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Century’s end – my two cents

Posted by Sen on January 12, 2009

spinningtopWhen I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 1 Corinthians 13:11

The word ‘century’ appears unproblematic: a period of a hundred years, which in common usage begins with the year 00 (although sticklers will insist that the century begins in the year 01, so that the 21st century began on 1 January 2001). But in reading the Bahai texts, things are not so simple. In this post I want to look at the peculiar significance Bahais have mistakenly attached to the 20th century and what can be learned from the whole affair; in the next posting I will look at what the Bahai writings really say about the ‘century’ (not the 20th century).

rockinghorseThings of childhood

Let’s begin by going back in time, to see how the Bahais of 30 years ago looked at the approaching end of the 20th century.

On 29 July 1974 the Universal House of Justice wrote a letter about …

..the preoccupation of some American believers with the date of the Lesser Peace, and with their feeling that ‘the calamity,’ as a prelude to that peace, is imminent. It is true that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made statements linking the establishment of the unity of nations to the twentieth century. For example [in the “7 candles”]: “The fifth candle is the unity of nations — a unity which, in this century, will be securely established, causing all the peoples of the world to regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland.” And, in The Promised Day is Come, following a similar statement quoted from Some Answered Questions, Shoghi Effendi makes this comment: “This is the stage which the world is now approaching, the stage of world unity, which, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá assures us, will, in this century, be securely established.”

It is significant that this preoccupation was among American Bahais: their sensitivity to this theme has been supported by the more millenarian character of American Christianity.

What is striking is that the UHJ has quoted a text referring to the unity of nations “in this century”, and has interpreted it as referring to “the twentieth century.” They have read what they expected to find in the words, rather than what is actually there.

In a similar letter to an individual believer dated April 15, 1976, the Universal House of Justice writes: “Abdu’l-Baha anticipated that the Lesser Peace could be established before the end of the twentieth century.” (cited here, page 6)

In a letter addressed to a Bahai Youth Conference on July 4, 1983, the Universal House of Justice writes “You will live your lives in a period when the forces of history are moving to a climax, when mankind will see the establishment of the Lesser Peace, and during which the Cause of God will play an increasingly prominent role in the reconstruction of human society.”

catscradleThe UHJ’s reading of ‘century’ as “twentieth century” was the one generally accepted in western Bahai communities of the time, and this is the first important lesson to be learnt: the UHJ’s understanding of the Bahai teachings generally reflects what is current in the Bahai community. The UHJ does not, and should not, lead that understanding, because it is not empowered to interpret the scriptures in the way that Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi were.

Those who were Bahais in those days will need no persuading that the Bahai community from the 1960’s onwards generally believed that the Lesser Peace was to be achieved by the year 2000. There were quite a few books written about this:

John Huddleston, Achieving Peace By the Year 2000 (1988, 1992)

J. Tyson, World Peace and World Government: From Vision to Reality, a Baha’i Approach (1986)

Habib Taherzadeh, O Final do Seculo XX e a Paz Mundial [The end of the 20th century and universal peace].

Kathy Lee, in Prelude to the Lesser Peace (1989, page 92), assumes “that the Lesser Peace, the political unification of nations, will be established before or at the end of the twentieth century.”

taherzadeh_covenantAdib Taherzadeh, a member of the Universal House of Justice, refers in The Covenant of Baha’u’llah (1992), page 413, to “the founding of the Lesser Peace, which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states will be established in the twentieth century,” and links this to “the completion of the buildings of the World Administrative Centre on Mount Carmel”

douglasmartinDouglas Martin, a member of the Universal House of Justice from 1993, gave an interview with the BBC in which he asserted that the proof of the truth or falsity of the Baha’i faith would be that universal peace would arrive by the year 2000. Another member of the UHJ, David Ruhe, said in 1993, “Abdu’l Baha talked about the coming of the Lesser Peace before the end of the century, that is, before December 31, 2000. There will be surprising events in the next 7 years, … My own presumption is that there will be great crises we cannot anticipate.”

(Martin is cited by Cole in ‘Fundamentalism in the Contemporary U.S. Baha’i Community,’ Review of Religious Research, Vol. 43, no. 3 (March, 2002):195-217; the quote from David Ruhe is in his ‘Baha’i Horizons in the 21st Century.’)

For a picture of grassroots expectations among Bahais, I’ve found a 1992 interview with Barry Sweatman, of Port Adelaide, who “explained that Bahais distinguish the ‘lesser peace’ and the ‘most great peace.’ Concerning the former Barry said, ‘By the year 2,000 we will have the lesser peace which will be political acceptance of Bahaism and a world political system.’”

viennaboysThe consensus of the faithful

The institutions at the Bahai world centre, their members, other prominent Bahais of the time and the mass of the believers present us with a consensus: Abdu’l-Baha predicted the Lesser Peace coming before the end of the twentieth century. They were wrong – about the events and about what Abdu’l-Baha had said – and that points to the second lesson to be learned: in Bahai theology, unlike Catholic and Islamic theologies, the ‘consensus of the faithful’ (Consensus Fidelium) has no authority, for the very simple reason that it may be wrong, and quite often is wrong. As I showed in ‘he cannot override,’ Shoghi Effendi considers it possible for the Universal House of Justice to pass an enactment which “conflicts with the meaning and departs from the spirit of Baha’u’llah’s revealed utterances.” (WOB 150) According to the Universal House of Justice itself, its elucidations “…stem from its legislative function, and as such differ from interpretation. The divinely inspired legislation of the House of Justice does not attempt to say what the revealed Word means — it states what must be done in cases where the revealed Text or its authoritative interpretation is not explicit.” So neither what ‘everyone knows’, nor what the Universal House of Justice says, can tell us what the Bahai teachings are.

What Adib Taherzadeh, Ruhe, Martin and Sweatman were saying in the early 1990’s should have appeared terminally improbable by that date. In fact, what the Bahais were saying among themselves did sound ridiculous to anyone outside the community, and this is the third important lesson to be learned. The mutual confirmation within the community can make ridiculous things seem natural, and put the community out of touch with reality, and with the ordinary people it seeks to attract. The Bahais themselves, and their curious ideas, then become a barrier to people hearing what Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha really have to say to the world.

pramWhat was happening in the American Bahai community from the 1960’s to the 1990’s was the continuation of an earlier tradition of imminent millennial expectations there (and this is part of the reason why these ideas seemed plausible). In the late 19th century, Kheirella was teaching that there would be mass conversions to the Bahai Faith by 1917, and in The Dawn of Knowledge and the Most Great Peace (published in 1903, 1905, and 1908), Paul Kingston Dealy explained that in 1917 “the opposers of this Great Truth shall find themselves in the minority; then the laws and ordinances of God shall prevail to guide, rule and govern the nations of the world.”

The 1923 edition of Esselmont’s Baha’u’llah and the New Era states that universal peace would be established in 1957 (page 212): Esselmont says that he heard this from Abdu’l-Baha in a table talk. He also cites a talk by Abdu’l-Baha saying ‘This century is the Century of the establishment of the Kingdom of God upon the earth.” (Star of the West vol. 9 p. 7) and interprets ‘this century’ as a reference to the western 20th century. The text was later revised in the light of Shoghi Effendi’s statement that “in the Baha’i teachings themselves there is nothing to indicate that any definite degree of world peace will be established by 1957, nor by 1963” (cited in a UHJ letter of Nov. 6 1990). May and Mary Maxwell’s pilgrim’s notes also report Shoghi Effendi as predicting the Lesser Peace by 1953 (a typing mistake for 1963):

“They must establish this peace through their hearts as well as their minds. The prophecy of one hundred years after the declaration of Bahá’u’lláh, 1953, does not mean that the Bahá’ís will then become the world government, but that then will be the beginning of the Lesser Peace, …”

Sarah Kenny’s ‘Haifa Notes’ report Shoghi Effendi as saying “Material civilization is doomed and will be destroyed. Mankind cannot be cleansed and purified without its going. The Lesser Peace will be established in the 20th century.”

The formation of a consensus around what is wrong, does not make it right. But a consensus does make the implausible sound plausible, as Festinger noted in his famous study ‘When prophecy fails.’

aeroplanebrokeWhen Prophecy fails

By 1999, these beliefs about the end of the 20th century really were becoming implausible, even to the American Bahais. Yet in March 1999 the Universal House of Justice wrote : “The Bahá’í writings indicate that peace among the nations will be established in the twentieth century.” They claimed that the Lesser Peace “can already be detected on the political horizon” and that the process leading to it “can be seen as having been definitely established in the twentieth century.”

By that time, they must have suspected that they were whistling in the wind: it had not happened, and it was not going to happen by the year 2000, or 2001. So why did they consider it necessary to say it, more loudly? There are psychological mechanisms at play here, which are illuminated by Fetsinger’s study of a group whose prediction of the end of the world had failed: they reacted with vigorous proselytizing to seek social support and lessen the pain of disconfirmation.

But not everyone responded by proclaiming more loudly what they feared might be untrue. In June of 1999, John Huddlestone took a more sensible approach in a follow-up to his earlier book, entitled ‘Another look at achieving peace by the year 2000′ (Journal of Bahai Studies vol. 9 number 2). Huddlestone cites the reason for believing that Abdu’l-Baha promised peace among nations by the end of this century. It is words attributed to Abdu’l-Baha in a newspaper report, cited in Abdu’l-Baha in Canada (p. 35):

“Are there any signs that the permanent peace of the world will be established in anything like a reasonable period?” Abdu’l-Baha was asked.
“It will be established in this century,” he answered. “It will be universal in the twentieth century. All nations will be forced into it.”

toysNaturally this is not an authentic source: Abdu’l-Baha was speaking through an interpreter, the reporter made notes, he wrote these up into a story and submitted it to an editor, who revised and printed it. The word ‘twentieth’ could have been added at any one of these steps.

Huddlestone concedes that “it is totally unrealistic to talk of ending war … in the foreseeable future” but thinks it reasonable to understand the above quoted ‘promise’ as referring to “creating conditions that will result in a significant reduction in the incidence of violence.” This tactic for dealing with the failed ‘promise’ has been repeated by later writers: instead of examining the promise to see whether it is authentic, and really does refer to the western 20th century, the definitions of peace, unity of nations and Lesser Peace are diluted to the point of being meaningless. This is not satisfying to any critical thinker, and not a solution anyway, since there has not been even a ‘significant reduction in the incidence of violence’ – let alone unity of nations or the Lesser Peace. If in doubt, recite the following black nursery rhyme:cryinglion

Rwanda, Darfur, Uganda, Iran-Iraq, Iraq
former Yugoslavia, and once again Iraq,
Afghanistan and Chechnya, Afghanistan again;
the rhyme could be much longer, but I can’t stand the pain.

In 2002, in the wake of the non-fulfilment of the ‘prophecy’, William Collins wrote an article in the Journal of Bahá’í Studies (‘Apocalypse and Millennium: Catastrophe, Progress, and the Lesser Peace’ Vol. 12, number 1/4). Collins correctly says that “Bahá’ís anticipate that there will be a centuries-long period when the simultaneous processes of disintegration and integration operate.” This is incompatible with a sudden and imminent establishment of peace by divine intervention. “The view that humanity had suffered its greatest calamities by the end of the twentieth century seems naive at best.” Yet he seems not to realise that the more catastrophic strand of millennialism in the American Bahai community, and its link to the western 20th century, has been unscriptural: based on unauthentic texts, misleading translations, and reading-in Christian millennialist ideas that would not have entered the head of Abdu’l-Baha or Shoghi Effendi.

ponyA letter by the Research Department of the Bahai World Centre on 19 April 2001 takes the line of confirming “the promise by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, both orally and in writing, that the unity of nations will be established during the twentieth century, as an essential foundation for world peace” while distinguishing this ‘unity of nations’ from the Lesser Peace. The Research Department concludes:

“there is nothing in the authoritative Bahá’í Writings to indicate that the Lesser Peace would be established before the end of the twentieth century. However, there are clear statements affirming that the unity of nations would be, in the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “securely established” during the twentieth century.”

But where are these “clear statements”? Like Huddlestone, the Research Department does not do the text-critical work to see whether there really was any specific promise attached to the western 20th century: the texts they cite are the newspaper report I’ve quoted above, The Promulgation of Universal Peace (not an authentic source), and the UHJ’s 1985 letter which says “peace will come in stages. First, there will come the Lesser Peace, when the unity of nations will be achieved…” That 1985 letter equates the Lesser Peace with the unity of nations, but in 2001 it is cited as evidence that they are two different things!

In 2003, Jack McLean presented a paper called ‘Did Prophecy Fail? The Lesser Peace and the Year 2000‘ at a Bahai Studies conference. This begins promisingly, by acknowledging that:

popular understandings and expectations of statements in the Bahai sacred writings which had anticipated the establishment of the Lesser Peace by the year 2000 did not materialize as expected. This disconnect calls for a re-examination of the scriptures …

The paper is valuable in many respects, but misses touching on one base: it does not reexamine the scriptures to ask ‘where does it say “twentieth”’ and it does not ask about the meaning of ‘century’ in the Bahai Writings. Like all of the earlier discussions, McLean supposes a century to be a period of 100 years, and supposes that the references to ‘this century’ in the Bahai writings refer to the 20th century.

spinningtopFive lessons from childhood
Before turning to the Bahai writings to see what this ‘century’ business is all about, I would like to reiterate the lessons to be learnt from the failed prophecy episode.

First, we have seen that the UHJ’s understanding of the Bahai teachings reflects what is current in the Bahai community. This is what one expects in a community whose leadership is specifically not selected for religious expertise and learning, and is not authorised to provide authoritative interpretations of Bahai teachings.

pedalcarSecond, the ‘consensus of the faithful’ has no authority, and is quite often wrong. “Wherefore, my beloved, … work out your own salvation with fear and trembling,” (Philippians 2:12) knowing that whatever we think we know may well be wrong, but also knowing that to follow what others say is always wrong, since “…the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 143)

pedalcarThird, that the mutual confirmation within the community can make ridiculous things seem natural, and put the community out of touch with reality. When our ideas rely too much on confirmation by our fellow-Bahais, we start to live in an artificial world.

pedalcarFourth: we need to be self-critical of our own motives in reshaping the Faith. People want to have an imminent expectation of a great change coming, so they make a ‘promise’ of imminent change for themselves. And when the promise they made for themselves fails, they make a new one. The latest I’ve heard is that the Bahais are expecting some dramatic change in 2021, the centenary of Abdu’l-Baha’s passing. And after that, we can start looking forward to 2063, the centenary of the formation of the Universal House of Justice. Anything but simply walking the walk and trusting in God. You can see why Moses had the golden calf ground up and eaten: the mere meltdown of the idols we make for ourselves doesn’t prevent recasting.

pedalcarFifth: we only make difficulties for ourselves if we rely on pilgrim’s notes and unauthenticated texts, however numerous or often-cited they may be. In this case, there is no authentic text that refers to either the unity of nations or the Lesser Peace coming in the twentieth century: the Bahais and the Universal House of Justice have been misled by a single statement attributed to Abdu’l-Baha in a newspaper report. In ‘Who is Writing the Future’ (1999) the Bahai International Community writes that “Bahá’ís view the twentieth century – – with all its disasters – as “the century of light.” Their sources for this are talks reported in Promulgation of Universal Peace pages 74 and 123, the first of which does not mention the twentieth century, and neither of which is backed by a Persian text. Such reports are ‘pilgrim’s notes,’ the Guardian having ruled that “Nothing can be considered scripture for which we do not have an original text.” (see also Shoghi Effendi, Messages to the Indian Subcontinent, p. 287). In ‘The World Order of Baha’u’llah’ he writes “I have insistently urged the believers of the West … to quote and consider as authentic only such translations as are based upon the authenticated text of His recorded utterances in the original tongue.”

This standard has not been followed, not by the Universal House of Justice, and not by leading Bahai institutions and their members, and is not even being taught to new believers. Yet it should be taught, from Ruhi book 0 or from the first element of whatever deepening process is being used, if the induction of new Bahais is to produce self-actuated and independent members of the Bahai community, able to find the authentic Bahai writings, read them, interpret them for themselves, and apply them in their lives.

highchairI’ve discussed the issue of textual corruption, and given a specific example of the two layers of corruption found in The Promulgation of Universal Peace, in ‘Theocratic ideas and assumptions.’ There’s another example of the unreliability of these reports of Abdu’l-Baha’s words in my ‘Text Criticism of Paris Talks.’ These examples could be multiplied: what was true in Shoghi Effendi’s time is still true: “Much of the confusion that has obscured the understanding of the believers [is due to relying on unauthentic texts]” (World Order of Baha’u’llah page 5)

If we follow the Guardian’s instructions and “quote and consider as authentic only such translations as are based upon the authenticated text of His recorded utterances in the original tongue” then there are no references in the Bahai writings to specific events or qualities associated with the twentieth century. There are however many references in the Bahai writings to things that will happen in ‘this century.’ I will get back to those in another posting, on the Century of Light.

~~ Sen McGlinn
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dandaintynoahPostscript 1: The Bahai Distribution Service of Canada is now carrying a book by Don Dainty claiming that the end of the tribulations will come in 2011. I guess some people just cannot live without a prophecy that is about to be fulfilled.

[amended 24 October 2009, removed a quote attributed to the House of Justice, thanks to Grant Martin for pointing this out.]
[amended 13 April 2009: added Postscript 1]
[amended 2 March 2009: updated reference to Adib Taherzadeh]

Related content:
Y2K: Lesser Peace, unity of nations
Y2K and all that
Century of light
Century’s end – my two cents
The Lesser Peace, coming when

35 Responses to “Century’s end – my two cents”

  1. Dan Jensen said


    What an amazing hunk of material! And well put. Very impressive.

    Your take on this issue, if I remember correctly, appears to be that `Abdu’l-Baha’ meant to be speaking of the Baha’i era rather than the 20th Century. I believe you have agreed with the assertion that not only the UHJ misunderstood him, but that Shoghi Effendi also appeared to misunderstand him regarding this issue. Is that correct?

    Also, I would like to know whether you believe that any failure of `Abdu’l-Baha’ to foresee future events within some chronological window ought to be seen as a failure on his part. Do you believe that what he predicted must come true within whatever window he specified? That is to say, was he a prophet? Did he understand the workings of the world so infallibly well that he could see the future?

  2. Brendan Cook said

    I also like this. It is accessible and interesting and I can say for my part that I’m eagerly awaiting an explanation of the phrase “this century.” I know from my study of the ancient languages of Greek and Latin that terms for periods of time are hardly interchangeable between different tongues. I freely admit that I have no idea what the Persian or Arabic equivalents for an age, epoch, period, or century might be.

  3. Ivan Lloyd said

    Dear Sen McGlinn,

    What a brilliant article and with such clarity and logic. This is the first blog I have come accross that doesn’t spin off into heavy intellectual acrobatics while still retaining a decent amount of obscure refernces.
    Even I could follow your reasoning and I’m not too bright.
    Add me to your list of ardent readers.


  4. I believe you have agreed with the assertion that not only the UHJ misunderstood him, but that Shoghi Effendi also appeared to misunderstand him regarding this issue. Is that correct?

    No, I do not think that Shoghi Effendi expected anything special or spectacular to happen before the end of the 20th century. 1957 and 1963 were two other dates that the Bahais put forward for the miraculous intervention, and Shoghi Effendi said there was nothing in our writings to support those ideas. If he had been asked about the year 2000, I am sure he would have said again: “All we know is that the lesser and the Most Great Peace will come — their exact dates we do not know. ” (letter on his behalf, 1946). Shoghi Effendi’s ideas on this, on theocracy and on many other issues were quite different from those of his leading western co-workers. He is (at least) a whole class above them in thinking and sophistication and simple knowledge.

    The most that could be said is that some of his translations, while clear enough if read carefully, contributed to the millenialism when read carelessly by people from a millennialist background for whom the “20th century” had an almost magical quality.

    Also, I would like to know whether you believe that any failure of `Abdu’l-Baha’ to foresee future events within some chronological window ought to be seen as a failure on his part. Do you believe that what he predicted must come true within whatever window he specified? That is to say, was he a prophet? Did he understand the workings of the world so infallibly well that he could see the future?

    I do not think that Abdu’l-Baha predicted the future or saw himself as a prophet. He set out what must be fulfilled in the Bahai era, and explained the sometimes prophetic words of his Father. I do not think that he, or Baha’u’llah, thought of the Manifestation as primarily a prophet of the future. The Manifestation embodies and demonstrates the Will of God for a new day with new requirements, and he embodies and demonstrates a human response to that Will. Miracles, predictions and eloquence are incidental to this: they help the Manifestation to reach an audience sometimes.

  5. Dan Jensen said

    Thanks for the clarification, Sen.

    Given the lofty way in which Shoghi Effendi spoke of the year 1963 in his books and communications between 1944 and 1952 (at least), it might be easy to confuse the event which Soghi Effendi foresaw with world peace and triumph of the Baha’i Faith:

    “The first process dates back to the revelation of those stupendous Tablets constituting the Charter of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Divine Plan. … It must reach the end of the first epoch in its evolution with the fulfillment of the prophecy mentioned by Daniel in the last chapter of His Book, related to the year 1335, and associated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with the world triumph of the Faith of His Father.” — Citadel of Faith, pg. 32

    This “prophecy of Daniel” was the one which was associated with world peace in Baha’u’llah and the New Era. In the 1950 edition, which was overseen by the Guardian, we see:

    “‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablets make it clear that this prophecy
    refers to the one-hundredth anniversary of the declaration
    of Baha’u’llah in Baghdad, or the year 1963. Asked what
    will be manifest after the 1,335 “days,” he replied:
    Universal peace will be firmly established, a Universal
    language promoted. Misunderstandings will pass away. The
    Baha’i Cause will be promulgated in all parts and the
    oneness of mankind established. It will be most glorious!”

    These are the words of the universally-recognized primer on the Baha’i Faith. No wonder the Baha’is were so expectant. Could you honestly blame them?

    I agree that Shoghi Effendi did not predict world peace at any particular time. But he did predict the triumph of the Baha’i Cause in 1963. This triumph is, of course, recognized by most Baha’is as the first election of the UHJ.

    I don’t know, BTW, what “the year 1335” means here, though Daniel’s “1290 days” is equated with 1290 AH in the inauguration letter for the Second Seven Year Plan. I’ve abandoned my previous conclusion that Shoghi Effendi intended a calculation of (21/4/1863+100 lunar years+1335 days) which I recently realized misses the mark of Ridvan 1963 by 247 days.

  6. Dan Jensen said

    About the term “Century”, isn’t “sadeh” a fairly explicit term for 100 years? Do we have any idea how likely it is that `Abdu’l-Baha’ used the word “sadeh” or some equally explicit term in connection with world peace? Were there any cases wherein `Abdu’l-Baha’ was translated as saying something other than century, such as ‘age’, in connection with the advent of world peace, so that some ambiguity might be introduced? If the translation was always “century”, wouldn’t that mean that it’s likely that’s what he said?

  7. Hi Dan,
    I will get on to that second posting, about ‘century’.

    The change of date in Baha’u’llah and the New Era does not meet the basic objection to the Esselmont’s notes.

    Esselmont says:
    “Asked what will be manifest after the 1,335 “days,” he [Abdu’l-Baha] replied: Universal peace will be firmly established, a Universal language promoted. Misunderstandings will pass away. The Baha’i Cause will be promulgated in all parts and the oneness of mankind established. It will be most glorious!”

    Whereas Shoghi Effendi says:
    “in the Baha’i teachings themselves there is nothing to indicate that any definite degree of world peace will be established by 1957, nor by 1963.”

    This tells us that Shoghi Effendi did not put any reliance on Esselmont’s recollection, or rather on his interpretation of his recollection. It is easy to see why: what is meant by ‘after’? Is it that these things will be achieved by (within a span of) 1,335 days, or that the achievement of these things will only begin after 1,335 days? Esselmont had his understanding, based on how the interpreter rendered Abdu’l-Baha’s words to him. It doesn’t fit with the tenor of Abdu’l-Baha’s authentic teaching. If Abdu’l-Baha had some firm belief that great things would happen by a certain date, that would surely have been prominent among his teachings, but it is not.

    If the Guardian did supervise the 1950 edition (I don’t have it, to check), that doesn’t mean he endorsed it. The Guardian’s practice was different to Abdu’l-Baha’s: when Abdu’l-Baha checked things such as the Persian notes of his talks (Some Answered Questions for example), it meant that these notes were equivalent to a tablet he had written himself. The Guardian wanted to be fully informed of everything, and for this purpose he oversaw the work of National Spiritual Assemblies, major publications, and all the letters from his secretaries. It would be very embarrassing for the Faith is something occurred and the Faith’s Guardian had to say, he didn’t know about it. And he had to be informed if he was to exercise his right as Guardian to intervene in matters relating to the protection of the Cause. But he did not micro-manage things. If he found someone reliable and the process was going well, he left them to it, or rather encouraged them. This is why he insists on a distinction being made between the letters he wrote himself, and those written by his secretaries:

    “P.S. — I wish to call your attention to certain things in “Principles of Baha’i Administration” which has just reached the Guardian; although the material is good, he feels that the complete lack of quotation marks is very misleading. His own words, the words of his various secretaries, even the Words of Baha’u’llah Himself, are all lumped together as one text. This is not only not reverent in the case of Baha’u’llah’s Words, but misleading. Although the secretaries of the Guardian convey his thoughts and instructions and these messages are authoritative, their words are in no sense the same as his, their style certainly not the same, and their authority less, for they use their own terms and not his exact words in conveying his messages. He feels that in any future edition this fault should be remedied, any quotations from Baha’u’llah or the Master plainly attributed to them, and the words of the Guardian clearly differentiated from those of his secretaries.”
    (On behalf of Shoghi Effendi, in The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 260)

  8. Dan Jensen said

    Hey Sen,

    I just tried googling for “qarn century” and this was the first match:

    I have no idea what it is, but I bet that you do.

    And this one comes up #2:

    Maybe Google just knows that I prefer Baha’i matches. 😉


  9. “Century of Light” is a publication commissioned by the UHJ. It is in the ‘Ocean’ programme and available online, so there’s no need to buy it – even if you could read this Persian translation. The anonymous authors mistakenly thought that the “century of light” which Abdu’l-Baha refers to is (was) the 20th century, and so had to cope with the non-fulfillment of what Abdu’l-Baha promised would happen in the ‘century of light,’ in his tablet known as the “seven candles.” This tablet is actually about how the Bahai cycle/day/age differs from previous cycles – it is not about any 100-year period.

    It says “… the unity of all mankind can in this *day be achieved. Verily this is none other but one of the wonders of this wondrous *age, this glorious *century. Of this past *ages have been deprived, for this *century — the century of light — hath been endowed with unique and unprecedented glory, … (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 31)

    Shoghi Effendi’s Lawh-e Qarn really is about a 100-year period, but in the Badi calandar, not the Gregorian calendar, so again it has no connection to the year 2000.

  10. Dan Jensen said

    Yeah, I’ll bet you’re right about the 20th Century.

    I think the `Abdu’l-Baha’, like Shoghi Effendi, did find some significance in centuries. His use of the fairly concise term قرن appears to demonstrate this. He also appears to use the term عصر (age/period/era/epoch) in a rather short-term context, such as in “heroic age”. For example, I think he says somewhere:

    در عصر عزیم کہ قرن جمال مبارک

    Which appears to say, “about the great age/period/era/epoch which is the century of the Blessed Beauty …”

    I think this interpretation is in reasonable—if not perfect—conformance with the Guardian’s usage.

    This, I would guess, would indicate the Century from 1863 to 1963, which appeared to mean so much to the Guardian.


  11. Yes, that is just how the Guardian would translate `asr wa qarn: age and century. For example in Dispensation of Baha’u’llah, p 111: “dar aakher iin qarn wa `asr” = Ere the close of this century and of this age, it shall be made clear and evident how wondrous was that springtide.

    In the 7 candles tablet, iin `asr-e mujiid wa qarn-e `aziim = this wondrous age, this glorious century (i.e., in the dispensaiton of Baha’u’llah)

    Similarly when the pair is qarn wa duur: as in, dar iin duur-e badii` wa qarn-e jaliil = In this wondrous Revelation, this glorious century. (PDC 119)

    Shoghi Effendi’s practice is to translate qarn as century, and expect his readers to understand that it is the dispensation of Baha’u’llah that is meant; not a hundred years but a thousand or more:

    “As to the cycle of the Blessed Beauty — the times of the Greatest Name — this is not limited to a thousand or two thousand years….
    When it is said that the period of a thousand years beginneth with the Manifestation of the Blessed Beauty and every day thereof is a thousand years, the intent is a reference to the cycle of the Blessed Beauty, which in this context will extend over many ages into the unborn reaches of time.”
    (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 68)

  12. Sen said

    Sure the newspaper man had no axe to grind in the matter. He also had no Persian, he relied on what an interpreter said. He filed his story, and maybe he wrote “twentieth century” or maybe a desk editor corrected an apparent ambiguity and put in the “twentieth.” A single newspaper report is tenuous evidence (I know personally, I’ve had newspaper reports about myself that completely misunderstood what I had said). It’s unlikely that Abdu’l-Baha would suddenly start making prophecies about the Gregorian 20th century. He wasn’t a westerner, for him the year was 1291 (Persian solar calendar) or 1330 (Islamic lunar calendar).

    The problem is not that we lack evidence about what Abdu’l-Baha wrote and said, but rather that we have so much material, with no indexes and outlines for the whole of it, that we often overlook things. I am in the fortunate position of being able to spend most of my time studying the Bahai writings, and I see no possibility in my lifetime of reading all that is available, with sufficient comprehension so that I can find again what I have read about a topic.

    Nobody is silencing you: you can put your opinions on your own blog. But since your opinions are not backed by evidence, they won’t become a permanent part of the record on my blog. In other cases, comments have been substantial, and I’ve modified the blog entry in the light of the evidence, or made a new entry to cover the new material. That’s one of the big advantages of blog publishing over journal articles.

  13. Dan Jensen said


    I don’t think there’s much doubt that the Universal House of Justice played up the whole 20th Century peace vision, and ought to pay for that error with heaps of criticism, but I also think that there is little evidence that their predecessors (`Abdu’l-Baha’ and Shoghi Effendi) had specific expectations for the 20th Century. I think those predecessors had great expectations, rather, for the century ending in 1963, and I’m sure they would have been disappointed if they could see the Baha’i Faith and the world that we see today.

    (in case it matters to you, Ted, I am not a Baha’i, and I am generally quite critical of the Baha’i Faith)

  14. Fair enough, the original prophets may not have said anything specifically about the 20th century. But since the UHJ has some supposed divine function, I’m not sure exactly what the claim is, but I thought it was infallible in at least some matters. The 20th century prophecy would logically be under the umbrella of infallibility if anything was.

    So what is the answer for that point, that the UHJ, in their supposed infallibility was wrong on the 20th century prophecy?

    And if the UHJ is infallible and was wrong, then doesn’t that undermine that entire branch of Baha’i?

  15. Also you’re making an unwarranted assumption that the newspaper man had no Persian. Do you have evidence he didn’t? He could have studied it in college, or knew someone, or been married to an Persian immigrant. And his editor could have studied Persian as well.

  16. Sen said

    No, the infallibility of the UHJ does not mean that it always correctly understands the Bahai Writings. That is the role of the Guardianship, not the House of Justice. For more see the posting ‘He cannot override.’ Unlike most other religious communities, in the Bahai community one does not have to be some sort of religious expert to become part of the leadership structure. It is a “lay” community — one led by non-experts. The nearest analogy I know of is the use of randomly-chosen juries in the English legal system and its derivatives. Baha’u’llah seems to have had more faith in a process of consultation among ordinary people, than the personal findings of extraordinary people. I think he was right.

    ~~ Sen McGlinn

  17. Dan Jensen said

    Sen writes: “Baha’u’llah seems to have had more faith in a process of consultation among ordinary people, than the personal findings of extraordinary people. I think he was right.”

    Yes, he was right not to conceive of the Guardianship, which runs contrary to the wisdom of a “lay community”. The Guardianship–the notion that infallibility can be passed father-to-son through an indefinite chain of iterations–appears to be a misjudgment attributable to Baha’u’llah’s infallible son.

  18. Dan Jensen said

    Hi again Sen. You cited the following passage:

    “This is the stage which the world is now approaching, the stage of world unity, which, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá assures us, will, in this century, be securely established.”

    The Promised Day is Come, pg. 121

    Doesn’t this indicate that Shoghi Effendi confirmed that `Abdu’l-Baha’ said that world peace would be established in the Twentieth Century? I think the only real source of ambiguity here is the use of the term “world unity”, but isn’t that an even higher bar than peace?

    Perhaps I’ve overlooked your treatment of this particular passage. Sorry if that’s the case.


  19. Sen said

    I do mention it in Century’s end,’ where the UHJ cites this passage. I comment that the UHJ has quoted a text referring to the unity of nations “in this century”, and has interpreted it as referring to “the twentieth century.” You have done the same thing: inserted ‘twentieth’ into your reading.

    The main discussion is in my ‘Century of Light‘ blog. Scan down for the spiral energy-saving light bulb. (But note on the way down that just above that, I’ve pointed out that two pages earlier, in PDC 119, Shoghi Effendi translates: “..this wondrous revelation [duur], this glorious century [qarn] – which says something about how he uses the word ‘century.’)

    The words you refer to are a comment by Shoghi Effendi on the text in Some Answered Questions, for which he uses the translation by Dreyfus and Barney dating from 1908. In the discussion that follows, I suggest that Shoghi Effendi is most likely referring to another passage a little later in SAQ:

    “Now consider, in this great century [`asr] which is the cycle [qarn] of Baha’u’llah, what progress science and knowledge have made, …”

    Obviously Abdu’l-Baha does not mean “this 100 years of Baha’u’llah,” – the reference is to the age, cycle, era, ‘day’ of Baha’u’llah. But Dreyfus and Barney had already translated it with ‘century.’ We know from Shoghi Effendi’s other translations of the word `asr (listed in ‘century of light’) that he did not think it meant 100 years. And we know from his use of the word ‘century’ in parallel to ‘revelation’, a few pages earlier in PDC, that for him the English word did not mean strictly 100 years. So at PDC 120, he adopts the existing translation, because it was there and to change it would involve a footnote or a separate announcement that the SAQ translation should be altered, and/or because for him, as he understood the English word ‘century’, it was not a problem.

  20. Dan Jensen said

    Of course I’m making the presumption that when Shoghi Effendi wrote in English that he was writing to a Western audience, so I presume that by “this century” he means “twentieth century”, but that presumption is not crucial. What is more fundamental is the word “century”, for regardless of what century `Abdu’l-Baha’ spoke of (if indeed he was speaking in terms of centuries), that century is now over. Whether it ended in 1963, 1992, or 2000 is–with hindsight–just fine tuning.

    As for Shoghi Effendi’s adaptation of the Dreyfus and Barney translation, are you saying that he used the word “century” in order to be consistent with an error, expecting us Westerners to read “century” as “era”?

    I think that focusing on a particular passage in SAQ in order to establish that Shoghi Effendi was simply trying to avoid adding a footnote to a faulty translation makes for a rather shaky argument.

    It seems rather clear to me that, though Shoghi Effendi made statements to the effect that a precise time for the advent of world peace could not be established beforehand, at the same time he accepted the statements of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’ pertaining to the Century of Peace on their face–as translated. Did `Abdu’l-Baha’ mean the Twentieth Century? I don’t think it really matters. The conclusion that seems reasonable to me is that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s lofty vision for mankind has not come to pass as soon as he expected, and seeing that you agree that he was no prophet (a seer of future events), I don’t expect that you will find this conclusion unreasonable.

    To get down to basics here, if `Abdu’l-Baha’ had intended to speak of an “Era of Peace”, would it have been any less prophetic for him to predict world peace on *that* timescale? It seems to me that you are making an effort to redeem him as a prophet.

  21. Sen said

    I think I’ve demonstrated in ‘Century’s end‘ and ‘Century of Light‘ that Abdu’l-Baha was not talking of “this 100 years” however defined, but rather of “this era” – the era of Baha’u’llah.

    In ‘Century of Light’ I’ve also shown from Shoghi Effendi’s other translations

    (1) that he translates qarn and `asr in various places as ‘days’ ‘dispensation’ ‘generation’ ‘time’ and ‘century’ and

    (2) that he uses ‘century’ as a synonym for ‘age’ in parallel constructions, such as this: “In this wondrous Revelation, this glorious century, the foundation of the Faith of God … is the consciousness of the Oneness of Mankind.”

    From (1) it is clear that he understood that these words in Persian do NOT mean 100 years. From (2) it is clear that he often uses the English word ‘century’ to mean a religiously-defined ‘era.’

    I don’t see this as an error, although it may be partly due to historical accident such as the way Some Answered Questions came through the French (and perhaps by the fact that Shoghi Effendi read French before he read English: siecle from latin saeculum has a more flexible meaning than century, from latin centum, 100).

    What I have said (in a comment attached to Century of Light) is not that Shoghi Effendi mistranslated Abdu’l-Baha, but that Shoghi Effendi’s translations have been misunderstood, because it has been assumed that Abdu’l-Baha is speaking and thinking in terms of the western Gregorian calendar, and is has been assumed that “century” in these passages is a period of 100 years. A study of the uses of the words century, `asr and qarn has convinced me that neither assumption is justified.

    When one looks at a phrase such as Abdu’l-Baha’s “The Spiritual Assemblies to be established in this Age of God, this holy century, have… had neither peer nor likeness in the cycles gone before,” it is clear that “century” has the same meaning as Age and Cycle.

    Just as Christians have become used to the fact that ‘day’ in the Bible is sometimes just a day, but often a year or an era, so Bahais have to get used to a new metaphor of time in the Bahai Writings: Century is sometimes 100 years, but often it is an Age or Cycle.

    I do see Abdu’l-Baha as a seer: he has a lofty vision of future. I do not think he predicted the dates of future events. If he did expect something dramatic to happen at a certain imminent time, it would surely have been an important part of his teachings. But I don’t know of a single authentic statement about it from him, while I do know many such statements from the early American Bahais in particular. That illustrates how much the message which is heard is shaped by the presuppositions of the hearers. I think this is borne out by the early history of Christianity and Islam as well.
    ~~ Sen

  22. Ted Thomson said

    I see an logical inconsistency in your argument. You say one of the things that is superior about the Baha’i faith is that “one does not have to be some sort of religious expert to become part of the leadership structure. It is a “lay” community — one led by non-experts.”

    Yet it was the lay community of the Baha’is in the US who were wrong about the 20th century prediction. If the lay community is the leadership structure, and the lay community is wrong, then isn’t the religion, via the leadership structure, wrong as well?

    However, the real problem with your statement is that the lay community is not part of the leadership structure. First, the leadership of the Baha’is is an aristocracy run out of Haifa, just like most other religions. Second, how would a non-expert understand the sophisticated arguments you are making regarding the translations? It would require an expertise in multiple languages and access to rare documents to verify what you say.

    Any religion with any claim to absolute truth has to have some sort of doctrine, which must be interpreted by a group of experts. Otherwise there is no doctrine, just a group of individual opinions. Yet the Baha’is claim to have a doctrine, so there is an inherent contradiction to your claim.

  23. Sen said

    Yes, the Bahai community leadership is often ‘wrong,’ yet lay people deciding things together, in consultation, is very right for this day and age. Following expert leaders is so passe.

    There is no prior requirement of study or knowledge for membership on the Bahai Assemblies or House of Justice. Members may even be illiterate. Some Assemblies organise study for their own members, but that’s not required. Assembly members may participate in scripture study in the local or national community, but that too is not required. The Universal House of Justice is promised divine guidance, yet Shoghi Effendi says that it is the duty of the Guardian “to insist upon a reconsideration by [the Universal House of Justice] of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Baha’u’llah’s revealed utterances.” (See the blog entry ‘He cannot over-ride’).

    Because there is no expertise requirement for membership, it is possible that the UHJ will not know what is in the Bahai Writings on a topic, or will not understand it. Still, Shoghi Effendi says that the designated Expert – the Guardian himself – cannot override its decisions. That means a different model of religious leadership than has existed in the past, one based on consultation rather than scriptural or doctrinal expertise, one in which individuals have no special status, but also one premised on the differentiation of authority into distinct spheres.

    The Universal House of Justice says something, we do it. It has the power to make Bahai law to cover contingencies not covered in scripture, and it is now the Head of the Faith, in charge of all community administration. But if an individual member of the UHJ says something, we listen if we are interested and then make up our own minds.

    The House of Justice as a body (at all 3 levels) has administrative, judicial and legal authority in the community, but no doctrinal authority, so it never “decrees” that something is a core Bahai doctrine, or how a particular verse of scripture should be understood by the faithful. That follows both from the admitted possibility that its rulings may ” conflict with the meaning” of scripture, and from the fact – explicit in the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha — that its rulings ought to change according to the needs of the time, so doctrinal conclusions based on them would be built on shifting sands.

    Instead, Shoghi Effendi, the appointed Guardian, and before him of Abdu’l-Baha, the appointed ‘Center of the Covenant” (and son of Baha’u’llah) were appointed as authorised interpreters of the Scripture: Abdu’l-Baha expounded on various questions in talks and letters, Shoghi Effendi defined the “essential verities” of the Faith and so laid the foundations of a systematic theology. What they say does not change according to the needs of the age, but it has to be applied according to the needs of the age – for which we have the Universal House of Justice.

    Liturgical practice is a third sphere, in which ‘the Book” (scripture) is the only authority. The Houses of Justice are not allowed to say how one should pray or fast, but they do draw the believers’ attention to verses that they think are important. That means in practice that in every devotional meeting (Mashriqul-Adhkar, approximately translatable as Oratory or Chantry), the members develop their own liturgy using the scriptures and liturgical resources of all religions.

    So you have 3 separate spheres: doctrine, liturgy and law, plus the role of ‘Head of the Faith’ which has passed in turn from Baha’u’llah to Abdu’l-Baha to Shoghi Effendi to the Universal House of Justice. It’s a revolutionary new way of structuring a religious community, comparable to the separation of the judiciary, legislative and executive, plus the role of ‘Head of State,’ in modern political structures.

    It gets even more paradoxical: the Bahai Faith has doctrines, and one of them is that it does not have a “claim to absolute truth.” !

    The Revelation, of which Baha’u’llah is the source and center, abrogates none of the religions that have preceded it, nor does it attempt, in the slightest degree, to distort their features or to belittle their value. It disclaims any intention of dwarfing any of the Prophets of the past, or of whittling down the eternal verity of their teachings. It can, in no wise, conflict with the spirit that animates their claims, nor does it seek to undermine the basis of any man’s allegiance to their cause. Its declared, its primary purpose is to enable every adherent of these Faiths to obtain a fuller understanding of the religion with which he stands identified, and to acquire a clearer apprehension of its purpose. It is neither eclectic in the presentation of its truths, nor arrogant in the affirmation of its claims. Its teachings revolve around the fundamental principle that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final. Unequivocally and without the least reservation it proclaims all established religions to be divine in origin, identical in their aims, complementary in their functions, continuous in their purpose, indispensable in their value to mankind.
    (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 57)

    That may seem strange for a religion to admit. But in fact we all knew it all along. Whatever the Revelation we follow may say, we have only the portion that we understand of it, which is relative to our own capacity. If we imagine we have an absolute truth, we fool ourselves, or grossly over-rate our own capacities.

  24. Andrew Turvey said

    Unfortunately, by focussing on the calendar in which the century occurs, all you seem to do is extend the assumed prophesy to a later date.

    There are some key issues here that you don’t address explicitly:

    a) What does this say about the “infallibility” of the UHJ
    b) What does this say about the “infallibility” of Abdul Baha, and in particular His ability to predict the future.
    c) What implication does this have for the role of the Baha’i Faith in the future? What exactly are we building, and where exactly are we going?

  25. Sen said

    To take the second point first: this does not at all affect our view of the wisdom and infallibility of Abdu’l-Baha. The point is rather that we, the Bahais, have often misunderstood him – partly by relying on pilgrim’s notes and partly by reading our own expectations into what he writes. For example, when he writes “. Gradually whatsoever is latent in the innermost of this Holy Cycle shall appear and be made manifest, … Ere the close of this Century and of this Age, it shall be made clear and manifest how wondrous was that Springtide …
    (quoted in Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 16) it is obvious, once it is pointed out, that “century” is parallel to “age” and is therefore not a period of 100 years, in any calendar. Rather it is the dispensation of Baha’u’llah. There’s more examples of this in the posting ‘century of Light’.

    As for the infallibility of the House of Justice – it is not the function of the Houses of Justice at any level to give authoritative interpretations of scripture. They are the legislature, making and applying the religious law, not the authorities on the meaning of scripture. (See for example the posting ‘He cannot override’). The members of the Universal House of Justice are laymen. They do not have to have studied the scriptures to be elected and they are not trained after they are elected. So their understanding is going to be more or less representative of the understandings of Bahai scriptures and teachings in the Bahai community, from which they are chosen. This is unlike the models of religious leadership in other religions, where leadership and religious expertise go together. In the Bahai community, the religious leadership makes no claim to religious expertise, and this is the way Baha’u’llah wanted it. He did away with domination by the religious experts, preferring bodies of laymen and laywomen, elected by the community at large. In one place he even proposes that if a decision has to be made, nine people should be chosen by lot, to consult on the issue and make a decision.

    This particular issue does not affect the ultimate vision of the future, only the timetable. However other postings on this blog show that Bahais have often misunderstood what kind of society the Bahais are building, and what the role of the Bahai Faith and of other religion will be in the future. See for example:
    Entry by troops (time to be announced)
    Abdu’l-Baha’s ’socialism’
    A consummate union
    The future of religions
    The world’s a stage


  26. Grant said

    Hi Sen:

    I agree will your analysis of how Abdu’l-Baha was using the term “this century.”

    But is there any way to know how Shoghi Effendi was using the term in the following passage?:

    This is the stage which the world is now approaching, the stage of world unity, which, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá assures us, will, in this century, be securely established.(Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 121)


  27. Sen said

    It’s not just unity of nations that is involved in this case. Shoghi Effendi writes:

    “One of the great events,” ‘Abdu’l-Baha has, in His “Some Answered Questions,” affirmed, “which is to occur in the Day of the manifestation of that Incomparable Branch [Baha’u’llah] is the hoisting of the Standard of God among all nations. By this is meant that all nations and kindreds will be gathered together under the shadow of this Divine Banner, which is no other than the Lordly Branch itself, and will become a single nation. Religious and sectarian antagonism, the hostility of races and peoples, and differences among nations, will be eliminated. All men will adhere to one religion, will have one common faith, will be blended into one race, and become a single people. All will dwell in one common fatherland, which is the planet itself.”

    This is the stage which the world is now approaching, the stage of world unity, which, as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá assures us, will, in this century, be securely established. “The Tongue of Grandeur,” Bahá’u’lláh Himself affirms, “hath … in the Day of His Manifestation proclaimed: ‘It is not his to boast who loveth his country, but it is his who loveth the world.'” “Through the power,” He adds, “released by these exalted words He hath lent a fresh impulse, and set a new direction, to the birds of men’s hearts, and hath obliterated every trace of restriction and limitation from God’s Holy Book.”

    Phrases like “the hoisting of the Standard of God among all nations” and becoming “a single nation”, all adhering “to one religion, … one common faith” and being “blended into one race” to me, add up to the Most Great Peace. In The Promised Day is Come he gives an indication of the time scale he has in mind for this process:

    Suffice it to say that this consummation will, by its very nature, be a gradual process, and must, as Baha’u’llah has Himself anticipated, lead at first to the establishment of that Lesser Peace … involving the reconstruction of mankind, as the result of the universal recognition of its oneness and wholeness, [This]…will bring in its wake the spiritualization of the masses, consequent to the recognition of the character, and the acknowledgment of the claims, of the Faith of Baha’u’llah — the essential condition to that ultimate fusion of all races, creeds, classes, and nations which must signalize the emergence of His New World Order.

    There’s more on this in the post on ‘Entry by troops – time to be announced.’ In brief, the Lesser Peace and the spiritualization of the masses — which is not something the Bahais alone can achieve — are the pre-requisites of entry by troops, which is supposed in that passage from Some Answered Questions.

  28. Pascal said

    “You will live your lives in a period when the forces of history are moving to a climax, when mankind will see the establishment of the Lesser Peace…” July 4, 1983

    “…there is nothing in the authoritative Bahá’í Writings to indicate that the Lesser Peace would be established before the end of the twentieth century.” April 19, 2001

    LOL. This is such an embarrassment for the UHJ and Bahais who follow it.

  29. Sen said

    It’s only an embarrassment for Bahais who have exaggerated the station of the House of Justice, so I take it as a healthy reminder to us, not to get carried away with enthusiasms. The House of Justice is a wonderful invention, very much preferable to having clerics who lead the community, but it has its limits which Shoghi Effendi has defined. Exaggeration is always a danger for new religious movements, for reasons I have outlined on this blog under “The supreme institution.”

  30. Pascal said

    So that puts to rest the issue of the UHJ being infallible. Obviously they are not infallible. They are fallible and prone to errors and mistakes like all of us.

  31. Pascal said

    Also the UHJ interprets “century” as “twentieth century” in their letter dated 29 July 1974. Obviously the UHJ does not know that it does not have the power to interpret the writings of Abdul Baha as clearly stated by Shoghi Effendi in his Dispensation of Baha’u’llah….

    “The fact that the Guardian has been specifically endowed with such power as he may need to reveal the purport and disclose the implications of the utterances of Bahá’u’lláh and of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá does not necessarily confer upon him a station co-equal with those Whose words he is called upon to interpret.”

