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Two questions from The Dispensation of Baha'u'llah: the distinction vs. inseparability of the Guardianship and the UHJ, and the structure of the administrative order in the absence of a guardian.

Guardianship and the House of Justice

by Sen McGlinn

This paper is an expansion of parts of a talk which I offered at the New Zealand 1988 Summer school, and incorporates ideas offered in discussions since. My topic for that talk was the chapter "The Administrative Order" in Shoghi Effendi's The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh. One theme which I feel runs throughout The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh is the need to establish the station and relation of key figures and institutions, and my reading of the chapter "The Administrative Order" focused on this theme. I speculated that Shoghi Effendi felt the need to dwell on this theme because he was aware that the Faith was at a stage at which other Faiths had gone astray,[1] and that he foresaw that the future safety and success of the Faith required that these relations, these 'root principles', should be clearly established. With this focus in mind, I dwelt on just two questions arising from the text of "The Administrative Order": the distinction and separation of the Guardianship and the House of Justice on the one hand, and the inseparability of the two on the other. The first requires an understanding of the distinction between 'Abdu'l-Bahá as the perfect exemplar and the station of the Guardian, and of what is meant by the phrase 'twin institutions'; the second deals with the fact that Shoghi Effendi, in this chapter of The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, is clearly anticipating that they will be twins in time - that, in the future, the Guardian and the House of Justice would function side-by-side.

1. The Context of The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh.

      The story of the Guardianship begins with the WIll and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá:[2]
When 'Abdu'l-Bahá so unexpectedly and quietly passed away [on November 29th, 1921] after no serious illness, the distracted members of His family searched His papers ...They discovered His Will - which consists of three Wills written at different times and forming one document - addressed to Shoghi Effendi. It now became the painful duty of Shoghi Effendi to hear what was in it; a few days after his arrival they read it to him. In order to understand even a little of the effect this had on him we must remember that he himself stated on more than one occasion, not only to me, but to others...that he had had no foreknowledge of the existence of the Institution of Guardianship, least of all that he was appointed as Guardian; that the most he had expected was that perhaps, because he was the eldest grandson, 'Abdu'l-Bahá might have left instructions as to how the Universal House of Justice was to be elected and he might have been designated the one to see these were carried out and act as Convenor of the gathering which would elect it.
                  Rúhíyyih Rabbani, The Priceless Pearl, p 42.

      The WIll and Testament, as we will see, established the Guardianship in unambiguous terms. The news that the Faith had not been left without guidance came as a welcome surprise to some, as an unpleasant shock to others. In Palestine, 'Abdu'l-Bahá's half-brother, Muhammad 'Ali, whom Bahá'u'lláh had, in the Kitáb-i-'Ahd,[3] assigned a rank second to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, considered himself to be the legitimate successor to 'Abdu'l-Bahá and heir to Bahá'u'lláh. When legal efforts failed his followers seized the keys to Bahá'u'lláh's shrine by force. According to Rúhíyyih Rabbani some of the family and local community "secretly suspected that Shoghi Effendi did not really know what he should do, that he needed older and wiser heads about him, and that the sooner the Universal House of Justice was formed the better for the Cause and all concerned."[4] The city authorities referred to Shoghi Effendi as "the Boy".[5]

      In the Western Bahá'í world, 'Abdu'l-Bahá's surprise-gift of the Guardianship was variously received. There were reservations among the friends, in addition to the opposition of the covenant-breakers. The opening paragraphs of The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh and The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, Further Considerations, are addressed to an audience having difficulty in reconciling Bahá'u'lláh's provision for an elective House of Justice with 'Abdu'l-Bahá's institution of a hereditary Guardianship. On the other hand, many of the friends reacted with devotion and joy to the news of the Guardianship. Rúhíyyih Rabbani quotes from several letters[6] which show the friends, quite naturally, transferring the personal discipleship which they had felt towards 'Abdu'l-Bahá to his grandson, and later we find Shoghi Effendi writing to prevent the celebration of his birthday as a Holy Day, the use of titles such as lord, master, or 'His Holiness' in addressing him, and even to forbid the friends to pray to the Guardian and seek his benediction. In reading The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh we must, to appreciate Shoghi Effendi's purposes, place ourselves in the situation in which the very existence of the institution of the guardianship must be defended for some believers, while for others the distinction between the person of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and the Guardians had to be definitely established, and their tendency to raise the Guardian to a super-human stature counteracted. Perhaps Shoghi Effendi had in mind the exaggerated devotion accorded to the Imams of Shí'ah Islam, as an example of the damage which could be done to a Faith which did not, early in its history, make clear the doctrine of the limitations of the legitimate successors of the Cause, and the distinction between their station and that of the Manifestation.

      Yet another portion of his Western audience, perhaps the major part, were those Bahá'ís who were opposed to the organisation of religion, in any form. Peter Smith, in The Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, describes the American Bahá'í community in the time of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in these terms:
...fundamental to the religious understanding of many American Bahá'ís assertion that the ultimate locus of religious authority was the individual believer. Thus...many American Bahá'ís were distrustful of any sort of organization and leadership. Kheiralla as the original teacher had occupied a special position, but with him discredited, they were wary of accepting any individual or group amongst their American religionists as a secondary authority. Local co-ordination of the movement thus proved difficult. Several local Boards of Counsel were established, but 'the affairs of the Cause' were still largely administered by individuals 'in accordance with their own guidance'. (p 105).

And he describes their reaction to the accession of Shoghi Effendi:
The Bahá'ís [of the West] were for the most part relatively new in the Faith, and were almost all first-generation converts who had chosen to become Bahá'ís as a result of their own, often highly individualistic, religious quests. While there were a good many 'seasoned believers'...they belonged to a movement which also included a great many people who were profoundly suspicious of anything suggestive of external religious authority. Shoghi Effendi's transformation of the pattern of leadership -- particularly his stress on organization -- readily engendered opposition which was ideological as well as personalistic in nature. (p 120)

      The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh was written in 1934, by which time the relationship between Shoghi Effendi, the newly elected institutions, and the body of the believers had improved considerably from the doldrums of the 1920s. But Reality magazine, which mounted a concerted attack against the concept of administration, had not ceased publication until 1929. Ruth White, who held similar sentiments, campaigned into the 1930s. She actually achieved the establishment of a separate 'Bahá'í World Union', associated with the German Free Bahá'ís.[7] Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, in conflict with the Assembly of New York and overtly rejecting the administration, had formed his New History Society in 1929, and, though few joined him, it appears that many admired his 'liberal' conception of the Faith.[8]

      This is the audience to which 'The Administrative Order" is addressed. I believe it will be helpful to keep this in mind as I focus on the two issues mentioned above, which arise from the three paragraphs beginning "An attempt, I feel should at the present juncture be made to explain the character and functions of the twin pillars...". I have reproduced these paragraphs at the beginning of section 3.[9]

2. The Distinction and Separation of the Guardianship and the Houses of Justice, and distinctions between the Guardian and the Exemplar

      The Institution of the Guardianship has its foundation in several passages of the WIll and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, of which I will quote only part of the first passage:

O my loving friends! After the passing away of this wronged one, it is incumbent upon the 'Aghsán (Branches), the Afnan (Twigs) of the Sacred Lote-Tree, the Hands (pillars) of the Cause of God and loved ones of the Abhá Beauty to turn unto Shoghi Effendi - the youthful branch branched from the two hallowed and sacred Lote-Trees and the fruit grown from the union of the two offshoots of the Tree of Holiness, - as he is the sign of God, the chosen branch, the guardian of the Cause of God, he unto whom all the 'Aghsán, the Afnan, the Hands of the Cause of God and His loved ones must turn. He is the expounder[10] of the words of God and after him will succeed the first-born of his lineal descendents. The sacred and youthful branch, the guardian of the Cause of God as well as the Universal House of Justice, to be universally elected and established, are both under the care and protection of the Abhá Beauty, under the shelter and unerring guidance of his Holiness, the Exalted One (may my life be offered up for them both). Whatsoever they decide is of God......The mighty stronghold shall remain impregnable and safe through obedience to him who is the guardian of the Cause of God. (Italics mine. From p. 11 of the USA Edition, 1944 & 1968, translated by Shoghi Effendi.)

The two themes which I have wished to highlight by italicisizing passages are, first, that the Guardian had the undoubted right to take over the reins of the Cause[11] and to expect obedience from the friends in any matter relating to the Cause, and second, that the Guardianship had the specific and unique function of 'expounding the words of God'. The complement of this function is that of the House of Justice, which we find on page 20 of the WIll and Testament.

      We must begin with Shoghi Effendi's interpretation of the station and function of the Guardian, bearing in mind always that what follows needs to be understood as a refinement of the firm foundation of the Guardianship referred to above..."The mighty stronghold shall remain impregnable and safe through obedience to him who is the guardian of the Cause of God."

      In The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, on page 58 of the booklet format, Shoghi Effendi writes:
From these statements [he has quoted the passages from the WIll and Testament, pages 11 and 20, which I have reprinted above, and other passages] 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 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. Neither will seek to curtail the specific and undoubted authority with which both have been divinely invested.

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 cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members... He interprets what has been specifically revealed, and cannot legislate except in his capacity as member of the Universal House of Justice. (Italics mine.)

And a little later on the same page:
Dearly-beloved friends! Exalted as is the position and vital as is the function of the institution of the Guardianship in the administrative Order of Bahá'u'lláh, and staggering as must be the weight of responsibility which it carries, its importance must, whatever be the language of the will, be in no wise over-emphasized. The Guardian of the Faith must not under any circumstances, and whatever his merits or his achievements, be exalted to the rank that will make him a co-sharer with 'Abdu'l-Bahá in the unique position which the Center of the Covenant occupies.

< and on page 59:
No Guardian of the Faith, I feel it my solemn duty to place on record, can ever claim to be the perfect exemplar of the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh or the stainless mirror that reflects His light. Though overshadowed by the unfailing, the unerring protection of Bahá'u'lláh and of the Báb, and however much he may share with 'Abdu'l-Bahá the right and obligation to interpret the Bahá'í teachings, he remains essentially human...

The essential humanity of the Guardians is in contrast to Shoghi Effendi's description of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, on page 42, as one in whom "the incompatible characteristics of a human nature and superhuman knowledge and perfection have been blended..."

      Yet it would seem that the friends have often supposed that the Guardian has an all-embracing protection from error, superhuman knowledge of the future, or even sinlessness. I think that it is worth examining these beliefs in turn.


      Clearly the last passage quoted denies any sinlessness; the Guardian is not a 'stainless mirror'. One answer to the question as to why Shoghi Effendi, if he is infallible, failed to carry out the law of the Aqdas and the instruction of 'Abdu'l-Bahá to write a will,[12] is that the infallibility of the Guardianship relates to his interpretation of the Writings, and does not guarantee that he as an individual will put them into practice. We can hardly criticize our critics[13] for not making the distinction if, in our Bahá'í communities, we act as if we thought the Guardianship entailed sinlessness.[14] One could also point to the Universal House of Justice's statement that:
The fact that Shoghi Effendi did not leave a will cannot be adduced as evidence of his failure to obey Bahá'u'lláh -- rather we should acknowledge that in his very silence there is a wisdom and a sign of his infallible guidance. (Wellspring of Guidance, p. 82)

But this would be a circular argument. The House of Justice's statement is an appeal to the belief and piety of the Bahá'ís, and should not be taken outside that context to be used as a refutation of external criticism on this point. The criticism could be logically expressed thus:
  1. The Guardian is infallible
  2. The Guardian is a Bahá'í
  3. All Bahá'ís must leave wills
  4. The Guardian failed to leave a will

    Therefore: One of these premises is wrong.

      It can be logically refuted by exposing the hidden premise that 'infallibility' is a general and personal freedom from any error, mistake, or failure whatever. In other words, we show that the verb 'fail' has its generally accepted meaning in premise4, but a much narrower meaning where it is concealed in the word 'infallible' in premise 1. Not only are there apologetic advantages, in this case and in general,[15] in making the distinction between infallibility and sinlessness clear in our literature and teaching, it is also an important part of a Bahá'í theology, for the 'fundamental verities' of the Faith in The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh will be seen to consist mainly of just such precise distinctions between the stations of the principal figures of the Faith.

      While we need not defend Shoghi Effendi's sinlessness -- indeed we may not, if we are to be loyal to his own authoritative words -- we must equally avoid the presumption of judging Shoghi Effendi (or anyone else) to have in fact sinned in any particular instance. When he says that the Guardian is not a 'stainless mirror' and 'remains essentially human' he is making a theological point, not a confession.

Superhuman Prevision

      As for the common conception that the Guardian gives us a preview of future events, one negative example is given by Rúhíyyih Rabbani in my opening quotation from The Priceless Pearl,[16] and others can be found in and in The Light of Divine Guidance, pp 12-13, 16, 18 etc. I will deal with another obvious case in which he did not foresee future events in section 3, on the loss of the Guardianship. I know of no basis for the belief in the Guardian's supernatural prevision in the Writings, yet it seems widespread in the Bahá'í community.[17] A quick glance through Shoghi Effendi's writings will show a multitude of phrases such as "An exact and thorough for obvious reasons beyond the reach and ken of our finite minds.", "This commonwealth must, as far as we can visualize it...","All we can reasonably venture to attempt is to strive to obtain a glimpse of the first streaks of the promised Dawn..", "We stand too close to so colossal a Revelation...", "Not ours, puny mortals that we are, to attempt, at so critical a stage in the long and checkered history of mankind, to arrive at a precise and satisfactory understanding of the steps which must successively lead a bleeding humanity...from its calvary to its ultimate resurrection." We can hardly therefore accuse Shoghi Effendi of fostering this misconception. While it is true that he does speak a great deal about the future, for example in Bahá'í Administration, The Goal of a New World Order, The Unfoldment of World Civilization, and The Promised Day is Come, a glance at these will show that they are either (1) collections of hints in the Bahá'í scriptures concerning the shape of the Bahá'í commonwealth, synthesised into masterly visionary outlines, or else, (2) an analysis of the forces underlying past history and of the dynamics of the present, seen in the light of the knowledge of Bahá'u'lláh and projected forward. In the latter case, for example in The Goal of a New World Order, the intention is not to tell the friends what is going to happen, but to teach us to see the underlying dynamics at work. If we shirk this understanding, and treat these writings as tables of coming events, we deprive ourselves of the strength and flexible response which come from understanding, and will find these passages increasingly irrelevant as the events which they predict either occur or are bypassed by the accidents of history.

All-embracing protection from error

      We have seen above that "the Guardian of the Faith has been made the Interpreter of the Word" and that "The interpretation of the Guardian, functioning within his own sphere, is...authoritative and binding....He interprets what has been specifically revealed..." This seems clearly enough to define the limits within which the Guardian is authoritative to the interpretation of the revealed word. Yet, the friends commonly have a wider view of the Guardian's powers, perhaps from a confusion of 'authority' (which he undoubtedly had in all matters pertaining to the world community)[18] and 'authoritative', which in the context means infallibility. One even finds the NSA of Canada asserting that
From a purely Bahá'í point of view, infallible guidance is available not only in the meaning of Scripture, but also in the field of history. One of the functions of the Guardianship is to provide precise and authoritative guidance on the major issues of Bábí and Bahá'í history.[19]

The NSA offers no argument or source for this proposition.

      If the distinction is made between administrative authority, which must be obeyed even though it may be incorrect (as is the case with the LSAs and NSAs) and the authoritative interpretation, then it becomes clear that changes in the Guardian's administrative decisions need not trouble us. Although
The Guardian reveals what the Scripture means; his interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied.[20]

In administrative matters, even those of some importance, he feels quite free to change his mind: for example in 1937 he 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]

Which 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, according to the principles of Bahá'í Administration, 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.[22]

      So much for the limitations of the Guardianship, which we may see as distinctions drawn between the Guardianship and the respective stations of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and of the Manifestations. Looking again at the quotations from page 58 of The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, I would like to highlight now passages which draw a distinction and limitation between the Guardianship and the House of Justice: 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. Neither will seek to curtail the specific and undoubted authority with which both have been divinely invested.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 cannot override the decision of the majority of his fellow-members...He interprets what has been specifically revealed, and cannot legislate except in his capacity as member of the Universal House of Justice.

