Robert Stockman. Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices. Editor: Thomas Riggs. Volume 1: Religions and Denominations. Detroit: Gale, 2006.
The Baha’i faith, which developed in nineteenth-century Iran, is relatively new, compared with other major world religions. It has only five million members, but it is, after Christianity, the second most widespread religion in the world, with adherents in 218 countries and dependent territories. The term Baha’i derives from the Arabic word Baha, meaning glory, splendor, or light.
The Baha’i faith was founded by Bahaullah (1817-92), an Iranian noble, who claimed to be the latest of God’s messengers. Over a 40-year period Bahaullah penned the core texts of the Baha’i scriptures and defined such basic Baha’i beliefs as the oneness of God, the need for divine messengers or manifestations of God to guide humanity, and the unity of the world’s major religions. He taught the unity of humankind; the equality of all humans; the centrality of the principle of unity for reforming society and constructing a just global civilization; the essential role of consultation in creating love, agreement, and justice; and the need for the basic education of all people. He delineated a path for individual spiritual transformation, which included the daily recitation of an obligatory prayer, the study of scripture, and holding oneself accountable before God; service to humanity; marriage and the raising of children; and working, not only to earn a living but also to serve others. He established a Baha’i community that had no clergy but elected coordinating bodies; worshiped together in ways that minimized ritual; focused on the education and transformation of its members; served humanity; and sought to attract new members by word and deed.
Bahaullah was succeeded by his son, Abdul-Baha (1844-1921), whom he appointed head of the faith, exemplar of the teachings, and interpreter of his revelation. Abdul-Baha oversaw the expansion of the Baha’i faith from the Middle East to Europe and the Americas. He clarified many of Bahaullah’s teachings, and he proclaimed Baha’i social teachings during his travels in the West.
Abdul-Baha appointed Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1897-1957) as his successor and Guardian of the Cause of God. He bestowed on Shoghi Effendi authority to interpret the Baha’i teachings. Shoghi Effendi built the Baha’i organizational system of elected consultative councils defined by Bahaullah and Abdul-Baha and then used it as an instrument to spread the Baha’i faith systematically around the globe. He clarified many basic Baha’i beliefs and translated many of the most important works of Bahaullah from Arabic and Persian into English. The foundation he built allowed for the establishment of the Universal House of Justice, the supreme coordinating council of the Baha’i faith, in 1963.
Since its establishment the Universal House of Justice has coordinated the rapid growth of the Baha’i faith around the world and has made strenuous efforts to protect the Baha’i community from persecution. Baha’is live in 127,000 localities, have 12,000 elected local coordinating councils, and 180 national coordinating councils. The United States has 150,000 members residing in 7,000 localities, with 1,200 local coordinating councils.
The Baha’i faith traces its beginnings to the Babi movement. The Babi faith was founded by Ali-Muhammad of Shiraz (1819-50), a merchant who declared himself a divine messenger in 1844. He took the title of the Bab (Arabic: “gate”), which implied that he was the gate to the “hidden imam,” a messianic figure expected by Iran’s Shiite population. In his extensive writings, however, the Bab claimed to be the hidden imam himself. He attracted followers from across Iran, particularly among seminary students, the clergy, the merchant class, and some villagers. The Bab emphasized the coming of another divine messenger even greater than himself. He was imprisoned for his teachings, eventually condemned for blasphemy and heresy, and executed by firing squad in Tabriz, Iran, in 1850. Before his death, the Bab appointed Mirza Yahya Azal (1831-1912) to serve as his successor and the leader of the community. Beginning in 1848 persecution of the Babi communities resulted in the deaths of most Babi leaders and decimated the community.
A prominent early leader of the Babi movement was Mirza Husayn-Ali of Nur (1817-92), a member of an aristocratic family from north of Tehran. He soon became active in spreading Babi teachings in northern Iran, and he protected Babi leaders from persecution when his prominence and court connections allowed him to do so. He took the title of Bahaullah (glory of God). In 1851 he left Iran for a year at request by the prime minister. When he returned, an attempt by two young Babis to assassinate the king triggered a massive persecution of Babis and resulted in Bahaullah’s imprisonment from August through December 1852. While in prison he received a revelation that marked the symbolic beginning of his ministry as the Bab’s messianic successor.
On his release from prison Bahaullah, exiled permanently from Iran, settled in Baghdad. There he reinvigorated the local Babi community. He began to produce works on mystical and theological subjects, including The Hidden Words (1858),The Seven Valleys (c. 1858-62), The Four Valleys (c. 1858-62), Gems of Mysteries (c. 1858-62), and The Book of Certitude (1862). Babis who visited Baghdad brought his advice back to Iran, gradually consolidating and strengthening the scattered and dispirited communities there. As a result, the Iranian government formally requested the Ottoman Turkish government ruling Baghdad and the surrounding territories to remove Bahaullah farther from Iran. On the eve of his departure for Istanbul, in late April 1863, Bahaullah announced to his assembled followers that he was the promised one foretold by the Bab and a divine messenger. Bahaullah’s announcement is considered the beginning of his public ministry and the end of the Babi dispensation and is the most important event in the Baha’i calendar.
Bahaullah remained in Istanbul until December 1863, when the Ottoman government exiled him to Edirne, a small city in Turkey near the present-day borders with Bulgaria and Greece. The Istanbul and Edirne periods of Bahaullah’s life saw several key developments. He composed many additional mystical works and prayers. He sent epistles to some of the world’s political and ecclesiastical leaders, formally announcing his claim to be a divine messenger or manifestation of God and specifically stating that he was the return of Christ. His divine claim spread widely in Iran, with the result that the vast majority of the Babis became Baha’is. But relations with his half brother Mirza Yahya Azal, the symbolic head of the Babi religion, progressively broke down. Yahya attempted to poison Bahaullah and came out in opposition to him in 1867-68. As a result, the Ottoman government exiled both brothers from Edirne: Mirza Yahya to Cyprus and Bahaullah to Acre, a prison city in what is today northern Israel.
Bahaullah spent the next two years—from August 1868 to October 1870—in a prison barracks in Acre and then passed the remaining 22 years of his life in rented houses in Acre or just outside the city. The conditions of confinement gradually ameliorated, and Bahaullah was allowed to receive visitors, among them the British Orientalist Edward G. Browne, who interviewed Bahaullah in 1890 and published the account. Bahaullah was also able to write extensively. He continued to write epistles to kings and ecclesiastics, announcing his claims. In 1873 he composed the Kitab-i-Aqdas(Most Holy Book), a work containing laws of personal conduct, mystic guidance, numerous exhortations, and principles of social reconstruction. A series of short works amplified themes in the Most Holy Book, explored philosophical and theological matters, and commented on social matters, such as the importance of democracy and modernization of the Islamic world. Epistle to the Son of the Wolf was composed around 1891 as a response to a persecutor of Baha’is in Isfahan whose father, “the wolf,” had been a major instigator of pogroms against Baha’is; it quoted some of Bahaullah’s most celebrated passages. In his Book of the Covenant (exact date unknown, though probably 1891) Bahaullah appointed his eldest son, Abbas, later titled Abdul-Baha; (Arabic: “servant of glory”), as his successor and the interpreter of his teachings. More than 15,000 works from Bahaullah’s pen are extant, most of them letters, many of which include advice and prayers. He wrote in Arabic and Persian, sometimes interweaving both languages.
Through his correspondence with and guidance of visiting Baha’is, Bahaullah coordinated efforts to spread the Baha’i faith beyond Iran and the Ottoman lands of Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine to Russian Central Asia, Egypt, The Sudan, India, Burma, and Indonesia. He also encouraged Baha’is to attract Sunni Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, Christians, and possibly Buddhists to the fold. He appointed several individuals as Hands of the Cause of God, a special position of responsibility to assist in teaching the Baha’i faith and in protecting it from opposition. While they were termed “learned” (in Arabic, ulama), they did not have a clerical rank because Bahaullah had abolished the clergy.
Bahaullah’s passing on 29 May 1892 was a shock to the Baha’i community, which numbered perhaps 100,000 people. His written instructions guaranteed a reasonably smooth transition to the leadership of his son Abbas (1844-1921), who took the title of Abdul-Baha. Abdul-Baha’s half brother Muhammad-Ali opposed Abdul-Baha’s leadership but attracted few followers himself, partly because Abdul-Baha told his followers to break off contact with Muhammad-Ali and his followers. No lasting schism of the Baha’i community resulted. Abdul-Baha’s ministry as head of the Baha’i faith lasted almost 30 years, until his passing in 1921. An early development during his tenure was the arrival of Baha’is of Lebanese Christian background in the United States in 1892 and the conversion of Americans, mostly blue- and white-collar Protestants of English, German, and Scandinavian backgrounds. The Americans in turn took the Baha’i faith to Europe (1898), Hawaii (1901), Mexico (1909), Japan (1914), Brazil (1919), and Australia (1920). When the Americans heard that construction had begun on a Baha’i house of worship in Ashgabat (modern Turkmenistan) in late 1902, they requested permission to build one in the Chicago area.
After the Young Turk Revolution freed Abdul-Baha from his confinement in Acre in 1908, he was able to travel, visiting Egypt (1910-11), Europe (1911-13), and the United States and Canada (1912). His North American tour resulted in hundreds of newspaper articles about the Baha’i faith, greater public knowledge of the religion, the dedication of the site of the future Baha’i house of worship outside Chicago (in Wilmette), and consolidation of the Baha’i community. While Abdul-Baha was never able to visit Iran again, he strengthened its Baha’i community through his letters, guided it in the establishment of the first Baha’i administrative institutions, encouraged the creation of elementary schools for boys and girls, and fostered the gradual emancipation of Iranian Baha’i women.
Like Bahaullah, Abdul-Baha maintained an extensive correspondence; some 16,000 letters are extant in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. In these epistles he clarified his authority as interpreter and his position as exemplar of the Baha’i teachings; emphasized the importance of the Baha’i principles for social reform and international organization; answered numerous questions about theology, philosophy, and the spiritual path of the individual; offered extensive practical advice about how to live one’s life, raise children, and pursue a career; laid down the details of the Baha’i administrative structure, especially in his Will and Testament (1935), which he wrote between 1901 and 1908; and, in 1916 and 1917, outlined the expansion of the faith worldwide in his Tablets of the Divine Plan (1936).
After Abdul-Baha’s passing in November 1921, his will and testament was read in public and, as specified in it, authority passed to Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1897-1957), his grandson, a student at Oxford University at the time. Shoghi Effendi was appointed the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith. He made it a priority to establish annually elected, nine-member local and national Baha’i governing councils (Spiritual Assemblies), as specified in Abdul-Baha’s will. As that document stated, the national Spiritual Assemblies eventually would constitute the electors of the Universal House of Justice, an international governing council to which Bahaullah and Abdul-Baha had given the authority to legislate on matters about which Bahaullah was silent.
The shift from an informal to a formal organization of the Baha’i community was not without controversy, but it consolidated the religion and initiated a period of sustained growth. In the United States, Baha’i membership doubled from about 1,500 to almost 3,000. By the late 1930s the administrative bodies were sufficiently established in a few countries to allow systematic pursuit of the goals of spreading the religion laid out in Abdul-Baha’s Tablets of the Divine Plan. Shoghi Effendi gave the North American Baha’is a seven-year plan, covering the period from 1937 to 1944, that called for the establishment of a Baha’i community in every state in the United States and every province in Canada, the establishment of the nuclei of Baha’i communities in every country in Latin America, and the completion of the exterior of the Baha’i house of worship in Wilmette. Thus, as war raged across much of the planet, the least-disturbed portion was systematically exposed to the Baha’i teachings. All the goals were achieved. The number of American Baha’is exceeded 5,000, and the number in Latin America was in the hundreds. After a two-year respite, a second seven-year plan (1946-53) gave as goals the completion of the interior of the Baha’i house of worship in Wilmette; the election of a national Spiritual Assembly for Canada, as well as one Spiritual Assembly each for Central America and South America; and the reestablishment of the Baha’i faith in western Europe, where every community except the United Kingdom’s had been destroyed by World War II. The German Baha’i community had suffered severely at the hands of the Nazi government, who banned the religion and threw some members into prisons and death camps. This plan was also a complete success. The number of American Baha’is grew to 7,000, membership in Latin America may have reached 1,000, and Europe’s Baha’i communities counted hundreds of members. Shoghi Effendi gave the next plan, the Ten Year Crusade (1953-63), to the 12 national Spiritual Assemblies, the goals being to more than double the number of countries where Baha’is resided and to raise the number of national Spiritual Assemblies to 57. Except where persecution intervened, the crusade was successful. By the end of the crusade U.S. membership exceeded 10,000.
Shoghi Effendi expanded the institution of the Hands of the Cause of God, established by Bahaullah, by appointing additional individuals to the position and defining their individual and collective responsibilities as “chief stewards” of the faith. He established the Auxiliary Board, consisting of individuals appointed by the Hands of the Cause, who served under the Hands of the Cause and were responsible for encouraging and educating Baha’is in states or regions. Defining the nature, purpose, and chief characteristics of the Baha’i organizational system—which was established in the same basic form in all Baha’i communities—may be Shoghi Effendi’s greatest accomplishment.
In spite of warfare and instability Shoghi Effendi developed the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel (then British-administered Palestine). The world center is both the spiritual center of the faith—Bahaullah, the Bab, and Abdul-Baha are all interred there, and it includes many holy places associated with the life of Bahaullah—and its administrative headquarters. Shoghi Effendi’s efforts included the purchase of Baha’i holy places and their restoration and beautification; completion of the Shrine of the Bab, which is also the resting place of Abdul-Baha; construction of several of the 19 monumental terraced gardens that Abdul-Baha said should extend from the top of Mount Carmel to its base in the city of Haifa; and erection of the International Archives building, the first edifice on the Arc, a semi-circle of monumental buildings that stand uphill from the Shrine of the Bab and east of the terraces. He established a formal secretariat to assist him with correspondence and appointed an International Baha’i Council to handle relations with the local governments. In 1947 Shoghi Effendi authorized representation of the Baha’i faith, under the title Baha’i International Community, at the United Nations.
Shoghi Effendi composed some 36,000 letters to individuals and Baha’i institutions, and dozens of compilations of his writings have been published. He wrote God Passes By (1944), a history and interpretation of the Baha’i faith’s development during the period from 1844 to 1944. He also answered some theological questions, applied the spiritual path to life in the modern world, and wrote at length on such vital matters as living a life free of racism and prejudice. He translated most of Bahaullah’s chief works into English, setting the pattern and defining the principles for later translations, not only into English but into all the languages of the world.
Shoghi Effendi died suddenly on 4 November 1957. He did not write an official will and testament and was unable to appoint a successor because Abdul-Baha’s will and testament specified that future Guardians had to be male descendants of Bahaullah, and in 1957 no male descendants were Baha’is. Based on Shoghi Effendi’s designation of the Hands of the Cause of God as “chief stewards” of the faith, they served as interim international coordinators of the faith until the Universal House of Justice could be elected. The Hands took the extraordinary step of disqualifying themselves from the election, so that they could continue their service to the institution of the Hands of the Cause.
While the Baha’i global community was shocked by Shoghi Effendi’s passing, its members accepted the Hands almost unanimously, as did legal authorities concerned with the disposition of Baha’i properties. The chief exception was one elderly Hand of the Cause, Charles Mason Remey, who declared himself the second Guardian in 1960. His claim was ignored by all but a few hundred Baha’is (Baha’i membership worldwide was about 400,000 at the time).
In April 1963 Shoghi Effendi’s Ten Year Crusade ended, and delegates representing 56 national Spiritual Assemblies elected the nine-member Universal House of Justice. It has since been elected every five years. It guided the steady growth of the Baha’i faith worldwide through a series of plans (1964-73, 1974-79, 1979-86, 1986-92, 1993-2000, and 2001-06) generally known by their period of duration (Nine Year Plan, for example). It also managed several developmental milestones in the growth of the Baha’i community.
During the turbulent 1960s and early 1970s the Baha’i faith experienced explosive growth in every region of the globe except the countries behind the Iron Curtain and most Islamic countries, where it was prohibited or severely restricted. Developed countries saw the enrollment of tens of thousands of youth in the Baha’i community. Even more dramatic was the attraction of a few million members of minorities—such as blacks and American Indians in the United States and Rom (gypsies) in Europe—and traditional rural peoples in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and Oceania. Demand for Baha’i literature dramatically increased. The rapid expansion of Baha’i membership created significant consolidation challenges for a religion that had no clergy and that was organized by elected governing bodies. The dramatic expansion among minorities continued in some places into the 1990s.
The expansion of the Baha’i faith among populations in lesser-developed areas of the globe stimulated projects for social and economic betterment. Some projects had begun before 1921, especially in Iran, but for the next 60 years the focus was on firmly establishing Baha’i administrative bodies. Starting in 1979 radio stations geared to the needs of rural populations were established in Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, Chile, Liberia, and South Carolina, where about 10,000 rural African Americans had become Baha’is. Baha’is instituted village schools in hundreds of localities; a number of larger regional schools had significant budgets. Other projects focused on health, agriculture, tree planting, and the empowerment of women. Reinforcing these efforts was the Universal House of Justice’s decision in 1983 to establish an Office of Social and Economic Development at the Baha’i World Center.
Persecution of members of the Baha’i faith in Iran dramatically increased after a revolution swept away Iran’s secular monarchy and established an Islamic republic in 1978 and 1979. All Baha’i institutions were banned, thousands of Baha’is were imprisoned, some 200 were executed for their beliefs, and Baha’i community property and the community’s development bank—worth several billion dollars—were confiscated. Iran’s 300,000 Baha’is were banned from the universities. Many Baha’is were fired from government jobs, and Baha’is experienced various forms of discrimination because of their religion, such as having their insurance policies declared invalid, denial of hospital treatment, harassment by mobs, denial of justice in the courts, and burglary. Some 30,000 Baha’is fled the country. To mobilize public opinion Baha’i communities throughout the world expanded their offices of public information to bring the plight of Iran’s Baha’is to the attention of the media. Offices of external affairs were established or expanded to present the Iranian Baha’i’s situation to governments, which resulted in a number of legislative resolutions condemning the persecution of the Iranian Baha’is, including resolutions by the United States Congress and the European Parliament. The Baha’i International Community’s office at the United Nations was expanded, and it became a leading nongovernmental organization affiliated with the UN system.
