The Baha’i faith is one of the newer world religions stemming originally from Shi’ite Islam in Persia (modern-day Iran). However, it has come to achieve a unique status of its own. The Baha’i faith has distinguished itself as a unique world religion because of its size (5 million members), its global scale (236 countries), its practical autonomy from its parent religion of Islam (there is little blurriness between the two), and for its doctrinal uniqueness, being monotheistic yet inclusive.
The Baha’i faith’s earliest forerunner was Sayid Ali Muhammad who on May 23, 1844, declared himself the Bab (“Gate”), the eighth manifestation of God and first since Muhammad. Implicit to that statement was the denial of Muhammad as the last and greatest prophet and a denial together of the unique authority of the Koran. Islam did not take kindly to such thoughts. The Bab and his followers, called Babis, saw heavy persecution and were part of great bloodshed before the Bab was executed as a political prisoner just six years later in Tabríz, Ádhirbáyján, July 9, 1850. But before he died, the Bab spoke of a coming prophet, referred to as “He whom God will Manifest.” On April 22, 1863, Mirza Husayn Ali, one of his followers, declared himself the fulfillment of that prophecy and the latest manifestation of God. He donned the title Baha’u’llah (“glory of God”). The Bab was therefore viewed as a “John the Baptist”-type of forerunner leading up to Baha’u’llah who is the more significant manifestation for this age. His followers are called Baha’is. The uniqueness of this budding Baha’i faith, as it has come to be called, becomes clear in the Baha’u’llah’s declarations. Not only did he claim to be the latest prophet foreseen in Shi’ite Islam, and not only did he claim to be a manifestation of God, but he claimed to be the second coming of Christ, the promised Holy Spirit, the Day of God, the Maiytrea (from Buddhism), and the Krishna (from Hinduism). A kind of inclusivism is apparent from the early stages of the Baha’i faith.
No other manifestation is said to have come since Baha’u’llah, but his leadership was passed on by appointment. He designated a successor in his son Abbas Effendi (later, Abdu’l-Baha “slave of Baha”). While the successors could not speak inspired scripture from God, they could interpret scripture infallibly and were viewed as the maintenance of God’s true word on earth. Abdu’l-Baha would appoint his grandson Shoghi Effendi as successor. Shoghi Effendi, however, died before appointing a successor. The gap was filled by an ingeniously organized governing institution called the Universal House of Justice which remains in power today as the governing body for the Baha’i World Faith. Today, the Baha’i faith exists as a world religion with yearly international conferences convening at the Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel.
The core doctrines of the Baha’i faith can be attractive in their simplicity:
- Adoration of one God and the reconciliation of all major religions.
- Appreciation of the diversity and morality of the human family and the elimination of all prejudice.
- The establishment of world peace, equality of women and men, and universal education.
- Cooperation between Science and Religion in the individual’s search for truth. To these may be added certain implicit beliefs and practices:
- A Universal Auxillary Language.
- Universal Weights and Measures.
- God who is himself unknowable nevertheless reveals himself through manifestations.
- These manifestations are a kind of progressive revelation.
- No proselytizing (aggressive witnessing).
- The study of different Scriptures besides simply Baha’i books.
- Prayer and worship is obligatory and much of that according to specific instructions.
The Baha’i faith is quite sophisticated, and many of its followers today are educated, eloquent, eclectic, politically liberal, yet socially conservative (i.e., anti-abortion, pro-traditional family, etc.). Moreover, Baha’is are not only expected to understand their own uniquely Baha’i scriptures, but are also expected to study the scriptures of other world religions. Therefore, it is quite possible to encounter a Baha’i who is more educated on Christianity than is the average Christian. Furthermore, the Baha’i faith has a strong emphasis on education combined with certain liberal values such as gender egalitarianism, universal education, and harmony between science and religion.