The Covenant of Baha'u'llah
Updated: Apr 21, 2020
"So powerful is the light of unity," Bahá'u'lláh declared, "that it can illuminate the whole earth." "We, verily," He further stated, "have come to unite and weld together all that dwell on earth." Bahá'u'lláh made the oneness of humankind the central principle and goal of His Faith, an emphasis that implies the organic and spiritual unity of the whole body of nations and signalizes the "coming of age of the entire human race."
Humanity's evolution has been marked by such progressive stages of social organization as family, tribe, city-state and nation. Bahá'u'lláh's express purpose was to usher in the next and ultimate stage, namely, world unity -- the harbinger of the Great Peace foretold in the world's religions. As the Word of God as revealed by Bahá'u'lláh is the source and impetus of the oneness of humankind, so the Covenant He has established is the organizing principle for its realization.
Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant guarantees both unity of understanding of His Faith's fundamental doctrines and actualization of that unity in the Bahá'í community's spiritual and social development. It is distinguished by its provision for authentic interpretation of the sacred texts and for an authorized system of administration, at the apex of which is an elected legislative body empowered to supplement the laws revealed by Bahá'u'lláh.
This Covenant is the most remarkable feature of His Revelation, for it is designed, unlike any religious system of the past, to preserve the unity of all humanity through the organic workings of a social order based on spiritual principles. "So firm and mighty" is this Covenant, Bahá'u'lláh's son `Abdu'l-Bahá has affirmed, "that from the beginning of time until the present day, no religious Dispensation hath produced its like."
The Bahá'í Faith is thus the first religion in history that has survived its critical first century with its unity firmly established. "Were it not for the protecting power of the Covenant to guard the impregnable fort of the Cause of God," said `Abdu'l-Bahá, "there would arise among the Bahá'ís, in one day, a thousand different sects as was the case in former ages."5 But in this Revelation, Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant is the magnet that draws the hearts of its followers together.
While issues of succession and leadership within the Bahá'í Faith are addressed by Bahá'u'lláh in His Covenant, its significance is far more encompassing. As He wrote, "The aim of this Wronged One in sustaining woes and tribulations, in revealing the Holy Verses and in demonstrating proofs hath been naught but to quench the flame of hate and enmity, that the horizon of the hearts of men may be illumined with the light of concord and attain real peace and tranquillity."
Elaborating this theme, Bahá'u'lláh exhorted the people of the world to behave in a manner that will elevate their station; to "hold fast to the fear of God and firmly adhere to what is right"; to refrain from engaging in "slander, abuse and whatever causeth sadness"; to "hold fast to righteousness and truth"; to recognize that the "religion of God is for love and unity" and not to be made the "cause of enmity or dissension"; to respect those who have been invested with the power to rule or govern, and to "aid those daysprings of authority and sources of command who are adorned with the ornament of equity and justice"; "to serve all nations and to strive for the betterment of the world."
"Conflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His Book," Bahá'u'lláh asserted, emphasizing the importance of harmony in human relationships. And again He addressed these words to His followers: "O Servants! Let not the means of order be made the cause of confusion and the instrument of union an occasion for discord."
The Center of the Covenant
It is in the pursuit of such aims and injunctions that Bahá'u'lláh appointed His Son `Abdu'l-Bahá as His successor: "When the ocean of My presence hath ebbed and the Book of My Revelation is ended," He wrote in the Kitab-i-Aqdas, His Book of Laws, "turn your faces toward Him Whom God hath purposed, Who hath branched from this Ancient Root." In His Will and Testament, known as The Book of the Covenant, Bahá'u'lláh explained further that, "The object of this sacred verse is none other except the Most Mighty Branch [`Abdu'l-Bahá]."
This appointment invested `Abdu'l-Bahá with authority as the sole interpreter of Bahá'u'lláh's writings and the executor of Bahá'u'lláh's purpose in the establishment of the Bahá'í administrative order; moreover, in His personal life, His words and deeds, `Abdu'l-Bahá was the perfect exemplar of the qualities and ideals of Bahá'í living. The combination of these functions in one person gave rise to a unique office in religious history -- Center of the Covenant -- and makes `Abdu'l-Bahá an unparalleled figure in all history.
The uniqueness of Bahá'u'lláh's purpose for `Abdu'l-Bahá is indicated in various statements. For example, in a work known as Tablet of the Branch, Bahá'u'lláh, referring to `Abdu'l-Bahá as "this sacred and glorious Being, this Branch of Holiness," said, "well is it with him that hath sought His shelter and abideth beneath His shadow. Verily the Limb of the Law of God hath sprung forth from this Root which God hath firmly implanted in the Ground of His Will and Whose Branch hath been uplifted as to encompass the whole of creation. ...Render thanks unto God, O people, for His appearance; for verily He is the most great Favor unto you, the most perfect bounty upon you; and through Him every mouldering bone is quickened. Whoso turneth towards Him hath turned towards God, and whoso turneth away from Him hath turned away from My Beauty, hath repudiated My Proof, and transgressed against Me. He is the Trust of God amongst you, His charge within you, His manifestation unto you and His appearance among His favored servants."
The explicitness of Bahá'u'lláh's written appointment of His Son and the elaborations of `Abdu'l-Bahá's station were meant to prevent any misunderstanding among the faithful as to the leadership of the community following Bahá'u'lláh's passing. These provisions by the Manifestation of God Himself, in and of themselves, demonstrate an exceptional aspect of the Bahá'í Revelation.
As the successor of Bahá'u'lláh, `Abdu'l-Bahá became the tangible center of unity round which the development of the Bahá'í world community would revolve. As Bahá'u'lláh's chosen interpreter and expounder of His teachings, `Abdu'l-Bahá was the "incorruptible medium for applying the Word to practical measures for the raising up of a new civilization." Each of the institutions created in Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant was more clearly explained, sometimes elaborated and in several cases erected by `Abdu'l-Bahá Himself.
The whole range of Bahá'u'lláh's moral teachings was perfectly manifested in the life lived by `Abdu'l-Bahá, and the great diversity of the Bahá'í community owes its major impulse to the undiscriminating love with which `Abdu'l-Bahá welcomed persons of every background, interest and personality, and the manner in which He patiently nurtured those who responded. Bahá'u'lláh "vested in Him the virtues of perfection in personal and social behavior, that humanity may have an enduring model to emulate." To counteract the destructive forces at work in society everywhere, it was necessary to establish a center of unity which could correlate within itself the Bahá'í principles and their expression in deeds and provide an example of Bahá'í ideals in personal behavior that could inspire and be followed by all people. In `Abdu'l-Bahá can be found that perfect coherence of mind, heart, deeds and relationships which expressed itself in the fullness of His functions as the Center of Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant.
"He is, above and beyond these appelations," His grandson and the appointed Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith wrote after citing the many designations conferred by Bahá'u'lláh upon Him, "the `Mystery of God' -- an expression which Bahá'u'lláh Himself has chosen to designate Him, and which, while it does not by any means justify us to assign to Him the station of Prophethood, indicates how in the person of `Abdu'l-Bahá the incompatible characteristics of a human nature and superhuman knowledge and perfection have been blended and are completely harmonized."
The Administrative Order
The idea of the existence of a divine pattern for the continuous administration and development of the Bahá'í Faith is as important to the definition of Bahá'í belief as are the spiritual and social doctrines of Bahá'u'lláh. The Bahá'í administrative order is a tangible expression of the covenantal arrangement made betwen Bahá'u'lláh and His followers. `Abdu'l-Bahá gave significant attention to delineating the administrative system conceived by Bahá'u'lláh, and in His Will and Testament specified the responsibilities and functions, powers and authority particularly of the two institutions that would succeed Him, thus providing for continuity in the unity of the Bahá'í Faith. The twin institutions at the apex of the administrative order are the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice.
