Marriage, from a Bahá’í perspective, is both spiritual and physical in nature. The following article looks at the foundations of a strong spiritual union, and begins this exploration by examining what the Bahá’í Faith teaches us about love. While the following article quotes extensively from the authoritative Writings of the Bahá’í Faith it is, ultimately, a personal understanding of these texts and is not, in itself, authoritative.
As Frank Sinatra sings in his famous song, “Love and marriage… you can’t have one without the other.” And to write a few thoughts on the Bahá’í perspective of marriage I feel I must first address the Baha’i perspective of love.
Bahá’ís view true love as being a spiritual power, a power that is responsible for our very existence, as expressed in the following words which can be read as a short message from God:
“I loved thy creation, hence I created thee. Wherefore, do thou love Me, that I may name thy name and fill thy soul with the spirit of life.”
– Bahá’u’lláh (1)
We all know that love is a very powerful force, and here we are told that it is the cause of our creation and that to truly be human, to be filled “with the spirit of life” we must, ourselves, love God. But what is love? How influential is this power in our universe?
“Know thou of a certainty that Love is the secret of God’s holy Dispensation, the manifestation of the All-Merciful, the fountain of spiritual outpourings. Love is heaven’s kindly light, the Holy Spirit’s eternal breath that vivifieth the human soul. Love is the cause of God’s revelation unto man, the vital bond inherent, in accordance with the divine creation, in the realities of things. Love is the one means that ensureth true felicity both in this world and the next. Love is the light that guideth in darkness, the living link that uniteth God with man, that assureth the progress of every illumined soul. Love is the most great law that ruleth this mighty and heavenly cycle, the unique power that bindeth together the divers elements of this material world, the supreme magnetic force that directeth the movements of the spheres in the celestial realms. Love revealeth with unfailing and limitless power the mysteries latent in the universe. Love is the spirit of life unto the adorned body of mankind, the establisher of true civilization in this mortal world, and the shedder of imperishable glory upon every high-aiming race and nation.”
– ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (2)
Having already read that love is the very reason for our physical existence it should be no surprise that the true force underlying many forms of guidance, attraction and order in the world is that same love of God, a Divine and eternal love that we, as humanity, are encouraged to manifest in our own lives. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continues:
“Whatsoever people is graciously favoured therewith by God, its name shall surely be magnified and extolled…
“O ye beloved of the Lord! Strive to become the manifestations of the love of God, the lamps of divine guidance shining amongst the kindreds of the earth with the light of love and concord.
“All hail to the revealers of this glorious light!”
– ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (2)
The love of God is the highest form of love, the love that is at the very heart of creation. When you recognise that the unique distinction of humankind compared to the rest of creation is our eternal soul, our spiritual dimension, it becomes clear that this Divine love is essential to our true growth in the same way that light is essential for the growth of a plant.
In the earlier quote from Bahá’u’lláh, and in other Bahá’í texts, it is indicated that our love for God is the key to receiving the love of God in return. In another passage from The Hidden Words Bahá’u’lláh writes:
“There is no peace for thee save by renouncing thyself and turning unto Me; for it behooveth thee to glory in My name, not in thine own; to put thy trust in Me and not in thyself, since I desire to be loved alone and above all that is.”
– Baha’u’llah (3)
This could be understood to mean that we should be detached from our own desires and reputations, and trust that the laws and teachings of God will serve us better than any contrary concepts we may conjure for ourselves, that we should love only God, and not focus our affections on the people or things that we are attracted to in this world.
If we ponder on the statement “I desire to be loved alone and above all that is”, how does this sit with the eternal spiritual commandment that we should love one another? How does this instruction apply to our feelings for a family member, a spouse or somebody whom we might wish to marry? It cannot mean that we must not love them. On the contrary it fits perfectly with the Bahá’í understanding of what true love really is, that we love everybody because they are the creation of the God and we recognise the qualities of God that are reflected in that creation.
The following is part of a talk given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London explaining four different kinds of love that exist, it is fairly long and the last four paragraphs are the most central to our theme, but a better understanding is gained from reading the whole talk:
What a power is love! It is the most wonderful, the greatest of all living powers.
