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Two commonwealths

Posted by Sen on December 10, 2008

wobIn thinking about the future of the world, and of the Bahai community, and in speaking about them, we need to distinguish between the two uses of ‘commonwealth’ : the commonwealth of nations and the Bahai Commonwealth. If we do not, governments are likely to be misled and alarmed, thinking that there is something political or governmental about this ‘Bahai Commonwealth’

ungenassyOn the one hand, Baha’u’llah and Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi have outlined a vision of a new world order, based on democratic and independent governments, united in a “Commonwealth of all the nations of the world,” also called a “world super-state.” (WOB 40), This will be the “climax” of the historical evolution of humanity through the unities of “the tribe, the city-state, and the nation.” (PDC 118). This commonwealth is to be based on an international pact, stipulating borders, armaments and international obligations, which is to be drawn up by the governments and sovereigns (WOB 192; TB 165; SDC 64), endorsed by “all the human race” and backed by military force (SDC 64; WOB 192). This commonwealth – a system of government – will permanently unite all nations and creeds (WOB 203): its members are states (WOB 203) who, after passing through the “chastening fires” of a “titanic struggle” (MA 27), out of “carnage, agony and havoc” (PDC 123; both references apparently to World War 2), following a “world catastrophe”, WOB 46) decide to weld humanity’s “antagonistic elements of race, class, religion and nation into one coherent system, one world commonwealth” (MA 27); a single, organically-united, unshatterable world commonwealth. (MA 80) and to cede to it their right to wage war (WOB 40), “certain rights to impose taxation, and all rights to maintain armaments, except for purposes of maintaining internal order within their respective dominions.” (WOB 40). The nerve centre of this commonwealth of nations is a “world metropolis” (WOB 203), its supreme organs are a “world legislature, whose members will … ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations,” (WOB 203) and are “elected by the people in their respective countries and whose election shall be confirmed by their respective governments” (WOB 40) … “a world executive, backed by an international Force,” which is able “to enforce supreme and unchallengeable authority on every recalcitrant member of the commonwealth,” and “a world tribunal” to be established by “the peoples and nations of the earth” (GPB 305) to adjudicate disputes between nations (WOB 203; GPB 281), whose members are legal experts, elected by a world convention, the delegates to which are elected by the members of national parliaments, in proportion to the population of each country (SWAB 306).

On the other hand, Shoghi Effendi refers to the Bahai Commonwealth – a Commonwealth whose present nucleus and “valiant forerunners” are the Bahai believers (MA 41, BA 131), whose “independent members” are the national Bahai communities (High Endeavours 37), whose fundamental constitutional basis is provided in the Aqdas and the Will of Abdu’l-Baha (WOB 19) and set out in detail in the ‘Declaration of Trust,’ drawn up by Horace Holley and approved by Shoghi Effendi (BA 134), whose local affairs are to be administered from the precincts of the Mashriqúl- Adhkar (BA 186), whose foundation, rudiments and sole framework is the “Administrative Order” (GPB 325, WOB 146, 152), whose structure is to be erected by the instruments of the Administrative Order (WOB 98), out of which it is “destined to evolve” (Summary Statement – 1947, Special UN Committee on Palestine), whose “Chief Stewards” are the Hands of the Cause (MBW 127), which operates “solely in direct conformity with the laws and principles of Baha’u’llah,” (ADJ 14), whose “World Administrative Center,” including both its spiritual and administrative seats, is in Haifa in Israel (GPB 277, 315, 348) and specifically on the Arc in the Bahai gardens in Haifa (MBW 79), and whose Supreme Organ and supreme legislative body is the Universal House of Justice (WOB 7; MBW 149), growing out of the Bahai International Court which grows out of the International Bahai Council. This supreme legislative body of the Bahai Commonwealth is headed by the Guardian or his representative (Will and Testament 14), which is elected by the Bahai believers alone (Will and Testament 14), acting through the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies (BA 84), and which exercises legislative, executive and judicial control of the Bahai community. Its growth will be marked by fierce challenges that “will be thrown at the verities it enshrines” (WOB 18), but the “final establishment” of the seat of this Commonwealth, on the arc “will signalize at once the proclamation of the sovereignty of the Founder of our Faith and the advent of the Kingdom of the Father repeatedly lauded and promised by Jesus Christ.” (MBW 74, 155).

This world Bahai Commonwealth is expected to emerge and reach the plenitude of its power and splendour in the Golden Age in which the banner of the Most Great Peace is unfurled. (CF 6 and 32; GPB 25); it is “at once the instrument and the guardian” of that Most Great Peace (WOB 196).

It’s not difficult to see that these are two different commonwealths : different in the process and agents of their creation, different in purpose, in membership, and in internal structure. The first is a political commonwealth of nations united in a superstate, the second is a Commonwealth of believers united in a religious community.

~~ Sen McGlinn ~~
[Revised 15 October 2009: additional material]
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7 Responses to “Two commonwealths”

  1. Priscilla said

    “If we do not, governments are likely to be misled and alarmed, thinking that there is something political or governmental about the Bahai Commonwealth”

    Hi Sen,

    I guess whether or not there is something “political or governmental about the Bahai Commonwealth” depends on interpretation of Baha’i writings and how they are implemented. I know that you do not think there is anything political or governmental there, but how common do you think that view is among Baha’is? Specifically how common do you think that view is among Baha’is serving in the higher bodies of the Administrative Order?

    My impression is that your view is a minority view. If that is the case then there would not be anything misleading about governments “thinking that there is something political or governmental about the Bahai Commonwealth.” Regardless of the different cases that can be made from the writings, what really matters in the world is the intentions and actions of the Baha’i community/organization. Putting aside the writings, what do you think the intentions are of the community as it currently stands?



  2. Hi Priscilla,

    at a guess, I would say that a majority of the Western Bahais, and of those in the higher bodies of the Administrative Order, think that the NSA’s are intended to be governments and that the UHJ is intended to be either a world legislature, or a world tribunal, or a world executive, or to replace them all. I also think that a majority think that the Bahai faith is absolutely non-political, advocates democracy and constitutional monarchy, and that the new world order will be headed by a world legislature elected by all the people in proportion to national population, a world executive, a world tribunal elected by national parliaments, etc …

    The real question is: what proportion have noticed that they are holding contradictory beliefs? Few, I would say. People generally do not worry about inconsistency in the abstract – it only becomes an issue when the two ideas require two incompatible actions.

    I don’t think there is any reason for governments to worry. There is no group in the Bahai community coherent theocratic ideology that could “take over” either the Bahai community or anything else. In my reading of the Bahai secondary literature I have seen all sorts of ideas about how a Bahai theocratic system would work, and they are all different and sometimes contradict themselves.

    George Latimer for example talks about the role of governments, in relation to making peace, but when describing the houses of justice he supposes that the House of Justice is the executive arm of government, “every community, village, town, city, and nation will be under the control of one of these bodies” which will have legislative and judicial functions but (contradicting his previous statement) no executive powers (‘The Social Teachings of the Baha’i Movement’ 1916). In a 1925 article he says that the House of Justice is both legislature, judiciary, and has the power to enforce its laws. In 1936 he has a world parliament as the legislature, although it seems to have no function since a supreme Tribunal/House of Justice enacts the laws, decides taxes, settles disputes and runs the economy. Ullrich Golmer, in ‘Making the crooked straight” (432-8) has a similar problem: a world parliament and a UHJ which is humanity’s supreme legislative organ: two supreme legislatures and not explanation of how this works.

    Keith Ransom Kehler’s idea (1933) is a world monarchy ruled by the Guardian, and the UHJ limited to legislation, but then she also says it has the legislative, executive and judicial functions, and then that its discussions must be limited to spiritual matters. She presented these ideas in a talk given to a ‘group of free thinkers.’ Imagine what they thought of her. George Townsend has the same idea of a Guardian-Monarch in in Christ and Baha’u’llah (1957).

    Huddlestone, in Search for a Just Society says that all the elected bodies in the federal administrative structure would be called “Houses of Justice,” but also that the legislative, executive and judicial branches would be separate. Are we to conclude that two of the three are not elected, or that distinct institutions would be called houses of justice but would have different functions? The latter apparently, because he says that all of them would apply the electoral principles of the Bahai administrative order — so they are all elected, thus all called House of Justice. But then refers to representation on them of various population groups in proportion to size, which is not an electoral principle in the Administrative Order.

    You get the general idea: the theocratic thinkers have different ways of building a house of cards, but they are all houses of cards. None would stand up to being discussed. They are just loose ideas people have batting around their heads. An organisation consisting of 20 people with 20 different ideas of how to govern society is a talking shop, not a political reality. So governments need not be concerned, as long as they can be assured that there is no core of theocratic ideas in the Bahai Writings around which Bahais might eventually mobilise.

  3. Dan Jensen said

    The nakedness of Baha’i triumphalism will only become more and more, well–embarrassing–for Baha’is over time. Baha’is need to learn the arts of integration and cohabitation. Don’t we all?

    Sen, I respect your efforts toward building a case for pluralism in the Baha’i Faith. Though I do not believe that the founders of the Baha’i Faith saw the future the way you do, maybe–just maybe–they might have seen the Baha’i Faith your way if they were alive today. I admire your efforts to open that door to the Baha’i imagination.

  4. maybe–just maybe–they might have seen the Baha’i Faith your way if they were alive today

    I try to see the Faith and the world the way they would see them, if they lived in today. There are always those two moments in theology: understanding who this person was, and how he thought, how he responded to people and events, and then imagining how that person would respond today. What did it mean, and, what does it mean for us today? The priority of the person of the Manifestation over the words of the text is important here: it means that Bahai hermeneutics is more like Catholic hermeneutics than the text-centred, even bibliolatrous, hermeneutics that one often finds in Protestant theology (and even more so in Jewish and Sunni theology). This is one of several respects in which Bahai theology is closest to the Catholic tradition, among Christian traditions.

  5. Larry Roofener said


    I have read with much interest your articles and comments on your blog about World Order and the separation of church and state as related to the development of the Baha’i community and its institutions. Being a lay person, I recognize that I do not have any special qualifications that justify my adding some additional thoughts or comments to the very extensive research and the work you have already done. I do attempt to be investigative, maintain an open mind, and strive to apprehend Baha’u’llah’s writings both literally and metaphorically. Of course I approach the writings and talks of ‘Abdu’l-Baha differently and the writings of Shoghi Effendi more literally than Baha’u’llah’s. I have not developed an individual position on these “church-state” Baha’i matters, and as a guideline, I choose to consider the Universal House of Justice’s statement and reminder that, “Not ours, puny mortals that we are, to attempt, at so critical stage in the long and checkered history of mankind, to arrive at a precise and satisfactory understanding of the steps which must successively lead a bleeding humanity … to its ultimate resurrection…. Ours rather the duty, to lend our share of assistance, in which ever way circumstances may enable us, to the operation of forces which, as marshaled and directed by Baha’u’llah, are leading humanity out of the misery and shame to the loftiest summits of power and glory”(Ridvan 153).

    In light/consideration of some of your Baha’i “church and state” perceptions, I have given attention and thought to the Universal House of Justice’s 1985 letter to the peoples of the world, titled “The Promise of World Peace”. In re-reading this document, I observe that the House’s message states that humanity should be considered as a whole, emphasizes the need for the reconstruction of the world, and suggests that “leaders of governments and all in authority” should give attention to (spiritual) principles and be guided by them. The House goes on to say that world order can only be founded on the acceptance of the principle of the oneness of mankind, “… the first fundamental prerequisite for the reorganization and administration of the world as one country …” It urges (following to the previous urgings of Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha) the leaders of all nations and/or the United Nations to hold a great world gathering to discuss the reorganization and administration of the world. The Universal House of Justice invites all the world’s peoples and their leaders to examine the experience and accomplishments of the Baha’i community and offers the Baha’i community as an “example” and a “model for study.” In this message, the House does not seem to suggest that the Baha’i community and its Administrative Order be a replacement for the world’s existing and failing governmental systems, but does offer it as a prototype for consideration of the world’s reorganization.

    In the publication “Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha” (pages 249 and 306-307), Abdu’l-Baha refers to the Supreme Tribunal, and his descriptions of this body make it obvious that this Tribunal is not synonymous with the institution of the Universal House of Justice, or any other Baha’i institution. ‘Abdu’l-Baha states that the League of Nations is incapable of establishing world peace and explains that a Tribunal, composed of representatives of the world’s governmental leaders, must be formed and work to establish universal peace. It appears to me that this Tribunal may be unconscious of the Divine Will at work in the world, but their efforts will nevertheless result in the the establishment of a world (political) peace and perhaps the reorganization of the world’s governments.

    In the compilation of ‘Abd’l-Baha’s American talks titled “The Promise of World Peace” (page 455), ‘Abdu’l-Baha is recorded as saying that the House(s) of Justice (all of them) are “…endowed with a political as well as a religious function, the consummate union and blending of church and state” and he comments “…that which the Universal House of Justice ordains shall be obeyed by all mankind…. and all the world shall come under its administration.” I understand that this is not “authoritative” text.

    Thinking/imagining metaphorically, and considering the role that the institution of the House(s) of Justice (or institutions of the Administrative Order) are designed or destined and to play, I am reminded of the verse in the Qur’an (55:19-22) that ‘Abu’l-Baha has used in some different applications. “He hath let loose the two seas, that they meet each other: Between them is a barrier that they overpass not. Which then of the bounties of your Lord will ye deny? From each He bringeth up greater and lesser pearls.” A similar verse of the Qur’an (25:53) states: “It is He Who has let free the two bodies of flowing water: one palpable and sweet, and the other salt and bitter; yet has He made a barrier between them, a partition that is forbidden to be passed.” My limited understanding is that the Arabic word for this “barrier” or “partition” is “barzakh” (also meaning midpoint or confluence), “…a place where the two seas meet …” (Selections of the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, page 130). One might imagine that perhaps Baha’u’llah has created the institution of the House of Justice (or the Administrative Order) be the “barrier or partition”, the “place”, the “midpoint” or the “confluence” where the the “sea” of material civilization (the shadow/bitter) and the “sea” of spiritual civilization (the luminous/sweet) meet and blend. No one really knows for sure at this point in history.

    Sen, your extensive work has motivated me to contemplate this subject. Thanks for that and for inviting others to provide their thoughts and comments.

  6. Larry Roofener said


    Since writing my previous communication (above), I have read your comments titled “A Consummate Union” which address the reported utterances of ‘Abdu’l-Baha I cited from the “Promulgation of Universal Peace”, page 455. Thank you.

  7. Hasan said

    Sen, it makes sense, but the big question here is: Do Bahá’ís see it that way? My impression is don’t. It seems most Bahá’ís (including institutions) see it much more theocratic: National Assemblies evolving to National Houses of Justice (seems correct to me), but then National Houses of Justice evolving to National Governments which replaces a whole country’s government. That is surely against the writings. I, myself seen it more theocratic, but when you read Shoghi Effendi you realize he is not mixing things.

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