Rituals and Worship


A number of specifically Baha'i symbols exist. The nine-pointed star signifies the word Baha' (glory), which is considered the Greatest Name of God and has become the usual symbol of the Baha'i Faith. According to equivalences of the Arabic alphabet, the word Baha' has a numerical equivalent of nine. The five-pointed star signifies the Bab and also signifies the form of the human temple. There are also calligraphic forms of the word Baha' that are often used as emblems. One particular design of the letters that form the word Baha' is used on ring stones often worn by Baha'is.

In addition, symbols, allusions, and metaphors abound in Baha'u'llah's writings. This is partly because human language is largely created to communicate about the physical and about human society. It does not describe the spiritual world well. Baha'u'llah therefore used the symbols of his existing cultural world, which were already deeply imbued with spiritual meaning. When he alluded to Job in reference to patience in the face of trials or to the Cross as a symbol of sacrificial love, he was connecting with spiritual concepts that were already in the minds of his audience.

Metaphors are similarly used to go beyond the plain meanings of words and into the realm of the spiritual imagination. For example, the Baha'i Faith teaches that when Baha'u'llah called upon his followers to immerse themselves in the "ocean of My words," he meant much more than just the fact that he wrote a great deal. He was alluding to vast depths of spiritual knowledge concealed within his writings, to the pearls of wisdom that lie in its depths, and to the idea that the true believer should give themselves over totally to the guidance to be found there.

Some of the imagery in the writings of Baha'u'llah takes concepts that exist in older scriptures and give them a new emphasis or meaning. For example the concept of the Sadratu'l-Muntaha exists in Islam as the tree that was at the farthest point in Muhammad's Night Ascent (Mi`raj) to Heaven, but in the Baha'i scriptures it has been transformed into a symbol of the Manifestation of God, the prophet-founders of the world religion. Other images are understandable once one is familiar with the range of symbols used. For example, the word "fire" in the writings of Baha'u'llah sometimes refers to the fire in the burning bush on Mount Sinai, sometimes to the fire mentioned in the Light Verse of the Quran (24:35), sometimes to hell-fire, and sometimes it just refers simply to a fire.

From the Writings of Baha'u'llah in the Kitab-i-Iqan

It is evident unto thee that the Birds of Heaven and Doves of Eternity speak a twofold language. One language, the outward language, is devoid of allusions, is unconcealed and unveiled; that it may be a guiding lamp and a beaconing light whereby wayfarers may attain the heights of holiness, and seekers may advance into the realm of eternal reunion. Such are the unveiled traditions and the evident verses already mentioned. The other language is veiled and concealed, so that whatever lieth hidden in the heart of the malevolent may be made manifest and their innermost being be disclosed... This is the divine standard, this is the Touchstone of God, wherewith He proveth His servants. None apprehendeth the meaning of these utterances except them whose hearts are assured, whose souls have found favour with God, and whose minds are detached from all else but Him. In such utterances, the literal meaning, as generally understood by the people, is not what hath been intended...

These things We mention only that the people may not be dismayed because of certain traditions and utterances, which have not yet been literally fulfilled, that they may rather attribute their perplexity to their own lack of understanding, and not to the non-fulfilment of the promises in the traditions... The people, therefore, must not allow such utterances to deprive them of the divine bounties, but should rather seek enlightenment from them who are the recognized Expounders thereof, so that the hidden mysteries may be unravelled, and be made manifest unto them.

One of Baha'u'llah's major challenges was to explain, given that he was claiming to be the fulfillment of the prophecies of various religions, how it was that the events contained in these prophecies did not appear to have occurred. Primarily in his book Kitab-i-Iqan (The Book of Certitude), but also in other works, he explains that the prophets of God have always been primarily concerned with the spiritual world and not with the physical one. When they have wanted to allude to great events of the future, they used metaphors to express these spiritual events. Thus, for example, the sun that is said in both the Bible and the Quran to be darkened in prophecies about the Day of Judgment refers, according to Baha'u'llah, to the fact that the sun of the previous religion is darkened by the interpretations and distortions of human beings. The light shed by the leaders of knowledge is turned to darkness when they bar their followers from recognizing the new prophet when he comes, and the laws and teaching of the previous religion, which had formerly shed light, become darkened in comparison to the new light that has appeared. In prophecies about the return of Christ or the Mahdi, the great battle, these figures fight and the victory they win refers to the spiritual battle that they must fight against the forces of darkness and their victory over these.

Just as the Baha'i Faith does not have a creation story, so it does not have a notion of the end of the world. Many of the eschatological concepts in the Abrahamic religions are interpreted as symbols in the Baha'i Faith. The end of the world is the end of a spiritual world, which is what occurs each time a major prophet appears; this is the end of the previous religious dispensation and the start of a new one. Similarly, concepts such as heaven and hell are regarded as symbols. Hell is not an actual place, either physical or spiritual. It is a metaphor for the condition of being far from God; heaven is the opposite condition of being near to God. Thus, heaven and hell exist just as much in this world as in the afterlife.

The Baha'i Houses of Worship have a great deal of symbolism surrounding them. The number nine that pervades their design (nine sides, nine doors, etc.) signifies the word Baha' (glory, see above). There is also local symbolism in the design of some of them. The general shape of the Indian House of Worship in New Delhi is that of a blooming lotus flower (which has spiritual symbolism for that culture) floating on the pools of water that surround it. On the other hand, the House of Worship in Wilmette near Chicago expresses a universal theme with symbols from the world's religions incorporated into the design of its walls. Baha'is do not use depictions of Baha'u'llah or the Bab as this is considered disrespectful. Many Baha'is do however have pictures of 'Abdu'l-Baha hanging on the walls of their homes, since he is regarded as the perfect example for a Baha'i to follow.

Study Questions:
     1.     What are the specific Baha'i symbols?
     2.     Why are there many symbols and metaphors in the writings of Baha’u’llah?
     3.     Give some examples of the metaphors and imagery used in the writings of Baha’u’llah.
     4.     In what way does Baha’u’llah explain that the prophecies in other religions refer to him?
     5.     What symbolism can be found in the Baha'i Houses of Worship (Mashriqu’l-Adhkars)?

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