The man who later became the Prophet-Founder of the Bahá'í Faith was born into a life of privilege. The opportunities available to him excelled those open to most people in today's technological democracies; in the absolute monarchy of nineteenth century Persia, a far greater gulf existed between his prospects and those of the average person. And yet, he chose to abandon these advantages.
This was not a rash decision. Over a period of many years, he could have reversed it at any time, and returned to a style of life which millions of people covet and envy. Instead, he chose to remain on a path which made him a target of intense religious persecution and government repression.
Why would anyone do such a thing? To Bahá'ís, the life this man led and the message he taught answer this question with crystal clarity. Others, who do not accept his message as being divine in origin, might still derive inspiration from his story and insight from his teachings.
Bahá'u'lláh was born at dawn on November 12, 1817, in the city of Tihrán, to a family solidly established in the Persian hereditary nobility. His father was a member of the court of the Sháh. Their family name was Núrí, derived from their ancestral home in the Núr district of Mázindarán province, not far from Tihrán. They were descended from the royal line of Persia's Zoroastrian period, including Yazdigird III, the last to rule that ancient empire before the arrival of Islam; and through these kings, descended from Zoroaster himself. On his mother's side, Bahá'u'lláh was a descendant of Abraham through his third wife Keturah.
The name "Bahá'u'lláh" is a title meaning "The Glory of God," given to him later in life by the Báb. The name he was given at birth, Husayn-`Alí, combines the names of the third Imam and of the first Imam, the two most important of the twelve Imams in Shi'ih Islam. Thus, the full name by which he was known in the early part of his life was Mírzá Husayn-`Alíy-i-Núrí. ("Mírzá," when placed before a name, was a customary title approximately equivalent to "Mister.")
Some accounts describe miraculous events and extraordinary abilities, beginning in Bahá'u'lláh's earliest childhood. Such stories can be inspirational, but the Bahá'í teachings do not claim they prove the station of a Messenger of God. A miracle can be deeply meaningful for those present to witness it, yet many people who witness a miracle firsthand remain unmoved. Those of us who know of a miracle only through stories have even less reason to consider it a convincing proof of anything.
Bahá'u'lláh did not exploit his advantages for his own gain. His time and wealth were devoted mostly to charitable activities to benefit the poor. Had he desired religious leadership, he could easily have gained entrance to schools that trained the powerful Islamic clergy, from scholars to judges. These he chose not to enter. Had he desired worldly authority, his lineage would have opened the door to numerous government offices. These he chose not to pursue.
He spent little energy on the leisure activities common among the wealthy. Some of his free time he spent outdoors, for he loved the beauty of nature; and like most of the men in his family, he was a calligrapher of rare talent and skill. However, the major portion of his energies went to his work on behalf of the downtrodden. By the time of his adult years, he was widely referred to as "the father of the poor."
"He who shall arise"
The path away from this life of philanthropy and comparative ease began in the summer of 1844, when Bahá'u'lláh received a letter from the Báb and publicly joined the ranks of the earliest believers of the Bábí Faith. He immediately arose to spread word of the Báb's mission as the Promised One, the Qá'im ("He who shall arise") whose advent had been foretold in the prophecies of Islam. Many of his efforts were focused in the province of Mázindarán, but he also corresponded with and met with many people from across all of Persia, and thus quickly became a prominent leader of the Bábí community. During this period he also received the new name "Bahá" (Glory) from the Báb. As is often the case with Arabic names derived from the names of God, the suffix "-'u'lláh," meaning "of God" was always implied in this name.
The Bábí religion spread rapidly, in part because of messianic expectations strongly held in much of the Islamic world (perhaps even more strongly than the similar expectations in much of the Christian world). When the actual content of the message began to circulate, many were unprepared to accept its more radical principles, such as significant strides toward the emancipation of women.
As the revolutionary scope of the new religion became clear to an increasingly alarmed clergy, they began to stir up violent opposition to neutralize its perceived threat to their authority. The Báb and the other major figures in the community were arrested, executed, killed in episodes of mob violence, or exiled. On July 9, 1850, after several years of imprisonment, the Báb was executed.
"I beheld a Maiden..."
Although his social position protected him from the worst of the early persecution, Bahá'u'lláh did not escape it entirely. At one point he was arrested and subjected to the brutal punishment of the bastinado. He also expended large amounts of his wealth in attempts to aid and protect victims of the pogroms.
Until late 1852, it is quite likely that he could have gone back to his privileged life simply by recanting his new faith and abandoning its community. Even without such a reversal, he might have escaped with most of his privileges intact, if a small group of Bábís had not allowed their grief over the execution of the Báb to goad them into a foolish criminal act.
