This year, the 149th of the Bahá’í era, marks the Centenary of the Ascension of Bahá’u’lláh, Bearer of the universal Revelation of God destined to lead humanity to its collective coming of age. That this occasion should be observed by a community of believers representing a cross-section of the entire human race and established, in the course of a century and a half, in the most remote corners of the globe, is a token of the forces of unity released by Bahá’u’lláh’s advent. A further testimony to the operation of these same forces can be seen in the extent to which Bahá’u’lláh’s vision has prefigured contemporary human experience in so many of its aspects. It is a propitious moment for the publication of this first authorized translation into English of the Mother Book of His Revelation, His “Most Holy Book,” the Book in which He sets forth the Laws of God for a Dispensation destined to endure for no less than a thousand years.
Of the more than one hundred volumes comprising the sacred Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is of unique importance. “To build anew the whole world” is the claim and challenge of His Message, and the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is the Charter of the future world civilization that Bahá’u’lláh has come to raise up. Its provisions rest squarely on the foundation established by past religions, for, in the words of Bahá’u’lláh, “This is the changeless Faith of God, eternal in the past, eternal in the future.” In this Revelation the concepts of the past are brought to a new level of understanding, and the social laws, changed to suit the age now dawning, are designed to carry humanity forward into a world civilization the splendors of which can as yet be scarcely imagined.
In its affirmation of the validity of the great religions of the past, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas reiterates those eternal truths enunciated by all the Divine Messengers: the unity of God, love of one’s neighbor, and the moral purpose of earthly life. At the same time it removes those elements of past religious codes that now constitute obstacles to the emerging unification of the world and the reconstruction of human society.
The Law of God for this Dispensation addresses the needs of the entire human family. There are laws in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas which are directed primarily to the members of a specific section of humanity and can be immediately understood by them but which, at first reading, may be obscure to people of a different culture. Such, for example, is the law prohibiting the confession of sins to a fellow human being which, though understandable by those of Christian background, may puzzle others. Many laws relate to those of past Dispensations, especially the two most recent ones, those of Muḥammad and the Báb embodied in the Qur’án and the Bayán. Nevertheless, although certain ordinances of the Aqdas have such a focused reference, they also have universal implications. Through His Law, Bahá’u’lláh gradually unveils the significance of the new levels of knowledge and behavior to which the peoples of the world are being called. He embeds His precepts in a setting of spiritual commentary, keeping ever before the mind of the reader the principle that these laws, no matter the subject with which they deal, serve the manifold purposes of bringing tranquillity to human society, raising the standard of human behavior, increasing the range of human understanding, and spiritualizing the life of each and all. Throughout, it is the relationship of the individual soul to God and the fulfillment of its spiritual destiny that is the ultimate aim of the laws of religion. “Think not,” is Bahá’u’lláh’s own assertion, “that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice Wine with the fingers of might and power.” His Book of Laws is His “weightiest testimony unto all people, and the proof of the All-Merciful unto all who are in heaven and all who are on earth.”
An introduction to the spiritual universe unveiled in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas would fail in its purpose if it did not acquaint the reader with the interpretive and legislative institutions that Bahá’u’lláh has indissolubly linked with the system of law thus revealed. At the foundation of this guidance lies the unique role which Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings—indeed the text of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas itself—confer on His eldest son, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá. This unique figure is at once the Exemplar of the pattern of life taught by His Father, the divinely inspired authoritative Interpreter of His Teachings and the Center and Pivot of the Covenant which the Author of the Bahá’í Revelation made with all who recognize Him. The twenty-nine years of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s ministry endowed the Bahá’í world with a luminous body of commentary that opens multiple vistas of understanding on His Father’s purpose.
