The science of medicine is still in a condition of infancy; it has not reached maturity. But when it has reached this point, cures will be performed by things which are not repulsive to the smell and taste of man—that is to say, by aliments, fruits and vegetables which are agreeable to the taste and have an agreeable smell. . . . All the elements that are combined in man exist also in vegetables; therefore, if one of the constituents which compose the body of man diminishes, and he partakes of foods in which there is much of that diminished constituent, then the equilibrium will be established, and a cure will be obtained.
- Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions Sec. 73.
Originating in Persia in the mid-nineteenth century, the Baháʾí Faith is the youngest of the independent world religions. It is also one of the fastest growing and most widespread of religions with about 7 million adherents in over 220 countries. Founded by the prophet Baháʾuʾlláh, the faith is built on the fundamental principles of unity and justice and the necessary convergence of spiritual and social development. The faith embraces a concept of progressive revelation that assigns equal status to previous prophets, who are known as "manifestations of God." There is only one God. As perfect reflections of God the manifestations occupy a status between the human and the divine. Each prophet brings the same core message as well as new teachings suited to the time and place of his particular revelation and the stage of development of humanity. Baháʾuʾlláh's purpose, as the latest of these manifestations of god, is to usher in a new world order of peace and prosperity for the human race.
Dietary codes and prohibitions are absent in the Baháʾí sacred writings. Rather than rules there is an emphasis on guidance and on the responsibility of individual believers to live a virtuous life. Food rules and practices are often used as boundary markers in religions and as a way for believers to assert their faith identities. The absence of such prescriptive dietary codes in Baháʾí teachings exemplifies the Baháʾí concept of the unity of humankind by removing one boundary between races, cultures, and religions. There is no symbolic value attached to particular foods, nor are there foods that are associated with specific rituals or celebrations. Generally speaking Baháʾís follow local dietary custom. Nevertheless, there are three aspects of food that are explicitly addressed in Baháʾí sacred writings: the relationship of diet to health, fasting, and commensality as exemplified in the Nineteen Day Feast.
Role of Religion in Shaping Daily Diet
There is a special concern for the strength and wellbeing of the body as the temple of the human spirit. The body should be a willing, obedient, and efficient servant, kept in good health so that the Baháʾí can devote all his or her energy to serving Baháʾuʾlláh's purpose. To this end, Baháʾís are expected to take responsibility for looking after their own health, in which diet plays an essential role. Both asceticism and hedonism are to be avoided; the former because it is an inappropriate withdrawal from the world and a rejection of what God has provided, and the latter because one should not be preoccupied with material possessions. Instead, moderation is advised as a means to achieve a state of "detachment" necessary to attain true understanding of God's will.
The ideal regime is a balanced natural diet that is adapted to local climate and to the type of work in which the body is engaged. Although animal food is not forbidden, meat-eating is considered to be only a temporary necessity of the current age, one that will give way in the future to vegetarianism. Vegetarianism is portrayed as being a compassionate practice, for the killing of animals blunts the spiritual qualities of the human race. A meatless diet is also natural in that it uses simple foods that grow from the ground. Finally, vegetarianism is just; one should not eat lavishly while others starve.
Food is not only seen to be the chief way of maintaining health, but also the preferred means for treatment of disease. Health and disease are conceived of in terms of balance and bodily equilibrium reminiscent of Greek humoral theory and Ayurvedic conceptions of hot and cold. Disease arises from disturbances to the balance of the body, which can be restored through consumption of food containing the necessary elements to bring it back to health. Although a time is foreseen when improved medical knowledge and understanding will enable all illness to be treated by food, Baháʾís are enjoined to take full advantage of the best that current medicine has to offer and to seek the services of competent physicians when they are ill.
Fasting and Feasting
There is only one annual fast prescribed for Baháʾís. The precepts of the fast are laid down in the Kitab-I-Aqdas, or Most Holy Book, of Baháʾuʾlláh and along with obligatory prayer it is the most important of Baháʾí ritual obligations. The fast bears a marked resemblance to Islamic practice, the context in which it emerged. The Baháʾí fasting period lasts nineteen days from the second to the twentieth of March, and requires complete abstention from food and drink between the hours of sunrise and sunset. It is a period of meditation and prayer, a chance to renew one's spiritual self, and a reminder of the need to abstain from selfish desires. The fast is binding on Baháʾís in all countries but it is an individual obligation, not enforceable by Baháʾí administrative institutions. It applies to all believers from the age of maturity (thought of as age fifteen) until seventy, with exemptions for travelers under specified conditions; the sick; women who are menstruating, pregnant, or nursing; and those engaged in heavy labor, who are advised to be discrete and restrained in availing themselves of this exemption. Unlike in the Islamic model, fasters who are unable to meet their commitment do not have to offer any sort of restitution or make up the missed days later. Nor are sexual relations prohibited during fasting periods. Baháʾís are allowed to fast at other times of the year but this is not encouraged, and is rarely done. Fasting itself is only acceptable if it is done purely out of love for God. This is reminiscent of the importance of niyyah or intent in the Islamic fast of Ramadan.
Feast has a particular meaning in the Baháʾí Faith, referring to the monthly community meeting known as the Nineteen-Day Feast. The original purpose of the Baháʾí feast was a means of creating fellowship, and is rooted in the Persian tradition of hospitality. Baháʾuʾlláh enjoined believers to entertain nineteen people every nineteen days even if only water was provided. Over time the feast shifted from being a display of personal hospitality to becoming an institutional event. The modern Nineteen-Day Feast is held in each Baháʾí community on the first day of each Baháʾí month, and consists of three parts. The first is devotional and consists of readings from the Baháʾí sacred writings; the second is a consultative meeting where administrative and community issues are discussed; the third is a social gathering at which food is served. What is served is at the discretion of the host and is guided by personal preference and local custom. The Nineteen-Day Feast is intended only for the members of the Baháʾi community; however, non-Baháʾí visitors should be received hospitably at the social portion of the feast only.
The sharing of food is an important feature of Baháʾí social events. Food sharing also occurs through charitable activity and social action. However, where local community development projects supported by Baháʾís involve food, these usually take the form of agricultural development rather than food distribution.
ʿAbduʾl-Bahá. Some Answered Questions. Wilmette, Ill.: BPT, 1964. Section 73. Passages on food, health, and the body.