By Jo Banks, Inform
What is the Baháʼí faith?
The Baháʼí faith was established in Iran during the 19th century and claims over 8.5 million members worldwide. As a supporter of liberal reform in the Middle East, the movement’s founder Baháʼu’lláh (1817-92), whose name means “glory of God” condemned racism, sexism, and anti-scientific interpretations of religious texts. Baháʼís believe that the founders of Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Baháʼí faith all follow the same God, and therefore reject the idea that Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, or Hindus go through a religious conversion if they join the Baháʼí faith.
What do Baháʼís believe?
Baháʼís often explain the core of the faith in three key concepts: “the unity of religion”, “the unity of God”, and “the unity of humanity”.
Unity of religion
A central belief is that Baháʼu’lláh is the most recent in a series of divine messengers and spiritual teachers referred to as “Manifestations of God” that includes Jesus, Muhammad, Krishna, Abraham, Zoroaster, and the Buddha. To Baháʼís, God’s message for humanity has adapted to many cultures and environments, using language and concepts that would have been understandable to those who first heard it.
Baháʼís believe that the purpose of all main world religions has been to guide the development of a perfect human society which will consist of one world government without conflict or prejudice and a recognition that religion is composed of one common body of spiritual truth which is the creation of one God. This divine message is believed to be continually unfolding, with each instalment taking humankind closer to God’s vision of a perfect human society. As the most recent of God’s messages, Baháʼu’lláh’s revelation is believed to be appropriate for an audience more “spiritually capable” or advanced than at any other point in human history. Baháʼu’lláh rejected many requirements of previous religious traditions, such as the existence of a priesthood, considering them no longer integral to the practice of religion. Baháʼís do not expect there to be another Manifestation of God after Baháʼu’lláh for at least another 1,000 years.
Unity of God
The Baháʼí faith teaches that everything said and done by the founder of each major world religion was the will of the same all-powerful and loving God. An important aspect of the Baháʼí view of the one God behind religions like Christianity and Islam is that human language is unable to fully capture what God is truly like. Though God may be beyond human understanding to Baháʼís, they believe that people can learn that God is, for example, just or loving by recognising justice and love in the natural world God created, or by observing that God’s manifestations act in a just and loving way in accordance with His will.
Baháʼís believe that God created humans so that they could grow to know and love Him. According to Baháʼí teachings, humans possess a soul that continues to exist eternally after physical death in a spiritual plane which exists outside of the physical universe. What exactly happens to a soul after death is considered by Baháʼís to be unknowable, though Baháʼís maintain that references to ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ in other religions should be interpreted symbolically rather than as literal locations in the afterlife.
Unity of humanity
Baháʼís believe that the purpose of religion is to gradually move humanity away from division, inter-group conflict, and the perception that people belong to distinct demographics, and towards a view of humankind as “one human family”. This final state of humanity is sometimes described as comprising three types of unity: biological, political, and spiritual.
Baháʼís believe that biological unity is already a reality, insofar as concepts like race, nationality, and ethnicity are superficial, citing advances in science that refer to humanity as a single species. Political unity, referring to the eventual establishment of a world government, and spiritual unity, are considered works in progress. Baháʼís maintain that promoting the unity of humanity does not stop them from appreciating diversity between different cultures. They stress that a future unified human race will be stronger for its appreciation of different types of religious expression, art, and philosophy.
While Baháʼís believe the future unity of humanity is inevitable, they also believe that there are several measures the governments of the world could take to reduce division between groups of people, such as the establishment of a universal auxiliary language. The intention is that a common language, either one that is currently spoken or a new one designed for the purpose, should be decided upon by world parliaments.
Where did the movement come from, and who have been its leaders?
The Baháʼí faith emerged in Iran where the main religion is Shia Islam which recognises the authority of the 12 imams, spiritual successors of Muhammad. In the mid-19th century there was a general expectation that “the Mahdi” would soon appear, a messianic figure whose arrival would usher in a short period of justice, equity, and true religion. One branch of Shia Islam, the Shaykhi movement, was particularly important in paving the way for the Baháʼí faith, similar to the way that Judaism paved the way for Christianity. Some Baháʼí scholars, including Margit Warburg, characterise the movement as having its origin in Shia Islam, but Baháʼís generally reject viewing the movement as part of a larger religious tradition.
Sayyed Alí Muḥammad Shírází (1819-50), who would later take the title Báb (meaning “gate” or “door”), became associated with Shaykhism in 1841. In 1844, he began to identify himself as a divine prophet and predicted the imminent appearance of “Him whom God shall make manifest”, another messenger from God who would establish an age of peace and justice.
