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                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

House of Justice, House of Worship

Posted by Sen on January 21, 2009

wilmette1hoj-pillarsNow concerning nature, it is but the essential properties and the necessary relations inherent in the realities of things. And though these infinite realities are diverse in their character yet they are in the utmost harmony and closely connected together. As one’s vision is broadened and the matter observed carefully, it will be made certain that every reality is but an essential requisite of other realities. Thus to connect and harmonize these diverse and infinite realities an all-unifying Power is necessary, that every part of existent being may in perfect order discharge its own function.
(Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel, pages 20-21)

In a letter dated 7 April 1999 the Universal House of Justice warns among other things of an “attempt to suggest that the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar should evolve into a seat of quasidoctrinal authority, parallel to and essentially independent of the Local House of Justice.” Although I am not aware that this idea has ever been put forward in the English-speaking Bahai world, the letter may be taken as evidence that it has or may emerge somewhere. So it seems a good idea to consider the relationship between the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar or House of Worship and the Houses of Justice (i.e., the Bahai administrative institutions, which at the local and national level are now known as Spiritual Assemblies). To understand the institutional relations at the core of the organic Bahai community, we will also have to include the guardianship.

sunrise2The term Mashriqu’l-Adhkar refers not only to a building for worship. The Arabic words mean “the rising-place of the remembrance of God,” and it is evident that the first place where God is remembered is the human heart, and that meetings for worship are also places where God is remembered. This is not a flight of interpretive license on my part: the term Mashriqu’l-Adhkar is actually used in the Bahai Writings to refer to the heart, meetings, the central institution of the Bahai community and to buildings for worship of all sorts, ranging from humble homes and even underground spaces to a building “especially raised up” and those that satisfy – or seek to satisify — the command of the Aqdas:

O people of the world! Build ye houses of worship throughout the lands in the name of Him Who is the Lord of all religions. Make them as perfect as is possible in the world of being, and adorn them with that which befitteth them, not with images and effigies. Then, with radiance and joy, celebrate therein the praise of your Lord, the Most Compassionate. Verily, by His remembrance the eye is cheered and the heart is filled with light.

In this essay I am interested primarily in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar as a meeting and an institution, and not so much in its material forms, as a humble local house of worship, or a grand buildings that is ‘as perfect as possible.’

three-gracesThe idea that the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar institution could be concerned with either doctrine or authority — or any combination of the two — can be simply disposed of. In the organic Bahai community, doctrine is the domain of the Guardianship and authority the domain of the Houses of Justice, while the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar represents the mystic heart of Faith: its functions are to unite and to attract, and above all to ‘remember’ (worship) God.

The definitive definitions of the domains of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice are found in the chapter ‘The Administrative Order’ in Shoghi Effendi’s essay ‘The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah’, which is printed in The World Order of Baha’u’llah. The relevant passage reads, in part:

clockwork… these twin institutions of the Administrative Order of Baha’u’llah should be regarded as divine in origin, essential in their functions and complementary in their aim and purpose. … Severally, each operates within a clearly defined sphere of jurisdiction; … Each exercises, within the limitations imposed upon it, its powers, its authority, its rights and prerogatives. These are neither contradictory, nor detract in the slightest degree from the position which each of these institutions occupies. Far from being incompatible or mutually destructive, they supplement each other’s authority and functions, and are permanently and fundamentally united in their aims.

… the Guardian of the Faith has been made the Interpreter of the Word and that the Universal House of Justice has been invested with the function of legislating on matters not expressly revealed in the teachings. … Neither can, nor will ever, infringe upon the sacred and prescribed domain of the other.

