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In the 2021 Ridvan message to the Baha’is of the world, the Universal House of Justice joyfully announced that we are now entering the 3rd epoch of the Divine Plan of Abdu’l-Baha. This is such exciting news, but I have to admit I needed to refresh my understanding of how Baha’i history is charted in order to better comprehend the significance of what the Universal House of Justice was announcing. In this article, I provide a brief overview of my understanding of how time and development is mapped in cycles, ages, epochs, and stages or plans, and where we currently stand in the unfolding of history. I think the best place to start is with the longest unit of time, a cycle, and to work our way down to epochs.
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
When a new Manifestation of God arrives, the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah (or Baha’i Dispensation) will end but the Baha’i 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 season 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. 2 I like to think of this progressing circular movement of time like a sideways spring or coil.
What are ages?
The Baha’i Era, which includes the Dispensations of both the Bab and Baha’u’llah (or the Babi Dispensation and the Baha’i Dispensation respectively), 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 in 1921;
- 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.” 4
What are epochs?
Each of these ages is further divided into epochs. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, an epoch is “an event or a time marked by an event that begins a new period or development”. It can also be “an extended period of time usually characterized by a distinctive development or by a memorable series of events”. 5
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 with the passing of the Greatest Holy Leaf, Bahiyyih Khanum. 6
The Formative 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.” 7
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 that “the Faith of Baha’u’llah now enters the fifth epoch of its Formative Age”.
In the recent Ridvan message, the Universal House of Justice writes:
Many will be familiar with how the Guardian divided the Ages of the Faith into consecutive epochs; the fifth epoch of the Formative Age began in 2001. Less well known is that the Guardian also made specific reference to there being epochs of the Divine Plan, and stages within those epochs. Held in abeyance for two decades while local and national organs of the Administrative Order were being raised up and strengthened, the Divine Plan conceived by Abdu’l-Baha was formally inaugurated in 1937 with the commencement of the first stage of its first epoch: the Seven Year Plan assigned by the Guardian to the North American Baha’i community. This first epoch closed after the conclusion of the Ten Year Crusade in 1963, which had resulted in the banner of the Faith being planted across the world. The opening stage of the second epoch was the first Nine Year Plan, and no less than ten Plans have followed in its wake, Plans that have ranged in duration from twelve months to seven years. At the dawn of this second epoch, the Baha’i world was already witnessing the earliest beginnings of that entry into the Faith by troops that had been foreseen by the Author of the Divine Plan; in the succeeding decades, generations of devoted believers within the community of the Greatest Name have laboured in the Divine Vineyard to cultivate the conditions required for sustained, large-scale growth. And at this glorious season of Ridvan, how abundant are the fruits of those labours! The phenomenon of sizeable numbers swelling the activities of the community, catching the spark of faith and swiftly arising to serve at the leading edge of the Plan has moved from being a forecast sustained by faith to a recurring reality. Such a pronounced and demonstrable advance demands to be marked in the annals of the Cause. With elated hearts, we announce that the third epoch of the Master’s Divine Plan has begun. Stage by stage, epoch after epoch shall His Plan unfold, until the light of the Kingdom illumines every heart. 8
My humble understanding of this is that the ages of the Baha’i Era are divided into epochs, but the Divine Plan of Abdu’l-Baha is also divided into epochs and we are now entering the third epoch of the Divine Plan, while still living in the 5th epoch of the Formative Age.
How are the epochs divided?
Each epoch is divided by a series of stages, or plans, as we have seen in the quotation from the 2021 Ridvan message. With the conclusion of the Five Year Plan, we have just launched the One Year Plan, which will be followed by a Nine Year Plan.
What’s interesting to note is that cycles, ages, epochs and plans or stages is one framework that Baha’is use to mark time and development, and the other way of charting time is with the Baha’i calendar (you can read about it in this article “The Badi (Baha’i) Calendar: An Overview”).
If you’d like to read the 2021 Ridvan message in full, you can find it here on the Baha’i Reference Library: Ridvan 2021 – To the Baha’is of the World
You can also listen to an audio reading of it here on Baha’i Blog’s YouTube channel: Ridvan Message 2021
- Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p.160
- Mojan Momen, “Ages and Cycles”, www.baha-library.com
- www.bahakipedia.org, “Progressive Revelation”
- Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 189
- Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/epoch
- Mojan Momen, “Ages and Cycles”, www.baha-library.com
- Ridvan 2021 message to the Baha’is of the world from the Universal House of Justice
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