A friend of mine sent me an email the other day, asking “What makes a true Baha’i?” Now, there’s a deep question, I thought.
So I looked it up. It turns out the Baha’i teachings answer that question in several different places, and in several different ways.
You find that a lot in the Baha’i writings, actually. For many questions, the Bab, Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi—the four central figures of the Baha’i Faith, and the authoritative sources of the revelation—gave diverse answers. They may have been tailoring their responses to the capacities of the individuals who asked the questions; or to the audiences they were speaking to at the time; or even elaborating on earlier answers to the same basic question. Their writings and the answers they gave to individuals didn’t contradict one another or the basic principles of the Baha’i revelation—they simply illuminated different aspects of the Faith at different times and to different audiences. Filled with nuance, insight and spiritual wisdom, the Baha’i writings speak to a wide variety of perspectives, cultures and understandings.
Also, the Baha’i revelation itself is enormous in many different ways. In sheer volume, in the prolific nature of the Baha’i writings, and in the depth of their subject matter, the Baha’i teachings cover a huge spectrum of concepts and principles, expounding on most of the major human questions, giving humanity a new spiritual path, setting forth a new system of divine law, and then creating a three-tiered democratically-elected global leadership structure to deal with the newly-developing areas, sciences and subjects that progress and the revelation itself left to posterity.
Here’s just one specific way to think about the enormity of all that: the Bab’s revelation, which spanned the years between 1844 and 1850, lasted a little more than six years. Baha’u’llah’s revelation began in 1863 and continued until his passing in 1892, for a total of 29 years. Abdu’l-Baha, appointed by Baha’u’llah to lead the Baha’i Faith as his successor and exemplar, guided the global affairs of the religion from 1892-1921, a span of 29 more years. When Abdu’l-Baha passed away in 1921, he appointed Shoghi Effendi as the Guardian of the Faith, who administered and guided the worldwide Baha’i community for another 36 years, until his passing in 1957.
When you add it up, that’s 100 years of divine spiritual guidance; with 35 of those years from two prophets, the Bab and Baha’u’llah. Comparatively, Christ’s revelation lasted three years; Muhammad’s spanned 23. Some say the Buddha’s mission lasted many years, but written chronologies conflict or are uncertain. The historical records of the revelations of the earlier prophets and founders of global religions—Krishna, Abraham, Moses—are similarly inconclusive.
Can you imagine it? As far as we know, the world has never experienced the sheer spiritual outpouring of 35 years of divine revelation before. Baha’is regard both the Bab and Baha’u’llah as prophets of God, and see the combined power and energy of their twin revelations as transformative for the whole world.
Abdu’l-Baha never claimed to be a prophet or a divine messenger, but simply said that his title meant “servant of God.” Shoghi Effendi claimed no divine station at all, but the Baha’i writings describe his role and the role of Abdu’l-Baha—both unique in religious history—as the divinely-inspired authoritative interpreters of the Baha’i teachings. Their combined 65 years of spiritual leadership and guidance shaped the destiny of the Baha’i teachings and facilitated their spread around the entire planet.
Alternatively, you can think about the spiritual range, scope and power of the Baha’i teachings this way: Baha’u’llah wrote more than a hundred volumes of revelatory scripture. For the first time in religious history, a messenger of God and the founder of a global Faith actually and personally wrote down his original teachings. The messages of Abraham, Krishna, Moses, Buddha, Zoroaster, Christ and Muhammad weren’t written down by the prophets themselves, as far as we know—instead, they were transcribed by others, transmitted as oral histories over many generations and later compiled into books like the Zend-Avesta, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Torah, the Bible and the Qur’an. The Baha’i writings, by contrast, come directly from the central figures of the Faith.
So, back to the original question: What does make a true Baha’i? Here’s one of Abdu’l-Baha’s answers to that basic but complex question:
What are the fruits of the human world? They are the spiritual attributes which appear in man. If man is bereft of those attributes, he is like a fruitless tree. One whose aspiration is lofty and who has developed self-reliance will not be content with a mere animal existence. He will seek the divine Kingdom; he will long to be in heaven although he still walks the earth in his material body, and though his outer visage be physical, his face of inner reflection will become spiritual and heavenly. Until this station is attained by man, his life will be utterly devoid of real outcomes. The span of his existence will pass away in eating, drinking and sleeping, without eternal fruits, heavenly traces or illumination—without spiritual potency, everlasting life or the lofty attainments intended for him during his pilgrimage through the human world. You must thank God that your efforts are high and noble, that your endeavors are worthy, that your intentions are centered upon the Kingdom of God and that your supreme desire is the acquisition of eternal virtues. You must act in accordance with these requirements. A man may be a Baha’i in name only. If he is a Baha’i in reality, his deeds and actions will be decisive proofs of it. What are the requirements? Love for mankind, sincerity toward all, reflecting the oneness of the world of humanity, philanthropy, becoming enkindled with the fire of the love of God, attainment to the knowledge of God and that which is conducive to human welfare. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 336.
In that final sentence, Abdu’l-Baha lists seven of the requirements of a true Baha’i life. In the essays in this series, we’ll look at each one of those qualities, attributes and actions; and we’ll explore how they can take root and grow in the human soul.