In the early hours of 29 May 1892, Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, passed away in the Mansion of Bahji (located just outside of the prison city of Akka in present day Israel), where He had been a prisoner for nine years. Baha’is around the world commemorate the day of Baha’u’llah’s passing as one of the nine holy days where work should be suspended, and it is known to Baha’is as The Ascension of Baha’u’llah.
Just after sunset on the day He passed away, Baha’u’llah was buried in a simple room in a house next to the Mansion of Bahji, turning it into the holiest place on earth for Baha’is and making it the place where Baha’is the world over turn towards in prayer, and come from all corners of the earth to pay their respects as pilgrims.
As I join fellow Baha’is around the world in commemorating the Ascension of Baha’u’llah, I am reminded of the fortune we as Baha’is have in knowing that Baha’u’llah’s successorship was made so explicit, and as a result, this has protected us from schisms. Compared to the passing of other Messengers of God, this is what has made the Baha’i Faith truly unique: fhe fact that for the first time in history, the founder of a world religion had made His successorship explicitly clear to His followers.
This concept of successorship is known to Baha’is as the “Covenant of Baha’u’llah” or the “Lesser Covenant” (not be confused with the “Greater Covenant“), and it concerns the successorship of authority within the religion after the Messenger dies. The Covenant of Baha’u’llah has been fundamental in keeping the followers of Baha’u’llah from fragmenting into different sects or schisms, therefore enabling Baha’is to remain united around one central authority.
Before His passing, Baha’u’llah had given His eldest son Abdu’l-Baha a sealed envelope which was to be opened after His passing in the presence of others. Shoghi Effendi explains the event and its significance perfectly in God Passes By:
To direct and canalize these forces let loose by this Heaven-sent process, and to insure their harmonious and continuous operation after His ascension, an instrument divinely ordained, invested with indisputable authority, organically linked with the Author of the Revelation Himself, was clearly indispensable. That instrument Baha’u’llah had expressly provided through the institution of the Covenant, an institution which He had firmly established prior to His ascension. This same Covenant He had anticipated in His Kitab-i-Aqdas, had alluded to it as He bade His last farewell to the members of His family, who had been summoned to His bed-side, in the days immediately preceding His ascension, and had incorporated it in a special document which He designated as “the Book of My Covenant,” and which He entrusted, during His last illness, to His eldest son Abdu’l-Baha.
Written entirely in His own hand; unsealed, on the ninth day after His ascension in the presence of nine witnesses chosen from amongst His companions and members of His Family; read subsequently, on the afternoon of that same day, before a large company assembled in His Most Holy Tomb, including His sons, some of the Bab’s kinsmen, pilgrims and resident believers, this unique and epoch-making Document, designated by Baha’u’llah as His “Most Great Tablet”, and alluded to by Him as the “Crimson Book” in His “Epistle to the Son of the Wolf,” can find no parallel in the Scriptures of any previous Dispensation, not excluding that of the Bab Himself. For nowhere in the books pertaining to any of the world’s religious systems, not even among the writings of the Author of the Babi Revelation, do we find any single document establishing a Covenant endowed with an authority comparable to the Covenant which Baha’u’llah had Himself instituted.1
The Book of the Covenant (known in Arabic as the Kitab-i-Ahd), explicitly assigned Abdu’l-Baha as Baha’u’llah’s successor:
The Will of the divine Testator is this: It is incumbent upon the Aghsan, the Afnan and My Kindred to turn, one and all, their faces towards the Most Mighty Branch. Consider that which We have revealed in Our Most Holy Book: ‘When the ocean of My presence hath ebbed and the Book of My Revelation is ended, turn your faces toward Him Whom God hath purposed, Who hath branched from this Ancient Root.’ The object of this sacred verse is none other except the Most Mighty Branch [Abdu’l-Baha]. Thus have We graciously revealed unto you Our potent Will, and I am verily the Gracious, the All-Powerful. Verily God hath ordained the station of the Greater Branch [Muhammad Ali] to be beneath that of the Most Great Branch [Abdu’l-Baha]. He is in truth the Ordainer, the All-Wise. We have chosen ‘the Greater’ after ‘the Most Great’, as decreed by Him Who is the All-Knowing, the All-Informed.2
As I join my fellow Baha’i brothers and sisters around the world to commemorate the Ascension of Baha’u’llah, and I reflect on the significance of this special holy day and feel grateful for the Covenant of Baha’u’llah, I think of the message sent by Abdu’l-Baha shortly after Baha’u’llah’s passing, and the task we’ve been given:
The Sun of Truth, that Most Great Light, hath set upon the horizon of the world to rise with deathless splendour over the Realm of the Limitless. In His Most Holy Book He calleth the firm and steadfast of His friends: ‘Be not dismayed, O peoples of the world, when the day-star of My beauty is set, and the heaven of My tabernacle is concealed from your eyes. Arise to further My Cause, and to exalt My Word amongst men.’3