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The Revelation of Baha’u’llah redefines everything, including how history is charted and mapped. The sacred history of the Faith was (and will continue to be) delineated into cycles, ages, epochs and stages as explained by Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. This conception of time is both linear and cyclical, and in this article, I’ve attempted to briefly outline how Baha’i history is charted.
What is a cycle?
Abdu’l-Baha explained that time is comprised of Universal Cycles, that can span hundreds of thousands (possibly millions!) of years – Abdu’l-Baha’s exact words are that they can span “innumerable and incalculable periods and epochs.” 1 Within each Universal Cycle, many Manifestations of God appear. Each has a revelation that, like the sun, rises, reaches a zenith, and then declines. When a revelation no longer serves the needs of humanity, a new Manifestation of God appears. 2
Abdu’l-Baha also explains how at the very heart of each Universal Cycle there appears a “great and universal Manifestation” – all the Manifestations that came prior are in preparation for Their advent and all the Manifestations who appear after fall under the shadow of Their glory. The Adamic cycle, or Prophetic cycle, began 6,000 years ago and ended with the dispensation of Muhammad. Baha’u’llah is a great and universal Manifestation and the Baha’i cycle, or the Cycle of Fulfilment, began with the coming of His Herald, the Bab and with His own advent. The Baha’i cycle will last five hundred thousand years and will include many subsequent Manifestations of God. 3
But the Baha’i cycle is not the same as the Baha’i Dispensation. When a new Manifestation of God arrives, the Baha’i Dispensation will end but the cycle will continue until another great and universal Manifestation arrives. If the individual revelations can be likened to a day, cycles like the Adamic cycle or the Baha’i cycle can be likened to a seasons like spring or fall, with the universal Manifestation as the summer. Several of these cycles make up a Universal Cycle. So in a sense there are cycles within cycles – which are also within cycles! If the dispensations can be compared to days, and if the cycle like the Adamic cycle can be compared to a season, then the Universal Cycles contain years.
Moojan Momen, a Baha’i scholar, notes that although time is described as cyclical, it doesn’t mean growing, maturing, and then declining and returning to the same beginning point – there is progress! With each Manifestation of God, we develop socially and spiritually. 4 I like to think of this progressing circular movement of time like a spring or coil.
What are ages?
The Baha’i Era, which includes the dispensations of both the Bab and Baha’u’llah, has been divided into three ages:
- the Primitive, Apostolic, or Heroic Age began with the Declaration of the Bab in 1844 and ended with the passing of Abdu’l-Baha;
- the Iron, or Formative Age, is what we are in right now,
- and the Golden Age, which the Guardian tells us “we can as yet but dimly visualize.” 5
What are epochs?
Each of these ages is further divided into epochs:
The Heroic Age is divided into three epochs, each corresponding to the ministries of the Bab, Baha’u’llah, and Abdu’l-Baha – although Shoghi Effendi also writes that the epoch of the Master’s ministry concluded “more particularly” with the passing of the Greatest Holy Leaf, Bahiyyih Khanum. 4
No one so masterfully describes these three epochs than Shoghi Effendi in his seminal history, God Passes By. A friend once told me that if you have a question about the history of the Faith, particularly regarding those three epochs, you’ll very often find your answer in that book.
The Iron Age has thus far been divided into 5 epochs:
a) First Epoch (1921-1946): This period of history includes how the Guardian orchestrated the set up of the Administrative Order.
b) Second (1946-1963): This period is marked by the Global Spread of the Faith and concludes with the election of the Universal House of Justice.
c) Third (1963-1986): Momen writes that this epoch “was characterized by the emergence of the Baha’i Faith from obscurity and the initiation of social and economic development plans.” 4
d) Fourth (1986-2001): This epoch encapsulates the maturation of the Institutions of the Faith and ended with the international conference of Counsellors and Auxiliary Board Members that inaugurated the opening of the International Teaching Centre.
e) In a letter to the Baha’is of the World dated 16 January 2001, the Universal House of Justice described that conference and wrote:
As the time for the Conference drew near, there were signs that the Faith had arrived at a point in its development beyond which a new horizon opens before us. Such intimations were communicated in our report last Ridvan of the change in culture of the Baha’i community as training institutes emerged, as the construction projects on Mount Carmel approached their completion, and as the internal processes of institutional consolidation and the external processes towards world unity became more fully synchronized. They were elaborated in the message we addressed to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors a few days ago. But the extraordinary dynamics at work throughout the Conference crystallized these indications into a recognizable reality. With a spirit of exultation we are moved to announce to you: the Faith of Baha’u’llah now enters the fifth epoch of its Formative Age.
How are the epochs divided?
Each epoch is divided by a series of stages, or plans. To describe each plan is beyond the limitations of this brief blog post but we are currently in the third stage of the 5th epoch – each stage has thus far consisted of a five year plan.
I love that the Baha’i Faith is always cognizant of the importance of learning from its history and analyzing what has already occurred – whether it’s gaining inspiration and encouragement from studying The Dawnbreakers or consulting on what happened in your cluster in the last three months. But we don’t dwell on the past to excess: Baha’is are also very focused on the plan, on the work ahead, and a glimmering goal in sight.
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