Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Being Bahai: creed or community

On Tarikh, a discussion arose about a tendency that “would divest the Baha’i Faith of laws, of commandments, of imperatives” and emphasize rather teachings that are in close harmony with social mores and are voluntary. This is a recurrent dynamic, as can be seen from E.G. Browne’s descriptions of antinomian Baha’is in Iran, and the example of Sohrab and the Reading Room Controversy. I’ve copied several of my postings from that thread.

The framework here is Shoghi Effendi’s ‘Qualifications of a believer’ in Bahai Administration page 90.


To: XX, research into history
Subject: Bahai defined
Date sent: Sun, 16 Mar 2008 17:34:11 +0100

> To whom does the Baha’i Faith belong? And who defines what the Baha’i
> Faith is, and is not? These continue to be vital questions for
> which easily agreed upon answers simply do not exist.

I think the Bahai Faith and the Bahai community are defined by a common reference point, rather than by a common doctrine or (primarily) by common action. This is a doctrinal claim, which others
are welcome to disagree with as such, but it is also a practical and somewhat objective definition that can be used by historians. The reference point was first of all Baha’u’llah, then Abdu’l-Baha, then the Administrative Order, and, developing through all of the periods, it is the Bahai Writings. Bahais are not people who believe x and y, they are people who get their beliefs from the key figures and the Writings. They are not people who do x and don’t do y — they are people who get their ethics and their religious law from the key figures and the Writings. What they get from them, is very individual, is culturally bound, and has changed from generation to generation. What makes “Bahai” a coherent phenomenon that can be studied is not an orthodoxy or orthopraxy, but rather the common element of reference to the same sources.

“Islam” is a coherent concept, although we recognise that there are numerous islams. They share Muhammad and the Quran as reference
points. In the same way, there are many Bahai Faiths, yet we can still study “Bahai” and say useful things about it



Subject: Bahai defined
Date sent: Mon, 17 Mar 2008 12:30:38 +0100

> Two questions:
> 1.I am not quite sure what you mean to say by “many Bahai Faiths” here.

If we try to define the Bahai Faith in terms of particular doctrines, there will be Bahais, or communities, or periods, that don’t fit, and there are people and communities outside the Bahai Faith that do share those beliefs. If we define the Faith in terms of characteristic religious behaviour, such as the obligatory prayers and fasting, or not drinking alcohol, central as these are, there have been times and places where these are not practised.

It is like defining Christianity by the Sonship of Christ or the
trinity or the eucharist: they are characteristic of Christianity but not universal. There was a time before these doctrines were
elaborated, there are exceptions today, and who knows, maybe
unitarianism is the future. And there are many Islams: Sufi Islam and Wahabi Islam and folk Islam of North Africa and folk Islam of

In the same way there are many Bahai Faiths, “No two men can be found who may be said to be outwardly and inwardly united”, yet we still speak of the Bahai Faith. If the name has a meaning (which it does), I think it is that we all turn to one point of reference, which is in the first place Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and the Administrative Order, as successive sources of authority and heads of the Faith, and in the second place the Writings, which are signs pointing to the former. The writings of Baha’u’llah point us to the person of Baha’u’llah, and so
on. It is because we have the common point of reference (centre of
Unity) that we have a positive unity-in- diversity. But what we get
from that centre, what we believe and how be behave, is quite diverse.

> 2.Where would the House of Justice figure in this schema? For to
> study the Bahai Faith while omitting the House’s role and influence,
> seems to me to be a selective and not a comprehensive frame of reference.

The Administrative Order has two parts, the Guardianship and the House of Justice, and the subsidiary institutions of each. I referred to the Administrative Order rather than to the Guardian and then the UHJ, because our ‘point of reference’ today is still, in principle, the Administrative Order and not simply the UHJ alone.



To: XX, research into history
Subject: Bahai defined
Date sent: Tue, 18 Mar 2008 20:21:21 +0100

> Doctrines are included: “full recognition”, “unreserved acceptance
> of…whatsoever has been revealed by their Pen” and “loyal and
> steadfast adherence to every clause of our Beloved’s sacred Will”.

But that is the remarkable thing – no doctrines are mentioned, only
the sources of doctrines, and the sources that must guide our behaviour, are listed.

> The reference point is not one, although it is unified–it is the
> totality of the Baha’i Revelation, not this or that particular but
> the whole. The Universal House of Justice is not the only point of
> reference, but then neither is the Guardianship, nor the Centre of
> the Covenant, nor Baha’u’llah exclusively.

Very nicely put. Unified, but not monist. This aspect of the Covenant is a bit like the Christian trinity: it is not simple, and we must resist the urge to simplify for convenience. We try to give every one of these “persons” who together embody the Covenant his due, but one never quite succeeds.



To: research into history
Subject: Bahai defined
Date sent: Wed, 19 Mar 2008 14:26:47 +0100

Peter T wrote:

> “Full recognition” of the Central Figures of the Faith and
> acceptance of…whatsoever has been revealed by their Pen” clearly
> implies and is embodied in “full recognition” and “unreserved
> acceptance” of the Baha’i doctrines pertaining to ALL things,
> including the nature of God, of the Manifestation of God, of
> religion, of the human spirit, of all created things, of human
> civilization and so on. While our understanding as individual
> believers may differ, not just from person to person but for each
> person from moment to moment, what is required of us in order to be
> considered “true believers” is that we demonstrate this “full
> recognition” and “unreserved acceptance” of the Persons and Writings
> of the Faith and thereby everything they have taught.

Sure, that’s just what I mean. Shoghi Effendi’s open-ended approach is remarkably different to the Anglican 39 articles, for example, or the Nicene creed, or the creeds of Islam (Fikh Akbar, Wasiyat Abi Hanifa, Aqidat al-Tahawi). Shoghi Effendi’s statement of the requirements of membership looks more like the Shahida or “confess that Christ is Lord”

I agree with the remainder of what you say. There is a difference
between a distinction and a division. If we look at “The Dispensation
of Baha’u’llah
” we see Shoghi Effendi making a series of distinctions — between the divinity and the Manifestation, between the station and role of the Manifestation and that of the Master, between the station and role of the master and that of the Guardian, between the spheres of the Universal House of Justice and the Guardianship. The whole work is structured on a series of distinctions, in which the “not this” part (the Manifestation is not God, the Master is not a Manifestation of God, the station of the Guardian must not be confused with that of the Master, the Guardian cannot legislate) is just as important as the
positive assertions. Overstatement, theological exaggeration or
extremism, have in the history of religions been a greater problem
than understatements. To avoid both, we have to try to make
distinctions, to avoid conflating the UHJ with the Guardianship for
example. But these are always conceptual distinctions that we require for our own understanding, they are not separations.

It is precisely that point about “integration” as you call it, that I wanted to make with my terms “point of reference” and “centre of
unity”, which embrace — for us today — Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha
and the Administrative Order, the latter made up of the Guardianship
and the House of Justice, and the texts that surround them and allow
us to see them. Someone in the lifetime of Abdu’l-Baha might have a
theoretical commitment to the House of Justice, and know nothing
about the Guardianship, yet they are Bahais. We know that Bahais of
the past believed things that seem strange to us now, and we can
suppose that future Bahais wil look back on us with bemusement, or
perhaps horror. So how do we define all these people as Bahais? My
suggestion is that we conceptualise Baha’u’llah, the Master and the
Administrative Order as one ‘centre of unity’ or point of reference
that is continuous although its form has changed (as a person is
continuous, through his or her lifetime), and that the Bahai Faith is everything and everyone that turns around and to this centre of unity, and nothing else.

I think this is both a usable historical definition, and a doctrinal
answer, to your question ” To whom does the Baha’i Faith belong? And who defines what the Baha’i Faith is, and is not?” You said that
“easily agreed upon answers simply do not exist.” But I think the
answer I proposed is one that both Bahais and historians or
sociologists could agree with and use.



To: YY, research into history
Subject: Bahai defined
Date sent: Mon, 17 Mar 2008 17:48:37 +0100

> Yes, while that may be true in principle, would you not agree that
> our “point of reference” today is ultimately and effectively the
> Universal House of Justice – since if Baha’is disagree on what the
> Guardian says then according to the words of `Abdu’l-Baha, the
> Universal House of Justice is the ultimate arbiter of differences:

Dear YY

I am not clear why you ask this. You know that what I said is correct in principle, and you must know where that principle and the whole relationship between these institution is explained — better than I could explain it — in “The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah.” It’s a bit like standing on the New Change and asking the way to St Paul’s. If your point is that the Bahais generally are not deepened on this aspect of the Covenant, and simply put “the UHJ” in the place of the more complex idea of “The Administrative Order,” I am agreeing



To: YY, research into history
Subject: Bahai defined
Date sent: Wed, 19 Mar 2008 16:45:02 +0100

> My point is that there are not two ‘points of reference’.
> The House of Justice is guided by the writings of the Guardian but
> since it is the House of Justice that decides what that means, the
> House of Justice is effectively the only ‘point of reference’ – it
> is the arbiter of all differences.

And I think the Covenant, and the Administrative Order, is
considerably more complex than that. It has an organic structure. As I already mentioned, the best text to study on this would be Shoghi Effendi’s “The dispensation of Baha’u’llah.”

The links that ZZ provided to Mr Nakhjavani’s books also contain a
good treatment. See for example “towards world order” page 46



To: XX, research into history
Subject: Bahai defined
Date sent: Thu, 20 Mar 2008 09:29:53 +0100

> This is a usable historical definition and a doctrinal
> answer to that question. If the Universal House of Justice says someone
> is a Baha’i, s/he is a Baha’i…if the House says someone is not a
> Baha’i, s/he is not a Baha’i.

By this definition, the Bahais of China are not Bahais, and we would have no evidence that the mass of the Bahais of the past were in fact Bahais: all those who never received a tablet or other indication that they had been accepted would fall into limbo. By your definition the ghosts on the Bahai rolls — who may have since converted to another religion, or died — are still Bahais.

People may call themselves and be called Bahais, but if their lives
contradict the assertion, as historians we could only refer to a
“vestigal” or “nominal” identity or something like that. Doctrinally we would have to say that deeds, not words, are the criterion, and the judge is God.

What you have given is a contemporary definition of administrative
enrolment, applicable for those countries where there is a
functioning Bahai administration. It doesn’t define who is a Baha’i.
Enrolment is a procedural question to do with who may enjoy the benefits of membership if they seek them, and also with determining the size of the local community in relation to the allocation of delegates.

To pick up on your example: American citizenship is an administrative fact, which could be destroyed by a fire in the records office: being American is an identity. One doesn’t have to be an American to be a citizen. “The land was ours a hundred years / before we were the land’s.”

It would be quite unrealistic to suppose that everyone on the Baha’i rolls really is a Bahai, or that there is no such thing as unenrolled Bahais. The question is in any case moot, because your formulation supposes that the UHJ does in fact determine who is and is not a Bahai. That could be cleared up simply by asking them whether, in their function as head of the Faith, they do make determinations about who is a Baha’i.

Clearly the UHJ does say who can and cannot be considered a member of the community, whose name is on the rolls and who should be removed, but that is an administrative question. The UHJ also sometimes says that a certain person is not a Bahai:

“… you might consider the following comments of a well-known scientific thinker, who is not a Bahá’í, about the correlation between the Bahá’í Teachings and recent developments in the physical sciences:”
(The Universal House of Justice, 1998 Mar 19, Complete Compilation
on Scholarship)

In these cases I think the UHJ is not determining who is a Bahai,
they are mentioning a fact which has already been determined by the
person concerned. This author is not treated as being a Bahai,
because it is not evident that he has turned towards Baha’u’llah,
‘Abdu’l-Baha and the Administrative Order and derived his beliefs and behaviour from them. This observation might be wrong : for instance, there can be reasons for concealing one’s commitment (family unity for example). We might suppose that someone was not a Bahai, and later find evidence that he was : Mirza Muhammad Hasan Shirazi for example (see H. M. Balyuzi,
Eminent Baha’is in the time of Baha’u’llah, chapter 19, and chapter 11 of Mirza Habib’s Tarikh Amry Fars va Shiraz).

This is no different to the situation when studying other religious
communities — or when living in other communities. Neither the
historian nor the believer would suppose that all those on parish
records are members of the church, or that only those registered are part of the church. That would be factually unrealistic, and it would give a sacramental significance to what is merely a fact of documentation.

In western Bahai communities, we are moving out of a situation, which has lasted roughly 80 years, in which belief and commitment have automatically translated into organisational membership, as in a typical cult structure, and we are moving into the more normal ‘religion’ structure, in which belief and commitment are one thing, and organisational membership and the rights and discipline it involves are another. Sociologically speaking, this will, I think, come to look like the relationship between religious orders and being Catholic: not all Catholics are Franciscans, and not all
who want to join the order are acceptable. (It is not like the competition of church identities with Christianity, but that is another story and I must try to stick to the point.)

Doctrinally speaking, the difference is that the Administrative Order has a scriptural mandate, so that developing and supporting and obeying its institutions is a necessary part of turning to Baha’u’llah and the Master and unreserved acceptance of whatever they have revealed. It is a religious duty, not a special vocation, to be part of the Baha’i Administrative Order, and that cannot be said of the Catholic religious orders. Joining and supporting the Administrative Order is as much a part of being a Bahai as building the Mashriq, prayer and fasting, obedience to government, earning a livelihood and other religious duties.

As with other Bahai religious duties, it is not for one Bahai to
pressure others to fulfil this obligation — religious duties have to be accepted voluntarily or they have no moral value. Moreover, there are some prerequisites that will empower a person to fulfil this duty: there has to be a functioning local administration, and the person concerned has to be in a position to positively and publicly support the administrative order, and has to be welcome in it. If someone is unacceptable, or there are reasons why it is better for the community, or necessary for their own
safety, that they should not be on the rolls as members and participants, they may still have fulfilled the duty in intention if not in action.


To: AA, research into history
Subject: Bahai defined
Date sent: Fri, 21 Mar 2008 15:42:57 +0100

> Anyway, my point is that I don’t know of any evidence suggesting
> that Baha’u’llah was in the business of deciding who was or was not
> a Baha’i. In fact, folks may recall that Abdu’l-Baha in his
> so-called 1000-verse tablet to Mirza Abu’l-Fadl (posted here a
> couple months ago) said explicitly that anyone that claims faith in
> Baha’u’llah should never be questioned about allegiance.
> That’s how it was then, which may have nothing to do with how things
> are today. I’m only commenting on history.

The UHJ seems to observe the same principle today, in the letters
referring to the disenrollment or refusal to enrol people. The wording of its constitution on this point bears this out: it is concerned with who may be enrolled, not with who is or is not a Bahai. I do not think the practice has changed at all, rather it is a question of the friends not always understanding what is being said



To: Peter Terry , research into history
Subject: Bahai defined
Date sent: Thu, 27 Mar 2008 12:01:38 +0100

On 19 Mar 2008 at 7:17, XX wrote:

> I am sure that the decision of the Universal House of Justice to
> remove you from membership in the Baha’i community, and your
> association with individuals who have shared this fate as well as
> others who have resigned from the Baha’i community but still
> consider themselves Baha’is has a considerable influence upon your
> attempt to make a distinction between membership in the Baha’i
> community on the one hand and Baha’i identity on the other.

Granted, absolutely. And it is not just me, or the other people who
have been disenrolled, who have been made to think about the issue.
The fact that a handful of people who are, to all appearances, active and devoted Bahais are removed from the rolls has prompted Bahais who have not been removed to also rethink the relationship between being Bahai, and being enrolled. This reconceptualisation has been far far more significant in the life of the community, than the handful of people who are disenrolled could have been, had they continued to do the usual things that “being Bahai” involves.

I have no idea whether the UHJ intended this effect, but it is there
and is I think very beneficial. It positions the Bahai community
better for an open relationship with society. The way the Faith had
developed in the West, with religious identity and institutional
membership virtually synonymous, looked sectarian and insular, and did in fact encourage an insular, exclusive, organisational “culture.”

Re the lawsuits over the name Bahai: the issue has always been with
religious institutions and organisations calling themselves “Bahai”
but not being under the authority of the Head of the Faith. That is
both logically contradictory and an actual competition for the
authentic institutions of the Faith. I’ve never seen any objection
from the Guardian or the UHJ to people who are not enrolled simply
saying they are Bahais. In some countries, there are no membership
rolls so such a position would not be possible anyway.

I may be reading too much from a silence here; perhaps the best thing is to ask the UHJ



To: XX, research into history
Subject: Bahai defined
Date sent: Tue, 01 Apr 2008 13:18:23 +0200

XX wrote:

> Dizzy Gillespie was a Baha’i, and much beloved by the believers
> everywhere he went. It is the rising up of such unique souls that
> will attract others to the community of Baha.

If I may be completely unhistorical for a moment, XX’s comment
reminded me of this, from the Master:

“O phoenix of that immortal flame kindled in the sacred Tree!
Bahá’u’lláh — may my life, my soul, my spirit be offered up as a
sacrifice unto His lowly servants — hath, during His last days on
earth, given the most emphatic promise that, through the outpourings
of the grace of God and the aid and assistance vouchsafed from His
Kingdom on high, souls will arise and holy beings appear who, as
stars, would adorn the firmament of divine guidance; illumine the
dayspring of loving-kindness and bounty; manifest the signs of the
unity of God; shine with the light of sanctity and purity; receive
their full measure of divine inspiration; raise high the sacred torch of faith; stand firm as the rock and immoveable as the mountain; and grow to become luminaries in the heavens of His Revelation, mighty channels of His grace, means for the bestowal of God’s bountiful care, heralds calling forth the name of the One true God, and establishers of the world’s supreme foundation.

These shall labour ceaselessly, by day and by night, shall heed
neither trials nor woe, shall suffer no respite in their efforts,
shall seek no repose, shall disregard all ease and comfort, and,
detached and unsullied, shall consecrate every fleeting moment of
their lives to the diffusion of the divine fragrance and the
exaltation of God’s holy Word. Their faces will radiate heavenly
gladness, and their hearts be filled with joy. Their souls will be
inspired, and their foundation stand secure. They shall scatter in the world, and travel throughout all regions. They shall raise their
voices in every assembly, and adorn and revive every gathering. They
shall speak in every tongue, and interpret every hidden meaning. They shall reveal the mysteries of the Kingdom, and manifest unto everyone the signs of God. They shall burn brightly even as a candle in the heart of every assembly, and beam forth as a star upon every horizon. The gentle breezes wafted from the garden of their hearts shall perfume and revive the souls of men, and the revelations of their minds, even as showers, will reinvigorate the peoples and nations of the world.

I am waiting, eagerly waiting for these holy ones to appear; and yet, how long will they delay their coming? My prayer and ardent
supplication, at eventide and at dawn, is that these shining stars may soon shed their radiance upon the world, that their sacred
countenances may be unveiled to mortal eyes, that the hosts of divine assistance may achieve their victory, and the billows of grace, rising from His oceans above, may flow upon all mankind. Pray ye also and supplicate unto Him that through the bountiful aid of the Ancient Beauty these souls may be unveiled to the eyes of the world.”
(Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, 250)

Which all sounds so terribly attractive … until one remembers that
it is addressed to the phoenix in the flame, that is, the one who has completely sacrificed self. “Star quality” may draw attention, but building a community that can be passed from generation to generation and leaven the dough of the world, requires the phoenix quality


Share this page:
Add to DeliciousAdd to DiggAdd to FaceBookAdd to Google BookmarkAdd to MySpaceAdd to RedditAdd to StumbleUponAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Twitter
Short link for this item:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: