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Posts Tagged ‘Universal House of Justice’

Signed by Five

Posted by Sen on October 6, 2019

As I have often pointed out, it’s important to distinguish between the letters written by the Guardian and those written on his behalf. It is also important to distinguish between letters from the Universal House of Justice and those from the Secretariat or another body at the Bahai World Centre. Knowing which is which requires some checking and perhaps a direct enquiry, because many publications and databases quote from letters issued by the Secretariat, saying that they are quoting the House of Justice. Moreover letters from the Secretariat quite often cite memoranda from the Research Department, so that these too come to be cited as ‘from The House of Justice’ or on behalf of the House of Justice. This is a muddle: some clarity is needed.

In 1996, a letter on behalf of the House of Justice described the procedure used for letters signed as coming from the secretariat:

As to whether there is a distinction between correspondence from the World Centre that has been signed “The Universal House of Justice” and that signed on behalf of the Secretariat [sic: they mean, “on behalf of the House of Justice”]: In brief, the manner in which each of these letters is prepared depends upon the contents of the letter. Drafts of letters which contain newly formulated policies are consulted upon and approved during a meeting of the House of Justice; correspondence dealing with previously enunciated policies, or with matters of a routine nature, are prepared, as delegated by the House of Justice, by its Secretariat and initialed by at least the majority of the members of the House of Justice before being dispatched. All letters written over the signature of the Department of the Secretariat are authorized by the Universal House of Justice.”
(22 October 1996)

Twenty years later, the procedure was described to me – and I welcome independent updates on this – as based on departmental responsibilities, with each department of the Secretariat overseen by a member of the House of Justice. Each member reviews the matters arising relevant his department, and selects some for consideration by the House of Justice itself. Others he handles himself, or passes to his secretaries to respond to. In either case, this produces a draft communication, which will usually be a letter but may be instructions to be given orally, either to a Counselor or, more rarely, to the Secretary of a National Spiritual Assembly. The drafts approved by members are deposited at a central place where other members can read them. When a draft has received the signatures of at least 5 members, it is sent as a communication from the Secretariat in the name of the House of Justice.

The two descriptions are not contradictory. Pending an update of the 1996 letter, it appears that individual members are expected to recognize issues that call for “newly formulated policies,” implying that there is a set of reigning policies. Either these policies do not exist in a codified form, or the codification is not communicated to the community. The first of these seems more probable, i.e., that “current policies” are determined by the individual member in accordance with his personal understanding which is a mix of where he thinks the House of Justice should go, what he has experienced of the House in action, how much he knows of the relevant Writings, and how much he thinks he knows, but incorrectly.

If there was a compilation of established policies, I think it would have been published, enabling the entire community to know the policies and understand the thinking of the Universal House of Justice and implement it intelligently in their own diverse circumstances. Moreover, the House of Justice, as a body charged with ‘elucidating’ (‘illuminating’) obscure matters would surely be transparent about its collected policies if it was in a position to do so. Non-transparent illumination is a contradiction in terms. So I think it very likely that the established policies of the House of Justice are determined by the members individually, case by case.

In my opinion it would be desirable for policies that are intended to guide the community as a whole to be published as a matter of course, and also for the community to be notified when a policy is no longer in force, through the same ‘gazette.’

From both descriptions, it appears that where a letter is sourced from the Secretariat, either an individual House member or a secretary has investigated, decided on a response and drafted the letter for signature by the designated member and four others. This means that the particular circumstances of the case in hand are known, at most, to one member of the House: the other four signatories see only the draft response. If the draft is prepared by the Secretariat, as stated in the 1996 letter, then none of the members would be informed of the facts of the case. To be more exact: neither description of the process says that the background file is attached to the communication, let alone that the signatories are expected to read that file. Given this limitation, their signatures are in the nature of a “no objection” to that response, for they do not have enough information to say whether this response is the best possible response in the circumstances. They can say whether the response is in accordance with their own understandings of existing House policies, but not whether it is correct as regards the facts of the case, unless they take the initiative to inform themselves diligently. Neither of the descriptions mentions this possibility, but no doubt it is possible for a member to ask for more information before signing the response. The members could also, presumably, disagree with their colleague’s judgment that the issue did not warrant consultation by the House as a body. But it’s not likely to happen, if they have only read the draft response. That response by definition will present the issue as a routine matter covered by existing policies.

Neither description of the 5-signature process provides for any consultation, although it is presumably available as an optional extra. The procedure as described assumes that the response is prepared by a single member of the House, or by “the Secretariat” – without specifying whether that is one or more secretaries. Baha’u’llah writes “The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.” (Translated from the Persian, in the compilation _Consultation). So if such communications seem sometimes to lack the gift of understanding, this may be attributed not to the limitations of the individuals, but rather to the procedure they work within. Anyone working in this framework day after day, making individual judgment calls checked only by people not familiar with the facts, must be forgiven for some suboptimal decisions. It is admirable enough if the person given such individual responsibility — to speak on behalf of the House and shape the lives of individuals and communities — can win the spiritual battle against developing a god complex.

Letters sent out by this method – with five signatures – are sent in the name of House of Justice and generally received as coming from the House of Justice and covered by infallibility. Some have even called them letters from God – a blasphemy if meant literally, but perhaps excusable as rhetorical exaggeration. But then again, not so excusable, if the exaggeration is designed to be taken literally by those culturally and psychologically predisposed to do so!

It would be a mistake to have very high expectations of the outcomes of such a process, and such letters certainly cannot be considered infallible, because of the lack of investigative procedures such as hearing both sides, because of the role that individual members’ understandings have played in the process, and because the infallibility of the House is limited, formally and procedurally, to decisions taken in a meeting of the body, whether unanimously or by majority vote. Abdu’l-Baha says, in Some Answered Questions:

… infallibility in essence is confined to the universal Manifestations of God and infallibility as an attribute is conferred upon sanctified souls. For instance, the Universal House of Justice, if it be established under the necessary conditions — that is, if it be elected by the entire community — that House of Justice will be under the protection and unerring guidance of God. Should that House of Justice decide, either unanimously or by a majority, upon a matter that is not explicitly recorded in the Book, that decision and command will be guarded from error. Now, the members of the House of Justice are not essentially infallible as individuals, but the body of the House of Justice is under the protection and unerring guidance of God: this is called conferred infallibility.

This limitation of the infallibility of the House to decisions taken by the body, and not by members individually, dovetails with other Bahai teachings: the abolition of the clergy within the Bahai community, the central role of consultation in Bahai affairs, and the high evaluation that Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha accord to discursive rationality in all spheres of life. Trust in reasoned discourse, in turn, relates to their teaching that humanity has reached the age of maturity. I leave all these interesting topics aside here, noting merely that what appears as a mere procedural requirement regarding meetings of the House is a necessary result of deeper and wider teachings about human nature, and the nature of the Bahai community and modern society.

The section of the 1996 letter I have quoted above (from the Secretariat) ends with the sentence “All letters written over the signature of the Department of the Secretariat are authorized by the Universal House of Justice.” Respectfully, I disagree. The author of this letter has just described the procedure of preparing a draft that is then “initialed by at least the majority of the members of the House of Justice before being dispatched.” The procedure as described does not leave any room for authorization by the Universal House of Justice itself before dispatch. What we may assume is that the House of Justice has implicitly or explicitly authorized the Secretariat’s procedures. It has not authorized the contents of individual letters or verbal communications delivered in its name, unless the body itself has consulted on the exact wording of the communication. In that case, the decision always comes in writing, and with the signature of the House of Justice.

As regards memoranda from the Research Department, which are often cited or enclosed with letters from the Secretariat, the same 1996 letter states:

As to whether the materials prepared by the Research Department constitute the authoritative word of the Universal House of Justice on a particular subject, as raised in your third question, the House of Justice indicates that such materials, though prepared at its direction, represent the views of that Department. While such views are very useful as an aid to resolving perplexities or gaining an enhanced understanding of the Bahai Teachings, they should never be taken to be in the same category as the elucidations and clarifications provided by the Universal House of Justice in the exercise of its assigned functions. However, the House of Justice chooses to convey the materials prepared by the Research Department to the friends because it wishes them to be thoughtfully attended to and seriously considered.

Given that this letter is from the Secretariat, and that it is usually the Secretariat that cites or encloses the research Memoranda, “the House of Justice chooses to convey the materials …” should be parsed as “five or more members of the House of Justice have undersigned our decision to convey the materials…” A few of the communications of the Secretariat give me the impression that the authors think of themselves as the outward face of the House of Justice, rather than as staff of a subordinate auxiliary to the House. This is one example.

The International Teaching Centre

The International Teaching Centre has become a very prominent feature of the Bahai Administrative Order at the global level. From what has already been said, it is clear that ITC letters are not equivalent to the decisions taken by the House of Justice in consultation, and are not covered by infallibility. The process by which these letters are composed is entirely obscure: are they written by individuals designated with particular responsibilities, or are they the fruits of a consultation within the ITC, or with other parties? Yet I have recently noted a regrettable tendency to include these letters under the term ‘the guidance’ and to give them equal status with letters from the House. An example is John Hatcher’s 2007 ‘commentary,’ which was the subject of another commentary, by Eric Hadley-Ives, published on his blog a few days later. Eric Hadley-Ives quotes John Hatcher, “. . . When we have questions about any part of the guidance we are receiving [we should] go to the source itself: the authoritative text of the letters of the Universal House of Justice and the guidance in documents that have been prepared at its behest by the International Teaching Center.” Eric goes on to wonder why the writings of Baha’u’llah, Abdu’l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi are omitted here. That would be because John Hatcher believes that “letters that emanate from this infallible institution” [the House of Justice] are just like “a letter from God giving us the best advice for those actions we need to carry out right now.”


I think it would be fair to say that Bahais and Bahai institutions, and not just in the English-speaking world, have been unaware that the great majority of the communications from the World Centre do not originate with the House of Justice itself, and are not covered by the infallibility of the House of Justice. This ignorance gives individuals and National Spiritual Assemblies the impression that infallibility is available “on tap” to answer their every question. And if you thought infallible guidance was available, why would you not use it, in preference to fact-finding and consultation? Especially if, as a National Assembly, you have past experience of your decisions being countered by the ‘House of Justice,’ which in most cases means, countered by the individual member of the House of Justice responsible for that branch of affairs or country. It is a vicious circle: given the promise of guidance and threat of correction from above, the possibility of asking the House for advice is over-used, so the system generates a volume of queries that makes the system a practical necessity.

The idea of “infallibility on tap” has another negative consequence: there is little dialogue between the House of Justice, the National Spiritual Assemblies and the community, because the House of Justice is seen as giving divine guidance on every point, so there is no need for discussion. Those who believe in infallibility on tap have also set themselves up for a crisis of faith, for it is inevitable that some decisions made with such a cursory process will be wrong in ways that even a true believer cannot deny.

Because National Assemblies routinely check their decisions with the House of Justice, and base the wording of their decisions on what they have received from the Secretariat, the possibility of a local Assembly or individual appealing an NSA decision to the House of Justice becomes a moot point, unless they word their appeal to emphasize that they believe the case is not covered by existing House of Justice policies. That will maximize the likelihood that the House of Justice itself may consult on the matter, and will benefit from the spiritual guidance it is promised when it consults collectively. But so long as the illusion exists that everything coming from the World Centre shares the infallibility of the House of Justice, it is hard to see how the evils of excessive centralization of decision-making can be avoided. If detailed divinely protected guidance is available, how can rationality, consultation and the development of local and national institutions compete? And so far as decisions come largely from the top – even if this follows a request for guidance — then compliance with the decisions must be monitored from the top, requiring great diligence from the Counsellors and the Assistants in the suppression of national and local subsidiarity.

The five-signatures method encourages a culture of perpetual infancy, and is irreconcilable with Baha’u’llah’s image of the human person as a mature subject, and of society entering the age of maturity. The availability of guidance on tap – if we give way to the temptation to use it – reduces the individual to a passive receiver of messages from above. It is hardly surprising if Feasts that are dominated by reading the messages of the month — assumed to be divinely guided – are not socially or intellectually stimulating. Passivity is being bred in to the community.

For National Spiritual Assemblies in particular, it creates another difficulty that they should be aware of. We do no know (I do not know) how the areas of responsibility of the House members are defined, or who is responsible for what area. Are they purely geographical or a mixture of geographical and thematic? The thing is, a National Assembly might develop a good understanding of the thinking of the House of Justice (in fact, of the member of the House they are dealing with, without knowing his name), and then be astounded by a letter on behalf of the House on, for example, the affairs of Iranians in exile, or Bahai Studies, or social and economic development, in their jurisdiction, simply because that theme is handled by a different member of the House, with a different understanding of House policies. For this reason I think it desirable that letters on behalf of the House of Justice should be signed with the name of the House member supervising that communication.

The Department of the Secretariat has made some attempts to restrain the tendency of individuals to ask the House of Justice for guidance on every issue, as a substitute for consultation at the lowest level possible (subsidiarity). One letter says :

[as for] …the circumstances under which an individual believer may submit questions to the National Assembly or the House of Justice, directly. As you know, Baha’is turn to Baha’i literature, their fellow-believers (particularly those well-versed in the Writings) and the local and national institutions of the Faith for answers to any question they may have. If these avenues are explored to the utmost and further clarification is still needed, the friends are free to refer to the House of Justice for such guidance.” (1998-01-02)

According to the “to the utmost” criteria, the believer who, disagreeing with a Facebook moderation decision or with another participant, gets on her high horse and writes to the House with a twisted report of the case, should be told firmly that this is not an issue to be resolved by guidance from the World Centre. She should be reminded that consultation is a great good, and the wider the better. I’ve never heard of that happening. The theory of encouraging wide consultation with institutions and knowledgeable believers needs to be backed by a firm policy of refusing to respond to requests unless they show that consultation has been tried first, and particularly with the Bahai whom the writers thinks is in need of correction.

Lack of awareness of the five-signature procedure also inclines Bahais, in a few cases, to exaggerations that make the Bahais appear to the outside world like a hair-brained cult. The natural tendency to remember the memorable and forget the unremarkable means that even a few memorable exaggerations can do harm to our public image for many years. Some examples of memorable and harmful exaggerations about communications from Haifa are included in Eric Hadley-Ives’ commentary, linked to above. I will not prolong their unfortunate life by repeating them here.

In ‘the supreme institution’ on this blog, I’ve pointed to the dangers of exaggeration, particularly for a new religious movement :

… In all religions, there are minimisers and there are exaggerators, and there is an internal dynamic that favours the exaggerators, so that in the long term the metaphysical claims a religion makes and the titles it uses inflate. … an exaggeration always appears more pious, even if technically wrong. And what is just “more pious” in this generation, is self-evident orthodoxy for the next. Those who want to seem more fervently pious then have to move up one step of hyperbole. … [but] hyperbolic language invites negative reactions from the state and society and other religious communities, it promotes conflict and is a barrier to conversions.


I’ve spoken about the consequences for the community of recognizing, or not recognizing, the qualitative difference between letters that are the fruit of consultation from the House of Justice, and the other communications we get from the Bahai World Centre, from the secretariat, the Research Department and the International Teaching Centre. The distinction also has implications for the debate about the scope of the infallibility of the House of Justice. Udo Schaefer’s argument for a scope that is tightly limited to legislation gets its motivation and persuasiveness from lumping together all the communications of House and the Secretariat, and saying, if all these are infallible, the result is absurd. That is an argument from results: it is not logically valid, but it certainly is a good reason for suspecting that a premise must be wrong somewhere. Udo Schaefer thinks the wrong premise is that all decisions of the House of Justice are infallible. He argues that in fact infallibility applies only to the “supplementary legislation,” defined as “the establishment of universal abstract legal norms that … are binding upon the entire world community” (An Introduction to Baha’i Law by Udo Schaefer, p. 354). Its judicial, administrative and policy decisions are not infallible, in his view. I have already critiqued his argument briefly on this blog.

It appears the Schaefer was unaware of the difference between letters from the House of Justice and those from the Secretariat when he wrote his main publications on infallibility, notably the 2002 ‘Infallible Institutions.’ He would not have had to abandon his argument however, because there are examples enough of errors in letters that are from a consultation of the House of Justice itself. An example is the Ridvan message of 2000, which erroneously stated that the German edition of Making the Crooked Straight had appeared “last year” [in 1999], when in fact it appeared in 1995. Circle shape, BorisThe message was silently corrected, and the original text is hard to find. I recovered it using the wayback machine / internet archive. This reminds me of a joke I heard attributed to a member of the House of Justice:
– “How do you make decisions when you are infallible?”
– “Very carefully.”

Given such errors, we still need either to understand infallibility as limited to a selection within the decisions and communication of the House itself – the Udo Schaefer approach – and/or understand infallibility as allowing for errors of a certain kind and/or degree of importance. The latter is my approach, which I will not enlarge on here. Suffice to say that excluding letters from the auxiliary institutions simplifies the picture, but does not resolve the issue of the meaning and scope of the infallibility of the Universal House of Justice.

An alternative

The House of Justice might consider the virtues of the model used by the United States Supreme Court and the Supreme Courts of other federal systems: the Court first filters cases presented to it, and in most cases refuses to hear them, for its function is not to provide for justice in each individual case – that is the task of the lower courts or in our case, of the National Spiritual Assemblies. Its task is to ensure coherence between the principles applied in the diverse lower courts, and to provide the _authoritative ruling on new issues. Normally, the lower courts (assemblies) themselves identify the principles involved in new issues, and make rulings that are tested by critique and by their effects over time. It is not the case that every new issue must _first be decided at the highest level: that is a recipe for paralysis. Rather, there must be a possibility of a decision at the highest level at some point, if and when this is necessary to ensure effectiveness and unity.

Related content:
Infallability and the meaning of khata’
Infallability as freedom

On Will McCant‘s blog:
Shaykh Ahmad on Infallibility

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Posted in Community | Tagged: , , , , , , | 10 Comments »

“… a body of learned Bahais”

Posted by Sen on July 15, 2015

Ivan Sakhnenko, The Anatomy Lesson
On a facebook group, one Bahai wrote:
Obviously the House of Justice needs someone w/ an appropriate background to explain the Writings to them.” This was in the context of letters that showed the Universal House of Justice’s understanding of Bahai teachings evolving over time. I will give more details below.

I am sure the suggestion was well meant, but I think it is heading in the wrong direction entirely. However first I will have to explain why the suggestion could be made. The ‘problem’ for the Bahais, is that it is clear from doctrine and practical observation that the Universal House of Justice, the head of the Bahai community, does not always understand the Bahai scriptures correctly. If there was a guarantee that it would always be correct, the Guardianship would have been unnecessary. Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Community, Theology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 37 Comments »

“Bahais marry their sisters” — the prohibited degrees of affinity for marriage

Posted by Sen on May 16, 2015

Itchingfield Church - [Upate, October 26, 2015, see postscript.]
This posting will explore the principles and procedures that determine the ‘prohibited degrees of marriage’ in Bahai law. How closely does someone have to be related to you, to be too close for you to marry? The term “affinity” is used to include blood relationships and marriage relationships (and relationships by adoption ~ see the postscript).

Bahai readers will no doubt ask, why do we need a systematic explanation of this now? It is not as if there is a problem: we do not have a prevalence of first cousin marriages in Bahai communities, our assemblies are not overburdened by requests from fathers wanting to marry their daughters. Our lack of interest in the issue is indicated by the fact that the Bahaikipedia section on marriage laws does not mention the prohibited degrees of marriage. Apparently, we are quite satisfied to obey the civil laws and use our common sense.

However the lack of a systematic presentation in terms that are understandable for people from an Islamic background has given room for numerous Islamic scholars and anti-Bahai web sites to tell the people they can influence that Bahais “marry their sisters.” Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Aqdas and Law, Defence of the Faith, Ethics and Morality, Polemics | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

“Without reference to particular individuals”

Posted by Sen on March 23, 2013

Pope-Benedict-XVI From the moment Pope Benedict announced his retirement, the names of possible successors were being discussed, along with ideas about the right kind of Pope to lead the Church in the years to come. A South American? An African? … It all makes for good press. Bahai elections, even the forthcoming election of the Universal House of Justice, are not so newsworthy.

The Bahai community has no clergy, in the sense of qualified religious experts who lead a religious community. Read the rest of this entry »

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UHJ elucidations

Posted by Sen on March 7, 2011

Updated August 13, 2019.
In a discussion on Talisman9, one friend said that he felt obliged to incorporate any statement made by the Universal House of Justice under the infallible protection of God into his corpus of beliefs, and another said that if the Universal House of Justice makes a certain understanding of doctrine an inherent part of its legislation, he felt obligated to understand and believe that. Does the *UHJ’s power of elucidation imply this? Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Theology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 103 Comments »

Century of light

Posted by Sen on January 15, 2009

BahaIn Century’s end, I showed that Bahais of my generation widely expected universal peace to arrive in the twentieth century. Some of the texts on which this belief was based did not refer to the twentieth century; others did refer to the twentieth century or dates in the 20th century, but were pilgrims’ notes. There may be more, but I have found five such unauthentic sources:

onecandle– The Maxwell’s pilgrim’s notes, anticipating the Lesser Peace by 1953.
– Esselmont’s pilgrim’s notes, in the first edition of Baha’u’llah and the New Era, anticipating universal peace by 1957. As Dan Jensen has pointed out, the 1950 edition changed the date to 1963, but it is still just a pilgrim’s note, and universal peace was also not achieved in 1963.
Sarah Kenny’s Haifa notes anticipating the Lesser Peace in the 20th century.
– A report in the Montreal Star on September 11, 1912, printed in Abdu’l-Baha in Canada p. 35, saying that peace would be universal in the 20th century.
– A talk reported in The Promulgation of Universal Peace page 126, and in Star of the West 3.8.14, calling the twentieth century the century of international peace.
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Bahai Writings, Community, Theology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments »

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).
Read the rest of this entry »

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The Supreme Institution

Posted by Sen on December 16, 2008

bubble3Older Bahais, like me, will have noticed a new way of referring to the Universal House of Justice, as “the supreme institution.” I think I first noticed people saying this about 1985. In Anna’s Presentation we find “We have already spoken about the supreme institution, which is the Universal House of Justice…”. Paul Lample, in his Preface to A Wider Horizon, Selected Letters [of the Universal House of Justice] refers to “a continuous flow of guidance that comes from the Supreme Body.”
Read the rest of this entry »

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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!
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Church and State, History | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments »

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