Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Abdu’l-Baha on religious law and the House of Justice

Posted by Sen on November 22, 2010

This tablet by Abdu’l-Baha, dated around 1899, responds to detailed questions, “concerning the wisdom of referring some important laws to the House of Justice.” Abdu’l-Baha replies that, in principle, the Baha’i Faith is similar to Christianity, whose scriptures also specify only a few laws.

The Bahai Faith, he says, has little connection to worldly concerns. Religion’s primary function is to refine characters and bring light in darkness. However the Bahai scriptures do specify some foundations of our religious law, leaving subsidiary matters to the divinely-inspired House of Justice, which can make ‘cultural laws,’ (ahkaam madaniyyih) in accordance with time and circumstance. In Islam, this power was in the hands of diverse divines, resulting in conflicting rules. In the Bahai Faith, only the rulings of the Houses of Justice are binding, and the Houses of Justice change their rulings from time to time. This principle applies to a local, national or international House of Justice.

Abdu’l-Baha gives two examples of the advantage of flexibility in religious law: the forbidden degrees of marriage and the punishments for breaches of the religious law. The first should be decided by the House of Justice according to social customs and medical requirements, wisdom, and suitability for human nature (the first three of which are specific to a time and place). Punishments likewise cannot remain the same forever, as can be seen in Judaism and Islam, where the punishments specified in scripture are no longer socially acceptable.

I have placed my commentary on some underlined phrases in the first ‘comment’ attached to this posting, along with references to the Persian sources and to four previous translations I have consulted, and some personal reflections. Notes on the differences between the three Persian sources I used are in the second comment.

He is the All-Glorious

1. O you who are clinging to the hem of the Covenant, your composition in rhymed prose has arrived, and the detailed questions were considered, although a host of calamities have affected my limbs and members and joints like deadly poison, to such an extent that the pen is withheld from writing and the tongue from speaking. The pressure of work is such that it is indescribable. However, in view of the fervent affection that this servant has for that gentleman, and in accord with the divine command, a perfectly clear, concise, and beneficial spiritual answer will be given.

2. On this topic, and its elements, multiplicity of utterance is acceptable and desirable, so that through clarifications and elucidation, interpretation and unfolding symbolic meanings, scriptural commentary and interpretations of inner meanings, a hundred doors may be opened from each of its courts of meaning. “If the worlds were turned to paper, they would not suffice.”

3. You have asked concerning the wisdom of referring some important laws to the House of Justice. It is true that this divine dispensation is purely heavenly and spiritual, and concerned with matters of the soul. It has very little connection to the physical and temporal or to worldly concerns. Likewise, the dispensation of his Holiness Christ was purely spiritual, and the Gospel consisted entirely of spiritual laws and heavenly morals, except for the prohibition of divorce and the allusion to the abrogation of the Sabbath. As He has said,
the Son of man came not to judge the world but to save the world.” (John 12:47)
And today, this most great cycle is also purely spiritual and confers eternal life. For the head cornerstone of the religion of God is to refine characters, regenerate personal qualities and reform manners. Its purpose is that those kept back by veils may attain the station of Seeing, and realities darkened by defects may become illumined. All other ordinances are offshoots of faith and certitude, of assurance and spiritual understanding.

4. Despite what has been said, this blessed dispensation, being the greatest of all the heavenly dispensations, embraces all matters, spiritual and corporeal, with perfect power and sovereignty. Thus the broader issues that are the foundation of the religious law are explicitly stated, but subsidiary matters are left to the House of Justice. The wisdom of this is that time does not stand still: change and transformation are essential attributes and necessities of this world, and of time and place. Therefore the House of Justice implements decisions accordingly.

5. At the same time, do not suppose that the House of Justice will make just any ruling, according to its own concepts and opinions. God forbid! The Supreme House of Justice will issue rulings and laws through the inspiration and confirmation of the Holy Spirit, because it is under the guardianship, protection and care of the Ancient Beauty. Whatever it may decide must be obeyed, as a God-given duty, indisputable, incumbent, and imperative for everybody. There is no recourse from it, for anyone.

6. Say: O people, verily the Supreme House of Justice is under the wings of your Lord, the Compassionate, the All-Merciful. It is under His protection, preservation, care and guardianship, for He has commanded the firm believers to obey that goodly, pure company, that sanctified and preeminent body. Its sovereignty is spiritual sovereignty in the Kingdom of Heaven, and its laws draw on spiritual inspiration.

7. Briefly, this is the purpose and wisdom of referring ‘cultural laws’ to the House of Justice. Similarly, in Islamic religious law not every ordinance was explicitly revealed; not even a thousandth part. Although all important questions were mentioned, undoubtedly half a million laws were never mentioned. Later the divines drew their conclusions on the basis of fundamental principles, with individual divines drawing conflicting conclusions from the original religious law, and these were enforced.

8. Today this process of deduction is entrusted to the board of the House of Justice, and the personal deductions and inferences of scholars have no authority, unless they are endorsed by the House of Justice. The difference is this, that [the deductions and endorsements of the House of Justice, whose members are chosen and accepted by the entire religious community, will not give rise to conflict, whereas] the deductions drawn by individual divines and scholars immediately led to contention, and were the cause of schism, dispersion and factions. Unity of doctrine was destroyed, the unity of the Faith of God was undone, the edifice of the Law of God was shaken.

9. As for the matter of marriage, this falls entirely within the ‘cultural laws.’ Nevertheless, its preconditions are found in the Law of God, and its fundamentals are evident. However those unions between relatives that are not explicitly treated, are referred to the House of Justice, which will give a ruling based on the culture, medical requirements, wisdom, and the capacity of human nature. Culture, medical science, and human nature leave no doubt that in marriage, “distance is nearer than nearness.” In this light, consider the religious law of Christianity. Although marriage to relatives was in reality permitted, since no ban on it had been explicitly revealed, the early Christian councils entirely forbade marriages between relatives, to the seventh degree, and even today this is the practice in all Christian communions, since this question is purely a matter of culture.

10. In short, whatever ruling the House of Justice makes in this respect, is the decisive decree, it is God’s sharp sword. No one may transgress that limit. If you consider, it will be apparent how much this rule (that is, referring cultural laws to the House of Justice) is consistent with wisdom. For whenever a difficulty may arise in relation to the local context of an issue, since the House of Justice delivered the previous ruling, the secondary House of Justice can issue a new national ruling on the national case and instance, in the light of local contingencies. “Consultation with all, wards off danger.” This is because the House of Justice is entitled to abrogate what it itself has decided.

11. Another example is that the Qur’an referred issues of facultative punishments to the will of “those invested with authority.” (Quran 4:59) There was no specific Text regarding the severity of facultative punishments; they depended entirely on the one vested with authority, and their severity ranged from chiding to execution. This largely defined the scope of policy in the Muslim community.

12. In brief, the foundation of this most great dispensation has been designed in such a way that its laws can remain appropriate to and consonant with all ages and eras, unlike the bygone religious laws, whose implementation is unattainable and impossible today. For example, consider the laws of the Torah. Today, they definitely cannot be implemented, for they include ten capital offenses. Likewise, Islamic religious requires the amputation of a hand for the theft of ten dirhams. Is it possible to enforce such a law today? No, by God! But this holy, divine, law of God is appropriate to all hours, times and ages.
Thus have we made you a religious community, as a middle way, so that you may be witnesses before the people and the Apostle may be a witness for you.” (Quran 2:143).

13. Recite the eloquent poems and chant the exquisite verses with such agreeable contents that have been composed. In reality, they are worthy of being chanted in the assemblies of divine unity. Glory be upon you.
AA

Sources, translations, comments and reflections >>

Short link to this page: http://wp.me/pcgF5-1xf

About these ads

2 Responses to “Abdu’l-Baha on religious law and the House of Justice”

  1. Sen said



    Sources

    The Persian text is included in a collection of hand-copied tablets, in the Iranian National Bahai Archives, volume 59;
    http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/areprint/ab/G-L/I/inba59/59IBA275.gif (INBA 59),

    in Ishraq-Khavari’s thematic collection of Bahai Writings, Amr wa Khalq, volume 4 page 299
    http://reference.bahai.org/fa/t/c/AK4/ak4-302.html

    and more recently in Rahiiq-e Makhtum volume 1 pages 222-223, published in 2007 but reproducing texts originally collected by Ishraq-Khavari.

    The INBA version is complete, Amr wa Khalq lacks the first and last paragraph, and Rahiiq-e Makhtum gives only an extract. Of the two older texts, the stronger appears to be the INBA text, which Cole thinks is copied about 1900, soon after Abdu’l-Baha’s letter was written. However in this version, the copyist has skipped two lines at one point. The copyist of the Amr wa Khalq version, on the other hand, has skipped individual words in several places, without affecting the meaning substantially, and has included the section that is missing in the INBA version.
     
     

    Translations

    A translation of a section of the letter is published in the introduction to the English translation of the Kitab-e Aqdas, pages 4-5, and this extract and more is cited by the Universal House of Justice in a letter to Mr. Ron House, 18 April 2001, pages 2-3
    http://bahai-library.com/uhj/takfir.html

    A translation by Ali Kuli Khan was circulated in typescript in the American Bahai community, attached to the notes he made of his pilgrimage. This omits some of the first paragraphs, but is otherwise complete.

    Juan Cole’s translation is published in Translations of Shaykhi, Babi and Baha’i Texts, vol. 5, no. 1 (January 2001)
    http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/trans/vol5/tazir/tazir.htm
    and includes a scan of the INBA (Iranian National Bahai Archives) manuscript copy.

    Moojan Momen’s translation is available on his web site
    http://www.northill.demon.co.uk/relstud/cole-trans.htm
    and is in itself good, although not very readable. However he has failed to draw on the Bahai World Centre’s translation or that of Ali Kuli Khan, or on Shoghi Effendi’s translation of a critical term, and his commentary focuses on disputes with Juan Cole about certain terms, at considerable length, reducing its usefulness for general purposes. What we want to know, after all, is what Abdu’l-Baha said, not which scholar said what and why it was wrong.

    I have compared the three source texts mentioned above, and I have used all of these translations as well as drawing on the World Centre’s CTA database of Shoghi Effendi’s translations throughout.
     
     

    Comments

    Unlike Cole, I do not think that the question asked, and the main theme of this tablet, is “the possible theocratic implications of the legislative role of the house of justice.” (See http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/trans/vol5/tazir/tazir2.htm ). That religion is essentially spiritual and moral, and not worldly, or primarily a question of laws, is specifically stated, but is not I think the main theme. The question asked, which is summarised in the letter itself as “the wisdom of referring some important laws to the House of Justice,” must have been something like, why do the Bahai laws not specify the forbidden relationships of marriage (our opponents are saying that the marriage of close relatives is permitted to Bahais). The answer expands from that issue to explain not only the wisdom of leaving some matters undefined in scripture, but also the virtue of having these gaps filled in not by scholars and theologians, but by the House of Justice.

    ‘a host of calamities’ (paragraph 1)

    The Arabic word means dangers or calamities, but when used in Persian it also has the possible connotation of a malign influence or secret grudge held by someone, perhaps referring obliquely to the various machinations of Mirza Muhammad Ali. Abdu’l-Baha concealed these from the Bahais outside Palestine until about 1899, which is the conjectured date of composition for this tablet. (Back to paragraph 1 >>)

    ‘Multiplicity of utterance’ (paragraph 2)

    The words (in Arabic) are also used as an epithet for the Quran, which ‘embraces all meanings.’ But if that is the meaning here, a verb has been omitted.
    (Back to paragraph 2 >>)

    ‘a hundred doors may be opened’ (paragraph 2)

    The image plays on the double meaning of bab, as a gate or door, or as a subject or chapter in a written work.
    (Back to paragraph 2 >>)

    ‘cultural laws’ (paragraph 7)

    The term is ahkaam-i madaniyyih. Another accurate, but less elegant, translation would be ‘laws of civil life.’
    (Back to paragraph 7 >>)

    There has been a lot of discussion, because the term is genuinely difficult to translate. Madaniyyih derives from the word for a city, so the term has something to do with our ordered collective life. Ali Kuli Khan gives three alternative translations: civil laws, secular ordinances and administrative ordinances. In paragraph 9 he uses ‘laws of civil society’ and ‘rules of civilization.’ The World Centre translation has ‘the laws of society.’ Momen has ‘social ordinances,’ ‘social law’ and ‘principles of civilization.’ Cole has ‘personal status ordinances’ ‘personal status law’ and ‘principles of civilization,’ of which the first two cannot be considered translations of ahkaam-i madaniyyih. However on the one occasion that I know of, on which Shoghi Effendi uses this term in his Persian letters, the reference is to the Iranian government adopting a new civil code covering nationality and family law, partly borrowed from European sources, in 1928 (see http://reference.bahai.org/fa/t/se/TM2/tm2-135.html#pg110; and my Family Law in Iran page 13 (PDF available at http://www.sonjavank.com/sen/articles.htm).

    I have chosen to use ‘cultural laws,’ a term that does not sound familiar, so that it can be read as a Bahai technical term, the meaning of which must be derived from the Bahai writings, and from this tablet in particular. ‘Cultural laws’ appears to be a classification within the Bahai religious law, supplementing at least three other distinctions: between the eternal teachings of religions and those that change in each dispensation, between laws referring to dealings between people and those that relate to matters of worship, and between laws for which compliance is supervised by the Bahai Administrative Order and laws of individual conscience and practice. From this tablet, we can see that religious laws of this class are not a point of religious doctrine, but are necessary to facilitate collective life, and can therefore be adapted to meet needs and customs of a particular country and culture, and adapted again as scientific understanding, social conditions and the requirements of wisdom may dictate. In paragraph 9, where madaniyyih is used as a noun, I have translated it with ‘the culture.’

    Another good literal translation of ahkaam-i madaniyyih would be ‘civilizational laws.’ However Abdu’l-Baha appears to envision not one law governing a whole civilization, but rather national (or possibly local) Houses of Justice adapting the ‘cultural laws’ to local circumstances.

    The translation ‘laws of society’ faces two objections:
    - it could imply a form of temporal power, which is a contradiction with what Abdu’l-Baha has just stated, that the sovereignty of the House of Justice”is spiritual sovereignty in the Kingdom of Heaven;”
    - if Abdu’l-Baha had meant ‘laws of society’ he could have used jami`yat or jaam`e, which he does use in this sense in sections 3 and 5 of his Sermon on the Art of Governance. There, ‘society’ refers to human society rather than the particular society of a particular people, or of a particular religious community, and Abdu’l-Baha specifies that “Just monarchs, accomplished representatives, wise ministers, and intrepid military leaders constitute the executive centre in this power of governance.”

    ‘the seventh degree’ (paragraph 9)

    The rule of seven degrees was applied at least as early as the pontificate of Gregory III (731-741). At that time the degrees of relationship were calculated by adding the generations to a common ancestor on both sides, so that first cousins are related to the fourth degree (two generations on each side). (Back to paragraph 9 >>)

    ‘relating to the local context of the issue.’ (paragraph 10)

    This is a translation crux: the text can be read amr-e iljaa’, a Persian phrase referring to the process of submitting a matter to God and submitting to His will, protecting, or defending from evil (Steingass’ dictionary), or amr al-jaa’, in Arabic, meaning a local matter. If the first of these is taken, the translation would be ‘such that one must turn to God for an answer on that issue.’ I have chose the second, because the plural of this term appears in the next sentence (translated ‘local contingencies’) and because of the references to a specific House of Justice that follow, indicating that Abdu’l-Baha is not speaking of the Universal House of Justice, which can make different rulings at different times, but rather about the local or national institutions, which may make different rulings for different settings, and change these over time. Ali Kuli Khan translates this “[whenever]…an unexpected phase may come up,” which would be correct if the text read be-jaa’i, but neither the INBA nor the Amr wa Khalq versions allow this. Cole translates “that must be referred for deliberation,” Momen translates “because a compelling circumstance has arisen.” And God knows best.
    (Back to paragraph 10 >>)

    ‘the secondary House of Justice’ (paragraph 10)

    Abdu’l-Baha uses this term in his Will and Testament to refer to national Houses of Justice, which we know today as the National Spiritual Assemblies. However this tablet was written before the Will and Testament. The term here could mean simply ‘that specific House of Justice,’ whichever it was that issued the original ruling, or it might mean ‘the specific (not the Universal) House of Justice,’ leaving open the question of whether this means a local or a national body.
    (Back to paragraph 10 >>)

    “a new national ruling” (paragraph 10)

    Literally, a new specific ruling, see the previous note. (Back to paragraph 10 >>)

    ‘facultative punishments’ (paragraph 11)

    The Quran does specify punishments for a few crimes; the remainder are classed as facultative, as Abdu’l-Baha says here. (Back to paragraph 11 >>)

    ‘the scope of policy’ (madar-e siyasat, paragraph 11)

    Siyaasat is ‘policy’ in the specific sense of choosing punishments (and sometimes rewards) to achieve social ends. In the Lawh-e Hikmat, Shoghi Effendi translates it ‘wise administration.’ In his translation of this tablet, Ali Kuli Khan uses ‘the administration of affairs.’ (Back to paragraph 11 >>)
     
     

    Reflections

    The tablet seems to reflect a polemic setting, in which Muslim opponents have criticized the Bahai Faith for having a deficient religious law, compared to their own. Iranian anti-Bahai propaganda today includes the charge that Bahai men can marry their daughters, and brothers their sisters, since the Aqdas does not forbid this. That was one reason for deciding to blog this translation now. It gives us three good answers: (1) Christian religious law is also not scripturally specified, but this hasn’t led Christian communities to immorality, and doesn’t mean that Christianity is a deficient religion. (2) In fact, Islamic religious law is also far from fully specified in scripture: 99% has been derived by religious scholars on the basis of scripture, reason, and the example and words of the Prophet and his family and companions. (3) Leaving the details to the House of Justice is preferable both from the point of view of allowing a flexible response to cultural specifics and change over time, and from the point of view of preserving unity.

    I am struck by Abdu’l-Baha’s recognition of a class of what religions have usually treated as ‘morality’ which is doctrinally indifferent, and not in fact an issue of true morality. Matters such as whether first or second cousins may marry, or what punishments should be applied, can be changed (or left undefined by the religious community) without affecting the core of religion’s social function, which is “to refine characters, regenerate personal qualities and reform manners.” The distinction between cultural commands and prohibition, and morality is a modern, or even post-modern, one.

    This tablet appears to offer a House of Justice room to make a ruling in response to the new phenomenon of state-recognized, and socially-accepted, same-sex marriages. National and even local responses are required, because while in some societies homosexuality is an occasion for scandal, for cultural reasons, in others the refusal to accept same-sex unions is a scandal, based on the more fundamental principle of human equality and individual dignity.

  2. Sen said

    Notes on differences in the source texts

    Paragraph 3:
    The Bahai World Centre’s authorised translation begins with this paragraph: I have not followed it entirely. The Persian text in Amr wa Khalq vol 4 p 298 and Rahiq-e Makhtum p 222 also begin here. The preceding two paragraphs are found only in the INBA text.

    ‘It is true that’ (paragraph 3)
    The INBA text has ‘aan’ (that) where Amr wa Khalq and Rahiq-e Makhtum have ‘in’ (this), the first seems more likely, hence the translation “it is true that” rather than “before all else.”

    ‘It has very little connection’ (paragraph 3)
    The INBA and Amr wa Khalq texts have an indefinite -ii appended to ta`alluq, which is missing in Rahiq-e Makhtum.

    ‘worldly concerns’ (paragraph 3)
    The INBA text raises the hamza on a Y, the Amr wa Khalq on a W. The difference is purely orthographical, but may be useful in tracing textual history.

    ‘his Holiness Christ’ (paragraph 3)
    Hazrat (his Holiness) is omitted in the Amr wa Khalq and Rahiq-e Makhtum versions.

    ‘but to save the world.’ (paragraph 3)
    The Amr wa Khalq version omits “but to save the world.”

    ‘eternal life’ (paragraph 3)
    INBA: zendagaanii; Amr wa Khalq zendagii.

    ‘The wisdom of this’ (paragraph 4)
    INBA: hikmat-e iin, iin ast; Amr wa Khalq: hikmat iin ast. The meaning is not affected.

    ‘implements decisions’ (paragraph 4)
    INBA: majraa’; Amr wa Khalq: ijraa’. The meaning is not affected; both forms of the word are used at other places in this tablet.

    ‘God-given duty’ (paragraph 5)
    The INBA text has a series of four terms all linked by wa, the Rahiiq-e Makhtum and Amr wa Khalq texts have two ezafe pairs. I have used the INBA version (as has Momen): the difference is only greater rhetorical emphasis.

    ‘sanctified and preeminent body’ (paragraph 6)
    ‘Sanctified’ is omitted in Amr wa Khalq.

    ‘Later the divines’ (paragraph 7)
    Rahiq-e Makhtum omits `ulama (the divines)

    ‘the deductions and endorsements of the House of Justice, whose members are chosen and accepted by the entire religious community, will not give rise to conflict, whereas’ (Paragraph 8)
    This text is not in the INBA 59 version, but is in the Amr wa Khalq version (page 300) and in the version in Rahiq-e Makhtum (page 223). The sense requires something like this, and its omission in INBA can be explained by the copyist skipping from one ‘istinbaat’ (the deductions drawn by the House of Justice), to the following reference to the ‘istinbaat’ of individual divines. Ali Kuli Khan’s translation includes this phrase.
    The Rahiq-e Makhtum version has ‘of the board of the House of Justice,’ while the Amr wa Khalq version has simply ‘of the House of Justice.’

    ‘led to contention’ (paragraph 8)
    In the Amr wa Khalq text, the verb has the conditional form, while in INBA and Rahiq-e Makhtum it is in the past tense.

    ‘As for the matter of marriage’(paragraph 9)
    The Amr wa Khalq text inserts a ‘wa,’ and omits amr (matter, command) here; the meaning is not greatly affected.

    ‘its preconditions’ (paragraph 9)
    The -ash ending (‘its’) is omitted in the Amr wa Khalq version, which has sharutii … wa arkaanash whereas INBA has sharutash … wa arkaanash. The meaning is not affected.

    ‘are referred’ (paragraph 9)
    The Amr wa Khalq version has an -ast (‘is/are’) here, which is omitted in the INBA version. The meaning is not affected.

    ‘the Qur’an referred’ (paragraph 11)
    Another orthographic difference here: INBA has bud while Amr wa Khalq has budeh.

    ‘no specific Text’ (paragraph 11)
    INBA has nasusi, Amr wa Khalq has nasus.

    ‘Is it possible to enforce’ (paragraph 12)
    The Amr wa Khalq text omits ijraa (enforcement) here, but it is required by the sense.

    Quran 2:143 (paragraph 12)
    The Amr wa Khalq text ends here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 147 other followers

%d bloggers like this: