Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Some Reflections on the Concept of Law in the Bahá'í Faith

Academic journal article The Journal of Baha'i Studies

Some Reflections on the Concept of Law in the Bahá'í Faith

Article excerpt

Setting out to identify the concept of law within the Bahai Faith is an act of hubris, for both general and specific reasons. Trying to identify the conception of law in any particular legal order is by its very nature fraught with problems. It implies, at the outset, that there is an essential concept of law to be identified-an almost objective meaning to be discovered that reflects facts about that order itself. By its very nature, however, law is relatively incapable of definition in this way because of its innate subjective dimensions. Understanding conceptions of law will require looking at how individuals and groups interact with, use, respond to, and understand phenomena of a legal character. In this respect, conceptions of law in any particular context are inevitably varied and dynamic.

Exploring a conception of "Bahá'í law" is particularly complicated. The Bahá'í Faith is a relatively young religious system and, reflecting its age and particular pattern of growth, very little legal architecture has emerged.1 Further, throughout Bahá'í history, the significance of law-and Bahá'í laws in particular-has been consciously, and quite consistently, back-grounded, including, for example, the very gradual distribution and translation of legal texts and the limited application of laws.2 While discussion of law and the propagation of laws have a central place in Bahá'í scripture, they have not been central in the ways one might expect to the lives of individual Bahá'ís or Bahá'í communities. For example, unlike predominant Islamic traditions, discourses on law, while important, have not been a primary lens through which Bahai identity has been defined. What might be called "Bahai law" is not a central item of discussion or preoccupation among the community at large, nor is it a widespread subject of scholarly study.3

Nonetheless, it is still timely and appropriate to put forward a few observations about the theory of law in the Bahai Faith, for two reasons. First, the Bahá'í Faith represents an interesting case study of a nineteenth-century independent religious movement, which included prescriptions for change and reform, born in the Middle East out of Islamic roots, and with strong commitments to pluralism, equality, participatory democracy, and social justice. At a time of massive change and upheaval throughout the Muslim world, such a case study reveals some of the diverse and dynamic strands of reformist thought that have long been present. Second, the Bahai Faith is also an interesting example of a relatively new religion engaging with issues of diversity on a global scale. The capacity of religious law to manage and to be responsive to such diversity is a challenge facing all major religious systems, and the Bahai Faith is of interest in its explicit effort to grapple with this issue through the very nature and understanding of law itself and how it might be applied.

Acknowledging the context we are in, the reflections and observations offered in this article are preliminary in nature and meant to be nothing other than markers that might be taken into account by future scholars as they consider and advance the study of the Bahai Faith, including its legal dimensions. Collectively, these reflections highlight the sharp break that Bahá'u'lláh's writings and ideas about law represent from the orthodox conceptions of the Shi'i context in which He was immersed. They also reflect an orientation to religious law that is dynamic and contextual and necessitate viewing the law as practice in order to gain insight into its meaning and operation. Finally, they illustrate how, in Bahá'u'lláh's writings, there is a necessary relationship between the spiritual and the social and how processes of spiritualization are intimately connected to the purpose, meaning, and application of His laws.

Bahá'u'lláh's Break with the Islamic Legal Imagination

Gaining insight into the conception of law in the Bahá'í Faith requires some understanding of the attitude and orientation toward law in predominant Islamic worldviews and of the legal context within which Bahá'u'lláh lived. …

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