Letter from the Universal House of Justice on Obligatory Prayer:
To: The Universal House of Justice
Date: 28 November 2000
From: Research Department
Questions about Obligatory Prayer
In its email message of 4 August 2000, the National Spiritual Assembly of the United Kingdom seeks clarification of a number of details in relation to the Obligatory Prayers. The questions posed by the National Assembly were raised by an Auxiliary Board member. We provide the following response.
1. Recitation of the Short Obligatory Prayer at meetings
With regard to the appropriateness of a believer's reciting the Short Obligatory Prayer at meetings, the extract from a letter dated 4 July 1995, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, cited below, provides the following guidance:
"Regarding the use of the Obligatory Prayers..., it is clear that when any of these three prayers is to be performed as a prescribed daily Obligatory Prayer, the worshipper is required to follow the instructions that accompany that prayer. Although there is no explicit prohibition on the use of these prayers, wholly or in part, as regular prayers without any genuflections, to open or close a meeting or fireside, it is preferable for the friends not to follow such a practice. Bahá'ís have so many other beautiful prayers revealed by the Twin Manifestations and 'Abdu'l-Bahá for such meetings."
2. Substitution of "daughter of" for "son of"
As to whether or not it is appropriate for a female to substitute the words "daughter of" for "son of" when reciting the Long Obligatory Prayer, we provide the following extract from a letter dated 31 August 1997, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice. The letter addresses this specific issue:
"With respect to your question as to whether it is permissible for a female in reciting the Long Obligatory Prayer to say, "I am Thy handmaiden, O my Lord, and the daughter of Thy handmaiden", you are correct in your understanding that the Guardian did not wish Bahá'ís to change the gender of pronouns and nouns in the revealed prayers. The following excerpt from a letter dated 14 January 1947 written on his behalf makes this clear:"
3. Repetition of the Greatest Name in the Long obligatory Prayer
'In regard to the question you asked him: As Bahá'u'lláh Himself specified, in the long prayer for the dead, that the gender could be changed and "his" said for "her", etc., it is permissible to do it - nay obligatory - but in all other prayers, including those for the dead, we must adhere to the exact text and not change the gender.'
"The House of Justice does not feel it appropriate to change Shoghi Effendi's usage of certain nouns in his translations. The challenge, therefore, is to accept the use of pronouns and of certain nouns such as "son" and "servant" in their generic sense, which will lead one to view the matter in terms of a spiritual response, rather than one of semantics."
The National Spiritual Assembly observes that in the Long Obligatory Prayer, there are three occasions on which one has to repeat the Greatest Name three times. While it is clear that, on the first occasion, the believer has to raise his or her hands once and repeat the Greatest Name three times, the National Assembly enquires whether it is also necessary to raise one's hands on (1) the other two occasions.
In relation to the first of the three instances, the Universal House of Justice stated on 22 April 1991 that, in following the instruction "Let him then raise his hands, and repeat three times the Greatest Name", the believer is required to raise his hands once and to repeat the Greatest Name three times in conjunction with that act. In relation to the second and third occasions, the Research Department has not, to date, been able to locate any specific guidance. It is, however, informative to consider the wording of the instructions:
"Let him then repeat the Greatest Name thrice, and bend down with hands resting on the knees, and say..." "Let him then repeat the Greatest Name thrice, and kneel with his forehead to the ground, and say..."
In contrast to the first occasion where the raising of the hands forms part of the explicit instructions, in the second and third instances no mention is made of raising the hands.
4. Raising hands twice in supplication
The National Spiritual Assembly refers to the instruction to stand and raise one's hands twice in supplication, and say the words that follow. It enquires "whether one should say each (of the two) phrase(s) each time one raises one's hands". While the intent of the question is not exactly clear to the Research Department, we provide the following extract from the letter dated 22 April 1991 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice. The letter addresses a question about the performance of this particular part of the Long Obligatory Prayer:
(1) Bahá'í Prayers: A Selection of Prayers Revealed by Bahá'u'lláh, the Báb, and 'Abdu'l-Bahá (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1993), p. 10; 14 and 15.
Regarding the direction "Let him then stand and raise his hands twice in supplication, and say;...", the believer does not have to read twice the paragraph which follows. Whether the believer raises his hands twice before the reciting of the passage, or commences the reciting after having raised his hands once, and raises them a second time soon thereafter, is left to his choice.
Universal House of Justice
Notes by Ismael Velasco:
Following Islamic precedent, the Bahá'í writings distinguish between obligatory prayer (Arabic, salat
/ Persian, namaz
) and supplications and communes (munajat/du'a
). The latter are optional and voluntary, whereas obligatory prayer is a ritual law with set obligations and binding on all the believers except within certain health parameters or in situations of danger. The obligatory prayer, together with the fast, are the two most important ritual laws of the Faith, described by Bahá'u'lláh, following Islamic precedent, as the sun and the moon of the law of God. It is also described, following the Imám Ali, as a ladder of ascent unto God. The significance of obligatory prayer is discussed extensively in the Bahá'í writings available in English, including in the Kitáb-i Íqán, the compilation on Obligatory Prayer and Fasting, the compilation on prayer and the devotional attitude, the Kitáb-i Aqdas, Questions and Answers, Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of the Báb, Tablets of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Lights of Guidance, among others.
The law of obligatory prayer evolved over time. Following broadly Islamic and subsequently Bábí precedent, Bahá'u'lláh's legislation on the Obligatory Prayer took place in two phases. First Bahá'u'lláh revealed an obligatory prayer consisting of 9 rak'ahs (each rak'ah
being a section of prayer accompanied by distinct instructions). This prayer, as Bahá'u'lláh explains in the Questions and Answers relating to the Aqdas, was sent away for safe-keeping and subsequently abrogated by Bahá'u'lláh Himself and replaced with the three obligatory prayers currently binding on the believers. It was finally lost among a group of tablets stolen by Muhammad-Alí, the half-brother and prime opposer of 'Abdu'l-Bahá after Bahá'u'lláh's ascension (see notes to Kitáb-i Aqdas).
What happened is that Bahá'u'lláh had a number of sons beside 'Abdu'l-Bahá, whom He designated as the Master and the Most Great Branch. Another of His sons was Muhammad-Alí, who towards the end of Bahá'u'lláh's days in this world had already earned His displeasure for his behaviour. 'Abdu'l-Bahá interceded at this time of behalf of his brother at the feet of the Blessed Beauty. When Bahá'u'lláh passed away, Muhammad-Alí rejected His Covenant, challenged the authority of the Master, and devoted his efforts to destroying 'Abdu'l-Bahá by all the means available. His story is briefly but heart-breakingly told by 'Abdu'l-Bahá Himself in His holy Will and Testament. He was designated by the Guardian as the arch-breaker of Bahá'u'lláh's covenant and was the foremost Covenant-breaker in the ministry of the Master. Among his destructive deeds was stealing a box of precious tablets, including among others the original Obligatory Prayer ordained by Bahá'u'lláh in the Aqdas, but already superseded by the time of Muhammad-Alí's action.
The regulations applying to all obligatory prayers are set out in the Kitáb-i Aqdas, including the requirement to turn to the Qiblih (meaning "Point of Adoration" in Arabic), which, confirming the Báb's own injunction, Bahá'u'lláh ordains to be Him Whom God shall make manifest (namely His own person). 'Abdu'l-Bahá states in a tablet that subsequently Bahá'u'lláh ordained that after His death the Qiblih should be His luminous resting place, however the tablet containing this instruction was lost. Today the Qiblih is the Shrine of Bahá'u'lláh in Bahji. In the Aqdas are also found the injunctions requiring ablutions before each obligatory prayer; the applicable exemptions, and the requirements in case of unsaid obligatory prayers on account of dangers while travelling or at home.
The text of the three obligatory prayers was revealed in Akká and withheld from the believers for some time, until it was shared with Hand of the Cause Alí Akbar SháhMírzádeh Hajji Akhund in the Lawh-i Bishárát-i 'Uzma (Tablet of the Most Great Glad-tidings), and thus diffused among the community.
Within this text the instructions for each of the three obligatory prayers are set out, expounded and supplemented in the Questions and Answers, and clarified in subsequent letters of Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice. Among these clarifications and expositions are the meaning of morn, noon, and eve, the use of clocks to determine times of prayer, Who to turn to spiritually in prayer, the age of maturity at which obligatory prayer becomes binding, and the resolution of ambiguities in the instructions accompanying each of these prayers, such as how to raise one's hands in supplication, the form of the greatest name to be used, the repetitions of the greatest name and other phrases and their accompanying gestures, the saying of different obligatory prayers on the same day, the necessity or otherwise of fresh ablutions, the inappropriateness of changing the gender and pronouns of the prayer, the prohibition of congregational prayer and injunction to say obligatory prayers individually (not necessarily requiring privacy), and the determination of physical fitness to perform the prayers being ultimately an act of private conscience. The possibility of saying one's obligatory prayer in the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár is also expressed (TAB). From 1999, all the laws and regulations relating to obligatory prayer and fasting became universally binding on all the believers.
The three obligatory prayers consist of a short obligatory prayer to be said once a day between noon and sunset while standing towards the qiblih; a medium obligatory prayer to be said three times a day (morning, noon and evening), including verses to accompany one's ablutions and prescribed movements to accompany various sections of the prayer; and a long obligatory prayer to be recited once in 24 hours and including movements and prostrations accompanying the recitation of this prayer.
No obligation to say one of the three above the others applies, on the contrary, the diversity of prayers being suggested as fitting the spiritual requirements of different temperaments and levels of understanding, such that reciting the short obligatory prayer is encouraged for someone who cannot relate to the requirements of the long obligatory prayer, as well as for someone who finds the use of masculine pronouns problematic (Shoghi Effendi).
The experience of obligatory prayers is held in the Bahá'í writings to be a process rather than an event, varying from individual to individual and deepening with practice. The immense efficacy said to be latent in the obligatory prayers is said to be conditional on the spirit in which it is uttered, and to be gradually released through "perseverance" in practicing the law ('Abdu'l-Bahá, in importance of obligatory prayer and fasting).
The obligatory prayers are considered to be endowed with a special potency, to draw the heart closer to God, to impart humility, to protect from tests, and to contain sweetness, tenderness and joy when recited in the right spirit. The accompanying movements are held to be outward symbols of inner realities, and to contain powerful spiritual mysteries and truth. Obligatory prayer is meant to be offered with radiance and spirituality, in a state of detachment from all save God, and out of love for Bahá'u'lláh, and is described as "conversation with God".
Notes by Peter Terry:
The following questions were asked:
- is the obligation to recite verses in the morning and evening fulfilled by the recitation of prayers?
- is recitation and reading the same?
- what is the purpose of reciting the divinely-revealed verses?
Let us look at what specific recitations are required by Bahá'u'lláh. The obligatory prayer, salat in Arabic, is one requirement, and it is to be recited. Does it "count" if it is recited inwardly, without a sound? I haven't come across any guidance on this point in Bahá'í texts. The 95 times Alláh'u'Abha, dhikr in Arabic, is another requirement, and it is recited. Once more, I am not sure whether silent inner recitation is permitted in place of vocalization. Now, since the salat and dhikr could be recited any time during a twenty-four hour interval, it appears that the command to recite the verses of God every morning and evening is in addition to the salat and dhikr. There are specific prayers revealed to be recited at morning and in the evening, so the fulfillment of this command can be very exact. But inasmuch as Bahá'u'lláh does not indicate which verses are to be read at morn and eventide, it would appear that permission is granted to recite any verses.
