Provisions for Sexuality in the Kitab-i-Aqdas in the Context of Late Nineteenth Century Sexual Ideologies
If we bracket the issues of the facticity of God or revelation and simply accept them as working hypotheses, then what would we posit to be happening socio-culturally at the inception of a new religion arising from a revelation? Well, just as the saying has it that one person and God constitute a majority, so God and a revelator must constitute a unique socio- cultural entity that is distinct from the society to which the revelation is addressed. Thus, the impact of the revelatory process in that society can be reasonably conceptualized as an acculturative interaction between it and revelation.
Acculturative processes are always bidirectional. When two socio-cultural systems come into contact they effect one another and both must accommodate to the interactive process. In the case of a revelatory event, then, if we view it as contact between two cultures, the culture of God and the revelator and the culture of the receiving society, we would expect that not only would the revelation have an effect on the receiving society but that the society would have an effect on the revelation. No matter how transcendent our idea of God may be, nor how initiatory of a new social order we may expect revelation to be, the comprehensibility and utility of that revelation would be dependent on its adapting already existing socio-cultural materials and using them as a springboard from which to launch change. The understanding of a claimed revelation, then, whether we accept the claim or not, requires us to understand how it uses the ideological materials provided by its host society.
In the case of what is claimed as the Bahá'í revelation we have a complex set of socio-cultural interactions. Although it is customary to refer to the Bahá'í Faith as being in origin a "Persian" religion and to link its corpus of revealed text to "Persian" culture, this is an over simplified view. Apart from the fact that nineteenth century Iran was both polyglot and multicultural, it should be borne in mind that the actual corpus of text that presents the revelation was primarily produced outside Iran. Also, the majority of the life of the revelator, Bahá'u'lláh, was spent outside Iran, and (despite cultural contact with that country through correspondence, individuals who traveled to and fro, and the small Persian community resident around him) was spent not in an Iranian cultural context but in the polyglot, multicultural context of the Ottoman Eastern Mediterranean. (These circumstances were even more pronounced in the case of his son and successor, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, who left Iran at the age of nine, was polylingual, and moved easily in a broad range of both Eastern and Western cultural contexts.)
Thus, when we wish to look at the acculturation processes involved with the Bahá'í revelation we need to look further than Qajar Iran and this would seem especially so when the revelation is linguistically distanced from the generality of members of that culture by being delivered in Arabic.
In this paper, I wish to try to explicate the parameters of the provisions in the Kitab-i-Aqdas regarding sexuality. In doing this I am taking the author at his word when he says "Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws" (5); and assuming that rather than constituting a Bahá'í shariah the intent of the Aqdas is to use the available socio-cultural constructs, embedded as they are in the denotative and connotative aspects of the language used, in a way that provides a key to a new order of socio- cultural arrangements that is not bounded by or limited to the culture(s) that first received the text.
This discussion will not focus so much on behavior as on the cultural ideals by which behavior is constrained and judged. The Aqdas and its associated texts were written in the 1870s and 1880s in a socio-cultural context that cannot simply be labelled "islamic." Although Bahá'u'lláh was confined to the Akka/Haifa area, this was centrally placed in a broader geographic region noted for a series of cultural ideals related to sexuality that are generally encompassed under the rubric "Mediterranean culture." These cultural ideals exist in a dialectical relationship with each of the religions of the region. That is, in specific circumstances the determining factors in preferred and actual behavior may be based in a religious system, the set of general cultural ideals, or some combination of the two.
It is quite common to consider the ideology of the "Orient" in static, ahistorical terms. It is also common to anachronistically project the ideology of the modern West onto its own past and use that as a standard with which to compare the East. I will as much as possible focus on ideas that can be confirmed to have been current in the 1870s and 1880s. As the Eastern Mediterranean of the late nineteenth century was the site of considerable contact between Eastern and Western cultures, particularly in the realm of religious based ideology, it is necessary to consider the Aqdas in relation to both in order to determine whether it is actually presenting innovative conceptions or borrowing Western ideas that are "new" to the East.
Before the writing of the Aqdas, the only family and personal law systems available to those taking on a Bahá'í identity in the Middle East were religious. These Bahá'ís petitioned Bahá'u'lláh to provide them with such a legal system of their own. The Aqdas gave them a current basis on which to function without having to have recourse to other religious law. It is important, however, to look at the specific situations addressed by the Aqdas and then to consider the general principles underlying their treatment. It is not necessarily the case that the specifics of the original situation are intended to be applied universally rather than such general principles.
It is important in reading revealed texts to distinguish between the normative and the contextual. One must not simply conflate instructions on how to deal with what is with statements about what should be.
The choice of Arabic for the revelation of the Aqdas emphasizes the universality of its intent rather than the specificity of the situation of the Persian Bahá'ís who had been requesting such guidance, and also places it in a context of textual tradition that assumed, indeed required, scholarly mediation for use. The Q'uran was revealed in the vernacular of those to whom it was immediately addressed, although it also claimed a wider applicability. The Aqdas is not in the vernacular of those whose need it immediately addresses, but in an established cross-cultural religious lingua franca associated with a tradition of scholarship. This distances the Aqdas from its immediate audience while allowing it to function as an answer to their immediate needs.
The Aqdas (and its supplement, Questions and Answers) treats three aspects of sexuality which I will discuss in turn: Sexual fluids; illicit sexual conduct; and marriage.
The aqdas abolished tout court the concept of ritual pollution (75) and yet it also makes specific reference to the principal biological markers of male and female sexual identity: semen and menstrual blood. Semen is quite specifically stated to not be ritually polluting and contact with it is encompassed within the bounds of regular hygiene. (74) The case of menstrual blood is dealt with in an even more pointed fashion. (13)
Remembering that the concept of ritual pollution has been completely abolished and therefore menstruation cannot involve ritual disability, it is interesting that menstruation does provide women with a choice in respect of the regular salat and fasting: They may substitute the recital of a tasbih formula after ablutions for the prayer or each day of missed fasting. Thus menstruation is differentiated from illness: The ill are not permitted to perform salat or fast (Q&A 93); menstruating women have a choice to observe the requirements or substitute another obligation. Thus it is clearly reinforced that menstruation does not impose a ritual impurity. In Islam, the menstruating woman not only may not perform salat or fast but is forbidden to utter one verse of revealed text or even perform ablutions. The Aqdas obliges the menstruating woman to either perform salat and fast or take the option of repeating a revealed verse not once but 95 times.
However, quite contrary to the blanket abolition of the concept of ritual pollution in the Aqdas, let alone to the specific requirement for menstruating women to perform ablutions and ritual acts, it is evident that the Eastern Bahá'í community continued to believe in menstrual pollution and that this was taught to early Western Bahá'ís and given as the reason why women were excluded from membership on a House of Justice.
The receptivity of Westerners to the logic of menstrual pollution as a reason for anything is not surprising. Late nineteenth century Western ideology -- whether religious or medical -- regarded sexual fluids as highly problematic. In the 1870s, there was a serious discussion in the correspondence columns of The Lancet about whether a ham cured by a menstruating woman would spoil. It was even suggested in the medical literature that intercourse with a menstruating woman could cause gonorrhea.
Semen was also considered problematic in the West. Its "loss" through means other than vaginal intercourse, and specifically vaginal intercourse aimed at procreation, was considered hazardous to both moral and physical health and was often termed "pollution".
To remove sexual fluids from the realm of the sacred or moral and to treat them as a matter of hygiene was innovative in both Eastern and Western ideological contexts.
Illicit sexuality is discussed in the Aqdas, and Questions and Answers, in relation to two concepts: zina and liwat. In islamic legal usage the latter term may be considered a more behaviorly specific subset of the former. More usually, zina refers to sexual intercourse between a man and a woman who are not married to each other (depending on the legal authority followed, it may or may not be of consequence for determining punishment if at least one is married to someone else).
