Abdu’l-Baha on religious law and the House of Justice
Posted by Sen on November 22, 2010
This tablet by Abdu’l-Baha, dated around 1899, responds to detailed questions, “concerning the wisdom of referring some important laws to the House of Justice.” Abdu’l-Baha replies that, in principle, the Baha’i Faith is similar to Christianity, whose scriptures also specify only a few laws.
The Bahai Faith, he says, has little connection to worldly concerns. Religion’s primary function is to refine characters and bring light in darkness. However the Bahai scriptures do specify some foundations of our religious law, leaving subsidiary matters to the divinely-inspired House of Justice, which can make ‘cultural laws,’ (ahkaam madaniyyih) in accordance with time and circumstance. In Islam, this power was in the hands of diverse divines, resulting in conflicting rules. In the Bahai Faith, only the rulings of the Houses of Justice are binding, and the Houses of Justice change their rulings from time to time. This principle applies to a local, national or international House of Justice.
Abdu’l-Baha gives two examples of the advantage of flexibility in religious law: the forbidden degrees of marriage and the punishments for breaches of the religious law. The first should be decided by the House of Justice according to social customs and medical requirements, wisdom, and suitability for human nature (the first three of which are specific to a time and place). Punishments likewise cannot remain the same forever, as can be seen in Judaism and Islam, where the punishments specified in scripture are no longer socially acceptable.
I have placed my commentary on some underlined phrases in the first ‘comment’ attached to this posting, along with references to the Persian sources and to four previous translations I have consulted, and some personal reflections. Notes on the differences between the three Persian sources I used are in the second comment.
1. O you who are clinging to the hem of the Covenant, your composition in rhymed prose has arrived, and the detailed questions were considered, although a host of calamities have affected my limbs and members and joints like deadly poison, to such an extent that the pen is withheld from writing and the tongue from speaking. The pressure of work is such that it is indescribable. However, in view of the fervent affection that this servant has for that gentleman, and in accord with the divine command, a perfectly clear, concise, and beneficial spiritual answer will be given.
2. On this topic, and its elements, multiplicity of utterance is acceptable and desirable, so that through clarifications and elucidation, interpretation and unfolding symbolic meanings, scriptural commentary and interpretations of inner meanings, a hundred doors may be opened from each of its courts of meaning. “If the worlds were turned to paper, they would not suffice.”
3. You have asked concerning the wisdom of referring some important laws to the House of Justice. It is true that this divine dispensation is purely heavenly and spiritual, and concerned with matters of the soul. It has very little connection to the physical and temporal or to worldly concerns. Likewise, the dispensation of his Holiness Christ was purely spiritual, and the Gospel consisted entirely of spiritual laws and heavenly morals, except for the prohibition of divorce and the allusion to the abrogation of the Sabbath. As He has said,
“the Son of man came not to judge the world but to save the world.” (John 12:47)
And today, this most great cycle is also purely spiritual and confers eternal life. For the head cornerstone of the religion of God is to refine characters, regenerate personal qualities and reform manners. Its purpose is that those kept back by veils may attain the station of Seeing, and realities darkened by defects may become illumined. All other ordinances are offshoots of faith and certitude, of assurance and spiritual understanding.
4. Despite what has been said, this blessed dispensation, being the greatest of all the heavenly dispensations, embraces all matters, spiritual and corporeal, with perfect power and sovereignty. Thus the broader issues that are the foundation of the religious law are explicitly stated, but subsidiary matters are left to the House of Justice. The wisdom of this is that time does not stand still: change and transformation are essential attributes and necessities of this world, and of time and place. Therefore the House of Justice implements decisions accordingly.
5. At the same time, do not suppose that the House of Justice will make just any ruling, according to its own concepts and opinions. God forbid! The Supreme House of Justice will issue rulings and laws through the inspiration and confirmation of the Holy Spirit, because it is under the guardianship, protection and care of the Ancient Beauty. Whatever it may decide must be obeyed, as a God-given duty, indisputable, incumbent, and imperative for everybody. There is no recourse from it, for anyone.
6. Say: O people, verily the Supreme House of Justice is under the wings of your Lord, the Compassionate, the All-Merciful. It is under His protection, preservation, care and guardianship, for He has commanded the firm believers to obey that goodly, pure company, that sanctified and preeminent body. Its sovereignty is spiritual sovereignty in the Kingdom of Heaven, and its laws draw on spiritual inspiration.
7. Briefly, this is the purpose and wisdom of referring ‘cultural laws’ to the House of Justice. Similarly, in Islamic religious law not every ordinance was explicitly revealed; not even a thousandth part. Although all important questions were mentioned, undoubtedly half a million laws were never mentioned. Later the divines drew their conclusions on the basis of fundamental principles, with individual divines drawing conflicting conclusions from the original religious law, and these were enforced.
8. Today this process of deduction is entrusted to the board of the House of Justice, and the personal deductions and inferences of scholars have no authority, unless they are endorsed by the House of Justice. The difference is this, that [the deductions and endorsements of the House of Justice, whose members are chosen and accepted by the entire religious community, will not give rise to conflict, whereas] the deductions drawn by individual divines and scholars immediately led to contention, and were the cause of schism, dispersion and factions. Unity of doctrine was destroyed, the unity of the Faith of God was undone, the edifice of the Law of God was shaken.
9. As for the matter of marriage, this falls entirely within the ‘cultural laws.’ Nevertheless, its preconditions are found in the Law of God, and its fundamentals are evident. However those unions between relatives that are not explicitly treated, are referred to the House of Justice, which will give a ruling based on the culture, medical requirements, wisdom, and the capacity of human nature. Culture, medical science, and human nature leave no doubt that in marriage, “distance is nearer than nearness.” In this light, consider the religious law of Christianity. Although marriage to relatives was in reality permitted, since no ban on it had been explicitly revealed, the early Christian councils entirely forbade marriages between relatives, to the seventh degree, and even today this is the practice in all Christian communions, since this question is purely a matter of culture.
10. In short, whatever ruling the House of Justice makes in this respect, is the decisive decree, it is God’s sharp sword. No one may transgress that limit. If you consider, it will be apparent how much this rule (that is, referring cultural laws to the House of Justice) is consistent with wisdom. For whenever a difficulty may arise in relation to the local context of an issue, since the House of Justice delivered the previous ruling, the secondary House of Justice can issue a new national ruling on the national case and instance, in the light of local contingencies. “Consultation with all, wards off danger.” This is because the House of Justice is entitled to abrogate what it itself has decided.
11. Another example is that the Qur’an referred issues of facultative punishments to the will of “those invested with authority.” (Quran 4:59) There was no specific Text regarding the severity of facultative punishments; they depended entirely on the one vested with authority, and their severity ranged from chiding to execution. This largely defined the scope of policy in the Muslim community.
12. In brief, the foundation of this most great dispensation has been designed in such a way that its laws can remain appropriate to and consonant with all ages and eras, unlike the bygone religious laws, whose implementation is unattainable and impossible today. For example, consider the laws of the Torah. Today, they definitely cannot be implemented, for they include ten capital offenses. Likewise, Islamic religious requires the amputation of a hand for the theft of ten dirhams. Is it possible to enforce such a law today? No, by God! But this holy, divine, law of God is appropriate to all hours, times and ages.
“Thus have we made you a religious community, as a middle way, so that you may be witnesses before the people and the Apostle may be a witness for you.” (Quran 2:143).
13. Recite the eloquent poems and chant the exquisite verses with such agreeable contents that have been composed. In reality, they are worthy of being chanted in the assemblies of divine unity. Glory be upon you.
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