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In search of spiritual democracy

Posted by Sen on September 14, 2018

In the 30’s and 40’s, Shoghi Effendi was encouraging the Bahais to establish the various organs of the Bahai Administrative Order, while some Bahais, notably in the Bahai community in North America, were resisting. They put forward an alternative vision, in which Baha’u’llah’s “Houses of Justice” were thought to refer to democratic governments, and the Bahai community was inclusive and had no permanent organization at all. Three ‘quotes’ from Abdu’l-Baha were central to this vision of what a Bahai community could be: “you cannot organize the Bahai Movement, the Bahai Movement is the spirit of the age” “There are no officers in this Cause” and “The foundation of this Cause is pure spiritual democracy.”

I have already written extensively on ‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’ on this blog. In brief, it seems to originate with Percy Woodcock’s 1909 pilgrim’s notes, mistakenly taken up by Star of the West magazine in 1914, and then into various other publications. The same posting includes a historical survey of anti-organisational sentiment in the Bahai community in the United States, which was opposed by Louis G. Gregory, Agnes S. Parsons, Mariam Haney and, from 1920, by Mason Remey. Peter Smith has outlined the resistance to organization, and the election of precursors to the Local Spiritual Assemblies, in ‘The American Bahai Community.’ I will only repeat here one point I’ve made in ‘You can never organize’ : the power of such memes comes not from their credibility as texts, but from an already existing distrust of organization in religion, with which such texts meshed, and from the particularly anti-episcopal character of religion in the United States.

Here I would like to deal more briefly with the “no offices” and “spiritual democracy” memes. The most influential of the early publications in which these words appear is Bahai Scriptures (pp 499-450), a compilation that mixes authentic and dubious texts. It is no longer printed or distributed in hard copy, but it has given a new lease of life by being digitized. The words attributed to Abdu’l-Baha are:

Meekness and humility are the hallmarks of faith. As soon as a believer feels himself the least degree superior to others, the beginning of his spiritual decline has set in, all unaware to himself. There are no offices in this Cause. I do not and have not “appointed” any one to perform any special service, but I encourage every one to engage in the service of the Kingdom. The foundation of this Cause is pure spiritual democracy, and not theocracy. The difference between me and others is this: I confess and acknowledge my own inability, weakness and humility, and know that all these outward confirmations are the favors of the Blessed Perfection. There are some who imagine, and little by little come to believe, that their spiritual successes are by and through themselves.

My particular focus here is on the highlighted words. They are obviously implausible, as Abdu’l-Baha did appoint people to perform special services, and he knew Baha’u’llah had done the same. Moreover if at that time there were Persian terms for “democracy” (as distinct from “republic”) and for “theocracy,” Abdu’l-Baha did not use them in his writings, but his interpreters and editors did. For example, “democracy” appears three times in the English report of a talk Abdu’l-Baha gave at the Orient-Occident-Unity Conference (translated by Amin Farid, notes by Joseph Hannen) on April 20, 1912, but not in the Persian notes of the same talk (see here).

It’s unlikely that Abdu’l-Baha ever said “the foundation of this Cause is pure spiritual democracy.” The source is probably Ahmad Sohrab, since the same words are found in Sohrab’s I Heard Him Say, page 120, published in 1937. While Bahai Scriptures was published 14 years earlier, in 1923, it is very likely that Sohrab had communicated the words in a private letter or a letter to be published in a Bahai newsletter, before he included it in I heard Him Say, which is a retrospective compilation. As we will see, in 1914 he had inserted a quote about “spiritual democracy” into his translation of a tablet from Abdu’l-Baha. Sohrab is very free in attributing his own ideas to Abdu’l-Baha, so where he is the only known source of words, they must be regarded as especially doubtful.

It is a fair assumption that the Bahai Scriptures example of the “spiritual democracy” meme is a bit of western egalitarianism and anti-clericalism, championed by Ahmad Sohrab, and put into the mouth of Abdu’l-Baha. This iteration says “The foundation of this Cause is pure spiritual democracy, and not theocracy.” This is interesting because “theocracy” here evidently means a hierarchical religious organization with authority, whereas today we use it to mean a state ruled by the religious authorities.

The alert reader will notice that quotes of this text sometimes says “there are no offices” and sometimes “there are no officers.” Which is the authentic form is a moot point, since the quote is not authentic in any form.

These words, first published in 1923, are probably not intended by Sohrab as a rejection of the Guardianship, which was established in Abdu’l-Baha’s Will and Testament and became public early in 1922. I doubt that there is enough time between Sohrab’s learning of the Will and Testament and the typesetting for Bahai Scriptures for these words to have been written in response to the Will. Holley’s ‘Introduction’ to the volume is dated February 12, 1923. However the quote about having no officers was loved by Ruth White and Hermann Zimmer, who led campaigns against the Guardianship, and it is used today by groups or individuals who oppose the Administrative Order of the Bahai community, groups such as “Free Bahais,” “Reform Bahai,” “Orthodox Bahai Faith” and the like.

Another form in which the idea of “spiritual democracy” is found is a talk by Abdu’l-Baha that is reported in The Promulgation of Universal Peace, where it is dated November 23 1912 and located at the Great Northern Hotel in New York. The relevant part reads:

The effect of such an assembly as this is conducive to divine fellowship … By it the very foundations of race prejudice are uprooted and destroyed, the banner of spiritual democracy is hoisted aloft, …(p. 447)

There are no Persian notes to check the authenticity of the report, and no indication of the source: the report was not first published in Star of the West. The editor of Promulgation says the source is notes taken by Edna McKinney. Because there are no Persian notes of this talk, we know it only via an interpreter, whose words were recorded or later remembered by Edna McKinney, who presumably passed her notes to Howard MacNutt, an editor who in other instances has been shown to have a very free hand in embellishing his texts. In one case I’ve discussed on this blog, he frankly interpolated the text.

The phrase is also attributed to Abdu’l-Baha by Ahmad Sohrab in a diary entry for 23 May 1914, published in Star of the West, Vol. 7 nr. 18, February 7, 1917.

The Bahais must be always on the alert, so that they may not fall into this pit. They must keep the religion of God pure and uncontaminated, a haven of rest for the despondent souls, a safe harbor for the shipwrecked, a divine antidote for the ailing ones, a torch of light for those who are groping in the darkness, and a spiritual democracy for the down trodden and the outcast.(p. 180).

Sohrab kept a diary in Persian, and translated parts and sent them to friends and Bahai magazines, but there is reason to think that he also wrote some recollections in English, some time after the event, and claimed that he had taken the words from his Persian diary, to give them more credibility. I have commented on this previously on this blog. In the same diary report he says that Abdu’l-Baha said “The religion of God is the leveller of all social inequalities and the destroyer of sacerdotal distinctions. In the court of the Almighty there are no offices or positions.” This is the germ of Sohrab’s later rejection of the Guardianship, and refusal to obey the Spiritual Assembly of New York. In the Bahai community there are indeed offices and positions. Moreover Abdu’l-Baha wrote explicitly of the preservation of ranks in society, and the dignity and rights of each: “The justice of God requires the observation of mutual rights, and the divine law proclaims the preservation of reciprocally related ranks.” (The Art of Governance)

Our search for the term “spiritual democracy” has found three unreliable oral sources for the ‘spiritual democracy,’ but it is not yet ended: the term also appears in a letter from Abdu’l-Baha to Miss Beatrice Irwin in London, and translated by Ahmad Sohrab. The paragraph says, in Sohrab’s translation:

My spirit is aflame and burning; my heart is broken, mournful, heavy and despondent; my eyes are weeping and my soul is on fire. Oh! I am so bowed down and sorrowful.

O people! Weep and cry, lament and bemoan your fate. Then hasten ye, hasten ye, perchance ye may become able to extinguish with the water of the new born ideals of spiritual democracy and celestial freedom, this many flamed, world consuming fire, and through your heaven inspired resolution you may usher in the Golden Era of International Solidarity and World Confederation. (translation dated October, 1914, printed in Star of the West Vol. 5, p. 245).

However there is nothing that could be translated “O people!” “spiritual democracy and celestial freedom” or “the Golden Era of International Solidarity and World Confederation” in the tablet, which has been published in Persian. Sohrab has simply made all this up. That section says, in fact:

My soul is burning and melting, my heart, inflamed, is grieving; my eyes are weeping and my liver on fire! Will you [i.e., the various kinds of world leaders previously addressed] then talk and moan and cry rivers, that you may pour water on this many-flamed fire? Nay rather let this world-consuming fire be extinguished by your efforts.

In a number of other places in his translation, Sohrab has embellished and expanded on what Abdu’l-Baha wrote, but in this section he has gone beyond embellishment to interpolation.

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Related content:
‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’
Bahai lore (tag)

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Posted in Community, Defence of the Faith, Polemics, Theology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments »

To teach is to learn, is to work, is to serve, etcetera

Posted by Sen on June 2, 2018

A number of Bahai writers and musicians have used a quote attributed to Abdu’l-Baha, which goes “O Lord of the worlds! To teach is to learn, to learn is to work, to work is to serve, to serve is to love, to love is to sacrifice, to sacrifice is to die, to die is to live, to live is to strive, to strive is to rise above all earthly limitations and enter the eternal realms.” Often these words are tacked on the end of a prayer of Abdu’l-Baha contained in a letter to Lua Getsinger. That prayer begins “Thou knowest, O God, and art my witness that I have no desire in my heart save to attain Thy good pleasure, …” or in an older translation “Thou testifiest and Thou knowest in my heart and soul there is no desire except to attain Thy pleasure..”
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‘You can never organize the Bahai Cause’

