Understanding how moral values and a sense of obligation can come from beliefs and experience;
Evaluating their own and others’ values in order to make informed, rational and imaginative choices.
A Bahá’í considers the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to be the message of God for today. As the major religions are all thought to be part of one progression, these Teachings naturally reflect those of the earlier religions. So the spiritual qualities: honesty, trustworthiness, truthfulness, kindness, compassion, etc., are present in all religions, although the mode of expression may differ from age to age. In addition to these timeless values, each religion will have social teachings suited to the age. These will relate to social questions such as marriage or crime and punishment.
Human beings are thought to have two sides to their nature. The body has obvious material needs, while the soul should be acquiring higher qualities. Bahá’ís tend to use the words “good” and “evil” in the context of whether people are behaving as they are exhorted in religious codes or whether they are following the selfish dictates of their lower natures.
Bahá’ís are taught to avoid all habit-forming drugs, including alcohol. Sexual activity is only legitimate within the context of marriage. No excuse is acceptable for fraud or theft, and the word of a Bahá’í should be his/her bond. No discrimination is regarded as acceptable in any circumstances.
Questions relating to abortion have both spiritual and medical aspects. Practical decisions rest, on a case-by-case basis, with the doctors. Bahá’ís believe that the soul becomes connected with the body at the point of conception, that it makes spiritual progress through its life in this world and that it continues to develop in the next world. These beliefs also impinge on the question of euthanasia.
Criminal activity relates to spiritual immaturity or irresponsibility, but Bahá’u’lláh emphasises the crucial importance both of justice and of carrying out the penal laws. Certain ordinances relating to crime and punishment are found in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, “The Most Holy Book”, but they are intended for a future Bahá’í civilisation and are not enforced at present. Bahá’u’lláh said, “The structure of world stability and order hath been reared upon, and will continue to be sustained by, the twin pillars of reward and punishment.” At the same time, the Bahá’í Writings stress the need for the proper education and upbringing of children, in such a way that people will shy away from committing crime.
Bahá’u’lláh forbids Bahá’ís from any form of retaliation, and his exhortation to the rulers of the world, that they should fix the boundaries and agree rules for the conduct of international affairs, has not yet been taken up. The goals of the necessary world peace conference are set out in some detail, and the result should be a world united in ensuring that every country adheres to its agreed level of armaments. Bahá’u’lláh predicts that war will cease and a long period of peace will follow. Bahá’ís see this as gradually evolving into a world civilisation, incorporating the many diverse cultural expressions of human existence. Bahá’u’lláh said: “This earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”
The approach to social justice is clearly implicit in the main principles of the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá’u’lláh urged the adoption of a Bill of Rights, as part of the world civilisation he was advocating. He proclaimed the principle that humans are one people, and rejected divisions based on gender, race, class, income and level of education. He unequivocally asserted justice as the guiding principle in social policy, and instituted mechanisms for the fairer distribution of wealth. Men and women are to have equal rights, everyone is entitled to an education, and a world-wide system of administration should be introduced. He stated, “This earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”
Individual responsibilities in becoming a Bahá’í include the requirement to be kind to all; to look at each person’s good points and ignore their bad ones; to reject prejudice; to treat all human beings as of equal worth; to “Prefer thy neighbour to thyself”. They include the need to support moves towards the imposition of limits on extreme personal wealth, and the removal of poverty. They include the responsibility to support a just government and to champion the oppressed. Bahá’ís can look to the example of `Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s eldest son, who devoted a lifetime to promoting racial unity, helping the disadvantaged, and arguing for peace and disarmament.
The Bahá’í framework for action includes the Local and National Spiritual Assemblies and the Universal House of Justice. It is clear from the Bahá’í Writings that initiative rests largely with the Local Spiritual Assembly within each locality to make decisions – social, economic, environmental, etc., – for the benefit of humanity. The Universal House of Justice has the written authority to legislate anything not specifically laid down by Bahá’u’lláh, and crucially has the right to alter legislation which the passage of time renders obsolete or unworkable. [Study of the “Constitution of the Universal House of Justice” (Bahá’í World Centre, Haifa, 1972) will elucidate its other functions and prerogatives.] The National Spiritual Assemblies have an intermediary role between the two other bodies. This administrative system allows for action on a local, regional or global level, and uses clear principles of consultation to allow it to function.
The Bahá’í community uses a system of consultation based on certain principles, in order to arrive at decisions on the best way forward, and the Bahá’í administrative system of Local and National Spiritual Assemblies, supporting a Universal House of Justice, is being gradually augmented and developed throughout the world.
Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings revolve around the goal of a world civilisation. Bahá’u’lláh said that heads of state or their representatives should attend a universal peace conference, with the goal of creating a world peace treaty. This would then lay down the basis for a form of world (federal) government, assisted by a world tribunal for the solution of disputes. Bahá’u’lláh also advocated the creation of a world currency, which would allow a world free trade area, a world police force and the selection of a language to be used in international communication.
Also mentioned by Bahá’u’lláh are a bill of human rights, laws to limit excessive personal wealth, and a system to eliminate poverty. Various specific ordinances, such as profit sharing and the laws for intestacy can be seen to work towards a more equitable distribution of wealth. Further, Bahá’u’lláh exalts justice to the station of the guiding principle in governance.
In addition to constant promotion of the above ideas, and the dedication to the ideals of one human family and the essential oneness of religions, Bahá’ís are able, as their numbers increase, to involve themselves in social and economic development to a greater degree. When the need exists, Bahá’í Assemblies will set up primary schools, secondary schools, rural colleges, radio stations and agricultural development colleges, as well as programmes for the development of children and of young people. The development of the status of women is also frequently addressed. Although believing that environmental issues can ultimately only be effectively addressed by global institutions, the Bahá’í “Junior Youth” groups in particular frequently undertake small-scale local environmental projects.
From a Bahá’í perspective, there is no real division between spiritual goals and material development, because the creation of a better human world will allow a more effective nurturing of the spirit. This is clearly seen by the encouragement given to individual Bahá’ís to join like-minded organisations, and by the high respect in which the Bahá’í community is held in the United Nations Organisation.
Although religion has many basic personal aspects, at this stage in human history the global dimension is of paramount interest. Previous Manifestations of God (e.g. Moses, Jesus, Muhammad (pbuh)) built up wider and wider loyalties, but this is arguably the first age in which a truly global civilisation is possible. Faced with a world in which so many competing divisions – political, religious, racial, class, tribal, etc., obscure the way forward, Bahá’u’lláh set out a world system which he offered to humanity as the solution to its problems.
He proposed that a world peace conference should take place, to lead to arms limitation, and specified the elimination of disease as one of the areas to which the money saved should be redirected. Bahá’u’lláh stated that humanity was created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilisation, and overcoming disease should be seen as part of this process. Specific actions, such as smoking tobacco or the use of habit-forming drugs, can severely impair the health of both the individual and the community. The Bahá’í emphasis on moderation should also be seen as relevant to growing trends such as obesity. The Bahá’í Writings say that “in a large measure, happiness keeps our health while depression of spirit begets disease”, and also that only when we live in the spirit are we truly happy. A spiritual life, therefore, based on moderation and avoiding habit-forming substances should improve health substantially. It is also predicted that “the food of the future will be fruits and grains”.
Bahá’u’lláh regarded kindness to animals as a pre-requisite to anyone sincerely setting out on a search for truth, and said that we should “show forth the utmost consideration to every living creature”. His son, `Abdu’l-Bahá, stated that “our natural food is that which grows out of the ground”. Bahá’u’lláh regarded the natural environment as the Will of God, and proclaimed its inviolability. “Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator … Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.” `Abdu’l-Bahá said, “Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it.” Bahá’u’lláh wrote, “If carried to excess, civilisation will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation.”
Many of Bahá’u’lláh’s ordinances reflect the ideal of a more equitable distribution of wealth. In the Bahá’í Writings it states that, “Moderation should be established by means of laws and regulations that would limit personal wealth and provide everyone with access to the means for living a dignified life.” The specific measures suggested are often characterised as “the elimination of the extremes of poverty and wealth”. Increasingly, the Bahá’ís are devoting their time and effort to social and economic development. Bahá’ís are encouraged not just to involve themselves in direct action, but also to involve themselves in the social discourses taking place in the world at present.
From a Bahá’í viewpoint, the effort put into the betterment of social and material conditions is essential in improving the opportunities for people to grow up with spiritual values. No contradiction is therefore seen between the two. In essence, the material universe parallels the spiritual universe, and so the two are interdependent. Religious and social progress must go hand in hand.
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Esslemont, J.E., 2006. Baha’u’llah and the New Era. Wilmette, Illinois: Bahá’í Publishing.
Garst, H., 1996. From Mountain to Mountain: Stories about Bahá’u’lláh. Oxford: George Ronald.
Hatcher, W.S. & Douglas Martin, J., 1990. Bahá’í Faith: the Emerging Global Religion. s.l.: Bahá’í Publishing.
Matthews, G.L., 1999. The Challenge of Bahá’u’lláh.Oxford:George Ronald.
Momen, M., 2007. Bahá’u’lláh: a short biography. s.l.: Bookwise International.
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A set of photocopiable R.E. worksheets on the “The Bahá’í Faith”, and priced £5 per set, plus 66p postage available from www.warwickbahaibookshop.co.uk
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