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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.


Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.


Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?


Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.


As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era