Feast of Ala – Bahai

March 2

Bahai symbol

March 2 is the first day of the last month of the Baha’i calendar. The calendar consists of 19 months of 19 days each for a total of 361 days. Between the 18th and 19th months are 4 “intercalary days” from February 26 to March 1.

Each 19-day month begins with a “Feast.” It’s not the kind of feast we think of where folks pig out on big fat chicken legs, guzzle wine, and someone plays the lute. The Baha’i “Feasts” are monthly meetings/services.

The Feast consists of three parts. The devotional part when sacred texts are read. The consultative part when the congregation conducts administrative affairs and discusses anything from upcoming events to the situation of the Baha’i Faith around the world. And the social part, when  the host serves refreshments and members share their thoughts on the previous two portions in a more casual atmosphere.

There are no clergy. A chairman conducts the meeting, but portions of the service are “led” by different members each month.

Today is the Feast of Ala (Loftiness). It’s a special “Feast” because it actually marks the beginning of the annual 19-day Fast of Ala. Born in the same tradition as the Jewish High Holy Days and the Christian Lent, the fast of Ala is more similar to the Muslim Ramadan in the sense that Bahais can eat at night, but must refrain from eating from sunrise to sunset.

At the end of Ala, Bahais usher in the New Year (Naw Ruz) which coincides with the Spring Equinox on March 21.

Baha’i at a Glance

The Bahá’í Faith has no official “home country”. The largest populations are in India (2 million), Iran (350,000), and the United States (150,000). [Other polls count 750,000 in the US, 500,000 in Iran, 350,000 in Vietnam, and 300,000 in Kenya.]

Shoghi Effendi, the head of the Baha’i Faith from the 1920’s to the 1950’s, summarized the essential elements of the religion as:

  • the independent search after truth, unfettered by superstition or tradition
  • the oneness of the entire human race…
  • the basic unity of all religions
  • the condemnation of all forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class or national
  • the harmony which must exist between religion and science
  • the equality of men and women
  • the introduction of universal compulsory education
  • the adoption of a universal auxiliary language
  • the abolition of extremes of wealth and poverty
  • the institution of a world tribunal for the adjudication of disputes between nations
  • the exaltation of work, performed in the spirit of service, to the rank of worship
  • the glorification of justice as the ruling principle in human society and ofreligion as a bulwark for the protection of all people and nations
  • and the establishment of a permanent and universal peace as the supreme goal of all mankind…”

Lofty, yes. But the Bahá’í Faith is currently the fastest growing major religion. It counts among its prophets Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and Krishna, as well as Bahá’u’lláh.

The Baha’i 19-Day Feast

Days of Ha

February 26-March 1

“It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” —Tablets of Baha’u’llah

From February 26th (technically sunset on February 25th) until March 1st millions of Baha’i throughout the world celebrate Ayyam-i-Ha, literally “Days of Ha.”

“It behoveth the people of Baha, throughout these days, to provide good cheer for themselves, their kindred and, beyond them, the poor and needy, and with joy and exultation to hail and glorify their Lord, to sing His praise and magnify His Name.”

The Baha’i celebrate through feast, song, and prayer. Themes of the holiday are hospitality, charity and service to the community.The 4-day holiday—five in leap year—prepares celebrants for the upcoming month of Ala. Ala is the last month of the Baha’i, during which people fast for the entire month. They fast during the day only.The Baha’i calendar consists of 19 months of 19 days each. Count ‘em up, that’s 361 days. The “Ayyam-i-Ha”are the additional 4 days (or 5 for Leap Year) inserted after February 25.The tradition of tossing extra days after February 25 is not unique to the Baha’i. In fact, such an intercalary goes back thousands of years to the Ancient Romans…

Happy Ayyam-i-Ha! (pronounced “I am eeha!”)

World Religion Day – Bahá’í

January 20

Today is World Religion Day in the Bahá’í Faith.

Bahai symbol

For two years I drove by the Baha’i Faith Center just a few blocks from my apartment without bothering to stop in.

It wasn’t until after I moved away that I finally decided to come back and sit in on a Sunday service to find out more about the Baha’i Faith first hand.

To my surprise, the center was mostly empty, despite it being a Baha’i holiday: World Religion Day. Members taught me two things about the Baha’i Faith that helped explain why to attendance on a Baha’i holiday was less than packed.

Most Baha’i services are not held in formal places of worship at all. Bahais usually meet at the homes of the congregation’s members.

Baha’u’llah, the religion’s founder, believed that the people’s scarce resources shouldn’t be spent on lavish buildings. The Baha’i world headquarters in Haifa, Israel, is the exception to this.

Shrine of the Bab, Haifa, Israel
Shrine of the Bab, Haifa, Israel

The community center in Los Angeles on the other hand is a plain, underwhelming box that’s easy to miss amid the grid of traffic and mini-malls known as La Cienaga Boulevard.

I was surprised the meeting didn’t mention anything about World Religion Day. The Baha’i Faith combines the philosophies of the world’s major religions — Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, and Zoroastrianism — with the writings of its founder and final prophet Baha’u’llah. The people at the service came from all different religious backgrounds, and they said members were encouraged to continue attending the services of their original faiths.

World Religion Day was not an invention of Baha’u’llah it turns out, but was promoted by the American chapter of the Baha’i Faith beginning in the 1950’s. I don’t want to call it a publicity stunt, but it may have be more for those outside the Faith than within.

As one member of the small congregation explained to me, for Bahais, “every day is World Religion Day.”

[Originally written March 2008]

More about the Baha’i Faith

Bahai Community in Iran Under Attack

Baha’i Library Discussion Group

Why Baha’i?

Birth of the Bab

October 20

Today followers of the Baha’i Faith celebrate the Birth of the Báb, the Faith’s founder and one its two great modern Prophets.

Báb means “The Gate”. The Báb was born on October 20, 1819, and no, he wasn’t born “The Báb.” He was born Siyyad Muhammad Ali in Shiraz, Persia, and was raised by his uncle after his father’s death. He worked in the family trading house.

Around the time of his birth, a movement developed among the dominant group of Shi’a Muslims known as Twelvers. Twelvers live by the Qur’an and Muhammad’s teachings as do all Muslims. But they also follow the teachings of the eleven great Imams, successors of Muhammad, beginning with Ali ibn Abu Talib (600-661 C.E.) and ending with Hassan ibn Ali (846-874 C.E.)

So why are they Twelvers if there are only 11 Imams?

The Twelfth Imam was the son of Hassan ibn Ali. He was about 4 years old at the time of his father’s death in the 9th century. Twelvers believe the boy was taken into hiding at that time, and would return when the time is right to save mankind. He is known as the Qa’im, the Shi’a Messiah.

The Báb grew up at a time when Shi’a clerics were preaching about the Qa’im’s imminent return to Persia.

Unlike Christianity’s Jesus, little is known about the circumstances of the Báb’s birth. But we do know that on May 23, 1844, at age 24, he first made his divinity known to a Twelver named Mulla Husayn in what is celebrated by followers of the Baha’i Faith as The Declaration of the Báb.

Martydom of the Bab

July 9

After informing Mulla Husayn of his divinity, an event known as the Declaration of the Báb, Husayn introduced the Báb to his doubting companions. Upon meeting the Báb, his companions grew to believe in his authenticity. The first 18 believers of the Báb were known as the 18 Living Letters. They spread news of the Báb’s arrival across Persia.

But as the circle of believers grew, so did the animosity and persecution against the Báb and his followers. Religious leaders had the Báb arrested and tried for his claims of divinity and for undermining Islamic law.

By this time the Báb had written numerous books and treatises which would become the foundation of the Bahai Faith.

The Báb and his follower Muhammad Ali were scheduled for execution by firing squad on July 9, 1850.

Both men were bound by ropes prior to the execution. The order was given to fire. When the smoke cleared, Muhammad Ali was found unharmed, as if the bullets had only broken his ropes. And the Báb had disappeared.

