Primary Source Texts, Access to
by / on behalf of Universal House of Justice and Susan Maneck1998-12-30
1. Letter from Susan Maneck to the Universal House of JusticeFrom: Susan Maneck
To: Bahai World Centre
Subject: Letter to the House
Date sent: Wed, 30 Dec 1998
Dear Universal House of Justice,
I am writing this letter in regards to a matter which has been troubling me and a number of other Bahá'í scholars, both academics and amateurs. A lot of confusion currently exist surrounding the policies regarding access to sources at the World Centre and regarding the publication of primary source material (memoirs, etc.) available through other avenues.
In your letter to me dated Feb. 8, 1998 you stated in no uncertain terms, "The purpose of scholarship in such fields should obviously be the ascertainment of truth, and Bahá'í scholars should, of course, observe the highest standards of honesty, integrity and truthfulness. A good portion of that letter was devoted to expounding on the principle of independent investigation of truth as it relates to Bahá'í scholarship. I also note that a letter written on behalf of the House of Justice dated July 18, 1979 stated "The fact that the Faith, as the Guardian state, "enjoins upon its followers the primary duty of an unfettered search after truth". Should reassure any aspiring Bahá'í historian that there can be no question of any requirement to distort history in the so-called "interests" of the Faith."
I am having some difficulties reconciling the current policies regarding access and publication of primary source documents with the principles outlined above. I am aware of the Oct. 5, 1993 letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice where it is stated that at present scholars have been frequently denied access to sources because of inadequate resources to accommodate them. Yet, the recent correspondence between Dr. ... and you regarding the memoirs of Vakilu'd Dawlih, his earlier correspondence regarding the memoirs of Aqa Husayn Ashchi, and the actions taken by the Universal House of Justice some years ago in regards to the memoirs of Ustad Salmani suggests that there are a number of other issues at stake here as well. I wonder if I could ask the House of Justice to clarify these? The circumstances involving elimination of certain passages of Salmani's memoirs is, of course well known by now and I need not go over those. In the case of the Aschi's narrative, Dr. ... possessed the manuscript in question and sought from the World Centre permission to proceed with the work of translation and publication. The Secretariat informed him however that the World Centre itself would take steps towards the publication of such writings in due time. In the meantime it felt that the select portions of Aschi's memoirs available through Mr. Balyuzi's secondary account should be sufficient. In regards to his request for the memoirs of Vakilu'd-Dawlih, Dr. ... was initially told that these memoirs were unavailable due to considerations of family confidentiality. When he assured the World Centre that he had the full support and cooperation of the principle family members involved he was told that because of Vakil-ud-Dawlih's "high station in the Faith" these memoirs would not be available until the House of Justice was able to "familiarize itself with the nature and content" of this material.
Some of the policies of the House of Justice, such as those involving the protection of privacy, are quite understandable. Others, such as the bearing of an author's "station" on accessibility of sources, I find quite confusing. In fact, they are deeply troubling because they leave the unfortunate impression that the World Centre wishes to "sanitize" this material before it is made accessible to the public. This has disturbing implications, as it calls into question our dedication as a community to the principle of the independent investigation of truth. My question is this: How can we with integrity uphold the principle of the independent investigation of the truth, both for Bahá'ís and non- Bahá'ís, if we exercise such tight control over access to truth, even in cases where the resources of the World Centre need not be utilized? I understand the risks that open access to such materials can easily lead to misinformation, misunderstandings and even misrepresentation of the reality of the Cause, however, I would think such a danger will always be a necessary corollary to any serious commitment to independent investigation. I know also that the House of Justice considers issues of wisdom and timeliness in deciding what materials to release, but here again I am having trouble understanding the compatibility of those principles with that of the unfettered search for truth. Or does wisdom override this principle?
I hope that the Universal House of Justice will consider this question in the spirit in which it is asked and offer us guidance which can give scholars and academics the assurance they require regarding these matters at a time when the community is coming under increasing criticism and challenges to its integrity and when the the bulk of materials available on the Bahá'í Faith is being sought, not through official Bahá'í channels, but on the internet, often from those antagonistic towards the Bahá'í Institutions.
