The puzzle of the Aqdas: joining a few pieces
Posted by Sen on March 29, 2008
I first wrote this as an email posting on 1 Jan 2008. I’ve reworked it as a blog entry. It concerns one of the things that puzzles Bahais from a Christian or non-religious background: what is ‘religious law’ and how do we treat the Kitab-e Aqdas?
Usually this comes up not as a broad theoretical question, but in terms of particulars. Why do women seem to be disadvantaged in the inheritance law, why are they treated differently in regard to some religious duties, and what is that verse about having no more than two wives?
I want to show first that the text of the Aqdas is no more than the tip of the iceberg, a sort of hand-list of the laws, whose actual contents are often found elsewhere. So we need to engage with ‘the Law’ and not with the Aqdas alone. And second, that when we do, we will find that religious law is something quite different to the law of the land, or the codified regulations of a professional association, and that what it says and what it is trying to do may be more radical than appears at first glance. I’ll skip over some particular questions about some laws quickly, and then get onto the broader issues that tell us more about the form and approach of the Aqdas, about what kind of thing Bahai religious law is.
Women in the laws of the Aqdas
The first question asked was:
Women are given less inheritance, (and if that’s of no importance given our requirement to make a will, why does this sexually unequal inheritance subject get so much space in our Most Holy Book?), women are “exempt” from the pilgrimage, and from the requirement to do the obligatory prayers when they are enfeebled due to their courses (no wonder we can’t trust them to be on the UHJ, since they are so enfeebled when menstruating).
To understand the position of women in Bahai inheritance, we have to look at Question 37 in the ‘Questions and Answers’ to the Aqdas:
37. QUESTION: In the holy ordinances governing inheritance,
the residence and personal clothing of the deceased
have been allotted to the male offspring. Doth this provision
refer only to the father’s property, or doth it apply
to the mother’s as well?
ANSWER: The used clothing of the mother should
be divided in equal shares among the daughters,
but the remainder of her estate, including property,
jewellery, and unused clothing, is to be
distributed, in the manner revealed in the Kitab-i-Aqdas,
to all her heirs. If, however, the deceased
hath left no daughters, her estate in its entirety
must be divided in the manner designated for men
in the holy Text.
This shows that if a woman does have daughters, her estate is divided differently than ‘the manner designated for men.’ Apart from the clothing, it is does not tell us what the manner for women is, where the woman has female heirs. It is however open to the reading that, when the deceased is a woman, her share of the family home goes to the eldest daughter, and the sisters get priority over the brothers, and so forth.
According to the notes to the Aqdas, though the law is formulated with the presumption that the deceased is a man, its provisions apply, mutatis mutandis [note 38], when the deceased is a woman. The mutatis mutandis principle: “changing what has to be changed”, indicates a direction for interpretation but is hardly explicit: what has to be changed, and how?
There is one direct example of its application given in Question 55, where the question is “If the deceased be a woman, to whom is the ‘wife’s’ share of the inheritance allotted?” and the answer is “The ‘wife’s’ share of the inheritance is allotted to the husband.” This ought already to warn us that Bahá’u’lláh has stepped outside the mould of His Islamic background. Under Islamic law, for each class of inheritors, the males of the class inherit twice as much as the females, thus a son gets twice as much as a daughter, a brother twice as much as a sister, the father twice as much as the mother. In Surah 4 verse 12 of the Quran, this is applied to the wife or husband of the deceased: “In what your wives leave, your share is a half, if they leave no child; but if they leave a child, ye get a fourth… Their share is a fourth, if ye leave no child; but if ye leave a child, they get an eighth.” Thus where the Quran has a general rule about male and female shares which applies whether the deceased is a man or woman, Bahá’u’lláh stipulates a share which is due to the wife when the deceased is a man, or to the husband when the deceased is a woman. This suggests a pattern of symmetrical equality between the sexes. Hence my suggestion that if the deceased is a woman, her share of the family home goes to the eldest daughter. I assume of course that the husband and wife are full partners and therefore co-owners of the family home, so that the husband’s estate normally contains half of the ownership of the home, and the wife’s estate the other half.
Another example: Bahá’u’lláh explicitly says that the residence and personal clothing of the deceased [go] to the male, not female, offspring [Aqdas paragraph 25]. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá interpreted this as meaning that the residence and personal clothing of a deceased man remain in the male line [see note 44]. Shoghi Effendi says in the Synopsis that the residence and clothing of the deceased father pass to the male not to the female offspring. (Synopsis, p 55). So despite the apparent explicit advantages given to male heirs, the interpretation shows that this is only so where the deceased is male.
In light of this pattern, turn to Q37 and ask what happens when the deceased is a woman, and she owns a half share in the family home (which is, after all, only fair), and perhaps other property. That the clothing goes to the daughters is clear. What is “the manner revealed in the Aqdas” for the other property? In the light of the examples above, could it not be that, when the deceased is a woman, the female heirs take the place of the male heirs, and vice versa?
I gave a longer explanation of the implications of the inheritance, including the question of how it relates to the duty to write a will, in a paper in the Bahai Studies Review, Volume 5.1, 1995, which is online here.
To turn to the question of the exemption of women from pilgrimage: both the law and the exemption for women are contained in the Bab’s book of laws, the Persian Bayan (4:16 and 4:18, 6:16). As so often, the brief mention in Baha’u’llah’s Kitab-e Aqdas is hardly more than a pointer: to understand the law we have to go to the Bayan text that is being pointed to. In the Bayan, the exemption there is stated as an exemption for (all) women, except for those who would face no difficulty on the route (4:18). But in fact, the same exemption is given for men: the pilgrimage is obligatory for everyone, but the duty has been lifted for the one who is not sufficiently wealthy to suffer no hardship on the route (4:18). The brief mention in the Aqdas endorses both the duty, and the exemption, contained in the Bayan. The Bayan emphasises that the hardships of travel should be avoided (in contrast to the practice of making pilgrimage travel deliberately hard, for instance on foot or barefoot, in the belief that this brings extra merit). It offers the same exemption twice: once for all people, and once for women particularly: neither should go on pilgrimage where it would entail hardship.
The Bayan also gives a long explanation of why one bit of dust should be singled out (as a place of pilgrimage) above another, given that God is not in any particular place. In fact the Bayan frequently gives a reasoning and understanding of the law which, in my opinion, is more valuable than simply knowing the details of what applies to whom.
Similarly the obligatory prayer, fasting and other religious practices. The purpose is not that these duties should be a great burden. All who are weak from illness or age are exempted from the obligation, in fact the are told not to perform obligatory prayer or fast when ill (Aqdas, Question 93), and this specifies “men or women.” Aqdas paragraph 13 specifies an alternative verse that women in their courses may use: the implication is that this may be said standing, sitting or lying. At any rate, there is no bending, kneeling and bowing specified, as for the usual obligatory prayer. Presumably a woman having a very heavy period, bad cramps etc would be “weak from illness” and thus should not fast or perform obligatory prayer. But normal pregnancy and menstruation are not illnesses, they are natural processes. Paragraph 13 gives an intermediate solution: an alternative to obligatory prayer for the woman whose mind and spirit are ready for prayer, but whose stomach muscles are protesting. The purpose again is that the duties of religion should be light: God is not more pleased by greater hardships endured, rather God is pleased by the happiness and willingness of the creatures.
So far as I know (not from personal experience), service on the UHJ does not involve any exertion for the stomach muscles, so I doubt that this law is relevant to the membership of the UHJ.
The next question asked concerned polgyamy:
Baha’u’llah specifically allows two wives (not two husbands!) but then this gets immediately abrogated in the notes. If it’s immediately abrogated, why in the world did it get such prominent mention in our Most Holy Book for the next thousand years?
Once again, to understand this we have to turn to the Bayan – the Aqdas simply endorses a law whose details and justification is given by the Bab.
In the Persian Bayan, wahid 8 section 15, the Bab says (my translation from the French):
“If a man or woman proves incapable of having a child, it is legitimate for the spouse who is not infertile (whichever it may be) to marry again after having obtained the permission of the other party, but not without her permission [the French has ‘her’ here, but the Persian pronoun u applies to men or women] and the purpose is that a child be born of this spouse, male or female. … In this world, the most exalted of the fruits that God has given humanity, after Faith in Himself, the Letters of Unity and in what has been revealed in the Bayan, is to gather the fruits of his (bodily) existence so after his death, the man leaves a fruit which will mention him with praise. This (having children) has been ordained in the Bayan, in the most proper and most precise way. (What has been ordained) on this point, is that if any incapacity (to produce) is found in one of the two spouses, the other spouse should marry in another ceremony with the permission of his spouse, so that a fruit of his existence may be manifest …”
So, in the event of infertility, the couple has permission to take a second husband or wife for the purpose of conceiving a child. This exception in itself implies that the general rule is monogamy. The exception proves the rule. This explains why Shoghi Effendi can say that the Kitab-e Aqdas “prescribes monogamy” (God Passes By, p. 214): he does not say that Abdu’l-Baha changed the law, but rather that the text itself prescribed monogamy — which it does, by implication, by endorsing a law which allows for a second wife or husband only under special circumstances (and also by then adding that it is better to be content with one (wife or husband)).
Many laws that are stated briefly in the Aqdas are detailed in the Bayan, and in many cases one has to have the Bayan on hand to understand what the Aqdas is saying, because the Aqdas is so telegraphic. The general principle is that “The Bayan hath been superseded by the Kitab-i-Aqdas, except in respect of such laws as have been confirmed and mentioned in the Kitab-i-Aqdas.” (Aqdas, note 108) but that a brief mention is taken as implying the whole of the previous law — as in the case of the Aqdas‘ very brief mention of the forbidden degrees of marriage.
The Aqdas says:
“God hath prescribed matrimony unto you. Beware that ye take not unto yourselves more wives than two. Whoso contenteth himself with a single partner from among the maidservants of God, both he and she shall live in tranquillity.” [Aqdas, paragraph 63]
If this is a compact endorsement of the law that is set out in detail in the Bayan, then it is only an exception for infertile couples. And this fits with what Abdu’l-Baha wrote: on the one hand he endorses the legitimacy of the Aqdas text:
“You asked about polygamy. According to the text (nass) of the Divine Book, having two wives is lawful and legal (ja’iz). This was never (abadan) prohibited, but it is legitimate and allowed (halal wa mubah). You should therefore not be unhappy, but take justice into your consideration so that you may be as just as possible. What has been said was that since justice is very difficult, therefore tranquility is in one wife. But in your case, you should not be unhappy.” [‘Abdu’l-Baha, cited in Amr wa Khalq 4: 174]
And the confirmation of bigamy seems to be still more clearly formulated in yet another passage:
“Concerning bigamy, this has been promulgated, and no one must abrogate it (mansusast nasikhi nadarad). ‘Abdu’l Baha has not abrogated this law. These are false accusations and lies (spread by) the friends. What I have said is that He [God?] has made bigamy bound on a precondition. As long as someone does not attain certitude regarding the capability to practice justice and his heart is not at rest that he can practice justice, he should not be intent upon a second marriage. But if he should be sure and attain certitude that he would practice justice on all levels (and conditions) (dar jami’ i maratib), then a second marriage is lawful. Just as has been the case in the Holy Land : the Baha’i friends wished to marry a second wife, accepting this precondition, and this servant (i.e., ‘Abdu’l Baha) never abstained (from giving permission), but insisted that justice should be considered, and justice actually means here self restraint (daraji i imtina’); but they said, that they will practice justice and wished to marry a second wife. Such false accusations (concerning ‘Abdu’l Baha’s prohibition of bigamy) are the slanderous whisperings (zamzamih) of those who wish to spread doubts (in people’s hearts) and to what degree they already succeed in making matters ambiguous! (Our) purpose was to state that bigamy without justice is not lawful and that justice is very difficult (to achieve).” [Amr wa Khalq 4: 174f]
So the exception (for infertile couples) still stands: it was practiced amongst the Bahais in Iran at least until the turn of the century (see the note in the first comment to this page), and could be adapted to deal with more modern phenomena such as artificial insemination etc. As an exception, it still points to the general rule of monogamy. And Abdu’l-Baha apparently says that it was also the rule in Islam. The law that made having up to four wives dependent on justice was in the Quran, 4:3:
“And if ye fear that ye will not deal fairly by the orphans, marry of the women, who seem good to you, two or three or four; and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only) …”
To which `Abdu’l-Baha says
“In the Quran the word has been revealed “and if ye fear that ye cannot do justice (to so many) then one (only)…”, indicating that in the presence of God the acceptable judgement is monogamy.” [Amr wa Khalq 174- 5].
Abdu’l-Baha treats the Quranic verse as defining an exception (in a situation where there were many orphans and widows), which proves that the general rule has always been monogamy — also in Islam, if it were correctly understood.
The nature of the Aqdas
Now for the more general questions about the Aqdas. Yes, the Aqdas is largely addressed to a time and place, so is the Quran, so is the New Testament, so are the various layers of the Old Testament. We always have to read scripture with two eyes – one for what it meant for those people then, and one for what it means for us now. It is not like the road code, which is intended to be read in its plain meaning and applied directly. With the religious law, it is precisely the other way round: it has no purpose until it is made internal, until it becomes meaningful for us now. A mere outward and literal observance would be pointless, it would be a “mere code of laws.” We read religious history in the same way: one significance is that Mulla Husayn or Tahireh, or the Master, did this or that, another is the connection we make to what we are doing today. For example:
No lesser tribute can be paid the memory of the glorious Báb, the immortal Quddus, the lion-hearted Mulla Husayn, the erudite Vahid, the audacious Hujjat, the illustrious seven martyrs of Tihran and a host of unnumbered heroes … than a parallel outpouring of their substance by the builders of the most holy House of Worship laboring in the corresponding decade of the succeeding century. (Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, p. 66)
Heroism is for all time, but the forms in which it is expressed have to change with the times.
So yes, the Aqdas is for a time and place — until we make it meaningful for ourselves, today, by translating one set of symbols and meanings into contemporary meaningfulness. Slavery is literally slavery, but it has a contemporary correspondence in indentured labour and wage slavery: conditions which leave the worker just enough to stay alive, but no dignity, no choice and no future.
You can probably think yourself of a contemporary “type” corresponding to the pollution of public baths (whose use is forbidden in the Aqdas), public baths to which everyone would bring their dirt to share, and there was seldom fresh clean input. In those days of course there was no such thing as a filtration system and disinfactants, so you can imagine what the water of a Persian public bath was like. How do you think Abdu’l-Baha would feel about people, and class cultures, even whole nations, that are daily immersed in the gutter press, Undercover Lover and Temptation Island? Isn’t this immersing yourself in a not-too-clean public bath?
Having said that: the audience for Baha’u’llah and the Bab and Abdu’l- Baha was actually quite varied. The 7 Valleys and the 4 Valleys and the Hidden Words are written for particular people of the time, but they are coming from a very different “place” than the experts in religious law. The Tablet of medicine is for a different person again, the Tablet to the Shah and A Traveller’s Narrative and The Secret of Divine Civilization … In short, the Aqdas is not typical of the kind of concerns and the type of audience that the Bahai Writings address. Its “time and place,” and type, are quite particular to the Aqdas.
Baha’u’llah also wrote poetry — to understand what type of thing it is, you need to understand that there is such a thing as poetry, that the short lines and allusiveness and elusiveness and rhyme and rhythm are all part of the genre of “poetry.” In the same way, there is a genre of “religious law,” and to understand what kind of thing the Aqdas is, it will help to look at other religious laws and see what form is typical there.
One of the typical things is that the original text of the religious law is disjointed, skipping from subject to subject, and from grand themes to apparently minor details. It is the same with the Quran, and with the Old Testament. Another typical thing is that the text is made up out of units which are later assembled together — I think this is also true of the Aqdas. Some laws and passages to rulers were being revealed in Edirne or even earlier, some in Arabic and some in Persian, and there was later an ordering, a translation where necessary, and literary polishing. What is unique is that this was done by Baha’u’llah himself, whereas the Quran or Old Testament were gathered and ordered by followers, after the death of the founding figures.
Another thing that is typical of the genre of religious laws is that they consist of core text, commentary and super-commentary, and then the actual applicable law is then derived from this whole. In 19th century Shiah Islam, the commentary was increasingly being given in Persian, and the Bab adopted this form: we have the Arabic Bayan and the Persian Bayan, and each section of the Persian Bayan consists of an Arabic preamble and a Persian discourse on it. The latter often explain the symbolic meaning or the values that underly the law. In this genre, the original core text is not expected to be sufficient or self-explanatory. It may sometimes be so, but the expectation is that there will be a multi-layered meaning, and an interplay between the various layers. There is often a sort of historic dialogue going on as well — between the successive layers of the Old Testament for example, where the later layer assumes a knowledge of the earlier, and modifies it, or gives it a new twist. This is especially so of the Aqdas, which is in dialogue with the Bayan and with Islamic religious law.
Such literary features of religious law are not just arbitrary, they are related to the function of religious law as such. Sound patterns are part of poetry because poetry is to be “read aloud” (even if only in our heads), and savoured. The multi-layered nature of religious law and the jumble of its source texts are there because its purpose is to be the object of “study” as a religious practice, analogous to prayer and meditation and reciting the dhikr (a
Sufi practice, incorporated in the Bahai Faith in the form of reciting the Greatest Name). The detail and discussion of Jewish or Islamic law grow out of the study of the law as a devotional practice. The minutiae of the law are studied as an intellectual, but not necessarily an empty, exercise. In diving into the sea of the Law, its complexity so engages the rational mind that the soul may perhaps feel that it brushes the Word that underlies the words. A law that was structured like a road code would not fulfill the purpose of a religious law, just as the road code doesn’t have any general use as poetry.
A practical, applicable law has to be structured by themes, written in the vernacular and accessible to the mass of the people, and has to also embody the institutions for monitoring, enforcement, and punishment. The road code without the traffic police and the driver’s licence authority and the safety testing station and the magistrate, would be nothing. Societies need codified law with these attributes, but this is not to be found in the Aqdas. Governments and Houses of Justice (in different spheres) produce codified law which is workable in social practice, while scriptures provide a law which can be followed (eg, the law on obligatory prayer) and which can be studied for its own sake.
The next question passed from the particularity of Bahai religious law, to the supposed superiority of the Bahai religion:
The Aqdas is fine, but I just don’t see it as a “proof’ of Divine origin or anything like that. After ten years of intense study, I find myself loving the Baha’i Faith, choosing it over all the world’s religious traditions, but I find no overriding “proof’ of its inherent and inevitable Divine superiority over all religions for all people. I see it as the best choice, but not a proven, inevitable necessity that all people must choose. I still see other religions as valid choices for some people. Does that make me a bad Baha’i?
First, I don’t think that the Writings are the “proof” of the Bahai Faith, in the way that the Quran is the “proof” for Islam, the rapid revelation of verses is a proof for Babism, and the Bible is used as a proof in some forms of Protestant Christianity. Baha’u’llah writes
“The first and foremost testimony establishing His truth is His own Self. Next to this testimony is His Revelation. For whoso faileth to recognize either the one or the other He hath established the words He hath revealed … ” (Gleanings p. 105)
“”Write: ‘Hast thou not heard that My proof is My Essence, My evidence My person, and My argument My Manifestation? While that which hath proceeded from My pen is a path leading unto My recognition, … My proof hath been the manifestations of My power, which have encompassed all who are in heaven and on earth. I have appointed Divine Verses as a path leading unto My recognition, as a bounty from Our presence unto both worlds.” (Ma’idah al Ismani vol 4 p 93, trans. Ahang Rabbani).
Thus the text of scripture is a 3rd-order revelation, which can lead us to the Revelation and Self of the Manifestation. Bahai theology generally needs a course correction here I think: it has been too much influenced by the Muslim, Protestant and Babi models.
So it would be wrong to think that the Writings are a proof of the Faith, or its superiority. I also do not think that everyone should, or will eventually, choose to become Bahais. The Bahai Faith does have a fuller measure of revelation, but that does not mean other religions are simply switched off from the ‘voltage’ of the Holy Spirit. God’s way has been to work through successive revelations at long intervals, but also to keep inspiring previous religions for thousands of years. Shoghi Effendi writes:
Such institutions as have strayed far from the spirit and teachingsof Jesus Christ must of necessity, as the embryonic World Order of Bahá’u’lláh takes shape and unfolds, recede into the background, and make way for the progress of the divinely-ordained institutions that stand inextricably interwoven with His teachings. The indwelling Spirit of God which, in the Apostolic Age of the Church, animated its members, the pristine purity of its teachings, the primitive brilliancy of its light, will, no doubt, be reborn and revived as the inevitable consequence of this redefinition of its fundamental verities, and the clarification of its original purpose.
For the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh — if we would faithfully appraise it — can never, and in no aspect of its teachings, be at variance, much less conflict, with the purpose animating, or the authority invested in, the Faith of Jesus Christ.
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 185)
In The Secret of Divine Civilization, Abdu’l-Baha proposes not just ways to revive the fortunes of Iran and bringing peace, but also ways to revive the Faith of God there (Shi’ah Islam) and he argues that religions (plural) are the basis of human progress. There, and in A Traveller’s Narrative, he argues for religious tolerance, so that people of all religions can live side by side.
I think that Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi look forward to a revival of Christianity, Islam and other religions, which, because they rediscover the universal in their own teachings, will learn to work together. I do not know anywhere where they look forward to the extinction of other religions.
What the world needs is not simply a new religion, that Bahai and only Bahai can provide. I think the need is for a new kind of religious order, and I think that the new religion of Bahai will help the older religions to create it, together. What is needed is a new kind of religious order which will foster global unity, rather than creating a lot of separate religious identities that compete with one another or fight.
I think it is important to acknowledge that we leave childhood behind, but we take the things of childhood with us. Much of the past comes with us into postmodernity, but transformed or placed in a wider context. National and cultural identities for example. And Christianity “reborn and revived” as in the quote from Shoghi Effendi above.
This opens the possibility for an explanation of progressive revelation that is not supercessionist. There are revelations throughout history, and their communities and positive effects continue for some thousands of years (but not indefinitely). Humanity passes through climactic changes, such as the end of the classical age, and the current transition to the postmodern, and then *all* of the religious communities have to reinvent themselves in a new world, which is painful and difficult. The religion that is born at the time of such a change also has to transform, but it has an easier task, less baggage, so their example of transformation can show the way.
This reading preserves the special role of the new revelation in shaping the new age, but does not treat all previous revelations and the wisdom in their traditions as simply superseded.
In the Bahai writings, especially those of Shoghi Effendi, the World Order is more than religion alone, and is not created by religion alone. In the postmodern world order (as it will be, with global justice, pluralism, protection of human rights, rule of law etc), there is no place for the old religious order of religions claiming exclusive truth, or exclusive validity for one people. Given the shape of the World Order, the required religious order has to be tolerant, it cannot give priority to one religion over others, it has to work together for common goals (the well-being of humanity), and so on. For most religions, this will involve quite a large re- think, but for Bahais this is basic scripture. So in some sense Bahai is “best suited” — it has a relative advantage on the ideas front, but is at a really big disadvantage so far as numbers and depth of culture go.
Short link to this page: http://tinyurl.com/aqdaspuzzle
Even shorter than that: http://wp.me/pcgF5-7
Short link to the section you are probably looking for: http://tinyurl.com/bahai-polygamy