Since there has been controversy over the letter of the Universal House of Justice to the National Assemblies dated 7 April 1999, and since some have suggested that I am among those discussed in the letter, it seemed appropriate for me to comment. I do so only as one, inadequate individual, from a necessarily partial point of view, but I hope that in this instance as in others, the "spark of conflicting opinions" shall issue in "the truth" as we were promised by `Abdu'l-Baha.
The Universal House of Justice, with its seat in Haifa, is the legitimate head of the Baha'i faith. However, it is different from the papacy or the caliphate and many other past such bodies in several ways. First of all, it was ordained by Bahaullah Himself, in clear and explicit language, and as a corollary it is not an arbitrary or dictatorial institution but rather one whose very existence as well as specific authority is based on a set of scriptural texts. It is a body of laws and not of men. Second, its members are elected and change over time. Second, it may not abrogate or set aside the revealed text of the Baha'i scriptures or their authoritative interpretation by `Abdu'l-Baha' or Shoghi Effendi. Third, future Houses of Justice may abrogate rulings and laws passed by their predecessors.
Baha'u'llah writes in the Splendors (my reworking of the official translation with reference to the Persian text):
"The eighth Ishraq: This passage, now written by the Pen of Glory, is accounted as part of the Most Holy Book: The men of God's House of Justice have been charged with the affairs of the [Baha'i] community [millat]. They, in truth, are the Trustees of God among His servants and the daysprings of authority in His countries. O people of God! That which traineth the world is Justice, for it is upheld by two pillars, reward and punishment. These two pillars are the sources of life to the world.
"Inasmuch as for each day there is a new problem and for every problem an expedient solution, such affairs should be referred to the House of Justice that the members thereof may act according to the needs and requirements of the time. They that, for the sake of God, arise to serve His Cause, are the recipients of divine inspiration from the unseen Kingdom. It is incumbent upon all to be obedient unto them.
"All matters of [administrative regulations (umur-i siyasiyyih)] should be referred to the House of Justice, but acts of worship (`ibadat) must be observed according to that which God hath revealed in His Book.
"O people of Baha! Ye are the dawning-places of the love of God and the daysprings of His loving-kindness. Defile not your tongues with the cursing and reviling of any soul, and guard your eyes against that which is not seemly. Set forth that which ye possess. If it be favourably received, your end is attained; if not, to protest is vain. Leave that soul to himself and turn unto the Lord, the Protector, the Self-Subsisting. Be not the cause of grief, much less of discord and strife. The hope is cherished that ye may obtain true education in the shelter of the tree of His tender mercies and act in accordance with that which God desireth. Ye are all the leaves of one tree and the drops of one ocean." -Tablets of Baha'u'llah, pp. 128-129.
What does Bahaullah mean by these passages? To understand them, we must comprehend the context in Islamic legal thought. The shari`ah or revealed law in Islam mainly concerns matters of ritual and personal status. It involves two sorts of duties for adherents, those that an individual owes to God (`ibadat or ritual and religious practices) and those that one owes to one's fellow human beings (mu`amalat). The latter include penal law, family law, etc. Baha'u'llah's Most Holy Book also includes both ritual law (`ibadat) and social laws (mu`amalat), which he refers to elsewhere in the supplements to the Most Holy Book. It is the realm of shari`ah or revealed law over which the qadis or court judges presided. But in Islamic law alongside the shari`ah or revealed law there was another realm of law, referred to as as-siya:sah ash-shar`iyyah or administrative law.
The online Encyclopedia Britannica notes:
"Although Shari'ah doctrine was all-embracing, Islamic legal practice has always recognized jurisdictions other than that of the qadis. Because the qadis' courts were hidebound by a cumbersome system of procedure and evidence, they did not prove a satisfactory organ for the administration of justice in all respects, particularly as regards criminal, land, and commercial law. Hence, under the broad head of the sovereign's administrative power (siyasah), competence in these spheres was granted to other courts, known collectively as mazalim courts, and the jurisdiction of the qadis was generally confined to private family and civil law. As the expression of a religious ideal, Shari'ah doctrine was always the focal point of legal activity, but it never formed a complete or exclusively authoritative expression of the laws that in practice governed the lives of Muslims."Thus, in Muslim states bureaucrats did make regulations. This realm of secondary, administrative law, was more flexible than the shari`ah, since previous regulations could always be repealed by later bureaucrats. Muslim jurisprudents accepted the validity of as-siyasah ash-shar`iyyah or administrative law outside the revealed law.
The issue arose again in the 19th century period of Muslim reformism (here again I quote EB):
"From the outset the dominating issue in the Middle East has been the question of the juristic basis of reforms--i.e., granted their social desirability, their justification in terms of Islamic jurisprudential theory, so that the reforms appear as a new, but legitimate, version of the Shari'ah. In the early stages of the reform movement, the doctrine of taqlid (unquestioning acceptance) was still formally observed and the juristic basis of reform lay in the doctrine of siyasah, or "government," which allows the political authority (who, of course, has no legislative power in the real sense of the term) to make administrative regulations . . ."So far we have been discussing this issue in a Sunni context, where administrative law was the province of the state, since there was no other locus of authority in Sunnism after the end of the caliphate. But Baha'u'llah was from a Shi`ite background, and also knew all about 19th century European institutions. He expected a continued source of religious authority like the Imams, or perhaps like the papacy. Therefore, he probably took the idea of as-siyasah ash-shar`iyyah or administrative law as a reform tool over from the 19th century reformers, but he placed responsibility for it not with the civil state (whose separate existence and legitimacy he acknowledged) but with the House of Justice he had created. Note that the Universal House of Justice is empowered only in matters of leadership or secondary administrative legislation. It may not abrogate the explicit text of Baha'u'llah (referred to as matters of 'worship'). Note that it is charged with making new laws that address new issues that arise.
`Abdu'l-Baha says of this body in his Will and Testament, pp. 19-20 that:
"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. It is incumbent upon these members (of the Universal House of Justice) to gather in a certain place and deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book. Whatsoever they decide has the same effect as the Text itself. Inasmuch as the House of Justice hath power to enact laws that are not expressly recorded in the Book and bear upon daily transactions, so also it hath power to repeal the same. Thus for example, the House of Justice enacteth today a certain law and enforceth it, and a hundred years hence, circumstances having profoundly changed and the conditions having altered, another House of Justice will then have power, according to the exigencies of the time, to alter that law. This it can do because these laws form no part of the divine explicit Text. The House of Justice is both the initiator and the abrogator of its own laws . . ."It should by now be clear that the Universal House of Justice's sphere of authority is solely that of legislating Baha'i law and matters of leadership or administration. Neither Baha'u'llah nor any other Baha'i holy figure bestowed upon the House of Justice the authority to exercise authoritative Interpretation of the Baha'i texts. It is simply not an interpretive body. Moreover, no individual House of Justice (since they are elected every 5 years we are in the eighth session) can permanently bind or constrain its successors by making a law not found in the Baha'i texts and attempting to make it permanent.
Nor is the Universal House of Justice to interfere in the free expression of individual conscience:
"Palo Alto, California, 9 October 1912: Before Abdul-Bahá left Palo Alto, a group again had the honor of gathering in the most holy court. Among his blessed utterances was an explanation of religious conflicts, especially those of the Christians. `Some said Christ was God, and some said he was the Word, while others called him a prophet. Because of these differences, conflicts arose among them, such that in the community there was enmity instead of spirituality, and estrangement rather than unity. But Bahaullah has closed the door on such differences. By arranging for interpretation to be carried out by an authoritative Interpreter of the Book, by establishing the Universal House of Justice--or in other words the Parliament of the [Bahai] community--and by commanding that there be no interference in beliefs or conscience, He blocked such breaches from occurring. He even said that if two persons discussing some matter develop a dispute, such that it leads to a polarization, both are wrong and discredited.' - In Mahmud Zarqani, Kitab-i Bada'i` al-Athar, 2 vols. (Hofheim-Langenhain: Baha'm-Verlag, 1982), 1:294.
Unlike past ecclesiastic institutions, the Baha'i houses of justice, whether international, national or local, are according to `Abdu'l-Baha not to attempt to interfere with the expression of individual conscience.
`Abdu'l-Baha also said, in a talk given in 7 April 1913 in Budapest
"Liberty is of three sorts. One is the divine freedom, that is confined to the essence of the Creator. He is autonomous and absolute. No one can compel Him with regard to anything at all. Another form of liberty is that of the Europeans, which holds that human beings may do as they please on the condition that they not harm one another. This is the liberty of nature, and its highest degree is found in the animal world. This is the estate of the animal. Look at these birds, in what liberty they live. Whatever human beings might do, they can never be as free as animals. Rather, order stands in the way of freedom. As for the third sort of liberty, it is under the divine laws and ordinances. This is the liberty of the human world, which severs the hearts relationship with all things. It soothes all hardships and sorrow. The more the consciences of human beings progress, the more free their hearts become, and the more glad their spirits become. In the religion of God there is freedom of thought, for no one can rule over the [individuals] conscience save God. But [freedom of thought] exists only to the extent that it is not expressed in terms that depart from politeness. In the religion of God there is no freedom of deeds. No one can transgress the divine law, even if in so doing he harms no one. For by the divine law is intended the training of oneself and others. For to God, harming oneself or harming others are the same, and both are reprehensible. In hearts there must be the fear of God, and human beings must not commit blameworthy deeds. Therefore, the freedom of deeds that exists in civil law does not exist in religion. As for freedom of thought, it must not transgress the bounds of politeness. And deeds are also linked to fear of God and the divine good-pleasure. - In Abdul-Hamid Ishraq-Khavari, ed., Ma'idih-yi Asmani, 9 vols. (Tehran: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 1973) 5:17-18.
Now, if `Abdu'l-Baha had been speaking of only privately held beliefs when he mentioned "conscience," it would not have been necessary for him to insist that conscience be expressed politely. He clearly was pointing to the inadmissibility of Baha'i houses of justice interfering with the verbal expression of individual conscience in the Baha'i faith. For more on human rights in the Baha'i faith see my "The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Baha'i Scriptures." Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Studies, vol. 3, no. 2 (April, 1999) at: http://h-net2.msu.edu/~bahai/bhpapers/vol3/rights.htm
In Baha'i Administration, pp. 63-64, Shoghi Effendi wrote:
"Let us also remember that at the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views. If certain instructions of the Master are today particularly emphasized and scrupulously adhered to, let us be sure that they are but provisional measures designed to guard and protect the Cause in its present state of infancy and growth until the day when this tender and precious plant shall have sufficiently grown to be able to withstand the unwisdom of its friends and the attacks of its enemies. Let us also bear in mind that the keynote of the Cause of God is not dictatorial authority but humble fellowship, not arbitrary power, but the spirit of frank and loving consultation."
Since the Universal House of Justice in its letter of May, 1995, recognized the validity of email discussions and exempted them from literature Review, this principle of the Guardian is now fully applicable to them.
Let us return to the difference between interpretation and legislation. Shoghi Effendi writes in *World Order of Baha'u'llah*, pp. 149-150:
"From these statements it is made indubitably clear and evident that the Guardian of the Faith has been made the Interpreter of the Word and that the Universal House of Justice has been invested with the function of legislating on matters not expressly revealed in the teachings. The interpretation of the Guardian, functioning within his own sphere, is as authoritative and binding as the enactments of the International House of Justice, whose exclusive right and prerogative is to pronounce upon and deliver the final judgment on such laws and ordinances as Baha'u'llah has not expressly revealed. Neither can, nor will ever, infringe upon the sacred and prescribed domain of the other. "
This quotation reinforces what `Abdu'l-Baha said above, that the Universal House of Justice is solely a legislating body and has no authority to Interpret, and is not to stray into interpretation.
But what would in practical terms prevent such an outcome, i.e., the departure of the Universal House of Justice into the realm of Interpretation? It is the presence on that body of a living Guardian.
Shoghi Effendi also wrote in the *World Order of Baha'u'llah*, p. 148:
"Divorced from the institution of the Guardianship the World Order of Baha'u'llah would be mutilated and permanently deprived of that hereditary principle which, as Abdul-Bahá has written, has been invariably upheld by the Law of God. "In all the Divine Dispensations," He states, in a Tablet addressed to a follower of the Faith in Persia, "the eldest son hath been given extraordinary distinctions. Even the station of prophethood hath been his birthright." Without such an institution the integrity of the Faith would be imperiled, and the stability of the entire fabric would be gravely endangered. Its prestige would suffer, the means required to enable it to take a long, an uninterrupted view over a series of generations would be completely lacking, and the necessary guidance to define the sphere of the legislative action of its elected representatives would be totally withdrawn."
Note that Shoghi Effendi was very concerned to delineate the proper sphere of authority of the Universal House of Justice, which is wholly legislative in nature and has nothing to do with Interpretation. And note that he clearly felt that it is the living Guardian who had the authority and ability to keep the Universal House of Justice from straying into Interpretation from legislation.
Now, in 1957, the Baha'i world was visited with a catastrophe, since henceforth there was not and could not be a living Guardian. The Universal House of Justice that was elected in 1963, while legitimate, found itself precisely in the position anticipated by the Guardian in the above passage. It was obliged to function without the guidance of a living Guardian. Some have piously hoped that the body of interpretation left by the first and only Guardian could substitute for the presence of a living Guardian, but clearly this is not the case. It is in the give and take of consultation in the chambers of the House of Justice that a living Guardian would make his interventions, guiding members away from areas that are not in that body's purview and ensuring that it retains the ability to take a long view.
But all is by no means lost. The Quran promised humankind that God would not impose upon human beings a burden greater than they could bear. It is therefore self-evident that God would not leave us with no means of overcoming the difficulties we encounter in the course of history. It is the consultative processes of the entire body of believers, now made globally accessible by the miracle of the Internet, that can help us to find our way.
In any case, these texts and these developments help to explain the problems that have arisen with the advent of academic Baha'i scholarship and the rise of the internet and email.
Individual opinions and non-authoritative individual interpretation are freely allowed to Baha'is according to the explicit texts of all the Holy Figures.
Shoghi Effendi wrote in Unfolding Destiny, p. 423: 6 April 1928 [From the Guardian] "I feel that regarding such interpretations (of verses from the Scriptures) no one has the right to impose his view or opinion and require his listeners to believe in his particular interpretation of the sacred and prophetic writings. I have no objection to your interpretations and inferences so long as they are represented as your own personal observations and reflections. It would be unnecessary and confusing to state authoritatively and officially a dogmatic Baha'i interpretation to be universally accepted and taught by believers. Such matters I feel should be left to the personal judgement and insight of individual teachers...."
Shoghi Effendi was the divinely appointed and authorized Interpreter of Baha'i scriptures. He would have been within his rights to promulgate a dogmatic understanding that would be imposed uniformly. He eschewed such a dictatorial path, so reminiscent of papacy and caliphate, and instead allowed individuals to express their non-authoritative views freely. What he disallowed was the demand by any believer of another that he or she submit to a particular interpretation. There is no evidence of anyone being exempted from this prohibition, including auxiliary board members, Counsellors, or institutions such as Houses of Justice, none of which has any special Interpretive authority.
Now, after this admittedly lengthy, but I think very necessary preparation, let us turn to the letter of 7 April 1999 from our dear, brothers, the members of the Universal House of Justice. (Though to be fair, it should be noted that the letter is most immediately from the Department of the Secretariat, and that very frequently such letters are generated by one member or a handful of members of the House within whose portfolio the subject lies).
THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE BAHA'I WORLD CENTRE
Department of the Secretariat 7 April 1999 To all National Spiritual Assemblies
Dear Baha'i Friends,
Issues Related to the Study of the Baha'i Faith
In May of 1998, Baha'i Canada reproduced a collection of letters which the Universal House of Justice had written to various individuals on the subject of the academic study of the Baha'i Faith. Copies of this compilation were subsequently mailed by the Canadian National Spiritual Assembly to its sister Assemblies. The reprint has now been made generally available in booklet form by the United States Baha'i Publishing Trust. The House of Justice has asked us to forward you a copy of the latter publication with the following comments.
As a number of the friends are aware, a campaign of internal opposition to the Teachings is currently being carried on through the use of the Internet, a communications system that now reaches virtually every part of the world.
I know that our dear Baha'i brothers who are members of the Universal House of Justice view certain developments in this ominous fashion, but I really believe that this is another instance where these blessed souls have been deprived, through no fault of their own, of the ability to take a long view of the development of the faith and to avoid straying from their only legitimate function, of legislation. There is no cabal promoting 'internal opposition' to the Teachings of the Baha'i faith. There are some sincere Baha'is whose individual, non-authoritative interpretation of the Baha'i texts has differed from that of Doug Martin, Ian Semple, Farzam Arbab and other members of the Universal House of Justice.
For the latter to label this difference of opinion among devoted believers "internal opposition to the Teachings" is to demonstrate an unfortunate inability to grant others their due and to recognize their sincerity. It is also to claim official Interpretive authority for our brothers on the House of Justice, since they are claiming the right to declare interpretations at variance with their own "opposed" to the Teachings. Yet, as the extensive quotations presented above definitively prove, the House of Justice has no such authority. It is only by loving and frank consultation that the Baha'i community can help one another to discover the many and various meanings which are to be found in the Holy Texts.
Differing from attacks familiar in the past, it seeks to recast the entire Faith into a socio-political ideology alien to Baha'u'llah's intent.
Again, our dear brothers are mistakenly claiming the right to determine "Baha'u'llah's intent," which is a matter of Interpretation, not of legislation. They are speaking beyond their purview. If they believe that any Baha'i intellectual has sought to cast the faith as a 'socio-political ideology,' they have simply misunderstood that person's intent, and it is hoped that further consultations will clarify matters.
In addition, it may be noted that some influential Baha'is have cast Baha'u'llah's teachings into the form of a dictatorial theocracy that requires religious institutions to intervene in politics, indeed to take over the political system altogether. Since non-interference in politics by religious bodies is the bedrock of Baha'u'llah's teachings, it is hoped that this current attempt to root out alien political ideologies will extend to such Khomeinist recastings of the Baha'i faith.
In the place of the institutional authority established by His Covenant, it promotes a kind of interpretive authority which those behind it attribute to the views of persons technically trained in Middle East studies.
I know that the emergence of academic Baha'i studies among Baha'is in the West has been very painful for our beloved brothers on the Universal House of Justice. Academics such as Denis MacEoin at Cambridge pioneered a new way of looking at Babi-Baha'i history and texts in the 1970s, learning Arabic and Persian, using historical tools such as putting things in their context, and trying to seek the original meaning of these texts. As a result, he was so cuttingly attacked by some conservative Baha'is that he was forced out of the Baha'i faith. In biblical studies such an approach is called Higher Criticism, and it underpins works such as John Dominic Crossan's books on the historical Jesus. Such an approach to religion is normal and taken for granted among thinking persons in the modern and postmodern world. It is, however, vehemently rejected by religious fundamentalists and by most thinkers in the Global South.
I think the problems have arisen, however, because non-academics do not understand the nature of academic writing. In the academic world, no one accepts an argument from authority. No proposition is true because such and such historian asserts it. It is true because it can be proven to be true by texts and reasoning. When it cannot in this way be upheld, the proposition is revised or rejected. The process is like that in science. Thus, academic writing is an on-going dialogue--fluid, unstable, not fixed. When an academic such as myself writes about the Baha'i faith from an academic point of view, he or she is in a sense merely putting forward personal insights based on available texts and upon reasoned analysis of them.
This academic writing, being a form of individual, non-authoritative interpretation subject to public debate and revision, should not be seen as forming a threat to, or an alternative to, the authoritative interpretation of `Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. Given that the Universal House of Justice has no right to interpret the Bahai writings with authority, however, that body may over time find that academic writing actually is helpful to it, owing to the rigor of its methods.
At the very least, such writing poses no threat to the integrity of the faith, and was encouraged by all the Holy Figures. What Mirza Abu'l-Fadl wrote was simply a 19th century form of academic Baha'i discourse, and he was praised for it by `Abdu'l-Baha. Shoghi Effendi named Fadil Mazandarani and H.M. Balyuzi (the latter with formal academic credentials in history from the London School of Economics) as Hands of the Cause! Indeed, it was Shoghi Effendi who instructed Mr. Balyuzi to write the biography of Baha'u'llah, knowing full well his command of academic methods. Academic writing should be seen for the tentative, revise-able, non-authoritative discourse that it is.
Early in 1996, the deliberate nature of the plan was revealed in an accidental posting to an Internet list which Baha'i subscribers had believed was dedicated to scholarly exploration of the Cause.
The Universal House of Justice has been given misinformation here. This is a constant problem. Since our dear brothers in Haifa are so busy running the entire Baha'i world, they do not have time individually to investigate every issue. They depend heavily on reports from their counselors and NSA members. Unfortunately, some of these persons in the U.S. are personally unreliable. The famous "majnun" posting to the first Talisman list does not demonstrate the existence of any sort of plot or conspiracy, but rather quite the opposite--it shows that he believed that it was inappropriate to "organize" and that rather the effects of email consultation would be salutary for the faith in themselves. For what it is worth, I also condemned the hotheaded suggestions of a majnun subscriber, which were in any case not very serious. (See my commentary on the majnun posting.
Some of the people responsible resigned from the Faith when Counsellors pointed out to them the direction their activities were taking. A small number of others continue to promote the campaign within the Baha'i community.
Well, I am afraid that there was only one person responsible for the majnun posting, or maybe two if you counted the poster to whom it came as a response. I wasn't responsible for either one, and several others whom the Counselors bothered were also entirely innocent in this regard. As I have pointed out, the majnun posting itself is not something that would be considered "criminal" in any civilized system. Moreover, I can attest as an eye-witness that if the House of Justice merely desired that the Counselors consult with me about the "direction" my "activities" were taking, then Counselor Stephen Birkland grossly exceeded his instructions, since in fact he threatened me and others with being declared covenant breakers and sentenced to the "social death" of shunning merely for our talisman email postings!
In the past, in situations of a somewhat similar nature, the patience and compassion shown by 'Abdu'l-Baha and the Guardian helped various believers who had been misled by ill-intentioned persons to eventually free themselves from such entanglements.
There have not been any similar situations in the past, because neither `Abdu'l-Baha nor Shoghi Effendi bothered Baha'i scholars such as Mirza Abu'l-Fadl or George Townshend or Hasan Balyuzi, but rather encouraged them. While the Talisman academics do not have the stature of any of these thinkers , they were continuing, and saw themselves as continuing, the intellectual tasks begun by those giants.
In this same spirit of forbearance the Universal House of Justice has intervened in the current situation only to the extent that has been unavoidable, trusting to the good sense and the goodwill of the believers involved to awaken to the spiritual dangers to which they are exposing themselves. Nevertheless, certain Counsellors and National Spiritual Assemblies are monitoring the problem closely, and the friends can be confident that whatever further steps are needed to protect the integrity of the Cause will be taken.
I think the Universal House of Justice has in fact been relatively measured in its further communications after Mr. Birkland's disastrous handling of the situation in 1996. Given my own anger and sometimes immoderate email messages about the entire situation, this seems admirable. I should take the opportunity now to apologize for those of my statements, spoken in anger and frustration in May 1996 through February of 1999, that may have been found offensive by the friends.
We should not forget, however, that the House of Justice authorized threats against prominent Baha'i academics by Mr. Birkland in 1996; that it had the International Teaching Centre threaten other email posters in 1997, and expelled Michael McKenny from the Baha'i faith that year. The House of Justice has encouraged what can only be characterized as dishonest behavior among some rightwing Baha'i intellectuals, as it admits when it says it has put the counsellors and NSAs up to spying on the Baha'is, which I regret not only because dishonesty and snooping are unethical, but because I think this behavior betrays a lack of trust in the very good will and good judgment they say they believe in. This April 7 letter seems to me a further unfortunate and unnecessary departure from that moderation.
As passages in the enclosed reprint make clear, this campaign of internal opposition -- while purporting to accept the legitimacy of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice as twin successors of Baha'u'llah and the Centre of His Covenant -- attempts to cast doubt on the nature and scope of the authority conferred on them in the Writings.
I think the real problem is that some Baha'is, especially the powerful ones, have a somewhat naive and absolutist approach to the Baha'i institutions and are reluctant to admit of any limitations on them, even those delineated by the Holy Figures themselves! However, Shoghi Effendi warned against such "extreme orthodoxy" (Baha'i Administration p. 42). Again, it is clear from the writings of the Guardian himself that the House of Justice may not stray into matters of Interpretation, which are not its purview.
When other Baha'is have pointed out that such arguments contradict explicit statements of the Master, persons behind the scheme have responded by calling into question the soundness of 'Abdu'l-Baha's own judgement and perspective.
There is not and never has been any concerted "scheme" on the part of Western Baha'i intellectuals to undermine the Baha'i faith. Most of the people the counsellors targeted didn't even get along in the 1980s! To now amalgamate Professor Linda Walbridge (a Baha'i for 25 years, a pioneer to difficult posts in Lebanon and Jordan who was forced out of the faith for her stand for women's rights) and Steve Scholl (similarly an old-time Baha'i, former editor of Dialogue magazine similarly threatened, bullied and forced out) is to ignore the major tiff between the two acted out in Dialogue magazine itself! I would be interested in seeing the particular quote calling into question `Abdu'l-Baha's judgment and perspective. I don't personally remember anything like that, and I saw it all. The big to-do on Talisman I was over `Abdu'l-Baha's mistaken statement, gleaned from medieval Muslim historiography, that Socrates met the Israeli prophets in the holy land, which is certainly untrue (which prophets were in the Holy Land during Socrates' life anyway, and why do the ancient Greek authorities deny he ever traveled abroad?) In any case, `Abdu'l-Baha himself denied to his companions that he claimed to be infallible ("da`vat-i ma`sumiyyat namikunam"), which was one of the charges levelled against him by the Muhammad-`Ali covenant breakers. Surely the House of Justice does not desire to confirm the covenant breakers' charges about the Baha'is by falling into the sort of idolatry where `Abdu'l-Baha's judgment can never be questioned?
Gradually, these arguments have exposed the view of those involved that Baha'u'llah Himself was not the voice of God to our age but merely a particularly enlightened moral philosopher, one whose primary concern was to reform existing society.
I am unaware that any of the Bahais on firstname.lastname@example.org expressed such a view of Bahaullahs station, including myself. May we have at least a quote, please? Much of Talisman I is up on the World Wide Web, so it is easy enough to quote. This assertion sets up a non-existent straw man that is easy to knock down. When Birkland barged into my living room and interrogated me on behalf of the House of Justice, one of the things he said was, 'How can you say you are a Baha'i when you talk about Baha'u'llah as though he were a historical person?' This was one of the heresy charges against me and others, and it is probably what lies behind this mysterious passage. It is also possible that a reference is being made to views I expressed during my departure from the faith, May 1996-Feb. 1999, during which I was experimenting with theologies and attempting to understand what had gone wrong. However, it is simply not the case that my views when I did not consider myself a Bahai were identical to the views I held and hold as a Bahai. It is a hard thing for counselors to ambush Bahai intellectuals, push them out of the faith, and then declare that they never had been Bahais in the first place.
I think the real problem has to do in part with the differences in discourse about religion between most Iranians and most educated Westerners. Iranians often show their piety by a kind of exaltation of holy personages that most Westerners would feel excessive and even paralyzing or idolatrous. We can't have a world religion if the Bahai institutions are not going to make a place for the Denis MacEoins and Juan Coles and Linda Walbridges whose discourse they find distasteful because they are Western academics. All I can say is that a majority of American Christians certainly believes that Jesus was a historical person, and only fundamentalists would deny that they are Christians. That I speak about Baha'u'llah as a historical person does not mean I reduce him to a philosopher. I happen to have written a long essay on the "Concept of Manifestation in the Baha'i Writings." I know what a Manifestation of God is, and I now believe Baha'u'llah was one.
There are two wider points I have to reemphasize here. The first is that Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha both fully recognized the humanity and historicity of the Manifestations of God.
Explaining the meaning of "clouds" in past scriptures in His Book of Certitude, pp. 71-72, Baha'u'llah freely admits to the mortality of the Manifestations: "In another sense, they mean the appearance of that immortal Beauty in the image of mortal man, with such human limitations as eating and drinking, poverty and riches, glory and abasement, sleeping and waking, and such other things as cast doubt in the minds of men, and cause them to turn away. All such veils are symbolically referred to as 'clouds.'" Although Baha'u'llah recognizes that discourse acknowledging the historical limitations on the Manifestations can form a stumbling block to some, He clearly cannot have desired to have the fact of it covered up, since He Himself proclaimed it here!