I would ask that you remember the Bahá'í scholars and academics in your prayers.
2. Letter from The Universal House of Justice to Susan ManeckDate sent: Tue, 11 May 99
To: Susan Maneck
Subject: Access to materials at the Bahá'í World Centre
From: Bahá'í World Centre
4 May 1999
Transmitted by email to Dr. Susan Maneck, U.S.A.
Dear Bahá'í Friend,
The Universal House of Justice has received your email of 30 December 1998 requesting clarification of the policies governing access to sources at the Bahá'í World Centre and regarding publication of primary source material available to people through other avenues. It welcomes the opportunity to provide further information on these issues and has instructed us to send you the following reply.
Your questions have to be considered in the context of the range of the work and responsibilities of the Universal House of Justice. One of the most important functions of the Head of the Cause is to guide the faithful to the tasks which need to be performed at each stage in its progress. It must allocate the resources of the Faith and point out those areas on which attention should be focused. Naturally, each individual tends to see the importance of his or her special interests or to focus on needs which are immediately apparent. All these have their own validity, but it is the Universal House of Justice which sees the whole picture and can guide the process. The friends must have faith in this, otherwise their efforts will be dissipated and even mutually conflicting.
The question of providing access to primary source materials is but one of the matters which must occupy the attention and consume the resources of the Cause. The written material of this Dispensation is incomparably rich and varied, and we now stand only a century and a half from the day on which the Báb announced His Mission to Mullá Husayn in Shiráz.
Access to source documents relating to the Bahá'í Faith which are held in libraries in different parts of the world, or are in the hands of individuals, is open to anyone who wishes to consult them, dependent only on the permission of the institution or individual in whose possession the documents are held. A major service which a number of Bahá'í scholars have rendered to the Faith is in tracing such deposits and, where possible, obtaining archival quality photocopies for the World Centre Archives and Library.
As for source documents at the World Centre itself: these are held by the Universal House of Justice in trust for the entire Bahá'í world and ultimately for the whole of humankind, of both present and future generations. There is tremendous work to be accomplished in sorting, identifying and cataloguing such documents so that they can be effectively studied without either damaging them or losing vital information by disturbing their inter- relationships. As far as the urgent needs of the Faith are concerned, the primary work in this respect must be devoted to the Sacred Texts rather than to documents of historical interest, although the latter are by no means ignored. It would be irresponsible for the House of Justice, without itself first being fully informed of what is in the Archives, to consider opening them to individual scholars for the pursuit of purely personal interests.
Far from allowing anyone to tamper with the historical records, the Universal House of Justice has the obligation to preserve the integrity, not only of the Sacred Texts, but of all the historical documents in its possession. It has, moreover, a responsibility for arranging their publication for the scholarly world in a coherent manner that will not give a misleading impression of events as a result of the mere choice of the items and the order in which they are made public. Undoubtedly, in due course, it will be possible to publish editions of historical documents in facsimile accompanied, in the case of each document, by a printed transcription, and supplemented by necessary commentaries and notes. It is with such thoughts in mind that the House of Justice feels that a certain discipline is required of those individual believers who decide, for their own purposes, to publish or translate documents which they have at hand.
This entire process is made the more delicate by past experience with those who, pursuing unacknowledged agendas of their own, have wished to publish certain documents for ulterior motives, or with others who have lacked the good sense and breadth of vision to act responsibly.
You refer to the principle of the unfettered search after truth. This is certainly upheld, but it cannot imply that the institutions of the Faith have a duty to make available to each enquirer every piece of information he or she requests. We are faced here, not with wisdom prevailing over the search for truth, but with a process of organic growth, both in the world and, commensurate with it, at the World Centre of the Faith.
The Universal House of Justice has asked us to assure you of its prayers on your behalf in the Holy Shrines for the reinforcement of your devoted endeavours to advance the interests of the Cause of Bahá'u'lláh.
Department of the Secretariat
cc: International Teaching Centre