The Baha'i Faith and Its Relationship to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism: A Brief History

Article excerpt

The origin of the Baha'i faith can be traced to the city of Shiraz in southwest Iran, where, in 1844, Sayyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi confided to a select group of Shaykhi Shi'a Muslims that he was the Bab, the gate to the Hidden Imam of the Shi'a. The Bab took eighteen Shaykhis as his disciples, whom he called the "Letters of the Living." (1) The Babi movement met with much official resistance, both from Qajar and clerical authorities, as it recruited new adherents and became a significant insurgency movement. In an effort to quash the insurrections erupting in parts of Iran, the Qajar government executed the Bab on July 9, 1850. (2)

Following the Bab's death, the movement fragmented, with a group led by the Bab's apparent successor, Mirza Yahya Nuri, known as Sobh-e Azal, or Morning of Eternity, becoming the most significant faction. Conflicting claims of leadership forced many Babis back into mainstream Shi'ism, or into taqiyya, the practice of hiding one's faith under a veneer of orthodoxy for the purpose of survival. In 1866, Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri, the older half-brother of Sobh-e Azal, publicly proclaimed himself to be Man-yuzhiruhu'llah, or He Whom God Shall Make Manifest, the successor of the Bab. (3) Known as Baha'u'llah, the Glory of God, he emerged as the leader of the majority of Babis, and his followers adopted the label Baha'is. A small group of Sobh-e Azal's followers who remained loyal to Mirza Yahya Nuri became known as Azalis, a religious group that has since dwindled over time, and is for all purposes dying out. (4)

Baha'u'llah was forced into exile numerous times, even before his 1866 proclamation, at the urging of several different governments. First, in 1853, he left Tehran for Baghdad. Then, in 1863, he left Baghdad for Istanbul; later that year he was exiled to Edirne in Rumelia. Five years later he was sent to Akka, north of Haifa in modern day Israel, then in Ottoman Palestine. (5) In 1877, the Ottoman governor of Akka ended Baha'u'llah's imprisonment. His son Abbas Effendi (usually known as 'Abdu'l-Baha) purchased for his father the Mazra'ih estate near Akka, which he left in 1879 to take up residence at the Bahji estate until his death in 1892. (6) Shoghi Effendi, the grandson of 'Abdu'l-Baha, inherited the leadership of the Baha' is after a legal battle over the ownership of Bahji. The matter was settled in 1922, when a British court ruled in favor of Shoghi Effendi. (7) Despite several fragmentations and disputes, the Baha'i faith survived its formative period and established its world center in Haifa. Today the Universal House of Justice, an elected body, handles the administrative and theological affairs of the faith.

The history of the Baha'is and their relations with other religious groups and governments over the last 150 years is as complex as the story of the journeys of Baha'u'llah. Baha'is in Iran generally met with hostility from all of the other Abrahamic faiths, particularly among religious minorities from which the faith has drawn many converts. However, the animosity of the ulama (religious scholars and clergy) remains unmatched in intensity compared to that of any other clerical body in Iran. In the diaspora, Baha'is have generally been accepted in Christian society, though such tolerance has been of a wary and suspicious nature. Most recently, the relatively warm reception of the Baha'i in predominately Jewish Israel has broken with the patterns of the past, and embodies a fundamental change from the cool reception of the Persian Jews who resented the cause of their co-religionists' apostasy.

The hostility of the Shi'i ulama to the Baha'is started with the emergence of the Babi movement. Not surprisingly, the notion that Muhammad would be followed by additional prophets of that any text, such as the Bab's Bayan, could supplant the Qur'an was deemed heretical. The ulama used the occasion of the Bab's imprisonment to interrogate him in the city of Tabriz, and to disprove his claims while publicly humiliating him. …