Sen McGlinn's blog

                                  Reflections on the Bahai teachings

Church and State – response to Maneck’s Review

I was asked some questions arising from
Susan Stiles Maneck’s web posting “A Review of Sen McGlinn’s Article on Theocracy” which is online at

This review relates to my article, “Theocratic Assumptions in Bahá’í Literature” which is published in S. Fazel and J. Danesh (eds) Reason and Revelation, Studies in Babi and Baha’i Religions vol. 13, Los Angeles, Kalimat Press, 2002

From: Sen McGlinn
Subject: A Review of Sen McGlinn’s Article on Theocracy
Date sent: Wed, 21 Mar 2007 17:06:58 +0100

XX quoted Maneck:

> > For the most part the Bahá’í Writings … were written in the
> > context of the religious and political institutions as they
> > existed in the Middle East, both in theory and in practice, and in
> > the context of changes which the Central Figures wished to make in
> > this arrangement. In the Islamic world the religious sphere is not
> > dominated by a[n] institutional church, but rather by a class of
> > clerics known as the ‘ulama or the learned. Law was seen as
> > something divinely revealed and interpreted by the ‘ulama. Laws
> > issued by rulers themselves were considered less than legitimate.
> > The ‘ulama then, had (or claimed) a virtual monopoly over both
> > legislative and judicial functions, leaving to the rulers only the
> > executive function of government. The Central Figures called for a
> > separation of the ‘ulama from the state, not a Western-style
> > separation of ‘church and state.’

As you have suspected, Maneck is overstating the case to put it very
mildly. In any society, the government and the laws have to function
on the basis of a generally accepted legitimacy, with the possibility
of coercion held in reserve in exceptional cases. The idea that
Islamic societies somehow managed to function in many cultural
settings, over many centuries, while the mass of the people in them
held the view that the laws made by their rulers were illegitimate, is
patently absurd. This claim about Islam has been one of the main
planks of orientalist discourses, designed to show how different
Islamic societies are to “normal” societies, how different Muslims are
to “normal” people. But we have the manuals of Islamic theology
(‘usuul), we have the classical “creeds” of Islamic belief, we have
books of political philosophy and political theology from Islamic
societies over the centuries, by the hundreds: can anyone point to a
single one of these texts that contains this supposed Islamic

The contrary is in fact true: Islamic political thinking has such a
horror of anarchy and chaos, that for many centuries (between the
early centuries and the 20th century) the question of what government
is legitimate is not really a question: any government that holds
power is de facto legitimate, and its laws are to be obeyed, because
“70 years under a bad ruler are better than one night of anarchy.”
Islamic societies did not develop a theory like the divine right of
kings, because their blanket endorsement of almost any government made
this unnecessary. Where something like “divine right” does appear, it
is a vestige of the influence of Sassanian state ideology, in which
the ruler has a god-given ‘aura’ that legitimates his rule. (and
incidentally of Surah 3:26: “Say, O God, Lord of Power, you grant
power to whomever you will, and you take power from whomever you
.”) But generally speaking, Islamic rulers do not need this aura,
because society’s need to have a ruler in order to avoid the war of
all against all is so obvious to everyone, that no further
justification is needed.

Rulers in Islamic societies made laws, and judged according to them,
and made and implemented policies. They are legislature, judiciary and
executive rolled into one, just as European monarchs were until
parliaments were given the power to make laws. There is nothing
particularly Islamic about this, it is the way things were done until
modernity. [But notice that in parliamentary democracies even today,
parliament makes laws that are signed into effect by the King, the
courts and prosecutors are in name extensions of the monarchy (Crown
vs. Smith, the crown prosecutor), and the executive is “her majesty’s
government.”] When Baha’u’llah was writing, European countries to
varying extents were differentiating the three arms of government, and
giving them true independence, but generally speaking in his and
Abdu’l-Baha’s writings the three arms are covered by one term, the
tanfiidhiyyah, which is translated as the executive but refers to
government as a whole, not the executive arm of government.

In the paper which Maneck is criticising, note 32, I explain:

Regarding the separation of church and state, in The Secret of Divine Civilization (Wilmette, Bahá’í Publishing Trust, pocket-sized edition 1990), the point made at p. 37 concerning the ‘two potent forces’ that uphold the state is obscured by the translation. The Persian is on p. 44 of the Risáleh-yi Madiniyyih (Bahá’í-Verlag, 1984). The meaning of these ‘two forces’ is explained at length by `Abdu’l-Bahá in his Risáleh-yi Siyasiyyah, (see the previous note) from which it is clear that what is translated here as ‘the legislative’ (tashriyy`ah) refers to the function of the religious order in propagating and explaining the significance of religious law, while ‘the executive power’ (tanfídhiyyah) refers to the function of government as such, and not simply to the executive as one arm of government in Western democracies. `Abdu’l-Bahá also refers to these ‘two forces’ in his Will and Testament (U.S., 1990 reprint, p. 15), where the parallelism makes it clear that by tashriyy`ah, in the Bahá’í case, he means the Universal House of Justice, and by tanfídhiyyah he means the government.

What Maneck has done is assume the western three-part division of
government, and then put religion in the legislative function leaving
the Bahai Administration with no power to administer, or to judge,
even in its own law! The UHJ however knows better: its constitution
gives it legislative and judicial powers within the Bahai community as
a religious community, and also *executive* power in its sphere:

… to administer the affairs of the Bahá’í community throughout the world; to guide, organize, coordinate and unify its activities; to found institutions;
(The Universal House of Justice, The Constitution of The Universal House of Justice, p. 5)

If Maneck’s reading was correct, the constitution of the UHJ and its
current practice would be against the covenant, because the Will and
Testament shows that the UHJ should NOT have the tanfidhiyyah,
“executive” power.

The three-part division of powers is in fact recognised in Bahai
teachings, but only in relation to the world legislature, executive
and judiciary (Shoghi Effendi), not in the Administrative Order, where
there is a two-fold division: the Guardianship and the House of
Justice, doctrine and action, orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

In any case, there is no reason to suppose that Baha’u’llah or Abdu’l-
Baha thought in exclusively Middle Eastern or Islamic terms, or were
writing only for an audience thinking in that framework. They both
took steps to see that their teachings and writings were taken to the
West, and in some cases addressed westerners directly. There was a
problem of not having stable terminology in Persian and Arabic to
refer to some of the concepts of democracy, but they could overcome
this, as in this example:

By this House is meant that Universal House of Justice which is to be elected from all countries, that is from those parts in the East and West where the loved ones are to be found, after the manner of the customary elections in Western countries such as those of England. (Abdu’l-Baha, Will and Testament)

Given their broad awareness of world affairs and the ways of other
peoples, the best way of understanding their Writings is not to dive
into the Islamic background, even if that is understood correctly and
not in orientalist terms — the best approach is rather to look at the
explanations that Baha’u’llah and in particular Abdu’l-Baha have given
of the terms they use. In the Sermon on the Art of Governance [since retitled The Art of Governance]
Abdu’l-Baha explains:

If you refer to history, you would find countless examples of this [negative] sort, all based on the involvement of religious leaders in political matters. These souls are the fountainhead of the interpretation of God’s commandments (tashrii`), not of implementation (tanfiidh). That is, when the government requests an explanation concerning the requirements of the Law of God and the realities of the divine ordinances … they must explain what has been deduced of the commands of God, and what is in accordance with the law of God. Apart from this, what awareness do they have of questions of leadership and social development, the administration and control of weighty matters, the welfare and prosperity of the kingdom, the improvement of procedures and codes of law, or foreign affairs and domestic policy?

What could be clearer?

> I do suspect that Dr Manek is overstating her case. Issuing of tax
> laws (other than zakat), matters of state security, tobacco
> concessions (!) and the like would presumably not be considered part
> of the legislative competence of the ‘ulamas – surely the true
> picture is rather one of a sharing or division of legislative
> responsibilities, but for details on this point I would rather defer
> to the opinion of experts in the history of the Middle East. But the
> Oriental understanding of a religions shari’a as an authority
> complementary to the secular state /within its own delineated area
> of jurisdiction/ for me conjures up a mental picture which is
> neither church/state collusion (theocracy) nor complete separation
> of “church” and state.

But it is church-state collusion! Not theocracy of course, but a two-
way partnership based on respect and the old principle that “good
fences make good neighbours.”

In the first Ishraqat, Baha’u’llah writes:

They that are possessed of wealth and invested with authority and power must show the profoundest regard for religion. In truth, religion is a radiant light and an impregnable stronghold for the protection and welfare of the peoples of the world, for the fear of God impelleth man to hold fast to that which is good, and shun all evil.

In The Art of Governance, Abdu’l-Baha writes:

The religious law is like the spirit of life,
the government is the locus of the force of deliverance.
The religious law is the shining sun,
and government is the clouds of April.
These two bright stars are like twin lights in the heavens of the
contingent world,
they have cast their rays upon the people of the world.
One has illuminated the world of the soul,
the other caused the earth to flower ….

In the Will and Testament he writes:

This House of Justice enacteth the laws and the government enforceth them. The legislative body must reinforce the executive, the executive must aid and assist the legislative body so that through the close union and harmony of these two forces, the foundation of fairness and justice may become firm and strong,

In the last of these, of course, “legislative body” means making
religious law /shariah, not state law, and “executive” means
“government” in all its facets

Such a partnership is only possible where the separation of the
religious and political orders, and the definition of their spheres
and functions, is constitutionally anchored and generally understood
and accepted. There is no question of a compromise with the principle
of the separation of church and state — but once that principle is
accomplished, the next step is for the two organs of the body politic
to work together. And that is where Baha’u’llah takes the modern state
one step further, into the postmodern era.

Short link:

5 Responses to “Church and State – response to Maneck’s Review”

  1. Hasan said

    Sen, what about a country where 99% is bahá’í. The bahá’í shariah supersedes the civil law or not?

  2. Sen said

    No, the Bahai shariah never supersedes the civil law, for three reasons:

    1) religious ‘law’ is a law voluntarily obeyed, out of conviction. It loses its moral and spiritual value if obedience is compelled. Civil law on the other hand essentially requires compulsion, even in the most peaceful society. This is because coercion is the service that government exists to provide. That may sound strange — who wants to be coerced? We don’t, but we do want our neighbours and everyone else to be coerced. For example, I am happy to pay my taxes, knowing that everyone else will pay theirs. I obey the environmental laws at some cost to my business, knowing that the competing business are compelled to bear the same costs. Religious law and civil law are therefore different in principle. Even if a law or legal institution exists in the same superficial terms in both systems (thou shalt not bear false witness, for example), the civil law has behind it the threat of punishment in this world, the religious law does not. The religious law is concerned with the moral development and eventual salvation of the individual, the civil law is not.

    2) The Bahai shariah is either a matter of individual conscience, or in some matters (divorce for example), it is administered by the Houses of Justice. No individual or institution other than the House of Justice is authorised to administer Bahai law, and the houses of justice are not allowed to become civil courts, or governments. Abdu’l-Baha writes :

    The signature of that meeting should be the Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality) and the wisdom therein is that hereafter the government should not infer from the term “House of Justice” that a court is signified, that it is connected with political affairs, or that at any time it will interfere with governmental affairs.

    Hereafter, enemies will be many. They would use this subject as a cause for disturbing the mind of the government and confusing the thoughts of the public. The intention was to make known that by the term Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality), that Gathering has not the least connection with material matters, and that its whole aim and consultation is confined to matters connected with spiritual affairs.
    (Tablets of Abdu’l-Baha v1, p. 5)

    and Shoghi Effendi stipulates:

    “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 Baha’u’llah, p. 66)

    Therefore the civil law and the religious law must be administered by two different bodies: the government and the house of justice.

    3) the principle of the separation of church and state, also known as non-interference in politics (ie by Bahai institutions and Bahais as a community), is a core Bahai principle. It is an essential part of the way Baha’u’llah sees the world. He writes for example,

    “Regard for the rank of sovereigns is divinely ordained, as is clearly attested by the words of the Prophets of God and His chosen ones. He Who is the Spirit (Jesus) — may peace be upon Him — was asked: “O Spirit of God! Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar or not?” And He made reply: “Yea, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” He forbade it not. These two sayings are, in the estimation of men of insight, one and the same, for if that which belonged to Caesar had not come from God, He would have forbidden it. And likewise in the sacred verse: “Obey God and obey the Apostle, and those among you invested with authority.”
    (Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 89)

    This is a Bahai teaching, but also a Christian and Islamic principle. It is not something that changes according to the society, but rather one of those religious teachings, like “thou shalt not bear false witness” that is always part of religion. It reflects a fundamental two-part metaphysics. Abdu’l-Baha discusses this at length in his “Sermon on the Art of Governance.” He says, among other things, “If you study the matter in detail, and look with a keen eye, it will be evident that the religious law and social system are necessary relationships that derive from the realities of things.”

  3. Hasan said

    Sen, please take a look at this letter about theocracy, the Universal House of Justice wrote:

    “This House of Justice enacteth the laws and the government enforceth them. The legislative body must reinforce the executive, the executive must aid and assist the legislative body so that through the close union and harmony of these two forces, the foundation of fairness and justice may become firm and strong, that all the regions of the world may become even as Paradise itself.

    In response to a question about the “government” in the above passage, Shoghi Effendi’s secretary wrote on his behalf, on 18 April 1941, the following clarification:

    By “Government” … is meant the executive body which will enforce the laws when the Bahá’í Faith has reached the point when it is recognized and accepted entirely by any particular nation.

    The same relationship between legislature and executive is expressed in the well-known passage in “the Unfoldment of World civilization”, showing how one principle is applied over successive periods.

    A world executive, backed by an international force, will carry out the decisions arrived at, and apply the laws enacted by, this world legislature, and will safeguard the organic unity of the whole commonwealth.
    In relation to other international institutions, the Guardian has given the following guidance:

    Touching the point raised in the Secretary’s letter regarding the nature and scope of the Universal Court of Arbitration, this and other similar matters will have to be explained and elucidated by the Universal House of Justice, to which, according to the Master’s explicit Instructions, all important fundamental questions must be referred”.

    So, Sen, here I see the UHJ does not agree with you in these points:

    1. You said that there are two separate “legislatures” (civil-religious). But in this letter the House links “legislature” with the Bahá’í Shariah.

    2. In this same letter referring the same issue, the UHJ foresight one single Commonwealth, not two as you thought. The House about tashrii` (Bahá’í Shariah) – tanfiidh (Executive Government), look at my emphasis (brackets):

    “The same relationship between legislature and executive is expressed in the well-known passage in “the Unfoldment of World civilization”, showing how one principle is applied over successive periods.

    A world executive, backed by an international force, will carry out the decisions arrived at, and apply the laws enacted by, this world legislature [from the UHJ], and will safeguard the organic unity of the whole [Bahá’í] commonwealth”.

    It seems that the Universal House of Justice is talking about the Bahá’í Commonwealth as a super-State, one single Commonwealth not two as you believe.

  4. Sen said

    First, your method is incorrect. It is not legitimate to use the letters of the UHJ as interpretations of Bahai scripture. That would put them in the shoes of the Guardian. They themselves do not claim any authority to interpret Bahai scripture, in fact I think they would be horrified to hear that the Bahais were using their letters as if they were authoritative interpretations. Naturally there are understandings of the Bahai teachings, reflecting those of the individual members, which are embodied in the House of Justice’s policies and guidance and elucidations: these understandings are not authoritative and change as the membership of the House changes. For example, at one time the House wrote, “It is true that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made statements linking the establishment of the unity of nations to the twentieth century.” This was based on the seven candles of unity, which says in translation “The fifth candle is the unity of nations — a unity which, in this century, will be securely established,..” but their conclusion silently incorporates two understandings, which we must assume were the understandings of at least a majority of the House members: that “century” here means a hundred years (it does not, see Century of light), and that the 100 years concerned is the western 20th century. In a similar letter to an individual believer dated April 15, 1976, the Universal House of Justice writes: “Abdul-Baha anticipated that the Lesser Peace could be established before the end of the twentieth century.” (available here on page 6)

    A BIC position paper approved for distribution by the UHJ states: “The Bahá’í writings indicate that peace among the nations will be established in the twentieth century;…”

    After the event, with the approval of the Universal House of Justice, the Research Department released a memo (2001) stating:

    “there is nothing in the authoritative Bahai Writings to indicate that the Lesser Peace would be established before the end of the twentieth century.” (Available here )

    Quite simply, understandings grow. This is true of the Universal House of Justice and the cadre at the Bahai World Centre, just as it is of the grassroots community. As understandings develop, some will be in the lead and some will lag behind. It is perfectly possible that a Bahai somewhere may study the Writings and reach a better understanding, ahead of any of the Councillors, members of the House, and other officers of the Cause. The Bahai leadership does not have, and does not claim, a monopoly on enlightenment, or special expertise. This is remarkably different to most other religious communities, where religious expertise is the first qualification for entering the ranks of leadership. Baha’u’llah says that power has been seized from the ecclesiastics, which translates `ulama, aka, the scholars of religion, the learned of Baha. The Bahais must learn not to push the House of Justice and other officers of the Cause into the vacant shoes of the priest: we have to get used to the idea that our leadership does not necessarily know what the scriptures say, or what they mean.

    Having said that, you have not read what I have written, or what the UHJ has written, carefully. You pointed out, “You said that there are two separate “legislatures” (civil-religious). But in this letter the House links “legislature” with the Bahá’í Shariah.”

    First, it was I who linked the House, as legislature, with the shariah. The UHJ did not say this explicitly, but it’s not a point of disagreement so far as I am aware. The UHJ’s letter does however confuse two distinct things: the pair of the legislative (tashri`) and executive (tanfidh) as the two central powers in society, and the triplet of legislative, executive and judiciary as the three central powers in government. When Shoghi Effendi is writing in English, about civil government, he uses the three terms we are familiar with in the separation of powers. But when Abdu’l-Baha speaks about the role of religion and government in society, on at least four occassions he used the terms tashri` and tanfiidh. One of these is the Will and Testament, and Shoghi Effendi translates them as legislative and executive. This is not a bad translation, because it is perfectly clear in context. It follows the parallel pair “House of Justice” and “government.” It is not legitimate to pull this translation out of context, and suppose that legislative has the same meaning (House of Justice) when it is part of a three-part division of powers within the government. Another place where Abdu’l-Baha uses the pair of tashri` and tanfiidh is in A Traveller’s Narrative, where Browne translates it correctly as “the powers of church and state.” I have discussed two other uses of the church-state motief in “Executive and legislative” on this blog. Taken together, they are quite definitive: executive when it is paired with the term tashri` (whether Bahai or Islamic) is the same as hokumat, which is government as a whole, without assuming the 3-part division of the civil powers within the government (that division could not be assumed, in a 19th-century Middle-East context). Legislature or Church (tashri`), when it is paired with the term tanfiidh/government, refers to the role of organised religion and its authorities in society, as partners to the government.

    You appear to be correct, that the UHJ has probably conflated the commonwealth of nations with the Bahai Commonwealth. They are quite clearly different terms in the vocabulary of Shoghi Effendi (see Two Commonwealths on this blog). However I note that you had to insert [from the UHJ] and [Baha’i] into that quote from the 1995 letter. Whatever the UHJ members may have been assuming, their formulation of it was more careful.

    I don’t think it would be fair dealing for me to point out the other mistakes and misunderstandings in the 1995 letter. It was never intended as a public statement of Bahai teachings on the subject, and gives the appearance of being inadequately researched and prepared. When it was originally sent to me, with copies to Counsellors, it was accompanied by a covering letter to the Counsellors, stating “although this letter is not a confidential document, we do not wish you to distribute it widely or to give it publicity. It should be used merely when occasion arises.” However as you must be aware, the subject of church and state has been a divisive topic in the Bahai academic community. Some people, in their passion to discredit me and the readings of scripture I was presenting, circulated the UHJ’s 1995 letter widely, posting it repeatedly on email and web forums, with the explicit or implicit conclusion (just as you have), “the UHJ disagrees with Sen so Sen is wrong about scripture.” In their rush to “get Sen” they did a disservice to the UHJ, by putting out something that was not ready for publication (and perhaps the UHJ never intended to publish a position statement on the topic). They also revealed their own lack of understanding of the difference between scripture and its authoritative interpretations on the one hand, and the understandings of scripture that may be embodied in UHJ policies and guidance, on the other. Some of the same people also spread outrageous, and often improbable, libels about me on internet fora (see A list of slanders on this blog). It’s a sobering example of what happens when passion and partisanship drives out reason and fair-mindedness. It’s all a distraction: the question is not “does Sen agree with what UHJ members thought in this or that year,” the question is, “what do the Bahai scriptures say?” My understanding, and that of the UHJ, are changeable things, while the Bahai scriptures are the one standard that unites us.

  5. Hasan said

    Sen, thanks again for your answer, my only aim is to understand this puzzle and I have no intention to discredit you in any way.

    The Guardian wrote: “We must trust to time, and the guidance of God’s Universal House of Justice, to obtain a clearer and fuller understanding of its [Bahá’í Order] provisions and implications”, so I was just looking clarification in the letters of the UHJ.

    You said: “understandings grow” I agree (by the way, the quote of the UHJ “Abdu’l-Bahá anticipated that the Lesser Peace could be established before the end of the twentieth century” is the number 427 of Lights of Guidance here: your link is broken).

    So, these misunderstandings is one of the consequences for no having a living Guardian? What are the other consequences?

    Anyway, I can’t find direct letters of the UHJ (not on behalf of) about this topic, if you can refer me to some, I would appreciate.

    The letter of the UHJ dated 1995-04-27 is here:

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: