From the earliest times, pilgrimage has been a cherished part of human life, be it individual or collective. Whether it was the ancient Greeks making the arduous journey to Delphi to consult the Oracle, or the Frankish knights and their kings making crusade to “free” Jerusalem, Hindus making the journey to Varanasi to immerse themselves in the sacred waters of the Ganges or Buddhists to Kandy in Sri Lanka to revere the sacred tooth relic of Lord Buddha, many and diverse are the reasons for which men and women have undertaken the journey of pilgrimage, with its attendant trials and tests.
In the Bahá’í context, pilgrimage is a law ordained by Bahá’u’lláh in the Most Holy Book, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. In this Book, Bahá’u’lláh prescribes that all Bahá’ís who are able should strive to make pilgrimage to one of the two Great Houses, i.e. the House of the Báb in Shíráz and the House of Bahá’u’lláh in Baghdád. However, after the passing of Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá designated the Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh at Bahjí as a place of pilgrimage, and stated that it is “obligatory” to visit these places “if one can afford it and is able to do so, and if no obstacle stands in one’s way”. Today, Bahá’ís make their pilgrimage at the invitation, and as honoured guests, of the Supreme Body of the Bahá’í Faith, the Universal House of Justice. The Shrines and other holy places are located in and around the cities of Haifa and ‘Akká in the Holy Land.
But what, our friends may ask, is the act of pilgrimage itself? What rites or rituals are involved? Before I continue, I should make it clear that each individual experiences their pilgrimage differently, and it is very personal. While sharing my thoughts and experiences in this post, it is not my intention to set certain expectations or a prescription of how people should feel while experiencing pilgrimage. My aim is to simply share some of my own thoughts and experiences in an attempt to answer, as simply as possible, the common question of “What is Baha’i pilgrimage?”
Bahá’í pilgrimage is simple but profound in its ultimate aim: to pay homage to the Twin Manifestations of the Faith and the Centre of the Covenant, and to visit Their Shrines. Bahá’u’lláh says: “The Qiblih is indeed He Whom God will make manifest; whenever He moveth, it moveth, until He shall come to rest.” The Shrine of Bahá’u’lláh is, therefore, the Qiblih (Point of Adoration) for Bahá’ís in every corner of the world to turn to during their Obligatory prayers, and the opportunity to visit this most holy Spot and pay homage is one to be deeply cherished.
While the Shrines of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh are the pre-eminent places at which a lot of the Bahá’í pilgrim’s spend their time, there are also so many residences and resting places of the Holy Family, in addition to places visited by Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, each with its attendant unique characteristics and each the site of significant events in Bahá’í history. Just one among them is the prison-barracks of ‘Akká, to which Bahá’u’lláh and His family were conducted upon their arrival in the penal colony. Bahá’u’lláh says: “Know thou that upon Our arrival at this Spot, We chose to designate it as the ‘Most Great Prison’. Though previously subjected in another land (Tihrán) to chains and fetters, We yet refused to call it by that name. Say: Ponder thereon, O ye endued with understanding!” To the unimaginable sufferings Bahá’u’lláh was made to bear in that grim place was added an indescribable loss: while pacing the roof of the barracks, rapt in his customary devotions one evening, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s beloved younger brother Mirzá Mihdí, 22, fell through an open skylight onto a wooden crate, which pierced his body and caused him to expire twenty-two hours later. There are so many such places to visit, and be drawn into the narrative of the lives of Bahá’u’lláh, His family and followers.
Another element to savour during pilgrimage is the opportunity to visit, enjoy and be inspired by the magnificent edifices, situated on Mount Carmel, the “Mountain of the Lord”, that constitute the Administrative Centre of the Faith. One cannot help but be struck with awe when gazing upon the four magnificent buildings on the Arc: the seat of the Universal House of Justice, the seat of the International Teaching Centre, the Centre for the Study of the Holy Text and the newly restored International Archives building. During the visit to the Archives, one has the great bounty to gaze upon the photograph of Bahá’u’lláh and portrait of the Báb, as well as the opportunity to view so many sacred relics and items of great significance in Bahá’í history, for example some of the clothing of Bahá’u’lláh, and even the sword of Mulla Husayn.
Apart from paying homage and drawing close to the Central Figures of the Faith, pilgrimage also offers the opportunity to come into contact with, and bask in the love of The Supreme Body of the Faith, the Universal House of Justice. The meeting between the Universal House of Justice and the pilgrims offers at once an awe-inspiring glimpse of the majesty and greatness of this sacred Institution, as well as, for those of us who have the great blessing of service on an institution of the Faith, a shining example of the dignity and humility that such service as an individual member on Bahá’í institutions entails.
There is also the chance, through the numerous evening talks given by members of the Universal House of Justice and the International Teaching Centre, to become more intimately acquainted with the condition of the world and how the work of the 5 Year Plan seeks to alleviate the travails of humanity by using the power of the Word of God to transform individuals and build beautiful, vibrant communities working together in a spirit of service for the betterment of the world, and how this process is already in advanced stages in numerous, diverse parts of the planet. This serves to raise our awareness of the immense importance of this work, and is also a certain emotional and spiritual preparation, for when we leave the Holy Land and go back into our communities with renewed dedication and enthusiasm to continue our efforts.
Last but most definitely not least, is the opportunity to witness first hand the beauty and diversity of the Bahá’í family, some from places we never even knew existed, and to forge bonds of friendship and love during these most memorable days of our lives spent at the Most Holy places on earth. What greater proof of the truth of the Message of Bahá’u’lláh can there be? To visit the tiny cell into which He was thrown in the barracks of Akká, and then to witness this beginning of the unity of mankind, we cannot help but be assured of the ultimate triumph of the Cause, and the achievement of all its aims.
I have many friends who feel that they are not worthy of such a great bounty, and that they have not “earned” this great gift. Yet, as the days spent in those holy places go by, an understanding dawned on me: Pilgrimage is not a reward for services rendered; it is preparation and confirmation for a lifetime of service yet to be rendered. It is for this very reason that I feel if we are able, we should make every effort to go as soon as we can!
I have heard some say, “Do I really need to go?” “Can’t I ‘enjoy’ it from afar, by listening to stories told by returning pilgrims or by seeing the photos and by reading books?” “Is it really worth the effort and cost?” The answers to these questions are, of course, a personal matter. However, when we weigh the many pros against the few cons (if any), making the pilgrimage just seems… like the right thing to do.