A New Religion
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Iran refuses to let Baha'is teach or study at university. But they do teach. And they do study.
The Baha'i Institute for Higher Education is an informal university dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.
Experience now the story of how Iran's Baha'is created this icon of peaceful resistance.
All the races and religions are one. Men and women are equal. Violence must be abandoned for peace. Education is a universal right – and a universal responsibility.
Even today, these ideas are considered radical in many parts of the world. In 19th-century Iran, they provoked social upheaval when they were professed to be the core tenets of a new religion: the Baha’i faith.
The movement began in the 1840s, when a young merchant known as the Bab (the “Gate”) broke away from Islam and stirred a religious revival. After the Bab was executed in 1850, the movement was nearly quashed. But among the Bab’s most prominent disciples was the nobleman Baha’u’llah, who refused to be silenced even after the authorities imprisoned him.
In 1863, Baha’u’llah called for a new faith – one for all humanity. His message attracted thousands of followers across Iran, many of whom embraced his revelation that people should take responsibility for investigating spiritual and moral truth themselves and that the nations of the world must unite into one peaceful civilization. Yet many in Iran rejected Baha’u’llah’s religion and its challenges to the established order.
Objects of Emulation
Shia Muslim clerics, called mullahs, held absolute religious authority in 19th-century Iran. Their interpretations of Islam were binding on all Muslim Iranians.
Baha’u’llah’s teachings were a direct challenge to this ruling clerical class. The highest-ranking clerics were the marjas, who were widely seen as the arbiters of truth and “objects of emulation.” Baha’u’llah said that human beings no longer needed an established clergy, which meant the marjas should no longer be followed without question. Baha’u’llah also said that prophets – Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad – were periodically sent by God to guide humanity, and that he himself was God’s latest messenger. The mullahs taught that Muhammad is the last of the prophets – the so-called “seal” on communications between God and humanity.
Baha’u’llah’s teachings also undermined the clerics’ political authority and income. The mullahs were closely allied with Iran’s political rulers, the tyrannical yet devoutly religious Qajar dynasty. Many clerics had begun to use their position to amass personal fortunes from the Shah and the princes who ruled Iran’s far-flung provinces.
Threatened, the mullahs encouraged religious fanatics to attack converts to the Baha’i faith. The Shah’s soldiers openly tortured and murdered Baha’is.
Born in 1817, Baha’u’llah was a child of privilege. His father had been a minister in the Shah’s court, and after his father’s death, Baha’u’llah could have assumed his father’s role. Instead, he chose to spend his fortune on serving the poor.
When Baha’u’llah learnt of the Bab’s teachings, he immediately pledged his loyalty and became a leading member of the movement. It was not an easy path. He was accused of heresy and theft of public funds and publicly beaten. Some claimed that he was working for the British or Russian governments, which were trying to gain influence over Central Asia. Baha’u’llah was even accused of attempting to assassinate the king, Naser al-Din Shah.
Charged with treason, in 1852 Baha’u’llah was thrown into Tehran’s Siyah-Chal (“Black Pit”) dungeon, where he was confined underground, in chains, for 4 months. When the authorities could find no proof that he had had any part in the assassination attempt, he was released. But they recognized Baha’u’llah posed a danger to Iran’s elite and banished him to Iraq, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. For the next 40 years, Baha’u'llah lived in exile, first in Iraq, later in Turkey, and finally in Palestine. He died in 1892, near the prison-city of Akka, on the Bay of Haifa.
Over the next century, millions of people around the world would come to call themselves Baha’is, and many of them would also face persecution.