Baha’u’llah & “The Subject of Boys”June 25, 2011
A few months ago Baquia wrote a blog of the same name where s/he noted:
“If we search Baha’u’llah’s writings, we find something quite remarkable. Nowhere in Baha’u’llah’s writings is there an explicit mention of homosexuality (and neither by Abdu’l-Baha). Arguably, the only reference we have is an extremely brief mention in the Aqdas (more on that a bit later).
To understand why there is no wider mention of homosexuality and what exactly Baha’u’llah was referring and what Shoghi Effendi translated to the seemingly cryptic words, “the subject of boys”, we have to take a few steps back.
Ban on Interracial marriage between the 1660s and 1967
Sexual dynamics and mores differ greatly between cultures and time periods. What may be accepted sexual behavior at one point in time or within a specific society may be completely unknown or unacceptable in another time or place.”
Later in the blog Baquia writes: “That does not mean however that homosexuality did not exist at all in one guise or another during Baha’u’llah’s time. Homosexuality, after all, has been observed in nature among hundreds of species as well as throughout human history.
So while the current definition of homosexual relationships may not have existed, there certainly have always been some forms of homosexuality in human society, just as there have been many other acceptable sexual expressions, beyond the institution of marriage between a man and a woman.
One issue I was unaware of was a form of “lesbianism. It is sometimes referred to as sisterhood sighe and involved the consensual relationship between two women that was sexual in nature but not exclusively so. This was practiced in a society that allowed woman to travel together and spend time together (especially in harems where women were only allowed to frequent with other women freely).” [Link to this blog]
This was news to me and so since this existed during Baha’u’llah’s time, surely he would have made mention of this if this was an issue. In Kitab-i-Adqas Baha’u’llah wrote:
“”We shrink, for very shame, from treating the subject of boys. Fear ye the Merciful, O peoples of the world! Commit not that which is forbidden you in Our Holy Tablet, and be not of those who rove distractedly in the wilderness of their desire.” (page 58, Kitab-i-Adqas, 1992 English edition)
Baquia then illustrated use and context for the Arabic term Baha’u’llah used “ghulaam” which refers to: slave, page; lad, or servant, and exclusively males.
The rest of the blog goes into the ‘subject of boys’ that is, the middle eastern practice young boys being treated like a sex slave. The English 1992 edition of Kitab-i-Adqas has a reference to note 134 on page 223 where the research department or the Universal House of Justice has noted that this refers to paederasty. The next sentence in that note states that Shoghi Effendi has interpreted this reference as a prohibition on all homosexual relations, but as far as I know Shoghi Effendi never wrote anything the topic of homosexuality. What we have and what is then quoted next in the same note is a Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi.
The blog continues: “These relationships are markedly different from the homosexual relationships that we see practiced today. It is not a relationship between equals. Instead the adult male has resources, power, rank and authority and in effect ‘owns’ the younger male. He provides for the boy’s needs but expects certain reciprocation.”
“Nineteenth-century Iranian society did not adhere to modern definitions or sensibilities concerning same-sex relations. Although legally prohibited, homosexual sex was common, and homoerotic passion was accommodated. Falling in love with a youth and celebrating that love were recognized practices, as long as the lovers remained circumspect and observed certain conventions. Elite urban men often flouted these conventions. In the royal court and among government officials, wealthy merchants, and clerics, the practice of keeping boy concubines was widespread and commonly known; close, homosexual relations between free adult men were less often discussed or divulged, however.”
p. 104, “Sexual Politics in Modern Iran”, by Janet Afary 1992, Cambridge University Press.
And further in the blog: “Through this vice, livat [lavat], betsche bazi [bacheh bazi], is strongly rebuked in the Qur’an and can even be punishable by death, it is nevertheless today generally widespread, among the lay people, especially… officers, schoolteachers, and even clerics. It is so overt that no one makes an attempt to conceal it. In almost every house of standing there is such a boy, even many, who are there to serve this purpose. No one is reserved about introducing them publicly. Indeed, one takes pride in possessing a splendid specimen. One is especially jealous about them. They are carefully watched and protected from seduction.”
(Polak  excerpt from account of the court gynecologist and obstetrician, Dr. Polak cited in “Sexual Politics in Modern Iran”1982, p.41) [Link to Baquia’s blog where there is more from this book]
Baquia then quotes the essay, Sexuality in the Aqdas by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram:
“It was simply taken-for-granted in Middle Eastern tradition that all men find boys sexually attractive and that men who are attracted to boys are not a ‘different’ type of men but, on the contrary, ‘normal’ men who desire intromissive ejaculation for which a boy taken in liwat is as fit as a woman taken in liwat or vaginal intercourse.
Although egalitarian relationships between pairs of adult men that involved mutual sexual activity have not been unknown in Middle Eastern societies, there was no specific term to cover such liasons before recent decades. They fell outside regular socio-cultural categories, and they were not subsumable under liwat.
