“… a body of learned Bahais”
Posted by Sen on July 15, 2015
On a facebook group, one Bahai wrote:
“Obviously the House of Justice needs someone w/ an appropriate background to explain the Writings to them.” This was in the context of letters that showed the Universal House of Justice’s understanding of Bahai teachings evolving over time. I will give more details below.
I am sure the suggestion was well meant, but I think it is heading in the wrong direction entirely. However first I will have to explain why the suggestion could be made. The ‘problem’ for the Bahais, is that it is clear from doctrine and practical observation that the Universal House of Justice, the head of the Bahai community, does not always understand the Bahai scriptures correctly. If there was a guarantee that it would always be correct, the Guardianship would have been unnecessary. The Bahais could simply have elected a house of justice, after the death of Abdu’l-Baha. But the understanding of the Universal House of Justice evolves through interaction with the community, and it may at a particular point be incomplete and even incorrect. For example, one message written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice on 29 July 1974 says:
It is true that ‘Abdu’l-Baha made statements linking the establishment of the unity of nations to the twentieth century. For example [in the “7 candles”]: “The fifth candle is the unity of nations — a unity which, in this century, will be securely established, causing all the peoples of the world to regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland.
This assumes that “this century” is equivalent to “20th century,” without any basis. It is incorrect, for reasons I have explained elsewhere.
Another letter on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, dated April 15, 1976, states: “Abdu’l-Baha anticipated that the Lesser Peace could be established before the end of the twentieth century.” (cited here). This is again incorrect, since the various texts that make this link are ‘pilgrims notes,” i.e., reports of what an interpreter said Abdu’l-Baha had said. I’ve enumerated these reports in another post.
By 2001, in the light of the great disappointment, the Department of the Secretariat could write
… there is nothing in the authoritative Baha’i Writings to indicate that the Lesser Peace would be established before the end of the twentieth century.” (April 19, on the subject of Unity of Nations and the Lesser Peace).
This demonstrates in actual fact what we would expect from the principles laid down by Shoghi Effendi: the Universal House of Justice is not an authorised interpreter of the Bahai teachings, and can be wrong about them, just as a local or national spiritual assembly may have an incorrect understanding of the Bahai teachings. Since the House of Justice is not an authorised interpreter, we as readers have no permission to take their words as authoritative expositions of Bahai teachings. If we wish to know what the Bahai teachings are, we must turn to the Writings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha’s exposition of their implications, and Shoghi Effendi’s interpretations.
In most religious communities, the administrative head of the community is also the authoritative interpreter of its doctrines and scriptures. Bahais, by and large, are aware that this is not the case in the Bahai Faith, but may not have prepared answers to two questions that follow from it.
The first question is, does the fallibility of the Universal House of Justice in this sphere, at a time when there is no living Guardian, reduce its authority? The answer is a decisive no. Shoghi Effendi wrote:
Though the Guardian of the Faith has been made the permanent head of so august a body he can never, even temporarily, assume the right of exclusive legislation. He cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members, but is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them of any enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to depart from the spirit of Baha’u’llah’s revealed utterances. (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 150)
Shoghi Effendi foresees instances in which the Universal House of Justice will pass legislation that conflicts with the meaning or spirit of the Bahai Scriptures, as interpreted by the Guardian, and the Guardian of the time objects – yet the decision of the majority is to prevail. If this is true when a living Guardian has objected, it is certainly true where there is no Guardian. The authority of the enactments of the Universal House of Justice rests on the authority of that body itself, and its being elected in accordance with the Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha. It does not depend on being ‘correct’ in relation to anyone’s understanding of the scriptures. If the Guardian cannot override the majority decision on the basis of his interpretation, neither can anyone else.
The second question is, can we do anything about this? This is where this Bahai’s suggestion of an expert advisor comes in (I should say that I am sure he was not thinking of himself as a candidate for this role). Would it be somewhat better if someone, or a group of people, were available to advise the Universal House of Justice? Unlike most other religious communities, in the Bahai Faith those who are elected to leadership do not have to satisfy any qualifications in terms of religious expertise. Nor are they systematically trained after being elected. Could an advisory body reduce the number of bloopers?
