Baha’u’llah, the Founder of the Baha’i Faith, had three wives. For many who investigate the Baha’i Faith, this is a surprise and often a test. But Baha’is do have a reasonable explanation that might be considered.
Today, the Baha’i Faith forbids polygamy, but this is a truth that has evolved as the Baha’i Faith has developed. Baha’is believe there is a great wisdom in this. They look at these teachings and laws of a Manifestation of God in the context of history and culture.
For example, in Islam, a man is allowed to have four wives. Many people today criticize Islam for this fact, but they do not see the historical context of this teaching. For early believers in Islam, limiting them to four wives was a test for those of a culture where tribesmen often had many more wives than that, wives they treated like cattle. Muhammad taught that women should be treated as equals in the sight of God, unfortunately many Muslim cultures did not internalize this teaching and they have yet to live up to the Koran’s standards.
For Baha’is, this was the beginning of a weaning of these ancient cultures from polygamy. Baha’u’llah, in His book of Laws, said that a Baha’i could only have two wives—as long as the husband could treat both women equally. As time went on, this law was interpreted further by Abdu’l-Baha, who said that no husband could treat two wives perfectly equally, and therefore polygamy was forbidden for Baha’is.
The wisdom of gradually applying the laws of God is explained by Baha’u’llah when He wrote, “Know of a certainty that in every Dispensation the light of Divine Revelation hath been vouchsafed unto men in direct proportion to their spiritual capacity. Consider the sun. How feeble its rays the moment it appeareth above the horizon. How gradually its warmth and potency increase as it approacheth its zenith, enabling meanwhile all created things to adapt themselves to the growing intensity of its light. How steadily it declineth until it reacheth its setting point. Were it, all of a sudden, to manifest the energies latent within it, it would, no doubt, cause injury to all created things…. In like manner, if the Sun of Truth were suddenly to reveal, at the earliest stages of its manifestation, the full measure of the potencies which the providence of the Almighty hath bestowed upon it, the earth of human understanding would waste away and be consumed; for men’s hearts would neither sustain the intensity of its revelation, nor be able to mirror forth the radiance of its light. Dismayed and overpowered, they would cease to exist.” (Baha’u’llah, GWB p. 87)
Baha’is know that Baha’u’llah had not revealed the Baha’i law until He wrote His Book of Laws. And Baha’u’llah married his wives before His Book of Laws had been revealed. So it was not binding until after He revealed the Book. Today that law is interpreted to forbid polygamy. The truth is Baha’u’llah preached the total equality of woman and men to a society that treated women as less than human.
This was a drastic change for society, and something that may take generations for some parts of the world to accept. Abdu’l-Baha wrote, “And among the teachings of His Holiness Baha’u’llah is the equality of women and men. The world of humanity has two wings—one is women and the other men. Not until both wings are equally developed can the bird fly. Should one wing remain weak, flight is impossible. Not until the world of women becomes equal to the world of men in the acquisition of virtues and perfections, can success and prosperity be attained as they ought to be.” (Abdu’l-Baha, BWF p. 288).
By today’s standard, the idea that a religious founder had multiple wives is culturally unacceptable. But a student of religion knows that the Founders of the world’s great religions often did things in their lives that were a test for people around them. For example, Moses killed a man and was banished from his community and branded a murderer. Jesus appeared to the community to be a bastard child and was forced to wander the lands without a place to lay his head. Muhammad was an orphan and had no clan to protect him in a society where a family’s tribe meant everything. These were realities that blinded the majority of society from accepting what They had to say.
In Baha’u’llah’s time, the test for society was not that He had multiple wives, but rather that He was preaching religion without any training. In His time this was culturally unacceptable because Baha’u’llah appeared to a society where to even utter a word on religion, without the proper training, was tantamount to blasphemy. This was a society where people studied for decades in exclusive religious universities before they could preach to the people.
Therefore, for Baha’u’llah, who had never had any religious schooling, to pronounce even a syllable on the topic of religion, was a great test. What infuriated the religious leaders even more was that Baha’u’llah seemed to know the teachings and religious philosophy better than any of them, as He constantly bested them in one religious argument after another. This was the great test for society in His time. As Baha’u’llah challenged them when He wrote, “We have not entered any school, nor read any of your dissertations. Incline your ears to the words of this unlettered One, wherewith He summoneth you unto God, the Ever-Abiding. Better is this for you than all the treasures of the earth, could ye but comprehend it.” (GWB, p. 199).
Today, the biggest tests for people investigating the Baha’i Faith tend to be around the rules and standards set for personal behavior. Many people find the laws against drinking alcohol, or forbidding sexual relations outside of a marriage between a man and a woman to be unacceptable. But those who give it a chance and investigate the reasons behind these laws often find a deeper spiritual wisdom. The laws of Baha’u’llah are not meant to restrict our freedoms and hinder our happiness. On the contrary, they are meant to help us focus on the spiritual aspects of life, detach us from carnal desires and our lower natures, and rise to a more noble reality where we live closer to God in everything we do.
The point is, new religions often challenge us in ways we don’t expect. Those who take the time to investigate the answers with an open mind and an open heart may find their own opinions changing in the process as new information is explored. As Baha’u’lah wrote, “O SON OF SPIRIT! Ask not of Me that which We desire not for thee, then be content with what We have ordained for thy sake, for this is that which profiteth thee, if therewith thou dost content thyself.” (Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words #18)