      This is a limitation which he strictly observes. By treating his decisions as legislation we have, I think, tended to underestimate the flexibility of the Bahá'í administration, as Shoghi Effendi conceived it. Although he had of necessity (and by right of the passages from page 11 of the Will and Testament which I have quoted above) to administer the day-to-day affairs of the Faith, he defers to the future House of Justice in matters which pertain to its sphere of "legislating on matters not expressly revealed in the teachings." On page 40 and 41 of Bahá'í Administration Shoghi Effendi writes that the Local and National Spiritual Assemblies are to be re-elected once a year, at Ridvan, 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." Even the absence of nominations in Bahá'í elections and the simple plurality system[23] are "provisionally adopted"[24] and can be changed by the House of Justice,[25] while the administrative role of the feast is said to be established "in direct response to the...needs of...this formative period"[26] and the Houses of Worship are all to have a dome "at this time."[27] Similarly, the basis of the by-laws of the world's NSAs is called a "first and very creditable attempt at codifying the principles of general Bahá'í administration,"[28] 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. (World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 9)

      Even such important elements of our Bahá'í Administration, therefore, are part of our Bahá'í law not by virtue of the Guardian's decision, but because they have been confirmed by the House of Justice. Similarly, he defers to the House of Justice regarding birth control, that being a matter "not expressly revealed."[29] In many other instances, we know he declined to act on legislative matters which could be left to the decision of the future House of Justice. It seems safe to assume, therefore, that he intended all of his administrative decisions to be read in the light of the principle that "he can never, even temporarily, assume the right of exclusive legislation."

We not infrequently see diagrams of the 'covenant descent' like this:
This is chronologically correct but structurally wrong: it makes Shoghi Effendi a sort of interim House of Justice. I suggest that a diagram of the covenant relationship should appear something like this:
In this diagram the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice are shown 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. The Universal House of Justice writes, in a letter entitled 'Unassailable Foundations of the Cause of God', (March 9th, 1965), and printed in Wellspring of Guidance, p 52 and 53:
There is a profound difference between the interpretations of the Guardian and the elucidations of the House of Justice in exercise of its function to "deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure, and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book." The Guardian reveals what the Scripture means; his interpretation is a statement of truth which cannot be varied. Upon the Universal House of Justice, in the words of the Guardian, "has been conferred the exclusive right of legislating on matters not expressly revealed in the Bahá'í Writings." Its pronouncements, which are susceptible of amendment or abrogation by the House of Justice itself, serve to supplement and apply the Law of God. Although not invested with the function of interpretation, the House of Justice is in a position to do everything necessary to establish the World Order of Bahá'u'lláh on this earth. Unity of doctrine is maintained by the existence of the authentic texts of Scripture and the voluminous interpretations of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, together with the absolute prohibition against anyone propounding "authoritative" or "inspired" interpretations or usurping the function of Guardian. Unity of administration is assured by the authority of the Universal House of Justice. "Such" in the words of Shoghi Effendi,[30] "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.'

      The distinction between the stations of the Guardian, 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and Bahá'u'lláh had to be definitely established to refute criticism (that the first two were exalting themselves to prophethood) and to protect the future Faith from the idolatrous veneration of humans. It is not to be thought of as a mere theological nicety. Similarly the distinction between the Guardianship and the House of Justice is a protective and functional necessity. There seems to be little danger that the friends will use the writings of the House of Justice as authoritative interpretations, since the House is present to correct any such tendency. There is, however, already a tendency to make Shoghi Effendi a legislator despite himself, by using his writings and letters as a law book. This is, I think, a short-term reaction to the publication of compilations such as Lights of Guidance in which the Guardian's administrative decisions are placed alongside the writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, the decisions of the House of Justice, and the Guardian's interpretations of the writings. The tendency is towards an informal codification of laws which would, carried to its logical extreme, come to be something like the laws of the Torah. Because the words of the Guardian cannot be altered, such a code would rapidly become a burden, stifling the Faith's ability to 'expand and adapt itself to the needs and requirements of an ever-changing society.' No religious community can continue on such a path for long: either the law is abandoned (by conversion or secularisation), or, more often, systems of interpretation, commentary, and precedent are evolved to avoid the plain meaning of laws no longer applicable.

      The Bahá'í Faith is protected from this fate by two principles: "...the Guardian of the Faith....cannot legislate."[31] and "...inasmuch as the House of Justice hath power to enact also it hath power to repeal the same."[32] Shoghi Effendi himself saw the persistent tendency to form a rigid system from the Faith to be a danger, which he tried to counteract.[33]

      This is not to say that we should not be collecting and publishing the Guardian's letters, or that we should relegate them to merely historical interest unless they contain an explicit interpretation of the scripture. To discover what Shoghi Effendi did or said in relation to a particular 'daily transaction' cannot be the final word for a House of Justice faced with a similar situation, but it should be very instructive, if we see him identifying and applying principles, and then do so ourselves. We then also benefit from a dynamic which decisions based on precedent or pragmatism can never enjoy. Decisions of applied principle motivate and empower the group deciding, so that practical obstacles can be overcome.[34]

3. The Inseparability of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice.

      The second question which arises from these three paragraphs of 'The Administrative Order' relates to the complementarity and inseparability of the twin institutions. The question itself falls into four parts: why was the Guardianship lost, why did Shoghi Effendi not foresee or prevent the loss, how can the Faith continue to function without the Guardianship, and to what extent is the faith impaired by the loss? First, however, I think that I should quote the whole of the passage of 'The Administrative Order' from which this essay arises:
An attempt, I feel, should at the present juncture be made to explain the character and functions of the twin pillars that support this mighty Administrative Structure - the institutions of the Guardianship and of the Universal House of Justice. To describe in their entirety the diverse elements that function in conjunction with these institutions is beyond the scope and purpose of this general exposition of the fundamental verities of the Faith. To define with accuracy and minuteness the features, and to analyze exhaustively the nature of the relationships which, on the one hand, bind together these two fundamental organs of the Will of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and connect, on the other, each of them to the Author of the Faith and the Center of His Covenant is a task which future generations will no doubt adequately fulfill. My present intention is to elaborate certain salient features of this scheme which, however close we may stand to its colossal structure, are already so clearly defined that we find it inexcusable to either misconceive or ignore.

      It should be stated, at the very outset, in clear and unambiguous language, that these twin institutions of the Administrative Order of Bahá'u'lláh should be regarded as divine in origin, essential in their functions and complementary in their aim and purpose. Their common, their fundamental object is to insure the continuity of that divinely-appointed authority which flows from the source of our Faith, to safeguard the unity of its followers and to maintain the integrity and flexibility of its teachings. Acting in conjunction with each other these two inseparable institutions administers its affairs, coordinate its activities, promote its interests, execute its laws and defend its subsidiary institutions. Severally, each operates within a clearly defined sphere of jurisdiction: each is equipped with its own attendant institutions - instruments designed for the effective discharge of its particular responsibilities and duties. Each exercises, within the limitations imposed upon it, its powers, its authority, its rights and prerogatives. These are neither contradictory, nor detract in the slightest degree from the position which each of these institutions occupies. Far from being incompatible or mutually destructive, they supplement each other's authority and functions, and are permanently and fundamentally united in their aims.

      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 imperilled, 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 withdrawn.

Here, and elsewhere, Shoghi Effendi clearly envisions the two institutions functioning at the same time,[35] and this would also seem to be implied by the WIll and Testament at page 11:
"and after him will succeed the first-born of his lineal descendents" and "It is incumbent upon the members of the House of show their obedience...unto the turn unto him and be lowly before him."

and at page 14:
Unto this body all things must be referred. It enacteth all ordinances and regulations that are not to be found in the explicit Holy Text. By this body all the difficult problems are to be resolved and the guardian of the Cause of God is its sacred head and the distinguished member for life of that body. Should he not attend in person its deliberations, he must appoint one to represent him. Should any of the members commit a sin, injurious to the common weal, the guardian of the Cause of God hath at his own discretion the right to expel him,..

Why was the Guardianship lost?

      Why, if they both envisioned the twin institutions functioning together, was the Guardianship lost? It is often said that the Guardianship was lost because Shoghi Effendi and Rúhíyyih Rabbani had no children. This is clearly incorrect: 'Abdu'l-Bahá had made provision for that possibility in the WIll and Testament, page 12:
It is incumbent upon the guardian of the Cause of God to appoint in his own life-time him that shall become his successor, that differences may not arise after his passing. He that is appointed must manifest in himself detachment from all worldly things, must be the essence of purity, must show in himself the fear of God, knowledge, wisdom and learning. Thus, should the first-born of the guardian of the Cause of God not manifest in himself the truth of the words: - "the child is the secret essence of its sire," that is, should he not inherit of the spiritual within him (the guardian of the Cause of God) and his glorious lineage not be matched with a goodly character, then must he, (the guardian of the Cause of God) choose another branch to succeed him.

The Guardianship was lost because all the surviving 'branches' - the 'Aghsán - had broken the covenant, and only a descendent of Bahá'u'lláh could be appointed.[36] Rúhíyyih Rabbani describes and explains the covenant-breaking in the holy family on pages 121-124 of The Priceless Pearl.[37]

Why did Shoghi Effendi not prevent the loss?

      Although the Guardian's prescience and planning ability were extraordinary, we have no right, as we have seen in section 2, to expect him to have actual foreknowledge of history, which would require knowledge in advance of other people's free choices. In his earlier writings, such as the Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, Shoghi Effendi did not foresee the loss; later he must have suspected it, but the remedy was not in his hands. It was the individual decisions of his eligible male relatives which deprived us of the Guardianship. We might take from this a moral fable for ourselves: our choices really do have results, for which we are individually responsible, and we cannot rest in a concept of providence or of inevitable forces in history to relieve us of this responsibility.[38]

How can we continue?

      How, then, can the Faith continue to function without the Guardianship? The question naturally arose immediately on Shoghi Effendi's death, and was answered by the House of Justice in a letter of May 27 1966. It seems worth restating their reply briefly for a new generation of Bahá'ís:
...Shoghi Effendi repeatedly stressed the inseparability of these two institutions. Whereas he obviously envisaged their functioning together, it cannot logically be deduced from this that one is unable to function in the absence of the other. During the whole thirty-six years of his Guardianship Shoghi Effendi functioned without the Universal House of Justice. Now the Universal House of Justice must function without the Guardianship, but the principle of inseparability remains. The Guardianship does not lose its significance nor position in the Order of Bahá'u'lláh merely because there is no living Guardian. We must guard against two extremes: one is to argue that because there is no Guardian all that was written about the Guardianship and its position in the Bahá'í World Order is a dead letter and was unimportant; the other is to be so overwhelmed by the significance of the Guardianship as to underestimate the strength of the Covenant, or to be tempted to compromise with the clear Texts in order to find somehow, in some way, a "Guardian." (Wellspring of Guidance, p. 86 - 87)

And on March 9th, 1965, they write:
It should be understood by the friends that before legislating upon any matter the Universal House of Justice studies carefully and exhaustively both the Sacred Texts and the writings of Shoghi Effendi on the subject. The interpretations written by the beloved Guardian cover a vast range of subjects and are equally as binding as the Text itself. (Wellspring of Guidance, p. 52)

Having had even one Guardian, therefore, the House of Justice has the guidance necessary to be able to function. 'Abdu'l-Bahá's writings and talks also fulfill this function.

