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“Bahais marry their sisters” — the prohibited degrees of affinity for marriage

Posted by Sen on May 16, 2015

Itchingfield Church - [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.”

An example is the Bahai Awareness site, a Shia site managed by Imran Shaykh, who also originated the story that Baha’u’llah killed 130 people in one night. The Bahai Awareness site states that “except for one’s mother, Baha [Baha’u’llah] permits marriage with any other woman. That is to say, it is permitted for the Bahais to marry their sisters, nieces, aunts, etc, even though they may be blood relatives.” A comment on that site says “yes bahais must be killed as they are FITNA by the devil — they marry their real sisters ….” Another person alleges that he knew a Bahai fellow student, and “he told me that in Bahii religion it is encouraged to marry between sister and brother, father and daughter, or mother and son!
On the Iran Military Forum, a member alleges that “they can have sex with any female family member including mother, daughter, sister, nephew, cousin (all Maharems [close relatives]) except their stepmother.
Seif Mahmoud Ashour, a member of the Islamic Research Council in Egypt, is reported to have said in a news conference, “We hear they permit incest, that a man can marry his sister,…” (The Daily Star, December 7, 2006).

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.

Illustration for Amir Khusrow, 'The man falsely accused of incest.'

Illustration for Amir Khusrow, ‘The man falsely accused of incest.’

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.”exclamation2

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.

table-consanguityWhat 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.UHJ_arc

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:

Mutatis and Mutandis

Mutatis and Mutandis (please note that this image is not a subtle reference to same-sex couples)

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:

Abdulbaha23. 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.

(My translation)

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.

Ten principles
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.

one blackThe 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.”

two-blackTwo columns hirschAs 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.

three-gracesThe 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.

four blackThe 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.

five-blackIn 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..

five-black one black 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” and the list of related content at the end of that posting.

five-blacktwo-blackAnother 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.

five-blackthree black
Abdu’l-Baha also specifies that the details of this law may and even should change over time.

threetrianglesAnother 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.

five-blackfive-blackAnother 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, and in any case it is a letter from the secretariat, which means that the House has not necessarily consulted on it (see “signed by five” for the details). In other words, it is not “legislation” in itself, but may reflect something the House of Justice has consulted on and does intend to be Bahai law.

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.”

Short link:

13 Responses to ““Bahais marry their sisters” — the prohibited degrees of affinity for marriage”

  1. hadez said

    I am the “anti-Baha’i polemicist” (!!!) that you referred to. I have responded to your blog on the same website that you provided a link to. All I ask is one question:

    Are some forms of Incest allowed under Baha’i law?

    Since you’ve already provided a comprehensive explanation, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ will be a sufficient response to my question.

  2. Sen said

    The answer is “no.” An answer so obvious, it doesn’t need to be said.

  3. S. Bentler said

    We should appreciate that while marriages between cousins is indeed a traditional practice in many Muslim majority countries, it is also a kind of cultural habit to allege immoral and incestuous relationships to members of minority of minority faiths in Muslim counties. The Baha’is are not the only minority faith subjected to these kinds of accusations.

    In outreach, I have met fairly educated Shia practitioners who asked Baha’is directly about the question of incestuous relationships at Baha’i hosted occasions, and they sincerely wanted to know if [incestuous] marriage was a typical practice among Baha’is.

    In reality, Baha’is have a highly outward-looking approach to marriage and given that there is a very strong emphasis on freedom from prejudice among Baha’is, it is much more typical to find Baha’is married to someone with origins in another country, faith, or ethnic affiliation than in any other group I have encountered.

  4. hadez said

    Your response that “The answer is “no.” An answer so obvious, it doesn’t need to be said,” cannot be inferred from none of the following quotes. You can at most claim that in Baha’ism incest is discouraged but allowed (except for a parent’s spouse):

    #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)#

    #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.”#

    #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 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.#

  5. Sen said

    No, it is not true that in the Bahai Faith incest is “discouraged but allowed.” If you come to conclusion about the Bahai Faith that are completely contrary to what Bahais themselves understand, you should consider the possibility that the cause lies with your reasoning, not with the Bahais. There are three main faults in your reasoning.

