Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Church, State, experts, consensus

This flows from a discussion about the translation of the “matters of state” or “administrative matters” phrase in the 8th Ishraqat. The nub of the translation issue is explained in my blog entry here: the debate has been resolved in my favour by the discovery of Shoghi Effendi’s translations of the Ishraqat and Bisharat which were as I predicted: ‘administrative matters.’

One person, in response to my suggestion that the translations in Tablets of Baha’u’llah might be wrong, raised the question of the credibility of a translation from an individual (myself), differing from the authorised translation.

I replied (12 October 2009):

Dear XX (in response to your posting of 31 August):

The point I was making about the correct translation of the 8th
Ishraq is not a question of “a reinterpretation of a single ambiguous
text” or “semantic niceties.” Rather, my position is that the translation
and interpretation of any single Bahai text should be within the context
of the Bahai teachings as a whole, and the Bahai teachings as a whole
leave no room for doubt. The separation of church and state is one of the
central Bahai teachings, reiterated over and over in the Bahai scriptures,
in hundreds if not thousands of verses from Baha’u’llah’s first works to
Shoghi Effendi’s last breath. In lists of the Bahai Principles it is often
called ‘non- interference in politics’ : the meaning is that religious
authorities should not interfere in politics. When combined with another
Bahai teaching, that the state should not interfere in matters of
conscience, it is recognisably the same as the `separation of church and
state’ in modern political discourse. It is a recognition of the distinct
spheres of government and of religion, and the necessary differences
between the institutions of religion and government.

I’ve summarised a few dozen verses of the relevant Bahai scriptures, and
the Quranic and biblical texts, in a blog entry at:

The evidence is massive and unambivalent in favour of this principle being
a core Bahai teaching, whatever nuances individuals may bring to the
issue. The reason that we end up discussing `doubtful matters’ such as the
verse of the Ishraq, or the House of Justice getting revenue from mines,
or Abdu’l-Baha referring to the House of Justice as the consummate union
and blending of church and state, is simply that the thrust of authentic
and clear texts is unambivalent, leaving the advocates of a Bahai
theocracy no stronger ground to argue from. So they insist on holding off
a definitive judgement, in defiance and total disregard of the available
text of all of the universally recognized Bahai writings, until the last
of their doubts can be settled.

None of the scriptural materials that I have outlined in my blog entry and in previous articles has been brought to light by me, with the exception of my translation of the Sermon on the Art of Governance (which
builds on earlier translations by Dreyfus and Cole. [since retitled The Art of Governance]). And none of it will go away when I depart the scene. There is therefore no point in evading the issue by personalising it, as if it is all to do with my `inflexibility’ or other character flaws. Flaws there no doubt are, and I do not wish to deprive anyone of the entertainment of contemplating them, but the evidence remains the evidence whether I am in the picture or not.

My contribution has been to relate what the Bahai scriptures say
about Church and State to Christian and Islamic thought, and to
gather the evidence in an article in the Journal of Church and State and
in my Masters’ dissertation, and ensure that these are in major reference
libraries – especially parliamentary or national libraries –
around the world. I hope this material is in a form that is
understandable to readers of Christian, Islamic and secular
backgrounds. In this way I’ve laid down an initial – but not
sufficient – line of defence against the allegation which arises
periodically, that the Bahai Faith is not a religion but a political
movement, or a religiously inspired political movement, that Bahai
communities aim to establish a theocratic state in which their own
administrative machinery will supersede the government, and so on.

These accusations arise periodically, typically initiated by
religiously-motivated enemies who attempt to persuade the relevant
government that the Bahais represent a long-term threat to the
government. If my works are available, there is a good chance that
the intelligence ministry or investigating judge or whoever is
assigned to investigate, will read the evidence and drop the matter
without it ever becoming an issue.

The same material I’ve gathered as a formal defence of the Faith is
also of use against malicious allegations on the internet. See for

The theocratic discourse within the Bahai community is a less
pressing issue for me, although I’ve responded in individual cases
where misunderstanding seems likely to estrange particular Bahais
from the community, or is driving away potential members. The
development of shared understandings is a gradual process, springing
partly from research and writing, and partly from practice. I have no
desire to hurry it along, for my experience is that a truth, even if it is
theoretically conceded, is not really `held’ until it is needed and
defended in practice. From my point of view – not that I think anyone is
waiting for my permission! – Bahais who have alternative interpretations
are welcome to them.

Nevertheless, my research elicits defensive responses, as if people
felt I was somehow forcing them to agree! One defence is to dismiss
me, as you do, as “the dissenting voice,” or to appeal to a consensus of
the faithful or of the scholars. Steve Cooney (OJBS 1: 495) refers to “the
existing consensus of Bahai scholars,” which overstates the unanimity on
the issue, and the importance of scholars. You refer rather to “most
Baha’is’ understanding of the texts and the authorized interpretive
tradition around them.” But a consensus of scholars, or of believers, is
not a legitimate argument, in the sciences or in Bahai theology. In Bahai
theology, the authoritative sources are limited to the persons of
Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, authentic texts or authenticated sayings from
them, and the authoritative interpretations of these from Shoghi Effendi.
Unlike Catholicism and Shi’ism, the appeal to consensus is not valid.

In any case, I am not the only one to join the dots, and in print.
Mangol Bayat has said that Baha’u’llah “embraced what no Muslim sect, no
Muslim school of thought ever succeeded in or dared to try: the doctrinal
acceptance of the de facto secularization of politics that had occurred in
the Muslim world centuries earlier.” (Mysticism and Dissent 130). Cole’s
work in Modernity and the Millenium (page 29 ff) and his article `Iranian
Millenarianism and Democratic thought
‘ in IJMES 24 (1992) is well known.
In the 17 years since Cole’s article, there has not been a single
scholarly work, that I know of, that refutes or even modifies the picture
he draws. More telling yet, in slightly more than a hundred years since
this idea of a Bahai theocracy first caught hold at the popular level, in
Bahai communities in the west and particularly in North America, there has
not been a single systematic exposition of its sources and implications,
arguing from Bahai scripture, in the Bahai secondary literature in
English, French, German or Italian. Not one!

With respect to the academic study of the Faith, the issue is
decided: the evidence that Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi
Effendi taught and fought for the separation of church and state and
applied it to their own followers (to the “trustees of God!” in the
Kitab-e `Ahd; to the `House of Justice’ in TABA p5; to the “machinery of
Bahai Administration” in WOB 66) is so solid, and the lack of
counter-evidence, let alone any competing paradigm embracing a wide range
of evidence, so obvious that, in the academic study of the Faith, the
Bayat-Cole-McGlinn thesis can be described as a `dominant paradigm’. This
year alone, Roshan Danesh has written, in the Journal of Law and Religion,
that “there are no explicit statements [in Bahai Scriptures] about the
Universal House of Justice and civil institutions which necessitate a
fully integrationist conclusion.” It would appear that he hoped to find
some basis there, and found none. Farah Dustar in Beitrage des
`Iran-Kolloquiums describes the idea of Bahai-Offenbarung als Theokratie
as based on “eines Missverstandnisses” – misunderstandings, which is
precisely correct. The idea, she says, is “expressly repudiated” in the
writings of Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, and she cites
chapter and verse to prove it. Manfred Hutter’s `Handbuch’ simply does
not mention the theocratic idea: to him the establishment of a New World
Order is not an exclusively Bahai issue, it is a challenge facing all
peoples and governments regardless of their religious affiliations (188).

Against this, it is true, Scharbrodt (153) refers to the hope of a
future fusion of political and religious authority, but this is in
reference to the `popular religion’ understanding of the Bahai Faith. A
footnote points out that this belief is contrary to many statements by
Abdul-Baha and is based on the interpolation in PUP page 454. He does
however think that Shoghi Effendi’s thinking “has inherited the Shii
vision of the just ruler … who embodies the fusion of secular and
spiritual authority.” That is, he draws a distinction between the teaching
of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha on the one hand and of Shoghi Effendi on
the other. But what is his evidence that Shoghi Effendi differed — A
single passage from Shoghi Effendi of which he says himself that it does
not define what additional powers the UHJ will assume in the future, and
his NOT citing either Shoghi Effendi’s general reference to the
inevitability of the complete separation of church and state in the
future, or Shoghi Effendi’s specific application of this to the Bahais,
who must never “allow the machinery of their administration to supersede
the government of their respective countries.” (The World Order of
Baha’u’llah, p. 66
). I don’t think Scharbrodt is pushing an agenda here,
he is simply uninformed of the writings of Shoghi Effendi.

Going back a couple of years, Margit Warburg’s “citizens” does deal
with the issue as controversial (183), and notes the numerous
quotations from Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha advocating religious
liberty and a civil government, not a theocratic state, in contrast
to what Shi’ite tradition would encourage. She reports the views of
authors of leading introductory books and articles in The Bahai World who
state that the AO “will apply on secular matters as well.” She suggests
that these views are based on the interpolated passage in PUP page 455
(which she notes is an editorial revision), but also argues that Shoghi
Effendi must have consented to Horace Holley’s essay announcing the
annulment of the law of “Render unto Caesar” – the principle laid down by
Baha’u’llah in Epistle to the Son of the Wolf – because Holley was Hand of
the Cause and secretary of the NSA. It’s a thin argument: it supposes that
Shoghi Effendi changed or consented to a change in the teachings of
Baha’u’llah, and had it implemented by Holley. Moreover, the two sources
she proposes as explanations for popular ideas of a future Bahai theocracy
are not actually cited by the proponents of these ideas, until Loni Lerche
made the connection to the PUP passage in 1991 (`An analysis of the Baha’i
World Order Model’). I’ve never seen anyone cite the words of Holley as
the basis for their thinking. Nor are there any other texts that are cited
as if people thought they constituted a basis for the theocratic
construct. My suggestion – in response to Warburg – is that the roots of
theocratic thinking are not textual at all, but rather cultural. Further,
if culture consists of relatively crystallised patterns of communication,
and embraces the three subsets of symbolic structures, ideology and common
sense, that Bahai theocratic ideas lie more in the common-sense sphere of
culture, while Christian theocratic thought lies more in symbolic
structures (Davidic kingship for example), and contemporary Islamic
integrism is more strongly in the ideological sphere.

The only writer on the Faith who is still talking – somewhat
confidently – about the Bahai teachings as theocratic is Ficicchia,
in his latest book. `Baha’i: Einheitsreligion und globale
Theokratie.’ But what is his evidence? A single reference by Shoghi
Effendi to the Bahai Faith as the established religion *of* a state (p60),
another to the Master’s Will and Testament that refers to the
*relationship* (not identity) between the House of Justice and Government,
and further the claim that Bahai theocratic ambitions are actually present
in Bahai scriptures but are cunningly hidden under the guise of the unity
of religions and peoples. His other sources are Bahai writers such as
Huddlestone and Schaeffer (he misinterprets the latter). The various
interpolations and misunderstandings that Ficicchia presented in his
earlier works are gone, and he notes himself (10) that much of what he had
said earlier is no longer defensible in light of the progress of knowledge
in the field.

In short, I think there is progress: it is not simply two different
camps talking past one another from rigid and incompatible premises. In
terms of academic studies, the dominant paradigm is clear, whatever
differences there may be in nuance and detail.

