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The Supreme Institution

Posted by Sen on December 16, 2008

bubble3Older Bahais, like me, will have noticed a new way of referring to the Universal House of Justice, as “the supreme institution.” I think I first noticed people saying this about 1985. In Anna’s Presentation we find “We have already spoken about the supreme institution, which is the Universal House of Justice…”. Paul Lample, in his Preface to A Wider Horizon, Selected Letters [of the Universal House of Justice] refers to “a continuous flow of guidance that comes from the Supreme Body.”

A google search turns up plenty of examples in more or less formal documents and presentations intended for the public: balloon-hotair

and anyone who follows the blogsphere and discussion lists can find countless more examples of this.

Shoghi Effendi refers to the Universal House of Justice as:

the supreme legislative body at the World Administrative Center
(Citadel of Faith, p. 84)

the supreme administrative body in the Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh
(Directives from the Guardian, p. 50)

its [the Bahai Faith’s] supreme administrative council
(Citadel of Faith, p. 82)

the Bahá’í Supreme Administrative Body
(Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand, p. 98)

the Supreme Legislative Body of the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh
(Messages to Canada, p. 25)

[the Bahai Faith’s] supreme administrative institution
(Messages to the Baha’i World – 1950-1957, p. 7)

[the] supreme legislative organ of nascent, divinely-conceived, world-encircling Bahá’í Administrative Order
(Messages to the Baha’i World – 1950-1957, p. 19)

the supreme legislative body of the Bahá’í world
(Messages to the Baha’i World – 1950-1957, p. 20)

the supreme legislative body of the Administrative Order of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh
(Messages to the Baha’i World – 1950-1957, p. 158; The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 316)

the supreme organ of the Bahá’í Commonwealth
(The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 7)

that Supreme Council that will guide, organize and unify the affairs of the Movement throughout the world
(Baha’i Administration, p. 39)

the Supreme Body [for] … the affairs of the Cause
(Baha’i Administration, p. 40)

…but never as the Supreme Institution. The terms Shoghi Effendi does use, make it clear that the UHJ is not the supreme body of anything except the Bahai community, and even there it is supreme within the administrative and legislative spheres. Shoghi Effendi also refers to himself, or rather the institution of the Guardianship, as “the supreme spiritual head of the community,” (Directives from the Guardian, p. 81), and to the Mashriqu’l-adhkar, the house of worship, is “the crowning institution in every Bahá’í community.” (Baha’i Administration, p. 108).

So the Universal House of Justice may be called the “supreme organ of the Bahá’í Commonwealth” or the “Bahá’í Supreme Administrative Body,” but it is not “the supreme body.” It is supreme within a sphere and in relation to a purpose. The point I’m making here is like the difference between an absolute monarchy and a constitutional monarchy: in the latter, the constitutional law is supreme and specifies the role and limits of each body. In the Bahai Faith, the Covenant plays the same role: it is both the charter and the limit for each organ in the Bahai body.

bubble2That the terms “the Supreme Institution” and “the Supreme Body” are widely used is certain. Yet the UHJ does not use such terms: it refers to itself rather as “the supreme institution of an Administrative Order” (The Constitution of The Universal House of Justice, p. 8 ) or as one of the two “supreme institutions of the Administrative Order” (1992 Preface to the Aqdas). However I have found three examples of this usage in letters from other institutions at the Bahai World Centre, which may explain how the new term first caught on (note the dates) :

The Supreme Body has informed us that it believes … promoting within the Bahá’í community an atmosphere of tolerance for the views of others.” From a letter of the International Teaching Centre dated 22 March 1981

The Supreme Body assures you of its continued prayers at the Holy Shrines for the growth and development of this important endeavour.” Department of the Secretariat to the National Spiritual Assembly of Peru, dated 08/12/86 (Compilations, Guidance for Baha’i Radio, p. 13)

In a letter dated 2 January 1986 written by the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the World, the Supreme Body announced the inception of the fourth epoch of the Formative Age. (From the Research Department, published in A Wider Horizon, Selected Letters 1983-1992, p. 178)

This usage was not found in the 1960s or 1970s to my knowledge. I think the change in terms used for the UHJ is significant. I think that the shorter terms such as “the Supreme Body” are – usually – a way of indicating that the speaker asserts the UHJ’s ideal supremacy over everything and everybody. Whether that is the intention or not, it will sound that way to hearers.

ballons-manThe same sort of dynamics, an ‘inflation’ of titles and claims, exist in all religious movements that I know of, from New Religious Movements to Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism, and Shiah and Sunni Islam. In all religions, there are minimisers and there are exaggerators, and there is an internal dynamic that favours the exaggerators, so that in the long term the metaphysical claims a religion makes and the titles it uses inflate.

The dynamic that favours the exaggerators is that an exaggeration always appears more pious, even if technically wrong. And what is just “more pious” in this generation, is self-evident orthodoxy for the next. Those who want to seem more fervently pious then have to move up one step of hyperbole.

There is also a motivation for the minimizers: hyperbolic language invites negative reactions from the state and society and other religious communities, it promotes conflict and is a barrier to conversions. This is a particularly weighty motivation for NRMs and expanding, missionary religious communities. Justin Martyr in Christian history, or the “moderate” wing of the Ahmadiyya are examples. By resisting the trend to exaggerate, they achieved missionary success and defended their faiths from mistrust.

Sometimes the two groups will simply drift apart, as in the case of the Ahmadiyya, but if they remain together, the trend to exaggeration seems to almost always outweigh the minimizers because, in determining how the religion is transmitted down the generations, the internal dynamics of a religious community are far more important than the external dynamics. So just as economies are far more likely to inflate than deflate, the metaphysical claims of religious communities are far more prone to inflation than deflation.

bubble3Reading Shoghi Effendi’s “the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah” with this general religious tendency to exaggerate in mind, it appears to me that Shoghi Effendi, as he defines the station of the Manifestation, of Abdu’l-Baha, of the Guardian and the House of Justice, draws boundaries at both the top and bottom, but is more vigorous about denying and denouncing exaggerated claims. (The exception is the chapter on the Bab, where he seems more concerned to counter a minimisation trend that existed in the Bahai community of the time.)

The “sticklers” – those who, in a tradition with a written corpus of doctrines, insist on the exact words, nothing more or less, rarely seem to have much influence, perhaps because their influence is unseen (since its best outcome is no change in metaphysical claims and language), or because in any community there are only a few who are really interested in exactitude.

If we accept that there is a general dynamic in favour of the exaggerators, we can look at how this plays out in the long term, and here I think we do have to distinguish between New Religious Movements and other religions in a pluralist setting, on the one hand, and a dominant religious community on the other. Where a religion has been dominant for some time, so that it has become part of the culture, a doctrinal exaggeration that has been accepted as a pious practice can become “common sense.” The sale of indulgences in medieval Catholicism is an example. For a dominant religious community, there are few outsiders to remind the users of how blasphemous or absurd the claim sounds, there is no down side for the community.

bubblegumBut in a pluralist or NRM setting, exaggerations do have a negative effect: at the same time as they give the user credibility as a more fervently pious person within the community, they undermine the credibility of the whole religious community in the wider society. Can one imagine what a hearer hears, when hearing in Anna’s Presentation: “We have already spoken about the supreme institution, which is the Universal House of Justice…”. They are being asked to ‘silently agree’ to this proposition, and those with any brains will scream, no way!

Unless the religious community has a wise leadership that intervenes, the dynamics that promote exaggeration within the community will continue, despite the negative effects vis-a-vis the world. The internal dynamics are more important in shaping how the religion is transmitted, than the negative feedback from external reactions. Therefore, I suggest, for a minority religious community the inflation of terms and claims will continue, until it pops like a market bubble, when it reaches the point at which what one “must” say, under social pressure, in order to be pious and belong, has become so implausible that the younger generation and outsiders turn away from the religion entirely.bubble4

~~ Sen McGlinn ~~
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5 Responses to “The Supreme Institution”

  1. Brendan Cook said


    What a fine entry! And the best part is that it’s only one of many. You’ve been consistently churning out some fascinating pieces here. These are educational in the best sense of the word.

    I’m not sure about your analogy to indulgences, though. The dynamic you identify driving ‘inflation’ in the modern Baha’i community is the desire of individual believers to seem pious within the religious community. But the dynamic that led to the outrageous abuse of indulgences in the later Middle Ages was almost purely financial. The popes had a need for money, money to fight wars, money to ensure the survival of the very institution of the papacy at a time when secular governments wanted power over religion. And so the claims of the papacy were inflated not because individual believers wanted to seem pious but because the institution was positively desperate for cash in a way that has no analogy today.

    And people within the Western Christian community certainly realized how silly the claims of the papacy sounded. From Marsilio of Padua to Petrarch to Erasmus, Catholics criticized the papacy’s ridiculous overreaching. Even Saint Thomas More, who ultimately died for the Catholic Church, felt certain that the role of the papacy within the church had been grossly inflated. As your own example shows, you don’t need outsiders to notice that the claims of an institution are outrageous, exaggerated, or even blasphemous. Insiders often do this best because they’re the ones paying the most attention.


  2. Baquia said

    Sen, thank you very much for this comprehensive response. The most illuminating aspect of this question is that the UHJ does not refer to itself as the “supreme body/institution” – neither do any of the central figures. Piety, as with all else, should be within the confines of moderation.

  3. Brent Poirier said

    Dear Sen:

    You have expressed concern that you hear Baha’is using the terms “the supreme institution” and “the supreme body” in reference to the Universal House of Justice, as you feel that these are inflations of the proper terminology; that the proper terminology always includes limitations, whereas these titles indicate no such limits. For reference, you have compiled a list of quotations from Shoghi Effendi’s writings which often include these terms of limitation, such as “supreme administrative institution” and “supreme legislative body.”

    I would like to first address the accuracy of the last quotation as you have it in your list. You have it as:

    the Supreme Body [for] … the affairs of the Cause
    (Baha’i Administration, p. 40)

    The quotation from Shoghi Effendi reads:

    With these Assemblies, local as well as national, harmoniously, vigorously, and efficiently functioning throughout the Baha’i world, the only means for the establishment of the Supreme House of Justice will have been secured. And when this Supreme Body will have been properly established, it will have to consider afresh the whole situation, and lay down the principle which shall direct, so long as it deems advisable, the affairs of the Cause.

    I think that in this passage the Guardian here fully justifies the use of term “the Supreme Body” as a stand-alone title—and he uses the Caps, which further sets it apart. It is clear that “the affairs of the Cause” modifies “the principle” and not “this Supreme Body.” In the light of this, I do not feel that you are justified in making this statement: “So the Universal House of Justice may be called the “supreme organ of the Baha’i Commonwealth” or the “Baha’i Supreme Administrative Body,” but it is not “the supreme body.”

    Further I feel that the titles “the supreme body” and “the supreme institution” are consistent with “the Supreme Council,” a term used by the Guardian, which you have already noted.

    I do not feel that the use of these shorthand terms by the friends is motivated by carelessness or by a desire to inflate the position of the House of Justice. Rather, I think it indicates a healthy desire to use the words in the Baha’i Writings, rather than using words of human invention to describe a divine creation.

    Here is an example of the use of this title by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice:

    “In a letter dated 2 January 1986 written by the Universal House of Justice to the Baha’is of the World, the Supreme Body announced the inception of the fourth epoch of the Formative Age.”
    (Memorandum on the Epochs of the Faith, cited in Messages From the Universal House of Justice 1963 to 1986, p. 715, paragraph 451.13)

    The House of Justice itself uses the term on page 4 of its Constitution, which I believe you did not mention:

    “There being no successor to Shoghi Effendi as Guardian of the Cause of God, the Universal House of Justice is the Head of the Faith and its supreme institution, to which all must turn, and on it rests the ultimate responsibility for ensuring the unity and progress of the Cause of God.” This is similar to your own phrase, in content if not in spirit, that the Universal House of Justice “is not the supreme body of anything except the Bahai community.”

    I don’t personally share the view that the briefer terms “the supreme institution” or “the supreme body” constitute an inflation. For comparison, Abdu’l-Baha in His Will and Testament several times uses the title “the Guardian of the Cause of God.” I do not feel that it is an inflation when the Baha’is simply refer to Shoghi Effendi as “the Guardian.” The additional words “of the Cause of God” are clearly implied, and I think they are also clearly implied when the Baha’is refer to the House of Justice simply as “the Supreme Body.”

    I agree that accuracy is important; I just don’t see this shorthand, or elimination of “administrative” or “legislative” as a significant modification of the intent or meaning of the original phrases, as the Guardian himself does not always use those modifiers. The House of Justice is clearly the supreme administrative institution and the supreme legislative institution, and these are within its position as the Supreme Body and the Supreme Council.

    Your concern about inflation of the term seems to revolve around this point. You state: “The point I’m making here is like the difference between an absolute monarchy and a constitutional monarchy: in the latter, the constitutional law is supreme and specifies the role and limits of each body. In the Bahai Faith, the Covenant plays the same role: it is both the charter and the limit for each organ in the Bahai body.”

    I wish to address this point. And though I take issue with some of your conclusions, the general principle of concern about inflation is a legitimate one: As Shoghi Effendi wrote, “…those who overestimate ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s station are just as reprehensible and have done just as much harm as those who underestimate it.” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 136) I think this same principle applies to the importance of gaining a proper and accurate understanding of the station of the Universal House of Justice – neither overstating nor understating its position.

    I wish to start with the authority given by Baha’u’llah to Abdu’l-Baha, because the language is similar to the grant of authority given by Abdu’l-Baha to the Universal House of Justice. The general grant of authority from the Manifestation is contained in this verse from the Aqdas and the Book of the Covenant: “’When the ocean of My presence hath ebbed and the Book of My Revelation is ended, turn your faces toward Him Whom God hath purposed, Who hath branched from this Ancient Root.” As you know, in the Book of the Covenant He specifies the identity of this Branch.

    Baha’u’llah does not provide a list of powers of Abdu’l-Baha, and limitations upon Him—only, “turn” to Him. The sovereignty of Abdu’l-Baha is conveyed in the single word “turn”. In the Tablet of the Branch Baha’u’llah elaborates this principle of turning: “Whoso turneth towards Him hath turned towards God, and whoso turneth away from Him hath turned away from My beauty, hath repudiated My Proof, and transgressed against Me.” (Quoted in The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 135)

    In another verse of the Aqdas He gives the Master the specific authority to interpret the Text, and there He uses the term “refer”.

    You have mentioned the difference between an absolute monarch and a constitutional monarchy. While I have no familiarity with a constitutional monarchy, I can say something about the American constitutional system. In contrast to the plenary grant of authority to Abdu’l-Baha, the federal constitution of the United States of America is a partial delegation to the federal government of the sovereignty possessed by the individual citizens and the states, both of whom, in American jurisprudence, are deemed to possess inherent sovereignty. The American federal government is deemed to be a government of “limited powers,” and under the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” Unlike the states, which are considered to possess inherent and not delegated sovereignty and which can pass legislation “for the public good”, the federal government can only enact laws based on specific enumerated powers granted by the constitution.

    I know of no specified limitations on Abdu’l-Baha’s authority in Baha’u’llah’s Writings. There were surely limitations, but they were left to Abdu’l-Baha Himself to moderate and specify. It was for the believers simply to “turn” to whatever He directed.

    Abdu’l-Baha in His Will and Testament, in language strikingly similar to the verses quoted above from Baha’u’llah, writes:

    “All must seek guidance and turn unto the Center of the Cause and the House of Justice. And he that turneth unto whatsoever else is indeed in grievous error.” (p. 25)

    “Whoso obeyeth him not, neither obeyeth them, hath not obeyed God; whoso rebelleth against him and against them hath rebelled against God; whoso opposeth him hath opposed God; whoso contendeth with them hath contended with God; whoso disputeth with him hath disputed with God; whoso denieth him hath denied God; whoso disbelieveth in him hath disbelieved in God; whoso deviateth, separateth himself and turneth aside from him hath in truth deviated, separated himself and turned aside from God.” (p. 11)

    Taken as they are written, these are grants of plenary power. There are other statements indicating that the House of Justice possesses comprehensive authority:

    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). It is to resolve “all problems which have caused difference” (Will and Testament, p. 20). “…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). I do not share the view that these refer solely to the limited power of the House of Justice to legislate where the Text is silent, and I think the context supports that view.

    So my starting point is that the language granting authority to the House of Justice is not language of limitation. The House of Justice does not stand in the same position as the federal government of the USA, which has received a delegation of only specified enumerated powers from the states and the individuals. There is no language of plenary power in the American Constitution.

    The House of Justice and the Guardian are described by Shoghi Effendi as the “chosen successors” of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha. The grant of authority comes down from Them, not up from the governed. There are limitations, to be sure. Shoghi Effendi, writing of the Institutions of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice, speaks of them: “Each exercises, within the limitations imposed upon it, its powers, its authority, its rights and prerogatives.” (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 148). He then describes some of them in that same letter.

    It is interesting to note that even the Manifestations of God, who have absolute power, are described by Baha’u’llah on page 176 of the Iqan as having “limitations”: “…each Manifestation of God hath a distinct individuality, a definitely prescribed mission, a predestined Revelation, and specially designated limitations [hudud].”

    Shoghi Effendi is not bashful about asserting his own powers—he asserts their “fullness.” In a letter written on his behalf, countersigned by him at the end “read and approved,” his secretary writes: “He is the Guardian of the Cause in the very fullness of that term, and the appointed interpreter of its teachings, and is guided in his decisions to do that which protects it and fosters its growth and highest interests.”(Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand, p. 55)

    His secretary also writes on his behalf:

    “The Guardian’s infallibility covers interpretation of the Revealed Word and its application. Likewise any instructions he may issue having to do with the protection of the Faith, or its well being must be closely obeyed, as he is infallible in the protection of the Faith. He is assured the guidance of both Baha’u’llah and the Bab, as the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Baha clearly reveals.” (From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, August 20, 1956; Lights of Guidance, p. 313, #1055)

    He states that he has the power to “apply” the Revealed Word infallibly. He states in both passages that his decisions always promote the well-being of the Faith. Finally, he states that both of the Manifestations guide him – undoubtedly referring to the language in the Will, p. 14, where the Master states that the Bab and Baha’u’llah guide the Universal House of Justice no less than the Guardian.

    So I believe Baha’i jurisprudence has a different starting point. Whereas the institutions of the American government possess limited powers, the authority granted to the institutions of Baha’u’llah’s World Order should be viewed in their “fullness”. I again hearken back to the principle stated by the Guardian that both overestimation and underestimation of the proper rank of the Successor are “reprehensible” and “harmful.”

    The House of Justice is, as shown in the above quotes and as set forth on pages 4-5 of the Constitution of the House, far more than a legislative body. To quote from a paper forwarded to me by a friend, “Some Thoughts on the Ministry of the Universal House of Justice,” written by retired member of the Universal House of Justice Ali Nakhjavani, the writings of Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi specify these duties and responsibilities for the Universal House of Justice: safeguard the unity of the community (WOB 148); resolve all problems which have caused differences (WT 20); maintain the integrity of the Baha’i teachings (WOB 148); elucidate questions that are obscure (WT 20); maintain the flexibility of the teachings of the Faith (WOB 148); promulgate and apply its laws (WOB 20 & 145); protect its institutions (WOB 20); adapt it loyally and intelligently to the requirements of progressive society (WOB 20); conduct all Baha’i administrative affairs (WOB 153); resolve difficult problems and all important and fundamental questions (WT 14 & BA 47); create new institutions (CC Vol. 1, 329); make deductions from the sacred and authorized writings (CC Vol. 1, 323); launch and direct teaching plans (CC Vol. 1, 340); be the last refuge of a tottering civilization (WOB 89); consummate the incorruptible inheritance which the Founders of the Faith have bequeathed to the world (WOB 20).

    But to focus for a moment on the limitations on the legislative power of the House of Justice, in the Will, Abdu’l-Baha writes of one of them – that the House of Justice cannot abrogate the laws revealed by the Manifestation: “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” “The House of Justice is both the initiator and the abrogator of its own laws.” (pp. 19 and 20)

    In his “Dispensation” letter,, Shoghi Effendi describes the Universal House of Justice as “the body designed to supplement and apply His legislative ordinances.” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 144) There are two broad powers specified here. Not only is the House empowered to “supplement” Baha’u’llah’s laws with enactments of its own; it is also empowered to “apply” Baha’u’llah’s revealed laws, similar language to the power of the Guardian in one of the quotes above, “application” of the “Revealed Word”. I personally feel that the House of Justice does far more “application” of Baha’u’llah’s revealed laws, than it does supplementation.

    The fact that the Manifestation of God has empowered the House of Justice to enact legislation on matters not in the Text is a very broad power, and combined with its general authority contained in the word “turn”, and its authority to “supplement and apply” the revealed Law, it has a comprehensive authority. To view it as being solely a legislative body – and that with limited scope– would be the same as viewing the Guardian as limited to being only an interpreter. Both possess a broad general power to lead and protect the Faith and promote its best interests of the Faith; and the House of Justice in particular is guided to promote the best interests of peoples and nations, at which time it will become the supreme organ of the Baha’i Commonwealth.

    I hope my comments are of interest to you.

    With warmest greetings and best wishes

  4. Sen said

    Post Script: in the 2010 Ridvan message
    ( )

    The UHJ says:

    “…care should be exercised to avoid overstating the Baha’i experience … The watchword in all cases is humility. While conveying enthusiasm about their beliefs, the friends should guard against projecting an air of triumphalism,…”

    The UHJ is giving that Ra-Ra over-the-top rhetoric a negative value within the Bahai community as well. If you rave too rabidly, you show you’re not following the guidance of the UHJ.

    That’s a step forward I think.

  5. Hasan Elías said

    I share your concern, Sen. We should be aware of risks of superiority. I recall Ruhiyyih Khanum’s talks when she continuously advices bahá’ís (specially Persian bahá’ís) to be humble. She frequently call our attention to his biblical verse: “But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked”. Luke 12:48.

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