In a Blue Haze: Smoking and Bahá’í Ethics

Udo Schaefer

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'Abdu'l-Bahá's Judgement

In the Tablet known as the Tablet of Purity[286] 'Abdu'l-Bahá has summarised these thoughts and, employing the standards of this "purity", clearly identified and condemned two widely spread vices: the use of opium[287] and the smoking of tobacco. This takes us back to the starting point of our ethical examination. 'Abdu'l-Bahá begins by speaking of the spiritual purity which we were just discussing:

"O Friends of the Pure and Omnipotent God! To be pure and holy in all things is an attribute of the consecrated soul and a necessary characteristic of the unenslaved mind. The best of perfections is immaculacy and the freeing of oneself from every defect. Once the individual is, in every respect, cleansed and purified, then will he become a focal centre reflecting the Manifest Light. First in a human being's way of life, must be purity, then freshness, cleanliness, and independence of spirit. First must the stream be cleansed, then may the sweet river waters be led into it ... A burnished heart will mirror forth the comely face of truth."[288]

'Abdu'l-Bahá then responds to the interaction between inner and outer purity, between purity and cleanliness:

"My meaning is this, that in every aspect of life, purity and holiness, cleanliness and refinement, exalt the human condition and further the development of man's inner reality. Even in the physical realm, cleanliness will conduce to spirituality, as the Holy Writings clearly state. And although bodily cleanliness is a physical thing, it hath, nevertheless, a powerful influence on the life of the spirit. It is even as a voice wondrously sweet, or a melody played: although sounds are but vibrations in the air which affect the ear's auditory nerve, and these vibrations are but chance phenomena carried along through the air, even so, see how they move the heart. A wondrous melody is wings for the spirit, and maketh the soul to tremble for joy. The purport is that physical cleanliness doth also exert its effect upon the human soul. Observe how pleasing is cleanliness in the sight of God, and how specifically it is emphasised in the Holy Books of the Prophets; for the Scriptures forbid the eating or the use of any unclean thing. Some of these prohibitions were absolute, and binding upon all, and whoso transgressed the given law was abhorred by God and anathematised by the believers. Such, for example, were things categorically forbidden, the perpetration of which was accounted a most grievous sin, among them actions so loathsome that it is shameful even to speak their name."[289]

As has been shown, not everything that God abhors is explicitly prohibited in the Holy Writings. In this context, 'Abdu'l-Bahá identifies those actions "which do not cause immediate harm". But these actions, too, are an abomination to the Lord and are reprehensible and repulsive in His sight:

"Their avoidance is necessary for purity, cleanliness, the preservation of health, and freedom from addiction[290] ... Among these latter is the smoking of tobacco, which is dirty, smelly, offensive, an evil habit, and one the harmfulness of which gradually becometh apparent to all. Every qualified physician hath ruled, and this hath also been proven by tests, that one of the components of tobacco is a deadly poison, and that the smoker is vulnerable to many and various diseases. This is why smoking hath been plainly set forth as repugnant from the stand-point of hygiene[291] ... My meaning is that in the sight of God, smoking tobacco is deprecated, abhorrent, filthy in the extreme; and, albeit by degree, highly injurious to health. It is also a waste of money and time, and maketh the user a prey to a noxious addiction. To those who stand firm in the Covenant, this habit is therefore censured both by reason and experience, and renouncing it will bring relief and peace of mind to all men. Furthermore, this will make it possible to have a fresh mouth and unstained fingers, and hair that is free of a foul and repellent smell."[292]

In another statement 'Abdu'l-Bahá harshly criticises smoking:

"In truth the loss and waste of this profitless smoke are evident. It impaireth the body, weakeneth the nerves, and preventeth the brain from entertaining exalted thoughts. One's time runneth to waste and one's substance is squandered. It neither quencheth one's thirst nor satisfieth one's hunger. A person endowed with intelligence will surely abandon this ruinous habit, and will pursue that which promoteth his health and well-being."[293]

It is noteworthy that 'Abdu'l-Bahá, usually impressive through his mildness of language, unleashes quite an arsenal of harsh expressions when condemning the consumption of tobacco. This is an indication of how repugnant smoking is to Him. This becomes even clearer when He compares the tobacco plant to the "Cursed Tree" in the Qur'án:

