A Bahá’í is a member of the Bahá’í Faith, youngest of the independent world religions, hardly more than 160 years old. Bahá’ís often introduce their faith through its principles, many of which appeal to people of other faiths, as well as people who are not especially religious. These include equality of men and women, harmony of science and religion, elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty, and the establishment of a universal auxiliary language. The number nine is frequently associated with the Bahá’í Faith: nine members of elected Bahá’í assemblies; nine Holy Days in the Bahá’í calendar; nine sides, approaches and entrances to Bahá’í Houses of Worship, representing openness, inclusion and universality. The nine-pointed star is a commonly accepted symbol of the Bahá’í Faith.
In 1844, a young man known as the Báb or ‘Gate’ (1819-50 CE) began preparing the way for a great religious figure who would breathe new life into all humankind. The Báb’s message caused uproar in his native Persia (modern-day Iran) where he – and thousands of his followers – were put to death. Some years later, a prominent Persian nobleman declared himself the one prophesied by the Báb. This was Bahá’u’lláh (1817-92) whose name means the ‘Glory of God’ in Arabic. Stripped of rank and wealth, in the face of constant opposition, Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed his message of peace and unity for four decades. After Bahá’u’lláh’s passing in 1892, his eldest son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1844-1921) led the community, travelling extensively in the West to promote his father’s teachings.
‘Progressive revelation’ is central to Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings: the belief that knowledge of God has been revealed to humanity in stages throughout history by a succession of divine teachers, prophets and messengers. Bahá’ís accept Bahá’u’lláh as the ‘Manifestation of God’ to our times, in whom the attributes of God are revealed as fully as they can be in human form. Bahá’u’lláh embeds this new revelation within humankind’s common spiritual heritage, describing it as the latest stage in ‘the changeless faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future.’ Bahá’ís believe in life after death and in the eternal progress of the soul towards God. They believe in one God, the unity of the human family and the fundamental harmony of the world’s faiths.
During his 40 years of exile and imprisonment throughout the Middle East, Bahá’u’lláh wrote or dictated over 100 volumes on an amazing variety of issues. Many of these writings were addressed to the rulers of the world in his day. His best known work is a collection of short meditations called The Hidden Words. Bahá’u’lláh’s writings, along with those of the Báb and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, constitute Bahá’í scripture. These texts were originally written in Arabic or Persian. Extracts have been translated into over 800 languages, including a considerable collection in English. Bahá’ís place great importance on everyone being able to read and understand these writings for themselves. They respect the scriptures of other religions, and often use them in their own study and devotions.
Worship, prayer & meditation
Adult Bahá’ís pray at least once a day, reciting one of three Obligatory Prayers written by Bahá’u’lláh: a short prayer, said between noon and sunset; one of medium length, said three times daily; or a long prayer, recited once in 24 hours. There are many other Bahá’í prayers, for all sorts of purposes, which can be adapted according to personal preference or local custom (e.g. chanted by solo voice or set to music and sung). Bahá’ís read something of their own choosing from their scripture every morning and evening. They believe it is better to read a short passage with feeling and understanding than it is to read for hours with none. Bahá’ís think of prayer as addressing God and see meditation as conversation with one’s inner self.
To be true to their faith, Bahá’ís should live by their spiritual principles. They are encouraged to undertake work and studies that benefit the world at large, and not to let academic achievement or material success go to their heads or become barriers between themselves and God. They see work performed in the spirit of service as worship. Bahá’ís have a personal duty to share their faith with others, but are forbidden to try to convert anyone. They believe the best way to demonstrate religious faith is through personal example. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, who was described as ‘walking the spiritual path with practical feet’, once said, ‘To be a Bahá’í simply means to love all the world; to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood.’
Bahá’ís should not indulge in substances or behaviour which interfere with their rational faculties or compromise their personal dignity. They should avoid alcohol, non-prescribed drugs and backbiting. Smoking is discouraged, though not prohibited. There is no ban on eating meat. Bahá’ís may choose their own spouse, but require parental consent before marrying. They are expected to refrain from sexual relations outside marriage. Bahá’í parents should raise their children as independent thinkers and world citizens, with the right to choose their own religion (or none) from the age of 15. Young Bahá’ís are encouraged to undertake a year of community service before embarking on adult life. Bahá’ís are free to dress as they wish, but are advised to observe modesty. They are great believers in moderation.
Anyone who accepts Bahá’u’lláh’s claim to be the Manifestation of God and wants to practise his teachings is welcomed into the Bahá’í community. There is no initiation ceremony. The Bahá’í Faith has no priests, ministers or clergy, no monks or nuns, no individuals in positions of authority. The community is guided by consultation and collective decision-making through a network of assemblies, elected at local, regional, national and international levels. Like other religions, there is variety of thought and practice within the Bahá’í community; but this has never caused a lasting split in the body of believers. The Bahá’í Faith is funded by voluntary donations from its own members; they cannot solicit or accept financial support from anyone else for their own activities.
There are nine Holy Days on which Bahá’ís should refrain from work or study. Most of these commemorate events in the lives of Bahá’u’lláh or the Báb. The most significant is the Festival of Ridván (21 April-2 May) recalling the occasion in 1863 when Bahá’u’lláh publically announced his station and mission. The first, ninth and twelfth days of Ridván are particularly celebrated. Bahá’í Holy Days should not be given over to individual or collective sloth or indulgence, but be dedicated to charitable activities of lasting public benefit. Bahá’í New Year (Naw Rúz) falls on 21 March, ending 19 days of fasting during daylight hours for adult Bahá’ís in good health. Bahá’ís follow a solar calendar, so these Holy Days fall on the same dates each year.
The Bahá’í Faith has more than seven million followers. The Bahá’í World Centre is located in northern Israel’s twin cities of Haifa and Acre. The three central figures of the Bahá’í Faith (Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá) are buried there, making it a place of pilgrimage. In 2008, these sites were named to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in recognition of their ‘outstanding universal value’ to the common heritage of humanity. Each continent has a distinctive Bahá’í House of Worship, the most recognisable being the one in New Delhi, India. Popularly known as the Lotus Temple, it was dedicated to public worship in 1986. The Bahá’í International Community has long held a respected position as a non-governmental organisation (NGO) with the United Nations and other international bodies.
Bahá’ís in Britain
A vibrant British Bahá’í community has existed since the end of the 19th century. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited Britain twice, in 1911 and again in 1912-13, to great public acclaim. A National Spiritual Assembly was established here in 1923, guiding the growth and development of the Bahá’í community ever since. Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1897-1957), grandson of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith from 1921 to 1957, is buried in London. Bahá’ís from all over the world visit his resting place to pay their respects. Since 1997 there have been Bahá’í Councils for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. At the time of the 2001 Census there were about 5,000 Bahá’ís in the UK. They are to be found in small but active communities, in almost a thousand localities the length and breadth of the country.
Bahá’ís in Leicester
There has been a significant Bahá’í presence in Leicester for more than 50 years. After the Christian and Jewish communities, Bahá’ís were the first to have their own centre in the city, in New Walk in the late 1950s and early 60s. The Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Leicester was established in 1957 and incorporated in 1963. Nowadays, Leicester’s Bahá’ís hold their meetings in each others’ homes (including inter-faith devotional activities, which are open to all). Bahá’ís do their bit for social cohesion in Leicester, with activities for children, youth and women, as well as working with other often marginalised groups, such as asylum seekers and refugees. They strive locally to put into action their belief that they should “Consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.”