You Gotta Know These Founders of Religious Traditions
- Abraham was a patriarch common to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, which are collectively known as the Abrahamic religions. Unlike the other people in this article, Abraham is not regarded as a historical figure in secular studies. He is the subject of the Biblical narrative of the covenant of the pieces, in which God promises that his descendants would inherit the Promised Land of Canaan/Israel; this tradition is the basis for the view that the Jewish people are God’s chosen people. In Islam, Abraham (Ibrahim) is considered a major link in the chain of prophets stretching from Adam to Muhammad. In Christianity, he is considered an exemplar of faith because of his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at God’s command.
- Zoroaster or Zarathustra (second millennium BC) was an ancient Persian prophet who founded the dualistic religion Zoroastrianism around the 10th century BC. He is said to have had a revelation in which he saw a being who taught him about two primal spirits: a benevolent creator named Ahura Mazda and a malevolent spirit named Angra Mainyu or Ahriman. Zoroaster also learned about the concepts of asha and druj, roughly equivalent to “truth” and “falsehood,” and thereafter chose to dedicate his life to promoting asha.
- Mahavira (fifth or sixth century BC) was the founder of modern Jainism. He is regarded as the twenty-fourth tirthankara, or spiritual teacher, who revived and synthesized ancient Jain traditions. His mother, Trishala, is said to have had either fourteen or sixteen auspicious dreams before his birth. In his forties, Mahavira is said to have achieved Kevala Jnana, or infinite knowledge, while meditating under a salah tree. He subsequently taught a number of principles, including ahimsa, the prohibition of violence against living beings of any kind.
- Siddhartha Gautama (fifth or sixth century BC), also known as the Buddha, was the founder of Buddhism. His mother Maya is said to have dreamt that a six-tusked elephant entered her right side, ten months before she gave birth to Siddhartha in Lumbini. The future Buddha grew up in a palace, but he adopted an ascetic lifestyle after he encountered a sick man, a corpse, and an ascetic outside his father’s court. Like Mahavira, the Buddha is said to have attained enlightenment while meditating under a tree—in this case, the Bodhi tree. He learned the Four Noble Truths, which hold that humans are kept in samsara, the endless cycle of death and rebirth, by our attachment to impermanent things, and that the cycle can be ended by attaining nirvana.
- Confucius (551–479 BC) was a Chinese philosopher whose teachings are the basis for Confucianism, a tradition sometimes described as a philosophy and sometimes as a religion. Confucius’s disciples organized his teachings into the Analects. He emphasized such ideas as li (decorum and proper behavior) and ren (benevolence or humaneness). He taught that disorder often arose from the failure to call things by their proper names, so he advocated the rectification of names. His followers developed his teachings in different directions; the most famous of them, Mencius, emphasized the innate goodness of human beings.
- Muhammad (c. AD 570–632) was a prophet who founded Islam. Born in Mecca in the Year of the Elephant, he is said to have been visited by the angel Jibril (or Gabriel) in the cave of Hira, where Jibril revealed the Qur’an to him. During the Night Journey, Muhammad is said to have traveled on the horse Buraq to “the farthest mosque” and to have visited heaven. Because of plots against him in Mecca, Muhammad traveled from Mecca to Medina along with his followers and established the Islamic community there. When war broke out between his followers and the people of Mecca, he served as a military commander, winning several engagements, including the Battle of Badr. His death led to disputes among his followers as to whether Abu Bakr or Ali was his true successor.
- Guru Nanak (1469–1539) was the founder of Sikhism and the first of the ten gurus of Sikhism. Collections of his hymns formed the original basis for the Guru Granth Sahib, the primary scripture of Sikhism, which is regarded as the eleventh guru. Many miracle stories about Guru Nanak’s life are told in his biographies, which are collectively known as Janamsakhis. According to one such story, when he died, his body disappeared and was replaced with flowers, which were divided among Hindus and Muslims. According to another such story, he slept with his feet facing the Kaaba; when Muslims tried to move them away, the Kaaba moved so that his feet were still facing it.
- Joseph Smith (1805–1844) was the founder of Mormonism (many of whose followers now call themselves Latter-Day Saints). He is said to have had a vision in which the angel Moroni directed him to a set of golden plates, from which he claimed to have translated the Book of Mormon, the founding scripture of Mormonism. Based on Ezekiel’s vision of a New Jerusalem, he hoped to establish a latter-day Zion in America. Smith initially planned to establish his Zion in Independence, Missouri, but his followers were driven out of the area and moved to Nauvoo, Illinois. When the Nauvoo Expositor criticized him for his teachings on polygamy and other matters, he had the press destroyed and was charged with inciting a riot; while awaiting trial, he was killed by a mob.
- Bahá’u’lláh (1817–1892) was the founder of the Bahá’í faith. He was a follower of the Báb, the founder of a predecessor of Bahá’í called Bábism. At the Garden of Ridvan, Bahá’u’lláh declared himself to be the fulfillment of the Báb’s prophecy about “he whom God shall make manifest.” He was exiled to the outer reaches of the Ottoman Empire for fear that his teachings would cause unrest. He was later imprisoned in Acre (in what is now Israel), where he spent much of his time writing texts such as the Kitab-i-Aqdas (literally, “the book of laws”). Bahá’u’lláh’s other books include The Book of Certitude and Epistle to the Son of the Wolf.
- Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910) was the founder of Christian Science. Sickly for much of her life, she sought treatment from many different healers, including a mesmerist and magnetic healer named Phineas Quimby. This experience inspired Eddy to write a book titled Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures, in which she equated God with the mind and argued that sickness is spiritual, not material. Eddy believed that mental techniques could be used not only for healing, but also to harm people, which she termed “malicious animal magnetism.” She founded the Christian Science Monitor and laid out guidelines for her church in the Manual of the Mother Church, which established Christian Science reading rooms.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Will Nediger.