Sacred Narratives

Being a religion of the modern age, the Baha'i Faith has no creation stories or other myths. Such areas are left for science to describe. The story of Adam and Eve, for example, is seen as being symbolic, one meaning of which is that the tree in this story signifies this physical world in which there is both good and evil. The serpent signifies attachment to this world. Adam and Eve signify the spirit and soul in humanity. If they attach themselves to this physical world, they become separated from the paradise of the spiritual world.

This does not mean however that the Baha'i Faith does not have sacred narratives. The grand overarching sacred narrative in the Baha'i Faith is that of the religious history of humanity. Baha'is see world history as punctuated by the appearances of sacred figures. These are the founders of the world's religions as well as other figures who have come to different parts of the world in the past and whose names may now be forgotten. Each provides humanity with the guidance needed to take humanity in that part of the world onto the next stage of its spiritual and social development.

Words of Baha'u'llah in the Kitab-i-Iqan regarding Abraham
Later, the beauty of the countenance of the Friend of God (Abraham) appeared from behind the veil, and another standard of divine guidance was hoisted. He invited the people of the earth to the light of righteousness. The more passionately He exhorted them, the fiercer waxed the envy and waywardness of the people, except those who wholly detached themselves from all save God, and ascended on the wings of certainty to the station which God hath exalted beyond the comprehension of men. It is well known what a host of enemies besieged Him, until at last the fires of envy and rebellion were kindled against Him. And after the episode of the fire came to pass, He, the lamp of God amongst men, was, as recorded in all books and chronicles, expelled from His city.

The writings of Baha'u'llah  are full of stories of the prophets of the past, told to illustrate or to convey particular spiritual messages. The Kitab-i-Iqan (The Book of Certitude), for example, recounts stories of many of the biblical and Quranic prophets in order to establish the point that the prophets of God have always been persecuted and denied, especially by the religious leaders of the previous religion; that human beings need to detach themselves from the outward trappings of religion and find the true core of spirituality if they are to be attuned to God's message in every age (in other words, they need to investigate spiritual reality for themselves); and that if they follow the customs of their ancestors or the directions of their religious leaders, they are in danger of being led astray.

But for most Baha'is, it is the history of the Baha'i Faith itself that is the main source of stories that are frequently told and retold among Baha'is to provide inspiration and example. The most important of these are the stories of the central figures of the religion. There are also a number of early disciples and members of the families of the founders, including some women, whose stories are also frequently told. In light of Baha'i beliefs, there is nothing to stop Baha'is drawing inspiration from the lives of the founders and saints of any of the world's religions.

One of the most commonly read books among Baha'is that has come to have something of the status of a sacred history is a book call The Dawn-Breakers, which is a narrative of the Babi period. Shoghi Effendi  edited and translated this work from a manuscript left by Nabil, an early Baha'i. Shoghi Effendi completed this translation in 1932 at a time when he was about to try to inspire the American Baha'is to launch the first of the plans that would spread the Faith. These plans required the American Baha'is to sacrifice the comfort of their middle-class homes and move to difficult and sometimes dangerous places in the developing countries of the world. By translating this book that told stories of the heroic self-sacrifice of the early Babis who often gave up their wealth and even their lives for their faith, and by linking the American Baha'is closely to this narrative (by calling them the "spiritual descendants of the Dawn-breakers"), Shoghi Effendi inspired American Baha'is to move first to South and Central America and later to post-war Europe. Similarly, other Baha'is were inspired by this book to move to other parts of the world and to make other sacrifices for the advancement of the Baha'i Faith.

'Abdu'l-Baha  is viewed as the perfect exemplar of the Baha'i teachings, and so stories about him and about how he dealt with particular situations abound within the Baha'i community and in Baha'i books. Since he also visited North America and Europe, many of these stories are much more closely linked to the lives of Baha'is in that cultural world than stories from the Middle East. They are seen as examples of the divine virtues and qualities that all Baha'is are trying to acquire. If in a dilemma, Baha'is will often say, "What would 'Abdu'l-Baha do in this situation?"

Shoghi Effendi wrote a book called God Passes By, which was not so much a history of the Baha'i Faith as an explanation to Baha'is of the way in which they should see their history: that God has again intervened in human history as He has done in the past; that the events of Baha'i history are part of God's plan for humanity; that world events are to a large extent shaped by this plan; and that reverses in the history of the movement were always followed by even greater successes. This way of seeing history has greatly influenced the Baha'i view of all history.

Opening Words of The Promised Day Is Come,
written by Shoghi Effendi in 1941
A tempest, unprecedented in its violence, unpredictable in its course, catastrophic in its immediate effects, unimaginably glorious in its ultimate consequences, is at present sweeping the face of the earth. Its driving power is remorselessly gaining in range and momentum. Its cleansing force, however much undetected, is increasing with every passing day. Humanity, gripped in the clutches of its devastating power, is smitten by the evidences of its resistless fury. It can neither perceive its origin, nor probe its significance, nor discern its outcome. Bewildered, agonized and helpless, it watches this great and mighty wind of God invading the remotest and fairest regions of the earth, rocking its foundations, deranging its equilibrium, sundering its nations, disrupting the homes of its peoples, wasting its cities, driving into exile its kings, pulling down its bulwarks, uprooting its institutions, dimming its light, and harrowing up the souls of its inhabitants.

Shoghi Effendi also wrote a work called The Promised Day Is Come in which he sets out how Baha'is should view world history from the time that the Babi and Baha'i Faith began. It describes world events as being preparatory for the advent of the new religion up to 1844. Since the rulers of the world rejected the messages that Baha'u'llah sent them in about 1867-1873, Shoghi Effendi considered that the existing world order was disintegrating, with increasing social disorder, conflict, and despair; simultaneously integrating forces (which include the Baha'is but also many others who may not even be aware of the Baha'i Faith) are creating a new world order, based on the Baha'i teachings.

In recent times, more books have appeared with accounts of the lives of Baha'is both from the early period and more recent figures. There have also been a number of books on the early Baha'is in many countries around the world, thus creating a sacred history for each individual country.

Because of the particular features of the Baha'i Faith, the Baha'i community does not look back to an ideal community of the past that it is trying to emulate or recreate, as many religious communities do. Stories of the past are inspirational for Baha'is but there is also a clear vision that the Baha'i community is developing toward an ideal laid down by Baha'u'llah. And so the way that the Baha'i communities of the past operated, even those immediately around the central figures of the movement, is not a guide to how Baha'i communities should function now or in the future.

Study Questions:
     1.     How do the Baha'i scriptures interpret the story of Adam and Eve?
     2.     What is the message behind the stories of the prophets told in the Kitab-i-Iqan (The Book of Certitude)?
     3.     What inspirational role has the book The Dawn-Breakers played?
     4.     Why are there many stories about ‘Abdu’l-Baha in the Baha'i community?
     5.     Do Baha’is consider any Baha'i community of the past to have been an ideal community?

Back to Religion Library