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The consensus of the faithful in Bahai theology

Posted by Sen on March 28, 2017

“…the apparently democratic idea of the consensus of the faithful always ends by according authority to a category of scholars …”

In 1992, a letter on behalf of the Universal House of Justice stated that:

Some people [in the Bahai community] 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.

The former is in direct contradiction to the Guardian’s statement that the members of the Universal House of Justice are not “allowed to be governed by the feelings, the general opinion, and even the convictions of the mass of the faithful, or of those who directly elect them.” …. As to the latter alternative: this would constitute usurpation of a function of the Guardian.
    (The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Dec 10, Issues Related to Study Compilation)

The House of Justice’s message may be referring to an article published in the Journal of Bahai Studies a few months before, in which Jack McLean wrote that “Baha’i derivative theology (commentary) is the subjective, relative, and nonbinding elucidation of Baha’i teachings by competent scholars. Subjective here means that the commentary is particular to the viewpoint of the writer and becomes objective only where a common consensus exists as to its validity.”

In both the House of Justice letter and the article, the consensus of the faithful and the opinions of scholars are placed in parallel. McLean refers to a “common consensus,” but this is a consensus about the elucidations provided by “competent scholars.” While he might be thinking in terms of competent scholars producing elucidations and the whole religious community endorsing them, it seems more likely to me that he means that a consensus of scholars would endorse the elucidations of individual scholars, making them “objective,” and by implication authoritative. I think he is drawing on the idea of the scientific consensus in a field in the hard sciences, which refers to the body of data and theory which is not controversial in that field.

However this posting is not really about a handful of Bahais who think that the general opinion of the Bahais has some authority, rather I want to call attention to the usually inarticulate suppositions that the Bahai community requires a doctrinal authority and doctrinal uniformity, and that harmony in the community requires that the force of inertia behind what Bahais generally have believed over the generations should in some way be respected.

Bearing in mind that the communities of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have had many centuries to try ideas, and sometimes show us what doesn’t work and what might, I turned first to the doctrine of the consensus of the faithful (consensus fidelium, or in Arabic ijma‘/ إجماع‎‎) in Catholic and Sunni theology, and found an interesting link between the doctrine of consensus and the development of clerical roles in Christianity and Islam. And I found that the consensus of the faithful is loosely related to what I will call the discernment of the disciple (sensus fidei, or in Arabic, feraaseh), and that the latter teaching is confirmed in the Bahai writings and in our experience as Bahais.

As we will see below, there are differences between the implications of giving authority to the general opinion of the mass of the believers, or to a body of learned Baha’is, but when we look at McLean’s proposal, and at the doctrine of the consensus of the faithful in Jewish, Christian and Islamic history, we will see that the apparently democratic idea of the consensus of the faithful always ends by according authority to a category of scholars who are deemed to express the consensus. The two ideas can best be considered together, but I will concentrate here on the consensus of the faithful, in the first place because, in Islamic and Christian theologies, that is the headline doctrine, while the role of the religious scholars, the divines, emerges in practice as the divines speak for the consensus, and in the second place because Baha’u’llah’s thinking on the role of the divines in society and in the Bahai community will be the subject of another posting. Here it will suffice to say that, in my opinion, the suggestion of “a body of learned Bahais” ever existing as a formal structure in the Bahai community, let alone existing as a “check on the Universal House of Justice,” can be decisively dismissed, as it has no basis in the writings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, and the rational arguments in favour are based on two false premises: that the Universal House of Justice is intended to be our guide to the Bahai teachings, and should therefore be fully informed of them, with the help of theological experts, and that the ‘legislation’ the Universal House of Justice is supposed to produce resembles civil law, requiring the advice of experts in jurisprudence.

Before also dismissing the suggestion that the consensus of the faithful could in some sense substitute for the Guardian’s roles in Bahai theology, it must be acknowledged that there is a genuine problem here, alluded to in the House of Justice’s letter in the words “in place of the Guardian’s function of authoritative interpretation.” We have no Guardian, so the Bahai community has no living authority who can tell us what the Bahai teachings are, or say what is not a Bahai teaching. Moreover one of the roles of the Guardian was to tell the Universal House of Justice when one of its enactments conflicted with the meaning or spirit of the Bahai Writings. (See Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 150).

It is easy to say (as I do) that there is no Guardian today, there cannot be a Guardian in the future, that there is nothing in the Bahai Writings giving any standing to the collective opinion of the believers, and that there is a good deal against giving the opinions of the faithful any doctrinal role: “the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself,” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 143) and “what is required is that these servants should purify the heart, the mother lode of divine treasures, from every marking; should repudiate imitation [taqlid] of the legacy of their fathers and ancestors; and close the doors of friendship and enmity to all the people of the world..” (Baha’u’llah, Seven Valleys, my translation, pp. 5-6 in the Persian text). Moreover I can point to several instances in which the opinion of the mass of the Bahais has been wide of the mark. So the short answer is, the Guardianship has ended, and the consensus of the faithful has no standing, let alone being a substitute for a Guardian: get used to it.

This short answer is true, but I believe that Bahai theology is justified to the extent that it helps people to deal with questions that arise from faith, and “get used to it” is not helpful. When we consider the diversity of views in the Bahai community, and the fads that periodically fascinate large sections of the Bahai community, such as ‘peace by the year 2000,’ racial axiologies, communitarianism or Fanon and Freire’s liberatory pedagogies, we look for some assurance that there is a centre that will hold things together in the long term: something more cohesive than millions of individuals looking at the Bahai Writings, and at Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, and then making up their own version of Bahai beliefs and practice. Is there anything in the idea of consensus that can give some hope of coherence? I’ve noticed that, as the Universal House of Justice’s 1992 message quoted above fades from memory, some Bahai authors have begun to revive the idea that “consensual Baha’i understandings” or “understanding by common consent” (Jack McClean, informal communications) are a yardstick, or rather a stick they can use to beat other Bahais with. While that’s wrong, I want to be sure that I’m not throwing the baby of hope out with the bathwater. Could there be some merit in developing consensual understandings? After all, what could be more Bahai than consultation, consensus and (the new buzz word) coherence?

Background in Christianity and Islam

The assumption that whatever many Bahais think on a question should be a guide to our own understandings is something we bring into the Bahai Faith from our various backgrounds. In Christianity, the Church Fathers translated their assurance that the believers are guided by the “Spirit of Truth” (John 14:17) and by Christ, as he had said “I am with you always, to the very end of the age,” (Matt. 28:20) into a conviction that the body of believers collectively could not agree on an error (“Ecclesia generalis non potest errare” in the much later formulation of Thomas Aquinas (Summa. Th. Suppl. 25.1)). We can see here the link between the discernment of the disciple and the consensus of the faithful. Although the Christians knew from the Gospels that the disciples had disputes among themselves, which Jesus resolved, they believed that the disciples, and the believers everywhere and of every age, would never agree on an error. (Quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est, in the words of Vincentius de Lérin) However in Matthew 14:16, 19:14, and 19:26, and in Mark 9:13 and 10:24, Jesus corrects misunderstanding held by the disciples in general, and in Matthew 20:25 he explicitly corrects the thinking of ten of the disciples, and the other two (James and John) implicitly suffered from the same misunderstanding. On the face of it, the New Testament is telling us that the faithful can and do agree in error. Nevertheless, it became a Roman Catholic doctrine that the consensus fidelium – what is stated with the agreement of all believers – cannot err. Therefore, one could deduce Christian doctrine from what Christians had generally believed and practiced in the past. Following the great schism and the Reformation, a more modest formulation would be that Roman Catholic doctrine could be deduced from what Christians in communion with the church at Rome had generally believed and practiced.

In Sunni Islam, authority in the community is ultimately based on consensus (ijma‘ ) among the faithful, for the first Caliphs were chosen by consultation among community leaders. Consensus is also a source of doctrine and religious law, alongside the Quran and the traditions, because there is an Islamic tradition that Muhammad promised “My people will never agree on an error.” Islamic theologians have expressed this in the form “their consensus cannot but be protected from error,” where “protected from error” translates ma’sum, the term that in Bahai theology is sometimes translated as “infallible.” (See Goldziher, Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law, 50.) Some theologians have included themselves in the consensus: the Quran and traditions have been read and understood by the Companions, by the community and now by the theologians. Therefore a reading of the Quran or traditions that is contrary to the consensus, as understood by the last in the line (the theologian), must be wrong. The principle excludes the possibility of going back to the Quran to discover new truths, or to critique past and present understandings. Thanks to ‘ijma, the consensus of theologians effectively becomes the highest authority in Islamic theology.

The way the doctrine is used in practice is self-contradictory, for it is used by one Muslim theologian to demonstrate that another Muslim must be wrong. But if one Muslim can be wrong, then there is no consensus. The scope of the consensus must therefore be narrowed, so that the other person is not included in it. There is however no consensus on who participates in the consensus: is it the consensus of the companions of Muhammad, or of the first few generations of Muslims, or of the Islamic scholars of a particular period, or is it the voice of the whole community today? In the latter two cases, does the community include the Shiah Muslims, and other groups, or does ‘my community’ refer only to Sunni Muslims of a certain school? The most common view is that the consensus is the common view of the most widely respected Sunni divines, of any school, in a particular period. They are characterised as having the authority ‘to bind and loosen,’ which can in principle give the Muslim community the flexibility to adapt the accepted readings of the texts and respond to new issues. But it would be unrealistic to expect this principle to be the foundation of an Islamic reformation today, for today more than ever there is no consensus on who are the most respected divines, even within Sunni Islam, and no consensus among the divines on many pressing issues.

In Shiah Islam, there was at first no need to elevate the consensus of the believers to an authority, as the line of appointed Imams had authority to interpret the scripture and traditions. Early Shiah theologians made a bow to their Sunni counterparts by conceding the validity of the tradition “my people will never agree on an error,” but they said the consensus of any generation was not valid unless it included the Imam of that time. But if one had the interpretation of the Imam, any other opinion was superfluous, so the Sunnis and their authoritative divines were not really being thrown a bone. Only the Imam’s opinion really counted.

Because the Shiah had invested so much in the interpretive authority of the Imams, and had insisted that an Imam had to be part of any consensus, when the line of Imams recognized by twelver Shiism ended, they could not easily shift to relying on a consensus of divines. They had voluminous interpretations of law and doctrine from the more productive Imams, particularly the sixth Imam, Jafar as-Sadiq, and this carried them forward for some centuries. By the 18th century, however, the need for a living interpretive authority was being sorely felt. This need is one motive for the rise of the Usuli school of twelver Shiism, in which extraordinary interpretive authority is given to the most learned divines, the mujtahids. This is the school of Shiism that dominates in Iran today, and is also the majority religious affiliation in Iraq.

This brief history should alert us to six issues:

One

– Even where there is some scriptural basis for the doctrine, as in Christianity and Islam, the problem of defining who is ‘in’ the consensus and who is ‘out’ is insurmountable.

– The doctrine offers no sure protection against schism, for the communities that hold it have been rent by schisms.

– The presence of a strongly based interpretive authority in early Shiism made the doctrine redundant. The same was true of the Bahai Faith: the idea that consensual understandings have some authority was not voiced during the days of Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. I have not found any appeal to consensus understandings in the Bahai community prior to 1992, then the Universal House of Justice first challenged the idea, although I have found it suggested in internet discussions after 1992. Conversely, it was the lack of a scriptural basis for the Caliphate in Sunni Islam that committed that community to including consensus among the sources of Sunni doctrine: to deny it as a doctrine would also be to destroy the consensual foundation of the Sunni polity.

– The doctrine of consensus may sound democratic and consultative, but in practice it has been compatible with, or actually assisted, the rise of clerical authority and the doctrinal authority of a church hierarchy. Usuli Shiism presents us with an interesting case: when changes in the world created a pressing need to revitalize the doctrine of consensus, it led to a marked increase in the authority of the divines as compared to the ordinary believers, leading to the situation in Iran today. In Western Bahai communities today, a new emphasis on the importance of achieving common understandings of Bahai teachings among the laity has gone hand in hand with the development of a quasi-ecclesiastic hierarchy of religious experts, at the various levels of the “Teaching Institutes.”

– Although the letter from the Universal House of Justice that was quoted at the outset presents “a body of learned Bahais” and “the general opinion of the mass of the believers” as if they were two alternative ways of dealing with the end of the line of Guardians in the Bahai community, with equivalent effect and equally weak foundations, there are differences. In the Bahai case, the idea of a body of learned Bahais is speculation about a future solution to the perceived problem of the lack of a living Guardian. It has no immediate impact on the lives of Bahais today, because there is no such body of experts. Consensual understandings, in contrast, are offered as a source of confirmation and a basis for polemics in the Bahai community today: the argument is not that the House of Justice might one day be guided by the mass of the believers, but rather that consensual understandings today should guide and admonish those other, misguided, Bahais who think differently. The appeal to consensus grows out of the usually inarticulate supposition that the Bahai community requires a doctrinal authority and doctrinal uniformity, and that harmony in the community requires that some authority should be accorded to what Bahais generally have believed over the generations.

Different as the two positions are, they sometimes flow together in an appeal not to the consensus of the faithful but rather to “the existing consensus of Baha’i scholars” (Steve Cooney, ‘The World Order of Baha’u’llah,’ Online Journal of Baha’i Studies Volume 1 (2007), 495). This nicely illustrates the point made above, that the appeal to consensus is in the first place polemic and exclusionary and then, and as a result, tends to support a hierarchy of religious experts as a source of Bahai theology.

– The doctrine is used largely in internal polemics: it’s a device to prove the other fellow is out of line, when one does not have a logical or scriptural argument. An appeal to consensus is only needed in doctrinal disputes when there is no consensus, but since there is no objective way of saying who is inside and who is outside of the consensus, it resolves nothing. If this is true of the Jewish, Christian and Muslim communities, which have bodies of trained and formally recognized religious experts, it is doubly true of the Bahai community, which – leaving aside the still fluid phenomenon of Ruhi class tutors and coordinators – does not.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I should also say that I have a dog in this fight. My longstanding opposition to the principle of consensus may have something to do with the fact that I have been dismissed as the “dissident voice” where my research produces something new. One critic commented “if Sen is right, generations of Bahais have been wrong,” and another referred dismissively to Bahai scholars who “love to advance theories that are clearly at variance with consen[s]ual Baha’i understandings.” The plural ‘scholars’ here is a euphemism, as I was the only target of the words.

Consensual understandings in Bahai theology

Despite my prejudice against the doctrine, based on the precedents in Christian and Islamic history and from having been at the wrong end of the appeal to consensus too many times, I have looked to see whether there might be some virtue in consensus-building with regard to the Bahai teachings, and the appeal to that consensus as a source of doctrine. I should distinguish this from consensus-building with respect to action. Abdu’l-Baha refers (in the “Seven Candles” letter) to “unity of thought in world undertakings” (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 32), and indeed, how else could the machinery of international governance work, if not by consensus?

Shoghi Effendi refers to “the collective effort and wisdom of the community at large” and wrote:

….let us first strive to live the life and then arise with one heart, one mind, one voice, to reinforce our numbers and achieve our end.
(The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 34)

The Universal House of Justice writes:

Baha’is eschew the adversarial approach of dispute and confrontation, and seek rather the methods of consultation, … with its goal the achievement of consensus in the pursuit of truth. Baha’is aim to persuade others of the correctness of their views through their example and the use of reason, and shun the techniques of pressure, condemnation and abuse which are a deplorable feature of much of the present-day quest for social justice.
(October 24, 1990, in Messages UHJ 1986-2001)

The second sentence shows that consensus in the pursuit of truth refers to interactions between Bahais and the wider society, a process that could not produce a consensus on Bahai teachings. The theme of the 1990 letter suggests that ‘truth’ refers not to doctrine but rather to the true state of affairs relating to social issues. And if the reference to “consensus in the pursuit of truth” has encouraged some to think that consensus on doctrinal matters might be achieved in the Bahai community, the 1992 letter’s rejection of “the general opinion of the mass of the believers” can be seen as a corrective to that misunderstanding.

A letter on behalf of the Universal House of Justice (14 November 2005) states:

Baha’u’llah has liberated human minds by prohibiting within His Faith any caste with ecclesiastical prerogatives that seeks to foist a self-assumed authority upon the thought and behavior of the mass of believers. Indeed, He has prescribed a system that combines democratic practices with the application of knowledge through consultative processes.

Here again, it cannot be religious truths that are to be determined by democratic practices, but rather practical truths: what is to be done. In the same vein, a statement from the International Teaching Centre, regarding developments within the Bahai community, refers to developing “consensus and unity of thought” about “the nature and the extent of the action to be undertaken” (‘Building Visions of Growth’ [1991]). There are many more such examples, expressing aspirations to consensus for practical purposes without implying that the consensus of the faithful is a source of doctrine.

Even within the area of consensus-building as a preparation for action, not every use of consensus is a good one. The Universal House of Justice has condemned “a clear attempt to create a constituency of like-minded persons [a consensus] to bring pressure to bear on the institutions of the Faith to make changes in the policies and practices of the Baha’i community” (June 21, 1989). Here I think the distinction is between forming a practical consensus as to the needs and opportunities of the Bahai community, which will usually include a need to change and an idea of how to go about it, and supposing that this consensus will be binding on the Bahai institutions. The first is good, especially where it is flexible and iterative, for this is “the application of knowledge through consultative processes.” The second would be incompatible with the framework of Bahai belief and practice. The authority of the Local and National Spiritual Assemblies and the Universal House of Justice outranks the practical consensus which we seek to achieve through consultation and reflection. Consensus as a practical preparation for change and action is desirable, but with the clear understanding that any practical consensus achieved among the faithful does not limit the freedom of the elected representatives of the community to act, and to direct the Bahais to act, as they in their own consultation may decide.

My search has led me to conclude that, leaving aside references to consensus-building for practical purposes, there is no basis in the Bahai Writings for treating consensus as a source of doctrine, or standard of orthodoxy. Unlike the Christian and Islamic traditions, in the Bahai Faith the consensus of the believers has no authority, and as regards our understandings of Bahai teachings, consensus is not said to be either possible or desirable.

Rosa Inspiration


A reasonable objection to this would be, that there is a “need for the breaths of the Holy Spirit” (see Makatib-e Hazrat-e Abdu’l-Baha, vol. 5 p. 41), for the “confirmations of the Holy Spirit” (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha p. 60), and various forms of divine guidance that are promised to the individual – under certain conditions – in the Bahai Writings. Assuming that these were not merely conventional expressions, these authors must surely have thought that all that guidance, coming from the one God and the one Holy Spirit, must at least prevent the faithful from agreeing in error? Isn’t individual guidance by the Holy Spirit a singular, whose plural would look rather like a consensus of the faithful doctrine?

There are in fact parallels in the Bahai Writings for an allied doctrine that is found in Islamic and Christian theologies, which I will call ‘the discernment of the disciple.’
In The Gems of the Divine Mysteries, Baha’u’llah quotes two of the Quranic verses that are used to support the doctrine of ijma‘:

“And those who strive for us, we surely guide them in our paths” (29:69)
       and
“Fear God and God will teach you.” (2:282).

If we all strive for God and fear God, would we not find ourselves on the same path and in agreement?

The discernment of the disciple

A very recent statement, Sensus Fidei (2014) by the International Theological Commission, relates the consensus of the faithful in Catholic theology to the sensus fidei, which is an individual’s instinctive recognition of true teaching born of inner transformation and participation in the life of the religious community. It is a widespread experience of religious life, and not only within Christianity, that an instinct for the right and true can develop in the individual. Jeremiah says:

I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me… (Jer 31:33-34).

The Letter to the Romans (2:15) refers to the faithful:

… who do shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also witnessing with them, and between one another the thoughts accusing or else defending.

There is a ‘tradition,’ which Shaykh Ahmad quotes from one of the Imams, while Sunnis attribute it to Muhammad (see Sunan At-Tirmidhi 3127), to the effect that one should “beware of the discernment (feraaseh) of the believer, for he sees with the light of Allah.” Abdu’l-Baha quotes this tradition twice, with reference to the discerning eye of Mirza Abu’l Fadl, in the course of the “tablet of a thousand verses” which he wrote for Abu’l Fadl.

The feraaseh is a light that God deposits in the heart, through which the believer distinguishes truth from falsehood and right from wrong. The word appears in only a few places in the writings of Baha’u’llah, and is translated as ‘observe carefully’ or ‘ponder’, which is to say, ‘use your spiritual discernment.’ However the concept of the discernment of the disciple, using other Arabic and Persian terms, is found in many places in the Bahai writings. In the Tablet of Unity, Baha’u’llah writes:

The truth with all of its attributes and actions is and always has been distinguishable from aught else and those who are possessed of insight (basar) have not and will not be mistaken over this. (Ad’iyyeh-ye Hadrat-e Mahbub 401)

and in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf :

They whose sight is keen, whose ears are retentive, whose hearts are enlightened, and whose breasts are dilated, recognize both truth and falsehood, and distinguish the one from the other. (p. 9)

In another work he writes:

Know thou that the passages [of scripture] that We have called “ambiguous” appear as such only in the eyes of them that have failed to soar above the horizon of guidance and to reach the heights of knowledge in the retreats of grace. For otherwise, unto them that have recognized the Repositories of divine Revelation and beheld through His inspiration the mysteries of divine authority, all the verses of God are perspicuous and all His allusions are clear. Such men discern the inner mysteries that have been clothed in the garment of words as clearly as ye perceive the heat of the sun or the wetness of water, nay even more distinctly.
(Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 26)

In the Surah of Sorrows he writes “if thou discernest them with the eye of thine innate nature (be nazr al-fetra), thou wilt find that they are wolves.” (Paragraph 27 in Cole’s translation). Here the discernment of the disciple comes from the nature (fetra) that is innate to every human person and which is able to perceive the nature of things directly, once acquired veils have been removed.

Fetra (or fetrat or fetra) has a range of meanings in different kinds of Islamic literature and there does not appear to be any adequate treatment of it in the literature in European languages. It is clear that in relation to personal hygiene and adornment, fetra refers to the natural appearance of the body as created in the image of God, and the question is the extent to which it is permissible to alter this appearance; in the literature relating to the legal position of minors it refers to a sort of primal religion which children are considered to belong to at birth; and in rationalist Islamic apologetics it is the natural religion accessible by untainted reason. Shoghi Effendi renders it in his translations with words such as ‘inner ears,’ ‘discerning hearts,’ ‘innate powers’ and ‘the nature made by God.’

In the Kitab-e Iqan, Baha’u’llah refers to the transformation of the heart giving supernatural insight :

… upon whatever hearts the bountiful showers of mercy, raining from the “heaven” of divine Revelation, have fallen, the earth of those hearts hath verily been changed into the earth of divine knowledge and wisdom. … What blossoms of true knowledge and wisdom hath their illumined bosoms yielded! … Methinks they have been moulded from the clay of infinite knowledge, and kneaded with the water of divine wisdom. Therefore, hath it been said: “Knowledge is a light which God casteth into the heart of whomsoever He willeth.” It is this kind of knowledge which is and hath ever been praiseworthy, and not the limited knowledge that hath sprung forth from veiled and obscured minds. This limited knowledge they even stealthily borrow one from the other, and vainly pride themselves therein!

He cannot have meant that all the opinions of “those who are possessed of insight” can be relied upon, for we are not, individually, consistent: our opinions on one matter may be carefully and prayerfully developed and informed by the power of the Holy Spirit, while on another matter we take someone’s word for it, carelessly apply faulty logic, or begin with incorrect information, bad translations or a faulty text. We cannot too easily rely even on our own innate insight, although with a thorough knowledge of oneself and complete honesty, one can place a degree of reliance on insight. Moreover, insights can lead us to truths that we later confirm by reason and research, including the use of scripture and its authoritative interpretations.

The Roman Catholics’ International Theological Commission compares the sensus fidei to an instinct because “it is not primarily the result of rational deliberation, but is rather a form of spontaneous and natural knowledge.” In his commentary on the traditionHe who knoweth his self knoweth his Lord,” Baha’u’llah refers to this instinct as one of the signs of a new outpouring of grace in the world, saying that by its aid “no man shall ever stand in need of his neighbor,” and he says that:

… the majority of them that have sought and attained His holy court have revealed such knowledge and wisdom, a drop of which none else besides these holy and sanctified souls, however long he may have taught or studied, hath grasped or will ever comprehend. It is by virtue of this power that the beloved of God have … been exalted above, and made independent of, all human learning. Nay, from their hearts and the springs of their innate powers hath gushed out unceasingly the inmost essence of human learning and wisdom.

From both of the verses quoted above, it is apparent that the discernment of the disciple, in Baha’u’llah’s thinking is not something reserved for spiritual adepts. “This power” or “instinct,” this “spontaneous and natural knowledge” is spontaneous not in the sense of coming out of nothing, but rather, as growing spontaneously in a process of attentive listening in the light of the Spirit, participation in the life of the community, the use of reason, and a readiness to learn.

The eye of innate nature

As noted above, the discernment of the disciple comes from the nature that is innate to every human person. In the Bahai Writings the connection is made in at least three ways. The first is in anthropology (doctrines about the human person). The Bahai teachings, and the Abrahamic tradition generally, present the human person as created in the image of God. In the Bahai scriptures this does not take the form of a creation myth, but rather as a demythologizing explanation of the Abrahamic creation myth. The inner meaning of the creation stories, according to Baha’u’llah, is that the human person’s role in God’s scheme is to embody all the attributes of God. Lesser creations embody some particular attributes of God, as the plant exhibits growth and the animal exhibits will and movement, but the human person also has the capacities needed to respond to God. Baha’u’llah writes (in Shoghi Effendi’s translation):

Having created the world and all that liveth and moveth therein, [God] …. chose to confer upon man the unique distinction and capacity to know Him and to love Him … Upon the inmost reality of each and every created thing He hath shed the light of one of His names … Upon the reality of man, however, He hath focused the radiance of all of His names and attributes, and made it a mirror of His own Self. (In Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, section XXVII)

From among all created things He hath singled out for His special favor the pure, the gem-like reality of man, and invested it with a unique capacity of knowing Him and of reflecting the greatness of His glory.(In Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, section XXXIV)

All things have their innate nature, their fetra. The innate nature of the human person is to express all the divine attributes, including the intellectual capacities such as knowing, creating and questioning, and to know and love God. This innate nature is latent, in the way that light-giving is latent in a candle before the flame is lit. This optimistic view of human capacity underlies Baha’u’llah’s statement quoted above, that “those who are possessed of insight have not and will not be mistaken,” and his statement that the term ‘infallibility’ [`esmat] “is applied to every soul whom God hath guarded against sin, transgression, rebellion, impiety, disbelief and the like.” (Tablet of Eshraqat, as translated in Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed after the Kitab-i Aqdas; more literally it reads “… when God has guarded anyone from sin (khataa’), rebellion (`esyaan), impiety (`eraaz) disbelief (kofr), joining partners with God (sherk) and the like, God grants each and every one of them the name of ‘infallibility.’) While doing wrong, and being wrong, are always possible, in Baha’u’llah’s view, they are not natural and inevitable.

The second connection between our innate nature and the discernment of the disciple is that God’s justice demands it. If our nature did not allow us to see right and be right, how could a just God impute to us our wrongs? Baha’u’llah writes:

He hath endowed every soul with the capacity to recognize the signs of God. How could He, otherwise, have fulfilled His testimony unto men, … He will never deal unjustly with any one, neither will He task a soul beyond its power. (In Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, section LII)

The third connection is epistemological, relating the discernment of the disciple directly to the work of the Holy Spirit, but involving our innate nature implicitly, since the argument assumes that human nature is open to inspiration by the Holy Spirit, and relies on the Holy Spirit to obtain certain knowledge. A number of the talks that Abdu’l-Baha gave in his journeys to Europe and America consist of lists of Bahai teachings, and of these, a number refer to the possibility and need for inspiration by the Holy Spirit. Peter Terry surveyed 37 such lists of principles available in English, and found 13 that include dependence on the Holy Spirit among the core Bahai Principles. (Lights of Irfan vol. 1, 2000, see page 144)

In Some Answered Questions, Abdu’l-Baha describes the criteria of understanding (edraak), dealing first with the senses, then with the intellect and reason (`aql), and with “tradition” (naql) which here means the transmitted record of divine revelation. This record of Revelation cannot be depended upon,

… because the traditions must be understood by the mind. As the mind itself is liable to error, how can it be said that it will attain to perfect truth and not err in comprehending and inferring the meaning of the traditions?


The fourth criterion, and the only reliable one, is the inspiration of the Holy Spirit:

… the Holy Spirit is the sound standard, for in it there is never the least doubt. Those [others], are aids to the Holy Spirit, which comes to a person: in it, he attains the stations of certitude. (My translation, page 225 in Mufavidat, Chapter 83 in the 1908 English translation).

The inspiration of the Holy Spirit is given priority over the records of Revelation (scripture), since it can illuminate moments in our experience, as well as illuminating scripture and religious history (naql), whereas scripture and tradition without the Holy Spirit is not a reliable criterion.

Understanding that has been confirmed through the Holy Spirit may be shared with others, as Abdu’l-Baha writes:

It is my hope that the breaths of the Holy Spirit will so be breathed into your hearts that your tongues will disclose the mysteries, and set forth and expound the inner meanings of the Holy Books; that the friends will become physicians, and will, through the potent medicine of the heavenly Teachings, heal the long-standing diseases that afflict the body of this world; that they will make the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the dead to come alive; that they will awaken those who are sound asleep.
(Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, section 219)

Why is consensus not the plural of discernment?

The sensus fidei, the feraaseh, or discernment of the disciple, the capacity that guides us to discern truth from falsehood, is the eye of our common innate nature, which when illumined by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit gives us insight (basar) that “will not be mistaken.” It takes us to the station of certitude and may even be ma`sum, protected from error. This is not reserved for an elite, it is the fruit of our innate nature and inspiration that is available to all, and the understanding it gives to an individual may be shared with others.

This teaching is something the Bahai Faith has in common with Islamic, Christian, and to some extent Jewish theologies. But while Sunni Islam and Roman Catholic Christianity treat the consensus of the faithful as a source of doctrine and a standard, the Bahai teachings exclude that possibility. The discernment of the disciple is not the foundation of a community consensus, in Baha’u’llah’s thinking, it is the foundation of the individual’s independence from the consensus. The question is why Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha did not make the apparently logical step, from the singular sensus fidei to the plural consensus fidelium?

One explanation may be found in the historical and polemic setting for which they wrote. In early Islam and Christianity, the doctrine of consensus was not developed in the first generation, and how much it was developed and emphasized depended on the perceived need for an authoritative source of doctrine. The Shiah had no real need for it, since they had the Imams, and neither did Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, for they were themselves the authoritative source of doctrine. Nor could they concede the validity of the consensus of the faithful in Christian and Islamic theologies, for as proponents of a new revelation they were arguing in many cases that Christians and Muslims had misunderstood their respective scriptures. For example, Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha gave symbolic interpretations of terms such as ‘star’ and ‘heaven,’ and stories such as that of Adam and Eve, while the mass of Muslims and Christians had understood these literally, at least until the 18th century. If Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha were right, then the consensus of the faithful had been wrong.

Another factor is the greater individualism of Baha’u’llah’s teachings, as compared to Islam, which is in turn more individualist than Christianity, which is more individualist than Pharisaic Judaism or Zoroastrianism. The great step forward made by the Pharisees and in late Zoroastrianism, and borrowed by the Christians and Muslims, was to individualize spiritual destiny and spiritual responsibility. They made salvation a property of the individual rather than the tribe or people, and related it to the ethical behaviour of that individual. Baha’u’llah extends this trajectory, with a greater emphasis on individual responsibility in religion, by replacing the concept of salvation with that of spiritual growth through many worlds. This growth is individual, incremental, and relative to the challenges that an individual faces and to his or her personal destiny: “Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, section CVI)

Jeremiah had looked forward to this, in the verse quoted above: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me…” (Jer 31:34), and this is reiterated in the New Testament in Hebrews 8:11. Baha’u’llah draws the same conclusion from the discernment of the disciple: it does not make the discerning believer a drop in the pool of a community consensus, rather it makes that individual independent of the opinions of others. He writes:

… the Days immediately associated with the Manifestation of God possess a unique distinction … It is for this reason that, in those days, no man shall ever stand in need of his neighbor. ….from their hearts and the springs of their innate powers (fetrat-eshan) hath gushed out unceasingly the inmost essence of human learning and wisdom.
(Tafsir (commentary) on the tradition, “He who knoweth his self knoweth his Lord,” translation by Shoghi Effendi in Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, section CXXIV)

The words “no man shall ever stand in need of his neighbour” (Ahadi muhtaaj beh-ahadi nabudeh wa nakhaahad bud) are an almost literal quote from the Persian Bayan, 4:10 (ahadi muhtaaj be ahadi nebaashod), where they explain a ban on teaching logic and (Islamic) fundamental theology. [Thanks to Omid Ghaemmaghami for this find.]

This epistemelogical individualism is stated again by Baha’u’llah in the second Arabic Hidden Word, where the voice of God says:

The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice (ensaaf, fair-mindedness); … By its aid you see (tushaahad, to witness) with your own eyes and not through the eyes of the servants [of God], and know through your own knowledge and not through the knowledge (ma`refat) of any among the servants. (My translation: the ‘knowing’ and ‘knowledge’ here refers to direct insight into intellectual realities.)

Another reason we cannot make the apparently logical step, from the singular sensus fidei to the plural consensus fidelium, is that there is a possibility that understandings confirmed by the Holy Spirit may be shared, but no guarantee that anyone will listen. In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is a lunatic, and better shunned. How, then, could a consensus develop?


Bluebottle : What time is it Eccles?
Eccles :Err, just a minute. I, I’ve got it written down ‘ere on a piece of paper. A nice man wrote the time down for me this morning.


Yet another reason is, that it is often best if no-one listens. In religion, truth is only true for you when it is your very own truth. Indeed in the moral realm in general, understanding must be made our own, so that our actions may be self-actuated, and potentially moral. Baha’u’llah writes “the faith of no man can be conditioned by any one except himself” and roundly condemns taqlid, usually translated as “blind imitation” in matters of religion. The taqlid that is condemned might be imitation of the consensual understanding among Bahais, or of a scholar, or of the existing consensus of scholars … whoever is being imitated, the imitated/imitation truth has no value at all for the imitator. It is like the time of day written on a piece of paper.

In religion and art and literature, and in relationships, a truth borrowed is not true. We need to possess our own truths, which means in effect that we each make our own truth, although not ex nihilo. This leads us to the familiar Bahai teaching of “the individual search after truth.” A truth borrowed is a truth debased:

Perchance we may divest ourselves of all that we have taken from each other and strip ourselves of such borrowed garments as we have stolen from our fellow men, that He may attire us instead with the robe of His mercy and the raiment of His guidance, and admit us into the city of knowledge.
(Baha’u’llah, in Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 15)

I will note here briefly, a point that will return in another posting, when we consider the desirable and undesirable forms of ‘imitation’ (taqlid) of a religious expert: when we say that a truth borrowed is a truth debased, the reference is only to truths of the heart. These are the truths of religion. Truths about religion, such as ‘Abraham preceeded Moses’ or ‘Abdu’l-Baha designed the House of Worship in Eshqabad’ are matters of history, factual claims that reach us only through a chain of transmission, and which we cannot know directly. We rely on authorities, who rely on authorities, and in the best case, the authorities are irrefutable documents or observable facts. Our knowledge of these truths about religion is different to the direct ‘seeing’ and understanding of intellectual realities referred to in the Hidden Word above.

The production of truth by the truth-holder is related to epistemological relativism. The collective dimension of relativism is a familiar Bahai teaching, expressed by Shoghi Effend:

[the Bahai Revelation’s] teachings revolve around the fundamental principle that religious truth is not absolute but relative, that Divine Revelation is progressive, not final. Unequivocally and without the least reservation it proclaims all established religions to be divine in origin, identical in their aims, complementary in their functions, continuous in their purpose, indispensable in their value to mankind.
(The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 58)

In the words of Baha’u’llah, “Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration.” (Quoted above). Because every age has its own problems (har ruz ruzi ast, “every day is one particular day”), the answers of one day differ from another, and the truths that a religion teaches society are relative to the time, not absolute. This is a perspectival epistemology in which a ‘day’ – meaning an era – is supposed to have one perspective. The second part of this verse says “every soul [has] its particular aspiration (har sar-raa aawaazi dard).” Literally, this is “every head has a melody (out of many possible ones).” An awaaz is a Persian melody that is always sung solo, since its timing is irregular. In this form, the word appears rarely in the Bahai texts, but the form awaazeh is common. This is a particular high note in music (dictionary of EJ Steingass) or simply a synonym for awaaz (Hayyim’s dictionary), and the word is used in the Bahai writings in the sense of celestial melody or the sounds of worship. Both words are sometimes used in the sense of a call or invitation. This is a perspectival epistemology in which the perspective is that of each individual.

Baha’u’llah expresses the production of truth by the individual truth-knower in visual terms in ‘the valley of unity’ section of his Seven Valleys:

Your excellency is aware that all the differences in the realms of being that are observed by the wayfarer in the stages of the path derive from the wayfarer himself. … Consider the visible sun; although it shines with one radiance upon all creation and all beings, … [yet] a mirror reveals its circular shape , … in crystal glass it kindles fire… In the same way, the particular character of a recipient object causes colours to appear, even as the lantern glass: if it is yellow, yellow appears; if it is white, white appears, … (my translation, pp. 10-11 in this Persian text)

The moral of this is, that variations in ‘truth’ arise from variations in our selves, and if I am a yellow globe there’s no point in my trying to borrow red light from someone else, for when the sun of truth shines on me the result will be yellow light, not red. It follows that ‘the individual search after truth,’ a principle frequently explained by Abdu’l-Baha, must refer to a search that continues as long as the mind is thinking. There is no point at which borrowed robes are as good tailor made.

All of which is to say, while the Bahai Faith does have a teaching concerning the individual’s sensus fidei, feraaseh, or discernment, one cannot conclude from this that the consensus of the faithful is an authority or even a guide for the individual’s beliefs or the development of doctrine in the community. Because religious truth is subjective, the development of discernment does not lead to consensus among the discerning, let alone among the mass of the faithful. The apparent impossibility of achieving doctrinal consensus in the Bahai community is not a negative finding, as those religious communities that do accept the consensus of the faithful as a source of theology have also not achieved doctrinal consensus. On the contrary: the doctrine creates rigidity in thought and a class of custodians whose interest is to prevent change, with the result that diversity in understanding is more likely to shatter the unity of the community.

Nevertheless, the Bahai Faith does have doctrines, dogmas and teachings (the terms are synonyms derived from different languages). It has ‘fundamental verities,’ and it has lists of Bahai teachings, but neither function in a way analogous to the 39 Articles of Religion in the Anglican Church, some of which are essentials of faith to be believed by all church members. There are at least three differences.

First, Bahai doctrines are not essential to salvation, since the either/or concept of salvation has been replaced by the goal of endless individual growth. Wrong understandings of Bahai teachings can get in the way of an individual’s growth, and in that case we do some pastoral theology to try to resolve that issue for that person, but right belief is not a condition for individual salvation, and this makes a huge difference to the way Bahais approach doctrine.

Second, while the Bahais are called on to affirm the Bahai teachings and witness to them to the world (including the community itself), this affirmation grows out of understanding. It is not something like signing the 39 Articles before entering Oxford University. When Shoghi Effendi speaks of these fundamental verities, he speaks of the need to understand them, to clarify them. If someone asked him whether a Bahai had to believe them, I think he would have replied that the question shows an incomplete understanding. In this view (which supposes a harmony between right reason and the will), more correct belief follows automatically from fuller understanding. One believes, by definition, that which one understands, if ‘understanding’ is the direct apprehension of intellectual realities.

Third, Bahai doctrines are not or should not be a basis for exclusion. The identity of the Bahais is intended to be based on having a collective centre — the person of Baha’u’llah, the example and interpretations of Bahai teachings provided by Abdu’l-Baha, and the Administrative Order that he designed in his Will and Testament. What individual Bahais get from this collective centre varies richly, our coherence as a diverse community derives from the coherence of Baha’u’llah as a person, and Abdu’l-Baha’s complete alignment with his father.

Conclusion

If right doctrine is not required for salvation, or for defining the true Bahai, or maintaining unity, then the ideas that “consensual understandings” might be provided by a body of learned Baha’is, or by reference to the general opinion of the mass of the believers, or by elucidations from the House of Justice (dealt with in a separate post on this blog), are all equally irrelevant, as well as lacking a scriptural foundation. The theological assertion that there is no scriptural foundation for treating any of them as authoritative sources also has a practical dimension: if there is no evident scriptural foundation for the authority of these sources, that all Bahais can recognise, any appeal to consensus, or the opinions of scholars, or elucidations of the House of Justice will cause disunity and defeat the intended purpose.

Consistent self-checking of our ideas about the Bahai teachings, in comparison to the scriptures, will certainly produce a degree of cohesion over time. The processes of growing understanding, or reducing misunderstanding, in the community will be fruitful, for that is that nature of understanding. It is alignment with reality. But whatever cohesion and consensus we achieve can only be an outcome, it cannot be an input. We can never appeal to the consensus, but we can expect to achieve it to some extent, provisionally.

The Bahai community is a young community in process, a diverse fellowship travelling together, as in the Canterbury Tales. In the process each generation looks back at the past and sees some things that the early Bahais did and wrote which we would no longer support. In this evolving process, there are diverse views at any one time. This is as it should be: we are working towards a transcendent ideal in a contingent world, which means that there is always a gap between the actual and the ideal. If it were not so, if we imagined that perfection was achieved and our understanding complete and immutable, the Bahai community would have reached the terminal stage of its life cycle.

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26 Responses to “The consensus of the faithful in Bahai theology”

  1. Hooshang S. Afshar said

    How many pages is this? I read at least half of it. Like a good academic you make your paper as long as possible by going over the points more than once.Your conclusion I agree with except where you say elucidation of UHJ is also irrelevant. Why is their elucidation irrelevant? I can choose to accept their elucidation or my own as long as I don’t break any laws nor create contention in the community for which I might loose my voting right or pronounced dissident, (you for one). In the past Scriptures needed elucidation almost line after line and were so incomplete like the Quran or the Bible and the Gospels. Are you trying tp portray the Baha’i Writings as having the same deficiencies? The UHJ can legislate if they thought elucidation was not enough. I remember the case of abortion about which they said there is nothing in the Writings hence they leave it to the Baha’is to decide for themselves but they might or will in the future legislate on it.

  2. Sen said

    It is a long paper Hooshang, and the sentence you point to is also a long one. I do not say that the elucidations of the UHJ are irrelevant, but that certain ideas (for example, about the UHJ’s elucidations) are irrelevant IF (as I suppose) “right doctrine is not required for salvation, or for defining the true Bahai, or maintaining unity.”

    No, I have not said anything in this posting or elsewhere — ever — to the effect that the Bahai writings are deficient. I suggest you raise your sugar levels with a nice choclate, and lower your reading speed – or read a simpler text.

  3. Hooshang S. Afshar said

    Sen
    Did you mention in this article the infallibility of UHJ Baha’u’llah has bestowed on this institution?
    If they are guided by God in their collective decisions and words then there is no need for others to consent.
    Warm regards,
    Hooshang

  4. Sen said

    I’m sorry Hooshang, but I do not think you have the basic knowledge of Bahai teachings, especially of the Covenant, to engage in this discussion. My posting assumes that the readers will know quite a lot about the Covenant, and various related ideas such as infallibility. When I wrote “…there is a genuine problem here. We have no Guardian, so the Bahai community has no living authority who can tell us what the Bahai teachings are, or say what is not a Bahai teaching,” the words assume that reader knows the Guardian is the authorized interpreter of the teachings, and the House of Justice is not, and does not claim to be, an authorized interpreter. Vice versa, the House of Justice is the legislative body, and the Guardian cannot make Bahai law. It is this two-fold structure of authority in the Bahai community, which is unique to the Bahai community, and the lack of a living Guardian, that gives us our problem, and has led some Bahais to tend — often unconsciously – to give authority to the consensus of the faithful as a sort of substitute for the Guardianship. Others try to shove the House of Justice into the shoes of the Guardian, by making its elucidations into authorized interpretations (which is not the UHJ’s intent).

    One good place to start in understanding the Bahai Covenant is the section headed “The Administrative Order” in Shoghi Effendi’s letter “The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah.” There’s background also in earlier letters in which he deals with the relationship between the Guardianship and the House of Justice. I do not know whether there are comparable explanations in Persian, but I think it would be a valuable contribution to find whatever he wrote in Persian on this topic, and correlate it with what he wrote in English.

  5. Brent Poirier said

    I do not know of a verse in the authoritative writings that states that the consensus of the believers carries weight as far as doctrine, law or practice.

    I see it as quite a different matter that Baha’u’llah has urged consultation as a means of arriving at the truth; and in particular with respect to the local and national spiritual assemblies. “And, when they are called upon to arrive at a certain decision, they should, after dispassionate, anxious and cordial consultation, turn to God in prayer, and with earnestness and conviction and courage record their vote and abide by the voice of the majority, which we are told by our Master to be the voice of truth, never to be challenged, and always to be whole-heartedly enforced. To this voice the friends must heartily respond, and regard it as the only means that can insure the protection and advancement of the Cause.” (Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 64) The Guardian later clarified this: “When the Master says the Local and National Assemblies are the ‘Voice of Truth’, He means here that they must be obeyed, not that they are infallible.” (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, November 25, 1947; Lights of Guidance, p. 480 #1587)

    Hadith, “Never will God make all my community agree on a wrong course.” This has been widely viewed as meaning that if the generality of Muslims believes something, it is to be taken as true; that is, that the mere fact that most or all of the people believe it, endows it with truth. Muhammad Asad, a British Jew who converted to Islam and who provides my favorite translation of the Qur’an, demolishes, in my view, this notion within Islam, in a collection of his essays, “This Law of Ours”. The thing is that in the Baha’i Faith we don’t have a comparable text, and of course traditions don’t hold the same sway for Baha’is as the Hadith do for Muslims.

    So in the Baha’i Faith there is neither a Text nor a Tradition confirming that if the generality of the believers hold something to be true, it may be taken as the truth. And there are examples of the generality of the believers being wrong about important subects in the Faith.