If we note the widespread use of dancing boys dressed as girls for prostitution in the Middle East; and the practice of female prostitutes dressing as boys to increase their appeal to customers who would engage in either anal or vaginal intercourse with them; and remember that the customers of both the dancing boys and the travesti girls are married men: It is evident that expecting recent western terms like ‘homosexual’ and ‘heterosexual’ to be readily applicable in this socio-cultural milieu in any meaningful way is futile.“
The Provisions for Sexuality in the Kitab-i-Aqdas in the Context of Late Nineteenth Century Eastern and Western Sexual Ideologies by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, 1996. The underlined text is my emphasis.
Baquia’s blog continues with more details and information.
The blog then quotes from another article by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram.
“A remark that it is shameful to keep a catamite presumably means first and foremost that it is shameful to keep a catamite. But from specific comments we may also develop generalizations. We are likely to be aided in generalizing by an understanding of the context in which the statement was made and received. However, apart from this there are two basic directions in which we may take our generalizing. The statement may be generalized to a condemnation of a broader range of homosexual acts; or it may be generalized to a condemnation of those in a position of power exploiting their dependents for their own ends. One type of generalization operates on the basis of presumed analogies among specific outward acts and the one in the statement; the other operates on the basis of a concern for the principles that may be inferred from the statement and how these may be related to motives, responsibilities, and relationships.
The important question is which type of generalization is more likely to produce results that may support a global value system that can flourish and develop in all cultures. Is God more interested in people’s actions than their hearts? Is the road to salvation a mechanically instrumental one? Of course actions matter, but what underlies the actions must matter at least as much if we are not to espouse a materialist view of existence. And not only individual actions matter but also the broader patterns of social interaction in which these actions are situated.
Bahá’í Faith and Sexuality, by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, February 1996. The underlined text is my emphasis.
Baquia finishes by noting that “we of course pay attention to the translation and interpretation of the Guardian. Juxtaposing the two may provide us with a deeper insight into the discussion of the views and attitudes of the Baha’i Faith towards homosexuality.
Similar to the line of reasoning provided by R. Jackson Armstrong-Ingram above, but with one important distinction, here is a question to ponder:
By ignoring the homosexual relationships between women, which were marked by consensual agreement between adult equals, and condemning specifically a despicable act of ritualized pederasty marked by the abuse of power and dominance of an adult over less fortunate minors, was Baha’u’llah telling us more about equality, justice and human rights than about merely a sexual act or orientation?”
About 2 weeks later I commented on 3 May 2011
SS wrote: What do you think of:
“Amongst the many other evils afflicting society in this spiritual low water mark in history, is the question of immorality, and over-emphasis of sex. Homosexuality, according to the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, is spiritually condemned. This does not mean that people so afflicted must not be helped and advised and sympathized with. It does mean that we do not believe that it is a permissible way of life; which, alas, is all too often the accepted attitude nowadays.”
(From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer,
May 21, 1954)
Some Bahais might think to use birth control is against the teachings of the Bahai Faith because a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi states it “as constituting a real danger to the very foundations of our social life.”
(A link to the letter is here – scroll to the comments below for the full letter)
So SS if you choose to treat everything penned by a secretary writing Letters on Shoghi Effendi’s behalf, as if this is scripture to be followed to the letter, I can only assume that you might have problems with Bahais who practice some form of birth control or anything else penned in these letters. As an individual there is nothing to stop you from following the advice in these letters, unless, and this is just my own opinion, your actions contradict any Bahai Teaching.
Some Bahais interprete anything penned by a secretary as if this has the same status as Bahai Scripture so here is a link to some statements about the status of these letters.
These letters have status, but not the same as anything penned by Baha’u’llah, Abdul-Baha, or Shoghi Effendi and here is a link to some of these letters which either contradict Bahai Scripture or have inaccuracies.
As Bahais we need to learn to see these distinctions if we want our Bahai community (here Shoghi Effendi is referring specifically to our administration) to: “be conceived as an instrument and not a substitute for the Faith of Baha’u’llah, that it should be regarded as a channel through which His promised blessings may flow, that it should guard against such rigidity as would clog and fetter the liberating forces released by His Revelation.”
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 9)
So in short Shoghi Effendi seems to be saying, let the priniciples of the Bahai Teachings guide us in our actions.
Now to the Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which you posted: I googled the phrase: “Homosexuality, according to the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, is spiritually condemned.” and found it is sourced all over the place, including wikipedia, bahaikipedia and so on. However nowhere have I found anything in the Baha’u’llah’s Writings to back this up. Of course I realise many of His tablets are not yet translated but my argument here is, if there is a tablet somewhere that states clearly that homosexuality is spiritually condemned, it would be sourced or a priority would have been given, so such statements in Letters Written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi would have some scriptural basis. We cannot assume that those secretaries had the power of divination to ‘know’ what was in a tablet without having read this themselves. It is not a Bahai Teaching to believe that Bahais such as those who served as secretaries had super-human powers.
