According to the Bahá’í teaching the human body serves a temporary purpose in the development of the soul, and, when that purpose has been served, is laid aside; just as the eggshell serves a temporary purpose in the development of the chick, and, when that purpose has been served, is broken and discarded. ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá says that the physical body is incapable of immortality, for it is a composite thing, built up of atoms and molecules, and, like all things that are composed, must, in time, become decomposed.
The body should be the servant of the soul, never its master, but it should be a willing, obedient and efficient servant, and should be treated with the consideration which a good servant deserves. If it is not properly treated, disease and disaster result, with injurious consequences to master as well as servant.
The essential oneness of all the myriad forms and grades of life is one of the fundamental teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. Our physical health is so linked up with our mental, moral and spiritual health, and also with the individual and social health of our fellowmen, nay, even with the life of the animals and plants, that each of these is affected by the others to a far greater extent than is usually realized.
There is no command of the Prophet, therefore, to whatever department of life it may primarily refer, which does not concern bodily health. Certain of the teachings, however, have a more direct bearing on physical health than others, and these we may now proceed to examine.
Economy is the foundation of human prosperity. The spendthrift is always in trouble. Prodigality on the part of any person is an unpardonable sin. We must never live on others like a parasitic plant. Every person must have a profession, whether it be literary or manual, and must live a clean, manly, honest life, an example of purity to be imitated by others. It is more kingly to be satisfied with a crust of stale bread than to enjoy a sumptuous dinner of many courses, the money for which comes out of the pockets of others. The mind of a contented person is always peaceful and his heart at rest.—Bahá’í Scriptures.
Animal food is not forbidden, but ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá says:—“Fruits and grains [will be the foods of the future]. The time will come when meat will no longer be eaten. Medical science is only in its infancy, yet it has shown that our natural diet is that which grows out of the ground.”—Ten Days in the Light of ‘Akká, by Julia M. Grundy.
The use of narcotics and intoxicants of any kind, except as remedies in case of illness, is strictly forbidden by Bahá’u’lláh.
The Bahá’í teaching is based on moderation, not on asceticism. Enjoyment of the good and beautiful things of life, both material and spiritual, is not only encouraged but enjoined. Bahá’u’lláh says: “Deprive not yourselves of that which has been created for you.” Again He says: “It is incumbent upon you that exultation and glad tidings be manifest in your faces.”
All that has been created is for man, who is at the apex of creation, and he must be thankful for the divine bestowals. All material things are for us, so that through our gratitude we may learn to understand life as a divine benefit. If we are disgusted with life we are ingrates, for our material and spiritual existence are the outward evidences of the divine mercy. Therefore we must be happy and spend our time in praises, appreciating all things.
Asked whether the Bahá’í prohibition of gambling applies to game of every description, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá replied:—
No, some games are innocent, and if pursued for pastime there is no harm. But there is danger that pastime may degenerate into waste of time. Waste of time is not acceptable in the Cause of God. But recreation which may improve the bodily powers, as exercise, is desirable.—A Heavenly Vista.
Bahá’u’lláh says, in the Book of Aqdas:—
Be ye the very essence of cleanliness amongst mankind.… Hold ye fast unto refinement under all conditions … allow no trace of dirt to be seen upon your garments.… Immerse yourselves in clean water; it is not permissible to bathe in water that hath already been used.… Truly, We desire to behold you as manifestations of paradise on earth, that there may be diffused from you such fragrance as shall rejoice the hearts of the favored of God.—Kitáb-i-Aqdas.
Mírzá Abu’l-Faḍl, in his book, Bahá’í Proofs,1 points out the extreme importance of these commands, more especially in some parts of the East, where water of the foulest description is often used for household purposes, for bathing and even for drinking, and horribly insanitary conditions abound, causing a vast amount of preventable disease and misery. These conditions, often supposed to be sanctioned by the prevailing religion, can be changed, among Orientals, only by the commandment of one who is believed to have Divine authority. In many parts of the Western Hemisphere, too, a wonderful transformation would result were cleanliness accepted not only as next to godliness, but as an essential part of godliness.
