The Bahá'í Position on Military Service
....Two great processes are at work in the world:
the great Plan of God, tumultuous in its progress, working through mankind as a whole, tearing
down barriers to world unity and forging humankind into a unified body in the fires of suffering
and experience. This process will produce, in God's due time, the Lesser Peace, the political
unification of the world. Mankind at that time can be likened to a body that is unified but
without life. The second process, the task of breathing life into this unified body - of creating
true unity and spiritually culminating in the Most Great Peace -is that of the Bahá'ís, who are
laboring consciously, with detailed instructions and continuing divine guidance, to erect the
fabric of the Kingdom of God on earth, into which they call their fellow men, thus conferring
upon them eternal life.*
In American society today, the role of the military and the obligation of military service are at
the center of a vast welter of confusion and conflict. Bahá'ís understand this dissension as part
of the chaos which "must needs convulse the nations, stir the conscience of the world, disillusion
the masses [and] precipitate a radical change in the very conception of society." 1
At the same time, we see in this chaos a great opportunity to demonstrate the Bahá'í solution by
clearly stating and courageously living up to the principles of our Faith.
For many youth, the time when they face the draft is a critical and difficult one. Normally
abstract issues of national and world politics are brought suddenly down to the personal level.
At stake are the most fundamental human values, and the way each one of us responds to this
challenge can have a lasting effect not only on the course of our lives, but also on our sense of
integrity, our attitude toward authority, and our feelings about our fellow men. For these
reasons, it is often a period of internal debate, analysis, and soul-searching. It can also be a
great opportunity for Bahá'ís to deepen their understanding of the role Bahá'u'lláh, the
Manifestation of God, summoned them to play in this troubled world, by intensive study of the
Sacred Writings of His Faith.
The Bahá'í position on military service is completely unique. It is not based on political theory,
personal morality or the command of arbitrary authority, but on individual and shared
understanding of the Teachings of the Prophet-Founder of the Faith, Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892),
as written down by Him and as interpreted by His Son 'Abdu'l-Bahá (1844-1921), the Center
of His Father's Covenant, and Shoghi Effendi, the appointed Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith from
1921 to 1957.
The Supreme World Body of the Bahá'í Faith, the Universal House of Justice, told the Bahá'í
youth in every land in 1966 that the "foundation of all their other accomplishments" was "their
study of the teachings, the spiritualization of their lives and the forming of their characters in
accordance with the standards of Bahá'u'lláh." 2 This instruction applies with
particular urgency to decisions in the difficult area of military service; individual lives cannot
reflect Bahá'í principles, nor can the sacred unity of the Faith be assured unless consideration
of such a controversial subject begins with serious study of the Teachings. This statement,
prepared under the direction of the National Spiritual Assembly, is intended as an introduction
and study guide to the related Writings on such issues as war and peace, life and death, social
change and our relationship with established governments.
WHAT ARE THE BASIC BAHA'I TEACHINGS ABOUT KILLING?
Both Baha'u'11ah and 'Abdu'l-Bahá expressed in unmistakable terms their abhorrence of
killing. In The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, the Blessed Beauty tells the Bahá'ís to "Beware
lest ye shed the blood of any one" 3
and praises those who have "suffered
themselves to be killed rather than kill." 4
'Abdu'l-Bahá explains that one may
not even retaliate against a "bloodthirsty enemy." 5
The Universal House of
Justice echoed these principles in a letter which stated that it should be "unthinkable for
[Bahá'ís] to willingly place themselves in a position where they must take human life."
WHAT ABOUT WAR?
Bahá'u'lláh stated that His coming had "annulled the rule of the sword" 7
forbade resort to violence as a means of spreading His Faith or, presumably, for any "just
'Abdu'l-Bahá reserved the strongest possible language for His
condemnation of war: "Peace is light whereas war is darkness. Peace is life; war is death. Peace
is guidance; war is error. Peace is the foundation of God; war is satanic institution."
