One upon a time... there was a "House of Justice" in Tehran

By Juan Cole

The struggle for the equal participation of women in Baha'i Administration has been played out most dramatically, however, in the arena of the development of local institutions. The first of these bodies was formed in Tehran, Iran, at the initiative of individual believers.

In 1873, Baha'u'llah revealed the Kitab-i-Aqdas, the Most Holy Book, His book of laws. Here He established the institution of the House of Justice (bayt al-'adl). The Kitab-i-Aqdas states:

The Lord hath ordained that in every city a House of Justice (bayt al-'adl) be established wherein shall gather counsellors to the number of Baha [i.e., nine], and should it exceed this number it does not matter ... It behoveth them to be the trusted ones of the Merciful among men and to regard themselves as the guardians appointed of God for all that dwell on earth. It is incumbent on them to take counsel together and to have regard for the interests of the servants of God, for His sake, even as they regard their own interests, and to choose that which is meet and seemly. [10]

In the same book it is written:

O ye Men of Justice! (rijal al-'adl) Be ye in the realm of God shepherds unto His sheep and guard them from the ravening wolves that have appeared in disguise, even as ye would guard your own sons. Thus exhorteth you the Counsellor, the Faithful. [11]

There are other references in the Kitab-i-Aqdas to the House of Justice (bayt al-'adl) or the Place of Justice (maqarr al-'adl) which define its function and fix some of its revenues. In most cases, these references are not specific but refer to the general concept of a House of Justice rather than a particular institution. The Universal House of Justice has explained:

In the Kitab-i-Aqdas Baha'u'llah ordains both the Universal House of Justice and the Local Houses of Justice. In many of His laws He refers simply to "the House of Justice" leaving open for later decision which level or levels of the whole institution each law would apply to. [12]

Although the Kitab-i-Aqdas was revealed in 'Akka in 1873, it was withheld for some time by Baha'u'llah before it was distributed to the Baha'is of Iran. [13]

It appears that it was not until 1878 that the Baha'is of Tehran received copies of the book and began to implement some of its laws in their personal lives. Upon reading the Kitab-i Aqdas, Mirza Asadu'llah Isfahani, a prominent Baha'i teacher living in Tehran, was particularly struck by the command of Baha'u'llah that a House of Justice should be established by the Baha'is in every city.

Mirza Asadu'llah is an important figure in Baha'i history: he eventually married the sister of 'Abdu'l-Baha's wife; he was (as we shall see) one of the earliest Baha'i teachers sent to America by 'Abdu'l-Baha to instruct the new Western believers and he later accompanied 'Abdu'l-Baha on his travels in Europe. In any case, in 1878 he was the first to undertake the organization of a local House of Justice in Iran. He took the initiative to invite eight other prominent believers to form a body, responding to the laws of the Kitab-i Aqdas, which they referred to as bayt al-'adl (House of Justice) or bayt al-a'zam (the Most Great House).

The organization of this first House of Justice was kept a secret, even from the believers. However, it met sporadically in the home of Mirza Asadu'llah for a couple of years. After consulting with this body, the prominent Baha'i men who had been invited to attend its meetings would seek to take action as individual Baha'i teachers that would implement its decisions.

Around 1881, the Tehran House of Justice was reorganized and more members were added. The House adopted a written constitution and pursued its activities with more organization and vigour than before. The constitution mandated, however, that the meetings remain strictly confidential, hidden from the body of the believers.

This constitution also assumes that the members of the House would all be men (aqayan). Naturally, considering the social conditions in Iran at the time, no other arrangement was possible.

Some of the minutes of this early House of Justice survive today. It was a gathering of the older and more prominent Baha'i men of Tehran. Meetings were attended by invitation only, and at times included fourteen members or more. Eventually, this meeting came to be called the Consultative Gathering (majlis-i shur), while the house where the body met was referred to as the House of Justice (bayt al-'adl).

These meetings sought to assist and protect the Baha'is through consultation on various problems. The House in Tehran sent Baha'i teachers to other cities in Iran to organize Houses of Justice there. Again, the decisions of the House were always carried out by individuals, and the consultations remained secret.

