“Matters of State” or “administrative matters”: the scope of the House of Justice
Posted by Sen on November 5, 2011
[Updated May 2012]
In 2008, I posted an entry about the translation of the Eighth Ishraq, which is the eighth section of one of Baha’u'llah’s shorter works, the Ishraqat or Splendours. The posting explained why I thought that the 1978 translation was incorrect where it says “All matters of State (‘umuur-e siyaasiyyah) should be referred to the House of Justice.” The earlier translation by Ali Kuli Khan, “Administrative affairs are all in charge of the House of Justice, and devotional acts must be observed according as they are revealed in the Book” was, I thought, more accurate, and more consistent with other works by Abdu’l-Baha and Baha’u'llah.
A new archival discovery by Steve Cooney, a Bahai scholar living in New Zealand, has made that posting redundant, for he found a translation of part of the Tablet of Ishraqat, by Shoghi Effendi, published in The Dawn: a monthly Bahai Journal of Burma, Vol. II, No. 7, March, 1925. The relevant section reads:
The eighth Ishraq: This passage, now written by the Pen of Glory, is accounted as part of the Most Holy Book. The men of God’s House of Justice have been charged with the affairs of the people in every State. They in truth are the trustees of God amongst His servants, and the manifestation of His authority in His realms. O people of God! The educator of mankind is Justice, for it rests upon the twin pillars of Reward and Punishment – pillar that are the very source of life to the world. Inasmuch as for every day there is a new problem and for every problem an expedient solution, such affairs should be referred to the house of Justice, that the members thereof may act according to the needs and requirements of the time. They that for the sake of God arise to serve His Cause are recipients of Divine Inspiration. It is incumbent upon all to be obedient unto them. Administrative affairs should be referred to the House of Justice, but acts of worship must be observed according as they are revealed by God in His Book. O peole [people] of Baha! Ye are the manifestations of the love of God and the daysprings of His loving kindness. Defile not your tongue with the cursing and reviling of any soul, and guard your eyes against that which is not seemly. Show forth that which is within you, if it be well received your end is gained, if not to protest is vain. Leave him to himself, and turn unto the Lord, the Protector, the Self-subsisting. Be ye not the cause of grief, much less of discord and strife. The hope is cherished that ye may obtain true education under the shadow of the Tree of Divine Providence, and act in accordance with that which God desireth. Ye are all leaves of one tree, and drops of one ocean.
In addition, Shoghi Effendi’s translation of the parallel text in the Tablet of Bisharat (the 13th Bisharat) reads:
Administrative affairs are all in charge of the House of Justice; but acts of worship must be observed according as they are revealed in the Book.
(The Baha’i World, Volume 11 (1946-1950), page 67)
Shoghi Effendi’s translation will naturally supersede that by Habib Taherzadeh, and the question of whether Baha’u'llah really said that matters of state should be referred to the House of Justice — and what he might have meant by it if he did say this — can be consigned to the dustbin. Nevertheless, I’ve left the version of this entry from April 12, 2008, as amended to 2010, below, for those who wish to trace the reasoning behind the translation options. While Shoghi Effendi’s newly discovered translation matches mine, there is no guarantee that Shoghi Effendi followed the same reasoning as I have.
A word should be said about Shoghi Effendi’s translation “The men of God’s House of Justice have been charged with the affairs of the people in every State.” “State” is used in at least two senses: it can refer to a government, or a country. The capitalisation here might make one think that “government” is meant. However when we consider that Baha’u'llah does not refer to national Houses of Justice — which were first mentioned in Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament — it is evident that the meaning must be that the affairs of the people, in whatever country they live, fall under the authority of the Universal House of Justice.
“The people” also requires a note, for in the Bahai Writings and in Shoghi Effendi’s translations, it is used to refer to a religious community or an ethnicity. I have commented in more detail on the meaning of mellat or “people” in 19th century Persian below. Suffice to say that while mellat can mean people, it has the connotation of the members a specific religious community. In this case, it must refer to the Bahai community, for the Bahai community by definition is the one led by the House of Justice. Incidentally, this use of “people” to refer to a religious community casts light on the pair “peoples and nations,” or vice versa, which is so common in the Bahai Writings. In some cases it may be rhetorical parallelism, and in some cases it refers to ethnicities and nationalities, but it may also be a reference to two different aspects of human society, the religious and the political.
The 2008 version, now redundant
In the 1978 translation of Tablets of Baha’u’llah by Habib Taherzadeh “with the assistance of a committee,” the eighth section of the Tablet of Ishraqaat says:
“This passage, now written by the Pen of Glory, is accounted as part of the Most Holy Book: The men of God’s House of Justice have been charged with the affairs of the people (‘umuur-e mellat). They, in truth, are the Trustees of God among His servants and the daysprings of authority in His countries.
O people of God! That which traineth the world is Justice, for it is upheld by two pillars, reward and punishment. These two pillars are the sources of life to the world. Inasmuch as for each day there is a new problem and for every problem an expedient solution, such affairs should be referred to the House of Justice that the members thereof may act according to the needs and requirements of the time. They that, for the sake of God, arise to serve His Cause, are the recipients of divine inspiration from the unseen Kingdom. It is incumbent upon all to be obedient unto them. All matters of State (‘umuur-e siyaasiyyah) should be referred to the House of Justice, but acts of worship (`ibaadaat) must be observed according to that which God hath revealed in His Book.” 
There is a previous translation by Ali Kuli Khan, made in 1906 or earlier, in which the italicised passages read:
“The affairs of the people are in charge of the men of the House of Justice of God … Administrative affairs are all in charge of the House of Justice, and devotional acts must be observed according as they are revealed in the Book.”
Fareed’s more or less contemporaneous translation (published in 1907) says “The affairs of the people demand upon [sic. = devolve?] the men of the House of justice …Administrative affairs are all referable to the House of Justice …”
Ali Kuli Khan’s translation was included in the widely used compilation of Bahai scriptures, Baha’i World Faith (p 200), and was therefore the text used in the English-speaking Bahai communities during the Guardian’s ministry and later, until Tablets of Baha’u’llah was published in 1978. Both Ali Kuli Khan’s translation and Taherzadeh’s are officially endorsed translations, and it must be supposed that the change was regarded as an improvement. For various reasons it appears to me that Ali Kuli Khan’s reading is preferable.
In the first place, there are contextual arguments. How are we to square Taherzadeh’s translation with the context of the Ishraqat itself, in which the “sovereigns of the world” are described as “manifestations of the power of God and the daysprings of His authority.” How could Baha’u’llah place the affairs of the people in the hands of the House of Justice, while making governments responsible for the appointment of officials and charging them to “fully acquaint themselves with the conditions of those they govern?” How could it be squared with the wider context of Baha’u’llah’s writings, which from the early Kitab-e Iqan until Epistle to the Son of the Wolf (See e.g., pages 91-2.) teach that God has granted temporal power to temporal rulers, and reserves human hearts for Himself:
“By the righteousness of God! It is not Our wish to lay hands on your kingdoms. Our mission is to seize and possess the hearts of men.”
(Baha’u'llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 49)
“Dispute not with any one concerning the things of this world and its affairs, for God hath abandoned them to such as have set their affection upon them. Out of the whole world He hath chosen for Himself the hearts of men — hearts which the hosts of revelation and of utterance can subdue. Thus hath it been ordained by the Fingers of Baha, upon the Tablet of God’s irrevocable decree, by the behest of Him Who is the Supreme Ordainer, the All-Knowing.”
(Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u'llah, p. 279)
To support Taherzadeh’s translation we would have to suppose that in the midst of a career, and in the midst of a Tablet, Baha’u’llah changed one of his fundamental beliefs, and then quickly changed back again, for in the ninth Ishraq Baha’u’llah again refers to “the sovereigns and rulers on earth” as “the manifestations of the power of God.”
