The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience


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Subject: Commentary on the letter of the House of Justice dated April 7, 1999 (pt. 1)
Date: Sunday, June 06, 1999 12:54 PM

Dear Friends:

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 `Abdul-Baha.

I shall proceed by attempting a close commentary on the text.  But
first, some general comments must be made about the context of the
letter and the institution that issued it.

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, 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 `Abdul-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 Ishráq:  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

"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 [leadership (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 Bahá! 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.

Note that the Universal House of Justice is empowered only in matters of
leadership or perhaps legislation of sanctions (umur-i siyasiyyih) is
ambiguous in the original.  Note that 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.

`Abdul-Baha says of this body in his *Will and Testament* pp. 19-20

"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.  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 there
have been 7 sessions) can permanently bind or constrain its successors
by making a law not found in the Baha'i texts and attempting to make it

Nor is the Universal House of Justice to interfere in the free
expression of individual conscience:

"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 develop a dispute, such that it
leads to a polarization, both are wrong and discredited.' - In Mahmúd
Zarqání, Kitáb-i Badá'i` al-Athár, 2 vols. (Hofheim-Langenhain:
Bahá'í-Verlag, 1982), 1:294.

Unlike past ecclesiastic institutions, the Baha'i houses of justice,
whether international, national or local, are according to `Abdul-Baha
not to attempt to interfere with the expression of individual

`Abdul-Baha also said, in a talk given in 7 April 1913 in Budapest

"He is God. 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
heart’s 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 [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. - In
`Abdu'l-Hamíd Ishráq-Khávarí, ed., Má'idih-yi Asmání, 9 vols. (Tehran:
Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1973) 5:17-18.

Now, if `Abdul-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

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.

"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
Bahá'u'lláh has not expressly revealed.  Neither can, nor will ever,
infringe upon the sacred and prescribed domain of the other. "

This quotation reinforces what `Abdul-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
Bahá'u'lláh would be mutilated and permanently deprived of that
hereditary principle which, as `Abdu'l-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

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,
was a "mutilated" body, crippled by the lack of divine guidance that a
living Guardian would have provided.  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.  In the absence of a living Guardian, the Universal
House of Justice lacks the ability to take a long view; it lacks the
precise judgment that would allow it to realize when it has strayed from
its authoritative sphere of legislation.  It is not I who says this but
Shoghi Effendi.  But all is by no means lost.  To be "mutilated" would
now be termed instead to be "challenged."  We might once have used the
words "crippled," "disabled" or "handicapped" for such a body, but the
brave struggles of our fellow human beings among the blind, the lame,
and the mentally impaired, have taught us that such conditions do not
represent an end to life but rather a set of special challenges to
overcome.  In the same way that we all have a responsibility to help the
specially challenged overcome their disabilities, we all have a duty to
help the Universal House of Justice overcome its.

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 Bahá'í
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 as 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 or institutions such as houses of justice,
neither of which have any special Interpretive authority.

To be continued

cheers Juan

Juan Cole, History, U of Michigan,
Buy *Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of

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From: <>
Subject: Re: Commentary on the letter of the House of Justice dated April 7, 1999 (pt. 1)
Date: Sunday, June 06, 1999 5:32 PM

In article <7je936$1mu$>, wrote:

Now, after this admittedly lengthy, but I think very necessary
preparation, let us turn to the letter of 7 April 1999 from our dear,
human, 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).


>Department of the Secretariat 7 April 1999 To all National Spiritual

>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 its challenged ("mutilated") Head pull back from this brink and
return to the straight path.

>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

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 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 `Abdul-Baha and Shoghi Effendi.  Given that the
Universal House of Justice is Interpretatively challenged, 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
`Abdul-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; a few have frankly paranoid tendencies
that cloud their reports.  John Walbridge's 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 salutory 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

>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

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 didn't agree at
all with the one or with much of the latter, 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 'Abdul-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
`Abdul-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 either
one, 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.  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 counselors 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 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

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, the House of Justice is straying 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 'Abdul-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 counselors 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!  The discourse here most
unfortunately resembles that explored by Hofstadter in his classic "The
Paranoid Style in American Politics."

I would be interested in seeing the particular quote calling into
question `Abdul-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 `Abdul-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 travelled abroad?)  In any case, `Abdul-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
`Abdul-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 just don't know who ever said such a thing.  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.

I think this 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 Mr. Nakhjavani isn't
going to make a place for the Denis MacEoins and Juan Coles and  Linda
Walbridges whose discourse he finds distasteful because they are Western
academics.  All I can say is that a majority of American Christians
certainly believe 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 believe Baha'u'llah was one.

There are two wider points I have to reemphasize here. The first is that
Baha'u'llah and `Abdul-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 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.
It is, frankly, none of their business, and `Abdul-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.

If the House of Justice made a law, like the Carribean 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 `Abdul-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.

To be continued . . .

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

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From: Juan Cole <>
To: <>
Subject: Re: Commentary on the letter of the House of Justice dated April 7, 1999 (pt. 3)
Date: Monday, June 07, 1999 12:52 AM

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.

Cole replies:

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
`Abdul-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

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!  Make no
mistake.  They are not concerned here with *real* materialism, such as
that of Marx or Democritus or Milton Friedman.  They view *all* academic
writing about religion, including by phenomenologists and sympathetic
ethnographers, as "materialist."  Writing that would be dismissed by
real materialists as fluffy and "culturalist" would nevertheless be seen
by our dear brothers in Haifa as "materialist."  This is because they
have what can only be described as a fundamentalist mindset, and feel
about academic approaches to religion rather as Pat Robertson, Jerry
Falwell, and Ayatollah Khamenei do.

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.  `Abdul-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 Covenant `Abdul-Baha made with thinking people, promising
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

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 how do we know
that this discourse is not symbolic?  If Jesus says he is a door, does
that mean he has a doorknob in his navel?  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

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.  They should be off somewhere making laws that would better
humankind instead of parroting the fading line of the Jerry Falwells and
other fundamentalist preachers.

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, mutilated and challenged by 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 a 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

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

>In defiance of the clear interpretation of 'Abdul-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, `Abdul-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, seventh 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.  To make it illegal to say that
women may eventually serve is mad, and exceeds their authority.

>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
`Abdul-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, but gradually moved his men into position at the
International Teaching Center and succeeded in getting them elected to
the Universal House of Justice (as well as bringing over Ian Semple to
his side).  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 `Abdul-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 `Abdul-Baha!  See in
particular `Abdul-Baha's *Treatise on Leadership*, which the Baha'i
authorities in Iran have long suppressed:

>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.  `Abdul-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 `Abdul-Baha, and actually to
persecute 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.  Here, as elsewhere, they are attempting to exceed their
authority and are damaging the Cause of God by stunting its spiritual
growth.  Apparently, this policy derives from a desire to ensure that
all monetary resources in the faith go to Haifa, which seems to me
awfully selfish.

>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, I fear I must go beyond simple consultation here to
outright denunciation.  This is monstrous.  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.  `Abdul-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 cannnot 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

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, even to make mistakes.  You can't decide beforehand what
is a perversion and what is a breakthrough.  As for an ideological
agenda, the 7th 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 privily engaged.

But we need not worry.  There are thousands of universities in the
world.  My own university has a population of 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.  Our dear brothers in Haifa must have a different copy of the
Most Holy Book than the one I possess.  And their phraseology here opens
the question of what we should do when we encounter insincerity,
duplicity, a cult-like mindset, and hearts darkened with malice among
incumbents in the Baha'i institutions.

I think we have to send our love out to them as individuals, but we also
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
Department of History
University of Michigan

Juan Cole, History, U of Michigan
Buy *Modernity & Millennium: Genesis of Baha'i*

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