The Báb was found unharmed in another part of the barracks. He was quoted as saying, “I have finished My conversation with Siyyid Husayn. Now you may proceed to fulfil your intention.

He was marched back to the firing squad and promptly executed again, this time for good.

He was 30 years old.

The Bab is one of the two divine messengers of God of the Baha’i Faith. He foretold the coming of the religion’s great prophet Baha’u’llah.

Shrine of the Báb
Shrine of the Báb

Declaration of the Báb

May 23

This holiday remembers neither a war, nor the death of a martyr, nor a seasonal change, nor a leader’s birthday nor any event commonly called upon as the origin of a holiday.

Today followers of the Bahai Faith celebrate a simple conversation between two men in a quiet house in Shiraz, Persia, on the evening of May 23, 1844.

Depiction of the room in which the Declaration occurred

The two men were Mulla Husayn and Siyyad Ali Muhammad, and the date is considered to be the foundation of the Bahai religion and the beginning of its ‘Badi’ calendar.

Mulla Husayn, was traveling through Persia with two companions. They had been informed by their teacher Siyyid Kazin just before he died that the Qa’im–the Promised One of Shi’a Islam–was about to make his presence known. Kazin ordered his students to set out and find this long-awaited Qa’im and with him the fulfillment of the prophecies of their sect.

Siyyid Kazin passed on to Mulla Husayn some indicators of the coming Qa’im. He would be of pure lineage, of noble descent (of Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah), of medium height and build, endowed with innate spiritual and philosophical knowledge, free from bodily deficiency, and he would be a non-smoker.

In addition Kazim offered specific tests of wisdom that would be posed to any claiming to be the Qa’im, and he further predicted that the true Qa’im, upon answering the preceding tests would immediately and of his own volition launch into the deepest and most revealing commentary of the Qur’an’s Sura of Yusuf (Joseph) the world had never known.

After traveling for many months, Mulla Husayn and his companions reached Shiraz in what is now Iran. Just before evening they separated with plans to meet up later that night.

On the streets of Shiraz, Mulla Husayn encountered a gentle young man with a soothing voice and a strange yet penetrating demeanor. The stranger introduced himself as Siyyad Ali Muhammad and invited Husayn back to his house. Despite Husayn’s protests that his friends were waiting for him, the young man assured him, “Commit them to the care of God, He will surely protect and watch over them.


At the house the two men talked over tea. Husayn recalled:

His dignity and self-assurance silenced me. I renewed my ablutions and prepared for prayer…It was about an hour after sunset when my youthful Host began to converse with me: “Whom, after Siyyid Kazin, do you regard as his successor and your leader?” asked Siyyad Ali Muhammad.

Mulla Husayn replied: “At the hour of his death, our departed teacher insistently exhorted us to forsake our homes, to scatter far and wide, in quest of the promised Beloved.”

Husayn told the young man all the features Kazin predicted the the Qa’im would have, whereupon the young man replied, “Behold, all these signs are manifest in Me!

Shocked at the man’s audacity, Husayn proceeded to grill the impostor with tests based on the teachings of his teacher Kazin and Kazin’s teacher Shaykh Ahmad.

“Within a few minutes He had, with characteristic vigour and charm, unravelled all its mysteries and resolved all its problems…He further expounded to me certain truths which could be found neither in the reported sayings of the Imams of the Faith, nor in the writings of Shaykh Ahmad and Siyyid Kazin.”

Finally, the moment of truth: Without provocation, the man took pen to paper and wrote, without hesitation, the first chapter in the beginning of what would be his great commentary on the Sirah of Joseph.

When Husayn accepted the veracity of the man’s claim, Siyyad Ali Muhammad announced the name he would be known as for the rest of his life and for generations after: the Báb, or “the Gate”.

See Martyrdom of the Báb

Shrine of the Báb

The Bab is one of the two divine messengers of God of the Baha’i Faith. He foretold the coming of the religion’s great prophet Baha’u’llah.