Entering the Castle
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01: The Baha'i Faith
Pacifistic and intensely liberal, the Baha'i Faith, as it is now known, has its roots in the Islamic world of 19th-century Persia (Iran). Yet although it is no longer thought of as connected to Islam, it cannot be fully understood outside the context of its birthplace. Of the more than five million Baha'is worldwide, about 400,000 still live in Iran, where they are under constant persecution from the Shi'ite government as that country's largest non-Muslim religious minority.
The Baha'i Faith developed from the Persian sect of Babism begun in 1844 by Siyyid Ali Muhammad (1819-50), who believed, unlike orthodox Muslims, in "progressive revelation" -- the notion, akin to the Hindu avatar principle, that God has sent a succession of divine messengers to educate and enlighten humanity. Against a background of early 19th-century Shi'ite esoteric and millenarian movements, he took the name Bab ("Gate"), declaring on May 23, 1844, that he was Islam's promised Imam Mahdi, or Qaim ("He who will arise"), pointing out that it had been one thousand lunar years since the disappearance of the 12th or Hidden Imam. His major book of writings, called the Bayan ("Exposition"), forbade polygamy and concubinage, mendicancy, and slave trading, and announced a new law of equality between men and women (one of the most prominent Babis was the poet and orator Qurratu l'Ayn, known as Tahirah, the first woman to be martyred for the cause). But the Bayan's main theme was the coming of a second Messenger or Prophet who would usher in the long-awaited age of peace and prosperity promised not only by Islam but also by Judaism and Christianity.
Despite their high levels of Muslim piety and scholarship, the Bab and his disciples, or Babis, were persecuted by Muslims who found the promise of a prophet to come after Muhammad blasphemous. (Yet the "prophet" whose coming the Bab foretold was to be a manifestation of the returned Christ, a legitimate Islamic claim.) Because the Bab proclaimed that the scriptures he revealed superseded the Quran, he was imprisoned, tortured, and finally executed in 1850. Attempts by two Babi youths in Teheran to assassinate the Shah in 1852 led to further persecutions.
The prophet of whom the Bab spoke was Hussayn Ali of Nur, a contemporary who came to be known as Baha'u'llah ("Glory of God," 1817-92). The son of a wealthy government minister whose family was among Persia's oldest landed gentry, he was a householder and father of three children who devoted himself to philanthropic activities until 1844, when he became a leading advocate of Babism. Although he never met the Bab in person, he carried on a correspondence with him that continued up to the Bab's martyrdom. In 1852, Baha'u'llah himself was imprisoned for four months in the infamous "Black Pit" of Teheran, where he had profound mystical experiences during which he said he received a revelation from God to humanity. He described the experience in terms resonant with classic mystical encounters: "Though the galling weight of the chain and the stench-filled air allowed me but little sleep, still in those infrequent moments of slumber I felt as if something flowed from the crown of my head over my breast, even as a mighty torrent that precipitates itself upon the earth from the summit of a lofty mountain. Every limb of my body would, as a result, be set afire. At such moments my tongue recited what no man could bear to hear."
Banished to Baghdad after his release from prison, Baha'u'llah began a 40-year period of solitary wandering, exile, and imprisonment, during which he taught his followers by eloquent epistles and other writings. His manifestation as the Christ foretold by the Bab did not take place until 1863, at which time Babis began to call themselves Baha'is, or followers of Baha'u'llah. (The religion was first referred to as Baha'ism, a name that by the 1920s had been replaced by the Baha'i Faith.) In the ensuing years, Baha'u'llah called not only for the healing of the world by "the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith," but also for the dissolution of nationalist conflicts and of the Islamic and Babi principle of jihad, advocating that it is better to be killed than to kill. Beginning in 1867, he wrote a series of letters to world leaders including Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm, Emperor Franz Josef, and Pope Pius IX, announcing the arrival of a new age that would be presaged by political and social cataclysms, calling for world disarmament and the formation of a world commonwealth to act collectively against war. "The earth is but one country," he wrote, "and mankind its citizens." During his last 24 years of exile at Acre, a penal city in Palestine, Baha'u'llah wrote his most important book, the Kitab-i-Aqdas ("Most Holy Book"), outlining the laws and institutions for the new World Order he envisioned. Among his other significant works is the Kitab-i-Iqan ("Book of Certitude"), the principal exposition of his doctrinal message.
Baha'u'llah's eldest son, whom he called Abdul Baha (1844-1921), succeeded his father in the Baha'i lineage and is considered the authoritative interpreter of his teachings. Born and raised in the Holy Land, he traveled to the West in 1911 and brought the Baha'i message to Europe and North America. After his death in 1921, Abdul Baha was succeeded as Guardian of the Baha'i Faith by his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1897-1957). But Shoghi Effendi designated no successor, and in 1963 the notion of individual leaders was replaced by an elected governing body originally conceived by Baha'u'llah and called the Universal House of Justice, a group of nine believers of varied ethnic and national origins who govern the spiritual affairs of Baha'is today.
Tolerance is one of the keynotes of the Baha'i Faith, which has no formal creed, few rituals or ceremonies, no clergy, and nothing to exclude those holding other beliefs from participating, which may help explain its growing popularity in the West. Baha'is believe in three fundamental principles: the oneness of God, the oneness of humanity, and the fundamental unity of religion. However, formal membership in the Baha'i Faith -- being what is called an "enrolled" Baha'i -- precludes formal membership in another religion.
Baha'u'llah taught that God continues to intervene in human history through great spiritual messengers such as Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad, whom he called "Manifestations of God" and who founded the major religions. "These firmly established and mighty systems," he said, "have proceeded from one Source and are the rays of one Light. That they differ from one another is to be attributed to the varying requirements of the ages in which they were promulgated." Baha'i beliefs are, then, merely the perfection of those teachers and traditions; according to one Baha'i scholar, "to be a real Christian in spirit is to be Baha'i, and to be a real Baha'i is to be a Christian," the same going for all other religions (an attitude that is identifiably Sufi). Some Baha'is point to the American Christian sect of Adventists, who, through studying the prophecies in the Old Testament Book of Daniel, predicted that the Messiah would arrive on earth in 1844 and were disappointed when he failed to show. In that very year, the Bab began his ministry and Abdul Baha was born -- according to the same scholar, "fulfilling the prophecy, but in a manner not anticipated by men."
Baha'i tolerance extends to gender, and some of the statements of Baha'u'llah and Abdul Baha seem well ahead of their time in this regard. "The world in the past has been ruled by force and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind," Abdul Baha said in Paris in 1911. "But the scales are already shifting, force is losing its weight, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with the feminine ideal, or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more properly balanced."
Baha'u'llah's writings on world peace and one government reportedly influenced Woodrow Wilson's thinking that led to founding the League of Nations. Despite advocating global disarmament, universal suffrage, the unity of all religions, the creation of a global assembly and a world language, and the lowering of regressive taxes on the poor, Baha'i law requires its members to abstain from political involvement of any kind. Voting and holding nonpolitical government jobs are allowed, but partisan political action is seen as divisive in nature and so contrary to Baha'i ideals. However, Baha'is may express public positions on social and moral issues, such as racial and sexual equality, as long as they do not identify themselves with a particular political party.
The Baha'i Faith encourages service to others, daily individual prayer and meditation, including a daily obligatory prayer and an annual 19-day dawn-to-dusk fast (from March 2 to 20) similar to the Muslim Ramadan; it supports marriage, strict monogamy, and complete equality for women with no veiling or seclusion. Divorce is permitted but strongly discouraged, as are criticism and backbiting. The Baha'i Faith forbids the use of drugs and alcohol, strongly disapproves of tobacco as being injurious to health, yet discourages asceticism and celibacy. There are seven Baha'i Universal Houses of Worship, one on each of the six populated continents and Western Samoa, open to members of all religious tradition and to nonbelievers. Local communities, which are still rather small, hold a Nineteen-Day Feast on the first day of each Baha'i month (the Baha'i solar calendar, which originated with the Bab, consists of 19 months of 19 days each plus four intercalary days of additional celebration).
There are no sects or denominations of the Baha'i Faith; it has remained free of serious dissension during the hundred years since its founder's death in 1892 -- something Baha'is attribute to Baha'u'llah's Covenant, in which he laid out his vision for the continuity of the Baha'i Faith, and the Will and Testament of Abdul Baha.