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Celebrating 50 years | God • World • Human Family • Church

The Baha’is: One of the World’s Newest Religions

In spite of its history of persecution, the Baha?i faith endures ? and grows.

The three great historical religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam, agree that there will be no new revelation to change or amend the teaching of Moses, Jesus or Muhammed. In the 19th century this premise was challenged by the teaching of the Baha’i faith, one of the world’s newest and most persecuted religions. Baha’is believe that God revealed His word to their founder Baha’u’llah.

Baha’u’llah was the messianic figure who would usher in an age of peace and prosperity that was foretold in Islam’s sacred scripture, the Koran, according to the Baha’is. For the Bahai there is one God that man has called different names through the ages. Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Buddah and Muhammed brought divine teaching to their periods in history. Baha’is believe that since each prophet originated from a single God, they proclaim the same spiritual truth. Each faith has been adapted to meet the specific needs of its age. Progressive revelation is the term Baha’is give to this unfolding of religion and they regard Baha’u’llah as God’s messenger for this age.

Because of this belief in progressive revelation, Baha’i men and women of different religious backgrounds are able to overcome their diversity and work together for the unity of mankind. Baha’is strive to eliminate prejudice of all kinds, sexual discrimination and extreme wealth and poverty. They aim to establish a universal language and a universal educational system in addition to a world government. Baha’i faithful seek harmony between science and religion and work to protect cultural diversity.

There are no specific forms of worship, sacraments or clergy in the Baha’i faith. Worship is considered any work done in the spirit of service.

Baha’i faith originated in Shi’ite Islam but combines elements of Unitarianism and Ramakrishnan Hinduism. Unitarianism stresses individual freedom and a united world community. The sect of Ramakrishnan Hindus believe that all religions are one.

Beliefs on which the Baha’i faith is based were first promulgated in Persia in 1844 by a young merchant known as the Bab or the “Gate”, signifying the gate between God and man. The Bab taught that one much greater than he was to appear. Many people thought the Bab to be the manifestation of God and started to follow him. The Babs, as they were known, suffered severe persecution at the hands of the shah and religious leaders. These leaders were unconvinced of the Bab’s divine mission and arrested him. His imprisonment only increased the Babs zeal. The Bab, condemned to die, is said to have escaped a firing squad death once and was killed on the second attempt only because he willed it.

Following the Bab’s death, the shah launched a purge of nearly 20,000 Babs. Two half-brothers, singled out by the Bab as possible successors, escaped the persecution.

One of the brothers, Baha’u’llah, which means Splendor of God in Persian, revealed that he was the long awaited manifestation of God, the successor of the Bab. He was ordered to Edirne in Turkey where he was not a threat to the Persian Government.

While in Edirne, Baha’u’llah wrote to sovereigns and Pope Pius IX announcing his divine mission. Although these letters did not impress the recipients, they convinced the majority of Bab followers that Baha’u’llah was their new leader. In 1863 the Babs became known as followers of Baha’u’Ilah or Baha’is.

Five years later the Ottoman government moved the Baha’is to the penal colony of Acre on the Palestianian coast where they were subjected to every kind of indignity. In 1870 the Ottoman government allowed the Baha’is to establish a community outside Acre. Bah’u’llah lived there until his death in 1892.

Abdul-Baha, Baha’u’llah’s son, was appointed guardian of the Baha’is. In 1912 he travelled to Asia, Europe and the United States establishing Bah’ai assemblies. In the U.S. he laid the cornerstone of the Baha’i house of worship in Wilmette, Illinois.

Abdul-Baha’s grandson, Shoghi Effendi became the guardian of the Baha’i faith and sole interpreter of the Baha’i teachings when Abdul’Baha died in 1921. Shoghi Effendi translated many of Baha’u’llah’s writings into English, thereby enabling the Baha’i works to become better known throughout the Western world.

Since Shoghi Effendi’s death in 1957, the Baha’is have been governed by the Universal House of Justice, a nine-member board which is elected through a three-step voting process. Located in Haifa, Israel, the Universal House of Justice was established in 1963 and elections are held at five-year intervals.

Also in Haifa, on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, is a Baha’i temple. Baha’u’llah wrote that each gathering of Baha’is should have a community center, a beautiful house of worship open to men and women for prayer and meditation. Ideally the house of worship would be surrounded by educational, scientific and humanitarian institutions so religion could be applied to all phases of life. These institutions fulfill the individual Baha’is obligation to search for truth.

There are Baha’is in 173 countries and houses of worship in Uganda, Germany, Australia, Panama and under construction in Western Samoa and India.

Each house of worship is to have nine sides because nine, as the largest single number symbolizes unity, comprehensiveness and oneness. Sermons and lectures are not permitted in the temple. Readings from Scriptures of the Baha’i faith and other great faiths of the world, prayers and meditations constitute the services. At times there is music by a soloist or a cappella choir.

Baha’is are expected to pray daily, avoid drugs, alcohol and gossip. A Baha’i is also required to observe the Baha’i fast from sunrise to sunset each day from March 2 through 21. On holy days which commemorate the major events in the life of the Bab or Baha’u’llah, no work should be done.

Since the days of their inception Baha’is have been persecuted. In their homeland of Persia, present day Iran, Baha’is are being eradicated. During the past four years of the Khomeni regime Baha’is, many of whom are teachers, businessmen, government officials or military officers have lost their jobs and property. Hundreds have been killed while more languish in prisons awaiting trial by Shi’ite courts who consider them Muslim apostates.

The 300-400,000 Baha’is living in Iran have been victims of a cycle of suspicion and hate that has lasted nearly a century and a half because they strive to create a more unified world through peaceful means. It is tragic that the Baha’is of today are united to their ancestors through a legacy of persecution.

Charles A. Frazee is a professor of Byzantine history at California Sate University, Fullerton.

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