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For the Betterment of the World, to the Glory of God

Updated: Jul 13, 2019

The Emergence of Bahá’í Houses of Worship

Chile Baha'i House of Worship
Chile Baha'i House of Worship

Over the past 100 years, the world has witnessed the gradual emergence of a new entity: a collective centre for men’s souls called the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár. This dawning place of the mention of God was created by Bahá’u’lláh, and in the Bahá’í writings, the term refers, in different contexts, to gatherings, to structures, and to the institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár—variations that correspond to an evolving understanding and practice of worship in relation to community development.

The first use of the term, with reference to gatherings, reflects the truth that any group of people in any locality in the world can create the spiritual environment of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár when they gather together to pray; the second, in conjunction with structures, indicates a dedicated space, an outward frame that reveals the inward reality; and the third signals the emergence of a formal institution as the inward reality strengthens and is expressed through action. In fact, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá described the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár as one of the most vital institutions in the world. Elaborating on this, the Universal House of Justice refers to it as the focal point of the community from which it emerges because it not only provides a space for worship but also encompasses dependencies; together, these embody two essential and inseparable aspects of Bahá’í life: worship and service.

Inside the Bahá’í House of Worship in New Delhi, India
Inside the Bahá’í House of Worship in New Delhi, India

Worship, in Bahá’í practice, is simple in form and open to all. In devotional gatherings, which the Universal House of Justice has called seeds of future Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs, any soul may enter, inhale the heavenly fragrances, experience the sweetness of prayer, meditate upon the Creative Word, be transported on the wings of the spirit, and commune with the one Beloved. In a Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, worship is likewise without ritual or set patterns, and the object is the same. As Shoghi Effendi wrote, the more universal and informal the character of Bahá’í worship in the Temple the better. Sacred scriptures from the Bahá’í Faith and other religions are read or chanted; there is no sermon or lecture, no collection of funds, no instrumental music, and no segregation for any reason such as sex, religion, or caste. Likewise, as service to humanity is an element of Bahá’í life in communities everywhere, no matter what their size or means, in communities where a Mashriqu’l-Adhkár emerges, the purpose of its dependencies is to systematize the facilitation of service to the common good by providing centres of education and scientific learning as well as cultural and humanitarian endeavour and by promoting the application of knowledge to serve social and spiritual progress. Crucially, these two aspects of worship and service cannot be isolated from each other. Until translated and transfused into dynamic and disinterested service to the cause of humanity, the results of worship are limited;the dependencies of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár both promote this change and provide channels for it.

Bahá’í House of Worship in Battambang, Cambodia
The Bahá’í House of Worship in Battambang, Cambodia

The physical and organizational structures associated with the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár emerge organically as understanding matures and a community develops the capacity for effective action. Because the physical structure provides a space for a growing number of people to gather to worship and to serve the broader community, it is important that the space created be welcoming to all. Therefore, the physical requirements, like the practice of worship inside the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, are simple: It must have nine sides with nine entrances, signaling its openness to all. Inside, there are no pulpits or altars, and no pictures, icons, or statues. Most importantly, it should be beautiful and as perfect as is possible in the world of being, so as to act as a means of nurturing an attraction to the sacred. Furthermore, the design should be integrated with the culture of its location—a feature amply demonstrated in the diversity of the Houses of Worship that have been constructed to date. In locations where local Houses of Worship are planned or have been recently constructed, the Bahá’í community has entered into a consultative process with the local population to generate a sense of ownership by all.

 Bahá’í House of Worship in ‘Ishqábád
The Bahá’í House of Worship in ‘Ishqábád in the early 1930s

Wilmette Baha'i House of Worship
The Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette, United States, in 1947

Beginnings: ‘Ishqábád and Chicago

Ten Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs currently exist throughout the world. The first eight were built to serve as continental-level Temples in Chicago, the United States of America, for North America; Kampala, Uganda, for Africa; Sydney, Australia; Frankfurt, Germany, for Europe; Panama City, Panama, for Central America; Apia, Samoa, for Australasia; New Delhi, India; and Santiago, Chile, for South America. Local Houses of Worship have been completed in Battambang, Cambodia, and in Agua Azul, in the Norte del Cauca region of Colombia. Five more are in some stage of development: two national-level Temples in Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and three more local Houses of Worship in Tanna, Vanuatu; Bihar Sharif, India; and Matunda Soy, Kenya. The determination as to where and when one will take physical shape in a community is made by the Head of the Faith and corresponds to that Bahá’í community’s capacity to embrace both the spiritual and practical aspects associated with it—to engage in sustained, long-term action to assist large numbers of people in a process of transformation that is both individual and collective, spiritual and material. The Bahá’í world community is still at the beginning of this temple-building process, but a look at how the world’s first two Bahá’í Houses of Worship took shape over a century ago offers some insights as to how this unique institution can develop in widely differing matrices and provides some historical context for the current efforts to construct national and local Mashriqu’l-Adhkárs.

Baha'i House of Worship in ‘Ishqábád
The interior of the Bahá’í House of Worship in ‘Ishqábád

The world’s first Bahá’í House of Worship was built in ‘Ishqábád in the Russian Transcaspian province close to the border of what is present-day Iran, where a small group of Persian Bahá’ís had settled to escape persecution in their home country. The first few adherents arrived around 1884; by 1890, there were some 400 and by 1902, approximately 1,000. As early as 1887 they acquired land and began to develop facilities for communal well-being, including a meeting hall, schools for both boys and girls, a travelers’ hospice, and a clinic—all of which were established in an environment of unified endeavour and progress. Significantly, Bahá’u’lláh Himself approved the land for the project. Later, acting on directions from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the community commenced construction on the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár in 1902.

One writer’s description conveys the organic nature of the process through which the House of Worship emerged: …they purchased a piece of ground, made it a beautiful garden, held open air meetings in the summer time; and when they could, erected a frame structure, which was used as a school for the Bahai children during week days; until finally—nine years after the ground was purchased, … they commenced the edifice …. It is significant that the starting point of the community’s effort to develop its Mashriqu’l-Adhkár was by raising the level of the community’s social and economic development—notably, eliminating illiteracy by establishing educational facilities for all the children.

While the Bahá’í community of ‘Ishqábád achieved a high degree of internal unity, the wider social environment was not widely accepting of—and was, in some cases, openly hostile to—the teachings of the new faith. Thus, the spiritual encouragement and material support that the community received from elsewhere were doubly important. The Bahá’ís there must have been heartened by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s promise that such a material structure would have a spiritual effect and a powerful influence on every phase of life and by His assertion that He longed to participate in the construction Himself. As the work neared completion, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote that the news had brought him infinite joy and declared that it would become a place of great happiness, without peer or likeness.

In this great building project, the Bahá’í community of ‘Ishqábád was fortunate to have the support of an individual who sacrificially contributed a significant portion of the funds, but while his generosity was instrumental, the Bahá’í community as a whole was also directly involved, which allowed it to develop capacity to administer the affairs of the local Bahá’í community in an atmosphere of unified purpose. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote:

The friends in ‘Ishqábád made the raising up of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár the means of creating perfect fellowship. With the utmost love and sincerity, they elected a committee, and that committee attended to establishing, organizing, arranging, and designing the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, which was constructed in great soundness and majesty.

Through this focus, fortified by ties of camaraderie and animated by unity of purpose and a spirit of faithfulness, the community reached a high degree of cohesiveness and development, and its members became distinguished for their prosperity, magnanimity, and intellectual and cultural attainments. One writer estimates that ‘Ishqábád was the first place where there was a conscious attempt to build up a Bahá’í community along the pattern laid down in the Bahá’í writings, noting, Nowhere else was there both the numbers of Bahá’ís and the freedom sufficient to do this. In Iran, the numbers existed but not the freedom. Elsewhere in the Middle East, the numbers were not sufficient. Central to this development was the community’s rich pattern of life deriving its impetus from the power of the Creative Word—a pattern that was ultimately given communal space in the House of Worship.

The initial challenge that the Bahá’í community of ‘Ishqábád faced was external opposition from Shi’ih Muslims. In 1890, for example, a prominent member of the Bahá’í community was murdered in the marketplace in full view of some 500 spectators who cheered the murderers on.Fortifying itself to withstand such opposition and flourishing under the guidance of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the community became very unified, but its growth was limited—generated largely by the arrival of additional members from Iran. Following the Russian Revolution, the community faced further difficulties owing to the government’s anti-religious policies, and ultimately its life span was cut short. By 1938 the authorities had prohibited its activities, seized its properties, converted them to other uses, and exiled many of the members. The House of Worship itself was expropriated, used as a museum until it was damaged in an earthquake, and eventually demolished. Nevertheless, its brief existence and the Bahá’í community’s efforts to construct a pattern of life that translated worship into active service to humanity stand as a powerful example to later generations.

The process through which the construction of the world’s second Bahá’í House of Worship was undertaken was quite different. In 1903, learning about the initiative in ‘Ishqábád, a group of Bahá’ís in the Chicago area petitioned ‘Abdu’l-Bahá for permission to build a Mashriqu’l-Adhkár and received warm encouragement to undertake the project. However, the American matrix generated very different dynamics. As one author puts it, Although there had grown a substantial Bahá’í community in Chicago and although these Bahá’ís did in 1903 decide to build a House of Worship in emulation of the Ashkhabad House of Worship, there was not the same unity and community spirit nor the resources to equal the Ashkhabad achievements.

While there was no external opposition to contend with, a number of geographic and cultural factors served as impediments. First, in contrast to the community in ‘Ishqábád, the North American Bahá’í community was composed of recent converts whose access to Bahá’í scripture was limited and whose new faith was tested by the falling away of the first teacher in North America. Second, the Bahá’ís lived in comparatively small and widely scattered centers throughout the continent—some 150 cities by 1906, but the communities were mostly modest in size and were spread throughout eleven states as well as the city of Montreal, in Canada. A third challenge to their unity arose from their culture’s prizing of individualism above collective endeavor, and a fourth came from gender inequality.

While the idea of building a Temple generated enthusiasm among many when it was first raised by the Bahá’í community in Chicago, there was also some confusion. What would be its scope? Some saw it as a local Mashriqu’l-Adhkár similar to the one they had read about in ‘Ishqábád, and a number of other communities immediately proposed building one of their own. However, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá swiftly guided them to think of the Chicago House of Worship not only as a national but as a continental effort that should be supported by Bahá’í communities throughout North America and around the world, especially those in Iran.

Establishing a climate of unity was hard work. Some objected to providing funds for a House of Worship in a distant location. Others resisted the call to support the Temple project because a woman, Corinne True, was initially one of the strongest forces behind it after being assigned the task by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Difficulties arose in reaching agreement about the site and the Temple design. Eventually, however, a parcel of land in Wilmette, north of Chicago, was agreed upon, and the cornerstone was laid by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1912 during His visit to North America—a moment of great joy and triumph for the community. Nevertheless, decades of fundraising followed, and other challenges had to be surmounted before the project’s completion.

Its efforts to overcome these difficulties shaped the North American Bahá’í community. The construction of the Temple was, in the words of the Universal House of Justice, a "complex project" that took decades to complete, through "two world wars and a widespread economic depression" with each stage in its development … intimately tied to the expansion of the community and the unfoldment of its administration. Throughout this process, the loving and infallible guidance of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi served as a catalyst for the community’s development by repeatedly raising its vision above the merely material. Shoghi Effendi stressed that:

It is devotion, sincerity and genuine enthusiasm which in the long run can ensure the completion of our beloved Temple. Material considerations, though essential, are not the most vital by any means.

Ultimately, the tests of unity were overcome; institutions were established, matured, and learned how to function more and more effectively as they built both the Temple and a vibrant national community. As one writer has noted, "The real strength of the early American believers, men and women, was not that they were like-minded individuals who formed a harmonious, homogeneous community, but that despite their strong individualism they allowed the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh and the guidance of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to serve as beacons, as sources of inspiration and understanding, as they struggled to build a community that drew its unity from its diversity." This is a key achievement of the North American Bahá’ís through their temple-building project.

Interior of the Baha'i House of Worship in Chicago
The interior of the Bahá’í House of Worship in Wilmette, United States

Time and again, the Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, told the Bahá’ís of North America that no other House of Worship would ever possess "the vast, the immeasurable potentialities with which this Mother Temple of the West, established in the very heart of so enviable a continent, and whose foundation stone has been laid by the hand of the Center of the Covenant Himself, has been endowed." Two of these immeasurable potentialities, the expansion of the community and the unfoldment of its administration, bear a closer look. Unlike ‘Ishqábád, there were no external conditions to limit the growth of the Bahá’í community in the United States, and both ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi linked the temple-building process to the expansion of the Faith. Accordingly, both potentialities were developed conjointly. By 1944, for example, acting on the guidance of the Guardian, the North American community had completed the exterior of the House of Worship and established Bahá’í communities in every state of the United States and every province of Canada. Furthermore, the number of nine-member local Bahá’í councils, called Local Spiritual Assemblies, had doubled on the continent in a period of seven years, and Bahá’í communities were taking root in Central and South America—many supported by Bahá’í pioneers who moved there from North America.

In a letter dated 28 March 1943, the Guardian described the role the House of Worship in North America was "destined to play in hastening the emergence of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh." Advancement towards this goal is evident from the early years, in the gradual transfer of responsibility for the Temple project from an individual to a collective level. While ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had tasked Corinne True to spearhead the project when she had gone on pilgrimage in 1907, by 1920 He widened the scope of responsibility, counselling that all the affairs related to the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár are to be referred to the annual Convention and that Whatever the Convention, with a majority of opinions, decides, must be accepted and executed. Another step towards realizing this vision of the North American Bahá’í community’s role in hastening the emergence of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh was the establishment and development of the institution of the Hazíratu’l-Quds (literally, sacred fold) in concert with the House of Worship. Its purpose was to accommodate the community’s administrative work, serving as the seat of the Bahá’í National Assembly and pivot of all Bahá’í administrative activity in future. Facilities for communal well-being such as those in ‘Ishqábád were not inaugurated until the construction was completed, when Shoghi Effendi called for the erection of the first dependency of the first Mashriqu’l-Adhkár of the western world.

Looking at these first two Bahá’í Houses of Worship in ‘Ishqábád and Chicago allows us to see how differences in context and focus can affect the emergence of this institution and allow for emphasis to be given to one or another aspect, as appropriate to its matrix. In ‘Ishqábád, the Temple arose within the context of a very strong, active and united local community, and dependencies followed an organic course of development since public services, such as those related to the education of both boys and girls, for example, were not available. In Chicago, on the other hand, the Temple served as the catalyst for building unity of vision and purpose in the Bahá’í community of the entire continent of North America, developing its capacities to raise funds, to use the consultative process to achieve unity of thought and action regarding the design, to grow the community of believers attracted to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, and to develop administrative structures to guide and channel the energies of the community. Since public education and other services were widely available, Chicago did not devote energy to developing such dependencies; rather, under the guidance of Shoghi Effendi, it focused on building crucial administrative capacities that eventually affected the development and functioning of national and local Bahá’í communities throughout the entire hemisphere. In a sense, one could view the ‘Ishqábád Temple as a model for the emergence of a local House of Worship and the one in Chicago as a model for the continental Houses of Worship that were established during the stage of temple building upon which the Bahá’í world community next embarked.

By Ann Boyles

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