Little Known Fact: Baha’i Age of Consent

If you asked your average friendly neighborhood Baha’i about the age of consent in the Baha’i Faith, they would most probably say 15 years of age.

And that is true… for the most part. The Kitab-i-Aqdas and Some Answered Questions both mention the fifteenth year.

But if that was all there was to it, this wouldn’t be another installment of “it’s a little known fact”!

A recent article written by Sen McGlinn delves into the topic and explains why the age of consent for Baha’is is actually, 15, 14 and unknown (not yet set by the UHJ). Yes, all three.

Little Known Facts: The Supreme Institution?

universal-house-of-justice-supreme-institution

It has been a while since we cracked open a case of “Little Known Facts…” but don’t worry, this is a fresh batch.

If you are a Baha’i or have spent enough time around some recently, you may have heard the expression: “the Supreme body” or “the Supreme institution” at least a few times.

In current Baha’i vernacular, this refers to the Universal House of Justice. But where did it come from? and is it accurate? any why is it important to wonder about these questions?

During a recent discussion online at Talisman, the oldest continuous online Baha’i forum, the topic turned to the House of Justice and the quandary of how to distinguish if they are legislating or not. Within the discussion, as is now sadly becoming the norm, someone used the expression to refer to the UHJ.

Your humble scribe interjected:

pardon the digression, but where did this habit of calling the UHJ as
the “supreme body” or “supreme institution” come from?

According to Shoghi Effendi, the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, is “the crowning institution”. Furthermore, Shoghi Effendi does on to describe the relationship between the Administrative Order and the Mashriq:

“The seat round which its (referring to the AO) spiritual, its humanitarian and administrative activities will cluster are the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar and its Dependencies.”

It was obvious to me that everyone seemed to have simply accepted this title. But what was less obvious was how legitimate it really was.

If we are speaking in generalities, from a rudimentary reading of the Writings about the Administrative Order, it would seem that the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar has a very focal place within the Baha’i community. One, around which, the administrative institutions cluster.

Unfortunately the institution of Mashriqu’l-Adhkhar is totally ignored in the current Baha’i culture. A severe oversight when you actually take the time to read about its importance in the Writings. This error will, I hope, be corrected in the future. But to stick to the topic at hand, why have Baha’is spontaneously started to give this generic title of “supreme body” to the House? and does it have any real significance?

I was delighted when Sen wrote a lengthy reply to my question. You can read it here at Sen’s own blog. Here’s an excerpt:

This usage was not found in the 1960s or 1970s to my knowledge. I think the change in terms used for the UHJ is significant. I think that the shorter terms such as “the Supreme Body” are – usually – a way of indicating that the speaker asserts the UHJ’s ideal supremacy over everything and everybody. Whether that is the intention or not, it will sound that way to hearers.

The same sort of dynamics, an “inflation” of titles and claims, exist in all religious movements that I know of, from New Religious Movements to Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and Shiah and Sunni Islam. In all religions, there are minimisers and there are exaggerators, and there is an internal dynamic that favours the exaggerators, so that in the long term the metaphysical claims a religion makes and the titles it uses inflate.

The dynamic that favours the exaggerators is that an exaggeration always appears more pious, even if technically wrong. And what is just “more pious” in this generation, is self-evident orthodoxy for the next. Those who want to seem more fervently pious then have to move up one step of hyperbole.

Another “little known fact”, brought to you by Baha’i Rants, thanks to Sen. The Universal House of Justice is not the “Supreme body” nor the “Supreme institution”.

Fine, you may say, but isn’t this nitpicking or is this really important?

The reason such a distinction is truly important is that language is important. We use words to communicate ideas and concepts. Because of this connection to values, ideas and concepts, words vicariously have tremendous power.

The Guardian, along with the other central figures of the Faith, were wordsmiths and always used precise language – after all, that was their primary tool to act upon the world. How silly do we look if we insist on using a term that wasn’t used by Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi, and neither used by the very institution the term refers to?

Finally, although words do have power, actions are immensely more powerful. If our intention is to show piety, we do ourselves and our communities a disservice if we merely use empty but exaggeratedly pious sounding words:

The essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds; he whose words exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life.
Baha’u’llah

It’s a little known fact. . . [4]

Do not adjust your monitor… This is another installment of “Its a little known fact…”

I feel it my duty to tell you that you will be shocked and awed by what you read below. So for your own safety the factoid will not appear at the top, as it usually does. Instead, we’ll take a more gentle approach…

In the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha’u’llah writes:

God hath prescribed matrimony unto you. Beware that ye take not unto yourselves more wives than two. Whoso contenteth himself with a single partner from among the maidservants of God, both he and she shall live in tranquillity.

This has always been a bit of a sticky wicket for Baha’is because Baha’u’llah says ‘more wives than two’ – not, more wives than one. To be fair the next sentence does nudge towards monogamy but keeping true to the letter of the law, it does allow polygamy.

But as you probably have noticed, no Baha’i around has more than one wife. So what gives? Shoghi Effendi was asked about the apparent allowance for bigamy and his secretary wrote on his behalf in answer:

He [Bah??'u'll??h] made plurality of wives conditional upon justice; `Abdu’l-Bah?? interpreted this to mean that a man may not have more than one wife at a time, as it is impossible to be just to two or more women in marriage.
[11 February, 1944 to an individual believer]

The common sense argument is made that Baha’u’llah used words very carefully to allow for a gradual shift to monogomy. At the time of the revelation of the Most Holy Book, Baha’u’llah Himself had three wives and many Baha’is of the time also had more than one wife. This is understandable since most of the Baha’is then were still transitioning from an Islamic religious background and had mainly entered into bigamy while still technically Muslims. As well, a Baha’i culture had yet to develop. Therefore, it was Baha’u’llah’s wisdom that they were not suddenly forced to drastically change their lives to abide within the new laws. You can imagine the jarring and unjust result this would have had on family life.

Yet, that is not all there is to it. As you read above, Shoghi Effendi says that Abdu’l-Baha explains: since the precondition of justice must be fulfilled, and since it clearly can not be fulfilled by mere mortal men, this means that the precondition can never be met; which therefore, means that polygamy is abolished completely.

Still with me? Alright. Here’s the thing.

First, we must acknowledge that nowhere in the Aqdas is polygamy preconditioned upon justice (or the equal treatment of both wives). This is an addition by Abdu’l-Baha. Perhaps Baha’u’llah told Abdu’l-Baha orally about this but to my knowledge there is no written document authored by Baha’u’llah laying out this precondition.

But in the Tablet in which Abdu’l-Baha is quoted, He is not referring to the Aqdas. Ofcourse, this is difficult to notice as the quote is taken out of context and inserted in the notes. In fact, the probability is that Abdu’l-Baha is referring to the Quranic law when he says “law of God” since in the Quran there is a verse as follows:

And if you fear that you cannot act equitably towards orphans, then marry such women as seem good to you, two and three and four; but if you fear that you will not do justice (between them), then (marry) only one or what your right hands possess; this is more proper, that you may not deviate from the right course.

Second, according to the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha (written to and for Baha’is about Baha’i laws), He did not say that the precondition of justice can not be met. In fact, He says the opposite:

“Concerning bigamy, this has been promulgated, and no one must abrogate it. ‘Abdu’l-Baha has not abrogated this law. These are false accusations and lies (spread by) the friends. What I have said is that He has made bigamy bound on a precondition. As long as someone does not attain certitude regarding the capability to practice justice and his heart is not at rest that he can practice justice, he should not be intent upon a second marriage. But if he should be sure and attain certitude that he would practice justice on all levels (and conditions), then a second marriage is lawful. Just as has been the case in the Holy Land: the Baha’i friends wished to marry a second wife, accepting this precondition, and this servant [Abdu'l-Baha] never abstained (from giving permission), but insisted that justice should be considered, and justice actually means here self-restraint; but they said, that they will practice justice and wished to marry a second wife. Such false accusations [charges that Abdu'l-Baha prohibited bigamy] are the slanderous whisperings of those who wish to spread doubts and to what degree they already succeed in making matters ambiguous! (Our) purpose was to state that bigamy without justice is not lawful and that justice is very difficult (to achieve).”
[Amr wa Khalq, Volume 4, p. 174]

“You asked about polygamy. According to the text of the Divine Book the right of having two wives is lawful and legal. This was never prohibited, but it is legitimate and allowed. You should therefore not be unhappy, but take justice into your consideration so that you may be as just as possible. what has been said was that since justice is very difficult (to achieve), therefore tranquillity (calls for) one wife. But in your case, you should not be unhappy.”

[ibid. Volume 4, p. 174]

It is obvious from reading the above that Abdu’l-Baha gives a much more naunced take on this whole matter. Which isn’t surprising if you knew His general approach to things. Notice that in this situation Abdu’l-Baha is talking about justice not as a one time thing – boom! there is justice – or a black and white delineation…but rather, He is referring to justice as a continuum: “…so that you may be as just as possible.”

By the way, the source is probably not familiar to Western Baha’is so it bears some elucidation. It is a provisional translation of Amr wa Khalq which loosely translates to Faith and Knowledge. It is similar – but not equal – to a book most Western Baha’is are familiar with: Lights of Guidance. It is a four volume compilation of writings about Baha’i laws which almost all Persian Baha’is have as part of their Baha’i library.

In any case, according to Abdu’l-Baha, there is a condition and contrary to the prevalent myth: it can be met. In fact, He himself gave permission and blessing for polygamous marriages to take place by Baha’is.

So there you go: under Baha’i law, polygamy is permitted. Bet you didn’t know what. Well, that’s why its called a little known fact.

(And ladies, remember that eventhough there has been a lot of talk about a plurality of wives, the Kitab-i-Aqdas is applied mutatis mutandis so technically you have the right to be exasperated by two people leaving the toilet seat up)

But what does this all mean? To be honest, the allowance for polygamy has no implication in our modern lives. After all, we as Baha’is must abide by the laws of our country and as you’ve probably clued in, most of the civilized world has taken a shine to monogamy.

And yet, there is a real benefit to thinking and talking about this law. Not for its practical implementation in our lives (yeah, you wish) but for the insight into relativism. If you haven’t yet read Brendan’s essay on Moral Relativism, please do so. It explains the concept much better than I could ever hope to. For the flexibilty inherent within this law not only allowed the early believers to live harmonious lives, it also allows future generations the same flexibility.

It’s a little known fact. . . [3]

You know it!

Back by popular demand, here is the third installment in this series. For those of you who don’t know what this is all about, its basically a fact or trivia that for some strange reason, 99.99% of Baha’is don’t know of.

Now, I’ve been getting some feedback which goes something like this: “Meh, I knew that.” I think those that respond like that don’t really get what this is all about. It isn’t about what you may know or not know; its about something which the vast majority of the Baha’is out there don’t know. Oh, and if you do know, then good on ya mate! We’re all very proud of you.

So without further ado, lets get down to business:

Its a little known fact. . .that Baha’is are not forbidden from reading covenant-breaker material.

Shocking! Scandalous! Get my oxygen mask! Where’s that thorazine drip? Nuuuurse!!

Once you are appropriately medicated and are ready to go on, I will tell you that indeed this is true. See for yourself:

To read the writings of Covenant-breakers is not forbidden to the believers and does not constitute in itself an act of Covenant-breaking.
(Universal House of Justice — October 29, 1974)

The House of Justice has instructed us to say that, as you are no doubt aware, it is not prohibited for Baha’is to read the writings of Covenant-breakers…
(Secretariat — October 12, 1978)

And yet there is a persistent myth that Baha’is are forbidden or not allowed to (according to Baha’i law or authoritative instructions) to read material which was written by a covenant-breaker.

That this myth exists and is perpetuated is inexcusable – hence our shattering of it. But it is understandable once you remember two things. One, that the UHJ strongly discouraged Baha’is from reading such material (many individuals misinterpret this to mean that they are not free to decide for themselves) and two, that covenant-breakers aren’t looked upon too kindly. Well, that’s putting it diplomatically. In the minds of most Baha’is, they are categorized, in terms of attractiveness, somewhere among psychopaths and lepers (or a psychopathic leper). In short, they are to be shunned and avoided, at all costs.

A rather extreme measure, I’m sure you’ll agree. So why not then go one step further from discouragement to outright banning if covenant-breakers are so nasty?

I think the answer is that to do so would be to go against the most fundamental principle of the Baha’i Faith: individual and independant investigation of truth. And it is telling just how much this verity is prized that when it goes up against such a charged facet of the Faith as covenant-breakers, it comes out on top.

Interestingly enough I had a conversation a while back on LJ’s Baha’i forum on this very topic. One of the moderators (who finds it vital to their existence to correct me – especially when I’m not wrong) piped in and screamed:

WRONG!

And then went on to post quote after quote (like the above) which actually showed that Baha’is are not forbidden from reading covenant-breaker material. I don’t have a link to that because my comments as well as others’ were censored by the same moderator. But this moderator also ‘corrected’ me in this other thread. I mentioned that the UHJ only has legislative authority and then I was told ‘incorrect’ by the moderator and given quotes which shows that the UHJ only has legislative authority. Another person did something similar in this thread (here it is without censorship). If you need to go lie down after reading that, I don’t blame you. It seems that this whole topic evokes such a strong emotional reaction from Baha’is that they enter a state of temporary insanity. But I digress.

So the next time some Baha’i implies or says that they are forbidden from reading covenant-breaker material, you can show that this is patently, categorically, and absolutely false.

Just be ready to duck in an alley to escape the shrapnel as they explode in a hot flash of indignant (or is that ignorant) rage.

Its a little known fact. . .[2]

Back by popular demand, here is the second installment of this series (for those of you who don’t know what this is all about, its basically a fact or trivia that for some strange reason, 99.99% of Baha’is don’t know of). Here is your chance to use it to win a bet, to stump the “know-it-all” or simply for the sheer pleasure of watching them draw a blank. So without further ado, lets get to it:Its a little known fact. . . that Baha’i pilgrimage is NOT to Haifa.

I know, I know. Its a bit of a shock. Some of you are on the waiting list, even as you read. Others have already gone and come back with a few hundred pictures. Well, if you just stay with me for a second more I’ll explain what I mean and why that’s a little known fact.

If you haven’t seen it yet, there is a neat little website created by the Baha’i World Centre entitled “Baha’i Pilgrimage”. I think its about time we had this because there are a lot of Baha’is who want to go to pilgrimage and many don’t know what the steps are or where to get information. But “Baha’i Pilgrimage” as the name of that website is a misnomer.

Part of this new website says:

“The first and supreme obligation of all Bah??’?s who visit the Holy Land is to pray and meditate in the Sacred Shrines of Bah??’u’ll??h, the B??b and ?Abdu’l-Bah??. To receive this bounty of visiting the Holy Places at the Bah??’? World Centre is an inestimable privilege, infinitely precious to every Bah??’? pilgrim.”

This excerpt is implying that a Baha’i visitor to the Holy Land is a pilgrim and the “supreme obligation” of all Baha’is who go, is to visit the shrines of the three central figures of the Faith. While visiting and spending time in reverent meditation and prayer at those special places is the choice of every Baha’i, it is wrong to imply or state that this is Baha’i pilgrimage.

Why?

Well, for the simple reason that Baha’i pilgrimage was set down by Baha’u’llah in a tablet and He wrote that the sites or locations for it are:

  • His house in Baghdad
  • and the Bab’s house in Shiraz

As well, He went on to explain the rites and forms which a Baha’i must follow for pilgrimage. There was also some things which were made explicit which Baha’is don’t have to do for pilgrimage – like shaving one’s head, ala the Muslim tradition. You can find the relevant information in two separate Tablets, which are known collectively as the Suriy-i-Hajj or the Tablet of Pilgrimage (see below).

Baha’u’llah also mentions pilgrimage in the Kitab-i-Aqdas. There He explains that it is a duty for all Baha’is but that women are exempt from pilgrimage – please don’t misunderstand this. . .this does not mean that they are prohibited. And that either the House of the Bab in Shiraz or the House of Baha’u’llah in Baghdad will do (a Baha’i can decide which they prefer to go to or which is closer).

So why do Baha’is from all around the world go to Haifa and call it pilgrimage? The answer to that has several parts. First of all, after Baha’u’llah’s passing, Abdu’l-Baha wrote that Bahji was a site of visitation for Baha’is. He did not specify any specific rites or forms for this visitation. The second is that, currently, Baha’is simply can not perform pilgrimage (as written by Baha’u’llah) because those places, the very buildings Baha’u’llah referred to are either not there anymore, or they are not in the control/ownership of Baha’is. The House of the Bab in Shiraz was razed to the ground after the revolution, while there are sensitive and ongoing negotiations to regain title to the the House of Baha’u’llah in Baghdad. Of course, these buildings and sites will be rebuilt in the future to the exact original specifications which the Baha’is have kept.

Here is the current location of the house of the Bab in Shiraz (the utility poles at 0:23 mark the approximate original location of the room where the Bab and Mulla Husayn spoke on that special night):

Here is an old video showing the outside and inside of the house of the Bab (Persian audio with no English transcription):

It might help to settle the issue if we go back to the original words used when referring to pilgrimage. The word that Baha’u’llah used is ‘hajj’. Someone who performed ‘hajj’ in the Muslim tradition was called ‘Haji’ on his return. And actually, Persian/Arab Baha’is who performed pilgrimage were also known as ‘Haji’ (this would explain all the Haji So-and-so’s you read about in Nabil’s Narratives or other historical books). But for the most part they were considered Haji because they had visited Baha’u’llah in person and attained to His presence.

On the other hand, there is another word which is used to denote visitation (not pilgrimage!) and it is ‘ziyarat’. This word is much more general and it can even refer to going to visit your friend down the street (it is actually a very polite way of saying exactly that in Persian). All other special or holy places visited by Baha’is for reverent prayer and meditation (the apartment Abdu’l-Baha stayed in Paris, the House of Abbud and Abdu’l-a-Pasha, Mazrayi, the Maxwell house in Montreal, the Shrine of the Bab, the resting place of Abdu’l-Baha, etc.) are actually visitations. Not pilgrimages.

I’m trying to simplify something quite complex here and some may correctly object that the differences are not so clear cut (as ‘ziyarat’ and ‘hajj’). But whatever we decide to ultimately call them or whatever words we choose to use, we must acknowledge that there are two levels at work here. One which is prescribed explicitly by Baha’u’llah (as well as the Bab) and which involves very specific rites and actions to be performed, and another which is much more widely applicable to holy places and has not been mentioned by Baha’u’llah and has no specific rites or actions to be performed.

Am I splitting hairs here? Maybe to some. But I hope others see that all I’m trying to do is to separate truth from misconceptions and ignorance.

So why does the Universal House of Justice continue to use the English word ‘pilgrimage’ (the equivalent of ‘hajj’) when referring to trips made to the Holy Land? Beats me. Maybe you can ask them and then let us all know.
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