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Sermons in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar (revised)

Posted by Sen on August 20, 2017

This posting, dedicated to Jackson Armstrong-Ingram, presents a short section for my next book: the chapter is on the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, which is both the Bahai House of Worship and a Bahai devotional meeting, wherever it may be held. The topic here is sermons. Because I’m writing for an academic book, there are [footnotes] at the end of the posting.

The Bab encouraged his followers to listen to sermons on Fridays. Denis MacEoin summarizes:

The formal sermon (khutba) is to be followed by impassioned preaching (maw`iza) and by mention of him whom God shall manifest. These Friday gatherings are to be held in the mosques which the Bab ordered constructed. The use of a pulpit is prohibited, this being replaced by a chair or, in a large gathering, a chair placed on a platform to enable all present to hear. [n. 1] By Wmpearl (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Baha’u’llah seems to have been silent on the topic. The same can be said of Abdu’l-Baha, except that he is quoted as saying:

Within the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar there will be an organ [n.2] and galleries, [n.3] and a preaching-chair (kursi khatabah) [n.4] especially for prayers and the service of worship, [n.5] but sermons (khatabat) may also be given there. [n.6]

A khatabat is “the act of preaching a sermon; eloquence, rhetoric” (Steingass). It is the word used in historical accounts for the ‘talks’ Ab gave during his travels: a sermon is simply a talk on a religious topic, especially in the context of a meeting or building for worship. [n.7] A kursi is a seat, chair or throne, but also a pedestal or pulpit. A kursi khatabat then must be a preaching-chair, and in Abdu’l-Baha’s vision (echoing that of the Bab) it is used in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar for giving sermons.

O far as I know, Abdu’l-Baha’s words during his stay in Chicago, November 3, 1912, as reported by Mahmud Zarqani and translated above, are the only definite statement that “sermons may also be given” in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar building. A single oral source must be counted as weak evidence.

The problem in finding evidence is not lack of mentions of sermons, but rather that in most cases it is not clear whether the meeting or building concerned was a Mashriqu’l-Adhkar in the mind of Abdu’l-Baha. For example, he writes:

Likewise the public meeting in which, one day during the week, the believers gather, to be engaged in the commemoration of God, to read communes and deliver effective speeches, is acceptable and beloved. (To Louise Waite, in Star of the West Vol. 1 Nr. 5, June 5, 1910, p. 11.)

That commemoration (probably dhikr), prayers and speeches go together in the mind of Abdu’l-Baha is clear: the problem is that in the tablet that says that such “meetings are the Mashriqu’l-Adhkars,” no speeches are mentioned. [Note 7A] I have not yet found evidence for or against the argument that including ‘speeches’ made the meeting not a Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, in Abdu’l-Baha’s conception. The argument would not be an arbitrary one: in these tablets Abdu’l-Baha might have been leading the early western Bahais in the direction of establishing the Feast meetings, which are not public but do include speeches and argumentation. For example, one letter says:

This Feast was established by His Highness the Bab … The believers [must] … chant divine verses, peruse instructive articles … and deliver eloquent speeches. (Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Vol. 2, 468)

Were it not for the mention of the Feast at the beginning of the letter, one might easily think that the remainder of this letter was about a devotional meeting.

As for Shoghi Effendi, and in relation to the specially designed Mashriqu’l-Adhkar in Wilmette, two letters on his behalf say that “he feels that [meetings in the Auditorium of the Temple] should be purely devotional in character, Baha’i addresses and lectures should be strictly excluded,” and “No speeches may be made.” [n.8] Yet in 1953, when the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar in Wilmette was to be dedicated, Shoghi Effendi sent his wife, Ruhiyyeh Khanum, as his representative, and an address delivered by her in the auditorium of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar was part of the programme. [n.9] Shoghi Effendi also writes that the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar “is consecrated exclusively to worship, devoid of all ceremony and ritual,”[n. 10] but since the question is whether the Bahai central figures thought that a sermon was or could be part of Bahai worship, this takes us no further.

Given the limited references I have found, I cannot exclude the possibility that Shoghi Effendi (assuming his secretaries accurately reflect his thinking) differed from Abdu’l-Baha, but it is equally possible that when Baha’u’llah said, in response to a question, “Whatever hath been constructed for the worship of the one true God … must not be used for any purpose other than the commemoration of His Name,” he was already excluding sermons.[n.11] In that case, Mahmud Zarqani’s memories of Abdu’l-Baha’s words would be discarded as a misunderstanding, and the occasions when Shoghi Effendi’s programmes for the worship services included an address, or the reading aloud of an address originally delivered by Abdu’l-Baha, are exceptions. And God knows best.

sermon implies a speaker, and a place and time of meeting that is widely known, and the expectation that many in the community will attend at that time. The “ceremony and ritual” excluded by Shoghi Effendi would also imply collective attendance by at least a portion of the community at a particular time. The obligatory prayers, if they are recited each one for himself, do not imply such a general devotional meeting, especially as the times at which the obligatory prayers should be performed allow a range of many hours. If we could get clarity as to whether Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha envisioned sermons as part of the devotional meetings and as taking place in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar building, it would be an indicator of the shape of community and devotional life they anticipated. But alas, research does not always lead to answers!

Updated August 31, 2017, added “The problem in finding evidence …” and note 7A.


1. Rituals in Babism and Bahaism 34. The reference to “impassioned preaching” is from a ms. copy of the Bab’s Haykal al-Din, the other specifications are given in the Persian and Arabic Bayans.

2. عرغنون , the word is used for pan pipes, which were among the ancient instruments of Iran.

3. Per. غرفات, alcoves, chambers or halls. Based on Abdu’l-Baha’s own design for the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar in Eshqabad, he is probably thinking of recessed internal balconies analogous to the second floor choir lofts in Gothic architecture, but deep enough to provide substantial seating.

4. کرسی خطابه Ironically, in the Persian translations of Bahai sources in English, such as Shoghi Effendi’s God Passes By, کرسی خطابه is the Persian term chosen to translate ‘pulpit,’ which in turn is Shoghi Effendi’s equivalent for minbar. But as we have seen کرسی خطابه appears first in the Bahai writings as a permissible alternative for the outlawed minbar.

5. ‘The service of worship’ translates one word: عبادت. Literally, that is ‘worship,’ but is difficult to see what the preaching-chair could be used for, additional to reciting prayers, unless it is for the use of a person providing or coordinating a series of prayers and readings: a ‘service’ in other words.

6. My translation, Mahmud Zarqani, Ketab-e Badayi’u’l-Athar Vol. 1 352. The translation by Mohi Sobhani in Mahmud’s Diary reads (p. 371): “In the building there will be an organ, balconies and a rostrum especially for prayers and devotional programs but addresses may be given there as well.”

7. For example in ‘Mahmud’s diary,’ (Mahmud Zarqani, Ketab-e Badayi’u’l-Athar, two volumes). In the English reports of Abdu’l-Baha’s travels, he is often described as delivering a sermon, when he speaks in a church.

‘Sermon’ also appears in the Babi and Bahai writings as one of the modes of scripture. Baha’u’llah for example wrote a خطبه for the marriage service, which is in various circumstances an optional or obligatory prelude to the marriage vows. But this is not a sermon in the usual sense of the word: it is a reading from scripture. Baha’u’llah writes “the sermon should be read [but] is not obligatory (باید خطبه خواند … خطبه فرض نیست ) (quoted by Ishraq Khavari, Ganjineh-yeHodud va Akham, 172). Another frequent use of the term is in the writings of Abdu’l-Baha, where he urges the Bahais to present proofs (burhan), explanations (bayan) and talks (khutbat). But this in the context of ‘teaching’ (mission) not in the devotional meeting.

7A. “The friends should hold a gathering, a meeting, where they will acquire the habits of reciting dhekr and fixing their hearts on God, and reciting and chanting the verses and writings of the Blessed Beauty … These meetings are the Mashriqu’l-Adhkars that, according to the decree of the most exalted Pen, must be established in every city and village.

“When they are established, the private meetings will be abrogated. But for now, when public gatherings have not been established in the land [Iran?] because that would cause the wicked and ungodly to raise a storm of opposition, it would do no harm if private gatherings were to be established, in which no more than nine souls are present. The point is that no large group – which could readily give rise to alarm and confusion among the ignorant — should be present … Baha’u’llah instructed us to observe wisdom. In the lands today, no more than nine of the friends should gather in one place, which is in accordance with wisdom.

“The point is, in the revealed laws of religion, the place for worship and the public reading of scripture is the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, alone, which supplants all gatherings and meetings for worship. But philanthropic gatherings, deepenings, meetings for consultation and profitable discussions are also permitted, indeed they are necessary and incumbent. But today, in accordance with wisdom, none of these are possible. Therefore for now, meetings devoted to spirituality must suffice, and at present the first fruits of all meetings must be service to others. You must support one another and be the beloved of the Lord. So far as possible, the meeting should improve the conditions of humanity until, God willing, the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar is established in all its majesty and glory. Then this restriction will be abolished.” (My translation, from Amr wa Khalq Vol. 3 143-4 and Vol. 4 148-9. There is a partial translation in Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha 93-94)

8. (A) On behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada, April 2, 1931 (or in one report, April 11); (B) on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, April 11, 1947. The phrase “extraneous matter” echoes a 1921 letter from Nellie French to Miss Buikema, which was published in Star of the West on March 21, 1922. French writes, “It had distressed me greatly that, in some places … extraneous matter was being introduced into the regular Baha’i meetings until these meetings had lost their spiritual illumination, growing thereby into intellectual pastimes rather than into an humble and reverent attitude toward the Words of the Messengers. When I mentioned these things to the Master he looked up with that inimitable smile and said: ‘Ask them where in the teachings of Baha’u’llah they find these things.’”

