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Founded by Baha’u’llah in the nineteenth century, the Baha’i faith is a monotheistic religion that grew out of Islam. It recognizes Muhammad as a prophet, but not the last prophet. At the core of Baha’i faith is the belief that all of humanity is spiritually unified and that Baha’i will guide civilization toward an age of peace and prosperity.
The Baha’i religion was founded and initially propagated toward the middle of the nineteenth century in the (then) Ottoman regions of Iraq, Turkey, and Palestine by a Persian-born messianic claimant named Mirza Hoseyn Ali Nuri (1817–1892), who adopted the title Baha’u’llah (Baha’ Allah), meaning the “Splendor of God.” Ranging across more than two hundred counties, his followers today number 5–6 million and are known as Baha’is (literally “radiant ones”). Given their range throughout the world, the modern Baha’i religion can no longer be viewed as a purely Middle Eastern movement, an Islamic “sect,” or a merely eclectic religious phenomenon.
Baha’u’llah was born a Shi’ite Muslim in a troubled Persian Islamic society. He called all humankind to a revolutionary and modernist post-Islamic religion, initially that of his predecessor the Bab (literally the “Gate”) and subsequently to the Baha’i religion, which he founded. To some, his message transcended and superseded Islamic legal and other religious norms as the new Baha’i religion, not only for the contemporary world but also for times extending a millennium or more into the future. The developed Baha’i religion is centered upon actualizing a spiritual unity in diversity of all humankind in a future world characterized by millennial justice and peace. Religion and science, Baha’u’llah and his successors indicated, should both harmoniously contribute to an advancing civilization in which racism, excessive nationalism, and materialistic capitalism are transcended.
The Religion of the Bab
Baha’u’llah became a follower of another young Persian messianic claimant, Mirza ‘Ali Mohammad (1819/ 1820–1850), the Bab, at the outset of his religious mission in May 1844. He considered the Bab to be his divinely inspired forerunner. The Bab gradually established his own post-Islamic religious system and revealed new books in Arabic and Persian collectively known as the Bayan (Exposition). He was imprisoned for much of his six-year religious ministry, which ended with his execution for heresy in 1850. Several thousand of his followers were also martyred for apostasy and heresy. Though best known today as the Bab (gate to the messiah), this Persian Sayyid (descendant of Muhammad) actually claimed to be the awaited Islamic eschatological savior, the Qa’im (Ariser) or Mahdi (Rightly Guided One). He also subsequently claimed to be a divine “Manifestation of God” and underlined the eternally progressive continuity of religion, thereby transcending the Muslim concept of the finality of prophethood in Muhammad (Qur’an 33:40).
With his many revelations, the Bab claimed to disclose the deeper senses of the Qur’an and of pre-Islamic scripture, and to prepare the way for another messianic individual greater than himself. In claiming to supersede Islam, the Bab also spoke of endless future messiahs. These superhuman, divine figures were actually pre existent and theophanic manifestations of God, the next of whom might appear imminently or perhaps, for example, after 9, 19, 1,511, or 2,001 years.
Baha’u’llah and Religion Renewed
Baha’u’llah followed and propagated the religion of the Bab from its inception in 1844 until the latter years of his exile from Iran to Iraq (1852–1863), when he began to gradually declare his own global mission. On announcing his mission on the outskirts of Baghdad in 1863, he outlawed the propagation of religion by the sword, indicated that his religion would continue for at least a millennium, and voiced doctrines indicative of the equality and oneness of all humanity.
Like the Bab, Baha’u’llah composed thousands of scriptural “tablets” in Arabic and Persian over a forty-year period (1852–1892). These 20,000 or so revelations vary in length from a few lines to weighty books and treatises such as his Kitab-i iqan (Book of Certitude, 1852), Kitab-i badi’ (Innovative Book, 1867), and his major though slim book of laws, al- Kitab al-Aqdas (The Most Holy Book, 1873). Like his forerunner, he placed great emphasis upon the nonliteral interpretation of the Bible and the Quran and often gave figurative interpretations to messianic signs and latter-day prophecies. Apocalyptic upheavals and catastrophes, he explained, had been realized or would come to be fulfilled either literally or spiritually. Hopes of a new age and of the millennial future of humanity would, he predicted, definitely come to realization in a future Baha’i-inspired new world order.
