Issues Related to the Study of the Bahá'í Faith
Category: Bahá’í
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Issues Related to the Study of the Bahá’í Faith is a compilation prepared by The Department of the Secretariat of the Universal House of Justice.

Issues Related to the Study of the Bahá’í Faith

Compilation

Bahá’u’lláh, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi


© Bahá’í International Community


The universal house of justice department of the secretariat

7 April 1999

To all National Spiritual Assemblies

Dear Bahá’í Friends,

Issues Related to the Study of the Bahá’í Faith

In May of 1998, Bahá’í Canada reproduced a collection of letters which the Universal House of Justice had written to various individuals on the subject of the academic study of the Bahá’í Faith. Copies of this compilation were subsequently mailed by the Canadian National Spiritual Assembly to its sister Assemblies. The reprint has now been made generally available in booklet form by the United States Bahá’í Publishing Trust. The House of Justice has asked us to forward you a copy of the latter publication with the following comments.

As a number of the friends are aware, a campaign of internal opposition to the Teachings is currently being carried on through the use of the Internet, a communications system that now reaches virtually every part of the world. Differing from attacks familiar in the past, it seeks to recast the entire Faith into a sociopolitical ideology alien to Bahá’u’lláh’s intent. In the place of the institutional authority established by His Covenant, it promotes a kind of interpretive authority which those behind it attribute to the views of persons technically trained in Middle East studies.

Early in 1996, the deliberate nature of the plan was revealed in an accidental posting to an Internet list which Bahá’í subscribers had believed was dedicated to scholarly exploration of the Cause. Some of the people responsible resigned from the Faith when Counselors pointed out to them the direction their activities were taking. A small number of others continue to promote the campaign within the Bahá’í community.

In the past, in situations of a somewhat similar nature, the patience and compassion shown by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Guardian helped various believers who had been misled by ill-intentioned persons to eventually free themselves from such entanglements. In this same spirit of forbearance the Universal House of Justice has intervened in the current situation only to the extent that has been unavoidable, trusting to the good sense and the goodwill of the believers involved to awaken to the spiritual dangers to which they are exposing themselves. Nevertheless, certain Counselors and National Spiritual Assemblies are monitoring the problem closely, and the friends can be confident that whatever further steps are needed to protect the integrity of the Cause will be taken.

As passages in the enclosed reprint make clear, this campaign of internal opposition—while purporting to accept the legitimacy of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice as twin successors of Bahá’u’lláh and the Center of His Covenant—attempts to cast doubt on the nature and scope of the authority conferred on them in the Writings. When other Bahá’ís have pointed out that such arguments contradict explicit statements of the Master, persons behind the scheme have responded by calling into question the soundness of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s own judgment and perspective. Gradually, these arguments have exposed the view of those involved that Bahá’u’lláh Himself was not the voice of God to our age but merely a particularly enlightened moral philosopher, one whose primary concern was to reform existing society.

By itself, such opposition would likely stand little chance of influencing reasonably informed Bahá’ís. As one of the letters in the enclosed reprint (20 July 1997) points out, the scheme relies for effect, therefore, on exploiting the confusion created in modern thought by the reigning doctrines of materialism. Although the reality of God’s continuous relationship with His creation and His intervention in human life and history are the very essence of the teachings of the Founders of the revealed religions, dogmatic materialism today insists that even the nature of religion itself can be adequately understood only through the use of an academic methodology designed to ignore the truths that make religion what it is.

In general, the strategy being pursued has been to avoid direct attacks on the Faith’s Central Figures. The effort, rather, has been to sow the seeds of doubt among believers about the Faith’s teachings and institutions by appealing to unexamined prejudices that Bahá’ís may have unconsciously absorbed from non-Bahá’í society. In defiance of the clear interpretation of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Guardian, for example, Bahá’u’lláh’s limiting of membership on the Universal House of Justice to men is misrepresented as merely a “temporary measure” subject to eventual revision if sufficient pressure is brought to bear. Similarly, Shoghi Effendi’s explanation of Bahá’u’lláh’s vision of the future Bahá’í World Commonwealth that will unite spiritual and civil authority is dismissed in favor of the assertion that the modern political concept of “separation of church and state” is somehow one that Bahá’u’lláh intended as a basic principle of the World Order He has founded. Particularly subtle is an attempt to suggest that the Mashriqu’l-Adhkár should evolve into a seat of quasi-doctrinal authority, parallel to and essentially independent of the Local House of Justice, which would permit various interests to insinuate themselves into the direction of the life processes of the Cause.

Typically, when misrepresentations of the kind described are challenged, the reaction of those behind the campaign has been to claim that their civil rights are being threatened, an assertion that is of course meaningless in the light of the purely voluntary nature of Bahá’í membership. Much emphasis is placed by them also on academic freedom, their view of which proves, on examination, to be merely freedom on their part to pervert scholarly discourse to the promotion of their own ideological agenda, while seeking to exclude from discussion features of the Bahá’í Faith that are central to the Writings of its Founders.

The effect of continued exposure to such insincerity about matters vital to humanity’s well-being is spiritually corrosive. When we encounter minds that are closed and hearts that are darkened by evident malice, Bahá’u’lláh urges that we leave such persons to God and turn our attention to the opportunities which multiply daily for the promotion of the truths which He teaches. In words written at the direction of the Guardian, regarding a situation similar to, though much less serious than, the present one, “… the friends should be advised to just leave these people alone, for their influence can be nothing but negative and destructive.…”

The enclosed material is being sent to your Assembly less out of concern over the immediate situation, which is being systematically addressed, than because of longer-term considerations to which it lends perspective. What we are currently seeing, in a relatively primitive form, is the emergence of a new kind of internal opposition to Bahá’u’lláh’s Mission. While it will no doubt assume other features as time passes, it is a kind of opposition that takes aim directly at Bahá’u’lláh’s assertion of the spiritual nature of reality and of humanity’s dependence on the interventions of Divine Revelation.

Developments of the kind described will come as no surprise to friends who are familiar with the Guardian’s description of the successive waves of “crisis” and “victory” that have marked the history of the Faith ever since its inception. It is precisely this cyclical process, Shoghi Effendi says, that has propelled the steady unfoldment of Bahá’u’lláh’s intent, testing our commitment to His Teachings, purifying His community, and releasing a greater measure of the capacities latent in His Revelation. That resistance to Bahá’u’lláh should now be emerging in yet a new guise is itself a tribute to the gathering strength of the Cause, offering the friends everywhere new opportunities for the deepening of their faith and the energizing of their work.

With loving Bahá’í greetings,
Department of the Secretariat


Issues Related to the Study of the Bahá’í Faith

Extracts from letters written on behalf of
the Universal House of Justice

A compilation prepared by the National Spiritual Assembly of Canada andpublished by the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, 1999

Introduction

The letters in this booklet were written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice over the past few years to believers who, conscious of the high importance Bahá’u’lláh attaches to the pursuit of knowledge and the use of reason, had raised various questions regarding the scholarly study of the Faith. Most of the inquirers whose letters elicited the responses published here were academics, concerned to understand more deeply the relationship between the truths of Revelation and the demands of science for rigorous and detached examination of documentary and other evidence.

Among the several subjects discussed is the need for a scholarly paradigm and methodologies capable of coming to grips with spiritual, moral, and cultural phenomena whose influences on the historical process are becoming increasingly appreciated in scientific discourse. Attention is also given to the implications for Bahá’í studies of the development and spread of the new information technologies anticipated by Shoghi Effendi more than sixty years ago. Particularly instructive are passages in one of the letters that discuss the formation of personal conscience and the moral responsibility of a scholar to serve the cause of truth.

Bahá’í scholars are reminded, too, of the need to be conscious of the culturally determined basis of certain features of the present-day academic milieu, and are urged to avoid entangling scholarship with unacknowledged ideological agendas that undermine its credibility. In the absence of such restraints, it is pointed out, students of Bahá’u’lláh’s Teachings may be tempted to approach His Writings in isolation from the System which He designed for their implementation and which He made integral to His Message.


— 1 —

10 December 1992

The House of Justice understands that there are certain Bahá’í scholars, such as yourself, who experience difficulties with the policy of review, but it finds the cause of the difficulties to lie in areas that are different from those you identify. It would point to the following as being the principal roots of the problem:

1. Too narrow and limited understanding of the Faith and its Teachings on the part of certain Bahá’í scholars. There has been a tendency to specialize in certain narrow areas and neglect the wider understanding of the Teachings which would not only enrich their souls but illuminate their perception of the specific areas of their study.

2. An attitude to the Faith and the Administrative Order which is strongly coloured by an assumption that the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh is similar to other religions and organizations, is afflicted by the attitudes which have too often characterized them, and is motivated by unethical considerations. The institutions of the Cause are regarded with the same suspicion as the traditional “establishment”. This produces a failure to understand, let alone accept, the points which the Universal House of Justice itself is striving to convey.

3. An assumption that only a person equipped with conventional academic training is capable of an unbiased attitude and of truly understanding the points at issue, leading to disdain of questions raised by “unqualified” individuals.

4. Failure to use the appeal processes of the Cause by scholars who are faced with what they regard as improper and unjustified questioning of their writings by Bahá’í reviewing committees. It is natural that, in the present stage of the development of the Cause, the members of reviewing committees will, from time to time, err in their views or be unreasonably obtuse. Such errors and attitudes should be overcome through discussion between the author and the members of the committee. If this does not lead to a satisfactory outcome, the author can appeal to the National Spiritual Assembly itself and, if even that does not solve the matter, to the Universal House of Justice.

5. The above attitudes, in turn, lead to an inability on the part of those scholars to describe the review process to their non-Bahá’í colleagues in terms that would not be unacceptable in an academic environment.

Your suggestion that an “imprimatur” system such as used by the Roman Catholic Church would be preferable to the present system of review was considered by the House of Justice, and it has asked us to explain to you the problems that this would present.

First of all, it would convey to the reader the false impression that the attitude of the Faith was similar to that of the Roman Catholic Church, summoning up visions of an “index” of prohibited reading, and all the other associations which you can undoubtedly imagine for yourself.

Secondly, it would give force to the erroneous concept that there are two kinds of Bahá’í literature: books which present the “official” view and those which are the free personal opinions of individual Bahá’ís, thus obscuring the essential Bahá’í differentiation between the Writings of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, those of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the letters of the Guardian and the decisions of the Universal House of Justice, which are authoritative, on the one hand, and all other writings by Bahá’ís on the other, which have no authority at all apart from their own internal reasonableness. That a book has passed review in no way guarantees its correctness; it is merely an assurance by the National Spiritual Assembly concerned that, in its view, the book does not seriously distort the Faith or its Teachings.

Thirdly, it would obscure the important fact that the process of review in the Bahá’í Faith is temporary, being limited to this stage of its development when books published by Bahá’ís could seriously mislead the public if they too gravely distort its message.

Your proposal that a National Spiritual Assembly which detected major inaccuracies in an article published by a Bahá’í in an academic journal could have the Research Department “write a letter to the concerned journal pointing out and listing these inaccuracies, giving the requisite textual evidence in footnotes”, that journal editors would be “quite willing to entertain such correspondence” and that it would be found that Bahá’í scholars would be “grateful for chance to discuss such issues freely” introduces a new kind of discrimination and interference. Bahá’í institutions very seldom write to journals to correct their statements about the Faith; not only do they not wish to promote public disputes with those who write about the Cause, but the correction of such errors is seldom worth the time and effort necessary. In the coming years there will be numerous non-Bahá’ís, ranging from those who are bitter enemies of the Cause to those who are its warm advocates, publishing articles about it. There is no way in which Bahá’í institutions could write corrections of the multitudinous errors that will be published; how, then, would they be justified in writing to correct only the errors perpetrated by Bahá’í authors?

The House of Justice suggests that you consider the following steps through which the scholars of the Faith can overcome the problems which some of them perceive as presented by review of their publications.

Let them accept unreservedly that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was right in instituting the temporary system of review, and that the decisions of the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice to not yet eliminate the system are in accordance with the Divine Will.

Let them recognize the fundamental difference between errors propagated by Bahá’ís from those issuing from non-Bahá’í sources. The review system is not an attempt to prevent errors or attacks on the Faith from being published; it is an attempt to prevent Bahá’ís from promulgating them in their published writings.

Let them strive to understand the wisdom of this policy and its true nature, and to present it in its proper light to their fellow-academics….

Let Bahá’í scholars look upon their fellow Bahá’ís with trust and affection, not with disdain as to their qualifications and suspicion as to their motives. Let them regard them as devoted Bahá’ís striving to perform a service which the policies of the Faith require of them. And let them not hesitate to discuss openly with such reviewers the points which they raise. If it appears that a National Spiritual Assembly does not permit such open discussion, let them appeal to the Universal House of Justice for clarification of the situation. It is well understood by the Universal House of Justice that in some cases the process of review works inefficiently and with problems. These deficiencies could be overcome if the scholars themselves would collaborate with the process and openly raise questions about its functioning, rather than fostering an atmosphere of antagonism and mutual mistrust.

If the question of review is raised by non-Bahá’í academics, let the Bahá’í academics say that in this early stage in the development of the Faith this is a species of peer review which they welcome, since it is primarily among their fellow-Bahá’ís that they would find at this time those who would have sufficiently wide and deep understanding of the Faith and its Teachings to raise issues of importance which they would want to consider before publication. Of course, to be able to say this with sincerity, the scholars must have been able to accept the other steps mentioned above.

You cite the case of Bahá’ís in other fields of expertise, such as Bahá’í physicians who, you say, “may pursue their professions as Bahá’ís with no prospect of interference by Bahá’í institutions”. This is hardly the case. All Bahá’ís are subject to Bahá’í law and Bahá’í standards. It would clearly be unacceptable for a Bahá’í doctor to advocate abortion as a method of birth control and set up a clinic for that purpose, or for a Bahá’í psychiatrist to publicly advocate sexual intercourse before marriage.

Bahá’u’lláh was addressing all of us when He wrote: “Were any man to taste the sweetness of the words which the lips of the All-Merciful have willed to utter, he would, though the treasures of the earth be in his possession, renounce them one and all, that he might vindicate the truth of even one of His commandments, shining above the Dayspring of His bountiful care and loving-kindness” and “Whoso hath inhaled the sweet fragrance of the All-Merciful, and recognized the Source of this utterance, will welcome with his own eyes the shafts of the enemy, that he may establish the truth of the laws of God amongst men.”

Finally, the House of Justice wishes us to say that it fully agrees with your statement that it is important for the Faith to attract intellectuals and, indeed, all people of capacity in any field. Bahá’ís who themselves are intellectuals can contribute signally to this process, but not by ignoring the basic standards of faith and conduct that apply to all believers or by depicting the Bahá’í administration as a bureaucratic hindrance to freedom of thought and expression.


— 2 —

5 October 1993

With regard to the current policy of advance review, all Bahá’ís, whatever their professions, are challenged to reflect on the implications of our common struggle to achieve Bahá’u’lláh’s purpose for the human race, including the use of our intellectual resources to gain deeper understanding of that Revelation and to apply its principles. In pursuing this course that has been set for it so explicitly and emphatically by its Founder, the Bahá’í community acts through the institutions that He has provided.

Scholarly endeavors are not an activity apart from this organic process, answering to standards and operating on authority outside it. The House of Justice believes that part of the difficulty that some Bahá’í academics are having with the question of prepublication review may arise from the fact that, in their scholarly work, such believers do not see themselves as full participants in this process, free to act with the spiritual autonomy they exercise in other aspects of their lives. What the Bahá’í community is engaged in bringing into visible expression is a new creation. In this, the Cause has urgent need of the unfettered and wholehearted assistance of its scholars. The House of Justice has sought to point out that, as in every other field of Bahá’í endeavor, there are certain conditions under which this assistance may be rendered, conditions implicit in the nature of the process and made explicit in the Divine Text.

These requirements are of course not reflected in the standards currently prevailing in Western academic institutions. Rather, both Bahá’í institutions and Bahá’í scholars are called on to exert a very great effort, of heart, mind, and will, in order to forge the new models of scholarly activity and guidance that Bahá’u’lláh’s work requires. The House of Justice believes that you will serve the interests of the Faith best if you will direct your thoughts to this end. Merely to reiterate the conventions and requirements of systems which, whether academic, political, social, or economic, have been shown not to have adequate answers to the anarchy now engulfing human society, or any willingness to come to grips with the implications of their impotence, is of little practical help. We do a grave disservice to both ourselves and the Faith when we simply submit to the authority of academic practices that appeal for their claim of objectivity to theories which themselves are being increasingly called into question by major thinkers. While non-Bahá’í academics may slip carelessly into regarding the institutions founded by Bahá’u’lláh as simply another form of “religious establishment” and avoid serious examination of the truths of His Revelation in this fashion, it is clearly impossible for anyone who is a Bahá’í to follow them down this empty track.

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