9. Armstrong-Ingram, Music, Devotions and Mashriqu’l-Adhkar 286-88. Shoghi Effendi’s programme for the two services mentioned above, to be held in the Auditorium of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar on May 22, 1944, included selections from public talks of Abdu’l-Baha, yet another letter on his behalf is reported to have excluded “Public Talks and Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Baha” from “the devotional services in the Temple.” The latter letter is referred to but not cited by the Universal House of Justice in a letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of Uganda and Central Africa, August 19, 1965. It is possible that we have two secretaries at different times conveying contradictory versions of Shoghi Effendi’s thinking, or that the House of Justice has misunderstood the letter it refers to. Another letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi (April 2, 1931, cited op. cit. 256) specifically includes prayers revealed by Abdu’l-Baha in the programme for the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar auditorium, and his programme for the 1953 dedication of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, again in the auditorium, includes a reported talk of Abdu’l-Baha (op. cit. 288). Armstrong-Ingram suggests that this latitude of including addresses (which are sermons by another name) may be because at that moment the Auditorium was not yet dedicated to worship alone (op. cit. 290)

10. God Passes By 350.

11. This is by no means obvious from the Persian text: آنچه از مساجد و صوامع و هياکل که مخصوص ذکر حقّ بنا شده ذکر غير دون او در آنها جايز نه35

16 Responses to “Sermons in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar (revised)”

  1. Ruhiyyih Khanum was sent as the Representative of the Guardian of the Faith to dedicate the Wilmette Mashriqu’l-Adhkar. Her words were spoken on Shoghi Effendi’s behalf and constituted a simple declaration of dedication, consisting of four sentences followed by a prayer from Baha’u’llah. The text is in Volume XII of the Baha’i World, at pages 141 and 142. Here is an image of these dedicatory remarks.

  2. Gerald Keil said

    As in the case of Wilmette, Ruhiyyih Khanum presented a short address during the dedication of the European Mashriqu’l-Adhkar in Langenhain, Germany. These are special, once-only situations, and I suspect that, if you investigate the matter, you will find that the dedications of the other Mashariqu’l-Adhkar around the world will have been handled similarly. This is in each case a one-off situation, and clearly Shoghi Effendi handled in accordance with the motto “the exception proves the rule.” If you have a legalistic bent, you might just consider that the building first becomes a Mashriqu’l-Adhkar after the dedication ceremony has been closed. That’ll get you out of it quite nicely.

  3. Sen said

    Indeed, and Jackson Armstrong-Ingram had already noted that point, see my note 9. But it still leaves us with the peculiarity that a ban on sermons so widely supposed to exist, cannot so far be found in the Bahai Writings. Neither of the two letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi are framed as interpretations of the Writings. As you know, not every letter from or on behalf of Shoghi Effendi is an interpretation of writings and teachings, because he was also acting as the administrative head of the community and making decisions appropriate to a particular case, without intending to establish a permanent principle. The situation in Wilmette was unusual, in that Albert Vail had a paid position, effectively as pastor to the Bahai community, and a significant part of his role was to deliver sermons for Bahais and public presentations of the Bahai teachings. Vail was a former Unitarian Minister who supported the Bahai Movement, as it was then called, and was forced to resign as a result. In 1918 he moved to Chicago, and from there worked as a paid Bahai teacher until 1932. He was largely responsible for leading the Sunday meetings before the first services were held in the Foundation Hall of the partially-built Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, and his talks and views dominated. But this gives two possibilities: either Shoghi Effendi had no need to say that sermons were banned in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar building (or meeting?), except in the case of Wilmette, because in Eshqabad and Iran this was already understood, or he did not intend to lay down any general principle but made a temporary administrative decision in the case of Wilmette, because a single person and a single style of sermonizing was dominating there.

  4. fpvrcmower said

    “Hearing” is the key word to focus on.

    Baha’u’llah knew that the Babi had persecution. So saying little on a matter that would highlight was a safety issue for Bahai

    Today technology lets “hearing” and by chair elevation “seeing” for lip recognition a matter of electronic interpretation.

    A server that hosts “eloquent” talks is the stage Shoghi Effendi anticipated would have the Word of God “spread like wild fire”

    So let’s start a radio/Tv/podcast/vlog broad cast for “hearing” and “seeing”

  5. Sen, you mention in comment #3 above, “Neither of the two letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi are framed as interpretations of the Writings.” I’d like to begin here, because as you know in his Dispensation letter, Shoghi Effendi described his interpretive power in this way:

    “…the Guardian has been specifically endowed with such power as he may need to reveal the purport and disclose the implications of the utterances of Bahá’u’lláh and of ‘Abdu’l‑Bahá…” This statement appears to me to be an elaboration of the verse in the Master’s Will that the Guardian is the “expounder of the words of God.” The Guardian’s statement in the Dispensation may or may not be properly characterized as an “interpretation” – perhaps it is better described as a restatement in different words of the verse from Abdu’l-Baha which, perhaps, constitutes “expounding”. Anyway, my broader point is – unless Shoghi Effendi specifically cites a passage in the Writings when he provides a directive, I don’t think it can be said with certainty when he is, or is not, interpreting. When he did so, he didn’t need to justify to the believers each time that his guidance was rooted in the Text.

    Another aspect of divinely-inspired interpretation is that it may differ from our own personal understandings of the Writings. When Abdu’l-Baha was in Chicago on October 31, 1912 He is reported to have said, “…Bahá’u’lláh, appointed a central authoritative Personage, declaring Him to be the expounder of the Book. This implies that the people in general do not understand the meanings of the Book, but this appointed One does understand.” This is also stated by Baha’u’llah in Section LXXXIX of the Gleanings, “Know assuredly that just as thou firmly believest that the Word of God, exalted be His glory, endureth for ever, thou must, likewise, believe with undoubting faith that its meaning can never be exhausted. They who are its appointed interpreters, they whose hearts are the repositories of its secrets, are, however, the only ones who can comprehend its manifold wisdom” Something may be quite obvious in the Text to the appointed interpreter and not at all obvious to us – “the people in general.”

