Baháʼí – the gift of the Báb

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 14 minutes

The youngest and lesser known among world religions Baháʼí Faith is distinctive not for bellowing out its beliefs, which are based around unity, inclusivity, and humanism. The absence of priests, preachers and proselytising also sets it apart from many other religious traditions. So, it was no great surprise when I mentioned to friends and acquaintances that I was writing about the Baháʼí Faith, I got bemused looks. None had heard of it. Fair enough - there are no Baháʼí churches or temples here. Some wondered if it was a cult.

No, Baháʼí followers don’t go door-knocking and evangelising in supermarket carparks and malls with leaflets of doom-filled prophecies.

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 14 minutes

The youngest and lesser known among world religions Baháʼí Faith is distinctive not for bellowing out its beliefs, which are based around unity, inclusivity, and humanism. The absence of priests, preachers and proselytising also sets it apart from many other religious traditions. So, it was no great surprise when I mentioned to friends and acquaintances that I was writing about the Baháʼí Faith, I got bemused looks. None had heard of it. Fair enough – there are no Baháʼí churches or temples here. Some wondered if it was a cult.

No, Baháʼí followers don’t go door-knocking and evangelising in supermarket carparks and malls with leaflets of doom-filled prophecies.

Color portrait of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris, France, October 1911

The Baháʼí Faith was founded in mid-19th century Persia (now Iran) by Mīrzā Ḥusayn ʿAlī Nūrī, who is known as Bahāʾ Allāh (also spelled Baháʼu’lláh), which in Arabic means “Glory of God.” The cornerstone of Baháʼí belief is the conviction that Baha’u’llah and his forerunner, who was known as the Báb “Gateway” in Persian), were manifestations of God, who in his essence is unknowable.

Since its inception less than 200 years ago, the Faith has spread across the globe, with an estimated seven to eight million followers, from the Middle East and Europe to South America, Africa, and the Pacific. There are approximately 3,000 adherents in Aotearoa.

A primary theme for the Baháʼí Faith is working to achieve world peace through the establishment of unity, justice, and equality. Baha’u’llah’s teachings specifically advocate for racial unity, gender equality, universal education, and harmony of science and religion. Baháʼís also believe that children should be of an age mature enough to make a conscious decision when choosing their religion, which is why you can only officially become a Baháʼí once you are 15 years old.

Chastity, monogamy, regular fasting, and a prohibition on drinking alcohol are all requirements of being a Baháʼí, along with an emphasis on traditional family values. Marriage between a man and a woman is the only form of sexual relationship permitted. According to Wikipedia, the Baháʼí Faith “leaves the application of laws of social conduct largely up to the individual, and Baháʼís do not advocate for, or discriminate against, homosexual people.

Bahá’í World Centre terraces (or the Hanging Gardens of Haifa), are garden terraces on Mount Carmel in Haifa, one of the most popular tourist destinations in Israel. Completed in 2001, there are 19 terraces and more than 1,500 steps ascending the mountain. The central terrace has the Shrine of the Báb, one of the main religious figures of the Baháʼí Faith. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Its world administration is governed by an elected body of nine, called the House of Justice, which meets on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel. Its primary Holy Sites and places of pilgrimage are located in Northern Israel/Palestine in Haifa and near Akka. However, Baháʼí minorities have been subject to persecution in some countries, particularly in Iran where the religion originated, because it is seen as an enemy of traditional Islamic beliefs.

As Suzanne Mahon, Auckland-based secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly for the Baháʼí Faith in New Zealand, explains: “Bahá’ís believe that all major religions come from the same source, God, who has sent Messengers in past ages. Their purpose is one and the same: to educate humanity to know God and to worship Him, to do good, and not evil, and to progress an ever advancing civilisation.”

Suzanne offers some insights into the values and vision of the Faith, and what it means to her:

What is the appeal of the Baháʼí Faith for you?

Being a Bahá’í has given me the means of ongoing learning to understand my purpose in life, and to live a life where my spiritual development and my contribution to the transformation of society are inter-connected. It has given me a clear picture that this earthly existence is only the first stage of an eternal spiritual journey towards our Creator to come after our consciousness (souls) shed our bodies.

What do you think sets the Baháʼí Faith apart from other forms of organised religion?

Humanity, as a whole, is now entering its age of maturity. We are currently seeing in the world the last throes of its adolescent behaviours, which will eventually give way to more mature ways of operating as a global society. Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings provide guidance to enable humanity to build a peaceful, united world – heaven on earth, so to speak. A golden age was promised in all the Holy Books of the past, but our understanding as Bahá’ís is that while the blueprint for this is given, human beings need to bring it to fruition. This is why Bahá’ís are working so hard to work with others and share the teachings, and even if people do not wish to become Bahá’ís that does not mean they cannot contribute to collectively striving for the betterment of the world, drawing on the guidance that Bahá’u’lláh has given.

What’s the public perception of the Bahá’í community and faith? Is it well-understood?

I think the public’s perception is largely quite positive, but a general understanding of the Bahá’í Faith is quite limited and there are still people who have not heard of it. If they have heard of it, many simply think of it as a religion that accepts all religions, as a peaceful religion.

What does the Bahá’í community look like in Aotearoa?