The Administrative Order therefore consists of twin institutions with complementary functions, working towards a common aim. Neither, it will be noted, is ‘in charge of’ the other. To understand this, we are required to shift our concept of social unity from a unity based on hierarchical structures and a chain of command to a unity based on the differentiation of complementary institutions, each with its own inherent nature, each needing the others to fulfill its own purpose.

organicmolecule1This is known as organic unity. The parts are analogous to organs of one body. The heart needs the liver to purify the blood, just as the liver needs the heart to pump it. The ultimate co-ordination of their functions comes not by giving one or other the last word, which would be a mechanical unity. It comes because their inherent natures are in harmony as part of one design.

In my essay ‘A theology of the state from the Bahai writings’, I have suggested that the different organs can each be considered to manifest one of the names and attributes of God (for instance sovereignty, truth, love and knowledge might correspond to the state, the Guardianship, the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar and science respectively). In one sense then, the coordination of the organs is located in the nature of God’s self, as in the verse from Abdu’l-Baha’s letter to August Forel that is quoted at the top of this blog entry. The true nature of each organ is to manifest one of the attributes of God, and we must trust that, if all fulfill their natures, they will be in harmony, since even those attributes which may appear contradictory (mercy and justice for instance) are all attributes of one God.

diversityHowever the attributes of God are also attributes of the human person, and all of the institutions and spheres of life exist only as activities carried out by real persons. The harmony of a social model based on organic unity therefore rests on the ability of the ‘person’ — whether human or divine — to harmonise these diverse aspects of their own selves. The harmony of science and religion, for instance, is not guaranteed by giving one a veto over the insights of the other. Harmony comes if and when the persons who are both scientists and believers have a lived experience of both such that there is no conflict.

If the elected and appointed arms together comprise the Bahai Administrative Order, and the Administrative Order, as Shoghi Effendi says, “is at once the harbinger, the nucleus and pattern of [Baha’u’llah’s] World Order,” it is hardly surprising that we find the same type of twin relationship between the Administrative Order and the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, the “two primary agencies” of the Bahai community, and yet again, in the relationship between the religious community and the state. In each of these expanding circles, the ideal is a harmony of complementary agencies in which each organ understands and respects the God-given nature and task of the other, and all persons, having developed every aspect of their own characters, can participate in all aspects. It must be emphasised that the differentiation of the Bahai community into distinct organs does not mean that we have to make a choice between being “administration Bahais” or “Mashriqu’l-Adhkar Bahais.” Every soul may be characterised by the strength of a particular attribute, and every individual has his or her own capacities and interests, but to be fully human is to develop and manifest all of the attributes of God.

Before we consider further what Shoghi Effendi says about these ‘two primary agencies’, it would be well to meditate on the essential text that underlies both, in paragraphs 30 and 31 of Baha’u’llah’s Kitab-e Aqdas:

hoj-pillarsThe Lord hath ordained that in every city a House of Justice be established wherein shall gather counsellors to the number of Baha … It behoveth them to be the trusted ones of the Merciful among men and to regard themselves as the guardians appointed of God for all that dwell on earth. It is incumbent upon them to take counsel together and to have regard for the interests of the servants of God, for His sake, even as they regard their own interests, and to choose that which is meet and seemly. …

wilmette2O people of the world! Build ye houses of worship throughout the lands in the name of Him Who is the Lord of all religions. Make them as perfect as is possible in the world of being, and adorn them with that which befitteth them, not with images and effigies. Then, with radiance and joy, celebrate therein the praise of your Lord, the Most Compassionate. Verily, by His remembrance the eye is cheered and the heart is filled with light.

Some of the essential characteristics of the twin ‘houses’ are evident even in this brief reference: one has defined members, the other does not. The first has decisions and choices to make, the other does not. The House of Justice is to be established by the Bahais, the houses of worship by the people of the world. The former is limited to one in each city, the latter is not. (This is made explicit in a tablet from Abdu’l-Bahá in Persian, cited by Ishraq-Khavari, Ganjinih Hudud va Ahkam page 234 – download here.)

