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TITLESome Interpretive Principles in the Bahá'í Writings
AUTHOR 1Khazeh Fananapazir
AUTHOR 2Seena Fazel
AUTHOR 3Sen McGlinn
TITLE_PARENTBahá'í Studies Review
PUB_THISAssociation for Bahá'í Studies English-Speaking Europe
ABSTRACTAspects of hermeneutics and authorized interpretation.
NOTES Article "Some Interpretive Principles" is by Fananapazir and Fazel. Commentary is by Sen McGlinn, from BSR 7 (1997), at end.
TAGSContext, Taking verses out of; Contradictions; Criticism and apologetics; Hermeneutics; Interpretation

Hermeneutics – the science of interpretation – is an area of Bahá'í studies yet to be systematically explored. This is not surprising at this early stage of development.2 Bahá'u'lláh, however, enjoins Bahá'ís to read the Scriptures 'for no other purpose except to enable the reader to apprehend their meaning and unravel their innermost mysteries (Kitáb-i-Íqán 172), and encourages Bahá'ís to meditate on His Writings so that they may 'grasp the intended meaning which is enshrined in the sacred depths of the Holy Writings (Tablets 143). Moreover, the importance of individual interpretation is emphasized in a letter of the Universal House of Justice which explains that 'individual interpretation is the fruit of mans rational power and conducive to a better understanding of the teachings (Wellspring 88). The implication is then that a necessary adjunct to reading the Bahá'í Writings is the arrival at a set of working interpretive principles which assist in the deepening process. The intention of this essay is to illustrate some distinctive hermeneutic principles in the Bahá'í Writings.

Interpretive Principles in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas

The multiplicity of interpretative methods is a theme that recent authors have suggested is the basis of Baháí hermeneutics2 The initial reaction to this approach may be that there is a verse in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book of the Bahá'í Revelation, in which interpretative practice has been focused on the 'evident meaning' of texts. One could perhaps conclude that the literal method should be the paradigm of all Bahá'í hermeneutics:

Whoso interpreteth what hath been sent down from the heaven of Revelation, and altereth its evident [lit. záhir] meaning, he, verily, is of them that have perverted the Sublime Word of God, and is of the lost ones in the Lucid Book. (Synopsis 23)

However a deeper analysis of the Bahá'í Writings suggests other principles apart from this literal approach. For instance, Bahá'u'lláh Himself discusses the limitations of literal interpretation in His Tablet Commentary on the Surah of the Sun -- a work 'in which Bahá'u'lláh expresses himself on how he thinks scripture commentary should be carried out.' (Cole, Commentary 5). 'Know thou,' Bahá'u'lláh writes in this Tablet, 'that whoso clingeth to the outward sense [az-záhir] of the words, leaving aside their esoteric [al-bátin] significance, is simply ignorant [jáhil]. And whoso concentrateth on the metaphorical sense to the exclusion of the prosaic meaning is heedless. Only the one who interpreteth the verses esoterically while harmonizing this reading with the literal meaning can be said to be a complete scholar' (Tafsár Súrat 'Wa'sh-Shams, in Majmú'ih 11; provisional translation in Commentary 18). Therefore it would appear that Bahá'u'lláh shows Himself opposed to literalism.

In the face of this apparent contradiction (between the quotation from the Aqdas and the passage from the Commentary on the Súrih of the Sun), the Kitáb-i-Íqán provides a lucid explanation.4 Bahá'u'lláh explains the nature of the language used by the Manifestations of God. One of these is 'outward' [záhir] and the other 'veiled and concealed. In such utterances, the literal meaning, as generally understood by the people, is not what hath been intended' (254-5) .3

A third example where Bahá'u'lláh explicitly endorses a non-literal interpretation is in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, in a section where Bahá'u'lláh interprets a verse from the Báb's Writings. The background to this passage is a prophecy made in one of the Báb's Tablets which predicts that 'the glances of Him Whom God shall make manifest illumine this letter at the primary school [maktab]' (The Báb, Selections 6). Bahá'u'lláh in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas refers to this as 'the school of inner meaning and exposition' and 'the School of God', which He entered 'before the letters 'B' and 'E' were joined and knit together' (cited in The Báb, Selections 6-7 fn. 1). Therefore Bahá'u'lláh's own exegesis in the Aqdas is non-literal in this instance.

However, in contrast, two passages specifically prescribe the literal approach. The first refers to the timing of the next Manifestation of God, who will not appear before a full thousand years. Bahá'u'lláh's injunction is that 'Whosoever interpreteth this verse otherwise than its obvious [záhir] meaning is deprived of the Spirit of God' (Synopsis 14). It is clear that the context implies that the 'obvious meaning' applies to 'this verse'. Similarly, in a Tablet revealed in the 'Akká period, Bahá'u'lláh enjoins a literal interpretation of the commandments and ordinances revealed in the Aqdas.

