Outline of Baha'u'llah's life

The setting: Iran

Baha'u'llah was born in the city of Tehran in 1817. His given name was Husayn-Ali Nuri. The name 'Baha'u'llah' is an Arabic word meaning 'Glory of God' and is a title that Husayn-Ali adopted as an adult. Baha'u'llah's family was from the village of Takur in the district of Nur, which is situated to the north of Tehran. Baha'u'llah's father held high office in the Iranian government until he became a victim of political intrigue and lost his position in 1835.

From his childhood, Baha'u'llah was a person of great sensitivity, humanity, intellect and wisdom. He was renowned for his charity, high moral conduct and devotion to religion. He also did not suffer fools gladly or shy away from speaking the truth to members of the clergy. At one gathering, a celebrated teacher of Sufism (Islamic mysticism), Mirza Nazar-Ali of Qazvin, described his own spiritual state in the following terms: "Should my servant come to me and say that Jesus the Christ was at the door asking for me, my detachment is such that I would express no wish to see Him." Baha'u'llah responded, "You are very close to the person of the sovereign and he is very devoted to you, but if the chief executioner with ten of his men were to come to this door and tell you that the monarch wanted to see you, would you take it calmly or would you be perturbed?" The Sufi admitted that he would feel anxious! [H Balyuzi: Baha'u'llah: the King of Glory p22]

The Babi religion

In 1844, when Baha'u'llah was 27, a person named Siyyid Ali-Muhammad declared that he was a prophet of God. He was from the city of Shiraz, which is in the south of Iran. Ali-Muhammad's title was 'the Bab', which means 'the gate'. He founded the Babi religion and his followers are called Babis.

The Bab explained that humanity was witnessing a 'new day', a new age in its spiritual evolution, and that his message marked the beginning of that day. He testified: "God beareth Me witness... In the year sixty [1844] God graciously infused my soul with the conclusive evidences and weighty knowledge which characterize Him Who is the Testimony of God... until finally in that year I proclaimed God's hidden Cause and unveiled its well-guarded Pillar... O my servants! this is God's appointed Day which the merciful Lord hath promised you in His book." The Bab also said that someone else would come after him, who would bring the full glory of the new day. He referred to that person as 'He whom God will make manifest'.

When Baha'u'llah heard about the message of the Bab, he became a believer and energetically set about telling people about it, particularly those in his home district of Nur.

When the Bab's message began to spread through Iran, the civil and religious authorities were threatened and tried to get rid of the problem. The government imprisoned the Bab in mountain fortresses in the far north of Iran and the clergy tried to discredit him and to make him renounce his claims. In hot-spots throughout the country, the Babis came into armed conflict with the authorities in insurgencies each lasting several weeks or months. Finally, when these hot-spots were quelled, the government took advantage of a lull in the Bab's popular support and had him put to death by firing squad in 1850.

Imprisonment in the Black Pit

In 1852, some Babis, who were very angry about the Bab's execution, attempted to assassinate Nasiru'd-Din Shah. The attempt failed because they used inadequate weapons, and the Shah sustained only minor pellet shot wounds. Nevertheless, the Shah was incensed and afraid, believing that the Babis wanted to overthrow him. He ordered a massacre of the Babi community. Baha'u'llah, who had denounced the plot to kill the Shah, was arrested. At his interrogation, he wryly commented: "No reasonable person would charge his pistol with shot when embarking on so grave an enterprise. At least he would arrange and plan it that the deed be orderly and systematic. From the very nature of the event it is clear and evident as the sun that it is not the act of such as myself." [Abdu'l-Baha: A Traveller's Narrative p31]

Baha'u'llah was imprisoned in the infamous underground dungeon known as the Siyah-Chal (Black Pit). Originally, it held the water for the public bath, but by this time it was used to hold criminals, mostly on death row. It had no facilities whatsoever. The cell was about 20 metres long. Prisoners lay naked or in rags on the floor in two rows, facing each other. Their feet were shackled to the floor and their necks placed in chains, some as heavy as 50kg. A wooden fork was supplied to hold the chains up. There they languished, in freezing cold and pitch darkness, among the excretions and deafening noise of fellow prisoners, and the vermin and insects that fed on the filth. [D Ruhe: Robe of Light p141] Baha'u'llah survived on food brought by his family, which they bribed the guards to deliver. On one occasion, the guards brought Baha'u'llah a roasted lamb from the Shah, saying it was the fulfilment of a pledge he had made. Baha'u'llah and the other believers refused it.

The vision of the celestial woman

While Baha'u'llah was in the Siyah-Chal, he experienced the first visions of his revelation. In one of his letters, he says that he heard a sweet voice above him and, when he looked up, saw a celestial woman in the air in front of him. He goes on: "So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful." She was calling to everyone in heaven and earth with a message of great joy. She pointed to Baha'u'llah's head and said, "By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand." [Baha'u'llah: Summons of the Lord of Hosts pp5-6]

Exile to Baghdad

Baha'u'llah was held in the Siyah-Chal for four months. Despite exhaustive attempts to find evidence against him, the authorities were unable to do so, but they ordered him to leave Iran. He chose to go to Baghdad, Iraq. To get there, Baha'u'llah and his family had to travel in mid-winter across the Zagros Mountains, which took three months. Baha'u'llah eventually settled in Baghdad and put his energies into reinvigorating the demoralised Babi community.

At that time, Iraq was part of the Ottoman Empire and was ruled by Sultan Abdu'l-Aziz. The Iranian government was unhappy about Baha'u'llah living so close to its border and pressured the Ottomans to have him moved. Eventually, the Ottoman government relented and, in 1863, 'invited' Baha'u'llah to live in its capital, Istanbul (Constantinople). Baha'u'llah accepted the invitation. (A map of Baha'u'llah's exiles is found below.)

The birth of the Baha'i Faith

Before leaving on the four-month journey to Istanbul, Baha'u'llah rented a garden on the outskirts of Baghdad, where he stayed for 12 days. On the first day, he declared to his close friends that he was 'He whom God will make manifest' - the one that the Bab said would bring the full glory of the new day in humanity's spiritual evolution. This first, open declaration took place on April 21, 1863. Baha'is call it the First Day of Ridvan (Paradise). It marks the beginning of the new religion known as the Baha'i Faith.

During the 12 Days of Ridvan, Baha'u'llah testified: "The Words of Baha'u'llah, exalted be His Glory! This is the Day in which the Spirit [Jesus] proclaimeth from the zenith of heaven: 'O Concourse of creation! Verily, the Sovereign of the world hath appeared and all that which was in the Kingdom of my Lord is fulfilled. Verily, the One Who was the beloved of my heart, the One who aided me in my Cause, hath come. Follow Him, and do not be of those who turn away. This is the Day in which all veils have been lifted and thy Lord, the Almighty, the Most Bountiful hath made His appearance. Because of His Advent, all that which I promised thee hath been perfected and fulfilled. Haste ye then to His resplendent, most luminous Beauty!'" [http://www.bahaistudies.net/kf/ridwan.html]

Further exile: Istanbul to Edirne

Baha'u'llah arrived in Istanbul on August 16 1863. But he was there for only four months when, as a result of further pressure from the Iranian government, the Ottoman authorities ordered him to move again. This time, they wanted him to shift to Edirne (Adrianople), on the edge of Ottoman territory.

Baha'u'llah was angry and adamant he wouldn't go. He made his position clear to Haji Mirza Safa, a close confidant of the Iranian ambassador: "We, few that we are, will stand our ground, until every one of us meets a martyr's death." His innocence was obvious and he saw it as a golden opportunity to take a stand against the persistent injustices. However, Baha'u'llah's half-brother and a few other believers were more concerned about the possible consequences of refusing to go. They tried to convince Baha'u'llah to change his mind. Baha'u'llah never altered his view on the matter, but agreed to go against his better judgement. [H Balyuzi: Baha'u'llah: the King of Glory pp201-203]

Exile to the Most Great Prison

Baha'u'llah lived in Edirne for just under five years, but the Iranian government was still not satisfied. In addition, those Babis who did not believe Baha'u'llah was the Promised One resented his increasing popularity and made false complaints about him to the authorities. Moreover, the Ottomans were nervous that Baha'u'llah's claims to be the founder of a new religion would cause them trouble. They decided to exile him again.

One morning, out of the blue, soldiers surrounded his house and wouldn't let anyone leave - even for food and water. The authorities detained the Baha'is, took possession of their property and auctioned it off the next day. Over the following week, Baha'u'llah and his followers prepared to leave. But they didn't know what their destination would be.

Nineteen days later, on August 31 1868, they arrived in the city of Akka, on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea (now in northern Israel). At that time, it was a part of the Ottoman province of Syria and was used as a prison-city for criminals and political prisoners. Initially, Baha'u'llah and his companions were housed in the city's citadel. The conditions were appalling. There was no clean water and the prisoners were given very little food. Most of them fell ill from diseases such as malaria, dysentry and typhoid. The authorities would not allow a doctor to attend them and three died. [J Mazidi: One With All the Earth p45]

After nine years, the Sultan's decree to imprison Baha'u'llah had become a dead letter. Baha'u'llah moved out of Akka into the neighbouring countryside, where he lived until his death in 1892. During this time, He made a few visits to the nearby city of Haifa. Today, this is the location of the world centre of the Baha'i community.

A photograph of Baha'u'llah can be seen on the "Baha'u'llah" page on Wikipedia.

Map with overlay depicting the approximate boundaries of Iran and the Ottoman Empire in 1850 and the route of Bahá’u’lláh’s forced exile from His home in Tehran to the prison city of ‘Akká. Map with modern names and borders.