This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.
These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease,
and all men be as one kindred and one family.
Bahá'u'lláh to E. G. Browne
There is not one soul whose conscience does not testify
that in this day there is no more important matter
in the world than that of Universal Peace.
A supreme tribunal shall be established
by the peoples and governments of every nation,
composed of members elected
from each country and government.
The members of this great council shall assemble in unity.
All disputes of an international character
shall be submitted to this court,
its work being to arrange by arbitration everything
which otherwise would be a cause of war.
'Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks
The Bahá'í faith began in Persia. On May 23, 1844 Siyyid 'Ali-Muhammad declared that he was the Báb (Gate)-"the channel of grace from some great person still behind the veil of glory." He was a forerunner as John the Baptist had been for Jesus. After attracting eighteen disciples, he took one of them and went on pilgrimage to Mecca, where his oratory and inspired writings encouraged his followers and alarmed the orthodox Muslim authorities. They persuaded the governor of Fars to persecute the heretics, and the Báb was subjected to imprisonment, deportation, examination before tribunals, and torture. In 1846 he refused to accept an offer by the governor-general of Isfahan to go to Tehran under the protection of the Governor's considerable army. Finally the Báb was put before a firing squad on July 9, 1850. After the first round of shots by 750 Armenian Christians, the Báb and his companion were unhurt; the bullets had merely cut the ropes by which they were suspended. The Báb was found in a nearby room finishing his instructions to his companion, while the Armenians who made up the firing squad refused to fire again. However, a Muslim regiment of soldiers was ordered to fire, and his martyrdom was completed. This event stimulated even more people to follow his teachings, but the persecutions continued with more than 20,000 people losing their lives.
Mirzá Husayn-'Ali, who became known as Bahá'u'lláh (Glory of God), was born about two years before the Báb on November 12, 1817 in Tehran. His father Mirza Buzurg of Nur was in the ruling class and served at the court of the Shah. At the age of seven Husayn argued and won a case before the Shah, and he impressed people with his wisdom. He married Asiyih Khanum before his 18th birthday. He was concerned about the poor and did what he could to help them. When he was 22 and his father died, it was expected that he would take up his father's prestigious position in the government; but the young man had other ideas. His son, who was to become known as 'Abdu'l-Bahá (Servant of Bahá), was born on the same day as the Báb's declaration. The Báb sent Mullá Husayn, his first disciple, with a letter for an unnamed person. When this envoy heard about Mirzá Husayn-'Ali, he gave him the letter. The Báb renamed him Bahá'u'lláh.
After his conversion, Bahá'u'lláh went to spread the new message in Mázindarán on the shores of the Caspian Sea. When the Báb was in prison in 1848, his persecuted followers met at Badasht in Khurásán. Of the eighteen only the poetess called Táhirih had not met the Báb. She discarded her veil and appeared before the men with her face uncovered as a sign of the new day. Several men objected, but Bahá'u'lláh said that the Báb was the founder of a new dispensation. After returning to Tehran, Bahá'u'lláh met with Mullá Husayn and more than three hundred Bábis, who had taken sanctuary in the forests of Mázindarán at a shrine, where they built defenses. When troops besieged this Fort of Tabarsi, Bahá'u'lláh went to be with them; but he was taken by the governor's men to Amul, where he was whipped to keep his companions from being punished. After the Báb's martyrdom in the public square of Tabriz in 1850, Bahá'u'lláh sent a young man to conceal the corpse of the Báb so that it could be buried later at Mount Carmel. The Báb had sent his seals, pen, and papers to Bahá'u'lláh.
While Bábis were being hunted down and killed, the government requested that Bahá'u'lláh move to Karbala in Iraq, where he lived in relative safety in the wilderness for two years. On August 15, 1852 two irresponsible young Bábis shot at the Shah with birdshot and were put to death without a trial. When the poetess Táhirih was told that she was to be executed, she said that they could kill her, but they could not stop the emancipation of women. Hearing that he was to be arrested, Bahá'u'lláh turned himself in and was taken to a dungeon in Tehran. In his book Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Bahá'u'lláh explained that he had nothing to do with the assassination attempt. For four months he was held with about 150 prisoners in a dark and smelly pit with two chains around his neck and his feet in the stocks. He led them in chanting verses such as "God is sufficient unto me." Hundreds of Bábis were tortured and died that year. Bahá'u'lláh was cleared of any wrongdoing; but his property and wealth were confiscated, and he was banished from Iran. Declining an invitation from Russia, he returned to Iraq, arriving weak at Baghdad in March 1853. There his leadership of the Bábis was challenged by his half-brother Mirzá Yahyá, who was known as Subh-i-Azal or simply Azal. So Bahá'u'lláh withdrew into solitude in the mountains of Kurdistán. He was taken for a Sufi, and his reputation for wisdom spread.