In the same manner as He had been Himself appointed Center of the Covenant by Bahá'u'lláh, `Abdu'l-Bahá designated His grandson Shoghi Effendi as Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith. "For he is, after `Abdu'l-Bahá, the guardian of the Cause of God ... and the beloved of the Lord must obey him and turn unto him" is the explicit language of the Will and Testament of `Abdu'l-Bahá. To the Guardian was given the role of authoritative interpreter, and he was charged with the further expansion of the Bahá'í world community along the lines previously revealed by Bahá'u'lláh and elaborated by `Abdu'l-Bahá. As one writer has said, "By the appointment of a Guardian of the Bahá'í Cause, `Abdu'l-Bahá created an executive head and center possessing unquestioned consecration and capacity for the tremendous task of inspiring the worldwide Bahá'í community to develop along the path of human service marked out for it...."
The Will and Testament also authorized Shoghi Effendi to appoint, as an auxiliary institution to the Guardianship, Hands of the Cause of God, who would give particular attention to the propagation and protection of the Faith. "This body of the Hands of the Cause of God," `Abdu'l-Bahá wrote, "is under the direction of the guardian of the Cause of God. He must continually urge them to strive and endeavor to the utmost of their ability to diffuse the sweet savors of God, and to guide all the peoples of the world, for it is the light of Divine Guidance that causeth all the universe to be illumined."
One of Shoghi Effendi's chief goals was the development of the community to the point where it could sustain the establishment of the Universal House of Justice, the elected international council ordained by Bahá'u'lláh. Later, `Abdu'l-Bahá through the provisions of His Will and Testament, had shown how its aims and purposes were to be complementary to those of the Guardianship.
Alluding to the complementary functions and authority of His twin successors, `Abdu'l-Bahá further wrote, "The sacred and youthful branch, the guardian of the Cause of God as well as the Universal House of Justice, to be universally elected and established, are both under the care and protection of the Abha Beauty (Bahá'u'lláh), under the shelter and unerring guidance of His Holiness, the Exalted One (the Báb). Whatsoever they decide is of God. Whoso obeyeth him not, neither obeyeth them, hath not obeyed God; whoso rebelleth against him and against them hath rebelled against God; whoso opposeth him hath opposed God; whoso contendeth with them hath contended with God."
Through the thirty-six years of the Guardian's ministry, the Bahá'í community remained unified, grew rapidly, and spread over vast regions of the globe, gradually erecting the local, national and international institutions that constitute the Bahá'í administrative order. Eventually conditions necessary for the establishment of the Universal House of Justice were fulfilled, five and a half years after the passing of Shoghi Effendi in 1957.
`Abdu'l-Bahá defined the work of the Universal House of Justice in His Will and Testament, specifying that secondary Houses of Justices (temporarily known as National Spiritual Assembies) must be instituted in all countries, and their members are to elect the Universal House of Justice. The first election of this institution in 1963 by the members of 56 National Spiritual Assemblies not only initiated a new stage in the evolution of the administrative order; it also marked the first time in history that an international governing body of this character had been brought into being by a democratic election devoid of campaigning or nominations, in the manner of all Bahá'í elections. Since then the number of National Spiritual Assemblies has increased more than threefold.
Regarding the duties of members of the Universal House of Justice, `Abdu'l-Bahá wrote, "It is incumbent upon these members to gather in a certain place and deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book. Whatsoever they decide has the same effect as the Text itself. And inasmuch as this House of Justice hath power to enact laws that are not expressly recorded in the Book and bear upon daily transactions, so also it hath power to repeal the same."
The Universal House of Justice arrives at decisions through consultation, a process uniquely defined by Bahá'u'lláh and which is essential to the existence of the administrative order. Consultation is the method by which unity is maintained in the conduct of Bahá'í community affairs throughout the world.
Thus, through the definite arrangements made by Bahá'u'lláh and amplified by `Abdu'l-Bahá, the Covenant has remained and remains inviolate; the channel of divine guidance, which provides flexibility in all the affairs of mankind, has stayed open through the time of `Abdu'l-Bahá, that of Shoghi Effendi, and subsequently through the years since the election of the Universal House of Justice which was founded by Bahá'u'lláh and endowed by Him with supreme authority and unfailing guidance and of which `Abdu'l-Bahá wrote: "Unto this body all things must be referred."
The completeness of the Covenant is evident through these arrangements, as the international, national and local institutions of the administrative order provide points of unity around which the Bahá'í community revolves. Illustrative of this characteristic is the following statement of Shoghi Effendi:
And now as I look into the future, I hope to see the [Bahá'ís] at all times, in every land, and of every shade of thought and character, voluntarily and joyously rallying round their local and in particular their national centers of activity, upholding and promoting their interests with complete unanimity and contentment, with perfect understanding, genuine enthusiasm, and sustained vigor. This indeed is the one joy and yearning of my life, for it is the fountain-head from which all future blessings will flow, the broad foundation upon which the security of the Divine Edifice must ultimately rest.
Such rallying points for the Bahá'í community, whatever their rank, are mutually interactive and reinforcing; operating in a relationship similar to that of concentric circles, all of which focus on the indispensable Center of Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant.
Shoghi Effendi expressed this view about the Covenant in a letter written on his behalf by his secretary:
As regards the meaning of the Bahá'í Covenant, the Guardian considers the existence of two forms of Covenant, both of which are explicitly mentioned in the literature of the Cause. First is the Covenant that every Prophet makes with humanity or, more definitely, with His people that they will accept and follow the coming Manifestation Who will be the reappearance of His reality. [Bahá'u'lláh states that a Manifestation will come not less than a thousand years after Him.] The second form of Covenant is such as the one Bahá'u'lláh made with His people that they should accept the Master [`Abdu'l-Bahá]. This is merely to establish and strengthen the succession of the series of Lights that appear after every Manifestation. Under the same category falls the Covenant the Master made with the Bahá'ís that they should accept His administration after Him...
Throughout the past century, the sphere of unity encompassed by the Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh has steadily widened as the Bahá'í community has grown and spread around the world. Today, over 150 years after the birth of the Bahá'í Revelation, millions of followers in hundreds of countries and territories all over the world remain united through the provisions of Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant.
Our Covenant with Bahá'u'lláh
A Covenant implies a solemn agreement between two parties. As already noted, Bahá'u'lláh's part of His Covenant is to bring us teachings that transform both the inner and outer conditions of life on earth, to provide us with an authoritative interpreter to keep us from misunderstanding God's will for us, and to give us guidance to establish institutions that will pursue the goals of the achievement of unity. Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant affects us at all levels of existence, from our social organizations to our individual lives.
As individuals, we in turn have the responsibility to observe the laws God has given to us to safeguard our dignity and to enable us to become the noble beings He created us to be -- to pray, to meditate, to read the Sacred Writings, to fast, to live a chaste life, to be trustworthy. It is our responsibility to show love towards each other, as imperfect as we may be; it is our obligation to love and to obey the institutions Bahá'u'lláh brought into being. Unless we do these things, we do not open ourselves to the benefits of Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant with us.
In an appealing collection of ethical writings called The Hidden Words, Bahá'u'lláh wrote, in the voice of the Divine:
"Love Me, that I may love thee. If thou lovest Me not, My love can in no wise reach thee. Know this, O servant."
This brief passage encapsulates the essence of the Covenant and our responsibility. It shows the Creator's abiding love for us as well as our freedom to choose whether to love Him in return -- and the consequences of that choice.
A Universally Transformative Power
The Bahá'í community is currently traversing the first stage in the flowering of the divine authority which Bahá'u'lláh planted in human affairs through the establishment of His Covenant and His appointment of `Abdu'l-Bahá as its Center. This authority, which is an expression of the love of God, has the power, at the individual level, to captivate hearts and transform character. It provides us with a code of conduct that leads towards social progress. At the community level, the loving authority at the heart of the Faith moulds our social relationships. It guides us to manifest a quality of love and to maintain unity in our dealings with each other. At an institutional level, the Covenant gives us administrative channels through which love flows, and it defines our relationship with those institutions. The transformative power of the Covenant expresses the essential feature of Bahá'u'lláh's World Order, cherished by Him above anything else:
"The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice."
As humanity comes of age, the peoples of the world are awakening to the fact of their oneness and to the vision of the earth as a single homeland. The spiritual authority of Bahá'u'lláh's Covenant provides us with a framework for healing past differences, whether of race, class or creed, and establishes a new kind of relationship between us and our Creator. The moral empowerment that comes to us through this divine bestowal will enable us, for the first time in human history, to build a unified global society.