The specific context of the passage you cited is as follows: just prior to the statement you have excerpted, Bahá'u'lláh exhorts His readers to "give ear unto the verses of God which He Who is the sacred Lote-Tree reciteth unto you." Here then, Bahá'u'lláh is the reciter, and we are listening to Him speak when we read or recite His verses. He indicates that "through them" (the verses) "the soul of man is caused to wing its flight towards the Dayspring of Revelation, and the heart of every true believer is suffused with light." There is the purpose of listening to the "verses of God" recited by Bahá'u'lláh — to uplift our souls and fill them with light. He reiterates this point then by stating that obedience to this and the other commands of God "is best for you" — this is in our best interest "did ye but know".
Then follows the statement requiring the recitation of the verses of God every morning and evening, and linking this to the Covenant, "whoso turneth away from these holy verses in this Day is of those who throughout eternity have turned away from God." This reminds me of Jesus's statement recorded in the Gospels to the effect that those who turn away from Him are forgiven but that those who turn away from the Holy Spirit have denied themselves the divine bestowal, not only in this life but in the life to come.
This might be interpreted in a strictly literal fashion by some people, and lead to rigid behavior and expectations, if it weren't for the words of wisdom with which Bahá'u'lláh immediately follows this command: "Pride not yourselves on much reading of the verses or on a multitude of pious acts by night and day; for were a man to read a single verse with joy and radiance it would be better for him than to read with lassitude all the Holy Books of God...Read ye the sacred verses in such measure that ye be not overcome by languor and despondency. Lay not upon your souls that which will weary them and weigh them down, but rather what will lighten and uplift them, so that they may soar on the wings of the Divine verses towards the Dawning-place of His manifest signs; this will draw you nearer to God, did ye but comprehend."
While we may be tempted to think that reading the verses, that is, silent recitation rather than vocalization, is sufficient, there are many indications that vocalized recitation is not only encouraged but required. Immediately following this paragraph in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Bahá'u'lláh enjoins teaching our children to recite the divine verses, "so that, in most melodious tones, they may recite the Tablets of the All-Merciful in the alcoves within the Mashriqu'l-Adhkárs." Are they reciting the verses of God silently in the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár? This doesn't seem likely, considering that Bahá'u'lláh is enjoining recitation "in most melodious tones"! In paragraph 115 we are enjoined to enter into the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár "at the hour of dawn" (reciting the verses of God in the morn), to sit "in silence to listen to the verses of God" and in paragraph 116 those who are actually intoning the verses are addressed: "They who recite the verses of the All-Merciful in the most melodious of tones will perceive in them that which the sovereignty of earth and heaven can never be compared." As a singer and chanter of prayers, my personal experience is that this is not hyperbole, but rather a statement of fact.
There are many statements by the Master as well praising the chanting of the verses in the most melodious of tones and by those with beautiful voices. He also speaks of how potent music is, how it can uplift the soul. This is also stated originally by Bahá'u'lláh in Kitáb-i-Aqdas: "We, verily, have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high." (K51) Isn't this precisely what the recitation of the divine verses is meant to do, to uplift our souls? Indeed, Bahá'u'lláh makes the connection between music and the recitation of the divine verses very direct in that same paragraph: "Let your joy be the joy born of My Most Great Name, a Name that bringeth rapture to the heart, and filleth with ecstasy the minds of all who have drawn nigh unto God." The Most Great Name is Abha/Bahá' and this Name is to be recited 95 times every day.
Bahá'u'lláh returns repeatedly to remind us that music and reciting the divine verses and obeying all the other commands in His Kitáb-i-Aqdas have but one purpose: to uplift our souls and bring them closer to God. We must be especially mindful that we do not import the dreary heaviness of some earlier religious traditions (and personal histories) into our devotions, whether private or communal. We are enjoined to be joyful and attracted to God and to one another. This is good news, glad tidings, and we must try not to forget this
Notes by Michael Sours:
: Can we can change the words of a prayers in our own private praying?
: The only texts that I am aware of relating to this question is as follows:
"As to whether or not it is appropriate for a female to substitute the words 'daughter of' for 'son of' when reciting the Long Obligatory Prayer, we provide the following extract from a letter dated 31 August 1997, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice. The letter addresses this specific issue: 'With respect to your question as to whether it is permissible for a female in reciting the Long Obligatory Prayer to say, "I am Thy handmaiden, O my Lord, and the daughter of Thy handmaiden", you are correct in your understanding that the Guardian did not wish Bahá'ís to change the gender of pronouns and nouns in the revealed prayers. The following excerpt from a letter dated 14 January 1947 written on his behalf makes this clear: "In regard to the question you asked him: As Bahá'u'lláh Himself specified, in the long prayer for the dead, that the gender could be changed and 'his' said for 'her', etc., it is permissible to do it — nay obligatory — but in all other prayers, including those for the dead, we must adhere to the exact text and not change the gender." The House of Justice does not feel it appropriate to change Shoghi Effendi's usage of certain nouns in his translations. The challenge, therefore, is to accept the use of pronouns and of certain nouns such as 'son' and 'servant' in their generic sense, which will lead one to view the matter in terms of a spiritual response, rather than one of semantics."
It could be inferred from this that if one cannot change the gender in prayers (other than that one prayer for the dead), and if in that regard the believers are to adhere to the "exact" text, then nothing else in any prayer can likewise be altered. If that conclusion is correct, then the distinction you're making has some basis. That is, songs can be based on prayers, but prayers using the revealed writings should be left unaltered. That would mean that a prayer that alters the texts, becomes in effect a song, and not a proper devotional recitation. In that case there is a distinction between song and prayer (at least prayer using the canonical texts), but I'm not sure that the difference includes a distinction between song and chanting.
In English, the term "chanting" means to simply sing or recite in a melodious voice. This term appears in the Synopsis of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, "To teach one's children to chant the holy verses in the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár", which is no doubt based on the passage,
"Teach your children the verses revealed from the heaven of majesty and power, so that, in most melodious tones, they may recite the Tablets of the All-Merciful in the al coves within the Mashriqu'l-Adhkárs. Whoever hath been transported by the rapture born of adoration for My Name, the Most Compassionate, will recite the verses of God in such wise as to captivate the hearts of those yet wrapped in slumber." (p. 74)
From this, one might argue that chanting is distinct from song. When I think of "prayer," I understand it to be primarily supplication to God or an intercessor and/or the giving of praises of God. And when I think of chanting, I understand it to be a melodious way of reciting or singing the verses and/or prayers. That is, I'm not aware that "chanting" has a specific or exclusive relationship to prayer or that song cannot involve the act of supplication.
In my limited understanding the only distinction in this question would be that some prayers are chanted or sung as they are, without alteration in wording, and (possibly inappropriately) some are chanted or sung with alterations, presumably in a way that is recognizable as such to the chanter or those who might hear the words spoken. Likewise, a person could chant a prayer that is from other scriptures, or even composed by themselves or someone else. That is, I also don't know of any rule that invalidates the spontaneous or composed prayers of individual believers, nor any reason why such prayers could not be chanted by anyone who wants to do so. Obviously it is a great blessing to have prayers revealed by the Manifestations and appointed successors, but acknowledging this is different from actually taking that to mean that individual prayers are prohibited (which of course, I'm not inferring from your message).
When I was a youth and once had the blessing of working on a project with native Americans of the Sioux community, it was common place that the Bahá'ís there chanted their own prayers or traditional prayers and it was not unusual to hear variants on occasion.
I've also noticed that generally, some of the believers read and chant Bahá'í Tablets that are not supplications as if they were, such as "Blessed is the spot..." That is, its not written as a supplication (prayer) but it is often recited and/or chanted during devotional times as if it were. The Tablet of Ahmad is another example. Generally speaking, I can't really see why a person chanting a Bahá'í prayer for devotional reasons would intentionally alter it, but I'm not a musician or composer. However, I have observed that some believers will recite a prayer, even if only in a subtly melodic way and repeat select verses to add a musical or even emotional effect to it, and this during devotionals. Perhaps that is inappropriate or against the teachings. I don't know for sure. I have not observed this often but on the few occasions I have, it didn't occur to me that it was prohibited. I just assumed that it was an acceptable degree of artistic license.