The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

From: <>
Subject: service and its prerequisites
Date: Thursday, May 13, 1999 7:33 PM

I think you have to make a distinction, which I know a lot of Baha'is
feel it difficult to make, between questioning the legitimacy and
integrity of the Universal House of Justice and questioning any
particular action that any particular House of Justice has taken.
There are lots of people who know a fair amount about the Baha'i faith
and who simply reject it altogether, including rejecting both
Baha'u'llah (as a fraud or misguided, etc.) and rejecting the Universal
House of Justice along with him.  I should think that is the most
extreme "questioning" of the authority of the UHJ.
Then there are people who accept Baha'u'llah but who reject the
legitimacy of the Universal House of Justice.  The mainstream Baha'is
call these alternative Baha'is "covenant breakers."  This is also a
pretty extreme calling into question the legitimacy and authority of the
Then there are mainstream Baha'is who accept the legitimacy of the
Universal House of Justice but who differ about some of the policies it
adopts at any one time.  Most Baha'is at least privately have some
questions about some such policies, so this is not unusual.
Then there are knee-jerk loyalists who think it wrong ever to question
any least pronouncement, policy or action of the UHJ.  Shoghi Effendi
referred to such individuals as the "extreme orthodox," and condemned
them.  But they are very powerful in the current community.  Many of
them are essentially cultists.
It isn't logical to ban questioning of policies.  After all, the
composition of the UHJ changes over time, and so do its policies.
Baha'u'llah instructed the UHJ to make constant inquiries into the views
and needs of the community.  If it stood above the community so
exaltedly as the "extreme orthodox" imagine, it would not need to do so.
Some policies change for the bad, and then we have to let the UHJ
know this.  I can't remember the UHJ saying "boo!" to Baha'i academics
in the 1960s and early 1970s, whereas in the 1990s it has deliberately
tried to force a number of them out of the faith (and largely succeeded
in this).  There is a difference between the 2nd House of Justice,
1968-1973, which had liberals like David Ruhe and Hugh Chance on it, and
the archconservative 7th & 8th Houses of Justice, of 1993-1998 and 1998-
, on which deeply conservative individuals, many of whom are former
Inquisitors as Counselors for Protection, predominate.
Now, Shoghi Effendi said quite plainly that without a *living* Guardian,
the UHJ would not have the means of precisely defining its legitimate
sphere of action.  That is, a guardianless House of Justice would
occasionally blunder into an area not under its jurisdiction, and would
have no living Guardian to rein it in.  Shoghi Effendi was also explicit
that occasionally the Guardian and the rest of the UHJ would differ on
policy, and that the Guardian was not to arbitrarily over-rule the UHJ
except when it strayed from Legislation into Interpretation.
Members of the current, 8th UHJ are convinced that the Baha'i faith is a
dogmatic religion, and that the UHJ has the authority to determine the
dogma, which it may then impose on individual Baha'is.  If these
believers decline to be imposed upon, the UHJ may order the individuals
silenced, sanctioned, or shunned.
But Baha'u'llah was quite clear that the religion he was creating was
*not* a religion of dogmas!  Nor was he creating a vehicle for the
silencing, sanctioning or shunning of members of the human race. He
explicitly forbade the UHJ in Ishraq 8 from interfering in `ibadat or
matters purely pertaining to scripture, and worship and private belief.
He said they should concern themselves with matters of leadership or
legalities (siyasat).  The Guardian explained further that the
scope of the UHJ was solely legislation.
Thus, according to the explicit Baha'i texts, the UHJ is not to interfer
in matters of worship, is not to intervene against a believer merely for
conscientious speech, and is to stick to making laws.  I am not aware
that the UHJ has in fact made any laws at all, though that was supposed
to be their function.
Instead, they have done things like chase academics such as Dr. Linda
Walbridge, a major anthropologist, out of the Baha'i faith for a few
harmless emails; they have expelled Michael McKenny for his thoughtful
and conscientious emails; they have attempted to dictate to Baha'i
academics concerning  academic methodology (even though none of the
members of the UHJ has the  slightest idea what that might be).  They
are clearly blundering around  in the print world and in cyberspace like
a bull in a china shop, making a mess of things and harming the
reputation and fortunes of the Baha'i faith.  And it is because they
refuse to recognize that they are a mutilated body in need of the
guidance of a living Guardian, which will be forever denied them.  When
we all accept that, we will be adults standing on our own two feet,
exercising our portion of Universal Reason, just as Baha'u'llah
predicted and desired.
The policies of the UHJ have prevented  literally hundreds of
intelligent, capable, devoted Baha'i writers from arising to serve the
faith with their pens.  They have interfered with Baha'i artists and
musicians in ways that discourage *them* from serving the faith.
*Dialogue* magazine was a major service to the Cause, in the
destruction of which the 4th UHJ played a major and sinister role.
Well, the papacy has done a lot of stupid and sometimes criminal things
over the centuries, too, but Catholicism survives and there are a lot of
Catholics who forgive the past and try to work on the present and
future.  That the UHJ, a young institution less than 40 years old,
shouldn't have found its footing yet, isn't really surprising.  And, of
course, the rigidity and narrow-mindedness of a lot of Baha'is tends to
cause the more liberal-minded and capable ones to leave on a rolling
basis, so you have a real problem of the recruitment pool for these
institutions being rather limited, with often poor-quality candidates,
some of whom are little more than secret cultists.
So the point of my messages is never to "undermine" the Institution of
the Universal House of Justice.  It was ordained by Baha'u'llah, and
when it *legislates* it should be obeyed.  My purpose is to consult
about rather severe problems in the deepening and evolvement of the
community.  There should be a place in the Baha'i faith for college
teachers who actually say something interesting about the religion,
rather than remaining silent or at risk of being forced out.  How can
you have a vibrant intellectual life that way?  I once wrote the UHJ
making this point, and they said they *agreed* with me.  But then they
went on to do enormous, though reparable damage, to this very process.
My argument is that *consultation* is the basis of the Baha'i
institutions in Baha'u'llah's teachings, not blind obedience (taqlid).
Baha'u'llah *promotes* consultation, but condemns blind obedience.
Baha'u'llah goes so far as to say that the very *basis* for the
authority of the houses of justice is that they are consultative bodies.
So, when a house of justice goes off arrogantly and half-cocked without
consulting with the community, and especially with the most relevant or
informed or affected portions of the community, it is undermining its
own authority in the terms Baha'u'llah sets out.  It is this
*consultation* with the community that is the only hope of helping
replace the guidance of a living Guardian.  The Consensus (ijma`) of the
living, contemporary Baha'i community must be recognized as a source of
law and policy, and only in this way can the UHJ begin keeping its own
activities within the legal bounds of its legitimate sphere of
authority.  Cyberspace has come along at precisely the right moment to
allow such global consultation on the pressing issues facing the
Of course, older Baha'is used to a more authoritarian style of
administration will resist such freewheeling consultation, and attempt
to preserve a top-down, dictatorial approach to authority.  They will
attempt to shut down open public discussion, depriving themselves, in
the process, of the very views Baha'u'llah instructed them to seek out.
 But such flailing and thrashing about, complete with bluster and
threats, the chasing out of capable, devoted believers, and other tragic
mistakes, is a passing phase.  The genie is out of the bottle, and the
Baha'i faith will be a much better place as a result.
cheers   Juan

Juan Cole, History, U of Michigan,
Buy *Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Baha'i Faith* at:
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