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The Guardian and the Governor

Posted by Sen on July 30, 2013

Someone asked a question in the comments to this blog, which is so important I have decided to answer in a new posting. He asks whether a government leader [in Israel] who enrolled in the Bahai community would have had temporal authority over the Guardian, had the line of guardians continued, or would the governor have had to defer to the authority of the Guardian, as the head of the Bahai community?

The first part of the answer is, that a Bahai in a position of temporal authority can never be faced with that dilemma, since the scope of deliberations throughout the Bahai administration (the Administrative Order) is limited to spiritual matters (which includes administering the practical affairs of the Bahai community, which is a vehicle for the spirit). Abdu’l-Baha writes:

The signature of that meeting should be the Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality) and the wisdom therein is that hereafter the government should not infer from the term “House of Justice” that a court is signified, that it is connected with political affairs, or that at any time it will interfere with governmental affairs.

Hereafter, enemies will be many. They would use this subject as a cause for disturbing the mind of the government and confusing the thoughts of the public. The intention was to make known that by the term Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality), that Gathering has not the least connection with material matters, and that its whole aim and consultation is confined to matters connected with spiritual affairs.
(Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v. 1, p. 5)

I have put some similar quotations in Note 1, which is the first comment on this posting. Since the Bahai institutions cannot discuss government affairs, they obviously cannot make political decisions and issue instructions to governors. The other side of the coin is to ask whether a Bahai who holds a government office can issue instructions to the Bahai institutions. The answer is clearly yes: the Guardian and the Bahais generally are required to obey the government, except in a specific case where the government is claiming authority over their faith and conscience:

In matters, however, that vitally affect the integrity and honor of the Faith of Baha’u’llah, and are tantamount to a recantation of their faith and repudiation of their innermost belief, they [the Bahais] are convinced, and are unhesitatingly prepared to vindicate by their life-blood the sincerity of their conviction, that no power on earth, … can ever succeed in extorting from them a word or deed that might tend to stifle the voice of their conscience or tarnish the purity of their faith.
(Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 162)

Before getting to the specific question about the relationship between a Guardian and a Bahai Governor – or King, President or Prime Minister – I would like to point out that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha do not subscribe to the idea that the best government is government by the best (i.e., the best person or class of people). That tradition of political philosophy goes back at least to Plato: it supposes that the quality of rule depends on the virtue of the ruler, in the specific sense of having the virtues necessary to rule. The Velayat-e faqih theory underlying the current Iranian regime is a striking example of this thinking. Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha however put their faith not in the virtue of the ruler, but in the use of reason in a process of participation and consultation, within the framework of basic laws. This applies both to their theory of civil government and to the ‘church government,’ the Bahai Administrative Order, which they created. The Bahai Administrative Order is a constitutional system, the ‘framework of basic laws’ is what Bahais call the lesser covenant, which sets out the authority and limits of each element. There are several examples that show that the authority of the Guardian is not absolute even within the Administrative Order, which also gives us a perspective on how a Bahai Guardian might relate to a Bahai Governor.

+ The first is the provision that the Guardian’s choice of a successor has to be approved, or declined, by a body of nine Hands of the Cause in a secret ballot. This is specified in Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament. I’ve discussed it and given quotes and sources on this blog, in “No counterfeits.”

It is important for Bahais today to know about this requirement, because it gives us a decisive way of refuting the Remeyite claims to a continuing guardianship. But for our present purposes, the point is that Abdu’l-Baha specifically allows the Hands of the Cause to dissent from the Guardian’s nomination of a successor, but does not allow them to dissent on any other matter. The Bahai Administrative Order is a constitutional, procedural order, not an autocracy.

+ The second is the provision allowing the House of Justice to maintain any of its enactments in the face of an objection from the Guardian. I’ve also discussed this on this blog, in “He cannot override …“. Again, it shows that the principle underlying the Administrative Order is that of constitutional government. In this case the authority of the Universal House of Justice to override the Guardian’s objection is not limited to one particular kind of decision, it is the logical expression of the separation of the legislative or administrative sphere of the House of Justice from the doctrinal and interpretive sphere of the Guardian. The separation of these two spheres is outlined by the Guardian in The World Order of Baha’u’llah p. 150.

+ The third, in the same passage, is the stipulation that the Guardian “cannot legislate except in his capacity as member of the Universal House of Justice.”