Despite being exiled and imprisoned for religious heresy for several decades of his life by Persian and Ottoman leaders, Baha’u’llah continued to address weighty and theologically authoritative epistles to various kings, rulers, and ecclesiastics of his day. Among those he called to God and to righteous rule were the British queen Victoria (1819–1901), the French emperor Louis-Napoleon (Napoleon III; 1808–1873), the Russian czar Nicholas II (1868– 1918), and the Italian pope, Giovanni Maria Mastai- Ferretti, Pope Pius IX (1792–1878).
It was clear from his Kitab-i ‘Ahdi (Book of My Covenant) that on Baha’u’llah’s passing in Palestine in 1892, his saintly and learned eldest son ‘Abd ol-Baha’ (1844–1921) would succeed him. His son wrote several books and many thousands of letters expounding his father’s message and visited several western countries between 1911 and the outbreak of World War I in 1914. “The Master,” as ‘Abd ol-Baha’ was respectfully known, was in turn succeeded in 1921 by an Oxford-educated great-grandson of Baha’u’llah named Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1896–1957), the last single head or Guardian of the Baha’i religion. In 1963, the globally elected Universal House of Justice came to direct and govern the Baha’i world from its center in Haifa, Israel.
Baha’u’llah’s oft-repeated statement that the Earth is but one country and all humankind are its citizens continues to underpin many activities of the Baha’i faith today. Its adherents claim that its promotion of the spiritual dimensions of the oneness of humanity, the equality of the sexes, international justice, and world peace makes the Baha’i religion a channel for the realization of a twenty-first-century religiosity that transcends contemporary secularism and exclusivism. The faith’s continuing championing of a globally selected or newly-devised universal auxiliary language and its close relationship with the United Nations since the inception of the latter in 1945 in working towards a peaceful global society are proclaimed as some of the major contributions which the Baha’i international community has made to world history. Under the direction of the Universal House of Justice, the Baha’i International Community has consultative status with UN organizations including United Nations Economic and Social Council, United Nations Children’s Fund, World Health Organization, United Nations Development Fund for Women, and the United Nations Environment Program.
In recent years, the Baha’i international authority known as the Universal House of Justice has issued a statement entitled “The Promise of World Peace” (1985) addressed to the peoples of the world and another called “To the World’s Religious Leaders” (2002) containing advice for the evolution towards a united humanity.
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- Baha’u’llah. (1978). Tablets of Baha’u’llah. Haifa, Israel: Baha’i World Centre.
- Baha’u’llah. (1983). The Kitab-i-iqan (The book of certitude). Wilmette, IL: Baha’i Publishing Trust.
- Baha’u’llah. (1992). Kitab-i-aqdas (The most holy book). Haifa, Israel: Baha’i World Centre.
- Hatcher, W. S. and Martin, D. (1985). The Baha’i faith: The emerging global religion. San Francisco: Harper and Row.
- McMullen, M. (2000). The Baha’i: The religious construction of a global identity. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
- Momen, M. (1997). A short introduction to the Baha’i faith. Oxford, U.K.: Oneworld.
- Shoghi Effendi. (1960). The dispensation of Baha’u’llah. Wilmette, IL: Baha’i Publishing Trust.
- Shoghi Effendi. (1991). The world order of Baha’u’llah. Wilmette, IL: Baha’i Publishing Trust.
- Smith, P. (1987). The Babi and Baha’i religions: From messianic Shi’ism to a world religion. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press.
- The Universal House of Justice. (1984). The constitution of the Universal House of Justice. Haifa, Israel: Baha’i World Centre.
- The Universal House of Justice. (1985). The promise of world peace. Haifa, Israel: Baha’i World Centre.
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