The Covenant in the Bahá’í Faith is the spiritual contract binding God and humanity. The Bahá’í Faith recognizes two covenants: first, the greater covenant, between God, represented by the Manifestation of God, on the one hand, and humanity on the other, in which God promises to continue to send guidance to humankind, while humanity, on its part, promises to obey and follow these teachings when they come. Part of this greater covenant is the obligation which each Manifestation of God places upon his followers to accept the next Manifestation. Second, the lesser covenant, which obliges individual Bahá’ís to accept the leadership of Bahá’u’lláh's appointed successors and the administrative institutions of the Faith. Firmness in the covenant is one of the chief Bahá’í religious virtues and includes not just acceptance of the legitimacy of the Bahá’í institutions but much more general attitudes of loyalty and whole-hearted commitment to the Bahá’í Faith and Bahá’í community. Challenging the authority of the center of the Bahá’í Faith is the most serious spiritual offense that a Bahá’í can commit. It is called Covenant Breaking and is considered to be a spiritual disease and is punished by expulsion from the community.
The Bahá’í scriptures note and indeed emphasize the continuity of the theme of the greater covenant in the history of religion (or at least that of the Western religions). The covenant that God made with Abraham that He would make Abraham the father of many nations and bless his descendants is invoked when Bahá’u’lláh's ancestry is traced to the line of Abraham through Katurah. But more important is the Sinaiatic Covenant which involves the obligation of the Israelites to acknowledge and follow the laws of God in return for which God will exalt Israel. Also of importance from the Bahá’í viewpoint is the prophetic covenant made by God through Jeremiah  in which He promises a day in which He will gather up Israel from all the countries to which they have been driven and bring them back to the Holy Land. God promises not to turn away from them and to do them good. ("And they shall be my people, and I will be their God." ) This covenant is important both because the first part is considered by Bahá’ís to have been fulfilled by Bahá’u’lláh with the in-gathering of Jews to the Holy Land and because the latter part can be considered the archetypal form of the greater covenant which has been re-confirmed in subsequent revelations.
The important difference between the usual understanding of the covenant in the Hebrew Bible and the Bahá’í understanding is that Bahá’u’lláh emphasizes God's testing of humanity through the covenant. In the Kitáb-i-Íqán and elsewhere, Bahá’u’lláh writes of the fact that when humanity makes the covenant that it will obey God's guidance, this is then put the test when the next Manifestation of God comes. The people are put to the test of whether they are truly attuned to the voice of God and recognize it when it comes from a new source or whether they reject the new revelation.
In the New Testament, the blood of the sacrificial animals that marked the seal of the covenant in Judaism is replaced by the sacrificial blood of Christ. The covenant thus changes from being concerned with obedience of the law to a covenant wherein whoever believes is assured of grace with God. The Bahá’í scriptures powerfully support the importance of the sacrifice of Christ. The covenantal relationship for Bahá’ís, however, involves both belief and obedience to the law of God on the part of humanity (see below).
The Qur'an conveys a close parallel to the description of the covenant in the Bahá’í scriptures, depicting that it is concerned with God's guidance to humanity through a succession of messengers of God.
The Báb's writings are full of references to the covenant, and in particular to the messianic figure "He whom God shall manifest": "Thus, should the followers of the Bayán (the Bábís) observe the precepts of Him Whom God shall make manifest at the time of His appearance, and regard themselves and their own works as stars exposed to the light of the sun, then they will have gathered the fruits of their existence...". "Bear Thou witness that, through this Book, I have covenanted with all created things concerning the mission of Him Whom Thou shalt make manifest, ere the covenant concerning My own mission had been established." To one of his most illustrious followers, Vahíd, the Báb is reported to have said: "Were I to be assured that in the day of His manifestation thou wilt deny Him, I would unhesitatingly disown thee.... If, on the other hand, I be told that a Christian, who beareth no allegiance to My Faith, will believe in Him, the same will I regard as the apple of My eye."
As well as the greater covenant, the Bahá’í authoritative writings trace out the history of the lesser covenant in previous religions. Peter is acknowledged as the chief of the Apostles after Jesus and `Alí as the legitimate successor to the Prophet Muhammad. However, the appointment of these was only made orally and was easily contested and disputed, in contrast to the written and clear appointment of the Center of Bahá’u’lláh's Covenant, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. 
