The leader of Dr Kelly’s religion, Barney Leith, explains its attraction
Any Edinburgh citizens who passed through Charlotte Square in the city’s West End during January 1913 might well have been surprised to see a bearded man dressed in Eastern robes and a turban.
He was Abdu’l-Baha, the eldest son of the prophet Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i faith. His visit introduced Scotland to what is now a global faith with five million adherents worldwide and 6,000 in Britain.
The speeches Abdu’l-Baha gave in public meetings during his visit stirred up vigorous controversy – which soon filled the correspondence columns of The Scotsman. Now, our faith has found itself under the spotlight once again, through the tragic death of Dr David Kelly.
Those who look at the Baha’i faith for the first time may not find what they expect to. Like Christianity, we believe in one God and that Jesus is His son. Like Islam, we believe that God has sent many prophets, including Jesus and Muhammad.
We have no priests, ministers or prayer leaders, and we have very little public ritual. Daily private prayer and study are essential parts of individual Baha’i life, and the Baha’i community meets regularly for worship and consultation.
Our primary belief is in the oneness of the human race. As a concept, it sounds simple – yet this is the bedrock of the Baha’i faith. Our goal is lasting world peace and unity which we believe can be reached only when the barriers of prejudice – from gender imbalance to racism – have been broken.
We believe all humans are equal, part of God’s creation and on a spiritual journey which begins in the womb, continues throughout life and goes on after death.
We have no concept of “heaven” or “hell” – at least, not as places. To us, “heaven” is closeness to God and “hell” is distance from God.
In this life, we make choices which bring us closer to God: developing honesty, generosity, justice in our dealings with others, and other spiritual qualities.
Like people of all religions, we believe that our actions in this life prepare us for the next. We pray and meditate, we hold an annual fast, and we study the Baha’i writings. But this is only one side of our spiritual journey.
The Baha’i teachings make clear: work done in the spirit of service is equivalent to worship. Our duty is to engage with life and to be of service to our fellow human beings. And this practical expression of the Baha’i faith takes many forms.
There are Baha’i social and economic development projects around the world – schools, village literacy projects, healthcare, and the development of village democracies. All work done in service to others, we believe, takes us closer to God.
After death, we believe the journey towards God continues – and, if we use our time in this life well, we will already have made progress in this journey. We do not believe that non-believers will not reach God, but they will not have come as far along the way. In the end, however, we are all dependent on God’s mercy.
Baha’u’llah was born in 1817 in Persia and died in 1892. We believe him to be the most recent in the line of prophets and messengers from God which started before recorded time and has included the Buddha, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad and Zoroaster.
While Baha’u’llah is the focus of our faith, he says explicitly in his teachings that he is not superior to those who have gone before him. He also made clear he is not the last prophet: there will be many more.
His main message was that the earth is truly one country, and that lasting peace will be impossible until we really live with this in our hearts and minds. In our faith, when we look on another person we do not see a stranger – but a friend, the member of the same family.
We regard world peace as being not just desirable, but inevitable – and have seen several steps towards this in the last century with the creation of the League of Nations and United Nations.
Bringing the world together under a single humanitarian social order – reflected by the many UN ideals – is very much in harmony with our faith.
Baha’i representatives attended the 1945 UN founding conference and our faith has long been represented as non-governmental organisation at the UN table. But it’s worth saying that we support the UN’s vision – not necessarily its day-to-day running of the organisation.
The ideals of the UN are important as they represent what we see as an ever- strengthening theme: globalisation bringing a new era of co-operation and communication among peoples who were previously at war.
While Baha’is worldwide are fully committed to this work, we are not pacifists. The religion took no stance on the Iraq war, for example or any other conflict. It takes no sides in the political controversies of the day.
Nor do we have any quarrel with the other great religions. Baha’is believe that the religions come from one divine source: God. They are parts of a single historical process taking humankind from its beginnings to the global civilisation that Baha’is believe to be an inevitable development in human life.
The gift of life is sacred: the act of suicide is condemned in the Baha’i teachings, as in other faiths. We firmly believe that life should be lived to its full extent – and cutting it short does not allow the spiritual development which we consider to be the purpose of this life.
However, Baha’is do not condemn those who commit suicide. We believe God to be merciful to those who have suffered great stress in life.
A Baha’i would take his or her own life only if he or she had been overwhelmed by pressure of some kind. Baha’is pray for the progress of the souls of those who die, whatever the mode of their death.
The fundamental message is summarised in a letter which Abdu’l-Baha sent to Mrs Jayne Whyte – then his host in Edinburgh in 1913 and now regarded as the first Scottish Baha’i.
“For a single purpose were the Prophets, each and all, [were] sent down to earth. For this did Baha’u’llah raise up the call of the Lord, that the world of man should become the world of God – and unity, fellowship and love be won for the whole human race.”
Mrs Whyte’s decision to adopt the Baha’i faith would have caused a great stir in Edinburgh society – her husband was a former moderator of the General Assembly of the United Free Church of Scotland. But conversions in Britain are not uncommon.
I don’t know enough about Dr Kelly to say how he came to identify himself as a Baha’i – which he did in the United States in 1999. I myself “tripped over” the faith at the age of 18; it took several months to decide it was for me. Others embrace it instantly.
Some go to our meetings to “prove the Baha’i wrong” – then find they actually believe what its teachings say. Many begin to investigate different religions when they feel dissatisfied with their present faith or lack of faith, their direction or lack of direction in life.
For Baha’is, the challenges faced by the peoples of the world today – whether expressed through military conflict or poverty and injustice – are part of a transitional phase in human life. We acknowledge that the road is long, both within ourselves and for the world at large.
There will be many setbacks and much suffering before we can make a reality of the article of faith described by Baha’u’llah: “The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.”
Barney Leith is secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the UK
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