In the first 150 years of its existence, the Bahá’í Faith broke through the geographical and cultural barriers connected with its Middle Eastern origins and spread around the world. In 1988, with several million Bahá’ís living in over 100,000 localities in 205 sovereign and non sovereign countries, the Britannica Book of the Year concluded that the Bahá’í Faith had a significant following in more countries than any other religion except Christianity.
The rapid and widespread acceptance of the Bahá’í Faith, in the absence of any missionary enterprise, demonstrates the universal appeal of its basic teachings concerning the unity of God, the unity of religion and the unity of mankind. As it reached new parts of the world, the people who accepted it as their religious belief continued to honor their own culture and traditions. Thus the Bahá’í community is truly multi-cultural, representing a sampling of the world’s tribal, racial, and ethnic groups. Bahá’u’lláh compared the mosaic of races and cultures in the world to a colorful garden whose beauty is a function of the variety of shapes, sizes and hues among its flowers. Far from promoting a kind of globalization based on uniformity, Bahá’ís celebrate their diversity and value the contributions of minorities, which are seen as strengthening and enriching the whole.
Bahá’ís believe that “All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization”, and that even the spiritual progress of the individual soul is best achieved through service to others and cooperation with them for the good of the larger society. The many serious problems of society will be overcome in time through a combination of conscientious efforts at the level of the individual and collective action to improve the social environment.
From the early days of the Bahá’í Faith, there has always been a strong social dimension to the community’s activities. Over the years thousands of projects have been carried out all around the world in the fields of the advancement of women; conservation of the environment; education and literacy; health and hygiene; and agriculture and fish farming. Most of them are small grass-roots initiatives inspired by Bahá’í teachings which utilize the capabilities and address the population directly concerned.
All Bahá’í social action is based on the understanding that the key to material progress lies in the capacities of the human spirit, and that material progress should also promote moral and spiritual development. Since the elimination of all forms of prejudice and discrimination is an essential goal, the benefits from social action initiated by the Bahá’í community should accrue to the larger community regardless of religious affiliation. Observance of this principle minimizes the risk that material considerations might influence an individual’s decision on whether or not to join the Bahá’í community.
Following the example of Bahá’u’lláh, who wrote to the rulers of His time urging them to pursue the path of peace and rule with equity and compassion, the Bahá’í community and its individual members are eager to take part in discussions affecting the future of society. For this reason the Bahá’í community has been affiliated with the United Nations since its establishment in 1945 and now enjoys the privileges of a non-governmental organization in consultative status. Its main contributions have been in the areas of human rights, social and economic development, the advancement of women, and moral education, but it has also submitted, on several occasions, detailed proposals for revision of the Charter of the United Nations to make it a more effective organization. Many national Bahá’í communities have made submissions to public bodies regarding constitutional reform, social integration, moral education and other subjects on which the Bahá’í teachings offer particular insights.
The goal of the Bahá’í Faith is to promote unity, and Bahá’ís believe that this is the only way in which real social progress can be achieved. Consequently, in their social action and public statements, they carefully avoid taking sides or casting blame. For example, when discussing racism, which in its various forms is one of the major problems in the world today, Bahá’ís describe prejudice as an illness that is harmful both to the person infected and to the victims of his actions. Likewise, when promoting of the education of women, Bahá’ís seek to gain the support of their fathers, brothers and husbands by emphasizing the benefits for society as a whole, including men. The same logic applies to participation in political affairs. Bahá’ís respect all public authorities and vote in elections on the basis of the personal merit of the candidates. At the same time, since the competition and contestation inherent in the quest for political power are necessarily divisive, Bahá’ís do not run for political office, accept political appointments or support particular political parties or factions.
The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh in ‘Akko is the spiritual focal point for Bahá’ís all over the world, and Haifa is the seat of the administrative institutions that govern the entire community. The two cities together constitute the centre of Bahá’í pilgrimage because they contain the most holy places, the heritage sites and the source of guidance for the community.
Although Bahá’u’lláh’s place of exile was chosen by the despotic rulers of Iran and Turkey for reasons of their own, He clearly saw His banishment to the Holy Land as a fulfillment of destiny. During a visit to Haifa during the last years of His life, He selected the site for the Shrine of the Báb and composed the “Tablet of Carmel”, a mystical prophecy concerning the establishment of the seat of the governing institutions of the Bahá’í community on the slope of that mountain.
During His lifetime, Bahá’u’lláh instructed the believers who accompanied or followed Him into exile not to spread His teachings in the Holy Land. During the time of Shoghi Effendi, the descendants of these believers who were still residing in this country were instructed to leave and settle elsewhere. Consequently, the only members of the Bahá’í community living in Israel today are about 650 foreign nationals who have been invited to serve for a limited time as volunteers at the Bahá’í World Centre and a few others who have been authorized to stay in the country temporarily for specific purposes. Under these conditions, it is not possible for anyone to join the Bahá’í community in Israel.
The expenditures of the Bahá’í World Centre are financed entirely by donations from Bahá’ís and Bahá’í communities around the world, and no grants, subsidies or other kinds of funding are accepted from governmental bodies, or any other organizations or individuals outside the Bahá’í community.