In a Blue Haze: Smoking and Bahá’í Ethics

Udo Schaefer


<< Previous   VII   Next >>


A Digression:
On Purity and Cleanliness in Religious History

Now let us turn to the aspect of purity, an aspect which no European would normally consider when assessing the ethics of smoking (which, as we have already seen[199], hardly anyone would think of doing anyway). We are in the fortunate position to have an authoritative interpretation of this term by 'Abdu'l-Bahá; it is generally known as the Tablet of Purity[200]. This text also contains a highly negative judgement of smoking.

Before turning to this text which is of such central relevance to this issue, it seems sensible to examine the virtue of "purity" more closely in the context of religious history. With a deeper and keener understanding of this text, it becomes clear that purity is not a peripheral virtue in our set of values, but rather one of primary importance.[201]

1.  "Pure" in its true sense is to be free from mixture with any contaminants. Thus, one speaks of pure water, pure air, pure marble, and so on. Purification in its true sense is the removal of dirt. Purity in its true sense to be free from dirt, stains, and other foreign contaminants. The figurative meaning of these conceptions has been known since the earliest time: the purity of colour, of sounds, of language, of judgement, of motives and the like.[202] In a discussion of morals, purity means moral perfection, the integrity of an individual's inner being from the worldly influences that are seen as "defiling". Moral purity is closely related to innocence.[203] In the context of sexuality, purity is identical to chastity.

Today most will find it hard to understand that external purity, i.e. cleanliness, should have anything to do with religion. Cleanliness is thought of as an achievement and a prerequisite for life in a modern society, such as the special measures taken in operating rooms or in computer chip factories. Certainly, compared to the conditions prior to the first industrial revolution, cleanliness is a modern achievement. However, we should be careful not to make judgements only on the basis of our Western conditions, because in large parts of the world cleanliness and hygiene are not taken very seriously. But even the situation in Europe can be quite surprising. A survey in Germany revealed that an alarmingly high number of people do not own a toothbrush and never use one. Moreover, since the seventies, cleanliness has been defamed as a supposedly "bourgeois virtue". A counter-culture has established itself in which dirt, torn clothing, physical neglect, and bizarre hair and beard styles have become the hallmark of a progressive attitude. Thus the virtue of purity has disintegrated together with our value system. In any case, in our society cleanliness is not perceived as a moral obligation. At best, it is seen as a necessity imposed by science and reason.

And yet purity, including its outward manifestation cleanliness, is a subject for norms, taboos, and commentary in most religions, even primitive religions. Outward purity has been a prerequisite for establishing contact with the Divine. Cultic or ritual purity was required for entry into the sanctuary or for the validity of religious acts.

2.  Cultic purity, the concepts of pure and impure, played an important role in the Old Testament. In chapters eleven to fifteen of Leviticus we find so-called purity laws which show how ritual purity is lost, through every ejaculation, through every act of sexual intercourse, through menstruation, through many illnesses, especially leprosy, and through every touch of a corpse. Not only was a woman impure during her menstruation but so was everything and every person she touched.[204] The man with whom she had intercourse was impure for eight days. After giving birth to a son, a woman was impure for seven days, after a daughter for fourteen days and she was forbidden to enter the sanctuary for thirty-three days, or sixty-six days, respectively. Ritual purity after slight impurifications could be restored through ablutions with water. Severe impurification could only be restored through complicated priestly purification rites.

The purity laws include the prohibitions of certain dishes along with the distinction between pure and impure animals.[205] For the most part the laws of purity seem to have served the purpose of hygiene. Little by little, the multitude and rigour of cultic purity laws led to a formalism and ritualism while the essential inner moral purity was neglected, as shown by the protests of the prophets.[206]

Beyond thoroughly regulated ritual purity, physical cleanliness is rarely identified as a moral obligation in the Old Testament.[207] However, inner moral purity is mentioned: "Create in me a clean heart, o God, and renew a right spirit within me"[208], "Truly God is good to Israel, even to such as are of a clean heart"[209]. And when Isaiah says: "Wash you, make you clean" it becomes clear from the context that moral purity is meant, because He continues, "put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil."[210] The commandment to be pure is particularly valid with respect to idol worship: "And from all your idols, will I cleanse you."[211]

3.  In Christianity, cultic purity is overcome through Paul's doctrine of the end of the law in Christ.[212] Purity is henceforth the purity of the heart: "Blessed are the pure in heart."[213] Jesus polemicized against the over-emphasis of ritual purity and the neglect of the purity of heart: "Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man."[214] "But those things which proceed out of the mouth come forth from the heart ... and they defile the man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are things which defile a man: but to eat with unwashed hands defileth not a man."[215] Physical cleanliness was never a special subject in Christianity. Bathing has always been suspicious to the Church. As late as 1914 a standard text for German Catholics[216] was published containing a warning against taking baths because of the accompanying moral hazard, especially for young people.

4.  It is altogether different in Islam. Here, purity plays an important role. Purity and cleanliness are not only necessary prerequisites for prayer but also the independent subject of numerous admonitions in the Qur'án and in oral traditions. According to a hadíth[217] passed on by Muslim[218], the Messenger of God said, "Purification is called half of the faith". A hadíth handed down by Jábir reads: "The key to paradise is prayer and the key to prayer is purification."[219] Even in one of the first revelations the Prophet exclaims, "Thy Lord, magnify Him! Thy raiment, purify it! The abomination, flee it! "[220] In two passages in the Qur'án we find: "Verily God loveth those ... who seek to be clean."[221] This not only refers to outward cleanliness but also to an inner cleanliness, the purity of the soul. Generally, in the Islamic conception there is an interaction between physical and spiritual purity. The author of the collection of hadíth mentioned previously remarks in a footnote, "Purity of the body is a prelude to the purity of the soul"[222] ... "A pure mind in a pure body" is the watchword of Islam. Here cleanliness is not next to godliness but is half of godliness or faith."[223] This, too, reminds us of the verse by Juvenal "Orandum est, ut sit mens sana in corpore", against which Luther polemicized.

The basic instructions for ritual purity[224] can be found in súra 5, verse 8-9:

"O Believers! when ye address yourselves to prayer, wash your faces, and your hands up to the elbow, and wipe your heads, and your feet to the ankles. And if ye have become unclean, then purify yourselves. But if ye are sick, or on a journey, or if one of you come from the place of retirement, or if ye have touched women, and if ye find no water, then take clean sand and rub your faces and your hands with it. God desireth not to lay a burden upon you, but He desireth to purify you, and He would fill up the measure of His favour upon you, that ye may be grateful."

Since a Muslim says the alt, the obligatory prayer, five times a day, thereby performing the ablutions necessary for the prayers to be valid five times a day, he has ample opportunity to be clean.

In the hadíth collections, the Prophet's words on physical purity assume an even greater importance. There are, for example, precise recommendations for the believer to cleanse himself with water or pebbles after bowel movements or after urinating. The small can of water used in Persia for this purpose can obviously be traced back to the Prophet.[225] The left hand and not the right is always to be used for cleaning oneself after defecating.[226] A hadíth reads: "Abstain from three objects of curse, easing near springs of water and on roads and under shade."[227]

There are two things which we are convinced were the achievements of western civilisation, but which were actually introduced by the Prophet Muhammad: the handkerchief and the toothbrush. He forbade the believers to spit on the ground in public places and He Himself used a piece of cloth for this purpose.[228] He had a toothbrush that He used regularly and He repeatedly admonished His people to do the same: "The tooth-brush purifies the mouth and is a means of seeking the pleasure of the Lord."[229] According to a hadíth passed on by al-Bukhr[230] the Prophet said, "Were it not that I would place too heavy a burden on my community, I would have commanded them to use the tooth-brush at every ablution."[231] The Prophet used it before every ablution.[232]

From the hadíths, we also learn that, after reaching of the age of maturity, the believer must take a weekly bath during which head and body are to be washed.[233] One hadíth reads: "Taking a bath on Friday is incumbent upon every one who has attained puberty and he should use the tooth-brush and use scent if he can find it."[234] The weekly bath was seen as the hygienic minimum. The commandment of purity included cleaning all clothes as well as the home.

It is interesting in this context that a woman's menstruation did not lead to her being avoided because of impurity. Pointing out to the Prophet that the Jews did not sit at the table with such a woman and would not even share the same room, the Prophet responded: "Do everything except sexual intercourse."[235]

The Prophet Himself, immaculate in His person, loved fragrances, used musk, ambergris, and camphor and used to burn aromatic woods. At one point, after not having received any revelation for some time, He said to a companion: "How can revelations not be interrupted when you do not trim your nails, nor clip your moustache, nor cleanse your finger-joints."[236]

Beyond ritual purity, during all His prophetic service Muhammad educated His people to a state of cleanliness which was always seen as a symbol for the purity of the soul and of the heart. The actual object of religion is to purge heart and soul from the shackles of selfish desires and evil thoughts. Thus, life itself is seen as a continuous act of purification, the spiritual component of which is equivalent to sanctification.

The extent to which purity and the process of purification are seen as being identical with religion can be seen from this verse from the Qur'án: "And whoever shall keep himself pure, he purifieth himself to his own behoof."[237] Of those who have fulfilled good deeds and reach the "Gardens of Eden, beneath whose trees the rivers flow" it is said: "This, the reward of him who hath been pure."[238] And again: "Happy he who is purified by Islam."[239] And finally there is the task given to Moses by God. He should bring Pharaoh the message from God with the words: "Hast thou the will to purify thyself, and that I should guide thee to thy Lord, then thou shalt fear? "[240]

5.  It is in this tradition that we see the verses revealed by the Báb in the Persian Bayán:

"God loveth those who are pure. Naught in the Bayán and in the sight of God is more loved than purity and immaculate cleanliness ... He indeed desireth that under all conditions, all may be adorned with such purity, both inwardly and outwardly, that no repugnance may be caused even to themselves, how much less unto others."[241]

Another verse is completely dedicated to the moral purification of those who want to reach the presence of Bahá'u'lláh:

"Know thou that in the Bayán, purification is regarded as the most acceptable means for attaining nearness unto God and as the most meritorious of all deeds."[242]

6.  In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas we find the verse:

"This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future."[243]

This means that the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh is in continuity with the revelations of the Adamic cycle, especially with the two previous dispensations, the Qur'án and the Bayán. It is not surprising then that purity in its three forms, ritual purity, cleanliness, and moral purity, is a cornerstone of its moral value system. Bahá'u'lláh has partly confirmed, partly abrogated, and partly replaced existing concepts and laws with new ones and thus has adjusted the Religion of God to fit present circumstances.

In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Bahá'u'lláh has abolished the Shí'ite concept of ritual "impurity"[244], according to which not only particular things[245] but all non-Islamic peoples were regarded as "impure"[246]. He has announced that through His revelation,

"all created things were immersed in the sea of purification. When, on that first day of Ridván, We shed upon the whole of creation the splendours of Our most excellent Names and Our most exalted Attributes ... Consort ye then with the followers of all religions, and proclaim ye the Cause of your Lord."[247]

This verse testifies to the process of spiritual purification which this event initiated. However, one should not assume, as the Universal House of Justice emphasises[248], that if everything has been immersed in the sea of purification, purity has been solemnised once and for all. Bahá'u'lláh has elaborated on every aspect of this virtue. Inner moral purity is a recurring issue in all his works, especially in the mystical writings, while cleanliness and ritual purity are treated in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas.

We should actually note that there are such things as cultic provisions or rituals, i.e. prescribed forms of worship. We should forget the biased view held in the past that the Bah' Faith is a religion without dogma[249], without theology[250], without ritual, and without clergy. Only the latter is correct. The first three points are untenable. It is true, however, that the ritual provisions from the pen of Bahá'u'lláh may not be augmented. This is a numerus clausus. Among the ritual prayers the obligatory prayers[251] hold a special position, for which Bahá'u'lláh has prescribed ablutions[252]. Before prayer the hands and face are to be washed. If there is no water, it is sufficient to speak the verse: "Bismi'lláh al-athar al-athar" ("In the Name of God, the Most Pure, the Most Pure").[253] These ablutions are necessary constituents of the obligatory prayers. Without them, the prayer is not valid. However, these ablutions are not yet mandatory for Western Bahá'ís. [This is changed by the letter of 28th December 1999 from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá'ís of the World – CM.]

Ritual purity includes the cleanliness of dress:

"Fear Him and be of those who are pure. Should the garb of anyone be visibly sullied, his prayers shall not ascend to God, and the celestial Concourse will turn away from him."[254]

A number of former ritual purity commandments have been abrogated. For example, in contrast to the Jewish and Islamic laws of purity, semen is explicitly pronounced as being pure.[255] Also, certain things that render prayer ritually impure according to shar'ía[256], such as hair, sable-skin, and bones, are henceforth pure.[257] Most importantly Bahá'u'lláh has also abolished the impurity of peoples belonging to a different religion[258] and commanded His people to "consort with all religions with amity and concord, that they may inhale from you the sweet fragrance of God."[259] In this regard one should keep in mind that even members of the "peoples of the Book", Jews and Christians, are impure according to Shí'ite law.

Bahá'u'lláh admonishes His people to cleanliness:

"Hold ye fast unto refinement (lafah) under all conditions, that your eyes may be preserved from beholding what is repugnant both to your own selves and to the dwellers of Paradise. Should anyone depart therefrom, his deed shall at that moment be rendered in vain; yet should he have good reason, God will excuse him. He, in truth, is the Gracious, the Most Bountiful[260] ... Cleave ye unto the cord of refinement with such tenacity as to allow no trace of dirt to be seen upon your garments[261] ... Be ye the very essence of cleanliness amongst mankind[262] ... It has been enjoined upon you to pare your nails, to bathe yourselves each week in water that covereth your body[263] ... It is not permissible to bathe yourselves in water that hath already been used ..."[264]

In this context, Bahá'u'lláh warns the believers against Persian public bath houses:

"Whoso maketh his way toward such baths will smell their fetid odour ere he entereth therein."[265]

Bahá'ís are instructed to wash their feet, every day in summer, every third day during winter time.[266] Washing the body under running water is preferable to immersing the body.[267] In this vein the prohibition against plunging one's hands into food while eating[268] as well as the commandment to renew one's household effects every nineteen years[269] should be seen in the light of outward purity. Bahá'u'lláh assures:

"Truly, We desire to behold you as manifestations of paradise on earth, that there may be diffused from you such fragrance as shall rejoice the hearts of the favoured of God."[270]

An especially philanthropic admonition in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is to

"Make use of rose-water, and of pure perfume; this, indeed, is that which God hath loved from the beginning that hath no beginning."[271]

Bahá'u'lláh's commandment of "moderation in all things"[272] also applies to the virtue of cleanliness. Cleanliness is not an end in itself. If it degenerates into a neurotic cleansing obsession, the right sense of proportion is abandoned and a virtue turns into a plague.

Ritual purity and cleanliness, however, are only prerequisites and complementary components of this inner purity, this purity of the heart and of the soul that, as a leitmotif recurring throughout the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, is the goal of our earthly life. The recognition of truth itself, the recognition of the Manifestation, requires this purity of heart: "Blessed are the pure in heart; for they shall see God", says the Sermon of the Mount[273], and in the Kitáb-i-Íqán we read:

"They that tread the path of faith, they that thirst for the wine of certitude, must cleanse themselves of all that is earthly -- their ears from idle talk, their minds from vain imaginings, their hearts from worldly affections, their eyes from that which perisheth[274] ... When a true seeker determines to take the step of search in the path leading to the knowledge of the Ancient of Days, he must, before all else, cleanse and purify his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. He must purge his breast, which is the sanctuary of the abiding love of the Beloved, of every defilement, and sanctify his soul from all that pertaineth to water and clay, from all shadowy and ephemeral attachments. He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth."[275]

Moral purity is sincerity and noble-mindedness, the freedom of motive from selfish interests, the freedom of thought from base and corrupt inclinations, from insidious intentions, from malice, craftiness[276], and intrigues. It is the innocence of heart of which Christ spoke.[277] Purity pervades all virtues. It surpasses them when it is turned into holiness. This is why, as Bahá'u'lláh revealed, everything that "hath been set forth in the Book by the Pen of Glory is an effective means for the purging, the purification and sanctification of the souls of men"[278].

Although "the essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds"[279], inner motivation is required before action can have the desired effect:

"We verily behold your actions. If We perceive from them the sweet smelling savour of purity and holiness, We will most certainly bless you."[280]

This is especially true for service to the Cause of God.[281] "To be pure and to fear God", Bahá'u'lláh has instructed His believers:

"We enjoin the servants of God and His handmaidens to be pure and to fear God, that they may shake off the slumber of their corrupt desires[282] ... He is not to be numbered with the people of Bahá who followeth his mundane desires, or fixeth his heart on things of the earth."[283]

The human heart is the temple that is God's abode, but God wants to reside only in a pure heart:

"O Son of Being! Thy heart is My home; sanctify it for My descent. Thy spirit is My place of revelation; cleanse it for My manifestation[284] ... O Son of Man! The temple of being is My throne; cleanse it of all things, that there I may be established and there I may abide."[285]

Table of Contents for In a Blue Haze
Back to Published books
Baha'i Academics Resource Library ][ Sacred Writings ][ Search
Primary sources ][ Secondary sources ][ Resources and etc.
Bulletin board ][ Links ][ Personal pages ][ Other sites hosted by the Library