Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Executive and legislative

Posted by Sen on October 29, 2009

Two columns hirschTrilith_Stonehenge [Updated, July 2012: added A Traveller’s Narrative]
One of the friends asked:

What do you make of ‘Abdu’l-Baha having written:

“This House of Justice enacteth the laws and the government enforceth them. The legislative body must reinforce the executive, the executive must aid and assist the legislative body so that through the close union and harmony of these two forces, the foundation of fairness and justice may become firm and strong, that all the regions of the world may become even as Paradise itself.” (Will and Testament, 14)

First, this shows quite clearly that Abdu’l-Baha is addressing a two-part structure, not a monist structure. Second, that these two parts are intended to be in harmony, not competing. Third, that the name of one part is ‘House of Justice’ and the name of the other is ‘Government.’

So far, so good: the meaning is unambiguous and comes from the actual structure of the paragraph, without depending on the meaning I attach to a particular word. But I double-check for consistency (I assume that Abdu’l-Baha does not contradict himself: intelligent people rarely do). Is there anywhere where Abdu’l-Baha says the House of Justice is the government, or the government is the House of Justice? No. Is there anywhere where he says that government or the House of Justice should be done away with, or is temporary? No. Is there anywhere where he says there is a fundamental conflict between them? No. Could words like House of Justice and Government have different cultural meanings? Not really.

Then I triple-check, by looking at the Will and Testament itself. It has an immediate historical context: there have been “calumnies” claiming that Abdu’l-Baha “had established a new sovereignty for himself,” “had purposed to cause the gravest breach in the mighty power of the Crown.” He has been deemed a “be a sower of sedition.” Abdu’l-Baha has answered these allegations, saying that Bahais “must obey and be the well-wishers of the governments of the land, regard disloyalty unto a just king as disloyalty to God Himself and wishing evil to the government a transgression of the Cause of God.” He says, “O ye beloved of the Lord! It is incumbent upon you to be submissive to all monarchs that are just and to show your fidelity to every righteous king. Serve ye the sovereigns of the world with utmost truthfulness and loyalty. Show obedience unto them and be their well-wishers. Without their leave and permission do not meddle with political affairs, for disloyalty to the just sovereign is disloyalty to God Himself.” (The Will and Testament, 15)

In this context, is it reasonable for Abdu’l-Baha to be explaining the relationship between the House of Justice and Government in general (the sovereigns of the world) as a two-part, harmonious structure ? Yes, this is consistent with that setting.

HoJcolumnsFurther, in the Will and Testament Abdu’l-Baha specifies that the House of Justice should be elected “by the believers” and its members should be “steadfast in God’s faith,” that the Universal House of Justice should be elected by the members of the secondary houses of Justice, and that the Guardian is its Head. So we have a fairly clear idea of what is meant by ‘House of Justice.’

He does not say immediately what he means by ‘government,’ but if we look further in the Will and Testament we find a mention of the “Supreme Tribunal, that shall include members from all the governments and peoples of the world.” We can look further, to the Tablet to the Hague, and find there the method of election and the membership of the Supreme Tribunal, and we can see these bear no resemblance to the membership and method of election for the House of Justice, specified in the Will and Testament. So the Supreme Tribunal and the Universal House of Justice are two distinct bodies, and the secondary houses of justice that elect the Universal House of Justice are distinct from the national governments which elect the members of the Supreme Tribunal. They are also different terms in the original: the Supreme Tribunal is the mahakame-ye umuumii, and it will “include members from all the governments and peoples” (duval wa milal, which could also be translated ‘nations and religious communities.’)

At this point, I feel quite confident about the basic message of the paragraph: Abdu’l-Baha wants to see a two-part structure, consisting of the ‘House of Justice’ and the ‘Government,’ that work in harmony, and it appears that this two-part structure functions both at the national level, with secondary houses of justice and governments, and at the international level, where there is a Guardian and the Universal House of Justice on the one hand and, on the other hand, the Supreme Tribunal (and other international institutions not mentioned in this passage). And we can also see that this is quite different to the picture that is presented in some Bahai secondary literature and pilgrim’s notes, which say things like “the national spiritual assemblies [will be] the national government” (John Robarts, in The Vision of Shoghi Effendi, 174). To understand what the Will and Testament is saying, we will have to disregard the things that ‘every Bahai knows.’

Pochard_pairNow I go back to the text and see what more meaning I can squeeze from it. It refers to the House of Justice as the legislative, the tashrii` (from the word shari`ah), and to the government as the executive power, the tanfiidh, and to the pair of them as do qovveh, two forces.

There’s something odd going on here, because the House of Justice, in the Will and Testament, does have executive and judicial power, at least for Bahais: “Whatsoever they decide is of God. Whoso obeyeth him not, neither obeyeth them, hath not obeyed God; whoso rebelleth against him and against them hath rebelled against God; whoso opposeth him hath opposed God; whoso contendeth with them hath contended with God…” (page 11) Executive and judicial powers – over Bahais, in relation to the Bahai teachings and community – are part of what the House of Justice is. It would not be the Head of the Faith if it was shorn of these powers.

And what about the parliaments, which are to approve the election of the members of the Supreme Tribunal: if a parliament is not to legislate, what exactly is it for?

We need a framework broad enough to reconcile the apparent contradiction. Could there be two legislatures in a country, one making shariah (religious law) and the other the civil legislature? Could there be two ‘executives,’ one governing the religious community, the other executive being one of the three arms of civil government? And two judiciaries, one the courts we are familiar with today, and at the international level the International Tribunal, the other the Universal House of Justice and the Bahai elected institutions under it, ruling on matters of Bahai religious law, for Bahais?

Fortunately there are at least four other places where Abdu’l-Baha writes about the legislature/tashrii` and the executive/tanfiidh, and calls them ‘two forces’, and says they must act together.

one blackThe first in order of writing is in Abdu’l-Baha’s Secret of Divine Civilization (1875). In Marzieh Gail’s translation (p. 37), Abdu’l-Baha says,

The state is, moreover, based upon two potent forces, the legislative and the executive. The focal center of the executive power is the government, while that of the legislative is the learned – and if this latter great support and pillar should prove defective, how is it conceivable that the state should stand?

This translation requires some clarifications. The problems start (middle of page 44 in the Cairo edition) with `aalam-e siyaasii, which Gail translates as ‘the state” but which I think refers to “the sphere of giving direction and training to society,” partly for linguistic reasons (there is no word ‘state’ here) but also because of the text that follows, in which we see that government, and thus the state, is just one of the two centres that give this direction and training to society, the other being religion.

In what follows, Abdu’l-Baha says is that “the sphere of training (siyaasii) requires two supreme righteous forces, the tashrii` and the tanfiidh. The center of the tanfiidh is government, while the centre of the tashrii` is the ulama, the doctors of religion.” He’s talking about church and state, but then in a Muslim context, where religious scholars are the ones who interpret the details of the shari`ah, the religious law. Governments, in Islamic countries, also make laws of course, but they never call them the shari`ah – that word is reserved for religious law. It is also the word that is used in the Bahai writings for our own religious law. In light of this, my translation of this passage reads:

The guidance of society, moreover, is based upon two great and lofty agencies, one which elucidates the religious law, and one which is the executive agency. The center of the executive agency is the government, while wise scholars are the point of reference for the elucidation of religious law. If this firm pillar and mighty foundation is not comprehensive and perfect, how can we expect well-being and success for society?

two-blackThe second text is in A Traveller’s Narrative of the Bab ( مقاله شخصى سياح ), probably written late in 1889 or early in 1890 (not in 1886, as EG Browne supposes). Abdu’l-Baha refers there to the persecution of the Babi community at the orders of Mirza Taqi Khan, known as Amir Kabir. He writes (in my translation):

the Prime Minister, acting entirely on his own without consultation or permission, sent commands to all quarters to chastise and torture the Babis. Magistrates and governors sought a pretext for meddling, officials sought a means of benefiting from the situation, and celebrated divines from pulpit tops incited mob attacks. The powers of church and state (tashri` and tanfidh) joined hands to eradicate and exterminate this community.

