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Someone once asked me: Does the Baha’i Faith and its institutions function in a democratic fashion?  Why or why not?

Before I could answer him, I wanted to understand exactly what the Bahá’í Faith teaches about democracy. Have a look with me!

Most of the quotes I found relating to democracy came from talks of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá when he was in America, so he was talking specifically about American democracy. Let’s assume that this study will move forward within this framework unless stated otherwise.

What is the purpose of democracy?

To serve the threshold of God and spread the message of the good pleasure of God:

May they serve the threshold of God and spread the message of the good pleasure of God. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 67)

To unite American and Persia:

Tonight I am most happy in presenting myself before an audience such as this. I am an Oriental and have come into the West to meet the people of the Occident. Praise be to God! Upon the faces of those assembled here I perceive the light of God. This I consider an evidence of the possibility of uniting the East and the West, of establishing a perfect bond between Persia and America — one of the objects of this conference.

For America to contribute to the development and marketing of the natural resources and mineral wealth of Persia, and help with their national needs in a reciprocal alliance:

For the Persians there is no government better fitted to contribute to the development of their natural resources and the helping of their national needs in a reciprocal alliance than the United States of America, and for the Americans there could be no better industrial outlet and market than the virgin commercial soil of Persia. The mineral wealth of Persia is still latent and untouched. It is my hope that the great American democracy may be instrumental in developing these hidden resources and that a bond of perfect amity and unity may be established between the American republic and the government of Persia. May this bond — whether material or spiritual — be well cemented. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 35)

So that the spiritual civilization of Persia would find acceptance and response in America:

May the material civilization of America find complete efficacy and establishment in Persia, and may the spiritual civilization of Persia find acceptance and response in America. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 35)

To realize and accomplish the oneness of the world of humanity:

We will pray that the ensign of international peace may be uplifted and that the oneness of the world of humanity may be realized and accomplished. All this is made possible and practicable through your efforts. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 36-37)

To establish the foundation of international agreement:

May this American democracy be the first nation to establish the foundation of international agreement. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 36-37)

To proclaim the universality of mankind:

May it be the first nation to proclaim the universality of mankind. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 36-37)

To be the cause of the cessation of warfare in all other countries:

. . . that this democracy may be the cause of the cessation of warfare in all other countries. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 83-84)

To spread peace in the world:

Now, praise be to God! in all countries of the world, lovers of peace are to be found and these principles are being spread among mankind, especially in this country. Praise be to God! this thought is prevailing and souls are continually arising as defenders of the oneness of humanity, endeavoring to assist and establish international peace. There is no doubt that this wonderful democracy will be able to realize it and the banner of international agreement will be unfurled here to spread onward and outward among all the nations of the world. (Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 234)

To upraise the standard of the Most Great Peace and to spread broadcast these philanthropic intentions and institutions throughout the world:

May it be the first to upraise the standard of the Most Great Peace, and through this nation of democracy may these philanthropic intentions and institutions be spread broadcast throughout the world. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 36-37)

Steps towards this ideal have been taken already!

The changes wrought in humanity’s social and moral life received powerful endorsement at a series of international gatherings called under the United Nations’ authority to mark the approaching end of one “millennium” and the beginning of a new one. On 22-26 May 2000, representatives of over one thousand non-governmental organizations assembled in New York at the invitation of Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General. In the statement that emerged from this meeting, spokespersons of civil society committed their organizations to the ideal that: “…we are one human family, in all our diversity, living on one common homeland and sharing a just, sustainable and peaceful world, guided by universal principles of democracy. (Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, p. 129)

Why is democracy important in the world today?

Because thought and speech are not restricted, the greatest progress is witnessed:

Consider what a vast difference exists between modern democracy and the old forms of despotism. Under an autocratic government the opinions of men are not free, and development is stifled, whereas in democracy, because thought and speech are not restricted, the greatest progress is witnessed. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 197)

What is required to bring this about?

For the American people and their government to unite in their efforts:

May the American people and their government unite in their efforts in order that this light may dawn from this point and spread to all regions, for this is one of the greatest bestowals of God. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 83-84)

To strive and pray with heart and soul; and to devote all your energies to upraise the banner of international peace:

In order that America may avail herself of this opportunity, I beg that you strive and pray with heart and soul, devoting all your energies to this end: that the banner of international peace may be upraised here and that this democracy may be the cause of the cessation of warfare in all other countries. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 83-84)

‘Abdu’l-Bahá revealed a prayer we can use to assist this process:

O God! Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 67)

What are the advantages of bringing this about?

