Justice, Fairness and the Meekness of God
by Susan Maneck1999
Justice is an important concept to Bahá'ís. We speak of it as the "best-beloved of all things." We think of the coming of the Bahá'í Revelation as the "advent of divine justice." But there have been various ideas as to what this concept means. Where some insist that the Bahá'í Faith stresses justice over mercy, (1) others would associate Bahá'u'lláh's concern for the oppressed with Liberation Theology. (2) This paper looks at the concepts of justice and fairness as they are found in the Bahá'í Writings, examining how they relate to the responsibilities laid upon the rulers, whether Bahá'í or civil, but even more especially as it relates to the learned, be they clerics, scholars or members of the Institution by that name. The thesis of this paper is that Bahá'u'lláh's concepts of justice and fairness can only been rightly understood against the background of His own willingness to endure suffering and sacrifice in manner which transcended the supposed dichotomy between justice and mercy. At the same time, this introduces a very different dynamic for overcoming oppression than the one typically promoted in Liberation Theology or other social-political forms of resistance.
Some Bahá'í apologists have compared Christianity unfavorably to the Bahá'í Faith, (3) applauding the fact that the Bahá'í Faith supposedly favor justice over mercy. In connection with this, the famous passage from the Hidden Words is often cited:
O SON OF SPIRIT!
The word for justice is this context, however, is not distributive justice or 'adl but rather insaf or fairness, which carries with a connotation of moderation and openness. This is not to say that distributive justice is not also important principle within the Bahá'í Faith. 'Abdu'l-Bahá affirms that "The canopy of existence resteth upon the pole of justice, and not of forgiveness, and the life of mankind dependeth on justice and not on forgiveness." (5) By "life of mankind" I think we can assume He is referring to our corporate life. But this emphasis on justice does not necessarily infer that justice takes precedence over mercy in the spiritual life of the individual, nor is it an adequate description of God's activity as I think we shall see. As the Qur'an asserts: "If God should chastise men for their perverse doings, He would not leave upon the earth a living thing!" (6) It should therefore not be assumed that it has precedence within the Bahá'í Revelation, and often it is paired with fair mindedness or even equated with it. For instance in the Advent of Divine Justice Shoghi Effendi writes:
Small wonder, therefore, that the Author of the Bahá'í revelation should have chosen to associate the name and title of that House, which is to be the crowning glory of His administrative institutions, not with forgiveness but with justice, to have made justice the only basis and the permanent foundation of His Most Great Peace, and to have proclaimed it in His Hidden Words as "the best beloved of all things" in His sight. (7)
In a letter to Glenn Shook, however, the Guardian acknowledged that insaf should be thought of as fairness. (8) This certainly suggests that for Shoghi Effendi the foundation upon which justice was to be raised, depended not only on the "twin pillars" of reward and punishment, but also a serious commitment to openness, without which there could not be the "moral rectitude" upon which, according to Shoghi Effendi, our success depends. (9)
While justice and fairness often appear together within the Writings, more often justice is specifically enjoined upon rulers of state, while the religious leaders and the learned are more especially urged to observe fairness. For instance in the Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, Bahá'u'lláh prays:: "Bestow justice upon the rulers and fairness upon the divines." (10) The word translated as "divines" here is 'ulama which literally means the learned. Hence, in another Tablet, Bahá'u'lláh enjoins the learned, "Lay not aside the fear of God, O ye the learned of the world, and judge fairly the Cause of this unlettered One." (11)
It is significant that it is fairness rather than justice which is usually mentioned in connection with the function of the learned, for in the Islamic world, the 'ulama, as the guardians and interpreters of Islamic law, control the judicial system and therefore have responsibility for the administration of justice. But Bahá'u'lláh explicitly takes this function away from them and instead gives it to the Houses of Justice. As Shoghi Effendi writes in a letter dated 14 March 1927, to the Bahá'ís of Istanbul,
the Pen of Glory has done away with the unyielding and dictatorial views of the learned and the wise, dismissed the assertions of individuals as an authoritative criterion, even though they were recognized as the most accomplished and learned among men and ordained that all matters be referred to authorized centers and specified assemblies. Even so, no assembly has been invested with the absolute authority to deal with such general matters as affect the interests of nations. Nay rather, He has brought all the assemblies together under the shadow of one House of Justice, one divinely-appointed Center, so that there would be only one Center and all the rest integrated into a single body, revolving around one expressly-designated Pivot, thus making them all proof against schism and division. (12)
Bahá'u'lláh Himself gives this judicial power to the House of Justice in a passage of The Tablet of Ishráqát which is considered supplementary to the Kitáb-I-Aqdas.
The men of God's House of Justice have been charged with the affairs of the people. They, in truth, are the Trustees of God among His servants and the daysprings of authority in His countries. O people of God! That which traineth the world is Justice, for it is upheld by two pillars, reward and punishment. These two pillars are the sources of life to the world. Inasmuch as for each day there is a new problem and for every problem an expedient solution, such affairs should be referred to the House of Justice that the members thereof may act according to the needs and requirements of the time. They that, for the sake of God, arise to serve His Cause, are the recipients of divine inspiration from the unseen Kingdom. It is incumbent upon all to be obedient unto them. All matters of State should be referred to the House of Justice, but acts of worship must be observed according to that which God hath revealed in His Book. (13)
In regards to how the concepts of fairness and sometimes justice relate to individual believer and more especially to the scholar, Bahá'u'lláh suggests that when we consistently come to conclusions which largely accord with our own desires we are likely observing neither fairness or justice:
Say: If your rules and principles be founded on justice, why is it, then, that ye follow those which accord with your corrupt inclinations and reject such as conflict with your desires? By what right claim ye, then, to judge fairly between men? (14)
In The Advent of Divine Justice, Shoghi Effendi emphasizes that "rectitude of conduct" which for Bahá'í apologists "must be demonstrated in the impartiality of every defender of the Faith against its enemies, in his fair-mindedness in recognizing any merits that enemy may possess, and in his honesty in discharging any obligations he may have towards him." (15) Needless to say fairness and impartiality are prerequisites in the investigation of truth, as they are the means by which we 'see with our own eyes and not through the eyes of others.' Likewise Bahá'u'lláh stresses the need for the "true seeker" to
cleanse and purify his heart, which is the seat of the revelation of the inner mysteries of God, from the obscuring dust of all acquired knowledge, and the allusions of the embodiments of satanic fancy. He must purge his breast, which is the sanctuary of the aiding love of the Beloved, of every defilement, and sanctify his soul from all that pertaineth to water and clay, from all shadowy and ephemeral attachments. He must so cleanse his heart that no remnant of either love or hate may linger therein, lest that love blindly incline him to error, or that hate repel him away from the truth. (16)
This purification from love or hate does not I think involve, as some have argued, (17) that we should detach ourselves all emotionality so much as it involves a realignment of our wills with that of God. In other words, we become determined to want only what God wants. Such a state, in fact, requires a high level of feeling, as Bahá'u'lláh writes:
Only when the lamp of search, of earnest striving, of longing desire, of passionate devotion, of fervid love, of rapture, and ecstasy, is kindled within the seeker's heart, and the breeze of His loving-kindness is wafted upon his soul, will the darkness of error be dispelled, the mists of doubts and misgivings be dissipated, and the lights of knowledge and certitude envelope his being. (18)Even when the Writings speak of "rational proof" they are often not referring to bloodless, discursive logic. For instance 'Abdu'l-Bahá in Some Answered Questions offers the following as such a proof:
We will cite another which alone is sufficient for all who are just, and which no one can deny. It is that this illustrious Being uplifted his Cause in the "Greatest Prison"; [Akká.] from this Prison His light was shed abroad, his fame conquered the world, and the proclamation of His glory reached the East and West. Until our time no such thing has ever occurred. (19)
As we see here, one of the chief "rational proofs" which 'Abdu'l-Bahá gives is the magnificent triumph of Bahá'u'lláh's message despite having been oppressed. 'Abdu'l-Bahá goes on to say: "If there be justice, this will be acknowledged; but there are some people who, even if all the proofs in the world be adduced before them, still will not judge justly!"
The term for justice here is insaf or fair-mindedness. 'Abdu'l-Bahá is suggesting that without this sense of fair-mindedness, all the rational proofs in the world will not be able to persuade a person. "Abdu'l-Bahá follows this by offering this description of the prerequisites for such rational proof in the following passage:
The state in which one should be to seriously search for the truth is the condition of the thirsty, burning soul desiring the water of life, of the fish struggling to reach the sea, of the sufferer seeking for the true doctor to obtain the divine cure, of the lost caravan endeavouring to find the right road, of the lost and wandering ship striving to reach the shore of salvation. Therefore, the seeker must be endowed with certain qualities. First of all, he must be just and severed from all else save God; his heart must be entirely turned to the supreme horizon; he must be free from the bondage of self and passion, for all these are obstacles. Furthermore, he must be able to endure all hardships. He must be absolutely pure and sanctified, and free from the love or the hatred of the inhabitants of the world. Why? because the fact of his love for any person or thing might prevent him from recognizing the truth in another, and, in the same way, hatred for anything might be a hindrance in discerning truth. This is the condition of seeking, and the seeker must have these qualities and attributes. Until he reaches this condition, it is not possible for him to attain to the Sun of Reality. (20)
The translation of Some Answered Questions is a little misleading here for it appears as though 'Abdu'l-Bahá has changed the subject from "rational proofs" to the prerequisites of spiritual search. But in the Persian the introduction to the topic of search begins within the same sentence as the His statement regarding proofs. in other words the last sentence of the first passage should be combined with the first sentence of the second passage and read something like this:
Until now all that has been mentioned are rational proofs, for this station is that of unfettered truth and this search is the condition of a thirsty soul burning with the desire for water, a fish struggling to the sea.
Clearly for 'Abdu'l-Bahá both fairness and rationality involve not simply cold syllogisms, but an existential, passionate, and total commitment to truth.
As mentioned earlier, there are those who hold that the Bahá'í concept of justice involves an active resistance to oppression, similar to that found in Liberation Theology. Juan Cole, for instance, argues that Bahá'ís were only discouraged from involving themselves in political affairs as a temporary measure on the part of 'Abdu'l-Bahá which was taken during the turmoil of the Constitutional Revolution in Iran. But he insists that Bahá'ís "are called upon to denounce tyranny and infractions against basic human rights." (21) While certainly there are similarities in the goals of Bahá'ís and other movements of social activism, this should not blind us to the profound difference in methods.
These differences in method can be seen clearly in one of Bahá'u'lláh's Tablets, the Lawh-I Dhabih which is can found in Gleanings CXV. This Tablet was written in the aftermath of various problems which had arisen in Akka, including the murder of four Azalis by some Bahá'ís, as well as the attempts of Bahá'u'lláh's son, Muhammad Ali, to gain a following and even make claims to revelation. The Tablet begins by admonishing the friends not to become involved in power politics by agitating against the government. He insists that had they not allowed the Cause to "be smirched with the mire of unlawful deeds, or be stained with the dust of reprehensible conduct" and states emphatically that instead had "their inner ears been attentive to Divine counsels and harkened unto His Voice, most of the people of the earth would have by now been adorned with the ornament of His guidance." (22) Bahá'u'lláh continues:
Behold, O Dhabih, the works which God, the Sovereign Truth, hath wrought. Say thou: How great, how very great, is the power of His might that encompasseth all worlds! Exalted, immeasurably exalted, is His detachment above the reach and ken of the entire creation! Glorified, glorified be his meekness--a meekness that hath melted the hearts of them that have been brought nigh unto God! (23)
The phrases "How great, how very Exalted, immeasurably exalted" "Glorified, glorified" are various translations of a single term in the Persian t'ali, t'ali which might be more literally translated as lofty or exalted. The repetition of these words in the Persian gives the entire passage a rhythmic effect. Since English style does not value such redundancy as Persian and Arabic does, Shoghi Effendi seems to have preferred to vary the translation in each sentence. But the theme of exaltation, of loftiness, of soaring to heights is what permeates the entirety of this Tablet.
What is most striking about this passage, however, is the way in which it ties together contradictories. What is exalted about the works amal of the True One Haq is His detachment and meekness. And it is that power "which encompasseth all the worlds." The term translated as meekness here is mazulmatiya which denotes not simply humility but being wronged, of being innocent. The root word here, zulm denotes oppression, it is the opposite of 'adl or justice. Bahá'u'lláh makes the astounding assertion then that the Exaltation of God Himself lies in His having subjected Himself through the Manifestation to abasement, oppression and suffering. It is within this context that Bahá'u'lláh goes on to say: "Reflect a while, and consider how they who are the loved ones of God must conduct themselves, and to what heights they must soar." (24) It is through the Manifestation that God Himself participates in the suffering of the oppressed and expects us to emulate Him in that participation.
Returning to the larger context of this passage, Bahá'u'lláh is criticizing the Bahá'ís who have committed crimes of violence and rebellion against the government. Keep in mind that the government in question is an oppressive one. Yet, Bahá'u'lláh suggests that had they instead followed His own example, most of the world would now be Bahá'í! And that example consists of foregoing our own sense of entitlement and instead willingly becoming 'wronged.'
Does this mean that we do nothing in the face of oppression. Not at all. While Bahá'u'lláh did not agitate against an oppressive government, He continued to speak the truth that was in Him in the face of it, and that truth included naming injustice where it occurred.
Though afflicted with countless tribulations, which We have suffered at the hands of Our enemies, We have proclaimed unto all the rulers of the earth what God hath willed to proclaim, that all nations may know that no manner of affliction can deter the Pen of the Ancient of Days from achieving its purpose. (25)
Besides "wronged" another translation for the word translated as "meekness"is "innocence." Bahá'u'lláh is urging the believers to demonstrate their own innocence by the purity of their deeds which are to be expressed by our forbearance, sincerity and fairness.
It behooveth, likewise, the loved ones of God to be forbearing towards their fellow-men, and to be so sanctified and detached from all things, and to entice such sincerity and fairness, that all the peoples of the earth may recognize them as the trustees of God amongst men. (26)
Because the truth and exaltation of the Cause can only be revealed through the integrity of character exhibited by the Manifestation and His followers in the midst of oppression and suffering, any attempt to take justice in our own hands by acts of rebellion or retribution inflicts the greatest harm possible on the Cause:
The imprisonment inflicted on this wronged One, O Dhabíh, did to him no harm nor can it ever do so; nor can the loss of all His earthy goods, His exile, or even His martyrdom and outward humiliation, do Him any hurt. That which can hurt Him are the evil deeds which the beloved of God commit, and which they impute to Him Who is the Sovereign Truth. (27)
Within the Abrahamic religions, there is a long standing tradition whereby the attributes of God are divided into two categories, those of justice and those of mercy. Theologians, throughout the ages, have attempted to demonstrate how these are balanced. In Islam these two categories are known as the tributes of Jalal, literally Glory and those of Jamal, literally Beauty. These are respectively applied to the attributes of justice and mercy. Contrary to the notion stated earlier in this paper, that in the Bahá'í revelation justice takes precedence over mercy, Bahá'u'lláh affirms that "We have, praise be to God, burned the "veils of glory" with the fire of the beauty of the Best-Beloved." (28) Rulers are judged by the meekness of the Wronged One and the touchstone for the fair-minded is the suffering He endured. The attributes of Justice or Jalal are thus subsumed by the Jamal-I Mubarak, the Blessed Beauty.
1. This appears to have been the theme of the 1998 annual meeting of the Association of Bahá'í Studies German-Speaking which was entitled "Religion Between Mercy and Justice." The announcement of the conference made this implied critique of the so-called Christian emphasis on mercy as compared to the supposed greater emphasis on justice in the Bahá'í Faith. "In a society which is dominated by Christian thought, the Mercy of God is given far greater importance than His Justice. The designation "Houses of Justice" already gives a glimpse of the importance attached to this attribute of God in the new world order and in the Golden Age."
2. See for instance "Bahá'u'lláh and Liberation Theology" in Revisioning the Sacred (Los Angeles, 1997.) Pp. 79-98.
3. See for instance Udo Schaefer in The Imperishable Dominion (Oxford: 1983, pp. 180-81) Schaefer blames Martin Luther for the devaluation of justice in Protestant Christianity and writes the following:
"The low estimation of justice in Protestantism, the recourse to the freedom of a Christians and the one-sided emphasis on love, the evangelical antinomian element was a rich breeding ground for the dissemination of anarchical ideas." He goes on further to complain, "the central value of justice has lost it place in the world of order. Love has infiltrated the dwelling place of justice. Love has its rightful place in the life of the individual and in personal relationships, but it is presently being misapplied in the sphere of the social order." I think this misrepresents the Christian position. Luther never denied the need for justice and law in the social sphere, he simply denied it any sotierological role. (For a further discussion of Luther's view of antinomianism see Luther and the False Brethren, Stanford: 1975 pp. 156-79.) Far from devaluing justice, the bulk of Western Christian theology (both Catholic and Protestant) has held since Anselm, hat the crucifixion was the only means by which the Mercy and Justice of God could be perfectly balanced. I would think that from a Bahá'í standpoint the problem with this formulation is not that it devalues justice, but rather that it makes God's activity bound by human conceptions of His attributes rather than acknowledging "He doeth whatsoever He willeth."
4. Bahá'u'lláh, Hidden Words, Arabic 2.
5. Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1969) p. 22.
6. Qur'an 16:61.
7. Advent of Divine Justice, p. 24.
8. Bahá'í News, Nov. 19, 1945.
9. Advent of Divine Justice, p. 18.
10. Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1976) p. 104.
11. Bahá'u'lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1978) p. 98.
12. Cited in a letter from the Universal House of Justice dated 24 April 1972
13. Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitáb-I-Aqdas (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1992) p. 91.
14. Ibid p. 124
15. Advent of Divine Justice, p. 22
16. Bahá'u'lláh, Kitab-I-Iqan, (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1974) pp. 191-92.
17. See for instance William Hatcher ""Prologue on Proving God" in The Law of Love Enshrined, (Oxford: George Ronald Press, 1996) pp. 2-3.
18. Kitab-I-Iqan, p. 195.
19. 'Abdu'l-Bahá Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust) p. 35. My thanks to Dr. Khazeh Fananapazir for bringing to my attention the significance of this passage.
20. Ibid, p. 38.
21. Revisioning the Sacred, p. 93.
22. Gleanings, pp. 240-41.
23. P. 242.
24. P. 243.
25. P. 242.
27. Pp. 243-44.
28. Kitab-I-Iqan, p. 188.