In the course of a little more than 150 years, the Bahá'í Faith has grown from an obscure movement within a minority sect of Islam into a worldwide religion. Only the briefest outline of its history can be given.
Bahá'í history can conveniently be broken up into five periods:
a. The Period of the Báb (1844-1852)
b. The Ministry of Bahá'u'lláh (1852-1892)
c. The Ministry of `Abdu'l-Bahá (1892-1921)
d. The Period of the Guardianship (Shoghi Effendi, 1921-1963)
e. The Universal House of Justice (1963-)
In Mecca, the Báb announced his message, but was generally ignored. His plans for proceeding from Mecca to Karbala, a holy city in the south of Iraq, also came to nothing owing to the fierce opposition which one of his disciples had encountered there. The Báb returned to Shiraz and was detained and placed under house arrest by the governor of that city.
Despite these early setbacks, the message of the Báb spread throughout Iran. Many thousands of people became his followers including many religious scholars of Islam. The governor of Shiraz, fearing the growth of the movement, decided to arrest the Báb again in 1846. His officials carried out the arrest but the sudden appearance of cholera in the city threw everything into confusion and the Báb was allowed to leave the city. He journeyed to the city of Isfahan in central Iran. The governor of Isfahan was a Georgian Christian who had converted to Islam and risen to his present high position. He asked the leading Shi`i religious official in the city to accommodate the Báb.
Isfahan was then the leading centre of Shi`i Islam in Iran. Here the Báb wrote several of his most important works and discussed these with the religious scholars and students gathered there. His teachings convinced many including the governor of Isfahan. The latter offered to put his personal fortune at the disposal of the Báb and to arrange a personal interview with the Shah.
Reports from Isfahan and all over Iran were arriving at the capital about the new religious movement. They alarmed the Prime Minister, who sent orders to Isfahan for the arrest of the Báb. The governor of Isfahan hid the Báb for a time in one of his palaces, but in February 1847, this governor died. His successor had the Báb sent under guard towards Tehran.
The Prime Minister, whose own position was dependant on the religious influence that he wielded over the Shah, feared that the results of any meeting between the Báb and the Shah would lead to the loss of his own position. He, therefore, halted the progress of the Báb's escort outside Tehran and diverted them to Maku in the extreme north-west of Iran. Here in a remote corner of the country and imprisoned among a hostile people, the Prime Minister hoped that the Báb would be isolated and his movement would gradually die away. The Prime Minister's hopes were not, however, fulfilled. The Báb won over his prison warder in Maku and his teachings continued to spread through the towns and villages of Iran.
In 1848, several significant events occurred. Early in this year, the Prime Minister changed the place of imprisonment of the Báb from Maku to Chihriq in the hope of making him more isolated. Also in this year, the Báb issued the Bayán, his principal book of laws and teachings. This book made it clear that he was in fact inaugurating a new religious dispensation that abrogated the dispensation of Islam. This fact was then proclaimed in a conference of his followers held in the summer of that year in a village called Badasht on the road between Tehran and the north-east. At about the same time, the Prime Minister had the Báb brought from his imprisonment to Tabriz, the provincial capital of the north-west. There a mock trial was held before the crown-prince and an assembly of religious notables in the hope that the Báb would be humiliated. The Báb, however, conducted himself with a dignity that won him even more supporters. The trial also gave the Báb an opportunity to announce publicly his claim to be the Mahdi of Islam.
Between 1848 and 1850 there were several episodes in which the religious leaders in various localities around Iran stirred up the people against the Bábís;. When this resulted in civil unrest, the local authorities called upon the Shah's army to attack the Bábís;s. These episodes culminated in several massacres of Bábís;s in different parts of Iran.
In the middle of the year 1850, the new Shah and his Prime Minister decided that the only way of stopping this religious movement would be to execute the founder. They therefore had the Báb brought to Tabriz again and suspended in a public square in front of a firing squad consisting of a regiment of soldiers. There then occurred what Bahá'ís consider to have been a miracle. All of the shots missed and the Báb seemed to have disappeared. He was eventually found dictating his last words to his secretary. The Báb was then brought back to the square, suspended again, and a new regiment was lined up (the first regiment having refused to carry out a further attempt). This time the shots succeeded and the Báb was killed. His body was rescued by some of his followers. After being hid in various places for fifty years, it was eventually interred in a shrine on the side of Mount Carmel in the city of Haifa. An imposing superstructure was then built over this shrine.
The persecutions of the Bábís continued over the next few years. Eventually in the summer of 1852, a small group of Bábís decided to obtain revenge on the Shah by assassinating him. Their plans were, however, poorly made and the plot was a failure. Although most of Bábís had not been involved in the plot, this event triggered an intense persecution that resulted in the execution of almost all of the remaining leading Bábís. Among those executed was Táhirih, the female member of the Letters of the Living.
It was while he was in this pit that a visionary experience occurred to him which he has described in some of his writings and which he pinpoints as the start of his mission.
|THE VISION OF BAHÁ'U'LLÁH IN THE SIYAH CHAL|
|While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden--the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord--suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good-pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful. Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outer being tidings which rejoiced My soul, and the souls of God's honoured servants. Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: `By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand. This is the Mystery of God and His Treasure, the Cause of God and His glory unto all who are in the kingdoms of Revelation and of creation, if ye be of them that perceive.' (Quoted in Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, pp. 101 -2)|
In the Bahá'í Faith, this episode is seen as equivalent to the Burning Bush in the Mosaic dispensation, to the Dove that descended upon Jesus after his baptism by John the Baptist, to the enlightenment of the Buddha under the Bo tree, and to the first appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Muhammad.
Although most of the Bábí prisoners in the Siyah Chal were executed, Bahá'u'lláh's life was spared because of his high social position and the intervention of the Russian minister in Tehran (Bahá'u'lláh's sister was married to an official of the Russian legation). Bahá'u'lláh was released from imprisonment on the condition that he go into exile. Although the Russian Minister offered him the choice of proceeding to Russian territory, Bahá'u'lláh preferred to go to Baghdad (no doubt foreseeing that, if he went to Russia, he would become a pawn in the political game that was being played between Russia and England for supremacy in Iran).
In Baghdad, Bahá'u'lláh proceeded to revitalize the Bábí community. The Bábís had become demoralized and degraded as a result of the persecutions that had decimated their ranks. For two years in 1854-6, he withdrew to the mountains of Kurdistan. For part of this time he lived alone; the rest of the time he was a guest in a Sufi retreat in the town of Sulaymaniyya. Here he expounded on mystical themes and attracted many people to himself. When he returned to Baghdad at the end of this time, he kept his contacts with some of these Sufis. His two main mystical works, the Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys, were written to two Sufi leaders at this time. While in Baghdad, Bahá'u'lláh wrote several other important works. These included the Hidden Words, a series of aphorisms on spiritual and ethical themes, and the Book of Certitude (Kitáb-i-Íqán), which deals with the nature of religion and explains the fulfilment in the present day of the prophecies of the holy books of the past.
The Iranian authorities made representations to the Ottoman government about the presence and increasing influence of Bahá'u'lláh in Baghdad, close to the Iranian border. Orders eventually came that Bahá'u'lláh was to go to Istanbul, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. In many places in his writings, the Báb had written of a Messianic figure whom he called "Him whom God shall make manifest". Just before his departure from Baghdad in April 1863, Bahá'u'lláh announced to a group of his Bábí companions his claim to be the one promised by the Báb (this event is commemorated by Bahá'ís each year in the holy days of Ridván).
Bahá'u'lláh remained in Istanbul for only three months before being sent on to Edirne (Adrianople) in European Turkey. Here Bahá'u'lláh openly announced his claim to be the one foretold by theBáb and the inaugurator of a new religious dispensation. He sent his emissaries to Iran to publicize this claim among the Bábís, almost all of whom now became Bahá'ís. While in Edirne, Bahá'u'lláh also started a series of letters that he sent to the leading monarchs of his time. He called on them to turn to his teachings, to abandon warfare, and become reconciled among themselves. He also wrote to the Muslim and Christian religious leaders, informing them of his claim to be the one promised in their scriptures.
|EXTRACTS FROM BAHÁ'U'LLÁH'S TABLETS TO
THE KINGS AND RELIGIOUS LEADERS
|TO QUEEN VICTORIA
O Queen in London! Incline thine ear unto the voice of thy Lord, the Lord of all mankind, calling from the Divine Lote-Tree: Verily, no God is there but Me, the Almighty, the All-Wise! Cast away all that is on earth, and attire the head of thy kingdom with the crown of the remembrance of thy Lord, the All-Glorious. He, in truth, hath come unto the world in His most great glory, and all that hath been mentioned in the Gospel hath been fulfilled . . .
. . . We have been informed that thou hast forbidden the trading in slaves, both men and women. This, verily, is what God hath enjoined in this wondrous Revelation. God hath, truly, destined a reward for thee, because of this. He, verily, will pay the doer of good his due recompense, wert thou to follow what hath been sent unto thee by Him Who is the All-Knowing, the All-Informed. As to him who turneth aside, and swelleth with pride, after that the clear tokens have come unto him, from the Revealer of signs, his work shall God bring to naught . . .
We have also heard that thou hast entrusted the reins of counsel into the hands of the representatives of the people. Thou, indeed, hast done well, for thereby the foundations of the edifice of thine affairs will be strengthened, and the hearts of all that are beneath thy shadow, whether high or low, will be tranquillized. It behoveth them, however, to be trustworthy among His servants, and to regard themselves as the representatives of all that dwell on earth. This is what counselleth them, in this Tablet, He Who is the Ruler, the All-Wise . . . Blessed is he that entereth the assembly for the sake of God, and judgeth between men with pure justice . . . (Bahá'u'lláh, Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 31-35)
TO POPE PIUS IX
O Pope! Rend the veils asunder. He Who is the Lord of Lords is come overshadowed with clouds, and the decree hath been fulfilled by God, the Almighty, the Unrestrained . . . He, verily, hath again come down from Heaven even as He came down from it the first time. Beware that thou dispute not with Him even as the Pharisees disputed with Him (Jesus) without a clear token or proof. On His right hand flow the living waters of grace, and on His left the choice Wine of justice, whilst before Him march the angels of Paradise, bearing the banners of His signs. Beware lest any name debar thee from God, the Creator of earth and heaven. Leave thou the world behind thee, and turn towards thy Lord, through Whom the whole earth hath been illumined . .. Dwellest thou in palaces whilst He Who is the King of Revelation liveth in the most desolate of abodes? Leave them unto such as desire them, and set thy face with joy and delight towards the Kingdom . . . Arise in the name of thy Lord, the God of Mercy, amidst the peoples of the earth, and seize thou the Cup of Life with the hands of confidence, and first drink thou therefrom, and proffer it then to such as turn towards it amongst the peoples of all faiths . . .
Call thou to remembrance Him Who was the Spirit (Jesus), Who when He came, the most learned of His age pronounced judgment against Him in His own country, whilst he who was only a fisherman believed in Him. Take heed, then, ye men of understanding heart! Thou, in truth, art one of the suns of the heaven of His names. Guard thyself, lest darkness spread its veils over thee, and fold thee away from His light . . . Consider those who opposed the Son (Jesus), when He came unto them with sovereignty and power. How many the Pharisees who were waiting to behold Him, and were lamenting over their separation from Him! And yet, when the fragrance of His coming was wafted over them, and His beauty was unveiled, they turned aside from Him and disputed with Him . . . None save a very few, who were destitute of any power amongst men, turned towards His face. And yet, today, every man endowed with power and invested with sovereignty prideth himself on His Name! In like manner, consider how numerous, in these days, are the monks who, in My Name, have secluded themselves in their churches, and who, when the appointed time was fulfilled, and We unveiled Our beauty, knew Us not, though they call upon Me at eventide and at dawn. . .
