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The prophet and founder of the Baha'i Faith, Baha’u’llah, left this world during the darkest hours of the night, at 3 a.m. on May 29, 1892. He died a prisoner and an exile, but his son Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
The Sun of Truth, that Most Great Light, hath set upon the horizon of the world to rise with deathless splendor over the Realm of the Limitless.
When the founder of a new Faith passes away, leaving its followers bereft and in mourning, what usually happens to the prophet’s nascent religion itself? Typically, it struggles to survive.
But after that initial struggle, a relative handful of major global Faiths have actually grown exponentially after the passing of their founders. Hinduism has lasted for thousands of years. Judaism, the oldest of the Abrahamic Faiths, has also stood the test of time. Buddhism, the largest religion from the global East, continues to expand. Christianity has become the world’s largest and most widespread religion two thousand years after the passing of Jesus. Islam, now fourteen centuries old, is second only to Christianity in its size.
The youngest of these global belief systems, the Baha’i Faith, now just a hundred and seventy eight years old, has become the second-most widespread religion on Earth since the passing of its founder Baha’u’llah in 1892.
This small group of six global religions, all transcending their cultural and geographic origins, spread around the world and generated millions of followers. Each one of them has survived the test of time. They all have rich, heroic written histories of mythic proportions. They have all grown widely beyond their point of origin. They have all developed administrative institutions, built shrines and temples, and become major contributors to the cultures they’ve influenced.
Together these six religions count almost 80 percent of the world’s population as supporters, adherents, and devoted believers. Their founders – Krishna, Abraham, Moses, Buddha, Christ, Muhammad, and Baha’u’llah – all live on, prompting tremendous devotion in the minds, hearts, and souls of their millions of followers.
However, when their founders passed into the next world, often as a result of the violent opposition their radical teachings first generated among the prevailing cultures they appeared in, the Faiths they created typically struggled to stay alive. Persecuted, misunderstood, exiled, tortured and imprisoned, the early Jews and Buddhists and Christians and Muslims and Baha’is suffered and died in large numbers for their beliefs. Kings, clerics, and even entire governments tried to exterminate them. Cast out of their societies as heretics and apostates, they wondered, in their weakest moments, if their new Faiths would even survive.
That same dynamic happened when the founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, passed away a little more than a hundred years ago.
Baha’u’llah, repeatedly persecuted, exiled, jailed and tortured for his progressive teachings, died in 1892. Forced out of Persia by its government and successively exiled to Baghdad in 1852; then from Baghdad to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1863; then to Adrianople (now Edirne) in 1867; and finally to the prison-city of Acre (Akka) in Palestine (now Israel) later in 1867; Baha’u’llah ultimately spent forty years as a prisoner of conscience. He had broken no laws, like the prophets before him, but had only announced the advent of a new spiritual system.
Baha’u’llah taught a new Faith with new, progressive principles: the independent investigation of truth, the essential unity of all religions, the oneness of the Creator and his creation, the establishment of a world parliament and world peace, the equality of men and women, the agreement of science and religion.
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Those altruistic ideals caused the Persian and Ottoman governments to subject Baha’u’llah to four decades of cruel and unusual punishment. Baha’u’llah underwent terrible suffering, not for any crime, but for promulgating the peaceful principles of a new Faith, which boldly challenged the orthodoxy, the power structure, and the endemic corruption of the existing governmental, social and religious order.
In a speech he gave in the United States in 1912, Baha’u’llah’s son and successor Abdu’l-Baha said his father withstood this terrible treatment, like all the prophets and messengers of God who have undergone persecution, as a sacrifice for all humanity. He said that Baha’u’llah:
… bore all these ordeals and calamities in order that our hearts might become enkindled and radiant, our spirits be glorified, our faults become virtues, our ignorance be transformed into knowledge; in order that we might attain the real fruits of humanity and acquire heavenly graces; in order that, although pilgrims upon earth, we should travel the road of the heavenly Kingdom, and, although needy and poor, we might receive the treasures of eternal life.
But despite the passing of Baha’u’llah, the Baha’i Faith continues to grow, develop and prosper – which proves that a powerful message outlives us all. Baha’u’llah’s teachings emphasize peace, unity and harmony among all people. They have inspired millions around the world, and the Faith that Baha’u’llah revealed so long ago has joined the pantheon of the world’s major Faiths as a result.
So today Baha’is around the world gather to observe and commemorate the anniversary of the passing of Baha’u’llah. In those many thousands of solemn, prayerful occasions held in the middle of the night across our planet, Baha’is everywhere will reflect on the light-filled teachings of this relatively new global Faith, and remember the extreme sacrifices required to bring its bright message of unity to humanity.