Originating in Persia (modern Iran) in the nineteenth century, the Bahai Faith’s central figure was Mirza Hoseyn Ali Nuri (1817-92), a member of the Persian nobility, who was known as Bahaullah (or Baha Allah), a title that means "The splendor of God." The term "Bahai" means "follower of the splendor." Bahaullah’s mission was heralded by Siyyid Mirza Ali-Muhammad (the Bab) who began teaching in Shiraz in 1844 about the imminent emergence of a divine prophet foretold in all scriptures. Consequently the Bab and thousands of his followers were martyred at the urging of militant orthodox forces.
In response to the seeds of expectation that had matured through the revelation of the Bab, Bahaullah, who had been among the Bab’s ardent admirers, in 1853 confided to his followers and proclaimed publicly in 1863 that he was the prophet foretold by the Bab. In the years until his 1892 death in Akka, Palestine, Bahaullah produced a great number of treatises on mystical, spiritual, social, and ethical subjects, which he presented as divine revelations. The purpose of his revelation, he stated, was to provide the divine guidance required for humanity's spiritual and social well-being as it comes of age as a global society.
Bahai Temple in New Delhi, India
Bahai Beliefs. The premise of the Bahai faith is a path toward unity. Bahais acknowledge a divine purpose to creation and the existence of a creator who remains infinitely beyond the comprehension of man and thus essentially unknowable. Whatever knowledge we possess of the divine has been "dispensed" from that ultimate source by a series of prophetic figures, including the few known to history: Adam, Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Christ, Muhammad, and most recently the Bab and Bahaullah. This view of religious history as "progressive revelation" acknowledges the role of each of the revealed religions in the development of civilization, upholds the divine station of prophets and attributes to human error and folly the divisions and conflicts that have emerged in their names.
The participation of the individual in the affairs of this world constitutes preparation for the existence of the soul in subsequent "worlds of God" beyond this physical earth. The quest for spirituality requires that one suppress the "lower self” (selfish yearnings provoked by ego and desire) and cultivate the "higher self” (the capacity to express spiritual and altruistic capacities latent in every person). Both prayer and moral behavior are required in the Bahai life.
For Bahais, religion provides the foundation for both individual spiritual development and the progress of society. The quest for spirituality has remained a constant through time, although the conditions of society change. Bahaullah calls for the elimination of all forms of prejudice, full equality between the sexes, universal education, an auxiliary global language, and elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty. Such aims are prerequisites to the establishment of a just and peaceful world. The establishment of world peace requires efforts at the grass-roots as well as by the leaders of nations, and Bahaullah anticipated some form of world assembly at which world leaders would make a binding pact ensuring security and allowing a reduction in expenditure on armaments.
World Center and World Distribution. The World Center of the Bahai faith is on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel. Bahai communities existed in fifteen countries at the time of Bahaullah’s death in 1892. Under the guidance of his son, Abdul-Baha (1844-1921), his successor "Center of the Covenant," the number of countries where Bahais live increased to thirty-five. Under the Guardianship of Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), the grandson whom Abdul-Baha appointed to lead the faith after him, more than 200 additional territories were added to the Bahai faith. By the 1990s there were Bahai communities in more than 230 countries and territories with a following of more than six million.
Structure. Bahaullah’s writings established "Houses of Justice" to minister the spiritual and social needs of the community. The number of local-level bodies has reached 19,000, and national or regional governing bodies have increased to some 170. These institutions, presently known as "Spiritual Assemblies," are the foundations upon which the supreme governing body of the Bahai world, the Universal House of Justice, has been established. In 1963 the members of 56 national Spiritual Assemblies first elected the Universal House of Justice, and its nine members have been elected by an expanding number of these Assemblies at five-year intervals ever since. Bahai administration includes appointed offices, the members of which have an advisory and consultative role. There are, however, no clerical offices.
Local Assemblies organize the Bahai calendar; offer classes for children, youths, and adults; provide counsel in times of need; and tend to the welfare of the needy in their midst. The Bahai calendar, which helps to regulate community life, has nineteen months each of nineteen days (= 361 days, plus either 4 or 5 days at the end of each year which are designated as a period of festivity). Bahai communities gather on the first day of each Bahai month at a "feast," which includes devotions, administration, and socializing. The feast is a consultative forum at which open discussion is encouraged on all matters important to the community and through which communication is facilitated between the local Assembly and believers.
International Activities. Since recognition of the Bahai International Community (BIC) as a non-governmental organization by the United Nations in 1948, the BIC has contributed Bahai perspectives on issues of social and economic development at numerous international conferences. Examples are "The Prosperity of Humankind," prepared for the World Summit on Social Development (held in Copenhagen in 1995), and "Turning Point for All Nations," an evaluation of the United Nations in the year of its fiftieth anniversary.
The Bahai Faith and Theosophy. Abdul-Baha spoke at the Theosophical Society in London in 1911 on the invitation of Annie Besant. He spoke about the principle of independent investigation of truth and of the importance of promoting love and unity. When asked about the task of unifying religions, Abdul-Baha replied that it was necessary to "search for truth, seek the realities in all religions, put aside all superstitions. Many of us do not realize the reality of all religions." Bahais thus share with Theosophists a quest for truth but, as their name suggests, have chosen to accept Bahaullah as their guide and do not encourage any spiritual search beyond their religion, once it has been accepted.
Since recognition of the Bahai International Community (BIC) as a non-governmental organization by the United Nations in 1948, the BIC has contributed Bahai perspectives on issues of social and economic development at numerous international conferences. Examples are