Bahá’í is what we might consider to be a ‘new religious movement’, because it has only come about within the last 150 years. It considers its recent emergence to be one more step on humanity’s advancement towards maturity, as the Bahá’ís believe that all religions brought about great leaps in human progress and understanding. Bahá’í therefore views all religions as equal and relevant. They respect all the Founders of religions as being manifestations of the same One God, and admire them all for their concern with fostering reason, science, and education, inspiring others to live according to principles of love, forgiveness, self-discipline, and goodness. These are only some examples of the virtues which individual Bahá’í members are driven to develop, and thus that they are encouraged to apply in the world for the purpose of helping others and setting a moral example for the rest of humanity.
The Bahá’í are first and foremost concerned with the absolute equality of all the people of the world. They strive against prejudice and aim for the actualization of a global society where everyone is treated equally. Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of Bahá’í, believes that this must provide the foundation for Bahá’í thought, as the progression of religion depends upon the re-examination of religion according to the idea of oneness. This is the oneness of God, the oneness of religion, and also the oneness of the human race. Thus the whole faith ultimately desires to drive humanity towards unity.
Interesting is the Bahá’ís’ view on science. It emphasises that science is just as crucial to human progression as religion, and that they both must cooperate and work alongside one another in order to bring about the global community which is saturated with morals, knowledge, and understanding. Shabnam told me that I should consider science and religion as “the wings of a bird,” noting that both wings need to be equally strong so that the bird may fly. Each system benefits from its interaction with the other, preventing science from being dogmatic and materialist, and religion from being reduced to superstition and ritual. The mutual relationship between science and religion found in Bahá’í therefore makes it incredibly compatible with the modern world and its values, and helps draw humanity even further into its projected future.
Worship is also an important aspect of Bahá’í faith. Daily prayers are encouraged because they are believed to provide spiritual nourishment which is essential to the individual in their aim to attain inspiration to evoke societal and personal change. The hundred volumes of sacred writings of Bahá’u’lláh provide the basis for all worship, and are encouraged to be read daily in order to solidify one’s views and motivations to aim towards the collective goal of globalization, peace, and justice. Bahá’í also partake in periods of fasting. The highest form of worship for Bahá’ís, however, is not study or prayer, but rather it is work done in service of others, as it is the ultimate expression of the values and goals which the Bahá’í aim to cultivate personally.
The Bahá’í are first and foremost concerned with the absolute equality of all the people of the world.
Shabnam considers her Bahá’í faith to be absolutely central to her life, and she believes that it provides all the foundations for her goals and relationships in Oxford. Her experience as a student is defined by what it means for her to get a higher education. Shabnam aims to use her degree to help others, and therefore directs her study towards personal development for the sake of others. This, for Shabnam, is an incredibly motivating factor in her work life, as she recognises that her purpose lies outside of herself. She does not study simply to get a good job for herself, and to make herself comfortable; her faith motivates her to act for the good of all people. As students, we all struggle to find the motivation which is necessary for us to complete our work at Oxford, but Shabnam has found an excellent solution which is grounded in her faith.
One of the most important features of university is one’s community and social life. This can be difficult to find, and it often takes a long time before one feels completely at home in a new city, surrounded by people one doesn’t know. Bahá’í, being such a new religion that has not yet had time to saturate the UK population, has a very small community. This was both an advantage and a disadvantage for Shabnam when she came to university.
It immediately might feel daunting for someone of Bahá’í background to move into a new area, away from their family and home group of religious fellows. This is something which many religious students experience, however it is observable that many groups of religious students, particularly Christians, come to Oxford and easily find religious support and community in the various student faith societies, such as the Christian Union (CU) and the Jewish Society (JSoc). When we look at faiths as small as the Bahá’í which don’t have a faith society in Oxford, it might become very scary indeed to tread such new waters.
However, Shabnam believes that she actually benefitted from the small size of the Bahá’í religion, due to the tight-knit nature of the small community. As the Bahá’í have a relatively tiny student population, she expanded her scope outside of the university to mingle with the city of Oxford’s Bahá’í community by attending religious meetings with the city’s Bahá’ís. The inclusive support of the non-uni Bahá’í group meant that she immediately felt comfortable and accepted. Indeed, this helped her to feel more settled in her new Oxford home, as instead of being isolated within the university, she felt much more ingrained with Oxford as a city and therefore she felt much more at home than she believes many students do if they do not expand their social circle outside of the university itself.
This October, the Bahá’ís celebrated the bicentenary birthday of their inspiring teacher, Bahá’u’lláh. Aware of the small size of the Bahá’í population in Oxford, Shabnam was concerned that her religious celebrations would be woefully solitary. However this was not to be the case, as although they did not share her faith, her friends were more than willing to support and join her in the festivities. It is this kind of attitude which students across Oxford should be demonstrating towards their peers – respectfully supporting and getting involved in the lives of students of other faiths in order to demonstrate willingness to learn, and to show respect even for small faith groups. Shabnam affirms that her friendships are made even stronger by the enthusiasm of her friends to get involved in Bahá’í, even if they do not subscribe to it themselves. It is therefore demonstrably incredibly admirable to seek to learn about other religions, and it is assuredly one of the best ways to deepen friendships with others.
Bahá’í therefore presents itself as a religion for the modern age, focused on advancement towards a better, equal, global society based on mutual love and generosity. It is evident that it can provide for its followers a secure and stabilizing community spirit which can help one in one’s family, student, and further life. Shabnam finds motivation in the compassion that her faith encourages, and this motivation is directed towards helping all people towards a better world and a more virtuous state of being. It is definitely a faith system which holds the attention, and there is so much more to it than the surface level that I have scratched here, which I wholly recommend to the interested reader. I certainly admire it for its virtuosity, intelligence, and for its selfless goals. We definitely need to see more of that attitude in the world today, and in the world to come.