    So only the Guardian can interpret the word “century” in Abdul-Baha’s writings. The UHJ does not know this fundamental principle of the Covenant of Baha’u’llah

  32. Sen said

    It is obvious from the letters of the UHJ that it has been aware of this principle in the past, and I have no reason to think this has changed.

    The meanings of the terms “elucidation” and interpretation,” as they are used with regard to the functions of Bahá’í institutions, should not of course be confused with each other. The elucidations of the Universal House of Justice stem from its legislative function, and as such differ from interpretation. The divinely inspired legislation of the House of Justice does not attempt to say what the revealed Word means — it states what must be done in cases where the revealed Text or its authoritative interpretation is not explicit; and in this context it offers explanations. It is, therefore, on quite a different level from the sacred Text, and the Universal House of Justice is empowered to abrogate or amend its own legislation whenever it judges the conditions make this desirable. The major distinction between the two functions of elucidation and interpretation, to repeat the point differently, is that legislation with its resultant outcome of elucidation is susceptible of amendment by the House of Justice itself, whereas the Guardian’s interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied.
    (Universal House of Justice, Messages UHJ 1986-2001)

    This is an old letter, but it was reprinted in this compilation in 2009, and it is typical of a consistent message the UHJ has stuck to over many years. The problem is rather that readers do not seem to grasp the significance of what the UHJ says here. Everything the House of Justice does and says embodies an understanding of the Bahai teachings and writings. It cannot be otherwise, unless one imagines the House of Justice acting without any understanding ! These understanding are NOT authoritative interpretations, they represent the understanding of the members at the time and can change, may be incorrect, and are not binding on the believers. The decisions however must be obeyed, even if they are based on wrong information about the facts of a case, or about the Bahai teachings. Shoghi Effendi writes:

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

    If a decision of the House of Justice is binding even over the objection of the Guardian who says that it is contrary to the teachings, then it is binding under all conditions. In practice, where the House of Justice has incorrectly understood the Bahai Writings, or as in this case has relied on unauthentic texts, this will often have no effect on the course of action of the House and its instructions to the believers. Often it will be just an implicit or explicit understanding of the writings expressed in the explanation of what is to be done. It’s only a problem for those who take these understandings of the House, or its explicit elucidations, as identical to authoritative interpretations of the Writings. The solution is deepening in the Covenant, so that Bahais will not make this mistake.

  33. Bryan said

    Great discussion. I want to point out a nuance in the argument on the authority of the Universal House of Justice. I think the argument you propose is excellent, except that it would apply to local and national spiritual assemblies. You say: “The decisions however must be obeyed, even if they are based on wrong information about the facts of a case, or about the Bahai teachings.”

    What you don’t mention, which is critical, is that the Baha’i writings guarantee that the decisions of the Universal House of Justice are freed from error, and there is another wrinkle in this story. When an institution communicates, someone has to take the consultation and summarize it in a letter, which is quite difficult. Some letters coming from the Baha’i World Centre are signed by the institution, others signed by the secretariat, and some letters from the secretariat are not speaking with the authority of a decision of the Universal House of Justice. For clarity, certain letters are signed by the secretariat and in the indicate that they were asked to convey a message on behalf of the institution. When we get a letter signed by the institution, or a letter signed from the secretariat indicating a decision from the institution, it must be considered freed from error. Even in the quote from Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian cannot make a legislative decision, but may prolong consultation until it is right. That doesn’t mean that the Universal House of Justice can make an error.

    There is yet another view on the prophecy debate, that in many ways it did happen by 2001. I wrote this in 2010:

  34. Sen said

    I will start with the question of letters on behalf of the House of Justice. These are not infallible, as Abdu’l-Baha specifies in Some Answered Questions that it is only when the members of the House of Justice are consulting together that they are protected from error. Letters on behalf of the House of Justice are drafted by someone and circulated among the members of the House for five signatures (see the source text below).

    “As to whether there is a distinction between correspondence from the World Centre that has been signed “The Universal House of Justice” and that signed on behalf of the Secretariat: In brief, the manner in which each of these letters is prepared depends upon the contents of the letter. Drafts of letters which contain newly formulated policies are consulted upon and approved during a meeting of the House of Justice; correspondence dealing with previously enunciated policies, or with matters of a routine nature, are prepared, as delegated by the House of Justice, by its Secretariat and initialed by at least the majority of the members of the House of Justice before being dispatched. All letters written over the signature of the Department of the Secretariat are authorized by the Universal House of Justice.” (From a letter on behalf of the House of Justice, 22 October 1996
    I must add that procedures may have changed in the intervening 20 years.

    Certainly, these letters very often point to a letter that does come from the House of Justice itself. In that case, one follows the pointer to the source, which is where the authority derives from.

    As for whether the Baha’i writings guarantee that the decisions of the Universal House of Justice are freed from error, that has to be nuanced. In the first place, they are conditioned by the information available. The House of Justice writes “… the Universal House of Justice is not omniscient; like the Guardian, it wants to be provided with facts when called upon to render a decision, and like him it may well change its decision when new facts emerge…. ” (The Universal House of Justice, 1977 Aug 22, Clarification on Infallibility)
    One of the kinds of information that it is not guaranteed to have, is a correct understanding of the Bahai teachings. If it did have that guarantee, the guardianship would be redundant and the House of Justice could tell us what the scriptures mean. But they say themselves that “The divinely inspired legislation of the House of Justice does not attempt to say what the revealed Word means — it states what must be done …” (The Universal House of Justice, 1994 Dec 15, Elucidations of the House of Justice). So while you might say that “the decisions of the Universal House of Justice are freed from error” the reader can still achieve a big error, by treating their decisions as if they say what the revealed Word means. As Abdu’l-Baha says in The Secret of Divine Civilization, a lantern can burn down a house. Likewise an infallible statement can be used erroneously, in ways that were not intended.

    Finally, there is the question of what “infallibility” and “freed from error” mean. Just as “this century” in our previous example turned out not to mean “100 years” and certainly not “the 20th century”, Infallibility in a Bahai text may not mean what an English dictionary says it means. We have to turn to the various discussions of its meaning by Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, and study them without preconceptions. On this blog, see
    Infallibility as freedom :
    Infallibility and the meaning of khata’ :
    Infallibility and amputation in the Torah :

    and in the Most Great Library, see

    But above all, Some Answered Questions chapter 45 (use the new translation) and Tablets of Baha’u’llah 102-109.

  35. Bryan said

    As you seem to mention, the decisions are freed from error even when the members do not have all the facts. For example, `Abdu’l-Baha says that the Universal House of Justice can make a decision, then later reverse its own decision. At first glance this might indicate that they are correcting an error, but if you read more it is obvious that the changing of previous decisions is based on what is applicable for the time. So the decision that was later reversed is still the correct decision for the time that it was given.

    And I appreciate the clarifications you provided on the difference between infallible legislation vs interpretation. I think where you stray a bit is when you introduce the personal thoughts and feelings of individual members and analyze how they influence the decisions. I have several times heard members of the Universal House of Justice speak that they may have differing opinions during consultation and sometimes lack the consensus to make a decision, but when a decision is made each member knows that it was the right decision because of the guarantee from the Writings. You can see this play out in the above article, where the non-authoritative writings are much more prophetic than any formal communication.

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