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The Kitáb-i-Aqdas is the source and inspiration for the process of transformation initiated by the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh. It defines the goals and provides the means. Its various dimensions (social, mystical, ethical, cultural).
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The Kitáb-i-Aqdas and the Process of Transformation

by John A. Davidson

published in The Kitáb-i-Aqdas: Studies from the First National Conference on the Holy Book, vol. 1
Roseberry: Association for Bahá'í Studies Australia, 1996
The Kitáb-i-Aqdas has been described by Shoghi Effendi as the "Charter of the future world civilization" and the "Mother Book" of the Bahá'í Dispensation (p12-13). It is the source and inspiration for the process of transformation initiated by the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh. It defines the goals. It also provides the means. It is seminal in that it contains the ideas from which the goals are formed. It is formative in defining the laws and institutions which create the social framework of a new order. The transformation it envisages has many dimensions. It is fundamentally mystical in character in that it involves a spiritual reorientation which enables a person to see others "with the eye of God," in terms of their divine potentialities and good qualities, and to love them for the sake of God and not for lesser reasons. It also has an ethical dimension which is concerned with the cultivation of virtues, a social dimension whose central theme is the unity of the entire human race, and a cultural dimension involving the concept of creating an ever-advancing civilization.

These aims are mutually interdependent, and are elucidated in many celebrated passages of the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh. In the Book of Certitude, Bahá'u'lláh links the awakening of insight and certitude to the spiritual influence of the "City of God" which is renewed once in about a thousand years through the process of progressive revelation. Other significant passages have been drawn together in His final work, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf.

"Only when the lamp of search, of earnest striving, of longing desire, of passionate devotion, of fervid love, of rapture, and ecstasy, is kindled within the seeker's heart, and the breeze of his loving-kindness is wafted upon his soul, will the darkness of error be dispelled, the mists of doubts and misgivings be dissipated, and the lights of knowledge and certitude envelop his being. At that hour will the mystic Herald, bearing the joyful tidings of the Spirit, shine forth from the City of God resplendent as the morn, and, through the trumpet blast of knowledge, will awaken the heart, the soul, and the spirit from the slumber of negligence. Then will the manifold favours and outpouring grace of the holy and everlasting Spirit confer such new life upon the seeker that he will find himself endowed with a new eye, a new ear, a new heart, and a new mind..." (The Book of Certitude, p195-196).

"The utterance of God is a lamp whose light is these words: Ye are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch. Deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship. He who is the Day-Star of Truth beareth Me witness! So powerful is the light of unity that it can illuminate the whole earth... At one time We spoke in the language of the lawgiver; at another in that of the truth-seeker and the mystic, and yet Our supreme purpose and highest wish hath always been to disclose the glory and sublimity of this station." (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 14- 15).

The theme of unity is further elaborated by Shoghi Effendi in The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh:

"Let there be no mistake. The principle of the Oneness of Mankind - the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh revolve - is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope... "It calls for no less than the reconstruction and demilitarisation of the whole civilized world - a world organically unified in all the essential aspects of its life, its political machinery, its spiritual aspiration, its trade and finance, its script and language, and yet infinite in the diversity of the national characteristics of its federated units. "It represents the consummation of human evolution - an evolution that has had its earliest beginnings in the birth of family life, its subsequent development in the achievement of tribal solidarity, leading in turn to the constitution of the city-state, and expanding later into the institution of independent and sovereign nations. "The principle of the Oneness of Mankind, as proclaimed by Bahá'u'lláh, carries with it no more and no less than a solemn assertion that attainment to this final stage in this stupendous evolution is not only necessary but inevitable, that its realization is fast approaching, and that nothing short of a power that is born of God can succeed in establishing it." (The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p42-43).

The provisions of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas touch on all the important relationships of groups and individuals. The following summary is by no means comprehensive but an indication of some of the most distinctive individual and social changes it foreshadows. They will be grouped provisionally under three general headings: the renewal of revelation, the development of individuals, and the development of communities. The reader is asked to bear in mind that these categories are not mutually exclusive and some of the allocations are therefore fairly arbitrary. Following this overview of the seminal ideas in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas for the creation of a united, progressive and spiritually-motivated civilisation, attention will be directed to three issues which are potentially contentious within and/or outside the Bahá'í community and which will impact directly upon the process of transformation - the philosophy of law and liberty implicit in the teachings, the status of women in the Bahá'í community, and the style and inspirational character of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas.

The Renewal of Revelation

The Kitáb-i-Aqdas asserts the continuity of the Bahá'í Faith with the revelations of the past and of the future. "This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future" (K182). It is a challenge to the religions, their leaders and followers, to recognise the truth of the new Revelation (K167). "This is the infallible Balance which the hand of God is holding, in which all who are in the heavens and all who are on earth are weighed, and their fate determined..." (K183).

The Covenant Concerning the Next Manifestation

A critical provision of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is the assurance of the continuation of spiritual authority within the Bahá'í community for a period of not less than one thousand years, till the coming of the next independent Manifestation of God. "Whoso layeth claim to a Revelation direct from God, ere the expiration of a full thousand years, such a man is assuredly a lying impostor... Whoso interpreteth this verse otherwise than its obvious meaning is deprived of the spirit of God and of His mercy... (K37).

