Some Interpretive Principles in the Bahá'í Writings
by Khazeh Fananapazir, S. Fazel, and Sen McGlinnpublished in Bahá'í Studies Review, 2:1
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 1992
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).
Selected End Notes
COMMENTARY on S. Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir's "Some interpretive principles in the Bahá'í Writings"
Commentator: Sen McGlinnBahá'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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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":
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:
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 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.