Posted by Sen on December 16, 2010

I’m not a historian: I’m interested mainly in the timeless task of understanding the Bahai teachings, leaving history to those able, and crystal-ball gazing to those interested. But those who don’t know their history, will repeat mistakes in understanding quite needlessly, so sometimes we need to look back at the history of an idea in the Bahai community, especially where it is a mistaken idea that keeps resurfacing. In this case I am looking at some words attributed to Abdu’l-Baha, Read the rest of this entry »

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O God, refresh and gladden my spirit

Posted by Sen on May 13, 2010

One of the friends asked for the Persian text of the well-known prayer that begins, “O God! Refresh and gladden my spirit. Purify my heart. Illumine my powers. I lay all my affairs in Thy hand….

I had to disappoint him: there is no Persian original for this. It comes from the Diary of Mirza Ahmad Sohrab for May 9, 1914. He would write his diary in Persian, and later translate parts of it into English and distribute the translations. In this case, his handwritten English translation has survived in manuscript (a friend has a copy), and contains this prayer, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Bahai Writings, Devotions | Tagged: , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The mystery of sacrifice

Posted by Sen on October 16, 2009

sealscrofts3One of the friends said:

Long ago I picked up a supposed quote from the Bab, “The mystery of sacrifice is there is no sacrifice.” Now I can’t find a source. Read the rest of this entry »

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Instant, exact and complete?

Posted by Sen on October 12, 2009

blueangelsIn a discussion group, one of the participants recalled that Shoghi Effendi had said that the requirement for appointment as a Hand of the Cause was “instant, exact and complete obedience.” It’s a familiar phrase in Bahai discourse, but is it from the words of Shoghi Effendi? Is it about the Hands of the Cause?
 
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A consummate union

Posted by Sen on May 22, 2009

I recently came across Bahai blog (whose owner prefers not to be named) that, as an example of the Bahai teachings, presented this passage from the old compilation Bahai World Faith:

He has ordained and established the House of Justice which is endowed with a political as well as a religious function, the consummate union and blending of church and state. This institution is under the protecting power of Baha’u’llah Himself.
(Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, 247)

The issue of what is, and what is not, Bahai scripture is of general importance, so I am responding here.
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Posted in Bahai Writings, Church and State | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

The world’s a stage

Posted by Sen on April 26, 2009

One of the friends said:

polarshift1… an elderly lady once told me that Shoghi Effendi had said that the earth would “fall off its axis and spin wildly for three days”… well, I’ve searched and searched for anything even close…

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Conversation with God

Posted by Sen on February 28, 2009

We had a potluck for yummy-ha, with pecan pie. It was followed by imaginative and effective musical devotions: first all learning to sing a simple prayer with variants, and then all humming that tune while some short readings were read slooowly, the spoken phrases matching the musical phrases.

mantisheadSince the potluck took place at the day and home which regularly hosts a Ruhi circle, the devotions flowed straight on to a Ruhi session, Book 1 Chapter 2, on Prayer. The first words of the chapter are “Abdu’l-Baha says that prayer is conversation with God.” No source was given. This part of the Ruhi book raises a lot of questions, and questions are always good.
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Century’s end – my two cents

Posted by Sen on January 12, 2009

spinningtopWhen I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things. 1 Corinthians 13:11

The word ‘century’ appears unproblematic: a period of a hundred years, which in common usage begins with the year 00 (although sticklers will insist that the century begins in the year 01, so that the 21st century began on 1 January 2001). But in reading the Bahai texts, things are not so simple. In this post I want to look at the peculiar significance Bahais have mistakenly attached to the 20th century and what can be learned from the whole affair; in the next posting I will look at what the Bahai writings really say about the ‘century’ (not the 20th century).
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Red Tulips

Posted by Sen on December 20, 2008

I have a lovely story to share, told to me by Brent Poirier and shared with his permission. He heard it around 1980 from Inez Greeven, whose sister was India Haggarty, the subject of our story. India Haggarty was a Bahai living in Paris in 1931. I will let Brent tell the story:
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How theocracy happened

Posted by Sen on December 2, 2008

A person investigating the Bahai Faith had encountered theocratic ideas among the Bahais she met, and asked if these were correct, and where they came from. But in fact, she seemed to know already that these ideas must be wrong. She wrote:

> I have to say that the idea of a one-world government run by a
> religious institution of any sort whatsoever, is what I can only
> call a total nightmare. I cannot believe for one second that this
> is what Bahaullah envisaged,

She was quite right. This is certainly not what Baha’u’llah envisioned!
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