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To be a Bahai: the recollections of Wendell Phillips Dodge

Posted by Sen on April 28, 2017

Abdu’l-Baha and a child in Haifa, Israel, courtesy of

When asked on one occasion: “What is a Bahai?” Abdu’l-Baha replied: “To be a Bahai simply means to love all the world; to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood.”

These words, often quoted in Bahai literature, are not authentic Bahai scripture, although the source is somewhat reliable. The words are among those supposedly spoken by Abdu’l-Baha on the Cedric as the ship arrived in America on April 11 1912. What happened is that a Bahai, Wendell Phillips Dodge, who was accredited with the New York City News Association, boarded the Cedric along with the customs officers and shipping news reporters, after the ship had been cleared the quarantine station. He interviewed ‘Abdu’l-Baha as the ship sailed into harbour.

An experienced Bahai translator and interpreter, Amin Farid (aka Mirza Aminu’llah Fareed), translated Abdu’l-Baha’s words into English, and Dodge wrote a report of what he had seen and heard, which was distributed through the Associated Press (see Alan Ward, 239 Days, p. 13). The various editors involved probably modified Dodge’s story, as is normal in newspaper reporting. However since the reporter, Dodge, was himself a Bahai – he was the son of Arthur Dodge who became a Bahai in 1897 and remained active until his death in October, 1915 (see Youness Afroukhteh, Memories of Nine Years in Akka, p. 433) – it is likely that it was Dodge’s original report that was submitted to the Bahai magazine Star of the West, which reprinted it on April 28, 1912 (Vol. 3, nr. 4. 3, p. 3). I have reproduced Dodge’s report from the Star of the West below. The Star of the West editors may also have polished it a little, but the weak links in the chain are the original interpreter – was Farid able to convey in English what he was hearing in Persian, and did he add his own colouring to it – and Dodge himself. When he writes “The chief cause of the mental and physical inequalities of the sexes is due to custom and training, which for ages past have moulded woman into the ideal of the weaker vessel,” and “the new age will be an age less masculine, and more permeated with the feminine ideals,” is he reporting the actual words Fareed used, or, as I think, transforming what he understood, using the language of the suffragettes?

Whether the sentiment “To be a Baha’i simply means to love all the world….” and the remainder of the Dodge report, are like those of Abdu’l-Baha is a matter of opinion. But in the Bahai Faith, canonical authority is a historical question, based on objective criteria that are given in the Bahai writings themselves, and that have been interpreted by Shoghi Effendi. Abdu’l-Baha writes:

Thou has written concerning the pilgrims and pilgrims’ note. Any narrative that is not authenticated by a Text should not be trusted. Narratives, even if true, cause confusion. For the people of Baha, the Text, and only the Text, is authentic” (translated in Lights of Guidance, p. 438)

and Shoghi Effendi:

I have insistently urged the believers of the West … to quote and consider as authentic only such translations as are based upon the authenticated text of His recorded utterances in the original tongue.” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 5)

The word translated as “narrative” in Abdu’l-Baha’s letter apparently refers to orally transmitted reports analogous to the “traditions” (hadith) of Islam, but I have not been able to locate the original for this tablet to check what word is used. Such “narratives” became known in the Bahai community as “pilgrims’ notes” because a large portion of the narratives that circulated in the early Bahai communities of the West originated as returning pilgrims’ recollections of the words they had heard from Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi in Palestine. Most reports of the talks that Abdu’l-Baha gave in his western journeys, reported in Paris Talks, Abdu’l-Baha in London and The Promulgation of Universal Peace for example, are also pilgrim’s notes. However in some cases, the English text is not based on what an interpreter said, but on a record of what Abdu’l-Baha said in Persian, authenticated by him and later translated into English. Some Answered Questions and Memorials of the Faithful were produced in this way, and I have begun to translated the authenticated Persian records of Abdu’l-Baha’s talks in the West on a separate blog, Abdu’l-Baha Speaks. Apart from such translations made direct from authenticated texts, all the talks of Abdu’l-Baha that we are so fond of are “narratives” and “pilgrims’ notes”: the Bahai equivalent of hadith. Such texts often circulate in various forms, as there is no original to check them against.

Although Dodge’s report of Abdu’l-Baha’s words cannot be authenticated by a Persian record, it is very interesting and influential. The sentence beginning “: “To be a Baha’i simply means to love all the world …” was quoted by John Esslemont in Baha’u’llah and the New Era, first published in 1923, and is still included in the edition available at the new site of the Bahai Reference Library, although other pilgrim’s notes that Esslemont included in his first edition were removed by the editors of later editions. It is apparently a well-loved sentiment. It conveys the idea that what counts is not the religious labels we wear, but the deeds we do. That is a Bahai teaching, as Baha’u’llah writes:

Beware, O people of Baha, lest ye walk in the ways of them whose words differ from their deeds. (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 305)

… but it is not the whole story. Good deeds, without awareness, pure intentions and love, fall short of the Baha’i standard of conduct. In Some Answered Questions, Abdu’l-Baha is asked,

Those who do good works, who are well-wishers of all mankind, who have a praiseworthy character, who show forth love and kindness to all people, who care for the poor, and who work for universal peace what need do they have of the divine teachings, with which they believe they can well afford to dispense? What is the condition of such people?

He replied, in part:

Know that such ways, words and deeds are to be lauded and approved, and they redound to the glory of the human world. But these actions alone are not sufficient: they are a body of the greatest beauty, but without a spirit. No, that which leads to everlasting life, eternal honour, universal enlightenment, and true success and salvation is, first and foremost, the knowledge of God. It is clear that this knowledge takes precedence over every other knowledge and constitutes the greatest virtue of the human world. For the understanding of the reality of things confers a material advantage in the realm of being, and brings about the progress of outward civilization, but the knowledge of God is the cause of spiritual progress and attraction, true vision and insight, the exaltation of humanity, the appearance of divine civilization, the rectification of morals, and the illumination of the conscience.

Second comes the love of God. The light of this love is kindled, through the knowledge of God, in the lamp of the heart, and its spreading rays illumine the world and bestow upon man the life of the Kingdom. … Were it not for the love of God, the hearts of men would be bereft of life and deprived of the stirrings of concience. … Were it not for the love of God, estrangement would not give way to unity. …

It is clear that human realities differ one from another, that opinions and perceptions vary, and that this divergence of thoughts, opinions, understandings and sentiments among individuals is an essential requirement. … We stand therefore in need of a universal power which can prevail over the thoughts, opinions and sentiments of all, which can annul these divisions and bring all souls under the sway of the principle of the oneness of humanity. And it is clear and evident that the greatest power in the human world is the love of God. It gathers diverse peoples under the shade of the tabernacle of oneness and fosters the greatest love and fellowship among hostile and contending peoples and nations.

… The third virtue of humanity is goodly intention, which is the foundation of all good deeds. … Now, one can perform an action which appears to be righteous but which is in reality prompted by self-interest. For example, a butcher raises a sheep and guards its safety; but this good deed of the butcher is motivated by the hope of profit, and the end result of all this care will be the slaughter of the poor sheep. How many are the goodly and righteous deeds that are in reality prompted by self interest! But the pure intention is sanctified above such faults.

Briefly, good deeds become perfect and complete only after the knowledge of God has been acquired, the love of God has been manifested, and spiritual attractions and goodly motives have been attained. Otherwise, though good deeds be praiseworthy, if they do not spring from the knowledge of God, from the love of God, and from a sincere intention, they will be imperfect. …

In the world today we meet with souls who sincerely desire the good of all people, who do all that lies in their power to assist the poor and succour the oppressed, and who are devoted to universal peace and well-being. Yet, however perfect they may be from this perspective, they remain deprived of the knowledge and the love of God and as such are imperfect.

… The sun nurtures all earthly things and fosters their growth and development by its heat and light what greater good is there than this? Nonetheless, since this good does not flow from goodly motives and from the love and knowledge of God, it does not impress in the least. But when someone offers a cup of water to another, he is shown appreciation and gratitude. An unthinking person might say, “This sun which gives light to the world and manifests this great bounty must surely be praised and glorified. For why should we praise a man for such a modest gift and not yield thanks to the sun?” But if we were to gaze with the eye of truth, we would see that the modest gift bestowed by this person stems from the stirrings of conscience and is therefore praiseworthy, whereas the light and heat of the sun are not due to this and thus are not worthy of our praise and gratitude. In like manner, while those who perform good deeds are to be lauded, if these deeds do not flow from the knowledge and love of God they are assuredly imperfect.

Aside from this, if you consider the matter with fairness you will see that these good deeds of the non-believers also have their origin in the divine teachings. That is, the Prophets of old exhorted men to perform them, explained their advantages and expounded their positive effects; these teachings then spread among mankind, successively reaching the non-believing souls and inclining their hearts toward these perfections; and when they found these actions to be laudable and to bring about joy and happiness among men, they too conformed to them. Thus these actions also arise from the divine teachings. But to see this a measure of fair-mindedness is called for and not dispute and controversy.

The recollections of Wendell Phillips Dodge contain much more than the sentence beginning “To be a Baha’i simply means to love all the world …”. He reports Abdu’l-Baha’s words on the importance of accurate newspapers, on liberty, women’s suffrage and material civilization. How much of this is Abdu’l-Baha and how much is Dodge is an open question.

Star of the West III:3, 28 April 1912, from page 3

Abdu’l-Baha’s arrival in America

Wendell Phillips Dodge

Abdu’l-Baha, the eminent Persian philosopher and leader of the Bahai movement for the unification of religions and the establishment of universal peace, arrived April 11th on the steamship _Cedric from Alexandria, Egypt. It is his first visit to America, and except for a brief visit to Paris and London last summer and fall, it is the first time in forty years that he has gone beyond the fortification of the “prison city” of Acre, Syria, to which place he and his father, Baha’o’llah, the founder of the Bahai movement, were banished by the Turkish government a half century ago.

He comes on a mission of international peace, to attend and address the Peace Conference at Lake Mohonk the latter part of the month, and to address various peace meetings, educational societies, religious organizations, etc.

When the ship news reporters boarded the _Cedric down the bay Abdu’l-Baha was found on the upper deck, standing where he could see the pilot, his long, flowing oriental robe flapping in the breeze. He was clothed in a long, black robe open at the front and disclosing another robe of light tan. Upon his head was a pure white turban, such as all eastern patriarchs wear.

His face was light itself as he scanned the harbour and greeted the reporters, who had been kept waiting at quarantine for three and a half hours before they could board the ship with the customs officers, owing to a case of smallpox and several cases of typhoid fever in the steerage, which had to be removed to Hoffman Island for isolation, and the ship then fumigated. He is a man of medium height, though at first sight he seemed to be much taller. He is strongly and solidly built, and weighs probably one hundred and sixty-five pounds. As he paced the deck, talking with the reporters, he appeared alert and active in every movement, his head thrown back and splendidly poised upon his broad, square shoulders, most of the time. A profusion of iron grey hair bursting out at the sides of the turban and hanging long upon the neck; a large, massive head, full-domed and remarkably wide across the forehead and temples, the forehead rising like a great palisade above the eyes, which were very wide apart, their orbits large and deep, looking out from under massive overhanging brows; strong Roman nose, generous ears, decisive yet kindly mouth and chin; a creamy white complexion, beard same colour as his hair, worn full over the face and carefully trimmed at almost full length – this completes an insufficient word picture of this “Wise Man Out of the East.”

His first words were about the press, saying:

“The pages of swiftly appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world; they display the doings and actions of the different nations; they both illustrate them and cause them to be heard. Newspapers are as a mirror which is endowed with hearing, sight and speech; they are a wonderful phenomenon and a great matter. But it behoveth the editors of the newspaper to be sanctified from the prejudice of egotism and desire, and to be adorned with the ornament of equity and justice.