But I can understand that anyone using the internet would think, well it must be somewhere in the Bahai Writings, otherwise why would this quotation often be the first thing quoted in places such as wikipedia. I would agree, I find this odd. Why does it seem to be that Bahais are so keen to damn homosexuality? Why do not more Bahais question this? Are Bahais more likely to damn homosexuality than any other individual? If you think so, then I’d say, do something about this.
Asking questions (to others or oneself) and investigating the truth are Bahai Teachings. We as individuals make what the Bahai community is in society – no people, no community. We need to do the investigating ourselves. It is our own responsibility.
Why does a religion that celebrates diversity and has equality as a teaching, have homosexuality as an exception? Where does the idea that homosexuality is bad come from? That’s my question. If it comes from those letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, and other issues mentioned in these letters are treated as advice for the particular individual/s it was addressed to, or not given a focus, then why are those mentioning homosexuality treated differently?
We cannot blame those letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi either, because it us, the Bahais, who are who treating the status of these letters differently to how other letters are being treated. Sen has written a blog which goes into some detail about the Letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi.
SS then asked me:
In that case, what are your views on this:
“The word translated here as ‘boys’ has, in this context, in the Arabic original, the implication of paederasty. Shoghi Effendi has interpreted this reference as a prohibition on all homosexual relations.
“The Bahá’í teachings on sexual morality centre on marriage and the family as the bedrock of the whole structure of human society and are designed to protect and strengthen that divine institution. Bahá’í law thus restricts permissible sexual intercourse to that between a man and the woman to whom he is married.”
(The Universal House of Justice: The Kitab-i-Aqdas: N 134, p. 223)
I responded on 5 May 2011:
I wrote about this on this blog some years ago and this is a direct link to the same post.
Here I show that since the notes section (the quotation you use) is penned by the U.H.J. or the Research department acting on their behalf.
“Whatsoever they decide has the same effect as the Text itself. Inasmuch as the 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.
Thus for example, the House of Justice enacteth today a certain law and enforceth it, and a hundred years hence, circumstances having profoundly changed and the conditions having altered, another House of Justice will then have power, according to the exigencies of the time, to alter that law.
This it can do because these laws form no part of the divine explicit Text. The House of Justice is both the initiator and the abrogator of its own laws.”
(Abdu’l-Baha, The Will and Testament, p. 20)
I give more background on this here
Baquia has also pointed out the same in earlier comments. That there is no reference to homosexuality by Baha’u’llah or Abdul-Baha. And Shoghi Effendi did not write a word on the topic either. His secretaries did.
7 May 2011 SS asked me:
In response to your comment re: the authority of letters written on behalf of the Guardian: In a postscript appended to a letter dated 7 December 1930, written on his behalf to an individual believer, Shoghi Effendi described the normal procedure he followed in dealing with correspondence written on his behalf: I wish to add and say that whatever letters are sent in my behalf from Haifa are all read and approved by me before mailing. There is no exception whatever to this rule.
Posted on 25 June 2011
[sorry, I didn’t realise that this response didn’t get sent. It has been sitting here in the queue since May]
SS, I don’t want to clog up Baquia’s blog with repeating things I’ve already written on this blog, but I realise that it is hard to find links to particular comments, so that is why I posted the link.
I suggest that you look at the other letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi on my blog (all linked from the first link here) and if I’ve missed a letter you know of, then please do quote this, or if you disagree, or see a flaw in my argumentation, please address that here.
Surely you know the difference between ‘reading and approving’ and writing something yourself. And then when Shoghi Effendi was so clear when he was writing in his role as the Guardian. The letters have status, they needed to have status so Shoghi Effendi would not need to write them, so he could focus on his work as Guardian. But having status for the addresse is not the same as Bahai Scripture.
This is also why it doesn’t matter that these letters on his behalf contain errors and inconsistences. Their status was never intended to be treated as if they were interpretation on par with Shoghi Effendi and Shoghi Effendi set limits on his own role here as well.
I find it noteworthy that at those times when clearly Shoghi Effendi did not like the way these letters were being treated that his vehicle for expressing this was to have a secretary pen a letter. What this says to me is that he was being consistent. Using those letters for communication of another status to his role as Guardian. It seems to me, that he knew clearly the status of his writings as interpretator and so refrained from penning anything that did not fit within this framework. It would also mean that it would harder for letters penned by secretaries to become part of the canon of Bahai Scripture, but my guess is that he would operate from principle. That the principle was his role as official interpreter was not the same status or authority or role as those letters written on his behalf, often in response to a question.
Of course Shoghi Effendi did pen personal letters, and exactly what is the status of these and whether the status of all letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi are all the same is something that can be debated. Personally I would treat the status of these letters as being applicable to the addresse because that is has been stated.
The medium Shoghi Effendi used is part of the message.
Sen’s blog has more on this here
So my suggestion would be, if something isn’t clear, go to Bahai Scripture and if it is not there, then assume this is an area the Universal House of Justice can rule on and that a future Universal House of Justice can change.