To limit the power of absolute monarchy, of dictatorships, or of certain dominant classes:

In general one can say that modern democracies have been established as the outcome of attempts to limit the power of absolute monarchy, of dictatorships, or of certain dominant classes. This may have come about gradually through the centuries, or tumultuously by a series of revolutions. (Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í Administrative Order, 18 July, 2000)

To become the envy of the world and be blest in the East and the West:

This American nation is equipped and empowered to accomplish that which will adorn the pages of history, to become the envy of the world and be blest in the East and the West for the triumph of its democracy. I pray that this may come to pass, and I ask the blessing of God in behalf of you all. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 103)

To ensure their names will be glorified eternally:

I pray God that the people of America may achieve this great end in order that the virtue of this democracy may be ensured and their names be glorified eternally. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 145)

What are the problems with the current system?

Rúhíyyih Khanum tells a funny story which puts this into perspective!

When Shoghi Effendi was beginning to write The Advent of Divine Justice he was one day expatiating on this theme and suddenly stated that the United States was the most corrupt country politically in the world. I was simply stupefied by this remark as I had always taken it for granted that it was because of our system of democracy and our political prominence that God had chosen us to build His Administrative Order! I ventured to remonstrate and said surely Persia was more corrupt politically. He said no, America was the most corrupt politically. He must have seen in my face how hard and unbelievable this new idea was for me to accept for he suddenly pointed his finger at me and said: “Swallow it, it is good for you.” I swallowed it and kept silent and as he elaborated this theme, and when he wrote his memorable passages on it, and, indeed, in the course of years, I came to see clearly how he was enunciating, clarifying from the teachings, great spiritual laws and truths in which lie healing and strength for us if we but grasp them. We derive no advantage, as Bahá’ís, from having the wrong concepts, from colouring the teachings of the Divine Educator with our limited, prejudiced, environment-produced ideas. Nothing is improved or rendered more serviceable by distortion. That is why I think of these great themes, these statements of truth given us by the Guardian, as guiding lines of thought which enable us to see things as they are and obtain a correct understanding of our Faith. (Rúhíyyih Khanum, The Priceless Pearl, p. 361)

So what will help us see things as they are? Here are some ideas:

Systems based on principles as different as theocracy, monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, republic, democracy and near anarchy have proliferated freely, along with innovations without end that have sought to combine various desirable features of these possibilities.

Although most of the options have lent themselves to abuses of one kind or another, the great majority have no doubt contributed in varying degrees to fulfilling hopes of those whose interests they purportedly served.

For some six thousand years humanity has experimented with an almost unlimited variety of methods for collective decision-making. From the vantage point of the twentieth century, the political history of the world presents a constantly shifting scene in which there was no possibility that was not seized upon by human ingenuity. Systems based on principles as different as theocracy, monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, republic, democracy and near anarchy have proliferated freely, along with innovations without end that have sought to combine various desirable features of these possibilities. Although most of the options have lent themselves to abuses of one kind or another, the great majority have no doubt contributed in varying degrees to fulfilling hopes of those whose interests they purportedly served. (Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, p. 90-91)

Even when democratic constitutions and structures have been established, there still remains:

  • a suspicion of authority
  • a tension between the degree of freedom accorded to individual citizens and the imposition of sufficient public discipline to protect the weak against the selfish pursuits of the strong among the citizenry

The operation of transparency, accountability, freedom of the press and critical dialogue is thus imbued with:

  • a spirit of partisanship that easily descends into the merciless invasion of personal privacy
  • the dissemination of calumny
  • the exaggeration of mistrust
  • the misuse of the news media at the hands of vested interests

The reaction of those who attempt to protect themselves against such distortions of the system produces:

  • secretiveness
  • concealment of uncomfortable facts
  • reciprocal misuse of the media
  • a perpetuation of disharmony in the social fabric

The operation of transparency, accountability, freedom of the press and critical dialogue is thus imbued with a spirit of partisanship that easily descends into the merciless invasion of personal privacy, the dissemination of calumny, the exaggeration of mistrust, and the misuse of the news media at the hands of vested interests. The reaction of those who attempt to protect themselves against such distortions of the system produces secretiveness, concealment of uncomfortable facts, and reciprocal misuse of the media–in all, a perpetuation of disharmony in the social fabric.  (Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í Administrative Order, 18 July, 2000)

Despite impressive contributions to human progress in the past, today it finds itself mired in the cynicism, apathy, and corruption to which it has given rise.

In selecting those who are to take collective decisions on its behalf, society does not need and is not well served by the political theatre of:

  • nominations
  • candidature
  • electioneering
  • solicitation

It lies within the capacity of all people, as they become progressively educated and convinced that their real development interests are being served by programs proposed to them, to adopt electoral procedures that will gradually refine the selection of their decision-making bodies.

As the integration of humanity gains momentum, those who are thus selected will increasingly have to see all their efforts in a global perspective. Not only at the national, but also at the local level, the elected governors of human affairs should, in Bahá’u’lláh’s view, consider themselves responsible for the welfare of all of humankind.

Clearly, such principles can operate only within a culture that is essentially democratic in spirit and method. To say this, however, is not to endorse the ideology of partisanship that has everywhere boldly assumed democracy’s name and which, despite impressive contributions to human progress in the past, today finds itself mired in the cynicism, apathy, and corruption to which it has given rise. In selecting those who are to take collective decisions on its behalf, society does not need and is not well served by the political theater of nominations, candidature, electioneering, and solicitation. It lies within the capacity of all people, as they become progressively educated and convinced that their real development interests are being served by programs proposed to them, to adopt electoral procedures that will gradually refine the selection of their decision-making bodies. As the integration of humanity gains momentum, those who are thus selected will increasingly have to see all their efforts in a global perspective. Not only at the national, but also at the local level, the elected governors of human affairs should, in Bahá’u’lláh’s view, consider themselves responsible for the welfare of all of humankind. (Baha’i International Community, 1995 Mar 03, The Prosperity of Humankind)

What is good governance?

Good governance is

  • essential to social progress
  • occurs on all levels and encompasses the ways that formal government, non-governmental groups, community organizations and the private sector manage resources and affairs
  • necessary if communities are to maintain their equilibrium, steer themselves through difficulties, and respond creatively to the challenges and opportunities ahead

Three factors that largely determine the state of governance include the quality of:

  • leadership
  • the governed
  • the structures and processes in place

There is an emerging international consensus on the core characteristics of good governance, especially in relation to formal government. These characteristics include:

  • democracy
  • the rule of law
  • accountability
  • transparency
  • participation by civil society

This consensus must be enlarged, however, to encompass an appreciation of the role that governance must assume in promoting the spiritual and material well-being of all members of society. Governance must:

  • be guided by universal values, including an ethic of service to the common good
  • provide for the meaningful participation of citizens in the conceptualization, design, implementation and evaluation of programs and policies that affect them
  • seek to enhance people’s ability to manage change
  • offer opportunities to increase their capacities and sense of worth
  • provide mechanisms for equitable access to the benefits of programs and policies, to education and information, and to opportunities for lifelong learning.
  • ensure that the news media are active, vibrant and truthful.

At the global level, a truly participatory system of governance will also need to be established.

Good governance is essential to social progress. While governance is often equated with government, it in fact involves much more. Governance occurs on all levels and encompasses the ways that formal government, non-governmental groups, community organizations and the private sector manage resources and affairs. Good governance is necessary if communities are to maintain their equilibrium, steer themselves through difficulties, and respond creatively to the challenges and opportunities ahead. Three factors that largely determine the state of governance are the quality of leadership, the quality of the governed and the quality of the structures and processes in place. There is an emerging international consensus on the core characteristics of good governance, especially in relation to formal government. These characteristics include democracy, the rule of law, accountability, transparency and participation by civil society. This consensus must be enlarged, however, to encompass an appreciation of the role that governance must assume in promoting the spiritual and material well-being of all members of society. Governance must be guided by universal values, including an ethic of service to the common good. It will need to provide for the meaningful participation of citizens in the conceptualization, design, implementation and evaluation of programs and policies that affect them. It should seek to enhance people’s ability to manage change and should offer opportunities to increase their capacities and sense of worth. It will need to provide mechanisms for equitable access to the benefits of programs and policies, to education and information, and to opportunities for lifelong learning. Moreover, it must help to ensure that the news media are active, vibrant and truthful. At the global level, a truly participatory system of governance will also need to be established. (Baha’i International Community, 1998 Feb 18, Valuing Spirituality in Development)

What would an ideal democracy look like?

‘Abdu’l-Bahá wanted the American democracy to become glorious in spiritual degrees, even as it has aspired to material degrees.

O God! Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i Prayers, p. 24)

He tied democracy to love and agreement as necessary for steady progress, and he desired this station for them, so that the virtue of democracy may be ensured:

If love and agreement are manifest in a single family, that family will advance, become illumined and spiritual; but if enmity and hatred exist within it destruction and dispersion are inevitable. This is likewise true of a city. If those who dwell within it manifest a spirit of accord and fellowship it will progress steadily and human conditions become brighter whereas through enmity and strife it will be degraded and its inhabitants scattered.

In the same way the people of a nation develop and advance toward civilization and enlightenment through love and accord, and are disintegrated by war and strife. Finally, this is true of humanity itself in the aggregate. When love is realized and the ideal spiritual bonds unite the hearts of men, the whole human race will be uplifted, the world will continually grow more spiritual and radiant and the happiness and tranquillity of mankind be immeasurably increased. Warfare and strife will be uprooted, disagreement and dissension pass away and Universal Peace unite the nations and peoples of the world. All mankind will dwell together as one family, blend as the waves of one sea, shine as stars of one firmament and appear as fruits of the same tree. This is the happiness and felicity of humankind. This is the illumination of man, the glory eternal and life everlasting; this is the divine bestowal. I desire this station for you and I pray God that the people of America may achieve this great end in order that the virtue of this democracy may be insured and their names be glorified eternally. May the confirmations of God uphold them in all things and their memories become revered throughout the east and the west. May they become the servants of the Most High God, near and dear to Him in the oneness of the heavenly Kingdom. (Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith, p. 230)

What are the characteristics of a spiritual democracy?

  • it serves the oneness of the world of humanity
  • it promotes international peace
  • It is devoted to the solidarity and brotherhood of the human race
  • It is devoted to the spiritual welfare of mankind
  • It is devoted to unity of religious belief through knowledge of God
  • It is devoted to the reconciliation of religious teaching with the principles of science and reason
  • It promotes love and fraternity among all humankind
  • It seeks to abolish and destroy barriers which separate the human family
  • It proclaims the equality of man and woman
  • It instills divine precepts and morals
  • It illumines and quickens minds with heavenly perception
  • It attracts the infinite bestowals of God
  • It removes racial, national and religious prejudices
  • It establishes the foundation of the heavenly Kingdom in the hearts of all nations and people
  • It is conducive to divine fellowship and strengthening of the bond which cements and unifies hearts
  • It is the indestructible bond of spirit which conjoins the East and West
  • It uproots and destroys the very foundations of race prejudice are uprooted
  • It purifies the world of religion from superannuated beliefs and hereditary imitations of forms
  • It reveals and discloses the oneness of the reality underlying all religions
  • It unites all religions and reconciles all sects, denominations and factions in kindliness and love toward each other
  • It removes the causes of animosity, hatred and bigotry
  • enmity and discord pass away entirely
  • It is unlimited in scope and its purpose is divine

This meeting of yours tonight is very different in character. It is a universal gathering; it is heavenly and divine in purpose because it serves the oneness of the world of humanity and promotes international peace. It is devoted to the solidarity and brotherhood of the human race, the spiritual welfare of mankind, unity of religious belief through knowledge of God and the reconciliation of religious teaching with the principles of science and reason. It promotes love and fraternity among all humankind, seeks to abolish and destroy barriers which separate the human family, proclaims the equality of man and woman, instills divine precepts and morals, illumines and quickens minds with heavenly perception, attracts the infinite bestowals of God, removes racial, national and religious prejudices and establishes the foundation of the heavenly Kingdom in the hearts of all nations and peoples. The effect of such an assembly as this is conducive to divine fellowship and strengthening of the bond which cements and unifies hearts. This is the indestructible bond of spirit which conjoins the East and West. By it the very foundations of race prejudice are uprooted and destroyed, the banner of spiritual democracy is hoisted aloft, the world of religion is purified from superannuated beliefs and hereditary imitations of forms, and the oneness of the reality underlying all religions is revealed and disclosed. For such a meeting is established upon the very foundation of the laws of God. Therefore, in its constraining spiritual bond it unites all religions and reconciles all sects, denominations and factions in kindliness and love toward each other. In this way and by the instrumentality of such a gathering the causes of animosity, hatred and bigotry are removed, and enmity and discord pass away entirely. Every limiting and restricting movement or meeting of mere personal interest is human in nature. Every universal movement unlimited in scope and purpose is divine. The Cause of God is advanced whenever and wherever a universal meeting is established among mankind. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 447-448)

Will democracy be the standard for the world in the future?