“There are good and bad newspapers. Those which strive to speak only that which is truth, which hold the mirror up to truth, are like the sun: they light the world everywhere with truth and their work is imperishable. Those who play for their own little selfish ends give no true light to the world and perish of their own futility.”

Dr Ameen U. Fareed, a young Americanized Persian physician and surgeon, who is a nephew of Abdu’l-Baha, and who acted as interpreter, then told of how Abdu’l-Baha spent most of his time on the way across standing beside the wireless operator, himself receiving numerous messages through the air from his followers in America.

Talking to the reporters in his stateroom aboard the _Cedric, Abdu’l-Baha told of an incident which occurred in the Holy Land last winter, and it shows what a rare sense of humour this great world figure has. An enquirer, about to set off to Jerusalem, was one day discussing with Abdu’l-Baha the subject of pilgrimage:

“‘The proper spirit,’ said Abdu’l-Baha in his quaint way to the enquirer, ‘in which to visit places hallowed by remembrances of Christ, is one of constant communion with God. Love for God will be the telegraph wire, one end of which is in the Kingdom of the Spirit and the other in your heart.’
“‘I am afraid my telegraph wire is broken,’ the enquirer replied.
“‘Then you will have to use wireless telegraphy,’ I told him,” said Abdu’l-Baha, laughing heartily.

When the ship was abreast the Statue of Liberty, standing erect and facing it, Abdu’l-Baha held his arms wide apart in salutation, and said:

“There is the new world’s symbol of liberty and freedom. After being forty years a prisoner I can tell you that freedom is not a matter of place. It is a condition. Unless one accept dire vicissitudes he will not attain. When one is released from the prison of self, that is indeed a release.”

Then, waving adieu to the Statue of Liberty, he continued:

“In former ages it has been said, ‘To love one’s native land is faith.’ But the tongue in this days [_sic] says. ‘Glory is not his who loves his native land; but glory is his who loves his kind – humanity.'”

“What is your attitude toward woman suffrage?” asked one of the reporters.

“The modern suffragette is fighting for what must be, and many of these are willing martyrs to imprisonment for their cause. One might not approve of the ways of some of the more militant suffragettes, but in the end it will adjust itself. If women were given the same advantages as men, their capacity being the same, the result would be the same. In fact, women have a superior disposition to men; they are more receptive, more sensitive, and their intuition is more intense. The only reason of their present backwardness in some directions is because they have not had the same educational advantages as men.

“All children should be educated, but if parents cannot educate both the boys and the girls, then it would be better to educate the girls, for they will be the mothers of the coming generation. This is a radical idea for the East, where I come from, but it is already taking effect there, for the Bahai women of Persia are being educated along with the men.

“We have only to look about us in nature;” Abdu’l-Baha continued, “to see the truth of this. Is it not a fact that the females of many species of animals are stronger and more powerful than the male? The chief cause of the mental and physical inequalities of the sexes is due to custom and training, which for ages past have moulded woman into the ideal of the weaker vessel.

“The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the scales are already shifting – force is losing its weight and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy. Hence the new age will be an age less masculine, and more permeated with the feminine ideals – or, to speak more exactly, will be an age in which the masculine and feminine elements of civilization will be more properly balanced.”

“What is a Bahai?” asked one of the reporters.

“To be a Bahai simply means to love all the world, to love humanity and try to serve it; to work for Universal Peace, and the Universal Brotherhood,” replied Abdu’l-Baha.

The ship now pointed its nose up the North River, and, gazing in a look of bewildered amazement at the rugged sky line of the lower city formed by the downtown skyscrapers, the “Wise Man out of the East,” remarked, pointing at the towering buildings:

“These are the minarets of Western World commerce and industry, and seem to stretch these things heavenward in an endeavour to bring about this Universal Peace for which we are all working, for the good of the nations and mankind in general.

“The bricks make the house, and if the bricks are bad the house will not stand, as these do. It is necessary for individuals to become as good bricks, to eradicate from themselves race and religious hatred, greed and a limited patriotism, so that, whether they find themselves guiding the government or founding a home, the result of their efforts may be peace and prosperity, love and happiness.”

The ship now reached its pier, where were anxiously waiting several hundred Bahais, as the followers of Abdu’l-Baha are called, who had been craning their necks down the river for a first sight of him since early morning. The ship docked shortly after noon, but, fearing that a demonstration in public would not be the best thing for the Cause, and not liking that sort of thing, the venerable Persian Divine did not leave the ship until the pier had been quietly cleared of his followers, who were told to meet him in the afternoon at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Kinney, where he greeted them a few hours later.

Related content:
‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’
This great American democracy?
O God, refresh and gladden my spirit

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Copper to Gold?

Posted by Sen on February 3, 2014

coppernugget Amended July 2015

An enquirer asked: Do Baha’is really believe that copper turns into gold after 70 years if protected from becoming dry (or solidified)?

The most important skill for understanding scriptures, including the Bahai scriptures, is not mastery of the original languages, or other arcane knowledge, but familiarity with literary language: the ability to read poetry and similar writing. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Guardian and the Governor

Posted by Sen on July 30, 2013

Someone asked a question in the comments to this blog, which is so important I have decided to answer in a new posting. He asks whether a government leader [in Israel] who enrolled in the Bahai community would have had temporal authority over the Guardian, had the line of guardians continued, or would the governor have had to defer to the authority of the Guardian, as the head of the Bahai community? Read the rest of this entry »

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“Matters of State” or “administrative matters”: the scope of the House of Justice

Posted by Sen on November 5, 2011

[Updated May 2012, December 2016]
In 2008, I posted an entry about the translation of the Eighth Ishraq, which is the eighth section of one of Baha’u’llah’s shorter works, the Ishraqat or Splendours. The posting explained why I thought that the 1978 translation authorized by the Universal House of Justice was incorrect where it says “All matters of State (‘umuur-e siyaasiyyah) should be referred to the House of Justice.” The earlier translation by Ali Kuli Khan, “Administrative affairs are all in charge of the House of Justice, and devotional acts must be observed according as they are revealed in the Book” was, I thought, more accurate, and more consistent with other works by Abdu’l-Baha and Baha’u’llah. Read the rest of this entry »

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Muhammad Ali revived? (2)

Posted by Sen on April 17, 2010

In a comment on my earlier posting on the latest attempt to revive the ‘Unitarian’ variant of the Bahai Faith, as expounded by Abdu’l-Baha’s younger brother Muhammad Ali, one reader wrote:

> I dont feel I have anything to fear from Muhammed Ali or most members
> of the UBA. They simply have a different narrative based upon certain
> historical facts, progressive ideas ..
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Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of the sacred night I

Posted by Sen on April 12, 2010

This tablet from the pen of Baha’u’llah was translated by Zia Baghdadi and published in Star of the West Volume 10 no. 1 (March 21, 1919). I am posting it here so that it is accessible to search engines, and for the benefit of those who have not (yet) purchased the Star of the West CD. A section is translated by Shoghi Effendi in Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, section CXLVII and I have inserted this into Baghdadi’s translation.
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A story about Baha’u’llah?

Posted by Sen on March 26, 2010

A google search on “killed one hundred and thirty people in one night” will turn up several repetitions of the claim that Baha’u’llah killed one hundred and thirty people in one night. The story appears to originate in June 1997, in an article by Imran Shaykh on the BahaiAwareness site. It was picked up in an article posted on ‘The Religion of Islam,’ a Muslim missionary site, in 2006. More recently it has appeared on facebook and on the candidly titled “Anti Bahai Website” and various other places.

There is a brief account of the night in question in the Tarikh-e Jadid, page 59, which is available on google books: Read the rest of this entry »

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Words of Grace

Posted by Sen on September 1, 2009

Aztec_feast_2One of the Bahais asked what wording is meant by the following verse in Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of Medicine (Lawh-e Tibb):

و اذا شرعت فی الأکل فَابْتَدِئْ باسمی الأبهی
ثمّ اختم باسم ربّک مالک العرش و الثّری

When you would commence eating, begin by mentioning My Most Glorious Name (al-abha) and finish it with the Name of Thy Lord, the Possessor of the Throne above and of the earth below. (Translation by Stephen Lambden)

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Muhammad at Medina

Posted by Sen on June 28, 2009

While Ayatollah Khomeini was in exile in Najaf in 1970, he said:

khomeiniThis slogan of the separation of religion and politics and the demand that Islamic scholars not intervene in social and political affairs has been formulated and propagated by the imperialists; it is only the irreligious who repeat them. Were religion and politics separate in the time of the Prophet? Did there exist on one side a group of clerics, and opposite it, a group of politicians and leaders? (As cited by Nader Hashemi)

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It’s Friday: thank God

Posted by Sen on April 11, 2009

calendaraddonI happened recently to be reading the wikipedia page for the Bahai Calendar and noted that it said “Like Islam, Friday is also the day of rest in the Baha’i Faith.”

That’s not true for Islam: Friday is the day on which attendance at the congregational prayers at noon in the mosque is obligatory for those Muslims who are able, but it is not a ‘day of rest’ in Islam. But what about the Bahai Faith? We do not say our obligatory prayers in congregation (although we may say them, each for himself, during the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar service, but that is another story). Do we have a day of rest, as the wikipedia article says?
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Posted by Sen on March 21, 2009

Is civilization to be ‘ever-advancing,’ or is it limited to moderation?
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Persian Hidden Word 72

Posted by Sen on February 24, 2009

The Hidden Words is a collection of spiritual aphorisms written by Baha’u’llah, in Persian and Arabic, while he was in Baghdad. One of his most popular works, it has been published in many different editions and translations. Persian Hidden Word 72 is a call to act in the world. In a street movie, it might be translated “come on, show me what you’re made of.”


Thou art even as a finely tempered sword concealed in the darkness of its sheath and its value hidden from the artificer’s knowledge. Wherefore come forth from the sheath of self and desire that thy worth may be made resplendent and manifest unto all the world.

phw72dreyfusA metaphor asks us to form a picture of the image presented in our mind’s eye, and then find the similarities between that and the subject of the metaphor. But there’s something odd when you think about this image of the sword in its sheath, “its value hidden from the artificer’s knowledge.” Surely the person who made the sword knows what it is worth?
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Reward and Punishment

Posted by Sen on December 5, 2008

scalesBaha’u’llah writes:

Schools must first train the children in the principles of religion, so that the Promise and the Threat recorded in the Books of God may prevent them from the things forbidden and adorn them with the mantle of the commandments; but this in such a measure that it may not injure the children by resulting in ignorant fanaticism and bigotry.
(Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 68)

Promise and Threat, or reward and punishment, is one of those basic dynamics that acts out at several levels. Read the rest of this entry »

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The practicalities of monarchy

Posted by Sen on November 28, 2008

In the fifteenth Glad-Tidings, Baha’u’llah writes:

Although a republican form of government profiteth all the peoples of the world, yet the majesty of kingship is one of the signs of God. We do not wish that the countries of the world should remain deprived thereof. If the sagacious combine the two forms into one, great will be their reward in the presence of God.

I don’t think we have to suppose that Baha’u’llah was thinking about some future form of constitutional monarchy, requiring us to figure out what he meant and how it could be put into practice. There were good models of constitutional monarchy already working in his day, and most of them are still working today. In contrast, most of the republics from the time of Baha’u’llah have gone through at least one revolution, or at least a major upset, in the past century, and the absolute monarchies have fared even worse. Constitutional monarchy is the ‘leading technology’ in the field of government.

So why do constitutional monarchies work so well?
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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?
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