A New Way to Consider Bahá’í Law: Roshan Danesh’s October Web Talk “Imagining Bahá’í Law”

Roshan Danesh

Roshan Danesh

For those of us who have wondered when this or that Bahá’í law will become binding on Bahá’ís in the West, and if it will be in our lifetime, or whether, if we know about a particular Bahá’í law, is it binding on us, Dr. Roshan Danesh’s Web Talk on “Imagining Bahá’í Law” was more than a breath of fresh air. It opened new ways of thinking about law in general and Bahá’í law in particular. Roshan, a lawyer living in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, began his Web Talk by saying that he wanted to spend his time with his listeners reflecting on how to think about Bahá’í law. In particular, he wanted “to reflect collectively on the images we carry with us, the language we use, and how these impact our understandings and experience of Bahá’í law.” Then he wanted to develop lenses that will help us think about Bahá’í law.

Roshan began with a statement by Oliver Wendell Homes, a nineteenth-century jurist, who served for thirty years on the U.S. Supreme Court: “The life of the law has not been logic. It has been experience.” In other words, law is not objective, formal, innate, something seen in abstract terms, something outside of us as human beings. Rather, it is subjective, tied to power and society, something tied to human beings. These, Roshan said, are two ways to imagine law. A third way comes from a contemporary legal scholar, Martha C. Nussbaum, who says: “You can’t really change the heart without telling a story.” Roshan said this view is important because “stories impact us; they alter our heart (mind and emotion) and our behavior.” This, he goes on to say, “is part of the intuition and logic of the focus on ‘discourse’ in the Bahá’í community; we are re-casting stories as part of the process of changing hearts.”

As he moved to the heart of his talk, Roshan posed two questions that he wanted all of us to ask ourselves:

  1. What are the images of Bahá’í law that we carry with us? What are the stories of Bahá’í law that we tell?
  2. Which images of Bahá’í law should we carry with us? What stories of Bahá’í law should we tell?

But, as any good teacher would, Roshan said he was not going to answer the questions for us. He said that “we need to answer them for ourselves though study, consultation, and action.” Bahá’u’lláh, Himself pushes us to apprehend the answers, which means, Roshan said, that “we should be grappling with law”:

Blessed those who peruse it!
Blessed those who apprehend it!
Blessed those who meditate upon it!
Blessed those who ponder its meaning!
So vast is its range that it hath encompassed all men ere their recognition of it.
Bahá’u’lláh, (Kitáb-i-Aqdas 16)

Lens No. 1: Law in Bahá’u’lláh’s Milieu and What He Said about It. The first lens that Roshan discussed was this one (which he said was complex): How was law thought about and understood in the context Bahá’u’lláh was born into? What does Bahá’u’lláh have to say about that image and story of law? The Qur’an was where law was found, and it was law that had answers to everything, though the answers to questions evolved over time. How one was to discover God’s intention was the process of ijtihad, individual striving and searching in the text. Who was to find the laws was meant to be all. But by the eleventh and twelfth centuries the learned has taken over, and everyone was following blindly, with a number of schools having different answers to the same questions.

So what did Bahá’u’lláh say about that legal universe? ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Kitáb-i-Aqdas 5) says that “not every ordinance was explicitly revealed” in the Qur’an and that conflicting schools of thought had “conflicting deductions.” Moreover, Western incursions into the Middle East brought new questions about trade laws and new legal thinking, fostered differences between clerics and rulers concerning law, and created tension due to changing times. Bahá’u’lláh rejected “the power structure and role of the cleric,” “blind imitation,” “developing sets of rules and codes of laws,” the idea that “all laws are contained with the text,” and the “text-based and intentionalist methodology.” Hence in the turbulent nineteenth century when West met East, Bahá’u’lláh in one lens defined what Bahá’í law is not.

Lens No. 2: Building Blocks for Understanding Bahá’í Law. Leaving behind the negative lens of what Bahá’u’lláh says Bahá’í law is not, Roshan turned to the second lens, asking: What are building blocks for understanding Bahá’í law? For this we need to look at some of the different ways we talk about—or are encouraged to talk about—Bahá’í law.

