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Signed by Five

Posted by Sen on October 6, 2019

As I have often pointed out, it’s important to distinguish between the letters written by the Guardian and those written on his behalf. It is also important to distinguish between letters from the Universal House of Justice and those from the Secretariat or another body at the Bahai World Centre. Knowing which is which requires some checking and perhaps a direct enquiry, because many publications and databases quote from letters issued by the Secretariat, saying that they are quoting the House of Justice. Moreover letters from the Secretariat quite often cite memoranda from the Research Department, so that these too come to be cited as ‘from The House of Justice’ or on behalf of the House of Justice. This is a muddle: some clarity is needed.

In 1996, a letter on behalf of the House of Justice described the procedure used for letters signed as coming from the secretariat:

As to whether there is a distinction between correspondence from the World Centre that has been signed “The Universal House of Justice” and that signed on behalf of the Secretariat [sic: they mean, “on behalf of the House of Justice”]: In brief, the manner in which each of these letters is prepared depends upon the contents of the letter. Drafts of letters which contain newly formulated policies are consulted upon and approved during a meeting of the House of Justice; correspondence dealing with previously enunciated policies, or with matters of a routine nature, are prepared, as delegated by the House of Justice, by its Secretariat and initialed by at least the majority of the members of the House of Justice before being dispatched. All letters written over the signature of the Department of the Secretariat are authorized by the Universal House of Justice.”
(22 October 1996)

Twenty years later, the procedure was described to me – and I welcome independent updates on this – as based on departmental responsibilities, with each department of the Secretariat overseen by a member of the House of Justice. Each member reviews the matters arising relevant his department, and selects some for consideration by the House of Justice itself. Others he handles himself, or passes to his secretaries to respond to. In either case, this produces a draft communication, which will usually be a letter but may be instructions to be given orally, either to a Counselor or, more rarely, to the Secretary of a National Spiritual Assembly. The drafts approved by members are deposited at a central place where other members can read them. When a draft has received the signatures of at least 5 members, it is sent as a communication from the Secretariat in the name of the House of Justice.

The two descriptions are not contradictory. Pending an update of the 1996 letter, it appears that individual members are expected to recognize issues that call for “newly formulated policies,” implying that there is a set of reigning policies. Either these policies do not exist in a codified form, or the codification is not communicated to the community. The first of these seems more probable, i.e., that “current policies” are determined by the individual member in accordance with his personal understanding which is a mix of where he thinks the House of Justice should go, what he has experienced of the House in action, how much he knows of the relevant Writings, and how much he thinks he knows, but incorrectly.

If there was a compilation of established policies, I think it would have been published, enabling the entire community to know the policies and understand the thinking of the Universal House of Justice and implement it intelligently in their own diverse circumstances. Moreover, the House of Justice, as a body charged with ‘elucidating’ (‘illuminating’) obscure matters would surely be transparent about its collected policies if it was in a position to do so. Non-transparent illumination is a contradiction in terms. So I think it very likely that the established policies of the House of Justice are determined by the members individually, case by case.

In my opinion it would be desirable for policies that are intended to guide the community as a whole to be published as a matter of course, and also for the community to be notified when a policy is no longer in force, through the same ‘gazette.’

From both descriptions, it appears that where a letter is sourced from the Secretariat, either an individual House member or a secretary has investigated, decided on a response and drafted the letter for signature by the designated member and four others. This means that the particular circumstances of the case in hand are known, at most, to one member of the House: the other four signatories see only the draft response. If the draft is prepared by the Secretariat, as stated in the 1996 letter, then none of the members would be informed of the facts of the case. To be more exact: neither description of the process says that the background file is attached to the communication, let alone that the signatories are expected to read that file. Given this limitation, their signatures are in the nature of a “no objection” to that response, for they do not have enough information to say whether this response is the best possible response in the circumstances. They can say whether the response is in accordance with their own understandings of existing House policies, but not whether it is correct as regards the facts of the case, unless they take the initiative to inform themselves diligently. Neither of the descriptions mentions this possibility, but no doubt it is possible for a member to ask for more information before signing the response. The members could also, presumably, disagree with their colleague’s judgment that the issue did not warrant consultation by the House as a body. But it’s not likely to happen, if they have only read the draft response. That response by definition will present the issue as a routine matter covered by existing policies.

Neither description of the 5-signature process provides for any consultation, although it is presumably available as an optional extra. The procedure as described assumes that the response is prepared by a single member of the House, or by “the Secretariat” – without specifying whether that is one or more secretaries. Baha’u’llah writes “The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.” (Translated from the Persian, in the compilation _Consultation). So if such communications seem sometimes to lack the gift of understanding, this may be attributed not to the limitations of the individuals, but rather to the procedure they work within. Anyone working in this framework day after day, making individual judgment calls checked only by people not familiar with the facts, must be forgiven for some suboptimal decisions. It is admirable enough if the person given such individual responsibility — to speak on behalf of the House and shape the lives of individuals and communities — can win the spiritual battle against developing a god complex.

Letters sent out by this method – with five signatures – are sent in the name of House of Justice and generally received as coming from the House of Justice and covered by infallibility. Some have even called them letters from God – a blasphemy if meant literally, but perhaps excusable as rhetorical exaggeration. But then again, not so excusable, if the exaggeration is designed to be taken literally by those culturally and psychologically predisposed to do so!

It would be a mistake to have very high expectations of the outcomes of such a process, and such letters certainly cannot be considered infallible, because of the lack of investigative procedures such as hearing both sides, because of the role that individual members’ understandings have played in the process, and because the infallibility of the House is limited, formally and procedurally, to decisions taken in a meeting of the body, whether unanimously or by majority vote. Abdu’l-Baha says, in Some Answered Questions:

… infallibility in essence is confined to the universal Manifestations of God and infallibility as an attribute is conferred upon sanctified souls. For instance, the Universal House of Justice, if it be established under the necessary conditions — that is, if it be elected by the entire community — that House of Justice will be under the protection and unerring guidance of God. Should that House of Justice decide, either unanimously or by a majority, upon a matter that is not explicitly recorded in the Book, that decision and command will be guarded from error. Now, the members of the House of Justice are not essentially infallible as individuals, but the body of the House of Justice is under the protection and unerring guidance of God: this is called conferred infallibility.

This limitation of the infallibility of the House to decisions taken by the body, and not by members individually, dovetails with other Bahai teachings: the abolition of the clergy within the Bahai community, the central role of consultation in Bahai affairs, and the high evaluation that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha accord to discursive rationality in all spheres of life. Trust in reasoned discourse, in turn, relates to their teaching that humanity has reached the age of maturity. I leave all these interesting topics aside here, noting merely that what appears as a mere procedural requirement regarding meetings of the House is a necessary result of deeper and wider teachings about human nature, and the nature of the Bahai community and modern society.

The section of the 1996 letter I have quoted above (from the Secretariat) ends with the sentence “All letters written over the signature of the Department of the Secretariat are authorized by the Universal House of Justice.” Respectfully, I disagree. The author of this letter has just described the procedure of preparing a draft that is then “initialed by at least the majority of the members of the House of Justice before being dispatched.” The procedure as described does not leave any room for authorization by the Universal House of Justice itself before dispatch. What we may assume is that the House of Justice has implicitly or explicitly authorized the Secretariat’s procedures. It has not authorized the contents of individual letters or verbal communications delivered in its name, unless the body itself has consulted on the exact wording of the communication. In that case, the decision always comes in writing, and with the signature of the House of Justice.

As regards memoranda from the Research Department, which are often cited or enclosed with letters from the Secretariat, the same 1996 letter states:

As to whether the materials prepared by the Research Department constitute the authoritative word of the Universal House of Justice on a particular subject, as raised in your third question, the House of Justice indicates that such materials, though prepared at its direction, represent the views of that Department. While such views are very useful as an aid to resolving perplexities or gaining an enhanced understanding of the Bahai Teachings, they should never be taken to be in the same category as the elucidations and clarifications provided by the Universal House of Justice in the exercise of its assigned functions. However, the House of Justice chooses to convey the materials prepared by the Research Department to the friends because it wishes them to be thoughtfully attended to and seriously considered.

Given that this letter is from the Secretariat, and that it is usually the Secretariat that cites or encloses the research Memoranda, “the House of Justice chooses to convey the materials …” should be parsed as “five or more members of the House of Justice have undersigned our decision to convey the materials…” A few of the communications of the Secretariat give me the impression that the authors think of themselves as the outward face of the House of Justice, rather than as staff of a subordinate auxiliary to the House. This is one example.

The International Teaching Centre

The International Teaching Centre has become a very prominent feature of the Bahai Administrative Order at the global level. From what has already been said, it is clear that ITC letters are not equivalent to the decisions taken by the House of Justice in consultation, and are not covered by infallibility. The process by which these letters are composed is entirely obscure: are they written by individuals designated with particular responsibilities, or are they the fruits of a consultation within the ITC, or with other parties? Yet I have recently noted a regrettable tendency to include these letters under the term ‘the guidance’ and to give them equal status with letters from the House. An example is John Hatcher’s 2007 ‘commentary,’ which was the subject of another commentary, by Eric Hadley-Ives, published on his blog a few days later. Eric Hadley-Ives quotes John Hatcher, “. . . When we have questions about any part of the guidance we are receiving [we should] go to the source itself: the authoritative text of the letters of the Universal House of Justice and the guidance in documents that have been prepared at its behest by the International Teaching Center.” Eric goes on to wonder why the writings of Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi are omitted here. That would be because John Hatcher believes that “letters that emanate from this infallible institution” [the House of Justice] are just like “a letter from God giving us the best advice for those actions we need to carry out right now.”

Consequences

I think it would be fair to say that Bahais and Bahai institutions, and not just in the English-speaking world, have been unaware that the great majority of the communications from the World Centre do not originate with the House of Justice itself, and are not covered by the infallibility of the House of Justice. This ignorance gives individuals and National Spiritual Assemblies the impression that infallibility is available “on tap” to answer their every question. And if you thought infallible guidance was available, why would you not use it, in preference to fact-finding and consultation? Especially if, as a National Assembly, you have past experience of your decisions being countered by the ‘House of Justice,’ which in most cases means, countered by the individual member of the House of Justice responsible for that branch of affairs or country. It is a vicious circle: given the promise of guidance and threat of correction from above, the possibility of asking the House for advice is over-used, so the system generates a volume of queries that makes the system a practical necessity.

The idea of “infallibility on tap” has another negative consequence: there is little dialogue between the House of Justice, the National Spiritual Assemblies and the community, because the House of Justice is seen as giving divine guidance on every point, so there is no need for discussion. Those who believe in infallibility on tap have also set themselves up for a crisis of faith, for it is inevitable that some decisions made with such a cursory process will be wrong in ways that even a true believer cannot deny.

Because National Assemblies routinely check their decisions with the House of Justice, and base the wording of their decisions on what they have received from the Secretariat, the possibility of a local Assembly or individual appealing an NSA decision to the House of Justice becomes a moot point, unless they word their appeal to emphasize that they believe the case is not covered by existing House of Justice policies. That will maximize the likelihood that the House of Justice itself may consult on the matter, and will benefit from the spiritual guidance it is promised when it consults collectively. But so long as the illusion exists that everything coming from the World Centre shares the infallibility of the House of Justice, it is hard to see how the evils of excessive centralization of decision-making can be avoided. If detailed divinely protected guidance is available, how can rationality, consultation and the development of local and national institutions compete? And so far as decisions come largely from the top – even if this follows a request for guidance — then compliance with the decisions must be monitored from the top, requiring great diligence from the Counsellors and the Assistants in the suppression of national and local subsidiarity.

The five-signatures method encourages a culture of perpetual infancy, and is irreconcilable with Baha’u’llah’s image of the human person as a mature subject, and of society entering the age of maturity. The availability of guidance on tap – if we give way to the temptation to use it – reduces the individual to a passive receiver of messages from above. It is hardly surprising if Feasts that are dominated by reading the messages of the month — assumed to be divinely guided – are not socially or intellectually stimulating. Passivity is being bred in to the community.

