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Too tender for the House?

Posted by Sen on May 23, 2010

The Universal House of Justice is an elected body that serves as the head of the world-wide Bahai community. It is empowered to decide when Bahai laws are applicable for Bahais, to provide the necessary framework so that they can be applied, and to make laws and rulings for situations that are not covered in Bahai scripture. So it has a very important role in Bahai community life. Unlike all the other Bahai institutions and roles and positions in community life, membership of the Universal House of Justice is, at least for now, reserved for men. I will return to that ‘for now’ briefly, at the end of this posting.

Because this exclusion of women is an exception, and runs counter to the practice in other aspects of Bahai life, and also counter to the strong Bahai teaching that women should be involved in every area of human endeavour, from the lowest to the highest levels, and even more, because the Bahai Writings give no explanation of this situation, there is a great deal of speculative thinking among Bahais as to possible reasons why women should not serve on the Universal House of Justice.

One of the suggested explanations is that women are too tender-hearted for such a responsible position.

One of the friends once expressed it this way:


Consider this: Our supreme institution is called a House of Justice. It is not a house of mercy. Think of the different ways that men and women discipline children. Most often it is the men who believe that the children need punishment of some kind when they have done wrong. It is the women who must overcome an inclination to forgive and show mercy to the child.

Woman by nature is opposed to war; she is an advocate of peace…Therefore
as woman advances toward the degree of man in power and privilege, with the
right of vote and control in human government, most assuredly war will cease;
for women is naturally the most devoted and staunch advocate of international
peace.
” (Abdul-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 375)

I’ve responded to that previously: we cannot take the division of roles we know in our own families or our own societies as normative or universal. I am brought back to the issue by another of the friends who said, more specifically, that the House of Justice might have to approve of the world uniting to take up arms against a tyrannical government, or approve of capital punishment — tasks apparently unsuitable for women.

This argument doesn’t work, because these two functions, of waging war and punishing criminals, are in fact reserved to the governments, not the House of Justice, according to the Bahai teachings, and women are not only allowed to serve in these public spheres, they are encouraged to do so, precisely because of their feminine input. Abdu’l-Baha writes:

In the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah, women are advancing side by side with men. There is no area or instance where they will lag behind: they have equal rights with men, and will enter, in the future, into all branches of the administration of society. Such will be their elevation that, in every area of endeavour, they will occupy the highest levels in the human world….

(Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 392 (this is a revised translation of the familiar tablet which is printed at the back of Paris Talks))

There are a number of talks printed in Promulgation of Universal Peace in which Abdu’l-Baha says that peace will be achieved when women have the vote and participate in politics. Unfortunately most of these talks cannot be authenticated, but there’s at least one important exception:

Baha’u’llah has proclaimed unity in education, which is necessary for the sake of human unity. All people, men and women, should have one education; girls and boys should receive one education, and when the education is given in all the schools is of one kind, the result will be a perfect bond, and when the human race benefits from one kind of education, the unity of men and women will be proclaimed, and the foundations of war and conflict will collapse. But this is impossible unless this question is addressed. Because incompatibility in education leads to warfare and strife, equality of rights between the male and female is a preventative to war and killing.

Women do not tolerate war and contention. Those young men are very dear to their mothers. They will never consent to them being killed on the battlefield, to their blood being spilled. Will a mother accept that the young man whom she has raised with such toil and trouble for twenty years, should be blown to pieces on the battlefield? No mother will accept this, whatever illusions people may come up with, about patriotism, or political unity or unity of race of family descent or of government, saying that these youths must be surrendered and sacrificed for the sake of these illusion. Therefore it is certain that when the equality of men and women is proclaimed, war will be banished among the children of Adam.

(My translation from Khatabat-e Abdu’l-Baha vol 2 p 135-6; talk at the Unitarian Church of Philadelphia, 8/9 June 1912, cf Promulgation of Universal Peace 172)

There’s also a previously untranslated talk on page 44 of Khatabat vol. 2 (April 23 1912, home of Ali Quli Khan) which says (in my translation):

Although limited and specific war is fatal, that is, it is the destroyer of souls, this [state of armed camps esp. in Europe] is endless and universal war, and it harms the whole, indeed, the world of humanity suffers an injury. However, given that women in this era are mobilising, they should examine this matter, so that the cause of universal peace may be promulgated and the unity of the world of humanity may be manifest.

From this it is evident that, in Abdu’l-Baha’s view, whatever qualities and strengths may particularly characterize women, these do not prevent women engaging in questions of war and peace, and life and death. Quite the contrary: precisely in those matters, their exclusion has harmed humanity.

The Houses of Justice, however, are not governments or criminal courts; it’s precisely to make this clear to the public that Abdu’l-Baha ordered their name to be changed to ‘Spiritual Assembly.’ The destruction of a government that commits aggression is also specified for governments, and it is governments which are to make the rules that govern such action. In Secret of Divine Civilization Abdu’l-Baha writes:

True civilization will unfurl its banner in the midmost heart of the world whenever a certain number of its distinguished and high-minded sovereigns … shall.. arise … to establish the Cause of Universal Peace. … They must conclude a binding treaty and establish a covenant, the provisions of which shall be sound, inviolable and definite. … In this all-embracing Pact the limits and frontiers of each and every nation should be clearly fixed, the principles underlying the relations of governments towards one another definitely laid down, … the size of the armaments of every government [not House of Justice!] should be strictly limited, … if any government later violate any one of its provisions, all the governments on earth should arise to reduce it to utter submission, ..”

Both the military and the criminal justice system are ‘instruments of security,’ and Baha’u’llah has written:

The instruments which are essential to the immediate protection, the security and assurance of the human race have been entrusted to the hands, and lie in the grasp, of the governors of human society. This is the wish of God and His decree…. (Gleanings CII)

So there’s no possibility that a woman, or a man, serving on the House of Justice would bear responsibility for such matters. “This is the wish of God and His decree..” But it is very possible that a Bahai woman who is head of state, Minister of foreign affairs, or supreme court judge, might face such life-or-death decisions, and it would be in accordance with the teachings of Baha’u’llah and the wishes of Abdu’l-Baha, for her to acquit herself of that responsibility with wisdom and diligence. I for one do not believe that women are constitutionally too tender-hearted to cope. Even if the necessary tough-mindedness is less common in women – and I am not persuaded it is – this would be a justification for excluding women from public life, not from the Universal House of Justice, but Bahais are arguing precisely the opposite: that women should become involved in all aspects of society at the highest level, but cannot be members of the Universal House of Justice.

But the real power is …

In response to this refutation of the idea that women cannot be on the Universal House of Justice because they are too tenderhearted, one of the friends wrote that, when the World Order of Baha’u’llah is securely established, women will be involved in governments, but ultimately guidance on matters of war, and life and death will be sought from the men of the House of Justice “that will give that ultimate guidance.”

But this question too has been specified in the Bahai Writings:

When the laws of the Most Holy Book are enforced, contentions and disputes will find a final sentence of absolute justice before a general tribunal of the nations and kingdoms, and the difficulties that appear will be solved
(Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, 64)

“Should differences arise, they shall be amicably and conclusively settled by the Supreme Tribunal, that shall include members from all the governments and peoples of the world.
(Abdu’l-Baha, The Will and Testament, 13)

“a Supreme Tribunal must be established, representative of all governments and peoples; questions both national and international must be referred thereto, and all must carry out the decrees of this Tribunal. Should any government or people disobey, let the whole world arise against that government or people.
(Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, 249)

and in the Tablet to the Hague, the membership of that body is described:

…the national assemblies of each country and nation — that is to say parliaments — should elect two or three persons who are the choicest of that nation, and are well informed concerning international laws and the relations between governments and aware of the essential needs of the world of humanity in this day. The number of these representatives should be in proportion to the number of inhabitants of that country. The election of these souls who are chosen by the national assembly, that is, the parliament, must be confirmed by the upper house, the congress and the cabinet and also by the president or monarch so these persons may be the elected ones of all the nation and the government. The Supreme Tribunal will be composed of these people, and all mankind will thus have a share therein, for every one of these delegates is fully representative of his (or her) nation…. (Revised translation cited in “Monogamy, Equality of Sexes”)

Clearly, if “all mankind” are to have a share in this body, women must have both a vote for it and a voice on it. This is the signification also of the revision in the translation, from “two or three men” to “persons.”

