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.