Here Bahá'u'lláh explains that people should not deprive themselves of the apparent and evident (záhir) meanings of the ordinances of God, and thereby become veiled from the intended meaning. He then gives the example that if it is revealed: 'Wash ye your faces', this should not be interpreted to mean that the purpose of washing is to cleanse one~s inner face with the water of true understanding (Iqtiddrát 279).

In light of the above, it would appear that the term 'evident meaning' is an interpretative method that is incomplete in some contexts, and relevant in others, such as the application of certain laws and the timing of the next Revelation. The initial quotation from the Kitáb-i-Aqdas where 'evident meaning' is suggested can be seen in the context of the laws which have 'been sent down from the heaven of the Will of your Lord, the Lord of Revelation' (Synopsis 11-12). The legal setting is also suggested by the fact that this verse is immediately followed by laws on cleanliness, which Bahá'u'lláh intended to be applied literally. In contrast, the literal approach is clearly inappropriate in interpreting prophecy, as indicated by Bahá'u'lláh's exegesis of the Báb's prophecy about the school that 'Him whom God shall make manifest' will attend.

Furthermore, even when the evident meaning is sought, the implication is not necessarily the literal. The words 'evident' and 'literal' are not synonymous, although both are legitimate translations of the word (záhir).6 The word 'evident', however, which is the Guardian's translation of záhir in the first verse quoted, has in the English language different nuances and connotations than the word 'literal'.7 For example, the statement 'Jane is a lovely flower' should obviously not be interpreted literally. Its 'evident meaning' is metaphorical – that Jane shares certain qualities in common with the flower.8 The same point can be made from the saying 'it's raining cats and dogs' to depict the nature of a thunderous rainstorm. Common sense dictates that the 'evident meaning' is clearly metaphorical. Many examples from the Writings demonstrate this point. Bahá'u'lláh's self-description as 'the Most Mighty Bell' (Promised Day 29) is a unequivocal instance of where the 'evident meaning' is non-literal.9 Indeed the principle that there are multiple meanings in the content of Sacred Writings suggests that literal interpretations can rarely be the only correct understanding of a text.

In conclusion, the distinction between tafsír, a formal, legitimate interpretation of scripture and ta'wil, an esoteric interpretation allowing for many flights of individual fancy provides a possible resolution of the interpretive differences outlined above. What the verse of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas focusing on the evident meaning forbids is only ta'wil. The opposition appears to be not between the figurative and literal interpretations, but between a good-faith and intelligent effort at interpretation (tafsír) that addresses both literal and individualistic and figurative dimensions, versus an individualistic or sectarian subversion of the text – the latter tendency leading to danger of 'perverting' the sublime Word of God. An example of the falsehood of ta'wil is found in Bahá'u'lláh's explanation of the meaning of the obligatory prayer (salát). Bahá'u'lláh challenges the belief of some dervish orders who understood obligatory prayer to mean invocation (du'd). These dervishes concluded from this that they had observed the obligatory prayer through the act of invocation at the moment of birth. Bahá'u'lláh remarks that such souls are depriving themselves of both the evident meaning (záhir) as well as the inner significance (bátin) of the obligatory prayer enjoined by God (Iqtidárát 279). Thus we see an example of how an unwarranted ta'wil can lead to misunderstanding both the spiritual and literal aspects of a divine Command.

The Authorized Interpreters

The remarkable phenomenon, distinctive of the Bahá'í Faith, of sixty-five years of the authorized interpretations of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Cause of God, are most pertinent to any study of the Bahá'í Writings. Any separation of the Revelation and the authorized interpretations is impossible. As the Universal House of justice has stated:

In the Bahá'í Faith there are two authoritative centers appointed to which the believers must turn, for in reality the Interpreter of the Word is an extension of that center which is the Word itself. The Book is the record of the utterance of Bahá'u'lláh, while the divinely inspired Interpreter is the living mouth of that Book – it is he and he alone who can authoritatively state what the Book means. (In a letter to an individual dated 7 December 1969, quoted in Messages 42)

The revealed Word, in its original purity, amplified by the divinely guided interpretations of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, remains immutable, unadulterated by any man-made creeds and dogmas, unwarrantable inferences, or unauthorized interpretations. (In a letter to an individual dated October 1963, quoted in Wellspring 13)

The interpretations written by the beloved Guardian cover a vast range of subjects and are equally binding as the Text itself. . . The Guardian reveals what the Scripture means; his interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied. (In a letter to a National Spiritual Assembly dated 9 March 1965, quoted in Wellspring 52)

The above quotations indicate that the interpretative writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and the Guardian do not have a temporary or transient nature.11 This theme is further discussed in an article by Glenford Mitchell on the Guardian's writings which elaborates on the progressive nature of his interpretation.12 An analysis of the letters of Shoghi Effendi indicates that many of his interpretations are given in response to the expressed need of the Bahá'í community at the time:

