Religion founded in Iran in the mid-19th century by Mirza Hoseyn 'Ali Nuri, who is known as Baha` Ullah (Arabic: "Glory of God"). The cornerstone of Baha`i belief is the conviction that Baha` Ullah and his forerunner, who was known as the Bab, were manifestations of God, who in his essence is unknowable. The principal Baha`i tenets are the essential unity of all religions and the unity of humanity. Baha`is believe that all the founders of the world's great religions have been manifestations of God and agents of a progressive divine plan for the education of the human race. Despite their apparent differences, the world's great religions, according to the Baha`is, teach an identical truth. Baha` Ullah's peculiar function was to overcome the disunity of religions and establish a universal faith. Baha`is believe in the oneness of humanity and devote themselves to the abolition of racial, class, and religious prejudices. The great bulk of Baha`i teachings is concerned with social ethics; the faith has no priesthood and does not observe ritual forms in its worship.
The Baha`i religion originally grew out of the Babi faith, or sect, which was founded in 1844 by Mirza 'Ali Mohammad of Shiraz in Iran. He proclaimed a spiritual doctrine emphasising the forthcoming appearance of a new prophet or messenger of God who would overturn old beliefs and customs and usher in a new era. Though new, Mirza's beliefs originated in Shi`ite Islam, which believed in the forthcoming return of the 12th imam (successor of Muhammad), who would renew religion and guide the faithful. Mirza 'Ali Mohammad first proclaimed his beliefs in 1844 and assumed the title of the Bab (Persian: "Gateway"). Soon the Bab's teachings spread throughout Iran, provoking strong opposition from both the Shi'ite Muslim clergy and the government. The Bab was arrested and, after several years of incarceration, was executed in 1850. Large-scale persecutions of his adherents, the Babis, followed and ultimately cost 20,000 people their lives.
One of the Bab's earliest disciples and strongest exponents was Mirza Hoseyn 'Ali Nuri, who had assumed the name of Baha` Ullah when he renounced his social standing and joined the Babis. Baha` Ullah was arrested in 1852 and jailed in Tehran, where he became aware that he was the prophet and messenger of God whose coming had been predicted by the Bab. He was released in 1853 and exiled to Baghdad, where his leadership revived the Babi community. In 1863, shortly before being moved by the Ottoman government to Constantinople, Baha` Ullah declared to his fellow Babis that he was the messenger of God foretold by the Bab. An overwhelming majority of Babis acknowledged his claim and thenceforth became known as Baha`is. Baha` Ullah was subsequently confined by the Ottomans in Adrianople (now Edirne, Tur.) and then in Acre in Palestine (now 'Akko, Israel). Before Baha` Ullah died in 1892, he appointed his eldest son, 'Abd ol-Baha (1844-1921), to be the leader of the Baha`i community and the authorised interpreter of his teachings. 'Abd ol-Baha actively administered the movement's affairs and spread the faith to North America, Europe, and other continents. He appointed his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani(1897-1957), as his successor. The Baha`i faith underwent a rapid expansion beginning in the 1960s, and by the late 20th century it had more than 150 national spiritual assemblies (national governing bodies) and about 20,000 local spiritual assemblies. After Islamic fundamentalists came to power in Iran in 1979, the 300,000 Baha`is there were persecuted by the government.
The writings and spoken words of the Bab, Baha` Ullah, and 'Abd ol-Baha form the sacred literature of the Baha`i faith. Membership in the Baha`i community is open to all who profess faith in Baha` Ullah and accept his teachings. There are no initiation ceremonies, no sacraments, and no clergy. Every Baha`i, however, is under the spiritual obligation to pray daily; to fast 19 days a year, going without food or drink from sunrise to sunset; to abstain totally from narcotics, alcohol, or any substances that affect the mind; to practice monogamy; to obtain the consent of parents to marriage; and to attend the Nineteen Day Feast on the first day of each month of the Baha`i calendar. The Nineteen Day Feast, originally instituted by the Bab, brings together the Baha`is of a given locality for prayer, the reading of scriptures, the discussion of community activities, and for the enjoyment of one another's company. The feasts are designed to ensure universal participation in the affairs of the community and the cultivation of the spirit of brotherhood and fellowship. Baha`i houses of worship exist in Wilmette, Ill., U.S.; Frankfurt am Main, Germany; Kampala, Uganda; Sydney, Australia; and Panama City, Panama. In the temples there is no preaching; services consist of recitation of the scriptures of all religions.
The Baha`is use a calendar established by the Bab and confirmed by Baha` Ullah, in which the year is divided into 19 months of 19 days each, with the addition of 4 intercalary days (5 in leap years). The year begins on the first day of spring, March 21, which is one of several holy days in the Baha`i calendar.
The Baha`i community is governed according to general principles proclaimed by Baha` Ullah and through institutions created by him that were elaborated and expanded by 'Abd ol-Baha. The governance of the Baha`i community begins on the local level with the election of a local spiritual assembly. The electoral process excludes parties or factions, nominations, and campaigning for office. The local spiritual assembly has jurisdiction over all local affairs of the Baha`i community. On the national scale, each year Baha`is elect delegates to a national convention that elects a national spiritual assembly with jurisdiction over Baha`i's throughout an entire country. All national spiritual assemblies of the world periodically constitute themselves an international convention and elect a supreme governing body known as the Universal House of Justice. This body applies the laws promulgated by Baha` Ullah and legislates on matters not covered in the sacred texts. The seat of the Universal House of Justice is in Haifa, Israel, in the immediate vicinity of the shrines of the Bab and 'Abd ol-Baha, and near the Shrine of Baha` Ullah at Bahji near 'Akko. The members of the Hands of the Cause of God and the continental counsellors are appointed by the Universal House of Justice to propagate the Baha`i faith and protect the community.