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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Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP’s echoes of New Labour

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP.

If there was one thing the SNP and New Labour had in common, it was the hope. Both offered themselves as a burning torch of optimism to publics that had become tired of the same old gang running things in the same old way. Both promised a fairer, more equal society and fearless embrace of the modern world with an appealing freshness and energy. The voters bought it: both won big, repeatedly.

The thing is, if you’re elected on a mandate to be different, you’d better be different. In many areas, for a long time, New Labour managed to be just that. The smiling PM with the huge majority pushed through bold policies, some of which even worked. Tony Blair’s strategy was so successful that the Conservatives and the Lib Dems reshaped themselves in his likeness.

But, as some say, it’s the hope that kills you. When the inevitable attritional realities of governing start to weigh; when you make, as you will, bad decisions; when the list of enemies grows long; when you’ve simply had your time; you’ll fall like all the rest. Only, when you’ve soared so close to the sun, you have that much further to plummet.

The fall of Blair should be a set text for anyone wishing to know what happens next to the SNP. The debate on 21 May between the Scottish party leaders was, I think, a foretaste of a sure outcome – a public that until recently was politically and emotionally invested in the Nats is growing restive. In time, this will turn to disenchantment, then anger, then revenge at the ballot box. That is the unbreakable cycle of democratic politics.

Some of us have warned since the start that the SNP had over-promised and could only under-deliver. Its raison d’être is independence; everything else is just another brick to build the path. And so its education reform cannot be either brave or unpopular, even if it needs to be so to work, because the SNP cannot afford to alienate teachers or the teaching unions, or parents.

The same goes for the NHS, and doctors and health unions and patients. All the separatists have done – all they could have done, given their nature – is deploy the rhetoric of the radical while body-swerving hard choices and conflict at any cost. And where they have found themselves taking flak, they’ve pointed south to Westminster: “It’s no’ our fault, it’s theirs.”

Yet the voters show signs of wearying. Middle Scotland is either ignored or maligned by the middle-class socialists who drive the nation’s political debate, but it is where elections are won. The SNP has secured the support of enough of these people to win every recent election in style, but somewhere along the way the party seems to have forgotten this was a mandate not for independence, but for good government. Ten years in to SNP rule, each new audit of public services seems to wail like a warning siren.

So, during the debate, it was Nicola Sturgeon, not the Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, or Labour’s Kezia Dugdale, who found herself in the audience’s cross-hairs.

There were the teachers, who complained about the damp squib that is the Curriculum for Excellence, the SNP’s flagship education policy; who pointed out that a fifth of primary pupils are leaving without basic literacy and numeracy skills; and who warned that lowering the standard of exams in order to push up the pass rate was not a mark of success.

Then there was the nurse who said she had been forced to use food banks (the existence of which has been used repeatedly by the SNP as a stick with which to beat the Conservatives and Westminster). “I can’t manage on the salary I have [which is set by the Scottish government],” Claire Austin told the panel. “You have no idea how demoralising it is to work in the NHS.” She delivered the killer line of the evening: “Do you think your perceived obsession with independence might actually cost you . . . in this election?”

The list of reasonable criticisms of the SNP’s governance is growing. The ideological obsession with free university tuition for Scottish students is increasingly seen as a sop to the better-off. Sturgeon’s demand for a quick second independence referendum, when a worried Middle Scotland was focused on what Brexit might mean for its future, was tone deaf.

The SNP has another problem (one that New Labour, for all its flaws, didn’t face): its doctrine of infallibility. The Nationalists’ constitution explicitly prohibits SNP elected members from criticising the party, its policies or each other. Although total unity is useful when you’re on the climb, it starts to look bonkers when the cracks are showing.

The word “cult” has long dogged the SNP. The party has tried hard to normalise its electoral appeal while keeping the flame of independence burning, but this has been a difficult balancing act. The pro-independence mob is an ugly thing when unleashed (and it has suited the leadership to open the cage door at times). After the debate, Claire Austin found herself at its mercy as the Nats briefed – wrongly – that she was the wife of a Tory councillor. The SNP branch in Stirling said, Tebbitishly, that if she was having to use food banks, “Maybe she needs to tighten her belt a bit more?”

Joanna Cherry, a QC, MP and the SNP’s home affairs spokesperson, was forced to apologise for spreading “Twitter rumours” about Austin. The ravening horde has largely kept its head down since the 2014 independence referendum, but it hasn’t gone away – it is not enough for the SNP’s critics to be debated: they must be destroyed. This isn’t the behaviour of a normal political party.

I have a feeling that when the SNP does fall, it will fall quite quickly. Its belief in its infallibility, and its inability or unwillingness to do self-deprecation or apology, will increasingly exasperate voters. There is nothing to suggest the current public policy failings will be addressed, and many signs that things will get worse.

How then do you arrest your fall? The SNP offered hope and promised it was different, and the voters believed it. The sense of betrayal could make for a very hard landing indeed. 

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland). 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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