Not only is it very doubtful that that effect would be achieved – for experience tells us that the right people usually turn out, in hindsight, to be those who were not consulted – the suggestion is wrong in principle. The Universal House of Justice has addressed this idea directly, in a letter through its Secretariat dated June 3, 1997:
“Some people have put forward the thesis that in place of the Guardian’s function of authoritative interpretation, a check on the Universal House of Justice should be set up, either in the form of the general opinion of the mass of the believers, or in the form of a body of learned Baha’is — preferably those with academic qualifications. …. As to the latter alternative: this would constitute usurpation of a function of the Guardian.
“Scholarship has a high rank in the Cause of God, and the Universal House of Justice continually consults the views of scholars and experts in the course of its work. However, as you appreciate, scholars and experts have no authority over the Institutions of the Cause.”
(The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Dec 10, Issues Related to Study Compilation)
This rejects the idea of a body of experts who would have “authority” over the elected institutions, but also mentions that the Universal House of Justice consults scholars and experts. That consultative role is, I think, what that facebook poster had in mind: a ‘standard operating procedure’ that would ensure that the Universal House of Justice checked the facts before stating that something is, or is not, ‘in the Writings,’ by double-checking the authenticity of sources, the accuracy of translations, and the plausibility of the interpretations implicit in what the Universal House of Justice intended to tell the community. Could this advisory role be a task for the Centre for the Study of the Sacred Texts?
The reason I think this suggestion is wrong in principle, is that to the extent it worked, it would reinforce the supposition that the Universal House of Justice in some way provides more-or-less authoritative guidance on the meaning of Bahai teachings. The separation of the two spheres of the Guardian, in his role as authorised interpreter of the Bahai teachings, and of the Universal House of Justice, consulting on “those things which have not outwardly been revealed in the Book,” is a distinctive strength of the Bahai Administrative Order. It is as important in its own way as the separation of the legislative, executive and judicial powers in civil government. Those instances in which the Universal House of Justice reveals, in relation to some relatively minor matter, that it is not an authority on the Bahai teachings, can be regarded as providential reminders of the “fundamental difference … between this … divinely-appointed Order and the chief ecclesiastical organizations of the world.” (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 18). Their effect is not to weaken the authority of the House of Justice, but to reinforce what we all should know, that “the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 143).
Baha’u’llah treats us as adults, and gives us a responsibility to search out the truth for ourselves, using our hearts and minds, in prayer and diligent study, alone and in groups. We cannot shuffle any part of this responsibility onto the shoulders of a new ecclesiastical hierarchy created by pushing the Universal House of Justice into the shoes of the Guardian.
The suggestion that a body of learned Bahais could in some way substitute for the Guardian’s role, by advising the House of Justice about the meanings of Bahai scriptures, should be distinguished from the suggestion put forward by Udo Schaefer, of a body of legal experts to be “involved in the [Bahai] legislative process.” What Schaefer has in mind is a technical, not a theological, body, and the need he sees is not due to the absence of the Guardian, but rather because the drafting of laws and design of legal institutions and procedures is a complex task that requires legal expertise. In a footnote on page 131 of Volume 1 of his Baha’i Ethics in Light of Scripture, Schaefer writes:
[The Guardian’s] advice that ‘individual cases should be dealt with as they arise, according to the Teachings,’ should surely be interpreted in historical context. In some countries the national communities have now grown so large that a minimum of procedural regulations would appear desirable. Clearly defined and made known universally, this regulation would avoid the arbitrariness that is occasionally observed in assembly decisions. Procedural regulations with minimal legal precautions, such as the right to a legal hearing, arrangements in situations of partiality …, [and] a definition of the rights of believers. … The principle … whereby each case should be judged ‘on its own merits’ is no substitute for this minimum of regulation. That principle is self-evident in the application of material and formal law, but such a framework of legal regulations is precisely what is lacking in the Baha’i community.
Legislation does not materialize in a vacuum. Many issues must be clarified beforehand. Legal theory and legal techniques count among the necessary foundations for any type of legislation. In my opinion, the clarification of legal principles, the development of Baha’i jurisprudence, must precede the laying down of clear and reliable law and has to be conducted by the ‘scholars,’ the ‘learned ones in Baha’ … According to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá the ‘learned’ (‘alim) are the ‘focal centre … of the legislative’ (Secret, p. 37). It is inconceivable how the groundwork for legislation by the supreme institution could be prepared without the input of specialists in the law, which also involves knowledge of humanity’s various legal cultures … That the decisions of the ‘ulama’ fi’l-Baha’ in the Bahá’í community are not binding “unless they are endorsed by the Universal House of Justice,” by no means makes their work superfluous. Rather, this passage would seem to me to indicate that this body of experts should be involved in the legislative process.
In Making the Crooked Straight, p. 183, he says that in preparation for legislation, the “Universal House of Justice needs to inquire into the conditions of all aspects of the matter to be regulated and to know the legal dogmatic implications as of legislation.” The reference is to legal dogma (principles), not to religious dogma, as he explains in a footnote:
Legal dogmatics and legal techniques are among the necessary foundations of any type of legislation. This legal dogmatic groundwork, which is a prerequisite for the clarity and reliability of the law laid dowm, will be conducted by the “scholars” or the “learned ones in Baha'” … who are at ‘the focal centre of the legislative (power) (see Kitab-i-Aqdas [paragraph] 173; Abdu’l-Baha, Secret, p. 37) but whose legal views “have no authority unless they are endorsed by the House of Justice.”
His proposal rests to a significant extent on the Aqdas verse that refers to ‘the learned in Baha,’ and a section in The Secret of Divine Civilization. I will deal with each of these in turn. The Aqdas text he refers to concerns the respect due to the ‘learned in Baha,’
Happy are ye, O ye the learned ones in Baha. By the Lord! Ye are the billows of the Most Mighty Ocean, …. Well is it with him that turneth unto you, and woe betide the froward.
As this verse is not strictly relevant to his argument about the uses of legal expertise, I will simply say that Baha’u’llah, and the Bahai teachings as a whole, are far from anti-clerical. The same term that is translated as “learned” or “scholar” when it refers to the Bahai community, is translated as ‘the divines’ in Christian and Islamic contexts, so that if one reads the Writings in the original languages, there is no doubt that the Bahai Faith does have clerics, divines, scholars, ‘doctors’ (of religion) and the like. Terms such as clerics and divines are avoided by translators, in Bahai contexts, to indicate that the role of these ulama’ is more constrained in the Bahai community, although their station is no less, and they have an important role in the Bahai life. I have collected some of the teachings on this in a compilation on this blog, and Shoghi Effendi has compiled many scriptural references to refute the idea that the Bahai Faith is anticlerical, in The Promised Day is Come, beginning:
Nor should it be thought for a moment that the followers of Baha’u’llah either seek to degrade or even belittle the rank of the world’s religious leaders, … should their conduct conform to their professions, and be worthy of the position they occupy.
Schaefer’s reference to a body of experts at “the focal centre of the legislative,” in Abdu’l-Baha’s Secret of Divine Civilization, can be addressed along with what I see as a basic error in his approach both to the role of the learned in Baha, and to the question of the scope of the infallibility of the Universal House of Justice. In both cases, he supposes that “legislation” and “legislative” have the same meaning in Bahai literature and in civil and legal literatures. This is incorrect. I have discussed the meaning of “legislative” in Abdu’l-Baha’s vocabulary in Legislative and Executive on this blog, with reference to four places in which Abdu’l-Baha speaks of this pairing, in his Will and Testament, in On the Art of Governance, in A Traveller’s Narrative, and in The Secret of Divine Civilization. These works span Abdu’l-Baha’s lifetime and leave no doubt that when he refers to the “legislative” (tashri`eh) he does not mean a law-making body as distinct from the judiciary and executive, but rather the entire programme of organized religions, to propagate, implement and specify the religious ‘law’ (shari`eh). In each of these texts, this ‘legislative’ is paired with the ‘executive,’ which is the government, including the civil law, the courts, the civil service and armed forces. Legislative and executive, in Abdu’l-Baha’s parlance, corresponds to Church and State in modern political terminology. This much broader meaning of legislative also means that possible roles of the learned as the ‘focal centre … of the legislative’ is broader than he imagines. In my translation, the section of Abdu’l-Baha’s Secret of Divine Civilization to which Schaefer refers reads, “The center of the executive agency is the government, while wise scholars are the point of reference for the propagation of religious law.”
‘Law’ in the context of religious law is quite unlike the civil law: it is a path (shar`) of discipleship, of religious praxis which leads to growing understanding and virtue. What Abdu’l-Baha is advocating, in The Secret of Divine Civilization, is not that experts in jurisprudence should advise the House of Justice on legal dogmatics, but rather (as the following paragraph shows) a learned institution, whose diverse members are proficient in “the sacred Scriptures ….divine and natural philosophy and the fields of study relating to religious law, the arts of government and contemporary scholarship, and … the great deeds of previous nations and peoples” (my translation), to advise the civil government in the broad task of governance.
The role of the learned in the Bahai community, indicated by the Aqdas verse quoted above (“Well is it with him that turneth unto you”) and many similar verses, is something different again to the body of diverse experts that, Abdu’l-Baha suggests, could advise a government. I know of nothing to suggest that the ‘learned of Baha’ have any direct relation to an institution. Rather they relate directly to the believers, and the believers to them:
O people of God! Righteous men of learning … are … stars of the heaven of true knowledge. It is essential to treat them with deference. … Happy is he that followeth them. Verily such a soul is numbered in the Book of God, the Lord of the mighty Throne, among those with whom it shall be well. (Tablets of Baha’u’llah, 96-7)
Respect ye the divines and learned amongst you, they whose conduct accords with their professions, …. they are the lamps of guidance unto them that are in the heavens and on the earth. They who disregard and neglect the divines and learned that live amongst them — these have truly changed the favor with which God hath favored them. (The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, 203).
It is personal guidance, not institutional technical advice, that the learned of Baha offer. Quite simply, knowledge of any value is knowledge that can help someone. It may be someone who is missing a bit of knowledge they need, or who is struggling because he or she thinks something is solid when it is mistaken. Critique — when it is well intended and wisely done — is one of the gifts of the learned of Baha.
I will not elaborate on the learned in Baha in the community, since I have explored this further in The knower as servant on this blog. Let me summarise it under the heading “lamps of guidance” and ask who are the lamps of guidance. Who are the learned in Baha? They are not I think the university-trained legal experts whom Schaefer has in mind. Shoghi Effendi defined them in this way:
In this holy cycle the “learned” are, on the one hand, the Hands of the Cause of God, and, on the other, the teachers and diffusers of His teachings who do not rank as Hands, but who have attained an eminent position in the teaching work. … The duties of each of these souls will be determined in the future.
(4 November 1931, translated from the Persian, cited by the Universal House of Justice in a letter ‘Elucidation of the Nature of the Continental Boards of Counselors’ (1972))
‘Teaching’ is not something directed at a non-Bahai with the aim of turning them into a Bahai. That is incompatible with a relationship of genuine fellowship, and it would also mean that if there is no unlucky non-Bahai on hand, a Bahai’s urge and religious duty to ‘teach’ must be frustrated. Bahai ‘teaching’ I suggest covers all forms of guidance, all the ways we can offer what we know to assist others. The learned in Baha, who have an eminent position in the teaching work, are those who have both knowledge and the humility and skills that enable them to use knowledge effectively to help others where they need it. The Bahai teacher is analogous to the dance teacher or the master builder who takes an apprentice: the teacher has been there and done that, and now teaches others to dance the steps and lay the bricks themselves.
I will return soon(ish) with some thoughts on “the general opinion of the mass of the believers,” i.e., the sensus fidei and the consensus fidelium, in Bahai theology.
Short link: http://wp.me/pcgF5-2BX
Compilation on the learned
Executive and legislative
He cannot override …
The Guardianship and the House of Justice (Opens in Bahai-Library)
What is theology, and what’s it good for ? (2008)
The knower as servant (response to Paul Lample) (2008)
Knowledge: project or process? (2009)
and in the email archive:
Bahai Studies and the academic study of religion
Learned – good and bad
“No Clergy?” (2009)
Scholarship and review in the Bahai community (1990)
Scholars in the Bahai Community 1 (1996)
Scholars in the Bahai Community 2 (1996)
Church, State, experts, consensus (Oct. 2009)
“Bahai Studies and the academic study of religion” (2010?)
Theologians, the learned and the wise