In the second place, we have some specific translation issues. The first critical phrase is ‘umuur-e mellat. The translation ‘affairs of the people’ is good, if we do not jump to conclusions about the identity of ‘the people.’ In 19th century Persian, Mulk o Mellat is the equivalent of our term ‘Church and State’ (Mulk is state and Mellat is Church; see for example Steingass’s dictionary), while according to Steingass millat on its own means “religion, faith, creed” and also “a nation, or people.” The phrase millati baizā’ means the people of Muhammad, millati masīhīya is the Christian religion. So the word mellat can mean people, but with the connotation of the members a specific religious community (while in other contexts it is used to contrast the people to the government). In modern Arabic and Persian usage, it is also used for the nation-state, and the affairs of a state are naturally those of a government, but the Middle East of Baha’u’llah’s time did not have any nation-states. The word has shifted its meaning in the same way as a ‘nation’ in English has shifted from meaning ‘a people’ to ‘a state’ in the course of the 20th century.
In this passage in the Ishraqat, the affairs of ‘the people’ (singular) are put in the hands of the members of the House of Justice who are “daysprings of authority in His countries” (Bilaadihu, a plural: it can also mean regions). The ‘people’ are therefore found in more than one country, and I think it reasonable to read ‘God’s countries’ as a synonym for the whole of creation. A reader of the time would surely have concluded that ‘the people’ are the Bahais as a worldwide religious community, whose affairs are in the hands of the House of Justice and, by implication, not in the hands of the ulama, as in the case of the Muslim mellat, or of the patriarchs and priests, as in the case of the Greek orthodox mellat, and also not in the hands of any individual: the leadership of the religious community, for this ‘people,’ is to be collective. Baha’u’llah is also rejecting anarchism in religion: some authorised leadership and direction is required.
Taherzadeh’s translation then says “O people of God,” which is unduly general, for the original says yaa hezb-e Allah, ‘O party of God.’ It refers specifically to the Bahais as a community, and is commonly used in this sense in the Bahai writings. The authority of the Houses of Justice that follows – to determine rewards and punishments in accordance with the needs of the time – is an authority within the sphere of the mellat, within the hezb-e Allah, it is authority over the religious affairs of the Bahai community alone.
Taherzadeh’s translation continues: “All matters of State (’umuur-e siyaasiyyah) should be referred to the House of Justice, but acts of worship (`ibaadaat) must be observed according to that which God hath revealed in His Book.” The crux of the matter is whether ‘umuur-e siyaasiyyah means ‘administrative matters’ as Ali Kuli Khan says, or ‘matters of State’ or something like that. There is no reference to a ‘state’ in the original, and the House of Justice at this time existed only at the local level and was envisioned at an international level, so Taherzadeh’s translation as it stands is anachronistic. It was Abdu’l-Baha who concluded that national level Houses of Justice would be required, and so created the possibility for the Baha’is to confuse them with national governments. In Baha’u’llah’s time there was no such possibility. However an argument could be made that siyaasiyyah here means civil politics at any level, as it does in some places in Abdu’l-Baha’s Sermon on the Art of Governance and elsewhere in the Bahai writings. Moreover Ali Kuli Khan’s ‘administrative matters’ seems too broad: it does not reflect either the specific context here, which refers to reward and punishment, nor the normal connotations that siyaasiyyah has from its etymology and use.
Siyaasiyyah can mean leadership and civil governance, but it also refers to sentencing and sanctions. In the latter case it refers specifically to those punishments that are designed to be appropriate to the place and time, in contrast to stipulated punishments that are specified in the Islamic Shariah and may not be changed by the judge or the ruler, such as amputation for theft, stoning for adultery, death for highway robbery, and so on. In English usage, specifying rewards and punishments would normally be regarded as a legislative, rather than administrative, activity: siyaasiyyah is not simply keeping records and collecting funds, but shaping laws to achieve a desired virtuous order. The Arabic word derives from a root referring to the training of horses or camels. The most appropriate short translation, in the context of the Ishraqat appears to me to be ‘wise administration’, or ‘administrative matters,’ or simply a literal translation: ‘matters of policy.’ None of these carry the desired connotation of setting punishments, which the reader must infer from the context.
In this sentence of the eighth Ishraq, matters of siyaasiyyah are contrasted to matters of `ibaadaat, acts of worship. Acts of worship constitute one of the two main categories of Islamic law. They are matters that primarily concern the individual’s relations with God, although congregational prayer, for instance, incidentally involves a relationship between the believer and the prayer leader. The other main category of Islamic law is mu`aamalaat, transactions or social relations. The authority of the House of Justice in matters of policy is thus limited on two sides: it refers to the affairs of the religious community only, and it does not extend to making rulings about acts of worship. This contrasts with the situation in Islam, in which a mufti or mujtahid may issue a fatwa on the legitimacy of a business transaction in one breath, and in the next decide whether a prayer said in a wine shop is acceptable to God. It also contrasts with the situation in Christian churches – even Protestant ones – in which ‘the church’ is at once the body that organises the affairs of faith community, the community at worship, and the body that determines doctrine. In other words the contrast between siyaasiyyah and `ibaadaat here points us towards a unique quality of the Bahai community: the Houses of Justice and Houses of Worship are distinct institutions, neither infringing on the sphere of the other, and neither with any authority in matters of doctrine, which is a third sphere. But that is another story.
The 13th numbered section in the Tablet of Bisharat, which is identical to the text of the eighth Ishraq, provides confirmation that we can read these words as a contrast to the practices of other religions. Baha’u’llah summarises the theme of the Bisharat, at the end, as the abolition of the ordinances of previous religions such as “holy war, destruction of books, the ban on association and companionship with other peoples or on reading certain books.” To this list we could add the abolition of restrictions on clothing and the cut of the beard (abolished in the seventh Bisharat), the abolition of priestly celibacy and confession (eighth and ninth Bisharat), and, in the thirteenth Bisharat and the identical eighth Ishraq, the removal of control over the affairs of the religious community, from the hands of priests and ulama to bodies elected by the believers themselves (for matters of policy and punishment) and to the individual conscience and the individual’s own reading of the sacred texts (in relation to acts of worship). [May 2012: and Shoghi Effendi's translation of the 13th Bisharat reads:]
Administrative affairs are all in charge of the House of Justice; but acts of worship must be observed according as they are revealed in the Book.
(The Baha’i World, Volume 11 (1946-1950), page 67)
Thirdly, there is a translation by Shoghi Effendi of a similar phrase in Baha’u’llah’s Lawh-e Hikmat (Tablet of Wisdom) that seems to have been overlooked by Taherzadeh and others who have worked on these translations. Habib Taherzadeh translates:
Say: The beginning of Wisdom and the origin thereof is to acknowledge whatsoever God hath clearly set forth, for through its potency the foundation of statesmanship, (bunyaan as-siyaasah) which is a shield for the preservation of the body of mankind, hath been firmly established.
Compare that to Shoghi Effendi’s translation:
The beginning and the true foundation of wisdom is to acknowledge that which God hath revealed, for upon this sure basis rests the edifice of wise administration. Verily this is the shield that hath ever protected the body of mankind.(The Baha’i World Vol. 4 (1930-1932) 105 (emphasis added))
Here, Shoghi Effendi agrees with Ali Kuli Khan (and with Fareed’s translation of the Bisharat), and against Taherzadeh. Shoghi Effendi’s translation stops at this point, but Taherzadeh’s translation continues:
Say, every matter related to state affairs (‘amr siyaassii) which ye raise for discussion falls under the shadow of one of the words sent down from the heaven of His glorious and exalted utterance.
The expression here, (‘amr siyaassii ) is a variant of the same term that Shoghi Effendi has just translated “wise administration.” The questioner (Nabil-e Akbar, a Shi’ah scholar, whose biography is in Abdu’l-Baha’s Memorials of the Faithful, page 5) is being told that his remaining questions fall under the shadow of what has already been revealed in the Tablet of Wisdom, which does not include ‘state affairs,’ and there is no reason to think that the remaining questions would have been about state affairs. Therefore Shoghi Effendi’s translation is to be preferred here just as, in the eighth Ishraqat, it is administrative affairs (‘umuur-e siyaasiyyah) and not “matters of state” that are entrusted to the House of Justice
If yet more confirmation were needed, we have what looks like a self-interpretation, by Baha’u'llah, of the eighth Ishraq and thirteenth Bisharat in the Lawh-e Dunya (Lawh-e Dunyaa ). Like Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, this was written in the summer of 1891, and so represents almost Baha’u’llah’s last word on the topic. The date also places it within the context of protests against the tobacco concession in Iran, in which the relationship between religious leaders and politics was a central issue. In the Lawh-e Dunya Baha’u’llah says:
According to the fundamental laws which We have formerly revealed in the Kitab-e Aqdas and other Tablets, all affairs are committed to the care of just kings and presidents and of the Trustees of the House of Justice.
The ‘other tablets’ referred to must include the thirteenth Bisharat and eighth Ishraqat, from the similarity of the wording. This self-interpretation tells us that Baha’u’llah understood the passages in his writings that give authority to the House of Justice and those that give it to the Kings and rulers as complementary, and also that his understanding of the authority given to the House of Justice did not seem to him contradictory to praising the British form of government, with its monarchy, elected parliament, and established church. For him the eighth Ishraq, which puts authority in the hands of the House of Justice, and the Aqdas, which says that political authority in Tehran will fall into the hands of the people, are two aspects of a principle that applies in religion as in politics – that popular self-management through elected and consultative organs is preferable to absolute individual authority, whether of kings, priests or ulama. Another passage that speaks of authority per se, without differentiating between its civil and religious aspects, is in the second of the Words of Paradise:
The Pen of the Most High exhorteth, at this moment, the manifestations of authority and the sources of power, namely the kings, the sovereigns, the presidents, the rulers, the divines and the wise, and enjoineth them to uphold the cause of religion, and to cleave unto it. (Tablets of Baha’u’llah 63)
In the Lawh-e Dunya (and also in the 9th Ishraq), Baha’u’llah goes on to speak of the relationship between religion and government, saying that laws rest on penalties (the state relies on coercion) whereas religion gives us the inner motivation to do good and avoid evil.
From all of this I conclude that the authority in matters of policy and punishment given to the House of Justice in the eighth Ishraq is an authority within the religious sphere, which is exercised through exhortation and by using rewards and sanctions relating to status in the religious community, and is not the authority of governments, who may use physical and monetary rewards and punishments to get their way. In other words, ‘matters of policy and punishment’ are divided up into two spheres, just as Baha’u’llah divides the concept of sovereignty in the Kitab-e Iqan into worldly sovereignty and spiritual sovereignty.
Among numerous later interpretations that indicate that the authority of the House of Justice relates to the religious sphere only, are these from Shoghi Effendi: “Not only with regard to publication, but all matters without any exception whatsoever, regarding the interests of the Cause in that locality … should be referred exclusively to the Spiritual Assembly … unless it be a matter of national interest, in which case it shall be referred to the national body. … By national affairs is not meant matters that are political in their character, for the friends of God the world over are strictly forbidden to meddle with political affairs in any way whatever, but rather things that affect the spiritual activities of the body of the friends in that land.” (Unfolding Destiny 8 ) In Baha’i Administration p.8 the scope of the Administration is defined as “matters pertaining to the Cause.”
Given that those who prepared the 1978 translation of the Ishraqat had Ali Kuli Khan’s translation before them, one has to wonder why they would have chosen a translation in the eighth Ishraqat that is inconsistent with the remainder of that tablet, with Baha’u’llah’s explanation in the Lawh-e Dunya, and with Bahai teachings in general. One possible answer lies in a paragraph of Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament, which Shoghi Effendi translated:
O ye beloved of the Lord! It is incumbent upon you to be submissive to all monarchs that are just and to show your fidelity to every righteous king. Serve ye the sovereigns of the world with utmost truthfulness and loyalty. Show obedience unto them and be their well-wishers. Without their leave and permission do not meddle with political affairs (‘umuur-e siyaasii), for disloyalty to the just sovereign is disloyalty to God Himself. (Will and Testament 15)
It could be that because Shoghi Effendi translated ‘umuur-e siyaasii as ‘political affairs’ here, the committee translating the Ishraqat and Bisharat felt obliged to give the phrase a similar meaning, if not exactly the same wording. In the Will and Testament, however, ‘political affairs’ are firmly under the control of civil rulers, whereas using the same translation in the new translation of Ishraqat and Bisharat puts political affairs in the hands of the Bahai House of Justice! Consistency in translation here produces inconsistency in teachings. Abdu’l-Baha’s use of siyaasii in the Will and Testament (and frequently in the Sermon on the Art of Governance) is more modern than Baha’u’llah’s usage in the Ishraqat, as the word shifts its meaning to reflect the development of an autonomous political sphere in the formerly patrimonial lands of the Middle East.
The ninth Ishraq, the last numbered section, returns to the role of religion in society:
Religion bestoweth upon man the most precious of all gifts, offereth the cup of prosperity, imparteth eternal life, and showereth imperishable benefits upon mankind. It behoveth the chiefs and rulers of the world, and in particular the Trustees of God’s House of Justice, to endeavour to the utmost of their power to safeguard its position, promote its interests and exalt its station in the eyes of the world. In like manner it is incumbent upon them to enquire into the conditions of their subjects and to acquaint themselves with the affairs and activities of the divers communities in their dominions. We call upon the manifestations of the power of God — the sovereigns and rulers on earth — to bestir themselves and do all in their power that haply they may banish discord from this world and illumine it with the light of concord.
Civil rulers have a general duty to promote the interests of religion, while the “Trustees of God’s House of Justice” have a special duty. The concern of the ‘chiefs’ is not confined to one religious community, they should be aware of the actions and affairs (a`maal wa ‘umuur) of every religious community. Baha’u’llah’s understanding of the role of religion in society takes religious pluralism as a self-evident context.
Postscript, April 2008:
Roshan Danesh has a paper in the Journal of Law and Religion, volume 24 no 1, 2008, entitled ‘Church and State in the Baha’i Faith: an epistemic approach.’ This discusses this section of the eighth Ishraqat. He has apparently not read the discussion in my book Church and State, and is not aware of Shoghi Effendi’s translation of bunyaan as-siyaasah as “edifice of wise administration” in the Tablet of Wisdom. So on the crucial question of the meaning and translation of the phrase, he makes no progress. However he does make an interesting comment based on what he calls the standard translation (Teherzadeh’s, not Ali Kuli Khan’s):
The statement could imply a vision of the Universal House of Justice as the sole religious and civil authority. But it can also be read in other ways, as saying, for example, that all political (state) matters impacting the community should be addressed by the Universal House of Justice. A review of some of the key writings concerning the Universal House of Justice demonstrates that the institution is certainly discussed and structured like a contemporary political legislative institution. At the same time, however, there are not explicit statements about the Universal House of Justice and civil institutions which necessitate a fully integrationist conclusion. (page 39)
1. Tablets of Baha’u’llah 128-9, cf. Majmu`ih az alwah-ye Jamal-e Aqdas-e Abha 75
2. Tablets of Baha’o’llah Revealed at Acca (1906). The eighth Ishraq is on pages 129-30 of that volume, and is unchanged in Baha’i World Faith.
3. Tablets of Baha’u’llah 28, cf. Majmu`ih az alwah-ye Jamal-e Aqdas-e Abha 15.
4. Tablets of Baha’u’llah 150, cf. Majmu`ih az alwah-ye Jamal-e Aqdas-e Abha 90.