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Abdu’l-Baha’s tablet of civil obedience

Posted by Sen on August 2, 2017

Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet of Civil Obedience was translated by Shoghi Effendi, and is posted here because it is not otherwise available online. It refers to Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 13:1-2:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except by God’s appointment, and the authorities that exist have been instituted by God. So the person who resists such authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will incur judgment.

There’s a similar verse in Paul’s letter to Titus (3:1):

Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work,…

There is no verse like this in the two Epistles of Peter. It appears that Abdu’l-Baha misspoke in this tablet, where he attributes the verse to the Apostle “Petrus”, i.e., Peter.

The letter appears to have been written to a Persian Bahai, and was translated by Shoghi Effendi for publication in Star of the West, Vol. 14, no. 8, (November 1923) p. 245. The original is available online in the compilation Amr wa khalq, vol. 4 p. 441.

In the first line, the Persian contains no word for ‘every,’ and the reader would naturally think that it was speaking in the first place of the Qajar Shah. Shoghi Effendi has universalized this, which is an interpretive translation but perfectly correct, since the principle of obedience to civil governments does apply to any government. Because of Shoghi Effendi’s translation choice, the reference to “the Chief and Ruler of Persia” in the last paragraph comes as a surprise to a reader of the English, whereas a reader of the Persian text would understand that the Shah was implied all along.

Abdu’l-Baha’s argument is that Paul’s brief dictum “the authorities that exist have been instituted by God” has given legitimacy to the thrones of Christendom for centuries. Baha’u’llah has urged “allegiance and loyalty to Kings” many times and explicitly, so the effect of his words in centuries to come will give even greater legitimacy to the government of Iran.

It is not clear to me why Shoghi Effendi would have chosen it for translation and publication in 1923: were there English-speaking Bahais at the time who questioned the Qajar legitimacy, or the legitimacy of civil government in general, or were the Bahais being accused at that time of intending that their institutions should one day replace civil governments? Shoghi Effendi could not have been responding to Iranian politics: in 1923, Iran had no Shah, effectively, since Ahmad Shah was powerless after the coup of February, 1921, and went into exile in 1923, while Reza Khan — who led the coup — did not become the first Pahlavi Shah until October 1925.

O thou servant of the Sacred Threshold!

The stability of every throne and the security of the seat of every sovereign are dependent upon the grace of God and are based upon the power of Divine assistance. All the Chiefs and Rulers of the West, Emperors and Kings, that they may establish firmly their rule and dominion over their peoples, proclaim and hold fast unto this saying of Peter, the Apostle: “In truth, all authority is of God,” that is to say every sovereignty is established and exercised in accordance with the Divine Purpose. By this means, they assure the sanctity of their throne and proclaim the sacredness of their sovereignty.

And now, consider and reflect! How often are rulers and governments praised and extolled in the Holy Writ of Baha’u’llah and how frequently allegiance and loyalty to Kings and Monarchs are enjoined upon every one! Ponder in your hearts and realize what the result will be in [the] future!

Gracious God! They that are in authority are as yet unaware of this most great bounty bestowed upon them and know not what a rich blessing the Lord hath vouchsafed unto the rulers and governors of the world.

At this hour, in the uttermost parts of the earth, even in the continent of America, peoples are praying on behalf of the Chief and Ruler of Persia and praise and glorify his name. Ere long, ye shall see how the government of Baha’u’llah’s native land will have become the most advanced country in all the regions of the world.

This indeed is supreme bounty and a warning unto every beholder!

(Signed) ‘Abdu’l-Baha ‘Abbas.
Translated by Shoghi Effendi.

Updated November 2017: added “There is no verse like this in the two Epistles of Peter….” My thanks to Jack McLean for pointing out the mistake.

Related content:
Pray for good government
Eleven essentials: the Bahai principles as taught by Abdu’l-Baha in London
Defending Shoghi Effendi
Church and State in Scripture
The practicalities of monarchy

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21 Responses to “Abdu’l-Baha’s tablet of civil obedience”

  1. Faruq said

    I guess, from the very beginning of this Faith in Iran, there were some thoughts among the political people to gain the support of the Baha’is for any raise against the ruling government. For instance, Zill’u’s-Sultan sent Haji Sayyah to Baha’u’llah to make Him urge the Baha’is support him. Although Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha repeatedly and specifically announced that we, the Baha’is, cannot interfere in any political affairs, the accusation against us continued. I well remember when we were in jail in 1984, one of the interrogators shouted at a Baha’i prisoner that, “We won’t let you make Iran another Lebanon!” The Baha’i prisoner was dumbfounded what that man was saying. I myself had to answer this question, “How will you fulfill the World Baha’i State?” How could I explain for the interrogator it would be a natural stage of the developments around the world? Therefore, I think the people, from the very beginning of this religion, upon their own experiences or studies of the history, thought the Baha’is would try, with arms, to have sovereignty over one country after another one to create eventually the World Baha’i State. The Guardian had to show the world our principles about non-political nature of the Faith and our focus on spiritual conquer of the world.

  2. Rudolf Suter said

    To me this tablet is further proof to the falsification , if I assume that Gods existence ist true that his elevation was usurped by evil parts within the nearest surrounding of Baha’u’llah, how could God endorse the Holocaust impossible, this tablet at most gives witness to the non-existence of God. The Holocaust was ordered by the then representative authority the National Socialists. I do strongly doubt that you allow printing of this comment.

  3. Sen said

    There is also the Bahai duty of disobedience to government — under certain circumstances. Shoghi Effendi writes:

    “In matters, however, that vitally affect the integrity and honor of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh, and are tantamount to a recantation of their faith and repudiation of their innermost belief, they are convinced, and are unhesitatingly prepared to vindicate by their life-blood the sincerity of their conviction, that no power on earth, neither the arts of the most insidious adversary nor the bloody weapons of the most tyrannical oppressor, can ever succeed in extorting from them a word or deed that might tend to stifle the voice of their conscience or tarnish the purity of their faith.”
    (Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 162)

    The persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany was one of those situations in which the Bahais could not obey the government. In fact, there is a more general principle: “Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression.” (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 93)

    There is a difference between defending victims of oppression — concealing fugitive Jews or Gypsies for example — and seeking to overthrow the oppressive government, but it is a difference that authoritarian governments are unlikely to appreciate.

  4. Daniela Pinna said

    I don’ t think that Abdu’l Baha is asking for sheep-like obedience to just any Government. He is instead acknowledging the legitimacy and independence of lay rule vs clerical rule. In other words: Church and State. The Baha’is as a religious group (Church) have no business overthrowing lay rulers of whatever kind (State).

    The Master seems also to be worried by protection of the community, which Shia clerics were depicting as seditious.

    As to Baha’is and the Nazis, un fortunately Shoghi Effendi held quite uninformed ideas about Hitler, perhaps due to the influence of very conservative thinking in Oxbridge, where he was educated. History proved the Guardian was wrong, and led the German Baha’is onto the wrong side.

  5. Sen said

    I am not aware that “the German Bahais” as such supported “the wrong side.” I imagine the situation was rather like that of the US Bahais in recent months: diverse and polarised points of view. That is what one would expect in any community that cannot take a political stance as a community (because it is non-political), in a polarised environment.

  6. Daniela Pinna said

    Sorry Sen, I am in a hurry and have not the time to polish my phrasing as it would suit a sensitive discussion.
    I mean no offence to anyone. Many German Baha’is were appalled by Hitler, and they tried to warn the Guardian. But he praised Anschluss and said that Nazism was about spiritual re awakening, or words to that meaning.
    I read those words in a compilation of letters from the Guardian published in Italy, and enquired about it on Talisman.
    Then I learned I was not the only one to be upset, and I even received private letters with excerpts from dialogues between *very* concerned German Baha’is and Shoghi Effendi.

