The Bahá'í Faith was founded in Iran in the mid-19th century by Mirza Hoseyn 'Ali Nuri, who is known as Bahá'u'lláh ("Glory of God"). It is rooted in Shi'ite Islam, which regards it as a heresy. This led to intensive persecution in its homeland of Iran, but the Bahá'í Faith has since found success across the world.
Historical and Religious Context
As Christianity was born out of Judaism and Buddhism grew out of Hinduism, the Bahá'í Faith has its roots in Shi'ite Islam. A major doctrine of "Twelver" Shi'ite Islam is the expected return of the 12th imam (successor of Muhammad), who will renew religion and guide the faithful.
In Iran in 1844, Mirza 'Ali Mohammad of Shiraz proclaimed the imminent appearance of a new messenger of God who would overturn old beliefs and customs and usher in a new era. He identified himself as the forerunner of this prophet, assuming the title of "the Báb" ("Gateway").
The Báb's teachings quickly spread throughout modern-day Iran, provoking strong opposition from both the Shi'ite Muslim clergy and the government. The Báb was arrested and, after several years of incarceration, was executed by a firing squad in 1850. Large-scale persecutions of his adherents, the Babis, followed and ultimately cost 20,000 people their lives.
One of the Báb's earliest and most ardent disciples was Mirza Hoseyn 'Ali Nuri, who had assumed the name of Bahá'u'lláh ("Glory of God") when he renounced his social standing and joined the Babis.
Bahá'u'lláh was arrested in 1852 and jailed in Tehran. During his imprisonment, he realized he was the prophet whose coming had been predicted by the Bab.
He was released in 1853 and exiled to Baghdad, where his leadership revived the Babi community. In 1863, shortly before being moved by the Ottoman government to Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), Bahá'u'lláh declared to his fellow Babis that he was the messenger of God foretold by the Bab. An overwhelming majority of Babis acknowledged his claim and thenceforth became known as Bahá'ís.
Bahá'u'lláh was subsequently confined by the Ottomans in Adrianople (now Edirne, Turkey) and then exiled to Acre in Palestine (now 'Akko, Israel).
Before Bahá'u'lláh died in 1892, he appointed his eldest son, 'Abd ol-Baha (1844–1921), to be the leader of the Bahá'í community and the authorized interpreter of his teachings. 'Abd ol-Baha actively administered the movement's affairs and spread the faith to North America, Europe, and other continents. He appointed his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani (1897–1957), as his successor.
The Bahá'í Faith underwent a rapid expansion beginning in the 1960s, and by the late 20th century it had more than 150 national spiritual assemblies (national governing bodies) and about 20,000 local spiritual assemblies worldwide.
Persecution in Iran
Since the Bahá'í Faith's birth, it has faced resistance and persecution in Iran. Many Bahá'ís, including the Bab, have become martyrs or imprisoned by the Iranian government.
As is often the case, the persecution has arisen from a combination of religious and social factors. Religiously, many Shi'ite Muslims regard the Bahá'í Faith as an Islamic heresy. Objectionable beliefs of the Bahá'ís include the idea that there are more prophets to come after Muhammad, that the Qur'an has been upstaged by Bahá'u'lláh's writings, that women should play an active role in society, that there is no importance of the holy war (jihad), and that clergy are not essential due to increased literacy.
A major social factor leading to persecution of Bahá'ís is their emphasis on education, which places them in prominent occupations in society. This power and influence can be seen as threatening by the majority. Bahá'ís also deny the authority of Shi'ite jurisprudence and therefore the essence of Iran's government.
Anti-Bahá'í sentiment increased under Ayatollah Khomeini. Although oppression slightly lessened in late 1988, Bahá'ís were still being accused of prostitution since their marriages are viewed as illegitimate, of spying since some of their conferences were in foreign cities, and of being Zionist supporters since their headquarters are in Haifa, Israel. Many Bahá'ís were arrested, tortured and executed.
The Bahá'í Faith Today
Today, the Bahá'í Faith has as many as 7 million followers worldwide and is the second-most widely distributed religion after Christianity.