Origins

Beginnings

According to the Baha'i teachings, God has sent messengers to the world whenever a new message has been needed. The social changes and developments that occur in human history as well as the fact that humanity tends to alter and corrupt the divine message necessitates that from time to time, a new messenger should bring a renewal and updating of the divine message. Thus in one sense, the whole religious history of humanity is the background and context of the beginnings of the Baha'i Faith, since Baha'u'llah (1817-1892) claimed to be the latest (but not the last) in a series of messengers that God has sent to the world.

According to the Baha'i view of human history, social conditions had changed sufficiently by the 19th century that humanity was in need of further guidance from God. While lesser degrees of unity had been achieved, up to and including the bringing together of peoples to create a nation, what was now needed was the divine guidance necessary to move humanity forward to the next stage of its development: global unity. Indeed, the messenger that was now to come was the culmination of all of the religions that God had sent to different regions of the world.

Baha'u'llah considered himself to be the fulfillment of the promises, made in every religion, that a messianic figure would one day come and bring an age of justice and peace. He stated: "The time foreordained unto the peoples and kindreds of the earth is now come. The promises of God, as recorded in the holy Scriptures, have all been fulfilled." Thus Baha'is believe that the founders and prophets of all of the world's religions—including Krishna, Zoroaster, Moses, the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad—had all predicted the coming of a future savior, a Promised One who would bring justice and a Golden Age.

Baha'is point out that the 19th century was a period in which there was a great expectation among the followers of many religions that their Promised One was about to come. Among Christians, there were such movements as the Millerites in America and the Templers in Germany. Among Muslims, there was the rising of the Mahdi in the Sudan among the Sunnis and the Shaykhi movement among the Shi'i Muslims. Even as far away as China, Buddhists of the White Lotus movement were in expectation of the coming of the Maitreya Buddha. Baha'is believe that Baha'u'llah is the fulfillment of these prophecies: the Kalki Avatar for Hindus, the Shah Bahram or Saoshyant for Zoroastrians, the Messiah for Jews, the Maitreya Buddha for Buddhists, the return of Christ for Christians and also for Muslims. Baha'is also believe that the forerunner of Baha'u'llah, the Bab, was the prophesied return of Elijah in Jewish and Christian scriptures and the Mahdi for Muslims.


Baha'i Teachings Regarding the Coming of a World Savior in the World's Religions

Baha'i Teachings Regarding the Coming of a World Savior in the World's Religions
Religion Name of Savior Will End Will Usher in
Hinduism: Kalki Avatar Kali Yuga (The Age of Decay) Krta (Golden) Age
Taoism: Hou Sheng (Coming Sage) Evil T'ai P'ing (Great Peace)
Buddhism: Maitreya Buddha Period of the Disappearance of all signs of true religion Revival of religion; reappearance of Arhats
Zoroastrianism: Bahram Varjavand Saoshyant Period of Ahriman's reign on earth Frashkart (rehabilitation of the world)
Judaism: Messiah Persecution, humiliation, and dispersion of Israel Reestablishment and recognition of Israel's place in the world
Christianity: Return of Christ Period of Satan's rule over the earth Kingdom of God on earth
Islam: Mahdi (For Shi`is: the Hidden Imam Mahdi) and return of Christ Period of injustice Establish justice and the rule of God's law

The expectation of the coming of the Shi'i figure called the Imam Mahdi, who was believed to have gone into hiding 1,000 years before and whose advent was awaited, was particularly strong in the early 19th century in Iran, where in many different localities, individuals arose who called on the people to prepare themselves for the return of the Imam. In general, this expectation was strongest among the followers of a group called the Shaykhi movement.

Then at the end of 1843, the leader of the Shaykhis died and announced that he would not appoint a successor but that his followers should disperse and look for someone to follow. A few months later, one of the most prominent Shaykhis, Mulla Husayn Bushru'i (1814-1848), met with a young merchant whom he believed to be a fellow Shaykhi, Sayyid ‘Ali Muhammad Shirazi (1819-1850), in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz.

During the course of that evening of May 22, 1844, Shirazi, although not a well-educated person as the previous Shaykhi leader had been, claimed not just to be the next leader of the Shaykhis but to be the Gate (Bab) to the hidden Imam Mahdi. Indeed in the book that he began writing for Bushru'i that evening, he implied a far greater claim, that of being the bearer of a new message from God. Bushru'i became convinced of the truth of the Bab's claim and this meeting is regarded by Baha'is as the beginning of their religion; that year, 1844, marks the start of the Baha'i calendar.

Seventeen more people came to believe in the Bab, including a young learned woman who became known as Qurratu'l-‘Ayn (the consolation of the eyes) or Tahirih (the pure one) (1817-1852). These eighteen first believers in the Bab were given the title of the "Letters of the Living." The Bab instructed them to disperse and spread the news of his advent across Iran, Iraq, and India. As a result of their activities and those of a number of other converts, the new Babi religion had soon obtained many adherents throughout Iran and in parts of Iraq. The success of this movement alarmed the religious leaders of the country and they rose to oppose the movement. The Bab himself had gone to Mecca to announce his claim there and was arrested upon his return in June 1845 and held under house arrest in Shiraz.

In 1846, the Bab managed to leave Shiraz for the central Iranian city of Isfahan, where he won over the governor and was able to present his message to many of the most prominent citizens and religious leaders in the city. This governor died in February 1847 and the Prime Minister of the country, fearing for his own position if a meeting that had been arranged between the Shah and the Bab went ahead, managed to influence the Shah to have the Bab removed to and confined in Maku, a remote fortress in the northwest of the country. Finding that even this did not control the spread of the new religion and heeding the request of the Russian authorities to move the Bab away from their borders for fear of unrest in their territory, the government moved the Bab to another remote fortress and later put him on trial in the hope of humiliating him.

None of these measures worked and eventually, when a new Shah came to the throne with a new Prime Minister, the latter took a more aggressive stance toward the Babis. This resulted in persecutions of the Bab's followers throughout Iran. Eventually in July 1850, the Bab was executed in Tabriz, the provincial capital of the northwest of Iran. According to Baha'i accounts, even this execution proved counterproductive for the Iranian government since, in front of a large crowd of onlookers, the Bab was unhurt after the first volley of gunfire from the regiment given the task; it required a second regiment and a second round of gunfire before the execution was accomplished. The crowd proclaimed it a miracle.


Study Questions:
     1.     How do Baha’is view Baha’u’llah in relation to the founders of other religions?
     2.     Why do Baha’is think that in the 19th century the time had come for a new message from God?
     3.     On the evening of May 22, 1844, what claims did the Bab put forward both explicitly and implicitly, and what was the significance of this event for the Baha’i Faith?
     4.     Who were the Letters of the Living?
     5.     How did the Iranian government deal with the Bab?

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