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Commentary: Some Interpretive Principles in the Bahá'í Writings

by Sen McGlinn

published in Bahá'í Studies Review, 7
London: Association for Baha'i Studies English-Speaking Europe, 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 Seena Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir's "Some interpretive principles in the Bahá'í Writings" in an earlier volume of this journal. 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.

Seena Fazel and Khazeh Fananapazir, in "Some interpretive principles in the Bahá'í Writings", (Bahá'í Studies Review 2:1, 1992) give two examples to illustrate the point that the Guardian's interpretations, 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 functioning (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 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 is incorrect and, since it 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 - and thus our approach to his text, our hermeneutic, has to be different.

      The reference given for the example of the principles for the election of National Spiritual Assemblies is to Bahá'í Administration page 37, but this passage does not actually 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 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." 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."[1] Even the absence of nominations in Bahá'í elections, and the simple plurality system are "provisionally adopted"[2] and can be changed by the House of Justice.[3] 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,"[4] 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.[5]
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.[6]
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 ... 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...[7]
Similarly, there was at one time provision for alternate members on National Spiritual Assemblies, but this was later changed.[8]

      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",[9] 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.[10]
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.
The question is therefore in the meantime 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 . . .
This is Shoghi Effendi at his most unassertive. In place of the emphatic words we have the optative mood: "should" and "would" in place of "must". Look at the structure of the second sentence, beginning "It has been felt, with no little justification, that this method, admittedly disadvantageous ... does away on the other hand with the more serious disadvantage ...". Shoghi Effendi would appear to be almost sidling up to his subject, whereas in the previous passage he proceeds in direct, firm strides. There is even a grammatical slip in the first sentence, where the constructions "irrespective of the fact that" and "irrespective of whether" are confused. Clearly, 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:
...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. ...

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.[11]
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.[12] 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,[13] "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 must 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 ...[14]
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.[15] 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",[16] what is the status of his interpretations of the Bible and Qur'an? 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.."[17] 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.

Notes:

[1] Bahá'í Administration: Selected Messages 1922-1932 (Wilmette, Illinois, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974 edition), 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, 3rd edn 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 reprint), 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, Illinois, 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] The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh (Wilmette, Illinois, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 8th printing 1975), 58, also printed in The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh: Selected letters of Shoghi Effendi, (Wilmette, Illinois, Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 2nd edition repr. 1980), 150.
[12] The same principle applies to interpretations that may be implicit in the writings of the Universal House of Justice.
[13] The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, 23.
[14] The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh, 58, and The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, 150.
[15] Wellspring of Guidance, 53, and quoted above.
[16] Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá (Wilmette, Illinois, 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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