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An act of faith
Not to be confused with Ba'ha.[1]

The Bahá'í religion is a medium-sized, but global, religion founded by Baha'u'llah,[2] a nineteenth-century Persian exiled to the Ottoman Empire. Though emerging from Islam, the religion regards most of the major faiths as paths to God (Sikhism and Taoism are not so honored), and sees religious wars therefore as bad. Each legitimate religion (according to Bahá'í doctrine) has been founded by a prophet—the list of prophets includes Abraham, Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad — with each new prophet superseding his predecessors, in a process that Baha'is expect to continue into the indefinite future.[3]

Because Baha'is accept the Prophet Muhammad, but deny that he is the final prophet, and because of the religion's Shi'ite background, countries like Shi'ite Iran consider them heretical Muslims and persecute them accordingly. Baha'is cannot attend standard schools in Iran, and have had to set up their own underground university there, the Bahá'í Institute for Higher Education (BIHE). (How this gels with the Baha'i rule of obedience to government remains a theological mystery; perhaps the Iranian educational regulations are regarded as invalid.)[4]

Historically, the Baha'i religion emerged from a short-lived mid-19th century millennarian movement in Iran called Babism[5] (hence the Baha'i calendar begins in 1844 CE), which in turn emerged from the equally millennial Shaykhi sect[6] of 19th-century Shi'ism. The Shaykhis are still around, and play a minor role in the politics of southern Iraq. 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.


Baha'i Temple, Samoa.

Baha'is got stuck with a particular, and by now dated, transliteration scheme chosen by the great-grandson of their founder, who was the first in his family to attend college, and fancied himself something of an Orientalist. "Bahá'í" (note the diacriticals)--or better yet, "the Bahá'í Faith"--is the preferred renditon of the name of the religion. Since outsiders can rarely be bothered with the diacriticals, the use of the Baha'i "house style" (whether for this, or for other Arabic / Persian words) is a reliable sign that a text was authored by Baha'is. "The Baha'i religion" comes across as fairly neutral and academic, while "Bahaism" is a sign that the writer is either a crazed conspiracy theorist, or Denis MacEion.

Holy Texts[edit]

Among the voluminous writings of Baha'u'llah (and the Bab), a number have been selected for official translation and dissemination, while others remain inaccessible in the Baha'i archives, possibly because they contain material which is now regarded as embarrassing. The major sacred text of the Baha'i religion is said to be the Kitab-i-Aqdas (glossed as "the Most Holy Book," literally "the Greatest Book"), an Arabic-language text composed by Baha'u'llah in the early 1870s. It is a very unsystematic description of Baha'i laws, in much the same spirit that has given us Islamic sharia or fiqh (jurisprudence). Non-Middle Easterners tend not to admire many of its provisions, such as the rule that arsonists are to be punished by being set afire, which may explain why the Baha'is waited until 1992 to translate the work into English. (An "unauthorized," but broadly accurate, translation by a missionary was generally regarded as an attempt to embarrass the faith.) Par. 49 states that "God hath imposed a fine on every adulterer and adulteress, to be paid to the House of Justice: nine mithqáls of gold, to be doubled if they should repeat the offence." Baha'u'llah seems not to have understood the principle of geometric progression; one enthusiastic couple could, in a month's time, find themselves liable for more gold than is known to exist in the solar system.

Practices and beliefs[edit]

Baha'is predict the emergence of world unity, including a world government, which they believe has been willed by God. This carries a strong anti-racism component, and indeed, the Baha'is are consciously and proudly multi-ethnic. Whether their institutions are to become the future world government, or remain separate from it, is a point of some disagreement among Baha'i writers and authorities. Likewise uncertain is the timing of this world unity, although some older books suggest that it will occur during the 20th century. (Obviously these misinterpreted the authoritative utterances of Baha'u'llah's son Abdu'l-Baha.)

Another tenet of the Bahai faith is the unity of science and religion, which as in Catholic theology are broadly held to comprise separate magesteria. Minor conflicts do arise when one or another authoritative figure makes statements at odds with the scientific mainstream, as when Abdu'l-Baha denies that humans evolved from (other) animals, or when Shoghi Effendi says that homosexuality can be cured through prayer. More generally, the Baha'i religion regularly comes into conflict with secular scholarship on their sacred history, whose conclusions often depart from hagiographic official treatments. Baha'i encyclicals condemn such scholarship, uninformed by religious faith, as "dogmatic materialism."

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.[7] The observation that other religions have also adapted to the times, just as theirs has, confuses them, since they are taught that other world religions represent corruptions of the pure, pristine teachings of their supposed founders. Nevertheless, Baha'is are active in interfaith events, partly for PR reasons but also out of genuine belief that such forums have some effect on the world.

The Baha'i religion has a well-defined hierarchy consisting of global, national, and local committees. 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.

New believers are informed of the existence of laws and institutions which they must obey. Important laws include a prohibition on non-medicinal alcohol and drugs, a requirement to observe daily prayer and an annual 19-day fast (which, like Ramadan, involves abstaining from food, drink, and sex during daylight), and a ban on non-marital sex. Marriage must be heterosexual, monogamous, and performed with the permission of all living parents of the couple (if they married as Baha'is). Those who have entered into a gay marriage are not allowed to formally join the religion.

Sooner or later elections will be held, and the believer may well find him- or herself elected to the Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA), or otherwise tasked with work; one wit has observed that the Baha'i religion seeks to transform mystics into bureaucrats. Ideally, Baha'is meet once per Baha'i month (i.e., every 19 days) as well as on major holidays, such as Baha'u'llah's birthday or Naw Ruz (the Persian New Year). Meetings open to the general public tend to consist of prayers or writings read 'round the room, short talks or discussions, amateur performances, and socializing. The study of "Ruhi" workbooks has recently come to be emphasized, and Baha'is are encouraged to recruit outsiders to join these circles. (Children may be invited to classes on "virtues" or the like.) Some meetings, or portions of meetings, are closed to outsiders, when elections are to be held or "business" discussed.

Fund-raising is an inevitable aspect of Baha'i community life. Remarkably, non-Baha'is are generally not allowed to donate. Believers, however, are required to donate 19 percent of their wealth (assessed once, not annually, and with deductions). In addition, they can count on being hit up for additional, voluntary donations.


  1. Ba'ha is the traditional greeting of Zone Theorists.
  2. See the Wikipedia article on Bahá'u'lláh.
  4. Compare: Freedman, Samuel G. (2010-01-22). "Bahai on Trial in Iran Worries Brother From Afar". The New York Times (The New York Times Company). "They have endured beatings, insults, arrest, vandalism, dismissal from jobs, denial of education and other forms of religious bigotry inflicted by the Iranian Muslims who consider Bahaism an intolerable blasphemy for its belief in a 19th-century prophet and his new revelation emerging from Shiite Islam." 
  5. See the Wikipedia article on Babism.
  6. See the Wikipedia article on Shaykhism.
  7. A concept they call progressive revelation. See the Wikipedia article on Progressive revelation (Baha'i).