The Model of Penology in the Kitab-i-Aqdas

By John Hatcher

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #5
Bahá'í­ National Center: Wilmette, Illinois, USA
March 31 – April 2, 1995
(see list of papers from #5)


    One of the most surprising features of the long-awaited translation into English of The Kitáb-i-Aqdas is that the work is precisely as Bahá'u'lláh Himself had noted, not a "mere code of laws" (21). As Martha L Schweitz has pointed out, the work is from the standpoint of legal documents more like a constitution than a code. From my own perspective as a Professor of literature, the work seems more a moral treatise or a poem than a legal document, like a tapestry into which Bahá'u'lláh has envisioned the outline of a global civilization. The laws themselves seem to be scattered almost randomly like jewels throughout the fabric of this vision and focus primarily on matters of personal morality, decorum. and refinement.

    But even when these laws do appear, they seem to be more like paradigms of response than codification of conduct. Time and time again, the lawgiver commands that we achieve some set level of response, only to follow His command with alternatives. Marriage is conditioned on the payment of dowry of nineteen mitháls of gold. However, villagers can pay the same amount in silver. However, if the husband cannot afford to pay his bride this, "a promissory note to his bride at the time of the wedding ceremony" is sufficient. The similar sort of latitude applies to the period of time a wife must wait after the absence of her husband before she takes another husband. Should her husband not return by the promised time, "it behoveth her to wait for a period of nine months, after which there is no impediment to her taking another husband; but should she wait longer, God, verily, loveth those women and men who show forth patience" (43).

    In effect, the specific laws and ordinances often establish an optimum response, but then provide a variety of other possible valid responses to account for the various human conditions and capacities. Nevertheless, Bahá'u'lláh cautions, "Beware lest, through compassion, ye neglect to carry out the statutes of the religion of God. . . ." (36) Is this apparent distinction the difference between the advice given an institution and the advice given individuals wherein the individuals are to be forgiving while the institutions are to administer justice?

    When we examine the handful of specific punishments Bahá'u'lláh ordains for particular violations of law, they hardly seem lax or generous. Yet even these provide various levels of response. A study of the principle underlying the response to violation of law as it is portrayed in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas reveals, I think, several abiding principles that ensure the success of this society. Among these is the constant awareness that the life of the individual and of society is a continuum; even capital punishment is not viewed as the termination of a human life, but as an educational tool to assist that recalcitrant soul. Another principle of response to the violation of law is collective pressure, the same force exerted so effectively in tribal communities wherein reputation and social approval are, when employed benignly, the most might force for ensuring human advancement. Allied to this principle is the concept that the right of the collective body always supersedes individual rights, though, properly understood and administered, the health of both are always in concert. The purpose of this paper is to examine some of these principles of law enforcement and penology as they relate to particular examples.

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