Religions of the World.
by Lewis M. Hopfe.
New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1987.
Chapter 14, "Bahá'í," pages 427-437
All the prophets of God proclaim the same faith.
Bahá'í began as a sect of Islam but has moved so far away from that
religion as to be considered a separate religion altogether. Several themes are
central to Bahá'í. Bahá'í assumes that all the religions of the world spring
from one source, that there is a basic unity of all religious truth, and that
all the prophets have had a partial message from the one God. Bahá'í further
maintains that religion must work in harmony with science and education to
provide a peaceful world order; Bahá'ís also believe in the equality of
opportunity among the races and between the sexes. By emphasizing these themes,
Bahá'í has attracted followers in many of the nations of the world.
ORIGIN AND DEVELOPMENT OF BAHA'I
The Shi'ite sect of Islam, particularly in Persia, has always
taught that there were twelve legitimate descendants of Ali, the son-in-law and
legitimate successor to Muhammad. These twelve imams
were often referred
to as "gates" whereby the believers gained access to the true faith. The
twelfth of these successors disappeared in the ninth century A.D., and the
Shi'ites have always believed that one day he would reappear as a messiah.
In 1844, a Shi'ite Muslim, named Mirza Ali Muhammad, declared that he was the
promised twelfth imam
and called himself Bab-ud-Din ("the gate of
faith"). He advocated sweeping religious and social reforms, such as raising
the status of women, and thus the Bab gathered around him a group of disciples,
who called themselves Babis. The movement was short-lived as both the religious
and political forces of Persia moved to crush it. The Bab was publicly executed
in 1850, and many of his disciples were imprisoned or executed. Before he died,
however, the Bab predicted that he had prepared the way for one yet to come who
would found a universal religion. The body of the Bab was rescued by some of
his followers and preserved for several years. Ultimately it was transported to
the city of Haifa, in Palestine, where it was finally buried.
One of the Bab's imprisoned disciples was a man named Mirza Husayn Ali, the
son of one of the most distinguished families in Persia. Because of his family
Mirza was not executed with the Bab but was
imprisoned in Tehran. In 1852, another of the Bab's followers attempted to
assassinate the Shah of Iran, and this brought further persecution upon the
group. Mirza Ali was exiled to Baghdad, and there he spent the next ten years
of his life. During his imprisonment and exile it was revealed to Mirza that he
was the one whom the Bab had foretold. In 1863, Mirza and the remaining Babis
were exiled from Baghdad to Constantinople, and on the eve of their departure
he revealed to the Babis that he was the one promised by the Bab. This
revelation was made in Ridvan, near Baghdad, and today is commemorated annually
by Bahá'ís, with a feast. Mirza assumed the name Bahaullah ("the glory of
God"), and those Babis who accepted him and followed his teachings became known
In the following years Bahaullah and the Bahá'ís were forced from one capital
city in the Middle East to another. From Constantinople they went to
Adrianople. Finally, they were banished to the Turkish prison city of Acca, in
Palestine. At first Bahaullah and about eighty of his followers were
incarcerated for two years in an army barracks, where they suffered from hunger
and disease. After this period the group was transferred to other quarters,
which were somewhat more comfortable. Eventually, more freedom was given to
Bahaullah, but he spent the remainder of his life as a prisoner of the Turkish
government in Acca. Although he was imprisoned during his years in Acca,
Bahaullah was able to send out missionaries and receive guests and thus spread
his teachings of unity and world peace. During this period he wrote many
letters and books. One series of letters was sent to the pope and to the world
heads of state, announcing his mission and calling for their help in furthering
world peace. He wrote books such as the Kitab-i-Aqdas
("The Most Holy
Book"), the Kitab-i-Iqan
("The Book of Certitudes"), and The Hidden
He died in Acca in 1892, at the age of 75.
Leadership of the movement passed to the son of Bahaullah, Abbas Effendi, who
became known as Abdul Baha (the servant of Baha). Abdul Baha carried on his
father's program of writing, and in 1908 he was freed by the Turks. For the
remaining years of his life he traveled widely in Europe and North America
preaching the doctrines of Bahá'í and establishing Bahá'í assemblies in many
nations. In 1920, the British conferred the knighthood of the British Empire
upon Abdul Baha because of his work for world peace. Upon Abdul Baha's death in
1921, leadership of the movement was passed to his grandson, Shoghi Effendi,
who continued the work of establishing local and national assemblies in many
nations, until his death in 1957. At this point Bahá'í came to be governed, not
by one of the descendants of Bahaullah, but by a body elected from Bahá'ís all
over the world.
THE TEACHINGS OF BAHA'I
Although Bahá'í originated within the Shi'ite sect of Islam it
soon came to differ radically from it. Bahá'í does not revere the Quran to the
same degree that Islam does. Much of the Quran is modified, explained
allegorically, or treated symbolically. Belief in angels and evil spirits has
been discarded by Bahá'í, while heaven and hell are treated symbolically. The
Quran takes its place, along with the Christian and Jewish bibles and the
sacred writings of other religions, as a source for Bahá'í worship. This
attitude toward the Quran has made Bahá'í most unpopular among Muslims, and it
has even been outlawed in Iran, the land of its birth. Persecution against
Bahá'ís in Iran became especially harsh after the so-called Islamic revolution
The basic belief of Bahá'í is that all religions come from the same source. In
nearly every era God has revealed his truth through prophets. Moses, Zoroaster,
Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, Buddha, and Bahaullah were the prophets of God, and
all presented a portion of the truth of God in their times, but Bahaullah, as
the last and the greatest of these prophets, revealed the final truth from God.
Bahaullah's greatest message was the oneness of the human race. All of
humankind, all races, both sexes, and all religious truths are the work of the
one God. In the words of Bahaullah:
There can be no doubt
whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive
their inspiration from one heavenly Source and are the subjects of one
On the basis of these religious truths found in the writings of Bahaullah,
Abdul Baha went out from Acca to preach the following Bahá'í doctrines of the
1. Bahaullah, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahaullah
(Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1952), p. 217.
- The oneness of the entire human race is the pivotal
principle and fundamental doctrine of the faith. This principle is essential to
Bahá'í. It is the basis for most of its teachings and practices.
- There must be an independent search after truth, unfettered by
superstition or tradition. Anyone who wishes to be a Bahá'í must be willing to
search out the truth of God without relying on the prophets and the traditions
of the past. "The freedom of man from superstition and imitation, so that he
may discern the Manifestations of God with the eye of Oneness, and consider all
affairs with keen sight..."2 is one of the basic teachings of
2. J. E. Esslemont, Bahaullah and the New Era (Wilmette, Ii: Bahá'í
Books, 1976), p. 85.
3. ibid., p. 126.
- There is a basic unity of all religions. Growing
out of the belief that there is a oneness in the human race is the teaching
that all religions essentially teach the same message. This is not to say that
differences do not exist among the religions of the world, but Bahá'í doctrine
states that the basic message of every religion is the same and that all minor
differences should be forgotten. In a conversation with a visitor, Bahaullah
That all nations should become one in faith and all men
as brothers; that the bonds of affections and unity between the Sons of men
should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease, and
differences of race be annulled . . . these strifes and this bloodshed and
discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family. .
- All forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class, or
national, are condemned. In one of his speeches in Paris Abdul Baha
Religion should unite all hearts and cause wars and
disputes to vanish from the face of the earth; it should give birth to
spirituality, and bring light and life to every soul. If religion becomes a
cause of dislike, hatred and division, it would be better to be without it. . .
. Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no
- Harmony must exist between religion and science. Bahá'í arose in the
nineteenth century when great battles were fought between the established
religions and the newly emerging sciences. These two forces must be
Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, said: "That which
is in conformity with science is also in conformity with religion." Whatever
the intelligence of man cannot understand, religion ought not to accept.
Religion and science walk hand in hand, and any religion contrary to science is
not the truth.5
- There is equality of men and women. Bahá'í may be the only religion
of the world that has asserted from the beginning that women are equal to
Humanity is like a bird with its two wingsthe one is
male, the other female. Unless both wings are strong and impelled by some
common force, the bird cannot fly heavenwards. According to the spirit of this
4. ibid., p. 165.
5. ibid., p. 202.
6. ibid., p. 154.
must advance and fulfill their mission in
all departments of life, becoming equal to
- Compulsory education must prevail. Although neither Bahaullah nor
Abdul Baha had the opportunity of formal education, both preached that
universal education was a necessary condition for world peace and stability.