In the future democracy will look differently.

It is very evident that in the future there shall be no centralization in the countries of the world, be they constitutional in government, republican or democratic in form. The United States may be held up as the example of future government — that is to say, each province will be independent in itself, but there will be federal union protecting the interests of the various independent states. It may not be a republican or a democratic form. To cast aside centralization which promotes despotism is the exigency of the time. This will be productive of international peace. (Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 167)

Does the Baha’i Faith and its institutions function in a democratic fashion?  Why or why not?

Let’s turn now to the original question. The House of Justice has told us that the Bahá’í Administrative Order incorporates within its structure certain elements which are to be found in each of the three recognized forms of secular government [autocracy (rule by one person), aristocracy (rule by the best people) and democracy (rule by all the people)], without being in any sense a mere replica of any one of them:

The Bahá’í Administrative Order is an integral part of the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh; it is a divinely conceived system which, as the Guardian explained in The Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh, “incorporates within its structure certain elements which are to be found in each of the three recognized forms of secular government, without being in any sense a mere replica of any one of them, and without introducing within its machinery any of the objectionable features which they inherently possess. It blends and harmonizes, as no government fashioned by mortal hands has as yet accomplished, the salutary truths which each of these systems undoubtedly contains without vitiating the integrity of those God-given verities on which it is ultimately founded. (Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í Administrative Order, 18 July, 2000)

Our Administrative Order has not been modelled after any of the recognized systems of government yet it embodies, reconciles and assimilates such wholesome elements as are to be found in each one of them:

Whereas this Administrative Order cannot be said to have been modelled after any of these recognized systems of government, it nevertheless embodies, reconciles and assimilates within its framework such wholesome elements as are to be found in each one of them. (The Universal House of Justice, 1995 Dec 02, Email Discussion Group Concerns)

Unlike a political democracy, the Bahá’í Administrative Order does not have an autocratic character or an inclination to democratic methods in the administration of its affairs.

If the intention is that the Bahá’í Administrative Order should be altered to more closely accord with current concepts of political democracy, a more complex series of issues arises. In The Dispensation of Bahá’u’lláh, Shoghi Effendi lists evidences “of the non- autocratic character of the Bahá’í Administrative Order and of its inclination to democratic methods in the administration of its affairs”, but this does not justify a proposal to change the system which has been established in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and in the elucidations of Shoghi Effendi. Such an effort, whether or not described as “the promotion of a Bahá’í democratization”, would be contrary to the clear teachings of the Faith. (Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í Administrative Order, 18 July, 2000)

Yet if the promotion of a Bahá’í democracy means fostering an increasingly responsible participation in the work of the community by its individual members, this should be a continual endeavour of Bahá’í institutions:

Indeed one of the specific needs of this period in the development of the Faith is the evolution of national and local Bahá’í institutions. If, therefore, by “the promotion of a Bahá’í democratization” is meant the furthering of an increasingly responsible participation in the work of the community by its individual members, this is highly meritorious, and should be a continual endeavour of Bahá’í institutions. (Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í Administrative Order, 18 July, 2000)

It could be said that that this Order is essentially theocratic, since it is entirely devoid of any kind of clergy or priesthood:

Inasmuch as the Order of Bahá’u’lláh is an integral part of the divine Revelation that He, as a Manifestation of God, has given us, one could say that this Order is essentially theocratic, but inasmuch as it is entirely devoid of any kind of clergy or priesthood, it is not at all a “theocracy” in the sense in which the term is generally used and understood. (Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í Administrative Order, 18 July, 2000)

It could also be said that it is aristocratic, in that it has elements of “rule by the best”:

Similarly, the quality of aristocracy (rule by the best) as it appears in the Faith is in sharp contrast to what is generally understood by this term. Free from electioneering or such external pressures as those coming from economic power or manipulation of the press, the believers seek to elect for membership on their governing institutions those persons whom they regard as best qualified for such office. The elected members are then responsible to God and to their consciences, rather than to those who elect them. (Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í Administrative Order, 18 July, 2000)

The attitude and responsibility of members of Assemblies are totally unique to this dispensation and apply equally to those who have been elected and those who have chosen them as it is the only means that can ensure the protection and advancement of the Cause. They include:

  • Their function is not to dictate, but to consult, and consult not only among themselves, but as much as possible with the friends whom they represent
  • They must regard themselves in no other light but that of chosen instruments for a more efficient and dignified presentation of the Cause of God
  • They should never be led to suppose that they are the central ornaments of the body of the Cause, intrinsically superior to others in capacity or merit, and sole promoters of its teachings and principles
  • They should approach their task with extreme humility, and endeavour, by their open-mindedness, their high sense of justice and duty, their candour, their modesty, their entire devotion to the welfare and interests of the friends, the Cause, and humanity, to win, not only the confidence and the genuine support and respect of those whom they serve, but also their esteem and real affection
  • They must, at all times, avoid the spirit of exclusiveness, the atmosphere of secrecy, free themselves from a domineering attitude, and banish all forms of prejudice and passion from their deliberations
  • They should, within the limits of wise discretion, take the friends into their confidence, acquaint them with their plans, share with them their problems and anxieties, and seek their advice and counsel
  • When they are called upon to arrive at a certain decision, they should, after dispassionate, anxious and cordial consultation, turn to God in prayer, and with earnestness and conviction and courage record their vote and abide by the voice of the majority, which we are told by our Master to be the voice of truth, never to be challenged, and always to be whole-heartedly enforced.

The duties of those whom the friends have freely and conscientiously elected as their representatives are no less vital and binding than the obligations of those who have chosen them. Their function is not to dictate, but to consult, and consult not only among themselves, but as much as possible with the friends whom they represent. They must regard themselves in no other light but that of chosen instruments for a more efficient and dignified presentation of the Cause of God. They should never be led to suppose that they are the central ornaments of the body of the Cause, intrinsically superior to others in capacity or merit, and sole promoters of its teachings and principles. They should approach their task with extreme humility, and endeavour, by their open-mindedness, their high sense of justice and duty, their candour, their modesty, their entire devotion to the welfare and interests of the friends, the Cause, and humanity, to win, not only the confidence and the genuine support and respect of those whom they serve, but also their esteem and real affection. They must, at all times, avoid the spirit of exclusiveness, the atmosphere of secrecy, free themselves from a domineering attitude, and banish all forms of prejudice and passion from their deliberations. They should, within the limits of wise discretion, take the friends into their confidence, acquaint them with their plans, share with them their problems and anxieties, and seek their advice and counsel. And, when they are called upon to arrive at a certain decision, they should, after dispassionate, anxious and cordial consultation, turn to God in prayer, and with earnestness and conviction and courage record their vote and abide by the voice of the majority, which we are told by our Master to be the voice of truth, never to be challenged, and always to be whole-heartedly enforced. To this voice the friends must heartily respond, and regard it as the only means that can ensure the protection and advancement of the Cause. (Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í Administrative Order, 18 July, 2000)

The way in which believers become members of the elected institutions is far more democratic than the methods by which the members of most parliaments are elected:

As already noted above, the way in which believers become members of the elected institutions is democratic. It is, indeed, far more democratic than the methods by which the members of most parliaments are elected. The Bahá’í electoral system is entirely free from the power and bargaining of parties and factions, and from the manipulations of vested interests. Each voter is free to cast his or her ballot for whomever he or she chooses.   Even in the best democracies nowadays the driving incentive in elections is the wish of each politician to obtain power so as to be able to carry out the programme that he particularly favours–an election becomes a competition which the self-promoting candidates either “win” or “lose”. The electorate is treated as a mass to be swayed, by rhetoric and various forms of inducement, to support one or other candidate. In the Bahá’í system, however, the voters are the active force and the motive which impels them is to choose those individuals who are best suited to serve on the institution. The persons elected are passive in the electoral process (except in their role as voters) and accept election as an obligation to serve the community in response to the wish of the electorate. In other words, the systems differ in their essential spirit: one is a seeking for power, the other is an acceptance of responsibility for service. (Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í Administrative Order, 18 July, 2000)

Another difference between democratic elections and Bahá’í elections is that the Universal House of Justice must be elected in a three- stage election and National Spiritual Assemblies must be the outcome of a two- stage election:

Direct election of the main institutions of a society can hardly be regarded as a significant democratic principle. In the United States of America, for example, the president is elected by an electoral college of individuals chosen in state elections. In some other countries the president is elected by the parliament, not by the people. However, whether direct election is a democratic principle or not, it cannot be applied in the Bahá’í Faith because it is stated in the Sacred Writings that the Universal House of Justice must be elected in a three- stage election and National Spiritual Assemblies must be the outcome of a two- stage election. (Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í Administrative Order, 18 July, 2000)

The features which combine to set apart the Order identified with the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh from any of the existing systems of human government include:

  • The hereditary authority which the Guardian of the Administrative Order is called upon to exercise
  • the right of the interpretation of the Holy Writ solely conferred upon him
  • the powers and prerogatives of the Universal House of Justice, possessing the exclusive right to legislate on matters not explicitly revealed in the Most Holy Book
  • the ordinance exempting its members from any responsibility to those whom they represent, and from the obligation to conform to their views, convictions or sentiments
  • the specific provisions requiring the free and democratic election by the mass of the faithful of the Body that constitutes the sole legislative organ in the world-wide Bahá’í community

It incorporates within its structure certain elements which are to be found in each of the three recognized forms of secular government, is devoid of the defects which each of them inherently possesses, and blends the salutary truths which each undoubtedly contains without vitiating in any way the integrity of the Divine verities on which it is essentially founded. The hereditary authority which the Guardian of the Administrative Order is called upon to exercise, and the right of the interpretation of the Holy Writ solely conferred upon him; the powers and prerogatives of the Universal House of Justice, possessing the exclusive right to legislate on matters not explicitly revealed in the Most Holy Book; the ordinance exempting its members from any responsibility to those whom they represent, and from the obligation to conform to their views, convictions or sentiments; the specific provisions requiring the free and democratic election by the mass of the faithful of the Body that constitutes the sole legislative organ in the world-wide Bahá’í community — these are among the features which combine to set apart the Order identified with the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh from any of the existing systems of human government. (The Universal House of Justice, 1995 Dec 02, Email Discussion Group Concerns)

The Bahá’í system is based upon the ideals of:

  • unity
  • harmony
  • justice
  • diversity
  • forbearance in the building of a divinely conceived administrative structure through a process of mutual learning and discovery
  • the element of power-seeking is entirely absent
  • all members of a Bahá’í community are expected to regard themselves as involved in a learning process, as they strive to understand and implement the laws and principles of the Faith

As part of this process, the Assemblies are encouraged to continually:

  • share their hopes and cares and the news of developments with the members of the community
  • seek their views and support
  • observe strict confidentiality in matters of personal problems and the amounts of contributions of individuals to the Bahá’í Fund

The keynote of the Cause of God is:

  • not dictatorial authority but humble fellowship
  • not arbitrary power, but the spirit of frank and loving consultation.

Nothing short of the spirit of a true Bahá’í can hope to reconcile the principles of mercy and justice, of freedom and submission, of the sanctity of the right of the individual and of self-surrender, of vigilance, discretion, and prudence on the one hand, and fellowship, candour, and courage on the other.

In contrast to these patterns bred by traditional antagonisms, the Bahá’í system is based upon the ideals of unity, harmony, justice, diversity and forbearance in the building of a divinely conceived administrative structure through a process of mutual learning and discovery. As already noted, the element of power-seeking is entirely absent. All members of a Bahá’í community, no matter what position they may temporarily occupy in the administrative structure, are expected to regard themselves as involved in a learning process, as they strive to understand and implement the laws and principles of the Faith. As part of this process, the Assemblies are encouraged to continually share their hopes and cares and the news of developments with the members of the community and to seek their views and support. There are, of course, matters such as the personal problems of a believer which he (or she) brings to his Assembly for advice, the amounts of the contributions of individual believers to the Fund, and so forth, in relation to which the Assembly must observe strict confidentiality. As in any just system of government the proper balance has to be sought and found between extremes. In this connection, you will recall Shoghi Effendi’s statement in Bahá’í Administration:

Let us also bear in mind that the keynote of the Cause of God is not dictatorial authority but humble fellowship, not arbitrary power, but the spirit of frank and loving consultation. Nothing short of the spirit of a true Bahá’í can hope to reconcile the principles of mercy and justice, of freedom and submission, of the sanctity of the right of the individual and of self-surrender, of vigilance, discretion, and prudence on the one hand, and fellowship, candour, and courage on the other. (Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í Administrative Order, 18 July, 2000)

Another feature of Bahá’í administration which is unparalleled in the religions of the past is the existence of institutions of such exalted rank [the Continental Boards of Counsellors and their Auxiliary Boards], comprising individuals who play such a vital role, who yet:

  • have no legislative, administrative or judicial authority
  • are entirely devoid of priestly functions or the right to make authoritative interpretations