2.1 Bahá’í Law as a Text: The Kitáb-i-Aqdas. One way to talk about Bahá’í law is to consider it as a text, the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, which was revealed in 1873 in a room in the house of ‘Udí Khammár in Acre. It was revealed in Arabic and has some 463 verses; it is known by several names (the Most Holy Book, the Mother Book, and so on) but also as the Book of Laws. It came to us in stages. Shoghi Effendi started a Synopsis and Codification before he passed away in 1957. The Universal House of Justice published it in 1973, sixteen years after the Guardian’s passing. In the Holy Year 1992, one hundred years after Bahá’u’lláh’s passing, the book was translated and published. It contains 190 paragraphs and some 90 rules. The Universal House of Justice, in its Introduction to the volume (Kitáb-i-Aqdas 11), ended with this wish: “May the publication of this translation of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas lend a fresh impulse to the realization of this universal vision, opening vistas of a worldwide regeneration.” This story about the intertwining of text, law, and regeneration, Roshan says, is “factually correct” and is a “classic way of speaking of religious law and divine law in monotheistic traditions,” but it is “problematic and incomplete” because it ignored “too much that we are also told in the [Bahá’í] writings about Bahá’í law.”

2.2 Bahá’í Law: What It Should Be. Another way to look at and understand Bahá’í law, Roshan said is “to talk about how and when and in what context Bahá’í law should be used (as opposed to just being told to follow it).” Bahá’u’lláh Himself tells the story in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas (Kitáb-i-Aqdas par. 98) of how He kept law in the background: Requests had come to Him several times in the past about “laws from God,” but He “withheld” His Pen until a number of friends asked Him for laws, and He finally responded by revealing the Kitáb-i-Aqdas. Just how gradual is this pattern of keeping Bahá’í law in the background? Roshan offered this summary:

  • Before the revelation of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Bahá’u’lláh revealed, then destroyed legal writings.
  • Then he revealed the Kitáb-i-Aqdas but did not distribute it.
  • He delayed the publication in Bombay for 10 years.
  • The Universal House of Justice had the work translated in 1992, 120 years later.

But why the delay, you may be asking. In a letter dated January 2, 1998, the Universal House of Justice said that there is “Divine wisdom in a gradual, rather than immediate, application of all laws.” Bahá’u’lláh Himself says that, in observing the laws, “one must exercise tact and wisdom” (Kitáb-i-Aqdas 6). Roshan offered some observations about the unique patterns of gradualism: (1) Bahá’u’lláh emphasized the need to obey and contexts; (2) the House of Justice said that, even with the release of the The Kitáb-i-Aqdas in 1992, that “The number of laws binding on Bahá’ís is not increased by the publication of this translation” (Kitáb-i-Aqdas 7); (3) the House of Justice tells us that Bahá’ís will be “advised” when “it is deemed timely” which “additional laws are binding upon believers” together with “any guidance or supplementary legislation necessary for their application” (Kitáb-i-Aqdas 7). All of these points are breaks with Qur’anic law, breaks between law and the spiritual path, breaks “from traditional ways of thinking.”

Roshan noted that the “distinct Bahá’í perspective on how and when Bahá’í law is used” suggests “that Bahá’u’lláh is particularly concerned with substance and not form, concerned with how we are thinking about them, and our orientation toward the law, and not just the act.” For example, among some requisites for spiritual growth are these, which “touch on law” without saying it specifically (emphasis added):

  • The recital each day of one of the Obligatory Prayers with pure-hearted devotion.
  • The regular reading of the Sacred Scriptures, specifically at least each morning and evening, with reverence, attention and thought.
  • Prayerful meditation on the Teachings, so that we may understand them more deeply, fulfil them more faithfully, and convey them more accurately to others.
    (The Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of Norway, September 1, 1983).

‘Abdu’l-Bahá puts a point on the importance of how one lives as opposed to wearing a label when he says: “The man who lives the life according to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is already a Bahá’í while a man may call himself a Bahá’í for fifty years and if he does not live the life he is not a Bahá’í” (Baha’u’lláh and the New Era 71).

Lens No. 3: A Sharp Break from Ways of Conceptualizing Law. In the first and second lenses, Roshan said, we have seen how Bahá’u’lláh “rejects the legal imagination he was born into” and how he “tells us to think about how and when to use Bahá’í law in ways that background the importance of Divine law and breaks from our expectations.” In the third lens Bahá’u’lláh “encourages us to talk about Bahá’í law that reflects the first two—which is that it is a sharp rupture/a break from historical and conventional ways on conceptualizing and thinking about law,” two ways of which are language and structure.

Shoghi Effendi tells us that Bahá’u’lláh’s language is “a style at once, original, chaste and vigorous” (God Passes By 138). As for originality, Bahá’u’lláh sometimes uses Hudud (punishments for crimes) and also Amr (commandments). When He uses Hudud, He connects punishment to “the limits and boundaries of our being . . . to our purpose itself, . . . to knowledge.” For example, “They whom God hath endued with insight will readily recognize that the precepts laid down by God constitute the highest means for the maintenance of order in the world and the security of its peoples.” For Amr, He “goes from command and notions of power and authority to a focus on love: “Observe My commandments, for the love of My beauty” (Kitáb-i-Aqdas par. 4).

As for the Kitáb-i-Aqdas being chaste and vigorous, we need to reread the passage the Universal House of Justice wrote in the Introduction to the The Kitáb-i-Aqdas (10). The language of Bahá’u’lláh’s Book of Laws is terse and concentrated, inviting the reader to probe it, to be drawn in to achieve understanding, to find out how the “statement of law is intended to connect and cultivate our capacities of knowledge and love.” Bahá’u’lláh, Roshan notes, is telling us “to not focus so much on the rule but on how the understanding beneath it might help us understand our purpose and act consistently with our purpose.” For example, Bahá’u’lláh tells us bluntly that “The kissing of hands hath been forbidden.” Looking underneath the rule, we come to understand that He does not “want us to abase ourselves.”

Another rupture or break, Danesh said as he came to the end of his Web Talk, is the structure of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas: “The structure of the Aqdas invites us to read it unlike any other text that would we would think of as a legal text; it invites us into this new relationship with law were law is contingent and integrative with the cultivation of our spiritual capacities.” Roshan speculated that the first nineteen paragraphs constitute one “vahid, a unity, a complete whole.” Paragraphs 1–5 “express the arc of descent and ascent at the metaphysical level.” Paragraphs 6–18 deal with spiritual ascent in the physical world. Paragraph 19 shifts to social ascent, “ascent at the collective level.”

When one looks at the Kitáb-i-Aqdas as a whole, Roshan further speculated, one finds paragraphs 1–19 as a complete unit or vahid. That leaves 171 paragraphs, which are two holy numbers multiplied: 9 x 19 = 171. Thus, Roshan said, “In this structure we have a totally different/rupture with conventional legal norms. We are being led to read it in ways to seek the spiritual realities underlying it. The architecture of the text itself is a description of our relationship with God and our fundamental nature.” This,” he continued, “is the exact opposite of blind imitation or a focus on rules.” It is not “any conventional story we have heard.” It is a “break. We are experiencing law differently, because law itself has a different reality, nature, and purpose. We need to approach Bahá’í law in these terms, imagine it in new ways, see connections to various discourses, but not conflate them, and start experiencing Bahá’í law increasingly as Bahá’u’lláh intended.”

At the end of his Web Talk, Roshan answered a number of questions. After you listen to the talk, you will want to listen to the informative question-and-answer session.

Dr. Danesh completed his doctoral degree at the Harvard Law School and works, researches, and teaches in the areas of law and religion, constitutional law, indigenous rights, and conflict resolution and peace-building. He has taught at several universities worldwide and published articles on Bahá’í law in a number of academic journals and publications including the Journal of Law and Religion, Religious Studies and Theology, Bahá’í Studies Review, Journal of Bahá’í Studies, World Order, and The Bahá’í World.

This article is only a brief summary of Dr. Roshan Danesh’s Web Talk on “Imagining Bahá’í Law.” It is impossible to capture all the nuances of his presentation or to quote all the sources he used. We recommend that you listen to the Web Talk yourself. It is now available on the Wilmette Institute’s YouTube channel.

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