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                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

“anything Shoghi Effendi said is Baha’i doctrine”

23 October 2009

This has spun off from a discussion of whether Bahai law allows the recognition of same sex marriage, on 24-hour forums. Like so many of the issues that progressive and conservative Bahais disagree on, this issue hangs on how we should read letters by, and on behalf of, the Guardian.

In response to a Bahai poster, (#18 in the thread):

I see three problems with your approach:

1) you say “anything Shoghi Effendi said or published officially is Baha’i doctrine.” A little thought shows that is not so. If he wrote to Ugo Giachery saying to get the marble from such-and-such a quarry, is it Bahai doctrine that marble has to come from there? What about the essay on the value of sport that he wrote as a student in Beirut? There’s obviously a sifting process that separates the doctrinal from the non-doctrinal. We are largely unaware of the non-doctrinal part of his work because that part is not published. Editors select what they feel has lasting value and don’t generally publish his shopping lists and such like. I would venture a guess that more than 50% of his work would be readily recognised as non-doctrinal, if we saw it. So what criteria tell us that something Shoghi Effendi writes is defining a Bahai doctrine? There are philological indications (he writes in a different style), discussed at
and there is also content. Apart from the obvious, that trivial content such as a laundry lists cannot define a doctrine, it is helpful to distinguish between Shoghi Effendi’s two roles as Head of the Faith and Authorised Interpreter of the Writings.

The position of Head of the Faith is a hat that has been worn first by Baha’u’llah, then Abdu’l-Baha, then the Guardian and now by the Universal House of Justice. This position entails “authority” – something like the executive in the civil government. The Guardian is the head and sole member of the doctrinal arm (though he had assistants), and he often refused to “legislate” on matters, saying instead that the future Universal House of Justice would have to decide. Nevertheless, when he gave instructions to NSAs and individuals, they had to be obeyed; yet these instructions did not become part of Bahai law. The distinction between the Guardian as authorised interpreter of the Bahai Writings, and Shoghi Effendi acting as Head of the Faith at the time, gives us a clearer idea of what was essential to the Guardianship. The tens of thousands of letters from or on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, on minor administrative matters, do not represent the essence of the Guardianship, and by their simple volume they tend to give us an impression of Shoghi Effendi as a prosaic administrative type. That’s a false picture: these prosaic matters fell to him because he was Head of the Faith, but if we want to see who Shoghi Effendi was and what he thought the office of Guardianship entailed, we should look to his books and the general letters he addressed to the Bahai community as a whole. There’s more on this towards the end of ‘Defending Shoghi Effendi‘ on my blog.

2) While you say that “anything Shoghi Effendi said …is Baha’i doctrine” you treat it in fact as Bahai law. That only makes sense if you are thinking that Bahai law is a subset of Baha’i doctrine, but that is not how Shoghi Effendi treats law and doctrine: for him they are two complementary fields, side-by-side, doctrine centering on the Guardianship, law centering on the Universal House of Justice. The authoritative interpretation of the Guardian does not become law, and the law does not have to comply with it. That’s because doctrine is in the ideal, while law is pragmatic and conditional, it has to relate to the society. For more on this and the scriptural sources see ‘He cannot override‘ on my blog.

3) You say that the difference between what the secretary writes and what the Guardian writes is a “mere quibble,” but the Guardian thought otherwise – he wanted the Bahais to make a strong distinction between them. One of his secretaries warns

“Although the secretaries of the Guardian convey his thoughts and instructions and these messages are authoritative, their words are in no sense the same as his, their style certainly not the same, and their authority less, for they use their own terms and not his exact words in conveying his messages.” (Unfolding Destiny 260)

If these letters had doctrinal authority, it would not make much sense to say they had ‘less authority.’ I think the meaning here is that they share in Shoghi Effendi’s authority as Head of the Faith, they have to be followed by the assembly or individual to whom they are addressed, and we may suppose that they were the right thing to say, to the assembly or individual concerned (since Shoghi Effendi checked them, with very few exceptions). That’s doesn’t mean they are still the right thing for assemblies and individuals to be following now, when we have a different Head of the Faith and different issues and opportunities before us.

In fact the Bahai community today does not follow everything written in letters by or on behalf of Shoghi Effendi. Sometimes the instructions are contradictory, for example:

“…it is not compulsory that a ballot paper should contain necessarily nine votes. The individual voter may record less than 9 names, if he chooses to do so.” (Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand, p. 23.)


“Concerning the question you have asked as to whether in elections for Spiritual Assemblies the electors should cast exactly nine votes, … no electoral vote can be effective unless it is cast for exactly [nine]” (Unfolding Destiny, page 138)

If we had a general principle that ““anything Shoghi Effendi said or published officially is Baha’i doctrine,” we would have problem here! But such matters are not doctrinal, they fell to him to decide as Head of the Faith and he decided different things at different times, for different communities. Another example is the areas of LSA jurisdiction. One letter says that the principle can be determined by the National Spiritual Assembly (On behalf of Shoghi Effendi, Extracts from the USBN), another says the principle “laid down by the Guardian” is that “within a municipal area, where the people resident in the area pay taxes and vote, the Assembly can be elected, and holds jurisdiction.” (Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand, 130).

If the Guardian acting as Head of the Faith could change such matters, then it is not surprising that they also change when we have a new Head of the Faith. Shoghi Effendi says “the ruling is quite definite, that an Assembly must be elected on the first day of Ridvan, April 21st.” (Messages to Canada, 50) The Universal House of Justice changed this, and then many years later changed it back.

If you take out the three suppositions that what the secretary writes has the same authority as what Shoghi Effendi writes, and that everything Shoghi Effendi writes is Bahai doctrine, and that doctrine is just another word for law – then the possibilities for the Bahai Faith to maintain that flexibility that will keep it in the forefront of progressive movements (World Order of Baha’u’llah, 22) look rather better. With your approach we would be stuck with something like the Islamic shariah or Jewish Halakah – fixed prescriptions on all sorts of details, no longer applicable in the world

~~ Sen McGlinn

Feel free to use the comments section below to add more examples of things that Shoghi Effendi decided, which are no longer applied.

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