By most measures, November 1817 was a decidedly ho-hum month in world history. On November 5, the Third Anglo-Maratha War broke out between the British and Indians at the Battle of Khadki. On November 20, the first Seminole War began in the American state of Florida. Historical almanacs show the parade of 19th century thinkers and doers marching on and a subtle passing from a world of crushing conventionality (Jane Austen died that year) to a world of intense questioning and social and philosophical mischief (Henry David Thoreau and Frederick Douglass were born that year).
But on November 12, something happened that in time will make all the wars, rises and falls of empires, and even sweeping social and philosophical movements pale by comparison. On that Wednesday, a baby was born in Tehran, a baby Who would grow up to upset the equilibrium of the whole world, indeed whose life would mark the culmination of an age 6,000 years long — our entire known history — and launch us into a turbulent modernity and then into the long-promised but elusive Kingdom of God on Earth.
The baby was named Husayn. As a youth He would show all the hallmarks present in other Messengers of God — peaceful, happy, wise beyond His years, in fact, so wise that despite His complete lack of theological training the most learned of the clergy could teach Him nothing, but only learn from Him instead.
In adulthood, He, like the Buddha, rejected the princely existence that was His inheritance, instead choosing to serve the poor. He recognized the reality of a new prophet and became His leading apostle. When that prophet was martyred, He fearlessly led the believers on and eventually was confirmed as the One whom that prophet had heralded — the promised one of all religions and the great uniter and educator of the world.
Of course, 194 years later, only a relative handful of people — about one in 1,000 people on earth — know this date as special. One online source lists November 12, 1817, as the birthdate of Baha’u’llah, with the accurate but underwhelming descriptor: “Persian spiritual figure.” And this nonchalance, of course, fulfills prophecy just as everything else in His life did — that when the spirit of Christ returns He will come as a “thief in the night,” as Paul wrote to the Thessalonians. The Manifestation of God never fulfills the expectations of the day, but He winds up vastly outstripping those limited expectations in hindsight, revolutionizing life itself.
Birthdays remind us of gifts. Life itself is a gift from God, and among God’s innumerable gifts to humanity we can also count intelligence, beauty, the capacity to feel joy. Religions of the world chronicle other divine gifts to humanity, such as the rainbow at the end of Noah’s flood signifying God’s covenant and promise to humanity, the clay tablets listing the Ten Commandments, the cross, symbolizing a new covenant with humankind brought by Jesus Christ, and the Koran, embodying yet another.
In Baha’u’llah, whose birthday we celebrate this month, can there be any doubt that God has sent his greatest gift of all time to humanity? To use a cliché, if ever there were a “gift that kept on giving,” it is Baha’u’llah. Indeed, we are told the gift of Baha’i civilization will keep on giving for 500,000 years.
The birth of a person also forces us to contemplate whether it is really possible for a single person, no matter how great, to be “the hinge of history”? Is it actually possible for one person to change everything?
Nature itself provides an emphatic and moving answer to this question: yes. In the act of creating of a human, it is not necessary that all the cells involved make an equal contribution. Indeed, all it takes is one sperm cell out of the millions to fertilize the egg, triggering a chain reaction that brings into being, as if by a miracle, a new entity with potentialities that only heaven can know.
So it is with the Manifestation of God and with civilization — that new body of humanity that is reborn in each new age. And with Baha’u’llah we are not simply born into a new age within the Cycle of Prophecy, but by God’s grace are passing beyond that age of infancy, through our current adolescence, and before long into maturity, an age in which we will finally see the potential of humanity realized in a civilization that would surely stun us if we could see it now fully formed.
Leo Tolstoy, among the foremost intellects of the 19th century, whose life span was offset from Baha’u’llah’s by only about a decade, may have put it best when he wrote:
We spend our lives trying to unlock the mystery of the universe, but there was a Turkish prisoner, Baha’u’llah, in Akka, Palestine, who had the key… Baha’u’llah’s teachings now present us with the highest and purest form of religious teaching… Very profound, I know of no other so profound.