The Baha'l World Faith
Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith records in his book that the religion started in Iran with "A handful of students, belonging to the Shaykhi school, sprung from the Ithna-'Ashariyyih sect of Shi`ah Islam." From that beginning in 1844, the Bahá'í Faith has expanded into newest of the world's main religions.
Most religious historians believe that the Bahá'í Faith arose from Islam, similar to the way Christianity developed out of Judaism. Just as the original Christians were all Jews, the original Bahá'í's were all originally Muslims. Bahá'í's teach that theirs is a unique religion consisting of the teachings that God directly revealed to their prophet Baha'u'llah.
The name of the religion is most commonly spelled Baha'i, although alternate spellings of Ba'Hai, Bahai, Bahá'í, and Bah'ai are sometimes seen.
Siyyid 'Ali-Muhammad Shirází (1819-1850 CE) was a merchant in Shiraz in the south of Iran. He assumed the title Bab ("the Gate"). In 1844-MAY-23, in Iran, he announced the "Declaration of the Bab." He explained that the purpose of His mission, and those of his eighteen disciples whom he called the "Letters of the Living," was to herald the arrival of "One greater than Himself", who would fulfil the prophetic expectations of all the great religions. His followers became known as Babis. 20,000 were martyred for their beliefs. The movement caused much religious ferment. This led to his execution in 1850 by order of the Shah's chief minister and at the instigation of Muslim clerics, who saw his movement as a threat to orthodox Islam.
One of the Bab's followers, Mirza Husayn-'Ali-i-Nuri (1817-1892), was the son of a prominent Iranian nobleman and a prominent follower of the Bab. The Bab had given him several indications of his future role. In 1854, he was exiled and spent time in what is now Iraq, where he wrote several books: the Seven Valleys, the Four Valleys, Hidden Words and the Book of Certitude. In 1863, he confided to some of his followers and to his eldest son that he was the Manifestation predicted by the Bab. This event is commemorated yearly during the holy days of Ridván.
On 1863-APR-21, while living in Edirne in what is now Turkey, he began proclaiming his station openly and publicly to the world at large. His assumed title, Baha'u'llah ("glory of God"), by which he is generally known, was the title that the Bab used to refer to Him. The last forty years of Baha'u'llah's life were spent in prison or in exile. The last 22 years were spent in or near Akka, then a prison city. The world headquarters of the Bahá'í Faith is located in the Holy Land today as a result. It was here that he wrote his main literary work, the "Most Holy Book." By 1877, he was given increasing liberty to work freely.
Baha'u'llah died on 1892-MAY-29 at the age of 74. He had spent most of his life either as a prisoner or in exile. He was buried in a house near Akka. "His shrine is regarded by Bahá'ís as the holiest place on earth."
Baha'u'llah appointed his son 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921) to be leader of the movement after his death. He was to be the sole interpreter of his father's writings. In the very late 19th century, under his leadership, the faith expanded beyond the Middle East and was introduced to Europe and North America. He set out on speaking tours, visiting France and the UK in 1911, and North America, the UK, France, Germany and Hungary during 1912-12.
He lived in Haifa during World War I where he wrote his major book: "Tablets of the Divine Plan" which contained his thoughts on the worldwide expansion of the faith. Baha'is believe that his interpretations of Baha'u'llah's writings were based on his infallible understanding of the texts.
'Abdu'l-Baha selected his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi (-1957) to be his successor as the Guardian of the Cause of God -- the leader of the Bahá'í community. He dedicated his effort to a major expansion of the faith into all areas of the world. He was instrumental in bringing women into various positions of power in the religion, and overcoming local prejudices against them.
He died in London, England in 1957. He did not name a successor -- a person to infallibly interpret the writings of Baha'u'llah. Administrative duties were taken over by a committee who he had called "Hands of the Cause." They were giving them the authority to lead the Baha'i Faith.
The Universal House of Justice:
In 1963, the Universal House of Justice (a.k.a. UHJ) was established in Haifi, Israel. Provision for such a body had been contained in the will of 'Abdu'l-Baha. His instructions could not be precisely carried out, because he had stated that the House of Justice was to be headed by the Guardian or someone appointed by him. The Guardian had died and, while he was alive, had not appointed anyone to take that position.
The House is the highest authority in the Bahá'í faith. It has coordinated a series of multi-year plans to further expand and consolidate Bahá'í communities around the world.
Shoghi Effendi did not delegate a successor -- one with an infallible understanding of Baha'u'llah's writings. The UHJ has "...no powers to interpret scripture." Thus none of his or his predecessors interpretations can be changed. This may well produce a serious problem in the future over the question of acceptance of homosexuals, including same-sex marriage. Shoghi Effendi interpreted a section of Baha'u'llah's writings as prohibiting all same-sex activity, including that between consenting gays or lesbians in committed relationships. There does not appear to be any way to overturn his ruling, even if the Bahá'í leadership were to decide that homosexuality is a morally neutral sexual orientation that is normal and natural for a minority of adults.
The Baha'i religion is currently one of the least sexist religious groups in the world. Baha'is have promoted an end to bias and discrimination based on sex, race, religion, etc. However, women were initially excluded from the nine-member group. Shoghi Effendi apparently preferred that the initial choice of jurors be limited to men, because residual sexism within the religion -- particularly in the Middle and Far East -- threatened to create a schism if women were considered as full equals of men. "He left this battle for the future Universal House of Justice itself to fight." The Universal House of Justice recently passed its fortieth anniversary and remains an all-male organization.
The Bahá'í faith continues to expand across the world. The religion's rate of increase is not generally known because accurate membership data are not available.
Several schismatic movements split away from the main Bahá'í faith after the death of the Guardian. However, none of them have been able to build a large membership. They are known as covenant breakers by the main faith.
The Bahá'í faith is still viewed by many Muslims as a breakaway sect of Islam. Its members are heavily persecuted in some countries because of this, in violation of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights.