Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri (1817-1892), later called Baha’u’llah, is the founder of the Baha’i religion. He was born in Tehran, Iran, was a member of the Shi’ite branch of Islam, and came to follow the religious movement founded by the Báb (a name which means the “Gateway” in Arabic).
The Báb’s teachings took a symbolic view of the Qur’an and he anticipated the coming of a saviour figure. It is this figure that the Báb’s followers, called Bábis, later came to associate with Mirza Husayn himself. Before that moment, however, Mirza Husayn became a devout follower of the Báb despite never having met him personally. He put his effort in teaching and promoting his master’s beliefs even during a time of growing persecution of the Bábis. The Báb himself was publicly executed in Tabriz (northwestern Iran) by a firing squad for treason in the year 1850. This execution, as well as the bloody massacres of the early Baha’i community, was the result of several factors ranging from an allegorical exegesis of eschatological signs in the Qur’an and claims to a post-Qur’anic divine revelation, in particular the abrogation of the sharia, that were seen by Islamic orthodoxy as heresy and apostasy. After the execution, Mirza Husayn took the leadership role in directing the Bábis.
Imprisonment in Tehran and Exile to Baghdad
In 1852, just two years after the Báb’s execution, Mirza Husayn and other Bábis were imprisoned in Tehran’s loathsome Black Pit, a prison which had previously been a reservoir for the public bath. Mirza Husayn was jailed after allegedly playing a role in the attempted assassination of the Shah of Persia. While in the Black Pit and in chains, Mirza Husayn taught others prayers and later had a vision of a Most Great Spirit. This spirit appeared in the form of a heavenly maiden and assured Mirza Husayn of his divine mission and promised divine assistance in his ministry. Baha’is view this encounter with great affection because it tells of their founder, merely believed to have been a mortal human, being chosen by God to bring to humanity a new revelation. Mirza Husayn was released in 1853 and exiled. He traveled with his family to Baghdad in Iraq and soon retreated to the mountains of Kurdistan for two years. In the mountains, he reflected on his divine purpose before again returning to Baghdad to continue growing his community of followers. Baha’is believe their founder’s superhuman greatness was on full display during this time, as evidenced in his authoring of several important works: The Hidden Words, Seven Valleys, and the Book of Certitude. Mirza Husayn’s reputation reached the Muslim leaders of Baghdad who called for his banishment.
Becoming Baha’u’llah in the Garden
Mirza Husayn retreated from Baghdad to a garden that he called Ridván (“Paradise”). There he stayed for twelve days. It was also a time of sadness because he had to say goodbye to his followers in the city. In Ridván, Mirza Husayn also claimed to be the one prophesied by the Báb. He claimed to be God’s Messenger and from that point onwards became known as Baha’u’llah (the “Glory of God” in Arabic). Baha’is believe Baha’u’llah to be the latest Manifestation of God in a line of Messengers that includes Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad. Baha’u’llah traveled to Adrianople (modern-day Edirne in Turkey) but first stopped briefly in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, also in Turkey).
Adrianople and Brotherly Conflict
Although it was in Baghdad that Baha’u’llah declared his divine status and mission to his followers, it was only in Adrianople that he first began to publicly claim to be a Manifestation of God. He spent five years, from 1863 to 1868, in the city. It was also there that the Baha’i community was officially established. During this time Baha’u’llah’s half-brother, Mirza Yahya (d. 1912), refused to acknowledge his claim of being the one initially prophesied by the Báb. Mirza Yahya claimed to be the true Manifestation of God and even attempted to poison Baha’u’llah, although unsuccessfully. Both Baha’u’llah and Mirza Yahya were banished from Adrianople: Baha’u’llah was exiled to Akka in Syria and Mirza Yahya to Azal in Cyprus.
Baha’u’llah in Acre
Baha’u’llah was sent to Acre in 1868 where he was kept as a prisoner. His followers back in Iran also continued to face outbreaks of persecution; for example, 101 Baha’is were killed in 1903 in the city of Yazd after its people were incited by hostile mullahs. In Acre, Baha’u’llah wrote the Most Holy Book outlining the fundamental principles of his religion. In particular, he outlined his core doctrines of the unity of all religions, the oneness of God, and the universal brotherhood and oneness of humanity. He also established the foundations of a global administrative order.
Although still a prisoner, Baha’u’llah was given some freedom that fortunately allowed him to meet with his followers in peace. It was also in 1890 that a professor from Cambridge University, Edward Granville Browne (d. 1926), met with Baha’u’llah near Acre and interviewed him. Browne provides the following description,
“The face of him on whom I gazed I can never forget, though I cannot describe it. Those piercing eyes seemed to read one’s very soul; power and authority sat on that ample brow; while the deep lines on the forehead and face implied an age which the jet-black hair and beard flowing down in indistinguishable luxuriance almost to the waist seemed to belie. No need to ask in whose presence I stood, as I bowed myself before one who is the object of a devotion and love which kings might envy and emperors sigh for in vain!”
Also during this period, Baha’u’llah and his eldest son Abdu’l-Baha managed to spread the faith and sentiments from the community towards them improved. Baha’u’llah died in 1892 but had designated Abdu’l-Baha to be his successor and head of the community.
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