twenty years a Messenger of God would appear and teach humanity the principles for this new spiritual age. The Bab won followers throughout Persia, one of whom was Nuri, who converted to Babism, as the religion became known, in 1844. Nuri's half-brother, Mirza Yahya (1830–1912), also converted to the new faith. Due to his impressive speaking ability and the high standing of his family, Nuri quickly became one of the movement's most successful speakers in spreading the word of the new faith.
The Babi movement was greatly distrusted by the Muslim religious leaders, or mullahs, who felt threatened by the Bab. The mullahs encouraged the government to attempt to stop the movement, and the Bab was imprisoned. In 1848 the Babi leadership, including Nuri and Mirza Yahya, met to discuss how they might get the Bab out of prison. The Babis decided to make a final break with the laws and principles of Islam. At this point Nuri took the name Baháʾuʾlláh, which means "Glory of God." His half-brother assumed the title Subh-i Azal, or "Morning of Eternity." Baháʾuʾlláh, as one of the leaders of the Babis, was closely watched by the mullahs and the government. When the Bab was put to death in 1850 Baháʾuʾlláh who still had friends in powerful positions, was advised to leave Tehran.
The Twelve Principles of Baháʾí
The Baháʾí faith is guided by twelve main principles or laws:
- The oneness of the entire human race.
- The independent investigation and search for truth.
- The harmony between religion and science.
- The idea that religion is unfolding, always growing, and that the gods of all religions are representatives of the one true God.
- All religions have the same divine foundation and are thus part of each other and not separate from or better than others.
- The equality of men and women.
- The removal of all prejudice regarding race, religion, and class.
- The creation of universal peace through a world government.
- The creation of universal compulsory (required) education.
- The need for a universal language shared by all humankind.
- The solution of economic problems through spirituality.
- The creation of a Universal House of Justice with a divinely inspired president.
By following these guiding principles laid out by Baháʾuʾlláh, Baháʾís believe they will create the kingdom of heaven on Earth.
When Baháʾuʾlláh, returned to Tehran in 1852, he discovered that a plot had been formed by several Babis to kill the shah in revenge for the execution of the Bab. Although Baháʾuʾlláh rejected this plan, it was carried out, unsuccessfully, in August 1852. Baháʾuʾlláh was one of many Babis arrested after the incident. Thousands were executed, and Baháʾuʾlláh was imprisoned in a huge jail in Tehran known as the Siyah-Chal, or the "black pit." There he received what he called a visitation from a "Maiden from God" who told him that he was the Messenger of God of whom the Bab had spoken. When Baháʾuʾlláh was found innocent of the attempted crime and released several months later, he did not tell anyone of the visitation. He and his family, along with many other Babis, were banished from Persia by the authorities and decided to settle in Baghdad, in present-day Iraq. The city at that time was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, a dynastic (ruled by the same family or line) state that was based mostly in modern-day Turkey.
Though Baháʾuʾlláh felt that he was the messenger the Bab said would come, the leadership of the Babi religion passed to his half-brother, Subh-i Azal. Some historians believe that Subh-i Azal was actually a false leader set up to protect the real authority of the Babis from government harassment. Subh-i Azal took his position seriously, however, and tensions grew between the two men. Many new followers to the religion and those visiting Baghdad saw Baháʾuʾlláh as the spiritual leader and not Subh-i Azal. In order to avoid conflict and to take some time to consider the mission that he had been given by the Maiden of God, Baháʾuʾlláh went alone into the mountains of Kurdistan, far to the north of Baghdad. He stayed there for two years, during which he wrote one of his first books, Four Valleys.
In 1856 Subh-i Azal discovered the whereabouts of Baháʾuʾlláh and wrote his half-brother, asking him to come back to Baghdad. When Baháʾuʾlláh returned to the city, he discovered that twenty-five people had already claimed to be the Messenger of God that the Bab spoke of. He also learned that Subh-i Azal had had several of his opponents killed.
Baháʾuʾlláh's became even more well-known in Baghdad during the next seven years, and he continued writing texts of his teachings and spiritual discoveries. A couple of the most important of these were the Kitab-i-Iqan, or the Book of Certitude, and the Hdden Words. In 1862 Baháʾuʾlláh completed the Bab's Bayan, a book of laws for the Babis, which had been left unfinished with only eleven of its proposed nineteen chapters written. Baháʾuʾlláh used his authorship of these works to argue that he should be the leader of the Babis, but he still did not reveal that he was the Messenger of God. Subh-i Azal also claimed to have completed the Bab's work with his Motammem Al-Bayan, and relations between the two half-brothers grew worse.
Baháʾuʾlláh's influence began to reach beyond Baghdad to his native Persia. This rebirth of the popularity of the Babi movement again upset the mullahs and the Persian government. They convinced the Ottoman government, which controlled Baghdad, to banish Baháʾuʾlláh from the city. In 1863, just before he was exiled to the city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey), Baháuʾlláh finally told a small group of followers about his visitation in prison eleven years earlier, announcing for the first time that he was the Messenger of God. This took place in the Garden of Ridvan near Baghdad, between April 21 and May 2. These dates later became an important Baháʾí holy celebration, the twelve-day Festival of Ridvan.
Splits from Babis to form the Baháʾí faith
Baháʾuʾlláh, his family, and a small group of followers moved from Baghdad to Constantinople and then on to Adrianople (modern-day Edirne, Turkey). In 1866 Baháʾuʾlláh publicly declared that he was the Messenger of God and a prophet, as Muhammad and Christ had been before him. He wrote official letters to political and religious leaders of the world, such as Pope Pius IX and Queen Victoria of England, announcing his presence and mission. Baháʾuʾlláh declared in these letters that he was the promised one of whom all religions spoke, the Messenger of God. He also spoke out against war and the purchasing of weapons, telling these leaders that their budgets would be better spent taking care of the poor and establishing a world government that could provide security for all citizens.
These actions led to a complete break with the Babis who still followed Subh-i Azal. Those who sided with Baháʾuʾlláh called themselves Baháʾís, while followers of Subh-i Azal called themselves Azalis for a time and then Bayanis. The Bayan religion still existed as of the early twenty-first century, though with only a few thousand believers located mainly in Iran. The Baháʾís, in contrast, went on to create one of the major world religions.
Shortly after the break, Baháʾuʾlláh was poisoned, possibly on the orders of Subh-i Azal. Though he survived, the poison left a permanent tremor, or shaking motion, in his hand. In 1868 Baháʾuʾlláh and his followers were transported to the prison city of Acre in Palestine (modern-day Akko, Israel). This walled city was the final destination for some of the worst criminals and for political and religious trouble-makers. According to legend, the air was so bad in Acre that birds flying over would die. Baháʾuʾlláh and his family were held for nine years, at first in the general prison population, and then in a small house inside the city walls. It was here that Baháʾuʾlláh wrote the book that is central to the Baháʾí religion, Kitab-i-Aqdas, or the Book of Laws, also known as the Most Holy Book of Baháʾís. In this work he laid out the main beliefs and principles of the Baháʾí faith.
The central belief of the Baháʾí faith is the concept of oneness. Baháʾís believe that there is only one God and that all religions are built on the messages of that God. Similarly, Baháʾís believe in the unity of humankind and that all humans should be treated equally. Baháʾuʾlláh wrote that it is the duty of a spiritual person to try to understand God, and that the more one is able to do this, the closer one will be to the idea of heaven. He also laid out daily laws for the faithful. Members must pray at least once a day; avoid alcohol and drugs; fast (go without food and water) for nineteen days before the Baháʾí New Year, which falls on the first day of spring; do good works; and reject prejudice. There is no priesthood in the Baháʾí faith. Any member can read from the sacred texts during the monthly meetings. Baháʾuʾlláh also made a covenant, or solemn agreement, with his followers. He said that if they put their faith in Baháʾí, he would lead them to a new age and guarantee the continuity of their religion by creating a line of succession, or a line of people who would lead the religion after his death. Followers of Baháʾí believe that although Baháʾuʾlláh was not the last of God's messengers, he is the one who created the spiritual foundation from which global peace and unification will one day arise.
Baháʾuʾlláh was finally permitted to depart Acre in 1877 to live in the nearby town of Bahji. He found an abandoned mansion and lived out the rest of his life there, continuing to write and teach. He died of a fever on May 29, 1892, after naming his oldest son, Abduʾl-Baha ("Servant of Baha" in Arabic; 1844–1921), his successor. A shrine built to Baháʾuʾlláh in Bahji is the main pilgrimage site of the Baháʾí religion.
Since the death of Baháʾuʾlláh, the Baháʾí faith has spread around the globe to 247 countries and has more than seven million members. Although it is one of the world's youngest religions, it had already grown to be the thirteenth largest by the early twenty-first century. The center of the Baháʾí faith is in Haifa, Israel, where the Universal House of Justice, the main administration of the Baháʾí faith, is located. The Bab and Abduʾl-Baha are also buried in this city.
For More Information
Baháʾuʾlláh. Gleanings from the Writings of Baháʾuʾlláh. Wilmette, IL: Baháʾí Publishing Trust, 1976.
Baháʾuʾlláh. Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book. Haifa, Israel: Baháʾí World Centre, 1992.
Balyuzi, Hasan. Baháʾuʾlláh: The King of Glory. Oxford, UK: George Ronald, 1980.
Rabbani, Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By. Wilmette, IL: Baháʾí Publishing Trust, 1987.
Smith, Peter. The Baháʾí Faith: A Short History. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications, 1996.
"Baháʾuʾlláh." Baháʾí Faith. http://www.bahai.com/Bahaullah/Bahaullah1.htm (accessed on May 25, 2006).
"Baháʾuʾlláh." Baháʾí Topics. http://info.bahai.org (accessed on May 25, 2006).