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.

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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).

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

vietnam at the international baha’i convention, 2013

To follow up on my earlier overview of the 11th International Bahá’í Convention held this year, I’ve put together the following informal translation of an account written by the Vietnamese delegates, which was published on a popular Vietnamese interfaith portal. It gives a good overview of the activities that took place at the Convention, and the joy and love with which the Vietnamese friends were welcomed by their fellow delegates.

The 11th International Bahá’í Convention was held in Haifa/Akka, Israel, from April 25 to May 2, 2013. In document No. 260/TGCP-HTQT, the Government Committee for Religious Affairs approved the application of seven members of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Vietnam to attend the event, including: Nguyễn Thức; Nguyễn Hoàng Lộc; Nguyễn Thị Lâm; Lê Nhất Phương Hồng; Diệp Đình Hữu; Bùi Phước Kỳ Nam; Nguyễn Đình Thỏa.[1] The delegation from the Bahá’í Community of Vietnam travelled to Israel on April 24, and returned to Vietnam today, May 5, via Turkish Airlines.

Participants from 157 countries registered to attend the Convention. The nine members of National Spiritual Assemblies from around the world acted as delegates to elect the Universal House of Justice. Those who could not attend sent their ballots by mail. [...]

The official programme of the Convention lasted four days, from April 29 to May 2. The plan for April 25–27 included registration, orientation, visits to the Holy Places in Haifa and ‘Akká, and prayers in the Mausoleum of the Báb (in Haifa) and the Holy Tomb of Bahá’u’lláh (in ‘Akká), so that delegates might pray and meditate to aid them in casting their ballots to elect the Universal House of Justice in a spiritual atmosphere. [...]

Delegates gathered in front of stage in colourful costumes

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to follow a path of service…

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MNHS_Yes-O_Mangrove_Tree_Planting_at_Bugang_River (1)

To follow a path of service, whatever form one’s activity assumes, requires faith and tenacity. In this connection, the benefit of walking that path in the company of others is immense. Loving fellowship, mutual encouragement, and willingness to learn together are natural properties of any group of youth sincerely striving for the same ends, and should also characterize those essential relationships that bind together the components of society.

The Universal House of Justice, July 1, 2013

Photo: MNHS Yes-O Mangrove Tree Planting at Bugang River, JC T. Alonsagay (CC BY-SA)