Shoghi Effendi seems completely to avoid gratuitous random interpretations of the Sacred Texts; the questions and needs of the community outline the course and output of his exegesis. In this way his exegesis evolves with the community . . . (Mitchell, Interpretation 24)

However, the Guardian's interpretations, although imparted over the period his ministry, are not bounded by time. They rest on enduring principles and therefore satisfy and transcend the need of the moment, serving the future and the present simultaneously. Two examples come to mind. The principles for the election of National Spiritual Assemblies are unchangeable but were written by Shoghi Effendi in reply to a question of a moment.13 The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh is another instance of a letter written in response to a particular demand, yet containing the timeless elements of the Bahá'í understanding of the stations of the Báb, Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá, together with the Administrative Order.14 The central importance of this document has been reiterated by the Guardian as testified by those close to him. For example, Ruhíyyih Khánum has written: 'I know from his [Shoghi Effendi's] remarks that he considered he had said all he had to say, in many ways, in the Dispensation [of Bahá'u'lláh]' (Priceless 213). Leroy Ioas, the Guardian's secretary for many years, said that Shoghi Effendi on many occasions told him that 'The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh' was his 'will and testament' (quoted in In the Days). David Hofman puts it in another way: 'Without deep study of this basic document ['The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh'], no Bahá'í can claim to be truly knowledgeable of his Faith' (Expounder 18).

In summary, access to authoritative interpretations identifies and preserves the meaning of the Revelation against which free thought may measure its fruits.

Apparent Contradictions

A central theme in Bahá'í scholarship is to transcend artificial barriers between faith and reason, and to ft. ster an attitude that seeks a unity of meaning in the Writings. In a letter dated 7 December 1969, the Universal House of justice clarify the practical guidelines for addressing and resolving apparent contradictions:

In attempting to understand the Writings, therefore, one must first realise that there is and can be no real contradiction in them, and in light of this we can confidently seek the unity of meaning which they contain. (Messages 38)

The Guardian, in letters written on his behalf, also indicates the means by which an individual can avoid thinking in adversary terms in order to 'confidently seek the unity of meaning' contained in the Writings:

We must take the teachings as a great, balanced whole, not seek out and oppose to each other two strong statements that have different meanings; somewhere in between there are links uniting the two. That is what makes our Faith so flexible and well balanced. (19 March 1945 to an individual believer)

Likewise he is constantly urging them [the Bahá'ísl to really study the Bahá'í teachings more deeply. One may liken Bahá'u'lláh's teachings to a sphere; there are points poles apart, and in between the thoughts and doctrines that unite them. We believe in balance in all things; we believe in moderation in all things . . . (5 July 1949 to an individual believer)

It will not escape the reader that the above principle is in full agreement with 'the essence of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh' which is to acknowledge 'the correlative characters (Shoghi Effendi, Promised Day 107) of all revealed Scripture. Indeed there is a continuum of interpretative methods in Sacred Scriptures of the past and in the Bábí and Bahá'í Writings. Bahá'u'lláh describes in His last major work, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, how the utterances pertaining to Divinity in His Writings and Shí'í Islamic sources15 can be correlated and understood. In a highly significant statement, He says: 'In whichever manner (nahvl these traditions are interpreted, in that same manner let them also interpret that which the Most Sublime Pen hath sent down.' (Epistle 112, emphasis added).

An Exegetical Discussion

An interesting example in which these hermeneutical principles are applicable can be found in a passage of the Kitáb-i-Íqán where Bahá'u'lláh states that the divines of His time 'have failed to grasp one letter of that Book! (the Qur'án]' (172). A literal interpretation would contradict a number of other statements in the Bahá'í Writings, such as those of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in the Secret of Divine Civilization where He states that some Muslim divines 'are versed in the secrets of divine wisdom and informed of the inner realities of the sacred Books' (32), and the reference of Bahá'u'lláh to the 'divines who have drunk of the cup of the knowledge of God' (Epistle 120-1). A literal reading of the verse in the Íqán would also not acknowledge the fact that many divines became steadfast and eminent believers. The necessity of reading such quotations in the context of the whole of the Revelation is highlighted by this example, and the limitations of seizing on one verse in isolation of other relevant passages demonstrated. Indeed Bahá'u'lláh admonishes 'These people [who with one hand cling to those verses of the Qur'án and those traditions of the people of certitude which they have found to accord with their inclinations and interests, and with the other reject those which are contrary to their selfish desires' (Kitáb-i-Íqán 168-9). The Universal House of justice reiterates this warning: 'The believers must warn against seizing upon any text which may appeal to them and which they may only partially or even incorrectly understand . . .' (24 January 1977).

Apart from the obvious difficulty in interpreting this passage literally and outside the context of other statement in the Writings on the same theme, we would like to suggest that the 'method of exaggerated. emphasis' is applicable to its understanding. Shoghi Effendi explains, in a letter written on his behalf, that this method is used in the Writings:

The Master uses the term 'the Divine Reality is sanctified from singleness' in order to forcibly impress us with the fact that the Godhead is unknowable and that to define It is impossible; we cannot contain It in such concepts as singleness and plurality which we apply to things we know and can experience. He uses the method of exaggerated emphasis in order to drive home His thought that we know the sun indirectly thru the Manifestations of God. (20 February 1950)

We suggest that this form of emphasis in relation to this passage in the Íqán is intended to stress the importance of seeing the Qur'án in the light of its application to the next Revelation. The divines that Bahá'u'lláh refers to, failed to see the interrelationship between Islam and the Bahá'í Faith, and consequently were ignorant of the Qur'án's true meaning.

In summary, this paper has endeavoured to present a preliminary survey of certain hermeneutical principles in the Bahá'í Writings which have not been widely discussed. Emphasis has been placed on the importance of a balance between literal and metaphorical approaches, and the vital role of the authorized interpretations. Through a discussion of a passage in Bahá'u'lláh's Writings, we suggest that the stylistic use of exaggerated emphasis may contribute to a fuller understanding of Bahá'í Scripture and thereby reduce the tendency towards contradictory thinking which darkened the primitive brilliancy of past Dispensations. Bahá'u'lláh's promise is that this is the 'Day which shall never be followed by night' (quoted in God Passes By 99).

  • 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Comp. Research department of the Universal House of Justice. Trans. Committee at the Bahá'í World Centre and Marzieh Gail. Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978.
  • 'Abdu'l-Bahá. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Trans. Marziah Gail. 2nd. ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970.
  • Báb, The. Selections from the Writings of the Báb. Comp. Research department of the Universal House of Justice. Trans. Habib Taherzadeh with the assistance of a Committee at the Bahá'í World Centre. Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1976.
  • Bahá'u'lláh. Epistle to the Son of the Wolf. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. Rev. ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1979.
  • _____. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. Rev. ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976.
  • _____. Iqtidárát. Bombay: 1310 A.H./1892-3.
  • _____. Kitáb-i-Íqán: The Book of Certitude. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. Rev. ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983.
  • _____. Synopsis and Codification of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Trans. Shoghi Effendi. Comp. Research Department of the Universal House of Justice. Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1973.
  • _____. Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh Revealed After the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Trans. by Habib Taherzadeh with the assistance of a Committee at the Bahá'í World Centre. Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1978.
  • _____. 'Tafsir Sárat 'Wa'sh-Shams' in Majmú'ih-yi alváh-i mubárakih-yi hadrat-i Bahá'u'lláh. Ed. Muhyi'd Dín Sabrí. Cairo: Sa'ídat Press, 1920.
  • Cole, J.R.I. Bahá'u'lláh's 'Commentary on the Súrah of the Sun', Introduction and Translation. Bahá'í Studies Bulletin. 4:3-4, April 1990.
  • _____. Problems of Chronology in Bahá'u'lláh's Tablet of Wisdom. World Order. 13:3, Spring 1979.
  • Collins, W. Bibliography of English language works on the Babi and Bahá'í Faiths 1844-1985. Oxford: George Ronald, 1990.
  • Hofman, D. 'Expounder of the Word of God' in Studying the Writings of Shoghi Effendi. Ed. M. Bergsmo. Oxford: George Ronald, 1991.
  • Harvey, V.A. 'Hermeneutics'. In: The Encyclopaedia of Religion vol. 6. Ed. Mircea Eliade et al. New York: Macmillan, 1987.
  • Lights of Guidance: A Bahá'í Reference File. Compiled by Helen Hornby. New Delhi: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1983
  • Ioas, L. In the Days of the Guardian. Tape Cassette. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1977.
  • Khan, P. Foreword to Studying the Writings of Shoghi Effendi. Ed. M. Bergsmo. Oxford: George Ronald, 1991.
  • Mitchell, G.E. 'The Literature of Interpretation: Notes on the English Writings of Shoghi Effendi.' World Order 7:2, Winter 1972-73.
  • Ruhíyyih Khánum. The Priceless Pearl. London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1969.
  • Shoghi Effendi. Bahá'í Administration. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974.
  • _____. God Passes By. Rev. ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974.
  • _____. The Promised Day is Come. Rev. ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980.
  • _____. The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh: Selected Letters. Rev. ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974.
  • Universal House of Justice, The. Messages from the Universal House of Justice, 1968-1973. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976.
  • _____. Wellspring of Guidance: Messages 1963-1968. Rev. ed. Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976.

Selected End Notes
  1. Defined as an 'intellectual discipline concerned with the nature and presuppositions of the interpretation of human expression' (Harvey, Hermeneutics 279), in contrast to exegesis, which is the explanation of a text arrived at through the process of interpretation.
  2. A contributory factor may have been a misunderstanding of the prohibition of 'Interpretation of the Holy Writ' (Bahá'u'lláh, Synopsis 47) listed in the Synopsis and Codification of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas – a statement that applies to the authoritative interpretation of Scripture.
  3. See May, Dann 'A Preliminary Survey of Hermeneutical Principles found within the Bahá'í Writings.' The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 1:3, 1989. Sours, M. 'Seeing with the Eye of God – Relationships between theology and interpretation'. The Bahá'í Studies Review 1:1, 1991. Momen, M. 'Relativism: A Basis for Bahá'í Metaphysics'. In: Studies in Bábí and Bahá'í Religions vol. 5. Ed. M. Momen. Los Angeles: Kalimát Press, 1988.
  4. In relation to the position of the Kitáb-i-lqán, in a letter dated 25 August 1932 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, the following postscript is written in his own handwriting: 'it is the most fundamental book on the Bahá'í Revelation'.
  5. It is interesting that the father of Christian hermeneutics, Schleiermacher, saw the nature of language as the central and crucial theoretical issue in the subject. See Schleiermacher, F. Hermeneutics: the Handwritten Manuscripts. Trans. I Duke and J. Forstman. Ed. H. Kimmerle. Missoula. 1977.
  6. Translated variously as 'evident', 'obvious' and 'outward' by Shoghi Effendi.
  7. See letter of the Universal House of Justice dated 8 December 1964 to an individual believer: 'the beloved Guardian was not only a translator but the inspired Interpreter of the Holy Writings; thus, where a passage in Persian or Arabic could give rise to two different expressions in English he would know which one to convey.
  8. The role of motive is relevant to this discussion. Heidegger coined the term the 'hermeneutic situation' – that every interpretation is shaped by a set of presuppositions and assumptions. Gadamer in Truth and Method, (New York, 1975) expands this concept by arguing that the context of presuppositions and assumptions – one may call them prejudices – of the interpreter are what enable understanding as well as misunderstanding. Therefore if one is motivated to look only for the literal meaning, the intended message may be lost.
  9. See also Cole, Problems 37 fn 49: 'We must not take this statement [the contemporaneity of historical figures in the Tablet of Wisdom too literally...' (in a letter written on behalf of the Guardian), and Lights of Guidance 358: 'No particular force is meant. It is symbolic...' and 360: 'The passage of Bahá'u'lláh's Tablet in which He explains the 'Sura of the Sun' should not be taken literally'.
  10. We are grateful to Juan Ricardo Cole for this insight.
  11. Also relevant to the significance of Shoghi Effendi's interpretations are the following two quotations: 'Future Guardians . . . . cannot 'abrogate' the interpretations of former Guardians' (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi dated 19 February 1947) and 'It is not for individual believers to limit the sphere of the Guardian's authority. . .' (From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi dated 27 November 1933).
         See also Collins, 'No individual's understanding of Bahá'í scripture has any particular authority; Shoghi Effendi's interpretation is as binding as the sacred text itself and is the filter for approaching the meaning of the sacred text' (Bibliography xiii) and Khan, 'It is difficult to see how any present-day Bahá'í can claim to have a systematic and balanced understanding of the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh without having made a careful and painstaking study of this priceless legacy bequeathed to the present and future generations of the Bahá'í Dispensation by its beloved Guardian.' (Foreword vii)
  12. See Mitchell G., The Literature of Interpretation.
  13. See Shoghi Effendi, Bahá'íí Administration 37.
  14. The phrases 'fundamental verities', 'certain truths that lie at the basis of our Faith' (World Order 99) are used by Shoghi Effendi to describe the importance of this work.
  15. For example, there is a tradition of Muhammad: 'Manifold are Our relationships with God. At one time, We are He Himself, and He is We Ourself. At another He is that He is and We are that We are' (quoted in Epistle 43) and a statement of Imám Ali quoted by Bahá'u'lláh: 'And likewise He hath said; 'Outwardly [záhir] I am an Imam; inwardly [bátin] I am the Unseen, the Unknowable" (Epistle 112).

COMMENTARY on S. Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir's "Some interpretive principles in the Bahá'í Writings"

Commentator: Sen McGlinn

Bahá'í Studies Review, vol. 7 (1997)
Abstract: This paper addresses the question of how we can distinguish which of Shoghi Effendi writings are "interpretations", and thus permanently binding, and which are not. The distinction is important to preserve the Bahá'í Faith's ability to adapt itself to changing circumstances. The paper suggests some criteria in terms of content and form which may be used to determine whether passages must be treated as formal interpretations. These criteria are intended to supplement S. Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir's "Some interpretive principles in the Bahá'í Writings" in an earlier volume of this journal [BSR 2:1 (1992), above]. Taking the example of the principles for the election of National Spiritual Assemblies, the paper considers passages in the letters of Shoghi Effendi which point to permanently binding features derived from the Sacred Writings, and contrasts these to other passages which set out other features of the electoral system which are not based on the Writings and which can or have been changed.

S. Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir, in "Some interpretive principles in the Bahá'í Writings" [above], give two examples to illustrate the point that the interpretations of Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, though given in response to the needs of the moment, are not bounded by time. This raises the rather interesting question of how we can distinguish which of his writings are "interpretations" and so cannot be changed, and which are the result of the Guardian working, in lieu of the House of Justice and with full authorization from 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament, as the central and highest administrative power in the community. We can illustrate the importance of the distinction rather neatly by looking at the two examples which Fazel and Fananapazir give. They say:

The principles for the election of National Spiritual Assemblies are unchangeable but were written by Shoghi Effendi in reply to a question of a moment. The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh is another instance of a letter written in response to a particular demand, yet containing ... timeless elements ...

I would entirely agree with what they say about the timelessness of The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, because it is essentially a theological interpretation of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament, drawing on many other writings. But the first example, the "unchangeable" election principles of national spiritual assemblies, is incorrect. Since this matter relates to a subject on which there is virtually nothing in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh or 'Abdu'l-Bahá to be interpreted, the authors should have expected that Shoghi Effendi's treatment of the election of national spiritual assemblies would be rather different to his approach when interpreting the Will and Testament. Thus our approach to his text, our "hermeneutic," has to be different.

The reference Fazel and Fananapazir give, for principles governing the election of national spiritual assemblies, is Bahá'í Administration page 37, but this passage does not refer to the election of national spiritual assemblies, but rather to the establishment--election is not specified--of local spiritual assemblies and their powers and importance. The principles for the election of national spiritual assemblies are given at various points in Shoghi Effendi's letters, such as at pages 40 and 41 of the same volume where he writes that the local and national spiritual assemblies are to be re-elected once a year, at Riván, "pending the establishment of the Universal House of Justice" which, when it is established "will have to consider afresh the whole situation, and lay down the principle which shall direct, so long as it deems advisable, the affairs of the Cause." The basic principles laid down in Shoghi Effendi's letters "must guide the administration of the affairs of the Bahá'í Movement, pending the definite formation of the first authoritative Universal House of Justice."(16) Even the absence of nominations in Bahá'í elections, and the simple plurality system (i.e., a system which elects individuals who receive the highest number of votes, and not necessarily a majority of votes) are "provisionally adopted"(17) and can be changed by the House of Justice.(18) Similarly, the basis of the by-laws of the world's national spiritual assemblies is called a "first and very creditable attempt at codifying the principles of general Bahá'í administration,"(19) and he writes:

    ... that the whole machinery of assemblies, of committees and conventions is to be regarded as a means, and not an end in itself; that they will rise and fall according to their capacity to ... apply the principles, to embody the ideals and execute the purpose of the Bahá'í Faith.(20)

Changes in the principles to be applied in electing the assemblies did not remain just a theoretical possibility. For example, in 1937 Shoghi Effendi writes:

    In the case of voting for less than 9 individuals; it is not compulsory that a ballot paper should contain necessarily nine votes. The individual voter may record less than 9 names, if he chooses to do so.(21)

This we can contrast with his letter in Principles of Bahá'í Administration, page 47, which sets out the principles and practice which have in fact been adopted:

    Concerning the question you have asked as to whether in elections for Spiritual Assemblies the electors should cast exactly nine votes, or may cast less than this number. Inasmuch as Spiritual Assembly membership ... has been limited for the present to nine members, it follows that no electoral vote can be effective unless it is cast for exactly that number. It is, therefore, the sacred duty of every Bahá'í elector to cast nine votes, neither more nor less, except under special circumstances...(22)

Similarly, there was at one time provision for alternate members on national spiritual assemblies, but this was later changed.(23)

It would be fair to say then that Fazel and Fananapazir have hit on the one subject area which, better than any other, highlights a missing element--a missing "interpretative principle" in fact--in their paper. For they say that "the principles for the election of National Spiritual Assemblies are unchangeable ...", yet it would appear, from the examples given above, that these principles are quite mutable. Since the Guardian's guidance in interpretation results in statements of truth which "cannot be varied,"(24) and since the Guardian did in fact change some of these decisions and the Universal House of Justice has or may change others, one has logically to conclude that some, at least, of the decisions of the Guardian, even in important matters, are not "interpretations": they may have served "the need of the moment" but, contrary to Fazel and Fananapazir's assertion, do not necessarily serve future needs.

Other decisions, however, are clearly to be considered as interpretations of the writings. On page 84 of Bahá'í Administration, Shoghi Effendi writes:

    Regarding the method to be adopted for the election of the National Spiritual Assemblies .... In one of His earliest Tablets ... addressed to a friend in Persia, the following is expressly recorded:-
      "At whatever time all the beloved of God in each country appoint their delegates, and these in turn elect their representatives, and these representatives elect a body, that body shall be regarded as the Supreme Baytu'l-'Adl (Universal House of Justice)."
            These words clearly indicate that a three-stage election has been provided by 'Abdu'l-Bahá for the formation of the International House of Justice, and as it is explicitly provided in His Will and Testament that the "Secondary House of Justice (i.e., National Assemblies) must elect the members of the Universal One," it is obvious that the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies will have to be indirectly elected by the body of the believers in their respective provinces.(25)

There is no mention here of anything temporary or to be "adopted pending review" by the Universal House of Justice. The tone is quite different, marked by words such as "expressly," "clearly," "explicitly," and "obvious." The method is also different: two passages from the writings are cited and an interpretation is made based directly on these passages.

Compare this with another passage, in Bahá'í Administration pages 135-6, on the question of plurality versus majority voting. Shoghi Effendi begins by saying that there is nothing in the Bahá'í writings to define the method to be used, so that it:

    ... devolves upon the members of the Universal House of Justice to formulate and apply such system of laws as would be in conformity with the essentials and requisites expressly provided by the Author and Interpreter of the Faith for the conduct of Bahá'í administration.

In the meantime, therefore, the question is left to the national spiritual assembly to decide, but the Guardian recommends to them some observations for their "earnest consideration":

    The general practice prevailing throughout the East is the one based upon the principle of plurality rather than absolute majority, whereby those candidates that have obtained the highest number of votes, irrespective of the fact whether they command an absolute majority of the votes cast or not, are automatically and definitely elected. It has been felt, with no little justification, that this method, admittedly disadvantageous in its disregard of the principle that requires that each elected member must secure a majority of the votes cast, does away on the other hand with the more serious disadvantage of restricting the freedom of the elector who, unhampered and unconstrained by electoral necessities, is called upon to vote for none but those whom prayer and reflection have inspired him to uphold. Moreover, the practice of nomination, so detrimental to the atmosphere of a silent and prayerful election, is viewed with mistrust ... Should this simple system be provisionally adopted, it would safeguard the spiritual principle of the unfettered freedom of the voter, who will thus preserve intact the sanctity of the choice he first made. It would avoid the inconvenience of securing advance nominations from absent delegates, and the impracticality . . .

In my opinion, this is Shoghi Effendi at his least assertive. In place of the emphatic words we have the optative mood: "should" and "would" in place of "must". Look at the structure of the sentence beginning "It has been felt, with no little justification, that this method, admittedly disadvantageous..." Shoghi Effendi would appear to be approaching his subject rather diffidently, whereas in the previous passage he proceeds in direct, firm strides. There is even a grammatical slip in the previous sentence, where the constructions "irrespective of the fact that" and "irrespective of whether" are confused.(26) Perhaps, even at this early stage in his ministry, he was feeling deeply the force of the principles which he was later to enunciate in The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, where the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice are described as "twin institutions" with separate spheres. The Guardian interprets and does not legislate. The House of Justice legislates and does not interpret--that is, it does not make authoritative interpretations of the writings: 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 judgement 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. ...
      Though the Guardian of the Faith has been made the permanent head of so august a body he can never, even temporarily, assume the right of exclusive legislation. ... He interprets what has been specifically revealed, and cannot legislate except in his capacity as member of the Universal House of Justice.(27)

Here Shoghi Effendi provides us with not only the constitutional law governing the relationship between the two institutions but also an important "interpretive principle" which tells us how to read his writings, and those of the Universal House of Justice. If a passage by Shoghi Effendi appears to us to read as legislation then we know that we have misunderstood it, since he assures us that neither of these institutions can, nor will ever, infringe upon the sacred and prescribed domain of the other.(28) We must then return to such a text and seek to interpret it in the light of the a priori understanding that, however much it may look like Bahá'í law, this cannot be the intention.

The importance of this cannot be over-emphasized, for if all of the decisions of the Guardian remained perpetually valid, as Fazel and Fananapazir seem to be saying, we would have a whole body of additional law, over and above that revealed by Bahá'u'lláh, which could not be changed. The fact that only the decisions of the Universal House of Justice have the force of law, but that they, unlike the interpretations of the Guardian, do not become part of the sacred text and so can be changed, ensures the continuing flexibility of the Faith. "Such" in the words of Shoghi Effendi,(29) "is the immutability of His revealed Word. Such is the elasticity which characterizes the functions of His appointed ministers. The first preserves the identity of His faith, and guards the integrity of His law. The second enables it, even as a living organism, to expand and adapt itself to the needs and requirements of an ever-changing society."

All of this points to the necessity of some systematic means of distinguishing between the interpretations and the many other administrative decisions made by the Guardian. Often there is no difficulty, where he either specifically cites Bahá'u'lláh or 'Abdu'l-Bahá, or specifically says that there is no relevant passage in their Writings. In other cases we may be guided by the method of argument or the tone of the language. There are also some subject areas which Shoghi Effendi specifically excludes from the sphere of the Guardian:

    [the Guardian is] debarred from laying down independently the constitution that must govern the organized activities of his fellow-members [of the Universal House of Justice], and from exercising his influence in a manner that would encroach upon the liberty of those whose sacred right is to elect the body of his collaborators ...(30)

The House of Justice makes a distinction between unity of doctrine, which is guaranteed by the scriptures and the Guardian, and unity of administration, which is guaranteed by the House of Justice. There will be passages in which there is neither explicit interpretation, nor a specific statement that the Guardian is not interpreting the writings, where we will have to be guided by the question of whether the intent of the decision made was only administrative, or whether it defined doctrine in some respect.

Some questions remain: if the Guardian is the "expounder of the words of God",(31) what is the status of his interpretations of the Bible and Qur'án? Where the Guardian interprets scripture for an individual, does this have a different status to an interpretation in a letter or book addressed to the whole Bahá'í world? Can we argue that the doctrine "that religious truth is not absolute but relative"(32) implies the possibility of an interpretation authoritative only for a given person or cultural situation? Nevertheless we have the broad outlines of the interpretive principles to be applied: first of all in the doctrine of the separation of the two spheres of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice, as defined in The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, second by considering whether the subject matter is a question of administration or of doctrine, and third by listening for the distinctive tone of Shoghi Effendi's writing where he is consciously acting as the Expounder of the words of God.

End Notes

  1. Bahá'í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932 (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974) 78.
  2. Bahá'í Administration 136, letter dated May 27 1927, also published in Principles of Bahá'í Administration: A compilation (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1973) 67. In a later letter in The Light of Divine Guidance: The messages from the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith to the Bahá'ís of Germany and Austria (Hofheim-Langenhain: National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of Germany) 67-69, Shoghi Effendi's secretary repeats the points made in the 1927 letter regarding the absence of nominations and the use of simple plurality voting, but whereas the Guardian in 1927 states clearly that the system is provisional, is based on actual practice in Bahá'í communities in the East, and is not binding on the national spiritual assembly, the 1935 letter does not refer to the provisional nature of this system and is imperative rather than suggestive in tone. Because this letter is composed by a secretary (but bears a postscript in the hand of Shoghi Effendi), I think that it represents a rendering of the thought in the earlier letter from Shoghi Effendi, but in the secretary's own words, rather than a rethinking of this issue by Shoghi Effendi. No sources in the writings are adduced to indicate that the tentative and temporary positions taken in 1927 should now be considered as representing fundamental Bahá'í principles.
  3. In this passage Shoghi Effendi allows national spiritual assemblies to change the electoral procedure, though he indicates a preference, on the balance of principle, for the plurality system. But since the system of simple plurality is now incorporated into the Constitution of the Universal House of Justice, changes can only be made by that body.
  4. Bahá'í Administration 142.
  5. World Order of Bahá'u'lláh 9.
  6. Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand (Australia: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1971) 23.
  7. Also printed in Unfolding Destiny: The messages from the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith to the Bahá'ís of the British Isles (London: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1981) 138, where it is dated 27 March 1940.
  8. Unfolding Destiny 49, 62.
  9. Wellspring of Guidance: Messages from the Universal House of Justice 1963-1968 (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1970) 52.
  10. Shoghi Effendi goes on in this passage to endorse a particular application of the 3-tier principle, by which the believers in each local spiritual assembly district would elect one or more delegates, rejecting the suggestion that the members of the local spiritual assemblies should themselves be the delegates to the national convention on the grounds of 1) equity, and 2) the desirability that national spiritual assemblies should be as independent as possible of the local spiritual assemblies. The latter is explicitly said to be a guiding principle "for the present", and thus does not necessarily serve the needs of the future. The question of equity is in itself a permanent principle, but its application will depend on circumstances. Shoghi Effendi's practical decision can and has been changed, to the unit convention system devised by the Universal House of Justice (Principles of Bahá'í Administration 96). So long as the system used adheres to the principle which is based on an interpretation of the Guardian, i.e. the 3-tier principle, and to the more general principle of equity, there is no reason why other variants may not be used in the future.
  11. This has been checked with the original manuscript in the US Bahá'í archives.
  12. The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1975) 58, also printed in The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh: Selected letters of Shoghi Effendi (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1980) 150.
  13. The same principle applies to the interpretations which may be implicit in the writings of the Universal House of Justice.
  14. The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh 23.
  15. The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh 58, and The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh 150.
  16. Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1968) 11. This is Shoghi Effendi's translation. More recent translations have "Interpreter of the Word of God."
  17. Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh 23, Bahá'í Administration 185.
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