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Let’s talk ….

Posted by Sen on August 6, 2015

… about Mehrangiz Kar and the service of women, about open and courteous discussions, and more

This posting begins with the following letter from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States, dated July 31, 2015, in response to Bahai involvement in an embarrassing internet fracas. The letter itself explains the situation further:

Dear Baha’i Friend,

We have received your email query of yesterday’s date [July 30, 2015], inquiring about postings on the Internet resulting from an article recently published by Professor Mehrangiz Kar in Roozonline, following on remarks she made as a guest speaker at a recent event in Virginia. The event was about Tahirih and examined the historical and social context of her unveiling at Badasht. Professor Kar, a highly respected proponent of women’s rights, called into question the Baha’i teaching that confines membership of the Universal House of Justice to men. In particular, she observed that were Tahirih alive today, she could not be a member of the House of Justice.

What is most surprising about the ensuing exchange of views is the harsh criticism made against Professor Kar by some Baha’is. A fundamental teaching of the Faith is that “[c]onflict and contention are categorically forbidden in His book.” Baha’u’llah has urged His followers “not to view with too critical an eye” the statements of others. He has exhorted them to approach such statements in a loving spirit and with open-mindedness. To attack and condemn others is a clear violation of the teachings.

Also surprising is that the remarks of an individual who is not a Baha’i would cause Baha’is to doubt their own teachings and to engage in speculation—some of which is fanciful and even harmful—on the reasons why women do not serve on the Universal House of Justice. As the House of Justice has explained:

“the instruction that the membership of the House of Justice is confined to men is set forth in His [Baha’u’llah’s] Writings, as confirmed in the authoritative statements of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. While there is no explanation of the reason for this provision of the Sacred Text, ‘Abdu’l-Baha has stated:

The House of Justice, however, according to the explicit text of the Law of God, is confined to men; this for a wisdom of the Lord God’s, which will erelong be made manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon.’”
(Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, section 38.4)

It should not be surprising that a person who is a strong upholder of women’s rights might find it difficult to accept this teaching. Rather than criticizing the individual, Baha’is should simply respect that point of view, explaining that we accept this teaching as an article of faith. The friends can use such occasions as an opportunity to describe how we are endeavoring to uphold the principle of the equality of women and men in our personal lives and in our community. In this respect, it is a healthy exercise to ask ourselves how we measure up to the Baha’i standard. Are we raising our boys to treat girls as equals? Do women and men work shoulder-to-shoulder in all areas of life? Are women equally encouraged to enter the fields of science and technology, or commerce and the arts? Do we make special efforts to facilitate the education and advancement of girls and women so that the capabilities with which they are endowed may come forth? Are Baha’i men recognized as champions of women’s rights? Clearly, it is by creating a community that is the living embodiment of the equality of women and men that we can demonstrate the sincerity of our commitment to this essential principle and make it easier for people to see that the exclusion of women from the House of Justice has nothing to do with the essential equality of women and men.

As they ponder this matter, the friends are encouraged to reflect on the following words of the House of Justice, conveyed in a letter to an individual believer dated December 22, 2013:

“Thus, Baha’is are presented with an apparent paradox. We do not possess an explanation that would fully satisfy a critical observer. Yet, having acknowledged Baha’u’llah as the Manifestation of God, and having accepted the principle that “He doeth whatsoever He willeth” according to His understanding of the condition of the world and the problems facing humanity, we accept His instruction and remain assured by ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s promise that clarity of understanding will be achieved in due course. At the same time, we cannot rest upon the explicit statements in the Baha’i writings about the equality of men and women as being sufficient assurance to others about our allegiance to this principle. Rather, we are obligated to demonstrate our commitment through our actions and accomplishments, working to establish equality between men and women within the Baha’i community and in the wider society. In this regard, fair-minded individuals will find an abundance of evidence in the number of women serving in Baha’i administrative institutions, in projects of social and economic development, and in all aspects of community life.

“An important point to remember is that in the face of the categorical pronouncements in Baha’i Scripture establishing the equality of men and women, the ineligibility of women for membership on the Universal House of Justice cannot be interpreted as evidence of the superiority of men over women. It must also be borne in mind that women are not excluded from any other institution of the Faith. They have been among the ranks of the Hands of the Cause, they serve as members of the International Teaching Centre, as Continental Counsellors, and as elected members of both National and Local Spiritual Assemblies, discharging vital responsibilities worldwide in stimulating the expansion of the Baha’i community and fostering its spiritual life. Indeed the percentage of women serving on Baha’i institutions often significantly exceeds their representation on institutions in the society around them.”

The Assembly hopes that this perspective will be helpful. You may feel free to share this letter with other online discussants.

With loving Baha’i greetings,

Kenneth E. Bowers
Secretary

A Persian translation of this letter is in the documents archive here.

========================================

one-cent-stampThe first observation I have about this is that the NSA’s letter, and the letter of the Universal House of Justice it quotes, do not recognise that there are reasonable questions about the meanings of the various texts of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, which hinge on the fact that Baha’u’llah refers to the members of the House of Justice as Men of Justice (rijal al-‘adl). Rijal in Arabic means ‘men’ and in Persian ‘gentlemen.’ One group of questions relate to what institution Abdu’l-Baha was discussing, in each of his various tablets, and whether he himself later changed his ruling. Another question regards the exclusionary reading of rijal, given that it can in Persian include women who are so eminent that they warrant entries in biographical encyclopedias, the ‘books of gentlemen,’ and also given that several tablets of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha that say that, in the Bahai era, women can be rijal. On the other hand there are relevant pilgrim’s notes from Ali Kuli Khan, reporting statements that Abdu’l-Baha made in 1906 (before his decision to allow women on the local spiritual assemblies). He states that “towards the end of our visit, I copied my Persian notes and submitted the most important among them to ‘Abdu’l-Baha for revision.” These are pilgrim’s notes, but of an unusually reliable standard. They are also long and interesting, but I will quote only one section :

Being asked as to the sex of its membership, ‘Abdu’l-Baha answered: “The membership of the House of Justice shall be all men.” Being asked if the members of the General House of Justice will be nine in number, He answered: “The membership is not limited to nine. Nay, nine is the minimum number and it will gradually be increased nine by nine. For instance, it will be raised to numbers which are multiples of the number nine, such as eighty-one which is equal to nine times nine, and so forth.”

