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An Introduction to the Baha'i Faith

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AN INTRODUCTION TO
THE BAHA’I FAITH




The Baha’i Faith has some five million adherents around the world. It preaches the oneness of God, the unity of all faiths, universal education, and the harmony of all people, but has no priesthood and few formal rituals. In this book, Peter Smith traces the development of the Baha’i Faith from its roots in the Babi movement of mid-nineteenth-century Iran to its contemporary emergence as an expanding worldwide religion.

Explores the textual sources for Baha’i belief and practice, theology and anthropology, and understanding of other religions.

Covers the concept of the spiritual path, Baha’i law, and administration and aspects of community life.

Examines the Baha’is’ social teachings and activities in the wider world.

This introduction will be of particular interest to students of new religious movements, Middle East religions, and comparative religion and for those studying short courses on the Baha’i Faith.

PETER SMITH is Chairman of the Social Sciences Division, Mahidol University International College, Bangkok. He is author of several books in the field of Baha’i studies, including The Bahá’í Faith: A Short History, Second Edition (1999) and A Concise Encyclopedia of the Bahá’í Faith, Second Edition (2002).




AN INTRODUCTION TO
THE BAHA’I FAITH



Peter Smith

Mahidol University International College




CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS
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© Peter Smith 2008

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First published 2008

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Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data
Smith, Peter, 1947 Nov. 27--
An introduction to the Baha’i faith / Peter Smith.
p. cm. -- (Introduction to religion)
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 978-0-521-86251-6 (hardcover) -- ISBN 978-0-521-68107-0 (pbk.)
1. Bahai Faith. I. Title. II. Series.
BP365.S655 2008
397.9\prime3–dc22 2007045453

ISBN 978-0-521-86251-6 hardback
ISBN 978-0-521-68107-0 paperback

Cambridge University Press has no responsibility for
the persistence or accuracy of URLs for external or
third-party Internet Web sites referred to in this publication
and does not guarantee that any content on such
Web sites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate.




For Anne, Corinne, James, William, and Lua




Contents




  List of Map, Figures, and Tables page xiii
  Preface xv
  Chronology xvii
  Prologue: The Middle East in the Nineteenth Century xxv
 
PART I.   HISTORY
1   The Babi Movement 3
  1   Shi’ism and Shaykhism 3
        Shi’ism 3
        Shaykhism 4
  2   Sayyid ‘Alí-MuḤammad, the Báb 5
        The Báb’s Declaration and Initial Claims 6
  3   The Establishment of a Movement 7
  4   Hopes and Tensions, September 1846–July 1848 9
  5   Conflict and the Question of Babi Radicalism 11
  6   The Collapse of Babism as an Organized Movement, 1850–53 13
2   Bahá’u’lláh and the Emergence of the Baha’i Faith 16
  1   Bahá’u’lláh and the Reanimation of Babism, 1853–66 16
  2   The Vision and Early Writings of Bahá’u’lláh 18
  3   The Rumelian Period, 1863–68 23
  4   The Rumelian Writings 24
  5   The Syrian Period, 1868–92 26
  6   The Syrian Writings 27
        ‘Proclamation’ 28
        Law 32
        Social Reconstruction 32
        Other Themes 33
  7   The Family of Bahá’u’lláh 34
  8   The Emergence of the Baha’i Faith, c. 1866–92 36
  9   Wider Diffusion 38
  10   Social Reformist Ideas Within the Movement 39
3   The Ministry of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 1892–1921 43
  1   The Succession 43
  2   ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Work and Legacy 45
  3   ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Baha’is of the East 47
  4   The Internationalization of the Baha’i Faith 49
4   The Guardianship of Shoghi Effendi, 1922–57 55
  1   ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and the Establishment of the Guardianship 55
  2   Shoghi Effendi’s Leadership 57
  3   Administration 59
  4   Inspiration and Definition 61
  5   History and ‘Metahistory’ 62
  6   ‘Planification’ 63
  7   The ‘Baha’i World Centre’ 65
  8   Opposition and Covenant 66
  9   ‘Interregnum’: The Custodianship of the Hands of the Cause, 1957–63 68
5   The Universal House of Justice, 1963– 71
  1   The Establishment of the Universal House of Justice 71
  2   Administration 72
  3   Expansion and Development Plans 73
  4   Baha’i World Centre 74
  5   ‘Deepening’, Community Development and Law 75
  6   External Affairs 76
6   Expansion Since 1921 78
  1   Up to 1953 78
  2   The Period of Global Expansion, 1953– 79
        Aspects of Expansion 81
        Distribution 82
  3   Regional Developments 83
        Iran 83
        Central Asia, the Caucasus, the Middle East, and North Africa 87
        North America 89
        Europe and Australasia 90
        Latin America and the Caribbean 91
        Sub-Saharan Africa 92
        Asia 93
        Oceania 95
 
PART II.   BELIEFS 99
7   Baha’i Texts: Sources of Belief and Practice 99
  1   Baha’i Texts 99
  2   Interpretation 103
  3   Language and Understanding 104
  4   Secondary Literature and Review 105
8   Divine Knowledge and Guidance 106
  1   God and the Manifestations of God 106
        God 106
        The Manifestations of God 107
        ‘Lesser Prophets’ 108
        Progressive Revelation 108
        The Doctrine of the Covenant 109
        Authority and Infallibility 110
  2   God and His Creation 111
        Good and Evil 112
        3   Knowledge 113
  Reason and the Intellect 113
  Epistemological Skepticism and Relativism 115
9   Being Human 117
  1   The Soul and Its Development 117
        Spiritual Education 117
        ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ 118
        Levels of Nearness 119
        Recognition of the Manifestation of God 120
  2   Suffering 120
  3   Death and the Afterlife 121
        Prayer and Intercession 122
  4   Rationalism 122
10   The Baha’i Faith and Other Religions 124
  1   The ‘Adamic Cycle’ 124
  2   The Baha’i View of Other Religions 125
        Islam 125
        Judaism and Christianity 127
        Ancient Middle Eastern Religions 129
        Indian and Chinese Religions 129
        Indigenous Religions 131
  3   Relations with the Members of Other Religions 131
11   Social Teachings and the Vision of a New World Order 133
  1   The Millennial Vision 133
  2   Agency and the Creation of a New World Order 134
        The ‘Age of Transition’ 134
        The Role of Religion 135
  3   The Goals of World Peace and Unity 136
        Peace 136
  Armaments 137
  Internationalism, the League, and the United Nations 138
        The Unity of Peoples 138
        Tolerance and Freedom from Prejudice 139
        Universal Language 139
  4   Social Order and Justice 139
        Governance 140
        The Control of Crime 141
        The Abolition of the Extremes of Wealth and Poverty 142
  5   The Role and Advancement of Women 143
        Gender Equality 143
        The Qualities of Gender 144
  6   Education 145
  7   Socio-Economic Development 146
 
PART III.   BEING A BAHA’I: ASPECTS OF BAHA’I LIFE
12   The Spiritual Path 151
  1   ‘The Path’ 151
  2   Turning to God 152
  3   Relations with Others 155
13   Community Membership and Baha’i Law 157
  1   Community Membership 157
  2   The Concept and Practice of Holy Law 158
  3   Personal Obligations Towards God 161
        Prayer and Devotionalism 161
        Fasting 163
        Ḥuqúqu’lláh 163
  4   Marriage and Family Life 164
        Divorce 165
        Family Life 166
        Procreation Issues 167
        Domestic Violence 168
  5   Aspects of Individual Life 168
        Alcohol, Drugs, and Tobacco 168
        Sex 168
        Wills and Inheritance 169
        Burial 169
        Rituals 170
        General Aspects of Appearance and Behaviour 170
  6   Behaviour in Civil Society and Relations with the State 171
  7   Sanctions 172
14   Baha’i Administration 175
  1   The ‘Rulers’ and ‘Learned’ 175
  2   The Universal House of Justice 177
  3   The Assembly System 178
  4   The ‘Institutions of the Learned’ 180
        International Institutions 180
  The Auxiliary Board Members and Their Assistants 182
        Overall Role 182
  5   The Administration and the Baha’i Community 183
        Consultation 184
        Consent and Appeal 185
        Elections 185
  6   Funding 186
15   Aspects of Baha’i Community Life 187
  1   The Ideal of Baha’i Community Life 187
  2   The Baha’i Year 188
        The Calendar 188
        Holy Days 189
  3   Conferences, ‘Summer Schools’, and Institutes 191
  4   Holy Places and Pilgrimage 192
  5   Houses of Worship 194
  6   Music and the Arts 194
  7   Architecture 196
16   Baha’i Activities and the Wider World 198
  1   The Mission of Expansion 198
        Teaching and Pioneering 198
        Consolidation and ‘Deepening’ 199
        Opposition 201
  2   Social Involvement 201
        Involvement with the United Nations 202
        Tolerance and Unity in Diversity 202
        The Advancement of Women 203
        Gender Differentiation 204
        Educational Involvement 205
        Socio-Economic Development 206
  3   Learning and Scholarship 208
 
        Some Final Comments 211
 
        Appendix: Recent Baha’i Leaders 215
I   Hands of the Cause of God Appointed by Shoghi Effendi, 1951–57 215
II   Members of the Universal House of Justice 216
 
        Select Bibliography 219
        Index 225




List of Map, Figures, and Tables




MAP

1 Iran and the Ottoman Empire in the mid-nineteenth century

FIGURES

1   ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Copyright 2006, Bahá’í International Community. http://media.bahai.org 42
2   Shrine of Báb, Haifa, Israel. Copyright 2006, Bahá’í International Community. http://media.bahai.org 65
3   The Seat of the Universal House of Justice, Haifa Israel. Copyright 2006, Bahá’í International Community. http://media. bahai.org 70
4   The ‘Greatest Name’ and the Baha’i ‘ringstone symbol’ 171
5   The general structure of present-day Baha’i administration, from Smith, P., A Concise Encyclopedia of the Bahá’í Faith, Second Edition. Oxford, Oneworld, (2002) p. 26

TABLES

1   Estimated Baha’i populations in 1954 and 1988 83
2   Major works in the English-language Baha’i canon 102
3   Baha’i holy days and feast days 190




Preface



Emerging out of the earlier Babi movement in the 1860s, the Baha’i Faith has since developed into a religion of considerable scope and dynamism. Now established throughout the world, the Faith has attracted several million adherents from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds, its followers lauding this multiplicity as a demonstration of the Faith’s claims to be a universal religion able to unite all the peoples of the world.

   Baha’is are followers of Bahá’u’lláh (1817–92), an Iranian nobleman who spent much of his life as an exile in the Ottoman Empire, and whose teachings provide the core elements of their beliefs. For Baha’is, Bahá’u’lláh is the latest in a series of divine messengers and as such is God’s prophet for the present age, summoning all humanity to unite and establish the millennial peace promised in the religions of the past. Regarding the world’s major religions as various aspects of the same truth and all human beings as members of a single race and nation, Baha’is believe that their religion provides the ideas and structures for a new world order.

   The present book provides first a brief survey of the historical development of the Baha’i Faith and of the Babi movement out of which it emerged (Section I), followed by overviews of the major beliefs and practices of present-day Baha’is (Sections II and III). There is also a select bibliography and an appended list of recent Baha’i leaders.

