When women come into the Bahá’í Faith, it’s sometimes because the principle of equality between men and women is dear to their hearts. It can be a severe mental test to discover all the prayers use the male pronoun, and that references to God are almost all male. They want to know that God doesn’t prefer one sex over the other, and they want to see it demonstrated in the teachings of Baha’u’llah. Someone once wrote to the Universal House of Justice who gave this guidance:
Nature of God:
A number of authors express the view that religions which stress the maleness of the Supreme Being tend to deify the masculine principle and see it as the only source of legitimate authority. It is important, therefore, to appreciate the Bahá’í perspective on the nature of God. To assist … in her study of this subject, we attach a brief compilation on this subject, from which a number of points can be drawn:
- From the Bahá’í perspective, the “Essence” of God is “unknowable”.
- The “Reality of Divinity … is invisible, incomprehensible, inaccessible, a pure essence which cannot be described …”
- God is “exalted beyond every human attribute, such as corporeal existence…”
- “God is never flesh”. The Godhead has no physical form and does not in any way resemble a human being, male or female.
- The “attributes” of the Manifestations of God are the means by which the “Divine characteristics and perfections” of God are made known to humanity.
For additional information about the nature of God, … is referred to the book by Amatu’l-Bahá Ruhiyyih Khánum, The Desire of the World (Oxford: George Ronald, 1982). Of particular interest is the listing of the names and titles of God found on pp. 167-186. It will be seen that many of these titles encompass such feminine qualities and attributes as have been associated with the so-called “Great Goddess”. (The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Feb 23, Ancient Goddess Religions)
I have included many of them in the article:
Male Manifestations of God:
The Manifestations of God embody the names, the attributes and the perfections of God. While ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has clearly affirmed that women and men both reveal the attributes of God and that “from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them”, the Manifestations have the particular function of revealing the Will of God to humanity. Bahá’u’lláh explains in the Gleanings that the Manifestation of God “representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation”.
Concerning the sex of the Manifestations of God and the implications for the equality of women and men, the Universal House of Justice, in a letter dated 27 October 1986 written on its behalf to an individual believer, provides the following elucidation:
Even though there have been outstanding women such as Sarah, Asíyih, the Virgin Mary, Fatimih, Tahirih and the Greatest Holy Leaf in every Dispensation, it is an incontrovertible fact that all Manifestations of God known to us have been men. Moreover, it is a clear provision in Bahá’í administration that the Guardians were to be men and that membership on the Universal House of Justice is confined to men. Whether these facts point to a differentiation in function that is unalterable, or whether it was merely a characteristic of a period which will change when mankind attains its maturity is a matter that will, no doubt, become clear in the future. The important point for Bahá’ís to remember is that, in face of the categorical pronouncements in Bahá’í Scripture establishing the equality of men and women, even these facts are no evidence at all of the superiority of the male over the female sex. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has explained that equality does not mean identity of function. He has also stated that the few areas in which men and women are not equal are “negligible”.
We must also remember that sex is a characteristic of this world, not of the spiritual world.
Hence, while no known Manifestations of God have, to date, been female, it is also true that throughout religious history outstanding women, who do not have the station of Manifestation or goddess, have performed many of the creative, nurturant and protective functions that have been ascribed to female deities and goddesses in ancient times. In other words, religious history provides examples of female role models who can inspire, motivate and empower the (women) believers. Further, it is interesting to observe that Bahá’u’lláh refers to His Revelation as the “Mother Book”, which symbolizes, among other things, the creative and regenerative influence of His teachings, and in Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1984), ‘Abdu’l-Bahá likens the Law of God to a woman. See Chapter 13. (The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Feb 23, Ancient Goddess Religions)
Equality of Women and Men:
And, in one of His talks, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá emphasises the uniqueness of the Bahá’í position on the equality of women and men. He states that Bahá’u’lláh establishes the equality of man and woman. This is peculiar to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh, for all other religions have placed man above woman. (The Promulgation of Universal Peace: Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912 (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982), p. 455)
From this we can understand that sex is not a characteristic of the Spiritual Kingdom, so God is neither male nor female. There is no difference in the sight of God between women and men and the fact that all the known Manifestations to date, and the membership of the Universal House of Justice being confined to men during this Dispensation, is not evidence of the superiority of men over women.
Problems with Language
The Bahá’í position is that one’s understanding of the intent of such terms must be informed by awareness of the concept of equality that is integral to the Bahá’í Faith. “The problem of gender-specific nouns is . . . susceptible of two lines of solution,” the Universal House of Justice has stated. “One is to change the usage of nouns, the other is to permit the consciousness of sexual equality to modify the meaning of nouns as now used” (27 November 1989, from a memorandum from the Universal House of Justice to a Bahá’í Office of Public Information). Although usage will evolve in both ways, Bahá’ís approach their scriptures and authoritative texts with an emphasis on the latter. This approach favors the continuity of translation over its constant modernization.
Regarding terms associated with God, the Universal House of Justice has stated:
when Bahá’u’lláh was revealing His Scriptures He had to use language and forms of expression which could be understood by those whom He was addressing. . . . In Arabic and Persian, as in English and most European languages, it has been customary to refer to God as “Lord” and “Father”, rather than “Lady” and “Mother”. While using the conventional wording Bahá’u’lláh approached the matter on two levels. In relation to God He devoted vast numbers of Tablets [letters] to conveying the truth that God is not only neither male nor female, but is far above all human understanding. If you study deeply the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh that portray both the transcendence and immanence of God you will find that the entire question of sex in this context falls into total insignificance.
On the human level, the Bahá’í Teachings stress again and again the equality of men and women. (24 October 1996, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual)
Shoghi Effendi set the translation style for the Bahá’í writings, choosing language similar to that found in the King James version of the Bible. He followed that style and the convention of his time in the generic use of the masculine gender.
The Universal House of Justice has noted: “In the case of the generic terms in the English translations of the Bahá’í Writings, the tendency to take such terms as being applicable only to males is a reflection of the male-dominated society which has prevailed for so long, and to which there is a reaction from women who are seeking legitimate recognition and equality. Bahá’ís can well sympathize with such concerns, while pointing out that language is a living thing and that the intended meaning of the generic terms will doubtless become more readily apparent as the influence of the Bahá’í commitment to equality of the sexes permeates human society more fully” (26 September 1993, written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly).
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