The Bahá’ís in New Zealand are from all backgrounds – religious, ethnic, cultural, socio-economic, educational, age, etc. The watchword of our Faith is “unity”, and most especially unity in diversity.

There are currently 40 centres around the country which have enough Bahá’ís to form a Local Spiritual Assembly – this is the administrative body elected each year by the members of that locality without any electioneering or nominations, using secret ballot, and in a spiritually rarefied atmosphere.

Suzanne Mahon (second from right, front row), secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly for the Bahá’í faith in New Zealand with the recently elected National Spiritual Assembly at the Bahá’í New Zealand national convention, April 2022

There is no clergy in the Bahá’í Faith, so the Local Spiritual Assemblies have jurisdiction over all local affairs of the Bahá’í community. On the national level, each year, Bahá’ís elect delegates to a national convention that elects a National Spiritual Assembly with jurisdiction over Bahá’ís throughout the country. There are presently over 180 National Assemblies in the world, of which the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of New Zealand is one.

How does someone join and ‘become’ a Bahá’í?

To recognise Bahá’u’lláh as a Manifestation of God , and accept the privileges and responsibilities that are uniquely associated with membership in the Bahá’í community is a singular moment in a person’s spiritual development, quite distinct from regular involvement in Bahá’í activities or voicing support for Bahá’í principles or reading the holy texts.

The process of declaration of faith is an individual one in which the seeker comes to adequately recognise Bahá’u’lláh as the Manifestation of God and accept His teachings. They need not know all the proofs, history, laws, and principles of the Faith, but would have caught ‘the spark of the Faith’ and will have some basic knowledge about the central figures of the Faith, as well as knowing about the existence of Bahá’í administration.

Does the practice of being a Bahá’í follower change much from one country to another?

Because the Faith is universal, Bahá’u’lláh has made it virtually free of rituals, to allow room for varied cultural expression to occur. Bahá’ís are encouraged to use their creativity in the way they conduct gatherings while ensuring these gatherings are a welcoming space for people from all cultural backgrounds. There are a few practices that all Bahá’ís engage in around the world, such as the fasting period, community gatherings every 19 days, daily prayers, or a special prayer for the departed. The principles and methods of the Faith are universal, but their application can vary and there is much room for individual initiative.

Bahá’í is concerned with individual spiritual growth as well as fostering a more harmonious society. What kinds of projects, activities, or events do you organise in Aotearoa to realise these goals?

Some of the core activities of community-building, to which all peoples are welcome to join and learn alongside us, are:

  • programmes for the spiritual education of children between five and 11 years – based on universally accepted virtues such as love, unity, justice, compassion, and kindness;
  • a junior youth spiritual empowerment programme that seeks to release the intellectual and spiritual powers of young adolescents and direct them towards service to humanity;
  • study circles to provide participants with the knowledge, spiritual insights, and skills to enable them to contribute to the betterment of society, starting with their own neighbourhood. This is done through a sequence of courses based on the Bahá’í Writings;
  • devotional gatherings – these spring up naturally in a community where a conversation about the spiritual dimension of human existence is growing. Praying and reflecting together on spiritual principles is an essential part of life. Devotional meetings stimulate a spiritual awareness within our inner selves and create stronger, deeper bonds in our neighbourhoods and among our friends.

What about the texts of Bahá’u’lláh? How accessible are they? Might non-followers find them worthwhile to read?

The Bahá’í writings are voluminous and there is something for everyone within them. There are those that are very poetic and mystical, with deep inner meanings that require a lifetime of contemplation, and there are practical expositions on Bahá’u’lláh’s writings by his authorised interpreter, his son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the perfect example of someone living a Bahá’í life. An online repository of Bahá’í texts in English can be found at bahaireferencelibrary.org.

How is the Bahá’í Faith responding to the bigger challenges of our time, i.e. climate crisis, conflict, housing, poverty, inequality, and racism?

At the international level, the Bahá’í International Community (BIC) has consultative status with UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). It has been associated with the UN since its inception and has an overarching objective to contribute to the construction of a more peaceful and just global order.

We believe that the foundation for such an order is the principle of the oneness of humankind, expressed in the interdependence of the members of the human family. The work that BIC currently does revolves around six themes: the equality of women and men, human rights and well-being of humankind, development and community building, youth as protagonists of constructive change, the role of religion in society, and the situation of the Bahá’ís in Iran. However, they have provided much input to international fora on the environment and climate change over many decades of work.

How does being a Bahá’í impact your daily life?

The most important benefit to me of being a Bahá’í is appreciating what God expects of me. The love of God is the fuel that provides me with momentum to strive to be a better person and to contribute in small ways to the betterment of the world. It guides my actions. It enables me to see God in others, because we are told to look only at the good qualities of others and ignore the faults.

Being a Bahá’í brings much joy and upliftment, which is so important for mental and physical well-being. It has given me a sense of purpose, a pathway for service to others, an expanding pool of wonderful people with whom to interact and form loving, mutually supportive and profound friendships. As Bahá’ís we are taught to be outward oriented and have a widening embrace of others outside of the Bahá’í community, so I have been involved in inter-faith activities for the past 20 years and have lovely relationships with people from many other religious backgrounds.

 

 

Sources: 1. The Bahāʾī Faith 2. Bahāʾī Faith 3. Who are the Baháʼís and why are they so persecuted? 4. Baháʼí Faith

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