   In preparing this book, I have drawn extensively from my Concise Encyclopedia of the Bahá’í Faith (2000; 2nd ed. 2002), and I extend my particular thanks to Oneworld Publications for permitting me to reuse material from that earlier work. I also acknowledge the kind assistance of the Baha’i Office of Public Information in Haifa, the Baha’i National Office in London, and my friends on the ‘Tarikh’ internet Baha’i history discussion group for responding to particular queries. Very special thanks are due to Dr. Moojan Momen and Dr. Stephen Lambden for reading and commenting on the manuscript before publication – such faults as remain of course are entirely my responsibility. My thanks also to my colleagues and friends at Mahidol University International College and to Kate Brett, my editor at Cambridge University Press, for their encouragement and support.

   Peter Smith
Bangkok
December 2006





Chronology



1. THE EARLY BABI PERIOD, 1844–53

1843/44   Death of Sayyid Káẓim Rashtí (31 December/1/2 January) leads to a leadership crisis in the Shaykhi movement.
1844   The Báb’s declaration of mission to Mullá Ḥusayn (22–23 May). The beginning of an organized movement.
1845   Trial of Mullá ‘Alí Basṭámí, the Báb’s emissary in Iraq (13 January). First persecution of Babis in Iran.
1846   The Báb escapes from Shíráz (23 September) and proceeds to Iṣfahán, where he is favourably received by the governor, Manúchihr Khán.
1847   Following the death of Manúchihr Khán (21 February), the Báb is taken to the fortress-prison of Mákú (July). ṭáhirih returns to Qazvín (July) and is accused of involvement in her uncle’s murder (August–September?). The first killings of Babis occur. The Báb begins his composition of his book of laws, the Bayán.
1848   The Báb is brought for trial in Tabríz, where he makes public claim to be the Mahdi (July/August). Mullá Ḥusayn leads a growing band of followers in a proclamatory march from Khúrasán (July). Following the death of MuḤammad Sháh (4 September), the conflict of Shaykh ṭabarsí begins (10 October–10 May 1849).
1849   The ṭabarsí conflict ends (10 May).
1850   Seven leading Babis in Tehran are executed (19/20 February). Vahíd’s preaching in Yazd leads to disturbances (January–February), and when he goes to Nayríz, an armed struggle between the Babis and their opponents follows (27 May–21 June). An armed struggle also occurs in Zanján (c. 13 May–c. 2 January 1851). The Báb is executed at the instructions of Amír Kabír (8/9 July).
1851   The Zanján conflict ends (January). Several Babis are killed in Yazd and elsewhere.
1852   Amír Kabír is killed at the order of the king (January). One Babi faction makes an attempt on the life of Náṣiri’d-dín Sháh (15 August). Many Babis are killed, including ṭáhirih. Bahá’u’lláh is arrested (16 August) and imprisoned in the ‘Black Pit’ (August–December), where he experiences his initiatory vision.
1853   Renewed conflict in Nayríz (March–October).

2. THE DEVELOPMENT OF BABISM, 1853–66

1853   Bahá’u’lláh is exiled from Iran. He and his family journey from Tehran to Baghdad (12 January–8 April).
1854–56   Bahá’u’lláh leaves Baghdad for Kurdistan (10 April 1854– 19 March 1856).
1856–63   Bahá’u’lláh gradually revivifies the Babi community and becomes the dominant Babi leader, overshadowing ṣubḤ-i Azal, who remains in hiding.
1863   Bahá’u’lláh stays in the garden of Riḍván (22 April–3 May) prior to his journey to Istanbul (3 May–16 August). He remains in Istanbul until his journey to Edirne (1–12 December). Claims to divinely bestowed authority become prominent in his writings.
c. 1865   Bahá’u’lláh is poisoned by Azal, but survives. Western scholarly interest in Babism begins.

3. THE EMERGENCE OF THE BAHA’I FAITH, 1866–92

1866   Bahá’u’lláh makes formal announcement to Azal to be He Whom God Shall Make Manifest. Most of the local Babi community choose to follow him (as ‘Baha’is’) rather than Azal. The first Baha’i missionaries begin to convert the Babi remnant in Iran.
1867   Bahá’u’lláh begins his proclamation to the rulers. Persecutions in various parts of Iran.
1868   Arrest of Baha’is in Egypt and Baghdad. Conversion of first Baha’i of Christian background. Bahá’u’lláh is banished to Akka under an order of life imprisonment (he and his companions leave Edirne on 12 August and reach Akka on 31 August). Azal and some others are sent to Famagusta (arr. 5 September).
1869   Bahá’u’lláh’s letter to Náṣiri’d-dín Sháh is delivered and its bearer tortured and killed.
1870   Bahá’u’lláh leaves the Akka barracks and lives in the city (October).
1873   Bahá’u’lláh completes the Kitáb-i Aqdas.
1875   ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes the Secret of Divine Civilization (lithographed, 1882). First Baha’i missionary teacher sent to India.
1876   Deposition of Sultan Abdulaziz (30 May).
1877   Bahá’u’lláh leaves Akka, residing in country houses in the region.
1889   Murder of a Baha’i in Ashkhabad by Shi’is (8 September) prompts Russian intervention. The Baha’is in Russian Turkestan henceforth emerge as a separate religious community free of persecution.
1892   Death of Bahá’u’lláh (29 May). He designates ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as his successor as head of the Faith.

4. THE PERIOD OF ‘ABDU’L-BAHá’S LEADERSHIP, 1892–1921

1894   Ibrahim Kheiralla begins Baha’i teaching activity in Chicago. Conversion of the first American Baha’is.
1896   Assassination of Náṣiri’d-dín Sháh by a follower of Jamálu’d-dín ‘Al-Afghání’ (1 May).
1897   Consultive council of Hands of the Cause in Tehran prepares for the formation of a Baha’i Assembly (1899).
1898   Tarbíyat Baha’i school for boys established in Tehran. The first Western pilgrims arrive in Akka (December).
1899   Baha’i activities begun in Paris and London. Kheiralla returns to America. A leadership crisis develops, finally marked by Kheiralla renouncing ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (1900).
1902   Construction of the Baha’i temple in Ashkhabad begins.
1905   Baha’i activities begin in Germany. The Constitutional Revolution begins in Iran.
1908   The Young Turk Revolution transforms Ottoman government and releases political and religious prisoners. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is released from Ottoman confinement and subsequently moves his family to Haifa (1909).
1909   The remains of the Báb are interred in a shrine on Mount Carmel (21 March). American Baha’is start their project to build a temple in Chicago.
1910   ‘Abdu’l-Bahá travels to Egypt (10 August). Establishment of a Baha’i girls school in Tehran.
1911   ‘Abdu’l-Bahá completes his first tour of Europe (August–December). A systematic teaching campaign is launched in India.
1912   ‘Abdu’l-Bahá begins his second Western tour (North America, 11 April–5 December; Europe, 13 December– 13 June 1913). He returns to Haifa on 5 December.
1914   World War Ⅰ begins. Baha’i activity started in Japan.
1918   British take Palestine from the Turks, ensuring ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s safety. World War I ends.
1919   The Tablets of the Divine Plan are ceremonially ‘unveiled’ in New York. Martha Root travels to Latin America to teach the Baha’i Faith. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá composes his Tablet to the Hague.
1920   First Baha’i pioneers arrive in Australia and South Africa. Work begins at the site of the proposed Baha’i House of Worship at Wilmette, Illinois. The first All-India Baha’i Convention is held. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is knighted by the British.
1921   Shi’is seek to gain possession of the House of Bahá’u’lláh in Baghdad (January), leading to a long-running legal dispute. The first pioneer arrives in Brazil. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá dies (28 November).

5. THE GUARDIANSHIP OF SHOGHI EFFENDI, 1922–57

1922   Shoghi Effendi is publicly named as Guardian (January). He calls a conference of leading Baha’is to discuss the future of the Faith. His first general letter on Baha’i administration is sent to the West (5 March).
1923   Baha’i national assemblies are elected in Britain, Germany, and India.
1925   The International Baha’i Bureau is established in Geneva. A Baha’i Esperanto magazine begins publication in Germany. An Egyptian court declares the Baha’i Faith to be separate from Islam. Shoghi Effendi establishes definite qualifications for Baha’i membership. Qájár rule in Iran formally comes to an end, and Reza Khan becomes Shah.
1926   Queen Marie of Romania meets Martha Root and pays public tribute to the Faith.
1928   Persecution of the Baha’is in Soviet Asia. The case of Bahá’u’lláh’s House in Baghdad is brought before the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations, which finds in favour of the Baha’is (but to no effect).
1932   Bahiyyih Khánum dies (15 July).
1934   Baha’i schools in Iran closed. Purge of Baha’is in government employment. Mounting campaign of official persecution (–1941). National assembly established for Australia and New Zealand. The Egyptian assembly secures legal incorporation.
1937   First American Seven Year Plan (–1944) marks beginning of a systematic campaign to establish the Faith in Latin America. Other national plans follow (1938–53). The Baha’i Faith is banned in Nazi Germany.
1938   Mass arrests and exile of Baha’is in Soviet Asia. The Ashkhabad temple is turned into an art gallery.
1939–45   World War II.
1946   Systematic campaign begins to establish the Baha’i Faith throughout Western Europe.
1948   Establishment of the ‘Baha’i International Community’ (BIC), affiliated with the United Nations. The state of Israel comes into being. Construction of the superstructure of the Shrine of the Báb begins (–1953).
1951   International Baha’i Council inaugurated. A systematic campaign to establish the Faith in Africa begins. Shoghi Effendi’s first appointment of Hands of the Cause.
1953   Ten Year Crusade begins (–1963). The Baha’i temple in Wilmette is dedicated for worship.
1954   Women become eligible to serve on Baha’i assemblies in Iran. Shoghi Effendi establishes the Auxiliary Boards.
1955   Construction of the International Archives Building begins (–1957). National campaign of persecution against the Baha’is in Iran.
1957   Death of Shoghi Effendi in London (4 November). The Hands of the Cause assume leadership of the Baha’i world.

6. THE CUSTODIANSHIP OF THE HANDS, 1957–63

1960   Charles Mason Remey makes claim to be the second Guardian and is declared a Covenant-breaker. All Baha’i activities in Egypt are banned by presidential decree (August).
1961   The Baha’i temples in Kampala and Sydney are dedicated for worship. ‘Mass teaching’ begins in India.
1962   Persecution of Baha’is in Morocco (–1963). Baha’i institutions are banned in Indonesia.

7. THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE, 1963–

1963   Establishment of the Universal House of Justice (21–22 April) as head of the Faith. It announces that it knows of no way in which further guardians can be appointed (6 October). First Baha’i world congress held in London (28 April–2 May).
1964   The Baha’i temple in Frankfurt is dedicated for worship. The Universal House of Justice declares that there is no way to appoint further Hands of the Cause. The Nine Year Plan begins (–1973). Other international plans follow.
1967   Permanent BIC office established in New York. Global proclamation campaign begins.
1968   Establishment of the Continental Boards of Counsellors.
1970   All Baha’i institutions and activities are banned in Iraq. The BIC gains consultative status with the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
1972   The Panama temple is dedicated for worship. The Universal House of Justice adopts its Constitution.
1973   Establishment of the International Teaching Centre.
1976   The Baha’i Faith is banned in Vietnam. BIC is granted consultative status with the United Nations’ Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
1977   First Baha’i radio station established in Latin America (Ecuador). The first of a series of international Baha’i women’s conferences are held.
1979   Islamic revolution in Iran. Major persecution of Baha’is begins. The House of the Báb is destroyed.
1983   Seat of the Universal House of Justice comes into use. Office of Social and Economic Development established. The Baha’i Faith is officially banned in Iran.
1984   Baha’i temple in Apia dedicated for worship. International Baha’i Refugee Office established.
1985   The Universal House of Justice issues its statement, The Promise of World Peace.
1986   The Baha’i temple in New Delhi is dedicated for worship.
1989   The Baha’i Office of the Environment is established as part of BIC. Collapse of communist rule in Eastern Europe.
1990   A special teaching plan for former Eastern Bloc countries is launched (–1992).
1992   Second Baha’i world congress in New York. Baha’i involvement in the ‘Earth Summit’ in Rio de Janeiro. BIC Office for the Advancement of Women is established. Publication of the English-language translation of the Kitáb-i Aqdas.
2001   Official opening of the Terraces of the Shrine of the Báb (May).




