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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.

He is the All-Glorious

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.
AA

Sources, translations, comments and reflections >>

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15 Responses to “Abdu’l-Baha on religious law and the House of Justice”

  1. Sen said


    Sources

    The Persian text is included in a collection of hand-copied tablets, in the Iranian National Bahai Archives, volume 59;
    http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/areprint/ab/G-L/I/inba59/59IBA275.gif (INBA 59),

    in Ishraq-Khavari’s thematic collection of Bahai Writings, Amr wa Khalq, volume 4 page 299
    http://reference.bahai.org/fa/t/c/AK4/ak4-302.html

    and more recently in Rahiiq-e Makhtum volume 1 pages 222-223, published in 2007 but reproducing texts originally collected by Ishraq-Khavari.

    The INBA version is complete, Amr wa Khalq lacks the first and last paragraph, and Rahiiq-e Makhtum gives only an extract. Of the two older texts, the stronger appears to be the INBA text, which Cole thinks is copied about 1900, soon after Abdu’l-Baha’s letter was written. However in this version, the copyist has skipped two lines at one point. The copyist of the Amr wa Khalq version, on the other hand, has skipped individual words in several places, without affecting the meaning substantially, and has included the section that is missing in the INBA version.
     
     

    Translations

    A translation of a section of the letter is published in the introduction to the English translation of the Kitab-e Aqdas, pages 4-5, and this extract and more is cited by the Universal House of Justice in a letter to Mr. Ron House, 18 April 2001, pages 2-3
    http://bahai-library.com/uhj/takfir.html

    A translation by Ali Kuli Khan was circulated in typescript in the American Bahai community, attached to the notes he made of his pilgrimage. This omits some of the first paragraphs, but is otherwise complete.

    Juan Cole’s translation is published in Translations of Shaykhi, Babi and Baha’i Texts, vol. 5, no. 1 (January 2001)
    http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/trans/vol5/tazir/tazir.htm
    and includes a scan of the INBA (Iranian National Bahai Archives) manuscript copy.

    Moojan Momen’s translation is available on his web site
    http://www.northill.demon.co.uk/relstud/cole-trans.htm
    and is in itself good, although not very readable. However he has failed to draw on the Bahai World Centre’s translation or that of Ali Kuli Khan, or on Shoghi Effendi’s translation of a critical term, and his commentary focuses on disputes with Juan Cole about certain terms, at considerable length, reducing its usefulness for general purposes. What we want to know, after all, is what Abdu’l-Baha said, not which scholar said what and why it was wrong.

    I have compared the three source texts mentioned above, and I have used all of these translations as well as drawing on the World Centre’s CTA database of Shoghi Effendi’s translations throughout.
     
     

    Comments

    Unlike Cole, I do not think that the question asked, and the main theme of this tablet, is “the possible theocratic implications of the legislative role of the house of justice.” (See http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/trans/vol5/tazir/tazir2.htm ). That religion is essentially spiritual and moral, and not worldly, or primarily a question of laws, is specifically stated, but is not I think the main theme. The question asked, which is summarised in the letter itself as “the wisdom of referring some important laws to the House of Justice,” must have been something like, why do the Bahai laws not specify the forbidden relationships of marriage (our opponents are saying that the marriage of close relatives is permitted to Bahais). The answer expands from that issue to explain not only the wisdom of leaving some matters undefined in scripture, but also the virtue of having these gaps filled in not by scholars and theologians, but by the House of Justice.

    ‘a host of calamities’ (paragraph 1)

    The Arabic word means dangers or calamities, but when used in Persian it also has the possible connotation of a malign influence or secret grudge held by someone, perhaps referring obliquely to the various machinations of Mirza Muhammad Ali. Abdu’l-Baha concealed these from the Bahais outside Palestine until about 1899, which is the conjectured date of composition for this tablet. (Back to paragraph 1 >>)

    ‘Multiplicity of utterance’ (paragraph 2)

    The words (in Arabic) are also used as an epithet for the Quran, which ‘embraces all meanings.’ But if that is the meaning here, a verb has been omitted.
    (Back to paragraph 2 >>)

    ‘a hundred doors may be opened’ (paragraph 2)

    The image plays on the double meaning of bab, as a gate or door, or as a subject or chapter in a written work.
    (Back to paragraph 2 >>)

    ‘cultural laws’ (paragraph 7)

    The term is ahkaam-i madaniyyih. Another accurate, but less elegant, translation would be ‘laws of civil life.’
    (Back to paragraph 7 >>)

    There has been a lot of discussion, because the term is genuinely difficult to translate. Madaniyyih derives from the word for a city, so the term has something to do with our ordered collective life. Ali Kuli Khan gives three alternative translations: civil laws, secular ordinances and administrative ordinances. In paragraph 9 he uses ‘laws of civil society’ and ‘rules of civilization.’ The World Centre translation has ‘the laws of society.’ Momen has ‘social ordinances,’ ‘social law’ and ‘principles of civilization.’ Cole has ‘personal status ordinances’ ‘personal status law’ and ‘principles of civilization,’ of which the first two cannot be considered translations of ahkaam-i madaniyyih. However on the one occasion that I know of, on which Shoghi Effendi uses this term in his Persian letters, the reference is to the Iranian government adopting a new civil code covering nationality and family law, partly borrowed from European sources, in 1928 (see http://reference.bahai.org/fa/t/se/TM2/tm2-135.html#pg110; and my Family Law in Iran page 13 (PDF available at http://www.sonjavank.com/sen/articles.htm).

    I have chosen to use ‘cultural laws,’ a term that does not sound familiar, so that it can be read as a Bahai technical term, the meaning of which must be derived from the Bahai writings, and from this tablet in particular. ‘Cultural laws’ appears to be a classification within the Bahai religious law, supplementing at least three other distinctions: between the eternal teachings of religions and those that change in each dispensation, between laws referring to dealings between people and those that relate to matters of worship, and between laws for which compliance is supervised by the Bahai Administrative Order and laws of individual conscience and practice. From this tablet, we can see that religious laws of this class are not a point of religious doctrine, but are necessary to facilitate collective life, and can therefore be adapted to meet needs and customs of a particular country and culture, and adapted again as scientific understanding, social conditions and the requirements of wisdom may dictate. In paragraph 9, where madaniyyih is used as a noun, I have translated it with ‘the culture.’

    Another good literal translation of ahkaam-i madaniyyih would be ‘civilizational laws.’ However Abdu’l-Baha appears to envision not one law governing a whole civilization, but rather national (or possibly local) Houses of Justice adapting the ‘cultural laws’ to local circumstances.

    The translation ‘laws of society’ faces two objections:
    – it could imply a form of temporal power, which is a contradiction with what Abdu’l-Baha has just stated, that the sovereignty of the House of Justice”is spiritual sovereignty in the Kingdom of Heaven;”
    – if Abdu’l-Baha had meant ‘laws of society’ he could have used jami`yat or jaam`e, which he does use in this sense in sections 3 and 5 of his Sermon on the Art of Governance. There, ‘society’ refers to human society rather than the particular society of a particular people, or of a particular religious community, and Abdu’l-Baha specifies that “Just monarchs, accomplished representatives, wise ministers, and intrepid military leaders constitute the executive centre in this power of governance.” (Back to paragraph 7 >>)

    “Human nature” (paragraph 9)

    “Human nature” is often used in a moral sense in English, “it’s just human nature” often refers to a moral weakness. Here it means the nature of a human, his or her makeup and constitution, which includes the body, and what we know as recessive genes. I think that Abdu’l-Baha would be thinking that the children of a first cousin marriage, for example, often have a weaker “constitution” which includes weaker mental powers, but not moral weakness. This aspect of “human nature” has to be taken into account. (Back to paragraph 9 >>)

    ‘the seventh degree’ (paragraph 9)

    The rule of seven degrees was applied at least as early as the pontificate of Gregory III (731-741). At that time the degrees of relationship were calculated by adding the generations to a common ancestor on both sides, so that first cousins are related to the fourth degree (two generations on each side). (Back to paragraph 9 >>)

    ‘relating to the local context of the issue.’ (paragraph 10)

    This is a translation crux: the text can be read amr-e iljaa’, a Persian phrase referring to the process of submitting a matter to God and submitting to His will, protecting, or defending from evil (Steingass’ dictionary), or amr al-jaa’, in Arabic, meaning a local matter. If the first of these is taken, the translation would be ‘such that one must turn to God for an answer on that issue.’ I have chose the second, because the plural of this term appears in the next sentence (translated ‘local contingencies’) and because of the references to a specific House of Justice that follow, indicating that Abdu’l-Baha is not speaking of the Universal House of Justice, which can make different rulings at different times, but rather about the local or national institutions, which may make different rulings for different settings, and change these over time. Ali Kuli Khan translates this “[whenever]…an unexpected phase may come up,” which would be correct if the text read be-jaa’i, but neither the INBA nor the Amr wa Khalq versions allow this. Cole translates “that must be referred for deliberation,” Momen translates “because a compelling circumstance has arisen.” And God knows best.
    (Back to paragraph 10 >>)

    ‘the secondary House of Justice’ (paragraph 10)

    Abdu’l-Baha uses this term in his Will and Testament to refer to national Houses of Justice, which we know today as the National Spiritual Assemblies. However this tablet was written before the Will and Testament. The term here could mean simply ‘that specific House of Justice,’ whichever it was that issued the original ruling, or it might mean ‘the specific (not the Universal) House of Justice,’ leaving open the question of whether this means a local or a national body.
    (Back to paragraph 10 >>)

    “a new national ruling” (paragraph 10)

    Literally, a new specific ruling, see the previous note. (Back to paragraph 10 >>)

    ‘facultative punishments’ (paragraph 11)

    The Quran does specify punishments for a few crimes; the remainder are classed as facultative, as Abdu’l-Baha says here. (Back to paragraph 11 >>)

    ‘the scope of policy’ (madar-e siyasat, paragraph 11)

    Siyaasat is ‘policy’ in the specific sense of choosing punishments (and sometimes rewards) to achieve social ends. In the Lawh-e Hikmat, Shoghi Effendi translates it ‘wise administration.’ In the eighth section of the Tablet of Ishraqat, and the thirteenth section of the Bisharat, Shoghi Effendi translates Amur-e siyaasat as “administrative affairs.” Ali Kuli Khan, in his translation of the present tablet, uses ‘the administration of affairs.’ (Back to paragraph 11 >>)
     
     

    Reflections

    The tablet seems to reflect a polemic setting, in which Muslim opponents have criticized the Bahai Faith for having a deficient religious law, compared to their own. Iranian anti-Bahai propaganda today includes the charge that Bahai men can marry their daughters, and brothers their sisters, since the Aqdas does not forbid this. That was one reason for deciding to blog this translation now. It gives us three good answers: (1) Christian religious law is also not scripturally specified, but this hasn’t led Christian communities to immorality, and doesn’t mean that Christianity is a deficient religion. (2) In fact, Islamic religious law is also far from fully specified in scripture: 99% has been derived by religious scholars on the basis of scripture, reason, and the example and words of the Prophet and his family and companions. (3) Leaving the details to the House of Justice is preferable both from the point of view of allowing a flexible response to cultural specifics and change over time, and from the point of view of preserving unity.

    I am struck by Abdu’l-Baha’s recognition of a class of what religions have usually treated as ‘morality’ which is doctrinally indifferent, and not in fact an issue of true morality. Matters such as whether first or second cousins may marry, or what punishments should be applied, can be changed (or left undefined by the religious community) without affecting the core of religion’s social function, which is “to refine characters, regenerate personal qualities and reform manners.” The distinction between cultural commands and prohibition, and morality is a modern, or even post-modern, one.

    This tablet appears to offer a House of Justice room to make a ruling in response to the new phenomenon of state-recognized, and socially-accepted, same-sex marriages. National and even local responses are required, because while in some societies homosexuality is an occasion for scandal, for cultural reasons, in others the refusal to accept same-sex unions is a scandal, based on the more fundamental principle of human equality and individual dignity.

  2. Sen said

    Notes on differences in the source texts

    Paragraph 3:
    The Bahai World Centre’s authorised translation begins with this paragraph: I have not followed it entirely. The Persian text in Amr wa Khalq vol 4 p 298 and Rahiq-e Makhtum p 222 also begin here. The preceding two paragraphs are found only in the INBA text.

    ‘It is true that’ (paragraph 3)
    The INBA text has ‘aan’ (that) where Amr wa Khalq and Rahiq-e Makhtum have ‘in’ (this), the first seems more likely, hence the translation “it is true that” rather than “before all else.”

    ‘It has very little connection’ (paragraph 3)
    The INBA and Amr wa Khalq texts have an indefinite -ii appended to ta`alluq, which is missing in Rahiq-e Makhtum.

    ‘worldly concerns’ (paragraph 3)
    The INBA text raises the hamza on a Y, the Amr wa Khalq on a W. The difference is purely orthographical, but may be useful in tracing textual history.

    ‘his Holiness Christ’ (paragraph 3)
    Hazrat (his Holiness) is omitted in the Amr wa Khalq and Rahiq-e Makhtum versions.

    ‘but to save the world.’ (paragraph 3)
    The Amr wa Khalq version omits “but to save the world.”

    ‘eternal life’ (paragraph 3)
    INBA: zendagaanii; Amr wa Khalq zendagii.

    ‘The wisdom of this’ (paragraph 4)
    INBA: hikmat-e iin, iin ast; Amr wa Khalq: hikmat iin ast. The meaning is not affected.

    ‘implements decisions’ (paragraph 4)
    INBA: majraa’; Amr wa Khalq: ijraa’. The meaning is not affected; both forms of the word are used at other places in this tablet.

    ‘God-given duty’ (paragraph 5)
    The INBA text has a series of four terms all linked by wa, the Rahiiq-e Makhtum and Amr wa Khalq texts have two ezafe pairs. I have used the INBA version (as has Momen): the difference is only greater rhetorical emphasis.

    ‘sanctified and preeminent body’ (paragraph 6)
    ‘Sanctified’ is omitted in Amr wa Khalq.

    ‘Later the divines’ (paragraph 7)
    Rahiq-e Makhtum omits `ulama (the divines)

    ‘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’ (Paragraph 8)
    This text is not in the INBA 59 version, but is in the Amr wa Khalq version (page 300) and in the version in Rahiq-e Makhtum (page 223). The sense requires something like this, and its omission in INBA can be explained by the copyist skipping from one ‘istinbaat’ (the deductions drawn by the House of Justice), to the following reference to the ‘istinbaat’ of individual divines. Ali Kuli Khan’s translation includes this phrase.
    The Rahiq-e Makhtum version has ‘of the board of the House of Justice,’ while the Amr wa Khalq version has simply ‘of the House of Justice.’

    ‘led to contention’ (paragraph 8)
    In the Amr wa Khalq text, the verb has the conditional form, while in INBA and Rahiq-e Makhtum it is in the past tense.

    ‘As for the matter of marriage'(paragraph 9)
    The Amr wa Khalq text inserts a ‘wa,’ and omits amr (matter, command) here; the meaning is not greatly affected.

    ‘its preconditions’ (paragraph 9)
    The -ash ending (‘its’) is omitted in the Amr wa Khalq version, which has sharutii … wa arkaanash whereas INBA has sharutash … wa arkaanash. The meaning is not affected.

    ‘are referred’ (paragraph 9)
    The Amr wa Khalq version has an -ast (‘is/are’) here, which is omitted in the INBA version. The meaning is not affected.

    ‘the Qur’an referred’ (paragraph 11)
    Another orthographic difference here: INBA has bud while Amr wa Khalq has budeh.

    ‘no specific Text’ (paragraph 11)
    INBA has nasusi, Amr wa Khalq has nasus.

    ‘Is it possible to enforce’ (paragraph 12)
    The Amr wa Khalq text omits ijraa (enforcement) here, but it is required by the sense.

    Quran 2:143 (paragraph 12)
    The Amr wa Khalq text ends here.

  3. Stephen Kent Gray said

    The Catholic Church does not generally permit the marriage if a doubt exists on whether the potential spouses are related by consanguinity in any degree of the direct line or in the second degree of the collateral line.

    Definitions of incest varied throughout history. The Fourth Lateran Council held in 1215 attempted to codify that marriage was forbidden up to and including third cousins, though permissible beyond this for fourth cousins, third cousins once removed, etc.

    In the Eastern Orthodox Church, marriages are banned between second cousins or closer and between second uncles / aunts and second nieces / nephews (between first cousins once removed) or closer. Marrying one’s godparent or deceased spouse’s sibling is also prohibited, although marrying one’s stepchild is not – e.g. Vyacheslav Ivanov exercised his right to marry his stepdaughter after her mother’s (his first wife’s) death.

    The Anglican Communion allows marriages up to and including first cousins.

    The Catholic changed the position as shown above from the earlier one you listed to the even stricter one given here formulated during the Fourth Lantern Council. I also included Anglicans and Orthodox for interesting contrast.

  4. Hasan said

    Thanks, I think it is a very important tablet!!! I’m looking forward to comments about this.

  5. Hasan said

    While I think this tablet is a plus point for your thesis of separation of Church and State, I disagree entirely with you about Baha’i same-sex marriages, it is simply wrong, you should lose hope.

  6. Sen said

    I think many people feel that homosexuality is “just wrong,” and same sex marriages are also wrong. Others feel that discrimination is just wrong. The decisions about policies to allow people in same-sex marriages to enter the Bahai community will have to be made by the Universal House of Justice, perhaps delegated to National Assemblies because of differences in the legislation and social norms around the globe, so it is their sense of what is wrong and what is not that will prevail. All the researcher and translator can do is point to relevant texts that may facilitate the House of Justice’s implementation of whatever it feels is right for the Bahai community today.

  7. Hasan said

    Sen, what I mean is that according to the Baha’i doctrine, same-sex marriages are banned at least for the entire Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh. But this applies only for Baha’is and inside the Baha’i community.

  8. Sen said

    That would be the case, it it was explicit in the text, which is often claimed but never been backed by actual evidence. When you think about it, it’s really improbable that there would be anything against same-sex marriage in the Bahai Writings, because the canon was closed before same-sex marriage was created. That makes it a new question, falling (for Bahais) under the rulings of the House of Justice.

  9. Larry Roofener said

    Sen.

    I have been reading again of late your translation and comments titled, ‘ `Abdu’l-Bahá on Religious Law and the House of justice’. Should you find that my comments here meet the criteria you have identified as acceptable for your Blog site, would you please post them. If not, and should you be so inclined, I would welcome a private communication.

    I want to express that I appreciate your translations because it is apparent to me from reading over the years much of what you have written and translated that you diligently strive for accuracy in the English words you select when translating from the original languages of the Baháʼí Writings. I have a question related to this Tablet, specifically about paragraphs 5 and 6 as your choice of words used, compared to the words of other translations completed by the Bahá’í World Center (partial translation), by Juan Cole, and by Moojan Momen, inspires my ongoing interest in the Bahá’í Guardianship. Although my question may appear to venture into the territory of interpretation, I believe it is more so a conclusion based on understandings and hindsight acquired by the Bahá’í world community over the last century.

    Within paragraph 5 your translation it reads, “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. . . .” and in paragraph 6, “. . . the Supreme House of Justice is under the wings of your Lord . . . It is under His protection, preservation, care and guardianship . . .”

    In comparison, the Bahá’í World Center’s “authorized” translation reads, “The Supreme House of Justice will take decisions and establish laws through the inspiration and confirmation of the Holy Spirit, because it is in the safekeeping and under the shelter and protection of the Ancient Beauty . . .” and, “the Supreme House of Justice is under the wings of your Lord . . . is under His protection, His care, and His shelter . . .” (April 2001, Bahá’í Library Online)

    Juan Cole’s more abbreviated translation reads, “The greatest house of justice makes decisions and laws by virtue of the inspiration and confirmation of the holy spirit. For it is under the protection of the ancient Beauty.” and, “the greatest house of justice is under the wing of your lord . . . that is, under his patronage and protection.”

    Moojan Momen’s translation reads, “The Universal (Most Mighty) House of Justice (bayt al-`adl-i a`zam) will make its decisions and enact its laws through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (rúh al-quds), for it is under the guard, protection, and succour of the Ancient Beauty.” and, “The Universal House of Justice is [sheltered] beneath the wing of your Lord . . . that is to say, “under His protection, His defence, His safe-keeping, and His guard.”

    Considering those words you have meticulously selected, and those terms carefully chosen by the other translators, (“guardianship”, “protection”, “care”, “preservation”, “shelter”, “patronage” “guard”, “defence”, “safe-keeping”), my question is this: Is not `Abdu’l-Bahá in these two paragraphs of this Tablet, written about 1899, anticipating by implication the institution of Guardianship?

    There is a striking similarity when one compares the protective terminologies used in this Tablet to the translated utterances of `Abdu’l-Bahá in ‘Some Answered Questions’ where He states, “…the Universal House of Justice, if it be established under the necessary conditions – with members elected from all the people – that House of Justice will be under the protection and the unerring guidance of God… …Now the members of the House of Justice have not, individually, essential infallibility; but the body of the House of Justice is under the protection and unerring guidance of God: this is called conferred infallibility.” (pages 172-173, 1984 edition; also pp. 197-198, 2014 edition)

    Granted, the Guardianship is not specifically mentioned in either work, but Laura Clifford Barney recorded those table talks with `Abdu’l-Bahá between the years 1904 -1906. It was during this same time period that at least Part 1 of His Will and Testament had been secretly written in which He had appointed the Guardian of the Cause of God. The Baháʼí World Center Research Department has “suggested that part I of the Will and Testament might well have been revealed in 1904 . . .”, and “it is suggested that part II . . . might have been revealed some time around 1906/1907.” and that “Perhaps, part III might also have been revealed around . . . 1906/1907.” (Memorandum from the Research Department to the Universal House of Justice dated July 24, 1996) Some others have the perspective that evidence suggests that Part 2 may have been written 1906-1908.

    In Shoghi Effendi’s ‘The Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh’ treatise he wrote, “It should be borne in mind that the institution of the Guardianship has been anticipated by `Abdu’l-Bahá in an allusion He made in a Tablet addressed, long before His own ascension, to three of His friends in Persia. To their question as to whether there would be any person to whom all the Bahá’ís would be called upon to turn after His ascension He made the following reply: ‘As to the question ye have asked me, know verily that this is a well-guarded secret. It is even as a gem concealed within its shell. That it will be revealed is predestined. The time will come when its light will appear, when its evidences will be made manifest, and its secrets unraveled.’ ” (The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 150)

    Related, Bahíyyih Khánum wrote, “. . . that conclusive Text, the Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá, was given us, and what had been hidden at the beginning was made known at the end. His infinite grace became clearly manifest, and with His own mighty pen He made a perfect Covenant, naming Shoghi Effendi the Chosen Branch and Guardian of the Faith. Thus, by God’s bounty, what had been a concealed mystery and a well-guarded secret, was at last made plain.” (Letter September 12, 1922; Compilation ‘Bahíyyih Khánum – The Greatest Holy Leaf’, no. 54, pp. 177-178) “. . . praised be God, He Who is the Dayspring of the Covenant has appointed in writing a specific centre, and designated the Guardian of the Cause, Shoghi Effendi, as the one toward whom must turn all those who follow Bahá’u’lláh–His purpose being that the Faith of God and His Cause should remain secure and safe. . . .” (Letter to a Bahá’í family in Tabríz, written between April 28 – May 27, 1922; Compilation ‘Bahíyyih Khánum – The Greatest Holy Leaf’, no. 31, p. 123) “The good news has come that the Will and Testament of `Abdu’l-Bahá, may our lives be sacrificed for His meekness, has been read at the meetings of the friends, and we here are rejoiced to learn of their unity and their steadfastness and loyalty, and of their directing themselves toward the designated Centre, the named and specified Guardian of the Cause of God, the interpreter of the Book of God, the protector of His Faith, the keeper of His Law, Shoghi Effendi. . . .” (Letter to a believer in Tákúr, Núr, July 7, 1922; Compilation ‘Bahíyyih Khánum – The Greatest Holy Leaf’, no. 45, p. 159)
    In a Tablet written by `Abdu’l-Bahá in 1909, some 12 years prior to His Will being unveiled, He wrote, “According to the ordinances of the faith of God, women are equals of men in all rights save only that of membership on the Universal House of Justice, for, as hath been stated in the text of the Book, both the head and the members of the House of Justice are men.” (Letter to Corinne True, translated in Haifa and dated July 29, 1909; also cited in letter from the Universal House of Justice dated May 31, 1988) Here `Abdu’l-Bahá is differentiating between the male “members” of the House of Justice and the male “head” of that body. Beyond addressing the exemption of women from the House of Justice, and given that all parts of His Will and Testament were likely complete by then, He is apparently also alluding to the future Guardian (the “head” of the Universal House of Justice) and is anticipating the irremovable “sacred head” of that body as later discovered to be decreed in His Will and Testament.

    Similar terminologies are used in `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament related to the Guardianship. The fact that `Abdu’l-Bahá designates a “Guardian of the Cause of God” denotes “protection” of the Cause. He refers to the “Shield of His Covenant (that) hath guarded the Temple of His Cause” (Part 1, paragraph 1). Interestingly, in a letter written by Shoghi Effendi, and although his focus in the letter was the Hands of the Cause in this case, rather than the Universal House of Justice, he wrote that the Hands of the Cause are “destined to assume in the fullness of time, under the aegis of the Guardian, the dual sacred responsibility for protection and propagation of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh.” (Cablegram, April 6, 1954; Messages to the Bahá’í World: 1950-1957, p. 58) The phrase “aegis of the Guardian” appears to be relevant here as he is perhaps suggesting that the Guardian of the Cause can be compared symbolically to that ancient shield of the gods bestowing divine protection. `Abdu’l-Bahá designated Shoghi Effendi as that protective and sheltering “primal branch of the Divine and Sacred Lote-Tree, grown out, blest, tender, verdant and flourishing from the Twin Holy Trees”; and as “the blest and sacred bough that hath branched out from the Twin Holy Trees.” (Part 1. Paragraph 2); and as “the youthful branch branched from the two hallowed and sacred Lote-Trees” (Part 1 paragraph 17); and as “the chosen branch” (Part 1, paragraph 17); and as the “sacred and youthful branch” (Part 3, paragraph, 18); and as “the twig that hath branched from and the fruit given forth by the two hallowed and Divine Lote-Trees” (Part 3, paragraph 10) As in the same manner of that protective and sheltering “wing” mentioned in the Tablet above, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá writes “Well is it with him that seeketh the shelter of his shade that shadoweth all mankind” (Part 1, patragraph 2), and “All must be under his shadow and obey his command.” (Part 1, paragraph 19) “The mighty stronghold shall remain impregnable and safe through obedience to him who is the Guardian of the Cause of God. It is incumbent upon the members of the House of Justice, upon all the Aghsán, the Afnán, the Hands of the Cause of God to show their obedience, submissiveness and subordination unto the Guardian of the Cause of God, to turn unto him and be lowly before him.” (Part 1, paragraph 17)

