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.