The Word which the Son concealed is made manifest. It hath been sent down in the form of the human temple in this day. Blessed be the Lord Who is the Father! He, verily, is come unto the nations in His most great majesty. Turn your faces towards Him, O concourse of the righteous. . . This is the day whereon the Rock (Peter) crieth out and shouteth, and celebrateth the praise of its Lord, the All-Possessing, the Most High, saying: `Lo! The Father is come, and that which ye were promised in the Kingdom is fulfilled! . . .' My body longeth for the cross, and Mine head waiteth the thrust of the spear, in the path of the All-Merciful, that the world may be purged from its transgressions . . . (Bahá'u'lláh, Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 83-6)
In Edirne, Bahá'u'lláh experienced opposition from his half-brother, Mirza Yahya Azal. Azal had been promoted by the Báb to be a figurehead among the Bábís. After the execution of the Báb, many had looked to him to be the leader of the Bábís. Azal, however, was not a capable leader. Many Bábís were, therefore, already looking to Bahá'u'lláh for leadership even before he had put forward his claim. Azal did manage, however, to cause Bahá'u'lláh many problems. He attempted to kill Bahá'u'lláh by poisoning and the result caused Bahá'u'lláh's hand to shake for the rest of his life. Azal also sent inflammatory reports to the Ottoman authorities, the result of which was to cause them to send both Azal and Bahá'u'lláh off into further exile. This opposition from Azal is similar to the opposition experienced by the other founders of the world religions from those who were close to them; the injury caused to Jesus by one of his twelve disciples, Judas Iscariot, and the opposition to the Buddha from his cousin Devadatta, for example.
In 1867, orders came that Bahá'u'lláh and his companions were to leave Edirne. Without knowing where they were going, they were forced to sell their possessions and leave. They were taken to Gallipoli and put aboard a ship. Eventually they arrived in the prison-city of Akka in Palestine (Azal was sent to Cyprus where he remained until his death).
In Akka, Bahá'u'lláh was at first imprisoned in the citadel for two years. When that building was required for other purposes, he was placed in a succession of houses in the city under house arrest. Soldiers guarded the city gate with strict instructions not to let Bahá'u'lláh or his companions out and not to let any of his followers that came to meet him in to the city. It was in these circumstances that Bahá'u'lláh wrote his most important book, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (the Most Holy Book), in which he outlined his main religious laws. This was followed in the next two decades by a series of writings (tablets as they are called by Bahá'ís) in which he gave the distinctive teachings of his religious dispensation.
The personality of Bahá'u'lláh and the character of his companions eventually overcame the hostility of the authorities. In 1877, Bahá'u'lláh was allowed to move outside the city walls. In 1879, he took up residence in the mansion of Bahjí just outside Akka.
The last years of Bahá'u'lláh's life were spent in writing and dictating numerous works; receiving the pilgrims that came in increasing numbers; and directing the affairs of his religion. The religion itself was now gradually spreading into Egypt, Anatolia, the Caucasus, Central Asia, and India. Even in Iran, despite episodes of persecution from time to time, the religion was spreading among all classes and in all parts of the country.
|PEN-PORTRAIT OF BAHÁ'U'LLÁH|
|One of the few Westerners to meet Bahá'u'lláh was Professor Edward G. Browne, an orientalist from Cambridge University. He has left this description of his meeting with Bahá'u'lláh:
. . . my conductor paused for a moment while I removed my shoes. Then, with a quick movement of the hand, he withdrew, and, as I passed replaced the curtain; and I found myself in a large apartment, along the upper end of which ran a low divan, while on the side opposite to the door were placed two or three chairs. Though I dimly suspected whither I was going and whom I was to behold (for no distinct intimation had been given to me), a second or two elapsed ere, with a throb of wonder and awe, I became definitely conscious that the room was not untenanted. In the corner where the divan met the wall sat a wondrous and venerable figure, crowned with a felt head-dress of the kind called táj by dervishes (but of unusual height and make), round the base of which was wound a small white turban. The face of him on whom I gazed I can never forget, though I cannot describe it. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one's very soul; power and authority sat on that ample brow; while the deep lines on the forehead and face implied an age which the jet-black hair and beard flowing down in indistinguishable luxuriance almost to the waist seemed to belie. No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before one who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain!
A mild dignified voice bade me be seated, and then continued: - 'Praise be to God that thou hast attained! . . . Thou hast come to see a prisoner and an exile . . . We desire but the good of the world and the happiness of the nations; yet they deem us a stirrer up of strife and sedition worthy of bondage and banishment . . . That all nations should become one in faith and all men as brothers; that the bonds of affection and unity between the sons of men should be strengthened; that diversity of religion should cease and differences of race be annulled--what harm is there in this?. . .
Yet so it shall be; these fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the 'Most Great Peace' shall come . . . Do not you in Europe need this also? Is not this that which Christ foretold? . . . Yet do we see your kings and rulers lavishing their treasures more freely on means for the destruction of the human race than on that which would conduce to the happiness of mankind . . . These strifes and this bloodshed anddiscord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family . . . Let not a man glory in this, that he loves his country; let him rather glory in this, that he loves his kind . . .'
Such, so far as I can recall them, were the words which, besides many others, I heard from Behá. Let those who read them consider well with themselves whether such doctrines merit death and bonds, and whether the world is more likely to gain or lose by their diffusion. (Introduction to `Abdu'l-Bahá, Traveller's Narrative, vol. 2, pp. xxxix-xl)
Bahá'u'lláh passed away on 29 May 1892 in the mansion of Bahjí and was buried in a nearby house. He was seventy-four years of age and had spent forty of those years as a prisoner and exile. In 1844, at the age of 27, he had voluntarily given up the life of comfort and prestige that was his inheritance and entered the ranks of the poor and oppressed in the world. Like many millions in our world today, Bahá'u'lláh knew what it was like to lose home and possessions, to be stripped of all human rights, to be a prisoner and a refugee, to be subjected to unjust legal procedures and to be the victim of corrupt officials; in Tehran in 1852, he had experienced the anger of a mob whipped into blind and senseless rage; on the road to Baghdad, he and his family had suffered from poverty, hunger and exposure; during the course of his exiles, he and his wife had watched their children become ill and die; and in the early years in Akka, he had experienced overcrowded accommodation, lack of food, unhygienic conditions and the resultant diseases. When therefore Bahá'u'lláh writes of the need for society to look after the poor and disadvantaged and to guard against injustice and corruption, he is writing of things which he had experienced at first hand and about which he cared deeply. His shrine is regarded by Bahá'ís as the holiest place on earth.
From the earliest years of his ministry, `Abdu'l-Bahá was opposed by his half-brother, Mírzá Muhammad `Alí. The latter claimed that `Abdu'l-Bahá was exceeding his authority. At first, Mírzá Muhammad `Alí succeeded in obtaining the support of several influential Bahá'ís. In the end, however, his opposition faded away and the overwhelming majority of Bahá'ís supported `Abdu'l-Bahá. This was undoubtedly mainly due to the clear and unequivocal text of Bahá'u'lláh's Book of My Covenant in which `Abdu'l-Bahá's appointment was made.
The main result of the opposition of `Abdu'l-Bahá's half-brother was the re-imposition of the strict terms of the original government orders of exile. This confined `Abdu'l-Bahá to the city of Akka for some five years. Eventually, as a result of the Young Turks Revolution in 1908, `Abdu'l-Bahá was freed. One of his first actions when freed was to complete the shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel and to place the remains of the Báb there.
During the early years of `Abdu'l-Bahá's ministry, the Bahá'í Faith was taken to North America. By the turn of the twentieth century, there was a community of several thousand Bahá'ís in North America. Some small groups also arose in Europe. This was a very significant turning-point in the development of the Bahá'í Faith. It demonstrated that the Bahá'í Faith was capable of appealing to people outside the cultural world of the Middle East to which it had been confined up to that point in time. After he was freed in 1908, `Abdu'l-Bahá moved to Egypt for a while before setting off on the first of two journeys to the West. In the first journey in 1911, `Abdu'l-Bahá visited France and England. Then in 1912-13, he visited North America, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Hungary. In all these places he spoke at public meetings, in churches and before a wide variety of associations. He spoke on many of the issues of that time: peace, women's rights, racial equality, labour relations, etc. He met many prominent politicians, philosophers, artists, scientists, and leaders of thought and was the centre of a great deal of attention from newspapers and magazines.
`Abdu'l-Bahá returned to Haifa in 1913 and the following year the First World War broke out cutting off communications with the outside world. During these war years, `Abdu'l-Bahá wrote the Tablets of the Divine Plan, laying down his instructions for the world-wide spread of the Bahá'í Faith.
At the end of the war, the Haifa-Akka area fell to the British army and Palestine came under the British mandate. `Abdu'l-Bahá was much respected by the British authorities and he was eventually knighted for his services. `Abdu'l-Bahá passed away on 28 November 1921 and is buried in one of the rooms of the shrine of the Báb.
During the early years of Shoghi Effendi's ministry there were several episodes of persecution of Bahá'í communities. In Iran in 1926-7, there were several outbursts in which Bahá'ís were killed, and again in 1934, wide-ranging official measures were taken against the Bahá'ís. From 1926 onwards, the Soviet authorities increasingly persecuted the Bahá'í communities in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In 1928, they expropriated the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár that the Bahá'ís had built in Ashkhabad. In 1922, the house that Bahá'u'lláh had occupied in Baghdad, which was a site of pilgrimage for Bahá'ís, was taken over. Despite winning their case before the League of Nations in 1928, the Bahá'ís were never able to regain possession of it. In 1928, some 53 Bahá'ís were arrested in Adana in Turkey.
Shoghi Effendi spent the first fifteen years of his ministry establishing and assuring the properfunctioning of the Bahá'í administrative structure. He then began to use this administration in a series of plans to extend the geographical range of the Bahá'í Faith. In 1937, he gave the American Bahá'ís the task of taking the Bahá'í Faith to several countries in Central and Southern America. Over the next few years he gave plans to various national Bahá'í communities. He gave the Iranian and Egyptian Bahá'ís the task of spreading the Bahá'í Faith to the Arab countries, the Indian Bahá'ís to South-East Asia; the British Bahá'ís to Africa; and he gave the American Bahá'ís a further plan involving Latin America and Europe. The culmination of all this was a Ten-Year World Crusade (1953-1963) which was to open many of the remaining countries of the world to the Bahá'í Faith.
During the Ten-Year Crusade, a development occurred which was eventually to change the face of the Bahá'í Faith. In widely separate corners of the world such as Uganda, Bolivia, Indonesia and India, large numbers of poor, illiterate villagers and tribal peoples began to enrol in the Bahá'í community.
Shoghi Effendi passed away in 1957 during a stay in London. He is buried in north London. The Bahá'í world continued to be administered until the end of the Ten-Year World Crusade in 1963 by a group of individuals whom Shoghi Effendi had designated "Hands of the Cause of God" and whom he had called the "chief stewards of Bahá'u'lláh's embryonic World Commonwealth." In 1963, the Universal House of Justice, a body which was ordained in Bahá'u'lláh's writings, was established by election.
The Universal House of Justice has launched successive plans for the spread and consolidation of Bahá'í communities around the world. These plans have been: the Nine Year Plan (1964-73); the Five Year Plan (1973-79); the Seven Year Plan (1979-86); the Six Year Plan (1986-92); the Three Year Plan (1993-96); and the Four Year Plan (1996-2000). In broad outline these plans have included the tasks of:
A notable feature of the most recent plans has been the increasing extent to which responsibility for drawing up and monitoring the plans has been devolved away from the Bahá'í World Centre towards the national and local Bahá'í communities.
Extracted from The Baha'i Faith: A Beginner's Guide
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