The Báb and his followers, the Bábís, were accused by most of the Islamic clergy of being Muslims who abandoned their faith because they challenged the belief that Muhammad was the “Seal of the Prophets”, God’s final messenger, after whom there will be no further revelation.
This view of the Báb’s followers continues to be held by the Islamic religious authorities in several Muslim-majority countries. Today in some parts of the Islamic world, particularly in Iran, Baháʼís are subjected to false imprisonment, unjustified execution, confiscation or destruction of property, and denial of access to employment, civil rights, and education.
The Báb was executed in 1850. In 1852, the Iranian authorities began a campaign of intense persecution against his followers. Among those imprisoned was Mírzá Ḥusayn-’Alí Núrí (1817-92), later known as Baháʼu’lláh, who claimed that, while he was incarcerated, God revealed to him that he was “Him whom God shall make manifest”, the one spoken of by the Báb. In 1863, Baháʼu’lláh announced that he was a “Manifestation of God”’, and it was time to begin leading humanity in its next step in civilisation.
After Baháʼu’lláh’s death in 1892, leadership of the movement passed to his son, Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921), regarded as the sole authoritative interpreter of Baháʼu’lláh’s writings in his time, and known as the “centre of the covenant” and “head of the faith”. Abdu’l-Bahá is believed by Baháʼís to have been a uniquely perfect exemplar of Baháʼu’lláh’s teachings and is known for increasing the presence of the Baháʼí faith in the West, and for laying the foundations for the current administration of the movement. Many of Abdu’l-Bahá’s written works are regarded by Baháʼís today as important sources of ethics and theology and form part of the central canon of Baháʼí literature.
Abdu’l-Bahá’s grandson, Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), succeeded his grandfather in leadership of the Baháʼí faith. He was appointed by Abdu’l-Bahá to the “guardian of the Baháʼí faith”, responsible for interpreting Baháʼu’lláh’s writings and implementing his instructions. Shoghi Effendi died unexpectedly at the age of 60 and left no heirs. Consequently, the title “guardian” is synonymous with his name today.
The Guardian oversaw the expansion of the Baháʼí faith through a series of teaching plans, growing the movement’s membership from 100,000 to 400,00 in his lifetime. Shoghi Effendi was educated at Balliol college, Oxford. He died in London and his tomb is in New Southgate Cemetery, north London.
Today, the Universal House of Justice (UHJ), established 1963, in Haifa, Israel, is the highest elected body in the Baháʼí Faith. The UHJ legislates on all matters aside from those in the Baháʼí scriptures. It acts as the supreme authority in the faith, answering spiritual and practical questions from Baháʼís, interacting with the outside world by sending delegates to institutions such as the United Nations, and making and repealing laws that the Baháʼí community is expected to obey.
From a cluster of administrative buildings constructed on Mount Carmel, the UHJ oversees the translation of more than 100 books of scripture by Baháʼu’lláh and the Báb, answers questions raised by Baháʼís, and drafts plans that instruct Baháʼís worldwide on how the faith will work towards local and national community goals over the next few years. The UHJ recently published the Nine-Year Plan (2022-2031) that focuses on motivating growth within existing Baháʼí communities. The UHJ has nine members and is chosen through elections in which all Baháʼís over the age of 21 participate by nominating and voting for convention delegates. Elections are held every five years.
Lower elected bodies also have nine members, and elections are held annually. Local Spiritual Assemblies (LSAs) administer a small area like a town or a city and are tasked with directing the teaching of Baháʼí belief and practice within their jurisdiction, arranging community events, participating in humanitarian activities, and certifying marriages and divorces. National Spiritual Assemblies (NSAs) represent all Baháʼís in a country, organise national conventions, coordinate the activities of LSAs, review and publish Baháʼí literature, and function as an electoral college for the election of the UHJ. Regional Spiritual Assemblies (RSAs) perform the function of NSAs in a region encompassing multiple countries prior to there being NSAs set up to administer each individual nation.
The significance of numbers
The Baháʼí faith has an affinity for both the number 19 and the number nine, marking their significance in several of its unique traditions. The number nine is considered the number of perfection, associated with culmination and unity. The symbol usually used to represent the Baháʼí Faith is a nine-pointed star, and Baháʼí Houses of Worship feature nine in their architecture, having nine sides, nine pillars, or nine entrances. The Baháʼí calendar comprises 19 months of 19 days every year, and there were 19 “letters of the living”, the first disciples of the movement that would become the Baháʼí faith. Baháʼís say any significance in numerology relates to the Arabic language and not to Islam or the Baha’i faith.
Baháʼís are required to recite at least one of three prayers written by Baháʼu’lláh, known as the “obligatory prayers”, daily. These recitations are intended to be a personal practice and are not performed as a group. Obligatory prayers are not improvised or spontaneous. Baháʼís recite either the short, medium, or long obligatory prayer verbatim, performing several precise rituals that accompany the recitation. The prayers thank God for helping humans to overcome their weaknesses and implore God to help them in the future. A ritual washing of the face and hands known as “ablutions”’ must precede the recitation of obligatory prayers.
Additionally, Baháʼís must face the shrine of Baháʼu’lláh near Acre in Israel, which they refer to as facing the Qiblih (meaning “direction”). While the short obligatory prayer involves no further instructions, the medium and long obligatory prayers require the Baháʼí to perform several gestures or movements including kneeling, raising one’s palms upwards, and bowing one’s forehead to the ground.
Baháʼís may also recite other prayers without the requirements attached to the obligatory prayers. These other prayers, written by either Baháʼu’lláh, Abdu’l-Bahá, or the Báb address a number of topics including forgiveness, healing, and marriage, and are collected in prayer books commonly carried by Baháʼís. It is common for Baháʼís to attend devotional gatherings in community centres or their own homes to recite prayers, aside from the obligatory prayers, together. There are no rituals for these gatherings and no congregational prayer. Different communities of Baháʼís might engage in variety of practices at devotional gatherings, including the performance of music and the reading of Baháʼí texts.
Baháʼís fast for a period of 19 days in March every year, after which they celebrate the new year in the Baháʼí calendar. Barring a few exceptional circumstances such as illness, old age, and menstruation, all Baháʼís above the age of 15 are required to abstain from eating and drinking between sunrise and sunset. Baháʼí fasting is considered a period of meditation, self-restraint, and spiritual contemplation.
Baháʼís are forbidden from drinking alcohol or taking recreational drugs under any circumstances. Baháʼu’lláh, Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi all explicitly condemned alcohol, stating that it diminishes divinely given reason and causes diseases. If they disregard prohibitions like this, members holding administrative office at a national level can be removed from their positions, and rank-and-file members can lose their right to vote in Baháʼí elections. Loss of voting rights is very rare. As with other requirements of the faith, Baháʼís are instructed to exercise patience with new members; rather to stress the incompatibility of drinking alcohol and remaining a Baháʼí in the long term.
Baháʼís are encouraged but not required to attend Nineteen Day Feasts, community gatherings that are held on the first day of each month in the Baháʼí calendar. Feasts are held in a variety of buildings, from homes to Baháʼí administrative centres. The structure of these events is intended to be flexible, avoiding any fixed worship forms or customs, but always consists of a devotional, administrative, and social portion.
The devotional portion usually involves the reading of Baháʼí prayers and other writings, and sometimes includes the performance of music or artistic presentation. The administrative portion involves a practice known as “consultation”, through which Baháʼís discuss and then vote on issues that affect an individual member or the community in general. Non-Baháʼís are welcome to attend other portions of the Feast, but the consultation is open only to members. The social portion involves refreshments and socialising.
Baháʼí World Centre
In 1891, Baháʼu’lláh is reported to have pointed to a spot on the northern face of Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, and stated that that it would become the resting place of the Báb. On this occasion, Baháʼu’lláh established for the first time that Mount Carmel would be the physical location of what would become known as the Baháʼí World Centre.
The Baháʼí World Centre is the name given to several complexes and individual buildings in Northwest Israel that constitute the spiritual and administrative centre of the Baháʼí faith. The largest concentration of these buildings is in Haifa, where the seat of the Universal House of Justice, the Shrine of the Báb (the second holiest Baháʼí location), and the Monument Gardens (containing the graves of Baháʼu’lláh’s family) can be found.
All male Baháʼís, if they have the means to do so, have an obligation to make a pilgrimage at least once. About a million people visit the World Centre annually, including Baháʼí pilgrims. The locations originally designated by Baháʼu’lláh as pilgrimage sites were the House of Baháʼu’lláh in Baghdad, Iraq, and the House of the Báb in Shiraz, Iran. Both structures were destroyed, in 1922 and 1979 respectively. Today adherents fulfil their obligations by visiting the World Centre, though Baháʼís hope they will one day visit the sites of both the House of Baháʼu’lláh and the House of the Báb again.
The faith in the UK
About 7,000 Bahá’ís are registered with the UK Bahá’í national office in London. They reside in every main city in the UK, as well as in numerous towns, villages, and rural locations. About a fifth of the Bahá’ís in the UK live in Greater London; 83 per cent in England, 8 per cent in Scotland, 4 per cent in Northern Ireland, and 4 per cent in Wales.
