Historical Background

For Bahá’ís, the evolutionary process is an essential feature of all the phenomena of life, including the revelations of God. The series of stages through which their own Faith gradually made its appearance and established itself throughout the world is itself an expression of this principle.

The rise of the Bahá’í Faith has also been marked by a second feature that it shares with the formative period in the history of each of the earlier world religions: the implications of a new stage in the unfoldment of God’s will are unwelcome by influential segments of existing society. The result has frequently been bitter persecution of followers of the new faith. During its first century and a half of life, the Bahá’í Faith has passed through several periods of such oppression.

The new faith first appeared in Persia.1 It then spread to neighbouring Muslim lands in the Ottoman and Russian Empires and to northern India. Though some early followers were of Jewish, Christian, or Zoroastrian background, the vast majority had been followers of Islam. Their religious ideas were drawn from the Qur’án, and they were primarily interested in those aspects of their new belief system that represented the fulfillment of Islamic prophecies and the interpretation of Muslim teaching. Similarly, the Islamic clergy initially saw those who followed the new faith as Muslim heretics.

The Bahá’í Faith is perhaps unique in that it unreservedly accepts the validity of the other great faiths. Bahá’ís believe that Abraham, Moses, Zoroaster, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, and Muhammad are all equally authentic messengers of one God. The teachings of these divine messengers are seen as paths to salvation which contribute to the carrying forward of “an ever-advancing civilization.”2 But Bahá’ís believe that this series of interventions by God in human history has been progressive, each revelation from God more complete than those which preceded it, and each preparing the way for the next. In this view, Islam, as the most recent of the preceding religions, constituted an immediate historical preparation for the Bahá’í Faith. Not surprisingly, therefore, one finds in the Bahá’í writings a great many Qur’ánic terms and concepts.

Bahá’ís believe that God is One and utterly transcendent in His essence. He “manifests” His will to humanity through the series of messengers whom Bahá’ís call “Manifestations of God.” The purpose of the Manifestations is to provide perfect guidance not only for the spiritual progress of the individual believer, but also to mold society as a whole. An important difference between the Bahá’í Faith and Islam in this respect is that while the Qur’án designates among existing religions only Judaism, Christianity, and Islam itself as being divinely inspired, Bahá’ís believe that all religions are integral parts of one divine plan:

There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God. The difference between the ordinances under which they abide should be attributed to the varying requirements and exigencies of the age in which they were revealed. All of them, except a few which are the outcome of human perversity, were ordained of God, and are a reflection of His Will and Purpose.3

Emerging out of the historical context of the Middle East, in particular nineteenth-century Persia, the story of the early days of the Bahá’í Faith is intimately connected with the lives of its central figures, the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

  1. Under the Pahlavis (1925-1979), the ancient name Iran replaced the designation Persia. In this discussion, “Persia” is used in describing events of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and “Iran” in reference to more recent ones.

* Adapted from William S. Hatcher and Douglas Martin, The Bahá’í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), pp. 1-5.