    For example, Abdu’l-Baha stated on many occasions, “Every religion which is not in accordance with established science is superstition. Religion must be reasonable. If it does not square with reason, it is superstition and without foundation.” (25 April 1912, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 63) It is widely held among the believers that this means that there are circumstances under which a divinely-revealed law or principle – a teaching revealed by a Manifestation of God – can be declared to be superstition if science proves otherwise. I think that there is no circumstance under which any teaching of any Manifestation of God will ever be declared to be superstition. The believers’ *understanding* of the Revelation – of course. But not the revelation itself. The examples the Master gives of religious teachings which are superstitions are – always – examples of religious views which are of human origin, not divinely revealed. For example, He explained that the religious views of Romans, Greeks and Egyptians were superstitious: http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/ab/PUP/pup-62.html . The Master never gave an example of divine Revelation that was annulled or declared superstitious by scientists. My point is – the way that the believers present this is generally not an accurate expression of what Abdu’l-Baha said on the subject, and if the majority of the believers think that way, it doesn’t make it right or give it any added weight.

    In like manner it is widely believed that David Starr Jordan said during his introduction of the Master at Stanford University that Abdu’l-Baha “walks the mystic path with practical feet.” He did not, and the nearly universal belief that he did, does not make it so. His introductory comments are extant. However, in the “Palo Altan” newspaper which reports his introduction and the Master’s Stanford address, in the adjoining column of that newspaper a reporter stated that in his opinion Abdu’l-Baha walked the mystic path with practical feet. Some early believer perhaps misread that statement, incorrectly attributed it to Jordan’s introduction in the next neighborning newspaper column, and thus was born this error – and it has prevailed ever since. Marion Yazdi, the first Baha’i to attend Stanford University and author of a book about those early years of the Faith at that University, stated to me at the Bosch School in the early 1980’s that she had reached this same conclusion, as there was no record anywhere of Jordan stating this.

    It is widely held that the Huquq is calculated as 19% of what is left over after all necessary expenses. In fact the Huquq is neither a portion of one’s income, nor a portion of what is left over at year’s end. It is, in a broad sense, 19% of everything you own, with some exemptions and clarifications – as a committee explained in this letter. Read the question regarding the first calculation of Huquq in the fourth paragraph of the letter, and the World Centre committee’s response “we see no problem” with this understanding. http://bahai-library.com/uhj_huququllah_questions

    It is also believed by the friends that the Universal House of Justice stated that the question of abortion is a matter of conscience, along with medical advice. This is inaccurate. The Guardian’s secretary stated on his behalf – and Shoghi Effendi signed the letter – that abortion is “absolutely criminal”. The general guidance is that it is forbidden, and in the light of that general guidance, it is left to the conscience of the individual and the best medical advice. But those introductory sentences have been lopped off in most of the friends’ understandings. My point again is, the general understanding of the believers is not confirmed to carry any particular weight in the Baha’i Faith.

    One believer – a new believer – with purified sight, might well have an understanding that is closer to the truth than a roomful of believers far more familiar with the texts, and even with the original languages of revelation.

    Numbers don’t carry weight in this revelation, in my personal view. This is entirely different from the role and station of the guidance of the spiritual assemblies, and entirely in a different and lower category than the guidance bestowed on the Universal House of Justice.

    Brent

  6. Hooshang S. Afshar said

    You don’t need to be so conceited towards me o great master of all knowledge. I remember now I read this at the beginning of your article. It’s just old age and memory playing up. You should apologise to me for insulting me. Glad I know you better now – what a good test for you! If this was on Facebook forum you would not dare write this

  7. Brent Poirier said

    I think Hooshang’s comment is fully justified. An apology is in order – as is perhaps some self-reflection.

  8. Roland said

    I agree with Brent that you, of all people, owe Hooshang an apology. You state that he does not “have the basic knowledge of Bahai teachings, especially of the Covenant, to engage in this discussion. My posting assumes that the readers will know quite a lot about the Covenant, and various related ideas such as infallibility. When I wrote “…there is a genuine problem here. We have no Guardian, so the Baha’i community has no living authority who can tell us what the Baha’i teachings are, or say what is not a Bahai teaching.”

    You point that there is no Guardian and claim there is no living authority to tell us what the Baha’i teachings are has been buttressed repeatedly for decades by your assertion that the letters written on behalf of the Guardian by his secretaries have no authority. The House of Justice elucidated this issue in its March 9, 18=965 letter (Unassailable Foundation of the Cause of God) in which it warned against anyone propounding an “authoritative” interpretation of the teachings and in subsequent letters. Yet you have repeatedly ignored the Guardian’s own categorical assertion that “whatever letters are sent in my behalf from Haifa are all read and approved by me before mailing. There is no exception whatever to this rule.” http://bahai-library.com/uhj_letters_behalf_guardian (no.1580) The letters written on behalf of the Guardian are also described as being “authoritative.” You reject any interpretations of Baha’i teachings based on letters written on the Guardian’s behalf despite his assertion that he has approved these letters and that they are authoritative as you reject any elucidations of the House of Justice which are based on these letters.

    This approach has led you to not only reject the Guardian’s guidance telling us “what the Bahaí teachings are” but also the clear meaning of Baha’u’llah’s Writings. One of many glaring examples is your Copper to Gold? essay in which you put forward an authoritative viewpoint that the meaning of transmuting copper to gold is solely metaphorical whereas the Guardian clearly stated that its meaning is literal as is Abdu’l Baha’s assertion that it is literal. http://www.aqdasproject.com/lg-hbh/lg-1574-1613.html

    As if that were not enough, there are two other texts in which Baha’ú’llah clearly refers to the transmutation of copper to gold in a literal sense which I already raised in the comments section for that essay:
    1. “Is it within human power, O Hakím, to effect in the constituent elements of any of the minute and indivisible particles of matter so complete a transformation as to transmute it into purest gold? Perplexing and difficult as this may appear, the still greater task of converting satanic strength into heavenly power is one that We have been empowered to accomplish.” http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/GWB/gwb-99.html 2. “Consider the doubts which they who have joined partners with God have instilled into the hearts of the people of this land. “Is it ever possible,” they ask, “for copper to be transmuted into gold?” Say, Yes, by my Lord, it is possible. Its secret, however, lieth hidden in Our Knowledge. We will reveal it unto whom We will. Whoso doubteth Our power, let him ask the Lord his God, that He may disclose unto him the secret, and assure him of its truth. 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

    The “density, form, and substance of each and every other mineral” and “constituent elements of any of the minute and indivisible particles of matter” are not metaphorical. So you are not only willfully insistent in opposing the Guardian you are opposing the clear meaning of Bahaú’llah Himself yet you dismiss Hooshang’s failure to understand the Covenant and related issues such as infallibility? I could cite several other examples which in my view demonstrate that you are imposing your own theological viewpoints in clear opposition to the Covenant, Guardian, House of Justice, Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha Who warned in His Will and Testament against contending with the Guardian as this was equivalent to contending with God.

    You have been on this wilful path of contention for decades and I agree with Brent that it is time for self-reflection.

  9. Pim said

    I think many readers will be puzzled and perhaps bemused by your lecturing Hooshang on the Covenant bearing in mind the numerous times you have challenged the Covenant in the form of the authority (interpretations and elucidations) of the Guardian and House of Justice. As recently as this month I read a Facebook post by you in which you challenged the Guardian’s assertion that the soul comes into being at the moment of conception – explaining the (in your view) “problem” with this “formulation.”

    “One must, then, read the book of his own self, rather than some treatise on rhetoric. Wherefore He hath said, “Read thy Book: There needeth none but thyself to make out an account against thee this day.”

    The story is told of a mystic knower, who went on a journey with a learned grammarian as his companion. They came to the shore of the Sea of Grandeur. The knower straightway flung himself into the waves, but the grammarian stood lost in his reasonings, which were as words that are written on water.”
    http://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/SVFV/svfv-9.html

  10. Sen said

    Despite his rudeness to me personally, I courteously pointed Hooshang to the sources where he could learn more about the Covenant. I think that is what Abdu’l-Baha would have done.

    You have not given an example of “the numerous times you have challenged the Covenant in the form of the authority (interpretations and elucidations) of the Guardian and House of Justice.”
    So I cannot comment except to say that is never my intention. I do often challenge the readings that others put onto scriptures, interpretations and House of Justice elucidations, and they challenge my readings. This is as it should be: working together to refine our individual understandings.

    The formulations of answers by the Guardian’s secretaries are open to critique, because, as a letter on behalf of the Guardian says:

    P.S. — I wish to call your attention to certain things in “Principles of Baha’i Administration” which has just reached the Guardian; although the material is good, he feels that the complete lack of quotation marks is very misleading. His own words, the words of his various secretaries, even the Words of Baha’u’llah Himself, are all lumped together as one text. This is not only not reverent in the case of Baha’u’llah’s Words, but misleading. Although the secretaries of the Guardian convey his thoughts and instructions and these messages are authoritative, their words are in no sense the same as his, their style certainly not the same, and their authority less, for they use their own terms and not his exact words in conveying his messages. He feels that in any future edition this fault should be remedied, any quotations from Baha’u’llah or the Master plainly attributed to them, and the words of the Guardian clearly differentiated from those of his secretaries.
    (The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 260)

    However the facebook posting you refer simply points out that there is more to the story than can be encapsulated in one snippet quote. In this case, this quote on its own would imply that the soul depends on a body (zygote) to exist. The same critique could be made of using a snippet from Baha’u’llah as the complete and final answer to a question. In every case, we should so far as possible search widely and include apparently contradictory verses in our search, and then look for the bigger picture of which the individual snippets are a part. Here’s what I wrote on facebook:

    The problem with the formulation “the rational soul comes into being at the moment of conception” is that it implies that the body in its most primitive form, a fertilized egg, is a pre-requisite for the soul, or human spirit. So what happens when the body dies?

    At the same time, the rational soul of the Manifestation has a beginning but no end:

    “… the Manifestations of God have three stations: …. As to the station of the rational soul, despite having a beginning, it has no end and is endowed with everlasting life.”
    (Some Answered Questions New Translation)

    One way of looking at this that I find appealing, is that the individual human spirit or rational soul has a logical, but not a temporal, priority. After all, if there was no human spirit there, the conception would not be the conception of a human person who would eventually become an individual.

    In the new translation of Some Answered Questions, Abdu’l-Baha says:

    “Some hold that the body is the substance and that it subsists by itself, and that the spirit is an accident that subsists through the substance of the body. The truth, however, is that the rational soul is the substance through which the body subsists. If the accident the body is destroyed, the substance the spirit remains.

    Secondly, the rational soul, or the human spirit, does not subsist through this body by inherence that is to say, it does not enter it, for inherence and entrance are characteristics of bodies, and the rational soul is sanctified above this. It never entered this body to begin with that it should require, upon leaving it, some other abode. No, the connection of the spirit with the body is even as the connection of this lamp with a mirror. If the mirror is polished and perfected the light of the lamp appears therein, and if the mirror is broken or covered with dust the light remains concealed.

    The rational soul the human spirit did not descend into this body or subsist through it to begin with, that it should require some substance to depend upon after the constituent parts of the body have decomposed. On the contrary, the rational soul is the substance upon which the body depends. The rational soul is endowed from the beginning with individuality; it does not acquire it through the intermediary of the body. At most, what can be said is that the individuality and identity of the rational soul may be strengthened in this world, and that it may either progress and attain to the degrees of perfection or remain in the lowest abyss of ignorance and be veiled from and deprived of beholding the signs of God.”

    The implication of this is that there are an infinitely infinite number of logically prior souls, that is, potential persons, whose “existence” is not within time, which seems to me to mean, no development and individualisation. A conception, with its specific genetic element, actualises one of these souls, excluding some potentials — this child will not be Chinese, for example — yet still offering so many subtly differentiated potentials that it is not yet decreed or perceptible what individualized person that soul will become. Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy? Taker, giver, lover, liar? Because we make ourselves within the range of our potentials, the die isn’t cast till death’s last laugh.