In Mediterranean culture, there is a strong preference for male sexuality to be expressed through intromissive ejaculation and thus an assumption that men desire, indeed need, penetration of a sexual object. In the case of zina, there is a further explicit assumption of assymetrical roles: There is an individual who perpetrates an illicit act, and an individual who makes possible the perpretration of an illicit act by someone else. That is why, as rape is considered a form of zina, it is readily possible to conceptualize the victim of rape as a guilty party. As Mediterranean culture assumes that women are both in a constant state of sexual readiness, and that almost any object of possible penetration can arouse a man to action by its mere presence, women are virtually by definition the possibility of the perpretration of an illicit act.
In islamic law, zina is punishable by either death or 100 lashes depending on the marital status of the individuals and the particular authorities followed. In the Aqdas, the only prescribed punishment for zina is a fine with a provision in Questions and Answers that there may be further legislative consideration of the issue.
Zina is somewhat misleadingly translated in the English edition of the Aqdas as 'adultery'; liwat is even more misleadingly treated as if it referred to homosexuality. Liwat is a behaviorally specific term. The perpetrator, who must be male, of liwat performs anal or inter-crural sex on another who may be either male or female. Just as in zina generally, there is thus a role differentiation between the perpetrator and the one who makes perpetration possible. In terms of sanction, liwat is usually treated under islamic law as a form of zina. Inter-crural sex may be separately identified as tafhid, but is usually treated legally as a variant of liwat.
The Mediterranean emphasis on intromissive ejaculation is associated with an instrumental attitude toward sexual activity. A man does sex to another person for his own pleasure, to prove his masculinity, and occasionally to beget children.
The esentially agressive nature of liwat can be seen in the tradition of dabib, or 'crawling,' where sexual access to another individual is gained through getting him drunk or drugging him and then perpetrating liwat while he is unconscious. Crawling may also be done by simply using cover of darkness to creep up on a sleeper and overpower him. Given the gender segregated living arrangements of Middle Eastern societies, dabib is prepetrated on other males.
That liwat is conceptualised first and foremost as exemplifying dominance can be seen in the mainstream Saudi legal opinion that a non-muslim who perpetrates liwat on a muslim must always be put to death; and in the 1982 Iranian legal code which provides that both individuals involved in tafhid should be punished with 100 lashes, but that if a non-muslim prepetrates tafhid on a muslim then the non-muslim will be condemned to death.
Liwat does not encompass fellatio or mutual masturbation. The latter is common in the middle east but generally considered simply one of those things young men do that does not need to be acknowledged or discussed. Nor can liwat include sexual activity between women as the perpetrator of liwat must have a penis. Some authorities consider sahq, sexual activity between women, as a form of zina, but this is problematic as standard definitions of zina require penetration.
In Questions and Answers, the matter of punishment for liwat is left to future consideration by a House of Justice. In the Aqdas, there is an implicit reference in the sentence: "We shrink, for very shame, from treating of the subject of boys." It was simply taken-for-granted in Middle Eastern tradition that all men find boys sexually attractive and that men who are attracted to boys are not a 'different' type of men but, on the contrary, 'normal' men who desire intromissive ejaculation for which a boy taken in liwat is as fit as a woman taken in liwat or vaginal intercourse.
Although egalitarian relationships between pairs of adult men that involved mutual sexual activity have not been unknown in Middle Eastern societies, there was no specific term to cover such liasons before recent decades. They fell outside regular socio-cultural categories, and they were not subsumable under liwat.
If we note the widespread use of dancing boys dressed as girls for prostitution in the Middle East; and the practice of female prostitutes dressing as boys to increase their appeal to customers who would engage in either anal or vaginal intercourse with them; and remember that the customers of both the dancing boys and the travesti girls are married men: It is evident that expecting recent western terms like 'homosexual' and 'heterosexual' to be readily applicable in this socio-cultural milieu in any meaningful way is futile.
We may also note for purposes of comparison that in late nineteenth century New York working class Italians, and the decidedly un-Mediterranean Irish, held that male sexuality centered on intromissive ejaculation and that the object used to achieve that was not particularly relevant for defining masculine identity. Intromissive ejaculation demonstrated the superiority of the penetrator and that was what mattered.
In both the West and the East, the principal aim of sexual norms was to bolster adult male dominance, both in situations of illicit sex and in marriage. Islamic marriage was based on a concept of husband as owner (malik) and wife as owned (mamluka) and even the most advanced muslim thinkers of the late nineteenth century assumed an innate disability to being female, even when they were directly citing Western sources. The West did generally assume the existence of an essential difference between men and women that provided a limit to women's development. If women tried to emulate men beyond a certain point, this would result in them being literally desexed (unable to bear children) and becoming a neither man nor woman monstrosity.
Whether an Aristotelian model of woman as literally an ill-conceived man, a Hippocratic-Galenic model of woman as an inferior blending of male and female semen, or the most up-to-date Western medical model was used: In the late nineteenth century women were generally considered to be constitutionally both inferior in essence and impaired in peformance compared to men. Thus neither in the East nor the West was it ideologically possible to conceptualise marriage as bringing together equals.
The Aqdas, and its associated texts, do not accept any of these models but present men and women as having the same potentials and make social progress dependent on these being fully expressed. Bahá'u'lláh renders gender attribution irrelevant as a parameter of individual or social action. The Aqdas provides for more equitable treatment of women within the current gendered systems and lays the basis for ungendered norms.
Following from the principle of mutatis mutandis it is not simply a case of what is expressed as from a man to a woman incorporates from woman to man, and vice versa, but that gendered language is in fact rendered degendered. This is made explicit in other writings where it is stated that women are as men in this dispensation. Gendered textual usage should be read as gender inclusive. Thus, although licit sex is limited to marriage, it could be regarded as a valid reading of the text to consider the sexes of the partners unspecified and irrelevant.
Although the Aqdas mentions having children as a function of marriage, if the validity of a marriage depended on its potential to bring forth children, then the infertile and women past menopause could not marry.
While it is certainly a function of the social institution of marriage to provide for the reproduction (both physically and culturally) of a society, it is not necessary for all marital pairings to physically produce offspring to accomplish this. There can be societal advantages to limiting physical reproduction and increasing the enculturative resources available for each child through a higher adult to child ratio. And, indeed, Bahá'u'lláh enjoins a general societal responsibility for the adequate education of children in addition to the particular parental responsibility.
A view of marriage that sees it at the institutional level as accomplishing reproduction but that emphasizes the development of the individuals within any particular pairing does not necessarily privilege any set of gender arrangements and has a broader cross-cultural applicability than one which defines particular marriages in narrow gender terms.
Both zina and liwat are sexual relations that take place outside of a context in which the long term rights of both participants are regarded. Unlawful sex is literally unprotected sex -- it takes place in relationships that are not associated with social supports and long-term obligations. Lawful sex, as defined in the Aqdas, takes place in marriages, which are relationships embedded in a network of familial support and providing for the mutual development of the partners.
Limiting legitimate sexual expression to marital relationships and defining marital relationships in terms of mutual growth invalidates exploitation in sexual interaction. To be valid, the expression of interpersonal sexuality must contribute to mutual growth irrespective of whether or not it also leads to children.
The Aqdas can indeed be taken as simply a "code of laws". The Eastern Bahá'ís largely did so and the Western Bahá'ís have generally followed them. Taken that way it represents one more example of a religious code rooted in a particular culture that its followers seek to impose on all cultures. Alternatively, the Aqdas can be read as a liminal discourse that provides the tools to, among other things, re-envision the ideology of gender and sexuality in each and every culture.