Archive for the ‘Equality’ Category

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The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith

August 27, 2018

When I heard the following paper being presented at the 1988 Bahai Studies conference in New Zealand it seemed to me that the phrase by Abdul-Baha “the sun at high noon” meant when the timing is right or when time has passed.
Here is the whole text:
“The House of Justice, however, according to the explicit text of the Law of God, is confined to men; this for a wisdom of the Lord God’s, which will ere long be made manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon.”
Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Haifa: Baha’i World Centre, 1978, pp 79-80

Over the years various Bahais have come up with all sorts of ‘reasons’ as to why women are not allowed to serve as members of the international body of the Bahai Administration (The Universal House of Justice) which fortunately can be easily dismissed as prejudice or ignorance because in most Bahai communities women are not treated with any lesser status than men. I am not suggesting that Bahai communities do not display aspects of sexism but in general I don’t see it being any worse than in the surrounding culture and as each day goes by, less Bahais insist that a women’s place is in the home raising children 🙂

So when someone would ask me about the inequality of not allowing women to serve on the Universal House of Justice (UHJ). I would throw up my hands and say I have no idea but I trust it will work out and that I am a Bahai and a feminist and Bahais do see the importance of gender equality. After hearing the paper, depending on the person’s interest I might add it seems to me to be a historical misunderstanding because Abdul-Baha’s 1902 text cited above refers to the all male membership of the Chicago House of Justice and not to the Universal House of Justice and a decade later Abdul-Baha changed this policy to allow women also to serve.

I now saw the context for this quotation from Abdul-Baha as wisdom because for the Persian man sent to oversee this first election at Abdul-Baha’s request, the idea that women could be members was too much of a strange idea. So “confined to men” meant in the 1902 Tablet, 10 years (from the first tablet in 1902 to the change to allow women to be elected in 1912).

This paper also gives an overview on the development of the Bahai administration which began informally in Iran from about 1878 as well as some context for Baha’u’llah’s use of the word “rijal” which is the word used by Baha’u’llah for the members of a House of Justice.

Sen McGlinn wanted to publish this in a journal of essays, Soundings (see the essays that were published) but the UHJ would not allow this to be published. Then the authors were informed that they were not allowed to circulate this paper. Then in 2007 another letter of the UHJ said that they were unaware of any restrictions on the circulation of this paper. So this could go up on h-net.org where people now had access to this. Below this paper is a bit of discussion on this topic.

Here is the paper! It is also here on h-net.org but I am putting it here so there are two places it can be found. Please bear in mind that this was written in 1988 and so the statistics will be out of date. So far as I know no other Bahais have written on this topic since then. There have been a number of statements from the UHJ stating that the gender of the UHJ will never change.

The Service of Women on the Institutions of the Baha’i Faith
Presented in 1988 at the New Zealand Bahai Studies Association Conference, Christchurch.
Anthony A. Lee, Peggy Caton, Richard Hollinger, Marjan Nirou, Nader Saiedi, Shahin Carrigan, Jackson Armstong-Ingram, and Juan R. I. Cole

From 1844, the year of the founding of the Babi religion, to the present day, women have played important roles in Baha’i history. Babi and Baha’i women have often acted as leaders in the community, holding its highest positions and participating in its most important decisions. In the first days of His Revelation, the Bab Himself appointed Qurratu’l-‘Ayn, Tahirih, as one of His chief disciples – one of the nineteen Letters of the Living who were the first to believe in Him and were entrusted by Him with the mission of spreading His Faith and shepherding its believers. This remarkable woman would soon become one of the most radical and influential of the Bab’s disciples and the leader of the Babis of Karbala. Her vision and achievement have become legend. [1]

In later periods of Baha’i history, women have acted in central roles of leadership within the community. Bahiyyih Khanum, the Greatest Holy Leaf, the sister of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, several times in her lifetime was called upon to act as the de facto head of the Baha’i Faith. When ‘Abdu’l-Baha left the Holy Land to travel to the West, for example, He chose to leave the affairs of the Cause in the hands of His sister. Likewise, immediately after the ascension of ‘Abdu’l-Baha – before Shoghi Effendi, the new Guardian, could arrive in Palestine to assume control of the Faith, the Greatest Holy Leaf assumed leadership. The Baha’is in the Holy Land instinctively turned to her as their guide and protector. And again, during the Guardian’s absences from his duties during the early years of his ministry, he repeatedly entrusted the affairs of the Cause to the Greatest Holy Leaf. [2]

After the passing of Shoghi Effendi, women were once more called upon to serve the Baha’i Faith at its highest levels. The international leadership of the religion fell to the Hands of the Cause, the chief stewards of the Faith who had been appointed by the Guardian during his lifetime. The women Hands served along with the men to guide the Baha’i community through the turbulent years preceding the election of the Universal House of Justice. Once again, Baha’i women demonstrated their capacity to administer the affairs of the Faith at its highest levels.

The Baha’i Principle of Gradualism
Nonetheless, the service of women on the elected institutions of the Baha’i Faith has emerged only gradually. Although a few exceptional Baha’i women have always set the example for their sex, the role of women on Baha’i institutions in the community as a whole has not been comparable to that of men. Traditional notions of inequality, as well as the restrictions of a hostile environment, have caused the participation of women to lag behind.
Even to the present day, the participation of women on National Spiritual Assemblies, Boards of Counsellors, and Auxiliary Boards is not equal to that of men, as the charts show. A long road has yet to be travelled.

Participation of Women in Baha’i Institutions
“The equality of men and women is not, at the present time, universally applied.
In those areas where traditional inequality still hampers its progress we must take the lead in practicing this Baha’i principle. Baha’i women and girls must be encouraged to take part in the social, spiritual and administrative activities of their communities.”

The Universal House of Justice, Ridvan 1984.

The following table shows, by continent, the numbers of National Assemblies with the corresponding numbers of women members indicated by the column headings. For example, column 1, line 1, there are 4 Assemblies in Africa with no women members.


(Information provided by the Department of Statistics at the Baha’i World Centre, and reprinted from dialogue, volume 1, no. 3 (Summer/Fall 1986), p 31.)

The gradual emergence of women on the institutions of the Faith should not come as a surprise, however. Virtually all Baha’i laws and practices have gone through a gradual evolution in Baha’i history. The recognition of the principle of the equality of men and women, and its gradual application in the development of Baha’i Administration is no exception.

The principle of progressive revelation, the concept of the gradual emergence of divine purpose, is a universal principle which applies within the dispensation of each Manifestation, as well as between dispensations. Baha’u’llah Himself has explained:
Know of a certainty that in every Dispensation the light of Divine Revelation hath been vouchsafed to men in direct proportion to their spiritual capacity. Consider the sun. How feeble its rays the moment it appeareth above the horizon. How gradually its warmth and potency increase as it approacheth its zenith, enabling meanwhile all created things to adapt themselves to the growing intensity of its light. How steadily it declineth until it reacheth its setting point. Were it all of a sudden to manifest the energies latent within it, it would no doubt cause injury to all created things …

In like manner, if the Sun of Truth were suddenly to reveal, at the earliest stages of its manifestation, the full measure of the potencies which the providence of the Almighty hath bestowed upon it, the earth of human understanding would waste away and be consumed; for men’s hearts would neither sustain the intensity of its revelation, nor be able to mirror forth the radiance of its light. Dismayed and overpowered, they would cease to exist. [3]

The Universal House of Justice has demonstrated how this principle of progressive revelation has applied, and continues to apply, to the implementation of Baha’i law, particularly to the laws of the Kitab-i Aqdas. The Central Figures of the Faith have promulgated these laws only gradually as the condition of the Baha’i community would allow. [4]

Similarly, ‘Abdu’l-Baha recognised that women could not take their rightful place in the affairs of the world all at once. Throughout history women have been deprived of education and opportunity. Therefore, it was impossible that they would be able to immediately play an equal role in Baha’i life. But ‘Abdu’l-Baha has insisted that all distinctions of sex will be erased once women attain proper education and experience. He says:
Woman’s lack of progress and proficiency has been due to her need for equal education and opportunity. Had she been allowed this equality, there is no doubt she would be the counterpart of man in ability and capacity. [5]

In a talk given in New York, ‘Abdu’l-Baha again pinpoints education as the key to women’s equality:
…if woman be fully educated and granted her rights, she will attain the capacity for wonderful accomplishments and prove herself the equal of man. She is the coadjutor of man; his complement and helpmeet. Both are human, both are endowed with potentialities of intelligence and embody the virtues of humanity. In all human powers and functions they are partners and co-equals. At present in spheres of human activity woman does not manifest her natal prerogatives owing to lack of education and opportunity. [6]

In Paris He said:
…the female sex is treated as though inferior, and is not allowed equal rights and privileges. This condition is not due to nature, but to education. In the Divine Creation there is no such distinction. Neither sex is superior to the other in the sight of God. Why then should one sex assert the inferiority of the other…If women received the same educational advantages as those of men, the result would demonstrate the equality of capacity of both for scholarship. [7]

On another occasion he made the same point:
The only difference between them [ie: men and women] now is due to lack of education and training. If woman is given equal opportunity of education, distinction and estimate of inferiority will disappear. [8]

And again:
Therefore, woman must receive the same education as man and all inequality be adjusted. Thus, imbued with the same virtues as man, rising through all the degrees of human attainment, women will become the peers of men, and until this equality is established, true progress and attainment for the human race will not be facilitated. [9]

It was clearly ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s position that lack of education and opportunity had relegated woman to an inferior position in society, and that through education and experience all inequalities of sex would be gradually removed. His own policies and actions concerning the service of women on the institutions of the Faith reflected this belief in gradualism.

The First Baha’i Institutions
Any investigation of the history of the development of the Baha’i Administrative Order will reveal that Baha’i women only gradually took their place beside the men in this area of service – and not without struggle. This has been especially true in the East, where women were most heavily restricted. But lack of education and other cultural circumstances have affected the participation of women on Baha’i institutions all over the world.

The first Hands of the Cause appointed by Baha’u’llah were, for example, all males. ‘Abdu’l-Baha appointed no additional Hands, and it was only during the ministry of Shoghi Effendi that women were appointed to this rank. Even so, it has been only Western Baha’i women who have been found qualified for this distinction.

At later times, when the first Auxiliary Boards to the Hands of the Cause were appointed, and then the first contingents of Boards of Counsellors, women were included. But circumstances dictated that it be mostly Western women who were appointed, and that their numbers were far fewer than those of men. As the above chart shows, that situation remains the same today. This is not due to any policy of discrimination on the part of the institutions of the Faith, but simply due to historical circumstances. As the position of women improves – especially in Asia and Africa – with respect to education and experience, we can expect that the current situation will change in favour of more participation of women.

The House of Justice of Tehran
The struggle for the equal participation of women in Baha’i Administration has been played out most dramatically, however, in the arena of the development of local institutions. The first of these bodies was formed in Tehran, Iran, at the initiative of individual believers.

In 1873, Baha’u’llah revealed the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book, His book of laws. Here He established the institution of the House of Justice (bayt al-‘adl). The Kitab-i-Aqdas states:
The Lord hath ordained that in every city a House of Justice (bayt al-‘adl) be established wherein shall gather counsellors to the number of Baha [i.e., nine], and should it exceed this number it does not matter … It behoveth them to be the trusted ones of the Merciful among men and to regard themselves as the guardians appointed of God for all that dwell on earth. It is incumbent on them to take counsel together and to have regard for the interests of the servants of God, for His sake, even as they regard their own interests, and to choose that which is meet and seemly. [10]

In the same book it is written:
O ye Men of Justice! (rijal al-‘adl) Be ye in the realm of God shepherds unto His sheep and guard them from the ravening wolves that have appeared in disguise, even as ye would guard your own sons. Thus exhorteth you the Counsellor, the Faithful. [11]

There are other references in the Kitab-i-Aqdas to the House of Justice (bayt al-‘adl) or the Place of Justice (maqarr al-‘adl) which define its function and fix some of its revenues. In most cases, these references are not specific but refer to the general concept of a House of Justice rather than a particular institution. The Universal House of Justice has explained:
In the Kitab-i-Aqdas Baha’u’llah ordains both the Universal House of Justice and the Local Houses of Justice. In many of His laws He refers simply to “the House of Justice” leaving open for later decision which level or levels of the whole institution each law would apply to. [12]

Although the Kitab-i-Aqdas was revealed in ‘Akka in 1873, it was withheld for some time by Baha’u’llah before it was distributed to the Baha’is of Iran. [13]

It appears that it was not until 1878 that the Baha’is of Tehran received copies of the book and began to implement some of its laws in their personal lives. Upon reading the Kitab-i Aqdas, Mirza Asadu’llah Isfahani, a prominent Baha’i teacher living in Tehran, was particularly struck by the command of Baha’u’llah that a House of Justice should be established by the Baha’is in every city.

Mirza Asadu’llah is an important figure in Baha’i history: he eventually married the sister of ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s wife; he was (as we shall see) one of the earliest Baha’i teachers sent to America by ‘Abdu’l-Baha to instruct the new Western believers and he later accompanied ‘Abdu’l-Baha on his travels in Europe. In any case, in 1878 he was the first to undertake the organization of a local House of Justice in Iran. He took the initiative to invite eight other prominent believers to form a body, responding to the laws of the Kitab-i Aqdas, which they referred to as bayt al-‘adl (House of Justice) or bayt al-a’zam (the Most Great House).

The organization of this first House of Justice was kept a secret, even from the believers. However, it met sporadically in the home of Mirza Asadu’llah for a couple of years. After consulting with this body, the prominent Baha’i men who had been invited to attend its meetings would seek to take action as individual Baha’i teachers that would implement its decisions.

Around 1881, the Tehran House of Justice was reorganized and more members were added. The House adopted a written constitution and pursued its activities with more organization and vigour than before. The constitution mandated, however, that the meetings remain strictly confidential, hidden from the body of the believers.

This constitution also assumes that the members of the House would all be men (aqayan). Naturally, considering the social conditions in Iran at the time, no other arrangement was possible.

Some of the minutes of this early House of Justice survive today. It was a gathering of the older and more prominent Baha’i men of Tehran. Meetings were attended by invitation only, and at times included fourteen members or more. Eventually, this meeting came to be called the Consultative Gathering (majlis-i shur), while the house where the body met was referred to as the House of Justice (bayt al-‘adl).

These meetings sought to assist and protect the Baha’is through consultation on various problems. The House in Tehran sent Baha’i teachers to other cities in Iran to organize Houses of Justice there. Again, the decisions of the House were always carried out by individuals, and the consultations remained secret.

The organization of this body eventually met with some controversy. One important Baha’i teacher, Jamal-i Burujurdi, who later – in the time of ‘Abdu’l-Baha – would become a notorious Covenant-breaker, objected strongly to the organization of a House of Justice in Tehran. Because of these objections, the Baha’is involved on the House appealed to Baha’u’llah for guidance. Baha’u’llah replied with a Tablet in which He approved of the House of Justice and strongly upheld the principle of consultation in the Baha’i Faith. [14]

Early Organisation in America
When the first rudimentary local Baha’i institutions were organized in the United States, their membership was also confined to men. Later, as various forms of Baha’i organization at the local level became more common, men and women served together. But it was the understanding of the Baha’is at the turn of the century that consultative bodies in the Baha’i community should be composed of men. This understanding became firmly institutionalized in the largest Baha’i communities of New York, Chicago, and Kenosha, Wisconsin, and was sanctioned by ‘Abdu’l-Baha.

A scholarly history of the beginnings of Baha’i organization in America has yet to be written. Many of the details of these events have yet to be uncovered. However, it appears that the early American Baha’is were moved to form local councils for the first time in 1900, as a consequence of the defection of Ibrahim Kheiralla from the community. Kheiralla, a Lebanese Christian who had been converted to the Baha’i Faith in Egypt by a Persian Baha’i, ‘Abdu’l-Karim Tihrani, had brought the Baha’i teachings to America and had acted as the head of the Faith in the West until that point. His repudiation of ‘Abdu’l-Baha as the rightful leader of the Faith and chosen successor to his Father caused a temporary rift among the Baha’is.

In the fall of 1899, Edward Getsinger, a leading American Baha’i, appointed five men as a “Board of Counsel” for the Baha’is of northern New Jersey. [15] Isabella Brittingham was made the honorary corresponding secretary, but was not a member of the body. Later, in a letter dated March 21, 1900, Thornton Chase wrote from Chicago:
“We have formed a ‘Board of Council’ with 10 members.”

In this letter, Chase lists the names of nine of these members, all of whom were men. [16]

In June of 1900, however, it appears that the Chicago Board was reorganized. ‘Abdu’l-Karim Tihrani had travelled to America at the request of ‘Abdu’l-Baha and had arrived in Chicago at the end of May. The Baha’is of Chicago immediately asked him to draw up rules and regulations that would govern the affairs of their Board. [17] As a result, the Board of Counsel was expanded to nineteen members, some of whom were women. In a statement to the press the Baha’is indicated that this Board was being organized to replace Ibrahim Kheiralla, whom they repudiated as the leader of the Faith. [18]

Although ‘Abdu’l-Karim remained in Chicago for only a short time, his nineteen-member Board appears to have functioned for about a year. However, on May 15, 1901, a nine-member, all-male House of Justice was elected in Chicago to replace it. This was done at the direction of Mirza Asadu’llah Isfahani, who had been sent to America by ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Writing to the House of Justice in New York that had already been established, the Chicago House wrote:
Recently His Honor, Mirza Assad’Ullah, received a Tablet from the Master, Abdul-Baha, in which He has positively declared to be necessary the establishment here of the House of Justice by election by the believers with order and just dealing. According to this blessed Announcement, our believers have elected those whom they deemed best fitted, and thus The House of Justice was established. [19]

It was Mirza Asadu’llah who instructed the Baha’is of Chicago that the new House of Justice should be composed only of men. He and his company appear to have regarded the nineteen-member Board as illegitimate, possibly because women served as members.

The change to an all-male institution was not accomplished without anguish. Writing years later, Fannie Lesch, who had served on the Board of Counsel, wrote:
We had a Council Board of men and women after Dr. Kheiralla left us…
Mirza Assad’Ullah ignored us, although they were all invited to meet with us, and he established a House of Justice of men only…
[20]

Only days after the election of the Chicago House of Justice, a Ladies’ Auxilliary Board was organized at the suggestion of Mrs. Ella Nash and Mrs. Corinne True. This Board was later to be known as the Women’s Assembly of Teaching. It appears that the Ladies’ Auxilliary was able to maintain control of the funds of the Chicago Baha’i community despite the election of the House of Justice. [21]

Men of Justice
The belief that women were not eligible for service on local Baha’i institutions was based on the language of certain passages of the Kitab-i Aqdas which refer to the House of Justice. Of course, as we have noted above, these passages do not make a distinction between local, national, and international bodies. The institution as a whole is addressed. Baha’u’llah twice uses the Arabic word rijal (gentlemen) to refer to the members of the Houses of Justice. He says:
O ye Men (rijal) of Justice! Be ye in the realm of God shepherds unto His sheep… [22]

And:
We have designated a third of all fines for the Place of Justice (maqarr al-‘adl), and exhort its members (rijal) to show forth perfect equity… [23]

The word rijal (plural; singular is rajul) is exclusively masculine in Arabic. A dictionary would render an English definition of rajul as: man, gentleman; important man, statesman, nobleman. (A related form of the word, rujula or rujuliyya, would be translated as: masculinity; virility.) Since Baha’u’llah addressed the members of the Houses of Justice using this term, it appears that it was universally assumed that only men were eligible for service on such institutions.

The word rijal, meaning men, is used in the Qur’an and is part of an important passage which establishes the relationship between men and women in Islam (Qur’an 4:34):
Men (rijal) are superior to women (nisa’) on account of the qualities with which God hath gifted the one above the other, and on account of the outlay they make from their substance for them.

However, Baha’u’llah has in His Writings clearly established the principle of the equality of men and women. It is therefore possible that when He used the word rijal He did not intend its normal meaning.

Although rijal is the normal Arabic word for men (as opposed to women), there are passages in the Writings of Baha’u’llah that indicate that He may have used the term in a special sense. Such passages suggest that, in a Baha’i context, the word may be understood to include women. Baha’u’llah has stated that women in His Cause are all to be accorded the same station as men – and He has used the very term rijal to make this point. For example, He writes:
Today the Baha’i women (lit., the leaves of the Holy Tree) must guide the handmaidens of the earth to the Lofty Horizon with the utmost purity and sanctity. Today the handmaidens of God are regarded as gentlemen (rijal). Blessed are they! Blessed are they! [24]

And in another passage:
Today whoever among the handmaidens attains the knowledge of the Desire of the World [i.e., Baha’u’llah] is considered a gentleman (rajul) in the Divine Book. [25]

And in another place:
…many a man (rajul) hath waited expectant for God’s Revelation, and yet when the Light shone forth from the horizon of the world, all but a few turned their faces away from it. Whosoever from amongst the handmaidens hath recognized the Lord of all Names is recorded in the Book as one of those men (rijal) by the Pen of the Most High. [26]

Likewise, ‘Abdu’l-Baha in one of his Tablets has made the same point:
Verily, according to Baha’u’llah, women are judged as gentlemen (rijal). [27]

However, such passages were not raised as an issue at the time, either because the believers were not aware of them, or because they did not find them applicable. Certainly, the American Baha’is had no access to these texts and had to rely on the understandings of the Persian teachers who were sent by ‘Abdu’l-Baha to guide them.

Names and Terminology
In any case, it was the goal of Mirza Asadu’llah to establish a House of Justice among the believers in Chicago, as he indicated to the Baha’is that ‘Abdu’l-Baha had instructed him to do. He had been at the centre of the organization of the first House of Justice in Tehran, and he assumed a similar role in Chicago. At his direction, the Baha’is in Chicago elected nine men by ballot to a new institution. Those elected were: George Lesch, Charles H. Greenleaf, John A. Guilford, Dr. Rufus H. Bartlett, Thornton Chase, Charles Hessler, Arthur S. Agnew, Byron S. Lane and Henry L. Goodall. [28]

At its first meeting, the House of Justice decided to raise the number of its members to twelve. The body appointed three additional Baha’i men to serve. The minutes of the meeting read:
Motion made and seconded that Messrs. Ioas, Pursels and Doney be selected as add’n [additional] members of this Board of Council. Said motion approved by Board. Secretary instructed to notify said members. [29]

This action was taken, no doubt, in accordance with the statement of Baha’u’llah in the Kitab-i Aqdas that the minimum number of members for a House of Justice is nine, “and should it exceed this number it does not matter.” [30]

It is instructive to note that, in its first minutes, the secretary of the House of Justice refers to it as a “Board of Council.” This illustrates the fluidity of terminology that was used for Baha’i meetings and institutions at the time.

Standard terms for the Baha’i institutions did not become fixed and universal until well after the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Today, the elected local and national Baha’i institutions are known as “Spiritual Assemblies,” while the term “House of Justice” is reserved exclusively for the supreme, international institution. In the early years of this century, however, though these same terms were in use among the Baha’is, they were not used in the same ways. ‘Abdu’l-Baha himself confirmed the legitimacy of the election of the first Chicago House of Justice. A Tablet, probably received in September 1901, is addressed from ‘Abdu’l-Baha “To the members of the House of Justice, the servants of the Covenant, the faithful worshippers of the Holy Threshold of the Beauty of El-Abha.”

Two such Tablets addressed to the House of Justice of Chicago are translated in the compilation
Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas. [31]

Shoghi Effendi, writing much later in 1929, has discussed the significance of these Tablets. He says:
That the Spiritual Assemblies of today will be replaced in time by Houses of Justice, and are to all intents and purposes identical and not separate bodies, is abundantly confirmed by ‘Abdu’l-Baha Himself. He has in fact in a Tablet addressed to the members of the first Chicago Spiritual Assembly, the first elected Baha’i body instituted in the United States, referred to them as members of the “House of Justice” for that city, and has thus with His own pen established beyond any doubt the identity of the present Baha’i Spiritual Assemblies with the House of Justice referred to by Baha’u’llah. For reasons which are not difficult to discover, it has been found advisable to bestow upon the elected representatives of Baha’i communities throughout the world the temporary appellation of Spiritual Assemblies, a term which, as the position and aims of the Baha’i Faith are better understood and more fully recognised, will gradually be superseded by the permanent and more appropriate designation of House of Justice. [32]

This “temporary appellation” was assumed at the instruction of ‘Abdu’l-Baha about a year after the election of the Chicago House of Justice. The minutes of the House of Justice for May 10, 1902, read:
Mr/ Greenleaf stated that he was instructed by Mirza Assad Ullah to inform this Body that here after and until otherwise informed it shall be known as the “House of Spirituality,” in accordance with a Tablet recently received from our Master.
Motion made and seconded that the command of Master changing name of this Body as transmitted by Mirza Assad Ullah be entered upon our records.
Approved by House.
Motion made and seconded that a copy (translation) of that portion of tablet setting forth the change as above mentioned be procured and placed on file.
Approved by House.
[33]

Extracts from this Tablet were indeed translated for the House of Justice, now the House of Spirituality. The heading to the translation indicates that the Tablet was received in Chicago by Mirza Assadu’llah on May 3, 1902. One extract reads:
The House of Justice of Chicago should be called “the House of Spirituality” (or the Spiritual House).
In short, no one must hurt the weak ones, there, but must treat them in kindness. Because now is the cycle of kindness and forgiveness to all people.
[34]

In what is apparently a second Tablet on the subject, ‘Abdu’l-Baha explained the reasons for the change. This Tablet was, some time later, translated and published:
The signature of that meeting should be the Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality) and the wisdom therein is that hereafter the government should not infer from the term “House of Justice” that a court is signified, that it is connected with political affairs, or that at any time it will interfere with governmental affairs. Hereafter, enemies will be many. They would use this subject as a cause for disturbing the mind of the government and confusing the thoughts of the public. The intention was to make known that by the term Spiritual Gathering (House of Spirituality), that Gathering has not the least connection with material matters, and that its whole aim and consultation is confined to matters connected with spiritual affairs. This was also instructed (performed) in all Persia. [35]

At the same time, and in the original Tablet received on May 3, ‘Abdu’l-Baha had instructed that the name of the Women’s Assembly of Teaching be changed to the “Spiritual Assembly.” He instructed that “Spiritual Assemblies” should be organized in every place.
However, although the change of name for the House of Justice was effected immediately, the instruction to change the name of the women’s institution was ignored. This is probably because the translation of this command into English was so poor as to render it incomprehensible. [36]

And so we read the following in the minutes of the House of Spirituality three years later (July 29, 1905):

Mr. Windust read portions of the Tablet received from the Master in May, 1902 authorizing change of name of this body from “House of Justice” to “House of Spirituality”; as it also stated in said Tablet that the name of the Women’s “Assembly of Teaching” be changed to “Spiritual Assembly.” It was decided that this matter be spoken of at some future joint meeting [with the women’s group], as it had evidently been overlooked. [37]

As we have seen in the Tablets quoted above, in the first year after the election of the Chicago House of Justice, ‘Abdu’l-Baha Himself used various terms to refer to that body. (Of course, we have quoted His Tablets in translation – the translations available to the Baha’is at the time.) These Tablets reflect the use of at least three different designations during this period: House of Justice (bayt al-‘adl) in the earliest Tablets, House of Spirituality (probably, bayt-i rawhani) in one Tablet, and Spiritual Gathering (mahfil-i rawhani) in another.

This last term, mahfil-i rawhani, can also be translated as “Spiritual Assembly.” However, it was usually translated as “House of Spirituality” in the publications and translations made at this time, even though this translation was in error. The Chicago body came to be known as the House of Spirituality from 1902, and so the translators rendered ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s references to it in these words, even if the original Persian did not warrant such a designation. This was because the term “Spiritual Assembly” had no fixed meaning in the early community and could refer to a number of different Baha’i meetings.
‘Abdu’l-Baha had asked, for example, that the term be used for the Ladies’ Auxiliary. It was also used by the Baha’is of this time to refer to any Baha’i community as a whole, some weekly teaching meetings, any consultative body, or any gathering of believers.

Terms used to designate the local administrative body were also fluid in ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s writings. In addition to the three designations above, the following additional names can be found: mahfil-i shur (Assembly of Consultation), mahfil-i shur rawhani (Spiritual Assembly of Consultation), bayt al-‘adl rawhani (Spiritual House of Justice), anjuman (Council), anjuman-i adl (Council of Justice), and marakiz-i ‘adl (Centres of Justice). [38]

The Women’s Struggle
The election of an all-male House of Justice in Chicago was a development to which some of the women in the Baha’i community were never reconciled. It is Corinne True in particular who stands out in the struggle to overturn the exclusion of women from that body. After the election, she immediately helped to organize the Women’s Assembly of Teaching which worked side by side with the House – and not always harmoniously – for over a decade. Beyond this, she appealed directly to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, asking that women be elected to the House of Justice.

Mrs. True’s letter, which has recently come to light, indicates clearly that the change to an all-male body was the cause of some dispute. She writes to ‘Abdu’l-Baha:
There has existed a difference of opinion in our Assembly [that is, the Chicago community] as to how it should be governed. Every believer desires to carry out the Commands of the Blessed Perfection [Baha’u’llah] but we want to know from our Lord himself [that is, ‘Abdu’l-Baha] 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 Interpretor [sic] 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.
[39]

She was, however, disappointed when the Master would not support her point of view. He confirmed the practice of electing only males to the Baha’i governing board of Chicago, admonishing her to be patient. She appears to have received her reply from ‘Abdu’l-Baha in June of 1902, but refrained from sharing this Tablet with the Chicago House until the fall of that year.

The Tablet is a famous one and reads in part (in modern translation):
Know thou, O handmaid, that in the sight of Baha, women are accounted the same as men, and God hath created all humankind in His own image, and after His own likeness. That is, men and women alike are the revealers of His names and attributes, and from the spiritual viewpoint there is no difference between them. Whosoever draweth nearer to God, that one is the most favoured, whether man or woman. How many a handmaid, ardent and devoted, hath, within the sheltering shade of Baha, proved superior to the men, and surpassed the famous of the earth.
The House of Justice, however, according to the explicit text of the Law of God, is confined to men; this for a wisdom of the Lord God’s, which will ere long be made manifest as clearly as the sun at high noon.
As to you, O ye other handmaids who are enamoured of the heavenly fragrances, arrange ye holy gatherings, and found ye Spiritual Assemblies, for these are the basis for spreading the sweet savours of God, exalting His Word, uplifting the lamp of His grace, promulgating His religion and promoting His Teachings, and what bounty is there greater than this?
[40]

Since ‘Abdu’l-Baha had confirmed that women should be excluded from the Chicago House of Justice (later, House of Spirituality), this practice continued for some time, in Chicago and elsewhere. We might assume that the belief that women were to be permanently excluded from local Baha’i executive bodies was widespread, at least amongst the men. Women were to be involved in forming women’s groups, which ‘Abdu’l-Baha had named “Spiritual Assemblies” in one Tablet.

That did not end the issue, of course. It appears that American Baha’i women continued to discuss the possibility of membership on governing boards, with Corinne True being prominent among them. In 1909, Mrs. True received a Tablet from ‘Abdu’l-Baha in response to her insistent questioning. It reads, in part:
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 [bayt al-‘adl ‘umumi], 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. [41]

This new Tablet from ‘Abdu’l-Baha to Corinne True appears to have opened up a nationwide controversy over the rights of women to serve on Baha’i institutions. The use of the term “Universal House of Justice” in this Tablet caused some confusion. Corinne True and others assumed that ‘Abdu’l-Baha intended by this Tablet that women were now to be admitted to membership on local Baha’i bodies, and more particularly to membership on the Chicago House of Spirituality.

Thornton Chase related the controversy which erupted in Chicago in a letter written a few months later (January 19, 1910):
Several years ago, soon after the forming of the “House of Justice” (name afterward changed by Abdul-Baha to House of Spirituality on account of political reasons – as stated by Him – and because also of certain jealousies) Mrs. True wrote to Abdul-Baha and asked if women should not be members of that House. He replied distinctly, that the House should be composed of men only, and told her that there was a wisdom in this. It was a difficult command for her to accept, and ever since (confidentially) there has been in that quarter and in those influenced by her a feeling of antagonism to the House of Spirituality, which has manifested itself in various forms …
… Mrs True received a Tablet, in which it was stated (in reply to her solicitation) that it was right for women to be members of all “Spiritual Gatherings” except the “Universal House of Justice”, and she at once construed this to mean, that women were to be members of the House of Spirituality and the Council Boards, because in some of the Tablets for the House, it had been addressed as the “Spiritual Assembly” or “Spiritual Gathering”. But the House of Spirituality could not so interpret the Master’s meaning…
[42]

The difference of opinion was deep and serious. It took place within a wider context of gender tensions within the American Baha’i community at the time. The Chicago House of Spirituality consulted on the new Tablet to Corinne True at its meetings on August 31, 1909, and September 7, 1909. While it seemed clear to them that the Tablet did not admit women to membership on the House of Spirituality, they decided to write to ‘Abdu’l-Baha for a clarification of His meaning. [43]

It appears that no record of a reply to the House on this point has survived. But, in the event, the practice of excluding women from membership did not change. The men of Chicago assumed that ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s reference to the “Universal House of Justice” intended the local Chicago institution. This is a reasonable assumption, given the lack of fixed terminology at the time.
The word ‘umumi, with which ‘Abdu’l-Baha qualified His reference to the House of Justice in Arabic, means public, general, or universal. Since it was known that Corinne True had asked about women’s service on the Chicago House – which was understood to be a House of Justice, even if designated a House of Spirituality for various reasons – His reply seemed to indicate that only men could serve on the general (or universal) body, while women could serve on all subordinate bodies, such as the Assembly of Teaching, the Philanthropic Association, and so forth. And this is the interpretation of the Tablet that would stand for some years to come.

In May of 1910, Thornton Chase wrote to a believer about this question, which was still being debated:
As to women being members of the House, there is no question at all. ‘Abdul-Baha’s reply to Mrs True years ago, settled that, viz, that the members of the House should be men, and that the time would come when she would see the wisdom of that. This was in direct answer to her question to Him as to this matter. He has never changed that command, and He cannot, because it is the command of Baha’o’llah also, as applied to such bodies of business controllers.
But, in a Tablet to me, ‘Abdu’l-Baha said “The House of Spirituality must encourage the women as much as possible”. There is the whole procedure. “Encourage the women as much as possible”. That is what He does: that is what we should do. Not to be members of the H. of S., but to all good works in the Cause, which they can possibly accomplish. It seems to me that the matter of membership in H. of S. should be simply ignored, not talked about, but if it obtrudes itself too strongly, just get out that Tablet to Mrs. True and the one to me (just mentioned) and offer them as the full and sufficient answer.
[44]

Chase’s views are undoubtedly representative of the understandings of the majority of Baha’is at the time. It was the common understanding that the Chicago House of Spirituality was properly composed of men only, and that ultimately all local Baha’i boards should be similarly composed. This was a position which was repeatedly sustained by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, but which was never fully accepted by some Baha’i women.

In Kenosha, which had had an all-male “Board of Consultation” for some years, the issue of women’s service on the Board became a matter of dispute in 1910, as a result of Corinne True’s 1909 “Universal House of Justice” Tablet. On July 4, 1910, the Kenosha Board wrote to the House of Spirituality in Chicago asking if they had any Tablets from ‘Abdu’l-Baha which instructed that women should be elected to local institutions. They explained that two of the Baha’i ladies in their community had insisted that such Tablets existed. [45]

The reply from the House of Spirituality, dated July 23, 1910, is very instructive. [46] The House was able to find three Tablets from ‘Abdu’l-Baha which had bearing on the subject. One was the 1909 Tablet to Corinne True which had opened the controversy. Two others had been received from ‘Abdu’l-Baha in 1910, in reply to more inquiries.

In a Tablet to Louise Waite (April 20, 1910), ‘Abdu’l-Baha had instructed:
The Spiritual Assemblies which are organized for the sake of teaching the Truth, whether assemblies for men, assemblies for women or mixed assemblies, are all accepted and are conducive to the spreading of the Fragrances of God. This is essential. [47]

‘Abdu’l-Baha goes on to state that the time had not come for the establishment of the House of Justice, and he exhorts the men and the women to produce harmony and conduct their affairs in unity.[48]

In another Tablet directed to the Baha’is of Cincinnati, where the question of women’s participation in local organization had also become an issue, ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote something similar:
It is impossible to organize the House of Justice in these days; it will be formed after the establishment of the Cause of God. Now the Spiritual Assemblies are organized in most of the cities, you must also organize a Spiritual Assembly in Cincinnati. It is permissible to elect the members of the Spiritual Assembly from among the men and women; nay, rather, it is better, so that perfect union may result. [49]

The House of Spirituality concluded from these Tablets that:
…in organizing Spiritual Assemblies of Consultation now, it is deemed advisable by Abdul-Baha to have them composed of both men and women. The wisdom of this will become evident in due time, no doubt. [50]

By this time, Baha’is in different parts of the United States had established a variety of boards and committees as a means of local organization. Women had served on the Washington, D.C., “Working Committee” since its formation in 1907. They had been a part of the Boston “Executive Committee” from its beginning in 1908. Women also acted as officers of communities in places where Baha’is had elected no corporate body. But these were regarded, for the most part, as temporary, ad-hoc organizations not official Baha’i institutions, which were thought to be properly all male.

‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Tablets recognized all of these local bodies as “Spiritual Assemblies” (or Spiritual Gatherings, mahfil-i rawhani) and by 1910, He was urging that these Assemblies consist of both men and women. The House of Spirituality in Chicago was obviously puzzled by this command, though it expressed confidence that the wisdom of mixed Assemblies would “become evident in due time.”
However, since it knew that the Kenosha Board of Consultation had been established as an all-male body in accordance with earlier instructions from ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the House of Spirituality suggested that the Kenosha Baha’is might wish to take a vote to determine whether a majority of believers would be in favour of a change. [51]

Rather than do this, however, the Kenosha Board of Consultation submitted the question to ‘Abdu’l-Baha. The “supplication” (as they termed it) was signed by all of the men of the Board. It asked if the Board should be dissolved, to be reelected with women as members. The Board members pledged to the Master that if it was His wish they would dissolve, but they stated that their intentions had been pure at the founding of the Board and that it had been established in accordance with a Tablet that had been revealed for the House of Spirituality some years before. [52]

‘Abdu’l-Baha, however, would not support the idea of dissolving the all-male Board.
His reply, received March 4, 1911, explains:
Now Spiritual Assemblies must be organized and that is for teaching the Cause of God. In that city you have a spiritual Assembly of men and you can establish a spiritual Assembly for women. Both Assemblies must be engaged in diffusing the fragrances of God and be occupied with the service of the Kingdom. The above is the best solution for this problem … [53]

As in other Tablets, He stated that conditions for the establishment of the House of Justice did not yet exist, and He urged unity between the men and women of the Baha’i community. And so, through 1911, the status quo that had been established by Mirza Assadu’llah in Chicago in 1901, with the election of the first American House of Justice, held firm.

All-male institutions continued to function in the most important Baha’i communities. These were supplemented by parallel women’s groups. A variety of committees and boards had been established in smaller Baha’i communities that included women as members, but these were regarded by most Baha’is as only informal groups. While ‘Abdu’l-Baha was urging that new “Spiritual Assemblies” include both men and women, He would not sanction the reorganization of the longer-established male bodies. Baha’i women in various parts of the country continued to discuss the need for change.

The Change Comes
It was not until 1912, during the visit of ‘Abdu’l-Baha to America, that a decisive change was finally made. While ‘Abdu’l-Baha was in New York, He sent word to the Baha’is of Chicago that the House of Spirituality should be reorganized and a new election held. He chose Howard MacNutt, a prominent Baha’i from Brooklyn, to travel to Chicago as His personal representative. MacNutt was instructed to hold a new election for a “Spiritual Meeting” (probably mahfil-i rawhani) of the Baha’is of Chicago. For the first time, women were eligible for election to this body.

MacNutt arrived in Chicago on August 8, 1912. At ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s instructions, a feast was held on August 10, at the home of Mr. and Mrs. George Lesch, where the entire Chicago Baha’i community was invited to be the guests of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. MacNutt delivered to the community ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s message of unity and love. The election was held the following day on August 11.
The Baha’i magazine, Star of the West, carried this account of that historic election:
On Sunday evening, the 11th, the Chicago Assembly [meaning here, the whole Baha’i community] selected a “Spiritual Meeting” of nine, composed of men and women, whose service – according to the wish of Abdul-Baha – is, first, to promulgate the teachings of the Revelation, and, second, to attend to other matters necessary to the welfare of the assembly. Mr. MacNutt was present and gave an inspiring address. [54]

A long struggle had ended.

Baha’i Institutions in the East
From the time of the dissolution of the Chicago House of Spirituality and its reelection, service on local Baha’i institutions has always remained open to women in America. ‘Abdu’l-Baha had made it perfectly clear that the restrictions placed on women in this regard were intended to be only temporary ones. From that point forward, women were fully integrated into the emerging Baha’i Administration erected in the West.

The same was not true in the East, however. In Iran and in the rest of the Muslim world, social conditions made it impossible for the restriction on women’s participation on local institutions to be lifted for some time. Local and National Spiritual Assemblies in Iran were limited to male membership during the entire period of the ministry of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, and for most of the ministry of Shoghi Effendi. Again, the principle of gradualism was at play.

Of course, there were Baha’i women in Iran, as well in the United States, who campaigned for a greater role for women in the Baha’i community. Their concerns were not only with participation on local Houses of Justice, but also with the elimination of other social restrictions, such as the use of the veil in public. In a Tablet to one such woman activist, ‘Abdu’l-Baha urged restraint and recommended a gradual approach:
The establishment of a women’s assemblage (mahfil) for the promotion of knowledge is entirely acceptable, but discussions must be confined to educational matters. It should be done in such a way that differences will, day by day, be entirely wiped out, not that, God forbid, it will end in argumentation between man and women. As in the question of the veil, nothing should be done contrary to wisdom. …
Now the world of women should be a spiritual world, not a political one, so that it will be radiant. The women of other nations are all immersed in political matters. Of what benefit is this, and what fruit doth it yield? To the extent that ye can, ye should busy yourself with spiritual matters which will be conducive to the exaltation of the Word of God and of the diffusion of His fragrances. Your demeanour should lead to harmony amongst all and to coalescence and the good-pleasure of all…
I am endeavouring, with Baha’u’llah’s confirmations and assistance, so to improve the world of the handmaidens [that is, the world of women] that all will be astonished. This progress is intended to be in spirituality, in virtues, in human perfections and in divine knowledge. In America, the cradle of women’s liberation, women are still debarred from political institutions because they squabble. (Also, the Blessed Beauty has said, “O ye Men [rijal] of the House of Justice.”) Ye need to be calm and composed, so that the work will proceed with wisdom, otherwise there will be such chaos that ye will leave everything and run away. “This newly born babe is traversing in one night the path that needeth a hundred years to tread.” In brief, ye should now engage in matters of pure spirituality and not contend with men. ‘Abdu’l-Baha will tactfully take appropriate steps. Be assured. In the end thou wilt thyself exclaim, “This was indeed supreme wisdom!”
[55]

Baha’i women were not admitted to service on the institutions of the Faith in Iran until 1954. But this restriction was understood to be temporary, to be removed as soon as circumstances would permit. As Iranian society allowed a greater role for women in general, and as Baha’i women became more educated and more prepared for administrative service, this restriction was lifted. The Guardian eventually made women’s participation on Baha’i institutions in the East one of the goals of the Ten Year World Crusade (1953-1963). His hopes were rewarded by the signal distinction which some Baha’i women have achieved as administrators on local Assemblies and on the National Assembly of Iran.

The International House of Justice
The only remaining body within the Baha’i Faith whose membership continues to be limited to men is its supreme institution, the Universal House of Justice. First established in 1963, the Universal House of Justice is elected by the members of the National Spiritual Assemblies of the world. Naturally, the electors include many women. But the members of the House of Justice itself, from its inception, have all been male.

Shoghi Effendi anticipated that the Universal House of Justice would be established as an all-male body, even though he passed away before he could see this implemented. He did not comment generally on the subject, and he does not seem to have devoted a great deal of time to the issue. But in answer to questions from individual Baha’is, some letters were written on the Guardian’s behalf by his secretaries which comment on the composition of the yet-to-be-formed House of Justice. For example, his secretary writes:
As regards your question concerning the membership of the Universal House of Justice, there is a Tablet from ‘Abdu’l-Baha in which He definitely states that the membership of the Universal House of Justice is confined to men, and that the wisdom of it will be fully revealed and appreciated in the future. In the local, as well as national Houses of Justice, however, women have the full right of membership. It is, however, only to the International House that they cannot be elected. [56]

And in another letter:
As regards the membership of the International House of Justice, ‘Abdu’l-Baha states in a Tablet that it is confined to men, and that the wisdom of it will be revealed as manifest as the sun in the future. [57]

Again:
Regarding your question, the Master said the wisdom of having no women on the International House of Justice, would become manifest in the future. We have no indication other than this… [58]

Again:
People must just accept the fact that women are not eligible to the International House of Justice. As the Master says the wisdom of this will be known in the future, we can only accept, believing it is right… [59]

The remarkable similarity of these letters to individual believers should be noted. In each case, the Guardian directed his secretary to refer to the Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Baha to Corinne True which was written in reply to her petition that women be elected to the Chicago House of Justice. This Tablet explains that the reason for the exclusion of women will become manifest in the future.

Subsequent events demonstrated that ‘Abdu’l-Baha had intended that this exclusion be only temporary – an exclusion that would be followed by the full participation of women on this body.

The exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice today is observed by the Baha’i community primarily in obedience to these letters of the Guardian. Most Baha’is assume that this exclusion was intended to be a permanent one. However, since this instruction of the Guardian is tied so closely to the meaning of the one Tablet of ‘Abdu’l-Baha which promises that the wisdom of the exclusion of women will become manifest in the future, and since it is known that the meaning of the Tablet was that women should be excluded only temporarily from the Chicago House, the assumption that women will be permanently excluded from the current Universal House of Justice may be a faulty one. A temporary exclusion may be intended.

The answer to this question, as with all other questions in the Baha’i community, will have to be worked out over time. The elements of dialogue, struggle, persistence and anguish which are so evident in the history of the gradual participation of women on local Baha’i administrative bodies will, no doubt, all attend the working out of that answer in the future. These elements are all present today.

A Tablet of Assurance
‘Abdu’l-Baha repeatedly assured Baha’i women in His writings that the women of the future would achieve full and complete equality with men. In one of these Tablets He refers to the composition of the House of Justice. The Tablet is dated August 28, 1913, and it appears to have been written to a Baha’i woman in the East. In it, ‘Abdu’l-Baha repeats His promise:

In this Revelation of Baha’u’llah, the women go neck and neck with the men. In no movement will they be left behind. Their rights with men are equal in degree. They will enter all the administrative branches of politics. They will attain in all such a degree as will be considered the very highest station of the world of humanity and will take part in all affairs.

Rest ye assured. Do ye not look upon the present conditions; in the not far distant future the world of women will become all-refulgent and all-glorious, For his Holiness Baha’u’llah hath willed it so! At the time of the elections the right to vote is the inalienable right of women, and the entrance of women into all human departments is an irrefutable and incontravertible question. No soul can retard or prevent it…

As regards the constitution of the House of Justice, Baha’u’llah addresses the men. He says: “O ye men of the House of Justice!” But when its members are to be elected, the right which belongs to women, so far as their voting and their voice is concerned, is indisputable. When the women attain to the ultimate degree of progress, then, according to the exigency of the time and place and their great capacity, they shall obtain extraordinary privileges. Be ye confident on these accounts. His Holiness Baha’u’llah has greatly strengthened the cause of women, and the rights and privileges of women is one of the greatest principles of ‘Abdu’l-Baha. Rest ye assured! [60] (Final emphasis added.)


Notes

1. Nabil-i A’zam, The Dawn-Breakers, Wilmette, Ill.: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1932, pp 80-81, 270-71.

2. See, for example, Ruhiyyih Rabbani, The Priceless Pearl, London: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1969, pp 39-42 and 57-58; Baha’i Administration, Wilmette, Ill.: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1928, pp 25-26.


3. The Universal House of Justice, A Synopsis and Codification of the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book of Baha’u’llah, Haifa: Baha’i World Centre, 1973, p 5.


4. Ibid., pp 3-7.


5. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Wilmette, Ill.: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1922-25 (1982), pp 136-37.


6. Ibid., pp 136-37.


7. ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, London: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1912, p 161.


8. Promulgation, p 174.


9. Ibid., p 375.


10. Synopsis, p 13.


11. Ibid., p 16.


12. Ibid., p 57.


13. Ibid., pp 5-6.


14. All information in this section concerning the first House of Justice of Tehran is based on Ruhu’llah Mihrabkhani, Mahafil-i shur dar ‘ahd-i Jamal-i Aqdas-i Abha, (Assemblies of consultation at the time of Baha’u’llah) in Payam-i Baha’i, nos. 28 and 29, pp 9-11 and pp 8-9 respectively.


15. Minutes of the North Hudson, N.J., Board of Counsel, National Baha’i Archives, Wilmette, Ill.


16. Chase to Blake, 21/3/00, Chase Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


17. Regulations relating to the Chicago Board of Council (Abdel Karim Effendi), Albert Windust Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


18. Kenosha Evening News, 29/6//00, p 1.


19. House of Justice in Chicago to House of Justice in New York 23/5/01, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


20. Fannie Lesch, “Dr. C. I. Thatcher, Chicago, Illinois”, (an obituary), Albert Windust Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


21. Minutes of the House of Justice (Chicago), 26/1/02 and 28/6/01. House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


22. Marzieh Gail and Fadil-i Mazandarani (trans.), typescript translation of the Kitab-i Aqdas.


23. Ibid.


24. Quoted in Ahmad Yazdani, Mabadiy-i Ruhani, Tehran: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 104 Badi’, p 109.


25. Ibid


26. Women: Extracts from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice, comp. by The Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, Thornhill, Ont.: Baha’i Canada Publications, 1986, #7, p 3.


27. Quoted in Ahmad Yazdani, Maqam va Huquq-i Zan dar Diyanat-i Baha’i, vol. 1, Tehran: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 107 Badi’.


28. Minutes of the House of Spirituality, 24/5/01, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


29. Ibid., 20/5/01.


30. Synopsis, p 13.


31. Tablets of Abdul-Baha Abbas, Chicago: Baha’i Publishing Society, 1909, vol 1, p 3.


32. Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Baha’u’llah, Wilmette, Ill.: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1938, p 6.


33. Minutes of 10/5/02, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


34. Extract from the Tablet of the Master, ‘Abdu’l-Baha, to Mirza AssadUllah, received in Chicago on the 3rd of May, 1902. House of Spirituality Papers. National Baha’i Archives.


35. Tablets of Abdul Baha Abbas, p 6.


36. The translation reads “We named the assemblies of teaching in Chicago the Spiritual Assemblies; you should organize spiritual assemblies in every place”; ( extract from the Tablet from the Master, se note 35 above).


37. Minutes, 29/7/05, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


38. See various published Tablets and public talks of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, including: Kitab-i baday ‘u’l-athar, Bombay, 1921, vol.1, pp 65, 119, 120, 251; and


39. True to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, 25/2/02, Document 11137, International Baha’i Archives, Haifa, Israel.


40. Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Haifa: Baha’i World Centre, 1978, pp 79-80.


41. ‘Abdu’l-Baha to Corinne True, 24/7/09, microfilm, National Baha’i Archives. [JustaBahai addition:] The original translation by Ameen Fareed was made on July
29, 1909. There is a later translation of this tablet in The Baha’i Faith in America, Volume
Two, by Rob Stockman, page 323 made by the Baha’i World Centre for the book.


42. Chase to Remey, 19/1/10, Chase Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


43. Minutes, 31/8/09 and 7/9/09, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


44. Chase to Scheffler, 10/5/10, Chase papers, National Baha’i Archives.


45. Bahai Assembly of Kenosha to House of Spirituality, 4/7/10, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


46. House of Spirituality (Albert R. Windust, LIbrarian) to Board of Consultation, Kenosha, Wis., 23/7/10, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


47. Ibid.


48. Ibid.


49. Ibid.


50. Ibid.


51. Ibid.


52. Ibid. Kenosha Assembly to Albert Windust, 16/5/11, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


53. Ibid. ‘Abdu’l-Baha to the members of the Spiritual Assembly and Mr. Bernard M. Jacobsen, Kenosha, Wis., 4/5/11, House of Spirituality Papers, National Baha’i Archives.


54. Ibid. Star of the West, vol. 3, no. 10 (August 20, 1912) p 16. See also, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s instructions to Howard MacNutt, August 6, 1912, microfilm collection, National Baha’i Archives.


55. Ibid. Women, #11, pp 6-7.


56. Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, dated July 28, 1936, Baha’i News, No. 105 (February 1937) p 2.


57. Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, dated December 14, 1940, quoted in Dawn of a New Day (New Delhi: Baha’i Publishing Trust, n.d.) p 86.


58. Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, dated September 17, 1952, Baha’i News, No 267 (May 1953) p 10.


59. Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, dated July 15, 1947, quoted in “Extracts on Membership of the Universal House of Justice” (an unpublished compilation of the Universal House of Justice).

60. Quoted in Paris Talks (London: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1912) pp 182-83.

Editor’s Note: This paper was written in Los Angeles in 1988; many of the authors were young academics and intellectuals associated with dialogue Magazine. It was presented at an Association for Baha’i Studies conference in New Zealand the same year and was immediately suppressed by the Baha’i authorities, and its authors were forbidden to circulate it in any way.

Mirrored (with the addition on footnote 41) from http://www.h-net.org/~bahai/docs/vol3/wmnuhj.htm

This is the 2007 letter:

THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE DEPARTMENT OF THE SECRETARIAT
18 October 2007

Transmitted by email:
Mr. Romane Takkenberg
Australia

Dear Bahá’í Friend,
Your email message of 23 September 2007 has been received by the Universal House of Justice, which has asked us to respond as follows.

The document to which you refer, prepared by Mr. Anthony A. Lee and others, was circulated informally in the United States in the latter part of the 1980s and attracted some attention from those who studied it because of its statements about the possible future participation of women in the membership of the House of Justice.

TIt was then presented at a Bahá’í Studies conference in New Zealand, at which time it was brought to the attention of the House of Justice.

On 31 May 1988, the House of Justice wrote to the National Spiritual Assembly of New Zealand clarifying the issues raised in that paper. A copy of this letter is enclosed for your information.

The House of Justice is not aware of any attempt to restrict the circulation of the paper. However, it might reasonably be expected that it would not be accepted for publication in a reputable Bahá’í journal or as part of a compilation of papers in view of the clarification provided in the aforementioned letter of 31 May.

With loving Bahá’í greetings,
Department of the Secretariat




Some have argued that because Abdul-Baha changed the name (intended to be a temporary measure) in 1902 from House of Justice to a term without the word Justice in it, that this means that one day when the name Baha’u’llah gave them, House of Justice, is returned, then women will no longer be able to serve on them. However in 1912 when Abdul-Baha allowed women to be elected to the local House of Justice this meant in affect that he was interpreting Baha’ullah’s reference to ‘rijal’ as applying to women as well.

So where did the idea come from that women could not serve on the UHJ? The only source I can find for this are in the 4 letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi (1936, 1940, 1947, 1952) referred to in the paper above and all these letters seem to refer to Abdul-Baha’s 1902 Tablet because of their wording. My guess is, that the secretary was unaware that the context for Abdul-Baha’s 1902, 1909, and 1911 tablets were the all male membership of Local Spiritual Assemblies. The 1909 reference to ‘Universal’ seems to me to distnguish the administrative committee from the teaching and other committees women were members of referred to in the second part of the same tablet. The 1910 tablet addressed to the Bahais of Cincinnati encourages them to elect both men and women to a committee called the “Spiritual Assembly” where the context shows that this was not the ‘general local Assembly’, while a 1911 tablet informs the Bahais of Kenosha not to disband their all male “Board of Consultation”. Labels for the various local committees were fluid (explaining why the 1910 Cincinnati “Spiritual Assembly” was not the same as the ‘general’ or ‘universal’ administrative body) and that explains to me why Abdul-Baha used term ‘Universal’ to distinguish the various local committees from the main local administrative committee (known today as the Local Spiritual Assembly) which until 1912 could only have male members on them.


I have no idea if the UHj might ever decide that women will be allowed to be members but it seems as clear as the noon day sun to me that in 1912 Abdul-Baha either changed his interpretation of the word ‘rijal’ or saw that this was the time for implementing gender equality within the Bahai administration when he asked to have the Chicago Assembly disband its all male membership and then elect from the women and men in the community. And if Shoghi Effendi did not have the authority to dictate the membership of the UHJ, then surely any letters written on his behalf would have a lesser authority to do so:
“… the Guardian … He is debarred from laying down independently the constitution [of the Universal House of Justice] that must govern … and from exercising his influence in a manner that would encroach upon the liberty of those whose sacred right is to elect the body of his collaborators.” World Order of Baha’u’llah, p 150

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Do Indigenous Prophets Count?

March 27, 2018

Recently in response to the article, Recognizing and Respecting the Sacred Lakota Traditions by Christopher Buck + Kevin Locke on the BahaiTeachings blog a Baha’i objected to the idea that White Buffalo Calf Woman could be a Prophet of God for the Lakota in line with the Baha’i teaching that God has sent many prophets of God throughout time and to differing peoples.

One of the objections that this Baha’i made was that he said that there were only 9 existing religions and hence only 9 messengers of God were therefore possible. This Letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi supports this: “The number nine which in itself is the number of perfection is considered by the Bahá’ís as sacred because it is symbolic of the perfection of the Bahá’í Revelation which constitutes the ninth in the line of existing religions, the latest and fullest Revelation which mankind has ever known. The eighth is the religion of the Báb, and the remaining seven are: Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the religion of the Sabeans. These religions are not the only true religions that have appeared in the world, but are the only ones still existing. There have always been divine Prophets and Messengers, to many of whom the Qur’án refers. But the only ones existing are those mentioned above.”
(From letter written on behalf of the Guardian to an individual believer, July 28, 1936: Bahá’í News, No. 105, February 1937, p. 2, Lights of Guidance, p. 414)

We could argue that the secretary who penned this letter in 1936 didn’t know of the existence of the Lakota people or that the secretary thought that the Lakota didn’t have an existing belief system or we could argue that this letter was intended as advice to the addressee (see: “when he gives advice” (1944)). “(S)ometimes one statement is exactly the right for one type of mind and wrong thing another.” (see the letter below) Perhaps if we saw the question that was asked, the intention might be clearer.

There is a later letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which also states that there are only 9 religions and hence only 9 Prophets of God possible: “First, regarding the significance of the number nine; its importance as a symbol used so often in various connections by the believers lies in three facts: first, it symbolizes the nine great world religions of which we have any definite historical knowledge, including the Bábí and Bahá’í Revelations; second, it represents the number of perfection, being the highest single number; third, it is the numerical value of the word ‘Baha'”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, July 9, 1939, Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 414.)

And there is also a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which states the number nine refers to the numerical meaning of the word Baha “…In telling people of the 9 religions of the world, that is, existing religions, we should not give this as the reason the Temple has 9 sides. This may have been an idea of the architect, and a very pleasing idea, which can be mentioned in passing, but the Temple has 9 sides because of the association of 9 with perfection, unity and ‘Baha’.

“The Guardian feels that with intellectuals and students of religion the question of exactly which are the existing religions is controversial, and it would be better to avoid it. He does not want the friends to be rigid in these matters, but use their judgement and tact, sometimes one statement is exactly the right for one type of mind and wrong thing another.

“Strictly speaking the 5-pointed star is the symbol of our Faith, as used by the Báb and explained by Him. But the Guardian does not feel it is wise or necessary to complicate our explanations of the Temple by adding this.”
(From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer, October 28, 1949, Lights of Guidance, p. 415)

I have pasted the 1949 letter in the same formatting as can be found in the 1983 book of compilations, Lights of Guidance. This letter is also in the book, Directives from the Guardian but there the dating of letters is not clear whereas in Lights of Guidance it is clear and so I would assume that the editor made the spacing for a reason – to show that the gaps were in the original letter or that the excerpts come from parts of a longer letter.

So what do I do as a Bahai? I go to the Bahai Scripture and see what is written there. I didn’t find any number for how many prophets of God there have been. Here is Baha’u’llah: “A divine Manifestation Who hath extolled and magnified the one true God, exalted be His glory, Who hath borne witness to His knowledge and confessed that His Essence is sanctified above all things and exalted beyond every comparison — such a Manifestation hath been called at various times a worshipper of the sun or a fire-worshipper. How numerous are those sublime Manifestations and Revealers of the Divine of Whose stations the people remain wholly unaware, of Whose grace they are utterly deprived, nay, God forbid, Whom they curse and revile!”
(Baha’u’llah, Tabernacle_of_Unity)

I found not only the word “numerous” but also the idea that all these messengers have equal importance.
“…all the Prophets and Messengers of God as one soul and one body, as one light and one spirit, in such wise that the first among them would be last and the last would be first. For they have all arisen to proclaim His Cause and have established the laws of divine wisdom. They are, one and all, the Manifestations of His Self, the Repositories of His might, the Treasuries of His Revelation, the Dawning-Places of His splendour and the Daysprings of His light. Through them are manifested the signs of sanctity in the realities of all things and the tokens of oneness in the essences of all beings. Through them are revealed the elements of glorification in the heavenly realities and the exponents of praise in the eternal essences. From them hath all creation proceeded and unto them shall return all that hath been mentioned. And since in their inmost Beings they are the same Luminaries and the self-same Mysteries, thou shouldst view their outward conditions in the same light, that thou mayest recognize them all as one Being, nay, find them united in their words, speech, and utterance.”
(Baha’u’llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 34-35)

So we have one letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which states “the question of exactly which are the existing religions is controversial, and it would be better to avoid it. … sometimes one statement is exactly the right for one type of mind and wrong thing another.” (October 28, 1949) and we have two other letters which state that there are only 9 existing religions.

Because these letters have a lesser authority, I am not thrown into confusion about which letter is correct. If the idea that there are only 9 religions is only expressed in a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi and nowhere else in Bahai Scripture, then that is not enough of an argument as far as I am concerned to make this a Bahai Teaching. A letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi cannot create a Bahai Teaching because Shoghi Effendi assigned a lesser authority to these letters than his own authority as official interpreter (See my blog Does a letter from a secretary create a Bahai Teaching?). Bahais can and do interpret Baha’u’llah’s words more or less inclusively. Personally I think interpreting what Baha’u’llah writes more inclusively makes more sense because this approach is endorsed by other Bahai Writings that stress unity in diversity as a teaching for the world and not just parts of the world.

If the Universal House of Justice were to state that Bahai communities were only allowed to accept 9 religions, then this would be policy they have the authority to make, and Bahai communities would have to obey this but the Universal House of Justice cannot tell us, individually, how to interpret the word “numerous” Baha’u’llah uses. The Universal House of Justice has the authority to make policy based on their own understanding of Baha’u’llah’s Texts as well as any other texts that are relevant to the policy they are making. If it were to be found, for example that there was no finite number stated by Baha’u’llah, then a later Universal House of Justice is free to make differing policy based on differing understanding or because this new policy is the best policy of the conditions of the times. This is all hypothetical because as far as I know there is no policy from the Universal House of Justice making any sort of statement on the number of world religions. There is a 1996 letter from the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice responding to a request to make a statement that Prophets of God appeared in the Americas: “The Bahá’í Teachings do not explicitly confirm, nor do they rule out, the possibility that Messengers of God have appeared in the Americas.”
(Excerpt from a Memorandum from the Research Department addressed to the Universal House of Justice dated 16 May 1996)

So if there is nothing in Bahai Scripture to state that there are a finite number of religions then the next thing would be to look and see how the Manifestations of God are spoken of, to see whether White Buffalo Calf Woman could possibly be counted as one of these “numerous … Revealers of the Divine”

“… consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship, to proclaim that which the Speaker on Sinai hath set forth and to observe fairness in all matters. They that are endued with sincerity and faithfulness should associate with all the peoples and kindreds of the earth with joy and radiance, inasmuch as consorting with people hath promoted and will continue to promote unity and concord, which in turn are conducive to the maintenance of order in the world and to the regeneration of nations. Blessed are such as hold fast to the cord of kindliness and tender mercy and are free from animosity and hatred.” (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 35-36)

I found a number of texts that express “all religions” or all beliefs but none that limit where these prophets come from. However this Bahai made the argument that all prophets of God could only originate in countries “from the Orient,” which is based on unauthentic text attributed to Abdul-Baha and I will look at that in my next blog.

 

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Love and Legalism – a tale of two Baha’i communities

April 12, 2016
A Bahai with his family

One of these is a Bahai. Would his family be welcome in your Bahai community?

Abby’s story:
I was raised a Baha’i, so that is definitely why it took me so long to come out.

Added to that are my many happy experiences in the Baha’i community, which explains why I am still happy to call myself a Baha’i today, living with my same-sex partner and my children.

I was always attracted to women but knew it was a no go.

I married a man because that’s what I was supposed to do.

The LSA became aware of my “lifestyle” years ago because my ex-husband went to the Assembly to complain about me.

They told him to mind his own business, but I didn’t know this until after my meeting with them. I was extremely anxious about meeting with the LSA, and had no idea they would be so incredibly loving and accepting. It seemed clear to me that they were open to learning and desperately did not want me to feel unloved or unaccepted. It is a struggle for them, as they know the laws, but they also know me and I suppose this forced them to open their eyes on this subject. I told the LSA that I refuse to hide or pretend to be something I am not and felt doing so was dishonest and against the Faith. I pointed out that heterosexual Baha’is who are single or dating do not have their chastity questioned, and unless they are in my bedroom have no idea what is going on… That as Baha’is we are encouraged to be loving and the only “law” pertains to chastity. Except the marriage part… They also know that I would like to marry my partner. Not sure I’ll still have my voting rights then though!

And now because I live with my partner, I was offered a meeting to “deepen” on the writings on the subject but I declined. I have read everything, needless to say, being born, raised and currently still a Baha’i. If I didn’t love Baha’u’llah so much I would leave the Faith, and I told the LSA I would leave if they felt I was doing wrong by the Faith. They said absolutely no way should I leave the Faith. Another member of the LSA told me they are still babies with this subject and would like to be enlightened. I thought that was great.

For me, if the LSA had reacted negatively I would have left. We are supposed to love everyone and accept everyone. For me, Bahá’ís who judge or are homophobic are committing a greater sin than me, loving the most incredible human being I’ve ever known. But it is their issue and whatever I do is between me and God, I’m OK with that. If the LSA felt I was harming the Faith I would leave.

It’s very frustrating because I think individuals who don’t have any LGBT friends have bizarre ideas in their heads, and don’t think of us as regular, boring, loving, normal, fellow human beings. I’m not willing to live my life alone when I haven’t been convinced that Baha’u’llah believes this is what I should do.

The fact that my LGBT friends are loving and accepting of everyone, yet many Bahá’ís cannot be, is a contradiction of the Faith and my friends are the ones who are unprejudiced and all loving. I love all diversity in the world and this is just another. So many people miss out on knowing some beautiful human beings by judging what they don’t know.
I think my story is as positive as it can be for this time. I would love to I go to Feast with my partner and be active with her, but until the UHJ changes things I will keep my relationship with the faith at home. There are also some individuals in my local community who have shown in their behaviour that they do not welcome me as a lesbian.

“…homosexuality is not a condition to which a person should be reconciled, but is a distortion of his or her nature which should be controlled or overcome.”

Letter of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer, 12 January 1973; cited in Messages from the Universal House of Justice, 1968-1973, pp. 110-111; also cited in Lights of Guidance, #1222, published in 1983, p. 365

“Marriage is a union between a man and a woman, and sexual relations are only permissible between husband and wife.”

Department of secretariat letter from the Universal House of Justice,
9 May 2014
The The full letter is here

If the UHJ published a more positive view on this subject, I wouldn’t care what the rest of the community thought. It would be great to enlighten Baha’is unfamiliar with “ordinary” LGBT people. The LSA said I should not let anything keep me from attending the Feast. I feel if the UHJ changed the law there would be no leg for anyone to stand on and they would have to look at their own prejudices. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if there are other LGBT people in the community who are not out.

I’ve been to Baha’i functions in the last few years, and a few Feasts, and feel quite close to some members of my LSA and my local community. I do have children that I am raising Baha’i. I live the life, so to speak (in service to others, love and acceptance and celebration of everyone). Unfortunately, my ex-husband is preachy towards my children about the evils of homosexuality. I have to tell them to not judge the Faith by their father and focus on the beautiful, amazing Baha’is we have in our community.

The LSA has encouraged me to go to feast and suggested I go to a cluster that the ex isn’t at. And they have asked what they could do to help support me, if there was anything. They are very loving.

Being able to share this with others gives me goosebumps and makes me smile.

Julia’s story:
I have been a Baha’i for some 30 years now, and I always tended to keep things pretty clear and honest, but my honesty got me into trouble. I told my daughters about my sexuality on the day I left the marital home and moved in with Granuaile, and I sent a letter to my LSA because I knew my husband had been in touch with them and given his side of the story. Then a member of the LSA, who has been a close friend of the family, asked me to come and see her. First privately, but also as a representative of the LSA. We had a nice chat but then she told me that her main concern with all this was the fact that her 16-year-old son could find out that I am living with a woman! How could people be so cruel? And that from someone I thought of as my friend. Another LSA member told me that I could no longer be a member of the Baha’i community if I was a lesbian. I was devastated. Baha’is who had been close friends stopped speaking to me, and my daughter, also a Baha’i, said that I could not visit her nor the grandchildren.

I have certainly come to realise that if you rock anybody’s boat most people react in some kind of strange way. What are they afraid of? As I told everybody, family and LSA alike, I had to do something for myself and now am happy and asked them to be happy with me. My daughters even said they wanted their fat, smoking mother back. (On this note I have to say that I have lost quite a bit of weight – which I needed to do anyway – and also gave up smoking in the last year – all since I have met my partner.)

The calendar of events, until then a regular e-mail sent to all in the community, stopped being sent to me. I was just dropped as the “old friend” they used to call me. I lived for my community and would have really appreciated a phone call or e-mail occasionally to see how I was – but nothing. It was as if I was dead. My partner’s friends were much more loving and understanding.

Then months later, the NSA asked a member of the pastoral care committee to contact me to find out what was going on. I had a lovely long chat with her on the phone. I tried to explain what my innermost thoughts about the Faith were, and that nobody had the right to tell me that I could or could not have these thoughts – I will always be a Baha’i in my heart – even if the NSA was threatening to take away my administrative rights. I was sent a letter from the NSA a few weeks later which stated: “You should be aware that if you do not take steps to align your life with the standards set out in the Holy Writings then the National Assembly will be left with no other option but to seriously consider removing your administrative rights. This is something that the Assembly very much wishes to avoid and it therefore lovingly invites you to reconsider your position; in this regard, it warmly offers you an opportunity to discuss your situation with a representative of the National Assembly whom you trust.”

Almost a year after this all began an LSA member phoned me saying that he had a “heavy heart” as he hadn’t spoken to me and he was a close friend as well as a fellow Baha’i. Then he said that his heavy heart was because he wanted to tell me where I had gone wrong because he was concerned about the well-being of my soul. I asked him why he was not concerned about me in the last year when I could really have done with a bit of friendly support.

At about the same time I had a friendly chat with an NSA member, and then a few weeks later I received a call from a local Baha’i reminding me that the NSA was going to meet in the next couple of days and had my case on the agenda, and wanted a response from me. So I sent a letter stating that I still believed in Baha’u’llah but could not go back to a life that felt dishonest to me, and that I was not going to leave the only person who is a support for me. In reply to that the NSA wrote a letter removing my administrative rights.

So there we have it – I am no longer a Baha’i in good standing.

I cannot contact the UHJ myself.

I cannot attend feasts, etc.

On the upside – the NSA wanted to know what happened in my 30 years of marriage because I hinted that it was not a happy time for me. I have very mixed feelings about being a “second class Baha’i” and have to think long and hard as to what I want to do now.

What was once a loving and caring community has turned into the total opposite and it seems they feel that, by sticking their heads in the sand, the “problem” will go away – or the NSA will deal with it. Somebody once said to look at the LSA/NSA as loving parents – well I cannot see any love anywhere – on the contrary.

These two stories show how two LSAs (Local Spiritual Assemblies) in differing western countries treated a lesbian member of their community in similar situations. Pope Francis recently made some statements on the topic of same sex marriage, about this never being possible within the Catholic Church. This is similar to the Universal House of Justice’s own statements, however there’s one big difference. In the same statement Pope Francis talks of pastors engaging in a careful process of “discernment” with regard to individual cases and helping people reach decisions in conscience about the fashion in which the law applies to their circumstances. The blog “Pope Francis lets the world in on the Church’s best-kept secret” by John L. Allen Jr. explains it like this: “Yes, the Church has laws, and it takes them very seriously. But even more than law it has flesh-and-blood people, and it takes their circumstances and struggles seriously too.
At one stage, Pope Francis writes that the divorced and remarried can find themselves in situations ‘which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications, leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment.’”
(8 April 2016)

Instead of a pastoral service or priests, the Baha’i community has the elected Local Spiritual Assembly (LSA). In the stories above we saw that one LSA chose compassion and aimed to see the picture from the point of the individual, and some even saw it as an opportunity to learn. The other LSA appears to have used Baha’i law like a stick with stern counseling which the National Spiritual Assembly (NSA) later reinforced with punitive action. I found the letter which stated that her voting rights were removed from that NSA particularly shocking because of these words “The principle reason for doing [this] is because such an arrangement is publicly in breach of Baha’i law and therefore your administrative rights are removed to protect the good name of the Faith.” If public impressions are the real issue, the fact is that in most western countries, religious examples of tolerance and compassion on such issues bring good publicity, not shame. They also noted that she is not allowed to host “devotional meetings nor any of the core activities related to the Plan” nor host Holy Days, teach children’s classes and a long list of other exclusions. Non-Baha’is are not excluded as much as this. I will work on a separate blog about what Shoghi Effendi wrote concerning the use and purpose of the removal of administrative rights, as it is clear to me that here it is being used to discriminate and exclude. At the same time, an NSA is free to be as harsh as they wish in the way they choose to apply Baha’i law, but the purpose of my blog will be to show that Baha’i law can be used like “choice wine,” to quote Baha’u’llah – using law with discernment without breaking any of the Baha’i principles.

This matters greatly to me because there’s not only the pain experienced by Julia and the pain I feel in reading her story, but also the problem of those who feel they are doing the right thing by the Baha’i teachings in reporting her to the LSA and the NSA, in excluding her because she is a lesbian, backbiting about her in the community (I’ve omitted this part of her story because it is so awful), not to mention all those others in her community who see this happening and go along with it, either because they think exclusion is right or because they are afraid to say anything.

Which Baha’i community would you want to be a member of? Which type of Baha’i community has a future in today’s world? Baha’is often don’t like me asking such questions because they argue that the Baha’i community shouldn’t be influenced by fads or trends, and that five letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi decades ago are all the guidance we need. I believe that Baha’u’llah’s religion is structured to change with the times, and that it is intended for all peoples – not just those who like things to stay the same or want to exclude people because they represent an aspect of diversity that they are unfamiliar with.

“…the broader issues that are the foundation of the religious law are explicitly stated, but subsidiary matters are left to the House of Justice. The wisdom of this is that time does not stand still: change and transformation are essential attributes and necessities of this world, and of time and place. Therefore the House of Justice implements decisions accordingly.”
Abdu’l-Baha, Tablet on on religious law and the House of Justice, provisional translation.

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Critiquing the Universal House of Justice

May 22, 2015

Can a Bahai critique texts penned by the Universal House of Justice or the Department of the Secretariat? My answer, “Of course. Critiquing is engagement. We must obey the Universal House of Justice but that doesn’t mean we must be silent if we do not understand their reasoning.”

Abdu’l-Baha said that we must obey the Guardian to safeguard the “mighty stronghold,” the Baha’i community. The same could be said of obedience to the House of Justice, which is the Head of the Bahai community today. Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha wanted to avoid the problems other religions had of being torn into schisms, so they emphasized obedience very strongly. It doesn’t mean that Bahais can’t think for themselves.

So I am free to disagree and to critique, but I am not free to go and claim any form of leadership or a new Bahai religion. I am also not interested in any ideas associated with what might be called reform because I see no need for these. My arguments and the ideas I express on my blog here as just a Bahai aim to follow Baha’u’llah’s pleas for each of us to be “an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression” (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 93)

And so to the letter, dated 9 May 2014, penned by the secretariat for the Universal House of Justice which I will critique.

A letter, dated 18 May 2015 from the National U.S. Bahai administration has already been widely circulated in diverse online Bahai groups and e-lists. It states:
“A four-page letter from the Universal House of Justice on the subject of homosexuality has recently been receiving wide circulation via the Internet and through personal email lists, and we are increasingly being asked to comment on its authenticity.

The letter—dated May 9, 2014, to an individual believer in response to a personal inquiry—was indeed issued by the Supreme Body through its Department of the Secretariat. We enclose it here for your reference.”

I have inserted section breaks in the letter, and have placed relevant texts in the column on the right as well as any emphasis in the texts.

THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE
DEPARTMENT OF THE SECRETARIAT

9 May 2014

Transmitted by email: ……U.S.A.

Dear Bahá’í Friend,
Your email letter dated 11 January 2014 has been received by the Universal House of Justice. We have been asked to convey to you the following. You express concern about the challenge Bahá’ís encounter in understanding and upholding the Teachings in the face of powerful social forces influencing public attitudes towards homosexuality.

In this connection, you observe that some Bahá’ís are susceptible to the argument that the Faith must change to keep up with what are perceived to be progressive social values, while some others, despite their firm adherence to the Teachings, are unable to resolve the incongruity between the Bahá’í perspective and attitudes prevailing in the wider society. Your thoughtful analysis of the issues you raise is warmly appreciated.

The contemporary discussion surrounding homosexuality, which began in the West and is increasingly promoted in other parts of the world, generally takes the form of a false dichotomy, which compels one to choose between a position that is either affirming or rejecting.

It is understandable that Bahá’ís would be sensitive to acts of prejudice or oppression in any form and to the needs of those who suffer as a result. But to align with either side in the public debate is to accept the premises on which it is based. Moreover, this debate occurs within the context of a rising tide of materialism and consequent reorientation of society, over more than a century, which has among its outcomes a destructive emphasis on sexuality.

Various philosophies and theories have eroded precepts of right and wrong that govern personal behavior. For some, relativism reigns and individuals are to determine their own moral preferences; others dismiss the very conception of personal morality, maintaining that any standard that restrains what is considered a natural impulse is harmful to the individual and ultimately to society.

Self- indulgence, in the guise of expressing one’s true nature, becomes the norm, even the touchstone of healthy living. Consequently, sexuality has become a preoccupation, pervading commerce, media, the arts, and popular culture, influencing disciplines such as medicine, psychology, and education and reducing the human being to an object. It is no longer merely a part of life, but becomes the defining element of a person’s identity.

grey1x1pixels “The Lord hath ordained that in every city a House of Justice be established wherein shall gather counsellors …. It behoveth them to be the trusted ones of the Merciful among men and to regard themselves as the guardians appointed of God for all that dwell on earth. It is incumbent upon them to take counsel together and to have regard for the interests of the servants of God, for His sake, even as they regard their own interests, and to choose that which is meet and seemly. Thus hath the Lord your God commanded you.”
– Baha’u’llah,
The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 29

“Be ye … vanguards of the perfections of humankind; carry forward the various branches of knowledge, be active and progressive in the field of inventions and the arts. Endeavour to rectify the conduct of men, and seek to excel the whole world in moral character.”
– Abdu’l-Baha,
Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 129

“It should also be borne in mind that the machinery of the Cause has been so fashioned, that whatever is deemed necessary to incorporate into it in order to keep it in the forefront of all progressive movements, can, according to the provisions made by Bahá’u’lláh, be safely embodied therein.”
– Shoghi Effendi,
The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 22-23

“The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes…”
– Baha’u’llah,
The Hidden Words

“Be thou of the people of hell-fire, but be not a hypocrite.”
– Baha’u’llah,
cited in a compilation on Trustworthiness. Also in Compilation of compilations, Volume 2, page 337

“Justice and equity are twin Guardians that watch over men. From them are revealed such blessed and perspicuous words as are the cause of the well-being of the world and the protection of the nations.”
– Baha’u’llah,
Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 14

“Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.”
– Baha’u’llah,
Gleanings, p. 213

“The Bahá’í Faith … enjoins upon its followers the primary duty of an unfettered search after truth, condemns all manner of prejudice and superstition, declares the purpose of religion to be the promotion of amity and concord, proclaims its essential harmony with science, and recognizes it as the foremost agency for the pacification and the orderly progress of human society.”
– Shoghi Effendi,
The Promised Day is Come, p. v

“Should a man wish to adorn himself with the ornaments of the earth, to wear its apparels, or partake of the benefits it can bestow, no harm can befall him, if he alloweth nothing whatever to intervene between him and God, for God hath ordained every good thing, whether created in the heavens or in the earth, for such of His servants as truly believe in Him.”
– Baha’u’llah, Gleanings, p. 276

“So Bahá’u’lláh made the utmost efforts to educate [His people] and incite [them] to morality, the acquisition of the sciences and arts of all countries, kindly dealing with all the nations of the earth, desire for the welfare of all peoples, sociability, concord, obedience, submissiveness, instruction of [their] children, production of what is needful for the human race, and inauguration of true happiness for mankind…”
– Abdu’l-Baha,
A Traveller’s Narrative, p. 41, translation: EG Browne

“The fundamental purpose animating the Faith of God and His Religion is to safeguard the interests and promote the unity of the human race, and to foster the spirit of love and fellowship amongst men. Suffer it not to become a source of dissension and discord, of hate and enmity.”
– Baha’u’llah,
Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 168

The letter above states that “The contemporary discussion surrounding homosexuality … generally takes the form of a false dichotomy, which compels one to choose between a position that is either affirming or rejecting.” and they continue: “to align with either side in the public debate is to accept the premises on which it is based.”

As you can read in the quotations on the right, the premise for a Bahai should be justice and equity, and I interpret the false dichotomy as meaning that in the public debate you have people who confuse the right, responsibility and legal protection to marry and raise children with a focus on materialism.

These people then make arguments based on “wrong” ways of living, often focussed on sex or sexual acts to avoid the fact that this is an issue of justice.

It goes something like this “their sex is unnatural therefore it is wrong” “because it is wrong …” when this has nothing to do with sex or materialism. It is about two consenting adults making a commitment to take care of each other, and whether society will accord them equal recognition, as a couple, or not. Is this dichotomy ‘false’ or does it require us, as Bahais, to make a stand for justice?

As a Bahai myself, I think it is important to engage in the debate on justice and be anxiously concerned with the needs of my age. I hate it that gays and lesbians are labelled as being obsessed about sexuality. To me this is as offensive as labelling an African American as being obsessed about race, when all they are doing is being visible. No person should have to hide who they are. There is not a lot diversity if minorities are denied membership or visibility.

The following seems to be objecting to the visibility of a non-heterosexual identity:
“Consequently, sexuality has become a preoccupation, pervading commerce, media, the arts, and popular culture, influencing disciplines such as medicine, psychology, and education and reducing the human being to an object.”

Surely they are not saying that doctors, scientists, and researchers who have shown us that homosexuality is not abnormal, not curable and not a barrier for healthy married relationships, are just obsessed about sexuality? Their research does not make the individual an object, it highlights the prejudices in society.
Abdul-Baha wrote that “And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is, that religion must be in conformity with science and reason” Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 299

I do not think that the Universal House of Justice would be objecting to the science itself but rather have misunderstood it. It seems that they see the scientific findings as an agenda. Their sentence is a harsh statement against decades of scientific research and clinical experience which in my view goes against the Bahai teaching that we honour scientists and that science and religion go hand in hand. I think Baha’u’llah says this better than I can:
“Beware, O My loved ones, lest ye despise the merits of My learned servants whom God hath graciously chosen to be the exponents of His Name ‘the Fashioner’ amidst mankind. Exert your utmost endeavour that ye may develop such crafts and undertakings that everyone, whether young or old, may benefit therefrom. We are quit of those ignorant ones who fondly imagine that Wisdom is to give vent to one’s idle imaginings and to repudiate God, the Lord of all men; even as We hear some of the heedless voicing such assertions today.”
(Baha’u’llah, LAWḤ-I-HIKMAT (Tablet of Wisdom), Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 150/151)

When I see statements such as in this letter, which can be used by Bahais as ammunition to aim hatred or intolerance at others, I am reminded that I am a Bahai because of Bahaú’llah’s Teachings and not because of the Bahai administration, important as it is. Shoghi Effendi expresses the hope that unprejudiced observers of the Bahai Faith may be impressed by “the reasonableness of its claims, the comprehensiveness of its scope, the universality of its program, [and] the flexibility of its institutions…” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 54). Reading this letter, I am not clear that a observer will see the underlying comprehensiveness and universality.

Abdul-Baha’s words remind me that, whatever our orientation or sexuality, we are all united – born from the same God. “In like manner, when divers shades of thought, temperament and character, are brought together under the power and influence of one central agency, the beauty and glory of human perfection will be revealed and made manifest.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of The Divine Plan, p. 102)

My next blog will continue with the rest of the 9 May 2015 letter.

For me Bahau’llah’s teachings are forward thinking and positive and I am a Bahai because these teachings make sense to me, so I end with Shoghi Effendi’s summary of the purpose of Bahaú’llah’s teachings:
“`Abdu’l-Bahá expounded, with brilliant simplicity, with persuasiveness and force, and for the first time in His ministry, those basic and distinguishing principles of His Father’s Faith, which together with the laws and ordinances revealed in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas constitute the bed-rock of God’s latest Revelation to mankind. The independent search after truth, unfettered by superstition or tradition; the oneness of the entire human race, the pivotal principle and fundamental doctrine of the Faith; the basic unity of all religions; the condemnation of all forms of prejudice, whether religious, racial, class or national; the harmony which must exist between religion and science; the equality of men and women, the two wings on which the bird of human kind is able to soar; the introduction of compulsory education; the adoption of a universal auxiliary language; the abolition of the extremes of wealth and poverty; the institution of a world tribunal for the adjudication of disputes between nations; the exaltation of work, performed in the spirit of service, to the rank of worship; the glorification of justice as the ruling principle in human society, and of religion as a bulwark for the protection of all peoples and nations; and the establishment of a permanent and universal peace as the supreme goal of all mankind — these stand out as the essential elements of that Divine polity which He proclaimed to leaders of public thought as well as to the masses at large in the course of these missionary journeys. The exposition of these vitalizing truths of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh, which He characterized as the “spirit of the age,”
(Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 281)

That society and the Bahai community must forever refuse to recognize married couples of the same sex as worthy members and as couples is not an essential element of the Bahai teachings, as I understand them. Even those who feel that way, must admit that it is a secondary matter, on which there is room for flexibility. My hope is for something more than mere grudging acceptance. I hope to see an open embrace that demonstrates the universality of our programme and the flexibility of our institutions.
 
 
A copy of the 9 May 2014 letter is on Sen McGlinn’s blog.

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Is it better to walk away?

August 17, 2014

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caption: Spirituality is less about ‘doing’ & more about ‘being’ our truest most authentic self everywhere we go.- Emmanuel Dagher.


When a gay friend wrote:
My energy could be better served not fighting for inclusion but by focusing on doing good works. I’m starting to see why many people just give up on God completely and decide that, dogma, worship and religious labels get in the way of working towards creating a better world. A world that doesn’t exclude or hurt people.

I was reminded of ‘Abdul-Baha who said that if religion is not a cause of love and unity then it better not to have a religion. [footnote 1] Some have suggested to me that it is always better to walk away, that unity is most important. I don’t think Baha’u’llah nor ‘Abdul-Baha intended their teachings to be a mouthpiece for the majority. I think Baha’u’llah was serious when he said that ” [t]he best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice” [Hidden Words] but more importantly I think any community, religious or not, needs to value diversity because of the fresh inputs diverse people bring. If those from minority backgrounds are to have a voice, those from a majority perspective need to make it clear that there is ‘space’ for them in their community. In my view, it isn’t about tolerance or sympathy or looking good, but about developing a community where diversity is valued. Diversity doesn’t just happen, it needs to be worked at just as many Baha’i communities have and do work at racial diversity.

I think most Baha’is care very deeply about the importance of diversity, except, it seems, when it comes to our gay and lesbian brothers. I am often told that there is no such thing as a “LGBTQ” voice because we are all one. We are all equal. I agree with the sentiment but by ‘voice’ I mean a particular perspective on the world and society that is different to a majority voice.

I am a human being first and this means acknowledging others as equals, acknowledging that their differing perspectives are of value, however odd or ‘wrong’ they might seem to me personally.

So the next time there’s a gay or lesbian at a Baha’i event, do your best to treat that individual not as an ‘other’ – because they might not be there next time – threat them as an equal and a welcome element of diversity. And if there are no gays or lesbians in your community, then ask yourself why? What is it about your community that does not show to a 10% minority or so of humanity, that they are welcome?

A Baha’i recently told me that she felt embarrassed to say she was a Baha’i because she didn’t have the words to counter statements such as Homosexuality, according to the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, is spiritually condemned [footnote 2]. Then a work colleague, an out of the closet lesbian, said she had heard that she was a Baha’i and that it sounded like a nice religion and asked her about it. My Baha’i friend kept the conversation brief because she didn’t want her to find out that lesbians and gays are treated differently. For my friend, this is a huge crisis of faith. Personally she sees nothing wrong with homosexuality, but she knows that the public image of the Baha’i community conflates homosexuality with immorality or disease, and she can’t see how she can do anything to change this. I suggested that she could speak about her discomfort in her own Baha’i community. If others in the community share her views, suggest that they state in their publicity something like: “a Bahai teaching is equality for all regardless of their cultural background, race or orientation.” If these Bahais find such a public statement problematic, then host a study class on the topic to find out why and use the opportunity to find ways to present the Baha’i community that work best while still showing the world that this particular Baha’i community is working at reducing discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Like any form of discrimination, the issue affects everyone, not just those who are being oppressed. Looking the other way means doing nothing to address the public perception that the Baha’i community is not coming “to the defense of those whose fundamental rights are being denied or violated” [Universal House of Justice, 27 October, 2010] of those who identify as GLBTQ.

Back to my question: is it better to walk away?

My gay friend continued: I ask myself “why do I have pain and suffering?” Is it because I want there to be a true Faith that makes existence make sense? I desire God and want a religion. In a way, it is selfish. And the result is pain, because the only Faith that makes sense to me, is just like all the other religions: it divides the world into “us” and “them,” even though it claims it doesn’t.
 
Like a child having a tantrum, I am angry and mad and fighting for this not to be so. But the fact of the matter is … it *is* this way. So, I feel the right way is to stop desiring there to be a God or an afterlife or even a religion or Faith that tries to make sense of existence.
 
I want those things because I’m selfish and want inclusion and want some sense of order. If I abandon my desires for these things and accept what is, then I no longer suffer with the pain that comes with the rejection from the Bahai Faith that is caused by being a gay man. And if I stop worrying about an afterlife and the “why” of existence, I can finally live free and at peace.

Is the anger because of attachment? Or injustice? What is more important – passion, involvement or detachment?

As for myself, if I thought the Baha’i Teachings (Link to a blog outlining ‘Abdul-Baha’s eleven principles) endorsed treating gay and lesbian Baha’is differently, I would have leave the Baha’i Faith and in turn, I would be less sure about the existence of God more than ever, as I am one of those Baha’is whose idea of God borders on the agnostic. I am not sure about the existence of God but the Baha’i Writings ring true as does my belief in spirituality.

I would have to leave the Baha’i Faith because if gays and lesbians are treated differently because of their orientation, then it means that the Baha’i principle of equality is meaningless. It is not possible to preach equality and then add, “except for those people”. Baha’is might say things such as “homosexuality is spiritually condemned” but if it is not in Baha’i Scripture, then as far as I am concerned it is not part of the Baha’i Teachings. I realise it is easier for me. I have the confidence to say this.

A friend nailed it by saying: I’ve had to recently acknowledge the fact that deep inside me I feel like I don’t have the right to be happy because I’m gay. God hates us, unless we’re celibate. And it affects my relationships, my self-esteem, and it certainly has played a huge part in my history of enjoying various substances.

“Justice and equity are twin Guardians that watch over men. From them are revealed such blessed and perspicuous words as are the cause of the well-being of the world and the protection of the nations.” (Baha’u’llah)

If you are not treated with equality, of course it affects your self-esteem. If you are expected to hide your orientation, of course that creates an imbalance. I think that is why the Baha’i Teachings place such importance on equality, justice, independent investigation, and science and religion being in harmony and why ‘Adbul-Baha wrote: “The divine religions must be the cause of oneness… and the means of unity and love; they must promulgate universal peace, free man from every prejudice, bestow joy and gladness, exercise kindness to all men and do away with every difference and distinction. Just as Bahá’u’lláh addressing the world of humanity saith: ‘O people! Ye are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch.'” [Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 28]

We can use reason to overcome prejudice and hopefully make a conscious effort to improve the state of humanity”. [Bahaiteachings.org]

I do not want my religion to be used to hurt another gay or lesbian and I hope for the day when Baha’i communities demonstrate publicly by action that in their community they treat their gay and lesbian members as equals.

‘Abdul-Baha spoke of the diversity of the flowers in the garden of humanity being diverse as a good thing and as a metaphor for the diversity of humanity (being a good thing). I hate it that public statements present as homosexuality being: an aberration subject to treatment or abnormality, handicap, affliction, problem or an abnormality … a great problem for the individual so afflicted … that he or she should strive to overcome it“. (all these quotations are from the Wikipedia “Homosexuality and the Baha’i Faith” page. See footnote two). Where are the examples of Baha’is showing that within the Baha’i community there are those who value the diversity of those who identify as LGBT?

Although the Universal House of Justice’s current 2010 policy states that a “marriage is a union between a man and a woman” I wish that marriage was the only issue here, but it isn’t. Not only are gays and lesbians expected to live solitary lives while others may raise families and enjoy the support and companionship of a life-partner, this distinction is then enlarged by Baha’is to say things such as homosexuality is a transgression or a disease.

Don’t get me started on gender and how many a Baha’i has tried to justify the absence of female Universal House of Justice members as being based on supposed differences in capacity between women and men. I think it is human nature to look for reasons and the tendency to create them when there doesn’t appear to be a reason. But then the danger is, just as in discussions on gender equality, difference is then used as a means to enlarge on the inequality.

The Universal House of Justice letter states that “The Bahá’í Writings state that marriage is a union between a man and a woman” but it doesn’t state the situation of already married gays or lesbians becoming Baha’is or that unmarried gays and lesbians should be treated differently to unmarried straights. The Universal House of Justice does not give a source in Baha’i Scripture (See my blog on this topic), and if there is nothing in Bahai Scripture that restricts marriage to a man and a woman, a later Universal House of Justice is free to take a different approach. It is not clear to me here whether The Universal House of Justice is making a policy on what is a Bahai marriage or telling us what they think is in Baha’i Scripture.

Of course I do see the catch 22 here for those in countries where it would break the law of the land to discriminate against legally married same sex couples. What can Baha’is do? I guess one day the Universal House of Justice is likely to make a policy on same sex marriage, but until they do, I would suggest that any N.S.A. or L.S.A. to view this as a new phenomenon and deal with this in the way that seems closest to the teachings of Baha’u’llah and the latest policy of the Universal House of Justice, while respecting the right of government to define civil marriage.

But I find it horrific that a Baha’i could say that treating a gay or lesbian differently is based on Baha’i Scripture, because it is not true.

In light of such attitudes, I don’t blame this gay friend for writing: it is religion and my desire to be a part of it and my desire to be loved by the Creator. If the Creator doesn’t love me, what is the point of trying to love the Creator? These are thoughts I usually hold down but I don’t see the usefulness (anymore) in pretending these feelings aren’t there. I’m sure I’m not alone. And I’m sharing with you to process and discuss”.

The very idea that some people are less worthy because of their nature, their race, or orientation is repulsive to me. I can’t match this idea with anything in the Bahai Writings, however another of my gay friends wrote: Lately I have been heavy on fighting for inclusion, perhaps to the exclusion of good works. But it may be time for a recalibration…. As regards your comments about desire producing pain, I have found that detachment from religion and people (even the most well intentioned) helps me maintain my sanity and my faith.
 
My view of humanity is much more melancholic than it used to be as a result. But I find that this detachment combined with a regular prayer/meditation practice works for me. When I get particularly depressed by people I turn to the prayers and writings of ‘Abdul-Baha for comfort.

So why should gays and lesbians have to suffer? What justification is there for prejudice against gays and lesbians to continue in the Baha’i community?

My friend Daniel who runs the blog “Revolked”: wrote in response to having his voting rights removed in 2009 by the American Baha’i community for being legally married in California: The Buddhist sangha really helped me… there was something about total inclusion mixed with a semi-Baha’i administration (all volunteer committee of 12 who coordinate the whole shabang), and 40 minutes of silence… with a short (very firesideesque) talk after… that helped me heal.
 
I felt listened to, and I am talking about listened to by Baha’u’llah/Buddha for the first time…
 
I needed (still do) help with dealing about my anger related to organized religion, how the Baha’is treated me, and my overall distaste for any organized spiritual anything…
 
It really helped … sitting every Sunday with really nice, good, smart people who don’t push, nor judge … other folks will find other ways to heal.
 
But I have come to realize that at least for me, Baha’i doesn’t work. It’s a nice idea, and I desperately love and accept Baha’u’llah… but the community … they reject people like me

This is the first case I know of in which a legal same-sex marriage was the reason for applying a Baha’i administrative sanction. I hope it is the only case and that one day that Daniel receives a letter of apology, because it is a Baha’i principle to follow the laws of one’s country. Shoghi Effendi was very firm about this when he wrote “they will, unhesitatingly, subordinate the operation of [Baha’i] laws and the application of [Baha’i] principles to the requirements and legal enactments of their respective governments.” (The World Order of Baha’u’llah) To me, this principle implies that the assemblies – local as much as national – must do their best to avoid any actions or statements that might be misconstrued as a rejection of the rights of government and the legitimacy of civil laws.

As far as I know this applies as long as a Baha’i law or teaching is not transgressed and even then, such as in the case of apartheid in South Africa, Baha’is were encouraged not to confront the law of the land. As far as I know the Universal House of Justice has not made a ruling on same sex marriage, only statements concerning homosexuality outside of marriage and the statement that a Baha’i marriage “is a union between a man and a woman”. So I assume that until the Universal House of Justice makes a ruling on same-sex marriage it is up to local or national Bahai communities to decide what is best in light of the Baha’i principles for those who are already Baha’is as much as for married couples who choose to join the community.

Some days I think the fight is worth it because I hope my actions help Baha’is to be more tolerant and for Baha’is from diverse perspectives to feel equally welcome. I am selfish about this. I want the Baha’i community to be more inclusive. Other days, I think it is better to be more involved in the art world (I am an artist) because it is so diverse and energizing. Perhaps in the end I can do more as an artist to help my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters than trying to work for tolerance and openness within the Bahai community. Who knows? It’s odd though, each time when I think this might be my last blog on the topic of gay rights, it feels as if Baha’u’llah is pushing me – as if this can’t be the last word.

I dedicate this blog to all my gay and lesbian friends who given me the honour of sharing their voices with me for three decades.

Footnote 1: The passage “If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. For it is clear that the purpose of a remedy is to cure; but if the remedy should only aggravate the complaint it had better be left alone. Any religion which is not a cause of love and unity is no religion.” is often quoted by Baha’is but the source here, Paris Talks, consists of notes made by an interpreter of the talk given in French by a translator, which in turn were translated into English.

An authentic source in Abdul-Baha‘s own wording is: “Third: religion is the foundation of harmony and love, of solidarity and unity. If religion is made the cause of enmity it yields not solidarity but rather troubles, and the absence of religion is better than its existence. The abandonment of religion is preferable to this.” [A provisional translation by Sen McGlinn from notes in Persian that had been checked by Adbul-Baha

Footnote 2: In footnote 8 on the “Bahai Faith and Homosexuality” Wikipedia page (Last accessed 17 August 2014) is the statement Homosexuality, according to the Writings of Baha’u’llah, is spiritually condemned. Admittedly this page is currently dominated by the opinions of two Baha’is (Back in May 2014 I failed to get them to modify their opinions because they were not backed up by the sources they referred to). And so like any Wikipedia page that deals with a sensitive topic, those with the most friends with the skills and time, win. It is a weakness of the Wikipedia system that, like the worst aspects of party politics, majority voices are able to drown out other voices. But just because a system can be misused doesn’t mean it is bad system. I love Wikipedia!

Anyway if most Baha’is believe that somewhere in Baha’i Scripture same-sex marriage is excluded then that is an accurate picture of the state of play in the Baha’i community, regardless of whether it is true or not. Wikipedia is a fabulous resource which is flexible, and one day if the current views become minority views, then this page will be changed.
So I hope this explains why quite a few of the statements [as accessed on August 17th, 2014] on this Wikipedia page are inaccurate. I hope the day is sooner rather than later when these inaccuracies are removed. However it is a fight, that for now at least, I have chosen to walk away from. Here is what I am referring to as being inaccurate:
The Bahá’í Faith teaches that the only acceptable form of sexual expression is within marriage, and Baha’i marriage is defined in the religion’s texts as exclusively between one man and one woman (Wikipedia, accessed 17 August 2014)
I had replaced the text: “in the religion’s texts as exclusively” with “in Bahai law as being” because the UHJ creates Bahai law or policy. If there is a religious text stating this, then it needs to be found or shown. All Wikipedia references used by these two Baha’is either led to statements made by the Universal House of Justice or references to marriage as a monogamous relationship between a man and woman [click on p. 147 + ”In the Glory of the Father: The Baha’i Faith and Christianity, p. 100”]. Bahai’s would not call policy made the Universal House of Justice ‘religious texts’ because that would confuse the Universal House of Justice’s authority with that of Baha’i Scripture. Saying that a marriage is between a man and woman is not the same as saying this is exclusive.

By now you might be wondering why I am putting all of this into a footnote here. Well, should a Baha’i feel uncomfortable about the phrase defined in the religion’s texts or anything else in that Wikipedia article, this might help.

Opinions expressed as if they are supported by secondary literature when in fact they are not [my major argument with these two] is one thing, but these opinions create the impression that Baha’i Scripture is prejudiced against gays and lesbians, when it is not. It might seem petty, but for me it is an important distinction because Baha’i Scripture cannot be changed while statements by the Universal House of Justice can be changed by a later policy of the Universal House of Justice.

You might say, but, there is much more on that page, such as the assumption that homosexuality is a transgression [accessed 17 August homosexuality over other transgressions in the second paragraph] when in fact current Universal House of Justice policy since 2010 is that “to regard those with a homosexual orientation with prejudice or disdain would be against the spirit of the Faith.” Well, I thought I’d just start with the first sentence on the Wikipedia page and see how that went before going any further. Perhaps I should write a blog about the exchanges I had on the ‘talk’ behind the scenes page (summarized here), because until then I had not realised how easy it was for the views of just two individuals with the skills, to dominate a Wikipedia page. I was used to an academic environment where if a reference is made, then it relates to the statement. These two repeatedly added material where in some cases marriage wasn’t mentioned at all. Admittedly they removed most of these when I pointed this out, but it took a lot of time to look up the books. In the end they won because they just kept deleting my edits. It was not pleasant so I understand perfectly why Baha’is might walk away from that fight as I have. Wikipedia keeps things transparent so if you wish you can read about it here.
I am “Huianui” in the conversation with the two male Bahais.

2018 update: The first sentence of the wikipedia Homosexuality_and_the_Bahá’í_Faith has now removed the phrase I was objecting to Baha’i marriage is defined in the religion’s texts as exclusively between one man and one woman and replaced this with:

The Bahá’í Faith teaches that the only acceptable form of sexual expression is within marriage, and Bahá’í marriage is defined as exclusively between one man and one woman.[1][2][3] This definition excludes premarital, extramarital, or homosexual intimacy from allowable Bahá’í practices. [Accessed 5 March, 2018]
The footnotes still refer to secondary literature which give no sources in support of marriage being only possible between heterosexuals.

Another change on this wikipedia page since 2014 is that an external link to the “Gay and Lesbian Bahai Project” has been removed. I had been involved in the Feb 2014 discussion arguing:
“Gaybahai.net is evidence of the existence of Lesbian and Gay Bahais because it collects stories. There are 68 articles written by individuals there. So the argument that it is not connected to the primary subject of the article doesn’t make sense to me. In my view the connection to the subject is obvious. That is, reference to a collation of articles by Bahais on the topic of the experiences of gays and lesbians in the Bahai community in a wikipedia article about Homosexuality and the Bahai Faith.
About self-publishing this was already covered earlier here – “Self-published and questionable sources may be used as sources of information about themselves, usually in articles about themselves or their activities, without the self-published source requirement that they be published experts in the field, so long as: the material is neither unduly self-serving nor an exceptional claim; it does not involve claims about third parties; it does not involve claims about events not directly related to the source; there is no reasonable doubt as to its authenticity; the article is not based primarily on such sources.” WP:ABOUTSELF My apologies for posting the text but it seems to me that gaybahai.net fulfills all these requirements. So I don’t understand why this is used as an argument to censor mention of this as part of the article.
It seems that adding mention of gaybahai.net is not in violation of any wikipedia rule. Another argument for including mention of gaybahai.net in the article is that this section lacks any voice from the perspective of those which this section is about. Surely that would be like having a section on African American Bahais and then only allowing references to any information where they voice themselves to a footnote.

This is the text that I attempted to have included under the section entitled Homosexual Bahá’ís:
In 2009 a Bahai set up the Gay and Lesbian Baha’i story project[4] in which Lesbian and Gay Baha’is and others may share experiences they have had within the Baha’i community. As of February 2014 there are 68 stories there.[5] The purpose of this website is “To tell, listen to, and reflect upon stories of Gay/Lesbian Baha’is and their supportive friends/family.” (sources for the above: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk).

This text was not allowed to stay but then a link to the website was allowed as an external link. Now that link has been removed.

It seems that the few individuals who run this page only allow footnotes to views in support of their own biased views but also deny LGBT Bahais any form of visibility on a page about themselves. The argument for not allowing any reference to the “Gay Bahai Project” was because it was self-published but the two references they provide as external links http://www.bnasaa.org and the essay, “Sexuality, Self and Society” by Holly Hanson are also self published. At least in the case of the Gay and Lesbian Baha’i story project these are people (with over 68 stories as of 2014) about their own experiences as opposed to a few Bahai authors writing about gays.

Wikipedia pages change over time, so if that quotation is no longer there, you'll know why

Accessed 5 March 2018.


Hanson even has a whole section titled “Gay-Affirming versus Gay-Rejecting: A Conflict that is Harmful to Everyone” where she creates the myth that there are two camps and then sets about to show how this (her mythical strawman argument) is harmful! If her topic were on race it should be obvious how biased it is to attempt to undermine LGBTQ visibility with the creation of her divisive labels. Instead of using the neutral term ‘gay rights’ she creates the term ‘gay-affirming’ even goes as far as to argue that there’s something wrong with the term ‘sex same’ as a form of identity!
I guess her views reflect the views of the authors of this wikipedia page while a website where lesbian or gay Bahais speak from a broad range of perspectives for themselves, is not allowed. You can view the wikipedia talk page here.

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Is homosexuality spiritually condemned?

May 9, 2014

Claiming that someone else's marriage is against your religion is like being angry at someone for eating a doughnut because you're on a diet

“Claiming that someone else’s marriage
is against your religion
is like being angry
at someone for eating
a doughnut because you’re
on a diet”


Recently I was sent a link to a document written in 2007 entitled “Position Paper on Homosexuality for the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the UK.”

My impression of this sermon of certainty was, well, if this author’s biased and
unsubstantiated views were representative of the teachings of the Bahai Faith on this subject, few people (myself included) would be interested in joining such a religion.

The first four sentences say it all: “Between obliviousness and puritanism stand Bahá’ís, who say that homosexuality is wrong, but homosexuals are kindred souls. The Bahá’í Faith is a religion of unity, revealed by Bahá’u’lláh. Remembering this context is essential when saying that the Bahá’í position on homosexuality is spiritual condemnation. As a Bahá’í, I believe that morality is foundational to spiritually healthy individuals and, therefore, to a united society; and this applies to a sexual morality that excludes homosexuality.”

This statement just doesn’t hold water for a Bahai such as myself, because I know that all of the above is based on the author’s own prejudice. What he is saying is that a united society is not possible unless its sexual morality excludes homosexuality. The author claims all sorts of ridiculous notions as if these are based on Bahai teachings.
Admittedly his text is noted as ‘draft 2,’ but the author’s essay entitled “Position Paper on Homosexuality for the NSA of the Bahá’ís of the UK” (you can read it here), has been online since 2007 and in 2011 there was an interview with him in his capacity at the UK Bahá’í Community’s Office of Public Affairs, so some readers might give his views some weight.
Below is a table with the author’s claims (in green) adjacent to my responses. Decide for yourself if it is a Bahai teaching that homosexuality is spiritually condemned.

…this applies to a sexual morality that excludes homosexuality. ‘Ye are forbidden to commit adultery, sodomy and lechery.’
Page 1.
    1. Sodomy is not homosexuality.
2. Bahaú’llah is condemning three forms of illicit sex-related activities, not homosexuality. (See the context here)
The author assumes that homosexuality is illicit, but the question is, is homosexuality illicit within a marriage?
Bahá’ís consider the condition of homosexuality to be spiritually condemned and reject the act, they would never reject homosexual people.
Page 1.
    “Justice and equity are twin Guardians that watch over men. From them are revealed such blessed and perspicuous words as are the cause of the well-being of the world and the protection of the nations.”
– Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 13

There is nothing in Bahai Scripture that even hints that justice and equality are conditional on being a heterosexual.

We believe that the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh are the ‘breath of life unto all created things’, that the exhortations and prohibitions of a Bahá’í life comprise the great education and the great enablement, not the great lockdown.

Through obedience to the laws, Bahá’ís work to discipline themselves according to spiritual standards that outstrip average notions of appropriate living, and this discipline allows the individual to respond to grander impulses than physical desires or psychological complexes.

Furthermore, spiritual discipline frees us from our own selves and offers a life fulfilled through clarity of purpose and devoted service to our fellow humans.
Page 1.

    Many of Bahaú’llah’s “Hidden Words” speak of the nature of humanity as being in God’s image.
“Thou art My lamp and My light is in thee. Get thou from it thy radiance and seek none other than Me. For I have created thee rich and have bountifully shed My favor upon thee.”

Baha’u’llah wrote many mystical, metaphysical and philosophical texts and one book of laws. This book was in part a response to questions put to him of how to deal with existing Islamic laws. Significantly Baha’u’llah wrote: “Think not that We have revealed unto you a mere code of laws. Nay, rather, We have unsealed the choice Wine with the fingers of might and power. To this beareth witness that which the Pen of Revelation hath revealed. Meditate upon this, O men of insight!” (Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 121)

So rather than the Bahai Faith being a religion focussed on a list of laws, it is a religion based on principles, where we are asked to use our insights to understand the laws. Baha’u’llah created the institution of the Universal House of Justice so that the rule-making part (and authority) of the Bahai community, because its rulings are distinct from Bahai Scripture, is able to change what is considered Bahai law (See Abdul-Baha’s Will and Testament).

The authors’ comment ”being freed from our own selves” implies that Bahais are expected to obey rules and not to use their own insights. The House of Justice has not laid down rules on subjects such as homosexuality, instead leaving many matters to individual conscience and the Bahai communities that exist in diverse social settings.
“The Universal House of Justice does not feel that the time has come for it to provide detailed legislation on subjects such as abortion, homosexuality and other moral issues. …

It has been a human tendency to wish to eliminate these grey areas so that every aspect of life is clearly prescribed. A result of this tendency has been the tremendous accretion of interpretation and subsidiary legislation which has smothered the spirit of certain of the older religions. Universal House of Justice to an individual, 5 June 1988.

Marriage itself is considered a divine institution and a ‘fortress of well-being and salvation’ that can shelter a man and woman from loneliness and drift, which can save them from the emotional pains of physical satisfaction in unhealthily transient relationships.

The reality for homosexuals in the Bahá’í Faith, therefore, is the same as unmarried heterosexuals: a spiritual obligation to be chaste. On this most important moral consideration, the Bahá’í Faith effectively does not distinguish between heterosexuality and homosexuality.

We are not our desires or our inclinations; we are more. Human sexuality is celebrated though not indulged:
Saleem Vaillancourt, Pages 1-2.

    “God hath prescribed matrimony unto you.” Baha’u’llah

There is nothing in Baha’u’llah’s writings to suggest that matrimony is not possible for same sex couples.

The author glides from everyone being expected to practise chastity before marriage, to his expecting gays and lesbians never to have the chance of a committed life partnership. These are not the ‘same realities’: the latter is discrimination and oppression.

Bahai Scripture stresses the importance of the spiritual as part of a holistic worldview which, of course, includes our ‘inclinations’ and ‘desires’: “with the clay of My command I made thee to appear, and have ordained for thy training every atom of existence and the essence of all created things.”

Bahá’u’lláh recommends marriage at a young age.
Page 2.
    Baha’u’llah did not recommend marriage at a young age. He changed an Islamic law where girls could be married off as children, to a law where for the male or female the minimum age for marriage was their 15th birthday. Another Bahai law is to follow the law of one’s country so if the minimum age for marriage is higher, this sets the limit.

But sex must be within marriage because it guarantees that intimate relationships are buttressed against the uncertainties of life, with each married couple and family a solid piece of a slowly unifying humanity.

Such is the core and utterly rational reason that the Bahá’í Faith cannot allow homosexuality within this balance of physical love, emotional health, social responsibility, and spiritual growth.

Our desires are innate but our inclinations are another matter.

And so very firmly, the Bahá’í Faith rejects the possibility that sexual relations between homosexuals are a natural or positive influence on either the individuals themselves or their wider society.
Saleem Vaillancourt, Page 2.

    There is nothing in Bahai Scripture stating that marriage is only for heterosexuals. When ‘Abdul-Baha wrote about the rules for marriage as an aspect of the social teachings of the Bahai Faith he refers to a man and woman but he doesn’t state that marriage can only be between a man and a woman. And Baha’u’llah wrote:“Whoso contenteth himself with a single partner from among the maidservants of God, both he and she shall live in tranquillity.”

And the introduction the Universal House of Justice explains:
where Bahá’u’lláh has given a law as between a man and a woman, it applies mutatis mutandis between a woman and a man unless the context makes this impossible.

Note that the author has effectively said that married homosexuals could not have a positive influence on others, and on society. How then can he regard them as ‘kindred souls,’ if they are so innately flawed that they can contribute no good?

Bahá’í do not accept the materialist notion that nature is perfect, but rather, the nature of humans must be improved through spiritual education.
Page 2.
    “Man is the supreme Talisman” (Bahá’u’lláh); children are born with lots of potential and no bad bits, so it is not that human beings must be improved, but that through education and experience we can develop and “(t)he purpose of the one true God, exalted be His glory, hath been to bring forth the Mystic Gems out of the mine of man”. – Baha’u’llah (See my blog on human nature)

The propagation of the species is the obvious purpose of the sex impulse; a sexuality that obviates procreation defies the social role of sex.

The condition of homosexuality is regarded by Bahá’u’lláh as an ‘affliction’ and an ‘aberration’ which is ‘against nature’. The starkness of this language makes it transparently clear that not only is the condition wrong but same-sex relationships do not ring true. The language is also difficult to bear for non-Bahá’ís and some Bahá’ís alike; the proper consolation is that this condemnation comes from He whom Bahá’ís believe to be the Manifestation of God, and thus speaks with a voice unparalleled and inimitable. His starkness is not available for our own use. Bahá’ís of whichever sexual orientation are taught acceptance and love by their Faith and its teachings; spiritual condemnation cannot be translated into tangible or emotional condemnation. This very firm rejection is made with the utmost love for homosexuals. For proofs of this utmost love, again the fundamental principles provide guidance: people of all kinds deserve only praise and encouragement from other individuals within the Bahá’í community. (Only the institutions have the right to concern themselves with the private affairs of Bahá’ís, a right exercised only when that behaviour manifests itself in a way publicly damaging to the community.)

Saleem Vaillancourt, Pages 2-3.

    Marriage is praised by Baha’u’llah as opposed to a life as an ascetic. “Enter into wedlock, O people, that ye may bring forth one who will make mention of Me amid My servants. This is My bidding unto you; hold fast to it as an assistance to yourselves.”

There is nothing in the text to suggest that the purpose of marriage is procreate – only that it is a good thing, which is why elderly or infertile individuals are free to marry.

“When, therefore, the people of Baha undertake to marry, the union must be a true relationship, a spiritual coming together as well as a physical one, so that throughout every phase of life, and in all the worlds of God, their union will endure; for this real oneness is a gleaming out of the love of God.” – ‘Abdu’l-Baha

The words ‘afflication,’ ‘aberration’ and ‘against nature’ used by the author originate in four letters written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi. It’s an insult to attribute the same views to Baha’u’llah. These words are not Bahai Scripture.

The author – who has said that homosexuals are socially useless – apparently does not see this as a ‘tangible or emotional’ condemnation, and speaks of the praise and encouragement homosexuals will receive in the Bahai community. Providing they do not encounter our author, presumably.

Bahais may lose their voting rights for breaking Bahai laws, and some assemblies have interpreted getting married, to a partner of the same sex, as breaking Bahai law. They have wide discretion: ” … Every case is different, and there is more than one variable consideration to take into account, for example, the circumstances of the individual, the degree to which the good name of the Faith is involved, whether the offence is blatant and flagrant. Over and over again the beloved Guardian urged Assemblies to be extremely patient and forbearing in dealing with the friends. He pointed out on many occasions that removal of administrative rights is the heaviest sanction which Assemblies may impose at the present time. These considerations apply to the types of problems you mention in your letter. In all such cases it is for the Assembly to determine at what point the conduct is blatant and flagrant or is harmful to the name of the Faith. They must determine whether the believer has been given sufficient warning before the imposition of sanctions. …”
Universal House of Justice, 1977

Tolerance and plurality are the professed values of a liberal society, and because of the pacific nature of the Bahá’í Faith, often we are perceived to be liberal intellectuals who also believe in God. Not so. The Faith was not revealed so that it might conform to any contemporary thinking or mask itself behind common notions, it was revealed to rewrite human spirituality, morality and society, so we cannot obfuscate the teachings elemental to these goals.
Page 3.
    The author wrote “The Faith was not revealed so that it might conform to any contemporary thinking or mask itself behind common notions” while
‘Abdu’l-Baha praises “intellect and wisdom” as “two most luminous lights in either world”

I quote the context below.

“Praise and thanksgiving be unto Providence that out of all the realities in existence He has chosen the reality of man and has honored it with intellect and wisdom, the two most luminous lights in either world. Through the agency of this great endowment, He has in every epoch cast on the mirror of creation new and wonderful configurations.

If we look objectively upon the world of being, it will become apparent that from age to age, the temple of existence has continually been embellished with a fresh grace, and distinguished with an ever-varying splendor, deriving from wisdom and the power of thought.” ‘Abdu’l-Baha

Inside the Bahá’í Faith, the covenantal duty and expectation is obedience to the laws and the institutions. Bahá’ís are expected to strive for understanding of those laws beyond their grasp; a selective adherence to these laws is unacceptable because it undermines the unity of the entire community.

But these are standards for Bahá’ís only, and because the Faith finds itself in a context of many different beliefs, it holds that concord and plurality are more important than contention and division. These principles are reflected in the values of any progressive society.

And yet because this current liberal society has convinced itself of the rightness of Enlightenment thinking, which includes a permissive attitude to sex and allows for an individualistic definition of sexuality, dissension therefrom brings denouncement.

My confusion at being called a bigot stemmed from this double standard: that western society was liberal and open-minded, so long as certain issues were agreed upon beforehand.

There was a hypocritical element which Bahá’ís must reject when explaining their position on homosexuality: pluralism and the liberally spread charge of bigotry are incompatible.
Saleem Vaillancourt, Pages 3-4.

    “It should also be borne in mind that the machinery of the Cause has been so fashioned, that whatever is deemed necessary to incorporate into it in order to keep it in the forefront of all progressive movements, can, according to the provisions made by Bahá’u’lláh, be safely embodied therein. To this testify the words of Bahá’u’lláh, as recorded in the Eighth Leaf of the exalted Paradise:

“It is incumbent upon the Trustees of the House of Justice to take counsel together regarding those things which have not outwardly been revealed in the Book, and to enforce that which is agreeable to them. God will verily inspire them with whatsoever He willeth, and He, verily, is the Provider, the Omniscient.”

Not only has the House of Justice been invested by Bahá’u’lláh with the authority to legislate whatsoever has not been explicitly and outwardly recorded in His holy Writ, upon it has also been conferred by the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá the right and power to abrogate, according to the changes and requirements of the time, whatever has been already enacted and enforced by a preceding House of Justice. In this connection, He revealed the following in His Will:

“And inasmuch as the House of Justice hath power to enact laws that are not expressly recorded in the Book and bear upon daily transactions, so also it hath power to repeal the same. Thus for example, the House of Justice enacteth today a certain law and enforceth it, and a hundred years hence, circumstances having profoundly changed and the conditions having altered, another House of Justice will then have power, according to the exigencies of the time, to alter that law. This it can do because that law formeth no part of the divine explicit text. The House of Justice is both the initiator and the abrogator of its own laws.”

Such is the immutability of His revealed Word. Such is the elasticity which characterizes the functions of His appointed ministers. The first preserves the identity of His Faith, and guards the integrity of His law. The second enables it, even as a living organism, to expand and adapt itself to the needs and requirements of an ever-changing society.” – Shoghi Effendi

The first emanation from God is the bounty of the Kingdom, which emanates and is reflected in the reality of the creatures, like the light which emanates from the sun and is resplendent in creatures; and this bounty, which is the light, is reflected in infinite forms in the reality of all things, and specifies and individualizes itself according to the capacity, the worthiness and the intrinsic value of things.”‘Abdu’l-Baha

Clearly from the quotations above, the author’s ideas (that being liberal or open minded are bad things) run counter to the Bahai Teachings. ‘Abdul-Baha’s two quotations above show that Bahai Scripture does not share the anti-intellectual views of the author. In fact all the above quotations illustrate that the Bahai Teachings value independent thought and insight as well as logic, and celebrate diversity.

I will not even try and guess what the author means by ‘an individualistic definition of sexuality’ but would suggest the Bahai principle of religion being in harmony with science as a useful guide. Any definition of sexuality needs to be scientifically sound. I am not sure that a religious definition of sexuality is even useful. After all we don’t have a religious definition for digestion. Sexual orientation is not an ethical issue.

There is a curious paradox here which hinges on the identity aspect of this discussion. If liberal society accepted so sincerely the homosexuality of homosexuals, why then have many homosexuals felt the need to persist in their segregated and specialised gay identity long after their supposed entry into the mainstream? I postulate two answers. Firstly, their sexuality has been dramatically overemphasised in the creation of their self-image, self-worth and social identity – just as is the case with many heterosexuals who see sex as soul. The Bahá’í teachings, meanwhile, state that ‘in the estimation of God there is no distinction of sex.’
Saleem Vaillancourt, Page 4.
    This tactic avoids engaging the critique by projecting onto the opponent. No Bahai is expected to sacrifice aspects of their identity; in fact Shoghi Effendi argues for positive discrimination because diversity is so important.

“To discriminate against any race, on the ground of its being socially backward, politically immature, and numerically in a minority, is a flagrant violation of the spirit that animates the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh.

If any discrimination is at all to be tolerated, it should be a discrimination not against, but rather in favor of the minority, be it racial or otherwise.” – Shoghi Effendi

“The sixth principle or teaching of Bahá’u’lláh concerns the equality of man and woman. He has declared that in the estimation of God there is no distinction of sex.” -‘Abdu’l-Baha

The author doesn’t realise that “no distinction of sex” means that men and women are equal; it is not saying that it is irrelevant to your identity whether you are a man, a woman, a homosexual, a heterosexual, or (more simply) your own unique self.

The introduction of the Bahá’í understanding of homosexuality – that the condition is aberrant and the act wrong, but censure of homosexuals even worse – resolves this dichotomous identity problem because it drains the bile from public discussion and sentiment about homosexuality. A homosexual person secure in his or her acceptance by society would not feel the need to adopt a segregated identity. This would succeed is more than the avoidance of false dichotomies, it would foster genuine unity, the very purpose of the Bahá’í Faith.
Saleem Vaillancourt, Page 4.
    “Consider the flowers of a garden: though differing in kind, colour, form and shape, yet, inasmuch as they are refreshed by the waters of one spring, revived by the breath of one wind, invigorated by the rays of one sun, this diversity increaseth their charm, and addeth unto their beauty. Thus when that unifying force, the penetrating influence of the Word of God, taketh effect, the difference of customs, manners, habits, ideas, opinions and dispositions embellisheth the world of humanity. This diversity, this difference is like the naturally created dissimilarity and variety of the limbs and organs of the human body, for each one contributeth to the beauty, efficiency and perfection of the whole. When these different limbs and organs come under the influence of man’s sovereign soul, and the soul’s power pervadeth the limbs and members, veins and arteries of the body, then difference reinforceth harmony, diversity strengtheneth love, and multiplicity is the greatest factor for co-ordination.
How unpleasing to the eye if all the flowers and plants, the leaves and blossoms, the fruits, the branches and the trees of that garden were all of the same shape and colour! Diversity of hues, form and shape, enricheth and adorneth the garden, and heighteneth the effect thereof.” -‘Abdu’l-Baha

The author has claimed that both social unity, and the unity of the Bahai community, are threatened by a morality, or a “selective adherence to [Bahai] laws,” which would accept homosexual relationships and homosexual people on an equal footing. Is it any wonder then, if he also encounters homosexuals who “feel the need to adopt a segregated identity.” He and others like him generate this response through their prejudice, and their vision of a future “genuine unity” that requires the extinction of what they consider immorality. This is not the kind of unity that Baha’u’llah envisioned:
“The religion of God is for love and unity; make it not the cause of enmity or dissension.”Baha’u’llah

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A petition against discrimination and response from the Universal House of Justice

March 27, 2014

12 May 2008

Honorable Universal House of Justice,

My name is Sean X and I am a Baha’i residing in xx, California. It is with much humbleness I come to write you this letter regarding a much unfortunate situation.

On April 21, 2008 I heard from a local member of my Baha’i community that my parents X and X resigned from the Local Spiritual Assembly of Riverside California (they were re-elected on Ridvan as well as my sister X) and that my sister X and I were being investigated at the World Centre.

On April 22, 2008 I contacted my Auxiliary Board Member for Protection with my concerns regarding the aforementioned information and to set up a meeting with him and my family. On May 5, 2008 my family and I met with our Auxiliary Board Member for Protection, it was at this meeting we found out that I was under investigation at the World Centre over a petition called “Speak Up Against Baha’i Discrimination Against Homosexuals” that I signed and forwarded to adult Baha’is in my local area (including my Auxiliary Board Member for Protection). My Auxiliary Board Member for Protection was not informed of the source of this very petition and did not know of the Baha’is sites I believed to have found the petition on such as “The Gay Baha’i Website” and Planet Baha’i.

I am truly sorry if my actions have caused any trouble. I signed and forwarded this petition in the emotion of the moment, and in retrospect it was not a good idea. Causing the Faith any harm was not my intention. The facts on the petition site may or may not be true upon further investigation (the anti-gay protest in Uganda and the Baha’i involvement in it) , and working with incomplete information is never a good course of action. The Cause of Baha’u’llah means the world to me , I would be incomplete without it. To see the Faith damaged in any manner due to my actions would leave me heartbroken. In the future when any situation like this occurs,I am positive I will consult with the Institutions and trusted Baha’i friends before taking any similar action. Consultation is the hallmark of a Baha’i life, and I must not forget that. Please forgive my actions.

Your Baha’i Brother,

Sean X

27 July 2008
Transmitted by email: Mr. Sean X,  U.S.A.

Dear Bahá’í Friend,

Your email letter dated 12 May 2008 has been received by the Universal House of Justice, and we have been asked to convey to you the following response.
You state in your letter that you have learned that you and your sister, Miss X, are being investigated at the Bahá’í World Centre as a result of your signing and forwarding a petition titled “Speak Up Against Bahá’í Discrimination Against Homosexuals.”

You may rest assured, however, that no such investigation is being conducted.

With regard to the above-mentioned petition, you may wish to consider the following. According to the Bahá’í Teachings, marriage is a union between a man and a woman and sexual relations are only permissible between a couple who are married to each other. These teachings are set forth in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and in the authoritative statements of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi and are not susceptible to change by the House of Justice. However, the Bahá’í community does not seek to impose its values on others. Furthermore, to regard those with a homosexual orientation with prejudice and disdain would be entirely against the spirit of the Faith.

With respect to the incident in Uganda to which you refer, the Bahá’í representative to the interfaith association was unwittingly drawn into this controversy. Some reports have incorrectly characterized the Bahá’í involvement in the matter. The National Spiritual Assembly of Uganda is taking steps to ensure that such issues are handled appropriately in the future.

The House of Justice appreciates your desire to clarify your feelings on this matter and assures you of its prayers in the Holy Shrines that the Blessed Beauty may guide and sustain you.

With loving Bahá’í greetings,
Department of the Secretariat

Sean wrote this letter to the Universal House of Justice after a meeting with the ABM for Protection in his region. An Auxillary Board Member for Protection (ABM) is an individual appointed by a Counsellor (who in turn are appointed by the Universal House of Justice) with a pastoral role, that is to advise and support Bahais in their region. The ABM in turn appoints assistants so Bahais in all local communities have access to help or guidance.

Sean contacted the ABM after hearing the rumour from a Bahai saying that his parents had resigned from their local L.S.A. and that Sean and his sister were close to being declared Covenant Breakers because of forwarding the petition. This Bahai had heard this announced by the assistant for Protection at his Ruhi class as well as publicly at a cluster meeting.
Sean knew this was not true and so contacted the ABM and arranged a meeting with him to discuss how such a rumour could have been spread. Sean insisted that his parents and sister also be present at the meeting because the rumours also concerned them.
At the meeting initiated by Sean, the ABM told Sean and his family, that they were the reason for the lack of growth in the local Bahai communities, adding that Sean and his sister were under investigation by the World Centre and could be declared Covenant Breakers. The ABM said that they couldn’t be Bahais and support gay rights. He also drilled them for names of any gay Bahais who they communicate with and if asked if Sean was in cahoots with Ms Respess, the person who created the petition. Finally they were told they couldn’t remain as members of the Bahai community and were asked to put in writing that they didn’t believe in Baha’u’llah because they didn’t agree with the law that homosexuality was bad. They didn’t sign anything but they were all very upset by the experience. Hence Sean’s letter to the Universal House of Justice.

I’m sharing this on my blog to show that individuals, even those in positions where they are appointed, can misuse their position. I want to emphasize the position of the Universal House of Justice so that if any Bahai in the future is asked to leave the Bahai community because they believe in equal rights for  LGBTQ Bahais, they will know that this is view of that individual or appointed representative, and not the policy of the Universal House of Justice.

The authority of the Bahai Institutions is in policy. If the Universal House of Justice had instructed Sean not to sign a petition, and then he had gone ahead and signed it, that would be disobedience not breaking the Bahai covenant. However, what is important to note here is that the Universal House of Justice did not instruct Sean to change his behaviour or actions. Instead, they pointed to their view that Bahai Scripture says that marriage is only between a man and woman, and they left it up to him to be free to express himself as he wishes, which includes the freedom to sign a petition.

The Ugandan interfaith group the Bahá’í representative was a part of, when he was “unwittingly drawn into this controversy,” was called the “Interfaith Rainbow Coalition Against Homosexuality” See my blog for a discussion of this and the dilemma of collaborating with interfaith groups which are homophobic.

Sometime in 2009 or 2010 the Bahai World Centre instructed a Counsellor to meet with the Ugandan NSA to educate the Ugandan Bahai community about the harm this involvement was doing to the Bahai community. This I heard from a gay Bahai who was in Uganda in mid 2010. I have not heard any official announcements on this apart from what is mentioned in the 2008 letter quoted above:
“The National Spiritual Assembly of Uganda is taking steps to ensure that such issues are handled appropriately in the future”

and in a 2010 letter from the Universal House of Justice to an individual:

“In 2007 an interfaith association consisting largely of Christian denominations began to take an active role in opposition to homosexuality in Uganda. In a single incident, a Bahá’í representative to the association was unwittingly drawn into this controversy; this involved providing an explanation of the Bahá’í teachings on homosexuality. The National Spiritual Assembly of Uganda took immediate action, and the Bahá’í community subsequently has had no part in such matters.
… With regard to the idea that the House of Justice dispatched a Counsellor to Uganda to educate the community, this is also not accurate. There is, however, a resident Counsellor in Uganda who helped to resolve initial misunderstandings at the time.”

(Letter to Brent Poirier, 22 Dec 2010.)

I assume the Counsellor’s actions were in response to the 2007 reports in newspapers in Uganda and around the world (see my blog which lists and summarizes these) which associated the Bahai community with the anti-gay protest.

Bahais are encouraged not to get involved in partisan politics, but Bahais do engage in activities in defense of human rights. I hope that Bahais do not look the other way when it comes to support for equal rights to members of the Ugandan gay and lesbian community now that the government has enacted the Uganda Anti-Homosexuality Act, 2014 (See the wikipedia entry)

The 27 Oct 2010 letter from the Universal House of Justice encourages members of the Bahai community to stand up for the rights of homosexuals.

“The purpose of the Faith of Baha’u’llah is the realization of the organic unity of the entire human race, and Baha’is are enjoined to eliminate from their lives all forms of prejudice and to manifest respect towards all. Therefore, to regard those with a homosexual orientation with prejudice or disdain would be against the spirit of the Faith. Furthermore, a Baha’i is exhorted to be “an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression”, and it would be entirely appropriate for a believer to come to the defense of those whose fundamental rights are being denied or violated.”

Sean and his sister removed their names from the petition in an attempt to smooth things over for the ABM however I, as one of 300 odd Bahais who have signed the petition “Speak Up Against Bahá’í Discrimination Against Homosexuals,” didn’t think for a minute that signing such a petition would be problematic for any Bahai community. As I see it, each of us is encouraged to be responsible for our own actions.

“Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.” Gleanings From the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 213