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In His Will, Baha’u’llah instructed all to turn to His eldest Son, Abdu’l-Baha, not only as the authorized interpreter of the Baha’i Writings but also as the perfect exemplar of the Baha’i Faith’s spirit and teachings. Every year Baha’is celebrate Abdu’l-Baha as the Centre of Baha’u’llah Covenant.
Because Abdu’l-Baha, the eldest son of Baha’u’llah, was born on the same day that the Bab declared His mission to Mulla Husayn, Abdu’l-Baha forbade Baha’is from celebrating His birthday. But when Abdu’l-Baha was travelling through the United States approximately one century ago, the American believers repeatedly expressed their desire to commemorate His life in some fashion, given the immense impact He had on the American Baha’i community.
Although Abdu’l-Baha still instructed Baha’is that only the Declaration of the Bab should be celebrated on 8 Azamat according to the Baha’i calendar, He eventually allowed the Baha’is to choose a date that was furthest away from the date when Baha’u’llah passed away and to use that day to celebrate the establishment of Baha’u’llah’s Covenant with humanity. As Baha’u’llah passed away on May 29th, 1892 (or 13 Azamat) the Baha’i community chose 4 Qawl, 182 days away from the day of Baha’u’llah’s passing, as the Day of the Covenant.
But what exactly is Baha’u’llah’s Covenant, and what exactly is it that Baha’is are commemorating on this day?
Baha’is believe that the primary purpose of our Faith is to establish the oneness of mankind and to promote the unification of all of humanity. We also believe that this was the purpose of every Divine Manifestation, but one of the distinctive features of the Baha’i Faith is the fact that Baha’u’llah explicitly and unambiguously identified who would succeed Him after His passing and created an administrative order designed to ensure the unity of the Baha’i community. In other words, He established a clear Covenant with humanity in order to maintain the integrity and solidarity of His religion.
The paramount importance of this Covenant is evident when comparing the Baha’i Faith to previous religions. Adib Taherzadeh, former member of the Universal House of Justice, describes how the lack of a clear Covenant impacted both Christianity and Islam in his book The Child of the Covenant. In regards to Christianity he states:
The Gospels are silent on the question of successorship. Only a vague and inconclusive statement, ‘And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church’ has led a section of the followers of Christ to consider Peter as His successor. Such a claim, which is not upheld by a clear and unequivocal declaration in the Gospels, has caused bitter conflicts throughout the chequered history of Christianity. As a result, the religion founded by Christ has been divided into major sects which have multiplied through time.
Mr Taherzadeh goes on to describe how a similar situation arose in Islam:
Having completed the rites of pilgrimage to Mecca in the last year of His life, Muhammad, on His way back to Medina, ordered the large concourse of His followers to stop at a place known as Ghadir-i-Khumm. In that vast plain a number of saddles were stacked up, making an improvised pulpit from which Muhammad delivered an important address to the congregation. There, He is reported to have taken ‘Ali by the hand and said, ‘Whoever considers Me as his Lord, then ‘Ali is also his Lord.’ The Shi’ahs consider this verbal statement to be authoritative and on its basis believe ‘Ali to be the lawful successor to the Prophet…But the majority of the Muslims, the Sunnis, reject this view. Almost immediately after Muhammad’s passing, His followers were divided into these two major sects which multiplied with the passage of time.
I’m sure we are all familiar with the countless examples of death and destruction that have resulted from religious conflict throughout history, and this division and disunity is exactly what Baha’u’llah sought to prevent through the establishment of His Covenant. Before He passed away, Baha’u’llah wrote a will and testament known as the Kitab-i-Ahd, or “The Book of the Covenant,” in which He expressly instructed the Baha’is to turn to Abdu’l-Baha after His passing and conferred upon Abdu’l-Baha the authority to interpret and expound upon His words. He also granted Abdu’l-Baha with the prerogative to choose a successor, and Abdu’l-Baha, following His father’s example, wrote His own will and testament and identified Shoghi Effendi as the Guardian and Head of the Baha’i Faith after Abdu’l-Baha’s passing. Thus, the young Baha’i community was never without authoritative guidance and instruction.
So if the Baha’i Faith has always been, and will always be, protected by Baha’u’llah’s Covenant, who is the head of the Baha’i Faith today?
The Baha’i community no longer has an individual who serves as the “head” of the Faith, as Shoghi Effendi did not write a will before his untimely passing. However, that does not mean that the Faith is no longer protected by Baha’u’llah’s Covenant. As mentioned above, Baha’u’llah not only identified His successor, He also established an administrative order that will continue to guide the Faith.
In every community where at least nine Baha’is reside, Baha’is gather together every year to elect a nine-member body known as the Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA) which governs and tends to the needs of the community. All adult members of the community cast their vote, prayerfully and privately, for the nine members whom they believe are best suited to this role, with no campaigning or electioneering whatsoever. Similarly, elected delegates gather annually at the national level to elect a National Spiritual Assembly (NSA) in each country with a sufficient number of Baha’is. And finally, every five years the elected NSAs convene in the Baha’i World Center in Haifa, Israel to elect the Universal House of Justice, the nine-member body that serves as the “head” of the global Baha’i community.
And while many democracies around the world may have a similar process for electing their national representatives, the key difference between those forms of democracy and the Baha’i Faith is that Baha’u’llah, rather than the Baha’is themselves, established the administrative order of the Baha’i Faith. In various works, Baha’u’llah, along with Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, expressly outlined the duties and responsibilities of the Universal House of Justice and identified it as under the unerring guidance of Baha’u’llah Himself.
Thus, on the Day of the Covenant, we should obviously remember Abdu’l-Baha’s incredible legacy of sacrifice, devotion, and compassion that defined His life. But we should also study and reflect on the importance of the administrative order of the Faith and the incredible blessing which is the Universal House of Justice.
Matt Giani is a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. His research focuses on stratification and social mobility in education, with an emphasis on helping underprivileged students make successful transitions to college after high school. Matt draws his inspiration from his exuberant daughter Clara, his incredible wife Shadi, and the Baha'i teachings.