The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

From: <>
Subject: Re: ra'y as idiosyncratic legal opinion
Date: Friday, January 29, 1999 11:35 AM

Dear Daniel:
The problem is that you are ignoring *other*, equally salient statements of
`Abdul-Baha that guarantee the individual the right freely to express his or
her conscience in polite public speech.  There can be no such right, of
course, of the individual cannot in fact do so on any issue where the house
of justice has made a ruling, since the house of justice rules on a very
large number of issues.  Moreover all of its rulings are open to being
repealed by later house of justice so it makes no sense to insist that these
rulings are incontrovertible.
Let's look at Mahmoud's Diary:
"Palo Alto, California, 9 October 1912: Before `Abdu’l-Baha 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 Baha’u’llah
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
[Baha’i] 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 develope a dispute, such that it
leads to a polarization, both are wrong and discredited." (Mahmúd Zarqání,
Kitáb-i Badá'i` al-Athár, 2 vols. (Hofheim-Langenhain: Bahá'í-Verlag, 1982),
My emphasis.  Notice here that `Abdul-Baha is explicitly talking about two
things:  the difference between the Baha'i faith and past religions, and the
role of the Baha'i institutions.  And what he says is that the difference
between early Christianity and the Baha'i faith is that Baha'i institutions
are not to interfere in the individual expression of conscience with regard
to religious beliefs.  In early Christianity you were persecuted for
believing that Jesus was man, not God, e.g.  Now, when Counselor Stephen
Birkland came after Steve Scholl and others, condemning their individual
theologies, he broke this covenant of `Abdul-Baha and profoundly overstepped
the bounds of his authority.  When the UHJ sends such individuals out to
grill Baha'is about referring to Baha'u'llah as a historical human being
rather than as divine (which they have done), they are breaking this covenant
of `Abdul-Baha.  They are in fact acting exactly the way the early Christian
authorities acted, and they are making a liar out of the Master.
Let's look at another proof text:
"In the religion of God there is freedom of thought, for no one can rule over
the [individual’s] 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." `Abdul-Baha in `Abdu'l-Hamíd Ishráq-Khávarí, ed., Má'idih-yi
Asmání, 9 vols. (Tehran: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1973) 5:17-18.
Again, here the distinction is explicit.  Only *deeds* can be punished by the
Baha'i institutions, *not* the free expression of one's concientiously held
beliefs.  Your attempt to constitute some expressions of conscience as
'speach-acts,' making them into deeds and subject to punishment, does
enormous violence to `Abdul-Baha's way of thinking and departs entirely from
his vision of Baha'i society as one in which individuals are free to express
their views in a way he likened to the freedom of political speech in the
United States.
And that is why `Abdul-Baha was so clearly speaking of ra'y in the technical
sense of making a practical idiosyncratic legal ruling when he said that no
one (i.e. no Baha'i jurisprudent, the only ones in a position to excersice
ra'y) may issue a ra'y that contradicts the rulings of the house of justice.
American Baha'is come from a Christian culture that had been dominated by
questions of *dogma*.  For most Americans, what church you belong to
determines what *creed* you subscribe to.  The Catholic church still
scrutinizes theologicans for their adherence to Vatican dogma.	But Islam for
the most part has been a religion centered on orthopraxyn (right practice),
not orthodoxy (right belief).  The important thing has been not so much what
you believed but how you practiced Islam in law ritual and daily life.
`Abdul-Baha viewed the Baha'i faith also as orthoprax but not necessarily
orthodox.  And that is why the provision of the Will and Testament concerning
ra'y or idiosyncratic legal rulings applies primarily to officers of the
religion, since they are the only ones in a position practically to
*impletment* *behavior* contrary to the legal rulings of the house of
Individual Baha'is with no official authority, in `Abdul-Baha's view, are
free to express their conscience in public as they please, even if it appears
to contradict mainstream Baha'i views, as long as they do so politely, and
their views are simply none of the business of the Baha'i authorities (and
certainly not of authorities that `Abdul-Baha never even mentioned, like
'counselors') `Abdul-Baha was, for instance, fully aware of the heterodox
beliefs of many early American Baha'is, and yet he never threatened or
punished any of them, though he did attempt gently guide them.	In fact, in A
Traveler's Narrative, he had early on acknowledged that threatening and
bullying people over their beliefs only makes them all the more recalcitrant.
 Since he is the Exemplar, it is a shame that more Baha'i authorities do not
pay attention to his approach.
Juan Cole
History, U of Michigan
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