The Covenant Concerning the Succession of Authority within the Bahá'í Community

During the Bahá'í Dispensation authoritative guidance is to be found by reference to Bahá'u'lláh, and in the sacred texts. "Should differences arise amongst you over any matter, refer it to God while the Sun still shineth above the horizon of this Heaven and, when it set, refer ye to whatsoever hath been sent down by Him" (K53). It provides also for the continuation of authoritative interpretation through the appointment of 'Abdu'l-Bahá: "...refer ye whatsoever ye understand not in the Book to Him Who hath branched from this mighty stock" (K174, also K121, n145), and, by implication, for the Institution of the Guardianship (p143). In addition the Kitáb-i-Aqdas establishes an International House of Justice (K42), which will elaborate and apply the laws of the Faith (Q49), and to which all affairs and matters of State are to be referred (p91).

The Covenant with Individual Believers

The primary obligation for any individual is sincerity in turning to God, in recognising His Revelation, and following His teachings. Those who follow in this path are the recipients of God's love, guidance and blessings.

"The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good; and whoso is deprived thereof hath gone astray, though he be the author of every righteous deed. It behoveth everyone who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the World. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other." (K1).

"The very life of all deeds is My good pleasure, and all things depend upon Mine acceptance... He who attaineth to My love hath title to a throne of gold, to sit thereon in honour over all the world; he who is deprived thereof, though he sit upon the dust, that dust would seek refuge with God, the Lord of all religions." (K36). "We are with you at all times, and shall strengthen you through the power of truth..." (K38).

The Development of Individuals

Individual development will be discussed under the headings of spirituality, ethical teachings, health, and family relationships.

Individual Spirituality

The purpose of a spiritual life is to attain to God's acceptance and good pleasure. This may be achieved by the recognition of God and creation of a lifestyle which reflects the Divine laws and principles. A spiritual discipline unconnected to the process of Divine Self-Revelation, which has now culminated in the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, is not adequate to attain to God's acceptance and good pleasure. (K1, K36). To assist in the development of individual spirituality there are prescribed: obligatory prayers (K12), an annual period of fasting (K16), daily recitation of the Greatest Name (K18), to recite the verses of God at morning and evening with joy and fragrance (K149), to turn to God for forgiveness (K49). Chanting the Divine verses in the most melodious tones, and spiritual music are both endowed with power to uplift the spirit of the believer to the Divine worlds. (K51, K116). A special blessing surrounds those who direct their steps to the Mashriqu'l-Adhkár to remember God at the hour of dawn (K115). There are three key activities, in addition to the spiritual disciplines just outlined, which facilitate spiritual development. First is study of the Sacred Writings to gain insight into the purposes underlying the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, "to unravel its secrets and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths" (K182). "Were any man to taste the sweetness of the words which the lips of the All-Merciful have willed to utter, he would, though all the treasures of the earth be in his possession, renounce them one and all, that he might vindicate the truth of even one of His commandments..." (K3). The second is the transformation of the understandings and attitudes of oneself and others by sharing the teachings with them. "Assist ye, O My people, My chosen servants who have arisen to make mention of Me among My creatures and to exalt My word throughout My realm" (K117). "Say: This is the Most Great Testimony, by which the validity of every proof throughout the ages hath been established, would that ye might be assured thereof. Say: Through it the poor have been enriched, the learned enlightened, and the seekers enabled to ascend unto the presence of God." (K183). The third is service of all kinds to the Cause of God and to humanity. "Arise to serve the Cause of God, in such wise that the cares and sorrows caused by them that have disbelieved in the Dayspring of the Signs of God may not afflict you." (K35). "Arise to further My Cause, and to exalt My Word amongst men. We are with you at all times, and shall strengthen you through the power of truth. We are truly almighty." (K38).

Ethical Teachings

Social relationships are to be characterised by justice, loving kindness and chastity. Trustworthiness, absolute truthfulness and courtesy are mentioned explicitly as among the virtues which exalt the human station (K120). Murder, wounding or striking a person, arson and theft are prohibited and penalties stipulated (K19, K45, K49, K56, K62, K73). Animals are not to be mistreated (K187). In addition to the general emphasis given to loving kindness (p91) is the specific exhortation to consort with the people of all religions with amity and concord (K144), to respond with gentleness should anyone be angry with us (K153), and to shun backbiting and calumny (K19). Purity and chastity are linked to spiritual attainment (K116, K175) and emphasised in the teachings on physical cleanliness ( K74, K76), warnings not to be mislead by the promptings of base and selfish desires ( K29), and the penalty of a fine to be imposed for adultery or improper sexual relations.


A number of the provisions of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas are directly concerned with the preservation of health and the cultivation of physical refinement. These include bathing in clean water and paring one's nails (K106), washing soiled garments (K74), being the essence of cleanliness (K74), avoidance of intoxicants (K119) and habit forming drugs (K155), and the prohibition of sexual impropriety (K19, K49). In times of sickness believers are to consult competent physicians (K113).

Family relationships

Family ties are greatly reinforced in the provisions of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Marriage is ordained (K63), and requires the consent of parents as well as the consent of the couple (K65). The obligations of children to their parents are emphasised in the strongest terms, asserting this obligation as next after the recognition of the unity of God (Q104, Q106). The reciprocal obligation of parents to educate their children is also emphasised to the extent that a father who neglects the education of his children is to forfeit the rights of fatherhood (K48, K150, Q105, n76). Children should learn to recite the Divine verses in melodious tones in the alcoves of the Mashriqu'l-Adhkárs (K150).

The Development of Communities

The development of communities requires a structure of law and institutions to maintain unity, to facilitate collective undertakings, to promote education, health and wellbeing, to ensure the protection and opportunities for advancement of the disadvantaged or different, and to perpetuate a culture which transcends the lifespan of individuals and generations. All these matters are addressed in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas.

Institutional development

The Kitáb-i-Aqdas provides for the succession of authority within the Bahá'í community and strictly limits authoritative interpretation (K121, K174). It establishes the institutions of the international and local Houses of Justice and assigns some of their functions and responsibilities (K30, K42, p91). It prohibits contention with those in authority in the wider community (K95). The processes by which institutions function are also important. The members of the Houses of Justice are challenged to attain a spiritual outlook, a universal vision, and detachment from self interest. "They should consider themselves as entering the Court of the presence of God, the Exalted, the Most High, and as beholding Him who is the Unseen... It is incumbent upon them to take counsel together and to have regard for the interests of the servants of God, for His sake, even as they regard their own interests, and to choose that which is meet and seemly." (K30).

Social and economic development

The Kitáb-i-Aqdas calls for universal literacy (K48). It requires the training of all people to be able to earn a living through a trade or profession, and exalts such work to the rank of worship (K33). Begging is forbidden and commitment to profitable undertakings commended (K33).The additional comments of the Guardian make it clear that these provisions also imply an obligation on those in charge of the organisation of society to ensure that every individual will have the opportunity of working to earn a livelihood (n56). Such enterprise must lead to the development of cities and countries (K160). The acquisition of wealth is legitimised (K46), but the spiritual principle of purification from wealth and possessions is also upheld (K97, K146) and additional means provided for the distribution of wealth and the elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty including the Huqúqu'lláh (K97), the payment of a tax for charity (K146, n161), and encouragement for the distribution of inherited wealth (K20, K109, Q69, n38).

Social relationships are fostered by the institution of the Nineteen Day Feast: "God hath purposed to bind hearts together, albeit through both earthly and heavenly means" (K57). Unity is upheld as a cardinal social principle: "Be ye as the fingers of one hand, the members of one body" (K58), and reinforced by the exhortation to accept invitations to banquets and festive occasions with joy and gladness (K156).

The advancement of civilization

In addition to social and economic considerations the Kitáb-i-Aqdas provides for the development of arts and sciences (K77, p160) and the advancement of civilization (K189). Indeed one of the signs referred to as indicating the stage of maturity in the advancement of civilization is the discovery of a radical approach to the transmutation of elements (K189, n193).

The creation of a world community

The concepts of world unity and world citizenship are approached in a number of different ways. One is in the images of unity: "Ye are all the leaves of one tree and the drops of one ocean" (p92). The trustees of even the local Houses of Justice to be established in every city are not merely responsible for the wellbeing of their region, but should have a sense of global obligations. "It behoveth them ... to regard themselves as the guardians appointed by God for all that dwell on earth." (K30). Global institutions are established within the Bahá'í community for the interpretation of the Writings (K121, K174) and for the administration of the Faith through the Universal House of Justice (K42). The members of parliaments throughout the world are enjoined to select a single language and a common script for the use of all on earth. This step is hailed as the cause of unity, the greatest instrument for promoting harmony and civilization, and one of the signs of the coming of age of the human race (K189, n194).

Law and Liberty

Bahá'u'lláh clearly intended that the Kitáb-i-Aqdas should not be treated simply as a book of laws: "Think not that we have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice wine with the fingers of might and power." (K5). Nevertheless the laws are stated unequivocally as the Laws of God, and obedience to them is the source of spiritual life to the followers of all faiths: "These, verily, are the Laws of God; transgress them not at the prompting of your base and selfish desires... The sincere among His servants will regard the precepts set forth by God as the Water of Life to the followers of every faith..." (K29). Although the Universal House of Justice is charged with supplementary legislation for the application of the laws, it may not change laws which are part of the explicit text (p4-5, p91).

Confronted with such a claim, human beings have three options: to accept it, to ignore it, or to reject it (K7, K140, K166). The option which we do not have is to negotiate, to choose or modify according to our own wishes or best judgment. The maintenance of this option is of course the basis of existing systems of law in Western countries, and its elimination will no doubt be a disappointment even to many of the spiritually minded, who would prefer to be consulted before God promulgates any new law. It is, however, the basis for law in all the major religions including Christianity, even to the extent that Jesus exhorted His followers to pray daily, "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven" and to faithfully observe all the commandments (Matthew, 5, v17-20; Luke, 16, v17).

The concept of law in Western countries has been profoundly influenced by the utilitarian philosophy of liberty, with the foundation belief that individual liberty may be restricted only if the exercise of liberty impinges upon the freedom and wellbeing of others. Spiritual philosophies, on the other hand, have seen the highest good in turning to God and seeking His will in all things. From this standpoint liberty is a positive value, but not so great that it must necessarily take priority over other values, even if those other values are not fully appreciated. Thus Bahá'u'lláh writes, "We approve of liberty in certain circumstances, and refuse to sanction it in others." (K124).

The collision between current Western views and the approach of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is likely to be loudest in three areas of concern: laws which appear trivial or arbitrary, laws which appear harsh, and laws which appear unduly restrictive. Each of these concerns will be addressed briefly.

Laws which appear trivial or arbitrary

It is clear from the Kitáb-i-Aqdas itself that law serves a variety of purposes. Among those mentioned explicitly are the establishment of love, harmony and unity (K65, K70), the maintenance of order and security (K2), and the protection and elevation of the station of human beings (K45, K97). Laws must be obeyed, trusting in their Divine origin, even if the purpose is not understood (K161-163). They are not, however, arbitrary, but have their basis in truth and fairness (K3, K4, K7). This point is made equally strongly by `Abdu'l-Bahá: "The laws of God are not impositions of will, or of power, or pleasure, but the resolutions of truth, reason and justice." (Paris Talks, p154).

The believer is strongly encouraged to ponder the purpose underlying each law, that its spiritual motivation may be understood and responded to. "From My laws the sweet-smelling savour of My garment may be smelled..." (K4). "My commandments are the lamps of My loving providence among My servants, and the keys of My mercy for My creatures... Were any man to taste the sweetness of the words which the lips of the All-Merciful have willed to utter, he would, though the treasures of the earth be in his possession, renounce them one and all, that he might vindicate the truth of even one of His commandments..." (K3).

An acquaintance with the law of previous revelations suggests that the purpose underlying a law is not always transparent, and that a law may serve multiple purposes. Consider, for example the prohibition in the Torah on eating the flesh of the pig. This has generally been justified as a health law on the grounds that pigs were more likely to be infested with parasites, etc. It has also been argued, however, that the pig is the only domestic animal kept just to be killed for food, and that the Divine purpose underlying the law is to engender a greater respect and kindness to animals.

The Kitáb-i-Aqdas contains a number of laws which pertain to health, such as washing in clean water. While these laws may seem evident in some Western countries, access to clean water remains a central problem for health and social and economic development in the greater part of the world, and the importance of a solution is emphasised by its inclusion within the ambit of Divine Law.

There is also a tendency to regress as well as to progress, and we find that even universal literacy, for example, still remains an unachieved goal in Western countries. The inclusion of such matters in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas highlights the fact that many social problems are not solvable simply by assigning responsibility to a government. The motivation and active involvement of individuals and families are also important.

Some laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas appear, at first glance, quite arbitrary. One example is that men are not to grow their hair beyond the lobe of the ear (K44, p158). While the reason for this law is not self-evident, it is possible that it is intended as a mark of gender differentiation. It may be speculative to suggest that the mutual attraction between the sexes is enhanced by making some differences, but most societies retain some differences of dress or grooming to maintain the distinction. As our society is plunging deeper into an age of sexual ambiguity, perhaps we may hope to gain some greater clarity of understanding of this issue in the future.

Laws which appear harsh

The Kitáb-i-Aqdas prescribes the death penalty for murder and arson, with life imprisonment as an alternative sentence (K62). Murder is distinguished from unintentionally killing someone, for which compensation to the family is to be paid (K188). These alternative penalties reflect the intrinsic ambiguity of the situation. On the one hand the principle of fairness demands that a person should not be able to deliberately kill another without risk to his or her own life, and on the other there is the abhorrence one feels at deliberately executing a fellow human being, even one who deserves it.

The Universal House of Justice comments on this matter: "Shoghi Effendi, in response to a question about this verse in the Aqdas, affirmed that while capital punishment is permitted, an alternative, "life imprisonment", has been provided "whereby the rigours of such a condemnation can be seriously mitigated" . He states that "Bahá'u'lláh has given us a choice and has, therefore, left us free to use our own discretion within certain limitations imposed by His law". In the absence of specific guidance concerning the application of this aspect of Bahá'í law, it remains for the Universal House of Justice to legislate on the matter in the future." (n87).

The mere fact that the death penalty has been contemplated suggests that a more spiritual society of the future will not necessarily be more tolerant of deliberate and ruthless violence than is our own. The discussion by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in Some Answered Questions on "The right method of treating criminals" will no doubt significantly influence Bahá'í thought. In it He affirms that justice, not forgiveness, is the necessary basis for the constitution of communities. Nevertheless concentration on the enforcement of penal laws and the preparation of means of punishment has a demoralising effect, and increases the expectation that crimes will be committed. "The community, on the contrary, ought day and night to strive and endeavour with the utmost zeal and effort to accomplish the education of men, to cause them day by day to progress and to increase in science and knowledge, to acquire virtues, to gain good morals and to avoid vices, so that crimes may not occur... Therefore the communities must think of preventing crimes rather than of rigorously punishing them." (Some Answered Questions, p253-254).

Laws which appear unduly restrictive

One of the most challenging of Bahá'u'lláh's statements in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is "True liberty consisteth in man's submission unto my commandments" (K125). Udo Schaefer, in his "Thoughts on the Publication of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas," quotes a well-known German writer who had been studying the Bahá'í Faith but was very disturbed by this passage. She wrote: "I don't want to submit myself to anyone. I submit only to God in myself, and I find people with authoritarian claims most suspect. As a Catholic, I have freed myself from the dogmas of the Church, from which I have suffered so much. That is why I cannot become a Bahá'í." (p.47).

It is not difficult for a Bahá'í to sympathise with some of these sentiments. The Bahá'í teachings emphasise the independent search after truth as a way of overcoming prejudice and dogmatic belief. Bahá'u'lláh relates the fundamental principle of justice to the ability to "see with your own eyes and not through the eyes of others." (Arabic Hidden Words, 2). Throughout history vast numbers of human beings have suffered immeasurably through the tyranny of totalitarian regimes, both religious and political.

For a seeker investigating the Bahá'í Faith, the problem of the restriction of liberty is not only in the claim to Divine authority, which is, after all, common to all world religions. In addition the development of Western society has been in directions which foster self-indulgence at the expense of spirituality. When one reflects that the Kitáb-i-Aqdas prohibits gambling, sexual promiscuity, adultery and homosexuality, the use of intoxicants, habit-forming drugs, backbiting and calumny, it is clear that many of the pleasures, passions and diversions that give meaning and purpose to life in a contemporary Western society are not accepted.

It is not enough to point out the enormous social cost of gambling, sexually transmitted diseases, drugs, alcohol, and character destruction. People who engage in these activities have a fair idea of the costs, sooner or later. There is only one real answer, and that is a Bahá'í community which has found the secret of spiritual happiness, whose meetings are radiant with joy and excitement, whose friendships, both within and between sexes, are more extensive and more intimate for being spiritually based, and whose members have no need to put another down to bolster their own egos, because they are at peace within themselves.

In fact, the Bahá'í approach to the enjoyment of the material benefits of life is not one of asceticism and renunciation. It is conditioned on a spiritualisation of priorities to seek first the Will of God, and its practice requires finding the "Middle Way" between undue self-indulgence and preoccupation with material affairs (which can lead to forgetfulness of one's spiritual purpose), and a rejection of wealth and other material benefits as incompatible with the spiritual life, (which is lacking in a proper appreciation of the many gifts and opportunities that have been provided for us).

The Kitáb-i-Aqdas shines a light upon the middle way. Through its laws and ordinances it frees the followers of Bahá'u'lláh from pursuits and attachments that can lead ultimately only to frustration and regret. It redirects their energies, and refreshes and revitalises their spirits. Bahá'u'lláh writes: "Were men to observe that which We have sent down unto them from the Heaven of Revelation, they would of a certainty, attain unto perfect liberty. Happy is the man that hath apprehended the purpose of God in whatever He hath revealed..." (K125) "Should a man wish to adorn himself with the ornaments of the earth, to wear its apparels, or partake of the benefits it can bestow, no harm can befall him, if he alloweth nothing whatever to intervene between him and God, for God hath ordained every good thing, whether created in the heavens or in the earth, for such of His servants as truly believe in Him. Eat ye, O people of the good things which God hath allowed you, and deprive not yourselves from His wondrous bounties. Render thanks and praise unto Him, and be of them that are truly thankful." (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, CXXVIII, p275).

The Status of Women in the Bahá'í Community

The acceptance and implementation of the principle of the equality of men and women is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Bahá'í community. In this context there are various provisions of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas which refer to particular rights or obligations of men or women. The application of such teachings, in the light of the fundamental principle of the equality of the sexes (p7), is a matter of the greatest importance for individual Bahá'ís and the development of the Bahá'í community.

The principle of equality

The principle of the equal status of men and women is stated categorically in the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh: "All should know, and in this regard attain the splendours of the sun of certitude, and be illumined thereby: Women and men have been and will always be equal in the sight of God." (Women, Compilation of Compilations, Volume 2, no 2144, p378). Among the teachings of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas in applying this principle are universal literacy (K48), and the training of all people to be able to earn a living through a trade or occupation (K33, n56).

The laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas are stated with brevity. This applies particularly to laws which apply between men and women. The Universal House of Justice comments in the introduction:

"In general, the laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas are stated succinctly. An example of this conciseness can be seen in the fact that many are expressed only as they apply to a man, but it is apparent from the Guardian's writings that, where Bahá'u'lláh has given a law as between a man and a woman, it applies mutatis mutandis between a woman and a man unless the context makes this impossible. For example, the text of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas forbids a man to marry his father's wife (ie. his stepmother) and the Guardian has indicated that likewise it is forbidden for a woman to marry her stepfather. This understanding of the implications of the Law has far-reaching effects in the light of the fundamental Bahá'í principle of the equality of the sexes, and should be borne in mind when the sacred Text is studied. That men and women differ from one another in certain characteristics and functions is an inescapable fact of nature and makes possible their complementary roles in certain areas of the life of society; but it is significant that 'Abdu'l-Bahá has stated that in this Dispensation Equality of men and women, except in some negligible instances, has been fully and categorically announced. " (p7).

The full effect of the mutatis mutandis provision is not immediately clear, and it may be anticipated that its application will be tested over a period of time as social circumstances change and new cases are referred to the Universal House of Justice. For example, if a couple separate with a view to divorce, under Bahá'í law the husband is responsible for the financial maintenance of the family during the year of waiting (n100). In assessing financial obligations during this period the Universal House of Justice has ruled: "There may be particular circumstances in which the wife is the breadwinner of the family, or both husband and wife are earning income; such situations should not be ignored, or changed merely because the couple is in a year of waiting." (Letter from the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly, May 19, 1989, and cited in the LSA Handbook).

A further complication is that the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was revealed in the context of an Islamic society. In some instances a gradual approach was adopted for the reform of the existing laws, such as the laws of marriage under which believers had contracted marital relationships. Thus, for example, the Text of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas appears to permit two wives, while counselling monogamy (K63). Later interpretation by 'Abdu'l-Bahá makes it clear that only monogamy is acceptable (n89).

The application of Bahá'í law in relation to women

The application of Bahá'í law in specifying rights and obligations of Bahá'í women will be reviewed under the headings: religious observances, marriage and family, community, and Bahá'í administration.

Religious observances: In general women have the same obligations as men for prayer, fasting, and the observance of Holy Days. There are exemptions for women from the observance of the obligatory prayers during menstruation (K13); from fasting during pregnancy, menstruation, and while nursing infants (K13, K16); and from the obligation of pilgrimage (K32). It is also clear that these are exemptions and not prohibitions, in that women are free to observe the laws if they so choose (n20, n55).

Marriage and family: Women and men have the same rights to contract marriages (K65), though the man has the added obligation of providing a modest sum of money for a dowry as a gift to his wife (K66). Women and men have equal rights to obtain a divorce (n100). During the year of waiting the husband would normally be responsible for maintenance of the family (n100), but, as noted above, if the wife has also been responsible for the financial support of the family, she would also have a continuing responsibility during this period. Women and men have equal rights to authority and decision making within the family. This is clear from the following statement of the Universal House of Justice: "You have asked, however, for specific rules of conduct to govern the relationships of husbands and wives. This the Universal House of Justice does not wish to do, and it feels that there is already adequate guidance included in the compilation on this subject. For example the principle that the rights of each and all in the family must be upheld, and the advice that loving consultation should be the keynote, that all matters should be settled in harmony and love, and that there are times when the husband and the wife should defer to the wishes of the other. Exactly under what circumstances such deference should take place, is a matter for each couple to determine..." (Women, Compilation of Compilations, Volume 2, no 2163, p385).

The education of children, both girls and boys, is a matter of the utmost importance in the Bahá'í Writings (Q105). While the roles of fathers and mothers are not legislated but are decide by consultation between the couple themselves, each has profound responsibilities for the education of children. Those of fathers have already been noted (K48, Q105). The obligations of mothers are elaborated in the following passage from the Universal House of Justice: "... the mother - not the father - bears the children, nurses them in babyhood, and is thus their first educator; hence daughters have a prior right to education over sons and, as the Guardian's secretary has written on his behalf, "The task of bringing up a Bahá'í child, as emphasised time and again in Bahá'í Writings, is the chief responsibility of the mother, whose unique privilege is indeed to create in her home such conditions as would be most conducive to both his material and spiritual welfare and advancement. The training which a child first receives through his mother constitutes the strongest foundation for his future development..." A corollary of this responsibility of the mother is her right to be supported by her husband - a husband has no explicit right to be supported by his wife..." (Women, Compilation of Compilations, Volume 2, no 2162, p384).

Regardless of the arrangements decided upon by the couple to fulfil their obligations for the financial support of the family and the nurture and education of the children, the recognition and practice of equality of the sexes within the family is of fundamental importance. This issue has been addressed emphatically and categorically by the Universal House of Justice, noting that it is in the family that such attitudes are first learned, and from which they are carried to other areas of life. "The emancipation of women, the achievement of full equality between the sexes, is one of the most important, though less acknowledged prerequisites of peace. The denial of such equality perpetrates an injustice against one half of the world's population and promotes in men harmful attitudes and habits that are carried from the family to the workplace, to political life, and ultimately to international relations. There are no grounds, moral, practical, or biological upon which such denial can be justified. Only as women are welcomed into full partnership in all fields of human endeavour will the moral and psychological climate be created in which international peace can emerge". (To the Peoples of the World, p13)

Community: As already noted, each person has the obligation to learn a trade or profession whereby he or she can earn a living, and society should be organised in such a way as to make this possible. Home-making is regarded as an honourable and responsible work which fulfils this obligation (n56). Women and men have the same obligation, according to means, for payment of the Huqúqu'lláh (K97), and support of the community generally (K146). Each person has the obligation to make a will (K109), and is free in so doing (Q69), but is exhorted by the Guardian to bear in mind the principle of the social function of wealth, and the consequent necessity to avoid its over-accumulation in the hands of a few individuals or groups of individuals (n38).

The Kitáb-i-Aqdas provides a system for the distribution of an estate, which would be applicable under Bahá'í law if, and only if, an individual has not carried out his or her obligation to make a will. Under its terms the principal residence of the father would pass to the eldest son, and the remainder of the estate would be divided among seven categories of heirs (children, spouse, father, mother, brothers, sisters, teachers). There are many subsidiary details, but the proportion of the estate allocated to female heirs is slightly smaller than the proportion allocated to male heirs (n38). While this system is not necessarily a model for Bahá'ís in making wills, it, like the passage quoted above from the Universal House of Justice on the mother as first educator, clearly envisages a society in which men would bear a somewhat greater responsibility than women for the financial support of families.

Bahá'í Administration: Women have equal rights to men in eligibility for service on all elected or appointed Bahá'í institutions in local or national communities. They are eligible for appointment as Counsellors in the continental or international spheres, and have served in the highest rank as Hands of the Cause. In appointing a successor as Head of the Faith, Bahá'u'lláh has designated the male line, and this principle has been adopted by `Abdu'l-Bahá in the institution of the Guardianship. This Institution has terminated in the appointment of His eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi, who left no children (K121, p3). `Abdu'l-Bahá comments: "In all the Divine Dispensations the eldest son hath been given extraordinary distinctions. Even the station of prophethood hath been his birthright." (n44).

The membership of the Universal House of Justice is also confined to men (n80). As this provision is based on the text of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas and the interpretations of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi it is not subject to amendment, even by the Universal House of Justice itself (p6). 'Abdu'l-Bahá has stated that the reason the membership of the Universal House of Justice is confined to men will become apparent in the future. Among the possible reasons are that Bahá'u'lláh did not wish that the patriarchal principle (wherein special privileges and responsibilities for the maintenance of religion are invested in certain men, and which has prevailed in the Judaeo-Christian religions for several thousands of years) should be totally obliterated, and has therefore retained it in a very residual form. Another possibility is that the provision is in effect an exemption, noting that service on Bahá'í institutions is a conscientious obligation for believers so elected, and that Bahá'u'lláh may not have wished to impose this particular burden upon women.

The advancement of women

Underlying a lot of modern thought on the advancement of women is the metaphor of the level playing field. Let us use equal-rights legislation, and the prohibition of all forms of sexual harassment to clear the ground so all can compete on a fair basis limited only by their own ability and effort, and then let them seek individual competitive advantage. In this way women, being equal in ability, will emerge as equal in achievement.

In the Bahá'í approach, competition and individual advantage are not such a high priority. The highest priority is the education of children, and whatever sacrifices are necessary should be made to secure both the spiritual and intellectual development of children and youth. The next priority is the advancement of women, bearing in mind particularly those who have been disadvantaged in the pursuit of careers by taking out time for child-rearing. The advancement of women is a joint and collaborative undertaking between women and men. To provide opportunities for all the members of a community to develop their talents and find appropriate opportunities for work and service requires thought, consultation, assistance, and the sacrifice of time and effort. This is one of the real challenges facing the Bahá'í community.

The writings and talks of 'Abdu'l-Bahá are replete with references to the potentialities of women and their opportunities for advancement. He urged them to study hard and achieve the best possible education. He encouraged women to break out of traditional roles and enter such professions as engineering and agriculture. In many of His talks in The Promulgation of Universal Peace He speaks of the kindness of heart of women, their reluctance to see their children sacrificed in war, and the enormous and vital role they must play in the establishment of world peace. He even acknowledges their capacity for war, foreshadowing the participation of women in today's armies, but He makes it clear that it is His hope that this will not be the direction in which women will advance. " it known that if woman had been taught and trained in the military science of slaughter, she would have been the equivalent of man even in this accomplishment. But God forbid! May woman never attain this proficiency; may she never wield weapons of war, for the destruction of humanity is not a glorious achievement. The upbuilding of a home, the bringing of joy and comfort into human hearts are truly glories of mankind. Let not a man glory in this, that he can kill his fellow creatures; nay, rather, let him glory in this, that he can love them." (Promulgation of Universal Peace, p75).

'Abdu'l-Bahá's vision of the spiritual community of the future is of a society more permeated with the traditionally feminine ideals: "The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting; force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine and more permeated with feminine ideals, or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more evenly balanced." (Women, Compilation of Compilations, Volume 2, no 2116, p369).

The contribution required of women for the realization of this vision is decisive, and probably greater than the contribution of men. 'Abdu'l-Bahá writes of the future status of women and their achievements, and makes it clear that they will be superior to those of men: "Ere long the days shall come when the men addressing the women, shall say: "Blessed are ye! Blessed are ye! Verily ye are worthy of every gift. Verily ye deserve to adorn your heads with the crown of everlasting glory, because in sciences and arts, in virtues and perfections ye shall become equal to man, and as regards tenderness of heart and abundance of sympathy ye are superior." (Women, Compilation of Compilations, Volume 2, no 2114, p368).

The Style and Inspiration of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas

This section will comment briefly on the style of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, its unique potency and power of inspiration, and its transforming influence on Bahá'í identity.

The style of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas

The Universal House of Justice has commented that the translation of the Most Holy Book has been a work of the utmost difficulty. "The Arabic of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is marked by intense concentration and terseness of expression. It is a characteristic of this style that if a connotation is obvious it should not be explicitly stated. This presents a problem for a reader whose cultural, religious and literary background is entirely different from that of Arabic. A literal translation of a passage which is clear in Arabic could be obscure in English. It therefore becomes necessary to include in the English translation of such passages that element of the Arabic sentence which is obviously implicit in the original. At the same time, it is vital to avoid extrapolating this process to the point where it would add unjustifiably to the original or limit its meaning..." (p10).

The style of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, while novel, presents some similarities to that of the Hidden Words. The natural unit of meaning is a paragraph, or a few related paragraphs. Into each such paragraph are distilled a small number of thoughts or meanings, which are profoundly concentrated and almost tangible in their force and potency.

As is the case with other Sacred Writings such as the Qu'rán, the development of ideas does not follow a linear and systematic course. The laws project a direct and physical level of meaning to confront, awe and challenge the preconceptions of the Western reader. Is that really what adultery means? or prayer? or consultation? One is in the presence of a judgment that is forthright and final. Within and beyond the laws are multiple levels of meanings, from which they have been drawn forth. These meanings reflect the motivation, spirit and purpose of the law, and the attraction to this spirit is the hidden gift of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, the choice wine of inner significance, the fragrance of the Best-Beloved.

The laws are embedded within a body of exhortations, which frames them and enables the reader to see them in multiple dimensions and perspectives. In fact the lack of apparent system in the text causes each verse to have its own weight, rather than to be comprehended by inclusion within a heading. Each one is a part of the Geography of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, and relates to all the other verses through multiple forms and relationships. Every word of the Text emerges into consciousness as part of the process of revelation. This is not a draft to be edited. Even verses which are superseded, such as those formerly revealed for burial rings, are allowed to stand, as they, too, have been a part of the Sacred Text. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas is its own standard.

The inspirational quality of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas

Among the strongest statements of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas are the affirmations which challenge the Bahá'í reader to make a new appraisal of his or her faith by viewing the entire revelation of Bahá'u'lláh in a new light. Here are a few examples:

"Know ye from what heights your Lord, the All-Glorious, is calling? Think ye that ye have recognized the Pen wherewith your Lord, the Lord of all names commandeth you? Nay, by My life! Did ye but know it, ye would renounce the world, and would hasten with your whole hearts to the presence of the Well- Beloved. Your spirits would be so transported by His Word as to throw into commotion the Greater World - How much more this small and petty one!" (K55).

"Call then to mind these words which have streamed forth, in tribute to this revelation, from the Pen of Him Who was My Herald, and consider what the hands of the oppressors have wrought throughout My days... He said: "Should ye attain the presence of Him Whom We shall make manifest, beseech ye God, in His bounty, to grant that He might deign to seat Himself upon your couches, for that act in itself would confer upon you matchless and surpassing honour. Should He drink a cup of water in your homes, this would be of greater consequence for you than your proffering unto every soul, nay unto every created thing, the water of its very life. Know this, O ye My servants!" (K135).

"To read but one of the verses of My Revelation is better than to peruse the Scriptures of both the former and latter generations." (K138).

As well as the passages which jolt and challenge the reader's vision there are those which gently draw the spirit into the unseen world:

"We have made it lawful for you to listen to music and singing... 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. We have made music as a ladder for your souls, a means whereby they may be lifted up unto the realm on high..." (K51).

"They who recite the verses of the All-Merciful in the most melodious of tones will perceive in them that with which the sovereignty of earth and heaven can never be compared. From them they will inhale the divine fragrance of My worlds - worlds which today none can discern save those who have been endowed with vision through this sublime, this beauteous revelation..." (K116).

The formation of Bahá'í identity

Gradually there steals over the reader of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas a deeper realisation of what it is to be a Bahá'í. The Bahá'í community is not one without standards. There are clear standards and expectations which Bahá'u'lláh has set forth for His loved ones to abide by, and to internalise in their lives. Nevertheless a Bahá'í is not a person who lives his or her life by a book of laws. A Bahá'í is a person who has been attracted and inspired by the vision of Bahá'u'lláh, and is possessed of the courage and detachment to devote his or her life to making that vision a reality. This is the challenge so nobly met by the believers in Bahá'u'lláh's own lifetime, often at great sacrifice. It is the challenge which the Bahá'í community again faces in this day.

"This is not a Cause which may be made a plaything for your idle fancies, nor is it a field for the foolish or faint of heart. By God, this is the arena of insight and detachment, of vision and upliftment, where none may spur their chargers save the valiant horsemen of the Merciful, who have severed all attachment to the world of being. These, truly, are they that render God victorious on earth, and are the dawning-places of His sovereign might amidst mankind." (K178).

"Blessed is the one who discovereth the fragrance of inner meanings from the traces of this Pen through whose movement the breezes of God are wafted over the entire creation, and through whose stillness the very essence of tranquillity appeareth in the realm of being. Glorified be the All-Merciful, the Revealer of so inestimable a bounty. Say: Because He bore injustice, justice hath appeared on earth, and because He accepted abasement, the majesty of God hath shone forth amidst mankind." (K158).


Reference Note: References to the Kitáb-i-Aqdas follow the system employed by the Universal House of Justice, except that the paragraphs of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas have been designated by K, the paragraphs of the Questions and Answers by Q, the Annotations of the Universal House of Justice by n, and the remainder of the text by page numbers.

From the Authoritative Bahá'í Writings

Writings of Bahá'u'lláh

The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, The Most Holy Book, translation authorised by the Universal House of Justice, Bahá'í Publications Australia, Mona Vale, 1993.

The Book of Certitude, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, 1950.

Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, U.K., 1949.

The Hidden Words, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Manchester, 1949.

Writings and Talks of 'Abdu'l-Bahá Paris Talks (11th ed.), Bahá'í Publishing Trust, London, 1979.

The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, 1982.

Some Answered Questions, translated by Laura Clifford Barney, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, London, 1907.

Writings of Shoghi Effendi

The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, 1955.

Writings of the Universal House of Justice

To the Peoples of the World, Association for Bahá'í Studies, Ottawa, 1986.


The Compilation of Compilations, Volume II, Bahá'í Publications Australia, Mona Vale, 1991.

From other Sacred Writings

The Holy Bible, Revised Standard Version, Thomas Nelson, Edinburgh, 1952.

From other Sources

Schaefer, U., "The Balance hath been Appointed": Some Thoughts on the Publication of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, The Bahá'í Studies Review, 3.1.1993, pp. 43-54.

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