THE WORLDWIDE BAHÁ’Í COMMUNITY
The worldwide Bahá’í community is among the most diverse and widespread organizations on earth. Comprising individuals from virtually every nation, ethnic group, trade profession, and social or economic class, over 7 million followers of the Bahá’í Faith reside in some 214 countries and territories. They represent more than 2,100 different ethnic groups. Bahá’í literature is printed in over 800 languages.
Bahá’ís are from every religious background: Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Sikh, Jain, animist, and non-religious. Yet as Bahá’ís, they study a common set of sacred writings, observe universal religious laws, and look to a single international governing system for guidance. This blend of unity and diversity within a supportive, voluntary administrative structure is perhaps the most distinguishing feature of the worldwide Bahá’í community.
Although Bahá’ís reside in more than 110,000 localities worldwide, they are connected through an international network of freely elected local and national governing councils. Elected annually, these councils operate under the guidance of an international governing body, known as the Universal House of Justice, which is based in Haifa, Israel. There is no clergy in the Bahá’í Faith. Every individual Bahá’í has the opportunity to serve the community as part of Bahá’í administration.
At the national level there are some 182 elected nine-member Bahá’í governing bodies, called National Spiritual Assemblies. 12,000 nine-member Local Spiritual Assemblies guide and coordinate the work of local Bahá’í communities in about 128,000 localities around the world.
A WAY OF LIFE
For Bahá’ís, the purpose of life is to know and to worship God, and to contribute to an ever-advancing civilization. Bahá’ís seek to fulfill this in a variety of personal, family, and community activities. On a personal level, the Bahá’í teachings stress the importance of daily prayer and meditation. “Work done in the spirit of service is the highest form of worship,” the Bahá’í writings state. The use of alcoholic drinks or narcotic drugs is prohibited. Drugs prescribed by a physician are permitted.
Bahá’í writings also attach great importance to the institution of the family as the foundation of society. The sanctity of marriage, the recognition of the equality of men and women, and the responsibility for raising children and seeing to their education are emphasized. Divorce is discouraged but not forbidden.
Bahá’í community life is rich. The local Spiritual Assembly plans activities, including spiritual and moral education for the community, devotional services, study classes, social events, and the observance of Bahá’í holy days.
Both men and women are encouraged to share in all aspects of Bahá’í community life, vote in Bahá’í elections, and serve as members of Bahá’í institutions. At all levels, Bahá’ís use Bahá’u’lláh’s unique method of non-adversarial decision-making and conflict resolution, known as “consultation.” This method requires respect for diverse views, encourages the broadest possible participation, and emphasizes the primacy of the common good over individual interests.
Projects of social and economic development are an important part of Bahá’í activities. Many local Spiritual Assemblies promote small-scale educational, health, or environmental development efforts. Over the last decade, Bahá’í communities have started more than 1,500 development projects. These range from simple tutorial schools to college-level institutions; from village-level agricultural or health education projects to participation in major reforestation programs. The majority of these programs are initiated at the grassroots level and rely on local resources and decision-making.
In all their activities, Bahá’ís are enjoined to uphold the highest standards of honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, and justice. Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings also stress the importance of loyalty to government and obedience to law. Although Bahá’ís may accept nonpartisan government posts or appointments and vote in elections, they must refrain from partisan political activity.
The activities of the Bahá’í Faith are supported by voluntary contributions from its members only.
Collectively, Bahá’ís participate in a wide range of activities including efforts in peace-building, human rights, women’s affairs, education, health, the environment, and sustainable development.
The worldwide Bahá’í community is recognized as a nongovernmental organization at the United Nations. Known as the Bahá’í International Community, it holds consultative status with the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). It also has a working relationship with the World Health Organization (WHO) and is associated with the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).
The worldwide Bahá’í community collaborates with other international nongovernmental organizations. It is a member of the World Wide Fund for Nature’s Network on Conservation and Religion, the Center for Our Common Future in Geneva, the Education for All Network, and the Advocates for African Food Security.
THE BAHÁ’Í FAITH AND ITS TEACHINGS
If there is a single word that describes the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, it is “unity.” This emphasis on unity and oneness exists at all levels, from its teachings about God to its social principles. Indeed, even the practice and administration of the Bahá’í Faith reflect this emphasis on unity. Alone among the world’s major independent religions, the Bahá’í Faith has preserved its essential unity.
Bahá’ís follow the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá’u’lláh (1817-1892) is regarded by Bahá’ís as the most recent in the line of Messengers from God, a line that stretches back beyond recorded time and includes Abraham, Moses, Krishna, Zoroaster, Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and the Báb.
Bahá’ís believe that there is only one God, and that the successive revelations of God’s Will through His Messengers have been the chief civilizing forces in history.
The central theme of Bahá’u’lláh’s message is that humanity is one single race and that the day has come for its unification into one global society. “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens,” wrote Bahá’u’lláh. Through an irresistible process, the traditional barriers of race, class, creed, and nation are breaking down, which will, in time, give birth to a universal civilization.
The principle challenge facing the people of the earth, Bahá’ís believe, is to accept as fact the oneness of the entire human race and work towards the creation of a unified world civilization.
Principles which the Bahá’í Faith promotes as vital to the achievement of this goal of world unity include the following:
- the abandonment of all forms of prejudice;
- the realization of equal rights and privileges for women and men;
- the elimination of the extremes of poverty and wealth;
- recognition of the common source and essential oneness of all the world’s great religions;
- the value and necessity of universal education;
- the responsibility of each person to search independently for truth;
- the establishment of a federated system of world government, based on principles of collective security and international justice;
- the recognition that true religion is always in harmony with reason and with the pursuit of scientific knowledge;
- the need for every individual to adhere to high personal moral standards.
THE HISTORICAL BACKGROUND
The Bahá’í Faith had its beginnings in 1844. In that year, a young Iranian merchant, who became known as “the Báb,” proclaimed the advent of a new religious revelation. Born on October 20, 1819, the Báb’s given name was Siyyid ‘Alí-Muhammad. “Báb” means “Gate” in Arabic. His followers were called Bábís. He declared that His purpose was to prepare humanity for the advent of a new Messenger from God, one promised to all the people of the world.
The Báb and His followers were brutally persecuted by the clergy and government of Iran, who viewed the Báb’s claim as heretical. He was beaten, imprisoned, and, on July 9, 1850, executed in the city of Tabríz. Over the years, more than 20,000 Bábís perished in series of massacres throughout Iran when they refused to recant their faith.
Among the Báb’s followers was a young man named Mírzá Husayn-Alí, who was born in Teheran on November 12, 1817. Known today as Bahá’u’lláh, which means “Glory of God,” He was a member of one of the great patrician families of Iran.
In becoming a follower of the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh turned His back on wealth and privilege, and, like other followers, became the victim of cruel persecution. In 1852, He was imprisoned and then banished, initially to Baghdad. There, in 1863, He announced that He was the Promised One foretold by the Báb.
In making this claim, Bahá’u’lláh explained that all of the world’s great religions have foretold a day when peace and justice would be established worldwide. The past Messengers of God–such as Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad, and the Báb–consciously prepared humanity for this day, much as educators prepare children for ever more complex studies. For Bahá’ís, Bahá’u’lláh’s appearance fulfills the promise of all the world’s scriptures. The followers of Bahá’u’lláh became known as Bahá’ís.
As a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire, He was sent from Baghdad to Constantinople (Istanbul), then to Adrianople (Edirne), and finally to the prison city of Acre, in the Holy Land, where He arrived in 1868. The Bahá’í World Center is situated in the twin cities of Haifa and Acre, in present-day Israel.
From His days in Baghdad until His passing near Acre in 1892, Bahá’u’lláh wrote hundreds of letters and books. These writings comprise the principal scriptures of the Bahá’í Faith. Within these texts are found the principles, teachings, prayers, and laws that guide the Bahá’í community.
The most distinctive feature of the worldwide Bahá’í community is its unity. Unlike virtually every other significant religious or social movement, the Bahá’í Faith has resisted division into factions or sects. This essential unity has been achieved in large part because detailed provisions for interpretation, succession and leadership have all been made in the Bahá’í writings.
Bahá’ís believe that Bahá’u’lláh established a new Covenant between God and humanity which befits the maturity of the human race. The most tangible evidence of this Covenant is the specific leadership succession outlined by Bahá’u’lláh, a development that is unique in religious history and which assures that the unity of the Bahá’í community will be preserved.
Before His passing, Bahá’u’lláh wrote His will and testament and appointed His eldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921), as the leader of the Bahá’í Faith. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s writings are also viewed as an authoritative source of Bahá’í teachings.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in turn, appointed His eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957), to be the “Guardian of the Faith” and His successor. He led the Bahá’í Faith from 1921 until 1957. With the passing of Shoghi Effendi, the line of hereditary leaders of the Bahá’í Faith ended. In 1963, following written instructions of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, and Shoghi Effendi, an international convention was held at the Bahá’í World Center in Haifa to elect the first Universal House of Justice.
Elected every five years by the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies, the Universal House of Justice directs the spiritual and administrative affairs of the worldwide Bahá’í community. Endowed by Bahá’u’lláh with the authority to legislate matters not mentioned in the Bahá’í scriptures, the Universal House of Justice is the institution that keeps the Bahá’í community unified and flexible, able to respond to the needs and conditions of an ever-changing world.
The Bahá’í community is a single organism, which conducts its affairs through a system of commonly accepted consultative principles proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh. Its existence demonstrates the practicality of its founder’s vision of a united world of diverse elements.
Prominent people from many fields of human endeavor have been strongly influenced by the revelation and teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, including poet, Robert Hayden; environmentalist and founder of Men of the Trees, Richard St. Barbe Baker; and scholar and key figure of the Harlem renaissance of the 1920s, Dr. Alain Locke.
The Bahá’í Faith has attracted two monarchs: Queen Marie of Rumania in the early part of this century, and Malietoa Tanumafili II, the present King of Western Samoa.
Members also have included the late composer and former MGM and Disney Studios Music Director, Charles Wolcott (who gave up his lucrative career to serve on the Universal House of Justice in 1963); the late jazz trumpeter John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, and the late actor, Lloyd Hanes of Room 222 fame, and the still very much alive jazz saxophonist James Moody. Seals & Crofts, the rock music duo of the 70s, were heavily influenced by their Bahá’í beliefs, as is country music singer Dan Seals. Kevin Locke, Lakota hoop dancer, Native American flute player, and educator, is a devoted Bahá’i. Singer Vic Damone, actor Alex Rocco, jazz singer Tierney Sutton (The Tierney Sutton Web), and Jamie Findlay (Jamie Findlay – Guitarist) are all Bahá’ís, as were the late actress Carole Lombard and sports announcer Bill Sears. Up and coming baseball player Khalil Greene may get signed up for the San Diego Padres.
The late Alain Locke was the founder of the Harlem Renaissance and the first African-American Rhodes scholar; he incorporated Bahá’í thinking into his ground-breaking work on multi-culturalism. Dwight Allen, Eminent Professor of Educational Reform at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, and author in collaboration with Bill Cosby of the new book American Schools: The 100 Billion Dollar Challenge, was raised a Bahá’í and has rendered years of exemplary service to the Bahá’í Faith as a pioneer to several countries. Dorothy Marcic is the author of Managing with the Wisdom of Love, which is available in bookstores as well. This wonderful book shows how love and business can go together according to the ethical teachings of the world’s major religions. Linda Kavelin Popov has been seen on Oprah’s show talking about how to teach children spiritual qualities. Her book, written with her husband Dan Popov and brother John Kavelin, is called The Family Virtues Guide: Simple Ways to Bring Out the Best in Our Children and Ourselves and is also available in bookstores. She has four other titles as well. Layli Miller Bashir, who started The Tahirih Justice Center, helped Fauziya Kassindja to be granted asylum in the United States and helped Fauziya tell her story in the book “Do They Hear You When You Cry?”. Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff is a writer of fantasy novels.
If you happen to live in Australia, there is a television show that actually features a Baha’i character – MDA: Medical Defense Australia. This link talks about the character: Layla Young: Staff Room: MDA Let us know how you like it! 🙂
Appreciations of the Bahá’í Faith by unbiased observers:
“The philosophy of Bahá’u’lláh deserves the best thought we can give it… It is useless to combine or conspire against an idea which has in it potency to create a new earth and a new heaven and to quicken human beings with a holy passion of service.” — Helen Keller
“I am heartily in accord with the Bahá’í Movement, in which I have been interested for several years. The religion of peace is the religion we need and always have needed, and in the Bahá’í is more truly the religion of peace than any other.” — Luther Burbank
“Bahaism [sic] is an independent religion on a par with Islam, Christianity, and other recognized world religions. Bahaism is not a sect of some other religion; it is a separate religion, and it has the same status as the other recognized religions.” — Arnold Toynbee, historian, written in 1957
“There was living quite lately a human being of such consummate excellence that many think it is both permissible and inevitable even to identify him mystically with the invisible Godhead. If there has been any prophet in recent times, it is to Bahá’u’lláh that we must go. Character is the final judge. Bahá’u’lláh was a man of the highest class—that of prophets.” — the Reverend T. K. Cheyne, a renowned Bible scholar from Oxford who researched Bahá’u’lláh thoroughly.
Upton Sinclair said the Bahá’ís had “what I am inclined to think is the purest and most dignified religion in existence.”
In recent books available in bookstores now, Another Shot by Joe Kita has three pages that talk about his experiences at a Sunday Bahá’í devotional meeting, and The American Dream by Dan Rather starts out with nine pages describing an Iranian Bahá’í woman’s escape from Iran’s persecution and her transition to life in America.”‘It’s really hard to find anything to criticize about this faith,’ says the Hebrew University professor [Moshe Sharon], who began studying the Bahá’ís because it offered an opportunity to observe the development of a relatively new worldwide religion.” (© 2001 “The Jerusalem Post”)