Today, Baha’is celebrate the twelfth day of Ridvan, when the time for Baha’u’llah’s journey from Baghdad into further exile and imprisonment finally arrived.
Exiled by government decree because the Babi Faith had continued its spread among the people of the Ottoman Empire, Baha’u’llah and his family faced a perilous, grueling four-month journey on foot and horseback through the hottest months of the year to an unknown destiny.
So why, you might ask, do Baha’is celebrate such a fateful, fearful occasion? The answer to that question defines what Baha’is believe about their Faith.
At noon on the twelfth day of Ridvan—May 3, 1863—Baha’u’llah mounted his horse, a noble red roan stallion. Immediately surrounded by hordes of people begging for his blessings and imploring him not to go, he set out toward Constantinople, clothed in majesty. The historian Nabil, an eyewitness to Baha’u’llah’s departure that day, described the wrenching scene:
Numerous were the heads which, on every side, bowed to the dust at the feet of His horse, and kissed its hoofs, and countless were those who pressed forward to embrace His stirrups. – quoted by Shoghi Effendi in God Passes By, p. 155.
Despite Baha’u’llah’s explicit instructions, a follower of Baha’u’llah named Mirza Asadu’llah Kashani couldn’t help himself and ran after the group:
Although Baha’u’llah had commanded the friends not to follow them, I was so loath to let Him go out of my sight, that I ran after them for three hours.
He saw me, and getting down from His horse, waited for me, telling me with His beautiful voice, full of love and kindness, to go back to Baghdad, and with the friends, to set about our work, not slothfully, but with energy:
“Be not overcome with sorrow—I am leaving friends I love in Baghdad. I will surely send to them tidings of our welfare. Be steadfast in your service to God, who doeth whatsoever He willeth. Live in such peace as will be permitted to you.”
We watched them disappear into the darkness with sinking hearts, for their enemies were powerful and cruel! And we knew not where they were being taken. An unknown destination!
Weeping bitterly, we turned our faces toward Baghdad, determined to live according to His command. – from Mirza Asadu’llah Kashani, quoted by Lady Blomfield in The Chosen Highway, pp. 122-123.
A troop of soldiers escorted the exiles:
Many of [Baha’u’llah’s] followers decided to abandon Baghdad also, and accompany him in his wanderings. When the caravan started, our company numbered about seventy-five persons. All the young men, and others who could ride, were mounted on horses. The women and [Baha’u’llah] were furnished wagons. We were accompanied by a military escort. – from an interview with Baha’u’llah’s daughter Bahiyyih Khanum, in Abbas Effendi, His Life and Teachings, by Myron H. Phelps.
This exile was Baha’u’llah’s second, after the Persian government exiled him to Baghdad from Tehran ten years earlier. Two more banishments would come in succession, the final one to the pestilential prison-city of Akka in Palestine, where some succumbed to the terrible prison conditions.
So why do Baha’is celebrate the twelfth day of Ridvan? Because these cruel exiles, driven by rulers who feared the rapid spread of Baha’u’llah’s teachings, did not suppress or damage the Baha’i Faith—instead, they rendered it victorious:
Acclaiming that historic occasion as the “Most Great Festival,” the “King of Festivals,” the “Festival of God,” He has … characterized it as the Day whereon “all created things were immersed in the sea of purification,” whilst in one of His specific Tablets, He has referred to it as the Day whereon “the breezes of forgiveness were wafted over the entire creation.” “Rejoice, with exceeding gladness, O people of Baha!”, He, in another Tablet, has written, “as ye call to remembrance the Day of supreme felicity, the Day whereon the Tongue of the Ancient of Days hath spoken, as He departed from His House proceeding to the Spot from which He shed upon the whole of creation the splendors of His Name, the All-Merciful … – Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, pp. 153-154.
Now Baha’is mark the Ridvan period each year as the time when the worldwide Baha’i community elects the democratic institutions that administer and guide their Faith. Can you see the symbolism? As a response to tyranny, terror and oppression, Baha’u’llah turned his life of exile, torture and imprisonment into a force for human solidarity, unity and peace. He built a global community of followers willing to use constructive resilience to respond to injustice.
That creative, non-violent response to tyranny means that Baha’i communities govern themselves with democratically-elected bodies of nine people called Spiritual Assemblies, who Baha’is annually vote for at the local and national level during the twelve days of Ridvan. Every five years—this year, 2018, included—Baha’is elect the Universal House of Justice during this same Ridvan period.
When Baha’is gather to pray and silently cast their ballots for these unique democratic institutions, they affirm Baha’u’llah’s teachings of world unity; symbolically celebrate the garden of humanity in all its diversity and beauty; and recall that powerful declaration in and exile from the Garden of Ridvan, which established the Faith of oneness and peace.
So please join the Baha’is in your community today as we celebrate Baha’u’llah’s banishment and exile, and the beginnings of a new Faith dedicated to love, compassion and justice.