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History of the Bahá'í Faith
A summary Reprinted from the
1988 Britannica Book of the Year
Bahá'í faith is a religion founded by Mírzá Husayn 'Alí (1817-92; known as . . . Bahá'u'lláh, Glory of God). The word Bahá'í derives from Bahá ("glory, splendor") and signifies a follower of Bahá'u'lláh. The religion stemmed from the Bábí faith -- founded in 1844 by Mírzá (Siyyid) 'Alí Muhammad of Shíráz, known as the Báb -- which emphasized the forthcoming appearance of "Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest, "a new prophet or messenger of God. The Bábí faith in turn had sprung from Shí'ah Islám, which believed in the forthcoming return of the 12th imam (successor of Muhammad), who would renew religion and guide the faithful. This messianic view was the basis of the teachings of the Shaykhí sect, so named after Shaykh Ahmad-i-Ahsá'í. Shaykh Ahmad and his successor, Siyyid Kázim-i-Rashtí abandoned traditional liberalism and gave allegorical interpretations to doctrines such as resurrection, the Last Judgment, and the return of the 12th imam. They and their followers expected the appearance of the Qá'im (He Who Arises, the 12th imam) in the immediate future.
On May 22,1844, in Shíráz, Persia, a young descendant of Muhammad, Mírzá 'Alí Muhammad, proclaimed to a learned Shaykhí divine, Mullá Husayn-i-Bushrú'í, that he was the expected Qá'im, whereupon Mullá Husayn became the first disciple of Mírzá 'Alí Muhammad, who assumed the title of the Báb ("gate," or channel of grace from someone still veiled from the sight of men).
Soon the teachings of the Báb, the principal of which was the tidings of the coming of "Him Whom God Shall Make Manifest," spread throughout Persia, provoking strong opposition on the part of the clergy and the government. The Báb was arrested and, after several years of incarceration, condemned to death. In 1850 he was brought to Tabríz, where he was suspended by ropes against a wall in a public square. A regiment of several hundred soldiers fired a volley. When the smoke cleared, the large crowd that had gathered at the place of execution saw ropes cut by bullets, but the Báb had disappeared. He was found unhurt in an adjacent building, calmly conversing with a disciple. The execution was repeated, this time effectively. There followed large-scale persecutions of the Bábís in which ultimately more than 20,000 people lost their lives.
History and Extent
Bahá'u'lláh, who had been an early disciple of the Báb, was arrested in connection with an unsuccessful attempt on the life of the Sháh of Persia, Násiri'd-Dín, made in August1852 by two Bábís intent upon avenging their master. Though Bahá'u'lláh had not known of the plot, he was thrown into the Black Pit, a notorious jail in Tihrán, where he became aware of his mission as a messenger of God. He was released in January 1853 and exiled to Baghad. There Bahá'u'lláh's leadership revived the Bábí community, and an alarmed Persian government urged the Ottoman government to move both Bahá'u'lláh and the growing number of his followers farther away from Persia's borders. Before being transferred to Constantinople, Bahá'u'lláh spent 12 days in a garden on the outskirts of Baghad, where in April 1863 he declared to a small number of Bábís that he was the messenger of God whose advent had been prophesied by the Báb. From Constantinople, where Bahá'u'lláh spent some four months, he was transferred to Adrianople. There he made a public proclamation of his mission in letters ("tablets") addressed to the rulers of Persia, Turkey, Russia, Prussia, Austria, and Britain, to the pope, and to the Christian and Muslim clergy collectively.
An overwhelming majority of the Bábís acknowledged Bahá'u'lláh's claim and thenceforth became known as Bahá'ís. A small minority followed Bahá'u'lláh's half brother, Mírzá Yahyá Subh-i-Azal, creating a temporary breach within the ranks of the Bábís. Embittered by his failure to win more than a handful of adherents, Mírzá Yahyá, assisted by his supporters, provoked the Turkish government into exiling Bahá'u'lláh to 'Akká ('Akko, Acre), Palestine. He became, however, a victim of his own intrigues and was himself exiled to Cyprus.
For almost two years Bahá'u'lláh, his family, and a number of disciples were confined in army barracks converted into a jail. One of his sons and several companions died. When the severity of the incarceration abated, Bahá'u'lláh was permitted to reside within the walls of 'Akká and later in a mansion near the town. Before his life ended in 1892,Bahá'u'lláh saw his religion spread beyond Persia and the Ottoman Empire to the Caucasus, Turkistan, India, Burma, Egypt, and the Sudan.
Bahá'u'lláh appointed his eldest son, 'Abdu'l-Bahá ("Servant of the Glory," 1844-1921), as the leader of the Bahá'í community and the authorized interpreter of his teachings. 'Abdu'l-Bahá not only administered the affairs of the movement from Palestine but also actively engaged in spreading the faith, traveling in Africa, Europe, and America from 1910 to 1913. 'Abdu'l-Bahá appointed his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1897-1957), as his successor, Guardian of the Cause, and authorized interpreter of the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh, thus assuring the continued unity of the believers.
During 'Abdu'l-Bahá's ministry, Bahá'í groups were established in North Africa, the Far East, Australia, and the United States. Since then the movement has spread to virtually every country in the world, with particularly large and vigorous communities in Africa, Iran, India, the United States, and certain areas of Southeast Asia and the Pacific Since the 1960s . the Bahá'í faith has undergone a period of rapid expansion.[Edited at this point for this web page. -The Universal House of Justice, the Bahá'í World Governing Body, was established in 1963 and extensive new building has taken place at the World Headquarters in Haifa, Israel. Bahá'í Temples have been built in every continent and there are hundreds of thousands of Bahá'í Local Spiritual Assemblies throughout the world and millions of Bahá'í's. The statistics are continuously changing and one can find many sources of information about the current status of the Faith.]
Bahá'í sacred literature consists of the total corpus of the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and their interpretation and amplification in the writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. Bahá'u'lláh's literary legacy of more than 100 works includes the Kitáb-i-Aqdas ("The Most Holy Book"), the repository of his laws; the Kitáb-i-Íqán (The Book of Certitude), an exposition of essential teachings on the nature of God and religion; The Hidden Words, a collection of brief utterances aimed at the edification of men's "souls and the rectification of their conduct"; The Seven Valleys, a mystic treatise that "describes the seven stages which the soul of the seeker must needs traverse ere it can attain the object of its existence"; Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, his last major work; as well as innumerable prayers, meditations, exhortations, and epistles. The Bahá'ís believe that the writings of Bahá'u'lláh are inspired and constitute God's revelation for this age.
Religious and Social Tenets
Bahá'u'lláh teaches that God is unknowable and "beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence, ascent and descent, egress and regress." "No tie of direct intercourse can possibly bind Him to His creatures No sign can indicate His presence or His absence" Human inability to grasp the divine essence does not lead to agnosticism, since God has chosen to reveal himself through his messengers, among them Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, and the Báb, who "are one and all the Exponents on earth of Him Who is me central Orb of the universe" The messengers, or, in Bahá'í terminology, "manifestations," are viewed as occupying two "stations," or occurring in two aspects. The first "is the station of pure abstraction and essential unity," in which one may speak of the oneness of the messengers of God because all are manifestations of his will and exponents of his word. This does not constitute syncretism since "the other station is the station of distinction In this respect, each manifestation of God has a distinct individuality, a definitely prescribed mission"Thus, while the essence of all religions is one, each has specific features that correspond to the needs of a given time and place and to the level of civilization in which a manifestation appears. Since religious truth is considered relative and revelation progress he and continuing, the Bahá'ís maintain that other manifestations will appear in the future, though not, according to Bahá'u'lláh, before the expiration of a full thousand years from his own revelation.
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