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Letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi

These are two postings to Bahai Rants in February 2010, in response to the question:

Were the letters regarding homosexuality sent on behalf of the Guardian sent out without the approval of the Guardian? If so, how do we know this?”

The question is, what is the meaning of the Guardian’s approval? Did Shoghi Effendi himself want us to treat the letters by his secretaries as equivalent to his own words? Did he want us to treat them as authoritative interpretations of scripture? Would he want us to treat them as Bahai Law?

If we took the letters written by the Guardian’s secretaries to be equivalent to authoritative interpretations of the scripture, how would we deal with the secretary’s letter that says that “‘this is the day which will not be followed by the night” (a prophecy of Baha’u’llah, in The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 34) refers to a never-ending line of Guardians:

“The Guardians are the evidence of the maturity of mankind in the sense that at long last men have progressed to the point of having one world, and of needing one world management for human affairs. In the spiritual realm they have also reached the point where God could leave, in human hands (i.e. the Guardians’), guided directly by the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, as the Master states in His Will, the affairs of His Faith for this Dispensation. This is what is meant by ‘this is the day which will not be followed by the night’. In this Dispensation, Divine guidance flows on to us in this world after the Prophet’s ascension, through first the Master, and then the Guardians. If a person can accept Bahá’u’lláh’s function, it should not present any difficulty to them to also accept what He has ordained a divinely guided individual in matters pertaining to His Faith.”
(From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, November 25, 1948: Bahá’í News, No. 232, p. 8, June 1950) ditto Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian, p. 34)

The UHJ itself has NOT taken the above as a definitive interpretation of this prophecy – it says that the prophecy refers to the Administrative Order:

“The Bahá’í Dispensation is described in the words of its Founder as “a day that shall not be followed by night”. Through His Covenant, Bahá’u’lláh has provided an unfailing source of divine guidance that will endure throughout the Dispensation. Authority to administer the affairs of the community and to ensure both the integrity of the Word of God and the promotion of the Faith’s message is conferred upon the Administrative Order to which the Covenant has given birth.
(The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Dec 10, in Issues Related to Study Compilation, etc..)

But Shoghi Effendi says that it refers to the appointment of Abdu’l-Baha:

The continuity of that unerring guidance vouchsafed to it since its birth was now assured. The significance of the solemn affirmation that this is “the Day which shall not be followed by night” was now clearly apprehended. An orphan community had recognized in ‘Abdu’l-Baha, in its hour of desperate need, its Solace, its Guide, its Mainstay and Champion.
(Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 245)

Or what about the letter from a secretary that says “He (the Guardian) does not feel that the friends should make a practice of saying grace or of teaching it to children. This is not part of the Bahá’í Faith, but a Christian practice,…” – when in fact it is ordained by Baha’u’llah, and Abdu’l-Baha said grace himself and gave us a number of prayers to use for the purpose (and Shoghi Effendi also said grace himself, at least sometimes) – see ‘Words of Grace‘ for the sources on this.

Or what about the secretary’s letter that says “Regarding your question whether there is any special ceremony which the believers should perform when they wish to “name” a baby; the Teachings do not provide for any ceremony whatever on such occasions. We have no “baptismal service” in the Cause, …”, when in fact Abdu’l-Baha has given us a form for the “spiritual baptism” of a newborn child, in Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha pp 149-50.

Or the letter from a secretary that says “”The words Israel, used throughout the Bible, simply refers to the Jewish people, and not to the Chosen ones of this day.” (From a letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, April 21, 1939; Lights of Guidance, p. 498)

Whereas the Guardian writes : “Turning to Bahá’u’lláh and repeating his request, he was honored by a Tablet, in which Israel and his children were identified with the Báb and His followers respectively … (God Passes By, p. 116). Note also that the secretary’s letter is written on the first day of Ridvan – when work is suspended. Does this apply to the Guardian’s secretaries, or did they just work as usual on Holy Days?

Or what about the letter that says:

“In regard to the question as to whether people ought to kill animals for food or not, there is no explicit statement in the Bahá’í Sacred Scriptures (as far as I know) in favour or against it.”…

Is this expressing the Guardian’s ignorance, or the secretary’s? There are tablets from Abdu’l-Baha [and Baha’u’llah] on this topic. The letter goes on:

“It is certain, however, that if man can live on a purely vegetarian diet and thus avoid killing animals, it would be much preferable….”

If we take this as the Guardian speaking as interpreter, he is offering an interpretion on something which he himself thinks is not in the Writings – and therefore is in the province of the UHJ not the Guardian. But he says in the Dispensation of Baha’u’llah that the Guardian will not do this. But it gets more puzzling, because the next sentence says

…”This is, however, a very controversial question and the Bahá’ís are free to express their views on it.”

– so the writer (the secretary in my opinion) does not think this defines Bahai belief. But aren’t the authoritative interpretations of the Guardian supposed to do that? Finally, note that the letter is written on a Holy Day: 9 July 1931. What are the chances that the Guardian required his secretary to work on a Holy Day? You can find the letter in The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 475.

== added later ==
Another example: there’s a letter supposedly on behalf of the Guardian that begins “The question of how to deal with homosexuals is a very difficult one. …” (August 20, 1955) but in the Lunar calendar that is the first of Muharram, the first of the twin holy days marking the births of the Bab and Baha’u’llah, on which work should be suspended). However the archivist at the US Bahai national Center writes:

Dear XX,
The August 20, 1955 is definitely an official letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi. His secretary starts out by listing the dates of the various letters recently received by the Guardian from the National Spiritual Assembly. It is a long letter, 31 pages, because there is a long postscript by the Guardian which was published in Citadel of Faith, pages 133-142. The published postscript gives the August 20, 1955 date. Also the National Spiritual Assembly had written the Guardian on January 13, 1955 asking for guidance on the subject of homosexuals as there were a growing number in the US Bahá’í community. With warm greetings,
Roger M. Dahl, Archivist, National Baha’i Archives, United States

===
Or what about the letter that says “All Divine Revelation seems to have been thrown out in flashes. The Prophets never composed treatises. (The Unfolding Destiny of the British Baha’i Community, p. 453)

Is the Bisharat not an organised treatise? the Iqan? The Epistle to the Son of the Wolf? Other lines in the same letter suppose that prophethood is the perfection of the human station, whereas Bahai teaching is that revelation is transcendent, even if the place-of-revelation is human. And the letters’ idiom is English, warning: “We can never afford to rest on our own oars, …” (p. 454) Persians do not rest on their oars since they have few flowing rivers, or boats on them. The letter is written in 1949 but refers to coming trials – so far as I know, only pilgrim’s notes take that line at that time. The letter contains nothing to indicate that the person writing thinks they are reflecting the Guardian’s direct instructions – it appears simply as personal opinions.

~~~~

All this is not to say that the Guardian’s letters can all be disregarded. That would be just as simplistic as supposing that all these letters are the words of Shoghi Effendi, and his authoritative interpretations of scripture, which can never be changed.

Shoghi Effendi himself wanted the Bahais to make a strong distinction between his writings and those of his secretaries. 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.

[Update November 2013] A letter dated 19 February 1947, written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual, makes it crystal clear that not every ruling of the Guardian — not even all of those he wrote in his own hand — is permanent:

…regarding future Guardians: they cannot “abrogate” the interpretations of former Guardians, as this would imply not only lack of guidance but mistakes in making them; however they can elaborate and elucidate former interpretations, and can certainly abrogate some former ruling laid down as a temporary necessity by a former Guardian.
(The Universal House of Justice, 1995 Jan 31, Questions on Scholarship)

]

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.)

Versus

“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,” and included his secretaries’ letters in that, we would have problem here! But such matters are not doctrinal, they fell to Shoghi Effendi 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 later changed this, and more recently has changed it back.

Take away the three suppositions that what the secretary writes has the same authority as what Shoghi Effendi writes; that everything Shoghi Effendi writes is Bahai doctrine; and that doctrine is just another word for Bahai Law, and there is a better chance that the Bahai Faith will maintain that flexibility that will keep it in the forefront of progressive movements (World Order of Baha’u’llah, 22).

Sen

Post script:

I have one more example of a letter written from a secretary which is no longer regarded as binding. In 1947 the principle was:

“The feasts are really for the believers only, but if a non-Bahá’í happens to come, we should not ask him to leave and hurt the person’s feelings” (The Light of Divine Guidance v II, p. 57)

in 1954 it is tighter:

“The beloved Guardian has instructed me to write you concerning an action recently taken by your National Assembly, … that non-Bahá’ís may attend 19-Day Feasts if “the earnestness of their interest in the Faith” is vouched for by a declared believer.

The Guardian wishes me to direct your attention to the fact that none of the institutions of the Faith nor its cardinal principles may be changed under any circumstances.

The 19-Day Feast is an institution of the Cause, first established by the Báb, later confirmed by Bahá’u’lláh, and now made a prominent part of the administrative order of the Faith. These 19-Day Feasts are for the Bahá’ís, and the Bahá’ís exclusively, and no variation from this principle is permitted.” (Shoghi Effendi, The Light of Divine Guidance v I, p. 211)

That led to the compromise of not holding the administrative part of the Feast when non-Bahais were present. This compromise is outlined in the first part of a letter from the UHJ dated 17 May 2009:

“… unanticipated visitors, who were by and large infrequent in the past, have been welcome to join the devotional and social portions of the Feast, but either they were asked to absent themselves during the administrative portion or that segment of the programme would be eliminated entirely.
Now, … The House of Justice has decided that, in such instances, rather than eliminating the administrative portion completely or asking the visitors to withdraw, those conducting the programme can modify this part of the Feast to accommodate the guests. The sharing of local and national news and information about social events, as well as consultation on topics of general interest, such as the teaching work, service projects, the Fund, and so on, can take place as usual, while discussion of sensitive or problematic issues related to these or other topics can be set aside for another time …
A similar approach to the administrative portion may be adopted when the Feast is celebrated in the home of a family with some members who are not Bahá’ís.”

I can remember a time when such an adaption would have been unthinkable, in light of the 1954 letter. The “software programme” of the Bahai Faith has a good deal of flexibility and options; its operators are often unaware of the options available, fearful of doing something wrong, or unwilling to adapt to changes in the world that — from their own socio-political agenda — appear to them to be degeneration rather than progress. The process of change is bound to be slow and frustrating, but I don’t believe it is impossible

Sen
[amended 12 June: added the letter of August 20 1955]

See also:
Letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi – 2
Letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi – 3
anything Shoghi Effendi said is Baha’i doctrine
Commentary on S. Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir’s “Some interpretive principles in the Bahá’í Writings”
Abdu’l-Baha and Emanuel Swedenborg

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2 Responses to “Letters on behalf of Shoghi Effendi”

  1. Tim Watts said

    Have the “powers that be” ever responded to your clear and reasoned argument?

  2. Sen said

    The Bahai community does not have any “powers that be” in the intellectual field. This is one of the distinctive features of the Bahai community that gives it the capacity (not always utilized) to remain “in the forefront of progressive movements.”

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