Love gives life to the lifeless. Love lights a flame in the heart that is cold. Love brings hope to the hopeless and gladdens the hearts of the sorrowful.
In the world of existence there is indeed no greater power than the power of love. When the heart of man is aglow with the flame of love, he is ready to sacrifice all — even his life. In the Gospel it is said God is love.
There are four kinds of love. The first is the love that flows from God to man; it consists of the inexhaustible graces, the Divine effulgence and heavenly illumination. Through this love the world of being receives life. Through this love man is endowed with physical existence, until, through the breath of the Holy Spirit — this same love — he receives eternal life and becomes the image of the Living God. This love is the origin of all the love in the world of creation.
The second is the love that flows from man to God. This is faith, attraction to the Divine, enkindlement, progress, entrance into the Kingdom of God, receiving the Bounties of God, illumination with the lights of the Kingdom. This love is the origin of all philanthropy; this love causes the hearts of men to reflect the rays of the Sun of Reality.
The third is the love of God towards the Self or Identity of God. This is the transfiguration of His Beauty, the reflection of Himself in the mirror of His Creation. This is the reality of love, the Ancient Love, the Eternal Love. Through one ray of this Love all other love exists.
The fourth is the love of man for man. The love which exists between the hearts of believers is prompted by the ideal of the unity of spirits. This love is attained through the knowledge of God, so that men see the Divine Love reflected in the heart. Each sees in the other the Beauty of God reflected in the soul, and finding this point of similarity, they are attracted to one another in love. This love will make all men the waves of one sea, this love will make them all the stars of one heaven and the fruits of one tree. This love will bring the realization of true accord, the foundation of real unity.
But the love which sometimes exists between friends is not (true) love, because it is subject to transmutation; this is merely fascination. As the breeze blows, the slender trees yield. If the wind is in the East the tree leans to the West, and if the wind turns to the West the tree leans to the East. This kind of love is originated by the accidental conditions of life. This is not love, it is merely acquaintanceship; it is subject to change.
Today you will see two souls apparently in close friendship; tomorrow all this may be changed. Yesterday they were ready to die for one another, today they shun one another’s society! This is not love; it is the yielding of the hearts to the accidents of life. When that which has caused this ‘love’ to exist passes, the love passes also; this is not in reality love.
Love is only of the four kinds that I have explained. (a) The love of God towards the identity of God. Christ has said God is Love. (b) The love of God for His children — for His servants. (c) The love of man for God and (d) the love of man for man. These four kinds of love originate from God. These are rays from the Sun of Reality; these are the Breathings of the Holy Spirit; these are the Signs of the Reality.”
– ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (4)
While human and worldly conditions, both internal and external, may naturally cause us to be drawn to one person or another, the “real” love that will make our relationships enduring and fruitful is a spiritually founded love, referred to above as the “fourth kind of love”.
The following is a separate quote from ‘Abdul-Baha about marriage among Bahá’ís:
“Marriage, among the mass of the people, is a physical bond, and this union can only be temporary, since it is foredoomed to a physical separation at the close.
“Among the people of Bahá, however, marriage must be a union of the body and of the spirit as well, for here both husband and wife are aglow with the same wine, both are enamoured of the same matchless Face, both live and move through the same spirit, both are illumined by the same glory. This connection between them is a spiritual one, hence it is a bond that will abide forever. Likewise do they enjoy strong and lasting ties in the physical world as well, for if the marriage is based both on the spirit and the body, that union is a true one, hence it will endure. If, however, the bond is physical and nothing more, it is sure to be only temporary, and must inexorably end in separation.
“When, therefore, the people of Bahá undertake to marry, the union must be a true relationship, a spiritual coming together as well as a physical one, so that throughout every phase of life, and in all the worlds of God, their union will endure; for this real oneness is a gleaming out of the love of God.
“In the same way, when any souls grow to be true believers, they will attain a spiritual relationship with one another, and show forth a tenderness which is not of this world. They will, all of them, become elated from a draught of divine love, and that union of theirs, that connection, will also abide forever. Souls, that is, who will consign their own selves to oblivion, strip from themselves the defects of humankind, and unchain themselves from human bondage, will beyond any doubt be illumined with the heavenly splendours of oneness, and will all attain unto real union in the world that dieth not.”
It may be worth emphasising at this point that the Bahá’í Writings do not devalue the power and importance of the physical elements of marriage, even though such love may be defined as “fascination” and “acquaintanceship” based upon the “conditions of life”. But while it may be essential, from the Bahá’í perspective the physical union of man and woman does not represent the highest peak at which a relationship can arrive, it is in no wise the finest form of love that can exist between two people, for a couple to continue to grow ever closer to each other the relationship must be based on a journey toward a greater unity, a spiritual unity, and when that unity toward which both parties strive is based upon the acquisition and development of spiritual qualities, it is an eternal journey and one which cannot be completed in this lifetime. In the Bahá’í Faith we do not have the concept of “‘til death do us part”, we believe that our spiritual essence continues to exist after death and that the spiritual union that we make in marriage continues also.
If our greatest longing is simply to be with our loved one as much as possible, if our single fascination is with each other, then we have fulfilled the goal of our union on the day that we wed. If however our goal is to become thoroughly acquainted with the spiritual qualities that our partner reflects, and to assist them in their endeavour to fulfil their spiritual potential, in an atmosphere of love and trust, then there will always be more evident potential for our relationship to develop.
“The true marriage of Bahá’ís is this, that husband and wife should be united both physically and spiritually, that they may ever improve the spiritual life of each other, and may enjoy everlasting unity throughout all the worlds of God. This is Bahá’í marriage.”
– ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (6)
The diagram below of a triangle is used by many religious groups, not only Baha’is, when talking about marriage, it represents how a couple who make their spiritual progress the focus of their marriage draw closer together as they each draw closer to God.
“The friends of God must so live and conduct, as to make others astonished. The love between husband and wife should not be purely physical, nay rather it must be spiritual and heavenly. These two souls should be considered as one soul. How difficult it would be two divide a single soul! Nay, great would be the difficulty!”
– ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (7)
It is probably important, if we are to live as one soul and improve the spiritual life of each other, that we are honest with ourselves and our partners about who we are, that we do not to pretend – in order to be more attractive – to have skills or qualities that we actually lack, that we do not hide our faults from each other. Our partner – in this kind of marriage – is there to help us develop the spiritual potential we have within. When people choose their partners in life there is sometimes a temptation to pretend we are something that we are not, but for a Bahá’í marriage it is particularly important that we do not hide our shortcomings from our partners, because part of the marriage’s role is to help us improve on them.
When the value of the spiritual union between two souls is recognised to be greater than the physical or intellectual union, marriages can evolve to be much stronger. Should, many years into a marriage, an underlying physical magnetism be found to exist with a new friend or acquaintance, the marital union will have grown so much through its spiritual focus that it will outshine, in value and purpose, the fascination and excitement on offer from developing any new attraction in any way that that would be disloyal to the marriage. If however the goal of our union was fulfilled in the act of marriage itself and we have continued to live together on the basis of that initial excitement and fascination then we will be lucky if, after many years, we have not simply come to take the relationship between us for granted, and a burgeoning new relationship may seem all the more appealing.
Much of what we have looked at so far in this blog post could apply to any human relationship. When the inestimable value of true spiritual love is understood in contrast to the temporary nature of physical love and attraction, the Baha’i law of absolute chastity outside of marriage becomes much easier to implement, and thus profound and enduring friendships may be possible with many people regardless of their gender(i). This understanding of love should apply to, and enhance, every single one of our relationships.
“O ye my two beloved children! The news of your union, as soon as it reached me, imparted infinite joy and gratitude. Praise be to God, those two faithful birds have sought shelter in one nest. I beseech God that He may enable them to raise an honoured family, for the importance of marriage lieth in the bringing up of a richly blessed family, so that with entire gladness they may, even as candles, illuminate the world. For the enlightenment of the world dependeth upon the existence of man. If man did not exist in this world, it would have been like a tree without fruit. My hope is that you both may become even as one tree, and may, through the outpourings of the cloud of loving-kindness, acquire freshness and charm, and may blossom and yield fruit, so that your line may eternally endure.”
– ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (8)
Thinking from a spiritual perspective, what would make a family be “richly blessed”? Surely the love of God is the source of this status, and the love of God depends upon our love for God. As with our friendships and marriage, placing God at the centre of our family, recognising, supporting the development of, and loving the spiritual qualities within each other gives the surest foundation for a truly united family. A united family is an expression, at the smallest and most fundamental level, of the unity which Bahá’ís believe will eventually permeate the whole human race. Bahá’u’lláh has written:
“These strifes and this bloodshed and discord must cease, and all men be as one kindred and one family.”
– Bahá’u’lláh (9)
The obvious distinction and purpose that the union of marriage holds, then, is to raise children and to do so in such a way as to ensure the spiritual progress of them and of the family unit as a whole.
“Enter into wedlock, O people, that ye may bring forth one who will make mention of Me amid My servants. This is My bidding unto you; hold fast to it as an assistance to yourselves.”
– Bahá’u’lláh (10)
In doing so we are not just serving our own spiritual interests but the interests of humankind. We are helping to “carry forward an ever-advancing civilization“(11) which, Bahá’u’lláh tells us, we were created to do. While the Bahá’í Writings do make it clear that the primary purpose of marriage is the procreation of children, to the extent that “it would be contrary to the spirit of the Teachings for a couple to decide voluntarily never to have any children”(12), the same principles can be applied, and similar blessings attained, even should the marriage not be blessed with the arrival of offspring.
When Bahá’ís get married there is only one main element obligatory for the bride and groom on the occasion itself, and that is to state, before witnesses, the words:
“We will all, verily, abide by the Will of God” (13)
As short and simple as this statement is, a lot is encapsulated within it. The vow places God at the heart of the marriage, recognises its spiritually eternity and acknowledges a desire to live in accordance with God’s laws and teachings, including the equality of men and women, consultation on all things, making a spiritual home, praying, reading the Holy Writings and observing chastity and faithfulness.
Consultation is a Bahá’í law that will often be very important in marriage. Bahá’í consultation is the humble and prayerful consideration of a subject with pure motive, love and detachment from personal opinions. No one person is seen to have a greater monopoly on truth or understanding than another.
When consultation is used in conjunction with the principle of having God as the focus of your relationship it becomes the ideal source of conflict resolution. When disagreements arise a couple should focus, with the help of the Holy Writings where applicable, on what would be the Will of God rather than the will of the husband or wife. When every member of a family treasures the Will of God before their own a resolution found this way will always be to everybody’s pleasure.
Through such consultation solutions may often be realised which are far superior to any that one individual may have devised alone. This is another example of how the family unit can function in such a manner as to be a model for how a world of even more diverse views and cultures can come together in unity.
Other Laws that govern Bahá’í marriage…(ii)
The main focus of this article has been the laws and teachings that apply to the spiritual foundations of Bahá’í marriage, but there are, of course, Bahá’í laws that apply to the act of marriage itself and these must be obeyed by Bahá’ís. Here is a summary of those laws, with a few notes where applicable….
- Marriage is highly recommended but not obligatory.
- It is forbidden to have more than one marriage partner.
- Both parties must be at least 15 years old, or the minimum legal age in their country of residence (whichever is higher).
- Marriage with one’s stepmother/stepfather is forbidden.
- Marriage to a partner who is not a Bahá’í is permitted.
While a Bahá’í may marry somebody who is not a Bahá’í it is important that the other party understands the Bahá’í perspective of marriage and comfortable with the Baha’i wedding vow. Even if an individual does not believe in God they may still feel able to have a marriage lived in accordance with the Bahá’í laws, focussed on a goal larger than the marriage – or family – itself and founded on love for praiseworthy qualities that can grow with the relationship.
- Marriage is conditioned on the consent of both parties and all living parents.
Family unity and obedience to parents are both very important in the Bahá’í Faith and this law helps to maintain it. The actual choice of partner is, however, entirely up to both individuals and the parents have no right to interfere in that decision. Once a pleasing partner is found the parents are asked to consent to the union. Consent must be based upon the individuals concerned and may not be conditional upon circumstances that the parents would find more acceptable.
- A couple should inform their nearest Local Spiritual Assembly of their wish to marry.
The Local Spiritual Assembly is the local elected institution in a Bahá’í community. When a couple inform them that they wish to marry, the Assembly must ensure that the couple understand what marriage is and what the legal requirements are (both Bahá’í law and civil law must be observed), they must must also approve the two witnesses that the couple choose for their ceremony. The Local Spiritual Assembly will appoint a wedding officer to help ensure that all the necessary requirements are met and certificates are signed on the wedding day.
- In countries where Bahá’í marriage is not recognised by civil law a Bahá’í wedding and a civil wedding must take place on the same day.
- Both parties must recite the specifically revealed wedding vows before two approved witnesses.
In English, this verse is “We will all, verily, abide by the Will of God”. The witnesses do not need to be Bahá’ís but a Local Spiritual Assembly will need to approve them on the basis that they understand the importance that the role holds in a Bahá’í wedding.
- The period of engagement must not exceed 95 days.
Some of the laws of the Baha’i Faith are yet to be made applicable to every Bahá’í in the world, this law is not currently applicable in the West unless both parties are Persian. The 95 days start from the day on which it becomes certain that the marriage is expected to take place, eg. all consent has been given, and not from any later day on which the engagement is officially announced.
- Marriage is conditioned on payment of a dowry from the groom to the bride.
This law is not currently applicable in the West. The dowry is set using a weight called Mithqáls. For a city dweller the standard dowry is the equivalent value of 19 mithqáls of gold (2.22 troy ounces or 69.192 grammes). For somebody who lives outside the city the standard dowry is the equivalent value of the same weight of silver. The maximum acceptable dowry payment is the equivalent of 95 mithqáls of gold (11.1 troy ounces or 345.958 grammes ). All men are encouraged to content themselves with the lowest permissible payment of 19 mithqáls of silver.
To end the article, this is a marriage prayer revealed by Baha’u’llah:
“Praise be to God, the Ancient, the Ever-Abiding, the Changeless, the Eternal! He Who hath testified in His Own Being that verily He is the One, the Single, the Untrammelled, the Exalted. We bear witness that verily there is no God but Him, acknowledging His oneness, confessing His singleness. He hath ever dwelt in unapproachable heights, in the summits of His loftiness, sanctified from the mention of aught save Himself, free from the description of aught but Him.
And when He desired to manifest grace and beneficence to men, and to set the world in order, He revealed observances and created laws; among them He established the law of marriage, made it as a fortress for well-being and salvation, and enjoined it upon us in that which was sent down out of the heaven of sanctity in His Most Holy Book. He saith, great is His glory: ” Enter into wedlock, O people, that ye may bring forth one who will make mention of Me amid My servants. This is My bidding unto you; hold fast to it as an assistance to yourselves.”
– Bahá’u’lláh (14)
(1) Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words (From the Arabic), No. 4
(2) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p.27
(3) Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words (From the Arabic), No. 8
(4) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p.179
(5) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p.117
(6) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p.118
(7) ‘Abdu’l-Baha, quoted in “Preserving Baha’i Marriages”, compiled by Research Department of the Universal House of Justice.
(8) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p.120
(9) Bahá’u’lláh, Proclamation of Bahá’u’lláh, p.ix
(10) Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, p.41
(11) Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings From the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p.215
(12) Written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p.379
(13) Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Questions and Answers), p.105
(14) Baha’u’llah, Baha’i Prayers p.104
(i) In a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, quoted in the compilation on “A Chaste and Holy Life”, prepared by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, there is statement: “A person who is in control of his sexual impulses is enabled to have profound and enduring friendships with many people, both men and women, without ever sullying that unique and priceless bond that should unite man and wife.”
(ii) The primary source for the list of laws is the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, including the main text, the Synopsis and Codification, Questions and Answers, and Notes. Additional information explaining some of the laws is also taken from letters and notes for guidance written by administrative institutions. The comments about the law on a Bahá’í marrying a person who is not a Bahá’í are, however, the opinions of myself and other Bahá’ís who briefly consulted on the subject.