Shoghi Effendi further says that the Supreme Tribunal will develop from the League of Nations (precursor of the United Nations) – see God Passes By, 305, whereas the Universal House of Justice (which didn’t exist in the time of Shoghi Effendi) was to develop out of the International Bahai Council.

As for the relationship of national governments and the Universal House of Justice (or the National Spiritual Assembly of their own country), it is one of collegiality and respect, of working together for common goals, but careful avoidance of even the appearance of interference in the distinct sphere which, in the Bahai writings, is assigned to each of these organs. The model of this that we can observe is the relationship between the late King Tanumafili II of Samoa and the Universal House of Justice. Another model we could draw on is the relationship between the Guardianship and the House of Justice, or the National Spiritual Assemblies and the Counsellors. The Bahai Faith is full of these pairings based on complementarity and respect, rather than domination of one by the other.

What we learn about oneness-through-twoness, by reading what the Bahai Writings say about church and state, can be applied in understanding the House of Justice and the House of Worship; science and religion; government and the market, the Guardianship and the House of Justice — for it is the principle of twoness in itself that gives us the most difficulty, habituated as we are to a concept of ‘unity’ that involves the abolition of distinction, or the imposition of one will over another.

And in the future?

Another reason suggested for the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice is that it reflects women’s historically lower level of education or is a concession to the cultural environment, just as women were at first not allowed to be members of local Bahai assemblies in the west – a policy changed by Abdu’l-Baha – and were not allowed to serve on assemblies in the Middle East until the 1950’s. Which brings me back to ‘for now.’ If conditions change, could women serve on the Universal House of Justice? I don’t want to tackle this in detail here, just to outline the current state of play in this ongoing debate in as few words as possible. There are quite a number of arguments showing that women may be permanently excluded from membership, but no one of them found so far is in itself conclusive. The first two levels of this are dealt with in ‘The Service of Women‘, with sources. (1) Baha’u’llah used the word rijal, usually meaning ‘men’, with reference to the members of the House of Justice at all levels, however Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha both said, in their other writings, that women can be rijal too, and Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi found this no barrier to women serving on local and national institutions as conditions permitted. (2) Abdu’l-Baha wrote several tablets about this, in response to questions as to whether women can serve on local Bahai institutions, and he at first said no, and later, yes. One of these tablets says that women cannot serve on the Universal House of Justice, however that was a term that had been used for the local institution in Chicago, to distinguish it from the women’s assembly and other local committees. (3) There are four letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which say that women cannot serve on the Universal House of Justice, however there is also the principle that Shoghi Effendi lays down, that the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice have two separate spheres, and that the Guardian:

…is debarred from laying down independently the constitution that must govern the organized activities of his fellow-members, and from exercising his influence in a manner that would encroach upon the liberty of those whose sacred right is to elect the body of his collaborators.” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 150)

If this limitation applies to the Guardian in person, surely letters written on the Guardian’s behalf cannot be deemed to predetermine the constitution of the Universal House of Justice or limit the right of the international delegates to vote for whomever they think best fitted.

So we have arguments based on the words of Baha’u’llah, ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, but these are all debatable, for different reasons. After decades of debate on this, one might think that every piece of evidence that can be found, would have been found by now, but there are at least two pieces of evidence from Abdu’l-Baha that could show conclusively what he intended for the membership of the Universal (that is, international) House of Justice in the far future.

The first is the tablet which is published in the back of the back of Paris Talks, which is an edited version of a tablet translated by Mirza Ahmad Sohrab and published in Abdu’l-Baha in Egypt pages 249-50. The Sohrab version, if we take out the material between parentheses, which is likely to be his editorial addition, reads:

As regards the constitution of the House of Justice, Baha-Ullah addressed the men, saying:`O ye men of the House of Justice!’ but [nevertheless] (…) the right which belongs to women, so far as their voting and their voice is concerned, is indisputable.

That is, it could be saying that despite the masculine form of address, women are also meant to be included in the membership of the Universal House of Justice. It all depends on the word translated as ‘but,’ which could be wa (and) or ama (but) or magar (nevertheless). Magar is the most likely of these, given the sense of the two clauses it joins. However even supposing that what joins these clauses is ‘nevertheless,’ the Persian text for “their voting and their voice” might be inconclusive. It depends on whether ‘voice’ means membership of the body, or a delegate’s vote for the members.

The Persian text of this tablet must be held at the Bahai World Centre, since the first of the quotations above, which says that women “will enter, in the future, into all branches of the administration of society” is newly translated by the World Centre. So publication and retranslation of the entire tablet might resolve the question. I personally don’t expect it to, because at that time there was no settled and precise Persian terminology for speaking of modern political procedures.

The second source that might give a conclusive resolution is a pilgrim’s note, from the visit of Ali Quli Khan to Abdu’l-Baha in 1906, which says:

Being asked as to the sex of its membership, ‘Abdu’l-Baha answered: “The membership of the House of Justice shall be all men.” Being asked if the members of the General House of Justice will be nine in number, He answered: “The membership is not limited to nine. Nay, nine is the minimum number and it will gradually be increased nine by nine. For instance, it will be raised to numbers which are multiples of the number nine, such as eighty-one which is equal to nine times nine, and so forth.

Anyone who has been following this blog, will know that a sharp distinction should be made between pilgrim’s notes and authentic Bahai scripture. The reason this might resolve the question of women’s future membership, in the negative, is that Ali Quli Khan writes “a number of Baha’i friends requested me to take notes of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s conversations during our visit, … This I did, and towards the end of our visit, I copied my Persian notes and submitted the most important among them to ‘Abdu’l-Baha for revision.” If the Persian notes show that Abdu’l-Baha checked the text just quoted, and if the text reads directly through from the previous paragraph (which appears to refer to the Universal House of Justice and not a local House of Justice), then the explanation that the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice is a temporary concession to cultural norms will also be disproved.

The end of power?

Another way of dealing with the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice is to say that this is an inequality in power, and power itself is to become irrelevant. The idea is that humanity is entering a new cycle of existence, in which equality is not a question of equal power but of equal opportunity to take responsibility and exercise individual initiative. One advocate of this view said that it strikes at the very core of Sen’s argument over church and state, because it rejects his assumption that governance is the process of coercion. He’s attempting to answer the question, “Who’s going to be in charge?” My answer is, “Nobody.”

But this is circular reasoning, based on the supposition that the Bahai Administrative Order is another term for the Bahai World Order, and also misunderstanding what Bahai Administration is. While it is true that the Bahai Administration has no powers of coercion, and should be characterised by “genuine and sustained cooperation and mutual confidence” between the friends and the assemblies, this does not mean that nobody is in charge in the Bahai Administration, that Baha’u’llah’s plan for World Order has no room for coercion, or that government is not fundamentally about coercion.

Government, unlike Bahai administration, is about ultimate power and the threat, and sometimes actual use, of coercion; it’s about “dominion.” The World Order would hardly be an “order” if Nobody is in charge. Baha’u’llah writes:

What mankind needeth in this day is obedience unto them that are in authority, and a faithful adherence to the cord of wisdom. The instruments which are essential to the immediate protection, the security and assurance of the human race have been entrusted to the hands, and lie in the grasp, of the governors of human society. This is the wish of God and His decree…. .” (Gleanings, CII 206-7)

your Lord hath committed the world and the cities thereof to the care of the kings of the earth, and made them the emblems of His own power, by virtue of the sovereignty He hath chosen to bestow upon them. … (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, 304)

In the Epistle to the Romans Saint Paul hath written: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.” And further: “For he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” He saith that the appearance of the kings, and their majesty and power are of God. (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, 91)

is it not your clear duty to restrain the tyranny of the oppressor, and to deal equitably with your subjects, that your high sense of justice may be fully demonstrated to all mankind? God hath committed into your hands the reins of the government of the people, that ye may rule with justice over them, safeguard the rights of the down- trodden, and punish the wrong-doers. (Suriy-ye Muluk, in Gleanings from the Writings of Baháu’llah, CXVI 247)

and from Abdu’l-Baha:

The fundamental principle underlying this solemn Pact should be so fixed that if any government later violate any one of its provisions, all the governments on earth should arise to reduce it to utter submission, nay the human race as a whole should resolve, with every power at its disposal, to destroy that government. (Secret of Divine Civilization, quoted in Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 37)


Note that all these texts reach us through Shoghi Effendi: the idea that some have expressed, that Shoghi Effendi had some different view to those of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, has no foundation.

The World Order of Baha’u’llah is not a polyanna dream: it’s a practical legal and political structure that can be made to work by ordinary human beings with their weakness and failings, because it incorporates all the elements necessary – including poer, coercion, punishment and even the possibility of war – and puts each element in its right place under the right kind of leadership.

Having said that, Shoghi Effendi says that the Bahai Administration is “the nucleus and pattern” of the Bahai World Order (Citadel of Faith, 5). The pattern that the Bahai Administration shows us is its fundamental two-part architecture: the separation of the Guardianship and the House of Justice, whose different natures and different roles in the whole make them complementary within the Administrative Order. This is what is meant by organic unity – a unity of different organs in one body, each organ with its own nature. Therefore one cannot deduce from the nature of one, how another organ should function.

~~ Sen ~~
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44 Responses to “Too tender for the House?”

  1. Anon said

    The simple truth is that the universe is patriarchal. All of the Manifestations of God were male, although some will dispute this, the arch angels are all male. The UHJ being patriarchal conforms it to the patriarchal pattern of the overall governance of the universe to which it will one day integrate. So it is a pattern being established now for the future.

  2. Sen said

    Could you perhaps consider the possibility that things might change in the world? That God might do a new thing? Or even that your knowledge of the universe today might not be complete? Perhaps God has already done a new thing, but you’re not on board

  3. pukirahe said

    I think that we cannot impose our opinions on other people. None of us is authoritative interpreter. Abdul-Baha said that the matter will be clear as the sun at midday; Shoghi Effendi did not make any further interpretation. Perhaps we better wait as Abdu-Baha has told.
    I admire your broad and profound knowledge in your writings, hence I hope that none of us, and you and members of the Universal House of Justice,should show that we are more knowledgeable than that Supreme Institution.

  4. Sen said

    “the Supreme institution” as a name for the Universal House of Justice is unscriptural, see http://tinyurl.com/UHJsupreme

    The Universal House of Justice is not particularly knowledgeable: it is an institution of laymen, who are drawn from the community at large, not a body of scholars and experts, and it has no authority to tell us what the Scriptures mean — that was reserved for the Guardian. The UHJ has the power to elucidate, but it has explained that it implements this in the course of its legislation. It can change its legislation. Therefore we cannot safely deduce anything about Bahai principles from the words of the Universal House of Justice, for even when it is legislating and thus (possibly) elucidating the Bahai teachings, we cannot know what is temporary and what is permanent in its legislation. We only know what has not yet been changed.

    For more on these two challenging and innovate aspects of the Bahai Administrative Order, see ‘Church, State, experts, consensus‘ in the email archive.

  5. Pukirahe said

    Thank you for the prompt answer. I still lag behind although I am 9 years older than you!I am reading with admiration your book “Reflection on a Culture of Learning and Growth.”
    It is thanks to your advice on this post, I can download this book, and knowing where to look for the writings of other famous Baha’is, such as Mojan Momen, Peter Khan…
    Wishing you good health to make greater contributions to the learning and serving of the human race.

  6. Sen said

    Reflections on a Culture of Learning and Growth” is not my book: it’s by Ron Price.

  7. mashed potato said

    You wrote “…for even when it is legislating and thus (possibly) elucidating the Bahai teachings”

    The Covenant of Baha’u’llah entrusts Abdul-Baha and the Guardian with the obligation of elucidating the Baha’i teachings. The UHJ does not elucidate the Baha’i teachings. It enacts laws not revealed by Baha’u’llah in the Aqdas and makes changes to those laws.

  8. Sen said

    You are correct, and its a good point. The UHJ itself writes :

    “There is a profound difference between the interpretations of the Guardian and the elucidations of the House of Justice in exercise of its function to “deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure, and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book.” ”

    So any idea that we can turn to the UHJ to tell us what the Bahai teachings are, it off the table, both in theory, and for the practical reason that the UHJ can change its legislation, so we as readers cannot look at something from the UHJ and confidently say that it embodies a certain elucidation that is timeless. It could be that what we think is a timeless principle will be contradicted by further legislation.

    However, there is also this letter:

    “… regarding the nature and scope of the Universal Court of Arbitration, this and other similar matters will have to be explained and elucidated by the Universal House of Justice, to which, according to the Master’s explicit Instructions, all important fundamental questions must be referred….” (Bahai Administration, 47)
    So far as I know, this is the only basis for the idea that the House of Justice elucidates “matters” – not necessarily including “the teachings.” If someone has further sources I would be glad to see them. The question is, what to make of this?

    The UHj writes:

    “The elucidations of the Universal House of Justice stem from its legislative function, while the interpretations of the Guardian represent the true intent inherent in the Sacred Texts. The major distinction between the two functions is that legislation with its resultant outcome of elucidation is susceptible of amendment by the House of Justice itself, whereas the Guardian’s interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied.”

    So they are not saying that they can tell us “the true intent of the text.” Nevertheless they can apparently elucidate something about the Universal Court of Arbitration without telling us the intent of the scriptures. This only makes sense, to me, if the question that was put to the Guardian was not about the meaning of a reference to the Tribunal or Court of Arbitration, but about how the Bahais would in the future relate to such a court or a movement to establish one. That is, if the question was about what is to be done in this case rather than what the scripture means. In that case, the UHJ would look at the scriptures and the needs of the time and decide, applying, and perhaps explaining, their own understanding of the Bahai teachings. That understanding might be faulty, or the UHJ might have a correct understanding of the teachings but decide ‘this is not the time to apply them fully.’

    This warrants further research: it would be particularly helpful to know what question was put to the Guardian in the case above/

  9. 1. Your posting illustrates to me why the Baha’is should not be speculating on the reason for men only being on the House; such reasons inevitably fall short and can be demonstrated to be faulty.

    2. You wrote: “The Universal House of Justice is an elected body that serves as the head of the world-wide Bahai community. It is empowered to decide when Bahai laws are applicable for Bahais, to provide the necessary framework so that they can be applied, and to make laws and rulings for situations that are not covered in Bahai scripture.” I’m sure you did not intend this to be a comprehensive statement of its scope. You appear to understand “application” of the revealed laws to mean, the date when the law comes into force, and providing the “necessary framework so they can be applied.” To me it also means accuracy in applying the law to a situation; knowing which law applies, for example.

    3. As to the power to elucidate; one example is that Shoghi Effendi stated that the House of Justice would explain the significance of the Master’s Will; and the letters of the House explaining the relationship between the House and the Guardianship appear to me to be examples of this. This is not elucidation of a single law, so much as elucidation of what Shoghi Effendi terms the “Law of Succession” (WOB 21), i.e. the Covenant of the Master, the foundation law:

    “We are called upon by our beloved Master in His Will and Testament not only to adopt it unreservedly, but to unveil its merit to all the world. To attempt to estimate its full value, and grasp its exact significance after so short a time since its inception would be premature and presumptuous on our part. We must trust to time, and the guidance of God’s Universal House of Justice, to obtain a clearer and fuller understanding of its provisions and implications.”
    (Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 62)

    The House of Justice has itself spoken of the broad nature of its authority and has included a passage from the Will:

    “An understanding of the principles by which we explore the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh depends, too, on an appreciation of the broad nature of the authority conferred on the Universal House of Justice. Speaking of the relevant responsibilities of its elected membership, the “Will and Testament” states:

    ‘It is incumbent upon these members (of the Universal House of Justice) to gather in a certain place and deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book. Whatsoever they decide has the same effect as the Text itself.'”
    (The Universal House of Justice; from a letter on Baha’i Scholarship)

    Here is a brief compilation of such passages, starting with, those matters not mentioned in the Book:

    If that House of Justice shall decide unanimously, or by a majority, upon any question not mentioned in the Book, that decision and command will be guarded from mistake.
    (Some Answered Questions, p. 172)

    But the authority is broader:

    Unto this body all things must be referred.
    (Will and Testament, p. 14)

    By this body all the difficult problems are to be resolved
    (Will and Testament, p. 14)

    all problems which have caused difference
    (Will and Testament, p. 20)

    all affairs are committed to the care of just kings and presidents and of the Trustees of the House of Justice.
    (Lawh-i-Dunya, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 93)

    Unto the Most Holy Book every one must turn and all that is not expressly recorded therein must be referred to the Universal House of Justice.
    (Will and Testament, p. 19)

    the Universal House of Justice, to which, according to the Master’s explicit instructions, all important and fundamental questions must be referred
    (Baha’i Administration, p. 47)

    Whatever will be its decision, by majority vote, shall be the real truth
    (Abdu’l-Baha, quoted in a letter of the Universal House of Justice dated 9 March 1965, Messages from the Universal House of Justice 1963-1986, page 52, paragraph 23.11)

    The Universal House of Justice, likewise, wardeth off all differences and whatever it prescribeth must be accepted
    (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 215)

    Whatsoever they decide is of God.
    (Will and Testament, p. 11)

    That which this body, whether unanimously or by a majority doth carry, that is verily the Truth and the Purpose of God Himself
    (Will and Testament, p. 19)

    God will verily inspire them with whatsoever He willeth
    (Kalimat-i-Firdawsiyyih, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 68)

    Whatsoever they decide has the same effect as the Text itself.
    (Will and Testament, p. 20)

    Brent

  10. Sen said

    Thanks: I agree about the futility of speculation. On your point (3), I do not think that the words “We must trust to time, and the guidance of God’s Universal House of Justice, to obtain a clearer and fuller understanding of its provisions and implications” mean that the UHJ has anything analogous to the Guardian’s role of authoritative interpretation, regarding the Will or any other document. That reading would be inconsistent with Shoghi Effendi’s other writings. In this expression, time and the guidance of the UHJ are parallel terms. I understand him to be saying that experience is a great teacher — but with the proviso, that not every experience teaches the right lesson. The experience of putting the institutions and spirit of the Will into practice, under the authority of the UHJ, will make much about the Will clear which (to an audience who had widely differing ideas of just what a UHJ would look like) was at the time of writing unclear.

    It’s a subtle distinction perhaps, between the UHJ telling us what the text means, and the UHJ telling us what to do, and us gaining understanding from the experience. However given how crucial the distinction between the UHJ’s and Guardian’s spheres is to the organic structure of the Bahai Administration, it’s not pure semantics. Also for apologetic purposes, if we say that the UHJ, in respect of the Will, has anything like an interpretive power, the UHJ will appear to outsiders as a new Pope, and it will be said that the UHJ is breaking the Covenant by sliding into the Guardian’s empty shoes. So I think it’s important to be clear that the UHJ does not, ever, give authoritative interpretations of the texts.

  11. mashed potato said

    The statement from page 62 of Baha’i Administration that Mr. Brent Poirier quotes is not in reference to the Will of Abdul-Baha but in reference to the “purpose and methods” of the new world order. One should read that letter in its entirety to realize this point. The Universal House of Justice cannot elucidate the Will of Abdul-Baha as that is the right and obligation of the Guardian as clearly stated in the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah by Shoghi Effendi:

    “The fact that the Guardian has been specifically endowed with such power as he may need to reveal the purport and disclose the implications of the utterances of Bahá’u’lláh and of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá does not necessarily confer upon him a station co-equal with those Whose words he is called upon to interpret. He can exercise that right and discharge this obligation and yet remain infinitely inferior to both of them in rank and different in nature.”

  12. mashed potato said

    Mr. Sen wrote: “It’s a subtle distinction perhaps, between the UHJ telling us what the text means, and the UHJ telling us what to do, and us gaining understanding from the experience.”

    The Universal House of Justice cannot tell us what the text means as that would be interpreting. Here are Shoghi Effendi’s words concerning the unique power of the Universal House of Justice. They are from the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah and God Passes By:

    “the Universal House of Justice has been invested with the function of legislating on matters not expressly revealed in the teachings”

    “whose exclusive right and prerogative is to pronounce upon and deliver the final judgment on such laws and ordinances as Bahá’u’lláh has not expressly revealed”

    “the enactment of the legislation necessary to supplement the laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas”

    “upon the international elected representatives of the followers of Bahá’u’lláh has been conferred the exclusive right of legislating on matters not expressly revealed in the Bahá’í writings”

    “the powers and prerogatives of the Universal House of Justice, possessing the exclusive right to legislate on matters not explicitly revealed in the Most Holy Book”

    Therefore the “elucidations” of the Universal House of Justice are its legislations on matters not expressly revealed in the teachings.

  13. Sen said

    You’re right that the reference is to the new world order not to the Will and Testament. Shoghi Effendi writes:

    “…may we also clear our minds of any lingering trace of unhappy misunderstandings that might obscure our clear conception of the exact purpose and methods of this new world order, … We are called upon by our beloved Master in His Will and Testament not only to adopt it unreservedly, but to unveil its merit to all the world. To attempt to estimate its full value, and grasp its exact significance after so short a time since its inception would be premature and presumptuous on our part. We must trust to time, and the guidance of God’s Universal House of Justice, to obtain a clearer and fuller understanding of its provisions and implications. But …. I am not prepared to state that it agrees in principle or in method with the prevailing notions now uppermost in men’s minds, nor that it should conform with those imperfect, precarious, and expedient measures feverishly resorted to by agitated humanity. (Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 62)

    The reference at the end to the measures taken by humanity (think of the League of Nations, this was written in 1924) shows that it was the World Order that Shoghi Effendi had in mind throughout this paragraph. Thanks, that’s illuminating

    Sen

  14. Sen said

    I agree certainly that the Universal House of Justice cannot tell us what the scriptures mean. However I don’t think Shoghi Effendi uses elucidation as a synonym for legislation. It seems to mean non-authoritative explanations, either because the person does not have the authority, or does not wish to assert it, or because the thing explained is, for example, the World Order rather than the text of scripture. For example he tells the American NSA: “The Guardian is confident that you will elucidate and give the widest publicity to these already established principles, [the sovereignty of the NSA and the freedom of the convention delegates] (through the Guardian’s secretary. August 12, 1933, published in USBN).

    In another place he says in the words of his secretary:

    “Regarding association with the World Fellowship of Faiths and kindred Societies, Shoghi Effendi wishes to reaffirm and elucidate the general principle that Bahá’í elected representatives as well as individuals should refrain from any act or word that would imply a departure from the principles, whether spiritual, social or administrative, established by Baha’u’llah. Formal affiliation with and acceptance of membership in organizations whose programs or policies are not wholly reconcilable with the Teachings is of course out of the question.” (June 17, 1933)

    That raises the question of when the Guardian is elucidating some point, and when he is providing an authoritative interpretation of the Bahai Writings. See my commentary on ‘Some interpretive principles’
    for a first attempt.

    The reason I think that the elucidations of the House of Justice are not the same as its legislation, is that Shoghi Effendi uses the word in parallel with explanation:

    Touching the point raised in the Secretary’s letter regarding the nature and scope of the Universal Court of Arbitration, this and other similar matters will have to be explained and elucidated by the Universal House of Justice, to which, according to the Master’s explicit instructions, all important and fundamental questions must be referred. At present the exact implication and full significance of the provisions of the Master’s Will are as yet imperfectly understood, and time will serve to reveal the wisdom and the far-reaching effects of His words. …. Remembering you all in my hours of visit and prayer at the Three Holy Shrines, and wishing you success from all my heart,
    I am your brother and fellow-worker,
    SHOGHI.
    Haifa, Palestine.
    April 9th, 1923. (Baha’i Administration, p. 47)

    So there’s no doubt that the UHJ has some explanatory function in addition to its legislative role – but also, for the reasons you gave previously, that this does not amount to telling us what the text of scripture means.

  15. mashed potato said

    This is in response to Mr. Sen’s post number 14.

    (1) You wrote: “It seems to mean non-authoritative explanations…”. If the elucidations of the Universal House of Justice are “non-authoritative explanations” then they should not be binding on the Baha’is. Why should an elucidation that lacks authority be binding on the Baha’is?

    (2) You wrote: “That raises the question of when the Guardian is elucidating some point, and when he is providing an authoritative interpretation of the Bahai Writings.”

    The words “elucidate” and “interpret” have the same meaning. Therefore the Guardian elucidates or interprets the Baha’i writings.

    (3) Ofcourse the Universal House of Justice “explains”. The words “elucidate” and “explain” are synonyms just as “elucidate” and “interpret”. So these three words mean the same thing. The “explanations” or “elucidations” of the Universal House of Justice concerns matters not expressly revealed in the teachings whereas the “elucidations” or “explanations” of the Guardian concerns matters expressly revealed in the teachings. The Universal House of Justice “explains” or “elucidates” through its legislations.

  16. Sen said

    So far as I know, the elucidations of the UHJ are not binding at all, although they can help us to understand something. As I have demonstrated, the National Spiritual Assemblies are also called on to elucidate some principles. However authoritative interpretation is the exclusive prerogative of the Guardian. It follows that in Bahai terminology, elucidation is not the same as interpretation.

  17. mashed potato said

    “It is incumbent upon these members (of the Universal House of Justice) to gather in a certain place and deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book. Whatsoever they decide has the same effect as the Text itself.”

    Since the elucidations of the Universal House of Justice has the same effect as the Text itself, they are therefore authoritative and binding on the Baha’is.

  18. Sen said

    You text does not say their elucidations are authoritative, but that their decisions have the same effect as the Text itself. See “He cannot override” on this blog. Shoghi Effendi envisions the possibility that the UHJ will make enactments that “conflict with the meaning and … depart from the spirit” of the Writings, yet such decisions would still have the same effect as the Text itself (in telling us what to do), while in fact not being in accordance with the Text (in meaning). From this it will be clear that you stand on shaky ground if you take the elucidations as authoritative interpretations.

    The Guardian is the ultimate authority on what the meaning and spirit of the Bahai Writings is, but the Universal House of Justice is not obliged to change a decision it has made that is in conflict with those Writings. Bahai practice is a pragmatic practice, in the contingent world, where many factors must be balanced. The Universal House of Justice may make decisions contrary to the spirit or letter of the Bahai Writings, but still be making the right decision for that time and in that case. In fact, it may not correctly understand the spirit, or not know about the letter, of the Bahai Writings. For that kind of guidance, we have to turn to the writings of Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi.

  19. mashed potato said

    You wrote: “For example he tells the American NSA: “The Guardian is confident that you will elucidate and give the widest publicity to these already established principles, [the sovereignty of the NSA and the freedom of the convention delegates] (through the Guardian’s secretary. August 12, 1933, published in USBN).”

    The letters written on behalf of the Guardian are at times erroneous. For example in one such letter to an individual the word “Aghsan” is interpreted as “Baha’u’llah’s descendants”. Can we conclude from this letter that “Aghsan” refers to both male and female descendants of Baha’u’llah because the secretary used the words “Baha’u’llah’s descendants” and not “Baha’u’llah’s male descendants” to describe “Aghsan”?

    Also, the letters written on behalf of the Guardian carries less authority than the words of the Guardian himself. Shoghi Effendi clearly states this point. Shoghi Effendi’s own words in his Dispensation of Baha’u’llah clearly says that only the Guardian can interpret the Baha’i teachings after Abdul-Baha. Therefore the NSA has no right to elucidate any Baha’i principle. As far as English language is concerned “elucidate” and “interpret” are synonyms. Therefore only the Guardian can elucidate the Baha’i principles.

  20. Sen said

    An English dictionary would agree with you, but the words interpretation and elucidation are used as two distinct terms in the Bahai literature. The people who make dictionaries harvest the words and meanings they find people using. It’s most unlikely that any English dictionary compiler has looked at the Bahai writings and literature, and then included the words and meanings from these in his/her dictionary. Since there’s no Bahai theological dictionary in English, we just have to draw the Bahai meanings of words from the way they are used in the Bahai writings. The distinction between the two terms is made, for example, by the Universal House of Justice:

    The elucidations of the Universal House of Justice stem from its legislative function, and as such differ from interpretation. The divinely inspired legislation of the House of Justice does not attempt to say what the revealed Word means — it states what must be done in cases where the revealed Text or its authoritative interpretation is not explicit. (1994 Dec 15, Elucidations of the House of Justice)

    The word used in Persian by Abdu’l-Baha, for Interpreter, for example in the Will and Testament, “He is the Interpreter of the Word of God and after him will succeed the first-born of his lineal descendants…. ” and in a Tablet quoted by the Guardian “”I am… the manifest Interpreter of the Word of God,” is mubiin ( مبين ) which comes from the same root as bayan. In the Bahai context it’s a technical term, distinct from tafsir, ijtihad, tawil and tashrih which are used non-specifically in the sense of explanations, which may or may not be correct. For example in the Tablet of the Divine Plan when the believers are called on to “explain and elucidate (tashrih) the history of the Cause, and interpret (tafsir) also the prophecies and proofs.”

    That’s why the UHJ can be so emphatic that their elucidations differ from interpretations – in the source texts, the difference is clear.

    As for Shoghi Effendi’s use, writing in English, elucidation is broader than interpretation. Shoghi Effendi lists the elucidation of his plans as one of the functions of the Hands of the Cause, who “…in addition to their individual participation in the deliberations at the forthcoming Conferences, as my special representatives, entrusted with a four-fold mission: to … elucidate the character and purposes of the impending decade-long spiritual World Crusade and rally the participants.”

  21. mashed potato said

    You wrote: “The elucidations of the Universal House of Justice stem from its legislative function, and as such differ from interpretation. The divinely inspired legislation of the House of Justice does not attempt to say what the revealed Word means…”

    The difference lies not in the meaning of these two words (“elucidate” and “interpret”) but in the matters these two words act upon. The Universal House of Justice elucidates or interprets or explains matters not recorded in the Book and the Guardian elucidates or interprets or explains matters recorded in the Book. Both these institutions (the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice) elucidate or interpret or explain, but they act on different matters.

    Concerning the Hands elucidating the ten year crusade, the Guardian here authorizes the Hands to elucidate his own words. He is not authorizing the Hands to elucidate the words of Baha’u’llah or Abdul-Baha or any Baha’i principle or Baha’i teaching for that is the exclusive right of the Guardian.

  22. Sen said

    Actually it was the Universal House of Justice that wrote ““The elucidations of the Universal House of Justice stem from its legislative function, and as such differ from interpretation. The divinely inspired legislation of the House of Justice does not attempt to say what the revealed Word means…”

    “Interpret” does have a specific meaning, and accordingly a specific application. Elucidation having a much broader meaning, it is used in many contexts.

  23. mashed potato said

    Yes, those are not your words but the words of the House. Sorry for that mistake. My understanding of those words of the House is that the House elucidates its own laws. So the House enacts laws not expressly revealed in the Aqdas and elucidates them.

  24. Sen said

    It’s an attractive idea, giving a neat division of tasks and a clear distinction between interpretation and elucidation. The House of Justice elucidates only things not expressly revealed, and its elucidations “stem from its legislative function” as the UHJ says (Dec 15, 1994): so if something is not in its legislative sphere, the UHJ cannot elucidate it. And if the UHJ is not formally legislating, but is simply counseling or advising or guiding the Bahai community, then it is not elucidating. The UHJ itself has spoken in this way:

    The elucidations of the Universal House of Justice stem from its legislative function, while the interpretations of the Guardian represent the true intent inherent in the Sacred Texts. The major distinction between the two functions is that legislation with its resultant outcome of elucidation is susceptible of amendment by the House of Justice itself, whereas the Guardian’s interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied.
    (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 646)

    This is not incompatible with what I had said earlier, that elucidation is non-authoritative interpretation. For if elucidation occurs only as a “resultant outcome” of legislation, and legislation can change, it follows the elucidation can also change. The limited scope of the UHJ’s elucidation (only in the course of legislation) and its limited authority (only ‘for now’) are complementary aspects.

    However, I have a niggling doubt. First, the argument relies on the UHJ’s explanations of its own functions, and the argument undermines itself: we have found that these are not “elucidations” because they are not a resultant outcome of the UHJ’s legislative function, they are letters written in response to questions, with no direct statement of “what is to be done.” Second, the function or functions of legislating and elucidating are derived from the Will and Testament:

    It is incumbent upon these members (of the Universal House of Justice) to gather in a certain place and deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book.
    (Abdu’l-Baha, The Will and Testament, p. 19)

    This doesn’t specify what the outcomes will be, it is implied: if something causes difference the outcome will be a ruling leading to unity, if it is obscure the outcome will be elucidation, if it is not expressly recorded, the outcome will be an express command (legislation). My niggling doubt is that the Persian text reads differently: the English has three equivalent phrases, but the Persian has two: [ … deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference and (wa) questions that are obscure [[or]] (wa ya) on matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book.] To me, it reads as if {matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book} are distinguished from the pair {problems which have caused difference and questions that are obscure}. If that was not the intention, Abdu’l-Baha could have used wa (and) both times. Instead he used wa ya (and moreover, and also, or). And he would have good reason for making a distinction: after all, matters that are expressly recorded can also cause difference or be obscure, can they not? If the House could only deliberate on what is not expressly recorded, its hands would be tied. So I think he saying, they should deliberate on any matter that is either not explicitly recorded in the Book or (even if it is recorded) anything that causes difference (the term connotes opposition, dispute etc rather than diversity) or is obscure. In the latter case, the outcome would be to turn obscurity into light: elucidation.

    This makes me more Roman than the Pope, as the Dutch say. I think the UHJ’s own formulation of the scope of its elucidation, quoted above, is unnecessarily narrow. That doesn’t affect the other limitations on the UHJ, that it cannot tell us what the sacred texts mean, define Bahai doctrine, or limit the ability of subsequent Houses of Justice to change its legislation and elucidation.

  25. mashed potato said

    You wrote: “This is not incompatible with what I had said earlier, that elucidation is non-authoritative interpretation. For if elucidation occurs only as a “resultant outcome” of legislation, and legislation can change, it follows the elucidation can also change. The limited scope of the UHJ’s elucidation (only in the course of legislation) and its limited authority (only ‘for now’) are complementary aspects.”

    I see a conflict in this statement. First you say the elucidations are “non-authoritative” and then you say they have “limited authority”. The elucidations of the Universal House of Justice are authoritative and binding on the Baha’is. In post 16 you wrote they are not binding on the Baha’is. Do you still stand by the following words of post 16: “So far as I know, the elucidations of the UHJ are not binding at all, although they can help us to understand something”? If you do stand by these words how do you explain the “limited authority” and “non-binding” nature of the elucidations of the House? The way I look at it if the elucidations have “limited authority” then they also are binding for a limited period (until they are amended or abrogated by the House).

    You wrote: “So I think he saying, they should deliberate on any matter that is either not explicitly recorded in the Book or (even if it is recorded) anything that causes difference (the term connotes opposition, dispute etc rather than diversity) or is obscure. In the latter case, the outcome would be to turn obscurity into light: elucidation.”

    I disagree with the second part of this statement. The House cannot elucidate matters expressly recorded in the Book even if those matters have caused difference or are obscure. That would be elucidating the Book, an exclusive right of Abdul-Baha and the Guardian only. The House can only elucidate matters not expressly recorded in the Book and the Interpreter of the Word of God elucidates matters expressly recorded in the Book. The three phrases in the quote from the Will of Abdul-Baha in your above post are three different ways of saying the same thing. The problems that have caused difference and questions that are obscure refer to matters not expressly recorded in the Book.

  26. Sen said

    Thank you for the questions. I appreciate it, but don’t have time today to research an answer. Yes, I do think that elucidation must be non-binding: if it was binding, it would be legislation (or “enactment”). Perhaps the question about the kind of authority UHJ elucidations have is simply a wrong question: an elucidation doesn’t work by being obeyed, but by being understood: it casts light. The relevance of that light may still be limited to a period, being wrapped up with a piece of legislation that may later be changed.

    I continue to think that problems that have caused difference and questions that are obscure is one field of action and that matters not expressly recorded in the Book is another. But that’s a subtle implication in the Persian text, and I could be over-reading it. In addition, I reason that the Head of the Faith has to have the ability to act in relation to things that are explicitly recorded, but are still causing difference: how else could it preserve unity? For example, there is a great deal in the writings about the dual nature of the manifestation, the sense in which the Manifestation is called God and the sense in which he is “a man like yourself.” Nevertheless, this area has caused difference, and in one case that I know of the UHJ acted to preserve unity. It did not interpret the teachings, did not say who was right on the question, and neither it legislate, but it was effective. And there’s something about “being Bahai” that can be learned from such examples – but its neither doctrine nor law that they gave us.

  27. mashed potato said

    Shoghi Effendi has never said that the House can elucidate matters expressly revealed in the Book. In post 12 I have quoted his words from the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah and God Passes By. In those words he only refers to matters not explicitly revealed in the teachings/Aqdas/Baha’i writings. If the House had authority to elucidate matters explicitly revealed in the Book then Shoghi Effendi would have mentioned it in his writings.

  28. mashed potato said

    You wrote: “Yes, I do think that elucidation must be non-binding: if it was binding, it would be legislation (or “enactment”).”

    The legislations and elucidations of the Universal House of Justice are inseparable and therefore both are authoritative and binding on the Baha’is until they are amended or abrogated by the Universal House of Justice. The best analogy is the inseparable nature of the utterances of Baha’u’llah and their elucidations by an Interpreter of the Word of God.

  29. Sen said

    Shoghi Effendi has never said that the House can elucidate matters expressly revealed in the Book.

    That’s true, but you argue from what he did not say, not what he did say. The only thing Shoghi Effendi wrote on the topic is this:

    Touching the point raised in the Secretary’s letter regarding the nature and scope of the Universal Court of Arbitration, this and other similar matters will have to be explained and elucidated by the Universal House of Justice, to which, according to the Master’s explicit instructions, all important and fundamental questions must be referred. (Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 47)

    Abdu’l-Baha does not give the UHJ the power of elucidation except by implication in his Will and Testament. So far as I know Baha’u’llah doesn’t mention the House of Justice elucidating anything. The reason we and many others before us bat this around without reaching a conclusion is that the UHJ’s power of elucidation rests on such a slender non-specific basis. You could say the text above does not specifically say the UHJ can elucidate matters that are revealed in the book – I can say the text above does not forbid it, and I can note that the scope and powers and election methods and ultimate purpose of the International Tribunal are specifically mentioned in the Book and in the interpretations of Abdu’l-Baha, so these words show Shoghi Effendi did expect the UHJ to elucidate matters that are in the Book, but still obscure. I think my reading is stronger, but we must both realise that its simply an implication from a single letter whose original purpose was not to assert or explain the UHJ’s power of elucidation.

    What you quoted in comment 12 doesn’t help us at all: the quotes all refer to the UHJ’s legislation being limited to matters not revealed in the book – which is a clear principle.

    I have seen nothing so far that limits the scope of the UHJ’s elucidating and unifying functions to things not expressly stated in the scripture, and plenty of examples where it has elucidated things revealed in the scripture – not always correctly in my opinion but that’s another issue. For example, the UHJ’s legislative function is stipulated in the scripture, but the very letters from the UHJ about its elucidations that I’ve been quoting, cast a lot of light on its legislative function. At least they cast a lot of light for me, so I consider them elucidations of that aspect of the teachings. There’s the rub: if they don’t cast any light for you, they are not elucidating anything. I think the question of the possibility of ‘binding’ elucidations from the UHJ is a category error. Elucidation doesn’t work that way.

    In the quote above, Shoghi Effendi uses “explained and elucidated” as a parallel pair. If you think that the UHJ cannot elucidate anything that is expressly revealed, can you avoid the conclusion that they cannot explain anything that is expressly revealed? That would mean the UHJ cannot explain things like world unity, universal peace, the equality of men and women, race unity, the international tribunal, progressive revelation, monotheism. It could not explain or elucidate the Lesser Peace and the unity of nations – which it has done, but in two contradictory ways that are both incorrect (see ‘Century’s end‘ on this blog). In that example, in 1974 the UHJ thought something was explicit in the text (“Abdu’l-Baha anticipated that the Lesser Peace could be established before the end of the twentieth century”), and explained it, but they were wrong: the text does not say “twentieth century.” After 2000 the Research Department wrote: ““there is nothing in the authoritative Bahá’í Writings to indicate that the Lesser Peace would be established before the end of the twentieth century.”

    In light of the above, I still think – at least as a first approximation – that the elucidations and explanations of the UHJ are non-authoritative explanations that cast light on any matter, whether in the scripture, not in the scripture, thought to be in the scripture but actually not, or (a theoretical possibility so far) thought not to be explicitly covered in scripture, but later found to be already mentioned in scripture. The UHJ’s legislation often incorporates such explanations, but these explanations also appear in the course of UHJ’s work as head of the Faith and guardian of its unity and in representing the Bahai Faith to the World (the 1985 peace message for example).

  30. mashed potato said

    The point raised in the Secretary’s letter regarding the nature and scope of the Universal Court of Arbitration is a matter not expressly revealed in the Book and therefore needs to be elucidated by the House.

    Yes, the quotes from post 12 only talk of legislation and not elucidation, but the House has given the connection between the two viz. the elucidations stem from its legislative function. Since the legislative function of the House is to legislate on matters not expressly revealed in the teachings/Aqdas/Baha’i writings, it logically follows the elucidations of the House are restricted to matters not expressly revealed in the teachings/Aqdas/Baha’i writings.

    You wrote: “It could not explain or elucidate the Lesser Peace and the unity of nations – which it has done, but in two contradictory ways that are both incorrect (see ‘Century’s end‘ on this blog).”

    You believe the elucidation of the House was “incorrect” and therefore it is clear to me that you lack the necessary belief to call yourself a “Baha’i”.

  31. Sen said

    I think we can take it as a given that I am unworthy to be a Bahai, but that doesn’t really add to anyone’s understanding, does it?

    I am not entirely persuaded by your argument, first because I read the Will and Testament as referring to two spheres of action, not one, as I mentioned previously, and there’s nothing in that text to limit its elucidations: they just cover “matters that are obscure” and second because when the UHJ writes “The elucidations of the Universal House of Justice stem from its legislative function, and as such differ from interpretation.” (Dec 15, 1994) I am not clear that they mean that they can only elucidate when they are legislating. Could it not be that in addressing an issue, they find that it is already largely or entirely covered in the scriptures and the interpretations of the Guardian, and that legislation is therefore not required? Then all they need to do resolve the matter that is obscure, is cast the light of scripture on it. Isn’t this what they have actually done, in many cases? That is why the guidance they give is full of references to the scripture.

    On the other question, of whether the elucidations and explanations of the UHJ are always correct or are infallible (I think these are two different things), the Guardian has already covered this, stating that the Guardian “is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them [the UHJ] of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh’s revealed utterances.” (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 150)

    From this it is clear (it is elucidated, explained, by reference to the Guardian’s words) that there’s no guarantee that the UHJ will correctly understand the Bahai teachings. Indeed, if we had that assurance we would not have need the Master and the Guardian to give us authoritative interpretations. There is also no guarantee that the UHJ members will know all of the Bahai scriptures. The UHJ itself has written that it “is not omniscient; like the Guardian, it wants to be provided with facts when called upon to render a decision, and like him it may well change its decision when new facts emerge….” (Aug 22, 1977) The separation of Church and State is a case in point: Abdu’l-Baha wrote a book on the topic and in some of his talks (including one authenticated by a Persian source text), he stipulates that the separation of Church and State is one of the teachings of Baha’u’llah (see the second part of the Iqan for example). The various letters from the UHJ on the topic indicate that they are unaware of these works, or not aware of their relevance (in the case of the Iqan). The year 2000 issue is a contrary example, where the UHJ gave guidance on what it thought was authentic Bahai teaching, when it was not. I expect there will be no end of “new facts emerging” and the UHJ adjusting accordingly: whatever guidance it may receive it remains an institution in and for the contingent world.

  32. mashed potato said

    As a non-Baha’i you are free to believe the Universal House of Justice was/is incorrect. The non-Baha’i readers of your posts may even agree with you, but that is not the teaching of the Baha’i Faith. To a Baha’i the pronouncements of the Universal House of Justice are correct/infallible/true until they are altered by the House itself. I don’t expect a non-Baha’i to accept this belief.

  33. Sen said

    You are being more Catholic than the Pope, and this I think is because you treat correct, infallible and true as three synonyms. The Bahai teachings say that the UHJ will be protected by infallibility but not that what it says is either correct or true. That’s because “infallibility” is a term d’art, a term used in this particular context in a sense that is specific and different to its meaning in general discourse. For more on this, see
    Infallibility as freedom
    Infallibility and the meaning of khata’

    Infallibility and amputation in the Torah
    Just like the Catholics?

    For thoughts on the dynamics of doctrinal exaggeration in religious communities (becoming more Catholic than the Pope) see The Supreme Institutions. I am firmly convinced that exaggeration represents a greater danger to a small and new religious community than external attacks. Your comment is a good example: you make an assertion of Your Doctrine, without giving any scriptural backing, and define those who do not accept Your Doctrine as non-Bahais. Such an attitude, were it to become general, would destroy the community.

    On the specific claims that the pronouncements of the Universal House of Justice are correct and true, neither assertion is supported in the Bahai Writings. On the contrary, they are at least indirectly refuted. The Guardian has said that the Guardian “is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Baha’u’llah’s revealed utterances”, thus that the enactments of the UHJ are not always in line with Bahai teachings. The UHJ itself has said that “…the Universal House of Justice is not omniscient, and the friends should understand that there is a difference between infallibility and omniscience,” (Jun 14, 1996) thus that the statements it makes are not always true (or alternatively, that this particular statement is untrue and all the others are true… but I doubt anybody will argue that). I suggest you should try to reshape your understanding of the UHJ and the weight of its statements within these parameters, and especially that you should refrain from making pronouncements on who is and is not a Bahai.

  34. mashed potato said

    You wrote: “The Bahai teachings say that the UHJ will be protected by infallibility but not that what it says is either correct or true” and “On the specific claims that the pronouncements of the Universal House of Justice are correct and true, neither assertion is supported in the Bahai Writings.”

    Now read this:

    “Unto the Most Holy Book every one must turn, and all that is not expressly recorded therein must be referred to the Universal House of Justice. That which this body, whether unanimously or by a majority doth carry, that is verily the TRUTH and the purpose of God Himself.” (Will of Abdul-Baha)

    I have written the word “truth” in capital to highlight it. Here is the definition of the word “truth” according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary:

    “b : a judgment, proposition, or idea that is TRUE or accepted as TRUE c : the body of TRUE statements and propositions”

    Again I have written the word “true” in capital to highlight it.

  35. Sen said

    The Will and Testament says:

    Unto the Most Holy Book every one must turn, and all that is not expressly recorded therein must be referred to the Universal House of Justice. That which this body, whether unanimously or by a majority doth carry, that is verily the truth and the purpose of God Himself.

    Yet the UHJ says:

    The major distinction between the two functions is that legislation with its resultant outcome of elucidation is susceptible of amendment by the House of Justice itself, whereas the Guardian’s interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied. (Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 646)

    When we find two apparently contradictory things in the Writings, we have to search further for a larger framework that incorporates both. It is when we seize hold of one or other verse, or on a particular word that we think we understand, that we find contradictions everywhere. The same approach will find contradictions throughout the Bible and the Quran.

    ‘Truth’ as we normally use the term is not something determined by a vote and overturned by a different vote. It is this everyday meaning of truth that the UHJ uses when it says “the Guardian’s interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied” – in contrast to its own functions which are not statements of truth in this sense. But there is at least one other place in the Bahai Writings where ‘truth’ is apparently able to be changed by decree, in the Ishraqat. In my translation:

    Were He to pronounce upon water the decree of wine (i.e., that it is forbidden) or upon heaven the decree of earth, or upon light the decree of fire, it is the truth [haqq = truth, reality, legal right] and there is no doubt about it; …
    (Cf Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 108)

    I’ve discussed this further in context on this blog in ‘Infallibility as freedom.’ In short, it is the Manifestation’s freedom to change the religious law that is being asserted. Heaven and earth, fire and light, wine and water are not identical and cannot be made identical by decree, but the *religious* decree about them – the religious teaching and law – can be changed. The Manifestation who changes them is protected (ma`sum) from the accusation of error, whereas if one of us does that, not just our fellow-believers but also God will treat it as a sin. Similarly if the House of Justice makes religious law, or the Guardian gives an authoritative interpretation of the Bahai teachings, they are protected from the accusation of sin, error, etc.. both in the community and in the eyes of God.

    Now to return to the Will and Testament, Abdu’l-Baha writes : “That which this body, whether unanimously or by a majority doth carry (tahaqquq yabad), that is verily the truth (haqq) and the purpose of God Himself.”

    In the case of a Manifestation who determines what is haqq/truth, it can be religious law (water and wine) or religious teachings (heaven and earth) that are redefined, since the Manifestation has authority over both spheres. But in the case of the Guardian, it is religious teaching and not religious law that is redefined, and in the case of the UHJ, it is religious law and not religious teachings that it defines. Its sphere of action is “what is to be done” (15 December 1994), not “what the revealed Word means.”

    Another place where haqq has a similar sense in the writings of Abdu’l-Baha is here (translated by Shoghi Effendi):

    in His reign justice will be so advanced that righteousness and well-doing (haqq) will extend from the human even to the animal world…
    (Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 45)

    Elsewhere in the Will and Testament, haqq is translated as “the common weal” :

    Should any of the members commit a sin, injurious to the common weal, the Guardian of the Cause of God hath at his own discretion the right to expel him

    Now perhaps it is clear how Abdu’l-Baha can say that “That which this body, … doth carry, that is verily the truth” yet Shoghi Effendi can assert that an enactment (that which this body has carried), may “conflict with the meaning and … depart from the spirit of Baha’u’llah’s revealed utterances,” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 150) and why he asserts that if the UHJ does depart from the Bahai teachings in this way, its ruling is nevertheless valid and to be obeyed (“he cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members..”). If we see that haqq refers to a religious truth or decree that is defined for the religious community (and not for example a truth of history or science), and that in the Bahai faith doctrine and law are separated, and it is only law that is defined by the UHJ, then there’s no contradiction here. Truth in this context refers to the validity of the laws for the religious community, not to a doctrine that the faithful must accept.

  36. mashed potato said

    The “truth” pronounced by the House can change because time changes the needs of society.

    Concerning the Guardian asking for a reconsideration of an enactment of the House, the Guardian is not infallible while legislating as a member of the House. His infallibility lies in interpreting what has been specifically revealed. When legislating as a member of the House it is the majority’s judgment that is infallible.

    Also concerning my calling you a non-Baha’i. This had nothing to do with the fact you consider the House to be incorrect. It is my personal interpretation that the House changed your status from a Baha’i to a non-Baha’i when it removed you from the Baha’i community.

  37. mashed potato said

    In your post 35 you have quoted a statement from the House. Since you believe the House can be incorrect how do you know for certain this statement by the House is correct? Do you use your own judgment to decide which statements of the House are correct and which ones are incorrect?

  38. Sen said

    So far as I know, the UHJ does not decide or announce that people are or are not Bahais. It decides who can be a member of the Bahai community of which it is the head. That power stipulated in its constitution.

    I think that the idea someone has to hold particular beliefs to be a Bahai or a member of the community is imported baggage. Many of the major religions and religious communities work that way: they are known as orthodoxies. Others require certain practices to be performed: these religions are known as orthopraxies. As I understand it, the Bahai Faith is neither. Being a Bahai is defined by turning to Baha’u’llah as a Manifestation, Abdu’l-Baha as the interpreter and exemplar he appointed, Shoghi Effendi as authorised interpreter of the Writings and head of the community in his day, and the House of Justice as the one authorised to make Bahai law and as the head of the community today. That describes me, so I am a Bahai. Membership of the community is additional to that, and it is a privilege, not a right.

    Your interpretation, if I understand it correctly, is that Shoghi Effendi expected that he would somehow lose his infallibility when he was meeting with the UHJ, but regain it when he left the meeting? It sounds very far-fetched to me. Isn’t it more reasonable to suppose that Shoghi Effendi meant that the UHJ might pass an enactment not in accordance with spirit of the Teachings, but it would still be binding? Here’s the text again:

    He cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members, but is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Bahá’u’lláh’s revealed utterances. (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 150)

    Quotes from the UHJ about its own functioning, for example saying that it is not omniscient, I take to be the best practical insight we have. Also, to argue that the UHJ really is omniscient except that it doesn’t know it is omniscient would seem a logical absurdity. Nevertheless, it is not a Bahai teaching that “the UHJ is not omniscient” unless that statement can be found somewhere in the writings or authorised interpretations. It may be 100% certain (since the reverse is ridiculous), but not a doctrine. To make it a doctrine because it’s what the UHJ says, would be to shove the UHJ into the shoes of the Guardian. On the other hand, something can be a doctrine but not 100% demonstrable.

    You write: “The “truth” pronounced by the House can change because time changes the needs of society.” That’s exactly my point in post 35: even to the punctuation. This does not mean actual truth, rather it means that a decision corresponds to the needs of the community and society. It is not a truth in the sense of a statement that — properly understood — compels assent. In the case of an enactment not in accordance with the Bahai teachings, both the enactment and the teaching remain valid, and there is a tension between them. A Bahai (including an unenrolled Bahai) is obliged to uphold the teaching and obey the enactment. Such tensions at some level (not necessarily outright contraction) are inevitable, because in the contingent world we are always on the way towards an ideal that fully expresses truths, for example, towards a society that expresses the truth of human unity. Enactments exist in the contingent world, truths in the spiritual world, total congruence is impossible.

  39. mashed potato said

    Shoghi Effendi in one letter explained the qualifications of a true believer which I am sure you know about. One of the principal factors he writes is “close association with the spirit as well as the form of the present-day Baha’i administration throughout the world”. Why would the House deprive an individual of taking part in the Baha’i Administration, thus depriving him/her a factor of a true believer, unless it is certain the individual cannot be considered a Baha’i because of his/her beliefs? So I do think it is the right of every individual who possesses the necessary beliefs to be part of the Baha’i community and thus fulfil one of the factors of a true believer. You are free to call yourself a Baha’i as that is your right, but as far as Baha’i institutions and Baha’is are concerned you are a non-Baha’i. Again this is my personal opinion.

  40. Sen said

    By that standard, the Bahais of Iran and several other countries it’s wiser not to name, are not Bahais.

    Membership rolls and enrollment are an administrative matter, introduced in various countries starting around 1920, and not possible everywhere. I am associated with the spirit of Bahai administration in exactly the same way as the Iranian Bahais: I defend it, obey it, and would participate in it if I could.

    You are free to think what you wish personally, but should not claim to speak for the Bahai institutions in the way you have. The UHJ has disenrolled various people, but so far as I know it has never said of any of them, that they are not Bahais. Nor does the UHJ characterise people according to their beliefs: it is not empowered to determine Bahai doctrine, so how could it? I think you are borrowing ways of thinking derived from orthopraxies, such as Christian churches, with their creeds and heresy trials. The Bahai Faith is not just a different religion, it is a different kind of religion to those we are used to. In my previous comment, I did my best to describe it, for so far as I know there is no English word for such a religion.

  41. Sen, from sometime I thought like XX, i.e., women could serve as members of the UHJ if we had a living Guardian, but now I think it is not what the Guardian believed.

    Corinne True is her 1902 letter to the Master asked about the law of Bahá’u’lláh stated in the Aqdas in Arabic that she couldn’t understand. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá replied that the law of God only excludes women from the General عامة House of Justice, although He uses the term “General” `umumi and not Universal Azam اعظم He uses `umumi in the Will and Testament to refer to the Universal House of Justice.

    Shoghi Effendi many times responded that we will know the wisdom behind this prohibition, but so far, after 111 years nobody knows.

  42. Sen said

    I do not claim to know the intended wisdom, or whether wisdom here means a temporary accomodation to social conditions, for the safety of the community. But I do see how a prohibition on women on the Universal House of Justice can be put to good effect, so long as it is in place. If the Universal House of Justice were to appoint only women to the International Teaching Centre, the delegates at international convention would be unable to continue the custom of electing members of the UHJ from the men working in the ITC. The delegates would be forced to look further afield, and we might get some members of the UHJ with deep administrative experience, from serving on NSAs. Tha, imv, would be a very good thing for the UHJ and the community, and would turn a liability into an asset, in the teaching work.

  43. Hasan Elías said

    Nice reflection, Sen, but do you think it is necessary? Why not the opposite: only women to the UHJ? If the answer is “they will be no ready in 1000 years” then it has no sense.

  44. Sen said

    Only women on the UHJ, and only men on the ITC would work in the same way, in breaking the closed cycle of the UHJ appointing ITC members who are then elected to the UHJ.

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