Ways of Expressing Meaning

Appreciating that individuals and cultures express their beliefs and values through many different forms.

 

Stories of Faith

The most important sections of Bahá’í history are the life stories of the Báb and of Bahá’u’lláh. Books are available, suitable either for adults or for children, to tell each of these stories. Shorn of any detail, the outlines are as follows:

The Báb, a saintly and spiritual individual, declared in Persia in 1844 that he was the Promised One of Islam. He quickly acquired thousands of followers, including many from the priesthood. However, He was imprisoned and finally executed in 1850. The only leading follower of the Báb whose life was spared was Bahá’u’lláh, who had a spiritual experience while in prison, leading him to believe that he was the One foretold by the Báb. He was exiled to Iraq, to Turkey and to the Holy Land. On the point of leaving Iraq, he declared himself as the Promised One of all religions. Despite imprisonment, poisoning, torture and banishment, he lived to lay out to the rulers and peoples of the world a vision of a world transformed from injustice, prejudice and oppression to one of calm, of spirituality, of peace and justice.

The very suffering endured by both the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh is in itself meant as demonstrating a supreme spiritual story. As Bahá’u’lláh himself explains it, “The Ancient Beauty hath consented to be bound with chains that mankind may be released from its bondage, and hath accepted to be made a prisoner within this most mighty Stronghold that the whole world may attain unto true liberty. He hath drained to its dregs the cup of sorrow, that all the peoples of the earth may attain unto abiding joy, and be filled with gladness.” The stories of the lives of these two beings are central to any understanding of, or belief in, the Bahá’í Faith, as each is believed to have been an inspired figure of supreme stature. The religion rests on their station and teachings. Excerpts from their life stories are often included in the Holy Day commemorations.

A further rich vein of touching stories comes from the life of Bahá’u’lláh’s son, `Abdu’l-Bahá. After his father’s death, he toured Europe and North America, and a large number of pen portraits exist from this period of his life, in addition to those records kept by Western pilgrims visiting `Abdu’l-Bahá in the Holy Land. These record many instances of `Abdu’l-Bahá’s extraordinary compassion and concern for his fellow human beings. His behaviour serves as an example as to how a person should respond to Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings.

A theme which can be identified throughout these life stories is that of “crisis and victory”. Repeated setbacks and seemingly hopelessly situations are each followed by new milestones or unprecedented events – weaving a storyteller’s thread through early Bahá’í history.

Symbols of Faith

The symbol most frequently used for the Bahá’í Faith is a nine-pointed star. The word Bahá, (Glory) as used in the title Bahá’u’lláh, has a numerical value of nine in the Arabic abjad system. Other explanations sometimes given are that nine (in a decimal system) is the greatest single unit; that nine is the number of both unity and spirituality; that there are nine major religions in the world, etc. This symbol is the one most frequently used when portrayed alongside those from its sister religions, or on leaflets and similar materials. Its exact form and proportions are not important, and indeed artists and publishers sometimes use geometric designs based on the number nine, or rosettes with nine petals, rather than a star.

The “Ringstone” symbol gets its name from its common use on personal jewellery, although there is no requirement to wear it. It consists of stylised forms of the Arabic letters B and H, arranged in a particular way. Three of these letters are arranged horizontally, representing, from the top: the world of God, the world of the Manifestations of God, and the world of man. The central letter of the three is reprised vertically, to show symbolically how the Manifestations (Teachers) connect the world of man to the world of God. There are two stars to the sides of this design. Each has five sides, and they represent the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, the twin Manifestations of the Bahá’í dispensation. The design is frequently within an oval frame. This design is found on the outside of the Shrine of the Báb. It is worthy of note that Bahá’u’lláh had some of his letters to the world’s rulers and others of his most important works arranged in the shape of a five-pointed star (pentacle).

The Greatest Name, “Yá Bahá’u’l-Abhá” (O Glory of the Most Glorious!) is an invocation, and is presented visually in a stylised form which often appears in a prominent place in Bahá’í homes. This is the symbol which looks down from the highest point in the House of Worship.

Symbolism is in use in the practice of the longer obligatory prayers. Devotional practices such as bending down, putting one’s forehead to the ground, etc., symbolise a person’s humility before God. Also the believer faces the shrine of Bahá’u’lláh, near Akka, while saying the obligatory prayer.

Bahá’í prayers sometimes use animal metaphors to suggest desirable qualities which humans ought to acquire, e.g. “Be lions roaring in the forests of knowledge, whales swimming in the oceans of life”. Metaphors from nature are also used to illustrate the relationship between God, his Manifestation and humanity. For example, Bahá’u’lláh speaks of himself as the Nightingale of Paradise, as he warbles captivating melodies in a time of profound darkness. Another common symbol is that of water, with its flowing and cleansing properties: “Make my prayer, O my Lord, a fountain of living waters whereby I may live as long as Thy sovereignty endureth … ”

Symbolism is a useful tool to explain beliefs. Bahá’í scripture, for instance, compares the succession of Manifestations to the way in which the sun rises each day, but from a different point on the horizon. Similarly, when Bahá’u’lláh says that humans should be “the fruits of one tree” or the “leaves of one branch”, Bahá’ís understand that this implies that they should be unified, because they are all created from the same root. The frequent use of symbols derived from nature reflects the Bahá’í idea that the material world is, among other things, a teaching matrix for the training of the human soul.

Bahá’u’lláh also, echoing Sufi tradition, in his work, “The Seven Valleys”, compares the journey of the soul to a physical journey from valley to valley, or from one spiritual state to another. However, Bahá’ís are quite clear that such word pictures are symbolic rather than literal.

Places of Worship

Symbolism is also significant in the design of the Bahá’í Houses of Worship. Each one has nine sides, with nine gardens, nine paths, and nine doors. Among other meanings, this carries the symbolism that all paths ultimately lead to truth. Each is built to have three tiers, symbolising the world of humanity at the ground level, the world of the Manifestation of God in the vertical section, and the world of God in the topmost tier, which usually carries the invocation, “Ya Bahá u’l-Abhá”! This is referred to as the Greatest Name, and translates as “O Thou Glory of the Most Glorious!” The inaccessibility of this level of the building speaks for itself.

Worship can in principle take place anywhere, but in practice the vast majority of Bahá’í devotional meetings take place either in a private home or in a Bahá’í Centre. In the future, each town or village will have its own Mashriqu’l-Azhkar, or House of Worship. Mashriqu’l-Azhkar literally means “Dawning Place of the Remembrance of God”. The House of Worship should not be considered complete until it has a number of dependencies built round it – such as a care home, a clinic, a library or a hostel.

The House of Worship has nine sides, nine gardens and nine doors, and all the world’s Scriptures are to be read there. The building is open to people of all races and of all religions or none. The first to be built was at Ishqabad (Ashkabad) in what is now Turkmenistan. It was confiscated by the Soviet authorities, and later suffered earthquake damage. There is one Mashriqu’l-Azhkar in each continent at present, with a further one being constructed in Chile. The architecture of some of these buildings is very striking, particularly that of the Chile temple and the one in India. Known locally as the “lotus mandir”, the House of Worship in New Delhi is built on the design of a giant lotus flower, and is reputed to have now become the most visited building in the world. Each of these Houses of Worship has three tiers, representing the world of God (topmost), the world of man (lowest), and the world of the Manifestations of God, connecting man to God.

Prayer and Meditation

Prayer is seen as conversation with God, while meditation can be seen as conversation with your own soul. A wide range of prayers were revealed by the Central Figures of the faith, but there is no reason to exclude prayers from any other source. In addition to the prayer part of the Nineteen Day Feast, families and communities have devotional meetings open to everyone. There is no set format for these. Through prayer, it is hoped that people feel closer to God, and therefore more contented, spiritual and detached. At the same time, the experience of praying together brings people together in a very real way. In a Bahá’í prayer meeting, individuals read out prayers in turn; congregational prayer is forbidden, other than the Prayer for the Dead.

Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage is made to Bahá’í sites in the Holy Land. On a full nine-day pilgrimage the pilgrims are taken to Bahá’u’lláh’s prison cell in Akká, to the house where He was subsequently confined, and to the two houses in the countryside where He ended his days. Adjacent to Bahji, His last house, is the building in which He was interred. This is referred to as “The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh”, and is the spot Bahá’ís face when saying their obligatory prayers.

The pilgrimage also includes prayer at the Shrine of the Báb, where the latter’s remains were interred, some years after his execution. The steps and terraced gardens leading up to the Shrine, and beyond the Shrine towards the top of Mount Carmel, provide a fitting and spiritual setting to the building itself. The beauty of the Shrine and the tranquillity of the gardens bring peace to the soul. The effect of the experience upon each pilgrim is naturally personal and individual, but the visits to different historical and sacred sites take place in companionship with others, allowing each pilgrim to take back both personal glimpses and shared experiences.

Websites

Bibliography

‘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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