In 1844 in a direct challenge to the Shiite Moslem clergy of Iran who hold that Mohammed was the last of a series of prophets going all the way back to Adam, the Shiraz merchant Seyyed Mohammed said he was a prophet equal to Mohammed, that another greater prophet would follow because divine revelation is an ongoing process and that the Koran should be interpreted allegorically.
According to the Bahai faith, Christianity, Judaism and Islam are all the result of divine revelation. Emphasizing the unity of humanity, the religion advocates the establishment of a world government.
After Seyyed Mohammed's execution, his teachings were propagated by a nobleman named Baha'u'llah, who gained the following of thousands before he was expelled from Iran. He died in the city of Akko, generally known as Acre, then in the Ottoman Empire but now in Israel. The faith's world center is in Haifa, Israel, which Bahais believe to be the reason for the Shiite Moslem clergy's charges of Zionism.
In the United States the religion's beginnings date back to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago where its tenets were first publicized to Americans. The faith's national headquarters is the Bahai House of Worship on Lake Michigan in Chicago.
The 100,000 American Bahais are scattered across the United States in more than 7,400 localities from rural hamlets in South Carolina to Los Angeles. They are organized into 1,600 communities run by local governing bodies called assemblies. In the Washington area there are about 1,000 Bahais and their assembly meets at their center at 16th and Montague streets in Northwest Washington.
Many Bahai leaders believe the Shiite clergy's hatred for their religion stems from the fact that Bahais believe clergy are not necessary. "I think that it is the Bahai abrogation of the clergy in its own religion; that is to say, all of a sudden, it became clear to the people that you can actuallly get to heaven without your priest," Kazemzadeh said at a congressional hearing in 1982.
"By envisioning a federation of nations under a world government, the Bahai faith shatters Shiite notions of exclusiveness and monopolistic possession of power," said California state judge James Nelson, chairman of the Bahai National Spiritual Assembly in the United States.
Another Bahai teaching that has incurred the wrath of the Shiite clergy is the idea that men and women are equal. And since Bahai marriages are not legally recognized in Iran, the Moslem clergy accuse the women of prostitution.