Bahai 101

With more than five million followers who reside in over 100 000 regions, Bahai is the second most widespread faith in the world, exceeding every other religion but Christianity in its geographic reach. There are Baha’is everywhere, from Iceland to Azerbaijan, and all points in between.

The media liaison officer for Baha’is of South Africa, Leyla Haidarian, puts their numbers locally at 10 000. But by far the largest Bahai population can still be found in Iran, where the religion began in 1844.

It was then that Siyyid Ali-Muhammad – the son of a well-known Persian merchant — proclaimed he was the Bab (“the Gate”). The Bab preached modernity in faith, proclaiming that it was no longer practical to live according to ancient rules. Bab’s followers became known as Babi’s and his teachings spread around the country. It didn’t take long for the Islamic community to start seeing this as a threat. The Bab and his followers came under fire and were persecuted and tortured for their beliefs, and the Bab himself was imprisoned and eventually executed in 1850.

One of the early followers of the Bab, Baha’ullah, was arrested and imprisoned for his involvement with the religion in 1852. While he was incarcerated in the dungeon of the Shiyah-Chal in Tehran, he received the first signs that he was the one anticipated as a messenger by the Bab. Upon his release, he was expelled from Tehran to Baghdad.

In 1866 Baha’ullah began declaring his divine mission as a messenger of God in letters to the world, gaining the devotion of most of the Babis who came to be known as Baha’is. He was banished from his homeland and was later imprisoned in Israel, where he died.

The Baha’is still face persecution in Iran. Baha’is there are still not allowed to get a university education, a pension fund or a government job and business owners are not allowed to hire them. Nearly a year ago, seven leaders of the faith were arrested and charged with spying for Israel, insulting religious sanctities and using propaganda against the Islamic Republic; they are still locked in Iran’s notorious Evin prison and have been denied access to their attorney.

“Ironically, Iran is the birthplace of our faith, yet many Baha’is in Iran live under challenging circumstances,” says Haidarian, who has been living in South Africa for the past six years and calls herself a spiritual refugee. “My family is amongst the many Baha’is in Iran that have been tortured and had their homes taken away from them.”

Baha’is don’t believe women should cover their faces with cloth, nor do they believe in religious hierarchical structures like you see in Christianity with priests and bishops. They also don’t follow daily prayer routines like in Islam or weekly Sunday worship in church as in Christianity. The Baha’is practice does not involve weekly or daily worship gatherings; one is expected to live their daily lives according to their faith.

“The work you do, your art, the way you engage with people daily is worship contributing to the advancement of mankind is worship,” explains Haidarian.

However Baha’is do follow some basic rituals including a daily prayer and communion with God. And, because the Bahai calendar has 19 days and 19 months, every 19 days the community comes together just to celebrate and share their faith.

Individuals are encouraged to have fellowship groups where they create a space for individuals from different religions, ages, races and genders to come together and share their faith. Baha’is don’t drink, do drugs or gamble.

The core principals of the Bahai faith, she says, are the unity of God, religion and humankind, equality between men and women, elimination of all forms of prejudice, world peace, harmony of religion and science, independent investigation of truth, universal compulsory education, universal auxiliary language, obedience to government, non-involvement in partisan politics and the elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty.

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Nosimilo Ndlovu
Guest Author

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