In this session, we will learn about the scope of the powers and duties of the “blessed, sanctified and all-subduing” Universal House of Justice.
Everything is in the simple word “turn,” used by both Baha’u’llah and the Master in Their Wills.
Baha’u’llah directed the believers to “turn” to Abdu’l-Baha. (Tablets of Baha’u’llah)
Baha’u’llah did not give a list of the powers of the Master – He just said to “turn to” Him, and all of the powers and duties of the Master were implicit in His appointment of the Master as His Successor – in His use of the word “turn.”
In like manner, the Master said to “turn” to the Guardian of the Cause and the Universal House of Justice. (Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha) This implies that the scope of the authority of the Guardian and the Universal House of Justice is broad. On that subject, the Universal House of Justice has written, “An understanding of the principles by which we explore the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh depends, too, on an appreciation of the broad nature of the authority conferred on the Universal House of Justice.” (Letter of March 14 1996 from the Universal House of Justice to an individual Baha’i). This scope must neither be exaggerated nor diminished. As Shoghi Effendi wrote,
“In their exposition of its verities they must neither overstress nor whittle down the truth which they champion…” (Citadel of Faith, p. 25)
It is generally pointed out that the Universal House of Justice is empowered to legislate on matters not addressed in the sacred text, and this is correct. Baha’u’llah wrote that the Universal House of Justice would enact laws on those matters “which have not outwardly been revealed in the Book.” Abdu’l-Baha wrote that the House of Justice would enact “Laws not mentioned in the Book,” and “all ordinances and regulations that are not to be found in the explicit Holy Text.” While correct, this is by no means a complete statement of the powers delegated by the Manifestation of God to this Body. One might as well say that the divine guidance guaranteed to the Guardian of the Cause was limited to interpretation. It is important to not rely solely on one divine verse; we need to review all the verses on the subject to get a more accurate picture.
Soon after it came into being, the Universal House of Justice collected all the passages from the Bahá’í Writings bearing on its powers and duties. These, it distilled into five paragraphs which it published in its Constitution. These five paragraphs derived from the explicit sacred text and interpretations of the Guardian describe the essence of the powers and duties of the House of Justice. They are worthy of the most careful reflection. A more in-depth study of this marvelous subject is one of the many subjects offered in the remarkable Unit 3 of Ruhi Book 8, “The Covenant of Baha’u’llah – The Universal House of Justice.”
Please note that only three lines of these five paragraphs refer to the legislative powers of the Universal House of Justice – less than one-tenth of the scope of powers and duties of that Body deemed by Shoghi Effendi “the divine and universal House of Justice.”
(Compilation on the Establishment of the Universal House of Justice)
Furthermore, beyond the authority to enact legislation where the Text is silent, the House of Justice is authorized to *apply* the laws where the Text was *not* silent – those laws that were revealed by Baha’u’llah Himself:
“…Bahá’u’lláh has Himself … conferred the necessary authority on the body designed to supplement and apply His legislative ordinances.” (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 144)
In my personal view, just as Shoghi Effendi was divinely guided in far more than interpretation of the Word, far more of the work of the Universal House of Justice is application of the revealed laws, rather than enacting new legislation. This is another example of the broad scope of the authority conferred on these divine institutions. Shoghi Effendi commented on the way the authority conferred in the Master’s Will should be understood, when he wrote through his secretary to a national spiritual assembly:
“Just as the National Assembly has full jurisdiction over all its local Assemblies, the Guardian has full jurisdiction over all National Assemblies; he is not required to consult them, if he believes a certain decision is advisable in the interests of the Cause. He is the judge of the wisdom and advisability of the decisions made by these bodies, and not they of the wisdom and advisability of his decisions. A perusal of the Will and Testament makes this principle quite clear.
“He is the Guardian of the Cause in the very fullness of that term, and the appointed interpreter of its teachings, and is guided in his decisions to do that which protects it and fosters its growth and highest interests.
(Letter dated May 13, 1945, “Letters from the Guardian to Australia and New Zealand,” p. 55)
Please note that the letter from the Guardian states that the Master’s Will makes it “quite clear” that the beloved Guardian receives the guidance to supervise the national Baha’i institutions. The Will does this by directing all the friends “to show obedience, submissiveness and subordination” to the beloved Guardian, “to obey him and to turn unto him.”
Just as the authority granted to the Guardian is broad and general, so is that bestowed in the divine Writings on the Universal House of Justice. Here are a few passages from the Baha’i writings setting forth the scope of authority of the Universal House of Justice. As we see, “all things,” “all affairs,” and “all important and fundamental questions” are referred to this Body which will resolve “all the difficult problems” and “all problems which have caused difference.”
“All affairs are committed to the care of just kings and presidents and of the Trustees of the House of Justice.” (Lawh-i-Dunya, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 93)
“God will verily inspire them with whatsoever He willeth…”
(Kalimat-i-Firdawsiyyih, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 68)
“Unto this body all things must be referred.”
(The Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 14)
“By this body all the difficult problems are to be resolved”
(The Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 14)
“…all problems which have caused difference…”
(Will and Testament, p. 20)
“Unto the Most Holy Book every one must turn and all that is not expressly recorded therein must be referred to the Universal House of Justice.”
(Will and Testament, p. 19)
“Whatever will be its decision, by majority vote, shall be the real truth…”
(Abdu’l-Baha, quoted in a letter of the Universal House of Justice dated 9 March 1965, Messages from the Universal House of Justice 1963-1986, page 52, paragraph 23.11)
“The Universal House of Justice, likewise, wardeth off all differences and whatever it prescribeth must be accepted…”
(Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 215)
“Whatsoever they decide is of God.”
(Will and Testament, p. 11)
“That which this body, whether unanimously or by a majority doth carry, that is verily the Truth and the Purpose of God Himself.”
(Will and Testament, p. 19)
“Whatsoever they decide has the same effect as the Text itself.”
(Will and Testament, p. 20)
“…the Universal House of Justice, to which, according to the Master’s explicit instructions, all important and fundamental questions must be referred…”
(Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 47)
THE STATURE OF THE CONSTITUTION OF THE UNIVERSAL HOUSE OF JUSTICE
So important is this document – the Constitution of the Universal House of Justice – that Shoghi Effendi, in his letters to the friends in the East written in Persian, referred to it as “The Most Great Law.”
“The text of this Constitution [the Declaration of Trust and By-Laws of the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States] should, with the greatest meticulousness, faithfulness, and precision, be translated into Persian, for it comprises the basic administrative guide-lines and fundamental principles of the Bahá’í Community. This Constitution is the Greater Law [Namús-i-Akbar] and the Constitution of the Universal House of Justice, which is supreme over all National Spiritual Assemblies, is the Most Great Law [Namús-i-A’zam].” (Letter addressed by Shoghi Effendi to the National Spiritual Assembly of Persia dated 4 June 1934, translated by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice).
