It doesn’t happen every day, but there are times when a person will meet someone who identifies himself or herself as a member of the Baha’i Faith. Inevitably, the question is, “What is the Baha’i Faith?” Fortunately, most Baha’is welcome the opportunity to discuss their beliefs, unless the discussion leads to disagreement and ill feelings amongst the participants. Unity amongst all people is one of the paramount tenets of the Baha’i Faith, and if discussing religion brings about rancor in any way, most Baha’is will politely dismiss themselves from the conversation.
Throughout history, religion has been an overwhelming source contention amongst people, creating deeply entrenched divisions of hatred and violence under the worst conditions, prejudice and misunderstanding in the least. Baha’is are strictly forbidden to engage in these negative aspects of religious practice. Instead of participating in discord and miscommunication between the different religions, Baha’is must help create the foundations of unity upon which true fellowship and amity between all people can be established. This is because Baha’is believe that:
1. All religions are one, originating from the One God, revealed to mankind progressively throughout the ages by Divine Teachers, Who include Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Muhammad and the latest Messengers, the Ba’b and Baha’u’llah;
2. All forms of prejudice must be discarded in order for mankind to advance spiritually. Humanity must shed all (but certainly not limited to) racial, ethnic, gender religious, national, language, disability, education, social and economic status prejudice;
3. Elimination of the extremes between poverty and wealth is necessary so that all people will have access to economic equitability according to their unique capacities;
4. Universally, all people must be educated;
5. Each person must be allowed to independently investigate the truth, and no one should be subjected to blind adherence to any belief or practice;
6. A global commonwealth consisting of all nations is necessary to ensure world peace;
7. Religion and science must agree. They are both divine in origin, and only mankind’s misinterpretations of religious teachings have made the two inharmonious.(1)
The history of the Baha’i Faith is a story that is perhaps more dramatic (and unfortunately, bloody) than most filmmakers could possibly hope to produce in Hollywood. It begins in the mid 19th century, a time when the entire planet appeared to be braced for a tremendous change. The Industrial Revolution had begun, bringing about technological advances that created trans-continental transportation, communication business exchanges in a timelier and relatively less expensive manner. Great upheavals were also underway—for the first time in human history, the immoral practice of slavery was rigorously debated and legally challenged. Workers began to question lack of value placed on their lives by their employers. Women began to receive educations, which challenged the traditional model of a woman’s place in the world. (2)
Some people wholly embraced these changes, especially those living in the Western world. Others were alarmed, convinced that Armageddon was inevitable. A few members of the Christian clergy studied the events foretold in the Bible, and became convinced that the year 1844 was appointed as the Day of Judgment and the return of Christ. Followers of William Miller, a prosperous upstate New York farmer and Baptist layperson, sought relief from their daily labors the Advent of Christ as Miller had assured them in his printed tracts and during his lectures. Miller studied the books of Daniel and Revelations tenaciously, and deciphered that prophecies described in those books were not past events as previously believed, but they were in the process of being fulfilled. As the first date of the Advent approached (April 1843), many people in the United States became swept up in religious fervor, preparing the Second Coming by establishing temperance and abolitionist groups. By October 23, 1845, many of the Millerites had to return to whatever they could reconstruct of their former occupations in what was to be known as “The Great Disappointment”. (3, 4, 5)
At the same time, many living in the Islamic world anxiously looked for the appearance of the Imam Mahdi, the successor to the Prophet Muhammad. In fact, two of the most influential scholars and teachers of Islam diverted from traditional Shiah beliefs by proclaiming to their students that all signs of the emergence of a new Messenger, as prophesied by Muhammad, were apparent. As a result, their students set out to all corners of the Middle East find the new Manifestation of God. Only one diligent scholar of Islam, Mulla Husayn, would find the Promised One in the city of Shiraz on May 23, 1844. (6)
At the time, 19th century Persia had been virtually unchanged since the medieval era. Most of the population was illiterate, impoverished and controlled by the tyrannical mullas (religious leaders). Women were treated considerably worse than prized horses or cattle. A man could murder his wife (or wives) without any evidence than his word that she was an adulteress. Public beatings, torture, beheadings and hangings for slight infractions were commonplace.
Against this backdrop of widespread misery, the Ba’b, originally named Siyyid (a title that indicates that he was a direct descendant of Muhammad) ‘Ali-Muhammad, who met Mulla Husayn at the outskirts of Shiraz and invited him to his home. While there, ‘Ali-Muhammad made his tea for his guest and talked to him throughout the night and into the early morning hours. He revealed to the enthralled Mulla Husayn that he was the Imam, the one the faithful students had been searching for. The Ba’b chanted prayers and talked about the changes that would take place not only in Persia, but the world at large. He also foretold the advent of another Messenger, who would fulfill the prophesies of all the great religions and usher in a new world, one that would bring unprecedented transformations for all the inhabitants of this planet. (7)
His followers, whose numbers swelled to ten thousands over nine years, were known as Bab’is. They were persecuted, ridiculed, jailed, tortured, and on many occasions, brutally murdered. The Ba’b himself was publicly executed by firing squad on July 9, 1850 in Tabriz, a city in Persia.
After the death of the Ba’b, many of His followers were subjected to progressively intense surges in persecution. It was not uncommon to see the mutilated body of a Bab’i lying on the street or from a tree. In spite of this, many of the Bab’is remained steadfast because they believed that Him Whom God shall make manifest, as foretold by the Ba’b, would appear soon. One of these adherents was a young Persian nobleman named Mirza Husayn Ali, who was loved and respected for his innate knowledge of spiritual matters and unwavering kindness to others. (8)
When Mirza Husayn Ali was thrown into Tehran’s infamous “Black Pit” along with other Bab’is during another virulent wave of oppression, he received the Revelation that he was the one foretold by all of the Ancient Books of God, that he was the fulfillment of all prophesies— Bahá’u’lláh, The Glory of God:
God is My witness, O people! I was asleep on My couch, when lo, the Breeze of God wafting over Me roused Me from My slumber. His quickening Spirit revived Me, and My tongue was unloosed to voice His Call. Accuse Me not of having transgressed against God. Behold Me, not with your eyes 91 but with Mine. Thus admonisheth you He Who is the Gracious, the All-Knowing. Think ye, O people, that I hold within My grasp the control of God’s ultimate Will and Purpose? Far be it from Me to advance such claim. To this I testify before God, the Almighty, the Exalted, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise. Had the ultimate destiny of God’s Faith been in Mine hands, I would have never consented, even though for one moment, to manifest Myself unto you, nor would I have allowed one word to fall from My lips. Of this God Himself is, verily, a witness. (9)
When Bahá’u’lláh was released from prison, he continued to write down the words revealed to him, telling no one of what he had experienced. In the meantime, he continued to care for the sick and needy, and to comfort other Bab’is suffering from innumerable persecutions. As the numbers of Bab’is began to grow exponentially, the clerical order and the Persian government became fearful of an uprising. Bahá’u’lláh was identified by the ecclesiastical military as a one of the leaders the movement that threatened the power structure, and he was divested of his inheritance and possessions. The government then forced him into exile with his family and several Bab’is to Baghdad, Iraq.
Towards the end of his stay in Baghdad, Bahá’u’lláh revealed to the other followers of the Ba’b that he was the One who had been foretold, the Promised One. This revelation marks the beginning of the Baha’i Faith.