Eventually the Bábis persuaded Bahá'u'lláh to come back, and he returned to Baghdad in 1856. He advised them not to resist with violence any persecution, and they began to live again with faith in their hearts. In the next few years Bahá'u'lláh wrote his best known books. The Hidden Word described the eternal truths of revealed religion, and he urged people to love God more than their own pleasures. They should not speak evil of others. He wrote The Seven Valleys to answer a learned Sufi. The valleys represent the seven stages of the spiritual path-search, love, knowledge, unity, contentment, wonderment, and finally true poverty and absolute nothingness. In the valley of searching, the wayfarer rides the steed of patience and in the valley of love the steed of pain. After traversing the valley of knowledge, in the valley of unity the traveler understands abstract concepts. In the valley of wonderment the pilgrim realizes that the temple of wealth is lack itself, and in the last valley one dies from the self to live in God. In The Book of Certitude, considered his greatest doctrinal work, Bahá'u'lláh explained scriptures as progressive revelation. He described the attributes of God such as knowledge, power, sovereignty, dominion, mercy, wisdom, glory, bounty, and grace.
Bahá'u'lláh's teachings attracted not only Muslims but also Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. Because of his popularity and the animosity of the Muslim clerics, in April 1863 the Persian government requested the Turkish government to order him transferred to Istanbul, upsetting his followers. While dwelling in an island garden of the Tigris River for twelve days in preparation for the journey, Bahá'u'lláh announced that he was the Promised One foretold by the Báb. A majority of the Bábis accepted his mission and became known as Bahá'ís. The journey to Istanbul took three months, and four months later he was moved to Adrianople. At this time it was believed that Azal tried to poison him, and Bahá'u'lláh felt its effects in his body the rest of his life. After anonymous letters accused Bahá'u'lláh of plotting with Bulgarian and European leaders to attack the capital Istanbul, in August 1868 Bahá'u'lláh was sent to barracks of 'Akká (Acre) in Palestine; Azal was banished to Cypress, where he died in 1912. Bahá'u'lláh spent the rest of his life under arrest in 'Akká. For a while about seventy prisoners were given only bread and polluted water. When three died, Bahá'u'lláh sold the rug on which he slept in order to pay the wardens to bury them.
Although a prisoner of the Turkish government, Bahá'u'lláh was allowed to send his famous proclamations to the current world leaders including Napoleon III, Czar Alexander II, Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm I, Emperor Francis Joseph, Sultan 'Abdu'l-Azíz, Násiri'd-Din Sháh, the rulers of America, the elected representatives of the people, Pope Pius IX, and the clergy and people of various faiths. In these exhortations he pleaded for peace and the unity of mankind.
O Rulers of the earth!
Be reconciled among yourselves,
that ye may need no more armaments
save in a measure to safeguard your territories and dominions.
Beware lest ye disregard the counsel
of the All-Knowing, the Faithful.
Be united, O Kings of the earth,
for thereby will the tempest of discord be stilled amongst you,
and your people find rest,
if ye be of them that comprehend.
Should anyone among you take up arms against another,
rise ye all against him,
for this is naught but manifest justice.1
The young messenger who took Bahá'u'lláh's letter to the Shah was tortured and killed. To the Ottoman Sultan 'Abdu'l-'Aziz he urged undeviating justice so that none may suffer want or be pampered with luxuries. After Napoleon III scoffed at the man who claimed to be God, Bahá'u'lláh sent another tablet in 1869 prophesying the defeat Napoleon soon experienced. Wilhelm I was warned that the German empire would suffer retribution for its bloodshed, and the lamentations of Berlin would be heard. Bahá'u'lláh commended Queen Victoria for prohibiting the slave trade and allowing representative government; she wisely commented, "If this is of God, it will endure; if not, it can do no harm."2
In 1870 Bahá'u'lláh and his family were moved to a caravanserai in the town of 'Akká. Although he counseled patience when spies of Azal aroused animosity against him, Bahá'ís killed three of the bad men. His son 'Abdu'l-Bahá was put in chains for one night. Bahá'u'lláh complained that captivity did not harm him, but this violence by his followers did. When a new governor offered to help Bahá'u'lláh, he advised him to repair the aqueduct outside of town. This improved the water supply and air of 'Akká. After being confined for nine years inside the city walls, 'Abdu'l-Bahá was able to rent a house four miles from 'Akká. After two years there, Bahá'u'lláh spent the rest of his life in the neighboring Mansion of Bahji, which 'Abdu'l-Bahá purchased after it had been abandoned because of a plague.