"One of the meanings of the 'Cursed Tree'[294] is tobacco. It is unsavoury, disgusting, harmful and poisonous. It wasteth one's substance and attracteth illness and weariness."[295]

From all these testimonies it becomes evident that the Teachings strongly condemn the smoking of tobacco, although they do not actually forbid it. Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice have made it clear that in the Bahá'í Faith the decision to smoke or not to smoke is a personal matter and cannot be enforced by law.[296] 'Abdu'l-Bahá's statements on smoking "are merely an exhortation and not a command"[297]. Thus, nobody has the right "to prevent anyone from smoking"[298]. The Universal House of Justice has expressed its hope "that the wide-spread publicity being given to the evil effects of smoking, both to smokers and on those who have to breathe smoke-laden air, will help to convince everyone of the wisdom of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in strongly discouraging Bahá'í's from smoking"[299]. Shoghi Effendi stated that smoking "should not be made an issue"[300]. However, as the tremendous health-risks of smoking (for smokers and non-smokers alike) and the waste which results from the financial burden on society become more obvious every day, smoking itself has turned into a passionately discussed issue in society. Treading lightly serves no purpose. Bahá'í's cannot remain aloof from this discussion. They ought to make a stand and refer to the fact that 'Abdu'l-Bahá, even at a time when smoking was accepted as natural in society, passed a devastating verdict on it.

'Abdu'l-Bahá's fondest wish was that Bahá'ís would give up this vice:

"Make ye then a mighty effort, that the purity and sanctity which, above all else, are cherished by 'Abdu'l-Bahá, shall distinguish the people of Bahá; that in every kind of excellence the people of God shall surpass all other human beings; that both outwardly and inwardly they shall prove superior to the rest; that for purity, immaculacy, refinement, and the preservation of health, they shall be the leaders in the vanguard of those who know. And that by their freedom from enslavement, their knowledge, their self-control, they shall be the first among the pure, the free and the wise."[301]

This is an instruction and a goal. To emulate Him is imperative for Bahá'ís, if only for reasons of credibility. When Bahá'ís smoke, are they not people about whom Bahá'u'lláh says that they "walk in the ways of those whose words differ from their deeds"[302] and whose conduct contradicts their creed[303]? The physician who, raising his yellow nicotine finger, swears by the beard of Hippocrates that the patient must quit smoking if he wants to prevent another heart attack, does not really appear convincing. Bahá'u'lláh's admonition is unambiguous:

"O Son of Spirit! Know thou of a truth: He that biddeth men be just and himself committeth iniquity is not of Me, even though he bear My name."[304]

An expressive example of how steadfast faith can motivate a person and confer the power to quit a vice spontaneously is Mírzá Abu'l-Fadl, the greatest Bahá'í scholar to date, who, before converting to the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh, was the rector of a theological university in Tehran. One day in Cairo, where he publicly taught the Faith, he was brought a copy of the Law-i-Dukhn. The report by the bearer, Husayn-i-R Effendi, is given in Taherzadeh's The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh:

"I had not yet finished the reading of the Tablet for him when he took his cigar case, threw it out in the street and said that this was the end of smoking for him although he was chain-smoker. He used to roll his own cigarettes by hand, light a new one with the old, and smoke non-stop from morning till evening. He said to me: O R Effendi, I have been smoking for fifty-five years and I am addicted to it. And, soon you will see that because of the effect of nicotine a member of my body will be paralysed. It did not take very long until one of his arms was paralysed and he could not move it. This lasted for two years. The doctors strongly urged him to resume smoking but he refused, saying, "I prefer to die than to disobey 'Abdu'l-Bahá."[305]

In a prayer, 'Abdu'l-Bahá begs the divine Providence to "bestow upon the People of Bahá purity and immaculacy in all things":

"Grant that they be freed from all defilement, and released from all addictions. Save them from committing any repugnant act, unbind them from the chains of every evil habit, that they may live pure and free, wholesome and cleanly, worthy to serve at Thy Sacred Threshold and fit to be related to their Lord. Deliver them from intoxicating drinks and tobacco, save them, rescue them, from this opium that bringeth on madness, suffer them to enjoy the sweet savours of holiness, that they may drink deep of the mystic cup of heavenly love and know the rapture of being drawn ever closer unto the Realm of the All-Glorious."[306]


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