These verses from the Kitab-e Aqdas are so familiar that we may not see how innovative they are, and how marked is the difference from Christian churches. spireA Christian church in theory and in practice combines the functions of doctrine, administration and worship. It may have specialised offices for various matters, but they are parts of a single institution. This means that there can be doctrinal standards which must be met by those wanting to participate in worship and administration, and disagreements about administrative matters can lead to a breach in the fellowship of worship. It often means that a person having a position of leadership in worship, according to Christian practice, is also responsible for administering the affairs of a local community. In short, the spheres of worship, doctrine and church order are not differentiated.

The move from the undifferentiated church structure to the Bahai model of differentiated organs is analogous to the separation of the legislative, executive and judiciary in civil government, or to the evolution from the medieval village to the differentiated post-modern society, consisting of ‘life-worlds’ such as religion, politics, law, science and commerce. In the village model, individuals have one social status which carries across all spheres of activity, and is derived partly from family status, whereas individuals in a modern society have different statuses and levels of involvement in different spheres. This has had a profound effect on the individualisation of society. The fact that the Bahai religious community (the Bahai Commonwealth) has distinct institutional organs likewise means that the Bahai Faith is a more individualistic religion than Christianity. If we think about Bahai community structures using background assumptions taken from Christian models of what a religious community is, they will lead us profoundly astray.

wilmetteairThe particular function of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar is to be a place of common worship, and therefore a “collective centre” uniting the community. Abdu’l-Baha says: “It forgeth bonds of unity from heart to heart; it is a collective centre for men’s souls.” Shared ideas are a source of unity, but a limited one. The unity that grows from shared worship is deeper, a unity of the heart and not of the head, and it is a unity that can include everyone. There are neither pulpits nor priests in Bahai worship. Their absence is the visible sign that worship, doctrine and authority, which in the Christian faith are folded into a single institution, have been devolved to three distinct institutional ‘organs’ within the Bahai community, meaning that the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar can never evolve into an institution claiming authority or defining doctrine. The Houses of Justice, likewise, are barred from laying down the law in “acts of worship” (a phrase also covering individual religious duties such as giving to the Fund, pilgrimage etc.). The only prescription for matters of worship is that they must be performed, as Baha’u’llah says in the Ishraqat “according to that which God hath revealed in His Book.”

If the Administrative Order and the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar are two separate institutions, what is their relationship? In an early message to the American National Spiritual Assembly, the Guardian praised its decision to move its administrative offices to a site beside the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, as a welcome move towards..yinyang

…a closer association, a more constant communion, and a higher degree of coordination between the two primary agencies providentially ordained for the enrichment of their spiritual life and for the conduct and regulation of their administrative affairs. … the concentration in a single locality of … what will come to be regarded as the fountain-head of the community’s spiritual life and what is already recognized as the mainspring of the administrative activities, signalizes the launching of yet another phase in the slow and imperceptible emergence, in these declining times, of the model Bahai community — a community divinely ordained, organically united, … whose very purpose is regulated by the twin directing principles of the worship of God and of service to one’s fellow-men.
(Shoghi Effendi, Messages to America, p. 24

The passage highlights the close and mutually dependent (‘organic’) relationship between the two institutions, and the clear differentiation between the spiritual and administrative functions.

The House of Justice needs the House of Worship

In this relationship, the need of the House of Justice for the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar is clear and is explicit in the Writings, while the need of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar for the House of Justice has to be inferred from the nature of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar itself. The first is a repeated theme in Shoghi Effendi’s letters. In the passage from Messages to America page 24 which I cited above, in which Shoghi Effendi speaks of ‘two primary agencies’, he goes on to refer to “the machinery of a fast evolving administrative order, functioning under the shadow of … the Mashriqu’-Adhkar”. In ‘The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah‘, he refers to the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar as “The seat round which its spiritual, its humanitarian and administrative activities will cluster and in a letter in Bahai Administration he calls it “the crowning institution in every Bahai community.” Even stronger is this statement:apples

Nor will the exertions … of those who … will be engaged in administering the affairs of the future Bahai Commonwealth, fructify and prosper unless they are brought into close and daily communion with those spiritual agencies centering in and radiating from the central Shrine of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar. Nothing short of direct and constant interaction between the spiritual forces emanating from this House of Worship centering in the heart of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, and the energies consciously displayed by those who administer its affairs in their service to humanity can possibly provide the necessary agency capable of removing the ills that have so long and so grievously afflicted humanity. … And of all the institutions that stand associated with His Holy Name, surely none save the institution of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar can most adequately provide the essentials of Bahai worship and service, both so vital to the regeneration of the world.
(Bahai Administration p. 186)

The Bahai Faith is a religion in which the life of faith is reflected in social action. Faith therefore has a logical priority, it precedes action. As the Guardian says, “… institutions … can become really effective only when our inner spiritual life has been perfected and transformed. Otherwise religion will degenerate into a mere organization, and becomes a dead thing.

It is this sort of logical priority which `Abdu’l-Baha seems to have in mind, in a tablet in which he calls the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar the ‘greatest’ divine institute:

The Mashrak’e’Azcar is the most important matter and the greatest divine institute. Consider how the first institute of His Holiness Moses, after His exodus from Egypt, was the “Tent of Martyrdom” which He raised and which was the travelling Temple. It was a tent which they pitched in the desert, wherever they abode, and worshipped in it. Likewise, after His Holiness Christ … the first institute [of] the disciples was a Temple. They planned a church in every country. Consider the Gospel and the importance of the Mashrak’el’Azcar will become evident. (Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha p 634)


If we do turn to the Gospel as Abdu’l-Baha asks, it is interesting to see that the ‘church’ which was to be raised in each place was a worshipping community rather than a building. Paul writes for example to “to our beloved Apphia, and Archippus … and to the church in thy house.” (Philemon 1:1) The church as a building is not mentioned in the New Testament. So while the recipient of this tablet probably read it in terms of the building of the Mashriqu’l’Adhkar in Wilmette, it could be that `Abdu’l-Baha is referring to the Mashriqu’l’Adhkar as a ‘divine institute’ rather than as a building.

Shared worship is what creates a religious community, and it is only when the community exists that it has affairs to administer. The Mashriqu’l-Adhkar as a meeting therefore has a logical priority over all other Bahai institutions, as that which creates and maintains the community.

The House of Worship needs the House of Justice

The dependence of the House of Justice on the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar is clear and scriptural, as we have seen. The converse, the need of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar for the House of Justice, can be deduced from the nature of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar itself.

The House of Justice has a defined membership, and the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar does not. On the contrary, Abdu’l-Baha is reported to have said (in Star of the West, Vol. 3, No. 4, p. 7) that it is “built for all the religionists of the world; that all religions and races and sects may gather together.” In a letter printed in Bahai Administration, Shoghi Effendi calls the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar at Wilmette the “Universal House of Worship,” referring I think to the openness of all Mashriqu’l-Adhkars to both Bahais and others of all persuasions, rather than to the particular function of Wilmette as a Mother Temple. wilmette-entrance

But any institution which makes decisions must have a defined membership — whether it be one person or many. The 19-day feast, for example, is open to all members of the Bahai community. It can make recommendations, and cannot make decisions by majority vote, since the ‘majority’ in any feast depends on who has attended on that day. If it took decisions by majority vote, it could easily be manipulated by a group of like-minded people agreeing to attend. The following feast might then see a counter-decision taken with a different mix of people attending. For that matter, there may be multiple feasts in one locality, which obviously could take different decisions. So by its nature, the feast meeting cannot have authority.

hoj-entranceThe same considerations apply to the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar. This means that the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar by its nature is dependent on an external body to administer it. If a group of people meeting for regular worship as a Mashriqu’l-Adhkar were to attempt to become a decision-making organ, sooner or later the question of who is a member and who has a vote would arise, and the open nature of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar would be violated.

This raises two questions — is the external administration of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar always the local or national Spiritual Assembly, and does every question have to be decided by the external administration?

burnlaw-mashThe second question is the easier, since it depends only on what is meant by ‘decide.’ One local Mashriqu’l-Adhkar group I know of, having established its regular worship, felt moved to express their worship also in social service, and in discussions ‘decided’ that the many single-parent families in the neighbourhood were analogous to the ‘orphans’ whose care is in the hands of one of the dependencies of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar. Individual members of the group committed themselves to work on a project providing fatherhood models and recreational opportunities. In this example the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar as an institution has not ‘decided’ anything: it has moved individuals to make their own decisions.

As for the first question, we have seen that every House of Justice needs to be in close communion with a House of Worship if its efforts are to “fructify and prosper.” There are many letters from the Guardian to the National Spiritual Assemblies regarding their responsibility for building the Mashriqu’l-Adhkars which he had planned in every continent. But although all persons called John are men, it does not follow that all men are called John. The assemblies need to be in close communion with a Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, and fostering the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar (whether as a meeting, an institution or a building) is among their tasks. It does not follow that every Mashriqu’l-Adhkar must be built and administered by a local or national assembly. In the ideal model of a Bahai community, the seat of the Bahai Administrative Order, the Hazíratu’l-Quds, functions “under the shadow of, and in … close proximity to, theMashriqu’l-Adhkar,” but there may be more than one Mashriqu’l-Adhkar in a locality. Abdu’l-Baha writes of Mashriqu’l-Adhkars in homes and rented premises and beside burial places, and we may suppose that Bahai schools, hospitals and businesses will also want to have Mashriqu’l-Adhkars.

chantingA plurality of Mashriqu’l-Adhkars can also arise because of differences in styles of worship. There can be no one prescribed ritual for the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar gatherings. A single Bahai community may have groups who like to listen to Arabic being chanted in the style of Quran recitation, and others who want to recite Allah’u’Abha in Sufi style, or who delight in meditation in absolute silence, or group singing in Gregorian or Gospel style. Since certain hours of worship such as early morning may be more popular, multiple Mashriqu’l-Adhkars may be a practical necessity.

In the cases of the variety of physical Mashriqu’l-Adhkar buildings envisioned by Abdu’l-Baha, the external administration which the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar must have if it is to maintain its openness can be provided by the hospital, the custodian of the burial site, or the individual or family who have erected the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar as the case may be. From the arguments above, I deduce that if a fellowship of worshippers decides to build a Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, they should establish a separate trust with defined membership and decision-making rules, to administer their funds and eventually the building. The trust should be a separate institution to the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, which cannot have defined membership.

delhivipsWhere a physical Mashriqu’l-Adhkar has been built and maintained by a local or national assembly using funds entrusted to it, the assembly’s trusteeship of those funds requires its ultimate, if not immediate, supervision of the House of Worship. The same would apply to a Mashriqu’l-Adhkar meeting for which a Spiritual Assembly is providing materials, premises or funds, or lending its name.

The command to build the House of Worship, in the passage from the Kitab-e Aqdas cited above, is addressed to the “people of the world”. This, and the possibility of having several different types of Mashriqu’l-Adhkars in one place, leave considerable room for individual initiative. However the fact that not all Mashriqu’l-Adhkars need to be initiated and administered by the Local Spiritual Assembly does not mean that they do not fall under the jurisdiction of the assembly. Their position is similar to that of any other private, family or individual initiative in which Bahais participate. The members of local Mashriqu’l-Adhkar fellowships and the individuals or bodies that administer them, so far as they are Bahais, come under the jurisdiction of their Local Spiritual Assembly in all matters relating to the Faith. There are also certain Bahai laws relating to the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, and the assemblies and the Universal House of Justice have the task of deciding which laws are purely personal obligations (fasting and prayer) and which are also obligations affecting the well-being and good name of the community, and of administering those which are community obligations. Finally, the assemblies have the duty to intervene in any matter which is harmful to the unity of the Bahai community. In an organically unified body, no organ can consider itself autonomous. The Guardianship, the House of Justice, and the House of Worship are intricately connected. threetriangles