What was lost?

      Looking back to the quotation from The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, page 56, above, we see Shoghi Effendi listing losses which would follow from not having a Guardianship. I think that we can divide these into two groups. The first comprises those things which would have been lost had there not been any Guardian:
Without such an institution the integrity of the Faith would be imperilled, and the stability of the entire fabric would be gravely endangered. Its prestige would suffer...

      Here, I think, Shoghi Effendi is justifying the very existence of a Guardian, bearing in mind the context and audience which I outlined in section I above. Given the individualistic stance of the Western believers, and the wide divergence between the understandings of the Faith current in the Eastern and Western worlds, it seems likely indeed that 'the integrity of the Faith' would have been imperilled had the Bahá'í World had to attempt to raise elective institutions after 'Abdu'l-Bahá's death. To name just one of the problems, the vast majority of the Bahá'í population lived in Persia, and would have had just 9 delegates, while the Western friends would have 9 delegates for each country able to elect an NSA. But the Eastern friends could have felt, at that time, that many even of the believers likely to be elected to an NSA in the West had very peculiar conceptions of some Bahá'í beliefs, and mixed strange non-Bahá'í doctrines into a sort of catch-all philosophy. In the circumstances, it is difficult to see that 'Abdu'l-Bahá could have chosen any more likely way to preserve unity than to appoint a family member (who might inherit the loyalty of the Eastern friends) who was Western-educated and could 'speak the language', literally and figuratively, of the West.

      The risks to stability and integrity have definitely passed now. Whether we suffer a 'loss of prestige' due to the loss of the guardianship after Shoghi Effendi is a moot point: certainly a single 'leader' would be more newsworthy to today's media than the letters from an institution whose members are personally retiring. It is easy to see that the time of Shoghi Effendi was no time to be trying to win the outside world to a favourable view of the viability and prestige of a new elected system of administration. The relation of the Faith to the newly forming state and to the institutions of orthodox religion had to be established quickly and decisively. So I have included 'loss of prestige' among the group of losses the Faith would have suffered had there been no Guardian.

      The second group comprises those losses which we have indeed suffered, functions which required an ongoing living Guardian to fulfill. These are the loss of the hereditary principle, of a long perspective on the Faith, and to some extent, loss of the necessary guidance to define the sphere of the legislative action of its elected representatives.

The hereditary principle

      In my experience many of the Western friends find the loss of the hereditary principle no loss at all. Would it not be rather an embarrassment for the proclamation of the Faith in the West to have an hereditary leader? Even an elected single leader, such as the Pope, is something of an anachronism in the age of community, consultation, and committees. Would not a hereditary Guardianship become an 'unmitigated autocracy'?[39] These attitudes are in part just a contemporary blindness to the virtues of a monarchial system, following from the failure of political monarchy in the past two centuries. We need to look at what Bahá'u'lláh says about kingship, and correct our prejudice.[40] In greater measure, however, these attitudes stem from a misunderstanding concerning the nature of the Guardianship, which I have addressed in section 2. When I hear the friends express relief at the loss of the Guardianship, or refer to it as a transitional hangover from pre-Bahá'í institutions, while the elective Houses of Justice are the 'real Bahá'í way', it seems that they have an image of the Guardian as a rather humourless administrator delivering rules on every imaginable aspect of Bahá'í life. But it is we who make Shoghi Effendi a legislator despite himself, when we misuse his letters. If the Guardianship binds us in this sense, it is a self-imposed bondage. The friends are right to feel that administration by one person, (and the collection of the words of such authorities from the past to serve as precedents), is a method appropriate to an earlier age and abhorrent to humanity in its age of maturity. But that never was what the Guardianship would have entailed. And if we look at the other side of the coin, and consider the prospect of elected institutions deciding on matters of doctrine and the interpretation of scripture, I think we will see that that would be equally abhorrent, because faith and truth are not to be decided by the ballot box, and because the prerogatives of one level of the elective institutions are in some measure reflected at all levels. It would be a short step to having NSAs or LSAs interpreting the Writings or deciding which understanding of doctrine is the true one, and that would place the same grave temptation on us as individual believers in our relations with one another. The hereditary Guardianship, by the fact that all but the descendents are expressly excluded from any possibility of making authoritative interpretations, is a great protection.

Loss of a long perspective

      It is difficult to say to what extent Bahá'í historians and theologians will be able to compensate for the loss of "a long, an uninterrupted view over a series of generations." Certainly we can see that nobody but Shoghi Effendi, with his long and close relationship with his grandfather and deep understanding of his theological thought, could have steered us so well along the path of developing the seeds implicit in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh and 'Abdu'l-Bahá. I am inclined to doubt that the objective methods of detailed historiography, painstaking textual criticism, and mutually critical exegesis, will be able to completely replace such intimate personal understanding. We know the value which Shoghi Effendi attached to personal transmission of the intentions of Bahá'u'lláh from this passage:
      Bahá'u'lláh's inscrutable purpose, we must ever bear in mind, has been...thoroughly infused into the conduct of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, and their motives have been...closely wedded together..." [41]

Defining the spheres

      It may seem odd to include this role of the Guardian as a 'loss' when this essay has been quite largely a demonstration that Shoghi Effendi has defined the spheres of the Guardian and the House of Justice quite distinctly, and has said that "Neither can, nor will ever, infringe upon the sacred and prescribed domain of the other". Yet there remain questions requiring more study, at least, requiring more study if I am to understand them, and I would dearly love to be able to refer these to a Guardian.

  1. If the Guardian is the expounder of the words of God, what is the status of his interpretations of the Bible?

  2. 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.."[42] implies the possibility of an interpretation authoritative only for a given person or cultural situation?[43]

  3. I have drawn a distinction between the spheres of the House of Justice and the Guardian based on the different methods which they use - the Guardian interprets, the House of Justice legislates. This is no doubt the primary model which Shoghi Effendi must have had in mind since it is based on the WIll and Testament and is consistent with a wide range of Shoghi Effendi's writings and practice. But there is also some evidence for a distinction in terms of subject matter. 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.[44] This approximately echoes a letter of the Guardian in Dawn of a New Day, p 61. Similarly, the Guardian said that 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,which seems to rule one subject as outside his sphere - is this so regardless of the method being used?

A distinction between doctrine and administration is not the same as one one between interpretation and legislation. The Guardian made interpretations which have no doctrinal significance, but far-reaching administrative consequences. For example, from one of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's tablets, and the principle of fair representation, Shoghi Effendi deduced the system of electing the National Spiritual Assembly which applied in New Zealand until recently.[45] If the distinction between the spheres of the House of Justice and the Guardian is simply and only that of 'interpreting the writings' versus 'legislating on matters not revealed', then, since Shoghi Effendi's method in this instance was to proceed by interpreting a tablet which forms a part of the Bahá'í Scriptures, his findings cannot be altered. But if the spheres are to some extent defined in terms of subject area, then, since this a ruling on a matter properly in the subject area of the House of Justice, it is to be regarded as 'provisionally adopted' by him in lieu of a House of Justice, and subject to alteration by the House of Justice.

      What then is the basis of the distinction between spheres of doctrine and of administration? It is echoed in Peter Smith's The Báb'í and Bahá'í Religions, page 132, and I have a suspicion that it is to be found in the writings of Shoghi Effendi in places other than The Dawn of a New Day, but, since I have not found the source, this essay is becoming exceedingly long, and the question is leading us rather a long way from the study of three paragraphs in The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, I shall leave this as material for some future study.

      Even supposing that the distinction in terms of subject matter (doctrine vs administration) has a strong foundation, all we would have established is that the relation of these two models needs to be explored, which would raise a new set of questions. What is the effect of an interpretation of the scripture by the Guardian which is administrative rather than doctrinal? Does it become an immediate and effective part of the immutable law, or might it be considered as part of the law and, like the laws of the Aqdas, subject to the decision of the House of Justice as to when it becomes effective, but not then revocable, or is it like the non-interpretative administrative decisions of the Guardian which we have seen above, effective at the pleasure of the House of Justice? If interpretations of the Guardian become, in effect, part of the revealed text, does the distinction which Shoghi Effendi seems to make in Dawn of a New Day p. 77, between legislation and revealed law (which may not be intended to be enforced), apply to them? Is it conceivable that the House of Justice might enact legislation with doctrinal implications?

Another loss:

      In addition to the loss of guidance in relation to the spheres of the 'twin institutions', we have lost the ongoing guidance of the Guardian in other matters. The other world Faiths have all found that the definitions of doctrine need continually to be restated because, even when the answers are authoritative, the questions continually change. There are new questions, and the terms of the old questions change their meaning. In Christian history, for example, the question "Is Christ a divine person?" (persona) was 'authoritatively' answered at an early date - but then the concept of personhood changed, so that the answer had its question taken out from under it, so to speak. The meaningfullness of the few doctrines which the Guardian did define will be progressively eroded in the same way, by changes in our underlying world-view, so that we will become a community with even less doctrinal uniformity than exists at present. The challenge will be to preserve unity as areligious community without relying on a uniform doctrine.

      Bahá'í scholars in the future can study the history, culture, and conceptual framework of the original questions and answers, and reinterpret and apply them to contemporary questions, but this will be a poor substitute for the line of guardians for which 'Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi hoped. I think that Shoghi Effendi may have envisioned hereditary guardians fulfilling a role similar to that of the Councils in Christian history; which tried to act vigorously to exclude the introduction of foreign elements while very slowly unfolding the implications of Christ's revelation as they became evident to the body of the believers in the process of trying to live out that revelation.

      The scale of this loss will only become clear over a period of centuries. I predict (fallibly) that in time to come, November 4th will be a world day of mourning.

4. What Now?

      I hope that I have shown in this essay that the study of the Covenant can never be considered as a merely formal requirement of our faith. Shoghi Effendi says...unless the believers fully grasp the greatness, functions, and purpose of the institutions outlined in ['Abdu'l-Bahá's] Testament (and elaborated by the Guardian in his book The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh) they will not be able to properly function as Bahá'ís individually or collectively.[46] Although we may not now be faced with the challenges of covenant-breakers, our understanding of the covenant relationships makes a material difference to our intellectual stance and to the functioning of our institutions. The lesser covenant is the balancing-pole with which we steady ourselves as we walk between loyalty to what we have received on the one hand, and the intelligent adaption of the Faith to the needs of our societies on the other hand, lest "extreme orthodoxy on one hand, and irresponsible freedom on the other, cause it [the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh] to deviate from that Straight Path which alone can lead it to success".[47] It defines a sphere of freedom and responsibility which is larger than we may have thought in the past, but which is nevertheless definitely limited, and must not be exceeded. I hope that the study of the covenant will be much more than a duty, and that local institutions in particular will make critical study of the covenant part of their functioning.


[1] Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, pp. 46, 20.
[2] Strictly speaking, with the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, see Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh p.55, and WOB p.4.
[3] Bahá'í World Faith, p. 210.
[4] Priceless Pearl, p. 55.
[5] Priceless Pearl, p. 54.
[6] Priceless Pearl, pp. 50 - 51.
[7] A short-lived group, see The Light of Divine Guidance, p. 111.
[8] See Peter Smith, The Bábí and Bahá'í Religions, pp. 117 - 124, for a brief summary of reactions to Shoghi Effendi's appointment.
[9] The passage begins on page 55 of the booklet format, The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, published by the NSA of the USA, and on page 147 of the WOB.
[10] The World Centre electronic text has 'interpreter', here, which is in accordance with a later translation by Shoghi Effendi: "He is the Interpreter of the Word of God," (World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 148). The change may reflect an evolution in Shoghi Effendi's terminology, to reflect the difference between his interpretations and those of the Master. He seems to make a similar terminological distinction between 'infallibility', referring to the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice, and 'inerrancy', used to refer to 'Abdu'l-Bahá. In both cases the English terms are virtual synonyms. Shoghi Effendi creates a distinction by reserving one term for 'Abdu'l-Bahá.
[11] "The infallibility of the Guardian is confined to matters which are related strictly to the cause and interpretation of the teachings; he is not an infallible authority on other subjects ... when he gives advice, such as that he gave you in a previous letter about your future, it is not binding: you are free to follow it or not as you please." Directives from the Guardian, p. 34, US Bahá'í News November 1945 (#177), p. 2.
[12] Will and Testament, p. 12.
[13] W. M. Miller, The Bahá'í Faith, its History and Teachings, p. 308, for example.
[14] For example, Ugo Giachery calls him the 'purest channel between man and eternity...' Shoghi Effendi, p. 23.
[15] Just as confused overstatements of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's role provided ammunition for the covenant-breakers (Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 45), so overstatements of the Guardian's station and powers will be impossible to defend against attacks from external critics.
[16] See also Ugo Giachery, Shoghi Effendi, p. 15.
[17] For example, in Ugo Giachery's Shoghi Effendi, "...he was open to perception and awareness far beyond the ususal human limitations..." and "...the vision of things to come ... was surely always before his eyes." (p. 78) and, quoting from the diary of O.Z. Whitehead: "...he spoke as if he could see vividly the many tortuous events that would take place over hundreds of years..." (p. 195).
[18] In addition to the Will and Testament, see Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand, p. 56: "He is the Guardian of the Cause in the very fullness of that term, and the appointed interpreter of its teachings, and is guided in his decisions to do that which protects it and fosters its growth and highest interests. he always has the right to step in and countermand the decisions of a national assembly; if he did not possess this right he would be absolutely impotent to protect the Faith..."
[19] Power of the Covenant, part 3, p. 42.
[20] Wellspring of Guidance, p.52.
[21] Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand, p. 23.
[22] Unfolding Destiny, page 138.
[23] i.e., the 9 people with the highest number of votes are elected.
[24] Bahá'í Administration, p. 136, Principles of Bahá'í Administration, p. 67, but see The Light of Divine Guidance, pp. 67-69.
[25] The passage would seem to show Shoghi Effendi allowing NSAs to change these, but since they are now incorporated into the Constitution of the Universal House of Justice, that is not now possible.
[26] Directives from the Guardian, p. 29, U.S. Bahá'í News October 1935 (#95) p. 2.
[27] The Light of Divine Guidance, p. 247.
[28] Bahá'í Administration, p. 142.
[29] Letter of 4 Feb. 1937, printed in Lights of Guidance, p. 262, para 699.
[30] The citation from Shoghi Effendi is from a letter dated 21st March, 1930, printed in The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, p 23 in the 1974 and 1980 editions.
[31] Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 58.
[32]Will and Testament, p. 20.
[33] High Endeavours, p. 35.
[34] See The Promise of World Peace, Open letter from the Universal House of Justice, October 1985, last paragraph of Section II.
[35] Wellspring of Guidance, p. 86: "He obviously envisaged their functioning together..."
[36] Incidentally, this question is quite distinct from the question of whether Shoghi Effendi followed the command of the Aqdas that every believer should write a will. The 'will', as defined in the Aqdas, is an obligatory statement of faith. The requirement that the Guardian should elect a successor is contained in the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, p. 12:

It is incumbent upon the Guardian of the Cause of God to appoint in his own life-time him that shall become his successor ... The Hands of the Cause of God must elect from their own number nine persons ... and these, whether unanimously or by a majority vote, must give their assent to the choice of the one whom the Guardian of the Cause of God hath chosen as his successor.

If the Hands of the Cause were to have the opportunity to disagree with the Guardian's choice, the guardian-designate would have had to have been presented to them while the Guardian lived.
[37] See also Messages to the Bahá'í World, pp. 16, 25.
[38] See Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 6: "Upon our present-day efforts ... must depend the efficacy of the instruments ... that must erect the structure of [the] Commonwealth."
[39] Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 61.
[40] Ugo Giachery, in Shoghi Effendi, records an interesting distinction between the principle of heredity and the personal status of the one holding hereditary office.
[41] Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 52. see also God Passes By, p. 325.
[42] Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, p. 23, Bahá'í Administration, p. 185.
[43] Since the essay was written I have found the following answer to this question, in a letter written on Shoghi Effendi's behalf and published in the American Bahá'í News #71, Feb 1933, p1-2: "He has also said that whenever he has something of importance to say, he invariably communicates it to the National Spiritual Assembly or in his general letters. His personal letters to individual friends are only for their personal benefit and even though he does not want to forbid their publication, he does not wish them to be used too much by the Bahá'í News."
[44] Wellspring of Guidance, p. 53, and quoted above.
[45] Bahá'í Administration, pp. 84-5.
[46] The Light of Divine Guidance, pp. 156-7.
[47] Bahá'í Administration, p. 42.
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