Identity, Diversity and Belonging

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Understanding how individuals develop a sense of identity and belonging through faith or belief;

 

Exploring the variety, difference and relationships that exist within and between religions, values and beliefs.

 

Responsibility & Belonging

Being a Bahá’í fundamentally involves a sense of belonging to the Bahá’í community. This creation of a united community is fundamental to the purpose of the Faith. At the same time, a Bahá’í believes that Bahá’u’lláh is the Messenger of God for this age, so following his laws is also a basic expression of this belonging.

Bahá’u’lláh wrote three special prayers which are known as Obligatory Prayers. Each day a Bahá’í should say one of these prayers, e.g. the short one which is to be said in the middle of the day. Each morning and evening Bahá’ís should read something from the Bahá’í scriptures and meditate upon it.

Bahá’ís should try to find a job which is useful and constructive. If a person does a job to the best of his or her ability, in a spirit of service to others, this is another way of worshipping God. Bahá’ís should be honest, trustworthy and fair.

Once each Bahá’í month, Bahá’ís meet together for a “Feast”. There are three parts to this. First there are prayers together. Then there is discussion on local matters. Then it becomes a social gathering, strengthening the social bonds. There are also 11 Holy Days commemorating various events in Bahá’í history, and on nine of these Bahá’ís should not work.

There is no baptism of children – up to the age of 15 they are automatically accepted as belonging to the Bahá’í community. Bahá’í children are taught about all the religions of the world. When they reach the age of 15 they can decide for themselves.

Bahá’ís fast for one Bahá’í month in the year. This means that they do not eat or drink from sunrise to sunset each day. Children under the age of 15 are exempt, as are the elderly, pregnant and nursing mothers, people who are ill or travelling.

In each area the Bahá’ís elect a Local Spiritual Assembly to organise their affairs. Bahá’ís should support these bodies with their prayers and follow their guidance and turn to them with any problems. Only Bahá’ís can give money to support the Bahá’í Faith.

Accepting a religion into one’s life is by definition a personal decision. No other person has the right to insist on particular forms of behaviour. Nevertheless, for a Bahá’í there are clear obligations laid out by Bahá’u’lláh himself. One of three “Obligatory” prayers should be chosen, and recited each day. There is a mantra to assist in a short daily meditation. From 2nd – 20th March, there is a daytime fast, which is applicable to those between the ages of 15 and 70, who are in good health. (There are exceptions: pregnant women, nursing mothers, those travelling, etc.) The practice of all of the above is a personal matter between the individual and God.

However, these outward forms should be mirrored by spiritual behaviour: kindness, honesty, consideration, etc., which are essential if a more unified, more spiritual civilisation is to be achieved. The various virtues or attributes of the spiritual person are expressed in Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching for the individual, but although explicit, are not codified into measurable forms. To do so would run counter to the Bahá’í spirit of individual search for truth and to healthy, organic development of both the community and the individual.

Bahá’ís should not drink alcohol or take drugs, nor should they indulge in sex outside marriage. However, there are no stipulations as to dress or, for example, the cut of the beard.

However united a religious community may be, the individuals will, in reality, understand the common beliefs in slightly different ways. To prevent the Bahá’í Faith splitting into competing sects, Bahá’u’lláh set out clearly, in writing, that the only person authorised to interpret his Writings after his passing would be his eldest son, `Abdu’l-Bahá. In terms just as clear, `Abdu’l-Bahá left written instructions that all the Bahá’ís should turn to his grandson, Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Cause, for authorised interpretation of anything considered unclear. The Universal House of Justice is now the body to which Bahá’ís turn with questions for elucidation, but it has been made very clear that, “At the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views”. For example, Bahá’í study circles consist of a number of “collaborators”, each with a workbook, and the method is one of question and answer. One of the great strengths of this system is the varied insights of the different members of the circle, and another is the way that the questions invite the members to explore ideas, rather than expecting uniform responses.

The level of “commitment” of the individual believer is a personal thing, and no-one else has the right to judge it. Bahá’u’lláh encouraged everyone to attend the Nineteen Day Feast unless illness prevents it. Every Bahá’í has the right to give to the Fund, but as with prayer, fasting and attendance at meetings, no other person has the right to monitor this.

Religious/Spiritual Identity

The Bahá’í writings state that each human being has a soul. It is this which provides humans with a unique capacity to recognise both God’s station and humanity’s relationship with its creator. Every human has a duty to recognise the Messenger of God for that Day, and to follow his teachings. Through this recognition, and through  service to humanity, together with prayer, meditation and fasting, the soul becomes closer to God. The individual can never completely understand God, any more than a flower can understand the gardener, yet can understand his attributes, and move closer to him. This journey towards the divine is the subject of one of Bahá’u’lláh’s mystical works, “The Seven Valleys”.

The development of the soul, which is the real purpose of this life, is enhanced by understanding and acquiring such attributes as tolerance, compassion, trustworthiness and detachment. These will assist us in the next world, although we clearly do not yet understand how! Heaven and Hell are understood to be metaphors for the spiritual states of nearness to, or distance from, God. It must be emphasised that each soul is individual, as noted by Bahá’u’lláh in his saying, “Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration.” This reflects the unending variety between souls, as well as the infinite aspects of change through time.

Family and Community

Within the family group, it is stressed that the rights of no-one should be ignored, whether husband, wife or child. Within a religion dedicated to unity, the family is clearly an essential unit. If only one partner within a marriage is Bahá’í, then for the sake of family unity they may have to forego attendance at Bahá’í meetings. However, a non-Bahá’í partner does not have the right to insist that the Bahá’í leave the faith. Religious belief is seen as between the individual and God.

Being part of the Bahá’í community is seen as a very important part of being a Bahá’í. For this reason Bahá’u’lláh said that all Bahá’ís should attend the local Feast every Bahá’í month. This includes praying together, discussion of local matters and a social time. All of these are equally important and all are conducive to the unity of the community.

The family is ideally based upon a secure marriage, marriage having been termed “a fortress for wellbeing”. In this context, children should be taught morals and a spiritual outlook. The Bahá’í family should have the outlook encouraged by Bahá’u’lláh in his advice: “Let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self.”

As a part of general moral development, Bahá’ís offer children’s classes, open to all, which encourage positive social behaviour. Children from Bahá’í families are considered as Bahá’ís, and have the rights this entails. However, from the age of maturity, set by Bahá’u’lláh as 15, the choice of religion is the prerogative of the individual – the parents cannot force the young person to be a Bahá’í. The general principle which applies is that of “the individual investigation of truth”.

Offspring have a duty towards their parents. Bahá’u’lláh wrote, “Should anyone give you a choice between the opportunity to render a service to Me and a service to them, choose ye to serve them, and let such a service be a path leading you to Me”.

A Bahá’í has a duty both to the Bahá’í community and to the wider community, local, national and global. The centre of the local Bahá’í community is the Nineteen-Day Feast, which is the basic meeting of the community. If possible, all should attend. There are always three parts: prayers and readings are followed by open consultation on issues facing the community, and then by a social part, deepening the bonds between the community members.

The duty of the Bahá’í towards the wider community is manifold. “Be urgently concerned with the exigencies of the age in which you live”, Bahá’u’lláh wrote. The Bahá’í scriptures emphasise the essential oneness of all human beings, and the need for the abolition of prejudice. The diversity of race and culture is seen as a positive thing, in the way that the variety of colour and form makes a garden beautiful. The vision, therefore, is of humanity being one huge extended family.

Foundations of Identity

The foundation of the Bahá’í Faith is much more recent than that of any other major religion. Although there are gaps in our knowledge, the main events of early Bahá’í history are generally well established. Various writers left their memoirs of the time, and Bahá’u’lláh asked Nabil-i-Azam to interview survivors from the earliest period of the Faith, and to compile a record, something he did with great thoroughness.

In 1844, in Shiraz, Persia, a young descendant of the Prophet Muhammad declared himself to be the Promised One of Islam, and took the title of “The Báb” (The Gate). He revealed a book known as the Bayán (“Utterances”), and was almost immediately imprisoned as a heretic. He was executed by firing squad in Tabriz, in northern Persia, in 1850. Throughout his life he was known for his piety and devotion to God, and his apparent innate knowledge.

One of his leading followers, Mirza Husayn-Ali, known as Bahá’u’lláh (“Glory of God”) was thrown into prison, and was spared the fate of death which befell around 20,000 others who adhered to the new religion. Exiled to Iraq, he declared himself, in 1863, to be the Promised One of all religions. He was exiled three more times, finally incarcerated in the prison-city of Akka (Akko, Acre), in the Holy Land. He wrote theological treatises, books of a mystical nature, and works addressing the state of the world. He endured 40 years of exile and banishment before succumbing to illness in 1892. At no time did he waver from his claim to be the Messenger of God, although persecuted, slandered, imprisoned, chained, tortured and poisoned. Wherever he went, he became a centre of attraction and utmost respect.

His son, `Abdu’l-Bahá, led the infant religion, visiting Egypt, Europe and North America after being freed in 1908. He spoke in synagogues, churches, mission halls and literary salons, before returning to Palestine. He was knighted by the British Crown for his services to humanity during the terrible events of the First World War. He continued his father’s efforts for world peace before passing away in 1921. Two essential roles are united in his person. Firstly, he is seen as the “Centre of the Covenant”, in other words the focal point of the unity of the Bahá’í community. Secondly, he was the Exemplar, meaning that he was the perfect example of how a Bahá’í should live.

`Abdu’l-Bahá’s grandson, Shoghi Effendi, was given the title “Guardian of the Cause”, and had to leave his studies at Oxford University to undertake his new role. He died of influenza during a visit to London in 1957, and is buried in New Southgate Cemetery. In life, he was so humble that he never attended any of the international conferences to which he was invited, always asking someone else to go in his stead. He was a tireless worker, encouraging the Bahá’ís to elect the Local and National Spiritual Assemblies ordained by Bahá’u’lláh.

Upon his death, the Bahá’ís turned again to the “Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá”, which stipulated what should happen should the Guardian die childless, as was the case. Accordingly, the Universal House of Justice laid down by Bahá’u’lláh was subsequently elected. This body has the power to make laws on anything not specifically legislated by Bahá’u’lláh himself, and such new laws can be altered by a succeeding Universal House of Justice should conditions change. The next Manifestation of God, which Bahá’u’lláh stated would appear in “not less than a thousand years”, will have the authority to replace any of Bahá’u’lláh’s laws which are no longer appropriate.

While `Abdu’l-Bahá provided an example to us all, the lives of both the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh were so outside normal human capacity as to be inimitable. A Bahá’í accepts that these two were directly inspired by God in a way that only the Founders of religions (“Manifestations of God”) are.

Unity within Diversity

The Bahá’í community is very diverse. Many Bahá’ís were previously adherents of other religions, and even during Bahá’u’lláh’s own lifetime the new religion was attracting Muslims, Jews and Zoroastrians. As the oneness of humanity and the essential oneness of religion underpin Bahá’í thinking, there is a conscious awareness of the multi-cultural nature of many local Bahá’í communities. It is quite normal for prayers to be said or chanted in a number of languages at the Nineteen Day Feast, and translations are often given during the administrative (second) part of the Feast.

The modern “interfaith” movement could be said to have begun with the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893. There were no Bahá’ís in America at that time, and in the absence of any Bahá’í presence, a Christian clergyman presented a paper to that Parliament on Bahá’u’lláh and his new religion. Now that the interfaith movement is more widespread, it is notable that proportionate with their numbers, Bahá’ís are often well-represented at the local level.

Following the man-made tragedy which befell New York in 2001, an act which was given a “religious” aspect by its perpetrators, the Universal House of Justice issued a message, “To The World’s Religious Leaders”. In it they laid out some of the reasons why the different religious authorities should begin to recognise the truth in one another’s religions. (Copies of this letter are easily available.) Bahá’u’lláh himself stated that “Religious fanaticism and hatred are a world-devouring fire, whose violence none can quench. The Hand of Divine power can, alone, deliver mankind from this desolating affliction.” Bahá’u’lláh exhorted his followers to obey a just government, and forbade sedition.

The Bahá’í watchword is “unity in diversity”, recognising the endless variety in the human family, but the central need for a unifying factor. In his letter to Queen Victoria, Bahá’u’lláh wrote: “That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith.” This approach naturally leads to a consciousness of being world citizens. Again, in Bahá’u’lláh’s own words, “This earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” In the context of the interfaith movement, the Bahá’ís must, as an act of faith, respond to Bahá’u’lláh’s injunction to “Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.”

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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