    1) As I have shown, Baha’u’llah delegates decisions on this matter to the House of Justice, without specifying which House of Justice, and Abdu’l-Baha has specified the ‘secondary House of Justice,’ which follows from his view that the forbidden degrees of affinity is a cultural question. You have not shown any ruling from any National Spiritual Assembly which says that incest is “discouraged but allowed,” nor any case in which a National Spiritual Assembly has approved a particular incestuous marriage. I dare say you haven’t even looked for such evidence. But without evidence, you are just making up a story – and in this story you somehow know more about Bahai practices than Bahais do!

    2) The National Spiritual Assembles and the Universal House of Justice are not bound to make a general ruling, or cite a general ruling, when deciding a particular case. They can decide a particular case on the basis of its own particulars, without reference to precedents and without creating a precedent. Thus the absence of a general ruling does not mean that they would have to allow a marriage between close relations, should that arise. In practice, the Universal House of Justice has only codified a law when the cases requiring decisions have become numerous and it wishes to harmonise the practices of the National Spiritual Assemblies. An example is the 2010 codification of the circumstances in which the requirement of parental consent for marriage can be waived.
    This codification does not create something entirely new: waivers were granted previously, as the National Spiritual Assemblies and the Universal House of Justice dealt with requests. The same principle applies to National Spiritual Assemblies: they are unlikely to issue guidelines to Local Spiritual Assemblies and parents so long as they can easily handle individual cases on an individual basis. The only marriages that a National Spiritual Assembly will feel required to rule on are those where the relationship is one approved by civil law, but questionable in the light of Bahai teachings – a minuscule number of cases.

    3) It’s ivory tower pontificating. You are supposing that laws exist as texts, and that once you have found a few texts you are capable of reasoning what the implications must be, without any familiarity with the Bahai community. This is a naive view of law. It does not reflect the reality of either civil law or religious law. Law, whether it is written or not, always comes wrapped in the muscle and blood of the people and institutions that interpret, apply and enforce the law. The bones without the flesh go nowhere. Reading source texts is barely a begin to understanding a legal system, because something may be forbidden or required in a text but not be enforced, or on the other hand, the texts may be silent, yet the institutional mechanisms may nevertheless produce a definite outcome consistently.

    The first relevant institution in this case is the families, because parents must give consent for a Bahai marriage. If parents refuse, there will usually be no textual evidence to discover. The next institutions are the local and national Spiritual Assemblies, whose consultations are confidential. They communicate their decisions in individual cases to the people concerned, but these are unlikely to come into the public domain. As I’ve said above, there is no need and no present motivation for the National Spiritual Assemblies or the Universal House of Justice to move from a case by case approach to a codification of practices. So textual research will not get you very far: only sociological research methods will tell you whether incest is “discouraged but allowed” in the Bahai Faith. As a Bahai, I can tell you that the outcome of that research, were you to undertake it, would be a definitive “no.”

  6. Jonas said

    Dear Sen,
    I was thrown off a little by your understanding of “the capacity of human nature” since my first impulse was the thought that the Writings indicate that this capacity is evolving. From “human nature” I inferred reasoning and spiritual understanding and we know that humanity’s capacity as a whole to understand spiritual principles evolves parallel to the coming of new Dispensations. So maybe it’s just the combination of the terms of capacity and human nature that put me on the wrong track, but that also led me to check with the original where it said استعداد طبیعت بشریه. Assuming that استعداد has the same meaning in Persian as in Arabic (if you know of a reliable online dictionary of Persian that can be used for the Writings, please let me know) it makes a lot more sense now seeing that this word could also be translated as suitability, aptitude or adequacy, so maybe using a word along these lines could prevent a possible misunderstanding 😉

  7. Sen said

    The best general dictionary for Qajar era Persian prose is Steingass, which says for استعداد:
    A استعداد istiʻdād (v.n. 10 of عدّ), Preparing, making preparation, getting ready for; skill, aptness, aptitude, merit; means; mental powers, talent, parts.

    A translation such as “suitability to human nature” would be close in terms of sense, but a grammatically wrong reading, because that would require a preposition (به / to) that is not in the text. It is the X of human nature that must be considered. What is human nature capable of? How much can human nature bear? That’s what the text is saying. Once the translator knows what is being said, in terms of grammar and vocabulary, the next thing is to chose one of the several English words or phrases is best, and the Bahai translator will consider Shoghi Effendi’s choices. These are not to be followed slavishly, but there is an added value for all users of Bahais texts in translation from maintaining just a few English translations for each source word. It’s not always possible, but it would be nice if a reader seeing the word “Manifestation” in two different texts can be reasonably confident that they are both talking about the same thing. If you check that, you will see it is not the case: “manifestation” translates at least three different words. I used that example to show that one cannot expect to achieve much in the way of a systematic vocabulary of translation. But still: Shoghi Effendi often translates استعداد as “capacity,” and the word fits the meaning, so I use it rather than “powers” or “capability” or “fitness.”

