Since its origins in the middle of the 19th Century, the word Baha’i – like the words Christian or Moslem or Buddhist – has become a universal noun, understood without any need for translation in just about every language and every country of the world. The word originally meant follower of the light or follower of the glory, and it identified those brave early believers who risked their lives to follow the teachings of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith.
Baha’u’llah – a title that means The Glory of God – was born Mirza Husayn Ali in 1817 in Tehran, Persia. The son of a nobleman and wealthy landowner, Baha’u’llah declined the lucrative ministerial position the government offered, and instead spent his energies on social and philanthropic causes devoted to eradicating Persia’s poverty. By the early 1840s, Baha’u’llah had become known across Persia as The Father of the Poor. A sensitive poet and Sufi mystic, Baha’u’llah then became one of the leading voices of the Babi movement, the turbulent spiritual revolution that swept Persia in the late 1840’s. Imprisoned in chains after The Bab’s execution in 1850, Baha’u’llah announced the emergence of the Baha’i Faith in 1863 and spent the last forty years of his life in prison and exile for proclaiming the Baha’i teachings.
Despite jail, exile, torture and even death as a result of their beliefs, the early Baha’is flocked to Baha’u’llah’s new Faith, which challenged orthodoxy with its major principles: the existence of one God, one universal religious truth and one human race. Dedicated to non-violence, to the harmony of science, logic and reason with religion, to the equality of men and women, to the abolition of all prejudice, to the eradication of the extremes of wealth and poverty, to the establishment of world peace, this progressive new belief system drew extreme opposition and persecution from the rigid and conservative Islamic clerical and governmental authorities in the region of its birth.
But despite that continuing persecution, Baha’u’llah’s Faith has spread across the face of the earth. Millions of people from every nationality, ethnicity, economic and social class, religion and origin have become Baha’is. They follow Baha’u’llah’s teachings of unity, justice and the independent investigation of truth:
The essence of all that We have revealed for thee is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye. – Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 156.
So what does it really mean to be a Baha’i?