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Excerpts from John Walbridge, Sacred Acts, Sacred Space, Sacred Time

John Walbridge, Sacred Acts, Sacred Space, Sacred Time (George Ronald, 1996), pages 16-22

Bahá'í Law

The original source of Bahá'í law was the Bayán; the early writings of Bahá'u'lláh contain many exhortations to obey the Bayán. Until the declaration of His mission in 1863 Bahá'u'lláh did not claim the authority to change the laws of the Báb. The earliest legal instructions of' Bahá'u'lláh were contained in a Persian work written in Edirne (1863-8). This was not released to the Bahá'ís for fear that it would cause difficulties with Muslims. It is probably now lost.

Bahá'u'lláh's chief work on laws is the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, also known, for this reason, as 'the Book of' Laws'. Although there is some evidence to suggest that it was begun a few years earlier, it was completed by the middle of 1873. Bahá'u'lláh released it at that time but cautioned against lack of wisdom in putting its laws into effect. Many of Bahá'u'lláh's Tablets written after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas contain information on Bahá'í law, often in answer to questions. The most important such text is Questions and Answers, containing the answers to questions about the application of Bahá'í law put to Him by the learned Bahá'í mujtahid Zaynu'l-Muqarrabin.

Bahá'u'lláh made two provisions for legislative authority after His death. His eldest son, Abdu'l-Bahá, was made the authoritative interpreter of His writings and the administrative leader of the Bahá'í community. He also provided for the eventual election of the Universal House of Justice, an elected body that was to have authority to legislate in matters not specifically settled in Bahá'u'lláh's own writings.

Abdu'l-Bahá, though careful not to contradict Bahá'u'lláh's explicit law, exercised a broad authority in their application and in the administration of' the affairs of' the community. His interpretations of Bahá'í law are considered to be authoritative permanently. Many of' His Writings on administrative matters - such as Bahá'í elections and review of' Bahá'í literature - are still in effect, and may well be a permanent part of the Bahá'í administrative and legal system. 'Abdu'l-Bahá is also considered the perfect exemplar of' the Bahá'í life, and thus His conduct has legal implications.

In His Will and Testament Abdu'l-Bahá appointed His grandson Shoghi Effendi as the first Guardian of' the Bahá'í Faith and as such the authorized interpreter of the Bahá'í writings and the president of the Universal House of Justice. In the absence of the House of Justice He also served as the administrative head of the Faith. Shoghi Effendi defined his own authority as being more narrow than that of Abdu'l-Bahá. He would answer questions about the meaning of Bahá'í law but he often stated that particular issues would have to be resolved by the Universal House of Justice. His primary contribution to the building of Bahá'í law - as opposed to explaining it - was in the establishment of the Bahá'í administrative system. He strongly discouraged excessive attention to matters such as ritual law.

During the ministries of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi Bahá'í law began to be practised in the Bahá'í community. In Iran and other Muslim countries, Bahá'ís followed most of the laws relating to worship and personal status. Muslim prayers and laws of fasting, marriage and burial were replaced by corresponding Bahá'í practices, a fact that Shoghi Effendi noted with pride. Most of these laws were also followed by Bahá'ís in communities elsewhere, although many of the details were not known. Certain laws not easily applied or acceptable in the West were not promulgated, notably the marriage dowry and the Huququ'lláh, a religious tax which became applicable to all Bahá'ís only in 1992. A notable development occurred after an Egyptian court declared Bahá'ís to be non- Muslims. The Egyptian Bahá'ís, with Shoghi Effendi's approval, prepared a short codification of Bahá'í law to accompany their application to the government for status as a recognized minority religion.

After the death of Shoghi Effendi in 1957 there was a gap of six years in which there was no absolute Bahá'í authority in matters of law. With the election of the Universal House of Justice in 1963, new Bahá'í law became possible for the first time since the death of Bahá'u'lláh in 1892. However, the House of Justice has been reluctant to legislate, except on matters of current administration, preferring, perhaps, to delay the development of a Bahá'í jurisprudence and legal system to a more opportune time. The main contributions of' the Universal House of Justice to Bahá'í law so far have been in making existing legal material available through the publication of A Synopsis and Codification of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas in 1973, the preparation of numerous compilations on particular aspects of Bahá'í law, the circulation of letters discussing particular topics and the publication of an annotated translation of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas in 1992.

The following is a brief summary of' the content of current Bahá'í law. Detailed discussions of specific subjects such as prayer and marriage will be found in the following chapters.

Bahá'í law may fairly be said to be a modification of Bábí law. The Báb had said in the Bayán that His laws were a gift to Him Whom God shall make manifest, for Him to accept, reject or modify as He chose. In many cases, as Bahá'u'lláh Himself writes, the laws of' the Kitáb-i-Aqdas are derived with modifications from the Bayán - for example, the modification of the Báb's system for the division of inheritances. Bahá'u'lláh was anxious that His laws should not be onerous. Thus, Bahá'í laws on a given subject are almost always less burdensome than the corresponding Bábí and Muslim laws.

By comparison with Bábí or Islamic law, there are relatively few Bahá'í laws. Much of the content of the Kitáb- i-Aqdas, which is not a large book in any case, consists of general addresses and exhortations, and the abrogation of many of the laws found in Islam or the Bayán. There is also a pronounced tendency to promulgate general principles - courtesy and cleanliness, for example - rather than elaborate rules covering every possible circumstance.

Most of the additions to Bahá'í law made since the time of Bahá'u'lláh consist of rulings on Bahá'í administration. These are not usually considered to be Bahá'í law, although they serve the same purpose.

Bahá'u'lláh writes in a number of places that the fundamental religious obligations of' man are to accept the Manifestation of God and to obey His laws strictly. Similarly, the Bahá'í writings often refer to the upholding of' the Law of God as one of the duties of the believer.

The major areas of Bahá'í law relating to religious worship and ritual are the laws of obligatory prayer, fasting and burial. The regulations for these are spelled out in some detail. Other ritual obligations include pilgrimage and the observance of feasts and holy days .

The Kitáb-i-Aqdas regulates marriage and gives quite detailed rules for divorce. There is also an elaborate system for the division of estates of those who die intestate, though this is made largely moot by the requirement to write a will.

The Aqdas contains passages abrogating many Islamic and Bábí laws, everything from Islamic sumptuary and purity laws to the Bábí commandment to destroy non-Bábí books. There are also criticisms of various offensive practices, such as confession, unpleasant table manners and the use of unsanitary public baths.

The Aqdas contains other laws as well: criminal laws providing punishment for murder, arson, assault and adultery; laws requiring the education of children, the practice of a trade, and obedience to government; the duties and revenues of the House of Justice; the prohibition of alcohol, intoxicating drugs, cruelty to animals, carrying arms unnecessarily and homosexuality; and so on. In contrast to Islamic law, the testimony of a non-believer carries equal weight to that of a believer.

Bahá'í jurisprudence

There is as yet no Bahá'í science of legal inference comparable, for example, to the Islamic science of the principles of law (usulu'l-fiqh), mainly because Bahá'ís have been discouraged from excessive attention to legal matters. However, the bases of a Bahá'í jurisprudence are found in the Bahá'í writings. Founded on these principles, an embryonic jurisprudence implicitly guides contemporary application of Bahá'í law.

The revealed text

The chief source of Bahá'í law is the corpus of Bahá'u'lláh's writings. Bahá'u'lláh Himself specified that the sacred text - i.e. His own writings - is the ultimate authority and cannot be overruled until the coming of the next Prophet after a thousand or more years. Thus laws ordained by Bahá'u'lláh are valid and unchangeable throughout His dispensation. Contrary to Islamic practice, His unwritten words and His actions are not authoritative.

One limitation on this is wisdom (hikmat), a term used technically by Bahá'u'lláh to mean the obligation not to act in such a way as to invite religious persecution. Bahá'u'lláh Himself instructed that His laws were not to be put into practice unless it was safe to do so. 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi also applied this principle to new Bahá'ís and new Bahá'í communities: laws should not be imposed if they will be a test to new believers. The Shi'i practice of religious dissimulation and denial of faith (taqiyah) is however forbidden.

The interpretations of Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi

The interpretations of Bahá'í law given in writing by Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi are also permanently binding. The interpretations of Abdu'l-Bahá, in particular, sometimes are very close to being legislative in themselves - for example, His prohibition of bigamy, which the Kitáb-i-Aqdas permits - but He was careful to specify that He had no authority to change matters that were part of the sacred text. 14 The interpretations of Shoghi Effendi have a great practical importance in contemporary Bahá'í law since he had occasion to rule on many matters that remain relevant.

The legislation of the Universal House of Justice

In addition to its administrative authority, the Universal House of Justice has the authority to make new Bahá'í law and to change the laws that it itself has made, limited only by Bahá'u'lláh's writings and the interpretations of Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi. To date it has rarely done so.

Other sources of law

Though they are not authoritative and act indirectly, there are several other sources that tend to shape Bahá'í law. These are:

ISLAMIC LAW: The Kitáb-i-Aqdas and other Bahá'í legal texts cannot be understood apart from the background of Islamic law. In exceptional cases, such as tithing, Bahá'í law is explicitly based on Islamic law

BABI LAW: Knowledge of the law of the Bayán is also necessary for understanding Bahá'í law. Shoghi Effendi indicated that a main purpose of Bábí law was to undermine Shi'i orthodoxy and that it was never intended to be enforced. 13

THE IRANIAN Bahá'í SCHOLARLY TRADITION: It would be almost impossible to understand the legal texts of Bahá'u'lláh without the commentaries, compilations and teaching of Bahá'í scholars such as Ishraq-Khavari and Fadil-i- Mazandarani.

Precedent, it should be noted, is not binding as a source of Bahá'í law nor are abstract human rights.

Contemporary Bahá'í legal inference

Authoritative interpretation of the sacred text being outside its scope, the Universal House of Justice has, thus far, generally dealt with legal questions by preparing compilations on specific topics, letting the texts speak for themselves rather than trying to legislate comprehensive codes. Because of the strong emphasis placed on the authority of the sacred text and because of the very large body of authoritative texts available from Bahá'u'lláh, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the House of Justice, Bahá'ís at every level usually settle legal questions by finding specific texts to demonstrate their points rather than by trying to deduce general legal principles.

Law and Bahá'í principles

One of the most obvious distinctions between Bahá'í and Islamic law is that Bahá'í law does not try to cover all possible questions. Instead, Bahá'u'lláh laid more emphasis on general principles such as unity, courtesy, justice and the like. Shoghi Effendi several times referred to laws and principles as the warp and woof of Bahá'u'lláh's world order. More generally, Bahá'u'lláh tended to emphasize general moral principles rather than specific rules of conduct.

Law and administration

Bahá'í administrative policy includes much that is in essence law and so in some ways it exercises more influence over Bahá'í individual and community life than does Bahá'í law in the narrow sense. In effect, national and local spiritual assemblies legislate for their own jurisdictions, though within limits set by the House of Justice and the Bahá'í writings.

John Walbridge, Sacred Acts, Sacred Space, Sacred Time (George Ronald, 1996), pages 248-252:

The Kitáb-i-Aqdas: Bahá'u'lláh's Book of Laws

Al-Kitáb al-Aqdas, literally 'the Most Holy Book', is generally known among Western Bahá'ís by the Persian form of its title, Kitáb-i-Aqdas. It is Bahá'u'lláh's book of laws and His most important work. It was written while He was living in the House of `Udi Khammar in 'Akká, about 1873, a date confirmed by its reference to the fall of Napoleon III and reference in other Tablets to its revelation early in His imprisonment in Akká. In the latter part of 1873 the existence of the book was first made known to the believers, although parts of it had been in existence for several years.

The title Kitáb-i-Aqdas was given the work by Bahá'u'lláh Himself. It is referred to in English by the Persian title as well 'the Aqdas', 'the Most Holy Book' and occasionally 'the Book of Aqdas'. It is also referred to as 'the Mother Book' of the Bahá'í Revelation.

The Aqdas is written in a lofty and austere Arabic with little rhetorical ornamentation in a style somewhat similar to that of the Qur'an. As is usual in Bahá'u'lláh's Arabic, there are some deviations from Arabic norms reflecting Persian usage. There are occasional grammatical innovations but many fewer than in the Arabic writings of the Báb.

Discussions of particular subjects are generally succinct, important laws often being given in a sentence or two. The book as a whole is quite short: the full English translation occupies only seventy pages.

The Aqdas begins with a proclamation of the inseparable duties of recognizing the Manifestation of God for the age obedience to His laws. Other subjects discussed may be classified as follows:
  1. Establishment of Bahá'í administrative institutions, "Including the appointment of 'Abdu'l-Bahá as Bahá'u'lláh's successor and interpreter, an anticipation of the Guardianship and the command to establish the House of Justice.

  2. Laws concerning prayer, fasting, marriage and divorce, and many other aspects of spiritual, social and political life.

  3. Abrogation of various Islamic and Bábí laws, practices 'and abuses.

  4. Exhortations concerning specific virtues and vices.

  5. Addresses to leaders and classes of humanity and prophecies concerning various nations and regions.

The laws of the Aqdas somewhat resemble those of Islam and Báb but they are considerably less rigorous than either. Aqdas tends to replace specific ordinances with general spiritual and moral principles. For example, the Islamic ban on listening to music is abrogated but music is brought under the general principle of moderation. Except in certain specific areas - notably prayer, fasting, marriage and inheritance - much of the legislation of the Aqdas relates to the community as a whole or is of a relatively general character, while many of the more specific ordinances either abrogate older laws or prohibit specific offensive practices.

The laws of the Aqdas are supplemented by the Questions and Answers, which consists of questions submitted to Bahá'u'lláh by Zaynu'l-Muqarrabin (one of His secretaries who had advanced training in Islamic law) concerning the application of the laws of the Aqdas and Bahá'u'lláh's replies. The social principles of the Aqdas are amplified by a series of major Tablets revealed in 'Akká, collected under the title Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. A great many Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá and letters of Shoghi Effendi clarify and supplement specific points in the Aqdas.


The original manuscript of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas in Bahá'u'lláh's hand is at the Bahá'í World Centre. The frontispiece of Taherzadeh's The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, volume 3, shows the first page of a manuscript of the Aqdas in the hand of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. When 'Abdu'l-Bahá was asked which manuscript of the Aqdas should be regarded as authoritative, He stated that the accurate text of the book is the one transcribed by Zaynu'l-Muqarrabin. Less authoritative manuscripts are common; several pages of one are reproduced in Miller's The Bahá'í Faith.


The Aqdas is the most important Bahá'í book and the basis for almost every distinctive feature of the Bahá'í community. Evidently many Bahá'ís were anxious to implement its laws, for in several Tablets dated soon after the release of the Aqdas Bahá'u'lláh cautioned against doing so unwisely

The Kitáb-i-Aqdas was first published in Arabic in Bombay in 1891 on the instructions of Bahá'u'lláh. Since then there have been a few other editions (Bombay, Cairo, Tehran). Bahá'u'lláh, Abdu'l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice each discouraged indiscriminate circulation of the Aqdas. Thus apart from these early editions, the Aqdas was not published by the Bahá'í community in full translation until 1992 (in English, other languages shortly after).

Anton Haddad translated the entire work into English in about 1900 but this was never published although it enjoyed considerable circulation in typescript in the early American community and is still occasionally found. It seems to have been an important source of early American Bahá'í administrative practice and understanding of Bahá'í teaching, especially before contact with 'Abdu'l- Bahá became frequent.

Shoghi Effendi translated most of the passages of general interest, comprising perhaps a third of the whole. A number of short passages were translated under the auspices of the House of Justice. Non-Bahá'í translations include an English translation by Earl E. Elder and William M.E. Miller, an inept and tendentious version, and a Russian translation by Alexander Tumanski, prepared with the help of Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl-i-Gulpaygani.

In 1986 the Universal House of Justice made the publication of a fully annotated English translation of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas a goal of the Six Year Plan. A task force as established at the Bahá'í World Centre to undertake the project. The lead translator was Mark Hellaby, a British Arabist. The appearance of the translation in March 1993 was a major event in the Bahá'í world.

The translation is the most sophisticated edition of a piece of Bahá'í scripture produced to that time. The full translations of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas and Questions and Answers occupy less than half the volume. The remaining contents include a short introduction to the text by the Universal House of Justice, several shorter supplementary texts, the outline synopsis and codification first published in 1973, extensive explanatory notes to the various texts, a glossary and an analytical index. The text employed a system of paragraph numbering intended to facilitate reference to the text independent of language and edition.

Synopsis and Codification

As a preliminary to a full annotated translation of the Aqdas, Shoghi Effendi began work on a synopsis and codification of the laws of the Aqdas. On the basis of his outline and preliminary notes, the House of Justice completed the work and published it as A Synopsis and Codification of the Laws and Ordinances of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas in 1973 in fulfilment of a goal of the Nine Year Plan. This work contains all the passages translated by the Guardian, a detailed outline of the contents of the Aqdas and Questions and Answers, and explanatory notes. It was incorporated into the English edition of the Aqdas.

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