Bahá’í is a religion that was founded in 1863 by the Iranian prophet Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892). It managed to grow in Iran and in parts of the Middle East despite facing persecution since its beginning.
In many majority Muslim countries, Bahá’í is viewed as apostasy and is often a victim of persecution. In the twentieth century, a number of Bahá’ís were executed in Egypt and Iran while some other Islamic nations restricted their religious freedom.
Today there are somewhere between five and eight million Bahá’ís worldwide with the majority living on the Asian continent. The religion’s beliefs and teachings cover a range of theological topics, the most important being the nature of the human being, worship, the unity of God, the unity of religion, and the unity of humanity.
Manifestations of God
Throughout history God has sent divine prophets or educators to humanity. These divine prophets are called Manifestations (of God) and each is thought to have been a further stage in the revelation of God to humanity. Manifestations have included various major figures behind or linked to religious movements such as Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus Christ, and the prophet Muhammad. Bahá’u’lláh is considered the latest of these Manifestations and he taught that all the religions of the world ultimately come from the same source. Each is a successive chapter within the one religion from God (1). Bahá’í incorporates a strong theme of unity into their theology and teachings.
The Báb and the Covenant
Bahá’u’lláh was a follower of a merchant Siyyid `Alí Muhammad Shírází (1819-1850). Claiming to be a messenger of God, Siyyid `Alí Muhammad Shírází renamed himself the Báb (“the Gate” in Arabic) and claimed that a Messenger would soon arrive from God. This Messenger would be the latest in a line of prophets that included Moses, Muhammad, and Jesus Christ (2).
Given life within Iran at the time, the Báb’s message was attractive. The message flourished and became the religion of Bábism. The Báb believed it was his mission to prepare the way for the coming of a second Messenger from God who would not only be greater than himself but would also be the usher of an age of peace and justice. Bahá’ís believe that Bahá’u’lláh was this ‘Promised One’ foretold by the Báb and by all of the Messengers of the past (3). Bahá’u’lláh delivered a new revelation from God to humanity, notably in his writings. His message was not, however, well received by the authorities who imprisoned and tortured him. He would eventually be exiled.
The line or chain of transmission via which the teachings and beliefs of the Bahá’í faith were passed down is referred to as the Covenant. This line went from Bahá’u’lláh to his eldest son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921), from Abdu’l-Bahá to his grandson Shoghí Effendi (1897-1957), and finally to the establishment of the Universal House of Justice in 1963 (located in Haifa, Israel) (4).
The Unity and Nearness of God
Bahá’ís believe in the existence of a single God conceptualized as the Creator of all things within the universe. He is all-knowing, all-powerful, and eternal. Although God is too great to be understood by the finite human mind, he still reveals his will and purpose to humans, such as through his Manifestations (5). Bahá’ís believe that it is this God who is called by various names in different religions. The unity of God was expressed by Bahá’u’lláh,
“All-praise to the unity of God, and all-honour to Him, the sovereign Lord, the incomparable and all-glorious Ruler of the universe, Who, out of utter nothingness, hath created the reality of all things, Who, from naught, hath brought into being the most refined and subtle elements of His creation, and Who, rescuing His creatures from the abasement of remoteness and the perils of ultimate extinction, hath received them into His kingdom of incorruptible glory. Nothing short of His all-encompassing grace, His all-pervading mercy, could have possibly achieved it.”
God is personal because human beings can draw close to him through studying sacred writings, engaging in prayer, and meditation. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá highlighted God’s nearness,
“[W]e learn that nearness to God is possible through devotion to Him, through entrance into the Kingdom and service to humanity; it is attained by unity with mankind and through loving-kindness to all; it is dependent upon investigation of truth, acquisition of praiseworthy virtues, service in the cause of universal peace and personal sanctification.”
Bahá’í View of the Unity of God of Other Religions
Bahá’ís believe that there is only one real religion, which is the religion of God. Different religions constitute different approaches to that one true religion. Bahá’u’lláh believed that the different religions and their traditions spoke of the same divine reality. Bahá’ís are encouraged to treat members of other religions in a warm and friendly way and to encourage peaceful relations between different faith communities.
Bahá’í View of the Unity of Humanity
Bahá’ís believe in the equality of people and the sexes. All people have immortal souls that do not die when the body perishes. Upon death, the soul moves onto another plane of existence.
Bahá’ís hold to the idea of a single race that they hope will soon be united into a single global community. This emphasis on equality and unity does not undermine diversity but rather affirms that no human being or group of people should consider themselves superior to any other. There is no room for racism, sexism, classism, and acts and behaviors motivated by moral evils as these are contrary to God’s plan (6). According to Bahá’u’lláh,
“The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” Similarly, in 2001 the Bahá’í International Community issued a statement in which they claimed “We are a single people, inhabiting the planet Earth, one human family bound together in a common destiny, a single entity created from one same substance, obligated to ‘be even as one soul.’”
Prayer, meditation, studying sacred scripture, and community meetings are important in Bahá’í spiritual life. Prayer, of both the devotional (private) and obligatory kind, is integral to their spirituality. Bahá’ís can make requests to God, and pray for healing, the community, and matters of marriage.
Through prayer and the studying of sacred writings, the devotee is able to grow in humility and become of service to humanity. Bahá’ís revere both the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh and use their prayers, which they regard as the words of God and therefore full of spiritual power, during meetings and times of devotion. Obligatory prayer consists of a set of three prayers provided by Bahá’u’lláh that is considered the most important. These prayers are required from believers who are fifteen years or older. Obligatory prayer is a strong demonstration of the devotee’s humility and awe of God.
Bahá’ís gather in community at numerous locations including in their private homes, Houses of Worship, and Mother Temples. They do not have ecclesiastical authorities like priests or clergy but still gather to pray, meditate, and read scripture. Studying sacred scriptures is important. There are several scriptures, the most important of which were authored by the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh, `Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghí Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice. Bahá’ís consider the writings of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh to be divine revelation.
The practice of meditation helps with focus and self-reflection and is closely linked to reading sacred scripture. Scripture enables the devotee to meditate on spiritual concepts and to reflect on how they might be applied to his or her life (7).
The Bahá’í religion and its members are open and welcoming to those who are willing to accept its core doctrines. Most important is placing one’s belief in Bahá’u’lláh as the latest Manifestation of God and accepting the Covenant he made with his followers about his successor and interpreter, Abdu’l-Bahá (8). It is also essential that one becomes a part of the community and openly declares his faith at a local or national Spiritual Assembly.
1. Bahai.org. The Bahá’í Faith. Available.
2. Bahai.org. The Bab. Available.
3. Bahai.org. Bahaullah Covenant. Available.
4. Bahai.org. Bahaullah Covenant. Available.
5. Bahai Reference Library. Gleanings From the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available.
6. Bahá’í World News Service. 2001. Baha’i International Community issues statement to World Conference against Racism. Available.
7. Bahai.org. What Baha’is Believe. Available.
8. Bahai.org. Bahaullah Covenant. Available.