Some accounts say only two young men took part in this ill-conceived plot; in any case, there were no more than three. Ignoring the moral teachings common to both Islam and their new religion, these men made an attempt to kill the Shah. Their plan failed, but it unleashed new waves of persecution more fierce than any that had come before. Thousands of innocent Bábís were massacred in cities, towns, and villages all across the country. In this storm not even Bahá'u'lláh was safe. All available evidence indicated he never had any knowledge of the assassination attempt, but his lands and properties were confiscated, and he was incarcerated in Tihran's most vile prison.
This prison had previously been used as a reservoir and had only one entrance. It was known as the Síyáh-Chál ("Black Pit"). Bahá'u'lláh was one of about thirty Bábís who were crowded into this place, which already held over one hundred murderers and thieves. His captors kept locked around his neck, at all times, one of two heavy chains so dreaded that each had been given its own name. The chains left deep scars on his neck and shoulders, which he carried for the rest of his life.
While still being held under these cruel conditions, in October of 1852, Bahá'u'lláh was first made aware of his own divine mission. It was early in the ninth year A.H. after the beginning of the Bábí dispensation when a figure he later described as the Maiden of Heaven appeared to him in a vision and informed him of his station. He made no public announcement of this until ten years later.
Most of the Bábí prisoners were gradually taken out and executed. After four months under the constant threat of suffering the same fate, Bahá'u'lláh was released from the prison and sent into exile. He chose Baghdád as his place of banishment. In the cold of winter he began the difficult journey out of Persia, along with a few of his closest family members. He was never again allowed to set foot in his native land.
Soon after his arrival in Baghdád, it became clear that Bahá'u'lláh was the only remaining viable leader of the Bábí community, for the rest had all been wiped out in repeated waves of violent persecution. There were some others who asserted their own claims of leadership and attempted to reorganize the community, but their efforts proved ineffective.
Bahá'u'lláh deplored the disunity resulting from these competing claims, and did not actively pursue a leadership role for himself. Nevertheless, his ability and understanding were clear to all who met him, and this led some to put forward claims on his behalf. However well intentioned they might have been, such claims only added to the constant bickering which paralyzed the surviving Bábí community. Beginning on April 10, 1854, Bahá'u'lláh broke off contact with the community and withdrew to the mountains of Kurdistán to live as a hermit, so that his presence could no longer be a source of contention.
During the period before and during this withdrawal, at least twenty-five different people claimed to be the new messenger anticipated in the Bábí's writings. The Báb had repeatedly emphasized that the central purpose of his mission was to prepare the way for the coming of a divine messenger whose station was greater than his own. However, none of those who came forward to claim this station offered proof sufficient to satisfy the community. After enduring almost two years of such disarray, some of the Bábís finally located Bahá'u'lláh and he agreed to return.
Once back in Baghdád again in March of 1856, Bahá'u'lláh immediately began to educate the community and clarify the teachings of the Bábí religion. Even though he had not yet publicly declared his station, some of his most important writings date from this period, including several which were among the first selected for translation into English in later years.
All of the Bahá'í and Bábí sacred texts were originally written in Arabic or Persian. For several reasons, translation into English later became the first step toward their translation into most other languages of the world. Some works from this period readily available in English include:
- The Seven Valleys, a description of the mystical stages in the human soul's journey toward enlightenment and spiritual knowledge.
- The Four Valleys, which also describes the stages of the soul's journey toward greater understanding. (This is often published together in the same volume with The Seven Valleys, partly to show that the number of "stages" identified in each is a symbolic device to assist the reader, not a rigidly dogmatic assertion of what every person "ought" to experience.)
- The Hidden Words, a collection of brief moral instructions and spiritual meditations which Bahá'u'lláh describes as "the inner essence" of the spiritual teachings common to all of the world's great religions.
- The Kitáb-i-Iqán (The Book of Certitude) is one of the most important books for understanding the Bahá'í teachings. It explains the divine origin and harmonious purposes of past religions. It also explains why there is a recurring dissonance between the unifying and peaceful purpose God intends religion to serve, and the violently divisive abuses of religion perpetrated by human beings. One of the most frequently quoted passages from this volume describes the qualities and station of a "true seeker." Among other reasons, this passage is noteworthy because it calls for efforts to free oneself from preconceived ideas as a requirement for achieving this station; and because it highly exalts the station of a constant seeker for greater understanding of truth, thus undermining the fundamentalist tendency of the human mind to believe it has already found all the answers it needs to know.
Most of the Bábís began to follow the guidance in these and other writings and sayings of Bahá'u'lláh. The fortunes of their community began to rise again, both in Baghdád and back in Persia. This alarmed the Persian authorities, who pressured the Ottoman government to reduce his influence by moving him farther away from his homeland. (At that time, the territory which later became the nation of Iraq was a province under the Ottoman Sultan's rule.) In the spring of 1863, he was ordered to move to the city now known as Istanbul, but known then as Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
"Him whom God shall make manifest"
Many of the people in Baghdád had been hostile to Bahá'u'lláh when he first arrived in their city, but after having years to learn of his character, many more were deeply grieved to learn of his departure. As word spread that he was leaving, the number of visitors trying to meet him one last time was too great for his small house to contain.
