The Baha'i Attitude Towards Animals

Submitted by Arthur Dahl on 7. February 2011 - 23:01
Dahl, Arthur Lyon

(Klingenthal, France, 4-8 July 2001)


compiled by
Arthur Lyon Dahl*
Geneva, Switzerland

Approach to animals

The attitude enjoined by Bahá'u'lláh, Prophet-founder of the Bahá'í Faith, towards animals reflects His teachings towards the rest of the creation, with an emphasis on justice, compassion and moderation. "Burden not an animal with more than it can bear. We, truly, have prohibited such treatment through a most binding interdiction in the Book. Be ye the embodiments of justice and fairness amidst all creation."1 "He should show kindness to animals, how much more unto his fellow-man, to him who is endowed with the power of utterance."2

While always giving primacy to human beings, the Bahá'í attitude extends to animals and the rest of nature the same ethical attitudes. "Briefly, it is not only their fellow human beings that the beloved of God must treat with mercy and compassion, rather must they show forth the utmost loving-kindness to every living creature. For in all physical respects, and where the animal spirit is concerned, the selfsame feelings are shared by animal and man. Man hath not grasped this truth, however, and he believeth that physical sensations are confined to human beings, wherefore is he unjust to the animals, and cruel.... The feelings are one and the same, whether ye inflict pain on man or on beast.... And indeed ye do worse to harm an animal, for man hath a language, he can lodge a complaint, he can cry out and moan; if injured he can have recourse to the authorities and these will protect him from his aggressor. But the hapless beast is mute, able neither to express its hurt nor take its case to the authorities.... Therefore is it essential that ye show forth the utmost consideration to the animal, and that ye be even kinder to him than to your fellow man."3

An ethical approach towards animals must start with the education of children. "Train your children from their earliest days to be infinitely tender and loving to animals. If an animal be sick, let the children try to heal it, if it be hungry, let them feed it, if thirsty, let them quench its thirst, if weary, let them see that it rests."3

At the same time there is a recognition that some animals are harmful, and that kindness to them is an injustice to human beings and other animals, so harmful animals must be dealt with.

Animals are also cited as an example of the powers of natural healing. The sick animal uses its powers of taste and smell to seek out the plants that will reestablish the natural balances in the body and get rid of its disease. In the same way it generally avoids poisonous and harmful plants.

Place of animals in the creation

The Bahá'í writings speak of the mineral, vegetable, animal and man as different levels of being with increasing degrees of complexity, of existence, growth, the senses and intellectual faculties. All are interrelated with higher levels of cooperation and reciprocity, but with the lower levels unable to comprehend the essence and nature of higher levels. Plants and animals contribute mutually to the balance of gases in the atmosphere through photosynthesis and respiration. Matter transits and cycles from the mineral through the plant and the animal to man, and back to the mineral. "(A)ll things are subject to transformation and change, save only the essence of existence itself...."4 The animal is a captive of nature and of its senses; it follows its natural instincts and desires. It is subject to what the eye sees, the ear hears, the nostrils sense, the taste detects and the touch reveals. It has no awareness of what is beyond the senses.5

Distinction between animals and humans

However much an animal may progress at its own level, however refined its feelings may become, it will have no real notion of the world of humanity or of our special intellectual facilities. It cannot understand the roundness of the earth, nor its motion in space and the central position of the sun.6 It has no conscious intelligence or capacity for ideas.7 "It has no consideration or consciousness of good and evil,"8 and is deprived of that degree of intellect which can reason and discriminate between right and wrong, justice and injustice. If it is savage and ferocious, it is simply a means for its subsistence and preservation. It is justified in its actions and not responsible.9 The animal is utterly lacking in spiritual susceptibilities, is ignorant of divine religion, and without knowledge of God.10

"The world of nature is the kingdom of the animal. In its natural condition and plane of limitation the animal is perfect. The ferocious beasts of prey have been completely subject to the laws of nature in their development. They are without education or training; they have no power of abstract reasoning and intellectual ideals; they have no touch with the spiritual world and are without conception of God or the Holy Spirit. The animal can neither recognize nor apprehend the spiritual power of man and makes no distinction between man and itself, for the reason that its susceptibilities are limited to the plane of the senses. It lives under the bondage of nature and nature's laws. All the animals are materialists. They are deniers of God and without realization of a transcendent power in the universe. They have no knowledge of the divine Prophets and Holy Books - mere captives of nature and the sense world. In reality they are like the great philosophers of this day who are not in touch with God and the Holy Spirit - deniers of the Prophets, ignorant of spiritual susceptibilities, deprived of the heavenly bounties and without belief in the supernatural power. The animal lives this kind of life blissfully and untroubled, whereas the material philosophers labor and study for ten or twenty years in schools and colleges, denying God, the Holy Spirit and divine inspirations. The animal is even a greater philosopher, for it attains the ability to do this without labor and study. For instance, the cow denies God and the Holy Spirit, knows nothing of divine inspirations, heavenly bounties or spiritual emotions and is a stranger to the world of hearts. Like the philosophers, the cow is a captive of nature and knows nothing beyond the range of the senses. The philosophers, however, glory in this, saying, "We are not captives of superstitions; we have implicit faith in the impressions of the senses and know nothing beyond the realm of nature, which contains and covers everything." But the cow, without study or proficiency in the sciences, modestly and quietly views life from the same standpoint, living in harmony with nature's laws in the utmost dignity and nobility."11

"The physical happiness of material conditions was allotted to the animal. Consider how the animal has attained the fullest degree of physical felicity. A bird perches upon the loftiest branch and builds there its nest with consummate beauty and skill. All the grains and seeds of the meadows are its wealth and food; all the fresh water of mountain springs and rivers of the plain are for its enjoyment. Truly, this is the acme of material happiness, to which even a human creature cannot attain. This is the honor of the animal kingdom. But the honor of the human kingdom is the attainment of spiritual happiness in the human world, the acquisition of the knowledge and love of God."12 "Unlike the animal, man has a rational soul, the human intelligence."13 "Man alone, by his spiritual power, has been able to free himself, to soar above the world of matter and to make it his servant."14

"If man were to care for himself only he would be nothing but an animal for only the animals are thus egoistic. If you bring a thousand sheep to a well to kill nine hundred and ninety-nine the one remaining sheep would go on grazing, not thinking of the others and worrying not at all about the lost, never bothering that its own kind had passed away, or had perished or been killed. To look after one's self only is therefore an animal propensity. It is the animal propensity to live solitary and alone. It is the animal proclivity to look after one's own comfort. But man was created to be a man - to be fair, to be just, to be merciful, to be kind to all his species, never to be willing that he himself be well off while others are in misery and distress - this is an attribute of the animal and not of man. Nay, rather, man should be willing to accept hardships for himself in order that others may enjoy wealth; he should enjoy trouble for himself that others may enjoy happiness and well-being. This is the attribute of man. This is becoming of man. Otherwise man is not man - he is less than the animal.

"The man who thinks only of himself and is thoughtless of others is undoubtedly inferior to the animal because the animal is not possessed of the reasoning faculty. The animal is excused; but in man there is reason, the faculty of justice, the faculty of mercifulness. Possessing all these faculties he must not leave them unused. He who is so hard-hearted as to think only of his own comfort, such an one will not be called man."15

Animals as symbols or metaphors

All the religious scriptures have used animals as symbols or metaphors of spiritual truths, and the Bahá'í writings are no exception. Animals can symbolize freedom from prejudice, and the power of religion to bring unity. "Throughout the animal kingdom, we do not find the creatures separated because of color. They recognize unity of species and oneness of kind. If we do not find color distinction drawn in a kingdom of lower intelligence and reason, how can it be justified among human beings, especially when we know that all have come from the same source and belong to the same household? In origin and intention of creation mankind is one. Distinctions of race and color have arisen afterward."16 "In His day, according to prophecy, the wolf and the lamb were to drink from the same fountain. This was realized in Christ. The fountain referred to was the Gospel, from which the water of life gushes forth. The wolf and lamb are opposed and divergent races symbolized by these animals. Their meeting and association were impossible, but having become believers in Jesus Christ those who were formerly as wolves and lambs became united through the words of the Gospel."17

And again we find: "Regard men as a flock of sheep that need a shepherd for their protection."18 "...a flock of sheep, once scattered, falleth prey to the wolf, and birds that fly alone will be caught fast in the claws of the hawk."19

Birds are a frequent metaphor in the Bahá'í scripture. "The birds of men's hearts, however high they soar, can never hope to attain the heights of His unknowable Essence."20 "Ye are even as the bird which soareth, with the full force of its mighty wings and with complete and joyous confidence, through the immensity of the heavens, until, impelled to satisfy its hunger, it turneth longingly to the water and clay of the earth below it, and, having been entrapped in the mesh of its desire, findeth itself impotent to resume its flight to the realms whence it came. Powerless to shake off the burden weighing on its sullied wings, that bird, hitherto an inmate of the heavens, is now forced to seek a dwelling-place upon the dust. Wherefore, O My servants, defile not your wings with the clay of waywardness and vain desires, and suffer them not to be stained with the dust of envy and hate, that ye may not be hindered from soaring in the heavens of My divine knowledge."21

The wings of the bird symbolize balance. "We may think of science as one wing and religion as the other; a bird needs two wings for flight, one alone would be useless."22 "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."23

Practical teachings concerning animals

The spiritual principles of the Bahá'í Faith find their application in practical teachings concerning such topics as eating meat, hunting and animal experimentation, while still respecting the principle of moderation.

'Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, said that "the food of man is cereals and fruit. Some of the teeth of man are like millstones to grind the grain, and some are sharp to cut the fruit. Therefore he is not in need of meat, nor is he obliged to eat it. Even without eating meat he would live with the utmost vigour and energy. For example, the community of the Brahmins in India do not eat meat; notwithstanding this they are not inferior to other nations in strength, power, vigour, outward senses or intellectual virtues. Truly, the killing of animals and the eating of their meat is somewhat contrary to pity and compassion, and if one can content oneself with cereals, fruit, oil and nuts, such as pistachios, almonds and so on, it would undoubtedly be better and more pleasing." "But eating meat is not forbidden or unlawful, nay, the point is this, that it is possible for man to live without eating meat and still be strong. Meat is nourishing and containeth the elements of herbs, seeds, and fruits; therefore sometimes it is essential for the sick and for the rehabilitation of health. There is no objection in the Law of God to the eating of meat if it is required. So if thy constitution is rather weak and thou findest meat useful, thou mayest eat it."24

Bahá'u'lláh Himself made laws concerning hunting, while greatly simplifying practices and religious regulations of the past on this subject. He did not forbid hunting, but prohibited hunting to excess, while leaving the definition of excessive hunting to future legislative clarification. He allowed hunting in a prayerful attitude with beasts and birds of prey, and with such weapons as bows and arrows, guns, and the like, but He prohibited the consumption of game if it is found dead in a trap or a net. He allowed the legitimate use of arms in countries where people hunt for their food and clothing.25 In this respect, the Bahá'í approach leaves room for the cultural diversity of traditional practices and lifestyles, while linking the material and spiritual in a way that is common in many indigenous religions.

The Bahá'í approach to animal experimentation is similarly balanced. "In a Tablet in which He stresses the need for kindness to animals, 'Abdu'l-Bahá states that it would be permissible to perform an operation on a living animal for the purposes of research even if the animal were killed thereby, but that the animal must be well anaesthetized and that the utmost care must be exercised that it does not suffer."26 A letter written on behalf of the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith amplified on this: "The Guardian fully sympathizes with your repulsion against any torture to animals. However, he feels that as there are human beings being tortured much worse than animals all over the world, often physically, and more often mentally, that it is more important for the Baha'is to concentrate on what will free man from the cruelty and injustice which oppress him, rather than animals. Once we change human hearts, there will be no more cruelty to animals, and medical research will be carried out in a way which will eliminate as much suffering in experiments as possible."27


1 Bahá'u'lláh: The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, paragraph 187 , p 87.
2 Bahá'u'lláh: The Kitáb-i-Íqán, p 194.
3 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Baha, pages 158-160.
4 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Baha, page 157.
5 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 177.
6 `Abdu'l-Bahá: `Abdu'l-Bahá in London, pages 22-23.
7 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 177.
8 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 40.
9 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 352.
10 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 177.
11 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace, pages 311-312.
12 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 166.
13 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Paris Talks, page 96.
14 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Paris Talks, page 20.
15 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Foundations of World Unity, page 42.
16 `Abdu'l-Bahá, quoted in Shoghi Effendi: The Advent of Divine Justice, page 38.
17 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Promulgation of Universal Peace, page 200.
18 Bahá'u'lláh: The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, page 63.
19 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Baha, page 278.
20 Bahá'u'lláh: Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, page 193.
21 Bahá'u'lláh: Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, page 327.
22 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Paris Talks, page 130.
23 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Selections from the Writings of `Abdu'l-Baha, page 302.
24 `Abdu'l-Bahá: Health and Healing, Compilation of Compilations, pages 462-462.
25 Bahá'u'lláh: The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, pages 40, 115, 202-203, 241.
26 From a letter of the Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of Italy, March 9, 1978: Some Aspects of Health, Healing, Nutrition and Related Matters, April 1984, p. 16. Quoted in Lights of Guidance, page 294.)
27 From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, December 27, 1952.


* The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Environment Programme.

Last updated 11 July 2001