Prologue: The Middle East in the Nineteenth Century



The Babi and Baha’i religions originated in the Middle East in the mid-nineteenth century, but they developed in significantly different contexts. The Babi movement of the 1840s was largely confined to the Iranian Empire at a time when it was still relatively isolated from the wider world, whilst the Baha’i Faith developed from the 1860s in the more cosmopolitan Ottoman world at a time when even Iran was experiencing greater foreign influence and ideological debate.

   In the mid-nineteenth century, the dominant Middle Eastern power was the Ottoman Empire, which then incorporated much of the Balkans and the Arab world as well as the Ottoman heartlands in what is now the Republic of Turkey. To its east was Iran, and to the south Egypt, the later still technically an Ottoman vassal. All three states were monarchies with theoretically autocratic rulers, albeit local governors and landowners, and, in Iran, leaders of the numerous nomadic tribes, often enjoyed considerable power. Traditional Islamic religious leaders were also important, with official state-controlled hierarchies in the Ottoman Empire and Egypt and a powerful independent clerical order in Iran – a Shi’i state, unlike its Sunni neighbours. More heterodox forms of Islam were also present, notably various branches of Sufism, as well as large Christian and Jewish minorities, and, in Iran, Zoroastrians.

   Throughout the region, European interference and the threat of colonial expansion was a reality (the Ottoman and Iranian empires had already lost considerable territory to Russia by the early nineteenth century; Egypt was effectively incorporated into the British Empire in 1882). European cultural influence was already strong in the Ottoman Empire and Egypt by the early nineteenth century and increased after the Crimean War (1853–56) and the completion of the Suez Canal (1869), both countries seeing major movements of Western-influenced modernization. Iran was more isolated and less economically developed than its western neighbours, but even there a modernist movement emerged, albeit it lagged behind its Ottoman and Egyptian counterparts.

   Linguistically, the region was dominated by three languages: Ottoman Turkish, the official language of the Ottoman Empire; Persian, the language of Iran – but also widely known as a literary language in British India; and Arabic, the language of Islam, studied by all Islamic scholars everywhere and spoken in various popular forms in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world.

   It should be noted that during the whole Babi and early Baha’i periods (1844–92), transportation in the Middle East was generally poor. Steamship companies provided the first modern transportation links from the 1830s onwards, with a network of sailings eventually being established across the waters linked to both the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Sea, as well as river services up the Nile and Tigris-Euphrates, but small sailing ships remained the main form of water transportation throughout the period. On land, apart from railway construction in Egypt (from 1851), a few miles of railway in Anatolia, and some short stretches of modern roads, the means of transportation remained traditional, with travellers riding or walking along ill-maintained tracks or across open land. There were few bridges. Given the great distances involved (Iran is some 1.6 million square kilometres in extent, three times the size of France; the modern road from Baghdad to Haifa – only completed in 1941 – is 616 miles [919 kilometres]; the direct distance from Tehran to Akka is 1,532 kilometres), journey times between the major cities and towns referred to in this book might then take weeks or even months. Modern communication, in the form of the electric telegraph, was established between the main centres in the 1850s

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