Brief Summary of the Baha’i Faith
All Religions in Essence are One
The Bahá’i Faith is a world religion which began in 1844. Bahá’is follow the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh (a title meaning the Glory of God), Whom they recognize as a Messenger from God. Bahá’u’lláh taught us that the God we all worship is the same God, though we may use different names – Alláh, Jehovah, the Creator, or Higher Power. We cannot know God because He is far above our ability to understand His Essence. The only way that we can attempt to perceive His Greatness and to feel His Love for us is through His Messengers. Bahá’is also believe that over the course of thousands of years, from time to time and in different parts of the world, a small number of these Enlightened Ones have appeared. Bahá’is believe that Bahá’u’lláh was the most recent of these Teachers. The Bahá’i Faith does not attempt to undermine any religion. Instead, it recognizes the missions of the great religions of the world as stages in the evolution of the spiritual life of humankind.
When each one is carefully examined and stripped of the rituals that its followers have implemented, it becomes clear that they have brought the same spiritual teachings of love and goodwill to all humanity, changing hearts and bringing new life to the world. The only differences between them are the social teachings, teachings that differ because God’s Messengers come into the world at different times and their teachings serve the needs of the age in which they live. Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad are all Messengers of God who appeared at different times in history and each changed the course of history. Krishna’s Teachings brought civilization to India and neighbouring countries. Moses also founded a great civilization after rescuing his people from bondage. Buddha brought light to the Asian peoples. Zoroaster’s Teachings changed a culture steeped in superstition in Persia. Jesus altered the course of the Western world. Muhammad uplifted and unified uneducated and disunited people to become a nation. Each fulfilled the prophecies of the last Messenger and promised the renewal of religion in the future.
The pivotal point of the Bahá’i Teachings is the unity of the human race as one family, erasing all traces of enmity and prejudice from the hearts of men. Through science and technology, we can travel to any corner of the globe in a day and communicate with each other instantly. Nations depend on each other’s cooperation and the need for understanding and assistance among all nations has generally become accepted. It is therefore possible for mankind to conceive of the idea of uniting the planet. And it is only through unity that we will be able to solve the problems the world is experiencing today. The purpose of the Bahá’i Faith is to erase every trace of enmity and hatred from men’s hearts and unite the entire world as one family. The Bahá’i Writings provide the outline of institutions necessary for the establishment of a peaceful society. These include a world federation or commonwealth that would preserve the independence of all nations with a world parliament in which all governments are represented, a world executive to administer laws, and a world tribunal to settle disputes. A world economy, a universal system of weights, measures and currency, as well as the adoption of a universal auxiliary language and script would also be features of the world commonwealth. The planet’s resources would be safeguarded for the benefit of all. Humanity, free from war and strife, would then be able to work towards such things as raising living standards, advancing education, eliminating disease, developing the arts and sciences, and cultivating its spiritual life.
Another important Teaching is the independent investigation of truth. We must search out the truth for ourselves and not follow blindly the ways of others or customs and traditions of the past. Science and religion must also go hand in hand. Religion that depends on blind faith rather than reason is superstition and can lead to fanaticism. We have been given an intellect to investigate all truth, including religious truth. Universal education, another Bahá’i Teaching, provides the framework for all to have equal opportunities so that men and women can advance equally and women throughout the world can take their rightful place beside men in working for the peace and prosperity of humankind. Bahá’u’lláh advocates the elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty and the abandonment of all forms of prejudice. The Bahá’i Writings provide guidance that helps an individual develop the spiritual and intellectual qualities lying at the core of his nature and therefore contribute to an ever-advancing civilization. In addition to prayer to assist us to become spiritual beings, work done in the spirit of service is also considered worship for Bahá’is and service to humanity is the most worthy endeavor.