    My personal view is that Shoghi Effendi is often making interpretations when he does not explicitly say that he is doing so. In this posting you are seeking a verse from the Baha’i Scriptures as distinct from their authorized interpretations on “…whether the Bahai central figures thought that a sermon was or could be part of Bahai worship,” and you suggest, “Baha’u’llah seems to have been silent on the topic.” To me it seems quite plausible that Shoghi Effendi’s determination that no sermons can be given in the Temple auditorium is his exposition of the implications of the words “to listen to the verses of God” in paragraph 115 of the Aqdas:

    “Blessed is he who, at the hour of dawn, centering his thoughts on God, occupied with His remembrance, and supplicating His forgiveness, directeth his steps to the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár and, entering therein, seateth himself in silence to listen to the verses of God, the Sovereign, the Mighty, the All-Praised.” Baha’u’llah does not say explicitly “no speeches may be given” but this could well be the verse from which the Guardian has determined that the Scripture so provides. Shoghi Effendi does root the guidance on the manner of worship in the Temple in the Aqdas when he writes that “the central Edifice of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár … should be regarded … as a House solely designed and entirely dedicated to the worship of God in accordance with the few yet definitely prescribed principles established by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas.”

    There is another letter from Shoghi Effendi and another on his behalf in which he states that no sermons may be given in the auditorium, found in the compilation on Services in Baha’i Temples . In a cable to the US National Spiritual Assembly dated July 1, 1946 the Guardian stated “MEETINGS IN TEMPLE AUDITORIUM CONFINED READING HOLY SCRIPTURES AND PRAYERS…” (See Section #450 in the compilation). In #451 a letter written on his behalf refers to the instructions of Abdu’l-Baha and then says that “Chanting or singing will be the only sound (aside from reading)…”, so the Guardian’s requirements are apparently implicit in the Master’s guidance as well as that of Baha’u’llah.

    I have placed a PDF of the compilation on Services in Baha’i Temples here for a short time:

    Success in your search for Truth

  6. Sen said

    An authoritative interpretation would serve my purposes Brent, although not as well as finding a statement from Baha’u’llah that there can be no sermons in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar. The problem — especially in the case of Shoghi Effendi’s correspondence — is how to distinguish a statement of principle from an ad hoc decision applying to a particular case.

    I have already mentioned two letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi in the main posting (as revised). Perhaps we are speaking of the same thing. The first says

    As to the character of the meetings in the Auditorium of the Temple, he feels that they should be purely devotional in character, Baha’i addresses and lectures should be strictly excluded.
    For the present, he feels that there would be no objection to having Baha’i meetings including addresses and the business sessions of the Convention held in the Foundation Hall. Shoghi Effendi would urge that choir singing by men, women and children be encouraged in the Auditorium and that rigidity in the Baha’i service be scrupulously avoided. The more universal and informal the character of Baha’i worship in the Temple the better. Images and pictures, with the exception of the Greatest Name, should strictly excluded. Prayers revealed by Baha’u’llah and the Master, as well as the sacred Writings of the Prophets should be read or chanted, as well as hymns based upon Baha’i or non-Baha’i sacred Writings.”
    (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to Mr. Lunt, corresponding on behalf the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States and Canada, April 2 or possibly 11, 1931. Different versions of this letter have different punctuation.)

    It is not just the absence of reference to scripture, and the fact that I have not found any scripture on this point, that led me to say the letter is not framed as an interpretation. The delegation of the matter to a secretary. and the words I have placed in bold, also make it impossible for me to be sure that it is an interpretation or an instruction, rather than a suggestion of procedure for a specific case. But his intention could embrace both: he might have felt confident that the exclusion of sermons was Baha’u’llah’s intention, but have felt that an ad hoc suggestion would serve now, as he or a future Guardian would provide the general principle at a later date.

    The second that I referred to briefly says:

    “As regard the whole question of the Temple and services held in it: he wishes to emphasize that he is very anxious, now that this first and greatest Temple of the West has been built, and will, within a few years, be used for worship and regular services by the Baha’is, that no forms, no rituals, no set customs be introduced over and above the bare minimum outlined in the teachings.
    The nature of these gatherings is for prayer, meditation and the reading of Writings from the Sacred Scriptures of our Faith and other Faiths; there can be one or a number of readers; any Baha’i chosen, or even, non-Baha’i, may read. The gatherings should be simple, dignified, and designed to uplift the soul and educate it through hearing the Creative Word. No speeches may be made, no extraneous matter introduced.

    “The use of pulpits is forbidden by Baha’u’llah: if, in order to be more clearly heard, the person stands on a low platform, there is no objection, but this should not be incorporated as an architectural feature of the building.

    As he already informed you by cable, he thinks that the best seating arrangement from every standpoint is that the section of the audience in the center of the auditorium, beneath the dome, should face towards ‘Akka, and all the other seats around this central space should be placed in the form of a circle so that the seats face inwards towards the center of the Temple. In other words a central mass facing ‘Akka-wards. surrounded by circular rows of seats facing inwards.

    The reader should stand where he or she will be best seen and heard by all. All minor details regarding this matter are left to the discretion of your Assembly to decide after receiving the advice of experts. As he already informed you, he suggests using fixed rather than movable seats.

