The history of the faith

Barney Leith recounts the history of the Bahá’í faith and some of the persecution it has suffered

The stories of the life of Jesus and his disciples and of the acts of the apostles were an important part of my childhood.

When I became a Bahá’í I began to learn a whole new religious history, the story of a community that began as a millennial movement in 19th century Persia, that emerged from its Shi’ite Islamic background to become an independent faith community that now spans the globe.

The story of the Bahá’í Faith and of its two founding figures, the Báb (meaning ‘the Gate’) and Bahá’u’lláh (meaning ‘the Glory of God’), is modern history, documented in government archives and the writings of European scholars, as well as in the annals and accounts written by those who themselves experienced the tumultuous early years of the Faith.

The Báb, born in 1819, claimed to be the return of the Hidden Imam, Shi’ite Islam’s equivalent of Christianity’s messianic return of Jesus. He declared his mission in 1844 and many thousands flocked to his cause, including significant numbers of the Islamic clerical class of mullahs.

A central theme of the Báb’s teaching was that he was preparing the way for the coming of a new manifestation of God, one greater than himself.

The Shi’ite establishment was spooked by the rapid growth of this new faith. The Báb was executed by firing squad in 1850. His followers were tortured in the most brutal fashion and as many as 20,000 were martyred. Much of this was witnessed by observers from European governments, who were revolted by the fiendish cruelty of the torturers.

Bahá’u’lláh, born in 1817, was the son of a prominent member of the Shah’s court and a notable patron of the arts. He became one of the leading members of the Bábí community and was arrested in 1852. During four months in a foul dungeon in Tehran he experienced a revelation that gave the direction to the rest of his life. He later described this experience:

"During the days I lay in the prison of Tehran, though the galling weight of the chains and the stench-filled air allow Me but little sleep, still those infrequent moments of slumber I felt as if something flowed from the crown of My head over My breast … At such moments My tongue recited what no man could bear to hear."

Early in 1853 Bahá’u’lláh was sent into exile, never to return to his homeland. In the spring of 1863, as he was preparing to leave Baghdad for Constantinople after ten years in Baghdad, he announced to a few of his closest associates that he was the one whose coming the Báb had foretold.

After five years in Edirne on the Turkish-Bulgarian border, Bahá’u’lláh was sent into his final exile in Acre in the Ottoman province of Syria. It was during his time in Edirne and Acre that he wrote a series of letters to the powerful monarchs of his day, including Queen Victoria. He called on them as trustees of God and of their fellow human beings to work for the unification of the human race and to bring about what he called ‘the Most Great Peace’.

Bahá’u’lláh died an exile in 1892. In His will he appointed his eldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, as the Head of the Bahá’í community and gave him the authority to interpret his teachings.

This ‘covenant’, through which the Bahá’ís accept the authority of the legitimate Head of the community (currently an elected body, the Universal House of Justice), has held the community together through many trials and tribulations

At the time of Bahá’u’lláh’s death, his community had already begun to spread from its Middle Eastern cradle, and Bahá’í groups were starting to appear in the USA, in Europe and India. In 1898 a group of American Bahá’ís made the first pilgrimage from the West to visit ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, at that time still under house arrest in Acre.

Since then, the community has spread to pretty much every country and includes people from many different religious and ethnic backgrounds.

Barney Leith has been an active Bahá’í since the mid 1960s. In 1993 he was elected to the National Spiritual Assembly of the UK Bahá’ís. Barney has been married to Erica since 1970. They have three grown-up offspring and three grandchildren.
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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.