+ The fourth is another limitation of the Guardian’s authority, in the same passage, which states: “He is debarred from laying down independently the constitution that must govern the organized activities of his fellow-members, and from exercising his influence in a manner that would encroach upon the liberty of those whose sacred right is to elect the body of his collaborators.”

That is, the Guardian is debarred from influencing the delegates – who are of course Bahais – who elect the Universal House of Justice. As Bahais, they must obey the Guardian (as must the Hands, in my first example), but as delegates they have a specific responsibility which they may not surrender, and which the Guardian may not usurp.

+ A similar example, but limiting the Universal House of Justice rather than the Guardianship, is the stipulation in the ‘Eighth Ishraq’ that “acts of worship” must be observed according to that which God hath revealed in His Book. This prevents the Universal House of Justice adding to what the Bahai Writings say about acts of worship, such as prayer, fasting and pilgrimage. It gives the individual freedom to respond to the texts in worship as he or she is moved, and it gives the same freedom to groups in collective worship, which is to say, in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar. The Universal House of Justice as legislature cannot further define what is permissible or required in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, although the local and national Assemblies as owners and custodians of Houses of Worship built with community funds may do so, not as legislatures but as custodians of the building.

So far, we have established that the Bahai Administrative Order is charged only with spiritual matters, and that it is a constitutional system, not a system of absolute rule, and that within this system, there are examples of Bahais who have a specific task in which they must obey their own consciences and the scriptural mandate of their role, not the instructions of the Guardian. Rather than supposing a priori that a Bahai Governor would have to obey a Bahai Guardian, we can assume that the relationship will be a constitutional one, and look for the rules that govern it.

The relationship between the Guardian and the Governor is a specific example of a more general type. We can begin with the relationship between the Manifestations of God and the rulers of human society, between Christ and Caesar. Was Caesar (if he had been a Christian) bound to obey Christ? Was the Shah, if he had been a Babi, bound to hand over his throne to the Bab, or if he had been a Baha’i, to Baha’u’llah?

We can answer two of those question in one, by hearing Baha’u’llah quoting Christ:

The sovereigns of the earth have been and are the manifestations of the power, the grandeur and the majesty of God. … He Who is the Spirit (Jesus) … was asked: “O Spirit of God! Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not?” And He made reply: “Yea, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” He forbade it not. These two sayings are, in the estimation of men of insight, one and the same, for if that which belonged to Caesar had not come from God, He would have forbidden [obedience to Caesar]. (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 89)

If Caesar’s authority comes from God, God gives a mandate for temporal government, as we can see again here:

… your Lord hath committed the world and the cities thereof to the care of the kings of the earth, and made them the emblems of His own power, by virtue of the sovereignty He hath chosen to bestow upon them. He hath refused to reserve for Himself any share whatever of this world’s dominion. … The things He hath reserved for Himself are the cities of men’s hearts, that He may cleanse them from all earthly defilements, and enable them to draw nigh unto the hallowed Spot which the hands of the infidel can never profane.
(Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, 304)

And if God has given a mandate for temporal government, then Caesar is not required, or even permitted, to hand that authority to Christ, just as Christ is not allowed to assume it (see Luke 4: 5-8). And our support for the temporal government (which in a democracy entails, participation in its processes) is a religious duty as well as a civil and moral duty.

We could also look at the second part of the Kitab-e Iqan, which is devoted to the question of why the sovereignty of the Qa’im is not expressed as temporal power. But the above suffices to show that the sovereignty of the Manifestation is a spiritual, not temporal power, and does not give them “any share whatever of this world’s dominion,” or diminish in any way the mandate of “them that are in authority.”

Once again, we can see this is a constitutional system, since two different centres of authority – the temporal and the religious – are given a mandate, in two different spheres, and there is a law, a very deep law written into the nature of things and expressed in various ways throughout the history of religions, that forbids either of these powers infringing on the authority of the other. This theory is worked out in much more detail by Abdu’l-Baha, in his Sermon on the Art of Governance. [The translation has since been retitled The Art of Governance]. It’s a long work, and I will quote only the “thesis” which Abdu’l-Baha sets out to prove:

…human society requires the training and cultivation of a true master, …one who binds and restrains, prohibits and encourages, … Now this prohibition and prevention, rules and restraints, leading and impelling, is divided into two types. The first protector and restrainer is the power of governance that is related to the physical world, … The second type of educator and governor of the human world is sacred and spiritual power: the heavenly Books that have been sent down, the prophets of God, and spiritual souls and devout religious leaders. For those in whom revelation descends and divine inspiration arises are the educators of hearts and minds, the correctors of morals. they beautify conduct and encourage the faithful. That is, these holy souls are like spiritual powers.

His argument in essence is that there is a divine constitutional law, which applies at all times and places, under which temporal rule and spiritual leadership are strictly separated, and complement one another. The Art of Governance is also a very beautiful work, which I recommend to anyone who seeks to understand Abdu’l-Baha’s thought (my provisional translation is online here).

Obviously neither the Guardian nor the Universal House of Justice could claim a worldly sovereignty which Baha’u’llah – and Christ – had renounced. But is there anything in the writings that specifically says how the Guardian would relate to a Bahai governor? I think, there is. The Guardianship is one of the two pillars that make up the Bahai Administrative Order, and there are references – and significant silences – about the relationship between the Administrative Order and temporal government. The most striking reference is in Shoghi Effendi’s letter The golden age of the cause of Baha’u’llah, dated March 21, 1932:

… they [the Bahais] will, unhesitatingly, subordinate the operation of such laws and the application of such principles to the requirements and legal enactments of their respective governments. Theirs is not the purpose, … to allow the machinery of their administration to supersede the government of their respective countries.

A letter written on behalf of the Guardian in October 1951 supports this:

The Administrative Order is not a governmental or civic body, it is to regulate and guide the internal affairs of the Baha’i community; consequently it works, according to its own procedure, best suited to its needs. (Shoghi Effendi, Messages to Canada, 276)

The “significant silences” are the absence of the Administrative Order in the numerous passages in the Writings which refer to the roles and duties of rulers, regarding:
+ a future meeting through which they should agree on a peace pact,
+ the election and role of the World tribunal,
+ and the institutions of the world commonwealth of nations.

If we turn from the Writings to history, there is one example of the relation between the authority of the Guardian and the temporal authority of a believer: Shoghi Effendi and Queen Marie of Romania. However since her authority was limited both by a constitutional role and geography, it is not surprising that there is no sign of Shoghi Effendi submitting to her authority. The reverse is perhaps significant: he does not claim or imply any authority over her, in her role as a monarch. The same may be said of the late Malietoa Tanumafili II, and the Universal House of Justice and National Spiritual Assembly of Samoa. There was a relationship of mutual respect in which each recognized the role of the other, in their complementary spheres of authority. Another example is the 1987 concordat between the Bahai World Center and the state of Israel: an international agreement carrying forward the recognition that had been obtained by Shoghi Effendi under the British Mandate and in the early years of the creation of the State of Israel. The concordat defines the relationship of the Baha’í World Center with the state.

By now it should be clear what the relationship would have been, had a Bahai become governor of Haifa or of Palestine during the time of Shoghi Effendi: the Guardian would have treated the governor with respect, and vice versa, for each of them had a job to do. The story of Colonel Stanton, the Military Governor of Haifa under British occupation, coming to ask the advice of Abdu’l-Baha is retold on this blog, in a comment to Abdu’l-Baha’s knighthood. Naturally, Governor Stanton, was not a Bahai, but the original question could be rephrased as follows: “would it have made any difference, if he had been a Bahai? Would Abdu’l-Baha have treated him and the office he represented with any less respect? The answer, for those who have immersed themselves in Abdul-Baha’s writings and in the stories of his life is obvious: no. It would have made no difference at all.

That particular story also points to another feature of the relationship between the religious leaders and the temporal rulers: religious communities represent a source of wisdom and social activism, and the rulers can profitably draw on both. In this case, Colonel Stanton had a problem, he was unfamiliar with the local communities and customs, and Palestine had a problem of famine, underdevelopment and poverty. So the Governor came to Abdu’l-Baha for advice and help. And Abdu’l-Baha, with the Mufti of Haifa and other religious leaders, did help. The cooperation of the state with religious institutions and communities, and vice versa, is beneficial because they have common goals in terms of “The progress of the world, the development of nations, the tranquillity of peoples, and the peace of all who dwell on earth…” (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 129-130)

The remaining question is, why does such a hypothetical question matter today, since the line of the Guardians ended with Shoghi Effendi? It matters because the real question is, can Bahais be trusted in public life? It is in fact the same question that was asked of Roman Catholics in the United States, when Kennedy first ran for President. If a Bahai is elected to the school board, is he or she bound to do what the Local or National Spiritual Assembly tells them to do? Can Bahais be loyal citizens of their countries, or is their obedience given first to their own institutions? We – the Bahais in general – need to be sufficiently deepened in the principles to be able to demonstrate by reference to the scriptures that no Bahai institution could possibly give a Bahai in a position of temporal authority (and this includes business leadership) any suggestions regarding that temporal authority, because “that Gathering has not the least connection with material matters, and that its whole aim and consultation is confined to matters connected with spiritual affairs.” And we need to demonstrate by our deeds, to a suspicious public, that in whatever role we may find ourselves in public life, we will in fact “unhesitatingly subordinate” our laws and principles to the “requirements and legal enactments” of governments, and will consider ourselves the servants of people, not the agents of the particular interests of the Bahai community. The first step to obtaining that degree of clarity among the deepened believers is to put behind us the rhetoric of deliberate vagueness on the issue. It is both harmful for the community, and a betrayal of the founding figures who have gone to such lengths to explain the principles, for Bahais to suggest that the Bahai scriptures are not clear on the principles of the relationship between church and state, and that everything will have to be worked out in practice, in the distant future.

~~ Sen
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6 Responses to “The Guardian and the Governor”

  1. Sen said

    More quotes demonstrating that a Spiritual Assembly or House of Justice could not issue instructions or suggestions about political matters to a Bahai holding public office:

    During the conference no hint must be entertained regarding political affairs. All conferences must be regarding the matters of benefit, … If any person wishes to speak of government affairs, or to interfere with the order of Governors, the others must not combine with him because the Cause of God is withdrawn entirely from political affairs; the political realm pertains only to the Rulers of those matters…
    (National Bahai Archives (US), unpublished Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha, printed in Baha’i World Faith, 407)

    … this sect have no worldly object nor any concern with political matters. The fulcrum of their motion and rest and the pivot of their cast and conduct is restricted to spiritual things and confined to matters of conscience; it has nothing to do with the affairs of government nor any concern with the powers of the throne; its principles are the withdrawal of veils, the verification of signs, the education of souls, the reformation of characters, the purification of hearts, and illumination with the gleams of enlightenment.
    (Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveller’s Narrative, p. 85)

    He hath forbidden them to interfere at all with political problems. He hath even prohibited the believers from discussing political affairs.
    (Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v3, p. 497)

  2. Brent said

    In fact there have been some relationships in the Faith that show that apparent conflicts of authority are resolved by the spirit of the Faith.

    First, though there were two Manifestations of God on earth at the same time, Baha’u’llah and the Bab each deferred to the other, and each offered to lay down His life for the other. (WOB 125 and Selections from the Writings of the Bab, p. 59) They worked it out, though with our limited minds we would anticipate a conflict.

    The rank of the Greatest Holy Leaf exceeded that of Shoghi Effendi (Messages to America, p. 33) but she deferred to his position as Guardian of the Faith. (Bahiyyih Khanum, p. 122)

    Though both the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice were successors to Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha (WOB 20), each would defer to the other, as Shoghi Effendi wrote that the Master could never have created a conflict of authority in the Faith. (discussed here:

    Abdu’l-Baha, though Head of the Faith, having corrected a translation prepared by one of the friends, stated that He would defer to the Spiritual Assembly of Cairo in its publication. (Baha’i Administration, p. 23)

    So I would anticipate that in practice there would be no possible conflict between Shoghi Effendi and any official in civil authority, whether Baha’i or not.

  3. Stephen Kent Gray said

    NSAs issue political instructions to politicians all the time.

    The NSA of UK for example in 1996 opposed the repeal of Section 28. There is another issue involving the NSA of Guyana opposing a gender equality bill. I will have to look it up. I will have to use Wayback Machine to find it. Simmilar such intructions could probably be found on any and all culture wars.

    Scribd gives the whole letter of the UK NSA letter.