    However “human nature” has led you up the garden path: you should be thinking of the nature of a human, his or her gestalt / gestaltung. This nature includes the body, and what we know as recessive genes. I won’t project that knowledge back onto Abdu’l-Baha: I imagine he would be thinking that the children of a first cousin marriage, for example, often have a weaker “constitution” which includes weaker mental powers. This aspect of “human nature” has to be taken into account.

  8. Jonas said

    Yes, thank you, Sen. I’m still at the very beginning of learning Persian, so any help is much appreciated 😉
    Yes, I guess when reading “human nature” I’m used to think about whether the higher or the lower human nature is meant, here I instinctively chose the higher human nature, and its capacity would be reason. But you are absolutely right, this isn’t what is said there, neither in the original nor in your translation for that matter.

  9. Sen said

    I have added an explanatory note in the complete translation, thank to your feedback. The web is a wonderful thing.

  10. hadez said

    Your explanations still fail to prove incest is disallowed in the Baha’i teachings. Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha or the UHJ could have stated in very simple terms that incest is not allowed according to the Baha’i teachings, but none of them do. In fact, Baha’u’llah is silent on the matter and refers further clarification to the UHJ, Abdu’l-Baha’s words only show discouragement but not prohibition, and the UHJ gives some guidelines on incestuous marriage such as obeying civil law and the customs of the land etc. Each one of these could have easily replied “Incest is illegal” when asked about it but none of them does so.

    Parents’ consent or the ruling of the National spiritual assemblies changes nothing. In fact, if the parents and the national spiritual assembly both announce their consent to an incestuous marriage, then that marriage can be performed.

    Even if I can’t show you a sample where incestuous marriage has been performed in Baha’ism, it does not mean that incest is not allowed. It’s like claiming the Baha’i punishment for arson is not death by burning because no one can find a single instance that this punishment has been applied.

  11. Sen said

    In addition to supposing that the parents and the National Spiritual Assembly have taken leave of their senses, you have to suppose that government decided incest is nice, and the Universal House of Justice went crazy. At this point, a giant space rat eats the moon, which really is made of cheese.

    The “Baha’i punishment for arson is not death by burning.” See elsewhere on this blog:

  12. Ashfaq Mehdi said

    If the Bahai’ s says incest is not allowed..IT is NOT allowed..period.

  13. Yes, a taboo on marrying close relatives, siblings for example, is nearly universal. But do we understand why? What is likelihood of harm and to whom, as compared with benefits, and can it be mitigated? This may be more complex than one initially thinks, and for that very reason settling it definitely by a single, simple law may not be the best course of action. The Baha’i Faith enjoins consideration of both scientific and religious criteria in taking a decision, all the more important in weighty decisions such as marriage. While a single instance of marrying a cousin may not raise significant risk, it is proven that a significant increase in the likelihood of genetic disorders ensues from marrying relatives where there is repeated consanginous marriages within the group. A ban on marrying relatives may, therefore, be related to the slippery slope concern. Baha’is, for example, accept not to drink alcohol knowing that one drink is not likely to cause any problems for some people. However, if allowed to proliferate society suffers. The Westermarck effect, which states that “people who live in close domestic proximity during the first few years of their lives become desensitized to sexual attraction, may also explain why a taboo on marriage among close family members is nearly universal. For example, a study of the marriage patterns of 3,000 kibbutz children found none among those who had been reared together during the first six years of life and only 14, all of whom had been reared after the age of six years. Of course, social mores may also be involved. Perhaps more key is that marriage with relatives “introduces the possibility of irreparably damaging family units by introducing “a notoriously incendiary dynamic—sexual tension—into the mix”. Clearly parent/child sex or marriage should be banned because of the power differential and potential for abuse. Note, however, that Woody Allen was able to marry the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow, his common law spouse. However, what should be the law where a brother and sister are brought up separately and meet as adults? Sweden permits the marriage of half siblings under certain circumstances and In 2014, the German Ethics Council provided an assessment which recommended that the government abolish laws criminalizing incest between siblings, arguing that such bans impinge upon [the human rights of adult?] citizens.

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