The Bahá’í administrative order has been described by the Guardian “not only as the nucleus but the very pattern of the New World Order.” Within it, the encouragement of diversity of opinion has important implications in the realms of both belief and action.
This statement prepared by the Bahá’í International Community explores how Bahá’u’lláh’s system of teachings and institutions assure freedom of individual opinion, protect individual rights irrespective of race, colour, religion, nationality, class or attitude toward the Faith, and encourage the full participation of minorities in the life of the Bahá’í community.
The keynote of the Bahá’í approach to social organization is not uniformity, but unity in diversity. Central to the Bahá’í Faith is a system of teachings and institutions that assure freedom of individual opinion, that protect individual rights irrespective of race, colour, religion, nationality, class or attitude toward the Faith, and that encourage the full participation of minorities in the life of the Bahá’í community. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh, “There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God.”1
The operation of this principle is most readily apparent in the Bahá’í attitude toward belief itself. As a soul gifted with reason, the individual human being is not merely free to investigate reality but is responsible to God for doing so. In the Book of Certitude, or the Kitáb-i-Íqan, in describing the qualities of the “true seeker” Bahá’u’lláh sets out the standard of honesty, of ardor and of purity of motive which must govern this lifelong search for truth. It is only as inner confidence begins to form that the soul can make that commitment of mind and heart we call faith. Consequently, no one is compelled to become a Bahá’í; one enters the Faith by discovering Bahá’u’lláh as the Manifestation of God for our age and by freely declaring his or her belief to a Spiritual Assembly. In the same way, should one for any reason lose faith and cease to regard herself or himself as a believer, one is equally free to withdraw.
Within the Bahá’í community, the encouragement of diversity of opinion has important implications in the realms of both belief and action. The Universal House of Justice has pointed out that “...individual interpretation is considered the fruit of man’s rational power and conducive to a better understanding of the teachings, provided that no disputes or arguments arise among [Bahá’ís] and the individual himself understands and makes it clear that his views are merely his own.”2 This respect for differences in view is by no means limited to the views of Bahá’ís. In the words of Bahá’u’lláh: “Warn ...the beloved of the one true God not to view with too critical an eye the sayings and writings of men. Let them rather approach such sayings and writings in a spirit of open-mindedness and loving sympathy.”3
Likewise, in the decision-making process by which the Bahá’í community conducts its affairs, great value is placed on the wide range of opinion which believers bring to such consultations. Once every nineteen days, at the Feast, every member of the Faith has the opportunity to express his or her views or recommendations on matters of local, national or even international nature. The institution of the Bahá’í convention, operating at regional, national and international levels, offers yet another series of opportunities for this frank expression of individual views. The standards which govern such activities are clearly set forth in the Bahá’í writings:
The members [of Bahá’í Spiritual Assemblies] must take counsel together in such wise that no occasion for ill-feeling or discord arise. This can be attained when every member expresseth with absolute freedom his own opinion and setteth forth his argument. Should anyone oppose, he must on no account feel hurt for not until matters are fully discussed can the right way be revealed. The shining spark of truth, cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions.”4
The integrity of these consultative processes is further protected by the nature of the institutions which exercise authority in the Bahá’í community. All decision-making powers in the Faith, whether legislative or administrative, have been vested by the Founder in institutions which are democratically elected by the body of the believers. The members of these institutions, without exception, are chosen by the Bahá’í community through secret ballot, plurality vote, and an electoral process free of any form of electioneering, the authority for such provisions being clearly expressed in the revealed Writings themselves.5 In this way, the community is protected against the imposition of the arbitrary will or leadership of individuals.
One of the responsibilities which Bahá’u’lláh assigns to the administrative order thus instituted is the protection of the rights of all persons. The ultimate guardian of this vital principle is the Universal House of Justice itself, whose constitution explicitly sets out as responsibilities: “to safeguard the personal rights, freedom and initiative of individuals,” “for ensuring that no body or institution within the Cause abuse its privileges . . . ,” and “to be the exponent and guardian of that Divine Justice which can alone ensure the security of, and establish the reign of law and order in, the world.”6
The standard of justice for all persons, to which reference is made in the foregoing, has been summed up in a letter written by the Guardian of the Faith to members of the Bahá’í community:
The point that I should like to impress upon their notice is that they should have the most scrupulous regard to safeguarding the legitimate personal and civil rights of all individuals, whatever may be their chosen career or station in life, and irrespective of their racial, religious or ideological backgrounds. It is not permissible in matters related to such rights to make distinctions and discriminations or show preferences. In all transactions and dealings that affect basic human rights, the standard required of the chosen supporters of Bahá’u’lláh – a standard that must claim their unhesitating and unreserved acceptance, and which they must meticulously and assiduously uphold – is that they should not make the slightest distinction between friend and stranger, believer and unbeliever, supporter and antagonist.7
The same letter makes it clear that the rights of persons hostile to the Bahá’í Faith, even those who have violated the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, are included. Covenant-breakers are those who, while claiming to be faithful exponents of the religion of Bahá’u’lláh, reject the authority established in Bahá’u’lláh’s own writings or in the authorized interpretations of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, and seek to divert the Faith to their own ends. Their position is different, therefore, from that of people who are merely opposed to the Faith and who, for that reason, may seek in some way to harm or suppress it. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said that the only way in which the Bahá’í community can deal with the fundamental insincerity underlying Covenant-breaking is for the believers to avoid contact with those involved, quite as healthy people avoid close contact with persons suffering from contagious physical diseases.8 This avoidance of unnecessary risks must not, however, lead to any curtailment of the human rights of any person, including a Covenant-breaker:
...the mere fact of disaffection or estrangement, or recantation of belief can in no way detract from the legitimate civil rights of free citizens or otherwise impinge upon them, even to the extent of the eye of a needle. If the [Bahá’ís] were to act otherwise it would be tantamount to a reversion on their part – in this century of radiance and light – to the ways of those of a former age: they would re-ignite in men’s breasts the fire of bigotry and intolerance; they would cut themselves off from the glorious bestowals and bounties of this promised Day of God; and they would frustrate the full revelation of God’s grace and favour to men in this luminous age.9
Most particularly does the Bahá’í Faith cherish and promote the development of minorities. The Guardian explained that this nurturing of the diverse elements which make up the human family is a moral responsibility of the community of Bahá’u’lláh.
Unlike the nations and peoples of the earth, be they of the East or of the West, democratic or authoritarian, communist or capitalist, whether belonging to the Old World or the New, who either ignore, trample upon, or extirpate, the racial, religious, or political minorities within the sphere of their jurisdiction, every organized community enlisted under the banner of Bahá’u’lláh should feel it to be its first and inescapable obligation to nurture, encourage, and safeguard every minority belonging to any faith, race, class, or nation within it.10
This principle is given practical expression in the provisions governing the functioning of Bahá’í administrative institutions. The passage quoted above goes on to state that “in such circumstances, as when an equal number of ballots have been cast in an election, or where the qualifications for any office are balanced as between various races, faiths or nationalities within the community, priority should unhesitatingly be accorded the party representing the minority, and this for no other reason except to stimulate and encourage it . . .”11
The great importance which the Bahá’í Faith attaches to the diversity of human thought and experience should not, however, suggest that it encourages those extreme forms of individualism which imperil the common good. On the contrary, the Faith teaches that it is by surrendering a degree of personal freedom to a commonly accepted system of laws that the individual helps create a social environment that returns far greater benefits in terms of personal freedom than the investment required.
The Bahá’í administrative order, some of whose principal features are outlined in the foregoing, has been described by the Guardian “not only as the nucleus but the very pattern of the New World Order”12 envisioned by Bahá’u’lláh. In it one can already begin to appreciate the form which the Bahá’í community of the distant future will assume. Increasingly, as its institutions develop and as the members of the Faith are able to apply more fully and intelligently its principles, the capacity of this unique system to protect the immense diversity of the human family will be apparent to every fair-minded observer.