World Religions other than Christianity
A Brief Introduction
The Bahá’í Faith was founded in Persia (modern day Iran) in the middle of the 19th century. It is therefore one of the youngest of the world’s religions, but it has spread widely and now has over 5 million followers right across the world.
Many people at first believed the Bahá’í Faith to be just a sect of Islam, but over the years it has established its independence. In some places, however, notably Iran, there has been considerable tension between Bahá’ís and Muslims. Because it is a relatively young religious movement there was uncertainty among scholars as to how to regard the faith, but now it has begun to be acknowledged as a significant world religion.
Bahá’ís are the followers of Bahá’u’lláh, whom they believe to be the Promised One foretold in many world religions. They believe in the essential unity of all the great world religions and that the central figures of those religions (Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh and many others) were prophets (“Manifestations of God”) who have revealed God to humankind.
The symbol of the Bahá’í Faith is a nine-pointed star. Nine is a significant number in the Bahá’í Faith for several reasons, not least because nine is the highest single-digit number and therefore symbolises completeness.
Another important and sacred Bahá’í symbol is a phrase, Yá Bahá'u'l-Abhá, or "Glory of Glories," rendered in calligraphy (in two different forms). Bahá, or glory, is also found in the name of Bahá'u'lláh. The symbol is referred to by Bahá’ís as The Greatest Name.
In May 1844 (the year in which Bahá’ís believe their faith to have been founded), a Persian called Siyyid Alí Muhammad (1819-1850), declared himself to be the Mahdi, the “hidden imam” of Shi’a Islam. He took the title of the Báb, which means ‘the Gate’, and declared that he was preparing the way for another messenger of God. He gained many followers (known at first as Bábís) but his teachings were severely condemned by the religious (Shi’a) authorities. He was imprisoned and, in 1850, was executed.
Mirzá Husayn-Alí was born in Persia in 1817, the son of a government official. As a young man he worked to help poor people and at the age of 27 became one of the first followers of the Báb. He was imprisoned for these beliefs, and while in prison he came to realise that he was the Promised One, the fulfilment of the Báb’s prophecy. After his release he was exiled to Baghdad, and in 1863, after spending 12 days of contemplation in the Ridván Gardens near that city, he declared himself publicly to be the Bahá’u’lláh, a title meaning the Glory of God. The last 40 years of his life were spent in exile, including more imprisonments, and in his final years he lived in Acre, near Haifa, in what is now Israel. He died there in 1892 and his remains were buried near Mount Carmel.
After the death of Bahá’u’lláh, his son Abbas Effendi (1844-1921), who had been imprisoned with his father, became the leader of the Bahá’í community. He took the title Abdu'l-Bahá (which means “servant of Bahá”) and after his own release from captivity in 1908 travelled widely and considerably expanded the influence of the Faith. In turn his own grandson (the great-grandson of Bahá’u’lláh), Shoghi Effendi, became the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith and was particularly responsible for translating many of the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and Abdu'l-Bahá into English.
Bahá’í communities are now found in many countries, having spread widely around the continents through missionary activity (referred to by Bahá’ís as ‘pioneering’), especially in the second half of the 20th century. In the 1990s it was reckoned that the Faith is established in well over 200 countries. Particularly large communities of Bahá’ís can be found in India, Iran, South America and Southeast Asia. The Faith is also the fastest-growing of the independent world religions, having grown at an average rate of 3.63% per year between 1970 and 1985 (according to the World Christian Encyclopaedia).
There is some evidence of splits in the Bahá’í movement dating back to the time of the Guardianship of Bahá’u’lláh’s great-grandson, Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957) and the refusal of some Bahá’ís to accept his authority and leadership.
The teachings of Bahá’u’lláh include the following:
- the oneness of the world’s religions;
- the oneness of humanity;
- science and religion are fully compatible;
- men and women are equal; and
- the responsibility of people to seek for truth.
Bahá’ís believe that the Great Manifestations of God, the great prophets, have revealed the Word of God to humanity. They are, up to the present: Adam, Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh and others.
Members of the Bahá’í Faith believe that Bahá'u'lláh has set in motion a process that will break down traditional barriers of race, creed and prejudice. Perhaps the most famous and most often quoted words of Bahá'u'lláh are:
“The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”
Life and Death
According to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, death is when the spirit can enter into a fuller, freer life. Bahá’ís speak of the Abha Kingdom – “the all-glorious kingdom” – which is a state of perfection and full of joys. Not to be part of that kingdom would be to live in a state of imperfection. The concept of “heaven and hell” as two distinct places or destinations after death, however, does not feature in Bahá’í teachings. Rather they are understood as symbolic: heaven (or paradise) is harmony with God’s will – the condition of spiritual life – and hell is the condition of spiritual death.
Bahá’ís believe that all people, not just members of the Bahá’í Faith, must seek to progress spiritually in this life in order to continue to make progress in the next. Becoming a Bahá’í does not necessarily give an advantage in this process. Everyone, whatever their religion, must continue in their spiritual development.
Bahá’í scriptures comprise writings of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, and some other writings by early Bahá’í leaders. These include The Most Holy Book, The Book of Certitude, The Hidden Word and The Seven Valleys. Bahá’ís also regard the scriptures of other religions as sacred texts.
During the last years of his life Bahá’u’lláh devoted much time to writing and these writings are regarded as revelations from God. Many of these writings were translated into English by Bahá’u’lláh’s great-grandson, Shoghi Effendi, who had been educated at Oxford. He used a slightly archaic English style, reflecting the style of the King James version of the Christian Bible which was most familiar at the time. His translations into English, rather than the Persian originals, have been the basis for translations into other Western languages.
'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 God.'
Local Bahá’í communities generally meet in each other’s homes or other buildings for prayer, worship and teaching. Around the world there is a small number of Houses of Worship – at least one on each continent. Each of these has its own design, but must have nine sides and a central dome, symbolising the diversity and unity of the human race.
One of the best-known of the Bahá’í Houses of Worship, and the first to be built in the West (1953), is at Wilmette in Illinois, just outside Chicago. Other Houses of Worship can be found in Kampala (Uganda), near Sydney (Australia), near Frankfurt (Germany), Panama City, Apia (Western Samoa) and New Delhi (India).
Bahá’ís have no priesthood or clergy. They pray each day and regard their work as a form of worship. Every 19 days (as soon after the start of the Bahá’í month as possible – see Festivals below) the community meets for worship, the study of Bahá’í teachings, discussion and the sharing of food together – known as the Nineteen Day Feast – on or just after the first day of the month. Local groups also meet weekly for devotions.
Ordinary members of the Bahá’í community prepare, co-ordinate and lead worship, and all present may take part in reading, leading music, etc. Readings for the Nineteen Day Feast may be chosen from any scriptures, although it is most often the Bahá’í scriptures that are used. Other devotionals non-scriptural readings can be used, chosen from a range of sources such as the writings of Gandhi or Martin Luther King. Music may be live or recorded.
In each country there is a democratically elected National Spiritual Assembly, and each local community is governed by its own Spiritual Assembly.
The International Headquarters of the Bahá’í Faith is situated on Mount Carmel close to the Shrine of the Báb, at Haifa, Israel. Here the international governing body of the Bahá’í community, the Universal House of Justice, is located.
Bahá’ís follow a calendar that is unique to them. There are 19 months in the Bahá’í year, and 19 days in each month, and they are the same every year. Each month is named after one of the attributes of God. The first month of the year (Bahá, meaning “Splendour”) always commences on the Northern hemisphere’s Spring solar equinox – March 21st – the Bahá’í New Year, or Naw-Rúz. There are four days (five in a leap year) that do not fit into any month, and these intercalary days come immediately before the start of the 19th month (Alá, meaning “Loftiness”), which is the month of fasting. A Bahá’í day is normally understood as going from sunset to sunset.
Bahá’ís observe nine major holy days and fast for 19 days each year. Under their own calendar Bahá’ís observe New Year (Naw-Rúz) on March 21st – the spring equinox.
During the 19 days prior to Naw-Rúz (2 March to 20 March) Bahá’ís observe the Fast, refraining from eating and drinking during the hours of daylight. It is a time for deep reflection on one’s spiritual state. Exemptions are permitted for those who are ill, the under-15s and over-70s, and for pregnant and nursing women.
The most sacred of the Bahá’í festivals is Ridván, which begins of April 21 and lasts for 12 days. It recalls the time in 1863 when Bahá’u’lláh spent 12 days in the Ridván Garden near Baghdad and announced to his followers that he was the ‘Promised One’.
Other special days in the Bahá’í Faith include:
- The Declaration of the Báb: May 23rd
- The Martyrdom of the Báb: July 9th
- The Birth of the Báb: October 20th
- The Birth of Bahá’u’lláh: November 12th
Bahá'í in Britain and Ireland
In Northern Ireland there is a small but very active Bahá’í Community of just over 300 people that has grown steadily since 1908. Some members of the community have come from other countries – some came from Iran (formerly Persia) after the Iranian Revolution of 1979, to escape persecution. Others are local people who have become Bahá’ís.
Bahá’ís come from all sections of society in Northern Ireland, for example, there are Bahá’í doctors and other healthcare workers, engineers, social and community workers, teachers, builders, artists and many others. Bahá’ís in Northern Ireland have their own elected Regional Council, and they also form part of the elected National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United Kingdom.
As there are no formal buildings for worship in Northern Ireland, members of the Faith normally meet in local groups. Where there are more than nine adult Bahá’ís in a locality they form a local Spiritual Assembly. There are Spiritual Assemblies in Belfast, Londonderry, Coleraine, Castlereagh, Newtownabbey and Bangor, and smaller groups in Omagh, Ballymena, Craigavon, Rostrevor, Newtownards and Carrickfergus.
There is a strong relationship with Bahá’ís in the Republic of Ireland, who have had their own National Spiritual Assembly since 1972 and where there are currently about 500 members of the Bahá’í community.
The larger Bahá’í community in Britain numbers about 6,000 people, and there are very close links between members of the Faith on both sides of the Irish Sea.
- Podger, C. (2004) About the Bahá’ís, Australia: Bahá’í Distribution Service
- Momen, W & Momen, M (2006) Understanding the Bahá’í Faith, Edinburgh: Dunedin Academic Press
The following dating system has been used:
- BCE: Before the Common Era;
- CE: Common Era.