The historical and textual evidence regarding the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice has been summarized in ‘The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith,’ which so far as I know includes all the relevant texts except the Ali Kuli Khan notes. That paper also lacks a discussion of the key term ‘wisdom’ (“this for a wisdom of the Lord God’s” see above), which has been explained by Susan Maneck in ‘Wisdom and Dissimulation.’ And it does not deal with the ‘two spheres’ model of the Bahai Administration propounded by Shoghi Effendi, according to which we may not read his words as “laying down independently the constitution” of the Universal House of Justice, or as limiting the liberty of the international convention to elect whomever they chose to the Universal House of Justice. (see Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 150, section 111)

Dr. Kar’s question at the end of the meeting in Virginia, which she repeated in an article on Rooz online, (in Persian) was:

Mehrangiz-Kar-thumbnail“Suppose that Taahereh were to miraculously return to life, and came to the same meeting [in Badasht], and put her name forward for membership of the House of Justice, the highest decision-making body for Bahais. Given the ruling of the new religion, that women are excluded from the principle centre of authority in the Bahai Faith simply by virtue of their sex, could Taahereh, with all her courage, passion, wisdom and knowledge, enter the House of Justice?”

From her question it seems that she did not think the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice deserves any more respect than the rulings of the rule-bound Shiah religious authorities who confronted Taahereh. In her following comments on Rooz Online she says that the meeting “boiled over,” and that she received no satisfactory answer, but only appeals to an ‘article of faith.’ Had she known that the historical and textual arguments are quite complex, and that both sides of the question are argued within the Bahai community, she might have evinced more interest and understanding of the position in which the Bahai community finds itself, torn between relatively convincing evidence that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha intended women to be excluded from the Universal House of Justice, and perhaps from all levels of the House of Justice, and the example of Abdu’-Baha and the tenor of the Bahai teachings as a whole, which favour the intelligent application of the spirit of religion over slavish adherence to the letter of the texts, and which allow for continuing flexibility in its administrative machinery. Had she received a dispassionate and informed response, she might have understood more, and also learned that there are no nominations for the House of Justice (although an appointment to the ITC works that way), and that the members of the Universal House of Justice are not the most knowledgeable and wise in the community (in contrast to the theory if not the practice in Shiah Islam). Instead, she was faced with a fideist reaction: “the scriptures say so.” This is the Bahai equivalent of Roma locuta est, causa finita est in Roman Catholic theology, or “without asking how or why” (be-la kayfa) in Sunni theology. It is religion for the brain-dead, and an invitation to cursory dismissal from educated and capable people.

For more on the “Baha’u’llah said so” argument, see the paper of the same name by Arash Abizadeh, in Bahai Studies Review 5:1.

twocentA second and related observation is that the democratisation of the media through internet and especially the social media makes it possible for many more people to respond publically to events as they unfold. Professor Kar’s remarks became an issue for the National Spiritual Assembly not because they implied a parallel between the Bahai position today and that of the Islamic divines in the days of Taahereh, but because of undignified and unsuitable responses from a number of Bahais. I am referring here not only to one Bahai gentleman who has a propensity for denouncing all and sundry as enemies of the Faith and agents of the Iranian government, but also to the need facing all participants in all discussions – to answer a questioner at his or her own level. A learned response full of references to translation issues in multiple languages, given to a simple person, is simply an assertion of superiority, and an insult. But if someone who is intelligent and quite at home in a multilingual setting asks a question, they should be given a factually based and intelligent answer at that level.

As the National Spiritual Assembly has stated above, we are “not to view with too critical an eye” the statements of others. A fault-seeking attitude, point-scoring, and adopting the pose of the victim can so poison the atmosphere that reasonable voices will not be heard.

three-cent-stamp A third observation, is that the value of open discussion is demonstrated, even as the demand it places on the participants’ self-restraint has been underlined. So far as there has been open discussion on this issue in the Bahai community – and it has happened from time to time – this has been good preparation for responding helpfully to questioners such as Professor Kar. And so far as such discussion has been squelched by appeals to firmness in the Covenant and the threat of sanctions, this has fostered an internal culture that leaves too many Bahais with no vocabulary but outrage and condemnation.

four-cent-stamp
Finally, I would like to “engage in speculation” as the National Spiritual Assembly calls it, or apply reason to religion, as I would prefer to say, not by finding a reason for the exclusion of women from the House of Justice, but by suggesting how it can be turned to the good.

The exclusion of women from the House of Justice is one problem we have: a problem of consistency with our own principles of justice and equality, specifically for women. A second problem we have is that the creation of the International Teaching Centre in 1973 has given the Counsellors who serve on it such prominence that the male members are almost inevitably elected to the Universal House of Justice. All of the present members of the Universal House of Justice were members of the ITC before their election, and none today have any extensive experience on a National Spiritual Assembly. When the present members appoint men to serve on the ITC, they are in effect selecting their own, like-minded, replacements. And while these replacements may have been good Counsellors, the skills and knowledge suited for serving on a National Spiritual Assembly or the Universal House of Justice are different to the skills required of a Counsellor.

These two problems add up to one opportunity: by appointing only women to the ITC, and indeed to all of the high-visibility appointed positions in the Bahai community, the Universal House of Justice can ensure that a substantial portion of the incoming members of the House of Justice will have accumulated administrative experience and proved their abilities, as long-standing members of the National Spiritual Assemblies. Moreover, if the Universal House of Justice selects the women best suited as Counsellors to the ITC, and to the Continental Boards of Counsellors, the quality and continuity of these institutions will be assured, as the electors cannot co-opt these women to serve on the Universal House of Justice. The members will also avoid the appearance of hand-picking their own successors. And by appointing only women, the Universal House of Justice can make at least the senior levels of the Bahai administration a shining example of what can be done if a community is really confident that women have all the capacities needed to participate at every level and in every branch of activity.

I have discussed this and other aspects of the election of the Universal House of Justice in a posting entitled Without reference to particular individuals. I would like to pre-empt two objections to this suggestion briefly.

The one is that there is no scriptural warrant for excluding men from the senior appointed positions today, and there is precedent, in the appointments of the Hands of the Cause by Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, for appointing mainly men. However, there is also no scriptural warrant for the International Teaching Centre itself: it is a policy response, from the Universal House of Justice, to what was felt to be a need. It could if necessary be abolished, and its structure can be changed. Whatever the Universal House of Justice does in this respect may be altered again in the decades to come. There is a good precedent for a women-only body, at least as an interim measure leading to full equality, and that is Abdu’l-Baha’s endorsement of the Women’s Assembly of Teaching alongside an all-male House of Justice, as the two most important Bahai institutions in Chicago in the early 20th century. (See Abdu’l-Baha’s 1909 letter to Corrine True, cited in The Service of Women)

The second possible objection is that Shoghi Effendi, in a discussion of the alternatives available in designing the Bahai electoral system, has emphasized “the freedom of the elector who, unhampered and unconstrained by electoral necessities, is called upon to vote for none but those whom prayer and reflection have inspired him to uphold.” Would an appointments policy that excluded men from senior appointed positions face a similar objection? The answer is that it would not: it is the exclusion of women from election to the Universal House of Justice (or more exactly, the policy that votes for women are invalid), that limits the freedom of electors. The policy of appointing only women to senior and visible positions is a restriction of the freedom of appointment, and since it is the Universal House of Justice that makes these appointments, and the Universal House of Justice that must introduce the policy, and can change it, the prerogatives of all the parts of the system are preserved.

Finally, should Professor Kar read this far, I would like to say that the responses she received were most regrettable. In most cases, they do not reflect a distrust of outsiders, or of women, within the Bahai community. Men and members of the Bahai community have faced the same over-heated fideist response to reasonable questions and suggestions. There may perhaps be an element of anti-intellectualism involved: I cannot entirely absolve the Bahai community of that shortcoming. time-at-work_1But please understand this primarily as a reflection of the very issue you raised as regards Taahereh and the ulama who opposed her: what is the role of reason in religion? It’s a big question. We are working on it, and there’s a wide diversity of approaches.

Short link: http://wp.me/pcgF5-2DC

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31 Responses to “Let’s talk ….”

  1. Steven said

    Towards the end of examine this question “The friends can use such occasions as an opportunity to describe how we are endeavoring to uphold the principle of the equality of women and men in our personal lives and in our community. In this respect, it is a healthy exercise to ask ourselves how we measure up to the Baha’i standard.…” I offer the following comments.

    1) A black president didn’t solve race problems in America. Nor would women on the House for gender issues. As the question rightly points out the substance of things is in our lives and choices.

    2) The Baha’i Faith, I think, a very distinguished history and practice in noting the role of women. I’m not perfect and without room for improvement, but highly distinguished. Women server on national assemblies around the world. Women also serve in civil government positions in many places on the planet. But look to the proportions of women in elected office: For one comparison note that in 1989 Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned the quota for female representation in the Supreme Soviet and the proportion of women immediately fell from 1/3 to 15 percent. [see here – right column middle] And more women than ever before were elected in US Congress in 2009 – 74 women out of 435 (17%) in the House and 17 out of 100 in the Senate.[ Source ] The US Senate reached 19 women in the election of 2012.[ Source ] In Canada, women in parliament in 2004 were 24.7% of the members. In 2010 the world average for members of parliaments was 19% though regional averages varied from 23% to 9%.[ Source]

    What is the the record in the Baha’i Faith?

    The world average of women serving on national assemblies surpasses – surpasses – these high achievements of women in public service in elected positions as far back as records go at present and at least before 1960. And the “worst” region on this measure has been above the achievements of much of the world.

    It would also be good to dwell on the distinctive qualities of Baha’i elections but I can leave that to others.

    I offer these as a perspective on the question and challenge. Having had the guidance I’d say that we are responding to it. And we can and should do better. But there is a fairness to be achieved in understanding what has and has not been achieved.

  2. KomaGawa said

    I would like to just comment on the use of the “suppose :X’ or ‘Y’ should happen….” . I am always suspicious when someone uses this method of persuasion that their conclusion is correct, because, from my experience, I feel the speaker is trying to trap me into submission to their logic by creating a kind of reality where only their conclusions are valid. I have read that the human mind has a great power of imagining conditions that could exist which don’t necessarily exist, and thus we can discover truths outside of the realm of nature as we expeience it. I am questioning the ends which Prof. Ker is reaching for. We can’t reach into her mind, and I think that Sen has suggested one possible analogy she may have set up. So, as a guest, Dr. Ker has this freedom of expression, and I suppose it is up to us in the audience not to be distracted by the smoke or mirrors. We in the audience are just as vulnerable to showmanship as Dr. Ker is, so I don’t see the reactions as anything more than a simple momentary effect from what Dr. Ker was conjuring..

  3. [Edited:] A general glance at the international political scene, its dominance by men both now and likely for a very very long time to come, should suggest that a male international house is not without foundation. d

  4. Sen said

    World institutions are not quite all-male meteorquake. Christine Lagarde; Mary Robinson; Mary McAleese; Gloria Arroyo; Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson; … women are on the march.

  5. Sen said

    I think you are grossly underestimating her. Baha’u’llah says “They that are of a lower grade, however, are incapable of comprehending adequately the station, or of estimating the merits, of those that rank above them.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 169) All you have done is impute a bad motive to her, thus avoiding the content of what she says.

  6. Homa said

    “The first observation I have about this is that the NSA’s letter, and the letter of the Universal House of Justice it quotes, do not recognise that there are reasonable questions about the meanings of the various texts of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, which hinge on the fact that Baha’u’llah refers to the members of the House of Justice as Men of Justice (rijal al-‘adl). Rijal in Arabic means ‘men’ and in Persian ‘gentlemen.’

    Re your observation, it does not seem to me to have been necessary for either the NSA or the House of Justice to delve into the linguistic nuances of rijal al-‘adl. Neither institution was writing an academic treatise. The respective letters were sufficient for making the necessary points re membership on the House being restricted to men; that this in no way diminishes the tremendous leap forward re equality of women and their important role in the Faith; and that critics of the Faith should be treated with respect and civility.

    You have a tendency in several of your essays to point out deficiencies, such as your imagined ‘errors’ of the House in its elucidations, which appear to me to be a lack of respect and criticism which is somewhat similar to the unfortunate lack of respect and criticism the friends directed at Mehrangiz Kar.

  7. Sen said

    I agree that the NSA and Universal House of Justice are not required to explain the textual and historical niceties, in a short letter. They were writing to the Bahais. However an answer to Professor Kar, either at the symposium or in response to her Rooz Online article, would have to be at that level to gain her respect and possibly retain her interest. I have included enough links to take her, or anyone else interested in the topic, to the places where the evidence is assembled, and I filled in a couple of gaps. Strange to say, there is as yet no study of this topic that could be called detailed and comprehensive, although The Service of Women covers quite a lot of ground.

    While it is very important to maintain the standing of the House of Justice, it is also important for the friends to understand what it is not. It is not an authoritative interpreter of the texts, it does not claim to be, and when that is implied it has denied it emphatically. The result is that its elucidations may be incorrect, and its enactments are not necessarily in line with the Bahai teachings. To point out every error would undermine its standing, but to point out one or two, and quote the texts that deny its infallibility in this sphere (the sphere of the Guardian), is I feel a necessary corrective to the danger of theological exaggeration.

    n all religions, there are minimisers and there are exaggerators, and there is an internal dynamic that favours the exaggerators, so that in the long term the metaphysical claims a religion makes and the titles it uses inflate.

    The dynamic that favours the exaggerators is that an exaggeration always appears more pious, even if technically wrong. And what is just “more pious” in this generation, is self-evident orthodoxy for the next. Those who want to seem more fervently pious then have to move up one step of hyperbole.

    There is also a motivation for the minimizers: hyperbolic language invites negative reactions from the state and society and other religious communities, it promotes conflict and is a barrier to conversions. This is a particularly weighty motivation for NRMs and expanding, missionary religious communities. Justin Martyr in Christian history, or the “moderate” wing of the Ahmadiyya are examples: by resisting the trend to exaggerate, they achieved missionary success and defended their faiths from mistrust.

    Sometimes the two groups will simply drift apart, as in the case of the Ahmadiyya, but if they remain together, the trend to exaggeration seems to almost always outweigh the minimizers because, in determining how the religion is transmitted down the generations, the internal dynamics of a religious community are far more important than the external dynamics. So just as economies are far more likely to inflate than deflate, the metaphysical claims of religious communities are far more prone to inflation than deflation. This is why I consider exaggeration to be a great threat to the Bahai Faith’s future. In a pluralist or NRM setting, exaggerations have a negative effect: at the same time as they give the user credibility as a more fervently pious person within the community, they undermine the credibility of the whole religious community in the wider society. Can one imagine what a hearer hears, when hearing in Anna’s Presentation: “We have already spoken about the supreme institution, which is the Universal House of Justice…”. They are being asked to ‘silently agree’ to this proposition, and those with any brains will scream, no way!

    The internal dynamics are more important in shaping how the religion is transmitted, than the negative feedback from external reactions. Therefore, I suggest, for a minority religious community the inflation of terms and claims will continue, until it pops like a market bubble, when it reaches the point at which what one “must” say, to be pious and belong, has become so implausible that the younger generation and outsiders turn away from the religion entirely.

  8. Homa said

    “While it is very important to maintain the standing of the House of Justice, it is also important for the friends to understand what it is not. It is not an authoritative interpreter of the texts, it does not claim to be, and when that is implied it has denied it emphatically. The result is that its elucidations may be incorrect, and its enactments are not necessarily in line with the Bahai teachings.”

    I am aware that the House cannot interpret but I disagree that its elucidations are incorrect as you imagine. This has nothing to do with exaggerating its role. The House is very careful to base its elucidations on the interpretations of the Guardian and relevant Bahai scripture. One example is its elucidations s on the subject of homosexuality which are based on the Guardian’s interpretations on this topic. I know you strongly believe these elucidations and others are inaccurate but we will have to agree to disagree as I accept the Guardian’s interpretations on this subject as being accurate and, concomitantly, those of the House. The desirable goal here is to be able to hold opposite positions and present them respectfully without degenerating to the level of ad hominem attacks.

    Yes, an analysis of rijal al-‘adl may have gained her respect but, on the other hand, many feminists have a difficult time accepting that only men can be members even when such points are presented and the role of women in the Faith is made clear to them in detail just as many have difficulty accepting the Faith’s position re homosexuality.

    Steven’s point re “A black president didn’t solve race problems in America” was quite apropos. Indeed, racism in America has in some respects become worse since Obama’s election. Well, at least that is the view of some of my African American friends including three university academics who study racism.

  9. Sen said

    The scriptural sources that show that the elucidations of the House of Justice may be wrong are indicated on my blog in UHJ Elucidations. This theoretic underpinning is independent of the individual cases in which I think they have been wrong. I think such cases are illustrative of the principle, but we can certainly agree to disagree about them.

    “… an elucidation is an argument addressed to one’s reason. Therefore when the UHJ gives an elucidation, it does not breach the absolute prohibition against anyone propounding “authoritative” … interpretations because it is not intended to be authoritative: it is not to be accepted simply because it is stated, rather, it is to be considered, understood, weighed. If it persuades, it persuades by its cogency, not because of the authority of its author.”

  10. Homa said

    “If it persuades, it persuades by its cogency, not because of the authority of its author.” This is the fundamental basis of our disagreement. The House is the designated Head of the Faith with supreme authority conferred on it in Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament to decide on matters which are obscure or cause differences. If its elucidations are in conformity with the interpretations of the Guardian we cannot simply ignore them if our reason does not agree. Indeed, some do this with the Guardian’s interpretations as well. The House of Justice is not an academic institution whose clarifications we can reject because we have a different viewpoint. This could easily cause the Faith to splinter into hundreds of denominations as in Christianity. When one becomes a Bahaí there is an essential element of faith and obedience which must sometimes supersede our reason.

    This applies not only to the House of Justice but to Baha’u’llah Himself. For example, He states that the universe has no beginning as a Creator requires a creation. God has no beginning so the universe has also had no beginning. Reason without faith might cause some to reject this assertion based on the Big Bang hypothesis. However, recently the Big Bang hypothesis has been questioned with some scientists arguing that the universe indeed has no beginning: http://phys.org/news/2015-02-big-quantum-equation-universe.html

    To elucidate is simply to to give a clarifying explanation or analysis. Our reason must also be combined with a strong belief or trust in the House of Justice and the humility to acknowledge that our reason may be deficient. This should also be understood within the context of the deficiencies of our rational faculties and the evolvinging positions of science. To refer again to the issue of homosexuality, science changes and has changed on this issue, and who knows (as with the Big Bang) what science will say decades from now?

    How can feeble reason encompass the Qur’án,
    Or the spider snare a phoenix in his web?
    Wouldst thou that the mind should not entrap thee?
    Teach it the science of the love of God!
    http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/SVFV/svfv-10.html

  11. Sen said

    You seem to be arguing both sides, and I only agree with half of it. “To elucidate is simply to to give a clarifying explanation or analysis.” Exactly. So it appeals to our reason, it is not based on the authority of the person speaking.

    ” …. we cannot simply ignore them if our reason does not agree.” But then, you have made the elucidation of the House of Justice into authoritative interpretations. But both the Guardian and the House of Justice have emphasized that there is a fundamental difference.

    “If its elucidations are in conformity with the interpretations of the Guardian …” This is a recipe for divisions, as one person might think a particular elucidation is in conformity with the scriptures and their interpreters, and another might think otherwise. There is no guarantee that they will be in conformity with scripture: if there was, the Guardianship would have been unnecessary. The elucidations of the House of Justice may be wrong, as to the meanings of scripture, or on scientific and historical matters, or the particular facts of a present case. They depend on the information provided to them, which includes the level of knowledge and understanding of the members: “the Universal House of Justice is not omniscient; like the Guardian, it wants to be provided with facts when called upon to render a decision, and like him it may well change its decision when new facts emerge….” (The Universal House of Justice, 1977 Aug 22, Clarification on Infallibility). Science is also dependent on the information it has, and the perception of its practitioners. Both may be wrong, but they operate in different spheres, so it is always clear which of these fallible sources is to be given more weight in a particular situation. There is no situation in which we are permitted to discard the use of our god-given reason, for the simple reason, that God gave it. This is a truth in the “ancient faith of God,” valid in all religions.

  12. Homa said

    “To elucidate is simply to to give a clarifying explanation or analysis.”Exactly. So it appeals to our reason, it is not based on the authority of the person speaking.

    I disagree re your rejection of the relevance of the authority of the person speaking. Within the context of the Lesser Covenant for Bahais the source is as important as the clarifying explanation or analysis. Both authority and elucidation/interpretation are complementary and not exclusive. I note you did not respond to my comment re Baha’u’llah’s assertion about the Big Bang. For those who are not Bahaís His clarification of the meaning of various topics (in the Iqan for example) would be dismissed on rational (hermeneutic) and other grounds because they do not acknowledge His authority. For the few Bahais who follow your line of reasoning, His assertions would also have to be rejected if they are not in accordance with reason, scientific hypotheses or findings. My view is the opposite: reason and science must catch up with Baha’u’llah (as it is now slowly doing re the universe having no beginning) and Abdu’l-Baha and not the other way around. This is based on Their authority.

    For those who do not recognize Their stations or who do but hold to th esupremacy of reason whatever they say may be dismissed on rational or other grounds. The same applies to Shoghi Effendi. Indeed, your exclusion of authority has caused you to dismiss Shoghi Effendi’s interpretations re homosexuality and other topics including the literal transmutation of copper to gold even when it has been pointed out that letters on his behalf are “authoritative” and were almost all read and approved by him as a matter of policy. Incidentally, re his literal interpretation as opposed to your metaphorical reading in your essay on this topic, Bahaú’llah categorically states regarding minerals: “That copper can be turned into gold is in itself sufficient proof that gold can, in like manner, be transmuted into copper, if they be of them that can apprehend this truth. Every mineral can be made to acquire the density, form, and substance of each and every other mineral. The knowledge thereof is with Us in the Hidden Book” : http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/GWB/gwb-97.html

    My points may seem to be a digression from the elucidations of the House of Justice and your claim re reason being the sole criteria but they are not. They illustrate my pview that as Bahais we must use reason but this is complementary to acceptance of the authority of the House of Justice. Otherwise, as I stated, we splinter into schism.You state: ” There is no situation in which we are permitted to discard the use of our god-given reason, for the simple reason, that God gave it. This is a truth in the “ancient faith of God,” valid in all religions.” Again, I disagree as although reason is very important this is not valid in the Bahai Faith because we have a Lesser Covenant. The use of reason is greatly encouraged in the Faith but not when its use leads to open disagreement with the Head of the Faith once their interpretations and elucidations are known. In such cases conclusions arrived at through our reasoning must yield to the authority we accept. otherwise, we are perfectly free to leave the Faith as some have done. Your focus on reason is why other religions have various sects and different religious leaders whereas the Bahai Faith is preserved from schism.

  13. KomaGawa said

    there is a useful prayer which begins with these words, “O Thou forgiving God! These servants are turning to Thy kingdom and seeking Thy grace and bounty….” In the American Prayerbook p113-14 there are several such prayers. IMHO they are good to provide context for situations where people gather for the purpose of consultation. If I were on the committee which organized the event we are discussing here, this is what I would have had in mind as a higher level purpose, above and beyond the individual issue of women’s rights, above and beyond the life of Tahirih. “The purpose of conslutation” it involves Bahais, non-Bahais, aliens from other planets, etc.

    There will be in any gathering of souls people with disagreeable behaviors, people who make the wrong remarks at the wrong time, people who just seem….socially inappropriate for various reasons. I am also thinking that the comments online are merely an extension of the experience, of the meeting which this example prayer is only a sighnpost for, And think of it as 10,000 lights, blinking on and off spiritually continually in the day and night time. blinking on and off, or at least they appear to my spiritual eyesight to be blinking on and off. The difficulty is that if I am in such a meeting, I must account for not only my own spiritual level of immaturity, but I must absorb, and compensate for prayerfully for the other person’s behavior.

    “Is this really such a spiritual burden to try to avoid or to accept for the love of the Master?” this is the question I try to ask myself.

  14. KomaGawa said

    I have rarely met someone persuaded to accept the faith by logic alone. Their heart was first attracted and then logic only supported the wisdom of their choice.

  15. JamesB said

    I have to agree with Homa on this. Contrary to being a “recipe for divisions” as you claim, obedience to the elucidations and other actions of the House of Justice since it was first elected in 1963, has actually been the recipe for the unity of the Faith. If Bahais followed your suggestion re reason alone being the arbiter without accepting the authority of the Head of the Faith we would not be a unified vibrant global community growing from strength to strength throughout the world albeit understandably at different rates and in varying ways. The House of Justice’s first elucidation, as far as I can recall, was in 1965 on the topic of the election of the House of Justice and the cessation of living Guardians. Fifty years of unified world community speaks louder than words. The same applies to the period during which the Master and Guardian were successively Heads of the Faith. Learned input from the time of scholars such as Mirza Abu’Fadl to today is of great value but NOT if reason places such scholars and their reasoning in conflict with the Head of the Faith. In this we are unique from the religions of the past as we have an indisputable authority. The use of reason is “valid” only within this framework quite unlike “all religions” (their founder did not appoint a designated successor in whom authority was vested) as you claim.

  16. Sen said

    Homa wrote:

    I disagree re your rejection of the relevance of the authority of the person speaking. Within the context of the Lesser Covenant for Bahais the source is as important as the clarifying explanation or analysis. Both authority and elucidation/interpretation are complementary and not exclusive.

    You reveal the problem that leads to this confusion in your thinking where you use the term “elucidation/interpretation.” This put the House of Justice in the shoes of the Guardian, which is not in accordance with the Covenant. It seems to me there are some aspects of the Covenant that you are not aware of, and if I point you to the source texts, your difficulties will be resolved. When Abdu’l-Baha died, and the friends found that he had appointed a Guardian and gave him authority, they naturally asked how this was to fit with the House of Justice, which had been given authority by Baha’u’llah and by Abdu’l-Baha. In the early World Order letters we see Shoghi Effendi explaining that these two institutions are complementary, but have distinct spheres of authority:

    “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 … It does not constitute in any manner a contradiction to the Will and Writings of Baha’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.
    (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 7)

    In understanding what the Guardian, or the House of Justice, says on a topic, the sphere of jurisdiction of the speaker is crucial. The separation of the two spheres of authority of the Guardian and the House of Justice is worked out in ‘The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah’ in a concise form:

    The Guardian of the Faith has been made the Interpreter of the Word and that the Universal House of Justice has been invested with the function of legislating on matters not expressly revealed in the teachings. The interpretation of the Guardian, functioning within his own sphere, is as authoritative and binding as the enactments of the International House of Justice, whose exclusive right and prerogative is to pronounce upon and deliver the final judgment on such laws and ordinances as Bahá’u’lláh has not expressly revealed. Neither can, nor will ever, infringe upon the sacred and prescribed domain of the other. Neither will seek to curtail the specific and undoubted authority with which both have been divinely invested.

    “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 interprets what has been specifically revealed, and cannot legislate except in his capacity as member of the Universal House of Justice. 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.
    (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 149)

    In light of this, it is simply not permissible for the Bahais who know about this aspect of the Covenant to attribute interpretive authority to the House of Justice, by treating their elucidations as equivalents of the authoritative interpretations of the Guardian and the Master. Nor is it permissible to treat the decisions of the Guardian as Bahai law, or as prescribing the constitution of the House of Justice, or as limiting the right of delegates at the international convention to vote for whomever they please – women included. The Covenant is both our hermeneutics, and our constitutional law. It says what each of the institutions can and cannot do, and also tells us how we may read their words.

    In addition to the requirements of the Covenant, it is also disrespectful to the House of Justice to attribute an interpretive authority to them, which they have emphatically said that they do not have. They tell us what to do, not what to believe. In 1965 the House of Justice wrote;

    23.20 There is a profound difference between the interpretations of the Guardian and the elucidations of the House of Justice in exercise of its function to “deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book.” The Guardian reveals what the Scripture means; his interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied. Upon the Universal House of Justice, in the words of the Guardian, “has been conferred the exclusive right of legislating on matters not expressly revealed in the Bahá’í writings.” Its pronouncements, which are susceptible of amendment or abrogation by the House of Justice itself, serve to supplement and apply the Law of God. Although not invested with the function of interpretation, the House of Justice is in a position to do everything necessary to establish the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh on this earth. Unity of doctrine is maintained by the existence of the authentic texts of Scripture and the voluminous interpretations of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi together with the absolute prohibition against anyone propounding “authoritative” or “inspired” interpretations or usurping the function of Guardian. Unity of administration is assured by the authority of the Universal House of Justice.
    (Universal House of Justice, Messages … 1963 to 1986, p. 56)

    and in 1984:

    The elucidations of the Universal House of Justice stem from its legislative function, while the interpretations of the Guardian represent the true intent inherent in the Sacred Texts. The major distinction between the two functions is that legislation with its resultant outcome of elucidation is susceptible of amendment by the House of Justice itself, whereas the Guardian’s interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied.
    (Ibid, p. 646)

    Thus you are right to say that the authority of the person speaking is important, but then in precisely the opposite sense to that which you intended: the authority of the House of Justice does not extend to giving authoritative interpretations, and therefore we may not attribute authority to the interpretations and understandings which are, inevitably, embodied in their communications. To do so is both disrespectful, and contrary to the Covenant.


    “I note you did not respond to my comment re Baha’u’llah’s assertion about the Big Bang. For those who are not Bahaís His clarification of the meaning of various topics (in the Iqan for example) would be dismissed on rational (hermeneutic) and other grounds because they do not acknowledge His authority. For the few Bahais who follow your line of reasoning, His assertions would also have to be rejected if they are not in accordance with reason, scientific hypotheses or findings. My view is the opposite: reason and science must catch up with Baha’u’llah (as it is now slowly doing re the universe having no beginning) and Abdu’l-Baha and not the other way around. This is based on Their authority.

    Again, I think there are some Bahai teachings that you have not carefully weighed. In the first place, whether an opinion is held by a majority of Bahais or a minority of one is irrelevant. Unlike Catholic and Sunni theologies, there is no doctrine of the consensus of the Faithful (consensus fidelium, / ijma’) in the Bahai teachings. Both the writings and practical experience tell us that what everyone knows, is often wrong. This is an inherent feature of incremental development.

    Baha’u’llah, and the other Manifestations of God, did not come to teach us science, or history, and did not claim to be doing so. They manifest to us, the Will of God, and they model for us, the intended human response to the Will of God. Naturally their words are full of references to the world, present and past (science and history). It is not legitimate for a Bahai to read their words as overruling the scientific and historical evidence, because of the principle of that science and religion are two distinct and co-dependent things. Abdu’l-Baha says,

    F

    ourth, religion and learning are twins that cannot be separated, or they are two wings on which you fly. A single wing will not suffice. Any religion that is bereft of learning is to be considered as blind imitation. It is superficial, not spiritual. Therefore the promotion of learning is one of the limbs of religion.

    You are trying to fly on one wing, which is not in accordance with the Writings. Science and Religion are, in the words of the House of Justice “two indispensable knowledge systems.” (To the World’s Religious Leaders, April 2002). If you take output from the knowledge system of religion, and treat it as data in the knowledge system of science, you will not hurt science but you will hurt the religion you represent. You will make your presentations a barrier between seekers and the one sought. And if you read the Bahai writings as if they were manuals of science, you will have a seriously impoverished reading and, I fear, will sooner or later have a crisis of faith as a result. For this reason, I have not commented on your various references to scientific or historical matters that you think you find in the Bahai writings. Everyone is free to interpret as they wish, but not every reading is equally valuable.

  17. Steven said

    Sen – “This put the House of Justice in the shoes of the Guardian, which is not in accordance with the Covenant. It seems to me there are some aspects of the Covenant that you are not aware of…”

    You are speaking from a perspective of judgement Sen. You are deciding what is or is not “in accordance”. Then you are playing the authority card yourself.

  18. Sen said

    I think you have misunderstood the thread James B: it was Homa who said “If its elucidations are in conformity with the interpretations of the Guardian we cannot simply ignore them if our reason does not agree…” My objection is that the individual believer cannot be deciding that one elucidation is in conformity with the interpretations of the Guardian and another is not. We must have a general principle, and that is supplied in the Writings, as I have explained in my reply to Homa a few minutes ago. The interpretations of the Guardian and the elucidations of the House of Justice are two quite distinct things, belonging in different spheres of authority. Therefore to check whether an elucidation matches the interpretation of the Guardian is to compare apples with oranges.

  19. Sen said

    How else to reply to someone who thinks the authority of the House of Justice implies that their elucidations have the same authority. Homa was simply unaware of the Bahai teachings on this point, I have shared them with her, by pointing to where she can find the source texts, and quoting them.

  20. Homa said

    This is somewhat of a tempest in a teapot Sen. I specifically referred solely to the elucidations of the House of Justice (not interpretations as I am fully aware of the difference between the UHJ’s elucidations and the Master’s and Guardian’s interpretations) yet you rejected this on the basis of your argument that the authority of the Head of the Faith (UHJ) can be questioned by our reason as the sole criteria.

    When I then further referred albeit somewhat loosely to elucidation/interpretation in no way was I thinking of the UHJ interpreting since it is specifically prohibited from doing so. I was thinking solely of the Master and Guardian/UHJ in the context of what I had already stated to be the great importance of the Lesser Covenant and the need for the authority of the Head of the Faith to be accepted by you as complementary to reason. I do not need you clarification on this as my reference to elucidation/interpretation was simply a quick way to refer to both the Master & Guardian/UHJ (interpretation/elucidation). The reason I used elucidation/interpretation is that you have rejected both the Guardian and UHJ’s interpretation and elucidation respectively in favor of your own reason based arguments.

    It is in this regard that I am in agreement with Steven that you are playing the authority card yourself by asserting your own authority re what texts mean and questioning the Guardian and UHJ.

  21. Homa said

    An additional point re elucidation/interpretation is that I mentioned the UHJ’s elucidation being in conformity with the Guardian’s..i.e. for example it quotes the Guardian’s interpretations re homosexuality as the basis for its elucidating this topic. So it is on solid ground in relying on his interpretations re this and other topics by referencing the Guardian.

  22. Homa said

    “I am aware that the House cannot interpret but I disagree that its elucidations are incorrect as you imagine.”

    I stated this on August 6 several days before you launched your Homa doesn’t understand the difference between interpretation/elucidation essay dated August 11.

  23. Pim said

    It is very clear to me in reading this thread that Homa referred consistently to the House of Justice’s “elucidations” and even stressed that it cannot interpret. Sen, you obviously missed this and decided to latch unto her one use of “elucidations/interpretations” when her meaning is very clear from her comments re Shoghi Effendi’s Interpretations as distinct from the House’s elucidations.

    Her use of the example of Baha’u’llah asserting the universe has no beginning is most instructive re the limitations of reason. and the shifting sands of scientific belief.

  24. Sen said

    I am glad that you are clear on that point Homa, it’s an important one. Of course I never said that the authority of the Head of the Faith can be question by our reason as the sole criteria. That is precisely the opposite of my point about the difference between authority and reason, interpretation and elucidation, religion and science. But at this point I’m giving up on trying to communicate here. I will not accept any more comments. I will leave them here to give everyone a chance to copy their contributions and continue the discussion on a forum such as Bahai Forums. In a few days I will remove everything not relevant to the original post, which is I think everything.

  25. Craig said

    This thread has moved a long way from the main point that the House of Justice is trying to make here. Its letter was not about the elucidation vs interpretation authority of the House or even about the eligibility / non-eligibility of women to serve on it. It was about the need for Baha’is to avoid the extremist polemics that far too many Jewish, Christian, and Muslim commentators engage in whenever some tenet or practice of their religion is questioned or criticised.

    The House is telling us to respond and sometimes to agree to disagree with modesty, politeness, and wisdom. We should be ashamed that we need to be told this.

  26. Sen said

    The letter is from the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahais of the United States. But yes; it is a letter that should never have been necessary.

  27. Just saw this conversation, and imho, any discussion of “reasoning” has to ask – whose reasoning? Since we all see things differently and may not agree, we as a community must yield to the authority of the Institutions, be they right or wrong in our opinion. I also must recognize that my own reasoning may be inadequate and that I may be unable to see the inadequacy. Obedience to the Divine Institutions is a protection from my own opinion. As a community, such obedience is a protection from disunity. While the Local and National Assemblies may not always be correct, if we obey them, the wrong will be made evident and corrected. The Universal House of Justice is another matter. They have conferred infallibility from Baha’u’llah Himself, and it is a matter of faith to accept their decisions. Our own disagreement with those decisions can be attributed to our own lack of understanding. By using our reasoning power, as well as faith, we can learn and grow. There is no compulsion in religion. If we object and can’t reasonably and with faith accept the authority of Baha’u’llah’s Institutions, we are free to leave the Baha’i community and do our own thing.

    Finally, I would like to share what Abdu’l-Baha said about the Universal House of Justice: “Unto the Most Holy Book every one must turn and all that is not expressly recorded therein must be referred to the Universal House of Justice. That which this body, whether unanimously or by a majority doth carry, that is verily the Truth and the Purpose of God himself. Whoso doth deviate therefrom is verily of them that love discord, hath shown forth malice and turned away from the Lord of the Covenant. By this House is meant that Universal House of Justice which is to be elected from all countries, that is, from those parts in the East and West where the loved ones are to be found, after the manner of the customary elections in Western countries such as those of England.”
    – Abdu’l-Baha, (Baha’i World Faith – p. 447)

  28. Bos O'Sullivan said

    The main reason I am no longer a Baha’i is that women cannot be elected to the UHJ. This troubled me for decades until I decided I had insufficient faith to accept this puzzling restriction.

    One reason I have speculated is that it’s a deliberate test of faith, and perhaps designed to distinguish/separate/shield the Baha’i Order from the generality of so-called liberal thought in the centuries ahead as things evolve.

    However I default to being unable to teach or participate as a Baha’i and I note that this matter, unsurprisingly, is not high in the list of fireside topics; it’s too embarrassing, I feel.

  29. Sen said

    I am sure it’s a decision you thought about long and hard.

    I wonder whether “not being a Bahai” for you meant “not believing in Baha’u’llah and not following Abdu’l-Baha,” or “not being enrolled as a member of the Bahai community” ? The latter makes you, intentionally, part of the administrative order that is governed by the House of Justice, so it poses ethical questions that believing in Baha’u’llah and following Abdu’l-Baha do not.

    Did you find the following paper:
    The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith during your research?

    For me, it’s a open question, or an almost-moot point. There are verses enough that show that women can be rijal, used as an honorific rather than as a word for male adults. But there are also grounds enough for differences of opinion about the intent of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, and good reason to fear that a change would allow room for disunity and even schism, that is, I fear that the cure would be worse than the ill. Personally, I can leave it to God. As a community, we could take the same approach, by counting all of the votes of the delegates at international convention (instead of invalidating those naming a woman member), and having faith that the decision taken by the delegates in prayerful gathering will indeed be guided. Or if it is not, that the error will be clear by acting in unison. Schism is the worst of ills – but the estrangement of any individual heart is also a calamity.

  30. Maury Miloff said

    Thanks to Sen for bringing us into the picture on this and other issues, and exploring the manifold and interesting implications of thought and practise in the Baha’i Faith. Clearly, the Baha’i Writings, while specifying that a higher intelligence than the merely human is at work in its scriptural injunctions, do encourage us strongly to investigate and understand the reasons behind them. There is no way to misconstrue this religion as “a religion for the brain dead”, although others may make such allegations. With regard to the particularly baffling issue of women on the Universal House of Justice, I think we can agree that to date, as much as we seek to comprehend, we have not yet reached the point when, as the Master promised, the wisdom behind it will “be made manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon.’” Therefore, although we would prefer to be wiser than we are, isn’t the most we can say at this point is “the scriptures say so”? Especially, given how rarely Baha’is feel stumped by a seemingly impenetrable logic of one of the Teachings, why should we feel abashed to admit this?

  31. Tom said

    Very sad to read Bos’s post. He comments that this law is “perhaps designed to distinguish/separate/shield the Baha’i Order from the generality of so-called liberal thought in the centuries ahead as things evolve.” it is definitely a challenge to liberal Western thinking.

    However, I think it should be borne in mind that there are numerous laws and stipulations which have been, are, and will continue to be equally challenging to conservative thought. In many countries, for example, women have no say in being allowed to choose their husband. Some will leave the Faith because they cannot reconcile themselves with any deviation from total control on the part of the parents and family. There are approximately 5000 honour killings each year!

    There are also cultural tests such as the requirement for burial whereas cremation is the norm for hundreds of millions in countries such as India. I can think of many other examples. There are numerous texts which deal with the severity of tests which have been an integral part of the Faith since its inception (e.g. Babis for whom Tahirih’s removal of her veil at Badasht was too severe a shock).

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