Celebrating 100 years of Baha’i connections with Philly

In rare celebration by a normally quiet religion, followers of Baha’i will gather at Temple University Saturday to remember the 100th anniversary of the arrival of an important teacher.

In 1912, an Iranian named Abdu’l-Bahá arrived in Philadelphia at the invitation of the founder of Temple University, Dr. Russell Conwell. As the leader of the Baha’i faith and son of its founder, Abdu’l-Bahá had spent most of his 68 years in prison. His speaking tour of the United States helped spread the religion globally.

“The Baha’i faith is a very young religion,” said Hova Tanagar, a believer in Berwyn. “One-hundred years is huge for Baha’i. The Baha’i faith isn’t that much older than that.”

The religion teaches that the central figures of all major world religions — including Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, and Buddha — were prophets of a universal spirituality.

The religion has no official hierarchy. Tanagar says there are fewer than 1,000 followers in the Philadelphia region. They worship in one anther’s homes and occasionally at a Baha’i center in Wynnefield.

The religion was born in ran, and is associated with Islamic culture. It emerged when Iran was in tumult, culturally and politically. Just as Iran, then known as Persia, was emerging from its constitutional revolution and establishing a parliamentary political system, Abdu’l-Bahá arrived in the U.S. to preach an alternative to Islam. It was seen as a threat.

Baha’i teaches that Muhammad is not the final prophet, which is counter to the Iranian Shi’a government. That government repressed Baha’i and continues to do so today, sometimes violently. Tanagar says her cousin was executed in Iran for studying Baha’i.

“Historically it was seen as both threatening and heretical,” said Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet, a University of Pennsylvania professor and author of a forthcoming book about U.S.-Iranian relations. “It had this element of socio-political revolt and reform, which spoke to the uncertainties and failings of the Iranian government.”

The celebration this weekend will take place in the very building Abdul-Baha spoke at 100 years ago — the Baptist Temple at Temple University, recently restored as the Temple Performing Arts Center.

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