Baha'i Gardens, a holy pilgrimage for the Baha'i believers built on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel.

Although Iran — historically known as Persia — is widely (and accurately) regarded as the foremost stronghold of Shia Islam, that is, by Middle Eastern standards, a relatively recent development. Persia became overwhelmingly Shiite only in the 15th century, and the Safavid dynasty made Shiism the official religion of the state in the 16th century.

The form of Shiite Islam that prevails in the modern Islamic Republic of Iran, known as “Twelver” Shiism, derives its name from its anticipation of a messianic imam, the 12th in interrupted succession from the Prophet Muhammad, the 7th-century founder of Islam.

In 1844, a Persian merchant named Ali Muhammad Shirazi pronounced himself the “Bab” or “Gate” to the Truth (or, some thought, to the 12th imam, whose appearance they thought imminent). The Bab abrogated Islamic law in favor of a new system of uniquely “Babi” law and rituals, thus creating a separate religion quite distinct from Islam. Still, while he claimed prophetic status, he did not claim final prophethood for himself. Rather, assuming a role somewhat like that attributed by Christians to John the Baptist, he pointed forward to a “Promised One,” a great prophet like Jesus and Muhammad. He himself, he said, was “but a ring upon the hand of Him Whom God shall make manifest."

Irritated by, among other things, a number of violent Babi uprisings, the Persian government executed the Bab by firing squad in 1850. Some claimed that his body was thrown into a ditch, where it was devoured by dogs. According to other accounts, though, it was smuggled out of Persia and was eventually brought to the Mediterranean coast, where the “Shrine of the Bab,” in which he is buried, overlooks the modern Israeli city of Haifa. It is the second holiest place in the Baha'i world.

In 1863, an early follower of the Bab, exiled in Baghdad and known as Baha'ullah (roughly, “Splendor of God”), announced that he was the prophet foretold by the Bab. Most of the Babis eventually gravitated to his leadership, and it is from Baha’ullah’s title that the Baha'i faith takes its name.

When Baha’ullah died not far from Haifa in 1892, in Acre (or Akko) — at that time an Ottoman prison city — his tomb there became the holiest Baha’i shrine in the world, and took on a role somewhat comparable to that of Jerusalem in Judaism and Mecca in Islam: Baha’is should turn their faces toward it while reciting their obligatory prayers, and the dead should be buried facing it.

Baha’ullah’s son Abdul Baha (1844-1921) assumed leadership of the Baha’i community at the death of his father and then, eventually, passed that leadership on to his great-grandson, Shoghi Effendi (1897-1957). The writings of these men hold various levels of scriptural status for adherents of the Baha’i faith. Since 1963, the worldwide Baha’i community has been led by a nine-member elected “Universal House of Justice” which sits near the Shrine of the Bab in Haifa. It too is thought to receive divine inspiration, and Baha’is happily contrast the presence of ongoing divine guidance in their community with the absence of such guidance in many others.

The Baha’i movement, a monotheistic faith that has somewhere between 5-8 million followers, teaches the essential unity of all religions and people. The divine — which is, at the same time, personal and inaccessible to ordinary mortals, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent — has revealed itself in an orderly fashion through various “Manifestations of God” such as the Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and Baha’ullah, in what are sometimes designated different “dispensations.” The religions that these great founders established vary in specific practices, suited to different social conditions, but are fundamentally alike in purpose and basic principles.

Mainstream Muslims, by contrast, almost universally regard the Baha’i faith as an apostate deviation from Islam, and followers of the religion have been persecuted since its earliest days and have suffered severely within Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

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Adherents of the Baha’i faith have been vocal in their opposition to racial and class prejudice, and in their rejection of extremist nationalism. The unification of humanity is a fundamental goal of Baha’i teaching and practice. They are also known for their commitment to gender equality. Women, like men, are permitted to serve as members of the various governing National Spiritual Assemblies of the faith, although, curiously, election to the Universal House of Justice, the global leadership body based in Haifa, is open only to men.

Daniel Peterson founded the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.