|The question of
religious succession has been crucial to all faiths. Failure to resolve this question has
inevitably led to schisms. Alone among world religions, the Bahá'í Faith has resisted
At the time of the passing
of Bahá'u'lláh a century ago in 1892, there were perhaps 50,000
Bahá'ís in the world. The Faith had spread to most of the countries and territories in
the Middle East and to the Indian-subcontinent. In Europe, the Americas, sub-Saharan
Africa, Australasia, and most of Asia, however, Bahá'u'lláh and His teachings were
Today, the Bahá'í Faith is the most geographically
widespread independent religion after Christianity, with communities in at least 205
countries and major dependent territories. There are more than five million Bahá'ís in
the world, an increase of a hundred fold in 100 years.
The story of this growth and expansion is intimately tied to
two major figures in the Bahá'í Faith: `Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, who headed the
Faith successively after the passing of Bahá'u'lláh in 1892.
As noted in the last section, the governance of the Bahá'í
Faith is in the hands of democratically elected bodies. The achievement of Bahá'u'lláh's
purpose in the regard was the work of these two hereditary leaders. The role they played
in maintaining the essential unity of the Bahá'í Faith is without parallel in religious
"My object is none other than the betterment of the world and
the tranquillity of its peoples." -- Bahá'u'lláh
The question of religious succession has been crucial to all
Faiths. Failure to resolve this question has inevitably led to enduring schisms. Today,
there are more than 2,000 sects of Christianity, 1,000 or more in Islam, and comparable
divisions in Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism. Many of these sects emerged because of
disagreements over who had final authority over the interpretation of sacred scripture.
Bahá'u'lláh prevented schism in the Bahá'í Faith through
a seemingly simple device: a will and testament. In that will, Bahá'u'lláh
not only appointed His oldest son to succeed him but passed to Him. clear-cut authority to
interpret His writings and to be the focal point for unifying the community.
`Abdu'l-Bahá: The Master
In retrospect, it became clear that from the start
Bahá'u'lláh had carefully prepared `Abdu'l-Bahá to succeed Him. He was born on May 23,
1844, the very night of the Báb's declaration. As a child, He
suffered along with His Father during the first round of persecutions against the Bábís.
"The religion of God is for love and unity; make it not the
cause of enmity and dissension." -- Bahá'u'lláh
`Abdu'l-Bahá was eight when Bahá'u'lláh
was thrown into prison. He visited Him there and saw the iron collar and chains around His
As He grew older, `Abdu'l-Bahá became His Father's closest
companion and carried out for Him many important at tasks. He interviewed in advance, for
example, the numerous visitors who came to see His Father and protected Him from frivolous
or ill-intentioned impositions on His work.
In Acre, when nearly the entire group of Bahá'ís there
became ill with typhoid fever, malaria and dysentery, `Abdu'l-Bahá washed, nursed and fed
the patients, taking no rest for Himself. Finally, exhausted, He took ill Himself,
suffering in critical condition for nearly a month.
These qualities of selflessness, erudition and great
humility, along with Bahá'u'lláh's own obvious admiration, soon won for `Abdu'l-Bahá
the title of "the Master." It is a term still used today by Bahá'ís in
referring to `Abdu'l-Bahá.
Despite the explicit terms of Bahá'u'lláh's will and
testament, some envious relatives attempted to usurp `Abdu'l-Bahá's position after
Bahá'u'lláh's passing. Repeated attempts were made by these ambitious individuals to
create followings of their own.
It is significant, in view of the swift emergence of schisms
in the world's other religions, that none of the resulting dissident groups were able to
maintain themselves or create a division of the Bahá'í Faith. Ultimately, each group
disintegrated with the death of the leader who had tried to establish it and no sects or
denominations have endured. Bahá'ís attribute this unity to the power of the
"Covenant." [See page 49.] continues