For National Spiritual Assemblies in particular, it creates another difficulty that they should be aware of. We do no know (I do not know) how the areas of responsibility of the House members are defined, or who is responsible for what area. Are they purely geographical or a mixture of geographical and thematic? The thing is, a National Assembly might develop a good understanding of the thinking of the House of Justice (in fact, of the member of the House they are dealing with, without knowing his name), and then be astounded by a letter on behalf of the House on, for example, the affairs of Iranians in exile, or Bahai Studies, or social and economic development, in their jurisdiction, simply because that theme is handled by a different member of the House, with a different understanding of House policies. For this reason I think it desirable that letters on behalf of the House of Justice should be signed with the name of the House member supervising that communication.

The Department of the Secretariat has made some attempts to restrain the tendency of individuals to ask the House of Justice for guidance on every issue, as a substitute for consultation at the lowest level possible (subsidiarity). One letter says :

[as for] …the circumstances under which an individual believer may submit questions to the National Assembly or the House of Justice, directly. As you know, Baha’is turn to Baha’i literature, their fellow-believers (particularly those well-versed in the Writings) and the local and national institutions of the Faith for answers to any question they may have. If these avenues are explored to the utmost and further clarification is still needed, the friends are free to refer to the House of Justice for such guidance.” (1998-01-02)

According to the “to the utmost” criteria, the believer who, disagreeing with a Facebook moderation decision or with another participant, gets on her high horse and writes to the House with a twisted report of the case, should be told firmly that this is not an issue to be resolved by guidance from the World Centre. She should be reminded that consultation is a great good, and the wider the better. I’ve never heard of that happening. The theory of encouraging wide consultation with institutions and knowledgeable believers needs to be backed by a firm policy of refusing to respond to requests unless they show that consultation has been tried first, and particularly with the Bahai whom the writers thinks is in need of correction.

Lack of awareness of the five-signature procedure also inclines Bahais, in a few cases, to exaggerations that make the Bahais appear to the outside world like a hair-brained cult. The natural tendency to remember the memorable and forget the unremarkable means that even a few memorable exaggerations can do harm to our public image for many years. Some examples of memorable and harmful exaggerations about communications from Haifa are included in Eric Hadley-Ives’ commentary, linked to above. I will not prolong their unfortunate life by repeating them here.

In ‘the supreme institution’ on this blog, I’ve pointed to the dangers of exaggeration, particularly for a new religious movement :

… In all religions, there are minimisers and there are exaggerators, and there is an internal dynamic that favours the exaggerators, so that in the long term the metaphysical claims a religion makes and the titles it uses inflate. … an exaggeration always appears more pious, even if technically wrong. And what is just “more pious” in this generation, is self-evident orthodoxy for the next. Those who want to seem more fervently pious then have to move up one step of hyperbole. … [but] hyperbolic language invites negative reactions from the state and society and other religious communities, it promotes conflict and is a barrier to conversions.

Implications

I’ve spoken about the consequences for the community of recognizing, or not recognizing, the qualitative difference between letters that are the fruit of consultation from the House of Justice, and the other communications we get from the Bahai World Centre, from the secretariat, the Research Department and the International Teaching Centre. The distinction also has implications for the debate about the scope of the infallibility of the House of Justice. Udo Schaefer’s argument for a scope that is tightly limited to legislation gets its motivation and persuasiveness from lumping together all the communications of House and the Secretariat, and saying, if all these are infallible, the result is absurd. That is an argument from results: it is not logically valid, but it certainly is a good reason for suspecting that a premise must be wrong somewhere. Udo Schaefer thinks the wrong premise is that all decisions of the House of Justice are infallible. He argues that in fact infallibility applies only to the “supplementary legislation,” defined as “the establishment of universal abstract legal norms that … are binding upon the entire world community” (An Introduction to Baha’i Law by Udo Schaefer, p. 354). Its judicial, administrative and policy decisions are not infallible, in his view. I have already critiqued his argument briefly on this blog.

It appears the Schaefer was unaware of the difference between letters from the House of Justice and those from the Secretariat when he wrote his main publications on infallibility, notably the 2002 ‘Infallible Institutions.’ He would not have had to abandon his argument however, because there are examples enough of errors in letters that are from a consultation of the House of Justice itself. An example is the Ridvan message of 2000, which erroneously stated that the German edition of Making the Crooked Straight had appeared “last year” [in 1999], when in fact it appeared in 1995. Circle shape, BorisThe message was silently corrected, and the original text is hard to find. I recovered it using the wayback machine / internet archive. This reminds me of a joke I heard attributed to a member of the House of Justice:
– “How do you make decisions when you are infallible?”
– “Very carefully.”

Given such errors, we still need either to understand infallibility as limited to a selection within the decisions and communication of the House itself – the Udo Schaefer approach – and/or understand infallibility as allowing for errors of a certain kind and/or degree of importance. The latter is my approach, which I will not enlarge on here. Suffice to say that excluding letters from the auxiliary institutions simplifies the picture, but does not resolve the issue of the meaning and scope of the infallibility of the Universal House of Justice.

An alternative

The House of Justice might consider the virtues of the model used by the United States Supreme Court and the Supreme Courts of other federal systems: the Court first filters cases presented to it, and in most cases refuses to hear them, for its function is not to provide for justice in each individual case – that is the task of the lower courts or in our case, of the National Spiritual Assemblies. Its task is to ensure coherence between the principles applied in the diverse lower courts, and to provide the _authoritative ruling on new issues. Normally, the lower courts (assemblies) themselves identify the principles involved in new issues, and make rulings that are tested by critique and by their effects over time. It is not the case that every new issue must _first be decided at the highest level: that is a recipe for paralysis. Rather, there must be a possibility of a decision at the highest level at some point, if and when this is necessary to ensure effectiveness and unity.

Related content:
Infallability and the meaning of khata’
Infallability as freedom

On Will McCant‘s blog:
Shaykh Ahmad on Infallibility

Short link: https://wp.me/pcgF5-38h

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In search of spiritual democracy

Posted by Sen on September 14, 2018

In the 30’s and 40’s, Shoghi Effendi was encouraging the Bahais to establish the various organs of the Bahai Administrative Order, while some Bahais, notably in the Bahai community in North America, were resisting. They put forward an alternative vision, in which Baha’u’llah’s “Houses of Justice” were thought to refer to democratic governments, and the Bahai community was inclusive and had no permanent organization at all. Three ‘quotes’ from Abdu’l-Baha were central to this vision of what a Bahai community could be: “you cannot organize the Bahai Movement, the Bahai Movement is the spirit of the age” “There are no officers in this Cause” and “The foundation of this Cause is pure spiritual democracy.”
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Community, Defence of the Faith, Polemics, Theology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 32 Comments »

Houses of Worship in all the lands

Posted by Sen on September 1, 2018

[Revised July 2019]

I have put up a revised revised draft on the first chapter of my thesis on the Bahai Commonwealth. The topic is not crystal-ball gazing about the future, but rather an examination of the intentions of the community’s founders, by looking at their writings and actions. Chapter 1 is on the House of Worship. I am hoping for feedback please: what is wrong, what is missing, what is redundant? It is a Word (doc) document for downloading here

Posted in Community, Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, Theology | Tagged: , , , , , | 10 Comments »

Blessed is the spot …

Posted by Sen on August 23, 2018

“Blessed is the spot” is one of the most widely used devotional works from Baha’u’llah, in both the original Arabic and in translation. It is used as a prayer and as a hymn. It has often been set to music and recorded. It reads, in English:

Blessed is the spot, and the house, and the place, and the city, and the heart, and the mountain, and the refuge, and the cave, and the valley, and the land, and the sea, and the island, and the meadow where mention of God hath been made, and His praise glorified.

This extract was translated by Shoghi Effendi in The Advent of Divine Justice, as part of a compilation of scriptural verses from diverse sources, encouraging teaching activities. He quoted the Arabic text in his Naw Ruz message in Persian, in BE 100 / 1943.
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Posted in Aqdas and Law, Community, Mashriqu'l-Adhkar | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »

Bahai courts – a short guide

Posted by Sen on August 10, 2018


This posting will look at the institutions of Bahai courts, the House of Justice, the International Bahai Council and the International Tribunal as they are described primarily in the writings of Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. I will assume that readers know what the Universal House of Justice is, and how the National Houses of Justice, known as National Spiritual Assemblies, are elected and function. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Aqdas and Law, Church and State, Community, History | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Instrumental music in the House of Worship

Posted by Sen on June 21, 2018


Hymns, music and singing in worship are mentioned often in the Bahai writings. Many examples are brought together in the Compilation on Music. Abdu’l-Baha writes to one Bahai:

Music is regarded as a praiseworthy branch of learning … Chant (or sing) the verses of God in the great congregations and grand oratories, in the most wondrous accents, and raise such a melody in the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar that the Concourse on High will resonate.

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Why were the saints [called] saints?

Posted by Sen on September 10, 2017

There’s a quote doing the rounds, attributed to Abdu’l-Baha, that starts:

“Someone asked ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: “Why were the saints called saints?” He replied: “Because they were cheerful when it was difficult to be cheerful, patient when it was difficult to be patient, and because they pushed on when they wanted to stand still, …”

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Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablet of Meetings as Mashriqu’l-Adhkars

Posted by Sen on August 7, 2017

The Tablet below has been available in English only in a partial translation. It makes some interesting points about the centrality of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar in Abdu’l-Baha’s thinking, and is historically interesting for its restriction of meetings, presumably those in Iran, to nine persons, so as to avoid inciting opposition.

The Mashriqu’l-Adhkar or Bahai House of Worship, has a prominent place in Baha’u’llah’s ‘Most Great Book’, the Kitab-e Aqdas, which commands the people of the world to build houses of worship “throughout the lands.” It has a central place in Abdu’l-Baha’s writings, particularly his correspondence, where it is called “the greatest divine institute,” and it is named by Shoghi Effendi as one of the “two primary agencies” of the Bahai Faith and “the crowning institution in every Bahai community.” Baha’u’llah has given a rather direct indication of the kind of community he envisioned by naming his house of worship the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar,
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Posted in Bahai Writings, Community, Devotions, Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, Translations | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

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Let’s talk ….

Posted by Sen on August 6, 2015

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

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

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Two letters of Abdu’l-Baha in praise of the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar

Posted by Sen on July 21, 2015

Battambang-1

The Mashriqu’l-Adhkar is a House of Worship or Temple, built not just for Bahais but for all the people in a community to use. The name means ‘the place where God is remembered,’ and remembrance in this context has the combined senses of awareness and praise. ‘Where God is remembered’ is not just in a building: it is also in the heart, and in a devotional meeting, and in a community. For more information on the Mashriqu’l-Ahkar, see ‘The Mashriqu’l-Adhkar Handbook,’ in the ‘compilations’ section of this blog. (Opens as a PDF file) further compilation this blog. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Community, Devotions, Mashriqu'l-Adhkar, Translations | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

“… a body of learned Bahais”

Posted by Sen on July 15, 2015

Ivan Sakhnenko, The Anatomy Lesson
On a facebook group, one Bahai wrote:
Obviously the House of Justice needs someone w/ an appropriate background to explain the Writings to them.” This was in the context of letters that showed the Universal House of Justice’s understanding of Bahai teachings evolving over time. I will give more details below.

I am sure the suggestion was well meant, but I think it is heading in the wrong direction entirely. However first I will have to explain why the suggestion could be made. The ‘problem’ for the Bahais, is that it is clear from doctrine and practical observation that the Universal House of Justice, the head of the Bahai community, does not always understand the Bahai scriptures correctly. If there was a guarantee that it would always be correct, the Guardianship would have been unnecessary. Read the rest of this entry »

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Changes in the Bahai calendar: what, how and especially, why?

Posted by Sen on September 22, 2014

Haab calendar from wikimedia commons

Relax – not the new Bahai calendar. But it does have 19 months

[December 26: the dates of feast days and holy days for the coming years have been added to the bottom of the blog. [Skip to the table]]

On July 10, 2014, the Universal House of Justice announced three decisions regarding the Badi` (Bahai) calendar that has been used, in two slightly different forms, by Bahais in Islamic lands and in the rest of the world. The changes take effect from the next Bahai New Year, from sunset on March 20, 2015. The full text of the letter from the Universal House of Justice is available in the documents archive of this blog. The changes modify the pattern of the Bahai year somewhat, harmonise practices for Bahais in the East and West and – in my view most significantly – they underline that the Bahai Faith is an independent religion and an independent religious community with its own identity. What are the changes about, how will they effect us in our local communities, and why are they introduced now? And the otherwise unspoken question, “Is this more than an unnecessary and irritating inconvenience, haven’t we (and haven’t they), got better things to do?”

The answers to these questions in brief are, that there are reasons in scripture and in what I will call cultural ‘politics’ why these changes should be made now, and that the new dates for feasts and holy days will not be difficult to use in practice, or very different from those we are used to. Read the rest of this entry »

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“Without reference to particular individuals”

Posted by Sen on March 23, 2013

Pope-Benedict-XVI From the moment Pope Benedict announced his retirement, the names of possible successors were being discussed, along with ideas about the right kind of Pope to lead the Church in the years to come. A South American? An African? … It all makes for good press. Bahai elections, even the forthcoming election of the Universal House of Justice, are not so newsworthy.

The Bahai community has no clergy, in the sense of qualified religious experts who lead a religious community. Read the rest of this entry »

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“Matters of State” or “administrative matters”: the scope of the House of Justice

Posted by Sen on November 5, 2011


[Updated May 2012, December 2016]
In 2008, I posted an entry about the translation of the Eighth Ishraq, which is the eighth section of one of Baha’u’llah’s shorter works, the Ishraqat or Splendours. The posting explained why I thought that the 1978 translation authorized by the Universal House of Justice was incorrect where it says “All matters of State (‘umuur-e siyaasiyyah) should be referred to the House of Justice.” The earlier translation by Ali Kuli Khan, “Administrative affairs are all in charge of the House of Justice, and devotional acts must be observed according as they are revealed in the Book” was, I thought, more accurate, and more consistent with other works by Abdu’l-Baha and Baha’u’llah. Read the rest of this entry »

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‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’

Posted by Sen on December 16, 2010

I’m not a historian: I’m interested mainly in the timeless task of understanding the Bahai teachings, leaving history to those able, and crystal-ball gazing to those interested. But those who don’t know their history, will repeat mistakes in understanding quite needlessly, so sometimes we need to look back at the history of an idea in the Bahai community, especially where it is a mistaken idea that keeps resurfacing. In this case I am looking at some words attributed to Abdu’l-Baha, Read the rest of this entry »

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Shapur’s poem

Posted by Sen on June 17, 2010

Contributed by Ahang Rabbani

Shapur (Hushang) Markazi was a Baha’i from Gilan. For a number of years he served with great distinction on the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Iran and later as an Auxiliary Board member. In the early years of the Islamic Revolution (1979), he was arrested and imprisoned in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. After much torture, he was executed on September 23, 1984, because of his religious convictions. Read the rest of this entry »

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Too tender for the House?

Posted by Sen on May 23, 2010

The Universal House of Justice is an elected body that serves as the head of the world-wide Bahai community. It is empowered to decide when Bahai laws are applicable for Bahais, to provide the necessary framework so that they can be applied, and to make laws and rulings for situations that are not covered in Bahai scripture. So it has a very important role in Bahai community life. Unlike all the other Bahai institutions and roles and positions in community life, membership of the Universal House of Justice is, at least for now, reserved for men. I will return to that ‘for now’ briefly, at the end of this posting. Read the rest of this entry »

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Muhammad Ali revived? (2)

Posted by Sen on April 17, 2010

In a comment on my earlier posting on the latest attempt to revive the ‘Unitarian’ variant of the Bahai Faith, as expounded by Abdu’l-Baha’s younger brother Muhammad Ali, one reader wrote:

> I dont feel I have anything to fear from Muhammed Ali or most members
> of the UBA. They simply have a different narrative based upon certain
> historical facts, progressive ideas ..
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Pluralist society

Posted by Sen on April 4, 2010


This is in response to ‘Pluralist Society is an Unethical Rabble’ on another Bahai blog on WordPress, Owen’s Meanderings. Owen says he is

“increasingly reminded of that famous biblical story about Sodom and Gommorroh,” … the men and women who sit in government seats must take their share of the blame for the inequities within a nation. However increasingly I have realized that the person living in my street is likely to be twice a corrupt as a politician. … There seems to be very few people who have self-regulating ethical decision-making process. .. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Church and State, Community, Ethics and Morality, Individualism, Political science | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 21 Comments »

Abdu’l-Baha’s last tablet to America

Posted by Sen on February 21, 2010


Abdu’l-Baha’s “last tablet to America” was published in Star of the West and Bahai World Faith. It is a long tablet, and of some historical and doctrinal importance. It deals primarily with the importance of the Bahais shunning “any person in whom they perceive the emanation of hatred for the glorious Beauty of Abha” or “violators” — Read the rest of this entry »

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The Pilgrims’ Hostel and the Mashriq’l-Adhkar

Posted by Sen on February 7, 2010

In the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar at Burnlaw

One of the friends asked about the “Pilgrim’s Hostel” which is mentioned by Shoghi Effendi as one of the “component parts” at the center of a Bahai community. (God Passes By, 339) Has this become redundant, now that we fly to Israel overnight rather than walking for months to perform our pilgrimmage?
 
 
I think the meaning is wider than simply “pilgrim’s hostel.” Read the rest of this entry »

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Evolving to individualism

Posted by Sen on January 10, 2010

This posting briefly explains two different ways in which the Enlightenment and its fruits in Western societies can be viewed, in relation to the goal of building a Bahai society. It argues that our attitude to the political philosophy of individualism will influence the Bahai communities we build, and suggests that it is possible to see the individualisation of society, individualism and other aspects of the Enlightenment as positive elements of the new order, rather than as signs of the breakdown of the old order. Read the rest of this entry »

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Days of marriage

Posted by Sen on December 20, 2009

A friend asked about the ‘days of marriage’ which Abdu’l-Baha referred to in a letter to Alwyn Baker in late 1920. That led me to two letters from Abdu’l-Baha, one of them translated by Shoghi Effendi and available only in an edited form, the other not available in English in Ocean and the other search engines, and containing some remarks on philosophy, evolution and the eternity of creation. And, in the end, I also found out about the ‘days of marriage.’ Read the rest of this entry »

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The mystery of sacrifice

Posted by Sen on October 16, 2009

sealscrofts3One of the friends said:

Long ago I picked up a supposed quote from the Bab, “The mystery of sacrifice is there is no sacrifice.” Now I can’t find a source. Read the rest of this entry »

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Instant, exact and complete?

Posted by Sen on October 12, 2009

blueangelsIn a discussion group, one of the participants recalled that Shoghi Effendi had said that the requirement for appointment as a Hand of the Cause was “instant, exact and complete obedience.” It’s a familiar phrase in Bahai discourse, but is it from the words of Shoghi Effendi? Is it about the Hands of the Cause?
 
Read the rest of this entry »

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Words of Grace

Posted by Sen on September 1, 2009

Aztec_feast_2One of the Bahais asked what wording is meant by the following verse in Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of Medicine (Lawh-e Tibb):

و اذا شرعت فی الأکل فَابْتَدِئْ باسمی الأبهی
 
ثمّ اختم باسم ربّک مالک العرش و الثّری

 
When you would commence eating, begin by mentioning My Most Glorious Name (al-abha) and finish it with the Name of Thy Lord, the Possessor of the Throne above and of the earth below. (Translation by Stephen Lambden)

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Knowledge: project or process?

Posted by Sen on May 4, 2009

encyclopaediaprojectThe Bahai Encyclopaedia Project has begun to put up a selection of online articles. As of today, there are 21 articles online, so it is just a small beginning. Two are classified under “teachings and laws,” but one of these is misfiled: it is on the Letters of the Living and belongs in the history category. That leaves one article on the Bahai teachings, the one entitled ‘children.’

Looking down this article, I was surprised to see that even where better sources are easily available, it draws extensively on The Promulgation of Universal Peace, which is not an authentic source. In a footnote to the footnotes the Encyclopaedia editors even list Promulgation of Universal Peace among ‘scripture and other authoritative texts.’ The author and editor are clearly not aware of source-critical issues, which is not a promising start for such a project.
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The world’s a stage

Posted by Sen on April 26, 2009

One of the friends said:

polarshift1… an elderly lady once told me that Shoghi Effendi had said that the earth would “fall off its axis and spin wildly for three days”… well, I’ve searched and searched for anything even close…

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Foundations for inter-faith sharing

Posted by Sen on April 18, 2009

symbols39-starBahais have been frequent participants in inter-faith fora, and like all the participants we need to work out what our basic stance is: are we there to protect our interests and have our say; are we counting the other participants as anonymous Bahais and including them into our project; are we there to show what we have to offer that other religions do not have, and so win converts?
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It’s Friday: thank God

Posted by Sen on April 11, 2009

calendaraddon [Revised October 2019]
The wikipedia page for the Bahai Calendar state: “Like Islam, Friday is also the day of rest in the Baha’i Faith.”

That’s not true for Islam: Friday is the day on which attendance at the congregational prayers at noon in the mosque is obligatory for those Muslims who are able, but it is not a ‘day of rest’ in Islam. But what about the Bahai Faith? We do not say our obligatory prayers in congregation (although we may say them, each for himself, during the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar service, but that is another story). Do we have a day of rest, as the Wikipedia article says?
Read the rest of this entry »

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Stark choices

Posted by Sen on March 8, 2009

In a discussion on this blog, I referred briefly to Rodney Stark’s work on the dynamics of religious growth. Stark is primarily a sociologist, whose contribution to church history is to employ the statistical and analytic methods used in sociology. His book, The Rise of Christianity (1996, Princeton University Press) deals roughly speaking with the first three centuries of Christianity, and the first century of Mormonism, and offers a lot of food for thought for the Bahais.

saintsStark begins by estimating that there were 1000 Christians in the Roman Empire in the year 40. He notes that in the middle of the third century, Christians were by their own account few in number (p.5), but by the year 300 there were about 5 to 7.5 million Christians: so numerous that a few years later Constantine found it expedient to embrace the church. This has led the church in its own histories, and some scholars, to suppose that there was a mass conversion event in the late third century. But constant growth of 40% per decade, or 3.42% per year, is enough to explain these results: no mass conversion event is required. This is the same growth picture that Stark had found in his previous work on the Mormon church, which has grown hugely in 100 years without mass conversions, and it is supported by the archaeological evidence of church building sizes.
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Conversation with God

Posted by Sen on February 28, 2009

We had a potluck for yummy-ha, with pecan pie. It was followed by imaginative and effective musical devotions: first all learning to sing a simple prayer with variants, and then all humming that tune while some short readings were read slooowly, the spoken phrases matching the musical phrases.

mantisheadSince the potluck took place at the day and home which regularly hosts a Ruhi circle, the devotions flowed straight on to a Ruhi session, Book 1 Chapter 2, on Prayer. The first words of the chapter are “Abdu’l-Baha says that prayer is conversation with God.” No source was given. This part of the Ruhi book raises a lot of questions, and questions are always good.
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Entry by troops (time to be announced)

Posted by Sen on February 17, 2009

It has been my experience that Bahais often become discouraged as a result of having unrealistic expectations of what is called entry by troops (EBT) and large scale conversion. I would like to look again at what the Bahai scriptures say about this, and at how Shoghi Effendi conceived the historical process of growth. The little that the scriptures say suggests to me that its importance has been over-rated, and that the time-frame of entry by troops, its nature, and how the Bahais can bring it about have all been misunderstood. From my reading of the world and of the scriptures, I suggest that we should not now be greatly preoccupied with entry by troops or large scale conversion: a concern with the needs of the age we live in, and the needs of our Bahai communities today, will indicate healthier, locally-specific priorities which – ironically – will be more conducive to actual ‘growth’ in every sense. We will start by briefly looking back over the last two generations.
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1917 and all that

Posted by Sen on February 6, 2009

paperstorm Amended April 3, 2011
The Bahai community has a tendency to get carried away with its enthusiasms for prophecies that supposedly give an insight into the immediate future. I’ve discussed one of these in Century’s end, about the expectation that “unity of nations” would be achieved by the year 2000. The story this time goes back to the beginning of the 20th century, when the Bahais were waiting for cataclysms to strike in 1917, followed by a world at peace in which “all nations shall be as one faith.”
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Elections in Baha’u’llah’s World Order

Posted by Sen on January 30, 2009

One of the friends asked three questions:

1. After the World Order of Baha’u’llah is established and the World’s legislative & executive branches of government are arms or derivatory institutions of the Universal House of Justice (which appears to be the case from my readings) will non-Baha’is have the opportunity to vote for the National Assemblies that elect the House of Justice? Alternatively, can/will the Universal House of Justice be elected in some other way?

2. Will the World Legislature and/or Executive be elected or appointed by the Universal House of Justice? Alternatively, is the Universal House of Justice to become the World Executive? If elected, will only Baha’is have the right to vote?

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House of Justice, House of Worship

Posted by Sen on January 21, 2009

wilmette1hoj-pillarsNow concerning nature, it is but the essential properties and the necessary relations inherent in the realities of things. And though these infinite realities are diverse in their character yet they are in the utmost harmony and closely connected together. As one’s vision is broadened and the matter observed carefully, it will be made certain that every reality is but an essential requisite of other realities. Thus to connect and harmonize these diverse and infinite realities an all-unifying Power is necessary, that every part of existent being may in perfect order discharge its own function.
(Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet to August Forel, pages 20-21)

In a letter dated 7 April 1999 the Universal House of Justice warns among other things of an “attempt to suggest that the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar should evolve into a seat of quasidoctrinal authority, parallel to and essentially independent of the Local House of Justice.” Although I am not aware that this idea has ever been put forward in the English-speaking Bahai world, the letter may be taken as evidence that it has or may emerge somewhere. So it seems a good idea to consider the relationship between the Mashriqu’l-Adhkar or House of Worship and the Houses of Justice (i.e., the Bahai administrative institutions, which at the local and national level are now known as Spiritual Assemblies). To understand the institutional relations at the core of the organic Bahai community, we will also have to include the guardianship.
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Century of light

Posted by Sen on January 15, 2009

BahaIn Century’s end, I showed that Bahais of my generation widely expected universal peace to arrive in the twentieth century. Some of the texts on which this belief was based did not refer to the twentieth century; others did refer to the twentieth century or dates in the 20th century, but were pilgrims’ notes. There may be more, but I have found five such unauthentic sources:

onecandle– The Maxwell’s pilgrim’s notes, anticipating the Lesser Peace by 1953.
– Esselmont’s pilgrim’s notes, in the first edition of Baha’u’llah and the New Era, anticipating universal peace by 1957. As Dan Jensen has pointed out, the 1950 edition changed the date to 1963, but it is still just a pilgrim’s note, and universal peace was also not achieved in 1963.
Sarah Kenny’s Haifa notes anticipating the Lesser Peace in the 20th century.
– A report in the Montreal Star on September 11, 1912, printed in Abdu’l-Baha in Canada p. 35, saying that peace would be universal in the 20th century.
– A talk reported in The Promulgation of Universal Peace page 126, and in Star of the West 3.8.14, calling the twentieth century the century of international peace.
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Century’s end – my two cents

Posted by Sen on January 12, 2009

spinningtopWhen I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 1 Corinthians 13:11

The word ‘century’ appears unproblematic: a period of a hundred years, which in common usage begins with the year 00 (although sticklers will insist that the century begins in the year 01, so that the 21st century began on 1 January 2001). But in reading the Bahai texts, things are not so simple. In this post I want to look at the peculiar significance Bahais have mistakenly attached to the 20th century and what can be learned from the whole affair; in the next posting I will look at what the Bahai writings really say about the ‘century’ (not the 20th century).
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He cannot override …

Posted by Sen on December 30, 2008

wobIn Shoghi Effendi’s 1934 letter ‘The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah,’ there’s a well-known paragraph in which he says that “the Guardian of the Faith has been made the Interpreter of the Word and that the Universal House of Justice has been invested with the function of legislating …”. I want to look at the paragraph after that, which deals with the fact that the Guardian is a member of the House of Justice; so that while the spheres of the two institutions are distinct, their memberships overlap. How would that work, with the Guardian or his representative in the room, while the House of Justice was making its decisions?
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750 muskets

Posted by Sen on December 25, 2008

[Last revised, April 2019]
Did a regiment of 750 musketmen line up to execute the Bab, in a barracks square in Tabriz, and all miss their target? Early accounts, and those closest to Tabriz, do not say that a whole regiment, or 750 men specifically, constituted the firing squad. Later reports, in the Bahai Writings, do say this. Here’s how Abdu’l-Baha tells the story, in E.G. Browne’s translation):

By one rope the Báb was suspended and by the other rope Aqa Muhammad-‘Ali, both being firmly bound in such wise that the head of that young man was on the Báb’s breast. The surrounding housetops billowed with teeming crowds. A regiment of soldiers ranged itself in three files. The first file fired; then the second file, and then the third file discharged volleys. From the fire of these volleys a mighty smoke was produced. When the smoke cleared away they saw that young man standing and the Báb seated by the side of His amanuensis Aqa Siyyid Husayn in the very cell from the staircase of which they had suspended them. To neither one of them had the slightest injury resulted.
(Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveller’s Narrative, p. 26-7)

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Red Tulips

Posted by Sen on December 20, 2008

I have a lovely story to share, told to me by Brent Poirier and shared with his permission. He heard it around 1980 from Inez Greeven, whose sister was India Haggarty, the subject of our story. India Haggarty was a Bahai living in Paris in 1931. I will let Brent tell the story:
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The Supreme Institution

Posted by Sen on December 16, 2008

bubble3Older Bahais, like me, will have noticed a new way of referring to the Universal House of Justice, as “the supreme institution.” I think I first noticed people saying this about 1985. In Anna’s Presentation we find “We have already spoken about the supreme institution, which is the Universal House of Justice…”. Paul Lample, in his Preface to A Wider Horizon, Selected Letters [of the Universal House of Justice] refers to “a continuous flow of guidance that comes from the Supreme Body.”
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Reward and Punishment

Posted by Sen on December 5, 2008

scalesBaha’u’llah writes:

Schools must first train the children in the principles of religion, so that the Promise and the Threat recorded in the Books of God may prevent them from the things forbidden and adorn them with the mantle of the commandments; but this in such a measure that it may not injure the children by resulting in ignorant fanaticism and bigotry.
(Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 68)

Promise and Threat, or reward and punishment, is one of those basic dynamics that acts out at several levels. Read the rest of this entry »

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A modern-day Romeo and Juliet

Posted by Sen on November 30, 2008

… i like this girl and she likes me.. my faith is bahai … she is a very strong christian. and she takes the bible very seriously, and i respect that of her, but in the bible there is a verse that says jesus is the only way to heaven, and in another it says a christian shouldn’t get involved with someone non- christian…
there in lies my problem. and she won’t go out with me until i’ve changed my mind about christ and the bible.. now we did go on a date and it went good, but in her and my art class together i got in an argument over my beliefs with her and half of the class today. let alone this wasn’t bad enough she decided not to date me until i’ve changed…
i will not change my beliefs for her. but is there any way one of you could give me some very convincing verses from the bible, or better yet some strong proof to why bahaism is better..
i need a lot of help with this one, i like her a lot and she likes me, but our strengths in our religious beliefs are getting in the way and we both tend to be stubborn, and i don’t want to see someone as amazing as her just leave me…

Dear Romeo,
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Two by two

Posted by Sen on November 14, 2008

ocean and riverThere is a delightful story – which I have reason to think is true, in broad lines at least — about the martyr and Hand of the Cause Mirza `Ali-Muhammad Varqa (Grandfather of the Hand of the Cause of the same name who died in 2007). Mr. Varqa made the pilgrimage to the Holy Land during the lifetime of Baha’u’llah. He found himself with fellow pilgrims in the presence of the Manifestation. He watched as Baha’u’llah spoke to the gathering, and thought to himself, “How fortunate I am! To have recognized the Manifestation of God for this Day, and to be in His very presence!”

Then he thought to himself, “I believe that He is the Manifestation of God. But I want to really believe. What could Baha’u’llah do, that would make me know beyond all doubt that He is the Manifestation of God?”

He thought for a time, and then thought, “I have always wondered about the verse in the Holy Qur’an, where it says that Noah brought the animals into the Ark in pairs. This can’t mean a pair of giraffes and a pair of gnats. Read the rest of this entry »

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Pray for good government

Posted by Sen on November 7, 2008

caesarcoinIn many Christian churches, and in Sunni Islam in particular, prayers for the ruler or government are a routine part of collective worship. Bahais too are told to pray for their rulers. But we do not seem to be comfortable with it: how often is a prayer for the government part of a Baha’i meeting? Perhaps some background will help.
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The knower as servant (response to Paul Lample)

Posted by Sen on October 20, 2008

I’ve been reading Paul Lample’s “Learning and the Evolution of the Bahá’í Community.” From page 15, he presents various possible roles for the “learned Bahai” in the Bahai community, saying among other things that learned Baha’i is not an “artist”, and concluding “Perhaps the learned Baha’i is more like the ‘scout’ who helps to guide an expedition on a journey into unexplored territory.” I found it striking that he did not mention the possibility that the learned Bahai could be a servant, someone who uses knowledge to minister to the faithful.
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What is theology, and what’s it good for ?

Posted by Sen on October 1, 2008

On my web site, I’ve put up my part of two discussion threads about theology, and how the Bahai community can face the fact that some people know more than others, on particular topics, but without replicating the structures of past religions in which greater knowledge often translates into greater authority. Read the rest of this entry »

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Do assemblies learn?

Posted by Sen on April 3, 2008

The Spiritual Assemblies that administer affairs in Bahai communities suffer from growing pains: and the members themselves are the nerve that feels it the most. If the problem is disunity, is there a point at which it is better for some members to resign? Or should the assembly be maintained, and meet, come what may – even if the problems in the meeting seep out and undermine the good work and good feeling in the community? Read the rest of this entry »

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The puzzle of the Aqdas: joining a few pieces

Posted by Sen on March 29, 2008

I first wrote this as an email posting on 1 Jan 2008. I’ve reworked it as a blog entry. It concerns one of the things that puzzles Bahais from a Christian or non-religious background: what is ‘religious law’ and how do we treat the Kitab-e Aqdas?

Usually this comes up not as a broad theoretical question, but in terms of particulars. Why do women seem to be disadvantaged in the inheritance law, why are they treated differently in regard to some religious duties, and what is that verse about having no more than two wives?
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Youth: every age its own problem

Posted by Sen on February 20, 2008

As a first experiment in blogging, here’s a letter I wrote to the Bahai Youth Council in 1996. The Council had written a jeremiad about the terrible state of youth, and invited comments. They got them.

To the European Bahá’í Youth Council
I have recently received a copy of your paper “The State of the Bahá’í Youth in Europe,” dated May 1995. That is a long time ago – particularly in the life of a youth – and perhaps this paper no longer reflects the thinking of the Youth Council. I hope so, at any rate, because the approach adopted in the paper does not suggest a way forward for either the Council or the youth themselves.
In addition to the general observation that one cannot expect positive output from negative input, two areas in particular struck me as needing re-vision: the approach to morality and to individualism.
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