E.G. Browne translates this phrase as “the powers of the religious and the civil law” (A Traveller’s Narrative, 21) which is not a bad translation, although the context shows that Abdu’l-Baha meant to include not only the judiciary, but also the governors and government officials, under the term tanfidh.

three blackThe third text is in Abdu’l-Baha’s Sermon on the Art of Governance (1892, the translation has since been retitled “The Art of Governance). This fairly short book by Abdu’l-Baha is entirely devoted to describing the ‘two forces.’ It says that humanity requires guidance and training (siyaasii) to develop, and God provides this through ‘two forces,’ one of which acts through kings and the apparatus of government, the other through prophets, scriptures and the religious order. Abdu’l-Baha then names the two forces: tashrii`iyyah and tanfiidhiyyah. The first is the explanation and promotion in society of the shari`ah, the religious path. The second is the executive or implementing power in society, and refers to the whole apparatus of government. Government in this sense includes the judiciary, the prison and police, the law-maker and the bureaucratic apparatus, all the ‘powers that be’ in society. In On the Art of Governance Abdu’l-Baha writes:

If you refer to history, you would find countless examples of this [negative] sort, all based on the involvement of religious leaders in political matters. These souls are the fountainhead of the interpretation of God’s commandments (tashrii`), not of implementation (tanfiidh). That is, when the government requests an explanation concerning the requirements of the Law of God and the realities of the divine ordinances … they must explain what has been deduced of the commands of God, and what is in accordance with the law of God. Apart from this, what awareness do they have of questions of leadership and social development, the administration and control of weighty matters, the welfare and prosperity of the kingdom, the improvement of procedures and codes of law, or foreign affairs and domestic policy?

Clearly, the legislative and executive here point to the relationship between religious and political institutions – the question of church and state – and specifically not to any role for religious leaders in making or modifying legislation for the state. Further, in The Art of Governance (and more briefly in the Will and Testament), he explains that the relationship between these two is as equal and mutual partners: there is no question of the House of Justice being an arm of government or the government an arm of the House of Justice.

sun clouds“…the religious law is like the spirit of life,
the government is the locus of the force of deliverance.
The religious law is the shining sun,
and government is the clouds of April.
These two bright stars are like twin lights in the heavens of the
contingent world,
they have cast their rays upon the people of the world.
One has illuminated the world of the soul,
the other caused the earth to flower.
One sowed pearls in the oceans of conscience,
while the other made the surface of the earth a garden of

The point is this, that each of these two signs of grandeur is the
aid and assistant of the other, like milk and honey, or the twins of
Gemini in the sky. Thus, contempt for one is betrayal of the other, and any negligence in obedience to one is sinful rebellion against the other.”

The fourth text from Abdu’l-Baha shows most clearly that when he refers to an executive force in society, he means the whole of government, not just for what we call the “executive arm” of government in western terminology.

O ye concourse of the Kingdom of Abha! Two calls to success and prosperity are being raised from the heights of the happiness of mankind, awakening the slumbering, granting sight to the blind, causing the heedless to become mindful, bestowing hearing upon the deaf, unloosing the tongue of the mute and resuscitating the dead.

The one is the call of civilization, of the progress of the material world. This pertaineth to the world of phenomena, promoteth the principles of material achievement, and is the trainer for the physical accomplishments of mankind. It compriseth the laws, regulations, arts and sciences through which the world of humanity hath developed; laws and regulations which are the outcome of lofty ideals and the result of sound minds, and which have stepped forth into the arena of existence through the efforts of the wise and cultured in past and subsequent ages. The propagator and executive power of this call is just government.

(Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, 282)

This tells us what a tashrii`-type legislature does in society: it explains “what has been deduced of the commands of God, and what is in accordance with the law of God” and it does not deal with “the improvement of procedures and codes of law, or foreign affairs and domestic policy”, which is precisely what a national parliament does deal with. Its partner is ‘government,’ which is the executive power in the sphere of life that consists of “laws, regulations, arts and sciences” that benefit humanity and are “the result of sound minds” and “the efforts of the wise and cultured” (that is, of human effort, as distinct from revealed Law).

Two columns hirschSo now we have five texts, which consistently talk about the two forces that guide and train society, embodied in the religious order and the political order, using the terms tashrii` and tanfiidh for them, and saying that these two must support one another. In The Secret of Divine Civilization this is said in reference to Iran in particular (and the terms are explained again in A Traveller’s Narrative); in The Art of Governance it is said in general terms, using proof texts from the Quran, the New Testament and Baha’u’llah’s Epistle to the Son of the Wolf; in the letter quoted above the ‘two calls’ are again general in application, while in the Will and Testament this principle is applied specifically to the relationship between the Universal House of Justice and the Government. What could be clearer?

No doubt there is more meaning to be extracted from that one paragraph (I’ve discussed this further in my book Church and State, from page 205), but the method of reading should be clear by now.

Note that the whole method rests on the assumption that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha do not contradict themselves or each other, and that we can therefore use one part of the Bahai scriptures to illuminate another part. I’ve done this within one work (the Will and Testament) and between that and four other works of Abdu’l-Baha, but I could also go wider, and show that what Abdu’l-Baha says about the two forces is consistent with what Baha’u’llah says about the worldly and spiritual sovereignties in the second part of his Kitab-e Iqan, and what he says about ‘Render unto Caesar’ in his Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, and what Shoghi Effendi says about the machinery of Bahai administrative never being allowed to replace the national governments, and with Shoghi Effendi’s descriptions of the institutions of the world commonwealth of nations, featuring a world executive and a world judiciary and world legislature, but not mentioning any ‘House of Justice.’

There is another text that should be mentioned, a letter written to an individual believer on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, apparently as an explanation of this section of the Will and Testament:

“Regarding your questions: By ‘Government’, on page 210 of the ‘Baha’i World’ Vol. VI, is meant the executive body which will enforce the laws when the Baha’i Faith has reached the point when it is recognized and accepted entirely by any particular nation….
(April 18, 1941, Lights of Guidance, 483)

As with any letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, we have to be cautious. These are not Shoghi Effendi’s own words, and another letter written on his behalf warns us:letters2individuals

As regards Shoghi Effendi’s letters to the individual Baha’is, … whenever he has something of importance to say, he invariably communicates it to the National Spiritual Assembly or in his general letters. His personal letters to individual friends are only for their personal benefit and even though he does not want to forbid their publication, he does not wish them to be used too much by the Baha’i News. (Letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States (November 16, 1932, printed in Baha’i News #71, Feb 1933, pp. 1-2)

Some have supposed that “the executive body which will enforce the laws” means that the House of Justice is the legislative, and the government the executive branch, within the government as it is described in a Western political model. But notice that the letter does not say that the government is an executive body enforcing Bahai law, or laws made by the House of Justice at any level. Rather, ‘government’ is defined here as whatever body enforces the law, which is close to a classic definition of government as whatever holds the monopoly on legitimate violence in a society. The letter tells us that the word ‘government’ in the Will and Testament applies to government as a whole (not, for example, to cabinet, president or king in particular), and that the ideal harmonious relationship (as stipulated in the Will and Testament) between the House of Justice and Government will apply when the Bahai Faith is accepted entirely by any nation. This is in line with what I have explained above, based on Abdu’l-Baha’s usage: “executive” is not a branch of government in the western sense, but rather the executive force / tanfidh in society, it is that which is concerned with “laws, regulations, arts and sciences” that are produced by human effort. The relationship between tanfidh and tashri` referred to in the Will and Testament is what we call (and Shoghi Effendi calls), the separation of Church and State, an important Bahai principle (see “Eleven Essentials” on this blog).

~~ Sen McGlinn ~~
Amended June 2013: added my translation of the SDC quote


Short link:
even shorter:
Add to DeliciousAdd to DiggAdd to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to MySpaceAdd to RedditAdd to StumbleUponAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Twitter

One Response to “Executive and legislative”

  1. Jim said

    I like this.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: