by Robert Kauffman
“There can be no doubt that whatever the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, they derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed. All of them, except for a few which are the outcome of human perversity, were ordained of God, and are a reflection of His Will and purpose.”
The Bahá'í Faith is known as the most recent of the world's great religions, having emerged out of the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh (and his predecessor, known as the Báb) in nineteenth century Persia . It was first spread outside the Middle East by Bahá'u'lláh's son, ‘Abdu'l-Bahá (The Servant of Bahá) who journeyed throughout the world, including the United States and Canada in 1912. He was succeeded by Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, (the Guardian of the Faith), who oversaw the subsequent organization of a mature Bahá'í community.
Now, after little more than 100 years, there are more than 5 million adherents in 189 countries and 46 territories around the world. As one Bahá'í explains, the faith “went global faster than any other faith in recorded history.” How was this accomplished? Perhaps the essences behind such spectacular growth are best envisioned in one central Bahá'í symbol, the Ringstone (see above).
The horizontal lines represent God (the uppermost), God's manifestation through the prophets, including Muhammad, Jesus, Zoroaster, Buddha, Moses and others (the middle) and the rest of humanity (the bottom). Through it all, the Holy Spirit descends vertically, flanked by the two most recent of God's Messengers, Bahá'u'lláh and the Báb (“the Forerunner”).
It is through such inclusiveness and universal call to understanding that the Bahá'ís reach out to all the peoples of the world. Their message taps into the yearning of so many to know oneness with their brethren. As Bahá'u'lláh taught, “the Earth is but one country and mankind it's citizens.” Unity is an over-arching theme that saturates all Bahá'í teaching. It is prominently reflected in a statement of overall purpose that appears on the Bahá'í web site: “to bring about the oneness of humanity.” Individual practitioners speak excitedly of “consciously creating a global culture”-- a single, global and ever-evolving civilization. In fact, the seriousness of the Bahá'í mission can be ascertained from a brief description for the “Bahá'í Magazine,” a publication of the International Bahá'í Community:
The Bahá'í Faith has grown from an obscure movement in the Middle East to the second-most widespread of the independent world religions. Embracing people from more than 2100 ethnic, racial and tribal groups, it is quite likely the most diverse organized body of people on the planet. It's unity challenges prevailing theories about human nature and the prospects for our common future.
These are some of the external aspects of the Bahá'í faith. Ask questions with genuine interest, and one soon encounters stories of Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb, ‘Abdu'l-Bahá and others. On the one hand, these are stories of revelation, miracle, the coming of the Promised One, and service to the poor and downtrodden. They are also gripping tales of individual and mass suppression, suffering, and execution.
The Bahá'í worldview embraces not only the cultural and racial diversity of humanity but also a deep understanding of the cultural milieu and how it effects individuals. It reflects the oppression and great suffering that trouble the lives of so many. The teachings of the great Bahá'í teachers emerged during a period of great messianic fervor in the United States and elsewhere during the 1840s. The Báb announced his mission on May 23,1844 , proclaiming that he was the bearer of a long-promised Divine Revelation, a call to love and compassion. He gave warning of the imminent coming of a great teacher, the Promised One. Husayn-Ali (who was to become Bahá’u’lláh) was born into the Muslim culture of mid-nineteenth century Persia . He was raised amid wealth, power and all the trappings of a position within the Shah's court; yet he preferred to spend his time caring for the poor. He was immediately attracted to the teachings of the Báb and spoke out against slavery. For these pursuits, he would spend the rest of his life, more than 40 years, in prison and exile. Yet he was not to be doomed to oppressive despair. In 1853, he experienced his first divine revelation. By 1863, he would announce that he was the One whom the Báb had proclaimed. His spirit soared despite prison surroundings or forced exile (eventually in Northern Palestine ). Before his death, in 1892, he was to produce more than 100 volumes, including mystical writings, social and ethical teachings, and laws and ordinances. He also wrote a series of messages to all the great rulers of his time.
One story seems to summarize the uncompromising expanse of this message of unconditional love. In it, Bahá’u’lláh was working his way down a street in Tehran , enduring the jostling, the taunts and the hatred of a dangerous crowd. At one point, a woman pushed her way through the throng in near-frantic haste to hurl a rock at the defenseless man. Seeing her, he held up his hand to signal his friends to wait and he turned. It is said he took the blow while looking her straight in the eyes with a look of pure love and compassion. It was said that he always met his tormentors without the slightest bitterness or condemnation.
Bahá’u’lláh's love of humanity, in the face of oppression has proven to be incredibly compelling. Known as the Father of the Poor, Bahá’u’lláh's revelation of love was authoritative because it grew out of his own experience; it prevailed in the face of much hardship and suffering. His revelation was not some abstraction but a flesh-and-blood expression of human nobility. Significantly, he wrote and spoke continually of how he saw this nobility revealed in others; he spoke of the inherent dignity of human nature.
Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value. Education can, alone, cause it to reveal its treasures and enable man to benefit.
The Bahá'í s say that the teaching of the Promised One is especially significant since “it coincides with the maturation of humanity.” They believe we live at a special time in human history and that the message of Bahá’u’lláh calls forth the highest form of response from all peoples.
The message of Bahá’u’lláh explores the full expanse of Universal Peace. More than a dream or vision, it is supported by a number of clearly-defined principles. Among those promulgated by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá in the early 20th century are:
The Oneness of Mankind The Common Foundation of all Religions The essential Harmony of Science and Religion Equality of Men and Women Universal Peace upheld by a World Law The Independent Investigation of Truth Elimination of Prejudice of all kinds Universal Compulsory Education A Universal auxiliary Language and... A Spiritual Solution to the Economic Problem.
Bahá’u’lláh wrote extensively on each principle, creating, in effect, a blueprint for the successful maturation of the human race. His conviction that men and women can be educated to choose Universal Peace is the underpinning of that vision.
The Bahá’ís believe that each person is “defined by an invisible, rational and everlasting soul.” This soul grows and develops in human form through prayer, knowledge of the teachings of all the messengers of God, love of God, moral discipline and service to humanity. This represents a path to completion, a completion of individual growth as well as the growth of humanity as a whole. The nine-pointed star is often used by the Bahá’ís to represent the Bahá’í Faith. It represents the nine years which passed between the Báb's proclaiming of the coming of the Promised One and Bahá’u’lláh's initial revelation in a Tehran prison. With a globe contained within the star, it also calls to mind the many great religions of the world which reveal the one universal message, the complete message for the spiritual development of humanity.
The ceremonial architecture of the Bahá’ís also reflects this consciousness of completeness and inclusion. Symbolizing a truly global embrace, six Continental Houses of Worship currently span the Earth (with still more to come). And like the 9-pointed star, each House of Worship has nine entry doors -- signifying, in essence and in fact, that all peoples and all religions are welcome. It is not a space of specialized, parochial ceremonies but rather a sacred space within which all may worship as they please. Additionally, these Houses of Worship are characterized by spectacular and graceful form, such as the huge lotus shape of the newest continental center (in New Delhi ) and the dramatic descending gardens of the International Center in Haifa , Israel . These sacred sites might draw thousands during the celebration of Bahá’í Holy days. Haifa , the burial place for the three teachers of the faith, remains the particular goal of pilgrims from all over the world.
The Universal House of Justice also resides at Haifa . Envisioned by Bahá’u’lláh and established by ‘Abdu'l-Bahá and his successor, this central institution is the international governing body for the Bahá’í faith. With its staff of 600 people from 60 different countries, the Universal House of Justice... defines a pattern of cooperative decision-making and social interaction that cultivates the moral and creative capacities latent in human nature. It provides a model of the institutional structures necessary for global community life -- a pattern of living that embraces diversity and fosters mutuality of purpose, compassion and rectitude of conduct.
The authority of the Universal House of Justice lies in its ability to enact legislation that “will have the same authority for Bahá’ís as the sacred texts.” Significantly, it can also repeal or alter its enactments according to changes within the Bahá’í community. As Shoghi Effendi was the last of the “personal” guides for the community, this guidance has shifted directly to a rotating, elected body. It not only signifies but actually seeks to provide 'The unity among men', Bahá’u’lláh proposed as the cornerstone of justice in the world.
