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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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Related content:
‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’
Bahai lore (tag)


Posted in Community, Polemics, Theology, Defence of the Faith | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

“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 »

Mitchell’s mistake

Posted by Sen on May 27, 2009

from Remey, 'Observations' 1908

I’ve been looking again at an old claim that Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament was not written by Abdu’l-Baha, that it was ‘fraudulent.’ This claim is the foundation for two small Bahai splinter groups that reject the institution of the Guardianship (established by Abdu’l-Baha in his Will and Testament), and it has also been propagated in Germany in anti-Bahai polemics published by the Lutheran ‘Central Office for Questions of Ideology’ (EZW). In looking through the documents, I’ve noticed something that doesn’t seem to have been commented on in the past.
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Bahai Writings, History, Polemics | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 29 Comments »

Polemics revisited

Posted by Sen on September 7, 2008

Moojan Momen has posted on his web site a new version of his response-to-responses, occasioned by his Religion article on “Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha’i Community.” In this, he states :

‘My statement that Sen McGlinn’s disenrollment was due to “persistent challenges” to the Universal House of Justice is an inference that I have drawn from letters of the Universal House of Justice going back to 1995.’

Read the rest of this entry »

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