Baháʼís in London are organised into 33 communities that roughly correspond to the London boroughs, known as Local Spiritual Assemblies (LSAs). The LSAs organise regular seminars, lectures, and family events for the Baháʼís within their areas, although larger events encompassing all of the LSAs in London are also held, but less frequently. There are an estimated 1,500 Baháʼís in London, though many of those who attend LSA events or collaborate with Baháʼí activities are not registered Baháʼís themselves, and sometimes do not identify as members of the faith. This makes it difficult to give an accurate figure for the movement’s size in London — or in any Baháʼí community worldwide. The national Baháʼí authorities in the UK do not collect data on whether registered Baháʼís are converts or the children of members.
How is the faith financed?
The faith raises money through the Baháʼí fund for the printing and distribution of its literature, the maintenance of its spiritual assemblies, charity work, projects in undeveloped countries, and the construction of its houses of worship. The singular term “Baháʼí Fund” is often used, but there are in fact many funds established at the local, national, and international levels. Giving to the fund is seen as an important religious obligation to Baháʼís and all are encouraged to give to the fund within their means. There is no tithing or discussion of anyone’s ability to contribute and giving to the fund is considered a private matter.
Separate from the Baháʼí funds is the obligation of Ḥuqúqu’lláh (meaning “right of God’), a voluntary wealth tax of 19 per cent of an individual’s income after taxes and essential expenses which is paid to the Universal House of Justice. What constitutes “essential expense” is left to the individual’s interpretation and that varies widely among Baháʼí. The Ḥuqúqu’lláh takes precedence over donations to the Baháʼí Fund as the more pressing obligation, though donations to both are used for the same purposes.
The Ḥuqúqu’lláh is interpreted as an act of ritual purification, whereby a Baháʼí purifies their worldly possessions by dedicating a portion of their wealth to God. Even though non-Baháʼís may participate in community activities, study sessions, and charity work, donations to the Baháʼí Faith form a symbolic boundary between members and non-members as only registered Baháʼís are permitted to contribute to the fund or to engage in Ḥuqúqu’lláh.
Baháʼís believe that God intends for humanity to progress toward a united society without prejudice or inequality and they are therefore concerned with social action intended to advance the social and material wellbeing of all people. Historically they have been involved in social activism, but never in politics. In the UK this has included John Esslemont’s work in national health, and the suffragette activity of Sara, Lady Blomfield and her daughters.
Baháʼí teachings prohibit adherents from approaching social issues in a politically partisan way, yet they still feel obligated to act in service of social causes. To do this, Baháʼís advocate for rights from within political structures, and establish local charitable programmes focused on the educational and material needs of a small community. As an example of the former, Baha’is have been successful in invoking an international reaction to the arrest, torture, and execution of Baháʼís in Iran, eliciting the support of various governments and human rights organisations.
However, the Baháʼí faith has faced pushback for several attitudes that have been described as politically reactionary or opposed to civil rights. Baháʼís are prohibited from engaging in “homosexual behaviour”, a position made explicit by the Universal House of Justice and in the writings of Baháʼu’lláh. For Baháʼís, sexual relations are limited to those between married couples, and marriage is only allowed between a man and a woman. Shoghi Effendi further elaborated on the Baháʼí position, saying “however fine a love” gay people may experience together, this is not consistent with the life purpose of Baháʼís. Baha’u’llah described homosexuality as a distortion that Baháʼís must overcome. Baháʼís stress that, on this issue and others, they do not expect non-Baháʼís to follow their standards and are instructed to neither oppose nor promote same-sex marriage. Baháʼís state that their position on this issue is that all people, irrespective of their sexual orientation must be accorded equal rights and protections under law, require empathy, and must not be discriminated against in any fashion.
Additionally, the Baháʼí faith has been accused of maintaining sexism while at the same time claiming to teach the fundamental equality and interdependence of men and women. Baháʼí teachings maintain that although both sexes are equal, men and women have different guidance. Girls must be given priority in respect to education, for example. Baháʼís justify this by pointing out that mothers are most often the primary caregivers and early educators for children, and that girls have been disadvantaged in this regard throughout history.
Only men are permitted to serve as members of the Universal House of Justice, although no reason has been given for this. Abdu’l-Bahá said there was a justification for this policy that will eventually be revealed.
View our zoom briefing on the story of the Baháʼís on our YouTube channel:
The Baháʼí faith’s official website
The Baháʼí Reference Library
Smith, P., 2008. An Introduction to the Baháʼí Faith. Cambridge University Press. (Academic book written by a member of the movement)
Margit Warburg, 2006, Citizens of the World: A History and Sociology of the Baháʼís from a Globalisation Perspective. Brill, Leiden.
Cole, J.R.I. (1998) Modernity and the Millennium. The Genesis of the Baháʼí Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press.
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