This academic consensus is of no relevance to the question of what
the Bahai teaching are, but it ought to lead you to consider whether
writing off what I say as merely the product of my dogmatic, inflexible,
existentially-committed character is really adequate to the issue. Should
you not, for example, carefully examine what Abdu’l- Baha has written on
this issue in The Art of Governance? What Baha’u’llah
has written in numerous and readily available books and tablets? Are
these not relevant, to a self- described “covenantally committed”

Nor is it controversial, in academia or in Bahai theology, to say
that the understanding and translation of any one passage from any
author should take into account what that author has written
elsewhere. We don’t even have to go so far as the earlier and later
works of Baha’u’llah, which are cited in my blog entry, for in the
Ishraqat itself, Baha’u’llah refers to “the sovereigns and rulers on
earth” as “the manifestations of the power of God” – not a term he uses
for the House of Justice, the trustees of the Merciful. On the contrary,
he tells them: “O ye the loved ones and the trustees of God! Kings are the
manifestations of the power, and the daysprings of the might and riches,
of God. Pray ye on their behalf. He hath invested them with the rulership
of the earth and hath singled out the hearts of men as His Own domain.”

Because translations should take into account the context – which in this
case extends out from the Ishraqat itself to the writings of Shoghi
Effendi – it is inevitable that as understanding grows, the translations
will change accordingly. From what we understand about the teachings of
Baha’u’llah, it is simply impossible that, in this passage, Baha’u’llah
intended his readers to understand that the Houses of Justice should take
control of affairs of state. But that is the impression given by Habib
Taherzadeh’s translation.

Behind your response to me, with its unwillingness to entertain the
possibility that the “translators, and … the Universal House of
Justice who approved the official translation and … quoted it as
the basis of its own conceptual framework, are simply wrong,” I
perceive a certain hesitancy in accepting, and anxiety about the full
implications of, two of the most innovative and challenging features of
the Bahai Administrative Order: the first being the shift from a model of
religious leadership based on an individual or individuals presumed to be
qualified for the purpose, to leadership based on consultation among the
elected representatives of the believers (representatives with no prior
requirement or subsequent pretension to religious expertise), and the
second being the reservation of the authority of “Interpreter of the Word
of God” to the Master and Guardian, thus depriving both learned
individuals and the elected institutions of any right to authoritatively
interpret the scriptures and so define Bahai doctrine. These dramatic
innovations mean that there is neither a practical nor a doctrinal
guarantee that these elected representatives will be familiar with Bahai
scripture, or understand its spirit.

That this limitation – startling as it must be to those familiar with
former models of religious leadership based on expertise – applies
specifically to the Universal House of Justice is confirmed by the
statement of Shoghi Effendi that the Guardian “cannot override the
decision of the majority of his fellow-members [in the Universal House of
Justice], but is bound to insist upon a reconsideration by them of any
enactment he conscientiously believes to conflict with the meaning and to
depart from the spirit of Baha’u’llah’s revealed utterances.”

We can draw confidence to embrace this principle by looking back on
the doubts that were expressed, a century earlier, about the
viability of a form of civil government that extends the vote and
right to be elected to people of every shade of opinion, class and
educational attainment. Despite early anxieties and confident
prophecies of failure, the passage of the twentieth century has
demonstrated the superiority of this mode of leadership, as compared to
rivals that gave a preferential voice to experts and the captains of
industry or that restricted participation to those trained in a particular
– supposedly scientific – dogmatic system, or raised in a class destined
to lead. The superiority of the democratic system lies not in the
correctness of individual outcomes, but rather in openness to refinement
and correction, in a superior ability to elicit sustained and active
support from the grass roots, in constant exposure to critical
examination, in offering greater opportunities for personal initiative and
personal development. “From two ranks amongst men power hath been seized”
writes Baha’u’llah, “kings and ecclesiastics.” What has been taken
from them has been transferred not to new versions of the same thing, but
to entirely new systems that combine electoral foundations with ongoing
consultative processes, in which truth is not the domain of experts but
something generated and continually perfected in practice. This profound
shift, as it applies in the system of Bahai administration, cannot be
fully embraced without unreserved acceptance that religious experts are
not leaders in the Bahai community, and the leaders are not experts.

~~ Sen
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