Effect of Obedience to Prophetic Commands
The bearing on health of these commands relating to the simple life, hygiene, abstinence from alcohol and opium, etcetera, is too obvious to call for much comment, although their vital importance is apt to be greatly underestimated. Were they to be generally observed, most of the infectious diseases and a good many others would soon vanish from among men. The amount of illness caused by neglect of simple hygienic precautions and by indulgence in alcohol and opium is prodigious. Moreover, obedience to these commands would not only affect health, but would have an enormous effect for good on character and conduct. Alcohol and opium affect a man’s conscience long before they affect his gait or cause obvious bodily disease, so that the moral spiritual gain from abstinence would be even greater than the physical. With regard to cleanliness, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá says:—“External cleanliness, although it is but a physical thing, has great influence upon spirituality.… The fact of having a pure and spotless body exercises an influence upon the spirit of man.”
Were the commands of the Prophets concerning chastity in sexual relations generally observed, another fertile cause of disease would be eliminated. The loathsome venereal diseases, which wreck the health of so many thousands today, innocent as well as guilty, babes as well as parents, would very soon be entirely a thing of the past.
Were the commands of the Prophets concerning justice, mutual aid, loving one’s neighbor as oneself, carried out, how could overcrowding, sweated labor and sordid poverty on the one hand, together with self-indulgence, idleness and sordid luxury on the other, continue to work mental, moral and physical ruin?
Simple obedience to the hygienic and moral commands of Moses, Buddha, Christ, Muḥammad or Bahá’u’lláh would do more in the way of preventing disease than all the doctors and all the public health regulations in the world have been able to accomplish. In fact, it seems certain that were such obedience general, good health would also become general. Instead of lives being blighted by disease or cut off in infancy, youth or prime, as so frequently happens now, men would live to a ripe old age, like sound fruits that mature and mellow ere they drop from the bough.
We live in a world, however, where from time immemorial obedience to the commands of the Prophets has been the exception rather than the rule; where love of self has been a more prevalent motive than love of God; where limited and party interests have taken precedence of the interests of humanity as a whole; where material possessions and sensual pleasures have been preferred to the social and spiritual welfare of mankind. Hence have arisen fierce competition and conflict, oppression and tyranny, extremes of wealth and poverty—all those conditions which breed disease, mental and physical. As a consequence, the whole tree of humanity is sick, and every leaf on the tree shares in the general sickness. Even the purest and holiest have to suffer for the sins of others. Healing is needed—healing of humanity as a whole, of nations and of individuals. So Bahá’u’lláh, like His inspired predecessors, not only shows how health is to be maintained, but also how it may be recovered when lost. He comes as the Great Physician, the Healer of the world’s sicknesses, both of body and of mind.
In the Western world of today there is evident a remarkable revival of belief in the efficacy of healing by mental and spiritual means. Indeed many, in their revolt against the materialistic ideals about disease and its treatment which prevailed in the nineteenth century, have gone to the opposite extreme of denying that material remedies or hygienic methods have any value whatsoever. Bahá’u’lláh recognizes the value of both material and spiritual remedies. He teaches that the science and art of healing must be developed, encouraged and perfected, so that all means of healing may be used to the best advantage, each in its appropriate sphere. When members of Bahá’u’lláh’s own family were sick, a professional physician was called in, and this practice is recommended to His followers. He says: “Resort ye, in times of sickness, to competent physicians.”—Kitáb-i-Aqdas.
This is quite in accordance with the Bahá’í attitude towards science and art generally. All sciences and arts which are for the benefit of mankind, even in a material way, are to be esteemed and promoted. Through science man becomes the master of material things; through ignorance he remains their slave.
