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                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Four questions

This is from Beliefnet in March, 2009

The questions asked were:

1st question: If women and men are considered equal in bahai faith; why did Baha’ullah say no women could be in the Universal House of Justice?

2: If Bahai’s see all people as equal, why aren’t homesexuals accepted as they are? Do bahai’s deny scientific proof of homosexuality being a trait that people are born with and do not choose?

3: If Bahai’s choose to stay out of politics, why does this notion of a theocratic global community exist, with no extremes of rich or poor? Sounds like Communistic beliefs.

4. It seems strange to me that one of the few laws imposed on western bahai’s from the most holy book involves people donating money to bahai church/organization? Wouldn’t it be better to give directly to those in need or charities that can better people or society? How do people know where their money goes after it is donated to Bahai church? Why did all donations early in the church go directly to Baha’ullah instead of the needy/poor/sick/uneducated etc?

Hi Samsara;

first question:

Strictly speaking, Baha’u’llah did not say no women can be on the UHJ: what he did was address them [the members] using the term rijal, which in Arabic means “men” and in Persian usually means “gentlemen” and may include women. However in other writings, both Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha confirmed that in this day women too can be rijal (honoured people, VIPs). The question is whether the general principle that women can be rijal is also a specific legal interpretation of the Aqdas verse that calls the members of the UHJ rijal. For more on this see:

Another relevant term is “a wisdom” (hikmat) in the following verse from Abdu’l-Baha:

“The House of Justice, however, according to the explicit
text of the Law of God, is confined to men; this for a wisdom
of the Lord God’s, which will ere long be made manifest as
clearly as the sun at high noon.”

According to this, women are excluded from the House of Justice per se – not just the Universal House of Justice. The local and national houses of justice are at present called local spiritual assemblies and national spiritual assemblies. Women serve on them. One explanation could be that Abdu’l-Baha first excluded women from all elected institutions and later allowed them to be elected; another is that “a wisdom” (hikmat) is used in the technical sense as a temporary “survival strategies developed in situations of danger, persecution, or insecurity within a hostile environment” (see

second question:

Some Bahais may simply deny the scientific evidence, but that’s an individual choice. The problem for the Bahai community in general is not a principled rejection of the science, but rather difficulty in knowing how to adapt the received tradition to the new evidence that homosexuality is inborn, and to the new reality of legally recognised and socially accepted homosexual marriage, something which did not exist in the days of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha. It is precisely to deal with such new realities that the UHJ is given authority to make Bahai law and to repeal it.

“the House of Justice hath power to enact laws that are not expressly recorded in the Book and bear upon daily transactions, so also it hath power to repeal the same. Thus for example, the House of Justice enacteth today a certain law and enforceth it, and a hundred years hence, circumstances having profoundly changed and the conditions having altered, another House of Justice will then have power, according to the exigencies of the time, to alter that law.
(Abdu’l-Baha, The Will and Testament, p. 20)

Likewise, the UHJ has power to determine its own constitution.

Pressure on either point, in the way that we would typically get things done in secular politics, will be counter-productive. All we can do is pray for the UHJ and accept that theirs is a sovereign right to act when they see fit, as conditions change.

third question: “If Bahai’s choose to stay out of politics, why does this notion of a theocratic global community exist, with no extremes of rich or poor? Sounds like Communistic beliefs.”

It is emphatically not communist, since the right of the individual to dispose of their property, free trade, and the inevitability and desirability of differences in capacities and rewards are all endorsed. More like a kinder, gentler capitalism: taxation and social support of the needy are also endorsed, and universal education.

The idea of a Bahai theocracy is a misunderstanding, partly due to the poor quality of early translations used in the West, partly due to putting the new Faith into the old wineskins: the early western believers from Christian backgrounds expected that when Christ returned, he would displace the worldly powers and rule in their place with the saints by his side. Baha’u’llah, in the second part of the Iqan, addresses these expectations: he explains that the sovereignty of the prophets is something different, he endorses the authority of the kings and rulers, and in Epistle to the Son of the Wolf pp 89-90 he endorses Christ’s words on this: “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

Abdu’l-Baha wrote:

“Should they place in the arena the crown of the government of the
whole world, and invite each one of us to accept it, undoubtedly we
shall not condescend, and shall refuse to accept it.” ( Tablets of the Divine Plan 51)

and Shoghi Effendi wrote:

“Theirs is not the purpose, while endeavoring to conduct and perfect
the administrative affairs of their Faith, to violate, under any
circumstances, the provisions of their country’s constitution, much
less to allow the machinery of their administration to supersede the
government of their respective countries.” ( The World Order of

There’s a couple of articles on my blog at

about how the misunderstanding came about. If you go down the left-hand column to “categories” and choose “Church and State” they should turn up. In particular see: ‘how theocracy happpened’ and “matters of state” or “administrative matters”

However these are technical and historical discussions — the actual Bahai teachings are clear enough from what Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi said. I’ve quoted one of each, but I could multiply that many times over. You can find more quotes yourself by searching in the Bahai writings on words like government, caesar, king, security. I have an article ‘A Theology of the State from the Baha’i Teachings, in the Journal of Church & State
Autumn 1999: it contains a lot of quotes and the sources for them are in the footnotes.

It is also points out that Abdu’l-Baha wrote:

“Thou hast asked regarding the political affairs… as the government of America is a republican form of government, it is necessary that all the citizens shall take part in the elections of officers and take part in the affairs of the republic.”

That is, in a country where good citizenship requires political participation, the Bahais should participate. This is temporarily more-or-less suspended (another ‘wisdom’ / hikmat), because Bahai participation in partisan politics in one country would be construed as support for its government or opposition to it, and that could have effects on Bahais in other countries where the Bahais are not free, and are suspected of being foreign agents etc.. But the intention is that this will change when there are many Bahais, not just in one country but around the world, and when the Bahai position on the separation of church and state is clearly understood : i.e., our institutions do not seek to “to supersede the government” and will not accept the “crown” even if it is offered; but Bahais as citizens will be active as good citizens in all spheres including the political. In a letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, his secretary writes:

“The Baha’is will be called upon to assume the reins of government when they will come to constitute the majority of the population in a given country, and even then their participation in political affairs is bound to be limited in scope unless they obtain a similar majority in some other countries as well.” (19 November 1939)

Some Bahais have thought that “The Bahais” here means “the Bahai elected institutions”, but that is impossible given what Shoghi Effendi wrote with his own hand, cited above. That’s one part of the history of this misunderstanding.

fourth question, re funds:

In Islam and Christianity, and in the Bahai Faith, there is a concept of obligatory-donation: it is called tithes in Christianity, khums in Islam, Huququ’llah and the Fund in the Bahai Faith. In all of these cases, it is like daily prayer: an obligation one accepts voluntarily, not something imposed on you. This does not mean that the ONLY giving one should do is of this kind, but if one wants to do this kind of giving, consistency requires that you do it according to the rules. The rules for tithing are not terribly specific, but in the Bahai Faith they are scriptural. So if you give a whack of money to your needy cousin, that may be a good thing, but you cannot honestly say to yourself “I’m going to count that as Huququ’llah, tick that one off.” What you can do is say “support for my relatives is a necessary expense, so I’m going to deduct that expense from my income, and pay the Huququ’llah over the remainder.” No one but yourself can say what your income after deduction of necessary expenses is.

What you say about the early community is in fact incorrect: they were if anything more involved in charities and good works outside the Bahai community than we are today. Many of these institutions — schools and clinics and a hospital for example — were in Iran and were closed down by the Shah when he needed to appease the anti-Bahai islamic clerics. Abdu’l-Baha was knighted for his charitable works in Palestine. Alongside these institutional activities, Bahais then and now are involved in all sorts of things, as individuals. I support 3 charitable organisations I’ve chosen, because they are good and also because, following the example of Abdu’l-Baha, I think that such giving is part of the pattern of the good life.

~~ Sen
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