The expansion in membership resulted in a corresponding increase in Baha’i literature and art. The number of books published about the Baha’i faith every year increased about tenfold in the 1980s. The number of Baha’i musical recordings expanded similarly; in 1992 Baha’i gospel music became popular. The number of languages in which at least a few Baha’i prayers and scriptural passages could be found increased to more than 800. The Baha’i scriptures in English were enriched with the translation of four volumes of works by Bahaullah and one each by the Bab and Abdul-Baha. The first Association for Baha’i Studies was founded in Canada in 1974; a dozen more were subsequently established around the world. A great increase in the number of Baha’is with graduate degrees in religious studies, Middle Eastern studies, and other subjects in the humanities—coupled with a wave of expatriated Iranian Baha’is deeply knowledgeable about the Baha’i scriptures in the original Persian and Arabic languages—produced important scholarly works in Baha’i history, theology, and scriptural studies. The expansion of Baha’i scholarship created some tensions among intellectuals over interpretations by Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice, the need of National Spiritual Assemblies to continue conducting prepublication reviews of books and articles about the faith, and the role of discourse in the Baha’i community.
The development of Baha’i institutions continued during this period. Since Hands of the Cause could only be appointed by a Guardian, and because the Universal House of Justice had ruled that no additional Guardians could be appointed, in 1968 the Universal House of Justice created the institution of the Counselors to carry the responsibilities of the Hands into the future. Continental Boards of Counselors are appointed to a renewable term every five years. In 1973 the Universal House of Justice established the International Teaching Center at the Baha’i World Center to advise it about the expansion and protection of the Baha’i faith and coordinate the Continental Boards of Counselors. The Universal House of Justice appointed all the Hands and a group of international Counselors to its membership, transferred the Auxiliary Boards to the jurisdiction of the Counselors, and called for the appointment of assistants to the Auxiliary Board members, who are to be appointed by individual Auxiliary Board members with the approval of the Counselors.
The growth of the Baha’i community also necessitated creation of a new level of elected coordinating councils between the local and national Spiritual Assemblies. The Universal House of Justice approved the request of a number of national Spiritual Assemblies—the first was India—to establish Baha’i councils in states or regions. In 1997 it established regional Baha’i councils more widely throughout the world. In some nations councils are elected annually by the members of the local Spiritual Assemblies in the council’s region; in other nations the national Spiritual Assembly appoints the council directly or appoints the council from among the people who received the highest number of votes from local Spiritual Assembly members. Starting in 2001 national Baha’i communities were divided into small planning units called “clusters.” Since local Baha’i communities are defined according to civic jurisdictional lines and because some cities, such as Los Angeles, have very large Baha’i communities, local communities were in many cases allowed to divide themselves into “sectors.”
The continued expansion of the Baha’i faith required the creation of additional institutions and departments at the Baha’i World Center, such as the International Teaching Center, the Office of Public Information, the Research Department, and the Office for Social and Economic Development. The support staff in Haifa expanded from a dozen persons in 1963 to some 700 in 2000. The need to explain the Baha’i faith and its principles prompted the Universal House of Justice to release a peace statement in 1985, a statement in 1988 about individual rights and responsibilities in the world order of Bahaullah, and a letter to the world’s religious leaders in 2002.
The increase in staff required a considerable expansion in facilities, and the growing Baha’i community was in the position to support a building program. Shoghi Effendi’s plans to build a series of buildings of great beauty and majesty on the Arc in Haifa were advanced when the Seat of the Universal House of Justice, the Seat of the International Teaching Center, and the Center for the Study of the Sacred Texts—each clad in Pendelikon marble and built in a modified classical style—were completed by 2000. The 19 terraces climbing the side of Mount Carmel from base to summit were also completed and opened to the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit each year. Baha’i holy places in or near Haifa were purchased, restored, beautified, and opened to visiting Baha’i pilgrims.
The basic teachings of the Baha’i religion are found in the writings of Bahaullah and Abdul-Baha and in the authoritative interpretations of Shoghi Effendi. The central teachings are often summarized as the oneness of God, the oneness of religion, and the oneness of humanity.
Bahaullah describes God’s essence as qualitatively different from that of human beings and thus ultimately beyond their understanding. The essence of God can be understood as having such attributes as omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence and as having a relationship with human beings based on such qualities as love, justice, majesty, mercy, compassion, patience, generosity, kindness, beneficence, and self-subsistence. Thus, in spite of God’s ultimate unknowability and otherness, Baha’is maintain a personal, prayer-filled relationship with their Creator.
The Baha’i scriptures say that God created the spiritual and physical worlds but that there was never a time when creation did not exist; the relationship is causal, not temporal. All things are said to reflect attributes or qualities of God, and thus one can learn about God through contemplation and the study of creation. Human beings have a unique station in creation because they can know and love God and because they potentially can reflect all the attributes of God.
The Baha’i concept of the oneness of religion stems from the Baha’i concept of the manifestation of God, one of the special souls sent by God to educate humanity. Unlike human beings, manifestations are preexistent (whereas humans come into existence at the moment of conception) and have a special relationship with the divine that includes direct access to revelation. Manifestations are born in this world with ordinary human bodies, and they mature and acquire language and a culture, but they always have access to innate knowledge. They often begin their missions by withdrawing into the wilderness. They preach or write down their teachings, which eventually become expressed in scriptural form. They speak about how humans should live their lives in a loving and moral relationship with others and how they should prepare for what comes after death. They often criticize existing social and cultural institutions and are strongly opposed by their generation, often suffering death or exile as a result. But their revelation becomes the basis of a movement that endures and grows into a religious tradition, with its own doctrines, structures, and rituals. Sometimes a manifestation’s particularly prominent followers or successors also have a lesser form of prophethood conferred on them (the Old Testament prophets or the Shiite Muslim imams, for example). Finally, manifestations prophesy, in symbolic language, the coming of a future manifestation, thereby inspiring messianic expectations among some of their followers.
The Baha’i scriptures identify as many as 14 individuals as manifestations of God. Adam and Noah are mythic figures whose status as manifestations may be symbolic. Salih and Hud are prophetic figures who came to Arab tribes before the advent of Islam (they are also mentioned in the Koran) and may be manifestations. The Sabean religion, mentioned in the Koran and the Baha’i scriptures, was founded by a manifestation whose name is lost. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, the Bab, Bahaullah, and Zoroaster are described by Bahaullah as manifestations. Abdul-Baha spoke of the Buddha as a manifestation, and Shoghi Effendi added Krishna. Bahaullah noted that the names of countless manifestations have been lost to history. Bahaullah, Abdul-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi state that information about manifestations and their teachings is often limited, especially manifestations that arose in preliterate societies. While all the above figures are male, there is nothing in the Baha’i scriptures that precludes female manifestations, and many preliterate cultures have had female cultural heroes. Revelation must be relevant to culture and the needs of contemporary society; consequently, all revelations are partially time-bound and eventually are superceded. This includes Bahaullah’s revelation, which Bahaullah said would endure at least a thousand years and then be followed by the teachings of another manifestation.
Because the Baha’i scriptures view all religions as founded by manifestations, they are seen as progressively unfolding stages in the same religion of God. Baha’is are encouraged to “consort” with the followers of all religions in friendliness and fellowship because they all are heirs to divine guidance. The Baha’i faith, however, does not maintain that all the past religions interpreted their founding revelations infallibly or that the traditions developed in a perfect way. Differences of doctrine among the traditions are attributed to differing social conditions shaping the expression of the revelation and to human-inspired interpretations. As a result, the major religions share some common ethical and spiritual principles but differ vastly in the details of their doctrines and rituals.
The oneness of humanity is the principle of the Baha’i faith that shapes its ethical and social teachings. One aspect of the teaching is that humanity has its origin in a common stock, and all peoples have been equally endowed with intelligence, creativity, morality, and divine guidance. Thus, the principle implies the fundamental equality of all human beings.
The Baha’i scriptures understand the oneness of humanity to include the equality of men and women. An important metaphor likens humanity to a bird with two wings, the male and female; unless both wings are equally developed, the bird of humanity cannot fly. To promote the equality of men and women, Baha’i communities make efforts to improve the condition of women inside the Baha’i community, especially in developing countries, and often engage in projects to assist women in general, such as vocational and literacy training or cooperative business projects. Baha’i communities are particularly aware of the insight, reported in the professional development literature, that in many countries the emancipation of women is crucial to lowering the birth-rate, improving infant health, and raising family income.
The Baha’i scriptures explicitly condemn racism, especially in the context of the relations between whites and blacks in the United States. While traveling in the United States, Abdul-Baha spoke about strengthening the love between whites and blacks. He addressed the 1912 annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and he advocated interracial marriage as a way to overcome racial prejudice. Shoghi Effendi offered many specific suggestions for improving race relations (see sidebar). The American Baha’i community has a long history of building racially integrated communities, even when the local laws made it extremely difficult, and has achieved a degree of success in attracting African Americans and other minorities to its membership. Worldwide the Baha’i faith has often spread among members of minority groups before gaining a significant following from the majority group. Because they are defined by existing civic boundaries rather than neighborhoods, Baha’i communities typically are racially and ethnically diverse.
The abolition of prejudices of all kinds is a principle clearly related to equality of the sexes and races. It is also associated with the Baha’i principle of independent investigation of truth (that is, that each individual must develop the capacity to make independent judgments about the world) and is essential to the Baha’i practice of consultation, which is considered vital to the achievement of social justice.
The manifestations devote much of their attention to guiding individuals in how to live their lives. Bahaullah states that human beings have the “twin duties” of recognizing the manifestation of God in their age—Bahaullah, for example, in this age—and obeying the manifestation’s laws and teachings. Neither duty, he notes, is acceptable to God without the other, a position that, in Christian terms, could be said to call for both faith and good works, though Bahaullah does not use the Christian term “salvation” extensively. In order to accept the manifestation, individuals must search for the truth, freeing themselves from prejudices and the opinions of others, in compliance with the principle of independent investigation. (In abolishing the clergy, Bahaullah eliminated its role in guiding or mediating the search.) Bahaullah’s mystic writings are replete with metaphors and stories of the mystic journey and the quest for the divine. In passages that fuse mystical and ethical qualities, he also describes in great, often poetic, detail the virtues and divine attributes a person must strive to obtain throughout life (see sidebar).
Bahaullah revealed specific laws and principles of spiritual conduct. Echoing the Five Pillars of Islam, he required Baha’is to repeat an obligatory prayer daily, to fast, to go on pilgrimage, and to pay a tithe. He emphasized that the true spiritual path lies not in celibacy, monasticism, and asceticism but in creating loving marriages, raising spiritually attuned children, and pursuing a vocation that serves humanity. Service to others is one of the most important virtues one can exercise.
According to the Baha’i scriptures, human social evolution has been guided by the manifestations and has been characterized by ever-larger social units: family, tribe, city-state, and nation. Bahaullah says that humanity has now reached a stage of maturity comparable to adolescence and is capable of creating social and governing systems on a global scale. He claims that his religion brings the principles for such a social reorganization.
Central to the Baha’i approach to implementing all of its principles is the concept of unity. Unity can be understood as existing at various levels. The simplest involves collaboration between persons in areas of common concern. Unity deepens, however, as trust grows stronger and as prayer creates spiritual ties and fosters mutual love, until those involved achieve the ideal of being “one soul in many bodies.” Building unity is a constant concern of Baha’is, both among themselves and in the world around them. When Baha’is meet to discuss matters together, they often begin with prayer, partly to create a spirit of unity. The relationship of Baha’is to non-Baha’is is similarly to be characterized by openness and a desire to work cooperatively in areas of mutual concern.
The Baha’i practice of consultation provides the practical means to strengthen and deepen unity. Consultation involves a series of principles expressed as behaviors in a decision-making context: that all participants in consultation must be respected and feel free to contribute; that all ideas deserve consideration free from prejudice; that ideas belong to the group once they have been voiced, not to the person who voiced them; that no one should feel insulted or intimidated in the consultation process; and that advocacy of ideas must be replaced by an effort to seek the truth together.
Antithetical to the ultimate goal of spiritual unity is partisanship, which creates a lesser loyalty to a smaller group, fosters distrust and superstition between groups, and can even prevent collaboration. Baha’i governing councils have no organized factions or caucuses. Terms like “liberal Baha’i,” “conservative Baha’i,” or “fundamentalist Baha’i” have no clear meaning to Baha’is. Baha’i elections are held without nominations, slates of candidates, or campaigns because such activities are seen as partisan and divisive. Baha’i elections are a sacred act. Voting always begins with prayer and often includes the reading of authoritative Baha’i texts that describe the spiritual prerequisites for those who hold elected office. Each individual votes silently and privately according to his or her consideration of the needs of the office or body being filled by election and to the dictates of personal conscience.
The Baha’i rejection of partisanship means that Baha’is are forbidden from joining political parties. When Baha’is petition governments for assistance—as in the case of the persecuted Iranian Baha’is—they seek multiparty support for their concerns. Since the rule of law is essential for the functioning of any society, Baha’is obey laws and do not involve themselves in non-violent civil disobedience to bring about social change. Rather, they demonstrate their principles through personal example and in ways
Moral Code of Conduct
Baha’i ethical and moral teachings may be classified into three categories: duties to God, duties to oneself, and duties to others. Much of the following discussion has been summarized from Udo Schaefer’s “Towards a Baha’i Ethics,” which appeared in The Baha’i Studies Review (1995).
The first category encompasses loving and worshiping God, accepting God’s manifestation, obeying the laws that God reveals, trusting in God, fearing God, and maintaining steadfastness of faith, servitude, and piety. Bahaullah assigned the highest rank to these duties.
The second category comprises the duties of personal spiritual development and transformation, including detachment, self-renunciation, selflessness, self-denial, purity, and chastity. These assist the individual in establishing the correct relationship to the physical world. While the Baha’i scriptures do forbid certain behaviors—such as backbiting, lying, consuming alcohol, taking mind-altering drugs, and sexual relationships outside marriage—moderation is generally emphasized. The physical world is not seen as evil or as a source of temptation as much as it is seen to provide opportunities to do either good or bad. It should be enjoyed in moderation and with an attitude of detachment.
The third category encompasses virtues guiding our relationships with others. Unity may be seen as its key principle, for the ultimate goal of the Baha’i faith is spiritual and social unity among human beings. Crucial to the achievement of this unity are love and justice; the former binds humans together and motivates individuals to live virtuously with others, while the latter requires corrective action, even punishment, to regulate behaviors when they go beyond their bounds. The two also balance each other, with love preventing justice from degenerating into cruelty and with justice preventing love from slipping into sentimentality and laxity. Other essentials for creating unity include truthfulness, trustworthiness, moderation, wisdom, prudence, compassion, mercy, devotion to others, kindliness, courtesy, and respect.
It is noteworthy that the supreme Baha’i governing body is termed the Universal House of Justice and that the local and national Spiritual Assemblies are eventually to be named local and national Houses of Justice. Their names underline the role of these bodies in establishing justice in the world in order to foster unity. It is also notable that the virtues enumerated in the second and third categories are essential for the Baha’i practice of consultation to be successful, for it calls individuals to rise to as high a level of maturity as possible, relating to each other with respect and courtesy, treating ideas with detachment, examining issues with wisdom, and always viewing everything from the point of view of unity, love, and justice.
The Baha’i scriptures not only describe positive qualities necessary for living an ethical life. They also call on individuals to eschew wickedness, the making of mischief, envy, covetousness, malice, naughtiness, pride, sloth, idleness, cruelty to animals, bigotry, hate, strife, dissension, rancor, unseemly talk, backbiting, cursing, hypocrisy, and fanaticism.
The sacred texts of the Baha’i faith consist of the writings of Bahaullah, the Bab, and Abdul-Baha. Bahaullah, the founder, composed at least 15,000 letters and a hundred or so essays and books. A few hundred writings of the Bab are extant. Abdul-Baha wrote some 16,000 letters, and he wrote or approved the compilation of a half dozen authoritative books, which have been translated into English. The writings of Shoghi Effendi are authoritative and binding, but not sacred; he also wrote about 36,000 letters. About 20 volumes of his writings (mostly compilations of letters) have been published in English. Finally, the Universal House of Justice writes letters itself and oversees a department that writes letters on its behalf in response to questions from individuals and organizations. The letters receive institutional review and approval and thus are considered authoritative.
Because of their uplifting inspirational quality and status as scripture, the Bible, the Koran, and sacred texts of other religions are used by Baha’is in their worship alongside the writings of Bahaullah, the Bab, and Abdul-Baha. But because some of their guidance on how to conduct life has been superceded by the Baha’i scriptures, Baha’is do not use the scriptures of other religions to determine how to live their lives. Accounts about Bahaullah, Abdul-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi by individuals often contain recollections of statements they made, but such accounts, termed pilgrim’s notes, are not considered scriptural or authoritative unless a head of the faith has reviewed the text and approved it.
The Baha’i faith has two sacred symbols that are variants of the Arabic word Baha (glory). The Greatest Name (ya Baha ul-abha, “O Glory of the Most Glorious”), written in calligraphic Arabic script, is often displayed on walls in a place of honor. The ringstone symbol, derived from the Arabic letters in Baha, is incorporated in jewelry and is sometimes placed on walls. Baha’is commonly use the nine-pointed star as the principal Baha’i symbol, but it is not an official symbol of the faith.
Bahaullah was painted and photographed, but pictures of him are regarded as too sacred to publish. Only a few copies exist. They are displayed only in the archives at the Baha’i World Center, and only on special occasions, and are treated with great reverence. The same practices are followed with a painted portrait of the Bab. Many photographs and painted portraits of Abdul-Baha exist, as well as a short motion picture. The pictures are widely displayed but are treated with great respect.
Early and Modern Leaders
Because the Baha’i faith has no clergy and emphasizes organization through governing councils, leadership is defined as exemplifying the qualities of the servant, such as humility, patience, active listening, and putting the needs of others first. Charismatic personalities are not favored, though they were more common before the Baha’i organizational system was established. Many of the early prominent figures in the Baha’i faith were teachers who spread it widely. A few are described below.
Jamal Effendi (died in 1898), born a Shiite Muslim in Iran, became a Babi in the 1850s or 1860s, and then he became a Baha’i. In about 1874 or 1875 Bahaullah asked him to travel to India to teach the Baha’i faith there. He crisscrossed the country repeatedly and spoke to large crowds—mostly Muslim—about the Baha’i teachings, attracting some people to the religion. In 1878 he traveled to Burma (Myanmar), where he settled for several years, initiating Baha’i communities in Mandalay and Rangoon (now Yangon). From 1884 to 1886 Effendi traveled to Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, Java, and Sulawesi to teach the Baha’i faith. His was the earliest effort to spread the religion in those regions. After Effendi visited Bahaullah in Acre to make a report of his travels in 1888, Bahaullah sent him on a trip to Aden and India that also included a journey through Tibet to Central Asia and Afghanistan. He returned to Acre in 1896, at which time Abdul-Baha sent him to Iran to teach the faith. He spent his last days in Acre, passing away there in 1898.
Thornton Chase (1847-1912) is generally recognized as the first American member of the Baha’i faith. Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, and raised a northern Baptist, Chase served in the Union army during the American Civil War as a white officer of a black infantry unit, attended Brown University, started a series of unsuccessful businesses, and went on to become an actor, chorus director, silver prospector, poet, and inventor. He began a spiritual search that led him to Swedenborgianism for five years and then to the Baha’i faith in 1894. He gradually emerged as perhaps the central member of the governing council of the Chicago Baha’is. He was one of the first Americans to grasp the importance of organization as it later emerged under Shoghi Effendi and to stress the Baha’i principles of consultation. He spread knowledge of the Baha’i Fast and holy days widely in the United States. He published two of the earliest important books on the faith: In Galilee (1908), an account of his visit to Abdul-Baha in Acre, and The Baha’i Revelation (1909), an introductory text.
Martha Root (1872-1939) was the most important American Baha’i itinerant teacher. An 1895 graduate of the University of Chicago, she was a journalist with some experience of international travel when she became a Baha’i in 1909. In 1915 she began her first trip to teach the Baha’i faith, visiting Baha’i communities in Europe, Egypt, India, Burma, Japan, and Hawaii. In 1919 Abdul-Baha’s Tablets of the Divine Plan, a series of epistles to the North American Baha’is calling on them to spread the Baha’i faith across the world, were read at the national Baha’i convention in New York City, and Root immediately left for South America, where there were as yet no Baha’is. For the next 20 years—until she died of cancer in Honolulu on her way back to the mainland United States—Root traveled almost continually, visiting every inhabited continent. She earned her living by selling travel stories to American newspapers. She usually visited a local newspaper when entering a city for the first time and used reprints of the resulting newspaper articles about her visit as a Baha’i pamphlet. She contacted Theosophists, Esperantists, and other groups open to new ideas to tell them about the Baha’i faith. Other Baha’is corresponded with and visited her contacts if Root was unable to follow up. Upon her passing, Shoghi Effendi declared her a Hand of the Cause of God.
Ruhiyyih Rabbani (Amatul-Baha Ruhiyyih Khanum, née Mary Maxwell) (1910-2000) was the daughter of May Bolles Maxwell and William Sutherland Maxwell, a prominent Canadian architect. Her parents hosted Abdul-Baha when he visited Montreal in 1912. In 1937 Mary Maxwell married Shoghi Effendi, who gave her the titles Amatul-Baha (Handmaiden of Baha) and Ruhiyyih Khanum (Lady Ruhiyyih, a name that means “spiritual”). She served as one of Shoghi Effendi’s chief secretaries and assistants, and he named her a Hand of the Cause of God in 1952. Upon Shoghi Effendi’s unexpected death in 1957, she played a central role in holding the Baha’i community together through the organizational crisis that followed. Once the Universal House of Justice was established she began a series of extensive journeys, and in the next 30 years she visited virtually every country in the world, focusing in particular on encouraging Baha’is of tribal backgrounds and rural Baha’is in developing countries. She often served as the official representative of the Baha’i faith at important ceremonial and diplomatic events. She wrote several noteworthy Baha’i books, as well as a volume of poetry. She is buried in Haifa, Israel.
Major Theologians and Authors
Mirza Abul-Fadl (1844-1914) was a Shiite clergyman who became a Baha’i in 1876. He was instrumental in taking the Baha’i faith to Iranian Jews and Zoroastrians and was imprisoned in Tehran for his beliefs. Subsequently he moved to Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, and played an active role in the Baha’i community there. In 1894 Abdul-Baha urged him to move to Egypt, the intellectual capital of the Arab world. There he became a faculty member at Al-Azhar University, where he introduced the Baha’i faith to dozens of Egyptians until he was fired for his beliefs. In 1900 Abdul-Baha asked him to move to the United States, where he was instrumental in deepening the new faith of American Baha’is. In 1904 he returned to Egypt, where he spent the last decade of his life. He authored three important studies of the Baha’i faith, one of which, Baha’i Proofs (1902), was an early textbook on the Baha’i faith. His writing demonstrates a vast knowledge of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptures and sensitivity to such matters as scientific history and higher biblical criticism, even though he could not read any Western languages. He wrote several responses to written attacks against the Baha’i faith. Two of his works are still in print in English.
Horace Holley (1877-1960) was a Connecticut Yankee and Williams College graduate who became a part of the American expatriate community in Paris, where he joined the Baha’i community during Abdul-Baha’s visit in 1911. Returning to the United States, he settled in New York and became a writer and editor. He published several books and articles on the Baha’i faith, including Baha’ism: The Modern Social Religion (1913) and The Social Principle (1915). Because of his organizational skills, he was elected to the Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of New York City. In 1923 he was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States and Canada, and he served as executive secretary for that body for most of the next 35 years. In that position he was able to serve Shoghi Effendi closely while the latter used the American Baha’i governing body to develop and test the practical implementation of Baha’i administrative principles. The resulting practices were then applied elsewhere in the Baha’i world. Holley was also chief editor of various Baha’i quarterly magazines and a yearbook called The Baha’i World.Holley drafted many statements made by the National Spiritual Assembly. In 1951 Shoghi Effendi named him a Hand of the Cause of God. On Shoghi Effendi’s passing in 1957, Holley moved to Haifa, Israel, to serve on the nine-member temporary coordinating body of the Baha’i faith. He died in Haifa in 1960.
Alain Leroy Locke (1885-1954) was the first African-American Rhodes scholar and one of the first African-Americans to complete a Ph.D. in philosophy at Harvard University. He was a longtime member and chair of Howard University’s philosophy department and is generally considered the dean of the Harlem Renaissance. In 1918 Locke became a Baha’i. He played an important role in proclaiming Baha’i principles directly in public gatherings throughout the American South and indirectly through scores of books and articles about race relations, adult education, multiculturalism, democracy, and black art and culture. He remains the most important Baha’i contributor to American thought and culture.
To exemplify and spread the Baha’i principles, Bahaullah established the Baha’i community. (Baha’is do not use the term church to describe themselves collectively). If the Baha’i community were described in terms of the human body, the organizational system, termed the administrative order, would be its skeleton and nervous system. It has two branches: elected councils and their agencies (at the local, regional, national, and international levels) and appointed individual consultants (at the local, regional, continental, and international levels). At the local level the elected branch is represented in the local Spiritual Assembly, the nine-member governing council chosen annually by all the adult members according to the Baha’i principles of election. Local Spiritual Assemblies are responsible for such functions as assisting Baha’is, counseling them when they are in need, renting or purchasing a Baha’i center for community meetings, handling community funds and property, demonstrating the Baha’i principles through projects of social betterment, proclaiming the Baha’i faith in the local media, teaching the Baha’i faith to others, coordinating Baha’i marriages and funerals, overseeing Baha’i classes for children and adults, holding devotional meetings, and sponsoring Nineteen Day Feasts and holy day observances. In many nations the members of the local Spiritual Assemblies vote for the nine-member Regional Council every 26 November, all adult Baha’is in the region being eligible for election. The Regional Council coordinates Baha’i activities in its geographic area, encouraging in particular the teaching of the Baha’i faith to others.
Above the local Spiritual Assembly and the Regional Council is the nine-member national Spiritual Assembly. Each nation is divided into electoral units, each of which elects one or more delegates to the annual national convention. The delegates can elect to the national Spiritual Assembly any adult Baha’i (except a Counselor) who resides in the nation and who has full membership privileges. The national Spiritual Assembly elects officers from among its own members (a chair, vice chair, secretary, and treasurer, at minimum) and hires staff as needed. National Spiritual Assemblies oversee relations with national governments, interact with the national media, own office buildings and other property (such as schools, radio stations, and houses of worship), often publish and distribute Baha’i literature, set the jurisdictional boundaries of local Spiritual Assemblies (usually following legally recognized civil boundaries), discipline Baha’is for violations of Baha’i law, coordinate efforts to emancipate women or empower minorities, sponsor social and economic projects, and organize national campaigns to proclaim Baha’i teachings and to teach the Baha’i religion to others.
At the international level the Universal House of Justice is the nine-member governing body. It is elected every five years in late April by members of all national Spiritual Assemblies. All male Baha’is with full membership privileges are eligible for election.
Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi emphasized the importance of the Universal House of Justice in their writings. They stressed that the Universal House of Justice was infallible in matters essential to the Baha’i faith and had to be obeyed by Baha’is. The Universal House of Justice devotes much of its time to guiding national Spiritual Assemblies and the Baha’i world in general, setting international priorities, defending the Baha’is from persecution, fostering study of the Baha’i scriptures, overseeing the translation and publication of Baha’i texts, and answering thousands of questions from Baha’is and Baha’i institutions. It issues statements about aspects of the Baha’i faith. It maintains representation at the United Nations in New York and Geneva under the name of the Baha’i International Community. It sets the boundaries of national Baha’i communities and can disband a national Spiritual Assembly and call for a new election if it determines that Baha’i electoral principles were violated.
The Universal House of Justice also appoints Counselors, the members of the principal institution of the appointed branch of the Baha’i administrative order. In 2003 there were 81 Counselors divided among five “continental” boards, plus nine serving at the International Teaching Center in Haifa. The Continental Boards of Counselors, in turn, appoint the 990 Auxiliary Board members who work in specific regions within the continents. They, in turn, appoint assistants, numbering in the thousands, who serve at the local level. Counselors and Auxiliary Board members are appointed to five-year terms; assistants are usually reappointed annually. The Counselors, Auxiliary Board members, and assistants encourage Baha’is, advise the Baha’i elected bodies within their spheres of responsibility, inform Baha’is and institutions about national and international priorities, and generate reports to the International Teaching Center about developments at the local, regional, and national levels. The Counselors and their auxiliary institutions have no judicial or decision-making authority over the community, but by virtue of the Baha’i principle of consultation they play a central role in strengthening the Baha’i faith and fostering communication.
Houses of Worship and Holy Places
Baha’i holy places are associated with the founders of the faith and prominent early followers. The house of the Bab in Shiraz, Iran, where he announced his mission as a manifestation of God in 1844, is considered a holy place and an official place of Baha’i pilgrimage. Confiscated from the Baha’i faith by the Islamic revolutionary government in 1979, the building was destroyed. The house of Bahaullah in Baghdad, also an official place of pilgrimage, was confiscated from the Baha’i community in 1922. Finally, the tombs of the Bab and Bahaullah in Haifa and Acre, Israel, respectively, are holy places and places of pilgrimage. Other holy places at the Baha’i World Center include the tombs of Bahaullah’s son Mirza Mihdi, his daughter Bahiyyih Khanum, his wife Navvab, and Abdul-Baha’s wife, Munirih Khanum, as well as houses where Bahaullah and Abdul-Baha lived. Houses where Bahaullah resided in Iran and Turkey are also holy places.
The heads of the faith have designated various other sites as holy places, such as the tombs of individuals martyred for their belief in Iran and those of prominent early believers who sacrificed their time and efforts to spread the religion. In North America the Maxwell home in Montreal, where Abdul-Baha stayed, is a holy place.
The Baha’i community possesses a house of worship in each geographical region of the world: New Delhi, India; Frankfurt, Germany; Wilmette, Illinois (United States); Panama City, Panama; Sydney, Australia; Kampala, Uganda; and Apia, Western Samoa. A house of worship was built in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, but was confiscated and later torn down by the Soviet authorities. A house of worship is planned for Santiago, Chile. After this last “continental” house of worship is completed, the focus will turn to building national Houses of Worship around the world and, eventually, local Houses of Worship.
A Baha’i house of worship has few architectural requirements. All houses of worship must have nine sides and nine doors. All have a dome, though this is not required, and most are surrounded by gardens. Houses of Worship are places where Baha’is gather for dawn prayers, teach their children to chant prayers, and frequently hold devotional services. In the prayer hall sermons are not allowed, and instrumental music is forbidden; programs consist of the recitation of sacred scripture by individual readers, the singing of a cappella music based on scripture, and silent prayer.
Each house of worship is intended to be at the center of a larger institution, the Mashriqul-Adhkar (“Dawning Place of the Mention of God”), which is to include educational, social, and charitable facilities, such as a library, university, hospital, hostel for visitors, and home for the elderly and disabled. The existing Houses of Worship do not yet have such facilities. At present local Baha’i communities purchase or rent centers for devotional gatherings, classes, administrative activities, and social gatherings, or they meet in homes.
What is Sacred?
The Baha’i faith recognizes some places as sacred but holds few objects sacred. Most such objects are associated with the Bab, Bahaullah, and, to a lesser extent, Abdul-Baha. The Baha’i International Archives in Haifa houses such relics as Bahaullah’s writings, clothing, and personal effects; tufts of Bahaullah’s hair; painted portraits and photographs of Bahaullah; and a portrait of the Bab. A Baha’i pilgrimage includes a visit to the International Archives. The visit is carried out in an atmosphere of solemnity and dignity. Images of Bahaullah are regarded as sacred; the few copies that exist are brought out for viewing only on rare occasions. In a more general sense the Baha’i faith considers all of creation to reflect the names and attributes of God and thus to be imbued with sacredness.
Holidays and Festivals
The Baha’i faith has nine holy days annually on which work is to be suspended. They are Naw-Ruz (New Year), which falls on the equinox in March; three days during the 12-day festival of Ridvan, which celebrates Bahaullah’s public announcement of his mission as a divine messenger in 1863, of which the 1st, 9th, and 12th days (21 and 29 April and 2 May) are holy days; the Declaration of the Bab (23 May), which commemorates the day he announced his mission as a divine messenger in 1844; the Ascension of Bahaullah (29 May); the Martyrdom of the Bab (9 July); the Birth of the Bab (20 October); and the Birth of Bahaullah (12 November). Baha’i communities often sponsor public commemorations of these events.
Two holy days are associated with the ministry of Abdul-Baha: the Day of the Covenant (26 November), which commemorates his role as the center of the covenant of Bahaullah; and the Ascension of Abdul-Baha (28 November). Work is not suspended on these days.
The Baha’i faith has a calendar of 19 months of 19 days each. Each month is named for an attribute of God, such as Baha (splendor), Jalal (glory), Jamal (beauty), Nur (light), and Rahmat (mercy). Each month—usually on the first day—local Baha’i communities host a gathering termed a Nineteen Day Feast, which includes a devotional program, a consultative portion in which community business is discussed, and a social portion, during which the community shares fellowship. Only Baha’is can attend Feast. The Baha’i community does not have a required weekly service, mass, or other devotional program, though weekly devotional programs are often held, especially in connection with children’s classes (“Baha’i Sunday school”).
Since the Baha’i calendar is solar, and 19 months of 19 days each totals 361 days, 4 days are added to the calendar each year (or 5 in a leap year) to keep it synchronized with the seasons. This period—the intercalary days—is a time of fellowship, family gatherings, service to those in need, and gift giving.
The last month of the year—2 through 20 March, the 19 days between the intercalary days and the New Year—is a fast, when Baha’is refrain from eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset. The purpose of the fast is to detach the individual from the material world and focus attention on the spiritual life. Exemptions from physical fasting are granted to children under 15, senior citizens over 70, and adults who are pregnant, nursing, menstruating, traveling, ill, or performing heavy labor. Even those who are unable to keep the physical fast, however, are able to keep the fast spiritually by focusing on prayer and detachment.
Mode of Dress
Beyond the requirement that Baha’is dress modestly (a requirement that is itself defined according to local cultural norms) and cleanly, the Baha’i faith does not prescribe a mode of dress for members. But Bahaullah specified that Baha’is should not allow themselves to be “playthings of the ignorant,” suggesting that they should avoid fads and frivolous dress.
The Baha’i faith does not ban any types of food—its scriptures declare all things should be “clean”—nor does it require anything to be eaten or drunk. The only dietary restrictions on Baha’is involve a ban on alcohol and other substances that are significantly mind-altering, such as hashish, unless the substance has been prescribed by a physician as part of a medical treatment.
Bahaullah and Abdul-Baha urged a simple diet and discussed the importance of a healthy diet in preventing and overcoming disease. Abdul-Baha stated that eventually a vegetarian diet would be adopted widely. The Baha’i writings on diet and health stress the importance of being guided by scientific research.
The Baha’i faith possesses no clergy (in the sense of full-time ordained religious professionals with specialized religious training) and virtually no communal ritual. Worship generally consists of celebration of the word of God through recitation of scriptural passages and prayers, which can be selected and read by anyone. In some cultures—notably the Iranian culture—it is customary to chant Baha’i scripture. Worship also includes music, especially singing. (Instrumental music is forbidden in Houses of Worship but is often used in other contexts.) Baha’i worship often includes songs from other religious traditions that are theologically appropriate; in the United States, for example, “Amazing Grace” is sometimes sung. A devotional program may include brief addresses, except in the prayer hall in a house of worship, where addresses are not permitted. Since only Baha’is can make financial contributions to the Baha’i faith, and their contributions are strictly voluntary and private, Baha’i worship never includes a public donation of money.
The form of worship described above may be found in various contexts: the devotional portion of the Nineteen Day Feast, the monthly gathering of the local Baha’i community, daily worship programs at a Baha’i house of worship, or weekly devotional programs held by local Baha’i communities. Baha’i weddings and funerals usually involve devotions in this form as well.
Baha’is are directed by scripture to perform an obligatory prayer daily. They may choose one of three obligatory prayers: the Short Obligatory Prayer, to be said once a day between noon and sunset; the Medium Obligatory Prayer, to be said three times a day (in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening); and the Long Obligatory Prayer, to be said any time within a 24-hour period. Both the medium and long prayers include ritual movements. All three are to be recited while facing the qiblih (Bahaullah’s tomb). Unlike the Muslim obligatory prayer (salat), Baha’i obligatory prayers are said privately, not congregationally. Baha’i personal worship also includes repetition of the phrase Allah-u-Abha (“God is most glorious”) 95 times each day. The obligatory prayer and repetition of Allah-u-Abha are preceded by the performance of ablutions.
The Bab, Bahaullah, and Abdul-Baha revealed numerous prayers for believers to use, usually in response to a specific need in relation to such matters as marriage, children, spouses, health, the passing of loved ones, life tests, and the acquisition of virtues and divine qualities like compassion and patience. Collections of prayers, which have been published in prayer books in many languages, are often recited by Baha’is in their private devotionals. Bahaullah exhorted Baha’is to hold themselves accountable each day before God, an effort that constitutes a form of prayer in the individual’s own words; Baha’is otherwise seldom pray in their own words. Bahaullah urged Baha’is to recite the word of God every morning and evening. Finally, work performed in service to humanity is considered worship.
A Baha’i marriage ceremony consists of the recitation of a vow (“We will, all, verily, abide by the Will of God”) by the bride and groom in the presence of at least two witnesses. Baha’is are free to choose the location and program for the wedding ceremony. In many countries the Baha’i community is empowered to conduct marriages, making a civil ceremony unnecessary.
A Baha’i funeral, like a Baha’i wedding, has no fixed program. Before interment of an adult Baha’i, it is obligatory to recite the congregational prayer for the dead. The prayer, which includes six verses to be repeated 19 times each, is recited by one person on behalf of everyone present. Baha’i prayers are often recited and songs sung during the funeral or at the grave site. Funeral and memorial services might include biblical texts or passages from other scriptures, especially if the family of the deceased is not Baha’i.
Baha’i law specifies that Baha’is should not be cremated. The body of the deceased is to be washed and wrapped in cotton or silk and placed in a coffin of wood, stone, or crystal, and a burial ring is to be placed on the finger. The body should not be transported more than an hour’s distance from the place of death and should be buried facing the qiblih,the holiest place to Baha’is.
Baha’is are encouraged to go on pilgrimage once in their lifetime if they are able. Pilgrimage to the Baha’i World Center is a nine-day event that includes visits to various holy places, such as the tombs of the Bab and Bahaullah. Unlike the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, it can be performed any time of the year, but it requires submitting an application to the Universal House of Justice.
Rites of Passage
The Baha’i faith does not have a prescribed baptism, a rite of passage for youth, or a required ceremony for converts. When someone wishes to become a Baha’i, he or she first declares his or her faith in some manner, often by signing an enrollment card. Sometimes one or more persons appointed by the local Spiritual Assembly meet with the declarant to make sure the person understands the Baha’i faith, at least at a minimal level. Then the person is enrolled as a member of the Baha’i community. Membership is clearly defined because it has privileges: Only members can attend Feast, vote or be voted for in Baha’i elections, and contribute money to the Baha’i faith.
Baha’is have a spiritual obligation to teach the Baha’i faith to others, and the scriptures give ethical guidelines as to how the faith is to be taught. Three principles stand out: that people are taught the Baha’i faith in ways that involve no coercion, bribery, or deceit; that, in their personal relations with people who inquire about the faith, Baha’is follow the principles of consultation, such as active listening and seeking the truth together; and that Baha’is teach their religion to others through personal moral and spiritual example, establishing warm and reciprocal friendships, offering a wise and appropriate explanation of their beliefs, quoting appropriate passages from the Baha’i scriptures, and actualizing the teachings in their daily activities. Baha’i institutions organize events to present Baha’i teachings to the public, orchestrate media campaigns to proclaim Baha’i principles, and sponsor social and economic development projects that express Baha’i principles in action. Baha’i institutions also encourage Baha’is to move to cities and villages to establish new Baha’i communities, an effort known as pioneering. Most major Baha’i institutions maintain informational websites. Some run informational radio stations.
Bahaullah exhorted the Baha’is to “consort with the followers of all religions in friendliness and fellowship.” The Baha’is have a long history of lively and positive interchange with members of other religions and, since the rise of the modern inter-faith movement, of involvement in efforts to work with other faiths. Because the Baha’i scriptures recognize the validity of all major religions and see them all as derived from revelation or inspired by the same divine source, the Baha’i religion has no problem with accepting, praying with, and working with other religions. Baha’is may attend services of other faiths, and most Baha’i events are open to all. The Baha’i principle of consultation means that Baha’is should approach other religionists positively and openly. Baha’is have been active in planning the Parliaments of the World Religions held in 1993, 1999, and 2004. Baha’i communities are members of many international, national, and local interfaith organizations.
The Baha’i faith forbids the use of physical coercion in matters of religion and supports the principle of freedom of worship and religious assembly. Baha’is are subject to severe oppression in many Islamic countries and, in the past, were persecuted by fascist and some communist regimes and by a few dictators, such as Idi Amin of Uganda. In Iran as many as 20,000 Babis and Baha’is were killed for their beliefs between 1844 and 1900. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1978-79, some 200 Baha’is have been executed for their beliefs, and thousands more have been fired from their jobs, harassed, imprisoned, tortured, denied hospital treatment or insurance coverage, refused equal rights in courts, expelled from universities, and in many cases expelled from public elementary and high schools.
The Baha’i scriptures exhort Baha’is to be “anxiously concerned” about the world around them. They also stress that the social problems of the world are caused by the lack of recognition of such principles as the oneness of humanity and the ethic of unity that are fundamental to Baha’i belief.
Bahaullah called on the nations of the world to renounce armaments, reduce their militaries to a size sufficient to meet internal security threats only, and enter into collective agreements to defend one another in case of outside attack. He called for a summit of world leaders to meet and deliberate on the common problems of humanity. He also called on humanity to establish a universal currency and universal weights and measures and to adopt a universal auxiliary language to supplement existing languages in the international arena.
Bahaullah singled out the British system of government as praiseworthy and “good” because it embraced both the principle of monarchy and of consultation of the people through Parliament. He stressed the importance of consultation in all matters, raising it to a principle of central importance to society and culture. He exhorted monarchs and presidents to be concerned about the poor and to uphold justice.
Bahaullah and his son Abdul-Baha showed a deep interest in economic development and modernization. Bahaullah abolished the Islamic ban on interest, thereby allowing the creation of modern banking systems. He and Abdul-Baha supported the creation of modern schools, including the first Baha’i school in Iran. Bahaullah described work as a form of worship, a way to express one’s creativity, serve humanity, carry forward the advance of civilization, and earn a living for one’s family. He thus abolished notions that secular work was unspiritual or inferior to a lifestyle of contemplation and prayer. Abdul-Baha rejected the idea, prevalent in much of the Middle East at the time, that European or foreign ideas are automatically suspect. He called on nations to accept or reject ideas based on consultation and experimentation rather than prejudice.
The Baha’i scriptures call for universal compulsory education to assure that everyone acquires literacy and a basic knowledge of the world. The scriptures offer at least two reasons for universal literacy: so that everyone can read and study the word of God on their own, without the need of intermediaries to interpret or explain it; and so that everyone can make a contribution to humanity’s “ever-advancing civilization.” Village literacy schools are among the most common projects for social improvement sponsored by Baha’i communities in underdeveloped regions. In the United States after-school tutoring is sponsored by some local Baha’i communities. Worldwide both individual Baha’is and Baha’i communities sponsor or collaborate with others in thousands of projects for the social and economic betterment of human beings.
The Baha’i scriptures delineate a few basic economic principles for adjusting the economy of the world. The acquisition of wealth is not condemned; rather, it is seen as essential in order to provide for one’s family and assist the poor. Wealth confers a responsibility on its possessor. The Baha’i scriptures enjoin everyone to acquire a vocation in order to earn a living in the world; neither the rich nor the poor are to be idle, and begging is forbidden. Abdul-Baha advocated a graduated income tax by which those unable to support their families are assisted by the surplus income of the wealthier members of the community.
Bahaullah’s law of huququllah (“right of God”) is relevant here. The law states that Baha’is must examine their expenditures, divide them into two categories (necessary and surplus), and periodically pay to the Baha’i faith a 19 percent “tithe” on the surplus. While there are guidelines about how to determine one’s necessary expenses, the individual has considerable leeway in applying the guidelines. For example, housing expenses can be regarded as necessary expenses, but an individual can decide that because he or she has a larger house that is necessary, it would be appropriate to regard the difference between a smaller and a larger house as a surplus on which the right of God must be paid. The law requires that Baha’is examine the material dimension of their lives and consider whether they are living in too much luxury.
The principles mentioned above foster among Baha’is a sense of financial responsibility and develop recognition of the importance of generosity and material sacrifice for others. They also intended to result in feelings of solidarity with all peoples, regardless of skin color, religion, class, or temperament.
While Baha’is are often involved in projects for social betterment, they are careful to avoid partisanship and partisan politics. The Baha’i emphasis on unity means that Baha’is reject approaches to social improvement that are based on divisiveness and the solidarity of one group at the expense of others. When Baha’is support specific legislation—such as ratification of United Nations treaties against genocide and violence toward women—they seek to contribute to efforts that have broad support.
The Baha’i scriptures regard marriage as the foundational institution in human society. Bahaullah referred to marriage as a “fortress for well-being and salvation.” He recommended it highly and discouraged celibacy.
The Baha’i scriptures forbid arranged marriages but require the permission of all living parents before a marriage can take place, unless the parents are unable to give permission because of mental incapacity. The wedding vow (“We will, all, verily, abide by the Will of God”) establishes a Baha’i marriage as a kind of love triangle, with God at its apex. Sexuality is regarded as only one aspect of marriage, albeit an important one. The only proper expression of sexuality, from the point of view of the Baha’i scriptures, is a heterosexual relationship inside a marriage. Bahaullah stated that, in the future, Baha’is who commit adultery should pay a fine to the House of Justice; the sum starts small but doubles each time the offense is repeated.
Divorce is strongly discouraged but allowed. A couple having marital difficulties should seek counseling and, if that fails, should initiate a year of waiting while they reside separately and continue to attempt to reconcile. Any resumption of sexual relations or cohabitation requires a new start to the year of waiting. During the year of waiting the husband has an obligation to support the wife and children. After the year is over, if reconciliation has proved impossible, the couple may divorce.
Bahaullah in a verse exhorted married couples to bring forth one who will “remember” God, which has been interpreted to mean that a couple should strive to have at least one child. The mother is understood to be the first educator of the child, but the father has important educational responsibilities as well. The father is seen as the principal breadwinner of the family. But families are free to arrange their lives so that the mother works and the father stays at home with the children if that is best for them.
The Baha’i scriptures use the metaphor of a growing tree to describe the raising of children. Just as a tree must be pruned and directed to grow straight, children must be guided and sometimes disciplined, but without resort to harsh punishment, beating, or tongue-lashing. The spiritual education of children—that is, to raise them as generous, loving, caring human beings who serve others and worship their Creator—is of paramount importance, though literacy and other basic education are also compulsory.
The Baha’i community seldom takes public stands on controversial issues that are matters of individual conscience. It does not expect those who are not Baha’is to adhere to Baha’i standards of behavior.
The Baha’i authoritative texts state that an individual’s soul comes into existence at the time of conception. Birth control techniques that prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg and thus kill it, such as intrauterine devices, are not to be used by Baha’is. Baha’is may use birth control methods that prevent conception (such as birth control pills and condoms) in order to plan the timing and spacing of their children. Baha’i couples are exhorted not to use birth control in order to remain childless, as the raising of at least one child is regarded as an important part of marriage. A couple’s birth control decisions are considered private, and Baha’i communities or institutions do not concern themselves with such matters.
Since the Baha’i authoritative texts regard life as beginning at the moment of conception, abortion is seen as taking a life. Accordingly, Baha’is should not regard it as a birth control option. If the life of the mother is endangered, however, or if other medical problems arise, it is left to individuals to make their decisions regarding abortion in consultation with their doctors. The Universal House of Justice has chosen not to legislate about such matters. Baha’is are not asked whether they have had abortions, nor are they penalized for having them. Because the abortion issue has become immensely politicized, the Baha’i community does not take any position on such matters as legalizing or banning abortions.
The Baha’i faith permits divorce, though it discourages the practice. The Baha’i community does not take positions on the legalization or legal restriction of divorce.
Since the Baha’i faith has no clergy, it has none of the problems that many religious communities have with women serving as clergy. Women have been members of local and national Spiritual Assemblies since the formation of the first such bodies in the United States in the first decade of the twentieth century. Women also have served as Hands of the Cause of God, which is considered the highest-ranking position a Baha’i can occupy. The Baha’i scriptures said in the mid-nineteenth century that women had the right to marry whom they wished, divorce, own property, and practice a vocation—rights that did not exist in most societies of that day. In the early twentieth century Abdul-Baha said that women should enter all the fields occupied by men, becoming great scientists and physicians, and that women should be elected as presidents and prime ministers of nations. It may therefore seem surprising that women cannot serve in the Universal House of Justice, the Baha’i faith’s highest coordinating council. The Baha’i scriptures give no reason for this exception but state that the reason will be clear in the future. The Universal House of Justice has added that the exemption has nothing to do with the issue of equality of the sexes.
Like other religious communities, the Baha’i faith has had to deal with dissidence and schism. Abdul-Baha strongly emphasized the covenant, which among other things is a teaching that God will protect and guide the Baha’i community through the individual or institution at its head and that the community will obey the head’s decisions. Individuals who disagree with a position of the head of the faith—currently the Universal House of Justice—are free to hold their views privately and to enter into dialogue with the Universal House of Justice on the subject in dispute.
In rare circumstances individuals have come out in active opposition to the head of the Baha’i faith and have sought to create their own alternative version of the faith. In those cases, after an effort to bring about reconciliation, the head of the faith has declared the person a covenant breaker. Baha’is are not to associate with covenant breakers in social and religious contexts and are discouraged, though not forbidden, from reading the person’s writings or maintaining economic contact with the person—through business transactions, for example. Historically this policy has been remarkably effective in preventing the creation of Baha’i sects. When Bahaullah, Abdul-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi died, a few individuals disputed the succession and claimed leadership for themselves, but the resulting movements rarely acquired more than a few hundred followers and usually lost their momentum in two or three decades. Currently there exist two or three small groups who disputed the succession after Shoghi Effendi’s passing, earlier such groups having all faded away. For example, the Orthodox Baha’is, with 100 or so members concentrated in New Mexico, claim that Charles Mason Remey was the rightful successor to Shoghi Effendi. Another group, the Baha’is Under the Provision of the Covenant (BUPC), who separated from the Orthodox Baha’is, also has about 100 members.
Dissidence within the mainstream Baha’i community has been relatively rare, in spite of the religion’s diversity of ethnic and religious backgrounds. Although it has supported scholarly collaboration and the creation of international distance-learning courses, since the 1990s the Internet has fostered controversy over such issues as the role of women in the Baha’i community, especially their ineligibility for membership in the Universal House of Justice, as well as the practice of institutional review before publication of all works written by Baha’is about the faith; the rejection of nominations and campaigns in Baha’i elections; the rejection of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle for Baha’is; the relationship between Baha’i institutions and academic scholarship; and the nature and purpose of discourse in the Baha’i community, especially in changing teachings and policies. Although only a few hundred persons may have taken part in this lively discussion, they have included individuals of some intellectual influence. Perhaps a dozen of the latter have separated from the mainstream Baha’i community because of their differences over beliefs and practices, and several have published works critical of the Baha’i community.
Because the Baha’i faith is only a little more than 150 years old and has a relatively small number of widely scattered adherents, its cultural and artistic impact remains nascent. While Baha’i-inspired art forms may emerge in the future, the emphasis remains on the expression of Baha’i principles through the existing diverse cultures of the world.
Baha’i Houses of Worship, also called Baha’i temples, are perhaps the best example of this effort. All temples must have nine sides and nine doors, with an auditorium facing toward Bahaullah’s tomb in northern Israel. All have domes and gardens. But beyond these characteristics, the temples are architectural expressions of culture. The first Baha’i temple, in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan, had a principal entrance resembling the grand entrances of mosques typical of Iran and central Asia, and it had structures resembling minarets. The Baha’i temple in Wilmette, Illinois, was an attempt to express Baha’i principles in a wholly new architectural form, one with some features of cathedral domes and mosque minarets and with geometric interior and exterior ornamentation that included both European Christian and Islamic motifs. The temple in Kampala, Uganda, was designed to resemble a traditional African hut and used native art forms in its decoration. The temples in Panama and Western Samoa also extensively utilized native art forms in their ornamentation. The temple outside Frankfurt, Germany, featured an ultramodern glass and steel design expressing the rebirth of postwar German society. The temple in New Delhi, India, represents a gigantic opening lotus flower in marble. The lotus is an ancient symbol in various Indian religions.
The Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel, has also expressed Baha’i principles in its structures. The exteriors of the buildings generally have used classical Greek and Roman architectural forms, such as marble pillars and marble cladding to convey a sense of timelessness and majesty. The building interiors have been filled with furniture and objets d’art that express the richness and diversity of culture around the world, such as Persian carpets, Chinese vases, classical European furniture, African sculpture, and modern abstract paintings. The administrative buildings have been laid out on an arc that crosses the slope of Mount Carmel, pivoting around several sacred tombs. The buildings and tombs are set in magnificent and extensive gardens. Another set of 19 garden terraces stretches from the foot to the summit of Mount Carmel. The tenth and centermost terrace is occupied by the Shrine of the Bab, the resting place of both the Bab and Abdul-Baha, the holiest Baha’i place in Haifa. The effect of the proximity of sacred tombs and administrative buildings is to fuse the timeless sacred and the administrative, underlining the essential nature of the latter to the Baha’i faith’s development and progress. Set in immense gardens, both the sacred and the administrative structures are infused with an Edenic, utopian quality.
Individual Baha’is have made numerous contributions to the arts, though it is not necessarily clear to what extent their contributions reflected their identities as Baha’is. The best known Western examples are Dizzy Gillespie (1917-93), in jazz music; Jim Seals (born in 1941) and Dash Crofts (born in 1940), in popular music; Mark Tobey (1890-1976), in abstract painting; Bernard Leach, in pottery (1887-1979); Alain Locke (1886-1954), in philosophy; and Robert Hayden (1913-80), in poetry. Baha’i principles that most often are used as themes in art by Baha’is are the unity of religion, the oneness of humanity, unity in diversity, and appreciation for forms and motifs drawn from many cultural contexts.