Bahá'í festivals: Bahá'u'lláh's Declaration of His Mission

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The greatest of Bahá'í festivals, the Festival of Ridván, is here. For a period of 12 days starting on April 21st, Bahá'ís around the world will celebrate Bahá'u'lláh's public declaration of His mission, an event which took place on the eve of His departure from Baghdád for Constantinople. No less than three Holy Days are celebrated in the course of this time period, and elections for Local and National Spiritual Assemblies take place.

The significance of Ridván for Bahá'ís can't be overstated. In 1844, the Báb had arisen to proclaim the coming of a great Messenger from God, the Promised One of all religions. During His six-year ministry, which culminated in His public execution on July 9, 1850, the Báb called the people of Persia to purify themselves in preparation for the arrival of "He whom God shall make manifest." Bahá'u'lláh, one of the Báb's foremost followers, was imprisoned in 1853 on false charges. While in prison, He experienced a revelation from God in which He learned that He was to be that Promised One. But upon His release from prison a few months later, He told no one of this experience. Indeed, for ten years, the entire duration of His exile in Baghdád, He kept silent on this matter. Even so, His character, wisdom, and deep spiritual insight affected all who came into contact with Him.

His growing influence prompted the authorities to seek to move Him to another place. Baghdád was an important crossroads at that time, and it was feared that the new religion might be spread far and wide if He were permitted to stay there, coming into contact with travelers from all quarters. Arrangements were therefore made to transfer Bahá'u'lláh and His party to Constantinople.

On the eve of His departure, Bahá'u'lláh took up residence in a garden which has since become known to Bahá'ís as the Garden of Ridván. (Just to confuse matters, there is also a Garden of Ridván near Mazra'ih and Bahjí, where Bahá'u'lláh spent His last days.) He spent 12 days there in preparation for the long journey ahead. Guests flowed into the garden, rich and poor, powerful and lowly, all paying respects to the great Personage whose influence had touched them all. Sometime during the midst of all this activity, Bahá'u'lláh declared to the gathered Bábís that He was the Promised One spoken of by the Báb.

"Ridván" means "Paradise", from which we can gather something of what the atmosphere must have felt like during that 12-day period. In God Passes By, Shoghi Effendi recounts the tale thus:

"Of the exact circumstances attending that epoch-making Declaration we, alas, are but scantily informed. The words Bahá'u'lláh actually uttered on that occasion, the manner of His Declaration, the reaction it produced, its impact on Mirzá Yahyá [Bahá'u'lláh's half-brother, who later tried to usurp His position and made several attempts on His life], the identity of those who were privileged to hear Him, are shrouded in an obscurity which future historians will find it difficult to penetrate. The fragmentary description left to posterity by His chronicler Nabíl is one of the very few authentic records we possess of the memorable days He spent in that garden. "Every day," Nabíl has related, "ere the hour of dawn, the gardeners would pick the roses which lined the four avenues of the garden, and would pile them in the center of the floor of His blessed tent. So great would be the heap that when His companions gathered to drink their morning tea in His presence, they would be unable to see each other across it. All these roses Bahá'u'lláh would, with His own hands, entrust to those whom He dismissed from His presence every morning to be delivered, on His behalf, to His Arab and Persian friends in the city." "One night," he continues, "the ninth night of the waxing moon, I happened to be one of those who watched beside His blessed tent. As the hour of midnight approached, I saw Him issue from His tent, pass by the places where some of His companions were sleeping, and begin to pace up and down the moonlit, flower-bordered avenues of the garden. So loud was the singing of the nightingales on every side that only those who were near Him could hear distinctly His voice. He continued to walk until, pausing in the midst of one of these avenues, He observed: 'Consider these nightingales. So great is their love for these roses, that sleepless from dusk till dawn, they warble their melodies and commune with burning passion with the object of their adoration. How then can those who claim to be afire with the rose-like beauty of the Beloved choose to sleep?' For three successive nights I watched and circled round His blessed tent. Every time I passed by the couch whereon He lay, I would find Him wakeful, and every day, from morn till eventide, I would see Him ceaselessly engaged in conversing with the stream of visitors who kept flowing in from Baghdád. Not once could I discover in the words He spoke any trace of dissimulation."

(Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 153)

Many years later, Bahá'u'lláh would designate the Festival of Ridván "the Most Great Festival" and specify that the first, ninth, and twelfth days should be celebrated as Holy Days. The Bahá'í administrative year now begins on the First Day of Ridván with the election of Local and National Spiritual Assemblies as prescribed by 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. This is not accidental. The elections that renew the administrative order become part of the festivities.

Have a very happy Ridván!

Dale E. Lehman

Appeared: 8  April 2000

Revised: 21 April 2001