Women on the House of Justice; meaning of "Umumi"
by / on behalf of Universal House of Justice1997-03-30
1. Introduction to question to the Universal House of JusticeThe following letter from the House is in response to questions about Corinne True's letter written to 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1902, asking about the election of women to the Chicago House of Justice. I [Tony Lee] was able to obtain a copy of it from the World Center some years ago in the course of writing a paper on this subject.
It is in reply to this letter that 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote to her his (now famous) Tablet about the House of Justice being confined to men and assuring her that the wisdom of this would become known "as the sun at noonday" in the future.
The letter follows. It is dated February 25, 1902 (Document No. 11137 in the International Bahá'í Archives):
There has existed a difference of opinion in our Assembly [that is, the Chicago Bahá'í community] as to how it should be governed. Every believer desires to carry out the Commands of the Blessed Perfection [Bahá'u'lláh] but we want to know from our Lord himself [that is, 'Abdu'l-Bahá] what these Commands are, as they are written in Arabic and we do not know Arabic. Will Our Lord write me direct from Acca and not have it go through any Interpreter in America and thus grant me the Authority to say the Master says thus & so, for he has written it to me . . . Many in our Assembly feel that the Governing Board in Chicago should be a mixed Board of both men & women. Woman in America stands so conspicuously for all that is highest & best in every department and for that reason it is contended the affairs should be in the hands of both sexes. . . .Anyway, these are the relevant paragraphs. There is no doubt about Corinne True's question. And it seems to me that there is also no doubt that 'Abdu'l-Bahá's answer was intended to apply to the Governing Board of Chicago. It was certainly understood that way at the time, even by True herself. From an historical point of view, that point at least is virtually undeniable...
2. Response from the Universal House of Justice
M E M O R A N D U M
To: The Universal House of Justice
From: Research Department
Translation of "`Umumi" in Tablets of `Abdu'l-Bahá
In an email message to the Universal House of Justice dated 23 March 1997, a question has been raised concerning translation. In an undated Tablet from `Abdu'l-Bahá addressed to Mrs. True (first translated into English by Dr. Ameen Farid in July 1909) the following statement has been revealed.
According to the ordinances of the Faith of God, women are the equals of men in all rights save only that of membership on the Universal House of Justice, for as hath been stated in the text of the Book, both the head and the members of the House of Justice are men. However, in all other bodies, such as the Temple Construction Committee, the Teaching Committee, the Spiritual Assembly, and in charitable and scientific associations, women share equally in all rights with men. (Revised translation from the Persian, authorized 1987)
In the above Tablet, for the title "The Universal House of Justice" the Persian words used are: "Baytu'l-`Adl-i-`Umumi". The question has been asked, whether the translation of the word "`Umumi", as "Universal", could be a mistake, since the word has the connotation of "public" or "general" in addition to its meaning as "universal". Thus, following such an argument, the reference in the above text could perhaps be not to the "Universal House of Justice" but to the Local Spiritual Assembly of Chicago.
The word "`umumi" as an adjective qualifying the title of the institution of the "House of Justice" appears three times in the Persian text of `Abdu'l-Bahá's Will and Testament.1 Shoghi Effendi's translation of this adjective is invariably "Universal" with a capital "U". The passages from the Will and Testament are as follows:2
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 Abha 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 (page 11).
And now, concerning the House of Justice which God hath ordained as the source of all good and freed from all error, it must be elected by universal suffrage, that is, by the believers. Its members must be manifestations of the fear of God and daysprings of knowledge and understanding, must be steadfast in God's faith and the well-wishers of all mankind. By this House is meant the Universal House of Justice, that is, in all countries a secondary House of Justice must be instituted, and these secondary Houses of Justice must elect the members of the Universal one. Unto this body all things must be referred (page 14).
Unto the Most Holy Book every one must turn and all that is not expressly recorded therein must be referred to the Universal House of Justice. That which this body, whether unanimously or by a majority doth carry, that is verily the Truth and the Purpose of God Himself. Whoso doth deviate therefrom is verily of them that love discord, hath shown forth malice and turned away from the Lord of the Covenant. By this House is meant that Universal House of Justice which is to be elected from all countries, that is from those parts in the East and West where the loved ones are to be found, after the manner of the customary elections in Western countries such as those of England (pages 19-20).
There is no doubt whatsoever that by the term "Baytu'l-`Adl-i-`Umumi", in the above-mentioned Tablet, the institution intended, whose membership is to be of men only, is none other than "The Universal House of Justice" and not the Local Spiritual Assembly of Chicago.