The Greater Covenant (also referred to as "the general Covenant",, and "the Eternal Covenant" concerns the promise on the part of God, given through one of the Manifestations of God, that He will not leave humanity without guidance and will therefore send a further Manifestation of God. Humanity's part of the agreement is that it will obey God's law as sent by the present Manifestation and will recognize and obey the next Manifestation when he comes. This covenant is most succinctly summed up by the Báb in the Persian Bayán: "The Lord of the universe hath never raised up a prophet nor hath He sent down a Book unless He hath established His covenant with all men, calling for their acceptance of the next Revelation and of the next Book; inasmuch as the outpourings of His bounty are ceaseless and without limit."
‘Abdu’l-Bahá describes the sequence of the covenants established by the successive manifestations: "His Holiness Abraham... made a covenant concerning His Holiness Moses and gave the glad-tidings of His coming. His Holiness Moses made a covenant concerning the Promised One, i.e. His Holiness Christ, and announced the good news of His Manifestation to the world. His Holiness Christ made a covenant concerning the Paraclete and gave the tidings of His coming. His Holiness the Prophet Muhammad made a covenant concerning His Holiness 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 of Bahá’u’lláh and gave the glad-tidings of His coming for the Blessed Beauty was the One promised by His Holiness the Báb. Bahá’u’lláh made a covenant concerning a promised One who will become manifest after one thousand or thousands of years.
Bahá’u’lláh claims to be the fulfillment of the covenant established by all of the prophets of the past concerning a great day in the future when all of God's promises will be fulfilled. "The Revelation which, from time immemorial, hath been acclaimed as the Purpose and Promise of all the Prophets of God, and the most cherished Desire of His Messengers, hath now, by virtue of the pervasive Will of the Almighty and at His irresistible bidding, been revealed unto men. The advent of such a Revelation hath been heralded in all the sacred Scriptures."
Humanity's part of the covenantal arrangement from the viewpoint of the Bahá’í teachings can best be summed up in the opening sentence of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas:
- The first duty prescribed by God for His servants is the recognition of Him Who is the Dayspring 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... 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. Thus hath it been decreed by Him Who is the Source of Divine inspiration. (SCK 11)
Bahá’u’lláh continued the greater covenant into the future by stating that in due time another Manifestation of God would arise but that this would not occur for at least one thousand years: "Whoso layeth claim to a Revelation direct from God ere the expiration of a full thousand years, such a man is assuredly a lying impostor."
The Lesser Covenant (also referred to as "the specific Covenant") refers to the agreement between a Manifestation of God and his followers regarding the continuation of authority in his religion. Although there are considered to have been precedents for this in the previous religions (see section 1 above), Shoghi Effendi asserts that in no previous religion has the question of the succession been of such importance nor the appointment of the successor been so clearly made. The fact that the succession in authority and the central institutions of the Bahá’í Faith were established by written documents so that they could not later be questioned is emphasized by Shoghi Effendi as a "distinguishing feature" of the religion of Bahá’u’lláh.
While the Tablet of the Branch, composed in the Edirne period had clearly signaled a high station for "the Branch of Holiness" and the Kitáb-i-Aqdas has specified that this high station involved leadership of the Bahá’í community after Bahá’u’lláh's passing, it was only with the unsealing of the Kitáb-i-`Ahd (the Book of the Covenant, q.v.) after the passing of Bahá’u’lláh that it was confirmed that the Branch referred to was indeed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. So decisive and clear-cut was this nomination that even Mírzá Muhammad-`Alí, who came out in rebellion against ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's authority, never questioned the fact that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had been appointed the successor of Bahá’u’lláh. He only disputed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's manner of functioning as leader.
The lesser covenant was extended by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in his Will and Testament by the appointment of Shoghi Effendi as Guardian of the Bahá’í Faith. In this document, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also affirms the authority of the Universal House of Justice, thus confirming the other Bahá’í institution upon which leadership has been conferred by the processes of the Bahá’í Covenant. Shoghi Effendi writes of the Will and Testament as being the result of the "mystic intercourse" between Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. "The creative energies released by the Law of Bahá’u’lláh, permeating and evolving within the mind of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, have, by their very impact and close interaction, given birth to an Instrument which may be viewed as the Charter of the New World Order...". cf  Apart from the function of leadership of the Bahá’í community, the Covenant confers upon ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi the position of being the sole authorized interpreters of the Bahá’í scripture. In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Bahá’u’lláh states: "Refer ye whatsoever ye understand not in the Book to" ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (KA 174). Similarly ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states that Shoghi Effendi is "the expounder of the words of God" (WT 11).
