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A Religion Out of Balance

"I believe in Baha'u'llah; I just don't believe in that other stuff" is a common refrain heard among disillusioned, inactive, and unenrolled Baha'is. To believe in Baha'u'llah is to accept His Writings as the Revelation of God. The "other stuff" is Baha'i administration.

How did administration come to hold such a central place in the Baha'i community? The first generation of Baha'is in this country were free-wheeling seekers of truth, who looked upon their new-found faith as "the spirit of the age", and thought nothing of participating in the worship services of Christian churches, or in mixing with Theosophists and other New Thought groups. How did their descendents become servants of an inward-looking bureaucracy?

To answer that question requires a quick look at Baha'i history:

Baha'u'llah had two concerns when he laid out the instructions for how his religion was to be governed: The first was that it was not to be ruled by professional clerics, but by the consultations of elected bodies. So he instructed his followers, in his Writings, to elect "Houses of Justice"(currently called Local Spiritual Assemblies) to consist of nine people in every city. The religion as a whole would be governed by a Universal House of Justice.

The second concern was for the unity of his faith, that it would not be divided into various sects. In his will, called "The Book of the Covenant" he appointed his eldest son, 'Abdu'l-Baha, to be the leader of his faith and the interpreter of his Writings. The existence of a scripturally mandated central authority was meant to prevent major schisms in the religion, and has, for the most part, been successful.(There have been, throughout Baha'i history, small groups that have challenged the central Baha'i authority, but none of these have ever been viable threats to the Baha'i mainstream.)

There was little administrative development under the ministries of Baha'u'llah or 'Abdu'l-Baha. However, 'Abdu'l-Baha, in His Will and Testament, established the institution of the Guardianship, a hereditary office whose occupant is both the chief executive of the religion and the authorized interpreter of the Writings. The Guardian, along with the legislative body, the Universal House of Justice,would work together in governing the affairs of the Faith. This Will also appointed his eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi Rabbani, as the first Guardian. Since all of Shoghi Effendi's relatives were excommunicated, and he had no children, there was no one left to fill this hereditary office when he died in 1957. The Universal House of Justice was elected in 1963, but the administrative directives laid down by Shoghi Effendi are still closely followed. It is, in fact, very difficult to reform any of them, since as Guardian, he is popularly regarded as infallible.

Baha'i administration does not develop according to the needs of the community for organization, but exists as a goal in itself. In fact, many Baha'is believe that these institutions will evolve into a future world theocracy, so that in creating them, they are actually engaged in "saving" the world.

Baha'i scholars, however, have questioned this theocratic model, pointing to evidence that Baha'u'llah himself actually supported the separation of church and state. (See Juan R.I. Cole's book "Modernity and the Millennium" for an excellent presentation of Baha'u'llah's political thought.)

A Local Spiritual Assembly(LSA) will be formed as soon as there are nine adult members in a locality, so it is not uncommon for virtually all the active community members to be serving on it. (It is also not unheard of for inactive members to be elected to an LSA, if the community is so small there is no one else to elect.)In such a situation, it is almost impossible to be an active member and not be involved in the administration. Even brand-new converts are frequently put on Assemblies.

There are warnings against over-administration in Shoghi Effendi's writings, but it can scarcely be avoided when the formation of an Assembly is the first thing a community is expected to do. In fact, Baha'i missionaries, called "pioneers" will relocate primarily in order to help form an LSA -- going to a community that already has seven or eight members. (Those with less than nine members are encouraged to organize as a "group", which includes electing officers.)

Another very odd regulation is the way that localities are divided up. Localities are determined by already existing government bounderies, so that the Baha'i population, no matter how small, existing within a city limit makes up one Baha'i community. Baha'is who reside outside that city limit make up another, separate community. For example, during my first year as a Baha'i, there were eight Baha'is in the city, and three in the surrounding court district that were expected to organize separately. Yet, so important was the formation of the city Assembly considered, that the first question I was asked when I was showing an interest in the Baha'i Faith was whether or not I lived in the city limits.

I personally know of people that have begged the National Spiritual Assembly to do away with this ridiculous and unnecessary roadblock in the way a small, struggling communities. But such pleas have fallen on deaf ears. It is difficult not to believe that this is done primarily to make the statistics look good. The Baha'i Faith claims to have over 1700 LSAs in this country, and no one on the outside would ever suspect that many, perhaps most, of them really have no community to manage, except for the Assembly members themselves.

