Self-Defense, the Ungodly, Infallibility, and Sexual Violence and Abuse
by / on behalf of Universal House of Justice2004-09-06
Mr. Hasan Elías
Dear Bahá'í Friend,
email letter of
You pose a number of questions on various aspects of the Bahá'í Teachings, and the enclosed memorandum prepared by the Research Department, along with its accompanying attachments, is offered as an aid to your reflections on the issues raised.
While the spirit of enquiry that has prompted you to write to the World Centre is appreciated, you are encouraged to persevere in your study of the Faith and discuss issues of concern to you with knowledgeable believers to whom you may have access, confident that, by these means, many of your questions will be answered.
With respect to your question about sharing this letter with other interested Bahá'ís, you may feel free to share the information contained in these documents.
With loving Bahá'í greetings,
Department of the Secretariat
Enclosure with 3 attachments
M E M O R A N D U M
To: The Universal House of Justice
From: Research Department
Application of Bahá'í Teachings about Self-Defense, the Ungodly,
Infallibility, and Sexual Violence and Abuse
Research Department has considered the queries and concerns on the subjects
listed above that are raised in the email letter of
1. Mr. Elías poses a series of questions relating to the rights of a victim to act in self-defense. He alludes to a situation of "aggravated robbery" and asks whether under such circumstances one can use martial arts and other means of self-defense. If we understand correctly, he also questions a person's right to defend himself against humiliation, asking whether there is a limit to the amount of humiliation that a person must bear during a robbery or at other times. He quotes relevant passages from the Writings about self-defense and on suffering humiliation.
Although the Research Department is not certain whether Mr. Elías has particular situations in mind, as he is aware, in the Bahá'í Writings there are certainly instances in which actions of self-defense are permissible. He may wish to peruse, for example, the following extract from a letter dated 4 September 2001 written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to a National Spiritual Assembly, in which some of the principles underlying the Bahá'í perspective on self-defense are outlined:
From an untranslated Tablet from ‘Abdu'l-Bahá it is stated that in the case of attack by robbers and highwaymen, a Bahá'í should not surrender himself but should try, as far as circumstances permit, to defend himself, and later on lodge a complaint with the government authorities. In addition, a letter written on behalf of the Guardian also indicates that in an emergency when there is no legal force at hand to appeal to, a Bahá'í is justified in defending his life. In another letter the Guardian has further pointed out that the assault of an irresponsible assailant upon a Bahá'í should be resisted by the Bahá'í, who would be justified, under such circumstances, in protecting his life. The Universal House of Justice does not wish at the present time to go beyond the guidelines given in the above mentioned statements. The question is basically a matter of conscience, and in each case the Bahá'í involved must use his judgement in determining when to stop in selfdefense lest his action deteriorate into retaliation.
You may wish to refer to several of the topics in "Some Answered Questions", which bear on the points of self-defense and protection of the innocent.
We have not found similar guidance that elucidates principles associated with suffering humiliation. It is suggested that he might find it fruitful to explore this subject through discussions with an Auxiliary Board member and knowledgeable believers where the characteristics of various situations can be considered.
2. Mr. Elías quotes verses 3 and 57 from the Hidden Words in Persian, in which Bahá'u'lláh warns against associating with "the ungodly", and asks how one can distinguish between those who are pious and those who are impious.
It seems to the Research Department that he will find helpful the attached memorandum titled "Definition of the Word ‘Ungodly'", which was prepared in response to a similar question posed some time ago. He will note that both verses in question are cited in this memorandum, and the Guardian's elucidation of the phrase "eschew all fellowship with the ungodly" appears on page 2.
3. If we understand correctly, Mr. Elías asks whether the infallibility of the Universal House of Justice extends to "the protection of the Faith", and also how the infallibility of this institution might be affected by reports from believers that may inadvertently contain inaccuracies.
The Research Department does not have the human resources to address a subject as broad and multifaceted as the infallibility of the Universal House of Justice, and Mr. Elías may find it useful to raise his questions in discussion with an Auxiliary Board member and knowledgeable believers in his community. In addition, we have attached a compilation titled "Concerning the Infallibility of Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice", containing two extracts from letters written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice. It seems to us that through careful consideration of some of the points highlighted in these extracts, such as the source of the infallibility of the institution of the House of Justice and the distinction between omniscience and infallibility, Mr. Elías may increase his understanding of infallibility generally and find answers to his questions.
4. Regarding the extent of the penalties that might be applied to perpetrators of sexual violence and abuse, we have not found any statements clarifying the matter in the Bahá'í Writings. Until the Universal House of Justice makes a ruling, Mr. Elías is free to come to his own understanding of the matter. In view of his strong feelings on these subjects, he may wish to peruse the attached "Letter on Violence and Sexual Abuse of Women and Children", written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice and dated January 1993. This document provides a general overview of the Bahá'í perspective on these matters.
M E M O R A N D U M
To: The Universal House of Justice
From: Research Department
Definition of the Word "Ungodly"
In their letter dated 1 June 2001 to the Universal House of Justice, Miss … and Miss … enquire about the meaning of the word "ungodly" as it is used in the following passage from the Hidden Words, and more generally in the Bahá'í Writings:
O Son of Dust!
Beware! Walk not with the ungodly and seek not fellowship with him, for such companionship turneth the radiance of the heart into infernal fire.1
Specifically, Miss … and Miss … seek clarification concerning "who and what is considered ‘ungodly'". The Research Department has studied these issues, and we provide the following comments.
By way of introduction, we wish to note that the Research Department has not, to date, been able to locate in the Writings of the Faith either an authoritative interpretation of the verse cited above, or a detailed definition of the Bahá'í concept of "ungodliness". We note, however, that Bahá'u'lláh appears to link the decline of religion to the rise in the influence of the "ungodly". He states, for example:
Religion is verily the chief instrument for the establishment of order in the world and of tranquillity amongst its peoples. The weakening of the pillars of religion hath strengthened the foolish and emboldened them and made them more arrogant. Verily I say: The greater the decline of religion, the more grievous the waywardness of the ungodly. This cannot but lead in the end to chaos and confusion.2
Universal House of Justice in a letter dated
In response to your letter received on 6 March seeking from the Universal House of Justice a definition of "ungodliness", we have been directed to quote the following passage found on page 200 of "Dawn of a New Day", a compilation of letters written on behalf of the beloved Guardian to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá'ís of India:
In the passage "eschew all fellowship with the ungodly", Bahá'u'lláh means that we should shun the company of those who disbelieve in God and are wayward. The word "ungodly" is a reference to such perverse people.
With reference to Shoghi Effendi's clarification quoted above, it may also be helpful to note that dictionary definitions of "wayward" include "childishly self-willed or perverse, capricious" and "unaccountable"; and the definition of "perverse" includes "stubbornly departing from what is reasonable", "persistent in error", "perverted" and "wicked". In the context of the Persian Hidden Words, number 3, then, the phrase "ungodly" apparently refers to a broad range of behaviors including those associated with Covenant-breaking.
a criteria for determining "who and what is considered ‘ungodly'", Miss … and
Miss … are encouraged to reach their own understanding based on the guidance in
the verses from the Hidden Words and other statements in the Writings of the
Faith. To assist them in thinking about this issue, we provide, below, the
following extract from a letter dated
… in choosing one's close companions, one is advised that one should not include among them those individuals who are "ungodly"—that is to say whose attitudes and lives are directed in a way that is contrary to God and His Teachings—or, as indicated in the Kitáb-i-Íqán, those people who are boastful and worldly.
Finally, it is suggested that Miss … and Miss … might find it helpful to turn to the Local Spiritual Assembly for guidance or to seek the counsel of an Auxiliary Board member.Notes:
1 The Hidden Words (Persian), no. 57.
Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (
corrections made by Quality Control (DY) on
Concerning the Infallibility of Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice
Extracts from two letters written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice
The issue you have raised about the writings of the Guardian requires an accurate and balanced treatment in Bahá'í publications. As you are well aware, an essential element of the Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh is the acceptance of the infallibility of the Guardian. In response to questions about this matter, a letter written on his behalf in 1944 stated:
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, such as economics, science, etc.
A further clarification was provided in another letter prepared on behalf of the Guardian by his secretary in 1956:
The Guardian's infallibility covers interpretation of the revealed word, and its application. Likewise any instructions he may issue having to do with the protection of the Faith, or its well-being, must be closely obeyed, as he is infallible in the protection of the Faith. He is assured the guidance of both Bahá'u'lláh and the Báb, as the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu'l-Bahá clearly reveals.
the case with the House of Justice, the Guardian was not omniscient, and relied
on the facts available to him in carrying out his functions. Beyond that, he was
meticulous about the authenticity of historical fact. One of the friends in
The faith of the believers should not be disturbed, nor their adherence to the provisions of the Covenant diminished, by the occasional discovery of factual inaccuracies in the Guardian's writings such as "God Passes By" or his translation of "Nabil's Narrative". It is useful to recall the following description penned by Amatu'l-Bahá Rú>íyyih Khánum of Shoghi Effendi's preparation for writing "God Passes By", taken from her book "The Priceless Pearl":
The method of Shoghi Effendi in writing "God Passes By" was to sit down for a year and read every book of the Bahá'í Writings in Persian and English, and every book written about the Faith by Bahá'ís, whether in manuscript form or published, and everything written by non-Bahá'ís that contained significant references to it. I think, in all, this must have covered the equivalent of at least two hundred books. As he read he made notes and compiled and marshalled his facts. Anyone who has ever tackled a work of an historical nature knows how much research is involved, how often one has to decide, in the light of relevant material, between this date given in one place and that date given in another, how back-breaking the whole work is. How much more so then was such a work for the Guardian who had, at the same time, to prepare for the forthcoming Centenary of the Faith and make decisions regarding the design of the superstructure of the Báb's Shrine. When all the ingredients of his book had been assembled Shoghi Effendi commenced weaving them into the fabric of his picture of the significance of the first century of the Bahá'í Dispensation.
That some of the historical reference material he consulted may have contained inaccuracies, which inadvertently found their way into his book, should not be surprising. Such factual discrepancies do not result in any blemish on the infallible insight with which the Guardian treats such subjects as the development of the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh, the significance and import of the turbulent events in its history, and the interpretation of its Teachings.
As you have pointed out in your letter, this matter should be treated with care and wisdom. When the believers are properly informed of it, they will thereby be immunized against the attempts of the malicious to sow the seeds of doubt through propagating unwarranted inferences about the Guardian's infallibility on the basis of their discovery of historical inaccuracies.
In describing the House of Justice, ‘Abdu'l-Bahá states clearly,
Whatever will be its decision, by majority vote, shall be the real truth, inasmuch as that House is under the protection, unerring guidance and care of the one true Lord.
He shall guard it from error and will protect it under the wing of His sanctity and infallibility. He who opposes it is cast out and will eventually be of the defeated.
It is the exclusive sphere of the Universal House of Justice to "pronounce upon and deliver the final judgment on such laws and ordinances as Bahá'u'lláh has not expressly revealed." It carries responsibility for the application of the revealed Word, the protection of the Faith, as well as the duty "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." However, the Universal House of Justice is not omniscient, and the friends should understand that there is a difference between infallibility and omniscience. Like the Guardian, the House of Justice wants to be provided with facts when called upon to render a decision, and like him it may well change its decision when new facts emerge, or in light of changed conditions at some point in the future. We have found nothing in the writings of Shoghi Effendi which suggests that the House of Justice would on any occasion reach a "wrong decision".
Letter on Violence and Sexual Abuse
of Women and Children
written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice
24 January 1993
Dear Bahá'í Friend,
to our letter of
As you know, the principle of the oneness of mankind is described in the Bahá'í
Writings as the pivot round which all the Teachings of Bahá'u'lláh revolve. It has widespread implications which affect and remould all dimensions of human activity. It calls for a fundamental change in the manner in which people relate to each other, and the eradication of those age-old practices which deny the intrinsic human right of every individual to be treated with consideration and respect.
Within the family setting, the rights of all members must be respected. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá has stated:
The integrity of the family bond must be constantly considered and the rights of the individual members must not be transgressed. The rights of the son, the father, the mother—none of them must be transgressed, none of them must be arbitrary. Just as the son has certain obligations to his father, the father, likewise, has certain obligations to his son. The mother, the sister and other members of the household have their certain prerogatives. All these rights and prerogatives must be conserved....
The use of force by the physically strong against the weak, as a means of imposing one's will and fulfilling one's desires, is a flagrant transgression of the Bahá'í Teachings. There can be no justification for anyone compelling another, through the use of force or through the threat of violence, to do that to which the other person is not inclined. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá has written, "O ye lovers of God! In this, the cycle of Almighty God, violence and force, constraint and oppression, are one and all condemned." Let those who, driven by their passions or by their inability to exercise discipline in the control of their anger, might be tempted to inflict violence on another human being be mindful of the condemnation of such disgraceful behaviour by the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh.
Among the signs of moral downfall in the declining social order are the high incidence of violence within the family, the increase in degrading and cruel treatment of spouses and children, and the spread of sexual abuse. It is essential that the members of the community of the Greatest Name take utmost care not to be drawn into acceptance of such practices because of their prevalence. They must be ever mindful of their obligation to exemplify a new way of life distinguished by its respect for the dignity and rights of all people, by its exalted moral tone, and by its freedom from oppression and from all forms of abuse.
Consultation has been ordained by Bahá'u'lláh as the means by which agreement is to be reached and a collective course of action defined. It is applicable to the marriage partners and within the family, and indeed, in all areas where believers participate in mutual decision making. It requires all participants to express their opinions with absolute freedom and without apprehension that they will be censured or their views belittled; these prerequisites for success are unattainable if the fear of violence or abuse is present.
A number of your questions pertain to the treatment of women, and are best considered in light of the principle of the equality of the sexes which is set forth in the Bahá'í Teachings.
This principle is far more than the enunciation of admirable ideals; it has profound implications in all aspects of human relations and must be an integral element of Bahá'í domestic and community life. The application of this principle gives rise to changes in habits and practices which have prevailed for many centuries. An example of this is found in the response provided on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to a question whether the traditional practice whereby the man proposes marriage to the woman is altered by the Bahá'í Teachings to permit the woman to issue a marriage proposal to the man; the response is, "The Guardian wishes to state that there is absolute equality between the two, and that no distinction or preference is permitted...." With the passage of time, during which Bahá'í men and women endeavour to apply more fully the principle of the equality of the sexes, will come a deeper understanding of the far-reaching ramifications of this vital principle. As ‘Abdu'l-Bahá has stated, "Until the reality of equality between man and woman is fully established and attained, the highest social development of mankind is not possible."
The Universal House of Justice has in recent years urged that encouragement be given to Bahá'í women and girls to participate in greater measure in the social, spiritual and administrative activities of their communities, and has appealed to Bahá'í women to arise and demonstrate the importance of their role in all fields of service to the Faith.
For a man to use force to impose his will on a woman is a serious transgression of the Bahá'í Teachings. ‘Abdu'l-Bahá has stated that:
The world in the past has been ruled by force, and man has dominated over woman by reason of his more forceful and aggressive qualities both of body and mind. But the balance is already shifting; force is losing its dominance, and mental alertness, intuition, and the spiritual qualities of love and service, in which woman is strong, are gaining ascendancy.
Bahá'í men have the opportunity to demonstrate to the world around them a new approach to the relationship between the sexes, where aggression and the use of force are eliminated and replaced by cooperation and consultation. The Universal House of Justice has pointed out in response to questions addressed to it that, in a marriage relationship, neither husband nor wife should ever unjustly dominate the other, and that there are times when the husband and the wife should defer to the wishes of the other, if agreement cannot be reached through consultation; each couple should determine exactly under what circumstances such deference is to take place.
From the Pen of Bahá'u'lláh Himself has come the following statement on the subject of the treatment of women:
The friends of God must be adorned with the ornament of justice, equity, kindness and love. As they do not allow themselves to be the object of cruelty and transgression, in like manner they should not allow such tyranny to visit the handmaidens of God. He, verily, speaketh the truth and commandeth that which benefiteth His servants and handmaidens. He is the Protector of all in this world and the next.
No Bahá'í husband should ever beat his wife, or subject her to any form of cruel treatment; to do so would be an unacceptable abuse of the marriage relationship and contrary to the Teachings of Bahá'u'lláh.
The lack of spiritual values in society leads to a debasement of the attitudes which should govern the relationship between the sexes, with women being treated as no more than objects for sexual gratification and being denied the respect and courtesy to which all human beings are entitled. Bahá'u'lláh has warned: "They that follow their lusts and corrupt inclinations, have erred and dissipated their efforts. They, indeed, are of the lost." Believers might well ponder the exalted standard of conduct to which they are encouraged to aspire in the statement of Bahá'u'lláh concerning His "true follower", that: "And if he met the fairest and most comely of women, he would not feel his heart seduced by the least shadow of desire for her beauty. Such an one, indeed, is the creation of spotless chastity. Thus instructeth you the Pen of the Ancient of Days, as bidden by your Lord, the Almighty, the All-Bountiful."
One of the most heinous of sexual offences is the crime of rape. When a believer is a victim, she is entitled to the loving aid and support of the members of her community, and she is free to initiate action against the perpetrator under the law of the land should she wish to do so. If she becomes pregnant as a consequence of this assault, no pressure should be brought upon her by the Bahá'í institutions to marry. As to whether she should continue or terminate the pregnancy, it is for her to decide on the course of action she should follow , taking into consideration medical and other relevant factors, and in the light of the Bahá'í Teachings. If she gives birth to a child as a result of the rape, it is left to her discretion whether to seek financial support for the maintenance of the child from the father; however, his claim to any parental rights would, under Bahá'í law, be called into question, in view of the circumstances.
The Guardian has clarified, in letters written on his behalf, that "The Bahá'í Faith recognizes the value of the sex impulse," and that "The proper use of the sex instinct is the natural right of every individual, and it is precisely for this very purpose that the institution of marriage has been established." In this aspect of the marital relationship, as in all others, mutual consideration and respect should apply. If a Bahá'í woman suffers abuse or is subjected to rape by her husband, she has the right to turn to the Spiritual Assembly for assistance and counsel, or to seek legal protection. Such abuse would gravely jeopardize the continuation of the marriage, and could well lead to a condition of irreconcilable antipathy.
You have raised several questions about the treatment of children. It is clear from the Bahá'í Writings that a vital component of the education of children is the exercise of discipline.
Shoghi Effendi has stated, in a letter written on his behalf about the education of children, that:
Discipline of some sort, whether physical, moral or intellectual is indeed indispensable, and no training can be said to be complete and fruitful if it disregards this element. The child when born is far from being perfect. It is not only helpless, but actually is imperfect, and even is naturally inclined towards evil.
He should be trained, his natural inclinations harmonized, adjusted and controlled, and if necessary suppressed or regulated, so as to ensure his healthy physical and moral development. Bahá'í parents cannot simply adopt an attitude of nonresistance towards their children, particularly those who are unruly and violent by nature. It is not even sufficient that they should pray on their behalf. Rather they should endeavour to inculcate, gently and patiently, into their youthful minds such principles of moral conduct and initiate them into the principles and teachings of the Cause with such tactful and loving care as would enable them to become "true sons of God" and develop into loyal and intelligent citizens of His Kingdom....
While the physical discipline of children is an acceptable part of their education and training, such actions are to be carried out "gently and patiently" and with "loving care", far removed from the anger and violence with which children are beaten and abused in some parts of the world. To treat children in such an abhorrent manner is a denial of their human rights, and a betrayal of the trust which the weak should have in the strong in a Bahá'í community.
It is difficult to imagine a more reprehensible perversion of human conduct than the sexual abuse of children, which finds its most debased form in incest. At a time in the fortunes of humanity when, in the words of the Guardian, "The perversion of human nature, the degradation of human conduct, the corruption and dissolution of human institutions, reveal themselves ... in their worst and most revolting aspects," and when "the voice of human conscience is stilled," when "the sense of decency and shame is obscured," the Bahá'í institutions must be uncompromising and vigilant in their commitment to the protection of the children entrusted to their care, and must not allow either threats or appeals to expediency to divert them from their duty. A parent who is aware that the marriage partner is subjecting a child to such sexual abuse should not remain silent, but must take all necessary measures, with the assistance of the Spiritual Assembly or civil authorities if necessary, to bring about an immediate cessation of such grossly immoral behaviour, and to promote healing and therapy.
Bahá'u'lláh has placed great emphasis on the duties of parents toward their children, and
He has urged children to have gratitude in their hearts for their parents, whose good pleasure they should strive to win as a means of pleasing God Himself. However, He has indicated that under certain circumstances, the parents could be deprived of the right of parenthood as a consequence of their actions. The Universal House of Justice has the right to legislate on this matter. It has decided for the present that all cases should be referred to it in which the conduct or character of a parent appears to render him unworthy of having such parental rights as that of giving consent to marriage. Such questions could arise, for example, when a parent has committed incest, or when the child was conceived as a consequence of rape, and also when a parent consciously fails to protect the child from flagrant sexual abuse.
As humanity passes through the age of transition in its evolution to a world civilization which will be illuminated by spiritual values and will be distinguished by its justice and its unity, the role of the Bahá'í community is clear: it must accomplish a spiritual transformation of its members, and must offer to the world a model of the society destined to come into being through the power of the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh. Membership in the Bahá'í community is open to all who accept Bahá'u'lláh as the Manifestation of God, and who thereupon embark on the process of changing their conduct and refining their character. It is inevitable that this community will, at times, be subject to delinquent behaviour of members whose actions do not conform to the standards of the Teachings. At such times, the institutions of the Faith will not hesitate to apply Bahá'í law with justice and fairness in full confidence that this Divine Law is the means for the true happiness of all concerned.
However, it should be recognized that the ultimate solution to the problems of humanity lies not in penalties and punishments, but rather in spiritual education and illumination.
‘Abdu'l-Bahá has written:
It is incumbent upon human society to expend all its forces on the education of the people, and to copiously water men's hearts with the sacred streams that pour down from the Realm of the All-Merciful, and to teach them the manners of Heaven and spiritual ways of life, until every member of the community of man will be schooled, refined, and exalted to such a degree of perfection that the very committing of a shameful act will seem in itself the direst infliction and most agonizing of punishments, and man will fly in terror and seek refuge in his God from the very idea of crime, as something far harsher and more grievous than the punishment assigned to it.
It is toward this goal that the community of the Greatest Name is striving, aided and reinforced by the limitless power of the Holy Spirit.
With loving Bahá'í greetings,
For Department of the Secretariat