Who are the prophets?

The Bahá'í teachings hold that the motive force in all human development is the coming of the Manifestations or Prophets of God. There can be little disagreement that human history is strongly influenced by the Founders of the world's great religions. The powerful impact on civilization of Jesus Christ, Buddha, Moses, or Muhammad is seen not only in the cultural forms and value systems which arise from Their works and teachings, but is also reflected in the effects that the example of Their lives has on humankind. Even those who have not been believers or followers have nevertheless acknowledged the profound influence of these figures on individuals and on humanity's collective life.

The realization of the extraordinary impact on human history of the Founders of the major religions naturally leads to the philosophical question of their exact nature. This is one of the most controversial of all questions in the philosophy of religion, and many different answers have been given. On the one hand, the religious Founders have been viewed as human philosophers or great thinkers who have perhaps gone further or studied more profoundly than other philosophers of their age. On the other hand, They have been declared to be God or the incarnation of God. There have also been a multitude of theories that fall somewhere between these two extremes.2 It is thus not surprising that the Bahá'í writings deal extensively with this subject, which lies so close to the heart of religion. One of Bahá'u'lláh's major works, the Kitab-i-Iqan, (Book of Certitude), sets out in some detail the Bahá'í concept of the nature of the Manifestations of God. According to Bahá'u'lláh, all of the Manifestations of God have the same metaphysical nature and the same spiritual stature. There is absolute equality among Them. No one of Them is superior to another. Speaking of the Manifestations, He wrote: 

These sanctified Mirrors, these Day Springs of ancient glory, are, one and all, the Exponents on earth of Him Who is the central Orb of the universe, its Essence and ultimate Purpose. From Him proceed their knowledge and power; from Him is derived their sovereignty... By the revelation of these Gems of Divine virtue all the names and attributes of God, such as knowledge and power, sovereignty and dominion, mercy and wisdom, glory, bounty, and grace, are made manifest. These attributes of God are not, and have never been, vouchsafed specially unto certain Prophets, and withheld from others... That a certain attribute of God hath not been outwardly manifested by these Essences of Detachment doth in no wise imply that they who are the Day Springs of God's attributes and the Treasuries of His holy names did not actually possess it.3 

Bahá'u'lláh explained that the differences which exist between the teachings of the various Manifestations of God are not due to any differences in stature or level of importance, but only to the varying needs and capacities of the civilizations to which They appeared: 

These ... mighty systems, have proceeded from one Source, and are the rays of one Light. That they differ one from another is to be attributed to the varying requirements of the ages in which they were promulgated.4 

However, the Bahá'í doctrine of the oneness of the Manifestations does not mean that the same individual soul is born again in different physical bodies. Moses, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and Bahá'u'lláh were all different personalities, separate individual realities. Their oneness lies in the fact that Each manifested and revealed the qualities and attributes of God to the same degree: the spirit of God which dwelled within any one of Them was identical to that which dwelled in the others.

Bahá'u'lláh offered an analogy to explain the relationship between the different Manifestations, and the relationship between each Manifestation and God. In this analogy, God is likened to the sun because He is the unique source of life in the universe in the same way that the physical sun is the unique source of all physical life on earth. The spirit and attributes of God are the rays of this sun and the individual Manifestation is like a perfect mirror. If there are several mirrors all turned toward the same sun, that unique sun is reflected in each mirror. Yet the individual mirrors are different, each having been made in its own form and distinct from any other. In the same way, each Manifestation is a distinct individual being, but the spirit and attributes of God reflected in Each are the same. The analogy of the sun and the mirrors enables us to understand the Bahá'í interpretation of the traditional notion of the "return" or "reappearance" of former Manifestations. The theme of return is found in the sacred scriptures all the major religions, often couched in highly symbolic language. Western readers will be most familiar with the Christian expectation of the return or "Second Coming" of Christ, based on certain passages of the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. 
Bahá'u'lláh explains that the return alluded to in former scriptures is the return of the attributes and spirit of God in the mirror of another Manifestation, not the return of the same human personality:

"It is clear and evident ... that all the Prophets are the Temples of the Cause of God, Who have appeared clothed in divers attire. If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold Them all abiding in the same tabernacle, soaring in the same heaven, seated upon the same throne, uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith... Wherefore, should one of these Manifestations of Holiness proclaim saying: 'I am the return of all the Prophets,' He, verily, speaketh the truth. In like manner, in every subsequent Revelation, the return of the former Revelation is a fact, the truth of which is firmly established..."6 

In this way, Bahá'í's consider that the Manifestation Bahá'u'lláh fulfills the promise of the return of Christ even though Bahá'u'lláh and Jesus have distinct individual souls and therefore distinct human personalities. The Manifestations represent a level of existence intermediate between God and humanity. Just as humans are superior to the animal because they possess capacities that the animal does not (i.e., the rational and intuitive capacities of the nonmaterial soul), so the Manifestations possess capacities which ordinary humans lack. It is not a difference in degree, but rather a difference in kind which distinguishes Them from other. The Manifestations are not simply great human thinkers, or philosophers, with a greater understanding or knowledge than others. They are, by their very nature, superior to those who do not possess a similar capacity. 

The Bahá'í teachings emphasize that human beings have a dual nature: the physical body, which is composed of elements and which functions according to the same principles as an animal's body; and the nonmaterial rational and immortal human soul. The Manifestations, Bahá'u'lláh taught, also have these two natures, but in addition They possess a third nature unique to Their station: the capacity to receive divine revelation and to transmit it infallibly to humanity:

Know that the Holy manifestations, though they have the degrees of endless perfections, yet, speaking generally, have only three stations. The first station is the physical; the second station is the human, which is that of the rational soul; the third is that of the divine appearance and the heavenly splendor. The physical station is phenomenal; it is composed of elements, and necessarily everything that is composed is subject to decomposition... The second is the station of the rational soul, which is the human reality. This also is phenomenal, and the Holy Manifestations share it with all mankind... The spirit of man has a beginning, but it has no end; it continues eternally....The third station is that of the divine appearance and heavenly splendor: it is the Word of God, the Eternal Bounty, the Holy Spirit. It has neither beginning nor end....the reality of prophethood, which is the Word of God and the perfect state of manifestation, did not have any beginning and will not have any end; its rising is different from all others and is like that of the sun.7 

The Manifestation then, is not simply an ordinary person whom God chooses at some point in His natural lifetime to be His messenger. Rather, the Manifestation is a special Being, having a unique relationship to God and sent by Him from the spiritual world as an instrument of divine revelation. Even though the individual soul of the Manifestation had a phenomenal beginning, it nevertheless existed in the spiritual world prior to physical birth in this life. The immortal souls of ordinary men, on the other hand, have no such preexistence, but come into existence at the moment of human conception. Of the preexistence of the souls of the Manifestations, Shoghi Effendi said:
The Prophets, unlike us, are pre-existent. The soul of Christ existed in the spiritual world before His birth in this world. We cannot imagine what that world is like, so words are inadequate to picture His state of being.9 

The Manifestation has the awareness of His reality and identity even from childhood, though He may not begin His mission of openly teaching and instructing others until later in life. Because They are the direct recipients of revelation from God, the Manifestations possess absolute knowledge of the realities of life. This innate, divinely revealed knowledge alone enables Them to formulate teachings and laws that correspond to human needs and conditions at a given time in history: 

Since the Sanctified Realities, the supreme Manifestations of God, surround the essence and qualities of the creatures, transcend and contain existing realities and understand all things, therefore Their knowledge is divine knowledge, and not acquired-that is to say, it is a holy bounty, it is a divine revelation... the supreme Manifestations of God are aware of the reality of the mysteries of beings. Therefore They establish laws which are suitable and adapted to the state of the world of man, for religion is the essential connection which proceeds from the realities of things... [T]he supreme Manifestations of God ... understand this essential connection, and by this knowledge establish the Law of God.10

Consequently, Bahá'ís consider philosophers, reformers, saints, mystics, and founders of humanitarian movements as ordinary people. In many cases they may have been inspired by God. Revelation, however, is the endowment of the Manifestations alone, and it is the ultimate generating force of all human progress.


  1. Adapted from William S. Hatcher and J. Douglas Martin, The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985), pp. 115-123. 
  2. An objective discussion of this fundamental question of the nature of what Bahá'ís refer to as the Manifestation of God is made more difficult by traditional loyalties. Orthodox followers of each Manifestation have tended to claim some kind of uniqueness or superiority for the Founder of their faith. For example, many Christians view Jesus Christ as God incarnate, consider Moses to be inferior Him in some way, and regard Muhammad as an imposter. A majority of orthodox Jews see Moses as the human vehicle through which the Law of God was transmitted to humanity and consider Jesus Christ to be a false prophet. Muslims consider both Moses and Jesus Christ to be valid prophets, but the majority reject the Buddha and the Founders of other major faiths. For them, Muhammad was the last prophet whom God will send to man, and revelation of the Divine Will ended with the Qur'an.
  3. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, 2d rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976), pp. 47-48. 
  4. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings, pp. 287-88. 
  5. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings, pp.59-60. 
  6. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings, p. 52. 
  7. `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, 3d ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981), pp. 151-52. 
  8. `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 154. 
  9. Shoghi Effendi, High Endeavors, Messages to Alaska (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Alaska, 1976), p. 71. 
  10. `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pp. 157-59. 
  11. `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, pp. 230-31. 
  12. `Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 164.