Do not neglect medical treatment when it is necessary, but leave it off when health has been restored. Treat disease through diet, by preference, refraining from the use of drugs; and if you find what is required in a single herb, do not resort to a compound medicament.… Abstain from drugs when the health is good, but administer them when necessary.—Tablet to a Physician
In one of His Tablets ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá says:—
O seeker after truth! There are two ways of healing sickness, material means and spiritual means. The first way is through the use of material remedies. The second consists in praying to God and in turning to Him. Both means should be used and practiced.… Moreover, they are not incompatible, and you should accept the physical remedies as coming from the mercy and favor of God Who has revealed and made manifest medical knowledge, so that His servants may profit by this kind of treatment also.
He teaches that, were our natural tastes and instincts not vitiated by foolish and unnatural modes of living, they would become reliable guides in the choice both of appropriate diet and of medicinal fruits, herbs and other remedies, as is the case with wild animals. In an interesting talk on healing, recorded in Some Answered Questions, He says in conclusion:—
It is therefore evident that it is possible to cure by foods, aliments, and fruits; but as today the science of medicine is imperfect, this fact is not yet fully grasped. When the science of medicine reaches perfection, treatment will be given by foods, aliments, fragrant fruits, and vegetables, and by various waters, hot and cold in temperature.
Even when the means of healing are material, the power that heals is really Divine, for the attributes of the herb of mineral are from the Divine Bestowals. “All depends upon God. Medicine is merely an outward form or means by which we obtain heavenly healing.”
He teaches that there are also many methods of healing without material means. There is a “contagion of health,” as well as a contagion of disease, although the former is very slow and has a small effect, while the latter is often violent and rapid in its action.
Much more powerful effects result from the patient’s own mental states, and “suggestion” may play an important part in determining these states. Fear, anger, worry, et cetera, are very prejudicial to health, while hope, love, joy, et cetera, are correspondingly beneficial.
Verily the most necessary thing is contentment under all circumstances; by this one is preserved from morbid conditions and lassitude. Yield not to grief and sorrow: they cause the greatest misery. Jealousy consumeth the body and anger doth burn the liver: avoid these two as you would a lion.—Tablet to a Physician.
And ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá says:—“Joy gives us wings. In times of joy our strength is more vital, our intellect keener.… But when sadness visits us our strength leaves us.”
Of another form of mental healing ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá writes that it results:—
from the entire concentration of the mind of a strong person upon a sick person, when the latter expects with all his concentrated faith that a cure will be effected from the spiritual power of the strong person, to such an extent that there will be a cordial connection between the strong person and the invalid. The strong person makes every effort to cure the sick patient, and the sick patient is then sure of receiving a cure. From the effect of these mental impressions an excitement of the nerves is produced, and this impression and this excitement of the nerves will become the cause of the recovery of the sick person.—Some Answered Questions.
All these methods of healing, however, are limited in their effects, and may fail to effect a cure in severe maladies.
The most potent means of healing is the Power of the Holy Spirit.
… This does not depend on contact, nor on sight, nor upon presence.… Whether the disease be light or severe, whether there be a contact of bodies or not, whether a personal connection be established between the sick person and the healer or not, this healing takes place through the power of the Holy Spirit.—Some Answered Questions.
In a talk with Miss Ethel Rosenberg, in October 1904, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá said:—
The healing that is by the power of the Holy Spirit needs no special concentration or contact. It is through the wish or desire and the prayer of the holy person. The one who is sick may be in the East and the healer in the West, and they may not have been acquainted with each other, but as soon as that holy person turns his heart to God and begins to pray, the sick one is healed. This is a gift belonging to the Holy Manifestations and those who are in the highest station.
Of this nature, apparently, were the works of healing performed by Christ and His apostles, and similar works of healing have been attributed to holy men in all ages. Both Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá were gifted with this power, and similar powers are promised to Their faithful followers.
In order that the power of spiritual healing may be brought fully into operation certain requirements are necessary on the part of the patient, of the healer, of the patient’s friends and of the community at large.
On the part of the patient the prime requisite is, turning with all the heart to God, with implicit trust both in His Power and in His Will to do whatever is best. To an American lady, in August 1912, ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá said:—
All of these ailments will pass away and you will receive perfect physical and spiritual health.… Let your heart be confident and assured that through the Bounty of Bahá’u’lláh, through the Favor of Bahá’u’lláh, everything will become pleasant for you.… But you must turn your face wholly towards the Abhá (All-Glorious) Kingdom, giving perfect attention—the same attention that Mary Magdalene gave to His Holiness Christ—and I assure you that you will get physical and spiritual health. You are worthy. I give you the glad tidings that you are worthy because your heart is pure.… Be confident! Be happy! Be rejoiced! Be hopeful!
Although in this particular case ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá guaranteed the attainment of sound physical health, He does not do so in every case, even where there is strong faith on the part of the individual. He wrote:—
The prayers which were revealed to ask for healing apply both to physical and spiritual healing. Recite them, then, to heal both the soul and the body. If healing is right for the patient, it will certainly be granted; but for some ailing persons, healing would only be the cause of other ills, and therefore wisdom doth not permit an affirmative answer to the prayer.
O handmaid of God! The power of the Holy Spirit healeth both physical and spiritual ailments.—Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá.
Again He writes to one who is ill:—
Verily the Will of God acts sometimes in a way for which mankind is unable to find out the reason. The causes and reasons shall appear. Trust in God and confide in Him, and resign thyself to the Will of God. Verily thy God is affectionate, compassionate and merciful … and will cause His Mercy to descend upon Thee.
He teaches that spiritual health is conducive to physical health, but physical health depends upon many factors, some of which are outside the control of the individual. Even the most exemplary spiritual attitude on the part of the individual, therefore, may not ensure physical health in every case. The holiest men and women sometimes suffer illness.
Nevertheless, the beneficent influence on bodily health which results from a right spiritual attitude is far more potent than is generally imagined, and is sufficient to banish ill-health in a large proportion of cases. ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá wrote to an English lady:—“You have written about the weakness of your body. I ask from the Bounties of Bahá’u’lláh that your spirit may become strong, that through the strength of your spirit your body also may be healed.”
God hath bestowed upon man such wonderful powers, that he might ever look upward, and receive, among other gifts, healing from His divine Bounty. But alas! man is not grateful for this supreme good, but sleeps the sleep of negligence, being careless of the great mercy which God has shown towards him, turning his face away from the Light and going on his way in darkness.
The power of spiritual healing is doubtless common to all mankind in greater or less degree, but, just as some men are endowed with exceptional talent for mathematics or music, so others appear to be endowed with exceptional aptitude for healing. These are the people who ought to make the healing art their lifework. Unfortunately, so materialistic has the world become in recent centuries that the very possibility of spiritual healing has to a large extent been lost sight of. Like all other talents the gift of healing has to be recognized, trained and educated in order that it may attain its highest development and power, and there are probably thousands in the world today, richly dowered with natural aptitude for healing, in whom this precious gift is lying dormant and inactive. When the potentialities of mental and spiritual treatment are more fully realized, the healing art will be transformed and ennobled and its efficacy immeasurably increased. And when this new knowledge and power in the healer are combined with lively faith and hope on the part of the patient, wonderful results may be looked for.
In God must be our trust. There is no God but Him, the Healer, the Knower, the Helper.… Nothing in earth or heaven is outside the grasp of God.
O physician! In treating the sick, first mention the name of Thy God, the Possessor of the Day of Judgment, and then use what God hath destined for the healing of His creatures. By My Life! The physician who has drunk from the Wine of My Love, his visit is healing, and his breath is mercy and hope. Cling to him for the welfare of the constitution. He is confirmed by God in his treatment.
This knowledge (of the healing art) is the most important of all the sciences, for it is the greatest means from God, the Life-giver to the dust, for preserving the bodies of all people, and He has put it in the forefront of all sciences and wisdoms. For this is the day when you must arise for My Victory.
Thy Name is my healing, O my God, and remembrance of Thee is my remedy. Nearness to Thee is my hope, and love for Thee is my companion. Thy mercy to me is my healing and my succor in both this world and the world to come. Thou, verily, art the All-Bountiful, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.—Bahá’u’lláh, Tablet to a Physician.
He who is filled with love of Bahá, and forgets all things, the Holy Spirit will be heard from his lips and the spirit of life will fill his heart.… Words will issue from his lips in strands of pearls, and all sickness and disease will be healed by the laying on of the hands.—Star of the West, vol. viii.
O thou pure and spiritual one! Turn thou toward God with thy heart beating with His love, devoted to His praise, gazing towards His Kingdom and seeking help from His Holy Spirit in a state of ecstasy, rapture, love, yearning, joy and fragrance. God will assist thee, through a spirit from His Presence, to heal sickness and disease.—Tablets of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, vol. iii.
Continue in healing hearts and bodies and seek healing for sick persons by turning unto the Supreme Kingdom and by setting the heart upon obtaining healing through the power of the Greatest Name and by the spirit of the Love of God.—Tablets of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, vol. iii.
The work of healing the sick, however, is a matter that concerns not the patient and the practitioner only, but everyone. All must help, by sympathy and service, by right living and right thinking, and especially by prayer, for of all remedies prayer is the most potent. “Supplication and prayer on behalf of others,” says ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, “will surely be effective.” The friends of the patient have a special responsibility, for their influence, either for good or ill, is most direct and powerful. In how many cases of sickness the issue depends mainly on the ministrations of parents, friends or neighbors of the helpless sufferer!
Even the members of the community at large have an influence in every case of sickness. In individual cases that influence may not appear great, yet in the mass the effect is potent. Everyone is affected by the social “atmosphere” in which he lives, by the general prevalence of faith or materialism, of virtue or vice, of cheerfulness of depression; and each individual has his share in determining the state of that social “atmosphere.” It may not be possible for everyone, in the present state of the world, to attain to perfect health, but it is possible for everyone to become a “willing channel” for the health-giving power of the Holy Spirit and thus to exert a healing, helpful influence both on his own body and on all with whom he comes in contact.
Few duties are impressed on Bahá’ís more repeatedly and emphatically than that of healing the sick, and many beautiful prayers for healing have been revealed by both Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá.
Bahá’u’lláh gives the assurance that, through harmonious cooperation of patients, healers and the community in general, and by appropriate use of the various means to health, material, mental and spiritual, the Golden Age may be realized, when, by the Power of God, “all sorrow will be turned into joy, and all disease into health.” ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá says that “when the Divine Message is understood, all troubles will vanish.” Again He says:—
When the material world and the divine world are well correlated, when the hearts become heavenly and the aspirations pure, perfect connection shall take place. Then shall this power produce a perfect manifestation. Physical and spiritual diseases will then receive absolute healing.
In concluding this chapter it will be well to recall ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá’s teaching as to the right use of physical health. In one of His Tablets to the Bahá’ís of Washington He says:—
If the health and well-being of the body be expended in the path of the Kingdom, this is very acceptable and praiseworthy; and if it be expended to the benefit of the human world in general—even though it be to their material (or bodily) benefit—and be a means of doing good, that is also acceptable. But if the health and welfare of man be spent in sensual desires, in a life on the animal plane, and in devilish pursuits—then disease were better than such health; nay, death itself were preferable to such a life. If thou art desirous of health, wish thou health for serving the Kingdom. I hope that thou mayest attain perfect insight, inflexible resolution, complete health, and spiritual and physical strength in order that thou mayest drink from the fountain of eternal life and be assisted by the spirit of divine confirmation.