    Vocal music alone may be used and the position of the singers or singer is also a matter for your Assembly to decide; but again, there should be no fixed point, no architectural details marking a special spot. Acoustics should certainly be the main consideration in placing the singers.

    The Guardian feels that the Temple, if divided into an auditorium and eight or nine small rooms, would have a far too circumscribed seating capacity for a National House of Worship and that also the small rooms would serve no useful purpose whatever. In view of this he instructed you to do away entirely with these superfluous rooms: the whole main floor of the building should form one vast auditorium with no dividing walls at all. What provision for keeping the cold out, and what entrances you wish to make constant use of, are matters for your Assembly to decide after receiving expert advice.

    Color may be used in the interior and, indeed, it was Mr, Bourgeois’ intention to use it, as the original cross-section showing the interior, which now hangs here in the archives, shows: (The photographic plate and reproduction of this drawing you already received.) The Guardian feels very strongly that you should adhere as much as possible to the architect’s own design for the interior — otherwise the homogeneity of the building will be destroyed, which would be a fatal mistake. Any modifications should be in the nature of eliminating or simplifying — and only when absolutely necessary – Bourgeois‘s designs, and such changes should only be made by an experienced architect and decorator, and not be left to the discrimination of mere laymen.

    He approves of lighting being employed as part of the decorative scheme, but suggests you avoid anything in the nature of producing a gloomy or bizarre effect.

    As he cabled you, he approves of opaque white glass being used wherever recommended on the ground floor in order to provide the interior with the necessary privacy.

    Very careful consideration should be given to the acoustics of the auditorium, and wood or any other material may be used in the interior in order to facilitate this.

    The use of all nine or only a certain number of entrances is left to you to decide in consultation with your advisers.

    He need not tell you how very important the decisions are which you will now he called upon to make in connection with completing the Temple interior. He urges you. at all times, to receive the very best technical advice, and to bear in mind that the main thing is that the meetings in the Temple should be conducted in a beautiful and peaceful setting, in comfort and with dignity and simplicity, and that the audience should be able to hear perfectly and the tone values be pleasant to the ear.

    Baha’i Music

    Music, as one of the arts, is a natural cultural development, and the Guardian does not feel that there should be any cultivation of “Baha’i Music” any more than we are trying to develop a Baha’i school of painting or writing. The believers are free to paint, write and compose as their talents guide them. If music is written, incorporating the sacred writings, the friends are free to make use of it, but it should never be considered a requirement at Baha’i meetings to have such music. The further away the friends keep from any set forms, the better, for they must realize that the Cause is absolutely universal, and what might seem a beautiful addition to their mode of celebrating a Feast, etc., would perhaps fall on the ears of people of another country as unpleasant sounds — and vice versa. As long as they have music for its own sake it is all right, but they should not consider it Baha’i music.

    Acts of Immorality

    Any blatant acts of immorality on the part of the Baha’is should be strongly censored [censured – this is an OCR text]: the friends should be urged to abandon such relationships immediately, straighten out their affairs, and conduct themselves as Baha’is; if they refuse to do this, in spite of the warnings of the Assembly, they should be punished through being deprived of their voting rights. The N.S.A. is empowered to settle such cases of flagrant immorality without referring them to the Guardian.

    Formation of National Assemblies
    In Central and South America and Canada

    As he already informed you by cable, the West Indies, Mexico and Panama are considered part of Central America … [etc., it’s a very long letter]
    (Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United
    States, April 11, 1947: Insert with Baha’i News, No. 232, June 1950.

    Taking the letter as a whole, I can’t say it reads to me like an interpretation of the Bahai teachings.

    Then there’s a section in the compilation on services, beginning “From an article based on instructions of the Guardian…” This seems to be written by an author, as a distillation of letters received by the NSA. That’s a pity, because the line “This is not permissible: there must be no speeches in the auditorium” is framed as a general rule.

  7. Hi Sen, the statement that “for the present” business meetings can be held in Foundation Hall which you refer to as an “ad hoc suggestion” does not refer to the subject at hand – sermons/ addresses / lectures/ speeches in the Temple auditorium. It is saying that in the future when there is a more appropriate place than the Foundation Hall which is underneath the Temple auditorium, then business meetings etc. won’t be held there, either. My reading is that the “for the present” comment is about proper use of Foundation Hall, not about limitations in the Temple auditorium proper.

  8. Sen said

    You are right of course Brent: the specific meaning is about the uses of the Foundation Hall, which was distinguished from the auditorium so that the various restrictions on the use of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar would not apply to it. The phrase is just one part of the tone of that letter that makes it read — to me — as a set of responses to a specific situation rather than as a statement of principle or interpretation of scripture.
    I have suggested some signs we can use to distinguish Shoghi Effendi’s interpretative writings from his administrative decisions here, in my response to Fazel and Fananapazir’s work (scroll way down or search on “commentary”)

  9. I have a couple of questions pertinent to this conversation – one might be a different question entirely.

    1. How are we defining sermons? In the sense that I’ve heard the term used amongst Christians – I would presume that the idea of a sermon is immediately outlawed in favor of the Covenant – the interpreter of the Writings is the Center of the Covenant – individual interpretations can’t hold any sway, and so… what would be the purpose of a sermon? But it is possible that there is some other definition of the term that might make clear how a sermon might be used.

    2. It seems possible that sermons are permitted at Mashriq’ul-Adhkars in the devotional meeting sense, but not the actual, formal building sense, in the same way that instruments are permitted in devotional gatherings but not in the main hall of the Mashriq’ul-Adhkar.

    3. On a related note – I have seen a lot of commentary stating that Baha’is don’t have any liturgy, but I don’t understand it – it seems clear that we do, just in the fact that we have 19 day feasts. My interpretation of Shoghi Effendi’s prohibition is that it is not a prohibition of form, but of standard – we aren’t allowed to let anything creep in that suggests this is “THE” way to do things, where the Writings have made no provision – nor should we do things in the same way to such an extent that they become solidified into traditions. But it seems that we can establish ad hoc rituals that might be meaningful in any particular setting, so long as we take precaution not to make that “THE” way we do things, etc. Do the esteemed friends in this thread have opinions on this?

  10. Just a post to sign up for comments here! Missed the opportunity to do so with my original post.

  11. Sen said

    I do not think that sermons as used in Christian and Islamic worship are forbidden by the Covenant, since they are simply the opinions of the speaker. If the Covenant in some way limited sermons, that would apply in every aspect of Bahai life, since the Covenant governs all. But sermons under other names are actually encouraged, as part of our teaching and our Bahai community life. For example:

    They must conduct themselves (in these Feasts) with the greatest dignity and consideration, chant divine verses, peruse instructive articles, read the Tablets of Abdul-Baha, encourage and inspire each other with love for the whole human race, invoke God with perfect joy and fragrance, sing the verses, glorifications and praises of the Self-subsistent Lord and deliver eloquent speeches.
    (Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v2, p. 468)

    …one of the essential requirements of the Faith w… is to set aside a suitable place to serve as a centre for Bahá’í activities in each of the localities where believers reside. In such a centre, even if it is among the most modest of locations, all gatherings of the friends should be held, such as those for the reading of the Tablets, for prayers and supplications, for the meetings of the Local Spiritual Assembly, for the teaching work, for the delivery of talks, for commemorations, for festivals and for the Feasts. If the location is suitable, it would be light upon light if in the future the edifice of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár could also be erected on that spot. That centre should be named Hazíratu’l-Quds, so that the musk-scented breaths of the fervent prayers offered therein, and the sweet breeze of spiritual discussions and worthy enterprises wafted from the Hazíratu’l-Quds may spread to neighbouring regions, and impart healing and fragrance to the nostrils of a sorely-afflicted world.
    (Translated from a letter of Shoghi Effendi to the friends in Iran and the East, dated July 1925)

    The Covenant tells us that only the Guardian and Abdu’l-Baha are authoritative interpreters of the Writings. Obviously that means that nobody, the House of Justice and the Counsellors included, can say that their “eloquent speech” is authoritative, but no Bahai speaker makes such a claim anyway. What it also means (in my opinion) is that listeners may not take whatever is said as authoritative, rather they must consider for themselves and use their own judgement. Similarly, “the Guardian cannot legislate” is a principle of the Covenant (see World Order of Baha’u’llah 150): it means that we may not take what the Guardian writes as Bahai law. In both cases, it’s up to the understanding of each individual to observe the principle: it can’t be enforced by, for example, not publishing the Guardian’s decisions in case someone thinks that becomes Bahai law, or not publishing the House of Justice’s thoughts on the Bahai teachings in case someone thinks they are authoritative. The same applies to “eloquent speech” – it should not be silenced, the hearers must remember that they are sovereign in their own hearts, and not surrender that to any speaker.

    This still leaves the question: is there a ban on sermons (or eloquent speeches etc) in either the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar meetings or in the buildings? I have not found any authoritative statement that says that musical instruments are not allowed in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar; I did find a Persian pilgrim’s note reporting Abdu’l-Baha as saying the building should have an organ. I thought that the sermon was the more interesting question, because it implies a speaker and an audience gathered at a particular time.

    Naturally we have rituals in the sociological sense of the term in the Bahai community: in addition to the Feasts we have Holy Days, giving to the fund, weddings and funerals, the daily obligatory prayers, reciting 95 times the Greatest Name, and fasting. To various extents there are liturgies for some of the rituals (the long obligatory prayer for example), at the very least in the sense of a preferred form that may not be widely applied. Here’s an example :

    Thy proposal that the friends should assemble on Sundays for the purpose of joining together in worship is most commendable. As for the manner in which such a devotional gathering should be conducted: first, the Friends should read prayers and turn themselves to God, invoking his aid and assistance; then, when all are assembled, there should be a period of silent prayer; lastly, prayers and readings should be recited aloud, before the whole company of the Friends, in the sweetest and most melodious of accents. As this is the commencement of holding meetings, this is sufficient. (This translation was made at the Bahai World Centre in 1987, as published in Robert Stockman’s The Baha’i Faith in America: Early Expansion 1900-1912, (vol. 2), p. 105. An earlier translation (1903) can be found in Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha Abbas, pp. 15-16 The more recent translation omits the last sentence, which I have taken from Tablets.

    That’s an authoritatively defined, but still open-ended, liturgy for a devotional meeting. Another example is the Tablet of the Hajj which sets out the rites of Pilgrimage to the House of Baha’u’llah (partly translated in Denis MacEoin, Rituals in Bábísm and Bahá’ísm. British Academic Press, 163-8 (Appendix XXV)). Part of that tablet says :

    Let him then be silent within himself and be at rest in his innermost being. Then let him turn in his heart and with his hearing in the direction of the House. If he should discover the fragrance of God and hear His call, he may be assured within himself that God has forgiven him his sins … But if he should not discover the fragrance of God, the Mighty, the Powerful, let him perform again the ritual on this day or one another day until he discovereth it and heareth [the call].

    If there was a general Bahai principle against rituals, none of this would be possible. I have not found the prohibition from Shoghi Effendi that you refer to.

  12. Here is Lights of Guidance on music in the House of Worship:

    I may be misremembering, but I have a vague recollection of something in the Aqdas as to the human voice being the only musical instrument permitted. Have to dig again. As to liturgy, here is Shoghi Effendi again:
    “The Faith … It is free from any form of ecclesiasticism, has neither priesthood nor rituals,…”
    Found on this website:

    There’s another quote I can’t find at present, which is more what I am thinking of – it is here in this article:

    In that article it is stated that Baha’is don’t have rituals, and I think the intent is to state that any ritual one might see is incidental, and not mandated. But in practice, I find that we oftentimes n eschew the specific because of the general.


  13. Sen said

    Thank you, those are relevant quotes. As for the “rituals”, we have Shoghi Effendi saying the Faith “has neither priesthood nor rituals,…”, but in the first place we know we do have rituals, such as pilgrimage and daily prayer, and in the second place Shoghi Effendi says the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar is “a House solely designed and entirely dedicated to the worship of God in accordance with the few yet definitely prescribed principles established by Bahá’u’lláh in the Kitab-i-Aqdas.” The Aqdas (in the broadest sense) prescribes rites for pilgrimage to the Houses of the Bab and Baha’u’llah, and Shoghi Effendi writes “…Bahá’u’lláh instructed this same Nabil to recite on His behalf the two newly revealed Tablets of the Pilgrimage, and to perform, in His stead, the rites prescribed in them, when visiting the Báb’s House in Shiraz and the Most Great House in Baghdad — an act that marks the inception of one of the holiest observances, which, in a later period, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas was to formally establish.” (God Passes By, p. 176)
    So what did Shoghi Effendi mean by saying we have neither priesthood nor rituals? I think this is a highly compressed statement for a western audience, in which some subtleties have been lost. We do not have a priesthood in the Catholic sense (giving sacraments) but we do have the ulama-ye Baha, the learned of Baha. The ulama of Islam are what Shoghi Effendi translates as the divines – so do we have “divines of Baha”? That’s another question, my point is that in saying we have no priesthood, he is assuming that his readers will understand that in a particular way, shaped by the Catholic and Orthodox role of the sacraments as intermediaries between God and man, and the priest as the custodian of the sacraments. And by “rituals” I think he expected his western audience to understand “fixed behaviours added to the religion and not found in its scriptures.” He did expect us to carry out the rites of pilgrimage and worship in the Mashriqu’l-adhkar in accordance with the principles of the Aqdas.

    If you have a better solution to this conundrum, I would be glad to hear it.

    As for the letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, saying

    “Vocal music alone may be used and the position of the singers or singer is also a matter for your Assembly to decide; but again, there should be no fixed point, no architectural details marking a special spot. Acoustics should certainly be the main consideration in placing the singers.”
    (Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United
    States, April 11, 1947: Insert with Bahá’í News, No. 232, June 1950)

    There are a number of reason for not taking it as a general and definitive principle. It appears rather to be an administrative decision specific to the planned Mashriqu’l-Adhkar in Wilmette, for it lacks any reference to a scriptural source, or to Mashriqu’l-Adhkars in general, and because Shoghi Effendi chose to let the answer be written on his behalf. Generally speaking, when he issued an interpretation of scripture as Guardian, he did so in his own words, usually in a general letter addressed to the community or particular Assemblies. I’ve discussed the question of how we know when the Guardian is interpreting scripture to lay down a general principle in a number of places on this blog. The “Tablet of Emanuel” is a striking example of the difficulties we get into if we suppose that all letters on Shoghi Effendi’s behalf are delegations of his interpretive function, and I’ve gathered some thoughts in an item in the email archive “Letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi.” Apart from those general considerations regarding such letters, in the case of music in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar we have a pilgrim’s note from Shoghi Effendi’s diary, in 1919, in which he recalls Abdu’l-Baha saying:

    When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá inquired the condition and the association of the friends, it was intimated that unlike the days gone by the friends are intimately associating with all the people of every shade and opinion, of every sect, and social standing. He said: “Such is the way that must be adopted, for only through intimate association will the friends be able to teach and sow a seed in the heart of a seeker. The flower must be brought close and near in order to inhale its scent and fragrance.”
    Then referring to the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said: “The Temple of ‘Ishqábád is unique in that it is the first temple of the kind that has been erected. Many such temples shall be constructed in the future, but this one will ever enjoy this unique privilege and preference. When its accessories are completed and its full machinery starts running, when the melody of vocal and instrumental music arises and bursts upon the air with its joyous trends, when the prayers and supplications addressed at dawn and at sunrise ascend to the Throne of the Almighty, then will the effect of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár be made evident and manifest. The Temple that is going to be erected in the United States will be an important and magnificent one, its influence and reaction upon the Cause will be tremendous, and the impetus it shall give to the movement, irresistible.”
    (Star of the West – Vol. 11 p 15, continued on p. 19, from Shoghi Effendi’s diary June 8, 1919)

    This is a pilgrim’s note, not scripture, but it matches another note I have quoted which reports Abdu’l-Baha saying there should be an organ in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, and both notes are from very reliable sources. While I would be the first to say that no point of general priciple can stand on the authority of a pilgrim’s note alone, I would also say that it is quite unlikely that Shoghi Effendi would on the one hand report Abdu’l-Baha as saying that instrumental music should arise from the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, and on the other hand instruct his secretary to convey a general rule that there may never be instrumental music in any Mashriqu’l-Adhkar. So I think the secretary’s letter must be an adhoc ruling that can be changed, not to line up with the pilgrim’s notes, but to be in accord with what is in the scripture, or what we cannot find in the scripture. To add a rule for worship that is not in the scripture would be to add a ritual, in the negative sense I mentioned above.

    Thank you very much for your input Tamara, you will see it reflected shortly in a rewrite of the blog posting. That’s the great thing about blogging rather than writing journal articles ~ Sen

  14. BRENT POIRIER said

    As to the rituals in the Faith, the Guardian chose to direct his secretary to write on his behalf, “Bahá’u’lláh has reduced all ritual and form to an absolute minimum in His Faith. The few forms that there are — like those associated with the two longer obligatory daily prayers — are only symbols of the inner attitude. There is a wisdom in them, and a great blessing, but we cannot force ourselves to understand or feel these things, that is why He gave us also the very short and simple prayer, for those who did not feel the desire to perform the acts associated with the other two.” (From a letter dated 24 June 1949 to an individual believer; Compilation on Prayer and Meditation “Spiritual Foundations,” The Compilation of Compilations Vol II, p. 243)

    Similarly the House of Justice wrote,

    “It is not accurate to state that the Bahá’í Faith has no ceremonies. The marriage ceremony and the funeral service are examples of such observances in our teachings. It would be correct, however, to state that the Faith has certain basic laws and simple rites prescribed by Bahá’u’lláh and that its teachings warn against developing these into a system of uniform and rigid rituals by introducing into them man-made forms and practices. Rituals such as those of the Catholic Church in the celebration of the Mass and the administration of the sacraments, which are performed by a member of the clergy. In carrying out the basic laws of our Faith the friends should always maintain a standard of utmost simplicity and observe flexibility in all matters of detail.”
    (From a letter to the National Spiritual Assembly of Colombia from the Universal House of Justice, August 31, 1967; Lights of Guidance, p. 138, #460)

    As to the Guardian’s determination that no instrumental music is permitted in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, that only the Word of God and no sermons comprised of human thought can be stated therein I have always felt that this was Shoghi Effendi’s interpretation of the requirements of this verse from the Aqdas:

    “Blessed is he who, at the hour of dawn, centring his thoughts on God, occupied with His remembrance, and supplicating His forgiveness, directeth his steps to the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar and, entering therein, seateth himself in silence to listen to the verses of God, the Sovereign, the Mighty, the All-Praised.”
    (Paragraph 115)

    That is, that the phrase to seat himself “in silence” to listen to “the verses of God” meant, to the Expounder of the Word, that only the Word could be uttered therein – not human words.

    The Guardian wrote to the US National Spiritual Assembly through his secretary

    “As regard the whole question of the Temple and services held in it: he wishes to emphasize that he is very anxious, now that this first and greatest Temple of the West has been built, and will, within a few years, be used for worship and regular services by the Bahá’ís, that no forms, no rituals, no set customs be introduced over and above the bare minimum outlined in the teachings. The nature of these gatherings is for prayer, meditation and the reading of Writings from the Sacred Scriptures of our Faith and other Faiths; there can be one or a number of readers; any Bahá’í chosen, or even, non-Bahá’í, may read. The gatherings should be simple, dignified, and designed to uplift the soul and educate it through hearing the Creative Word. No speeches may be made, no extraneous matter introduced.

    “The use of pulpits is forbidden by Bahá’u’lláh: if, in order to be more clearly heard, the person stands on a low platform, there is no objection, but this should not be incorporated as an architectural feature of the building …”

    “Vocal music alone may be used and the position of the singers or singer is also a matter for your Assembly to decide; but again, there should be no fixed point, no architectural details marking a special spot. Acoustics should certainly be the main consideration in placing the singers.”

    This letter was published in the October 1946 issue of Baha’i News on page 2. It was preceded by a letter from Shoghi Effendi, which is published here: with the notation that the Guardian’s letter was a postscript to the letter quoted above. You can see a scan of those pages including both documents here:'i_News/Issue_188/Text


  15. Forgot to say, Sen, when does your book come out? I am writing a book on similar topics as well – not academic, obviously, but intended for use in the community, and that is why the understanding of the place of music and rituals is so important to me. What is the topic of your book? Is it your book or an anthology to which you are contributing?

  16. Sen said

    I am sure your book will come out long before mine. When asked I say “2021.” I did do a book for community use, “The Mashriqu’l-Adhkar Handbook.” There’s a pdf link at the top of this page :

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