“. . . in the course of future years of this Bahá’í Dispensation . . . The Most Great Law, the Constitution of the Highest Legislative Body of the Bahá’í community, will be formulated in the utmost perfection.” (Letter addressed by Shoghi Effendi to the Bahá’ís in the East at Ridván 1948, translated by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice)
(Both passages are cited in the Introduction to A Study Guide to the Constitution of the Universal House of Justice, published by George Ronald)
THREE AREAS OF ACTION OF THE HOUSE OF JUSTICE:
LEGISLATIVE, JUDICIAL, ADMINISTRATIVE
I suggest that the legislative, administrative, and judicial powers of the Universal House of Justice are all mentioned in this important passage from the writings of Shoghi Effendi. The bracketed insertions are my own:
“The Administrative Order of the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh must in no wise be regarded as purely democratic in character inasmuch as the basic assumption which requires all democracies to depend fundamentally upon getting their mandate from the people is altogether lacking in this Dispensation. In the conduct of the administrative affairs of the Faith,[administrative] in the enactment of the legislation necessary to supplement the laws of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, [legislative] the members of the Universal House of Justice, it should be borne in mind, are not, as Bahá’u’lláh’s utterances clearly imply, responsible to those whom they represent, nor are they allowed to be governed by the feelings, the general opinion, and even the convictions of the mass of the faithful, or of those who directly elect them. They are to follow, in a prayerful attitude, the dictates and promptings of their conscience. They may, indeed they must, acquaint themselves with the conditions prevailing among the community, must weigh dispassionately in their minds the merits of any case [judicial] presented for their consideration, but must reserve for themselves the right of an unfettered decision. “God will verily inspire them with whatsoever He willeth,” is Bahá’u’lláh’s incontrovertible assurance. They, and not the body of those who either directly or indirectly elect them, have thus been made the recipients of the divine guidance which is at once the life-blood and ultimate safeguard of this Revelation. Moreover, he who symbolizes the hereditary principle in this Dispensation has been made the interpreter of the words of its Author, and ceases consequently, by virtue of the actual authority vested in him, to be the figurehead invariably associated with the prevailing systems of constitutional monarchies.
(Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 153)
THE PIVOT OF THE PEOPLE OF BAHA
We see that both the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice are characterized in the writings of the beloved Guardian with the word “Pivot”
“. . . the Pen of Glory has done away with the unyielding and dictatorial views of the learned and the wise, dismissed the assertions of individuals as an authoritative criterion, even though they were recognized as the most accomplished and learned among men and ordained that all matters be referred to authorized centers and specified assemblies. Even so, no assembly has been invested with the absolute authority to deal with such general matters as affect the interests of nations. Nay rather, He has brought all the assemblies together under the shadow of one House of Justice, one divinely-appointed Center, so that there would be only one Center and all the rest integrated into a single body, revolving around one expressly-designated Pivot, thus making them all proof against schism and division.” (Letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi dated 14 March 1927, quoted in a letter of the Universal House of Justice Elucidating the Role of the Continental Counsellors, Messages from the Universal House of Justice 1968-1973, pp. 94-96)
“These Spiritual Assemblies have been primarily constituted to carry out these affairs, and secondly to lay a perfect and strong foundation for the establishment of the divine and Universal House of Justice. When that central pivot of the people of Baha shall be effectively, majestically and firmly established, a new era will dawn, heavenly bounties and graces will pour out from that Source, and the all-encompassing promises will be fulfilled.” (From a letter of Shoghi Effendi dated 30 October 1924 to the Spiritual Assembly of Tihran, translated from the Persian, published in The Baha’i World Vol. XIV, p. 436)
Likewise, the institution of Guardianship is the “pivot” of the Master’s Will:
“…the institution of Guardianship, the pivot of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Will and Testament…”
(Shoghi Effendi, “Messages to the Baha’i World – 1950-1957,” p. 148)
In this very inspiring tablet, the Master describes the essential nature of the Universal House of Justice:
“Let it not be imagined that the House of Justice will take any decision according to its own concepts and opinions. God forbid! The Supreme House of Justice will take decisions and establish laws through the inspiration and confirmation of the Holy Spirit, because it is in the safekeeping and under the shelter and protection of the Ancient Beauty, and obedience to its decisions is a bounden and essential duty and an absolute obligation, and there is no escape for anyone.
“Say, O People: Verily the Supreme House of Justice is under the wings of your Lord, the Compassionate, the All Merciful, that is under His protection, His care, and His shelter; for He has commanded the firm believers to obey that blessed, sanctified, and all-subduing body, whose sovereignty is divinely ordained and of the Kingdom of Heaven and whose laws are inspired and spiritual.
“Briefly, this is the wisdom of referring the laws of society to the House of Justice. In the religion of Islam, similarly, not every ordinance was explicitly revealed; nay not a tenth part of a tenth part was included in the Text; although all matters of major importance were specifically referred to, there were undoubtedly thousands of laws which were unspecified. These were devised by the divines of a later age according to the laws of Islamic jurisprudence, and individual divines made conflicting deductions from the original revealed ordinances. All these were enforced. Today this process of deduction is the right of the body of the House of Justice, and the deductions and conclusions of individual learned men have no authority, unless they are endorsed by the House of Justice. The difference is precisely this, that from the conclusions and endorsements of the body of the House of Justice whose members are elected by and known to the worldwide Baha’i community, no differences will arise; whereas the conclusions of individual divines and scholars would definitely lead to differences, and result in schism, division, and dispersion. The oneness of the Word would be destroyed, the unity of the Faith would disappear, and the edifice of the Faith of God would be shaken.” (`Abdu’l-Bahá, quoted in “The Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice,” Messages from the Universal House of Justice 1963-1986, p. 86)
Shoghi Effendi urged the friends to read the essential documents of the Covenant, including his great letter “The Dispensation of Baha’u’llah” which he deemed to be a supplement to no less than the Covenants of both Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha:
“… the Bahá’ís need to be deepened in their knowledge and understanding of the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. They should study this, and the Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh, for it is obvious that they do not – for the most part – fully visualize the greatness, the glory, the power and the protection which have been conferred on this Faith through the Institutions provided for in the Master’s Will..”
(From a letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi dated June 30, 1949, “The Light of Divine Guidance,: Volume I, p. 150)
“He feels, indeed, that the time has come for the … believers to acquire a thorough knowledge as well as a full understanding of such important Tablets as Bahá’u’lláh’s “Book of Covenant” and ‘Abdu’l- Baha’s Will and Testament, both of which constitute the very bedrock upon which the entire administrative system of the Faith has been raised and established. As to the “Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh” it also constitutes an invaluable supplement to these afore-mentioned Tablets.”
(From a letter on behalf of Shoghi Effendi dated 10 January 1935, “The Light of Divine Guidance,” Volume I, p. 65)
It is hoped that these quotations from the divine Writings help us to understand that the Universal House of Justice is far more than a body which can enact laws where the Text is silent. The Universal House of Justice is a divine reality, guided by both the Bab and Baha’u’llah “Will and Testament of Abdu’l-Baha“ and promised in the Books of old. Isaiah 2:2-3New King James Version (NKJV)
As the Universal House of Justice itself wrote,
“…the House of Justice is in a position to do everything necessary to establish the World Order of Bahá’u’lláh on this earth.”
(The Universal House of Justice, letter dated 9 March 1965, “Messages from the Universal House of Justice 1963 to 1986,” p. 56, paragraph 23.20)
Again, a deeper study of the authority and the actions of the Universal House of Justice comprises Unit Three of Ruhi Book 8, and you are encouraged to study and discuss it with great attention. In addition to a discussion of the powers and duties of the Universal House of Justice, that remarkable book offers a study of the divine institutions created by the Universal House of Justice, how the House of Justice has engaged the wholehearted involvement of the individual believers and protects them from the materialism and immorality affecting the world, how the Institution of the Counselors and their Auxiliaries have benefited the Faith, how the administrative teachings are coherent with the spiritual teachings, how the “legislative ordinances” revealed by Baha’u’llah have been gradually applied by the House of Justice, how the Universal House of Justice prays for the endeavors of the friends and how its guidance empowers them, how it encourages the believers to acquire divine qualities in the path of service, how the House of Justice keeps the Faith on the path set for it by Baha’u’llah, how it has translated the sacred texts and urges the friends to set up a personal plan to study them, and how it guides each one of us through the pitfalls of the chaos increasingly afflicting today’s society.
For further study, you may also wish to obtain a copy of this outstanding book “A Study Guide To The Constitution Of The Universal House Of Justice“.