    But that is not necessarily related to your quote by Abdu’l Baha
    It was mostly official materials, that was perhaps considered ‘inoffensive’ when published, but was really embarrassing.

  7. Sen said

    I would love to see that material, both the published and unpublished letters. I have nothing like that in my database. From what you say, the German Bahais corresponding with Shoghi Effendi were anxious or definitely opposed to the Nazi regime?

  8. Daniela Pinna said

    Anxious, I would say. But I am speaking of materials I haven’t read in a decade. Most Baha’i stuff, including letters I printed , I stored in boxes in my family’ s house, and I don’t live there anymore. There might be traces of those conversations in the Talisman archives

  9. Daniela Pinna said
    11 February 1934

    Dear Baha’i Brother,

    I am charged by the Guardian to thank you for your letter of
    Jan. 30th as well as for the enclosed pamphlet containing the
    address delivered by Herr Hitler on Oct. 14th, 1933, on the
    subject of Germany’s attitude towards peace, all of which he read
    with deepest care and sustained interest. He wishes me to convey
    to you and to all the members of your German National Assembly
    and through them to all the followers of the Faith in Germany his
    views on the present conditions in that land, and particularly in
    their relation to the nature and scope of the Baha’i activities
    of our German believers.

    At the outset it should be made indubitably clear that the
    Baha’i Cause being essentially a religious movement of a
    spiritual character stands above every political party or group,
    and thus cannot and should not act in contravention to the
    principles, laws, and doctrines of any government. Obedience to
    the regulations and orders of the state is indeed, the sacred
    obligation of every true and loyal Baha’i. Both Baha’u’llah and
    Abdu’l-Baha have urged us all to be submissive and loyal to the
    political authorities of our respective countries. It follows,
    therefore, that our German friends are under the sacred
    obligation to whole-heartedly obey the existing political regime,
    whatever be their personal views and criticisms of its actual
    working. There is nothing more contrary to the spirit of the
    Cause than open rebellion against the governmental authorities of
    a country, specially if they do not interfere in and do not
    oppose the inner and sacred beliefs and religious convictions of
    the individual. And there is every reason to believe that the
    present regime in Germany which has thus far refused to trample
    upon the domain of individual conscience in all matters
    pertaining to religion will never encroach upon it in the near
    future, unless some unforeseen and unexpected changes take place.
    And this seems to be doubtful at present.

    For whereas the friends should obey the government under
    which they live, even at the risk of sacrificing all their
    administrative affairs and interests, they should under no
    circumstances suffer their inner religious beliefs and
    convictions to be violated and transgressed by any authority
    whatever. A distinction of a fundamental importance must,
    therefore, be made between spiritual and administrative matters.
    Whereas the former are sacred and inviolable, and hence cannot be
    subject to compromise, the latter are secondary and can
    consequently be given up and even sacrificed for the sake of
    obedience to the laws and regulations of the government.
    Obedience to the state is so vital a principle of the Cause that
    should the authorities in Germany decide to-day to prevent the
    Baha’is from holding any meeting or publishing any literature
    they should obey and be as submissive as our Russian believers
    have thus far been under the Soviet regime. But, as already
    pointed out, such an allegiance is confined merely to
    administrative matters which if checked can only retard the
    progress of the Faith for some time. In matters of belief,
    however, no compromise whatever should be allowed, even though
    the outcome of it be death or expulsion.

    There is one more point to be emphasized in this connection.
    The principle of obedience to government does not place any
    Baha’i under the obligation of identifying the teachings of his
    Faith with the political program enforced by the government. For
    such an identification, besides being erroneous and contrary to
    both the spirit as well as the form of the Baha’i message, would
    necessarily create a conflict within the conscience of every
    loyal believer.

    For reasons which are only too obvious the Baha’i philosophy
    of social and political organization cannot be fully reconciled
    with the political doctrines and conceptions that are current and
    much in vogue to-day. The wave of nationalism, so aggressive and
    so contagious in its effects, which has swept not only over
    Europe but over a large part of mankind is, indeed, the very
    negation of the gospel of peace and of brotherhood proclaimed by
    Baha’u’llah. The actual trend in the political world is, indeed,
    far from being in the direction of the Baha’i teachings. The
    world is drawing nearer and nearer to a universal catastrophe
    which will mark the end of a bankrupt and of a fundamentally
    defective civilization.

    From such considerations we can well conclude that we as
    Baha’is can in no wise identify the teachings of Baha’u’llah with
    man-made creeds and conceptions, which by their very nature are
    impotent to save the world from the dangers with which it is
    being so fiercely and so increasingly assailed. The Guardian
    hopes that these brief explanations will be sufficient to guide
    our German National Assembly in their efforts to safeguard and
    promote the interests of the Faith, and that through them they
    will be given a new vision of the Cause and a fresh determination
    to carry forward its message to the world at large.
    With greetings and best wishes to you and to all the friends
    in Germany,…

    [From the Guardian:]
    Dear and valued co-worker:
    I wish to add a few words in loving appreciation of your
    strenuous, your intelligent and devoted efforts for the spread
    and consolidation of our beloved Faith. May the Almighty bless
    your endeavours, deepen your understanding of the essentials and
    requirements of our beloved Cause, and enable you in these
    difficult and challenging days to promote its interests and
    consolidate its institutions,
    Your true brother, Shoghi

    (The Light of Divine Guidance, Vol. I, pp. 53-56

  10. Sen said

    Thanks, that’s the one letter I do have. I read it quite differently: there’s an introduction that will calm the intelligence services who would inevitably obtain a copy, and then the letter points out that the Bahai principle of obedience to government has its limits, it applies so long as the authorities “do not interfere in and do not oppose the inner and sacred beliefs and religious convictions of the individual,” because “… spiritual … matters… are sacred and inviolable, and hence cannot be subject to compromise,…”. The letter alerts the German Bahais to the possibility that their situation may worsen due to “unforeseen and unexpected changes” and the price they may pay is “death or expulsion.” But the changes are not unforseen: “The world is drawing nearer and nearer to a universal catastrophe which will mark the end of a bankrupt and of a fundamentally defective civilization.”

    Further, the letter says that “The principle of obedience to government does not place any Bahá’í under the obligation of identifying the teachings of his Faith with the political program enforced by the government.” This is what interested me, when you suggested that some German Bahais might have taken the wrong side. Was he perhaps reacting to some on the German Assembly who thought that obedience to government meant supporting the government’s programme? The letter says in effect that they *cannot* support the Nazi programme, for it was a form of nationalism (socialized nationalism ?), and the letter continues “The wave of nationalism, …is, indeed the very negation of the gospel of peace and of brotherhood proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh.”

  11. Daniela Pinna said

    I am not sure, Sen, but I will not insist, as I don’t have the time to look up stuff in my archives. There’s also an outrageous passage praising the annexation of Austria. That is also public. The private emails, of course I can’t share.

  12. Craig Volker said

    I also read the Guardian’s letter as a warning to obey the law and stay away from nationalist political agendas.

    Far from being “on the wrong side” of German history, the Baha’is ended up being a banned organisation. Several believers had literature seized while at least one family hid their Baha’i books by donating them to the Heidelberh University Library, where they got lost and forgotten in the stacks. A memorial to ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s visit was removed by authorities. While no one was executed or improsoned simply for being Baha’i, visits by Gestapo to one’s home were quite intimidating. This letter was a warning to what eventually did take place.

  13. Hasan said

    So, basically, Baha’is are canceled in front of governmental authorities. It seems too passive, remember many kings and emperors (for example the French ones) thought their authority comes from God, being so, they thought they can commit all types of atrocities and injustices. Is this OK in the sight of God? There are other writings that contradict this thinking.

  14. Sen said

    No, kings and other rulers are not authorized to commit injustice! In A Traveller’s Narrative Abdu’l-Baha writes :

    A just king is the shadow of God on earth. All should seek shelter under the shadow of his justice and rest in the shade of his favour. This is not a matter which is either specific or limited in its scope, that it might be restricted to one or other person; for the shadow tells of the one who casts it. God (glorious is His remembrance) has called himself the Lord of the worlds for he has nurtured and still nurtures all created things.

    The argument, starting at the end, is that God is Lord of all (no exceptions), the King is the shadow of God, the true shadow replicates the one who casts it, therefore the King must deal equally with all, no exceptions allowed. The “shadow of God” meme is used to set an impossibly high standard for the kings and rulers: they must be as just and merciful as Godself.

    However two other aspects of the thinking of the Bahai central figures are relevant: one is the separation of church and state, the other the horror of revolution and anarchy. The first means that no amount of bad government can justify religious leaders, including the Bahai institutions, entering into politics themselves. That is a “remedy” that is worse than the ailment. This does not prevent believers becoming involved, indeed in a democratic society political involvement is part of good citizenship and therefore a religious duty as well:

    Thou hast asked regarding the political affairs. In the United States it is necessary that the citizens shall take part in elections. This is a necessary matter and no excuse from it is possible. My object in telling the believers that they should not  343  interfere in the affairs of government is this: That they should not make any trouble and that they should not move against the opinion of the government, but obedience to the laws and the administration of the commonwealth is necessary. Now, as the government of America is a republican form of government, it is necessary that all the citizens shall take part in the elections of officers and take part in the affairs of the republic.
    (Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v2, p. 342)

    In an authenticated talk, Abdu’l-Baha says:

    Rewards and punishments are of two sorts. One is political rewards and punishments, and the other is divine rewards and punishments. It is certain that, if some souls are firmly persuaded of divine rewards and punishments, and they are under the constraints of political rewards and punishments as well, those persons are more perfect, for they will constrained and deterred from practising oppression. If both the fear of God and the fear of retribution are present, that is, if there is both spiritual and political deterrence, of course this is more perfect.
    Some government officials, who both fear the chastisement of the state and dread divine torment, naturally observe justice to a greater extent. In particular, those who fear eternal punishment and have hope of everlasting reward: such souls make the greatest possible efforts in thinking how to implement justice, and they are averse to oppression. For, for those who are firm believers, to commit tyranny is to be visited by divine punishment in the eternal world. Naturally, they will shun oppression and wrong-doing, especially as firm believers, if they dispense justice, will draw near to the threshold of grandeur, gain eternal life, enter into the Kingdom of God, and their faces will be illumined by the lights of divine grace and loving-kindness.Thus, if government officials are religious, naturally that is better, for they are the manifestations of the fear of God.

    My intent with these words is not that religion should have any business in politics. Religion has absolutely no jurisdiction or involvement in politics. For religion is related to spirits and the conscience
    while politics is related to the body. Therefore the leaders of religions should not be involved in political matters, but should devote themselves to rectifying the morals of the people. They admonish and excite the desire and appetite for piety. They sustain the morals of the community, they impart spiritual understandings to the souls, and teach the [religious] sciences, but never get involved in political matters.
    (my translation, Church and State, Appendix 3)

    The second aspect – the horror of revolution – means that in a non-democratic society, Bahais as individual subjects (and of course their institutions) will not seek to overthrow the government. But they will spread their principles and writings, which advocate democracy. Anti-democratic governments, racist governments, theocratic governments, and so on will naturally see the Bahais as an opposition force, because our teachings undermine such ideologies. But our stance must be that we want the governing powers to become their better selves, to see that their own best interests require them to relinquish any ideology that is contrary to the unity of humanity.

    Fortunately, democracy is gaining ground, generation by generation. The Bahai teachings are ideally suited for a pluralist democratic society.

  15. hasanelias said

    Thanks for your response. Do you know if there is a quote from the writings about individuals Bahais intervening in protests or publicy, of course in a no-partisan fashion? Some politicians in are so corrupt and cheeky.
    Thanks in advance.

  16. Sen said

    “In connection with the subject matter of Mr. Blackwell’s letter and your reference to it, the
    Guardian feels that, as he said in his letter to Mr. Blackwell, there was no objection at all to students
    taking part in something so obviously akin to the spirit of our teachings as a campus demonstration
    against race prejudice. The Bahá’ís did not inaugurate this protest, they merely were proud to have
    a voice as Bahá’ís in such a protest, took part, and he thinks they did quite right and violated no
    administrative principle.”
    (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the
    United States and Canada, November 18, 1948)

  17. Hasan said

    Sen, thanks for your comment but I am not referring to protests about principles like racial unity but to specific governmental policies like for example a protest against a pardon/amnesty the president granted to an ex-president who was genocide and dictator who destroyed the institutionality of a country, or protest against a policies that are shameless robberies dressed as law. Thanks in advance for quotes.

  18. Sen said

    In that case, I have no doubt that the protest is party-political in nature, and divisive. The medical board made its recommendation, the President acted on it in accordance with the law. Imputations about his motives are imputations: no-one can see into another person’s soul.
    I recommend keeping a clear head in turbulent times, and asking “where are the protests likely to lead?” It is not the indignation, but the outcome, that needs considering.

    A presidential or royal pardon clause raises the question of the separation of powers. Is the executive over-ruling the judiciary? Is justice not done? I support in principle a pardon clause in the constitution, where, as in Peru, it is based on non-judicial reasons (in Peru, terminal illness or mental degeneration). What the clause is saying is that justice is not everything, and is not absolute. Other considerations can in some cases outweigh the great good of seeing justice done so far as it can be. But in my opinion, where the reason is terminal illness, the outcome should be conditional release, not pardon. So far as I know, the law in Peru did not give the President power to grant conditional release to terminally ill prisoners, it is a pardon or nothing. It is of course a difference of words, since the prisoner leaves prison and dies in either case, but a pardon gives to me the sense that the crime has been erased, and that is something for the judiciary to decide, not the executive.

  19. Hasan said

    Thanks for your response, I also agree that it could be seen as a political protest, but my question remains: Do you know of any authoritative text which talks about protests in response to very unfair policies of the Government? Thanks in advance.

  20. Sen said

    I don’t know of any authoritative Bahai scripture that covers the practice of “protesting” in the sense of organized people marching in the street or gathering in a public place, or staging a sit-in. Protests in the time of Baha’u’llah were more along the lines of the shopkeepers shutting up shop, or prominent people taking refuge in a shrine.
    The word protest is also used for the letter an individual writes to the media, or to the person whose actions are protested. This is an essential part of achieving justice in society. In The Secret of Divine Civilization Abdu’l-Baha writes

    … “where the population is pious, proficient in
    reading and writing, and well-schooled, and a difficulty presents itself, they can in the first place complain to the local authorities. If they consider the ruling contrary to justice and equity, or if they see that the conduct of the authorities is incompatible with the Divine good pleasure and the king’s justice, they can themselves take their case to higher councils and describe the deviation of the local authorities from the straight path of the religious law. The higher councils could then request depositions from the place concerned. Such a people will undoubtedly be surrounded by the blessings of justice and equity.” (my translation)

    This is protest within defined boundaries, using means that a acceptable and ultimately increase the good order of the state and society. Of the other kind of protest, Abdu’l-Baha writes:

    “Be ye engaged in prayer that with the utmost good-pleasure the nation [may] obey the government, comply with the wise counsels of the attendants of the central dominion, give no heed to the hearsay of the agitators and rise not to quarrel with to protest against the government like unto the Russian Douma, so as to throw the whole empire, the nation and the kingdom into a sea of anarchy and lawlessness.”

    (Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v3, p. 493)

  21. Hasan said

    Thanks for the references, Sen.

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