In 1890 Bahá'u'lláh was visited by the Cambridge Orientalist Edward Granville Browne, who described their conversation. Bahá'u'lláh asked him if Europe did not need the "Most Great Peace" that Jesus foretold, because kings and rulers lavish their treasures more on the means of destruction than on what helps people. Rather than glorying in loving one's country it is better to glory in loving humankind. That year Bahá'u'lláh was allowed to visit Haifa and camp on Mount Carmel. His last years were spent writing while his son 'Abdu'l-Bahá took care of administration. In The Most Holy Book Bahá'u'lláh laid out the laws and institutions for his world order, both for individuals and society, as he recommended being just, tolerant, truthful, loyal, and peaceful. Bahá'u'lláh died on May 29, 1892, and in his will he declared that his son, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, was to be the center of his covenant as his representative and expounder of his teachings. His will contained this admonition: "O people of the world! The religion of God is to create love and unity; do not make it the cause of enmity and discord."3
Bahá'u'lláh continually taught that true religion recognizes and promotes the unity of mankind and the love of all humanity. Prejudices based on religion, race, or nationality are contrary to spirituality and divine love. He prophesied that civilization is moving toward world unity. The Earth is one, and the servant of God is dedicated to serving the entire human race. Even though his followers were persecuted, he advised peaceful nonresistance toward violence. Reconstructing the world does not require the use of weapons but rather a firm adherence to justice and faith in God. He noted that this people has had patience in their struggle for justice such that they allowed themselves to suffer and be killed rather than to kill. He explained that they can do this because of their trust in God.
Nevertheless to attain world unity and peace, individual nations must not be allowed to make war on others. Therefore Bahá'u'lláh recommended a world assembly so that all the nations together could prevent aggression. He believed that this is divinely ordained and that in time people would come to recognize it. All the leaders of the Earth must participate and join together to maintain peace and justice with their collective power. Bahá'u'll'áh described the political unity of states as the Lesser Peace, while the Most Great Peace requires spiritual unity in addition to political and economic cooperation. Bahá'u'll'áh outlined a plan with a House of Justice to make lawful decisions. He suggested the use of a universal language and education for everyone.
The teachings of Bahá'u'll'áh were expressed in more detail by his son 'Abdu'l-Bahá. He was released in 1908 when the Young Turk Revolution freed all the Ottoman empire's political and religious prisoners. After recuperating in Egypt, 'Abdu'l-Bahá traveled on a speaking tour through Europe and America from 1911 to 1913. He too exhorted everyone to realize the unity of humanity and practice love and spiritual brotherhood.
The time has come when all mankind shall be united,
when all races shall be loyal to one fatherland,
all religions become one religion,
and racial and religious bias pass away.
It is a day in which the oneness of humankind
shall uplift its standard,
and international peace like the true morning
flood the world with its light.4
For 'Abdu'l-Bahá any religion which causes hatred and division is no religion at all, and to withdraw from such a religion is a religious act. Likewise race prejudice is an illusion created by people because God created one human race and wishes all colors to share the blessings. We must practice the divine religion of love and unity or else restrictive dogmas and bigotry will lead to strife and warfare, threatening the destruction of the human race. Love and accord dissolve dissensions and unite all in one happy family of peace and unity. Religion can be a powerful influence for peace because it recognizes that there is one reality.
'Abdu'l-Bahá contrasted peace and war. Peace is light, life, guidance, Godly, humane, constructive, love, harmony, health, and brotherhood, while war is darkness, death, error, satanic, savage, destructive, hatred, discord, disease, and strife. Men do not need to kill other men to survive. Therefore the causes of war are to be found in greed, hatred, and selfishness. Ignorant soldiers fight for the greed and ambition of their leaders. 'Abdu'l-Bahá recounted how Bahá'u'll'áh declared the Most Great Peace and the principle of international arbitration and disarmament even though he and his followers had to suffer persecution for his criticism of leaders' selfish aims.
'Abdu'l-Bahá gave the details of his father's teachings on Universal Peace. First, the independent investigation of reality enables humanity to move toward greater truth. Second, humanity is one, and all human beings have the same divine Shepherd. Third, religion is to be the cause of fellowship and love, and any religion which causes estrangement is unnecessary. Fourth, religion must be in harmony with science and reason so that it may influence people. Fifth, religious, racial, political, and economic prejudices destroy humanity. Patriotic prejudices forget that the land belongs to all people and is to be shared. Sixth, a universal language may be spread to all people in order to eliminate misunderstandings. 'Abdu'l-Bahá personally commended efforts to promote the use of Esperanto.
Seventh is the equality of women and men. Women must have equal opportunity to advance in science, literature, and in civil and political life. In fact the imbalance of masculine qualities over the feminine has prevented a harmonious and peaceful society. 'Abdu'l-Bahá explained:
The world in the past has been ruled by force,
and man has dominated over woman
by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities
both of body and mind.
But the balance is already shifting;
force is losing its dominance,
and mental alertness, intuition,
and the spiritual qualities of love and service,
in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy.
Hence the new age will be an age less masculine
and more permeated with the feminine ideals,
or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which
the masculine and feminine elements of civilization
will be more evenly balanced.5
Society is like a bird with two wings, woman and man; both wings must be equally developed for the bird to fly successfully. He prophesied that the emancipated power of women will help to bring peace.
In past ages humanity has been defective and inefficient
because it has been incomplete.
War and its ravages have blighted the world;
the education of woman will be a mighty step
toward its abolition and ending,
for she will use her whole influence against war.
Woman rears the child and educates the youth to maturity.
She will refuse to give her sons
for sacrifice upon the field of battle.
In truth, she will be the greatest factor
in establishing universal peace and international arbitration.
Assuredly, woman will abolish warfare among mankind.6
Eighth, the voluntary sharing of property by the wealthy eliminates conflict between the rich and poor. Ninth is human freedom-not only political but liberation from the captivity of animal drives. Tenth, religion is a tremendous power for moral education. Eleventh, the successes of material civilization must be vivified by spiritual values, as the body by the soul.
Twelfth, universal education must be provided by the community, if not privately, for every child. Finally, the principle of justice must be practiced, and for this Bahá'u'lláh suggested a Supreme Tribunal made up of representatives elected from every nation in proportion to population. This union of nations will decide all disputes by international arbitration. The power of the union must be used to prevent aggression by any nation. By general agreement all the governments of the world must disarm at the same time. Both Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá emphasized the importance of converting armaments into constructive instruments. Once the governments of the world enter into a covenant of eternal friendship, they will no longer need large standing armies and navies. Every country must disarm simultaneously. Nations will not disarm while others remain armed. Thus peace can only come from an international agreement involving all nations. 'Abdu'l-Bahá declared that the financiers and bankers must stop lending money to any government contemplating war. The managers of the railroads and shipping companies must refuse to transport ammunition and weapons. Soldiers must demand proof that a war is just before they fight.
As early as 1875 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote that all the sovereigns of the world must make a binding treaty, what he called a "Most Great Covenant." In this peace pact the borders of every nation should be clearly fixed, the principles of international relations should be definitely settled, the amount of armaments should be agreed upon, and all international agreements and obligations should be ascertained. If any government later violates any provision, then all the governments on Earth and all humanity must unite to make it submit. In this way the sick body of the world may recover from its ills and remain safe and secure. During his tour of America on October 26, 1912 in Sacramento, California, 'Abdu'l-Bahá prophetically warned of an imminent European war.
The issue of paramount importance in the world today
is International Peace.
The European continent is like an arsenal,
a storehouse of explosives ready for ignition,
and one spark will set the whole of Europe aflame,
particularly at this time
when the Balkan question is before the world.7
In 1914 'Abdu'l-Bahá warned that nations were increasing their military and naval budgets, forcing other nations into a crazy competition because of their supposed interests. The duty of nations is to check aggressors rather than remain neutral; world unity requires that every other nation unite against any aggressor. During the World War he lived at his home in Haifa while he encouraged establishing spiritual assemblies in Persia and America as elected bodies to supervise publications, education, and devotional services. After the war 'Abdu'l-Bahá received a letter from the executive committee of the Central Organization for a Durable Peace at The Hague. In his reply he warned that the League of Nations was incapable of establishing universal peace, and he described the stronger plan of his father Bahá'u'lláh that called for the elected representatives of all nations to choose a Supreme Tribunal. If any government should be negligent, then all the rest of the nations using the Supreme Tribunal should rise up against it. 'Abdu'l-Bahá lamented that the noble purposes of the League of Nations would not be fulfilled, though he supported its efforts. In a second letter to the committee in July 1920 he wrote,
Today the most important problem
in the affairs of the world of humanity
is that of the Universal Peace,
which is the greatest means
contributing to the very life and happiness of mankind.
Without this most luminous reality
it is impossible for humanity to attain
to actual comfort and proficiency.8
After a brief illness 'Abdu'l-Bahá died on November 28, 1921. His funeral drew a crowd of about ten thousand people. 'Abdu'l-Bahá passed on the Guardianship to his eldest grandson Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, who held that position until his passing in 1957. He was assisted by specially chosen individuals called "Hands of the Cause of God" who guided the international community to the election of the Universal House of Justice in 1963. The Bahá'í faith was founded in Iran and had most of its adherents there; but it has spread around the world as its writings have been translated into hundreds of languages. After the 1979 revolution in Iran, the Shi'i clerics in power tried to stop the spreading of the Bahá'í faith in Iran by confiscating their property, banning their elective institutions, executing nearly two hundred Bahá'í leaders, and imprisoning or torturing hundreds. After the Ayatollah Khomeini died in 1989, the executions stopped. Most Bahá'ís were released from prison, but discrimination still keeps Bahá'í students from attending college. As recently as 2004 the Iranian government destroyed Bahá'í holy and historic sites in Babol and Tehran. The Bahá'í community in Iran is estimated to be 300,000 and is the nation's largest religious minority.
The Bahá'í faith emphasizes the oneness of God, the oneness of humanity, the oneness of religion, harmony between religion and science, the equality of men and women, universal education, economic justice, a universal language, universal currency, international justice, and world peace. 'Abdu'l-Bahá looked toward the unification of the East and West, the spiritual and the material, so that there may be a paradise on Earth. Peace, love, and friendship enable both science and the knowledge of God to flourish. He also recommended that people recognize their enemies as their friends so that their hearts may be free of hatred. World peace is not an impossible ideal, for everything is possible with divine benevolence. If we desire friendship with everyone on Earth with all our hearts, then this ideal will spread until it reaches the minds of all people. 'Abdu'l-Bahá encouraged us to practice universal love.
Be kind to all people, love humanity,
consider all mankind as your relations
and servants of the most high God.
Strive day and night
that animosity and contention may pass away
from the hearts of men,
that all religions shall become reconciled
and the nations love each other,
so that no racial, religious or political prejudice may remain
and the world of humanity behold God
as the beginning and end of all existence.
God has created all, and all return to God.
Therefore love humanity with all your heart and soul.
If you meet a poor man, assist him;
if you see the sick, heal him;
reassure the affrighted one,
render the cowardly noble and courageous,
educate the ignorant, associate with the stranger.
Consider how kindly, how lovingly He deals with all,
and follow His example.
You must treat people in accordance with the divine precepts
-in other words, treat them as kindly as God treats them,
for this is the greatest attainment possible
for the world of humanity.9.
1. Tablet to Queen Victoria from Gleanings 119 by Bahá'u'lláh.
2. Quoted in Bahá'u'lláh by Balyuzi, p. 51.
3. Ibid., p. 69.
4. The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by 'Abdu'l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912, p. 153.
5. Star of the West, vol. 8, no. 3, p. 4 quoted in Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era by J. E. Esslemont, p. 133.
6. The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by 'Abdu'l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912, p. 108.
7. The Promulgation of Universal Peace by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 371.
8. Star, Vol. XI, p. 288 quoted in 'Abdu'l-Bahá by H. M. Balyuzi, p. 440.
9. The Promulgation of Universal Peace by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 291.
This is a chapter in Guides to Peace and Justice from Ancient Sages to the Suffragettes, which is published as a book. For ordering information, please click here.