The Baha'i faith originated from one of the sects within the Shiite Muslim religion in Iran. The nature of the religion has changed dramatically since its beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century. The Baha'i religion developed directly from the Babis, an extremely militant sect willing to die to convert the people of the world to their faith. Because of this zeal, the Babis were condemned and persecuted; their leader, the Bab, was executed in 1850. The search for the Bab's successor and some important changes in beliefs and methods, in turn, led to the formation of the Baha'i religion. The Bab's successor, who came to be known as Baha'ulla, and his followers transformed militant Babism into the more peaceful Baha'i sect.
There are about five and a half million people who count themselves as Baha'is today. The largest groups of Baha'is are in India and Malaysia, each of which has approximately one million members. In Iran, where they originated and where they still face persecution, they are a small minority of 150,000 to 300,000.
Baha'is believe that God is completely transcendent and unknowable. They disagree with the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim belief that knowledge of and union with God are attainable. To the Baha'i, divine manifestations occur in the form of prophets or messengers who mirror God's reflection. They believe that the first prophet was Adam, followed by Judaic prophets such as Abraham and Moses, followed by Jesus, then Mohammed. Unlike Muslims, they also recognize Buddha, Zoroaster, Confucius, and the Bab.
Among the major tenets of Bahaism are that all religions originate from the same basic beliefs and are therefore equally valid; that the holy prophets of all religions are manifestations or messengers of the same deities; and that the faithful are required to gather communally every nineteen days. Egalitarianism is stressed—differences in wealth are ignored, and there is equality between the sexes.
In Iran, Baha'is have been persecuted, in part because of their origin as Babis. Memories of militant Babis still influence the stereotypes of present-day Baha'is. A greater problem is that Bahaism is not considered a religion by Iranian Shiite Muslim officials, and Baha'is are therefore not classified as a religious minority. The belief that Mohammed, although an important prophet, was not the last, is considered heretical by Muslims. This helps to explain why Iranians have little sympathy for Baha'is, even though the Baha'is have pledged loyalty to the government.
Cooper, Roger (1982). "The Baha'is of Iran." Minority Rights Group Report no. 51. London.
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Levinson, David (1994). Ethnic Relations. Santa Barbara, Calif: ABC-Clio.