In His Will and Testament ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá conferred the mantle of Guardian of the Cause and infallible Interpreter of its teachings upon His eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi, and confirmed the authority and guarantee of divine guidance decreed by Bahá’u’lláh for the Universal House of Justice on all matters “which have not outwardly been revealed in the Book.” The Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice can thus be seen to be, in the words of Shoghi Effendi, the “Twin Successors” of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá. They are the supreme institutions of the Administrative Order which was founded and anticipated in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas and elaborated by ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá in His Will.
During the thirty-six years of his ministry, Shoghi Effendi raised up the structure of elected Spiritual Assemblies—the Houses of Justice referred to in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, now in their embryonic stage—and with their collaboration initiated the systematic implementation of the Divine Plan that ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá had laid out for the diffusion of the Faith throughout the world. He also set in motion, on the basis of the strong administrative structure that had been established, the processes which were an essential preparation for the election of the Universal House of Justice. This body, which came into existence in April 1963, is elected through secret ballot and plurality vote in a three-stage election by adult Bahá’ís throughout the world. The revealed Word of Bahá’u’lláh, together with the interpretations and expositions of the Center of the Covenant and the Guardian of the Cause, constitute the binding terms of reference of the Universal House of Justice and are its bedrock foundation.
As to the laws themselves, a careful scrutiny discloses that they govern three areas: the individual’s relationship to God, physical and spiritual matters which benefit the individual directly, and relations among individuals and between the individual and society. They can be grouped under the following headings: prayer and fasting; laws of personal status governing marriage, divorce and inheritance; a range of other laws, ordinances and prohibitions, as well as exhortations; and the abrogation of specific laws and ordinances of previous Dispensations. A salient characteristic is their brevity. They constitute the kernel of a vast range of law that will arise in centuries to come. This elaboration of the law will be enacted by the Universal House of Justice under the authority conferred upon it by Bahá’u’lláh Himself. In one of His Tablets ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá elucidates this principle:
Those matters of major importance which constitute the foundation of the Law of God are explicitly recorded in the Text, but subsidiary laws are left to the House of Justice. The wisdom of this is that the times never remain the same, for change is a necessary quality and an essential attribute of this world, and of time and place. Therefore the House of Justice will take action accordingly…
Briefly, this is the wisdom of referring the laws of society to the House of Justice. In the religion of Islám, similarly, not every ordinance was explicitly revealed; nay not a tenth part of a tenth part was included in the Text; although all matters of major importance were specifically referred to, there were undoubtedly thousands of laws which were unspecified. These were devised by the divines of a later age according to the laws of Islamic jurisprudence, and individual divines made conflicting deductions from the original revealed ordinances. All these were enforced. Today this process of deduction is the right of the body of the House of Justice, and the deductions and conclusions of individual learned men have no authority, unless they are endorsed by the House of Justice. The difference is precisely this, that from the conclusions and endorsements of the body of the House of Justice whose members are elected by and known to the worldwide Bahá’í community, no differences will arise; whereas the conclusions of individual divines and scholars would definitely lead to differences, and result in schism, division, and dispersion. The oneness of the Word would be destroyed, the unity of the Faith would disappear, and the edifice of the Faith of God would be shaken.
Although the Universal House of Justice is explicitly authorized to change or repeal its own legislation as conditions change, thus providing Bahá’í law with an essential element of flexibility, it cannot abrogate or change any of the laws which are explicitly laid down in the sacred Text.
The society for which certain of the laws of the Aqdas are designed will come only gradually into being, and Bahá’u’lláh has provided for the progressive application of Bahá’í law:
Indeed, the laws of God are like unto the ocean and the children of men as fish, did they but know it. However, in observing them one must exercise tact and wisdom… Since most people are feeble and far-removed from the purpose of God, therefore one must observe tact and prudence under all conditions, so that nothing might happen that could cause disturbance and dissension or raise clamor among the heedless. Verily, His bounty hath surpassed the whole universe and His bestowals encompassed all that dwell on earth. One must guide mankind to the ocean of true understanding in a spirit of love and tolerance. The Kitáb-i-Aqdas itself beareth eloquent testimony to the loving providence of God.
The principle governing this progressive application was enunciated in a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to a National Spiritual Assembly in 1935:
... the laws revealed by Bahá’u’lláh in the Aqdas are, whenever practicable and not in direct conflict with the Civil Law of the land, absolutely binding on every believer or Bahá’í institution whether in the East or in the West. Certain laws … should be regarded by all believers as universally and vitally applicable at the present time. Others have been formulated in anticipation of a state of society destined to emerge from the chaotic conditions that prevail today… What has not been formulated in the Aqdas, in addition to matters of detail and of secondary importance arising out of the application of the laws already formulated by Bahá’u’lláh, will have to be enacted by the Universal House of Justice. This body can supplement but never invalidate or modify in the least degree what has already been formulated by Bahá’u’lláh. Nor has the Guardian any right whatsoever to lessen the binding effect much less to abrogate the provisions of so fundamental and sacred a Book.
The number of laws binding on Bahá’ís is not increased by the publication of this translation. When it is deemed timely, the Bahá’í community will be advised which additional laws are binding upon believers, and any guidance or supplementary legislation necessary for their application will be provided.
In general, the laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas are stated succinctly. An example of this conciseness can be seen in the fact that many are expressed only as they apply to a man, but it is apparent from the Guardian’s writings that, where Bahá’u’lláh has given a law as between a man and a woman, it applies mutatis mutandis between a woman and a man unless the context makes this impossible. For example, the text of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas forbids a man to marry his father’s wife (i.e. his stepmother), and the Guardian has indicated that likewise a woman is forbidden to marry her stepfather. This understanding of the implications of the Law has far-reaching effects in light of the fundamental Bahá’í principle of the equality of the sexes, and should be borne in mind when the sacred Text is studied. That men and women differ from one another in certain characteristics and functions is an inescapable fact of nature and makes possible their complementary roles in certain areas of the life of society; but it is significant that ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá has stated that in this Dispensation “Equality of men and women, except in some negligible instances, has been fully and categorically announced.”
Mention has already been made of the intimate relationship between the Kitáb-i-Aqdas and the Holy Books of previous Dispensations. Especially close is the relationship to the Bayán, the Book of Laws revealed by the Báb. It is elucidated in the following excerpts from letters written on behalf of the Guardian:
Shoghi Effendi feels that the unity of the Bahá’í Revelation as one complete whole embracing the Faith of the Báb should be emphasized… The Faith of the Báb should not be divorced from that of Bahá’u’lláh. Though the teachings of the Bayán have been abrogated and superseded by the laws of the Aqdas, yet due to the fact that the Báb considered Himself as the Forerunner of Bahá’u’lláh, we would regard His Dispensation together with that of Bahá’u’lláh as forming one entity, the former being introductory to the advent of the latter.
The Báb states that His laws are provisional and depend upon the acceptance of the future Manifestation. This is why in the Book of Aqdas Bahá’u’lláh sanctions some of the laws found in the Bayán, modifies others and sets aside many.
Just as the Bayán had been revealed by the Báb at about the midpoint of His Ministry, Bahá’u’lláh revealed the Kitáb-i-Aqdas around 1873, some twenty years after He had received, in the Síyáh-Chál of Ṭihrán, the intimation of His Revelation. In one of His Tablets He indicates that even after its revelation the Aqdas was withheld by Him for some time before it was sent to the friends in Iran. Thereafter, as Shoghi Effendi has related:
The formulation by Bahá’u’lláh, in His Kitáb-i-Aqdas, of the fundamental laws of His Dispensation was followed, as His Mission drew to a close, by the enunciation of certain precepts and principles which lie at the very core of His Faith, by the reaffirmation of truths He had previously proclaimed, by the elaboration and elucidation of some of the laws He had already laid down, by the revelation of further prophecies and warnings, and by the establishment of subsidiary ordinances designed to supplement the provisions of His Most Holy Book. These were recorded in unnumbered Tablets, which He continued to reveal until the last days of His earthly life…
Among such works is the Questions and Answers, a compilation made by Zaynu’l-Muqarrabín, the most eminent of the transcribers of Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings. Consisting of answers revealed by Bahá’u’lláh to questions put to Him by various believers, it constitutes an invaluable appendix to the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. In 1978 the most noteworthy of the other Tablets of this nature were published in English as a compilation entitled Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas.
Some years after the revelation of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Bahá’u’lláh had manuscript copies sent to Bahá’ís in Iran, and in the year 1308 A.H. (1890–91 A.D.), towards the end of His life, He arranged for the publication of the original Arabic text of the Book in Bombay.
A word should be said about the style of language in which the Kitáb-i-Aqdas has been rendered into English. Bahá’u’lláh enjoyed a superb mastery of Arabic, and preferred to use it in those Tablets and other Writings where its precision of meaning was particularly appropriate to the exposition of basic principle. Beyond the choice of language itself, however, the style employed is of an exalted and emotive character, immensely compelling, particularly to those familiar with the great literary tradition out of which it arose. In taking up his task of translation, Shoghi Effendi faced the challenge of finding an English style which would not only faithfully convey the exactness of the text’s meaning, but would also evoke in the reader the spirit of meditative reverence which is a distinguishing feature of response to the original. The form of expression he selected, reminiscent of the style used by the seventeenth-century translators of the Bible, captures the elevated mode of Bahá’u’lláh’s Arabic, while remaining accessible to the contemporary reader. His translations, moreover, are illumined by his uniquely inspired understanding of the purport and implications of the originals.
Although both Arabic and English are languages with rich vocabularies and varied modes of expression, their forms differ widely from one another. The Arabic of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas is marked by intense concentration and terseness of expression. It is a characteristic of this style that if a connotation is obvious it should not be explicitly stated. This presents a problem for a reader whose cultural, religious and literary background is entirely different from that of Arabic. A literal translation of a passage which is clear in the Arabic could be obscure in English. It therefore becomes necessary to include in the English translation of such passages that element of the Arabic sentence which is obviously implicit in the original. At the same time, it is vital to avoid extrapolating this process to the point where it would add unjustifiably to the original or limit its meaning. Striking the right balance between beauty and clarity of expression on the one hand, and literalness on the other, is one of the major issues with which the translators have had to grapple and which has caused repeated reconsideration of the rendering of certain passages. Another major issue is the legal implication of certain Arabic terms which have a range of meanings different from those of similar terms in English.
Sacred Scripture clearly requires especial care and faithfulness in translation. This is supremely important in the case of a Book of Laws, where it is vital that the reader not be misled or drawn into fruitless disputation. As had been foreseen, the translation of the Most Holy Book has been a work of the utmost difficulty, requiring consultation with experts in many lands. Since some one-third of the text had already been translated by Shoghi Effendi, it was necessary to strive for three qualities in the translation of the remaining passages: accuracy of meaning, beauty of English, and conformity of style with that used by Shoghi Effendi.
We are now satisfied that the translation has reached a point where it represents an acceptable rendering of the original. Nevertheless, it will undoubtedly give rise to questions and suggestions which may shed further light on its content. We are profoundly grateful for the assiduous and meticulous labors of the members of the Committees whom we commissioned to prepare and review this translation of the Aqdas and to compose the annotations. We are confident that this first authorized English edition of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas will enable its readers to obtain at least an inkling of the splendor of the Mother Book of the Bahá’í Dispensation.
Our world has entered the dark heart of an age of fundamental change beyond anything in all of its tumultuous history. Its peoples, of whatever race, nation, or religion, are being challenged to subordinate all lesser loyalties and limiting identities to their oneness as citizens of a single planetary homeland. In Bahá’u’lláh’s words: “The well-being of mankind, its peace and security, are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.” May the publication of this translation of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas lend a fresh impulse to the realization of this universal vision, opening vistas of a worldwide regeneration.