understanding baha’i symbols and the “greatest name”

Nine pointed starIf you know any Baha’is, chances are you’ve seen them using one of three common symbols to indicate their faith. One is the nine-pointed star, which appears in all sorts of places from posters to tombstones. The number nine is significant to Bahá’ís for a few reasons. As the highest single-digit number, it’s seen as a symbol of completeness. It also ties into the ancient art of Arabic numerology, which assigns number values to letters. In this system, the letters of the word Bahá—referring to Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith—add up to the number nine.

The Ringstone SymbolAnother important symbol is a calligraphic symbol designed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, which is based on a stylized representation of the word Bahá. The symbol—dubbed the “ringstone symbol” because of its approved use on rings and other kinds of jewelry—consists of the Arabic letter Ba (ب) repeated three times and stacked vertically, with another Ba rotated to form a vertical line connecting three, horizontal lines; the lines at top and bottom sport the letter (ه‍) at both ends. At either side of this symbol are two five-pointed stars.

This symbol is also known as the “teaching symbol”, because its layout illustrates one of the most important teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, namely, the relationship of God to humanity. Throughout history, it is said, God has sent His Manifestations—among them Krishna, Buddha, Zoroaster, Moses, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, the Báb, Bahá’u’lláh—to guide humanity and to make His purpose known to us. It is through these Manifestations that human beings have been, and are able to know God; without them, we would not know God, and would not progress, materially or spiritually. Thus, the three horizontal lines in the ringstone symbol represent three “worlds”: the top line, the world of God; the bottom, the world of humanity; and the middle, the world of the Manifestations, which is also rotated ninety degrees to link all three worlds together. Finally, the two five-pointed stars on either side represent the Twin Manifestations of God for this Day, the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.

wilmette temple detail (CC-BY)Finally, there’s the Greatest Name, a calligraphic symbol designed by noted Persian calligrapher Mishkín-Qalam. It is a rendering of the phrase Yá Bahá’u’l-Abhá (O Glory of the All-Glorious), an invocation derived from the word Bahá, which is regarded as the “Greatest Name of God” that completes a major tradition of the Qur’an. Its design is meant to resemble a bird. Since it refers more directly to Bahá’u’lláh (the “Glory of God”), it is regarded as a particularly sacred symbol for Bahá’ís, and is generally only displayed in a dignified, respectful and limited manner, for example, being given a place of honour on the wall of a Bahá’í home.

Continue reading

youth and “the western way of life”

Thanks to /u/Rinky-Dink on Reddit for sharing a recent, and still relatively unknown, letter from the Universal House of Justice about the challenges faced by Bahá’í youth in upholding a Bahá’í standard and way of life in the context of Western culture and sexual mores. There is a lot of meditate on in this meaty, hard-hitting letter, which touches on God’s purpose for humanity, the forces shaping human society, the role of religion in promoting human well-being, and our own capacity as individuals to rise above our faults and shortcomings to become champions of a new, spiritual civilization. The entire letter, which you can find online at bahai-library.com, deserves a thorough reading and plenty of thoughtful study. I’ve excerpted one paragraph below that especially jumped out at me on my first reading. Read it, and feel free to contribute your own insights in the comments below!

Throughout the world, in diverse cultures, Bahá’ís encounter values and practices that stand in sharp contrast to the teachings of the Faith. Some are embedded in social structures, for instance, racial prejudice and gender discrimination, economic exploitation and political corruption. Others pertain to personal conduct, especially with respect to the use of alcohol and drugs, to sexual behaviour, and to self-indulgence in general. If Bahá’ís simply surrender to the mores of society, how will conditions change? How will the people of the world distinguish today’s moribund order from the civilization to which Bahá’u’lláh is summoning humanity? “Humanity”, the Riḍván 2012 message of the House of Justice explained, “is weary for want of a pattern of life to which to aspire.” “A single soul can uphold a standard far above the low threshold by which the world measures itself,” the message noted. Young Bahá’ís especially need to take care, lest they imagine they can live according to the norms of contemporary society while adhering to Bahá’í ideals at some minimum level to assuage their conscience or to satisfy the community, for they will soon find themselves consumed in a struggle to obey even the most basic of the Faith’s moral teachings and powerless to take up the challenges of their generation. “Wings that are besmirched with mire can never soar,” Bahá’u’lláh warns. The inner joy that every individual seeks, unlike a passing emotion, is not contingent on outside influences; it is a condition, born of certitude and conscious knowledge, fostered by a pure heart, which is able to distinguish between that which has permanence and that which is superficial. “Wert thou to speed through the immensity of space and traverse the expanse of heaven,” are Bahá’u’lláh’s words, “yet thou wouldst find no rest save in submission to Our command and humbleness before Our Face.”

ayyam-i-ha and the fasting season

It’s a busy time of year for Bahá’ís, no matter where they are. The joyous festival of Ayyam-i-Há is taking place, a festival of fellowship, generosity, and hospitality. The Bahá’ís in Da Nang have been busy with a campaign of home visits to elderly members of the community. Tonight, Quynh, Kiên and I gathered together with them at a fun musical celebration, and tomorrow we’ll be doing some visits of our own in our neighbourhood, and cutting out some Ayyam-i-Há decorations with some of the local kids.

dawn of a new dayTomorrow evening comes the Feast of Loftiness, which kicks off the 19-day-long Bahá’í Fast, during which Bahá’ís from the ages of 15 to 70 years abstain from eating or drinking from sunrise ’til sunset. The Fast comes to an end with the celebration of Naw-Rúz on March 21st. Falling on the spring equinox, Naw-rúz is a celebration of revival, renewal, and springtime, in both the physical and spiritual senses. Fasting is a period of preparation for this springtime, during which we not only fast physically, but pay special attention to our spiritual life as well, in order to come into a new year with our souls refreshed and strengthened.

Interested in finding sunrise and sunset times for the Bahá’í Fast? Check out the list of Bahá’í Fasting Times for 2014, complete with links to Fasting calendars for major Canadian cities and selected cities worldwide, and a ready-made chart for Ottawa (for the folks back home).

rear this little babe

Quote

Please help us welcome baby Kiên to the physical world!
A wonderful journey awaits…
kiên

O God! Rear this little babe in the bosom of Thy love, and give it milk from the breast of Thy Providence. Cultivate this fresh plant in the rose garden of Thy love and aid it to grow through the showers of Thy bounty. Make it a child of the kingdom, and lead it to Thy heavenly realm. Thou art powerful and kind, and Thou art the Bestower, the Generous, the Lord of surpassing bounty.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá

dear kiên

ultrasound picture of a beautiful babyMẹ Quỳnh wants me to write you a few words to let you know how things were before you were born.

We saw you for the first time when we were in Da Nang, Vietnam. That’s where your mom was born, so it’s a special place for all of us. One of your uncles is a doctor who helps parents see babies before they’re born, and he helped us see you. You were small, but you jumped and moved around a lot. So we gave you a nickname, Tôm nhảy—or just Tôm for short. From the first time we saw you, we loved you. The first time we prayed for you, we cried—not because we were sad, but because we were so happy you were there. We felt as though God had given us a very precious gift: the gift of your presence.

As you grew up inside your mom’s womb, you took up more and more space, and her belly got bigger and bigger. We were so happy, because we knew someone we loved—that’s you—was in there. You were nice, snug and warm inside her womb, even when it was cool outside. We could feel you when you kicked your mom’s belly. You may not remember all the kicking you did, but you did it a lot. You kicked when you were hungry, when you didn’t have enough space, and at other times. Your mom says you tickled her sometimes.

Soon after you began to grow in your mom’s womb, we met a wonderful lady, a midwife. That’s someone who helps babies be born into the world outside the womb. She was very helpful and loving, and she helped us listen to your heartbeat. It gave us so much joy to hear your beating heart. The midwife introduced us to a friend who helped us see you again, only this time you were much bigger. You still moved around a lot, and you looked like you were folded in two, with your feet near your head—like you were doing yoga.

We prayed for you every night, asking God to help you grow up well. You often kicked when we said prayers, so we knew you were paying attention. Every day we would talk to you, and play music for you to listen to. Sometimes we would sing prayers to you, too. They say that music helps babies to grow well and uplifts their souls. Someday, when you grow up, I hope you sing for your children in the same way, so that they grow up well. Your family living far away would call us up every day to hear how you were doing, and they prayed for you too. In fact, there were many people who prayed for you before you were born—people living in many different places, near and far. With all their hearts they asked God to fill your life with blessings, happiness and love.

As time passed and you grew bigger, we prepared the way for you to be born into the big, bright world outside the womb. We learned all about how to take care of you, feed you, wash you and clothe you. It was a lot of work for us, but we trusted that God would help us take care of you and provide everything you would need. We moved into a cozy apartment surrounded with big old trees and a lovely pond. Lots of friends and family helped us get everything ready for you, because they love us, and they love you too. Just like us, they want you to be happy, healthy and comfortable as you take your first steps into this big world.

Soon it’ll be time for us to meet you and introduce you to this beautiful world. We’re looking forward to it so much: seeing your first smile, your first steps, your first words. You will have developed everything you need for this world in the womb, and in this new world you will develop everything you need for the next one. And we will pray together with you every day, just as we did before you were born.

6 qualities of the empowered

studying the guidanceYou know how you can read something one day, get something out of it, and then read it again next week and get a fresh new insight? That’s often what happens to me when I read the Bahá’í Writings. Most recently, I’ve been working hard to finish reading all of the recent messages of the Universal House of Justice—the 8 February 2013 and 1 May 2013 messages announcing the convocation of the worldwide youth conferences, for example, and the 1 July 2013 message to all the conferences; the 2013 Ridván message; and Insights from the Frontiers of Learning, the long but fascinating companion document to the wonderful new film Frontiers of Learning.

Anyway, a friend of mine shared the last sentence of the 8 February 2013 message the other day, and I took the opportunity to read it again with fresh eyes. In it, the Universal House of Justice writes of its hope for the youth of the world, giving an overview of the kinds of qualities that characterize the “new race of men” anticipated by Bahá’u’lláh—a race not defined by nationality or ethnicity, nor by superhero-style mutations or magical powers(!), nor indeed by any material considerations, but by the strength and maturity of their character, by their spiritual qualities. To give a little context, the Bahá’í International Community gave some very useful commentary on this term in its Statement on Bahá’u’lláh:

The distinguishing feature of humanity’s coming of age is that, for the first time in its history, the entire human race is consciously involved, however dimly, in the awareness of its own oneness and of the earth as a single homeland. This awakening opens the way to a new relationship between God and humankind. As the peoples of the world embrace the spiritual authority inherent in the guidance of the Revelation of God for this age, Bahá’u’lláh said, they will find in themselves a moral empowerment which human effort alone has proven incapable of generating. “A new race of men” will emerge as the result of this relationship, and the work of building a global civilization will begin.

In the last paragraph of the 8 February 2013 message, the Universal House of Justice enumerates some of the qualities that youth will need in order to make a difference in the world—qualities related to moral and spiritual empowerment. Let’s examine them here, point by point. “In our prayers at the Sacred Threshold,” the message reads, “we entreat the Ancient Beauty that, from out a distracted and bewildered humanity, He may distil…”: Continue reading