BUT ISN'T WAR INEVITABLE?
Bahá'u'lláh taught that a just and lasting peace is not only possible but the certain destiny of
God's laws as "Thou shalt not kill" - appear very simple.
Unfortunately, however, man learns the need to obey them as he experiences the suffering
which results from disobedience. Referring to the organic social change which mankind is
destined to make in the Bahá'í era, Shoghi Effendi writes:
That so fundamental a revolution, involving such far-reaching changes in the
structure of society, can be achieved through the ordinary processes of diplomacy and education
seems highly improbable. We have but to turn our gaze to humanity's blood-stained history to
realize that nothing short of intense mental as well as physical agony has been able to
precipitate those epoch-making changes that constitute the greatest landmarks in the history of
human civilization. 11
This ordeal he describes as "both a retributory calamity and an act of holy and supreme
discipline....a cleansing process for all mankind. 12
War, like other forms of
ordeal, breaks down barriers of stubbornness, compla-
cency, and ignorance and forces a reconsideration of basic principles. As 'Abdu'l-Bahá explained:
In short, after this universal war, the people have obtained extraordinary capacity
to hearken to the divine teachings, for the wisdom of war is this: That it may become proven to
all that the fire of war is world-consuming, whereas the rays of peace are world-enlightening.
CAN ANYTHING BE DONE TO STOP WAR?
The immediate causes of particular wars are frequently complex, but 'Abdu'l-Bahá explained
that they could all be traced back to an excessive narrowness in the conception of man's interest.
Yea, in the first centuries, selfish souls, for the promotion of their own interests,
have assigned boundaries and outlets and have, day by day, attached more importance to these,
until this led to intense enmity, bloodshed and rapacity in subsequent centuries. In the same
way this will continue indefinitely, and if this conception of patriotism remains limited within
a certain circle, it will be the primary cause of the world's destruction.
As a solution, Shoghi Effendi calls for a wider, more inclusive loyalty, which would insist on
"the subordination of national considerations and particularistic interests to the imperative and
paramount claims of humanity as a whole, inasmuch as in a world of interdependent nations and
peoples the advantage of the part is best to be reached by the advantage of the whole."
15 This solution seems so obvious, but it is clear that nothing short of a complete
spiritual revitalization can bring man to his senses. This is what Bahá'u'lláh came for: "In this
wondrous Revelation, this glorious century, the foundation of the Faith of God and the
distinguishing feature of His Law is the consciousness of the Oneness of Mankind."
Our primary commitment then must be to bringing about this spiritual revitalization. The
Guardian called upon the Bahá'ís in the meantime to "refrain from associating themselves,
whether by word or by deed, with the political pursuits of their respective nations, with the
policies of their governments and the schemes and programs of parties and factions."
17 In The Promised Day Is Come, the Guardian specifically denounces "the dark,
the false, and crooked doctrines" of nationalism, racialism and social elitism and states that "any
man or people who believes in them, or acts upon them, must, sooner or later, incur the wrath
and chastisement of God." 18 Thus, even if strife and conflict is inevitable at this
stage in history, we must dissociate ourselves from it as much as possible.
IS THE USE OF ARMED FORCE JUSTIFIED?
In His open letter to the ruling elite of Persia, The Secret of Divine Civilization, 'Abdu'l-Bahá
recognized that a duly constituted government might be required to use measured force in the
maintenance of order and justice within its boundaries. 19 He also suggested an
international collective security agreement providing for the use of armed force against
violators. 20 This would be one step toward the unification of the world under a
federal form of government.
Almost a century later these instructions are still unheeded: Thus, when asked about the United
Nations "peacekeeping force," the Guardian replied that it in no way changed the obligation of all
Bahá'ís to apply for exemption from combatant duties. 21
WHAT ARE OUR OBLIGATIONS TO EXISTING GOVERNMENTS?
These Teachings about peace and internationalism cannot be considered in perspective without
referring to other statements in the Writings on the subject of our relationship with existing
national governments. In the above-cited passage from The Promised Day Is Come, Shoghi
Effendi makes it clear that "sane and intelligent patriotism" should not be excluded but included
in the larger world-allegiance. 22 Bahá'u'lláh Himself enjoined all Bahá'ís "to
support those rulers and chiefs of state who are adorned with the raiment of justice and equity."
WHAT IF WE FEEL THAT THE GOVERNMENT IS UNJUST?
Bahá'u'lláh states that, "In every country or government where any of this community reside,
they must behave toward that government with faithfulness, trustfulness and truthfulness."
24 The Guardian made it clear in a letter to the National Teaching Committee for
Central America that at least the minimum duty of obedience to a duly constituted government is
absolute and not dependent on any criteria of justness: "We are not the ones, as individual
Bahá'ís to judge our government as just or unjust." 25
WHY DO WE TAKE THIS POSITION?
The problem of our relation to existing political systems is destined to be a difficult one
throughout this era of transition. We can deepen our understanding of the Bahá'í role by
reference to some of the many passages in which the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice
have discussed the reasons for abstention from politics and obedience to government.
26 Much light is shed on the question by the Guardian's comments about
Extreme pacifists are thus very close to the anarchists, in the sense that both of
these groups lay an undue emphasis on the rights and merits of the individual. The Bahá'í
conception of social life is essentially based on the subordination of the individual will to that of
society. It neither suppresses the individual nor does it exalt him to the point of making him an
anti-social creature, a menace to society. As in everything, it follows the "golden mean." The
only way that society can function is for the minority to follow the will of the majority.
The Guardian here is reminding us that as Bahá'ís we are dedicated to bringing about a more
perfect order in the world, and we must not start by becoming identified with division and
disorder. We must demonstrate the Bahá'í solution through the power of stainless deeds. "We
have decreed that war shall be waged in the path of God with the armies of wisdom and utterance,
and of a goodly character and praiseworthy deeds." 28
The Guardian continued his comments:
The other main objection to the conscientious objectors is that their method of
establishing peace is too negative. Non-cooperation is too pas-
sive a philosophy to become an effective way for social reconstruction. Their
refusal to bear arms can never establish peace. There should first be a spiritual revitalization
which nothing, except the Cause of God, can effectively bring to every man's heart.
The Bahá'ís must concentrate their efforts on the one positive solution to the world's problems
and not dissipate their energies in endless small battles within the framework of the old system.
The Universal House of Justice has told us that "The old order cannot be repaired; it is being
rolled up before our eyes." 30
As the Guardian elsewhere explained, "moral
issues which were clear a half century ago are now hopelessly confused and what is more,
thoroughly mixed up with battling political interests.... If they [the Bahá'ís] become involved in
the issues the Governments of the world are struggling over, they will be lost. But if they build
up the Bahá'í pattern they can offer it as a remedy when all else has failed."
Specifically, the Guardian feared that once the Bahá'ís began wrangling with political
authorities, they would be forced or tempted to bargain with or compromise the purity and
integrity of their Faith. 32 It would be better to voluntarily suspend or delay the
full operation of the new system than to compromise its principles by negotiation.
Even more importantly, the unity and universal appeal of the Faith itself depend on the
subordination of all particularistic interests; to become embroiled in the clash of interests on
specific narrow issues would undermine the overarching spiritual basis of that unity.
WHAT IF THE GOVERNMENT ORDERS US TO DO
SOMETHING AGAINST ONE OF OUR OTHER PRINCIPLES?
This raises the central paradox of the Bahá'í position we must be well-wishers of government,
and yet many government policies may conflict with our principles. What happens when, as in
the case of compulsory military service, the principle of obedience to government appears to
conflict with the prohibition against warfare and killing? It becomes clear that there must be
some way of determining priorities when Bahá'í principles appear to be in conflict. In a
different but analagous context, the Guardian offered specific guidelines:
... in connection with their administrative activities, no matter how grievously
interference with them might affect the course of the extension of the Movement, and the
suspension of which does not constitute in itself a departure from the principle of loyalty to
their Faith, the considered judgment and authoritative decrees issued by their responsible
rulers must, if they [the Bahá'ís] be faithful to Bahá'u'lláh's and 'Abdu'l-Bahá's express
injunctions, be thoroughly respected and loyally obeyed. In matters, however, that vitally affect
the integrity and honor of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh, and are tantamount to a recantation of their
faith and repudiation of their innermost belief, they are convinced and are unhesitatingly
prepared to vindicate by their life-blood the sincerity of their conviction, that no power on
earth, neither the arts of the most insidious adversary nor the bloody weapons of the most
tyrannical oppressor, can ever succeed in extorting from them a word or deed that might tend to
stifle the voice of their conscience or tarnish the purity of their faith.
Note the major emphasis the Guardian puts on the duty of obedience to government. This
principle is deemed so important that only principles the compromise of which would constitute
"a departure from the principle of loyalty to their Faith" and would be "tantamount of a
recantation" have higher priority and must be defended to the death. Activities reflecting other
principles may have to be subordinated and temporarily suspended if the established
government so requires.
To "recant" means to renounce a prior statement, and a "recantation of faith" would be a
repudiation of the statement we made when we declared our unqualified belief in Bahá'u'lláh, the
Messenger of God for this day. It is such cornerstones of the Covenant, the stations of the
Central Figures and our belief in Them, which 'Abdu'l-Bahá called "the foundation of the belief
of the people of Baha." 35 The specific Teachings of the Faith flow from the
Covenant, but are in an entirely different category. Like the "administrative activities"
mentioned in the quoted passage, the Guardian has made it clear that the laws against "engaging
in conflict" must be suspended in the face of absolute orders from existing governments.
This approach seems strange at first to Americans brought up in a tradition where the
individual is seen as the only source of moral impulses and where the most significant
confrontations appear to pit the moral individual against the immoral state. As Bahá'ís we
believe that success will come from obeying the new Covenant. Bahá'u'lláh has promised us that
we can succeed in bringing peace to the world where hundreds of years of pacifism have failed:
by acting as channels for His divine power and by following the instructions He has given us. It
is not that the aims have changed or that right and wrong have traded places; it is just that the
Cause of God employs different approaches.
WITHIN THE LIMITS OF OBEDIENCE, WHAT CAN A BAHA'I DO?
While these Teachings prohibit the Bahá'ís from resorting to civil disobedience, outright
resistance, and other methods of avoiding legal obligations in order to observe Bahá'í principles,
the Teachings do not prevent them from taking action on behalf of these principles. Our
primary contribution to the world consists in laying the foundations of the New World Order,
but frequently Bahá'u'lláh's injunction "deeds, not words" requires us to take bold and radical
positions. Obedience does not necessarily imply support, and we are not required to be
obsequious when there are actions we can take within the law. We can make our objections
known; the Guardian has told us that we can petition for exemption from military duty
37 and "within the limits imposed by the government, engage in any activity that
would tend to minimize or restrict the scope of military operations." 38 We may
pursue other courses of action which the National Spiritual Assembly may deem appropriate to
"vindicate the claim of [our] universal principles to the doubtful and unbelieving."
39 As a national and world-wide community therefore, we have considerable
freedom to frame and implement a program for meaningful action in the context of the existing
legal system - always with the primary
goal of hastening the transition to a new and divinely-ordained system.
WHAT DO MOST BAHA'IS DO ABOUT THE DRAFT?
As early as 1927, the Guardian wrote that Bahá'ís should seek exemption from combatant
service, but that if this exemption was denied by the government, they should obey whatever
orders were given to them. 40 This obligation was specifically affirmed by the
Universal House of Justice in a letter to the American National Spiritual Assembly in 1965.
That letter said:
It is for each believer, under pain of his own conscience, to determine for himself
what his actions should be, bearing in mind that the application of these principles is the
spiritual obligation of every Bahá'í. It is rather for your Assembly to see that adequate
instruction is provided so that the friends will let these principles be mirrored forth in their
actions, and that they will be so steadfast in their love for Bahá'u'lláh that it would be
unthinkable for them to willingly place themselves in a position where they must take human
These principles are normally best implemented by application for "conscientious objector"
status under the provisions of the Military Selective Service Act. This statute permits
applications for non-combatant status or for "alternate service" on religious grounds consistent
with the Bahá'í position.
In accordance with the Universal House of Justice letter, the National Spiritual Assembly
provides guidance and instructions for Bahá'ís who request help in making these important
decisions or in following the appropriate procedures under the draft law. A review of the
Selective Service Act has recently been made in which the National Assembly strove to
determine which of the two possible conscientious objector statuses - non-combatant or
alternate service - is more appropriate for Bahá'ís. Neither of these fully suits the Bahá'í
position on military service; however, after considering the nuances of each, the Assembly
concluded that Bahá'ís facing the draft should apply for the classification l-A-
O.42 This conclusion has been upheld by the Universal House of Justice, which
stated in a letter to the National Assembly, dated March 3, 1969:
"We feel that the classification 1-0 should not be sought Rather, Bahá'ís should
seek the classification l-A-0."43
It occurred to the Assembly during its deliberations that a classification while providing an
expedient means of avoiding combatant service could at the same time place one in a peculiar
position in which important principles affecting Bahá'í attitudes toward society as a whole could
be compromised. For instance, although alternate service is legal, the responses of certain
groups surround it with a spirit of non-cooperation, or extreme pacifism, and consequently
create a situation in which Bahá'ís should not be involved. Over the long run, such a situation
could attach dishonor to the Faith rather than bring to its observers an illumination of the
Bahá'í approach to life. This observation does not, of course, rule out any future change in the
National Assembly's conclusion: As the laws change and certain cloudy issues surrounding the
Selective Service Act become clear, the National Assembly, with the guidance of the Universal
House of Justice, will have more to say on this subject. In the meantime, the friends should
realize that their individual decisions on military service can have far-reaching implications
for the Faith not only in the United States but throughout the Bahá'í world as well.
In summary, we abhor killing and will never voluntarily place ourselves in a position where we
must take human life. We oppose all wars at this stage of civilization because our widest loyalty
is to the world as a whole, and, until the World Commonwealth foretold by Bahá'u'lláh is
established, all wars are and will be inherently tinged with nationalistic and partisan aims. The
only conditions under which we believe that the use of force is justified is for the maintenance
of order and justice under a duly constituted national or world government. Confident that the
justice of these principles will be vindicated by history and that they will eventually prevail
when all other methods of reforming human society have failed, the Bahá'ís, individually and as
a community, accept a temporary suspension of any such laws or principles not implying a
recantation of faith when required by the laws of the government under which we live.
- Universal House of Justice Message on Politics, printed in
BAHA'I NEWS No.443 (February 1968), p.3.
- Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day Is Come, p.127 [Ed. - onsite here at par. 300].
- Universal House of Justice letter to the Bahá'í Youth in Every Land, June 10, 1966.
- Epistle to the Son of the Wolf p.25. See also Gleanings from the Writings of
Bahá'u'lláh, p. 277: "Fear God, 0 people, and refrain from shedding the blood of any one."
- Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p.75. Shoghi Effendi also quotes Bahá'u'lláh as having
said "it is better to be killed than kill." God Passes By, p. 198.
- Tablets of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 45. See also Some Answered Questions, p.305-6.
- Universal House of Justice letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United
States, September 20, 1965.
- Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 303.
- Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p.22, 24, and Gleanings, p.278, 329-30.
- Bahá'í World Faith, p.231.
- "These fruitless strifes, these ruinous wars shall pass away, and the 'Most Great
Peace' shall come." Bahá'u'lláh quoted in The Promised Day Is Come, p.121 [Ed. - onsite here at par. 287].
- The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p.45. See also quotation from Bahá'u'lláh on p.32 of
the same book.
- The Promised Day Is Come, p. 2 [Ed. - onsite here at par. 6]. See also The Hidden Words of Bahá'u'lláh, Arabic
No.51, p.15. For a specific application of this analysis to the United States, see Shoghi Effendi,
Citadel of Faith, p.126.
- Bahá'í World Faith, p.428.
- Bahá'í World Faith, p.287.
- The Promised Day Is Come, p. 127 [Ed. - onsite here at par. 299].
- Abdu'l-Bahá, quoted in The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh,p.36.
- The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p.64.
- The Promised Day Is Come, p.118 [Ed. - onsite here at par. 277].
- The Secret of Divine Civilization, p.65.
- The Secret of Divine Civilization, p.64-S. This same suggestion was made
repeatedly by Bahá'u'lláh Himself In His letters to the Kings and Rulers of the World, printed in
The Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh.
- Letter from Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States,
July 20, 1946, quoted in BAHA'I NEWS No.188 (October 1946) p.9.
- The Promised Day Is Come, p.127 [Ed. - onsite here at par. 299].
- Bahá'í World Faith, p.209.
- Bahá'í World Faith, p.192.
- Letter dated July 3, 1948, printed in BAHA'I NEWS No.215 (January 1949) p.1,
and quoted in NATIONAL BAHA'I REVIEW, June 1968, p.10.
- Some of the Guardian's most penetrating analysis of politics can be found in The
World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 63-7 and 198-9. See also the Universal House of Justice
Message on Politics, printed in BAHA'I NEWS No. 443 (February 1968), p. 3.
- Letter by the Guardian's secretary on his behalf, dated November 21, 1935, and
quoted in Universal House of Justice letter of February 9, 1967
- Words of Bahá'u'lláh in Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p.24.
- This is the continuation of the letter cited above in note 27.
- Universal House of Justice Message to the Palermo Conference, printed in BAHA'I
NEWS No.451 (October 1968), p.1.
- Letter from Shoghi Effendi to Harry Anderson, printed in BAHA'I NEWS No.241
(March 1951), p.14.
- The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 65-6.
- The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 198-9. See also the Guardian's letter to Harry
Anderson, cited above In note 31, and his letter to the Bahá'ís of Vienna printed in BAHA'I NEWS
No.218 (April 1949), p.3-4.
- Bahá'í Administration, p. 162. The particular subject was the persecution of the
Bahá'ís in 'Ishqabad Russia in 1928.
- Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p.19.
- A series of letters explained that Bahá'ís should seek the consent of their
governments to enroll in non-combatant services, but that, if refused, they should obey
whatever orders were given to them. See letter to Elsa Blakeley, 1927.
- Principles of Bahá'í Administration, p. 93-4.
- Letter from the Guardian to Elsa Blakeley, 1927.
- Shoghi Effendi, Bahá'í Administration, p.127.
- Letter to Elsa Blakeley, 1927.
- Universal House of Justice letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United
States, dated September 20, 1965.
- The statutory provisions are contained in section 6(j) of the Military Selective
Service Act of 1967. Non-combatant service, draft classification 1-A-0, is service in a non-
fighting branch of the armed forces, such as the medical corps. "Alternate service on the other
hand, is employment for a civilian charitable establishment such as a mental hospital with the
approval of the Selective Service System.
- Universal House of Justice letter to National Spiritual Assembly of the United
States, dated March 3, 1969.