On April 21, 1863, he took up residence in a garden just outside the city, which later became known as the Garden of Ridván (Paradise), where he spent twelve days before beginning his journey. Here he made the first public declaration that he was the one anticipated in the Báb's writings as "Him whom God shall make manifest," the messenger for whose coming it had been the central purpose of the Bábí Revelation to prepare. Among the first instructions he issued after asserting this station, he informed the believers that the use of violence in the name of religion is no longer permissible, not even as a defensive measure. If attacked by violent persecutors, the followers of Bahá'u'lláh are allowed to defend themselves by seeking the protection of lawful authorities, but are forbidden to respond with violence of any kind.
Three of the nine holy days observed each year in the Bahá'í calendar fall within the twelve day period known as the Festival of Ridván. These are the first day, on which Bahá'u'lláh entered the garden; the ninth day, when his family joined him there; and the twelfth day, when they left the garden to begin their journey to Constantinople. In addition to holding celebrations on these three days, each local Bahá'í community also gathers on the first day of Ridván to elect the governing council which will administer its business for the coming year. Such a council is currently known as a Local Spiritual Assembly, and one is elected in every local community where nine or more adult Bahá'ís reside.
Second and third exiles
Bahá'u'lláh's stay in Constantinople lasted just over three months. The Persian authorities feared he might gain influence with the Sultán and so they constantly agitated for his removal to an even more remote location. Before the end of 1863 he was banished to Adrianople, a European city which is now known as Edirne.
During this period, he began informing the Bábí community that the messenger they were waiting for had arrived. A large body of evidence available in the Báb's writings supported this assertion. Gradually, most of the Bábís accepted Bahá'u'lláh and made the transition into the Bahá'í community.
Proclamation to kings and rulers
This was also the time when Bahá'u'lláh began to send messages to the world's rulers, both collectively and individually, urging them to accept him as the messenger of God for this day, and to implement his teachings for the benefit of all humankind. He informed them of their duties with words such as these:
God hath committed into your hands the reins of the government of the people, that you may rule with justice over them, safeguard the rights of the downtrodden, and punish the wrongdoers. . . . If you stay not the hand of the oppressor, if you fail to safeguard the rights of the downtrodden, what right have you then to vaunt yourselves among men? What is it of which you can rightly boast? Is it on your food and your drink that you pride yourselves, on the riches you lay up in your treasuries, on the diversity and the cost of the ornaments with which you deck yourselves? If true glory were to consist in the possession of such perishable things, then the earth on which you walk must needs vaunt itself over you, because it supplieth you, and bestoweth upon you, these very things, by the decree of the Almighty.
From Adrianople, Bahá'u'lláh sent individual messages to three of the world's most absolute monarchs: Sultán `Abdu'l-Azíz, ruler of Ottoman Turkey; Násiri'd-Dín Sháh, ruler of Persia; and Emperor Napoleon III, ruler of France. All three he warned to value justice above the promotion of their own comfort and pride. All three disregarded these warnings. All three were eventually overthrown by the forces unleashed through their oppression of their own people.
To Bahá'ís, such facts indicate the prophetic insight of their religion's founder, but far more importantly, they demonstrate that the eventual triumph of justice over oppression will be made real in the visible world, and not merely fulfilled in some form of afterlife.
In August of 1868, Bahá'u'lláh and his family, along with most of the small community of his followers in Adrianople, were banished yet again. This time they were sent to the Holy Land, to the ancient crusader fortress of `Akká (referred to as Acre in many Western histories, and currently known as Akko to Israelis). At that time, the entire city was used as a prison colony by the Ottoman Empire.
For over two years, the Bahá'ís were held as prisoners in the citadel of the fortress. In spite of the severe conditions imposed by the prison officials, Bahá'u'lláh continued to send messages to the world's most powerful rulers, including Czar Alexander II of Russia, Queen Victoria of England, Pope Pius IX, and a second message to Emperor Napoleon III of France.
Gradually, as the local authorities became acquainted with the peaceful and law-abiding character of Bahá'u'lláh's closest followers, the conditions of their imprisonment were eased. In 1877, even though the original sentence of life imprisonment was still officially in force, he was allowed to move outside the city walls to a healthier location.
In early 1873, Bahá'u'lláh completed work on the most important single book of his Revelation, The Kitáb-i-Aqdás (The Most Holy Book). In this volume he reveals the central laws of the Bahá'í dispensation, and calls upon all humankind to embrace these laws as the surest foundation for establishing universal peace, security, and freedom. The majority of the laws established in this book, and elsewhere in the Bahá'í sacred writings, are binding only upon those who freely accept the authority of Bahá'u'lláh as the Messenger of God. Many of the laws are matters of conscience even for Bahá'ís; the question of whether or not such laws have been properly obeyed is left between the individual and God. The only laws made binding upon everyone are those necessary for a peaceful and well-ordered society, such as the prohibitions against murder and theft which are common to all of the world's great religions.
The Kitáb-i-Aqdás also reiterates an important statement first made on the occasion of Bahá'u'lláh's Declaration of his mission in 1863: that there will be no new Messenger of God after him until after at least one thousand years have elapsed.
Other important writings readily available in English translation include:
- Prayers and Meditations is a compilation of passages which Bahá'u'lláh recommended for use in private or community worship.
- Gleanings From the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, sometimes referred to simply as Gleanings among Bahá'ís, is a compilation of passages selected to give an overview of Bahá'í teachings on many different subjects, including theology, the nature of the afterlife, the necessity for harmony between science and religion, and exhortations regarding personal morals and ethics.
- A number of messages from the period after 1873, which clarify and expand upon his teachings, have been translated into English and compiled in one volume under the title Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed After the Kitáb-i-Aqdás, usually referred to simply as Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh.
- The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, written in 1891, was addressed to one of the most relentless persecutors of the Bahá'í community. This man was known as the "Son of the Wolf" because his father had previously been responsible for severe atrocities against the Bábí community. In this volume, Bahá'u'lláh restates the central themes of his teachings. He calls upon its recipient to embrace the truth of this message, and to seek God's forgiveness for the injustices he has committed against innocent people who had no means of defending themselves from him.
- The Lawh-i-Karmil (Tablet of Carmel), written in 1891, foreshadowed the future administrative and spiritual headquarters for the worldwide Bahá'í community, to be established on the slopes of Mount Carmel, above what was then the small town of Haifa.
- The Kitáb-i-`Ahd (Book of the Covenant) was also completed in 1891. This document served as the last will and testament of Bahá'u'lláh. In it, he clearly and explicitly appointed his oldest son, `Abdu'l-Bahá to be his successor as the leader of the Bahá'í community, and the authorized interpreter of his teachings. By making this appointment in such clear terms, he provided an unprecedented degree of protection against schism into competing sects, a danger which history shows to have sapped the vigor of every previous religion.
Following a brief illness, on May 29, 1892, eight hours after sunset, Bahá'u'lláh passed away at the age of seventy-five. His remains were buried in a tomb beneath the floor of a small building adjacent to the house which served as his residence in his final years. This building is now a shrine of pilgrimage, as well as the Qiblih (Point of Adoration) of the Bahá'í Faith; the point toward which all Bahá'ís turn while reciting their obligatory prayers.
The protection of Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant preserved the unity and vigor of the Faith he founded. During the first hundred years after his passing, the number of his followers grew to about six million, established in more than one hundred fifty nations and territories, organized into an estimated seventeen thousand local communities, and drawn from over two thousand different racial and cultural backgrounds. The worldwide Bahá'í community continues to grow today, and its members strive constantly to promote and to embody the principles he proclaimed as necessary for establishing world peace, including the following:
- Amity and concord between people of all racial backgrounds;
- Friendly association between people of all religious beliefs, including those who believe in no religion at all;
- Emancipation of women, and equal legal rights and protections for women and men everywhere in the world;
- Universal education for all children everywhere, laying particular emphasis on the oneness of humankind, and with resources in communities which cannot afford to educate all children focused on the education of women and girls;
- Cooperation between people of all national citizenships, backgrounds, and creeds;
- Resolution of extreme disparity between the rich and the poor, not by forcible transfer of wealth from one to the other, but by voluntary sharing on the part of the rich, and by social and economic development for the poor;
- Selection of a universal auxiliary language to be taught in addition to the world's native languages, so that basic communication between all peoples can become possible without discarding the beauty and diversity of the many languages humans have developed.
These are only a few of the prominent social teachings of the Bahá'í Faith. Much like most other collections of religious scripture, the Bahá'í sacred writings also contain guidance on personal moral and ethical behavior, from preserving the unity of one's family to maintaining honesty and fairness in one's business transactions. The main difference is that Bahá'ís believe these teachings have been updated to better serve the needs of the modern age, without losing any of their timeless value.
Regardless of what one might believe concerning the divine origins of Bahá'u'lláh's message, it is interesting to note how the social principles he promoted, at least in their broad outline, are gradually becoming accepted as the necessary foundation of modern and future human society. It will also be interesting to watch how these ideas unfold over the next few decades and centuries.
Nabíl-i-A`zam. The Dawn-Breakers: Nabíl's Narrative of the Early Days of the Bahá'í Revelation. Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1962.
Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By. Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1944.
Taherzadeh, Adib. The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh (four volumes). Oxford: George Ronald, 1974.