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The Bahai faith is one of the youngest religions in the world. It emerged in 1844 in Iran, and in a less than a century it had become a global religion. Most sources suggest that there are only around 5-6 million followers, but they are found in almost every country in the world. Hence, Bahaism is recognized as the second-most geographically widespread religion after Christianity. Although the Bahai teachings share similarities with other monotheistic faiths, Bahais are often subject to persecution in Muslim countries. In Iran, since the emergence of the Islamic Republic in 1979, both harassment of and discrimination against the Bahai community has intensified. In this article, we look briefly at the teachings of this religion and discuss the reasons behind the persecution of its followers.
Siyyid Ali Muhammad Shirazi, also known as the Bab (1819-1850), was a merchant from Shiraz in south Iran. In 1844, at the age of 24, he claimed to be a messenger of God. He revoked Islamic law and promulgated a system of Babi law, thus establishing a religion distinct from Islam. Some of the new laws included changing the lunar calendar to a solar calendar of 19 months and 19 days, which later became the basis of the Bahai calendar, and changing the direction of prayer from Mecca to the Bab’s house in Shiraz. He quickly attracted followers, which drew the attention of the central government. In 1850, he was charged with apostasy and executed. Before his death, he claimed that his teachings were a revelation from God and predicted that a new prophetic figure would soon appear. Bahais consider Bahaullah (1817-1892) to be that person.
Although Babism and Bahaism are distinct movements, they are deeply intertwined. Today, the Bahais celebrate the Bab’s birth, death and declaration as holy days. He is regarded as one of the three central figures of the faith along with Bahaullah and Abdul-Baha, Bahaullah’s eldest son.
Born in Tehran, Mirza Husayn Ali Nuri (1817-1892) was one of the early followers of the Bab, and later took the title of Bahaullah. Although many of the Babis followed another of the Bab’s disciples, Subh-i-Azal, Bahaullah gradually gained their allegiance, and they came to be recognized as Bahais.
Shortly after the Bab’s execution, Bahaullah was expelled from Tehran to Baghdad, which was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time. He was then sent to Istanbul and later to Adrianople. Finally, in 1868, he was sent to the Ottoman penal colony of Acre, which is in present-day Israel. He died and was buried there in 1892, and Bahais pray towards his resting place each day.
Following Bahaullah’s death, Abdul-Baha became the leader of this fledgling religious community. After his death in 1921, he was succeeded by his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi. After Effendi’s death in 1957, the leadership of the faith became collective and transferred to a group of believers rather than an individual. Today, the leadership rests with the Universal House of Justice.
In terms of ideology, Bahais believe that God is transcendent and cannot be known or understood without prophets, the most recent of whom was Bahaullah. They believe there is one God and that all the universe and creation belong to him. He is omnipotent, perfect and has complete knowledge of life.
Bahaullah made daily private prayer a religious obligation for all Bahais from the age of 15 upwards. But believers can choose between a short prayer, a medium prayer and a long prayer each day.
Bahais put a lot of emphasis on peace and unity among people. For them, humankind is made up of a single race, which should be united in a single global community. Therefore, all religions have the same divine foundation, despite their differences, and all religions that emerged before Bahaism are true and must be respected. Bahais also believe that there has only ever been one God, who is called by different names in different religions. Therefore, they do not believe that their faith holds the final truth but that it represents the most complete set of truths accessible in the current time.
As well as the emphasis on equality between races, the Bahai faith advocates equality of the sexes. An essential part of being a Bahai is participation in the Bahai community. There are Spiritual Assemblies around the world that consist of nine members of the community elected by the community to hold office for a year. The Bahai World Centre is in Acre, where the Shrine of Bahaullah is also located. The Universal House of Justice, which represents the religion’s supreme governing body, is located in Haifa, on Israel’s Mediterranean coast. Many Bahais make pilgrimages to these places.
Although the Bahai community was initially made up mainly of Iranians with a Shiite background, in the contemporary Bahai population only one in ten is Iranian. Despite their small number, Iranian Bahais continue to face significant discrimination. According to Dr Afshin Shahi, senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom, the reason for this is simple. “The Shiite clergy has been historically hostile towards the Bahais because their belief questions the ‘finality’ of Islam. Bahais believe that all previous religions including Islam are from the same source and are in essence successive chapters of one religion from God. Hence, they believe the Bahai faith, which emerged in the 19th century, is the ‘latest’ manifestation of ‘the truth’. As Islam also claims to be the ‘final truth’, some clerical authorities, both Sunni and Shia, have always been deeply hostile to the Bahai community.”
This incompatibility of narratives goes hand in hand with a deep suspicion among the Iranian clergy of outside forces. Even before the 1979 revolution, many clerics preached that the Bahai faith is nothing more than a construction by ‘the old fox of imperialism’, Britain. They alleged that the British Empire, which thrived on the notion of divide and conquer, created this religion to weaken the sense of unity in the Islamic Ummah (‘community’). After the revolution, this antagonistic view became an integral part of the state discourse.
Following that conspiratorial view, the Islamic Republic believes that Bahais use the British media to undermine the Islamic authority in Iran. The regime is highly suspicious of the BBC and believes that it played a crucial role in mobilizing the anti-regime protests in early 2018 after the presidential election the previous year. It also believes that BBC Persian exists to serve the Bahai agenda. Hadad Adel, a former speaker of the Islamic Consultative Assembly and a close follower of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, dubbed the BBC the “Bahai Broadcasting Company”. These historical conspiracy theories continue to overshadow the Bahai community, and the state actively promotes these ideas to demonize Bahais and legitimize their collective persecution.
If the British conspiracy theories were not enough, the regime also associates the Bahai faith with Zionism. The Islamic Republic makes this connection because the Bahai headquarters and many important Bahai religious sites are located in Israel. When Bahaullah, the founder of the faith, was jailed in Acre, the city was under Ottoman rule. However, after May 1948, when the state of Israel was established, all those sites became part of Israeli territory. Since many Bahais make pilgrimages to Israel and to visit their religious sites there, the Islamic Republic has accused many Iranian Bahais of ‘spying’ for Zionism.