Imagine a world of peace, unity and oneness. A world where racial and religious strife has ceased to exist, where people worship, govern, and even speak as one. To more than three million people around the globe today this is not some unattainable utopia, but a vision destined to become reality.
The guardians of this ideal are the Baha'is, followers of the Persian prophet Baha'u'llah and the Baha'i faith, which at 142 years old, is considered to be one of the world's newest religions. Since then the numbers of his followers have continued to grow, and now number close to three million. Although their numbers are not comparable to other world faiths, Baha'is are widespread and have representatives in far-flung corners of the world.
One of these corners is Harvard. Baha'is in the university community now number about 15, most of whom comprise the Harvard Baha'i Association, which has been in existence since at least the 1950s, says Gisu Mohadjer '83, a Business School student who was the club's president as an undergraduate.
At Harvard, the Baha'i group is "an association of students who are Baha'is and are interested in the faith who work to promote the principles of the Baha'i faith," says Lowell House resident Robert Wallace Cook '88, the current president of the Harvard Baha'i Association.
"We're not here to convert the Harvard population," Cook, of Vermont, says about his group's relatively small presence on campus. "Our primary goal is to make people aware of us and understand what we stand for."
Faith Like No Other
This faith is like no other in the Western world. There are no clergy, no religious hierarchies, and no large church buildings. Baha'i don't even use a traditional 12-month a year calendar, preferring instead a 19-day a month system.
Among the Baha'i ideals are "the oneness of God, the oneness of mankind, and the oneness of religion," says Toni Lynne Andrews '87. These beliefs include the equality of men and women and the cessation of racial and religious strife. The Baha'is believe that all religions are one. In their teachings, one member says, God is metaphorized as a sun and the prophets as mirrors reflecting the same light. Baha'u'llah is the last in a line of prophets including Moses, Jesus and Mohammed.
"We feel it's our responsibility to make people aware of the Baha'i faith," says Mohadjer. "It's my responsibility to respond to [people's] questions and it's my responsibility to be aware myself and to be able to respond. We can't fall short of our duty in helping people find out about that message [of Baha'u'llah]."
One method the group uses to teach others about the faith is "firesides," bimonthly discussion sessions open to non-Baha'is--as are most of the group's activities--which center around a particular topic such as "If There is Only One God Why Are There So Many Religions?"
Baha'is emphasize, however, that they don't force people to learn about their faith, but encourage individuals to question its ideas for themselves. "We don't force people to become Baha'is because one of our principles is that you have to investigate independently [to find truth]," says Farshid Sadeghi '90.
"We're not trying to convert the whole world; we're just trying to help it understand what's happening to it," Jill N. Harrison '90, a Holworthy Hall resident, says.
On campus, people appear to be receptive to Baha'i ideas, Harvard Baha'is say. Mohadjer says she thinks the college campus is a good place to spread the values of the faith.
"People are open to new ideas, more interested, and people live a thoughtful life," she says. "When you're in college you're so acutely aware of everything around you."
"Academic communities tend to be very easy [to spread beliefs in] compared to other parts of America. [There are] more open minds, more of an intrigue in what's unusual. College campuses are generally quite productive places for people to become Baha'i," says Rhett Diessner, a second-year student at the Graduate School of Education. One becomes a Baha'i by making a declaration of faith, which can occur as early as age 15.