Further, in addition to the Spiritual Assemblies, the Bahá’í Administrative Order also contains the institutions of the Continental Boards of Counsellors and their Auxiliary Boards. Their endeavours, with the individuals, the community and the institutions, are intended to help maintain the true spirit of the Faith, to counsel the governing institutions and to assist them to attain the high ideals set before them by Bahá’u’lláh and the Master. As the House of Justice wrote in a letter dated 24 April 1972: “The existence of institutions of such exalted rank, comprising individuals who play such a vital role, who yet have no legislative, administrative or judicial authority, and are entirely devoid of priestly functions or the right to make authoritative interpretations, is a feature of Bahá’í administration unparalleled in the religions of the past. ” The House of Justice went on to comment that, only as the Bahá’í community grows, and the believers are increasingly able to contemplate its administrative structure uninfluenced by concepts from past ages, will the vital interdependence of these two arms of the administration be properly understood and the value of their interaction be fully recognized. (Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í Administrative Order, 18 July, 2000)

The Feast is an arena of democracy at the very root of society

The Feast is an arena of democracy at the very root of society, where the Local Spiritual Assembly and the members of the community meet on common ground, where individuals are free to offer their gifts of thought, whether as new ideas or constructive criticism, to the building processes of an advancing civilization. Thus it can be seen that aside from its spiritual significance, this common institution of the people combines an array of elemental social disciplines which educate its participants in the essentials of responsible citizenship. (Universal House of Justice, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 420)

This unique Order cannot ever degenerate into any form of despotism, of oligarchy, or of demagogy which must sooner or later corrupt the machinery of all man-made and essentially defective political institutions:

The admitted evils inherent in each of these systems being rigidly and permanently excluded, this unique Order, however long it may endure and however extensive its ramifications, cannot ever degenerate into any form of despotism, of oligarchy, or of demagogy which must sooner or later corrupt the machinery of all man-made and essentially defective political institutions. (The Universal House of Justice, 1995 Dec 02, Email Discussion Group Concerns)

The Bahá’í model is perfectly suited for the age we’re living in, yet the manner in which it is understood and carried out by most Bahá’í institutions is not perfect yet. Whenever you finds misfunctioning in a Bahá’í community, it can be traced to a failure to follow properly the laws, principles and methods laid down in the Writings.

Wherever one finds misfunctioning in a Bahá’í community, it can be traced to a failure to follow properly the laws, principles and methods laid down in the Writings. The overcoming of such shortcomings is part of the learning process in which all Bahá’ís are involved. The continual aim of the institutions of the Bahá’í community–whether it be through the operation of summer schools and training institutes, through the development of the Nineteen Day Feasts and National Conventions, or through day-to-day interaction among the friends–is to empower the individual believers so that they will learn how to live their lives with increasing knowledge, wisdom, unity and fruitfulness in conformity with the Teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.  (Universal House of Justice, Bahá’í Administrative Order, 18 July, 2000)

Conclusion:

Rúhíyyih Khanum does an excellent job in summarizing the Guardian’s vision for the future administration:

But what, we should pause and ask, was this Administration the Guardian was so tirelessly working to establish? As it evolved it would, he said: “at once incarnate, safeguard and foster” the spirit of this invincible Faith. It was unique in history, divinely conceived and different from any system which had existed in the religions of the past. Fundamentally it was the vehicle of a future World Order and World Civilization which would constitute no less than a World Commonwealth of all nations on this planet. Though its entire structure of elected bodies was based on principles of universal suffrage and election by secret ballot, its ultimate workings were conceived of in a different light, for, unlike the paramount principle of democracy by which the elected are constantly responsible to the electors, Bahá’í bodies are responsible at all times to the Founder of their Faith and His teachings. Whereas in democracy the ruling factor at the top can go no higher than their own councils and their decisions are subject to the scrutiny and approval of those they represent, this ruling factor in the Cause of God is at once the servant of all the servants of God – in other words the body of the faithful – but responsible to a higher factor, divinely guided and inspired, the Guardian or sole interpreter, and the Universal House of Justice, the supreme elected body, or sole legislator. It will be seen that in this system the people, divorced from the corrupt influences of nomination, political canvassing and the violence of those whims and dissatisfactions so easily engendered in the masses by the working of the democratic principle alone, are free to choose those they deem best qualified to direct their affairs and safeguard their rights on the one hand, and to protect and serve the interests of the Cause of God on the other. (Ruhiyyih Khanum, The Priceless Pearl, p. 348)

What is your understanding of this topic? Post your comments below: