The Universal House of Justice
The Bahá'í World Centre
To: Mr. G. Brent Poirier
Date: 31 October 1995
Your email message of 15 September 1995, regarding the authenticity of a letter said to be written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, and also requesting certain materials concerning Baha'i scholarship, was received at the Baha'i World Centre and referred to the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice for further study. That Department has now completed its work, and we enclose a copy of the memorandum it produced, with one attachment, in response to your queries. We hope that this information will be of assistance to you in your endeavors.
Department of the Secretariat
M E M O R A N D U M
From: Research Department
To: The Universal House of Justice
Date: 31 October 1995
Quotations on the Scope of Baha'i Scholarship
The Research Department has studied the questions of Mr. G. Brent Poirier in his email dated 15 September 1995 to the Baha'i World Centre. He asks first for verification of a passage from a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi which we reproduce below:
As regards what Mirza Abu'l-Fadl has said concerning the seven religions of the past, Shoghi Effendi wishes to emphasize that what are truly authoritative are the Master's words. In all such cases we should try and find out what He has said, and abide by His words, even though they seem conflicting with the findings of modern scholars. If He does not say anything on the subject then the individual is free to accept or refute what scholars such as Mirza Abu'l-Fadl say. Through the discussions of these the truth will ultimately be found. But at no time should their decision be considered as final.
(Extract from a letter dated 22 February 1933 written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer)
Mr. Poirier will note that in several instances this authenticated passage differs from the passage he provides in his email, including the date of the letter from which it has been taken.
Quotations on the Scope of Scholarship
Mr. Poirier also asks for other Baha'i Writings "which may not have been disseminated otherwise" which bear on "the scope of a Baha'i scholar's inquiry when the subject has been addressed in a Tablet". He states that he is familiar with "Compilation of Compilations" (Maryborough: Baha'i Publications of Australia, 1991), and "the letter from the House on Baha'i scholarship".
The following statement is drawn from a letter dated 17 January 1978 written at the instruction of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer:
The interpretation of biblical prophecies has long been the subject of controversy and speculation among religious scholars. As Baha'is, we know that we must turn to the Writings of Baha'u'llah, Abdu'l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi for authoritative guidance in these matters. When a subject has not been mentioned or explained in the Sacred Writings, we are free to consult other books and to consider the opinions of scholars if we wish to do so....
The Universal House of Justice has asked us to recommend your continued study of "Some Answered Questions" since this book contains the interpretations given by Abdu'l-Baha on the meaning of some of the passages you mention from the Book of Daniel as well as other subjects found in the Old and New Testaments. You will note that in addition to giving His explanations, Abdu'l-Baha encourages personal initiative in unravelling divine mysteries. For example, at the end of Chapter XX on "The Necessity of Baptism" He says: "This subject needs deep thought. Then the cause of these changes will be evident and apparent". And at the end of Chapter XXX on "Adam and Eve", after setting forth His own interpretation of the subject, He goes on to say: "This is one of the meanings of the biblical story of Adam. Reflect until you discover the others."
In addition, Mr. Poirier will no doubt recall receiving a letter dated 9 March 1987, written at the direction of the Universal House of Justice on this same topic. We have attached a copy for his convenience.
As Mr. Poirier may be aware, the Research Department recently completed a new compilation on scholarship entitled "Extracts from the Writings of Baha'u'llah and Abdu'l-Baha and from the Letters of Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice on Scholarship". It will no doubt be available soon from his Baha'i Distribution Service.
Finally, we bring Mr. Poirier's attention to a possible misunderstanding he may have concerning the "letter from the House on Baha'i scholarship". It is our understanding that he may be referring to the statement prepared by the Research Department of the Baha'i World Centre entitled "The Challenge and Promise of Baha'i Scholarship". This statement was inadvertently attributed to the Universal House of Justice when it was published in "The Baha'i World" (Haifa: Baha'i World Centre, 1981), vol. XVII, pp. 195-96.
The Universal House of Justice
The Bahá'í World Centre
9 March 1987
Mr. G. Brent Poirier
Las Cruces, NM 88005
Dear Baha'i Friend,
The Universal House of Justice has received your letter of 8 February 1987 in which you enquire about the role of the individual in interpretation of the Writings: specifically whether given the existence of interpretations by the Master and the Guardian of passages from the Writings, there remains room for personal interpretations of these same texts. We are instructed to convey the following points in reply.
The interpretations of `Abdu'l-Baha and the Guardian are divinely-guided statements of what the Word of God means and as such these interpretations are binding on the friends. However, the existence of authoritative interpretations in no way precludes the individual from engaging in his own study of the teachings and thereby arriving at his own interpretation or understanding. Indeed, Baha'u'llah invites the believers to "immerse" themselves in the "ocean" of His "words", that they "may unravel its secrets, and discover all the pearls of wisdom that lie hid in its depths".
Far from being limited, Baha'u'llah asserts that "knowledge hath seventy meanings", and that the "meaning" of the Word of God "can never be exhausted". This potential richness of meaning is underlined by the provision whereby future Guardians, while not abrogating the "interpretations of former Guardians", may "elaborate and elucidate former interpretations", as set out in the extract from a letter dated 19 February 1947 which was written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi to an individual believer:
...regarding future Guardians: they cannot "abrogate" the interpretations of former Guardians, as this would imply not only lack of guidance but mistakes in making them; however they can elaborate and elucidate former interpretations, and can certainly abrogate some former ruling laid down as a temporary necessity by a former Guardian.
Individual interpretations based on a person's understanding of the teachings constitute the fruit of man's rational power and may well contribute to a more complete understanding of the Faith. Such views, however, lack authority. The believers are, therefore, free to accept or disregard them. Further, the manner in which an individual presents his interpretation is important. For example, he must at no time deny or contend with the authoritative interpretation, but rather offer his idea as a contribution to knowledge, making it clear that his views are merely his own.
With loving Baha'i greetings,
For Department of the Secretariat