Take a quick poll and ask people to list some of the world’s great holy cities, and they will surely name Jerusalem, Rome, and Mecca. Maybe Medina, Constantinople, Varanasi, Lhasa, or Kyoto. Someone who really knows Islam may mention Karbala and Qom. Someone may throw in Salt Lake City. (And, of course, if you ask it in South Carolina, someone will surely, smilingly, add Charleston.)
But Tehran? On a terrorism watch list, maybe—but surely not on most people’s list of holy cities.
For Americans who remember, Tehran is the site of the 1979 hostage crisis, the place where Jimmy Carter’s presidency slowly bled out, the capital city of “Death to America.” For those who can still bring themselves to keep up with the news, Tehran has been a prime instigator of violence and instability in Iraq and now in Syria, the subject of ongoing international negotiations to keep nuclear weapons capability out of the hands of a regime that seems to specialize in troublemaking.
But for members of the Bahá’í Faith, Tehran is much more. It is the city where Bahá’u’lláh, the Mouthpiece of God for humanity’s coming of age, first drew breath nearly 200 years ago. Beneath the chaos and oppression that characterize it today, Tehran is, indeed, a holy city.
Today, when some of the Bahá’ís in Florence, South Carolina, gathered to commemorate the anniversary of the Birth of Bahá’u’lláh, the scriptures we read consisted mostly of verses in which He extols the city of His birth. Bahá’u’lláh calls Tehran “the mother of the world and the fountain of light unto all its peoples.” In His eyes, it is “the source of the joy of all mankind,” a “blest and sacred land,” a “holy and shining city,” a “city in which the sweet savors of reunion have breathed, which have caused the sincere lovers of God to draw nigh unto Him, and to gain access to the Habitation of holiness and beauty.”
Bahá’u’lláh knew all too well the city’s outward degradation. He was imprisoned and tortured there, and in His own lifetime many of His followers in the Iranian capital faced persecution and death. Poetically addressing the city itself, He laments: “How vast the number of those men and women, those victims of tyranny, that have, within thy walls, laid down their lives in the path of God, and been buried beneath thy dust with such cruelty as to cause every honored servant of God to bemoan their plight.” The situation is little changed today, when Bahá’ís in Tehran and countless other Iranian cities and towns face imprisonment, expulsion from work and school, harassment, sexual assault, and death for their religious beliefs.
But Bahá’u’lláh could also see with divine eyes into the future, and He predicted a complete transformation in Tehran’s circumstances: “Erelong will the state of affairs within thee be changed,” He assures the city, “and the reins of power fall into the hands of the people.… Rest thou assured in the gracious favor of thy Lord. The eye of His loving-kindness shall everlastingly be directed towards thee. The day is approaching when thy agitation will have been transmuted into peace and quiet calm. Thus hath it been decreed in the wondrous Book.”
These days, it does take a certain kind of eyes to see what Bahá’u’lláh saw of the future of His hometown—indeed, to have any faith at all in His prescriptions for the unification and pacification of the whole human race. In fact, the global scene looks in some ways as grim as ever, with a new Cold War on the horizon and unprecedented health and environmental crises afflicting the world. Just on the morning of our Holy Day observance, for instance, NATO announced that Russia is indeed invading the Ukraine, the Russians announced their own plan to build nuclear power plants in Iran, health officials announced a new outbreak of the Ebola virus in Mali, and the US and China announced a climate change deal that may or may not prove to stave off global catastrophe.
But on the same morning, a probe from Earth landed on a comet, the first time humanity had reached out to touch this kind of celestial body. The successful Rosetta mission, a project of the European Space Agency, happened to follow the commemoration, just a few days earlier, of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was a poignant coincidence. Only a quarter-century before, Europe seemed permanently divided; now, a continent united politically, economically, and culturally more than at any time since the fall of Rome made an important mark in the story of humanity’s exploration of the heavens.
It was an important reminder of the great principle of change at the heart of Bahá’u’lláh’s teaching. There are profound historical forces at work in the world today. Every individual has the choice to align his or her life with the forces that tend toward construction or the ones that tend toward destruction. And things can change dramatically very, very quickly.
Remember that the next time you think about Tehran.