- In addition to universal education, Bahá'í teaches that there should
be a universal language. Bahaullah said:
We commanded the
Trustees of the House of Justice, either to choose one of the existing tongues,
or to originate a new one, and in like manner to adopt a common script,
teaching these to the children in all the schools of the world, that the world
may become even as one land and one home.7
Abdul Baha was an advocate of the adoption of Esperanto as the universal
- Extremes of wealth and poverty should be abolished. Coming from a
family of high rank and then spending much of his life in prisons, Bahaullah
was acutely aware of the extremes of wealth and poverty in the world. Believing
that both extremes were unhealthy and abnormal, he urged their abolition. He
did not offer an elaborate plan that would bring about this change. Rather, he
suggested to the rich of the world that they should open their hearts and
contribute to the poor. He also advocated that the governments of the world
should pass laws to prevent the two extremes.
- A world tribunal for the adjudication of disputes between nations
should be instituted. Forty years before the establishment of the League of
Nations, Bahaullah was urging such an organization from his prison cell in
Acca. However, when the League of Nations was formed after World War I, Abdul
Baha considered it too weak to be effective.
- Work performed in the spirit of service should be exalted to the
rank of worship. According to Bahá'í, a good society is one in which everyone
works at some task. There are to be no loafers or idlers.
is enjoined on every one of you to engage in some occupationsome art, trade,
or the like. We have made thisyour occupationidentical with the worship of
God, the true One.8
Thus Bahaullah, like Calvin and the ancient Jewish Pharisees, believed in the
religious efficacy of labor.
7. ibid., p. 170.
8. Bahaullah, Glad Tidings.
- Justice should be glorified as the ruling
principle in human society and religion, for the protection of all peoples and
- Finally, as a capstone to all of the teachings of Bahá'í, the
establishment of a permanent and universal peace should be the supreme goal of
Unlike Islam and other Western religions, Bahá'í believes that heaven and hell
are not places but conditions of the soul. The soul, which is the reality of
humankind, is eternal and in continuous progress. When the soul is near to God
and God's purposes, that is heaven, when the soul is distant from God, that is
hell. Thus the descriptions of heaven and hell that are found in other
religions are regarded as symbolic rather than actual. When Bahá'ís speak of
the unity of humankind, they mean not only the unity of humanity in this life
but unity of the living and the dead as well. Thus it is possible that the
living and the dead may commune with each other. Abdul Baha believed that this
was the reason for the peculiar powers of the prophets and saints to see into
the other world and commune with it.
According to the Bahá'í belief in the total unity of God, there can be no such
thing as positive evil. If God is one and all, there can be no Satan figure in
the universe. Just as darkness is only the absence of light, so that which
appears to be evil is only the absence of good. According to Abdul
In creation there is no evil; all is good. Certain
qualities and natures innate in some men and apparently blameworthy are not so
The daily life of Bahá'ís is governed by many regulations. The
Bahá'í is required to pray daily. In fact, the entire life of a Bahá'í is
supposed to be a prayer. One's work,, one's thoughts, and one's deeds are all
to be done in the spirit of a prayer. This is one of the most important aspects
of Bahá'í life. Bahaullah stressed this in the Kitab-i-Aqdas.
Chant (or recite) the Words of God every morning and evening. The one
who neglects this has not been faithful to the Covenant of God and His
agreement, and he who turns away from it today is of those who have turned away
9. These thirteen principles are taken from information supplied
by the Public Information Department, National Bahá'í Headquarters, 112 Linden
Avenue, Wilmette, Illinois.
10. Abdul Baha, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette, Ill: Bahá'í
Publishing Trust, 1964), p. 250.
11. Bahaullah, Kitab-i-Aqdas.
[photo of Wilmette House of Worship]
Although there are many formal prayers a Bahá'í may recite in daily devotions,
Bahaullah established three obligatory prayers. Bahá'ís are free to choose any
one of these three as a part of their meditations.
Bahá'ís are also encouraged to fast for one of the nineteen months in their
calendar. During the month of Ala
(loftiness), which begins near the
first of March, Bahá'ís are expected to fast for nineteen days. A full fast,
with a complete abstinence from food, is not required; Bahá'ís must not eat
during the daylight hours only. Since the fast occurs during the early spring
each year, no food or drink is taken between about 6 AM. and 6 P.M. According
to Abdul Baha:
Fasting is a symbol. Fasting signifies
abstinence from lust. Physical fasting is a symbol of that abstinence, and is a
reminder; that is, just as a person abstains from physical appetites, he is to
abstain from self-appetites and self-desires. But mere abstention from food has
no effect on the spirit. It is only a symbol, a reminder. Otherwise it is of no
At other periods during the Bahá'í year, followers engage in certain feasts
which celebrate various events in the history of Bahá'í. These
12. Abdul Baha, cited by J. E. Esslemont, Bahá'u'lláh and the
New Era, p. 189.
include the feast of the new year, celebrated on March 21, and the feast of
Ridvan, celebrated between April 21 and May 2, which commemorates Bahaullah's
declaration that he was the promised one.
