Covenant in the Bahá'í Faith refers to two separate binding agreements between God and man. A Covenant in the religious sense is a binding agreement made between God and man wherein a certain behaviour is required of man and in return God guarantees certain blessings. The concept of a covenant has been found in various religious scriptures including numerous covenant references in the Bible. In the Bahá'í Faith there is a distinction between a Greater Covenant which is made between every messenger from God and his followers concerning the next dispensation, and a Lesser Covenant that concerns successorship of authority within the religion after the messenger dies.
The greater covenant refers to the covenant made between each messenger from God, which the literature of the Bahá'í Faith name Manifestations of God, and his followers regarding the coming of the next Manifestation from God. According to Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, God has promised that he will send a succession of messengers that will instruct humankind. In Bahá'í belief, this covenant is seen to be expressed in prophecy in the religious scripture of each religion, and each Manifestation of God, such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad, the Báb, and Bahá'u'lláh, prophesied the next Manifestation. In return, the followers of each religion are seen to have a duty to investigate the claims of the following Manifestations.
Manifestations of God
In Bahá'í belief, there is a single, imperishable God, who is the creator of all things, including all the creatures and forces in the universe. Though inaccessible directly, God is nevertheless seen as conscious of his creation, with a mind, will and purpose. In Bahá'í belief, God expresses this will at all times and in many ways, including through a series of divine messengers referred to as Manifestations of God. In expressing God's intent, these Manifestations are seen to establish religion in the world. Thus they are seen as an intermediary between God and humanity.
The Manifestations of God are not seen as an incarnation of God, but they are also not seen as an ordinary mortal. Instead, the Bahá'í concept of the Manifestation of God emphasizes simultaneously the humanity of that intermediary and the divinity in the way they show forth the will, knowledge and attributes of God; thus they have both human and divine stations.
`Abdu'l-Bahá explains this station:
God is pure perfection, and creatures are but imperfections. For God to descend into the conditions of existence would be the greatest of imperfections; on the contrary, His manifestation, His appearance, His rising are like the reflection of the sun in a clear, pure, polished mirror. All the creatures are evident signs of God, like the earthly beings upon all of which the rays of the sun shine. But upon the plains, the mountains, the trees and fruits, only a portion of the light shines, through which they become visible, and are reared, and attain to the object of their existence, while the Perfect Man [the Divine Manifestation] is in the condition of a clear mirror in which the Sun of Reality becomes visible and manifest with all its qualities and perfections. So the Reality of Christ was a clear and polished mirror of the greatest purity and fineness. The Sun of Reality, the Essence of Divinity, reflected itself in this mirror and manifested its light and heat in it; but from the exaltation of its holiness, and the heaven of its sanctity, the Sun did not descend to dwell and abide in the mirror. No, it continues to subsist in its exaltation and sublimity, while appearing and becoming manifest in the mirror in beauty and perfection. Now if we say that we have seen the Sun in two mirrors-- one the Christ and one the Holy Spirit--that is to say, that we have seen three Suns, one in heaven and the two others on the earth, we speak truly. And if we say that there is one Sun, and it is pure singleness, and has no partner and equal, we again speak truly.
In essence, the Manifestations of God are seen as divine educators, who are raised up by God with the purpose of uplifting mankind and expressing his will. In expressing God's intent, these Manifestations are seen to establish religion in the world and each one brings a book, and reveals teachings and laws according to the time and place which they appear.
Progressive revelation is a core teaching in the Bahá'í Faith that suggests that religious truth is revealed by God progressively and cyclically over time through a series of divine Messengers, and that the teachings are tailored to suit the needs of the time and place of their appearance. Thus, the Bahá'í teachings recognize the divine origin of several world religions as different stages in the history of one religion, while believing that the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh is the most recent (though not the last), and therefore the most relevant to modern society.
The general theme of the successive and continuous religions founded by Manifestations of God is that there is an evolutionary tendency, and that each Manifestation of God brings a larger measure of revelation (or religion) to humankind than the previous one. The differences in the revelation brought by the Manifestations of God is stated to be not inherent in the characteristics of the Manifestation of God, but instead attributed to the various worldly, societal and human factors; these differences are in accordance with the "conditions" and "varying requirements of the age" and the "spiritual capacity" of humanity. These differences are seen to be needed since human society has slowly and gradually evolved through higher stages of unification from the family to tribes and then nations.
`Abdu'l-Bahá has expressed progressive revelation within the context of Greater Covenant as:
Abraham, on Him be peace, made a covenant concerning Moses and gave the glad-tidings of His coming. Moses made a covenant concerning the promised Christ, and announced the good news of His advent to the world. Christ made a covenant concerning the Paraclete and gave the tidings of His coming. The Prophet Muhammad made a covenant concerning the Báb, and the Báb was the One promised by Muhammad, for Muhammad gave the tidings of His coming. The Báb made a Covenant concerning the Blessed Beauty, Bahá'u'lláh, and gave the glad-tidings of His coming for the Blessed Beauty was the One promised by the Báb. Bahá'u'lláh made a covenant concerning a Promised One Who will become manifest after one thousand or thousands of years. That Manifestation is Bahá'u'lláh's Promised One, and will appear after a thousand or thousands of years.
In Bahá'í belief, the Báb fulfils the prophecies of Islam as being the Mahdi foretold by Muhammad; Bahá'u'lláh is seen to fulfil the messianic prophecies found in world religions. Bahá'u'lláh stated that his claims to being several messiahs converging one person were the symbolic, rather than literal, fulfilment of the messianic and eschatological prophecies found in the literature of the major religions. Bahá'u'lláh's eschatological claims constitute six distinctive messianic identifications: from Judaism, the incarnation of the "Everlasting Father" from the Yuletide prophecy of Isaiah 9:6, the "Lord of Hosts"; from Christianity, the "Spirit of Truth" or Comforter predicted by Jesus in his farewell discourse of John 14-17 and the return of Christ "in the glory of the Father"; from Zoroastrianism, the return of Shah Bahram Varjavand, a Zoroastrian messiah predicted in various late Pahlavi texts; from Shi'a Islam the return of the Third Imam, Imam Husayn; from Sunni Islam, the return of Jesus, Isa; and from Bábism, He whom God shall make manifest. He also claimed to have fulfilled the prophecies of Hinduism and Buddhism.
Bahá'u'lláh taught that people have a two-fold obligation that they need to meet in response to God's promise to continually send messengers. The two obligations are to recognize and accept the new Manifestation when he comes, and secondly to obey and put into practice the teachings which they bring; Bahá'u'lláh has stated that neither of these obligations is acceptable without the other. He wrote:
The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Day Spring of His Revelation and the Fountain of His laws, Who representeth the Godhead in both the Kingdom of His Cause and the world of creation. Whoso achieveth this duty hath attained unto all good... It behoveth every one who reacheth this most sublime station, this summit of transcendent glory, to observe every ordinance of Him Who is the Desire of the world. These twin duties are inseparable. Neither is acceptable without the other.... They whom God hath endued with insight will readily recognize that the precepts laid down by God constitute the highest means for the maintenance of order in the world and the security of its peoples.... Hasten to drink your fill, O men of understanding. They that have violated the Covenant of God by breaking His commandments, and have turned back on their heels, these have erred grievously in the sight of God, the All-Possessing, the Most High.
Be thou assured in thyself that verily, he who turns away from this Beauty hath also turned away from the Messengers of the past and showeth pride towards God from all eternity to all eternity.
This is the covenant that is made regarding the successorship of authority within the religion. In Bahá'í belief the manner in which the Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh was clearly put forth is seen as being a fundamental defining feature of the religion and a powerful protector of the unity of the Bahá'í Faith and its adherents.
Bahá'u'lláh established the successorship of the Bahá'í Faith with a document called the Book of the Covenant which was written in his own hand and entrusted by him to `Abdu'l-Bahá before his passing. In this document Bahá'u'lláh reaffirmed his mission, exhorted the peoples of the world to observe that which will elevate them and forbade conflict and contention, while clearly and emphatically placing successorship of the Faith in the hands of the Most Mighty Branch, which was a title reserved exclusively for `Abdu'l-Bahá.
- Smith, Peter (2000). "Covenant". A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. p. 114. ISBN 1-85168-184-1.
- Hatcher, W.S.; Martin, J.D. (1998). The Bahá'í Faith: The Emerging Global Religion. San Francisco: Harper and Row. pp. 127–130. ISBN 0-87743-264-3.
- Smith, Peter (2000). "Manifestations of God". A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. p. 231. ISBN 1-85168-184-1.
- "The Bahá'í Faith". Britannica Book of the Year. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica. 1988. ISBN 0-85229-486-7.
- Hutter, Manfred (2005). "Bahā'īs". In Ed. Lindsay Jones. Encyclopedia of Religion. 2 (2nd ed.). Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. pp. 737–740. ISBN 0-02-865733-0.
- Cole, Juan (1982). "The Concept of Manifestation in the Bahá'í Writings". Bahá'í Studies. monograph 9: 1–38.
- `Abdu'l-Bahá (1981) [1904-06]. Some Answered Questions. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. pp. 113–114. ISBN 0-87743-190-6.
- Smith, Peter (2000). "Progressive revelation". A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pp. 276–277. ISBN 1-85168-184-1.
- Effendi, Shoghi (1974). Bahá'í Administration. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. p. 185. ISBN 0-87743-166-3.
- Lundberg, Zaid (May 1996). Baha'i Apocalypticism: The Concept of Progressive Revelation. Department of History of Religion at the Faculty of Theology, Lund University. Retrieved 2006-11-25.
- `Abdu'l-Bahá (1976). "`Abdu'l-Bahá's Section". Bahá'í World Faith—Selected Writings of Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá. Wilmette, IL: US Bahá'í Publishing Trust. p. 358.
- Buck, Christopher (2004). "The eschatology of Globalization: The multiple-messiahship of Bahā'u'llāh revisited". In Sharon, Moshe. Studies in Modern Religions, Religious Movements and the Bābī-Bahā'ī Faiths. Boston: Brill. pp. 143–178. ISBN 90-04-13904-4.
- Bahá'u'lláh (1992) . The Kitáb-i-Aqdas: The Most Holy Book. Wilmette, Illinois, USA: Bahá'í Publishing Trust. pp. 19–20. ISBN 0-85398-999-0.
- Bahá'u'lláh (1991). "Tablet of Ahmad". Bahá’í Prayers: A Selection of Prayers Revealed by Bahá’u’lláh, the Báb, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Wilmette, IL: US Bahá'í Publishing Trust. pp. 209–213.
- Smith, Peter (2000). "Covenant, Book of the". A concise encyclopedia of the Bahá'í Faith. Oxford: Oneworld Publications. pp. 114–115. ISBN 1-85168-184-1.
- Taherzadeh, A. (1987). The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, Volume 2: Adrianople 1863-68. Oxford, UK: George Ronald. p. 389. ISBN 0-85398-071-3.
- Afroukhteh, Dr. Youness (2003) . Memories of Nine Years in 'Akká. Oxford, UK: George Ronald. ISBN 0-85398-477-8.
- Hofman, David (1982). Commentary on the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Oxford, UK: George Ronald. ISBN 0-85398-158-2.
- Rabbani, R. (Ed.) (1992). The Ministry of the Custodians 1957-1963. Bahá'í World Centre. ISBN 0-85398-350-X.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
- Taherzadeh, Adib (1992). The Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh. Oxford, UK: George Ronald. ISBN 0-85398-344-5.