For the student of religion

The Bahá'í Faith is the youngest of the world's independent religions.  From its obscure beginnings in Iran during the mid-nineteenth century, it has now spread to virtually every part of the world, has established its administrative institutions in over 200 independent states and major territories, and has embraced believers from virtually every cultural, racial, social, and religious background.

The new faith is a distinct religion, based entirely on the teachings of its founder, Bahá'u'lláh.  It is not a cult, a reform movement or sect within another faith, or merely a philosophical system.  Nor does it represent an attempt to create a new religion syncretically by bringing together different teachings from other religions.

Bahá'u'lláh's central message is that the day has come for the unification of humanity into one global family.   He asserts that God has set in motion historical forces that are bringing about worldwide recognition that the entire human race is a unified, distinct species.  This historical process in which, Bahá'ís believe, their faith has a central role to play will involve the emergence of a global civilization.

Entirely separate from this vision, the Bahá'í Faith holds particular interest for students of the history of religion.  This is because the empirical data is so accessible.  It would be difficult or perhaps impossible to pinpoint the generating impulses that gave rise to the birth and development of any of the earlier major religions of the world.  

One of the earliest Western historians to become interested in Bahá'í history was Edward Granville Browne, a noted Cambridge orientalist.  It was Browne's view that the then little-known faith afforded a unique opportunity to examine in detail how a new and independent religion comes into existence.  He said:

... for here he [the student of religion] may contemplate such personalities as by lapse of time pass into heroes and demi-gods still unobscured by myth and fable; he may examine by the light of concurrent and independent testimony one of those strange outbursts of enthusiasm, faith, fervent devotion, and indomitable heroism--or fanaticism, if you will--which we are accustomed to associate with the earlier history of the human race; he may witness, in a word, the birth of a faith which may not impossibly win a place amidst the great religions of the world.

Edward G. Browne, A Traveller's Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Báb,
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1891), p. viii.

The same point has been made by more recent observers from outside the Bahá'í community:

The Bábí-Bahá'í movement provides the historian of religion with invaluable sources for studying its origin and development as with no other religion.  There are at least two reasons for this.  First, the Bahá'í Faith is the most recent religion.  Other religions began hundreds or thousands of years ago.  Of the so-called eleven major, living religions of the world, only Islam (seventh century A.D.) and Sikhism (sixteenth century A.D.) are centuries old: the others--Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Taoism, Confucianism, Shinto, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, and Christianity--date back thousands of years.  The Bahá'í Faith originated only in the last century (1844 A.D.), and only since 1963 has it reached possibly the last phase of its formative development, which incidentally makes the present time most appropriate for making a study of that development.  The Bahá'í Faith is, therefore, a religion of modern times and is naturally more accessible for study and understanding than the older religions.

Vernon Elvin Johnson, "The Challenge of the Bahá'í Faith," in World Order, Vol. 10, No. 3 (1976), p.39.

Most recently, the intensification of the persecution of Iranian Bahá'ís by the current regime in their country has attracted international attention.  Since it is principally the religious affiliation of the victims which has occasioned the attacks, interest has increasingly centered on the Bahá'í Faith itself.  The beliefs that distinguish Bahá'ís from Muslims, particularly, and the sequence of historical events that has led up to the current outbreak, have been the subject of considerable discussion in Western media.

For all of the reasons mentioned above, the Bahá'í Faith is increasingly included for study in university and college curricula on world religions.  The writings of the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, together with in-depth expositions by His appointed interpreters, are readily available in compilations translated into English.  Apart from these primary sources, literature on the Bahá'í Faith constitutes two main types: commentaries by its adherents written to educate their co-religionists and attract support from the wider community, and attacks by antagonists of the Bahá'í Faith.  Neither type of secondary source is adequate or appropriate as an objective exposition of the history and teachings of the Bahá'í Faith.

The study of any religion poses special challenges.  Unlike most of the phenomena studied in the sciences, religion claims to comprehend human beings themselves.  Religion demands not only attention but ultimately devotion and commitment.  Thus, many religious thinkers have insisted that there is a fundamental conflict between religion and science and that the realm of the former lies essentially beyond exploration of the latter.

Here, the Bahá'í Faith comes to the aid of those who undertake to study it.  One of the teachings of its founder, Bahá'u'lláh, is that God's greatest gift to humankind is reason.  Bahá'ís accept that reason must be applied to all phenomena of existence, including those which are spiritual, and that the instrument to be used in this effort is the scientific method. ′Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Bahá'u'lláh and the appointed interpreter of His writings, asserted that, "Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it is only ignorance--for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge."

To an unusual degree, therefore, one who studies the Bahá'í Faith finds the subject laid open to examination.  The mysteries one encounters, like those in the physical universe, reflect no more than the recognized limitations of human knowledge.  That is to say, they do not represent assertions about the natural world which contradict science and reason.  A minimum of ritual and an absence of a priestly elite endowed with special powers or knowledge also afford relatively easy access to the central features of the Bahá'í Faith.

Nevertheless, the study of religion is not paleontology.  It is an examination of living phenomena which must be penetrated, to the fullest extent possible, not only by the mind but also by the heart, if a clear understanding is to result.  The Bahá'í Faith is the source of the deepest beliefs of several million people, beliefs which govern the most important decisions in their lives and for which many thousands of Bahá'ís have accepted and continue to accept persecution and death.

General introductions

God Speaks Again: An Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith
Kenneth E. Bowers and Patricia Romano McGraw (Bahá’í Publishing, 2004)

The Bahá’í Faith: Teachings, History, and Practices
Shahin Vafai, (Palabra Publications)

Bahá’u’lláh’s Teachings on Spiritual Reality
Paul Lample, editor (Palabra Publications)

Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era: An Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith
J. E. Esslemont (Bahá’í Publishing, 2004)

The Bahá’í Faith: A Beginner’s Guide
Moojan Momen (Oneworld, 2007)

Bahá’u’lláh: A Short Biography
Moojan Momen (Oneworld, 2007)

The Bahá’í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion
William S. Hatcher and J. Douglas Martin (Bahá’í Publishing, 2002)

The Bahá’í Faith in Words and Images
John Danesh and Seena Fazel (Oneworld, 2012)

Scholarly introductions

The Bahá’í Faith: A Guide for the Perplexed
Robert Stockman (Continuum, 2012)

An Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith
Peter Smith (Cambridge University Press, 2008)

The Origins of the Bahá’í Community of Canada, 1898–1948
Will C. van den Hoonaard (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1996)

“Bahá’ís” in the Religions of Canadians
Will C. van den Hoonaard (University of Toronto Press, 2012)

The Bahá’ís of Iran: Socio-Historical Studies
Dominic Parviz Brookshaw and Seena B. Fazel, editors (Routledge, 2010)