These primary centers, as grand as they are, represent the symbolic heart of Bahá’í unity. Yet while they provide an institutional base for the international Bahá’í organization, they are home to strikingly little ritual that is universally practiced. The Islamic and Persian origins of the faith, while honored, have increasingly less impact on the day to day meaning of what it is to be a Bahá’í. In fact, the Bahá’í faith supports few dictates of practice and has no clergy. The administration of national and local Bahá’í communities and centers is carried out by elected spiritual
assemblies acting responsibly at their respective levels. These are the “heart” of the faith where Bahá’u’lláh's spiritual and social principles come alive. It is here that individuals practice the harmonious community life and discover the moral renewal prescribed by Bahá’u’lláh's sacred teachings.
At this local level, the Bahá’í organization becomes wildly prolific, reputedly extending to over 124,000 localities. Wherever nine members congregate, they may create a center of worship. Though much Bahá’í practice might be said to be highly individual -- in prayer, in the study of the collective revelation of God's spiritual message, in moral discipline -- it is in the centers that Bahá’ís learn to live the universal love which was so powerfully modeled by their earliest teachers; they learn to live the words that they've been studying. A core Bahá’í principle holds that the training of the soul cannot be accomplished without active social engagement. It is within communities that members prove out the depth of their understanding, their moral courage, and their ability to serve humanity.
The ongoing shift in the Bahá’í culture from its Persian roots provides a distinct insight into its ever-changing, collective nature. While some practitioners might choose to learn modern-day Persian in order to study the writings of Bahá’u’lláh in their original form, most simply turn to one of a vast array of translations. In 100 years, a large part of the sacred teachings have emerged through most of the world's prominent languages. And while Persian chanting has been common in the past (especially in the United States and other nations where the faith was introduced by Persian emissaries), it readily gave way to local arts and customs as the communities matured and prospered. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá had stressed the importance of music and other arts as “a ladder to the soul” and this directive is developed in locally meaningful ways. An example of Bahá’í culture might be very different in a Bulgarian community as opposed to an American one, an Argentinean community as opposed to an East Asian. International gatherings of Bahá’ís are characterized by a diversity as varied as all the world's peoples.
For instance, the introduction of gospel singing into this cultural mix can be traced to a distinct event: a performance by an American gospel choir at the Bahá’í World Congress in New York in 1992. It was truly a worldwide event, comprised of participants from around the world and broadcast globally by satellite. The choir's presentation was well received but more significantly, new music and lyrics, specially composed by choir members in praise of Bahá’u’lláh, went out to the world. Within several years, these songs could be heard in diverse Bahá’í communities from Zimbabwe to Russia . One member of the choir, as she traveled to these far-flung lands, was often urged to perform these and other selections. She was surprised as her hosts sang along, knowing the words.
But Bahá’u’lláh ultimately saw the contributions of a people as much more than just pockets of diverse arts and culture. He often emphasized the special “gifts” that each race has “I bring to the collective world body. A number of notations in his writings refer to the specific spiritual destiny of Native Americans, the black race, and other people of color. For this reason, he spoke out so courageously against slavery in spite of ensuing threats and oppression. For this reason, he proclaimed that all prejudice must end and that all men should live freely and with justice for all. There is no room in a mature society for separating and dehumanizing beliefs and policy.
What is the outcome of such redemptive social vision? If one can truly be accepted for being oneself -- in the midst of hurling a rock, yelling a curse or throwing up one's hands in despair -- or -- while dancing and singing, while mothering a child, while probing mathematical theory for the deepest secrets of reality -- then one's deepest heart might be set free. Such is the invitation of Bahá’u’lláh. When coupled with remarkable directives for creating this harmonious, “universal” society, his teachings constitute a dramatic vision of a mature humanity. In practice, this vision has been essentially self-promoting. People from all over the world are drawn to the faith with little or no coercion; even the sons and daughters of members who are not considered Bahá’ís until they themselves make the choice. As in all religions, human nature often draws people to the comfort of belonging, but within the Bahá’í community, there is also the distinct context for mature self-development and expression, both individual and collective. As such, it is a noble experiment with many favorable “prospects for our common future.”
Robert Kauffman is a builder and carpenter. His Interfaith interest started early in his life at the urging of his grandfather. He was a founding member of both The Values Caucus and The Spiritual Caucus at the United Nations and has served as an officer of the executive DPI NGOs at the United Nations. Robert lives in Sheffield, Massachusetts with his wife, Beth, and his stepson, Zach.