There are two Messengers who brought the Teachings of God to the world today. Both came from Iran, formerly Persia. The first was given the title of The Báb or the Gate, to signify that He was the forerunner of another. As a child, the Báb was described as being pure, tender-hearted, mild-mannered, and meek. His wisdom, knowledge, and ability to grasp things of an adult nature astonished everyone. When He grew up, He worked as a merchant and earned great respect because of His truthfulness and sense of justice. Once a man bought something on his behalf and paid too much. The Báb told him to return the item and get his money back, proclaiming that He would not tolerate cheating or encourage someone to be dishonest.
At another time, The Báb paid more than market value to someone selling an item to Him because He thought it was worth more than what the man had asked. At this time, there were some awakened souls who had foretold of a new Messenger of God and urged their disciples to go out and find Him. Eighteen disciples unaided found the Báb and He then sent them out to spread His new Teachings of justice, mercy and love. The Prime Minister and religious leaders were threatened by the Báb’s influence as the number of His followers increased and they banished Him to a remote fortress. But He won the respect and admiration of the officials in charge and the people in the area came to Him for their daily blessings or to settle disputes. While there, The Báb revealed His most important book and foretold another Revelation greater than His own. The Báb was banished once more but the authorities agreed that His influence could only be stopped through His death. His life was ended at the tender age of 31 in front of a firing squad. In his short ministry of six years he had brought many to His Cause and twenty thousand of His followers sacrificed their lives rather than deny their beliefs. After His death, there was a smaller band of followers who were now crushed and bereft of Guidance.
This new Faith could have been extinguished, but it was not the will of God. A few misguided followers foolishly and ineptly tried to shoot the Sháh. And it was a young nobleman, a follower of the Báb, Who was one of the prisoners blamed for the attempted shooting and Who was thrown into a dungeon. It was there, like every Messenger of God, that He received the first intimations of His station and He became known as Bahá’u’lláh, a title meaning the Glory of God
Bahá’u’lláh was born into a rich family and His father was a nobleman. From childhood, He seemed to possess remarkable power and he was extremely kind and generous. He did not need formal schooling, having innate knowledge, as had the Báb and all the previous Messengers of God. His intelligence and spiritual capacity were recognized and people would bring their problems to Him. When His father died, He was offered a position in the court, but He refused because He had no interest in titles or ceremonies. Instead He wanted to defend the oppressed and be a refuge for the poor and needy.
After the Báb had declared His mission, He had sent one of His disciples with some of His Writings to find the One destined to receive it, namely Bahá’u’lláh. Bahá’u’lláh had recognized these Writings to be the truth and had arisen to spread them.
Bahá’u’lláh was exiled to Baghdad after being released from the dungeon prison. He began to revive the depleted spirits of the Báb’s followers, who had arrived there before Him, and to guide them back to a spiritual path. His influence spread and transformed even officials and religious leaders so that the government and clergy were again forced to exile Him, at first to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and then Adrianople (now Edirne) in the Ottoman Empire. Before His exile to Turkey, He revealed His station to the believers.
Once more, His influence on all those around Him forced the authorities to exile Him, this time to Akka, now part of Israel, and at that time, a place of stench and filth where those committing the worst crimes were banished. In time, the conditions of imprisonment were eased, in large part due to the influence of Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s eldest son, who had gained the respect and admiration of the people. Abdu’l-Bahá had recognized His Father’s Station as a child; He had endured poverty and cruelty when His Father had been imprisoned as a heretic after the attempt on the Sháh’s life; He had experienced the deprivation and calamities of being exiled from place to place. As He grew up, He began to embody all the virtues: of gentleness, courtesy, generosity, courage, wisdom, and humility. He exemplified love for God and mankind and He spent every day of His life serving others and bringing joy into their lives, particularly the poor, the sick and the orphaned. As a young man, He became Bahá’u’lláh’s secretary, as many volumes of Writings streamed from Bahá’u’lláh’s Mighty Pen. He was His Father’s closest companion and He took care of all His business affairs and chores, negotiating with officials on His behalf and dealing with the problems of His followers, so that Bahá’u’lláh could concentrate on the all-important work of revealing the tenets of His Faith.
Bahá’u’lláh eventually left the city and spent His remaining years in a home in the countryside. When He died, He was buried beside His home. This Shrine is a place of pilgrimage for the Bahá’is.
Abdu’l-Bahá was appointed in Bahá’u’lláh’s Will and Testament as the Head of the Faith, as Bahá’u’lláh’s heir to interpret His Writings and to be the Exemplar of His Teachings. He was conferred divine authority to provide continued guidance to the Bahá’is. Although they had lost Bahá’u’lláh, His purpose and plan were continued through Abdu’l-Bahá.
As a small child, Abdu’l-Bahá was different from other children. Born on the same night that the Báb declared His Mission, He had recognized His Father’s station when He was young and He wanted to lay down His life for Bahá’u’lláh’s sake. After the death of His beloved Father, He worked tirelessly, writing volumes to the Bahá’is, including many interpretations of the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. He was in constant touch with the Bahá’is, answering their questions, guiding their activities, encouraging them, and uplifting their spirits. His work was to continue His Father’s work, but not to begin anything not already willed by God and His Messenger.
Abdu’l-Bahá lived a life of simplicity. He wore one coat until it became worn out. He also ate sparsely, a little goat cheese and bread with tea for breakfast and sometimes He had only one meal in a day. When He heard someone was deprived of food, He would pack up the supper and send it to the needy individual. Even Abdu’l-Bahá’s way of conversing was marked by simplicity. He often began with a reference to some simple thing from nature and then wove His teaching message into clear, straightforward phrases.
At the age of 70, with ill-health from His years of imprisonment, Abdu’l-Bahá set out on a journey to visit the Bahá’is of the West and to teach His beloved Faith. He first visited London and Paris. He then sailed to North America. After eight months there, He visited a few more cities in Europe and then returned home. He gave public addresses to religious audiences, scientists, university students, women’s clubs and the poor, relating Bahá’i Teachings to the specific interests and capacities of His audiences. Many of His talks were reported in the newspapers. He uplifted and inspired them and many were astounded that He could understand world affairs after living a life of exile and imprisonment. He went from dawn to dusk, giving interviews and delivering speeches. And He still found time to give generously to the poor, as He did regularly when at home. He was knighted for His selfless acts of service to the people of Haifa.
When Abdu’l-Bahá died in 1921, representatives of Muslim, Christian and Jewish Faiths gave eulogies and crowds of people from all walks of life attended. In His Will and Testament, Abdu’l-Bahá named His grandson, Shoghi Effendi, as His successor and Guardian of the Bahá’i Faith. In His Will, Abdu’l-Bahá delineated an administrative system that Shoghi Effendi was empowered to develop. And of course, the Guardian’s task was to ensure the continuity of the Faith without any divisions into sects.
Shoghi Effendi was a descendant of Bahá’u’lláh on his mother’s side and of the Báb on his father’s side. He grew up in Abdu’l-Bahá’s home in Akka, and when not away at school, he spent as much time as possible with Abdu’l-Bahá. He longed to serve Him and dedicated himself to this work. He studied English at Oxford University to prepare himself to serve as his Grandfather’s secretary and translator of the Bahá’i Writings into English. He became a scholar in English and could write with more eloquence, clarity, precision and depth than native speakers. He was only 24 years old and still at Oxford, when Abdu’l-Bahá passed away. Reeling from the death of His Beloved Grandfather, he took some time to grieve and prepare himself for the responsibilities ahead. One of his first duties was to ensure that the Bahá’i Faith was considered an independent world religion and to have the existing government recognize Israel as the World Centre of the Bahá’i Faith with the same status as other religions, such as Judaism, Christianity and Islam. He completed the Shrine of the Báb in Haifa. (The Báb’s precious remains had been sent from place to place and kept in hiding until it was possible to send them to Israel, where Abdu’l-Bahá had the bounty of interring them). Shoghi Effendi designed the gardens around the Shrine and acquired land for more gardens, which he also designed throughout his life.
Shoghi Effendi translated many of Bahá’u’lláh’s and Abdu’l-Bahá’s Writings into English, ensuring that the Bahá’is would be unified in their understanding of the Writings of the Faith. He wrote a history of the first hundred years of the Bahá’i Faith. He translated five volumes of the Faith into English. He wrote thousands of letters to individuals and Bahá’i communities all over the world to explain and clarify Bahá’i Writings, in his role as interpreter. He had a personal relationship with each community and also maintained correspondence with many individuals of prominence; with royalty, with statesmen, with university professors and educators.
During Abdu’l-Bahá’s ministry, there were few local assemblies and no national assemblies. Shoghi Effendi delineated the principles to govern the Administrative Order during the first year of his ministry. Bahá’u’lláh ordained that there be no priests or clergy in the Bahá’i Faith. In every community where nine or more Bahá’is reside, a Local Spiritual Assembly is elected to oversee the affairs of the Bahá’i community. The Assembly is not responsible to the electors; it consults continually with the community but is responsible to the Teachings of the Faith as revealed by Bahá’u’lláh. Authority in the Bahá’i administration is not given to enhance an individual’s prestige. Instead, it is measured by humility, self-sacrifice and service. Individuals must consult in their meetings frankly and lovingly in an atmosphere of respect, prayerfulness, courtesy and dignity so that rules and regulations do not override the spiritual nature of meetings. Shoghi Effendi devoted 16 years to lay down a firm foundation and erect a pattern for all Bahá’i administrative institutions. He helped to build strong national institutions and created the International Bahá’i Council, the precursor of the Universal House of Justice, the supreme institution directing the Bahá’is all over the world in their endeavors.
What was Shoghi Effendi like as an individual? He was described as methodical, thorough, with a sense of perfection and attention to detail. But he was also humble and self-effacing, brushing aside any adulation and praise. He didn’t want photographs to be taken of him, or his birthday to be celebrated. He has also been described as dynamic, restless and intense, with incredible powers of concentration and accomplishment. He was shrewd and economical, a determined bargainer, making it possible to save the Bahá’i Faith large sums of money and then using the money saved to engage in new enterprises. But he was also generous in his contributions to the needy and to the Bahá’is to further their aims. He assisted financially with the translation and publication of Bahá’i literature. (The Bahá’i Faith is supported exclusively by voluntary contributions made by Bahá’is). Shoghi Effendi was not intimidated by the magnitude of work on his shoulders. He toiled for thirty-six years, devoting time to miniscule details and encompassing the whole planet with detailed plans, instructions, and guidance. He alone ensured the establishment of the Faith throughout the world and laid the foundations of the Administrative Order. He died at the age of 60 in London.
When Shoghi Effendi died, it was found that he had not written a Will; there was no heir or Bahá’i relative able to fit the requirements laid down by Abdu’l-Bahá for a successor to the Guardian. The destiny of the Faith was now in the care of the Hands of the Cause of God, an institution originally brought into being by Bahá’u’lláh in His lifetime to aid in the development of the Faith. These learned individuals acted as advisors and protectors of the Faith. Hands of the Cause representing all the continents came together to determine their next steps. Nine of them were chosen to serve at the World Centre and work for the protection and promotion of the Faith, following the instructions of Shoghi Effendi. Under their care and protection, the Universal House of Justice was elected in 1963.
Through a unique system of governance, The Universal House of Justice is elected by all National Spiritual Assemblies in the world. This body legislates on matters not expressly recorded in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. It guides, organizes and unifies the affairs of the Bahá’is throughout the world. It gives spiritual guidance to the worldwide Bahá’i community and directs its administrative activities. The Universal House of Justice is elected every five years in a free, democratic election by secret ballot. No nominations or electioneering is permitted in Bahá’i elections. The nine elected members come from different countries and backgrounds, but work as one for the unification of the world, according to the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. The Universal House of Justice is considered to be an infallible source under the care and protection of Bahá’u’lláh and His guidance and inspiration.