bahÁ'Í Faith


Barely more than a hundred years old, the Bahá'í faith emerged from the region of what is now Iran and Iraq, preaching a vision of the unity of all religions and humankind. The Bahá'í's believe that the great founders of the major world religions were divine prophets who served as channels of grace between the unknowable god and humankind. They also believe that revelation is progressive. All the revelations are essentially the same, differing only by the degree of their compatibility with the state of the human race at the time of their appearance.

Origins and Evolution of Bahá'í Faith

The Bahá'í faith is an offshoot of the Bábí religion, founded in 1844 by Mízrá 'Alí Mohammed of Shíráz, originally a Shí'ite Muslim, in present-day Iran. He declared himself a prophet with a new revelation, and spoke also about the future appearance, in exactly nineteen years, of a new prophet who would sweep away centuries of inherited superstition and injustice and inaugurate a golden age of peace and reconciliation among all humans of all religions, sects, and nationalities. Under his title of the "Báb" (Arabic for "gateway"), he propagated his universal doctrine throughout Persia, incurring the ire of the country's predominant Shí'ite Muslim religious establishment and their allies in the government. A massive campaign of official persecution over the next several years led to the death of thousands of Bábí followers and culminated in the execution of the Báb in 1850.

Mírzá Husayn 'Alí Núrí was among the Báb's most ardent and eloquent followers. Dubbing himself Bahá'u'lláh, he renounced his personal wealth and social position to devote himself to proselytizing the Bábí faith. While imprisoned in Tehran in 1852, Bahá'u'lláh experienced an epiphany, which he claimed divine appointment as the prophet announced by the Báb. At the end of the year he was released from prison and deported to present-day Iraq. Settling in Baghdad, he led a vigorous Bábí revival that prompted the Ottoman regime to relocate him to Constantinople, where the Bábí community embraced him as the prophet promised by the Báb and thereafter called themselves Bahá'í's in honor of their new leader.

Seeking to contain the influence of the growing new faith, the Ottomans exiled Bahá'u'lláh first to Adrianople in present-day Turkey and later to Acre in what is now Israel. Yet through the tenacity of his vision, he not only sustained his flock of followers but also managed a modest growth until his death in 1892, when the religion's leadership fell into the hands of his oldest son, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, who was succeeded by his own grandson Shoghi Effendi (d. 1951). Over the ensuing decades the faith won new adherents around the world, undergoing an especially rapid spurt of growth in the West. At the end of the twentieth century, the faith had approximately 6 million adherents worldwide.

The Bahá'í sacred scriptures consist of the formal writings and transcribed speeches of the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh, and 'Abalu'l-Bahá. There are no formally prescribed rituals and no priests or clerics. The only formalized prescriptive behavioral expectations of the faith are daily prayer; nineteen days of fasting; abstaining from all mind-altering agents, including alcohol; monogamous fidelity to one's spouse; and participation in the Nineteenth Day Feast that opens every month of the Bahá'í calendar, which divides the year into nineteen months, each nineteen days long, with four compensatory days added along the way. New Year's day is observed on the first day of spring.

Bahá'í Beliefs on Death and Dying

The Bahá'í faith posits three layers of existence: the concealed secret of the Divine Oneness; the intermediary world of spiritual reality; and the world of physical realty ("the world of possibility"). It rejects the notion—common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—that life in this physical world is a mere preparation for an eternal life to come after death. The Bahá'í faith regards the whole idea of Heaven and Hell as allegorical rather than real. Bahá'ís believe that human life moves between the two interwoven poles of the physical and the spiritual. The only difference is that the world of physical existence has the dimension of temporality whereas the world of spiritual existence is eternal. Although one's physical life is not directly preparatory for a purely spiritual afterlife, the two are interrelated, the current course of life can influence its subsequent course. Death does not mean movement into another life, but continuation of this life. It is simply another category or stage of existence. The best that a person can do in this world, therefore, is to achieve spiritual growth, in both this and the coming life.

Death is regarded as the mere shedding of the physical frame while the indestructible soul lives on. Because the soul is the sum total of the personality and the physical body is pure matter with no real identity, the person, having left his material side behind, remains the same person, and he continues the life he conducted in the physical world. His heaven therefore is the continuation of the noble side of his earthly life, whereas hell would be the continuation of an ignoble life on earth. Freed from the bonds of earthly life, the soul is able to come nearer to God in the "Kingdom of Bahá." Hence the challenge of life in this world continues in the next, with the challenge eased because of the freedom from physical urges and imperatives.

Although death causes distress and pain to the friends and relatives of the deceased, it should be regarded as nothing more than a stage of life. Like birth, it comes on suddenly and opens a door to new and more abundant life. Death and birth follow each other in the movement from stage to stage and are symbolized some in other religions by the well-known ceremonies of the "rites of passage." In this way real physical death is also considered as a stage followed by birth into an invisible but no less real world.

Because the body is the temple of the soul, it must be treated with respect; therefore, cremation is forbidden in the Bahá'í faith, and the body must be laid to rest in the ground and pass through the natural process of decomposition. Moreover, the body must be treated with utmost care and cannot be removed a distance of more than an hour's journey from the place of death. The body must be wrapped in a shroud of silk or cotton and on its finger should be placed a ring bearing the inscription "I came forth from God and return unto Him, detached from all save Him, holding fast to His Name, the Merciful the Compassionate." The coffin should be made from crystal, stone, or hardwood, and a special prayer for the dead must be said before interment.

In its particular respect for the body of the dead, the Bahá'í faith shares the same values of Judaism and Islam, and was no doubt influenced by the attitude of Islam, its mother religion.

See also: Islam

Bibliography

Buck, Christopher. Symbol and Secret. Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1995.

Cole, Juan Ricardo. Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Bahá'í Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Hatcher, John S. The Purpose of Physical Reality, The Kingdom of Names. National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of the United States. 1979.

Smith, Peter. The Bábí and Bahá'í Religions: From Messianic Shí'ism to a World Religion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

MOSHE SHARON

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