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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.”

I have already written extensively on ‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’ on this blog. In brief, it seems to originate with Percy Woodcock’s 1909 pilgrim’s notes, mistakenly taken up by Star of the West magazine in 1914, and then into various other publications. The same posting includes a historical survey of anti-organisational sentiment in the Bahai community in the United States, which was opposed by Louis G. Gregory, Agnes S. Parsons, Mariam Haney and, from 1920, by Mason Remey. Peter Smith has outlined the resistance to organization, and the election of precursors to the Local Spiritual Assemblies, in ‘The American Bahai Community.’ I will only repeat here one point I’ve made in ‘You can never organize’ : the power of such memes comes not from their credibility as texts, but from an already existing distrust of organization in religion, with which such texts meshed, and from the particularly anti-episcopal character of religion in the United States.

Here I would like to deal more briefly with the “no offices” and “spiritual democracy” memes. The most influential of the early publications in which these words appear is Bahai Scriptures (pp 499-450), a compilation that mixes authentic and dubious texts. It is no longer printed or distributed in hard copy, but it has given a new lease of life by being digitized. The words attributed to Abdu’l-Baha are:

Meekness and humility are the hallmarks of faith. As soon as a believer feels himself the least degree superior to others, the beginning of his spiritual decline has set in, all unaware to himself. There are no offices in this Cause. I do not and have not “appointed” any one to perform any special service, but I encourage every one to engage in the service of the Kingdom. The foundation of this Cause is pure spiritual democracy, and not theocracy. The difference between me and others is this: I confess and acknowledge my own inability, weakness and humility, and know that all these outward confirmations are the favors of the Blessed Perfection. There are some who imagine, and little by little come to believe, that their spiritual successes are by and through themselves.

My particular focus here is on the highlighted words. They are obviously implausible, as Abdu’l-Baha did appoint people to perform special services, and he knew Baha’u’llah had done the same. Moreover if at that time there were Persian terms for “democracy” (as distinct from “republic”) and for “theocracy,” Abdu’l-Baha did not use them in his writings, but his interpreters and editors did. For example, “democracy” appears three times in the English report of a talk Abdu’l-Baha gave at the Orient-Occident-Unity Conference (translated by Amin Farid, notes by Joseph Hannen) on April 20, 1912, but not in the Persian notes of the same talk (see here).

It’s unlikely that Abdu’l-Baha ever said “the foundation of this Cause is pure spiritual democracy.” The source is probably Ahmad Sohrab, since the same words are found in Sohrab’s I Heard Him Say, page 120, published in 1937. While Bahai Scriptures was published 14 years earlier, in 1923, it is very likely that Sohrab had communicated the words in a private letter or a letter to be published in a Bahai newsletter, before he included it in I heard Him Say, which is a retrospective compilation. As we will see, in 1914 he had inserted a quote about “spiritual democracy” into his translation of a tablet from Abdu’l-Baha. Sohrab is very free in attributing his own ideas to Abdu’l-Baha, so where he is the only known source of words, they must be regarded as especially doubtful.

It is a fair assumption that the Bahai Scriptures example of the “spiritual democracy” meme is a bit of western egalitarianism and anti-clericalism, championed by Ahmad Sohrab, and put into the mouth of Abdu’l-Baha. This iteration says “The foundation of this Cause is pure spiritual democracy, and not theocracy.” This is interesting because “theocracy” here evidently means a hierarchical religious organization with authority, whereas today we use it to mean a state ruled by the religious authorities.

The alert reader will notice that quotes of this text sometimes says “there are no offices” and sometimes “there are no officers.” Which is the authentic form is a moot point, since the quote is not authentic in any form.

These words, first published in 1923, are probably not intended by Sohrab as a rejection of the Guardianship, which was established in Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament and became public early in 1922. I doubt that there is enough time between Sohrab’s learning of the Will and Testament and the typesetting for Bahai Scriptures for these words to have been written in response to the Will. Holley’s ‘Introduction’ to the volume is dated February 12, 1923. However the quote about having no officers was loved by Ruth White and Hermann Zimmer, who led campaigns against the Guardianship, and it is used today by groups or individuals who oppose the Administrative Order of the Bahai community, groups such as “Free Bahais,” “Reform Bahai,” “Orthodox Bahai Faith” and the like.

Another form in which the idea of “spiritual democracy” is found is a talk by Abdu’l-Baha that is reported in The Promulgation of Universal Peace, where it is dated November 23 1912 and located at the Great Northern Hotel in New York. The relevant part reads:

The effect of such an assembly as this is conducive to divine fellowship … By it the very foundations of race prejudice are uprooted and destroyed, the banner of spiritual democracy is hoisted aloft, …(p. 447)

There are no Persian notes to check the authenticity of the report, and no indication of the source: the report was not first published in Star of the West. The editor of Promulgation says the source is notes taken by Edna McKinney. Because there are no Persian notes of this talk, we know it only via an interpreter, whose words were recorded or later remembered by Edna McKinney, who presumably passed her notes to Howard MacNutt, an editor who in other instances has been shown to have a very free hand in embellishing his texts. In one case I’ve discussed on this blog, he frankly interpolated the text.

The phrase is also attributed to Abdu’l-Baha by Ahmad Sohrab in a diary entry for 23 May 1914, published in Star of the West, Vol. 7 nr. 18, February 7, 1917.

The Bahais must be always on the alert, so that they may not fall into this pit. They must keep the religion of God pure and uncontaminated, a haven of rest for the despondent souls, a safe harbor for the shipwrecked, a divine antidote for the ailing ones, a torch of light for those who are groping in the darkness, and a spiritual democracy for the down trodden and the outcast.(p. 180).

Sohrab kept a diary in Persian, and translated parts and sent them to friends and Bahai magazines, but there is reason to think that he also wrote some recollections in English, some time after the event, and claimed that he had taken the words from his Persian diary, to give them more credibility. I have commented on this previously on this blog. In the same diary report he says that Abdu’l-Baha said “The religion of God is the leveller of all social inequalities and the destroyer of sacerdotal distinctions. In the court of the Almighty there are no offices or positions.” This is the germ of Sohrab’s later rejection of the Guardianship, and refusal to obey the Spiritual Assembly of New York. In the Bahai community there are indeed offices and positions. Moreover Abdu’l-Baha wrote explicitly of the preservation of ranks in society, and the dignity and rights of each: “The justice of God requires the observation of mutual rights, and the divine law proclaims the preservation of reciprocally related ranks.” (The Art of Governance)

Our search for the term “spiritual democracy” has found three unreliable oral sources for the ‘spiritual democracy,’ but it is not yet ended: the term also appears in a letter from Abdu’l-Baha to Miss Beatrice Irwin in London, and translated by Ahmad Sohrab. The paragraph says, in Sohrab’s translation:

My spirit is aflame and burning; my heart is broken, mournful, heavy and despondent; my eyes are weeping and my soul is on fire. Oh! I am so bowed down and sorrowful.

O people! Weep and cry, lament and bemoan your fate. Then hasten ye, hasten ye, perchance ye may become able to extinguish with the water of the new born ideals of spiritual democracy and celestial freedom, this many flamed, world consuming fire, and through your heaven inspired resolution you may usher in the Golden Era of International Solidarity and World Confederation. (translation dated October, 1914, printed in Star of the West Vol. 5, p. 245).

However there is nothing that could be translated “O people!” “spiritual democracy and celestial freedom” or “the Golden Era of International Solidarity and World Confederation” in the tablet, which has been published in Persian. Sohrab has simply made all this up. That section says, in fact:

My soul is burning and melting, my heart, inflamed, is grieving; my eyes are weeping and my liver on fire! Will you [i.e., the various kinds of world leaders previously addressed] then talk and moan and cry rivers, that you may pour water on this many-flamed fire? Nay rather let this world-consuming fire be extinguished by your efforts.

In a number of other places in his translation, Sohrab has embellished and expanded on what Abdu’l-Baha wrote, but in this section he has gone beyond embellishment to interpolation.

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‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’
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A Book similar to the Quran

Posted by Sen on June 3, 2018

In the “Bihár” it is recorded:

“In our Qá’im there shall be four signs from four Prophets, Moses, Jesus, Joseph, and Muḥammad. The sign from Moses, is fear and expectation; from Jesus, that which was spoken of Him; from Joseph, imprisonment and dissimulation; from Muhammad, the revelation of a Book similar to the Qur’án.”

In his Ketab-e Iqan, Baha’u’llah cites a prophetic tradition about four characteristics of four different prophets, that will also be characteristic of the Qa’im, the promised messiah of the Shiah tradition. The last of these characteristics, the one the Qa’im shares with Muhammad, is “the revelation of a Book similar to the Qur’an.” Baha’u’llah gives his source as the Behar al-Anwar, a huge compilation of mainly Shiah traditions, the life work of Mohammad-Baqer Majlesi, who died around 1700. The Behar became a standard work of Shiah scholarship, especially in the 19th century.

Contemporary Shiah apologists have made the citation in the Iqan a point of critique, because the form Baha’u’llah cites differs from its form in the most widely used modern edition of the Behar al-Anwar.
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“Bahais marry their sisters” — the prohibited degrees of affinity for marriage

Posted by Sen on May 16, 2015

Itchingfield Church - [Upate, October 26, 2015, see postscript.]
This posting will explore the principles and procedures that determine the ‘prohibited degrees of marriage’ in Bahai law. How closely does someone have to be related to you, to be too close for you to marry? The term “affinity” is used to include blood relationships and marriage relationships (and relationships by adoption ~ see the postscript).

Bahai readers will no doubt ask, why do we need a systematic explanation of this now? It is not as if there is a problem: we do not have a prevalence of first cousin marriages in Bahai communities, our assemblies are not overburdened by requests from fathers wanting to marry their daughters. Our lack of interest in the issue is indicated by the fact that the Bahaikipedia section on marriage laws does not mention the prohibited degrees of marriage. Apparently, we are quite satisfied to obey the civil laws and use our common sense.

However the lack of a systematic presentation in terms that are understandable for people from an Islamic background has given room for numerous Islamic scholars and anti-Bahai web sites to tell the people they can influence that Bahais “marry their sisters.” Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Aqdas and Law, Defence of the Faith, Ethics and Morality, Polemics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

Abdu’l-Baha’s British knighthood

Posted by Sen on April 22, 2011

Abdu’l-Baha’s knighthood has never been a matter of importance to Bahais themselves, who have many much weightier reasons to admire and follow Abdu’l-Baha as the successor to his father, Baha’u’llah, as the authorised interpreter of the Bahai scripture and teachings, as the Centre of the Covenant that unites Bahais across the world, and as the best exemplar of the Bahai life. However the photograph of Abdu’l-Baha, seated at the ceremony to confer on him the honour of Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire, is one of the stock images on Iranian and Islamic anti-Bahai sites that seek to present the Bahai Faith as a Western invention, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Defence of the Faith, History, Polemics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments »

Secret Foreign Office documents show …

Posted by Sen on April 21, 2011

The Foreign and India Office, 1866

The punch line is, they show nothing. At least this time. A site called Bahaism and the British Government is presenting “Documentation pertaining to historical connections of the leadership of Bahaism with the British government.” It has just two documents so far. The site has been greeted with relief by the anti-bahai ideologues, who have been claiming for generations that the British established the Bahai Faith to weaken Islam, without finding any evidence. (For a brief treatment of the “British did it” scam, see the Wikipedia article. For a thorough treatment see Adib Masumian’s short book on anti-Bahaism in Iran (PDF))

The funny thing is, the documents are evidence that the British were not involved with the Bahais. You can click on the images to get a larger view, but I’ve typed them over so that search engines can find them – and the owners of “Bahaism and the British Government” cannot remove the evidence. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Defence of the Faith, History, Polemics | Tagged: , , , , | 16 Comments »

A petition to Reza Shah

Posted by Sen on March 30, 2010

Reza Shah's Mausoleum

The following petition was sent to Reza Shah (1878 – 1944; father of Mohammed Reza Shah) by the NSA of the Bahais of North America back in 1926. I’m posting it here to make it accessible to search engines, and because its impressive argumentation is relevant to the current persecutions in Iran, and refutes recent claims that the Bahais of Iran were privileged ( ! ) under the Pahlavi kings. Nothing could be further from the truth. Read the rest of this entry »

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A Muhammad Ali revival?

Posted by Sen on March 27, 2010

Mirza Muhammad Ali was a younger brother of Abdu’l-Baha who rebelled against his brother’s authority as head of the Bahai community, was able to secure possession of some Bahai properties and for some time to cause other difficulties, particularly by misrepresenting Abdu’l-Baha to the government as a threat to the Ottoman state. By the end of his life, Muhammad Ali was left without friends or followers, and had been forced to abandon the properties that he had seized, but did not have the means to maintain in a liveable condition. He died in 1937. There has been no “Muhammad Ali” sect of the Bahai Faith for seventy years past. So why mention this old history here?

In recent weeks we have seen the curious phenomenon of an attempt to revive the claims of Muhammad Ali, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Defence of the Faith | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 42 Comments »

A story about Baha’u’llah?

Posted by Sen on March 26, 2010

A google search on “killed one hundred and thirty people in one night” will turn up several repetitions of the claim that Baha’u’llah killed one hundred and thirty people in one night. The story appears to originate in June 1997, in an article by Imran Shaykh on the BahaiAwareness site. It was picked up in an article posted on ‘The Religion of Islam,’ a Muslim missionary site, in 2006. More recently it has appeared on facebook and on the candidly titled “Anti Bahai Website” and various other places.

There is a brief account of the night in question in the Tarikh-e Jadid, page 59, which is available on google books: Read the rest of this entry »

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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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Anna presents the New World Order

Posted by Sen on November 25, 2009


An awkward question

Anna’s come a long way – to national television, in fact. She’s being interviewed on her favourite subject: the Bahai Faith. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Bahai Writings, Church and State, Defence of the Faith | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

Defending Shoghi Effendi

Posted by Sen on November 22, 2009

Shoghi_Effendi_stands This posting begins by discussing a letter written on behalf of the Guardian, which refers to “the Bahai theocracy” as a divinely ordained system, and goes on from there to address the claims that there is ‘a theocratic undercurrent’ in Shoghi Effendi’s writings, or that he contradicted himself, changed his mind or concealed his real views for reasons of prudence. In addition to the few places where Shoghi Effendi speaks directly on the topic, we can look at the Bahai writings he translated, to see what teachings he thought were central and important for the English-speaking Bahais to understand.

The posting continues by looking at the future renaming of the Assemblies as Houses of Justice, and what Shoghi Effendi says about the role of the Universal House of Justice in the Bahai Commonwealth and in a future superstate, which leads to some considerations regarding the role of an established religion, or state religion, in a society. Another section looks at a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which says that, one day, “the Bahais will be called upon to assume the reins of government,” and at another letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi that speaks of the International Tribunal and Court of Arbitration being merged in the Universal House of Justice. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Church and State, Defence of the Faith | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments »

Abdu’l-Baha by Lake Geneva

Posted by Sen on September 25, 2009

As-saha-al-arabiyIn an Arabic language chat room I came across a claim that Abdu’l-Baha addressed the Zionist Congress in 1911, and a little searching showed that this claim is repeated in many places. I’ve listed a handful in the first comment to this page. In researching the claim, I came across a charming account of a few days Abdu’l-Baha spent beside Lake Geneva, which is not available in electronic form. Since the story is worth sharing in itself, and because this claim about Abdu’l-Baha and the Zionists will eventually be picked up by anti-Bahai writers in English and Persian, I’m sharing them both in a searchable form here. Read the rest of this entry »

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Abdu’l-Baha and the African tribe

Posted by Sen on September 15, 2009

Abdu’l-Baha and his critics


You can ‘prove’ just about anything, by pulling words out of context. A few years ago there was an example of this tactic on a web site opposing the Bahai teachings, called ‘Answering Bahaullah.’ One page there purported to show examples of racism in Bahai scripture. That site is no longer functioning, although the web archive has a copy, but the material from that page is being recycled by various bloggers and has been reproduced in the ‘Bahai Combat Kit’ at page 73 (image later in this entry).

So let’s look at these “proofs” of racism in the Bahai scriptures. But first let’s look at Abdu’l-Baha. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Bahai Writings, Defence of the Faith, Translations | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 44 Comments »

No counterfeits

Posted by Sen on May 11, 2009

willtestamentThis posting points out that there is a clear procedure for the appointment of a legitimate Guardian of the Bahai Faith, and none of the claimants satisfy it. Therefore, all the past claimants and present hopefuls are counterfeit.
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Posted in Aqdas and Law, Defence of the Faith | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments »

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.”
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Community, Defence of the Faith, Theology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments »