Historical Context of the Bábi and Bahá'í Faiths
Updated: Apr 13, 2020
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To assert that a religion is independent of other faiths is not to argue that it began in a religious vacuum. Buddhism emerged from a traditional Hindu background, and only after it had crossed the Himalayas did it assume its full character as a separate faith destined to become a major cultural force in China, Japan, and the lands of Southeast Asia. Similarly, Jesus Christ and his immediate followers began their mission within the context of Judaism and for some two centuries the movement was regarded by neighboring peoples as a reformed branch of the parent religion. Christianity did not appear as a separate religion with its own scriptures, laws, and institutional and ritual forms until it had begun to attract large numbers of adherents from the many non-Semitic races in the Mediterranean world.
The religious matrix of the Bahá'í Faith was Islam. Much as Christianity was born out of the messianic expectations of Judaism, the religion that was to become the Bahá'í Faith arose from eschatological tensions within Islam. In the same way, however, the Bahá'í Faith is entirely independent of its parent religion.
The new faith first appeared in Persia, a predominantly Muslim country. It then spread to neighboring 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'an, 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.
Because of the Bahá'í Faith's Islamic background, it is important to give consideration to the Islamic matrix out of which it arose. Such an examination is important for a second reason as well: Islam fits into a concept of both religious history and the relationship between religions which is central to Bahá'í teaching. 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." 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 prior religions, constituted the immediate historical preparation for the Bahá'í Faith. Not surprisingly, therefore, one finds in the Bahá'í writings a great many Quranic terms and concepts.
Some tenets of Islam are especially important to a clear understanding of the Bahá'í Faith. Like Muslims, 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 Manifestation 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 two faiths in this respect is that while, among the existing religions, the Qur'an designates only Judaism, Christianity, and Islam itself as 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. - Baha'u'llah
There is yet another aspect of Islam which influenced the development of the new religion and which dictated Muslim reaction to it. Like Christianity before it, Islam gradually divided into a number of major sects. One of the most significant of these is the Shiah sect, which believes that it was Muhammad's intention that his descendants inherit the spiritual and temporal leadership of the faithful. These chosen ones, called Imams, or "leaders," were believed to be endowed with unqualified infallibility in the discharge of their related responsibilities. However, the great majority of Muslims rejected such claims believing that the sunna--the "way" or mode of conduct attributed by tradition to the Prophet Muhammad--was a sufficient guide. Those who subscribed to this latter belief became known as Sunni. Although Sunni Muslims vastly outnumber the Shiah today, and are usually referred to by Western scholars as "orthodox" as opposed to the "heterodoxy" of the Shiah, Shiah Islam has a long and respected tradition, a tradition that only recently has become the object of serious study among a growing group of non-Muslim scholars.
By A.D. 661, only 29 years after Muhammad's death, power in the Muslim world fell into the hands of the first of a series of dynastic rulers, theoretically elected by the faithful, but in fact representing the dominance of various powerful families. The first two of these Sunni dynasties, the Umayyads and the Abbasids, saw the Imams as a challenge to their own legitimacy. Consequently, according to Shiah accounts, one Imam after another was put to death, beginning with Hasan and Husayn, grandsons of Muhammad. These Imams, or descendants of the Prophet, came in time to be regarded by Shiah Islam as saints and martyrs.
Although Shiah Islam began among the Arabs, it reached its greatest influence in Persia. From the beginning, the Persian converts to Islam were attracted by the idea of the Imam as a divinely appointed leader. Unlike the Arabs, the Persians possessed a long heritage of government by a divinely appointed monarch, and the devotion that gathered around this figure in time came to focus on the person of the Prophet's descendants and appointed successors. After centuries of oppression by Sunni caliphs, the tradition of the Imamate eventually triumphed in Persia through the rise of a strongly Shiah dynasty, the Safavids, in the sixteenth century.
By this time, however, the line of Imams had ended. One of the features of Iranian Shiah tradition is that, in the year 873, the twelfth and last appointed Imam--only a child at the time--withdrew into "concealment" in order to escape the fate of his predecessors. It is believed that he will emerge "at the time of the end" to usher in a reign of justice throughout the world. This eschatological tradition (doctrine of "last things") has much in common with the Christian expectation of the return of Christ and Mahayana Buddhism's promise of the advent of Maitreya Buddha, "the Buddha of universal righteousness." Among other titles Muslims have assigned to this promised deliverer, the "Hidden Imam," are Mahdi (the Guided One) and Qa'im (He Who Will Arise i.e., from the family of the Prophet).
For a period of 69 years following his disappearance, the twelfth or Hidden Imam was said to have communicated with his followers through a series of deputies. These intermediaries took the title Báb (gate), because they were the only way to the Hidden Imam. There had been four Bábs up to the year 941, when the fourth one died without naming a successor.
The refusal of either the Imam or the final Báb to name a successor implied that the matter was to be left by the faithful entirely in the hands of God. In time, a messenger or messengers of God would appear, one of whom would be the Imam Mahdi, or Qa'im, and who would again provide a direct channel for the Divine Will to human affairs. It was out of this tradition that the Bahá'í religion and its forerunner, the Bábi Faith, appeared in the mid-nineteenth century.
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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