Juan Cole's Baha'i Studies Page



H-BahaiTranslations of Shaykhi, Babi and Baha'i Texts, vol. 5, no. 1 (January 2001)



“On the House of Justice and Baha’i Jurisprudence”

Letter of circa 1899

Text, Translation, Commentary

Juan R. I. Cole
University of Michigan


        You who are clinging to the hem of the covenant, your letter was read.  The detailed questions you asked were noted.  Troubles have affected my limbs and members and joints like mortal poison, so that the pen is prevented from writing and the tongue from speaking.  Moreover, my work is so pressing that it is indescribable.  In view of the warm love that this servant has for that gentleman, however, a clear and concise, spiritual answer has been given in accord with the divine decree.  Within every door, a hundred doors will be opened by these comprehensive words, this station, these acceptable and sought-after entryways, which clarify, explain, elucidate, allude, interpret, and give inner meanings.  Otherwise, all the pages in all the world could not encompass it.

You asked about the wisdom of putting the house of justice in charge of important ordinances.  First of all, this divine cycle is solely spiritual, full of godly compassion, and is a matter of conscience.  It has no connection at all to physical, material (mulki), or worldly (nasuti) matters.  In the same way, the Christian dispensation was purely spiritual.  In the entire new Testament, the only laws are the prohibition on divorce and the allusion to the abrogation of the Sabbath.  All the injunctions were spiritual and the ethics divine.  Just as he said, “the son of man [sic] did not come to judge the world but to save the world.” [Jn 12:47].  Now, this most great cycle is also purely spiritual, the bestowal of eternal life.  For the foundation stone of the religion of God is the betterment of morals, the improvement of character, and the sanctification of deeds.  The goal of all this is that beings who are veiled might attain to the station of the beatific vision, and that defective, dark essences might be illumined.

        As for the rest of the commandments, they are derivatives of certitude, faith, assurance and mystical insight. Nevertheless, this blessed cycle is the greatest of divine dispensations, and for this reason, it encompasses spiritual and physical aspects and is  perfect in its power and authority.  Therefore, the universal precepts that form the foundation of the religious law are expressly stated in the text.  Subsidiary regulations are the purview of the house of justice.  The wisdom therein is that the times do not stand still.  Change and alteration are among the characteristics and exigencies of contingent existence, time and place.  Thus, the house of justice acts in accordance with these changes.  It should not be thought that the house of justice will make decisions out of self-interest.  I take refuge in God!  The greatest house of justice makes decisions and laws by virtue of the inspiration and confirmation of the holy spirit.  For it is under the protection of the ancient Beauty.  It is an indisputable duty to follow its rulings.  It is incumbent, and there is no refuge for anyone.

        Say:  O people, the greatest house of justice is under the wing of your lord, the merciful, the compassionate—that is, under his patronage and protection.  For he commanded the firm believers to obey this good and pure group, this holy and triumphant assembly.  Its dominion is heavenly and divine and its ordinances are inspirational and spiritual.  This is the wisdom of giving the house of justice the purview over personal status ordinances (ahkam-i madaniyyih).  In the holy law of the Qur’an, as well, not all the commands were explicitly stated in the text.  Indeed, not a thousandth of them were explicit.  Even though all the important precepts are mentioned, obviously a hundred thousand laws remained unstated.  Afterwards, they were derived by means of the principles of jurisprudence.  Individual learned jurists derived different results from those basic laws and these were implemented.  

        Now, jurisprudence is the purview of the institution of the house of justice.  The derivation of law by means of legal reasoning on the part of individual, learned believers has no binding force, unless it is adopted by the house of justice.  The difference is this, that the jurisprudential reasoning or adoption of such by the institution of the house of justice, whose members are elected and seen as legitimate by the generality of the community, will not provoke discord.  But the jurisprudential rulings of individual scholars can provoke disputes and cause division, dispersal and mutual hatred.  Thus would the unity of the word and the solidarity of the religion of God vanish, and the foundation of the law of God be shaken.

        As for the command to marry, this is entirely a personal status law.  Nevertheless, in the law of God its legal conditions are stipulated and its fundamentals are made clear.  The marriage of relatives, however, is not explicitly treated, and falls under the purview of the house of justice, which will make a ruling based on the principles of civilization and the exigencies of medicine, wisdom, and natural human inclination.  There is no doubt that by the principles of civilization, medicine and nature, it is preferable to marry into distant lines rather than near relatives.  In this light, consider Christian law.  Even though marriage to cousins is in reality permitted, since there is no explicit scriptural prohibition of it, the early Christian councils altogether forbade marriage of relatives separated by less than seven generations.  But this ruling is implemented in all the Christian denominations, since this matter is purely one of personal status.  Whatever the house of justice decides in this regard, that is the decisive decree and the divine judgment.  No one can infringe against it.  If you consider, it will be apparent that this matter—that is, putting personal status law under the purview of the house of justice--is remarkably consistent with wisdom.  For whenever a difficulty arises that must be referred for deliberation, at that point the specific house of justice can reopen the issue, since it delivered the earlier ruling.  With regard to the necessary referral, it can, after considering the specific case, issue a new, specific ruling so as to avoid any unfortunate results altogether.  For the house of justice can also abrogate its own rulings.

In Islam, as well, administrative punishments (ta`zir) were the purview of the ruling authority.  There were no scriptural texts specifying the levels of punishment.  It depended on the ruler.  Such punishments ranged from verbal censure to death.  This was, for the most part, the pivot of the administration of justice (siyasat) in the Muslim community.  Yes, the foundation of this most great cycle has been so arranged that its laws can remain appropriate to and in accord with all ages and eras in a way that past systems of religious law could not.  For now, it is impossible to implement many of their provisions.  For instance, consider the laws of the Torah.  Today, they cannot be put into effect at all.  For there are ten capital offenses in it.  Likewise, the law of the Qur’an prescribes the amputation of a hand for the theft of goods worth ten dirhams.  Is it possible to put such a law into practice today?  No, by God!  But this holy, divine, law of God is appropriate to all times and ages.  “Thus have we made you a middle community, so that you may be witnesses to the people and the prophet may be a witness to you.”  [Q. 2:137].

All of the eloquent poetical verses that have been composed with sweet contents should be recited and sung.  In reality, they are deserving of being chanted in the assemblies of divine unity.  Glory be upon you.  AA


  • Commentary on `Abdu'l-Baha's Letter on Baha'i Jurisprudence

    Persian Text

    `Abdu'l-Baha. Majmu`ih-'i Makatib-i `Abdu'l-Baha ("Collected Letters of `Abdu'l-Baha"). Volume 59. Calligraphed 1318/1900. Iran National Baha'i Archives Private Printing: Tehran, c. 1978. Reprinted, East Lansing, Mi.: H-Bahai, 2000, pp. 275-280.

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