The authority of the Universal House of Justice is also derived from the evolution of the covenant. The following is from its Constitution:
The provenance, the authority, the duties, the sphere of action of the Universal House of Justice all derive from the revealed Word of Bahá’u’lláh, which, together with the interpretations and expositions of the Centre of the Covenant and of the Guardian of the Cause--who, after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, is the sole authority in the interpretation of Bahá’í Scripture--constitute the binding terms of reference of the Universal House of Justice and are its bedrock foundation. The authority of these Texts is absolute and immutable until such time as Almighty God shall reveal His new Manifestation to Whom will belong all authority and power." (CUHJ 3-4)
The purpose of the covenant is explained in a number of places in the Bahá’í writings. Since the purpose of religion itself is held to be the establishment of unity and concord amongst humankind, Bahá’u’lláh warns, in his Book of the Covenant: "O servants! Let not the means of order be made the cause of confusion and the instrument of union an occasion for discord..." The covenant established in this book was specifically to forestall such a development. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá confirms that the central purpose of the covenant was to prevent schism and dissension:
Inasmuch as great differences and divergences of denominational belief had arisen throughout the past, every man with a new idea attributing it to God, Bahá’u’lláh desired that there should not be any ground or reason for disagreement among the Bahá’ís. Therefore, with His own pen He wrote the Book of His Covenant, addressing His relations and all people of the world, saying, "Verily, I have appointed One Who is the Center of My Covenant. All must obey Him; all must turn to Him; He is the Expounder of My Book, and He is informed of My purpose. All must turn to Him. Whatsoever He says is correct, for, verily, He knoweth the texts of My Book. Other than He, no one doth know My Book." The purpose of this statement is that there should never be discord and divergence among the Bahá’ís but that they should always be unified and agreed.
The specific mission of Bahá’u’lláh relates to world unity. Since it would be impossible for the Bahá’í Faith to unite the world if it were itself disunited, the role of the covenant as the guarantor of the unity of the Bahá’í community becomes inextricably linked with the goal of world unity: "It is evident that the axis of oneness of the world of humanity is the power of the Covenant and nothing else." cf 
Shoghi Effendi also refers to the covenant as the means of directing and controlling the spiritual power unleashed by the coming of Bahá’u’lláh: "to direct and canalize these forces" and "to insure their harmonious and continuous operation after His ascension." He refers to its purpose as being to "perpetuate the influence of [the] Faith, insure its integrity, safeguard it from schism, and stimulate its world-wide expansion..."
Because it is the focal point of unity both for the Bahá’í community and ultimately for the world and is also the channel for the spiritual energies released by Bahá’u’lláh, the Covenant is described in the Bahá’í writings as being possessed of power. Indeed it is seen as the motivating force behind all the positive forces at work in the world: "The power of the Covenant is as the heat of the sun which quickeneth and promoteth the development of all created things on earth. The light of the Covenant, in like manner, is the educator of the minds, the spirits, the hearts and souls of men."
The institution of the covenant being so central and vital a component of the Bahá’í Faith, firmness in the covenant is considered in the Bahá’í texts as one of the main religious virtues. In its more general sense, this means carrying out the laws and teachings of the Bahá’í Faith:
- ye must conduct yourselves in such a manner that ye may stand out distinguished and brilliant as the sun among other souls. Should any one of you enter a city, he should become a center of attraction by reason of his sincerity, his faithfulness and love, his honesty and fidelity, his truthfulness and loving-kindness towards all the peoples of the world... Not until ye attain this station can ye be said to have been faithful to the Covenant and Testament of God. For He hath, through irrefutable Texts, entered into a binding Covenant with us all, requiring us to act in accordance with His sacred instructions and counsels. (SWA 71)
In a more specific sense, firmness in the covenant refers to the inner conviction by the individual Bahá’í that the guidance of the center of the Bahá’í Faith (whether ‘Abdu’l-Bahá or Shoghi Effendi in the past or the Universal House of Justice at present) represents the will of God: "Whatsoever they decide is of God." Shoghi Effendi relates the success and progress of the Bahá’í Faith to this:
Neither the administration, nor the general teaching work of the Cause... will progress, or be able to accomplish anything, unless the believers are truly firm, deep, spiritually convinced Bahá’ís.... once a Bahá’í has the profound conviction of the authority from God, vested in the Prophet, passed on to the Master, and by Him, to the Guardians, and which flows out through the assemblies and creates order based on obedience--once a Bahá’í has this, nothing can shake him.
The concept of the covenant in the Bahá’í Faith may be divided into two. The greater covenant involves recognizing the Manifestation of God and obeying his laws and teachings: "...according to the irrefutable texts, He [Bahá’u’lláh] has taken from us a firm covenant that we may live and act in accord with the divine exhortations, commands and lordly teachings." This greater covenant also relates to the promise of a further Manifestation of God in the future: "Bahá’u’lláh made a covenant concerning a promised One who will become manifest after one thousand or thousands of years." The second or lesser covenant relates to the succession in authority within the Bahá’í community first to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá then to Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice. "He [Bahá’u’lláh] likewise, with His Supreme Pen, entered into a great Covenant and Testament with all the Bahá’ís whereby they were all commanded to follow the Center of the Covenant after His departure . . ." ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi were given, under the provisions of this Covenant, the authority to give authoritative interpretation of the Bahá’í scripture; the Universal House of Justice has been given the authority to legislate in any areas which are not already covered by the Bahá’í scriptures.
Since the eventual aim of the Bahá’í Faith is to unite the world, it is clear that this could not be achieved if the Bahá’í Faith itself were divided. One of the most striking of the claims made by the Bahá’í Faith is that the religion is divinely protected from schism. Clearly this statement does not mean that it is impossible to set up a group that rejects the authority of the head of the religion since that has happened on numerous occasions. What it appears to mean is that, although it is possible for some to set up an independent group and to call themselves Bahá’ís, that group is like a branch that has been cut off from a tree--although it may appear alive and verdant, eventually, because it is cut off from its source of life, it will wither and die.
The main mechanism for this protection from schism is stated to be, first, the fact that the Covenant made by Bahá’u’lláh and his successors is clear and in writing; and second, through the methods established for dealing with Covenant-breakers.
- Genesis 17:1-7, 18-21
- God Passes By 94
- Genesis 25:1-2
- Exodus 24:4-8; 28:1-2
- Jeremiah 32:37-42
- Jeremiah 32:38
- Exodus 24:8
- Hebrews 9:13-28
- Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh 36:85-86
- Qur'an 3:80-85
- Persian Bayán 8:1
- Selections from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh 97
- Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh 30
- God Passes By 30
- Momen 153-4, 157
- World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 145
- World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 137
- Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá 227
- Persian Bayán 6:16
- Selections from the writings of Bahá’u’lláh 87
- Tanyi 20-21
- Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh 3:5
- World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 132
- World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 137
- World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 21-22
- World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 144
- God Passes By 325-6
- Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh 6:63-4, 129-30
- Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh 101:206
- PUP 322-323, 382, 455-6,
- Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá 209
- Tablets of the Divine Plan 49
- God Passes By 239
- Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá 208-9
- God Passes By 237
- God Passes By 244-5
- God Passes By 239
- WT 11
- Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh 1:42
- BWF 358
- BWF 358
- PUP 455-6
- World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 145
The two key documents of the covenant are Bahá’u’lláh Kitáb-i-`Ahd (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh 15:219-223) and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Will and Testament. Other important passages from the authoritative texts include: Selections from the writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá 207-229; World Order of Bahá’u’lláh 143-6, God Passes By 237-40, 325-8. A large number of compilations and explanatory works have also been published on this subject: The Covenant, compilation issued by the Universal House of Justice, December 1987, COC1 212-257:111-129; LG 593-629:181-191; Enoch Tanyi (comp.), The Covenant: Daily Readings from the Bahá’í Teachings Oxford: George Ronald, 1989; The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh: a compilation, London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1963; Lowell Johnson, The Eternal Covenant, 2nd ed., Johannesburg: National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of South Africa, 1989; The Power of the Covenant (in 3 parts) Thornhill, Ont.: National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Canada, 1977; The Covenant: its meaning and our attitude toward it, Wilmette?: National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, 1988; The Covenant and Administration, Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Committee, 1951. Adib Taherzadeh, The Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, Oxford: George Ronald, 1992. Other books cited: M. Momen, Introduction to Shí`í Islam.
This article was written for possible inclusion in A Short Encyclopedia of the Bahá’í Faith, an ongoing project of the United States National Spiritual Assembly. These drafts have not been edited and will not appear in the encyclopedia in their present form. Hence they should not be considered representative of the project.