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The Bahá'í religion is a medium-sized, but global, religion founded by Baha'u'llah, a nineteenth-century Persian man exiled to the Ottoman Empire. The Baha'i Faith has various holy writings including the Kitab-I-Iqan and the Kitab-I-Aqdas. Though emerging from Islam, the religion teaches that most of the major faiths are paths to God (Sikhism and Taoism are not so honored), and that religious wars are therefore unnecessary and unsightly to God. Each legitimate religion has been founded by a prophet—the list includes Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad — with each new prophet superseding his predecessors, in a process that is expected to continue into the indefinite future.
Because Baha'is accept the Prophet Muhammad, but deny that he is the final prophet, they are considered heretical Muslims by countries like Iran, and persecuted. Baha'is identify as non-Muslims as they believe God has brought a new revelation.
Historically, the Baha'i religion emerged from a short-lived mid-19th century millennarian movement in Iran called Babism (hence the Baha'i calendar begins in AD 1844), which in turn emerged from the equally millennial Shaykhi sect of 19th-century Shi'ism.
The religion tries to maintain a public image of being tolerant, progressive and liberal-minded. At the same time, a more authoritarian side can be observed:
- Despite claims to believe in the equality of women and men, the ultimate ruling body of the religion (the "Universal House of Justice") is restricted to men only.
- Baha'is are noted for a controversial practice of excommunicating those who attempt to create division within the religion. These people are known as covenant-breakers. The practice does not extend to those who resign or convert away from the Baha'i Faith.
- Despite opposing "every form of prejudice," quite a few Baha'is claim that homosexuality is immoral under Baha'i law. Shoghi Effendi, leader of the Baha'i Faith in the early to mid-20th century, classified homosexuality as an affliction. This stance has lightened somewhat. Shoghi Effendi denied scientific infallibility, so his interpretation that homosexuality is banned under Baha'i law still stands, but his statement on the nature of homosexuality is outdated.
Due to disputes over succession, the Bahá'í religion has split into a number of factions, few of which survive. The most well-known group, and the only one of any size, goes by the name of "the Bahá'í Faith" (note the diacritical marks); the other factions generally call the largest faction the "Haifan Bahá'ís," after their headquarters in Haifa, Israel.
Bahá'í can be spelt many different ways. This is because transliteration practices have evolved over the last century or so, while the Baha'is are kind of stuck with translations made by the great-grandson of their founder. Some spellings (e.g. "Behaism") have been made radioactive through their use by schismatic groups or critics. Since outsiders can rarely be bothered with the diacriticals, the use of the Baha'i "house style" is a reliable sign that a text was authored by Baha'is.
The Aqdas or Kitab-i-Aqdas ("the Most Holy Book" or "the book of laws" in Farsi; translation varies) is the most important holy book of the Baha'i religion. It is believed to have been completed by Baha'ullah in 1873, and it was first published in Arabic in 1891.
Despite one of the translations of the name as "the book of laws", the text covers many subjects apart from criminal and civil law, including spiritual doctrines concerning the nature of God, the administration of the faith, ethical and social principles, and prophecies.
Although the book is referenced in all of the other scriptural texts of the Baha'i faith, an official English translation did not become available until 1992.
Practices and beliefs
Baha'is believe that this era will see the emergence of world unity, including a world government, and that this has been willed by God. This carries a strong anti-racism component, and indeed, the Baha'is are consciously and proudly multi-ethnic.
Another tenet of the Bahai faith is the "unity" of science and religion. It is stated that "Religion without science is superstition, but science without religion is materialism, which also has its dangers."
Much as Islam sees itself as the most recent and ultimate of a series of divine revelations that includes those that originated as Judaism and Christianity, so too Baha'is believe that their faith is a natural successor of other religions. The Bahá'í Faith, however, is somewhat more accommodating of other religions than Islam, and makes a point of at least attempting to present itself as compatible with non-Abrahamic faiths as well. At the same time, although Buddha is said to have been a "manifestion" (prophet) of "God," there is little of Buddhism in the Baha'i religion, and the suspicion naturally arises that the Baha'is merely wish to lay a claim to Buddhism's authority and cachet.
It is very strongly organized in an administrative sense, with a well-defined hierarchy and regular meetings in most cities where there are more than a handful of Bahá'ís. Indeed, Baha'is may be "disenrolled" for falling afoul of these bodies, and those who deny their legitimacy are declared to be "covenant breakers" who must be shunned. (It seems that respect for other religions does not extend to rival Baha'i denominations.)
Bahá'í Doctrine tends to emphasize Abrahamic beliefs, most notably the concept of one God, and to downplay doctrinal conflicts among the various religions and faiths which it claims to wants to honor and succeed (explicitly including Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam).
- Ba'ha is the traditional greeting of Zone Theorists.
- The Baha'i Faith: Its History and Teachings - Page 324, William McElwee Miller - 1974
- God speaks again: an introduction to the Bahá'í Faith
- A concept they call progressive revelation. See the Wikipedia article on Progressive revelation (Baha'i).