The second is that it is simply is not the place of the Universal House of Justice to inquire into my personal beliefs or those of anyone else, expressed in email messages, about Baha'i theology and the station of Baha'u'llah. This area of conscience is not a matter of legislation, and `Abdu'l-Baha explicitly forbade them from interfering in it. While they are welcome to their own theological opinions, and are welcome even to lobby for those, using their vast prestige within the community, they do not have the right to Interpret authoritatively. The Baha'i faith was not designed by Baha'u'llah to be a religion of orthodoxy, but rather, like Islam, a religion of orthopraxy, of right practice of law and ritual.
The House of Justice must be obeyed. If the House of Justice made a law, like the Caribbean dictator in Woody Allen's film *Bananas*, that we must all change our underwear every day, and that we must all wear it on the outside so it can be checked, then my understanding of the Covenant is that we should have to do so. The House of Justice may enact laws and punish behavior. But they may not promulgate dogmas and punish individuals for their conscientious expressions of belief. It is simply not the case that such speech is a form of behavior, and making it a crime is to create thought-crimes, as in totalitarian states. Where they criminalize mere individual opinion, the House of Justice breaks the Covenant `Abdu'l-Baha established with the intellectuals of the West in His own day, with Hyppolite Dreyfus and Auguste Forel and others, which pledged that the Baha'i faith would not be a persecuting, anti-intellectual religion like so many of the others.
The House of Justice wrote:
By itself, such opposition would likely stand little chance of influencing reasonably informed Baha'is. As one of the letters in the enclosed reprint (20 July 1997) points out, the scheme relies for effect, therefore, on exploiting the confusion created in modern thought by the reigning doctrines of materialism.
Again, the word "scheme" here is troubling insofar as it indicates a preconceived and deliberately plotted attempt to do something dishonest. Its mere use puts the intellectuals on the defensive and makes them have to deny it. It is too ridiculous to deny.
I became a Baha'i in 1972 while an undergraduate at Northwestern University, and was already committed to the academic life at that time. I was, of course, somewhat nervous about whether it was good to join an organized religion, given the miserable experience thinking people have had with them. But I was constantly reassured, by the Baha'i scriptures themselves, by `Abdu'l-Baha's talks (which are now increasingly being tossed out of the Canon by the fundamentalists) and letters, by members of my local community, by members of the National Spiritual Assembly like Firuz Kazemzadeh and Dan Jordan, and ultimately in correspondence by the Universal House of Justice itself that there was no contradiction between the life of the intellect and spiritual life in the Baha'i faith!
The Universal House of Justice even once wrote me that they preferred to maintain literature Review because they found the Roman Catholic system of maintaining an index of forbidden books distasteful! (And now they are assiduously developing an index of forbidden books that cannot be carried by Baha'i publishing trusts.)
For them now to characterize all academic writing about religion as in its essence "materialist" is for them to renege on all those promises that were made me and others all along the line. They are also contradicting Shoghi Effendi's clear advice that Baha'is major in subjects like Comparative Religions and History at university! I think they have a right to their point of view on this matter. I simply insist on my right (and the right of others) to differ with them here. The Baha'i faith, if it is to be truly all-embracing, has to have place in it for Western intellectuals committed to human rights and freedom of thought. `Abdu'l-Baha promised us there would be a place for us at His table, and now we are being expelled from His House by bouncers in business suits, and told to hit the road. This would not be so bad--religions after all change over time--except that the Universal House of Justice simply has no standing to pronounce on Interpretive matters like *academic methodology.* Methodology is in any case a complex issue that takes years of high-powered graduate study to master, something none of the present members has done with regard to the humanities or social sciences. But *it is not even their sphere of authority*! By criminalizing the work of all the Baha'i academics in university Religion and History departments in the West, they are making themselves, and the Faith, look ridiculous. And they are unwittingly breaking the promise `Abdu'l-Baha made with thinking people, assuring us that this sort of thing would not happen in this dispensation.
Although the reality of God's continuous relationship with His creation and His intervention in human life and history are the very essence of the teachings of the Founders of the revealed religions, dogmatic materialism today insists that even the nature of religion itself can be adequately understood only through the use of an academic methodology designed to ignore the truths that make religion what it is.
I once heard Hand of the Cause John Robarts give a talk. Robarts had been an insurance salesman, and had something of the tent preacher about him. His stories were about how the uncertain and discouraged young insurance salesman finally got committed to his job and went out and sold a million dollars worth of insurance. Or about how a crucial sale was about to be lost because he seemed to have missed his plane, but when he prayed mightily, it turned out that another plane was available. Why was this? Because, of course, God is ever-present, and if you ask him with sufficient fervor, and He is so inclined, he will conjure up an airplane for you. Frankly, I was appalled at this superstitious mindset, which is the same one displayed in this letter.
Of course, the Abrahamic scriptures, including the Baha'i ones, do have a discourse of divine intervention in human affairs. But so many things are acknowledged as symbolic in the Baha'i scriptures--Satan, prophecies, angels, jinn, even our images of God. How could it be proved that divine intervention is not a trope intended to produce certain spiritual effects, such as spiritual reassurance?
You can call me a dogmatic materialist all you like, but I guarantee you that an insurance salesman's prayers have no effect whatsoever on the airline industry's schedules. God doesn't work by breaking the physical laws that He himself decreed! Whatever happened to the unity of science and religion, which was supposed to be such a key Baha'i principle? What *scientist* believes the world is so topsy-turvy that airplanes are being conjured in and out of existence by the prayers of insurance salesmen?
The phrase "dogmatic materialism" is intended to mislead and draw attention away from the real dogmatism here, which is the dogmatism of a theological fundamentalism. We have to inhabit a magical world of faeries, angel feathers, and acabacadabra airplanes or we can't be good Baha'is. I think it is rather sad that relatively educated persons such as our dear brothers on the Universal House of Justice are, as late as the eve of the 21st century, and in complete contradiction to basic Baha'i principle, imprisoned in such superstitions. But they are welcome to have any theology they like. They are not welcome to try to impose their theology on innocent, thinking Baha'is. They are not a theological institution. They have no authority to Interpret Baha'i scripture. Their sacred duty is to legislate for the betterment of humankind, not to write theology.
Finally, I am afraid that none of the members of the Universal House of Justice has the slightest idea of the methodological underpinnings of current academic methodology in the humanities and human sciences in Western universities. These underpinnings are very seldom properly characterized as "materialist," and a colleague who gave a paper in my department based on a vulgar materialism of the sort in vogue 30 years ago among Althusserians would be laughed out of the building. They are, in short, simply poorly informed, as well as trespassing into areas over which they have been given no authority whatsoever by Baha'i texts. It is painful for me to see such honored persons, the trustees of such an exalted Institution, humiliate themselves with this outburst of vehement ignorance. But we must be reminded that they are doing the best they can, in the absence of a living Guardian, and must forgive them their sortie into Monty Python-like caricature.
In general, the strategy being pursued has been to avoid direct attacks on the Faith's Central Figures.
Well, I haven't attacked any of the Faith's Central Figures because I admire and believe in them all, though I admire Baha'u'llah most of all. I am afraid He doesn't get much attention in the current Baha'i Faith. I on the other hand am the only living Baha'i who so much as bothered to write an academic book wholly about him, to spend years reading thousands of pages of his works. There isn't any strategy at work here. I criticize God all the time for the Holocaust. If I were annoyed at the Holy Figures I wouldn't hesitate to say so.
The effort, rather, has been to sow the seeds of doubt among believers about the Faith's teachings and institutions by appealing to unexamined prejudices that Baha'is may have unconsciously absorbed from non-Baha'i society.
Actually, I think Baha'i conservatives and fundamentalists, who want to abrogate the unity of science and religion, are the ones who have imbibed prejudices from their Shi`ite and Christian fundamentalist backgrounds.
In defiance of the clear interpretation of 'Abdu'l-Baha and the Guardian, for example, Baha'u'llah's limiting of membership on the Universal House of Justice to men is misrepresented as merely a "temporary measure" subject to eventual revision if sufficient pressure is brought to bear.
Baha'u'llah never limited membership of the Universal House of Justice to men, and I would very much like to see such a quote. He calls members of *all* houses of justice, local and universal, "rijal," which could mean "men" but could also simply mean "notables." Despite his clear reference to rijal-i buyut-i `adliyyih (men of the houses of justice), by which he *must* have meant local houses of justice because of the plural, `Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi both let women onto local houses of justice. This matter is unclear, and the Universal House of Justice may eventually decide that women can in fact serve on that body. The present, eighth House of Justice do not like this possibility, but they cannot forestall the legislative decisions of its successors, as we have seen from explicit holy texts.
Similarly, Shoghi Effendi's explanation of Baha'u'llah's vision of the future Baha'i World Commonwealth that will unite spiritual and civil authority is dismissed in favour of the assertion that the modern political concept of "separation of church and state" is somehow one that Baha'u'llah intended as a basic principle of the World Order He has founded.
In Persian, Shoghi Effendi called the Commonwealth "spiritual." He explicitly said that Baha'i institutions are not to allow their bodies to supersede the machinery of the civil state. Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha wrote extensively about the need for religious leaders to avoid intervening in the affairs of the civil state. A small group of Baha'i theocrats, including Horace Holley, Mason Remey, and David Hoffman, attempted for decades to reverse this central Baha'i teaching. Hoffman met opposition to this idea from Hugh Chance, David Ruhe and Charles Wolcott. Now the theocrats on the Universal House of Justice, whose vision of society differs very little from that of Ayatollah Khomeini if you substitute the Baha'i institutions for the Shi`ite clergy, wish not only to reverse the Baha'i scriptures but to make their somewhat odd views an unchallengeable Baha'i dogma to which all Baha'is must assent.
Moreover, why is it that they use "modern" as an insult? The Baha'i faith arose in the modern era (`asr-i jadid). Previous Baha'i leaders and thinkers were proud of this fact. That the separation of religion and state is "modern" does not make it bad. It is an 18th century idea that Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha took up to fight the influence of the clergy of their day and to ensure that their own religion did not ever descend into the medieval quagmire of theocracy and Inquisition. In any case, this is a matter of Intepretation, and the House of Justice has no standing to promulgate a dogma about the issue, more especially one that contradicts key writings of Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha! See in particular `Abdu'l-Baha's *Treatise on Leadership*, http://h-net2.msu.edu/~bahai/trans/vol2/absiyasi.htm
Particularly subtle is an attempt to suggest that the Mashriqu'l-Adhkar should evolve into a seat of quasi-doctrinal authority, parallel to and essentially independent of the Local House of Justice, which would permit various interests to insinuate themselves into the direction of the life processes of the Cause.
Baha'u'llah urged that a Mashriqu'l-Adhkhar be built in every town and city. `Abdu'l-Baha was extremely eloquent and urgent about the need for the Baha'is to build houses of worship in every locality. Shoghi Effendi admitted that the faith could not be whole until the Mashriq and its dependencies were widely established and fully functioning. The Universal House of Justice has intervened to contradict these pronouncements of Baha'u'llah and `Abdu'l-Baha, and actually to prevent Baha'is who wish to build local houses of worship! Yet Baha'u'llah was quite clear that the Universal House of Justice is *not* to interfere in matters of worship (`ibadat) or the commandments in revealed texts.
Typically, when misrepresentations of the kind described are challenged, the reaction of those behind the campaign has been to claim that their civil rights are being threatened, an assertion that is of course meaningless in the light of the purely voluntary nature of Baha'i membership.
Nobody minds his or her interpretation of the Baha'i texts being "challenged," since all we have are our individual and non-authoritative opinions, after all. But "challenge" is being used as a euphemism here. Sincere Baha'is who have never broken a Baha'i law and who have dedicated their lives to serving the Faith are being threatened by persons (many of whom don't know much about the Baha'i scriptures and have lived all their lives in comfortable suburbs) with being *shunned*, which is in Baha'i terms a form of "social death." And why have they been so threatened? Because they have speculated that women might serve on the Universal House of Justice, because they have suggested that the Baha'i institutions may not in fact be Khomeinist in nature, because they yearn to see local houses of worship built? These are their capital crimes. How ridiculous. How absurd. How pitiful. To build an Inquisition on such trifles.
As for the truly horrifying idea that Baha'is have *no* human rights in their own religion, Baha'u'llah suffered from lack of due process at the hands of the Ottoman state (headed by the Muslim Caliph, the equivalent of the Universal House of Justice, divinely sanctioned and unchallengeable in his society). He openly condemned this lack of justice. `Abdu'l-Baha spoke of the need for rights and due process. Human rights are at the core of the Baha'i scriptures! And yet now we hear that Baha'is have no human rights. They have no freedom to declare their views or express their conscience. They may, like Michael McKenny, be tossed about spiritually like so many sacks of potatoes by our brothers in Haifa.
As for the idea that the reason Baha'is have no human rights with regard to their own administrative institutions is that the Baha'i faith is a voluntary organization, this conclusion is simply illogical. We could by the same token say that residence in a particular country is voluntary. So, Iranian Baha'is cannot be seen to have their human rights abused by the ayatollahs, because after all they can simply move to Pakistan or Turkey. They are not required to remain in Iran. Under this logic there can be *no* human rights abuses anywhere by anyone. All victims of human rights abuse have the choice of leaving their situation.
But let me just assure you that my belief in Baha'u'llah is not "voluntary" in the way my membership in the local public library is. It is wrought up with the core of my being, and I could not abandon it without feeling warped and inauthentic (I know: I tried, for what I thought was the good of the Faith). I think this is even more true for those born into the religion. To say that I may have my human rights abused by the Baha'i authorities, and be subjected to threats, censorship, and even social death, because I could theoretically renounce the faith that is at the core of my being, is to abandon all Baha'i principle and to descend into a medieval sort of Inquisition. I cannot tell you how I weep at the idea of our beloved Baha'i faith, the shining hope of a new Age, being so warped as to come to mirror the Spanish Inquisition, with psychological and cult-like techniques of intimidation substituted for the rack.
Much emphasis is placed by them also on academic freedom, their view of which proves, on examination, to be merely freedom on their part to pervert scholarly discourse to the promotion of their own ideological agenda, while seeking to exclude from discussion features of the Baha'i Faith that are central to the Writings of its Founders.
Academic freedom is the freedom to explore, to seek the truth no matter where it leads, the freedom even to make mistakes. You can't decide beforehand what is a perversion and what is a breakthrough. As for an ideological agenda, the 8th House of Justice not only has a rather elaborated one, but it is one that flies in the face of basic Baha'i scripture and principle. The real reason they are so afraid of academia is that by its rigor and method of checking sources and viewing them in context, it inevitably challenges the Khomeinization of the Baha'i faith in which they are engaged.
But we need not worry. There are thousands of universities in the world. My own university has a population equal to half the entire US Baha'i community. A little liberal arts college with 2,000 students has a population equivalent to the Baha'i community of France or Germany. The Baha'i administration is a big frog in a very small pond. It cannot in fact suppress intellectual life. It has picked a fight with thinking people the world over, and it is not a fight that any religious organization has won in the long run. The Vatican finally gave up the fight with Vatican II in 1965 and has finally apologized to Galileo. Future Houses of Justice will apologize for the Great Purge of 1996.
The effect of continued exposure to such insincerity about matters vital to humanity's well-being is spiritually corrosive. When we encounter minds that are closed and hearts that are darkened by evident malice, Baha'u'llah urges that we leave such persons to God and turn our attention to the opportunities which multiply daily for the promotion of the truths which He teaches.
Actually, I don't think Baha'u'llah says any such thing. I recall him saying that at Ridvan all creation was made ritually pure, and calling upon us to associate with fragrance and fellowship with all human beings. All the Bahai intellectuals that I know are obedient to this command and long for fellowship and harmony with the Universal House of Justice and with the other institutions of the Bahai Faith. We send our love out to them as individuals. But as for those administrators who are filled with malice, who take the goal of unity as an excuse to attempt to impose uniformity, who misunderstand constitutional authority as warrant for arbitrary and dictatorial behavior, we have a responsibility to speak out against the harm they may inflict, with their methods of backroom intimidation and manipulation, upon individual adherents. We have to be vigilant against their electioneering, their forcing out of the faith anyone who is vocal and open-minded, their anti-intellectual prejudices. And, who knows? Eventually they may themselves see how contrary to the spirit of the Faith their actions and words are, and may develop that sense of shame that Baha'u'llah says only a few of us are born with. That cannot be our concern.
As Baha'is, our central task is clear: to build up an ever-advancing *civilization* (which Shoghi Effendi indicates would have academic studies of religion as one of its components), to serve humankind, to work for an inclusive global community that has a place for conservatives and liberals, fundamentalists and academics, black and white, male and female, urbanite and tribesman. I say this despite the fact that the current leaders of the Baha'i World Faith are attempting to exclude a very large and significant proportion of humanity from the faith (including me!), in order to pursue an extremely narrow and partisan vision of it.
The one thing they have gotten right is that the give and take between the fundamentalist leadership and the Baha'i intellectuals has already had, and increasingly will have, a galvanizing and salutary effect on the community, and from this dialectic both sides will ultimately move closer toward the real Baha'i faith, which we children of the twilight can only dimly imagine.
I wish our dear brothers on the Universal House of Justice well, and pray for them that they will find Baha'u'llah in their hearts, and will find a way to forsake the persecutorial and somewhat paranoid view they have of any Baha'i who does not see things the way they do. I pray most of all that they abandon their forays into theology and inquisitions, and return to their proper function of legislation and advancing the interests of humankind.
Juan R. I. Cole, Professor, Department of History, University of Michigan