    The following 1999 statement by the N.S.A. of Guyana is an argument against human rights whether individuals are Baha’is or not.
    “The National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Guyana asks that your Government ensure that any legislation enacted safeguards the rights of all, but only insofar as the limits of morality may not be transgressed. It would not be acceptable for example, if the Constitution implicitly allows same sex persons to demand the right to be married. We do not believe this may have been the intention of the Amendment, but it should be sufficiently carefully constructed that such a situation does not automatically follow.”
    Accessed from: on 24 April 2010.

    The issues in the letters are:

    1. According to the letters, the State should serve religion especially on culture war issue. That secularists in society and their views don’t matter, only those of religious people.

    2. According to the letters, either religious people as a whole are a united front on all issues or the truly religious people are the only ones who are, see the idea of No True Scotsman fallacy but with religious people. Religious Tolerance give counter examples to the theory of a united front.

    3. It doesn’t really much go into other religion despite claiming all religious people being one the same page. The implication is that all Jews, Chrsitians, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Buddhists share the Bahai views on moral issues, political issues, and culture war issues. Polling and denominational positions show otherwise.

  4. Sen said

    These unwise statements by some National Assemblies are the background to the letter of the Universal House of Justice, on October 27, 2010, stating that “the Baha’i community does not seek to impose its values on others, nor does it pass judgment on others on the basis of its own moral standards” and further that “freedom from discrimination [for homosexuals]” is a cause “which they can actively support,” without taking sides on the issue of civil marriage.

  5. Stephen Kent Gray said

    Sen, it’s happened again. The NSA of Swaziland has openly stated its opposition to harm reduction policies there.

    Harm reduction policies are policies to reduce harm by making precautions agianst risky behevior like risky drugs or risky sex.

    One side says we should teach abstitnence only and prohibition of said risky behevior and use the risk as a sterner from said behevior. If someone goes ahead with the behevior they should be punished and only have themselves to blame for the consequences of their behavior. They say that any leniency would legitimize their behavior.

    The other sides say that the above approach doesn’t work and is unacceptable. The above approach actually maximizes harm. The harm reduction approach is about minimizing suffering rather than moralizing by contrasts. The former viewpoint is a cowardly viewpoint where people stick to their moralism in the face of the real world; it is easy to moralize and criticize people for not living up to your moral standards, but it doesn’t represent an honest assessment of the facts on the ground in the real world, but rather sticking to moralistic beliefs.

    THE National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is in Swaziland has come to clearly articulate its stand with regards to contraceptives and condoms for children.

    In a statement sent to the Swazi Observer yesterday, the Baha’i Faith stated that it was far from encouraging or even condoning sexual intimacy among children and even adults, saying the Baha’i faith urged chastity and abstinence.

    This follows an article carried by the Swazi Observer recently where representatives from the Baha’i Faith stated during the Global Day of Prayer and Action for Children that it would protect the rights of the child by ensuring that children had access to contraceptives and condoms so that they could choose to have children or avoid unwanted pregnancies.

    However, the Baha’i have come to disassociate itself with such a statement.

    Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is in Swaziland Dr Irma Allen said the spokesperson who represented the Baha’i Faith during the prayer was merely making reference to information that had been imparted to the participants, saying it did not in any way reflect the attitudes and beliefs of the Baha’is.

    “Baha’i communities are encouraged to guide the youth away from frivolous activities that engender a hedonistic and materialistic outlook and encourage activities that awaken within young people the recognition of the nobility of their character and attempt to kindle the desire to serve humankind,” said the Secretary.

    “Baha’is, together with their sisters and brothers among all religions are engaged in the great task of transforming humankind and helping bring about a divine civilisation. Condoms for children have no place in this endeavour,” continued Dr Allen.

  6. Sen said

    Thanks Steven, the story is here:

    It’s not the first time an NSA has really put their foot in it when attempting to guide public policy. The qualities that Bahai members look for in their NSA members, when they vote each year, are not necessarily a guarantee of wisdom or even basic competence when the NSA steps into other spheres. As Abdu’l-Baha writes, in The Art of Governance:

    If you refer to history, you would find countless examples of this sort, all based on the involvement of religious leaders in political matters. These souls are the fountainhead of the promulgation of God’s commandments, not of implementation. That is, when the government enquires as to the requirements of the Law of God and the realities of the divine ordinances, in principle or in a specific case, they must explain what they have deduced from 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, worldly well-being and happiness, the improvement of procedures and codes of temporal law, or foreign affairs and domestic policy?

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