The organization of this body eventually met with some controversy. One important Baha'i teacher, Jamal-i Burujurdi, who later - in the time of 'Abdu'l-Baha - would become a notorious Covenant-breaker, objected strongly to the organization of a House of Justice in Tehran. Because of these objections, the Baha'is involved on the House appealed to Baha'u'llah for guidance. Baha'u'llah replied with a Tablet in which He approved of the House of Justice and strongly upheld the principle of consultation in the Baha'i Faith. [14]


10. Synopsis, p 13.

11. Ibid., p 16.

12. Ibid., p 57.

13. Ibid., pp 5-6.

14. All information in this section concerning the first House of Justice of Tehran is based on Ruhu'llah Mihrabkhani, Mahafil-i shur dar 'ahd-i Jamal-i Aqdas-i Abha, (Assemblies of consultation at the time of Baha'u'llah) in Payam-i Baha'i, nos. 28 and 29, pp 9-11 and pp 8-9 respectively.

In the Baha'i Faith Women are Equal to Men... but they are not allowed to serve the UHJ.

By Juan Cole

The belief that women were not eligible for service on local Baha'i institutions was based on the language of certain passages of the Kitab-i Aqdas which refer to the House of Justice. Of course, as we have noted above, these passages do not make a distinction between local, national, and international bodies. The institution as a whole is addressed. Baha'u'llah twice uses the Arabic word rijal (gentlemen) to refer to the members of the Houses of Justice. He says:

O ye Men (rijal) of Justice! Be ye in the realm of God shepherds unto His sheep... [22]

We have designated a third of all fines for the Place of Justice (maqarr al-'adl), and exhort its members (rijal) to show forth perfect equity...[23]

The word rijal (plural; singular is rajul) is exclusively masculine in Arabic. A dictionary would render an English definition of rajul as: man, gentleman; important man, statesman, nobleman. (A related form of the word, rujula or rujuliyya, would be translated as: masculinity; virility.) Since Baha'u'llah addressed the members of the Houses of Justice using this term, it appears that it was universally assumed that only men were eligible for service on such institutions.

The word rijal, meaning men, is used in the Qur'an and is part of an important passage which establishes the relationship between men and women in Islam (Qur'an 4:34):

Men (rijal) are superior to women (nisa') on account of the qualities with which God hath gifted the one above the other, and on account of the outlay they make from their substance for them.

However, Baha'u'llah has in His Writings clearly established the principle of the equality of men and women. It is therefore possible that when He used the word rijal He did not intend its normal meaning.

Although rijal is the normal Arabic word for men (as opposed to women), there are passages in the Writings of Baha'u'llah that indicate that He may have used the term in a special sense. Such passages suggest that, in a Baha'i context, the word may be understood to include women. Baha'u'llah has stated that women in His Cause are all to be accorded the same station as men - and He has used the very term rijal to make this point. For example, He writes:

Today the Baha'i women (lit., the leaves of the Holy Tree) must guide the handmaidens of the earth to the Lofty Horizon with the utmost purity and sanctity. Today the handmaidens of God are regarded as gentlemen (rijal). Blessed are they! Blessed are they! [24]

And in another passage:
Today whoever among the handmaidens attains the knowledge of the Desire of the World [i.e., Baha'u'llah] is considered a gentleman (rajul) in the Divine Book. [25]

And in another place:

...many a man (rajul) hath waited expectant for God's Revelation, and yet when the Light shone forth from the horizon of the world, all but a few turned their faces away from it. Whosoever from amongst the handmaidens hath recognized the Lord of all Names is recorded in the Book as one of those men (rijal) by the Pen of the Most High. [26]

Likewise, 'Abdu'l-Baha in one of his Tablets has made the same point:
Verily, according to Baha'u'llah, women are judged as gentlemen (rijal). [27]

However, such passages were not raised as an issue at the time, either because the believers were not aware of them, or because they did not find them applicable. Certainly, the American Baha'is had no access to these texts and had to rely on the understandings of the Persian teachers who were sent by 'Abdu'l-Baha to guide them.


22. Marzieh Gail and Fadil-i Mazandarani (trans.), typescript translation of the Kitab-i Aqdas.

23. Ibid.

24. Quoted in Ahmad Yazdani, Mabadiy-i Ruhani, Tehran: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 104 Badi', p 109.

25. Ibid

26. Women: Extracts from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, 'Abdu'l-Baha, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice, comp. by The Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, Thornhill, Ont.: Baha'i Canada Publications, 1986, #7, p 3.

27. Quoted in Ahmad Yazdani, Maqam va Huquq-i Zan dar Diyanat-i Baha'i, vol. 1, Tehran: Baha'i Publishing Trust, 107 Badi'.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Baha'i Texts

Popular Posts

Total Pageviews


Blog Archive