Interpreting teachings, sources, authorities and ways of life in order to understand religions and beliefs;
Understanding and responding critically to beliefs and attitudes.
Bahá’ís believe that the Universe is a deliberate creation, but that the Creative Force is by definition unknowable. Any created thing is incapable of understanding that which created it. Bahá’u’lláh used a number of terms such as the Unknowable Essence or the Supreme Being to refer to this entity. He also stated that the Universe has always existed, and will always exist. Humans were created, “to carry forward an ever-advancing civilisation”. At the individual level, we were created “to know God and to worship Him”. The purpose of life on earth is to acquire virtues and therefore become nearer to God in this world and the next.
Bahá’u’lláh wrote the equivalent of one hundred volumes, in both Persian and Arabic. About one tenth of his Writings have been translated into English, and varying amounts into over 800 other languages. The most important texts are available in book form and online. Divine revelation can often be understood at various levels. Different individuals may form their own opinions on the meaning of a particular passage, but have no right to assert that theirs is the only correct interpretation.
Bahá’í belief incorporates the principle of progressive revelation, in which each religion builds on the one before. “Messengers of God” (or “Manifestations of God”) always confirm the spiritual laws of the previous religion, but may change some of the social laws, thereby instituting a new era. Bahá’ís recognise, among others, the Buddha, Krishna, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad (pbuh) as Manifestations of God.
The primary purpose of each Messenger is the transformation of the individual, which has the purpose of preparing each soul for the next life but simultaneously results in a collective transformation of society. In the Bahá’í religion, the global aims – world administration, unity of mankind, abolition of class barriers, etc. – are major goals, but clearly depend upon the transformation of individuals for their achievement. Nonetheless, these goals profoundly influence Bahá’í behaviour in a very positive way, which is often remarked upon.
The Bahá’í Faith is based upon the claim of Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892) to be the Promised One of all religions. He was preceded by Siyyid Ali-Muhammad (1819-1850), who took the title of the Báb (“Gate”), and who came to prepare the way for Bahá’u’lláh. For a Bahá’í, the events of this period were in fulfilment of Biblical and Qur’anic prophecy, and the Writings of both the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh are seen as the Word of God. Both the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh suffered years of persecution, imprisonment and banishment, and the Báb was publicly martyred in Iran.
In Bahá’u’lláh’s “Book of the Covenant”, He appointed his eldest son, `Abdu’l-Bahá, as his successor and interpreter. `Abdu’l-Bahá, freed by the Young Turk Revolution (1908), left the Holy Land (to which Bahá’u’lláh had been banished) and travelled through Europe and North America, speaking to the early Bahá’í groups there. According to Bahá’u’lláh’s specific instructions, `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Writings have the same authority as those of his father.
Succession of authority has always been a difficulty within religious movements, but the Bahá’í community has been virtually spared this problem. Having himself been appointed in writing, `Abdu’l-Bahá similarly appointed his grandson, Shoghi Effendi, as “Guardian” of the Faith, in his “Will and Testament”. Shoghi Effendi’s writings, however, are not regarded as scripture. After the Guardian’s death, according to the explicit instructions of `Abdu’l-Bahá’s same “Will and Testament”, the Bahá’ís elected the Universal House of Justice, which sits in Haifa, in the Holy Land.
Authority within each Bahá’í community rests with the Local Spiritual Assembly, a body of nine people elected annually within the city, town or village. Theirs is not an authority to reveal or interpret scripture, but to oversee the needs of the local Bahá’í community. A similar body exists within each country (National Spiritual Assembly), and it is these which elect the Universal House of Justice.
The Bahá’í Faith has no priesthood, and no class of persons with any special roles in religious observance. Placing the “Greatest Name” symbol in a prominent place in the room, wearing one’s best clothing for a Bahá’í meeting, etc. are therefore symbols of respect for God, rather than indications of authority.
The figures associated with the foundation of the Faith are the Báb, who declared the new age in 1844 but was executed in 1850; Bahá’u’lláh, who despite repeated exile and imprisonment was able to develop the Báb’s new religious community into an outward-looking force; and `Abdu’l-Bahá, who took his father’s religion to new parts of the world. The lives of both the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh are exalted above those of ordinary humans, but the life of `Abdu’l-Bahá is an example of how human beings should ideally behave.
A number of the dedicated associates of `Abdu’l-Bahá, such as Martha Root and Mr. and Mrs. Gregory stand out as examples of what can be achieved. The courageous Martha Root, beginning in 1915, spent more than 20 years travelling alone around the world, organising public meetings, meeting political figures and newspaper editors, ensuring the world was aware of the new religion. In 1912 Louis Gregory, a black American of slave stock, married Louisa Mathew, a white Englishwoman from a privileged background, as a deliberate example of inter-racial unity.
The period from the declaration of the Báb in 1844 to the death of `Abdu’l-Bahá in 1921 is referred to as the Heroic Age. Although Shoghi Effendi, as Guardian of the Faith from 1921 until his death (1957), inspired and encouraged the Bahá’ís, the faith has not really had “leaders” since that time. The members of the Universal House of Justice do not have any cult of personality, and like all the elected members of Bahá’í bodies, have no special rights and privileges other than that of service. The chairmanship rotates, so no-one can be regarded as the “leader”.
While not leaders in any religious sense, many individual Bahá’ís are accomplished in their chosen field of work. Well-known Bahá’ís in recent years have included the athletes Kathy Freeman and Nelson Evora, His Highness Malietoa Tunamafili II of Samoa and the comedian Omid Djalili. The acclaimed potter, Bernard Leach, consciously united eastern and western styles in his work. The artist Mark Tobey was a Bahá’í, as was the actress Carole Lombard in her later days. The jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie was well-known as a Bahá’í. Apart from the examples of the spiritual side of their lives, all these people sought to exemplify excellence, which is cherished in the Bahá’í Writings.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 1972. Paris Talks: Addresses given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris, 1911-1912. London: UK Bahá’í Publishing Trust.
Esslemont, J.E., 2006. Baha’u’llah and the New Era. Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing.
Garst, H., 1996. From Mountain to Mountain: Stories about Bahá’u’lláh. Oxford: George Ronald.
Hatcher, W.S. & Douglas Martin, J., 1990. Bahá’í Faith: the Emerging Global Religion. s.l.: Bahá’í Publishing.
Matthews, G.L., 1999. The Challenge of Bahá’u’lláh.Oxford:George Ronald.
Momen, M., 2007. Bahá’u’lláh: a short biography. s.l.: Bookwise International.
Momen, M., 2008. The Bahá’í Faith: A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford: Oneworld.
Randall, C., (ill.), 2008. The Hidden Words of Bahá’u’lláh. Bristol: Intellect Books.
Vickers, P., 1992. The Bahá’í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld.
A set of photocopiable R.E. worksheets on the “The Bahá’í Faith”, and priced £5 per set, plus 66p postage available from www.warwickbahaibookshop.co.uk
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