Finally, administration invades even occasions that are primarily for worship. One-third of the main devotional service, the Nineteen Day Feast, is devoted to the discussion of community issues. It is this administrative portion that makes the gathering off-limits to non-Baha'is. This time is usually devoted to reading letters, listening to tapes, or watching videos sent from the National Center. Ideally, this period is supposed to be used for community consultation, and recommendations are to be given to the LSA. (Rather redundant when everyone is already on the LSA.) However, anecdotal evidence suggests that this time period is not often used very effectively, and that believers seldom feel that their suggestions are being taken seriously. Also, a long period spend discussing business negates the spiritual atmosphere that is supposed to attend such an occasion.

Baha'u'llah, besides ordaining the election of a "House of Justice" for every city, also mandates the building of a "House of Worship" in every city. This institution, more properly known as the "mashriq'u'l-adhkar"(meaning roughly "dawning place of God's remembrance), is supposed to be the center for Baha'i worship and charitable giving. Various humanitarian services (schools, clinics etc.) are an integral part of the mashriq. The House of Worship and its charities are to be open to all humanity, whether they are Baha'is or not.

So, just like its sister religions, Christianity and Islam, the Baha'i Faith was intended to be a religious community that centers on worship and charitable giving, and yet one can hardly spend five minutes as a Baha'i without realizing that neither of these things are given top priority.

A reorientation of the Baha'i community towards this center of worship and charity would restore some of the openness that was present in the early Baha'i Faith. To participate in administration, a person must be an enrolled Baha'i in good standing, and even many of these are not suited for administrative work. Members of the community associated with the mashriq'u'l-adhkar do not even need to be Baha'is. This fact is recognized even in current practice, since non-Baha'i scriptures are commonly read in the existing Houses of Worship, which are open to all.

There are Houses of Worship in the Baha'i World -- in the U.S., Germany, India. Uganda, Australia, Samoa, and Panama. A person can hardly encounter an introductory pamphlet about the Baha'i Faith without seeing pictures of one or more of them. However, these beautiful buildings are not practical places of worship for the vast majority of the world's Baha'is. They are showplaces for curious tourists; they are another opportunity to "teach the Faith"; they give us pretty pictures used to prove that the Baha'i Faith is indeed a "world religion". But they are only the shiny wrapping on a box that remains mostly empty.

The major obstacle, at least in the West, to the creation of local Houses of Worship is the pattern of Baha'i development. Quite obviously, communities that consist of 12-15 members are not going to be able to afford even the simplest building. As long as the Baha'i administration divides Baha'is into tiny "localities" the mashriq is only a dream for the vast majority.

Another obstacle is internal -- Baha'is are accustomed to thinking of the House of Worship as something for the future, and institution that will develop when the tiny local communities grow to the point when it can be supported. The fact that it is, according to Baha'i scripture, even more important than the Spiritual Assembly is overlooked.

Instead of a distant dream, the mashriq can be a living reality in Baha'i communities today. 'Abdu'l-Baha clearly called a meeting "where they shall glorify God and fix their hearts upon Him, and read and recite the Holy Writings" the mashriq'u'l-adhkar.[1] That is, a worship meeting itself is the mashriq, not the building; it is this that is supposed to be the center of Baha'i community life.

There are some positive signs, however. Recognizing the hunger for a more spiritual and meaningful community life, some Baha'is have made concrete steps towards establishing the the local mashriq'u'l-adhkar by centering the community around "mashriq meetings" instead of the more administratively-oriented Feast. One U.S. community has even purchased land on which to build their House of Worship.

Official reactions to this development have been mixed, however. Support of the mashriq'u'l-adhkar was characterized in the April 7, 1999 letter from the Universal House of Justice as a "particularly subtle form" of "internal opposition" to Baha'i teachings. However, since then statements have become more moderate, even positive. Especially encouraging is its Dec. 28, 1999 letter which promoted the "holding of regular mettings for worship open to all and the involvement of Baha'i communities in projects of humanitarian service" as expressions of the mashriq'u'l-adhkar. So there is certainly room for hope, even though there is still considerable suspicion in some quarters of any vision of the Baha'i Faith that does not center on institutional development and loyalty.

[1]Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Baha pp. 93-4

Author's note: This article first appeared in Themestream in two parts, published December 9 and December 11, 2000.

A compilations of Baha'i Writings about the mashriq'u'l-adhkar
Article by Sen McGlinn:
Essay by Sen McGlinn on the meanings of the mashriq'u'l-adhkar
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