A Portrait by Dr. Robert H. Stockman
The Baha'i Faith is an independent world religion now in the 150th year of its existence. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica Yearbook it is the second most widely spread religion in the world, with five million members residing in 232 countries and dependent territories, and national spiritual assemblies (national Baha'i governing bodies) in 172.
The Baha'i Faith began in Iran. Its history is intimately connected with the lives of its leading figures:
Ali-Muhammad, titled the Bab
Born in southern Iran in 1819, in 1844 he announced that he was the promised one or Mahdi expected by Muslims. He wrote scriptures in which he promulgated a new calendar, new religious laws and new social norms. Opposed by Iran's Muslim clergy and ultimately by its government, thousands of the Bab's followers were killed; in 1850 the Bab himself was put to death.
Mirza Husayn-`Ali, titled Baha'u'llah
Born in northern Iran in 1817, Baha'u'llah became a follower of the Bab in 1844 and was imprisoned for his beliefs. In 1853 he had a vision that he was the divine teacher the Bab had promised; he publicly declared himself as a messenger of God in 1863. He spent the rest of his life in exile and prison, where he wrote over 100 volumes of scripture.
`Abbas Effendi, titled `Abdu'l-Baha
Son of Baha'u'llah, `Abdu'l-Baha was born in 1844 and accompanied his father on his exile to Palestine. Baha'u'llah appointed `Abdu'l-Baha his successor, the exemplar of his teachings, and the interpreter of his revelation. Under `Abdu'l-Baha the Baha'i Faith spread beyond the Middle East, India, and Burma to Europe, the Americas, southern Africa and Australasia. He died in 1921.
Shoghi Effendi Rabbani
Grandson of `Abdu'l-Baha and his successor, Shoghi Effendi was born in Palestine in 1897 and received an Oxford education. As head of the Baha'i Faith from 1921 until his death in 1957, Shoghi Effendi translated the most important of Baha'u'llah's scriptures into elegant English, wrote extensive interpretations and explanations of the Baha'i teachings, built the Baha'i organizational system and oversaw the spread of the Baha'i Faith worldwide.
The Baha'i scriptures constitute the books, essays and letters composed by Baha'u'llah, `Abdu'l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi. Together they comprised nearly 60,000 letters, a significant portion of which are available in English; the content of this scriptural corpus is encyclopedic in nature. The Baha'i teachings are those principles and values promulgated in the Baha'i scriptures, and touch on nearly every aspect of human life.
Central Baha'i teachings are: the "oneness of God," that there is only one God and that God is actively concerned about the development of humanity; the "oneness of religion," that God sends messengers such as Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Krishna, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad, the Bab and Baha'u'llah to humanity to educate it in morals and in social values; and the "oneness of humanity," that all humans come from the same original stock and deserve equal opportunities and treatment.
The teachings also include: a detailed discussion of the spiritual nature of human beings, prayers and religious practices to foster spiritual growth, a strong emphasis on the importance of creating unified and loving families, and a prescription for solving the social ills of human society.
The Baha'i community consists of those people who have accepted Baha'u'llah as God's messenger for this day and who are actively trying to live by, and promulgate, the Baha'i teachings. The community has no clergy and a minimum of ritual. Independent investigation of truth, private prayer and collective discussion and action are the favored modes of religious action. Usually Baha'i communities have no weekly worship service; rather, a monthly program called "feast" is held that includes worship, consultation on community business, and social activities.
Through a process that involves no campaigning and nominations, each local community elects annually by secret ballot a nine-member local spiritual assembly. The assembly coordinates community activities, enrolls new members, counsels and assists members in need, and conducts Baha'i marriages and funerals. A nine-member national spiritual assembly is elected annually by locally elected delegates, and every five years the national spiritual assemblies meet together to elect the Universal House of Justice, the supreme international governing body of the Baha'i Faith. Worldwide there are about 20,000 local spiritual assemblies; the United States has over 1,400 local spiritual assemblies and about 120,000 Baha'is.
The Baha'i scriptures emphasize that the challenges facing humanity stem from two sources: age-old problems that could have been solved long ago had humanity accepted and acted on the moral and spiritual values given it by God's messengers; and new challenges stemming from the creation of a global society, which can be solved if the moral and spiritual principles enunciated by Baha'u'llah are accepted and followed. Chief among these principles are:
Baha'is have responded to the challenges facing humanity in two ways: internally, by creating a Baha'i community that reflects the principles listed above and that can serve as a model for others; and externally, to help heal the damage that inequality, injustice and ignorance have done to society.
The international Baha'i community contains within it 2,100 ethnic groups speaking over 800 languages. In some nations minority groups make up a substantial fraction of the Baha'i population; in the United States, for example, perhaps a third of the membership is African American, and Southeast Asians, Iranians, Hispanics and Native Americans make up another 20 percent. Racial integration of local Baha'i communities has been the standard practice of the American Baha'i community since about 1905. Women have played a major, if not central, role in the administration of local American Baha'i communities, and of the national community, since 1910. American Baha'is have been involved in education, especially in the fostering of Baha'i educational programs overseas, since 1909.
Worldwide, numerous Baha'is have become prominent in efforts to promote racial amity and equality, strengthen peace groups, extend the reach and effectiveness of educational systems, encourage ecological awareness and stewardship, develop new approaches to social and economic development, and promote the new field of conflict resolution. The Baha'i Faith runs seven radio stations in less developed areas of the world that have pioneered new techniques for educating rural populations and fostering economic and cultural development. The Faith also conducts about 700 schools, primarily in the third world, as well as about 200 other literacy programs. Baha'i communities sponsor 500 development projects, such as tree-planting, agricultural improvement, vocational training and rural health-care. The Baha'i international community is particularly active at the United Nations and works closely with many international development agencies. Many national and local Baha'i communities have been active in promoting interreligious understanding and cooperation.