Possibly the central principle behind the Bahá'í
concept of the oneness of religion, progressive revelation asserts two
important positions: 1) that all the major religions of the world are at least
partially based on a divine revelation, conveyed to them by a Manifestation
of God (q. v.); and 2) that the revelations brought by the Manifestations
are not contradictory, but constitute a single, ongoing divine educational
process for humanity.
1. Definition of Revelation
The Bahá'ís definition of revelation (Arabic
wahí), like the Muslim definition, is often distinct from
definitions used in other religions or from popular definitions.
Bahá'ís make a sharp distinction between revelation--which is
vouchsafed by God to only a very small group of humans--and inspiration (Arabic
ilhám), which may come to any human being from various sources
(such as God, departed souls, the mind, and the ego). The primary recipients
of revelation are the Manifestations of God (or independent Prophets, as
'Abdu'l-Bahá calls them in Some Answered Questions, 164),
individuals to whom God has revealed an entire system of spiritual, social, and
ethical teachings. Some Manifestations identified in the Bahá'í
scriptures are Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, the
Báb, and Bahá'u'lláh.
But in addition to these individuals, the Bahá'í writings
accept the Old Testament prophets--such as Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel--as
recipients of revelation, albeit a narrowly-focused revelation and not a
complete spiritual, social, and ethical system. While the word "revelation"
may be used to refer to the experiences of both groups of recipients, the
Bahá'í scriptures note that the Manifestations receive their
revelation "without an intermediary"
(Some Answered Questions, 164) while the other prophets "are followers
and promoters, for they are branches and are not independent" and "of
themselves they have no power and might, except what they receive from the
independent Prophets" (Some Answered Questions, 164, 165).
The question whether 'Abdu'l-Bahá is a recipient of revelation
highlights the distinctive Bahá'í use of the word. Shoghi
Effendi states that while 'Abdu'l-Bahá is definitely not a Manifestation
of God, 'Abdu'l-Bahá possesses "superhuman knowledge and perfection"
(World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, 134) and that He "gets His
light, His inspiration and sustenance direct from the Fountainhead of the
Bahá'í Revelation [Bahá'u'lláh]" (World Order of
Bahá'u'lláh, 139). Such a description resembles the
definition of revelation received by a dependent prophet such as Isaiah, but
uses the word "inspiration" to describe the phenomenon instead of "revelation."
Most likely the Bahá'í scriptures recognize six different related
phenomena, even though they utilize only two words for them: the direct
revelation received by an independent Prophet or Manifestation; the dependent
revelation received by a lesser or dependent prophet; the dependent revelation
or inspiration received by 'Abdu'l-Bahá; the inspiration received by
Shoghi Effendi, and by the Universal House of Justice, which the
Bahá'í writings state is infallible and unfailing; and the
inspiration other persons receive.
Bahá'u'lláh described the nature of His revelation as
Thou knowest full well that We perused not the
books which men possess and We acquired not the learning current amongst them,
and yet whenever We desire to quote the sayings of the learned and of the wise,
presently there will appear before the face of thy Lord in the form of a tablet
all that which hath appeared in the world and is revealed in the Holy Books and
Scriptures. Thus do We set down in writing that which the eye perceiveth
(Lawh-i-Hikmat or "Tablet of Wisdom," in Tablets of
Bahá'u'lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas,
Descriptions of Bahá'u'lláh's reception of revelation note
the power felt by those present. Hájí Mírzá
Habíbu'lláh Afnán stated that
The flow of verses from the heaven of Revelation
was swift. It was indeed like unto a fast-billowing ocean.
Mírzá Áqá Ján [Bahá'u'lláh's
amanuensis] wrote as quickly as he could--so quickly that the pen at times
jumped out of his hand. He would immediately take up another pen. There were
times when he could not keep up and would say: 'I am incapable of writing.'
Then the Blessed Perfection [Bahá'u'lláh] would repeat what He
had spoken" (quoted in Balyuzi, Bahá'u'lláh: King of
Clearly revelation, as experienced by Bahá'u'lláh, was not
simply an ordinary form of literary composition.
2. The universality of divine revelation
Bahá'u'lláh makes it clear that divine revelation has
not been confined to a particular period of human history. Rather, He states
that "the Manifestations of His Divine Glory. . . have been sent down from time
immemorial, and been commissioned to summon mankind to the one true God. That
the names of some of them are forgotten and the records of their lives lost is
to be attributed to the disturbances and changes that have overtaken the world"
(Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh,
statement is important because it makes it clear that religions other than the
ones possessing known Manifestations may have been divinely established. In
addition to the historic figures already listed, Bahá'u'lláh
mentions Húd and Sálih--legendary figures who appeared to Arab
tribes, and who are also mentioned in the Qur'án--as Manifestations.
They may be seen as examples of Manifestations to primal
the religions of the tribal peoples of the world are often called by religious
scholars. While Bahá'u'lláh was not asked about other
Manifestations, such as to the African, Chinese, native American, and ancient
Indo-European peoples, it is reasonable to assume, based on
Bahá'u'lláh's statement above, that Manifestations came to them
as well. Based on a statement of 'Abdu'l-Bahá that "in cycles gone by.
. . continents remained widely divided, nay even among the people of one and
the same continent association and interchange of thought were wellnigh
impossible" (Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá,
the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice has concluded that
"it would appear possible that Manifestations of God have lived simultaneously
in different areas of the globe" (Research Department memorandum to the
Universal House of Justice titled "Questions Relayed by the Spiritual Assembly
of Mitcham," dated 24 May 1988).
The folklore of most ethnic groups contain the story of an individual who
brought civilization (technological, spiritual, social, and moral knowledge) to
that group from God or the gods; religious scholars often refer to these
individuals as culture heroes.
Possibly some stories of culture heroes preserve accounts of ancient
Manifestations. No where do the Bahá'í writings say that
Manifestations must be male, and many culture heroes are female.
While some primal religions may have had their own Manifestations, other
religions may not. Shoghi Effendi explicitly stated that Confucius and Lao-Tzu
were not Manifestations, thereby relegating any Chinese Manifestation to
prehistory. Mahavira (c. 600 B.C.), the founding figure of Jainism, is not
mentioned at all in the Bahá'í scriptures and thus
Bahá'ís do not know whether he was a Manifestation. The fact
that he lived in India almost the same time as the Buddha argues against, but
does not preclude the possibility.
Guru Nanak Sahib, founder of Sikhism (c. 1500 C.E.), lived between the time of
Muhammad and the Báb and the Bahá'í writings refer to that
period as the dispensation of Muhammad, thus implying that it had no
Manifestation. Presumably Bahá'ís would view Sikhism as a
religion based on inspiration, not revelation, and drawing off the Indian and
Middle Eastern revelations for its teachings. There is no official
Bahá'í position about Mani (216-76 C.E.), the founder of
3. The progressive nature of revelation
'Abdu'l-Bahá noted that "the world of existence is progressive. It
is subject to development and growth" (Promulgation of Universal Peace,
378). Since revelation is part of the world, thus it must also develop and
change; and the progressive revealing of divine truth is one of the main causes
for the progress of human civilization. The Bahá'í scriptures
assert that while all revelations bring eternal and unchanging teachings--such
as teachings about one's relation to the divine, and moral fundamentals such as
doing unto others as one would have them do to oneself--each also brings truths
suited to its own time and place. Thus Abraham focused much of His mission on
teaching the existence of one God; Moses was able to move beyond assertion of
the existence of one God and reveal laws that established the relationship
between God and Israelite society; Jesus revealed about the individual
relationship to God, thereby broadening and deepening the relationship
established by Moses's social laws; Muhammad was able to integrate the two into
a holistic system for personal and social relationship to the divine; and
Bahá'u'lláh was able to update the personal and social
relationship for the modern age. Because each revelation has a temporal
aspect, it must eventually be superseded by a new revelation. The
Bahá'í scriptures state that each revelation builds on the
previous revelation known in that part of the world, and in turn becomes the
foundation for a subsequent revelation.
The Bahá'í scriptures do not assert that each revelation is
overtly influenced by all the ones that went before it somewhere on earth; if
that were the case, Jesus would refer to the Buddha and His teachings, and He
clearly does not. Rather, in the Middle East one can identify a chain of
Manifestations whose teachings are in historical continuity: Abraham, Moses,
Jesus, and Muhammad. Zoroaster's revelation, which occurred in Iran and
probably after Moses, had some influence on the last two. India has a short
chain of known Manifestations--Krishna and the Buddha--both of whom built their
teachings on earlier Indian religious traditions. The Bahá'í
writings state that all the previous revelations find their fulfillment and
completion in the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh.
4. Continuity and Discontinuity in Religion
The Bahá'í claim that all religions ultimately can be
traced back to God asserts a fundamental unity and continuity of the religions,
but it does not ignore the discontinuities and differences. Religions are
bewilderingly diverse and contain many apparent contradictions.
Bahá'ís resolve apparent contradictions among them in a variety
The first is to acknowledge that religions contain a major component of
human interpretation, as well as revelation. To take Christianity and Islam as
examples, many of the doctrines accepted by Christians and Muslims constitute
interpretations of their revelations and are not the revelations themselves.
Thus most Muslims maintain that Jesus was not crucified, but one who looked
like Him was instead, based on their understanding of Qur'án 4:156.
Shoghi Effendi, however, states that the Qur'ánic passage indicates that
the spiritual reality of Christ was beyond crucifixion, not that His body
escaped such a fate (Lights of Guidance,
1646, 1652, 1669); this
resolves an apparent contradiction between Islam and Christianity. Most
Christians maintain that God is triune based on an interpretation of a few
references to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the New Testament; the
Bahá'í scriptures, however, view trinitarian statements as
metaphors and not as ontological assertions, thus strictly maintain the unity
of God, like Islam (for example, Some Answered Questions,
A second approach Bahá'ís take to explain the contradictions
between religions is that there are temporal aspects of revelation that must
change. 'Abdu'l-Bahá cites the marriage and divorce laws of Moses and
Jesus as a prime example (Promulgation of Universal Peace,
A third approach is to acknowledge the inadequacy of historical records
and the transmission of the original teachings. Thus 'Abdu'l-Bahá
stated that the Buddha "established the Oneness of God, but later the original
principles of His doctrines gradually disappeared, and ignorant customs and
ceremonials arose and increased" (Some Answered Questions,
Effendi, in various letters, notes that Islam is the fullest revelation before
the Bahá'í Faith, and that the Bible and the scriptures of
Hinduism and Buddhism are not literal records of divine revelation, and thus we
cannot be sure of the accuracy of many of the events and teachings they
describe (Lights of Guidance,
1670, 1660, 1684, 1692, 1693, 1696).
Shoghi Effendi also emphasizes the importance of relying on the work of
historians (Lights of Guidance,
1692, 1696), suggesting that scholarly
efforts to reconstruct the historical Jesus or Moses or Buddha and their
teachings can be valuable to Bahá'ís.
Finally, even where revelations are preserved in detail there are numerous
examples of difference between them. A comparison of the Old and New
Testaments, or the Bábí and Bahá'í sacred writings,
will reveal many. While some of the differences are attributable to the
different circumstances of revelation, the personal experiences of the
Manifestations may have played a role as well; if nothing else Their
experiences shaped their literary style and dictated many of the issues They
addressed and the examples They gave. Thus progressive revelation should not
be seen as a detailed theory that explains all the features of religions, but
as a framework within which Bahá'ís work to understand the
different religions and their diversity.
 This presumably means a human
intermediary, since nonhuman intermediaries are often mentioned in scripture;
Bahá'u'lláh received revelation from a Maid of Heaven (God
Passes By, 101-02) and Mu
hammad from the archangel
 I am indebted to Mr. Christopher Buck
for drawing my attention to this research memorandum.
 To give a few examples: Prometheus, who,
in Greek mythology, stole fire from the gods and brought it to humanity and was
punished by the gods for his actions; Guang Di or the Yellow Emperor, the
legendary first emperor of China who brought the arts of civilization from
heaven; the White Buffalo Calf Woman, who brought the sacred pipe and other
central sacred rites to the Lakota Sioux from Wakan Tanka (the Great
 Perhaps Bahá'ís can view
Mahavira as a figure akin to John the Baptist; one who lived immediately before
a Manifestation, anticipating some of the Manifestation's teachings, and
preparing the population for Him.