“Bahais marry their sisters” — the prohibited degrees of affinity for marriage
Posted by Sen on May 16, 2015
[Upate, October 26, 2015, see postscript.]
This posting will explore the principles and procedures that determine the ‘prohibited degrees of marriage’ in Bahai law. How closely does someone have to be related to you, to be too close for you to marry? The term “affinity” is used to include blood relationships and marriage relationships (and relationships by adoption ~ see the postscript).
Bahai readers will no doubt ask, why do we need a systematic explanation of this now? It is not as if there is a problem: we do not have a prevalence of first cousin marriages in Bahai communities, our assemblies are not overburdened by requests from fathers wanting to marry their daughters. Our lack of interest in the issue is indicated by the fact that the Bahaikipedia section on marriage laws does not mention the prohibited degrees of marriage. Apparently, we are quite satisfied to obey the civil laws and use our common sense.
However the lack of a systematic presentation in terms that are understandable for people from an Islamic background has given room for numerous Islamic scholars and anti-Bahai web sites to tell the people they can influence that Bahais “marry their sisters.”This extensive propaganda is one thread in the cloth of anti-Bahaism that is used to justify discrimination against Bahais, particularly in Iran. And these strange allegations have real consequences. In the last of the examples in the blue box, the story that Bahais marry their sisters somehow justifies the denial of ID cards to Bahais in Egypt. In Iran, the story that Bahais marry their close relatives justifies government repression and social exclusion, and it holds the Iranian people back from seriously considering the ideas that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha championed, about modernity, religion and Iran.
The prohibited degrees of affinity in the Kitab-e Aqdas and related texts
In many cases where these stories are found on social media, they are simply repeated as something that everyone knows. Quite often, one finds a rudimentary reasoning: in the Kitab-e Aqdas, Baha’u’llah forbids marriage to one’s father’s wife (mother or stepmother). Therefore Bahais may marry their own children and siblings.
It simply does not occur to those who repeat these stories to look for real factual evidence, or to think what form that evidence would take. What kind of evidence could you look for to substantiate the idea that Bahais practice incest? An actual example would be a good start. Is there one case in which Bahai X married his sister Y, on such and such a day, in such and such a place? That would be factual evidence of a sort, but it would be “anecdotal evidence.” It is not possible to justify a generalisation, such as “Bahais practice incest” from one example, or even from ten. To substantiate a generalisation, one needs general population data. If it were true that Bahais practice incest, this would show in the Bahai population, especially in Iran. There would be mongoloid features and other signs of inbreeding, such as a shorter life expectancy and lower intelligence. There have been Bahais in Iran for 6 generations now, and they are indistinguishable from the general population in appearance, and their children are so intelligent that the government has to exclude them from universities to give the rest of the population an even chance. [joke]
When I pointed this out on a Shia forum, one anti-Bahai polemicist wrote:
“Baha’is are in fact allowed to practice incest. Whether I can provide an individual example of a Baha’i practicing incest or not, does not change the facts about incest being permitted in Baha’ism. Baha’is are only told to not perform incest where the civil laws prohibits it. This does not solve the problem either, for Baha’i law is upheld because of a secondary issue, that being the law of the land. In lands where no such laws exist Baha’is can indulge in incest.”
This is a more sophisticated critique, except for the hypothetical desperation of the last sentence. [Later, the same person said “Just because I can’t show you an example of such an act it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.” Which is true, but a strange reason for thinking it must happen! ] The argument is that the Bahai Faith is a deficient religion, because it has not regulated this properly, and because – in the speaker’s view – religion should dominate all aspects of life. As it happens, I disagree with that premise: Religion is not everything, although it may speak of everything. The integrists’ claim that religion has a hegemony is untrue in practice, and wrong in principle. But I’ve addressed that point in other postings on this blog (especially ‘Two by two‘) and in the Introduction to my Church and State (pdf), from page 7, and in the main text, pp. 249-256.
What this reasoning does not consider, is that while every human society and every religious community has a definition of the forbidden degrees of affinity for marriage, how the definition is set out, and how it is implemented, can vary, as can the breadth of the prohibition. The Old Testament (Leviticus 18:8-18), specifies a number of forbidden degrees of affinity, beginning with the “father’s wife” (the example named by Baha’u’llah in the Aqdas), and going on to the sisters, half-sisters, aunts, and various prohibitions relevant only in polygamous marriages.
The Western medieval church defined the prohibited degrees not by listing them, but by a method borrowed from Roman civil law: count the number of generations back to find the nearest common ancestor. This made a list of forbidden degrees redundant. This method still applies in the canon law of the Roman Catholic Church. But Anglicanism, returning to the Old Testament example, has a Table of Kindred and Affinity in the Book of Common Prayer.
The Qur’an continues the Old Testament practice, with a list of forbidden relationships beginning with the father’s wife (Surah 4:22) and (what follows from this) step-relationships. Verse 23 reads, in the Sahih translation:
Prohibited to you [for marriage] are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your father’s sisters, your mother’s sisters, your brother’s daughters, your sister’s daughters, your [milk] mothers who nursed you, your sisters through nursing, your wives’ mothers, and your step-daughters under your guardianship [born] of your wives unto whom you have gone in. But if you have not gone in unto them, there is no sin upon you. And [also prohibited are] the wives of your sons who are from your [own] loins, and that you take [in marriage] two sisters simultaneously, except for what has already occurred. Indeed, Allah is ever Forgiving and Merciful.
The underlying principles are that a marriage relationship is equivalent to a blood relationship and that a ‘milk’ relationship (where a child is suckled by a wet nurse) is the same as a blood relationship. The Quranic list concludes with a prohibition relevant only to polygamous marriages. It appears to be modelled on the law in Leviticus, but with the addition of the milk relationships.
Muslims who want to check the shocking things they have heard about Bahais quite naturally go to the Kitab-e Aqdas, find the prohibition on marrying one’s father’s wife (stepmother, or legitimate mother), as in Quran 4:22, and do NOT find anything like the list of prohibited relationships in Quran 4:23. It is natural that this lack strikes them as significant. In comparison to Leviticus and the Surah of Women, the brevity of the reference in the Aqdas is extraordinary: just five words. But it is logically incorrect for them to conclude that the relationships in Quran 4:23 or in Leviticus 18 are all legitimate for Bahais. The logical principle that applies here is that “the absence of evidence” (that these are prohibited) “is not evidence of absence” (of such prohibitions). A list of prohibited degrees is not included where Muslim readers might expect to find it, which might seem to confirm the anti-Bahai propaganda, but they should reflect that the other relationships might be prohibited for Bahais, but specified in another text, or in a different way. Moreover, while Islamic law is relatively specified in this area, it functions in concert with fiqh, or jurisprudence. That should suggest to Muslim enquirers that a search for authoritative texts must be accompanied by an enquiry about the mechanisms of interpretation, application and enforcement, for no law, civil or religious, exists simply as a text on the page. If that is all it is, it is not positive law, although it may still have a didactic function.
Enquirers who do look beyond the absence of a list of prohibited degrees in the Kitab-e Aqdas, other than the reference to one’s father’s wife, find their way to two other texts, which are for example quoted on the Persian wikipedia page). The first is in the ‘Questions and Answers’ to the Kitab-e Aqdas, question 50, as regards the legitimacy or otherwise of marrying one’s relatives. Baha’u’llah replies: “These matters likewise rest with the Trustees of the House of Justice.”
The second apparently complements the first: a 1981 letter on behalf of the Universal House of Justice:
The Universal House of Justice has instructed us … to say that the House of Justice has not yet seen fit to make regulations on the subject of marriage with one’s kindred. For the present, therefore, decisions are left to the consciences of the individual Baha’is who must, of course, obey the civil law. Consideration must also be given to the prevailing customs and traditions in each country so that any action in this respect will not reflect upon the Faith in an adverse way. (To a National Spiritual Assembly, January 15, 1981)
It is natural for some readers to reason that if Baha’u’llah delegated this to the House of Justice, and the Universal House of Justice has made no ruling, then the anti-Bahai propaganda is correct: a Bahai man could marry anyone except his father’s wives, if the civil law and social customs did not prevent it.
The exclusion in the Aqdas verse in fact includes the father-in-law, in line with a ruling from the Guardian which is referred to in a letter from the Universal House of Justice:
It is apparent from the Guardian’s writings that where Baha’u’llah has given us a law as between a man and a woman it applies mutatis mutandis between a woman and a man unless the context should make this impossible. For example, the text of the Kitab-i-Aqdas forbids a man to marry his father’s wife (i.e. his step-mother), and the Guardian has indicated that likewise a woman is forbidden to marry her step-father.
(June 27, 1996, published in the compilation Monogamy, Equality of Sexes)
The prohibited degrees of affinity in a Tablet by Abdu’l-Baha
If this was the whole story, there would indeed be a significant gap in Bahai marriage law, at least until the Universal House of Justice filled it. However there is a letter from Abdu’l-Baha which answers this criticism. It appears to be a response to someone who has asked why the forbidden degrees of affinity, after the father’s wives, are not listed as they are in Leviticus 18 and in the Qur’an, and also why the punishments for serious crimes are not specified. I have translated the entire text on this blog, so I will excerpt just the portions relevant to the forbidden degrees of affinity. Look especially at paragraph 9:
3. You have asked concerning the wisdom of referring some important laws to the House of Justice. …
4. … this blessed dispensation, being the greatest of all the heavenly dispensations, embraces all matters, spiritual and corporeal, with perfect power and sovereignty. Thus the broader issues that are the foundation of the religious law are explicitly stated, but subsidiary matters are left to the House of Justice. The wisdom of this is that time does not stand still: change and transformation are essential attributes and necessities of this world, and of time and place. Therefore the House of Justice implements decisions accordingly.
7. … in Islamic religious law not every ordinance was explicitly revealed; not even a thousandth part. Although all important questions were mentioned, undoubtedly half a million laws were never mentioned. Later the divines drew their conclusions on the basis of fundamental principles, with individual divines drawing conflicting conclusions from the original religious law, and these were enforced.
8. Today this process of deduction is entrusted to the board of the House of Justice, and the personal deductions and inferences of scholars have no authority, unless they are endorsed by the House of Justice. The difference is this, that the deductions and endorsements of the House of Justice, whose members are chosen and accepted by the entire religious community, will not give rise to conflict, whereas the deductions drawn by individual divines and scholars immediately led to contention ….
9. As for the matter of marriage, this falls entirely within the ‘cultural laws.’ Nevertheless, its preconditions are found in the Law of God, and its fundamentals are evident. However those unions between relatives that are not explicitly treated, are referred to the House of Justice, which will give a ruling based on the culture, medical requirements, wisdom, and the capacity of human nature. Culture, medical science, and human nature leave no doubt that in marriage, “distance is nearer than nearness.” In this light, consider the religious law of Christianity. Although marriage to relatives was in reality permitted, since no ban on it had been explicitly revealed, the early Christian councils entirely forbade marriages between relatives, to the seventh degree, and even today this is the practice in all Christian communions, since this question is purely a matter of culture.
10. In short, whatever ruling the House of Justice makes in this respect, is the decisive decree, it is God’s sharp sword. No one may transgress that limit. If you consider, it will be apparent how much this rule (that is, referring cultural laws to the House of Justice) is consistent with wisdom. For whenever a difficulty may arise in relation to the local context of an issue, since the House of Justice delivered the previous ruling, the secondary House of Justice can issue a new national ruling on the national case and instance, in the light of local contingencies. “Consultation with all, wards off danger.” This is because the House of Justice is entitled to abrogate what it itself has decided.
In paragraphs 3 and 7, Abdu’l-Baha points out that the Gospels have no law on the forbidden degrees and other matters, and the Quran does not contain most of what is Islamic law today. So it’s illogical to say that the Bahai Faith is deficient if its scripture does not specify the forbidden degrees of affinity for marriage. As in the case of Christianity and Islam, the positive law comes from an interaction between the text and the institutions that develop the religious law.
In the texts I have cited above, I find ten operative principles that individuals wishing to marry, their parents, and the National Spiritual Assembly could use to determine whether a particular marriage is forbidden or discouraged for Bahais. My list is no doubt incomplete.
The first is that marriage relationships are equivalent to blood relationships, as Baha’u’llah has written, “It is forbidden you to wed your fathers’ wives.”
As noted above, Shoghi Effendi has explained that this also bars a marriage between a daughter and her stepfather. That gives us the second principle, known as mutatis mutandis.
The text from Abdu’l-Baha that I have quoted yields several further principles: “distance is nearer than nearness” means that a more distant relationship between the partners is nearer to God’s Will than a close relationship, so marriage to a near relation (by blood or marriage) will always be deprecated, while intercultural and interracial marriages are encouraged.
The references to culture and custom indicate that no detailed and universal list of the forbidden degrees can be given, since cultures differ, and marriage is defined as a cultural matter. There may be variations in law and custom even within a country. In the United Kingdom, Scotland allows marriages between persons that would be forbidden in England and Wales, and in the United States, some states allow first-cousin marriages while others do not. In Islamic law, the local customs (adat) play a role alongside the Quranic rules and the various opinions of the schools of law and individual scholars.
In addition to the cultural context, the knowledge offered by medical and psychological science (“the capacity of human nature”) must also be considered. The insights of science and the possibilities it offers evolve over time, and are not all available everywhere. For example, medical tests might be used to determine the risk involved in a particular cousin marriage, but these facilities might be available in one country and not in another..
Another principle Abdu’l-Baha sets out is that the authority in these matters is the House of Justice, but in line with the fourth principle, it is the national or local House of Justice that must decide, as Abdu’l-Baha writes (above) “whenever a difficulty may arise in relation to the local context of an issue, since the House of Justice delivered the previous ruling, the secondary House of Justice can issue a new national ruling on the national case and instance, in the light of local contingencies.”
Given that Abdu’l-Baha has specified that the secondary House of Justice (what we know as the National Spiritual Assembly) should make these rulings, it is unlikely that the Universal House of Justice will compile a universal list of forbidden degrees of affinity for marriage. It seems more likely that it will elucidate principles, giving weight to what needs to be emphasized, and leave individual cases to National Spiritual Assemblies. If a National Spiritual Assembly finds the civil laws and their enforcement to be in accordance with the Bahai principles, culture and scientific considerations, it has no need to make a general ruling, especially as the absence of a ruling does not prevent the Assembly intervening in a particular case.
However there is also a letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which states (in Persian) that the question of first-cousin marriages is to be decided by the Universal House of Justice, and that the National Assembly (in Tehran) is therefore not allowed to forbid it. How this fits with the Tablet of Abdu’-Baha is not clear, but see my various contributions on the status of letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi on this blog, notably “Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet of Emanuel”(forthcoming) and the list of related content at the end of that posting.
Another principle we see in this response by Abdu’l-Baha is that decisions are left to the houses of justice, and not the opinions of scholars (myself included). Abdu’l-Baha contrasts this to the development of the Shariah schools in Islam, and the practice of going to a religious scholar to decide particular cases. He also contrasts it to using lists of forbidden degrees of marriage.
Abdu’l-Baha also specifies that the details of this law may and even should change over time.
Another principle that is very relevant (and is mentioned by the Universal House of Justice, quoted above) is that Bahais must obey the civil law and give it priority over their own religious laws, as Shoghi Effendi has written:
Let them proclaim that in whatever country they reside, and however advanced their institutions, or profound their desire to enforce the laws, and apply the principles, enunciated by Baha’u’llah, they will, unhesitatingly, subordinate the operation of such laws and the application of such principles to the requirements and legal enactments of their respective governments.
(The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 65)
This principle is a de facto solution to most questions: any marriage relationship forbidden by civil law is also forbidden for Bahais. This is itself a religious principle, and not merely a civil duty, since the legitimacy of human government and our duty to obey it have been taught by Baha’u’llah.
But a relationship may be allowed by civil law, but not by Bahai religious law. There has been a trend in Western countries to relax the prohibited degrees of affinity for marriage. Marriage to one’s father’s wife or mother’s husband has been allowed in the United Kingdom since 1986. In 2007, the United Kingdom abolished the long-standing bar to marriages between former parents-in-law and their sons and daughters-in-law. This was in response to a decision of the European Court of Human Rights, and applies only where the two former partners have died. But if the principle in Bahai law is that marriage relationships are equivalent to blood relationships, then the mother-in-law is the same as the mother, for Bahais. On the other hand, respect for the rights of government and obedience to civil law is a central principle in the Bahai Faith, and a National Spiritual Assembly will not lightly say that a marriage recognized in law and practice cannot be recognized in the Bahai community. Another example is same-sex marriage: if the Universal House of Justice’s references to marriage being only between a man and a woman are intended as legislation (which appears to me unlikely, since this area is in principle delegated to National Spiritual Assemblies), then same-sex marriage is forbidden for Bahais. So in some cases what is permissible in civil law in not permissible in Bahai law. The principle of “distance is nearer than nearness” also means that marriages that are legal, may still be regarded as discouraged, a factor that may weigh with the couple concerned and their parents.
Another principle, not mentioned in the texts I have quoted, is that Bahai marriage is conditioned on the permission of living parents, except in certain specific circumstances, including incest and other abuse.
This means that the parents, in addition to the local or national Bahai institution, have a role. A National Assembly might have made no national ruling on cousin marriages, but if any of the four parents feels that “distance is nearer than nearness” means that a fifth cousin marriage is undesirable, then that is the rule that will apply for that couple, and it could not be called an unreasonable refusal, in the light of Abdu’l-Baha’s guidance.
Many countries, by law and custom, allow first cousin marriages, and second or first cousin marriages are very common across North Africa and the Middle East and India.
Are Bahais in such countries allowed, by Bahai law, to marry first or second cousins (or third or fourth)? Assuming first that the couple concerned feel that a marriage is advisable, they must refer it to any living parents, who if they wish may ask the Local or National Spiritual Assembly for a ruling, and the Assembly may consult medical experts or experts in Bahai law, and may ask the Universal House of Justice for elucidation of the issues and of Bahai practices in various countries. As Abdu’l-Baha says in the letter I have quoted, “Consultation with all, wards off danger.” Then the National Spiritual Assembly decides.
What I have described is quite different to the lists of forbidden degrees in Shiah Islam, which operate in the context of Quran and the Islamic traditions, especially those from the Imams, the books of “questions” of the Ayatollahs and their fatwas, and the religious scholars sitting in religious courts. In the Bahai case we have principles set out, and possibly elucidated by the Universal House of Justice, and the operative authorities are the individuals, their parents, and the Local and National Spiritual Assemblies – and in the first case the civil law, for nothing forbidden by those in authority can be licit in Bahai law. Despite the differences, both systems do produce a definitive answer when an answer is required.
This is not to say that the Bahai law is completely developed. One question is whether adoptive relationships are equivalent to blood relationships. It would appear that the Universal House of Justice has decided that they are equivalent (see below). Another depends on the question of whether, when Baha’u’llah endorses one part of a previous religious law (usually a law of the Bayan), he means to endorse the whole of that law. I have found a few examples which suggest that Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi made this assumption, but the question certainly requires a systematic search for counter-examples. Should this principle be confirmed, then the Houses of Justice might consider Baha’u’llah’s reference to the father’s wife, in the Aqdas, as implicitly including the forbidden degrees that follow the father’s wife, in Leviticus 18 and in the Quran 4:23.
Upate, October 26, 2015.
I have been provided with the text of a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice in 2010, which appears to be new legislation on this matter. I have not confirmed its authenticity to my satisfaction.
Your email letter of 11 October 2009, concerning Bahá’í law as regards marrying one’s relatives, has been received by the Universal House of Justice. We have been asked to convey the following in response.
The House of Justice has clearly stated that it is not permissible for a Bahá’í to marry his or her mother or father and their siblings and forebears, brothers or sisters and their descendents, or sons or daughters and their descendents. It is also not permissible to marry some corresponding categories of relations formed by bonds of marriage—such as the step-mother, step-father, step-daughter, or stepson, or the daughter-in-law, son-in-law, mother-in-law, or father-in-law—or similar categories of relations formed by legal and social bonds that create a shared family life, for example through adoption. Beyond these prohibitions, Bahá’ís should ensure they do not contract a marriage that would violate the customs or laws of the country in which they reside. While the House of Justice has refrained, at this stage, from defining other categories of relations with whom marriage is prohibited, it is important for believers everywhere to be mindful of this clear statement by the Master:
“In marriage the more distant the blood-relationship the better, for such distance in family ties between husband and wife provideth the basis for the well-being of humanity and is conducive to fellowship among mankind.”
(From a letter dated 15 January 2010 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer)
The letter as quoted is ambiguous: to whom does the pronoun “their” refer? I suggest it should be parsed as follows:
It is not permissible for a Bahai to marry his or her:
– parents and [the parents’] siblings and forebears,
– siblings and [the siblings’] descendents, or
– children and [the children’s] descendents.
This list of prohibitions includes the obvious close relatives, and uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, but does not include first cousins. However individuals (the couple and their parents) are to bear in mind the principle that “the more distant the blood-relationship the better.”
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