Far from competing for status, these two organs complement and support each other. Shoghi Effendi calls the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar “the Administration’s mighty bulwark” and describes it as the source of the inspiration which those who work in the Hazíratu’l-Quds, local or national, require to discharge “their duties and responsibilities as befits the chosen stewards of His Faith.” These thoughts about the organic relationship between the institutions are therefore not intended to diminish the station of the Houses of Justice, “the Trustees of God among His servants and the daysprings of authority in His countries” (13th Glad Tidings). We do not need to erect a “hands-off” sign to protect our right to personal initiative. Rather we need to make a real effort to understand the nature of a Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, in all of its diverse forms, as an organ in the body of the Bahai commonwealth.

The good functioning of the body requires that each organ understands its own purpose and nature, and also understands what the other organs are and what function they serve. The worst possible scenario is that institutions which are already developed become jealous of their prerogatives and resist the development of others, as if they were rivals, or that in their enthusiasm the devotees of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar attempt to make it an institution with authority, doctrinal or otherwise. This would be a pathological condition, more serious than any external danger could be. wilmette-interiorThe friends who would like to develop the shared remembrance of God as a regular and established part of community life will have to recognise and understand the fears of people who have become comfortable in a community in which assemblies have assumed the central role. Far from dismissing these fears as foolish, they should patiently explain to them, and to their local and national assemblies, the organic structure of the Bahai community and the cooperative relationship between its organs. They should demonstrate that the development of a vital community worship, according to the guidelines in the Writings regarding the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, does not undermine any other institution. This deepening work will have to be done at a local level, step by step and heart by heart. It must depend primarily on the individual’s understanding of the essential principles and tact in conveying them.

~~ Sen McGlinn ~~
The following letter written on behalf of the Guardian is indicative of the relationship between the two ‘houses:’

As to the question of the relationship of an administrative building to the Temple; this also will have to be defined in future, but whatever the actual form which such relationship may assume, and whatever its details, it should be based on the general principle that these two sets of Bahá’í institutions embody two vital and distinct, yet inseparable aspects of Bahá’í life: worship and service. The central edifice of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, which is exclusively devoted to purposes of worship, represents the spiritual element, and therefore fulfills a primary function in every Bahá’í Community, whereas all other Temple accessories, whether of a strictly administrative, cultural or humanitarian character, are secondary, and come next in importance to the House of Worship itself.

Letter written of behalf of the Guardian, dated January 28, 1939, to a National Spiritual Assembly

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2 Responses to “House of Justice, House of Worship”

  1. Hey Sen,

    This is fabulous stuff. You are doing such good service for the cause making these issues clear for people.

    I had a thought when I was reminded of the fact that “The Houses of Justice, likewise, are barred from laying down the law in “acts of worship”. It made me think of Penny Walker’s statement in her address at the Manila Regional Conference. She said:

    “We must reflect as individuals about our own contributions to the minor plan of God. You know the Hidden Word, ‘Bring thyself to account each day’. This reflection on our own actions is how we do this. The Universal House of Justice gives us these plans, like the Five Year Plan, and we can guage our contributions to the minor plan of God by each day reflecting on our contributions to the current plan of the House of Justice.” Opening address to the Regional Conference in Manila

    She says, in effect, that reflecting on our contributions to the minor plan of God is how we bring ourselves to account. I think she is on dangerous territory, given the requirement that the admin people have no business telling believers what they should be doing in their private interactions between themselves and God. The requirements of ‘the Book’ bearing on bringing oneself to account are very much broader than what she would reduce them to.


  2. hasanelias said

    Great work!!! Also your work about houses of worship in every land. The “organic unity” is the key.

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