Because ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the eldest son of Bahá’u’lláh, was born on the same day that the Bab declared His mission to Mulla Husayn, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá forbade Bahá’ís from celebrating His birthday. But when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was travelling through the United States approximately one century ago, the American believers repeatedly expressed their desire to commemorate His life in some fashion, given the immense impact He had on the American Bahá’í community.
Although ‘Abdu’l-Bahá still instructed Bahá’ís that only the Declaration of the Bab should be celebrated on May 23rd, He eventually allowed the Bahá’ís to choose a date that was furthest away from the date when Bahá’u’lláh passed away and to use that day to celebrate the establishment of Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant with humanity. As Bahá’u’lláh passed away on May 29th, 1892, the Bahá’í community chose November 26th, the date six Gregorian months (182 days) away from the day of Bahá’u’lláh’s passing, as the Day of the Covenant.
But what exactly is Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant, and what exactly is it that Baha’is are commemorating on this day?
Bahá’ís believe that the primary purpose of our Faith is to establish the oneness of mankind and to promote the unification of all of humanity. We also believe that this was the purpose of every Divine Manifestation, but one of the distinctive features of the Bahá’í Faith is the fact that Bahá’u’lláh explicitly and unambiguously identified who would succeed Him after His passing and created an administrative order designed to ensure the unity of the Bahá’í community. In other words, he established a clear Covenant with humanity in order to maintain the integrity and solidarity of His religion.
The paramount importance of this Covenant is evident when comparing the Bahá’í Faith to previous religions. Adib Taherzadeh, former member of the Universal House of Justice, describes how the lack of a clear Covenant impacted both Christianity and Islam in his book “The Child of the Covenant.” In regards to Christianity he states:
The Gospels are silent on the question of successorship. Only a vague and inconclusive statement, ‘And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church’ has led a section of the followers of Christ to consider Peter as His successor. Such a claim, which is not upheld by a clear and unequivocal declaration in the Gospels, has caused bitter conflicts throughout the chequered history of Christianity. As a result, the religion founded by Christ has been divided into major sects which have multiplied through time.
Mr Taherzadeh goes on to describe how a similar situation arose in Islam:
Having completed the rites of pilgrimage to Mecca in the last year of His life, Muhammad, on His way back to Medina, ordered the large concourse of His followers to stop at a place known as Ghadir-i-Khumm. In that vast plain a number of saddles were stacked up, making an improvised pulpit from which Muhammad delivered an important address to the congregation. There, He is reported to have taken ‘Ali by the hand and said, ‘Whoever considers Me as his Lord, then ‘Ali is also his Lord.’ The Shí’ahs consider this verbal statement to be authoritative and on its basis believe ‘Ali to be the lawful successor to the Prophet…But the majority of the Muslims, the Sunnis, reject this view. Almost immediately after Muhammad’s passing, His followers were divided into these two major sects which multiplied with the passage of time.
I’m sure we are all familiar with the countless examples of death and destruction that have resulted from religious conflict throughout history, and this division and disunity is exactly what Bahá’u’lláh sought to prevent through the establishment of His Covenant. Before He passed away, Bahá’u’lláh wrote a will and testament known as the Kitáb-i-‘Ahd, or “The Book of the Covenant,” in which he expressly instructed the Bahá’ís to turn to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá after His passing and conferred upon ‘Abdu’l-Bahá the authority to interpret and expound upon His words. He also granted ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with the prerogative to choose a successor, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, following His father’s example, wrote His own will and testament and identified Shoghi Effendi as the Guardian and Head of the Bahá’í Faith after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing. Thus, the young Bahá’í community was never without authoritative guidance and instruction.
So if the Bahá’í Faith has always been, and will always be, protected by Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant, who is the head of the Bahá’í Faith today?
The Bahá’í community no longer has an individual who serves as the “head” of the Faith, as Shoghi Effendi did not write a will before his untimely passing. However, that does not mean that the Faith is no longer protected by Bahá’u’lláh’s Covenant. As mentioned above, Bahá’u’lláh not only identified His successor, He also established an administrative order that will continue to guide the Faith.
In every community where at least nine Bahá’ís reside, Bahá’ís gathers together every year to elect a nine-member body known as the Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA) which governs and tends to the needs of the community. All adult members of the community cast their vote, prayerfully and privately, for the nine members whom they believe are best suited to this role, with no campaigning or electioneering whatsoever. Similarly, elected delegates gather annually at the national level to elect a National Spiritual Assembly (NSA) in each country with a sufficient number of Bahá’ís. And finally, every five years the elected NSAs convene in the Bahá’í World Center in Haifa, Israel to elect the Universal House of Justice (UHJ), the nine-member body that serves as the “head” of the global Bahá’í community.
And while many democracies around the world may have a similar process for electing their national representatives, the key difference between those forms of democracy and the Bahá’í Faith is that Bahá’u’lláh, rather than the Bahá’ís themselves, established the administrative order of the Bahá’í Faith. In various works, Bahá’u’lláh, along with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, expressly outlined the duties and responsibilities of the UHJ and identified it as under the unerring guidance of Bahá’u’lláh Himself.
Thus, on November 26th, we should obviously remember ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s incredible legacy of sacrifice, devotion, and compassion that defined His life. But we should also study and reflect on the importance of the administrative order of the Faith and the incredible blessing which is the Universal House of Justice.