    Numerous more sources could be offered, but the overall point I wish to make in all that is presented above is that the Guardianship as a protective element seems to be anticipated by implication in some of `Abdu’l-Bahá’s early Tablets referring to the Universal House of Justice. The Guardianship was mandated in the Will and Testament as the essential divinely guided Protector of the Faith and its Administrative Order. Early on, and referring to the Guardian’s protective responsibility toward the Universal House of Justice, Shoghi Effendi wrote, ‘It must be also clearly understood by every believer that the institution of Guardianship does not under any circumstances abrogate, or even in the slightest degree detract from, the powers granted to the Universal House of Justice by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, and repeatedly and solemnly confirmed by `Abdu’l-Bahá in His Will. It does not constitute in any manner a contradiction to the Will and Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, nor does it nullify any of His revealed instructions. It enhances the prestige of that exalted assembly, stabilizes its supreme position, safeguards its unity, assures the continuity of its labors, without presuming in the slightest to infringe upon the inviolability of its clearly-defined sphere of jurisdiction.” (Letter dated February 27, 1929; The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, P. 8)

    Thank you for giving consideration to my query about this Tablet, and to my thoughts as presented.

  10. Sen said

    That’s an impressive piece of research, Larry, which I hope you will publish somewhere more significant than my blog. I will get back to you here on the two references to the house of justice being “under the guardianship” of God.

  11. Sen said

    The first instance is “بیت العدل به الهام و تأیید روح القدس قرار و احكام جاری نماید؛
    زیرا تحت وقایت و حمایت و صیانت جمال قِدَم است و آنچه قرار دهد اتّباعش فرض مسلّم و واجب متحتّم است؛

    My translation ” it is under the guardianship, protection and care of the Ancient Beaut”
    y
    [this programme does not like mixed font texts
    !]

    The first two terms appear in the Will and Testament together:
    وقایت و حمایت
    and Shoghi Effendi translates “guarded and protected.”

    The third term, صیانت,
    also translates as protection, , preservation, etc., but Shoghi Effendi gives it a nuance in the Will and Testament by translating it as “care and protection
    I have picked up on that nuance.
    Guardianship in the sense of the office of the Guardian or of the Imams is different: waliyat / valiyat. This is the term that Khomeini picked up, where it refers to the guardianship of a legal scholar can exercise over orphans and others without a natural guardian, and he transformed it into the idea that the divines would have a duty and privilege of guardianship over all the nation.

    But the first term, which I have translated guardianship with a small g,
    has a more current, verbal sense. Someone is standing up for another, is keeping an eye on them. The focus is on the action, rather than on the station of the guardian and the relationship to the guarded.

  12. Sen said

    Your second query relates to paragraph 6, where Baha’u’llah switches to Arabic, with four terms:
    صونه و حمایته و حفظه و كلائته

    {It is under} … His protection, preservation, care and guardianship,

    The first term relates to safety & preservation; the second is the same word as the second term in the previous phrase, we can say “protection” with the nuance of support; the third term is another word for guardianship, with the connotations of rote memory of the Quran, and the watchman who stands guard, and the fourth term is from the root kala’a
    کلاء
    meaning to guard, preserve, protect, with the connotation of being ever-watchful. Shoghi Effendi translates it “care” . Once again, there is no term here relating to valiyat / waliyat.

  13. Larry Roofener said

    Sen:

    Thank you for considering my comments and posting your prompt response. Thanks as well for explaining the translation details related to those specific terms and “actions” as you referred to some of them. I recognize that there is no specific term for the Guardianship (“valiyat” / “waliyat”) used in either of those two paragraphs in the Tablet. Perhaps there is one aspect existing in paragraph 6 in the Tablet, and paralleling `Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament, worthy of further focus as I failed to explain my thoughts on it clearly enough in my comments.

    Setting aside those protective attributes momentarily, and stepping “out there” a bit toward interpretation, `Abdu’l-Bahá used the metaphor of the sheltering “wing(s) of the Lord” in the Tablet, and in His Will and Testament used the metaphor of the sheltering “branch” or “bough” of “the Divine and Sacred Lote-Tree”. More than a metaphor though, the “branch” represents the Guardianship’s “enobled” and “organic connection with (the) Persons of (the) Twin Founders of Bahá’í Faith”. (Cablegram March 30, 1937; Messages to America, pp. 8-9) Both the “wing(s) of the Lord” and the “branch grown out, blest, tender, verdant and flourishing from the Twin Holy Trees” are instruments bestowing protection on the Universal House of Justice (and all others in the Cause of God). The Guardian, after `Abdu’l-Bahá’s passing, was the instrument of protection.

    In closing, I will offer these words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá as they are worthy of reflection: “These Spiritual Assemblies are aided by the Spirit of God. Their defender is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Over them He spreadeth His wings. . . .” (Selections From the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 80)

    Thank you again.

  14. Derk Janssen said

    Hallo Sen, U hebt op FaceBook gepost dat er geen Bahai-schrift is waarin staat dat het huwelijk tussen een man en een vrouw is. Toch werden deze citaten al drie weken geleden door Edward Price geciteerd in zijn antwoord aan jou. Iedereen op het forum zag het. Dus waarom heb je vandaag opnieuw hetzelfde beweerd? Is het dat u opzettelijk negeert wat niet past in uw vooringenomen bevestiging, zodat u niet alleen Shoghi Effendi, maar ook Abdu’l Baha uitdaagt? Mensen zijn geen idioten en wanneer je vaak schrijft, spreek je jezelf tegen en zie je er dwaas uit.
    U beweert een geleerde te zijn, maar u kent geen basisleerleringen!

    ” “THE MARRIAGE OF THE BAHAIS MEANS THAT BOTH MAN AND WOMAN must become spiritually and physically united, so that they may have eternal unity throughout all the divine worlds and improve the spiritual life of each other. This is Bahai matrimony.”
    (Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v2, p. 325)
    “Regarding the question of matrimony: KNOW THOU THAT THE COMMAND OF MARRIAGE IS ETERNAL. IT WILL NEVER BE CHANGED NOR ALTERED. This is divine creation and there is not the slightest possibility that change or alteration affect this divine creation (marriage).”
    (Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v2, p. 473)
    “THE TRUE MARRIAGE OF BAHÁ’ÍS IS THIS, THAT HUSBAND AND WIFE should be united both physically and spiritually, that they may ever improve the spiritual life of each other, and may enjoy everlasting unity throughout all the worlds of God. This is Bahá’í marriage.”
    (Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p.

  15. Sen said

    Hi Derk Janssen
    If you go to the Facebook thread (link below), you will see that my comment was in response to Edward Price stating that “”The Faith teaches that …. marriage, … is between one man and one woman.” No quote was provided, and no reference to a source. The phrase “marriage is between one man and one woman” is a media and social media artifact with a history, and its history is nothing to do with Bahai: it’s to do with American politics, particularly attempts to amend state constitutions to include this definition, versus lawsuits such as Baehr v. Miike and its many sequels.

    Checking the authenticity of sources is a thing I do. I do not think it is a very important part of the religious life, although unauthentic accretions are a long-term problem for a religion. It’s not central to faith, by any means, but it’s something I *can* do and fairly few others in the Bahai community can. So I make it my thing, along with translating the Bahai news from Iran. In this case, I responded “there’s not [sic] actual Bahai scriptural quote that says marriage is between one man and one woman, and Baha’u’llah managed it with two women at a time (perhaps three, but the sources are vague )”

    I might also have pointed out that his statement that “Baha’i teaches that the soul is created at the moment of conception, ..” needs a nuance or two. It’s based on pulling a text by a secretary out of context. But I let that slide, for the point is not to try to get everyone “right” on every topic, but to raise awareness of the importance of using authentic sources and critically examining what is presented as Bahai teachings, to distinguish it from individuals’ own deductions — which they are entitled to.

    I moderate a few Facebook groups, and participate in more. Usually, when I point out that a quote or claim is not an authentic text, I’m either ignored or thanked, but sometimes people prefer to raise the stakes and accuse me of challenging the House of Justice or something. No problem, I move on. Such people are telling the world via facebook what kind of people they are, and it’s not my problem.

    Yes, there are many scriptural quotes that refer to a man and a wife, and are written with the presumption that the partners are of different sexes. Many readers will take that presumption as a prescription, and that’s quite defensible, and rather to be expected since the secretariat of the Bahai World Centre has done that. If someone says “I think that scriptural references to “husband and wife” mean that only husband-wife marriages are valid,” I applaud their exactitude. A conscious awareness of the distinction between fact and interpretation is as a saddle on the horse of the mind.

    Likewise if someone quotes “the command of marriage is eternal. It will never be altered…” and says what they think this refers to, I understand & I may agree if their understanding is broad enough to include all the scriptural forms of marriage from the Old Testament to Babi-Bahai scripture, and recognizes that, in the tablet we are discussing, Abdu’l-Baha specifically states (paragraph 10) that the House of Justice can rule and change its ruling, on a question of permissible marriages. What matters is the “what they think it refers to” part. Nobody is entitled to impose their personal views on the Bahai community by equating their understanding with the Bahai teachings.

    Here’s the facebook comment from Edward Price referred to above: “https://www.facebook.com/groups/406540056128667/permalink/2674660385983278/?comment_id=2675106945938622

    You state “U beweert een geleerde te zijn.” [‘You claim to be a learned man’]. But you don’t provide a source for that claim about my claims: it’s fact-free, your own alternative truth that you are constructing for yourself. By searching for a source, you will habituate yourself to distinguish between the phantoms of the mind and objective realities. It’s really quite important for one’s spiritual and moral development, as well as an intellectual necessity.

    And from paragraph 10 of the tablet:
    “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.

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