The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience


For Dr. Linda Walbridge, a prominent anthropologist of Islam, an authority on Shi`ite Islam, and former associate director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, also see the following links

"Critics chafe at Baha'i conservatism" By IRA RIFKIN
February 27, 1997, Religion News Service Obituary 2002 by Juan Cole

Juan Cole - Menu

From: Juan Cole <>
To: Ian Kluge <>
Cc: <>
Subject: Freedom of Conscience and Women's Service
Date: Thursday, June 11, 1998 1:57 PM
Dear Ian:
Now you're just being silly.  The next dispensation, indeed.
The 1988 decision of the house of justice that it did not have the
authority to rule on the issue of women's service on that body was
unexceptionable jurisprudence.  They are the court of last resort, an issue
was brought to them, and they felt it belonged in the realm of
interpretation, not in that of legislation; and that the interpretive texts
made it impossible to admit women.
There is nothing wrong with any of that.  They were given the authority of
istinbat or jurisprudential reasoning ('elucidation') by `Abdul-Baha in
the Will and Testament.  As long as this is their position, it is Baha'i
law.  Fine.  If Vahid Rafati or Mark Hellaby at the Research Department
helped with the research, that is fine too.  They are very erudite
gentlemen and I consider them old friends.
However, the universal house of justice by the explicit text of
Baha'u'llah's 8th Ishraq is not bound by the rulings of its predecessors.
It may change its rulings.  Future houses of justice may decide that the
6th house of justice of 1988 was in error on the woman issue.  The laws and
ordinances and jurisprudential reasoning of the house of justice are not
set in stone.  Baha'u'llah deliberately wanted an institution that would
*not* cling to tradition for tradition's sake, but would be alive to the
need for changes to meet changing conditions.  Given that only 5% of
Pakistani women are literate, this may not yet be the time, in world terms,
for women to be admitted to the house of justice.  Fine.  Maybe in 25 years
that statistic and others like it in Africa, etc., will have changed
dramatically.  Then we can talk.
Moreover, in a free society such as the U.S., when the Supreme Court makes
a jurisprudential ruling, that also becomes the law of the land.  But the
decision can be analyzed by professors in law journals.  The facts can be
looked at again.  New interpretations can be put forward by legal scholars.
 The Supreme Court is not obliged by any of this to change its mind.
Justices sometimes are persuaded they were wrong by a Law Review article.
But they don't have to be.  They can stick to their guns.  And as long as
they do, the justices' original ruling is the law, and everyone recognizes
that.  The Law professors' articles remain so much paper bound on dusty
shelves in libraries.
In a totalitarian society, however, once the Politburo has made a ruling,
not only does it become the law, it becomes off limits for public comment
by others.  Law professors don't write articles analyzing the decision or
critiquing it or looking again at the evidence.  Or at least if they do,
they are put in jail.
Now, that is my problem with the Sixth and Seventh universal houses of
justice (elected in 1988 and 1993).  They lost their moral bearings.  They
not only delivered the 1988 ruling, but they attempted to make that ruling
off limits for public discussion.  They censored and suppressed other
writing about the issue.  They accused Linda Walbridge of making statements
contrary to the covenant over it, and summarily tossed Michael McKenny out
of the Baha'i faith over it.
The reason this is so terrible is that it contradicts basic Baha'i
principle.  `Abdul-Baha promised freedom of conscience and speech.  He
recognized that Baha'i scholars would write on jurisprudence, but insisted
that their opinions did not have the force of law unless adopted by the
house of justice.  Of course he wanted everyone to acknowledge the
legitimacy of the house of justice's decisions at any one time, and to
follow the law.  But the only way to break the law with regard to the 1988
decision would be for a national spiritual assembly member to vote for a
woman (some do).  Writing research papers about the issue and considering
alternatives does not break the law.
Of course, if one conceived of the Baha'i faith as a totalitarian system,
then the actions of the 6th and 7th international houses of justice make
perfect sense.  It is just the same old Politburo censorship.  The
Politburo has spoken, everyone else must be silent. I don't believe anyone
who reads Secret of Divine Civilization, Traveller's Narrative, and
Promulgation of Universal Peace with any understanding at all can conclude
that what was wanted was a totalitarian system.  But that is what the
current house of justice is assiduously building.  And what is even more
frightening is that they are not satisfied to impose this dictatorship and
tyranny on Baha'is.  They want to become your civil government and impose
it on everyone.
These policies are contrary to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
The Universal Declaration insists that "Everyone has the right to freedom
of thought, conscience and religion" (Article 18) and adds that "everyone
has the right to freedom of opinion and expression" (article 19).  
And, of course, `Abdul-Baha said,
"Just as in the world of politics there is need for free thought, likewise
in the world of religion there should be the right of unrestricted
individual belief.  Consider what a vast difference exists between modern
democracy and the old forms of despotism.  Under an autocratic government
the opinions of men are not free, and development is stifled, whereas in a
democracy, because thought and speech are not restricted, the greatest
progress is witnessed.  It is likewise true in the world of religion. When
freedom of conscience, liberty of thought and right of speech prevail--that
is to say, when every man according to his own idealization may give
expression to his beliefs--development and growth are inevitable." 
As for male chauvinism, I wouldn't have said it necessarily motivated the
1988 ruling of the 6th house of justice.  They may have genuinely felt
bound by their understanding of the texts.  But some subsequent actions
seem to me certainly male chauvinist pig-ism.  The image of nine men having
Dr. Linda Walbridge--a prominent anthropologist of Islam and former
associate director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia
University--accused of 'making statements contrary to the covenant' and
chased out of the religion for saying that women should be allowed to serve
on the universal house of justice is more eloquent than any argument I
could make.
cheers   Juan