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Religion occurs in every human culture. Sociologists consider it a cultural universal, one of the traits common to all human societies along with language, art and music. The art in prehistoric caves, many anthropologists believe, shows that even the earliest humans had religion.
So how does religion begin?
All of the world’s great Faiths start exactly the same way, when one individual—who we later call a prophet, a messenger, a manifestation—brings humanity a new iteration of God’s teachings. It starts when that prophet of God receives a revelation, a mystical transference of inspiration and knowledge and spiritual power, from the Creator. It starts when people begin to hear that message and respond with their hearts and souls. It started that way with Buddha, with Abraham, with Jesus, with Muhammad.
The Baha’i Faith had its own beginnings that way.
It began when The Bab (pronounced bŏb), the young Herald of the Baha’i Faith and the Founder of its revolutionary predecessor the Babi Faith, declared his mission on May 22, 1844. Baha’is all around the world believe that The Bab—a title which means The Gate–delivered a new message destined to result in the eventual establishment of the unity of humanity.
The Bab was a title bestowed on a young man named Siyyid Ali Muhammad, from Shiraz, in the province of Fars, Persia. Born in 1819 into a family of merchants and traders, raised by his maternal uncle after the premature death of his father in 1826, a mystic descended from many generations of mystical Sufis, known from childhood for his wisdom, intelligence and humility, The Bab would start a religious movement unparalleled in history.
During the early evening of May 22, 1844, Siyyid Ali Muhammad declared his mission as The Bab to an ardent seeker named Mulla Husayn. Younger than Jesus when he declared His revelation, The Bab started, on that day, a new era of faith–and the renewal of the eternal promise of religion itself. Soon many thousands of people became followers of The Bab. He upended the corrupt practices of the Persian clergy, challenged tradition by abrogating the laws of the past and declared that He had come, like John the Baptist, as the herald for another Manifestation of God, the Promised One of All Ages, the founder of a universal and unifying world religion—Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith.
Every year during the evening of May 22nd and the day of May 23rd, Baha’is celebrate the Declaration of The Bab. This is how it happened:
The opening scene of the initial act of this great drama was laid in the upper chamber of the modest residence of the son of a mercer of Shiraz, in an obscure corner of that city. The time was the hour before sunset, on the 22nd day of May, 1844. The participants were the Bab, a twenty-five year old siyyid, of pure and holy lineage, and the young Mulla Husayn, the first to believe in Him. Their meeting immediately before that interview seemed to be purely fortuitous. The interview itself was protracted till the hour of dawn…. No record has passed to posterity of that unique night save the fragmentary but highly illuminating account that fell from the lips of Mulla Husayn.
“I sat spellbound by His utterance, oblivious of time and of those who awaited me,” he himself has testified, after describing the nature of the questions he had put to his Host and the conclusive replies he had received from Him, replies which had established beyond the shadow of a doubt the validity of His claim to be the promised Qá’im. “Suddenly the call of the Mu’adhdhin, summoning the faithful to their morning prayer, awakened me from the state of ecstasy into which I seemed to have fallen. All the delights, all the ineffable glories, which the Almighty has recounted in His Book as the priceless possessions of the people of Paradise — these I seemed to be experiencing that night. Methinks I was in a place of which it could be truly said: ‘Therein no toil shall reach us, and therein no weariness shall touch us;’ ‘no vain discourse shall they hear therein, nor any falsehood, but only the cry, “Peace! Peace!”‘; ‘their cry therein shall be, “Glory to Thee, O God!” and their salutation therein, “Peace!”, and the close of their cry, “Praise be to God, Lord of all creatures!”‘
“This Revelation,” Mulla Husayn has further testified, “so suddenly and impetuously thrust upon me, came as a thunderbolt which, for a time, seemed to have benumbed my faculties. I was blinded by its dazzling splendor and overwhelmed by its crushing force. Excitement, joy, awe, and wonder stirred the depths of my soul. Predominant among these emotions was a sense of gladness and strength which seemed to have transfigured me. – Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, pp. 5-6.
Just as Mulla Husayn, the first follower of the Bab did then, Baha’is rejoice and celebrate every year on the anniversary of that Declaration—when The Bab first sounded the great call, a hundred seventy years ago today, for the unity of all peoples, cultures, nations and religions.