For Bahá'ís, monogamy is the rule in marriage. Bahá'ís may marry only after
they have the consent of both sets of parents. Bahaullah
Verily in the Book of Bayan (the Bab's Revelation) the
matter is restricted to the consent of both (bride and bridegroom). As We
desired to bring about love and friendship and the unity of the people,
therefore We made it conditional upon the consent of the parents also, that
enmity and ill-feeling might be avoided.13
Divorce is permitted for Bahá'ís, but only in extreme cases of
incompatibility. At such a point the couple must wait for one full year and
seek to re-establish their relationship. If this does not happen, then a
divorce may be granted. If a Bahá'í couple have children, they are obligated to
provide their children with the best possible education. Alcohol and narcotics
are forbidden to Bahá'ís.
Bahá'í differs from many other religions in its manner of worship. The basic
unit of worship is the Local Spiritual Assembly. This group may meet in the
homes of members or in other buildings, but there are no special houses of
worship as in other religions. Neither is there a special clergy to conduct the
worship. Worship for Bahá'ís tends to be very simple, with a minimum of form
and no ritual. A respected member of the community reads from the writings of
Bahaullah and from the scriptures of other world religions. The remainder of
the service consists of private prayers and readings. Bahá'í community worship
is so simple in form that it rejects two elements that Christians and others
often find essential, the sermon and the offering. While Bahá'ís are expected
to contribute to the support of their religion, they refuse to take offerings
Bahá'ís are organized on three levels. The most basic is that of the Local
Spiritual Assembly already mentioned. In every community where there are nine
or more adult Bahá'ís, a nine-member administrative body is elected each April
21 to govern the affairs of those Bahá'ís. As of 1968, there were 6,828 of
these assemblies in the world. The second level of administration is the
National Spiritual Assembly. This too is a nine-member body made up of people
elected annually by delegates to the national conventions. In 1968 there were
eighty-three National Assemblies. The top level of the Bahá'í organization is
the Universal House of Justice. This is a nine-member body
elected by the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies throughout the
world. These representatives serve a five-year term.
Although the Bahá'ís do not have local houses of worship they have constructed
several magnificent temples around the world, and plan eventually to construct
one on every continent. Those already in existence are located in Frankfurt,
Germany; Sydney, Australia; Kampala, Uganda; and Wilmette, Illinois, U.S.A.
Each of these temples reflects a somewhat different style of architecture, but
all must be nine-sided and covered with a dome. The number nine is symbolic for
Bahá'í because it is the largest unit number and thus represents the worldwide
unity that Bahá'í seeks to develop. In addition to these temples, the world
center of Bahá'í is located on Mt. Carmel in Haifa, Israel, near Acca, where
Bahaullah spent his last days. In the midst of splendid gardens stand the
gold-domed shrine of the Bab and the archive building.
Like other religions, Bahá'í has established its own calendar and its own holy
days. The calendar is a solar one made up of nineteen months, each containing
nineteen days. To achieve 365 days, four days are added after the last month of
the year (five days are added in leap years). The new year begins on March 21,
at the birth of spring. As is the case with the Jewish calendar, the day begins
Although exact statistics are not available, it is estimated that there may be
as many as five million Bahá'ís in the world today. Although still relatively
small in terms of members, this religion appears to be growing.
1. Relate the beginnings of Bahá'í to the messianic hopes of Shia
2. Why do some consider Bahá'í to be the religion most in tune with the modern
3. How do Bahá'ís regard the scriptures of other religions?
Bahaullah. The Kitab-I-Iqan
[The Book of Certitudes]. Translated
by Shoghi Effendi. Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1931.
Gleanings from the Writings of Bahaullah.
Translated by Shoghi Effendi.
Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1952.
Effendi, Shoghi. God Passes By.
Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í Publishing Trust,
Esslemont, J. E. Bahaullah and the New Era.
Wilmette, Ill.: Bahá'í
Lee, Anthony A., ed. Circle of Unity: Bahá'í Approaches to Current Social
Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 1984.