  11. Sen said

    Roland, your posting would be more useful if you could give a single example of “[my]assertion that the letters written on behalf of the Guardian by his secretaries have no authority.” I do not believe you could find any example. I have written extensively on the topic: search out what is online and see what you can find. You will find me saying that “their authority [is] less,” but that is actually a quote from a letter on behalf of the Guardian !

    You are free to read the passages about alchemy that you quote as literal. No purpose would be served by arguing about it in a thread on the consensus of the faithful: each reader must study the texts and make their own reading. I see no chance of the Bahais as a whole achieving any consensual reading on this: figurative language is in the eye of the beholder, and this is true of Bahai texts as in the older religions. In the Iqan, Baha’u’llah provides us with some useful criteria for detecting metaphorical and rhetorical expressions, and avoiding undue literalism, too long to quote here. He adds

    “Know verily that the purpose underlying all these symbolic terms and abstruse allusions, which emanate from the Revealers of God’s holy Cause, hath been to test and prove the peoples of the world; that thereby the earth of the pure and illuminated hearts may be known from the perishable and barren soil. From time immemorial such hath been the way of God amidst His creatures, and to this testify the records of the sacred books.”

  12. Roland said

    Thanks for proving my point for me Sen. You have quoted: P.S. — I wish to call your attention to certain things in “Principles of Baha’i Administration” which has just reached the Guardian; although the material is good, he feels that the complete lack of quotation marks is very misleading. His own words, the words of his various secretaries, even the Words of Baha’u’llah Himself, are all lumped together as one text. This is not only not reverent in the case of Baha’u’llah’s Words, but misleading. Although the secretaries of the Guardian convey his thoughts and instructions and these messages are authoritative, their words are in no sense the same as his, their style certainly not the same, and their authority less, for they use their own terms and not his exact words in conveying his messages. He feels that in any future edition this fault should be remedied, any quotations from Baha’u’llah or the Master plainly attributed to them, and the words of the Guardian clearly differentiated from those of his secretaries.
    (The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 260)

    What about bold lettering: “the secretaries of the Guardian convey his thoughts and instructions and these messages are authoritative.” Of course the secretaries use their own terms and not his exact words! Nonetheless, he states that they convey his thoughts and instructions and are authoritative (possessing recognized or evident authority: clearly accurate or knowledgeable). In addition, in the link I included you have also chosen to ignore another important statement which I suggest you put in bold lettering also: In a postscript appended to a letter dated 7 December 1930, written on his behalf to an individual believer, Shoghi Effendi described the normal procedure he followed in dealing with correspondence written on his behalf:

    I wish to add and say that whatever letters are sent in my behalf from Haifa are all read and approved by me before mailing. There is no exception whatever to this rule.

    So what do we have? Despite the fact that the secretaries “convey his thoughts and instructions and these messages are authoritative” and are “all read and approved” the Guardian you choose to ignore this and argue that they are open to critique. In the link I provided it is also stated: “The Universal House of Justice has asked that we provide the following comments to be conveyed to him.

    With regard to your questions about the authority of letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, particularly those sent from the Holy Land during the latter part of his ministry, there is no justification for summarily dismissing the authoritative guidance contained in this body of correspondence. If concerns arise in relation to specific messages or topics addressed, clarification can be sought from the Universal House of Justice.”

    In Copper to Gold? you ignore the Guardian’s interpretation conveyed in his secretary’s letter and substitute a metaphorical one: “Considering that a century ago, nobody knew the nature of matter, and couldn’t split any kind of an atom, it should not surprise the scientist that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá states that copper can be transmuted into gold.

    “There may come a time, for all we know, when the mass of many atoms can be changed by scientists. We have no way of proving or disproving at present the statement of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Just because we cannot demonstrate a contention in the Bahá’í Teachings does not mean the contention is not true.

    “The same holds true of the statement of Bahá’u’lláh in the Íqán, regarding transmutation of copper into gold after seventy years, under certain conditions”.

    This is why I quoted from other passages in which Baha’u’llah clearly refers to “density, form, and substance of each and every other mineral” and “constituent elements of any of the minute and indivisible particles of matter”. Your Copper to Gold? essay is a clear example of your assertion that the letters written on behalf of the Guardian by his secretaries have no authority and that they are “are open to critique.” You asked for an example yet you have provided one in your response to me as well as in numerous other essays which challenge the Guardian’s authoritative interpretation.

  13. Sam said

    Dear Sen, The difficulty is that going your long expose’ my only conclusion is that it exactly says what you say it does not say! Your screed (albeit through clever juxtapositioning of words) is intended to mean only one thing, “that the elucidations of the UHJ are irrelevant”.

    You say “…there is a genuine problem here. We have no Guardian, so the Bahai community has no living authority who can tell us what the Bahai teachings are, or say what is not a Bahai teaching,”

    Has it ever occurred to you that whatever that needs authorized interpretation by AbdulBaha and the Guardian has been interpreted. The House of Justice needs no more interpretations to guide its legislative process. They have everything that they need to have, the Holy Text and the body of the authorized interpretations that is need to go with it as far as the legislative process is concerned.

    So, we really have no problem here. Anything that has not been interpreted can be interpreted by anyone as long as it is not taken to be authoritative. If you like to interpret a verse as you have been doing with respect to Copper to Gold you are free to do! I read your interpretation I accept if it makes sense to to and won’t accept it if I doesn’t.

    As as to ” Bahai community has no living authority what the Bahai teachings are, or say what is not a Bahai teaching”, they are what they are you and I have different understanding of them. But one thing is for sure and uncompromising and that that we all are supposed to obey the House of Justice and other Bahai institutions.

  14. Sen said

    I agree with many of your points Sam, but don’t follow how you have strung them together. Yes, we are supposed to obey the House of Justice and the National and Local Assemblies. So we have unity in action. That is not the subject of this posting, so it doesn’t contribute much. Yes, anyone can interpret as long as they do not claim any authority for their interpretations. For that reason, individual interpretation is not a substitute for the interpretations of Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, so we still have our problem. Yes, the House of Justice has everything it needs – but it was never the House of Justice that proposed either the consensus of the faithful or a body of scholars to fill the gap of the guardianship : these ideas have come spontaneously from Bahais on internet fora (whom I did not quote because there is no need to embarrass them) and from some Bahai authors. We are so used to the rather Protestant idea that a religious community is defined by agreement on doctrines, that a community without a living doctrinal centre is unsettling. Periodic critical examination will be the best barrier against the unthinking assumption that the scholars, or the opinions of the mass of the faithful, or the elucidations of the House of Justice, can continue the function of authoritative interpretation.

    The elucidations of the House of Justice are not irrelevant to Bahai life, but neither are they relevant to this posting, as they are not authoritative interpretations and do not claim to be authoritative interpretations. They are intended to achieve the necessary degree of unity in action, not to create unity of doctrine.

  15. Hooshang S. Afshar said

    Can you give an example of disunity of doctrine in the Faith?

  16. Sen said

    One striking example is the separation of church and state, where different Bahai authors have expressed widely divergent views, some saying that the Assemblies are destined to become local and national governments, and others that this can never happen. While this difference in understanding goes back to the time of Abdu’l-Baha, and the time of Shoghi Effendi (he was one of those saying that this can never happen), yet it does show how the absence of an authorized interpreter tends to foster appeals to the consensus of the faithful or the work of respected scholars as a sort of substitute for an authoritative voice. In Shoghi Effendi’s time, nobody appealed to “our shared understandings” as a guide to how this teaching should be understood.

    There’s a few interesting things about this example: first, differences of opinion and understanding of the Bahai teachings do not lead to disunity — it is simply that we cannot always agree on what the Bahai teachings are. Second, there’s a time factor involved since the community’s understanding of many things is changing: in the western Bahai communities one could point to reincarnation and Peace by the year 2000 as historical examples where at one time there were widely different views, and today both ideas have been abandoned. So while at any one time there will be some points of the Bahai teachings that are disputed within a particular community, that difference between individuals can often be seen as part of the evolution of the community. Some people are early adopters of a better understanding, and some are late adopters. Third, Bahai communities that use different languages may foster different understandings. I am fairly sure that no Persian communities had significant numbers of people believing in reincarnation, or peace by the year 2000, or the Assemblies becoming governments and ruling the world.

    ======

    Postscript: as regards my comment that Shoghi Effendi was one of those saying that the assemblies can never become governments, consider the following, no doubt incomplete, sampling of his words:

    Shoghi Effendi wrote:

    I can do no better than quote some of Baha’u’llah’s Own testimonies, leaving the reader to shape his own judgment as to the falsity of such a deduction. In His Epistle to the Son of the Wolf He indicates the true source of kingship: “Regard for the rank of sovereigns is divinely ordained, as is clearly attested by the words of the Prophets of God and His chosen ones. He Who is the Spirit [Jesus] — may peace be upon Him — 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.‘
    (The Promised Day is Come, p. 72)

    “Theirs is not the purpose, while endeavoring to conduct and perfect the administrative affairs of their Faith, to violate, under any circumstances, the provisions of their country’s constitution, much less to allow the machinery of their administration to supersede the government of their respective countries.”
    (The World Order of Baha’u’llah 66.)

    “…t all matters without any exception whatsoever, regarding the interests of the Cause in that locality … should be referred exclusively to the Spiritual Assembly … unless it be a matter of national interest, in which case it shall be referred to the national body. … By national affairs is not meant matters that are political in their character, for the friends of God the world over are strictly forbidden to meddle with political affairs in any way whatever, but rather things that affect the spiritual activities of the body of the friends in that land.” (Unfolding Destiny 8)

    “The Faith which this order serves, safeguards and promotes is … essentially supernatural, supranational, entirely non-political, non-partisan, and diametrically opposed to any policy or school of thought that seeks to exalt any particular race, class or nation.” (Shoghi Effendi, statement to a UN committee, cited in the Preface to The Promised Day is Come, page vi)

    I would warn [the Bahais] to be on their guard lest the impression be given to the outside world that the Baha’is are political in their aims and pursuits or interfere in matters that pertain to the political activities of their respective governments. The Cause, still in its state of infancy, should be adequately protected from this particular danger….
    (13 November 1931 to an individual believer, cited in The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 420)

    “The Guardian does not think any part of this statement of his is suitable for publication in the Press. The less ‘politics’ is associated in any way with the name Baha’i, the better. It should always be made clear that we are a religious non-political community working for humanitarian ends.”
    (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Teaching Committee for Central America, July 3, 1948)

    …in the slow and hidden process of secularisation invading many a Government department under the courageous guidance of the Governors of outlying provinces — in all of these a discerning eye can easily discover the symptoms that augur well for a future that is sure to witness the formal and complete separation of Church and State.
    (The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, 76)

    Baha’u’llah, Who Himself was an active figure in those days and was regarded one of the leading exponents of the Faith of the Bab, states clearly His views in the Iqan that His conception of the sovereignty of the Promised Qa’im was purely a spiritual one, and not a material or political one…
    (The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, 425)

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

  17. Roland said

    Hooshang, the House of Justice has elucidated this subject of church and state. Contrary to Sen’s assertion, there is no doctrinal disunity here as the issue requires careful analysis such as that provided by the House in its elucidation a letter dated 27 April 1995: https://bahai-library.com/uhj_guardianship_uhj_infallibility As you will note, Sen’s representation of Shoghi Effendi views as “one of those saying this can never happen” is not correct when evaluated in the proper context: “A careful reading of the letter dated 6 December 1928 in which the Guardian’s comment about the separation of Church and State occurs would suggest that, rather than enunciating a general principle, Shoghi Effendi is simply reviewing “the quickening forces of internal reform” that had “recently transpired throughout the Near and Middle East”, and enumerating a number of factors that impinge on the development of the Faith in those parts of the world.”

    As for doctrinal unity, the House of Justice has stated in a letter dated 5 March1965 in which it elucidated various aspects of the Guardianship, House of Justice and Covenant : “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.” The varying viewpoints and beliefs within different Bahaí communities over time which Sen cites is quite understandable. Cultural and other factors affect people’s beliefs and as long as no one tries to impose their beliefs as being authoritative they are entitled to them but this does not in any respect undermine the fundamental unity of doctrine provided by the Master and Guardian.

    I agree with Sam that this essay is based in part on Sen’s belief that “…there is a genuine problem here. We have no Guardian, so the Bahai community has no living authority who can tell us what the Bahai teachings are, or say what is not a Bahai teaching,” does try to make the House of Justice’s elucidations irrelevant.” His attempt does not achieve its goal. In a letter dated 7 December 1969 the House elucidated the implications of there being no living Guardian. The letter includes this statement:
    “Future Guardians are clearly envisaged and referred to in the Writings, but there is nowhere any promise or guarantee that the line of Guardians would endure forever; on the contrary there are clear indications that the line could be broken. Yet, in spite of this, there is a repeated insistence in the Writings on the indestructibility of the Covenant and the immutability of God’s Purpose for this Day.

    One of the most striking passages which envisage the possibility of such a break in the line of Guardians is in the Kitab-i-Aqdas itself:

    The endowments dedicated to charity revert to God, the Revealer of Signs. No one has the right to lay hold on them without leave from the Dawning-Place of Revelation. After Him the decision rests with the Aghsan (Branches), and after them with the House of Justice – should it be established in the world by then – so that they may use these endowments for the benefit of the Sites exalted in this Cause, and for that which they have been commanded by God, the Almighty, the All-Powerful. Otherwise the endowments should be referred to the people of Baha, who speak not without His leave and who pass no judgment but in accordance with that which God has ordained in this Tablet, they who are the champions of victory betwixt heaven and earth, so that they may spend them on that which has been decreed in the Holy Book by God, the Mighty, the Bountiful.

    The passing of Shoghi Effendi in 1957 precipitated the very situation provided for in this passage, in that the line of Aghsan ended before the House of Justice had been elected. Although, as is seen, the ending of the line of Aghsan at some stage was provided for, we must never underestimate the grievous loss that the Faith has suffered. God’s purpose for mankind remains unchanged, however, and the mighty Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh remains impregnable. Has not Bahá’u’lláh stated categorically, “The Hand of Omnipotence hath established His Revelation upon an unassailable, an enduring foundation.” While ‘Abdu’l-Bahá confirms: “Verily, God effecteth that which He pleaseth; naught can annul His Covenant; naught can obstruct His favor nor oppose His Cause!” “Everything is subject to corruption; but the Covenant of thy Lord shall continue to pervade all regions.” https://bahai-library.com/uhj_guardianship_uhj_infallibility

  18. Adam said

    Sam has hit the nail on the head as this is exactly what I was thinking re this (and other) essays and your answers to comments such as Hooshang’s : You state “…there is a genuine problem here. We have no Guardian, so the Bahai community has no living authority who can tell us what the Bahai teachings are, or say what is not a Bahai teaching”. But as per Sam’s rejoinder: “we really have no problem here”.
    You can push the rock of church and state, doctrinal disunity, etc. etc. ad nauseam up the hill like Sisyphus with your sophistry Sen but the Baha’i world has moved onward and upward for five decades now as the House has elucidated all of the issues you find fault with and whatever you write is not going to make the slightest difference. You are free to continue pushing the rock uphill but it will always come back down.

  19. James B said

    This article is a complete waste of time as are your answers in the comments section. Do you really think that with your long history of opposition to the Covenant and insistent pushing of your agenda re separation of church and state et al issues that we are all not well aware that your assertions are completely erroneous? There is no problem as Sam rightly states. The problem is that you need to stop insisting that your views are more authoritative than the interpretations of the Guardian and the elucidations of the House of Justice.

  20. Thanks for the examples, Sen. It seems that people tend to retroactively project whatever consensus there is today as having always been the case. If Baha’is don’t believe in reincarnation today, then they think no Baha’i would have ever believed in it and so on with each every example of any doctrine that Baha’is don’t believe in and thus think no Baha’i ever would have believed in it.

    The Baha’i Faith is an Abrahamic religion like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and a West Asian religion like Zoroastrianism. There is a great diversity of opinions on stuff within Hinduism and Buddhism, Dharmic religions, so it would be impossible to speak of a comsensus of believers in those religions.

    Speaking of science and religion, people tend to see superstition in the teaching of other religions that contradict one’s own. Take for instance, reincarnation. Regardless of what one thinks of whether or not Krishna or Buddha taught it or not or whether or not Hindus and Buddhists are correct for believing it, reincarnation research is an inconclusive field with more evidence leaning towards affirmation than rejection in the field. Despite this, articles written Baha’is on various blogs an stuff make the assumption that of course reincarnation is a superstition despite no science behind the assertion.

  21. Hooshang S. Afshar said

    The question incarnation is comprehensively explained in Some Answered Questions.

  22. Sen said

    Thanks to Sam and Adam who said “we really have no problem here.” I have amended the initial posting to read “it must be acknowledged that there is a genuine problem here, alluded to in the House of Justice’s letter in the words “in place of the Guardian’s function of authoritative interpretation.”

    If there was no problem, the House of Justice would not have responded to it. But there is a problem. Because of the lack of a living doctrinal authority in the community today, those Bahais who think that a religious community needs doctrinal uniformity are tempted to create an ersatz authority, such as the opinions of scholars, or consensual understandings. The problem will probably not change its contours, so when we notice that appeals to consensus become more common, the UHJ’s 1992 letter can be reexamined and discussed to reaffirm that the consensus in the community has no standing as regards understanding the Bahai teachings, although a practical consensus about what needs to be done can make our actions more effective.

  23. Just because a religion’s stance on an issue is extensively explained it doesn’t make it a scientific proof for or against anything. The standard of materialism is science without religion and the standard for superstition is religion without science. An argument for or against something without consulting science, but only of the basis of it contradicts a different religion, isn’t the standard for superstion. Any example of social media interactions between people of different religions gives such examples of this line of thinking. Follower of a religion will tend to overlook the flaws of an argument and imagine it as having more strength than it does if it comes from a religious personage/figure of their religion, a religious text of their tradition, or a philosophical aspect of their belief system. Obviously, these things are only really convincing to people already who believe in the religion as they are looking at the source of the argument rather than the actual merit of the argument itself.

    It’s absurd when you think of it. It’s like saying (insert religious teaching of any religion here) is superstion, but when asked about the science disproving it, you instead direct people to a religous argument from a different religion on the falsehood of (inserted religious teaching of any religion here). Arguing with people of various religions on social media has shown me the fallacies commonly used by people of various religions in using the arguments of their religions to “disprove” the beliefs and practices of other religions,

  24. Sen said

    It appears your comment was relating to “copper to gold” rather than “the consensus of the faithful.”

  25. Comment 22 is from comment 20 and comment 19 is from one of the earlier comments in the comments section meintioning superstion. I wasn’t reading the copper to good article or comment section when writing either comment. Mostly comment 5 dealt with superstion of the comments that dealt with it, but maybe one or two more did touch on the topic, now that I scrolled up to retread all 23 comments before typing this one.

  26. Sen said

    My apologies for the delay in posting your comment: it was in the spam folder.

    Among the statements of Shoghi Effendi refuting the theocratic ideas of some early American Bahais are these:

    No wonder that Bahá’u’lláh, in view of the treatment meted out to Him by the sovereigns of the earth, should, as already quoted, have written these words: “From two ranks amongst men power hath been seized: kings and ecclesiastics.” Indeed, He even goes further, and states in His Tablet addressed to Shaykh Salman: “One of the signs of the maturity of the world is that no one will accept to bear the weight of kingship. Kingship will remain with none willing to bear alone its weight. … .”
    Let none, however, mistake or unwittingly misrepresent the purpose of Baha’u’llah. … His teachings embody no principle that can, in any way, be construed as a repudiation, or even a disparagement, however veiled, of the institution of kingship. … Indeed if we delve into the writings of the Author of the Baha’i Faith, we cannot fail to discover unnumbered passages in which, in terms that none can misrepresent, the principle of kingship is eulogized, the rank and conduct of just and fair-minded kings is extolled, the rise of monarchs, ruling with justice and even professing His Faith, is envisaged, and the solemn duty to arise and ensure the triumph of Baha’i sovereigns is inculcated. To conclude from the above quoted words …. that His followers either advocate or anticipate the definite extinction of the institution of kingship, would indeed be tantamount to a distortion of His teaching.

    I can do no better than quote some of Baha’u’llah’s Own testimonies, leaving the reader to shape his own judgment as to the falsity of such a deduction. In His Epistle to the Son of the Wolf He indicates the true source of kingship: “Regard for the rank of sovereigns is divinely ordained, as is clearly attested by the words of the Prophets of God and His chosen ones. He Who is the Spirit [Jesus] — may peace be upon Him — 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.‘
    (Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day is Come, p. 72)

    … this process of disintegration, associated with the declining fortunes of a superannuated, though divinely revealed Law, … has, more recently, been responsible for the dissociation of the System envisaged in the Kitab-i-Aqdas from the Sunni ecclesiastical Law in Egypt, has paved the way for the recognition of that System in the Holy Land itself, and is destined to culminate in the secularization of the Muslim states, and in the universal recognition of the Law of Baha’u’llah by all the nations, and its enthronement in the hearts of all the peoples, of the Muslim world.
    (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 33)

    …in the slow and hidden process of secularisation invading many a Government department under the courageous guidance of the Governors of outlying provinces — in all of these a discerning eye can easily discover the symptoms that augur well for a future that is sure to witness the formal and complete separation of Church and State.
    (Shoghi Effendi, The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, 76)

    “…The unity of the human race, as envisaged by Baha’u’llah, implies the establishment of a world commonwealth in which all nations, races, creeds and classes are closely and permanently united, and in which the autonomy of its state members and the personal freedom and initiative of the individuals that compose them are definitely and completely safeguarded. This commonwealth must, as far as we can visualize it, consist of a world legislature, whose members will, as the trustees of the whole of mankind, ultimately control the entire resources of all the component nations, and will enact such laws as shall be required to regulate the life, satisfy the needs and adjust the relationships of all races and peoples. A world executive, backed by an international Force, will carry out the decisions arrived at, and apply the laws enacted by, this world legislature, and will safeguard the organic unity of the whole commonwealth. A world tribunal will adjudicate and deliver its compulsory and final verdict in all and any disputes that may arise between the various elements constituting this universal system.
    … A world federal system, ruling the whole earth and exercising unchallengeable authority over its unimaginably vast resources, blending and embodying the ideals of both the East and the West … a system in which Force is made the servant of Justice, whose life is sustained by its universal recognition of one God and by its allegiance to one common Revelation ? such is the goal towards which humanity, impelled by the unifying forces of life, is moving.”
    (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, 202-4)

    The establishment of a constitutional form of government, in which the ideals
    of republicanism and the majesty of kingship, characterized by Him as “one of the signs of God,” are combined, He recommends as a meritorious achievement ….
    God Passes By, 218-219

    “Theirs is not the purpose, while endeavoring to conduct and perfect the administrative affairs of their Faith, to violate, under any circumstances, the provisions of their country’s constitution, much less to allow the machinery of their administration to supersede the government of their respective countries.”
    (Shoghi Effendi, in The World Order of Baha’u’llah 66.)

    “Not only with regard to publication, but all matters without any exception whatsoever, regarding the interests of the Cause in that locality … should be referred exclusively to the Spiritual Assembly … unless it be a matter of national interest, in which case it shall be referred to the national body. … By national affairs is not meant matters that are political in their character, for the friends of God the world over are strictly forbidden to meddle with political affairs in any way whatever, but rather things that affect the spiritual activities of the body of the friends in that land.” (Shoghi Effendi, in Unfolding Destiny 8)

    “The Faith which this order serves, safeguards and promotes is … essentially supernatural, supranational, entirely non-political, non-partisan, and diametrically opposed to any policy or school of thought that seeks to exalt any particular race, class or nation.” (Shoghi Effendi, statement to a UN committee, cited in the Preface to The Promised Day is Come, page vi)

    “…the World Council, to be designated as the Universal House of Justice, which in conjunction with me, as its appointed Head and authorized interpreter of the Baha’i teachings, must coordinate and direct the affairs of the Baha’i community,
    (Summary Statement – 1947, to the Special UN Committee on Palestine)

    I would warn [the Bahais] to be on their guard lest the impression be given to the outside world that the Baha’is are political in their aims and pursuits or interfere in matters that pertain to the political activities of their respective governments. The Cause, still in its state of infancy, should be adequately protected from this particular danger….
    (13 November 1931 to an individual believer, cited in The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 420)

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

    “… the Assembly is a nascent House of Justice and is supposed to administer, according to the Teachings, the affairs of the Community.” (Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian, p. 41)

    “We must build up our Bahá’í system, and leave the faulty systems of the world to go their own way. We cannot change them through becoming involved in them, on the contrary they will destroy us.

    “The Guardian does not think any part of this statement of his is suitable for publication in the Press. The less ‘politics’ is associated in any way with the name Baha’i, the better. It should always be made clear that we are a religious non-political community working for humanitarian ends.”
    (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Teaching Committee for Central America, July 3, 1948)

    Mulla Husayn pleaded with the Prince, and the formal assurance he gave him, disclaiming, in no uncertain terms, any intention on his part or that of his fellow-disciples of usurping the authority of the Shah
    (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 39)

    … a similar categorical repudiation, on the part of the Babis, of any intention of interfering with the civil jurisdiction of the realm, or of undermining the legitimate authority of its sovereign.
    (Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, 43)

    Baha’u’llah, Who Himself was an active figure in those days and was regarded one of the leading exponents of the Faith of the Bab, states clearly His views in the Iqan that His conception of the sovereignty of the Promised Qa’im was purely a spiritual one, and not a material or political one…
    (Shoghi Effendi, The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, 425)

    And we can add to these his translations of Baha’u’llah’s rejection of theocratic ideas. If, as some have suggested, Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha taught the separation of church and state but Shoghi Effendi was a theocratist, he could simply have selected different things to translate. But he chose these: things that contradicted the theocratic ideas of Holley and others:

    The one true God, exalted be His glory, hath ever regarded, and will continue to regard, the hearts of men as His own, His exclusive possession. All else, whether pertaining to land or sea, whether riches or glory, He hath bequeathed unto the Kings and rulers of the earth. From the beginning that hath no beginning the ensign proclaiming the words “He doeth whatsoever He willeth” hath been unfurled in all its splendor before His Manifestation. What mankind needeth in this day is obedience unto them that are in authority, and a faithful adherence to the cord of wisdom. The instruments which are essential to the immediate protection, the security and assurance of the human race have been entrusted to the hands, and lie in the grasp, of the governors of human society. This is the wish of God and His decree…. .” (Gleanings, CII 206-7)

    Every nation must have a high regard for the position of its sovereign, must be submissive unto him, must carry out his behests, and hold fast his authority. The sovereigns of the earth have been and are the manifestations of the power, the grandeur and the majesty of God. This Wronged One hath at no time dealt deceitfully with anyone. Every one is well aware of this, and beareth witness unto it. Regard for the rank of sovereigns is divinely ordained, as is clearly attested by the words of the Prophets of God and His chosen ones. He Who is the Spirit (Jesus) — may peace be upon Him — 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 it. And likewise in the sacred verse: “Obey God and obey the Apostle, and those among you invested with authority.” By “those invested with authority” is meant primarily and more especially the Imams — the blessings of God rest upon them! They, verily, are the manifestations of the power of God, and the sources of His authority, and the repositories of His knowledge, and the daysprings of His commandments. Secondarily these words refer unto the kings and rulers — those through the brightness of whose justice the horizons of the world are resplendent and luminous. We fain would hope that His Majesty the Shah will shine forth with a light of justice whose radiance will envelop all the kindreds of the earth. It is incumbent upon every one to beseech the one true God on his behalf for that which is meet and seemly in this day.
    (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 89)

    Know thou that We have annulled the rule of the sword, as an aid to Our Cause, and substituted for it the power born of the utterance of men. Thus have We irrevocably decreed, by virtue of Our grace. Say: O people! Sow not the seeds of discord among men, and refrain from contending with your neighbor, for 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. To this He Who is Himself the Eternal Truth will testify. 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, 303)

    In the Epistle to the Romans Saint Paul hath written: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God.” And further: “For he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.” He saith that the appearance of the kings, and their majesty and power are of God.
    (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, 91)

    … God, …hath ever regarded, and will continue to regard, the hearts of men as His own, His exclusive possession. All else, whether pertaining to land or sea, whether riches or glory, He hath bequeathed unto the Kings and rulers of the earth. … The instruments which are essential to the immediate protection, the security and assurance of the human race have been entrusted to the hands, and lie in the grasp, of the governors of human society. This is the wish of God and His decree…. .” (Gleanings, CII 206-7)

    Dispute not with any one concerning the things of this world and its affairs, for God hath abandoned them to such as have set their affection upon them. Out of the whole world He hath chosen for Himself the hearts of men — hearts which the hosts of revelation and of utterance can subdue. Thus hath it been ordained by the Fingers of Baha, upon the Tablet of God’s irrevocable decree, by the behest of Him Who is the Supreme Ordainer, the All-Knowing.
    (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, 279)

    Forbear ye from concerning yourselves with the affairs of this world and all that pertaineth unto it, or from meddling with the activities of those who are its outward leaders. The one true God, exalted be His glory, hath bestowed the government of the earth upon the kings. To none is given the right to act in any manner that would run counter to the considered views of them who are in authority. That which He hath reserved for Himself are the cities of men’s hearts; and of these the loved ones of Him Who is the Sovereign Truth are, in this Day, as the keys. Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, 241

    He Who is the Day-star of Truth and Revealer of the Supreme Being holdeth, for all time, undisputed sovereignty over all that is in heaven and on earth, though no man be found on earth to obey Him. He verily is independent of all earthly dominion, though He be utterly destitute.
    (The Kitab-e Iqan, 93)

    Yea, the sovereignty attributed to the Qa’im and spoken of in the scriptures, is a reality, the truth of which none can doubt. This sovereignty, however, is not the sovereignty which the minds of men have falsely imagined.
    … by sovereignty is meant the all-encompassing, all-pervading power which is inherently exercised by the Qa’im whether or not He appear to the world clothed in the majesty of earthly dominion. … You will readily recognize that the terms sovereignty, wealth, life, death, judgment and resurrection, spoken of by the scriptures of old, are not what this generation hath conceived and vainly imagined. Nay, by sovereignty is meant that sovereignty which in every dispensation resideth within, and is exercised by, the person of the Manifestation, the Day-star of Truth. That sovereignty is the spiritual ascendancy which He exerciseth to the fullest degree over all that is in heaven and on earth, and which in due time revealeth itself to the world in direct proportion to its capacity and spiritual receptiveness, … (Kitab-e Iqan 106-8)

    … how many are the Sovereigns who bow the knee before His name! How numerous the nations and kingdoms who have sought the shelter of His shadow, who bear allegiance to His Faith, and pride themselves therein! … Such is His earthly sovereignty, the evidences of which thou dost on every side behold. This sovereignty must needs be revealed and established either in the lifetime of every Manifestation of God or after His ascension unto His true habitation in the realms above. … That spiritual ascendency, however, which is primarily intended, resideth within, and revolveth around Them from eternity even unto eternity. It can never for a moment be divorced from Them. Its dominion hath encompassed all that is in heaven and on earth. (Kitab-e Iqan 110-111)

    Our purpose in setting forth these truths hath been to demonstrate the sovereignty of Him Who is the King of kings. Be fair: Is this sovereignty which, through the utterance of one Word, hath manifested such pervading influence, ascendancy, and awful majesty, is this sovereignty superior, or is the worldly dominion of these kings of the earth who, despite their solicitude for their subjects and their help of the poor, are assured only of an outward and fleeting allegiance, while in the hearts of men they inspire neither affection nor respect? Hath not that sovereignty, through the potency of one word, subdued, quickened, and revitalized the whole world? What! Can the lowly dust compare with Him Who is the Lord of Lords? What tongue dare utter the immensity of difference that lieth between them? (Kitab-e Iqan 123-4)

    Were sovereignty to mean earthly sovereignty and worldly dominion, were it to imply the subjection and external allegiance of all the peoples and kindreds of the earth – whereby His loved ones should be exalted and be made to live in peace, and His enemies be abased and tormented – such form of sovereignty would not be true of God Himself, the Source of all dominion, Whose majesty and power all things testify. For, dost thou not witness how the generality of mankind is under the sway of His enemies? Have they not all turned away from the path of His good-pleasure? Have they not done that which He hath forbidden, and left undone, nay repudiated and opposed, those things which He hath commanded? Have not His friends ever been the victims of the tyranny of His foes? All these things are more obvious than even the splendour of the noon-tide sun (Kitab-e Iqan 125)

    Were the verse “And verily Our host shall conquer” to be literally interpreted, it is evident that it would in no wise be applicable to the chosen Ones of God and His hosts, inasmuch as Husayn, whose heroism was manifest as the sun, crushed and subjugated, quaffed at last the cup of martyrdom in Karbila …

    … the purpose of these verses is not what they have imagined. Nay, the terms “ascendancy,” “power,” and “authority” imply a totally different station and meaning. For instance, consider the pervading power of those drops of the blood of Husayn which besprinkled the earth. What ascendancy and influence hath the dust itself, through the sacredness and potency of that blood, exercised over the bodies and souls of men! So much so, that he who sought deliverance from his ills, was healed by touching the dust of that holy ground, and whosoever, wishing to protect his property, treasured with absolute faith and understanding, a little of that holy earth within his house, safeguarded all his possessions. These are the outward manifestations of its potency. … Furthermore, call to mind the shameful circumstances that have attended the martyrdom of Husayn. … And yet, behold how numerous, in this day, are those who from the uttermost corners of the earth don the garb of pilgrimage, seeking the site of his martyrdom, that there they may lay their heads upon the threshold of his shrine! Such is the ascendancy and power of God! Such is the glory of His dominion and majesty! (Kitab-e Iqan 126-9)

    We, of a certainty, have had no purpose in this earthly realm save to make God manifest and to reveal His sovereignty; sufficient unto Me is God for a witness.
    (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 82)

    Thereupon Jesus lifted up His head and said: “Beholdest thou not the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power and might?” These were His words, and yet consider how to outward seeming He was devoid of all power except that inner power which was of God and which had encompassed all that is in heaven and on earth.
    (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 132)

    Certain of the Jews, standing by, protested saying: “Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” And immediately He perceived their thoughts, Jesus answering said unto them: “Whether is it easier to say to the sick of the palsy, arise, and take up thy bed, and walk; or to say, thy sins are forgiven thee? that ye may know that the Son of Man hath power on earth to forgive sins.”[1] This is the real sovereignty, and such is the power of God’s chosen Ones! All these things which We have repeatedly mentioned, and the details which We have cited from divers sources, have no other purpose but to enable thee to grasp the meaning of the allusions in the utterances of the chosen Ones of God,
    (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Iqan, p. 132)

    Amongst mankind are some who say this servant desireth the world for himself … Doth he who regardeth not his life (as assured) for less than a moment, desire the world? … They shall be questioned as to that which they have said; on that day they shall not find for themselves any protector nor any helper. (Tablet to Nasir-e Din Shah, tr. Shoghi Effendi, published in The Baha’i World, Vol. 4, 1930-1932, 103)

    For more on the allegation that Shoghi Effendi harboured theocratic ideas, see “Defending Shoghi Effendi” on this blog.

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