The Universal House of Justice
"The essence of all that We have revealed for thee," Bahá'u'lláh declares, "is Justice." The chief instrument for the transformation of society and the achievement of lasting peace, He asserts, is the establishment of justice in every aspect of life. Bahá'u'lláh explains that the "purpose of justice is the appearance of unity among men." A conviction of the practicality of world unity, coupled with a dedication and willingness to work toward this goal, is the single most distinguishing characteristic of the Bahá'í community. The efforts of Bahá'ís around the world to build communities founded on cooperation and justice are guided by a unique system of administration established by Bahá'u'lláh Himself.
The practical expression of the religious impulse in the modern age, Bahá'u'lláh says, is collective decision-making and collective action based on spiritual principles. To ensure that power is used as an instrument of justice, and that governance serves humanity's true needs, decision-making authority, He insists, must rest with corporate bodies and not be left in the hands of individuals. "In all things it is necessary to consult," is His advice. "The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation." Thus, although Bahá'u'lláh, like all Manifestations of God before Him, enunciated and reiterated certain fundamental spiritual truths, and through His appearance imbued humankind with a "new and regenerating Spirit," He also established laws and institutional mechanisms to ensure the realization of justice in human affairs.
Bahá'ís believe that the "Administrative Order" created by Bahá'u'lláh, and built up by His successors `Abdu'l-Bahá and Shoghi Effendi, defines a pattern of cooperative decision-making and social interaction that cultivates the moral and creative capacities latent in human nature. It provides a model of the institutional structures necessary for global community life--a pattern of living that embraces diversity and fosters mutuality of purpose, compassion, and rectitude of conduct. A singular feature of this administrative system is the balance it strikes between preserving individual freedom and promoting the collective good. Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith, wrote:
...this Administrative Order is fundamentally different from anything that any Prophet has previously established, inasmuch as Bahá'u'lláh Himself revealed its principles, established its institutions, appointed the person to interpret His Word, and conferred the necessary authority on the body [the Universal House of Justice] designed to supplement and apply His legislative ordinances.
Founded on a set of unique electoral and consultative principles that are democratic in spirit and method, the Bahá'í administrative order is organized around freely elected governing councils which operate at the local, national, and international levels. This hierarchy devolves decision-making to the lowest practicable level--thereby instituting a unique vehicle for grassroots participation in governance--while at the same time providing a level of coordination and authority that makes possible cooperation on a global scale. Bahá'u'lláh called these governing councils "Houses of Justice."
The Universal House of Justice today guides the activities of the global Bahá'í community. This body was instituted by Bahá'u'lláh Himself as the supreme legislative organ of the Bahá'í administrative order. Its members, Bahá'u'lláh wrote, are "the Trustees of God among His servants." The Universal House of Justice itself states that "The provenance, the authority, the duties, the sphere of action of the Universal House of Justice all derive from the revealed Word of Bahá'u'lláh which, together with the interpretations and expositions of the Centre of the Covenant and of the Guardian of the Cause -- who, after `Abdu'l-Bahá, is the sole authority in the interpretation of Bahá'í Scripture -- constitute the binding terms of reference of the Universal House of Justice and are its bedrock foundation."
According to the explicit texts of Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá, the legislative enactments of the Universal House of Justice have the same authority for Bahá'ís as do the sacred texts themselves. The difference is that the House of Justice has the right to repeal and alter any of its enactments as the Bahá'í community evolves and new conditions emerge, whereas the laws enshrined in the Bahá'í texts will remain unchanged. `Abdu'l-Bahá states that all questions and issues not explicitly addressed in the Bahá'í sacred writings:
"must be referred to the Universal House of Justice. That which this body, whether unanimously or by a majority doth carry, that is verily the truth and the purpose of God Himself."
The administration of the Bahá'í Faith on the national and local levels is presently carried out by national and local "Spiritual Assemblies." These elected institutions function in accordance with the same consultative principles as the Universal House of Justice and will eventually be called "Houses of Justice." Bahá'ís believe that, while local and national Houses of Justice will be the instruments for ensuring human well-being, the decisions of the Universal House of Justice are uniquely inspired and authoritative. Bahá'u'lláh stated that God Himself has made this possible and will preserve the enactments of the Universal House of Justice from error: "It is incumbent upon the Trustees of the House of Justice to take counsel together regarding those things which have not outwardly been revealed in the Book, and to enforce that which is agreeable to them. God will verily inspire them with whatsoever He willeth, and He, verily, is the Provider, the Omniscient." Bahá'u'lláh wrote that since for "each day there is a new problem and for every problem an expedient solution, such affairs should be referred to the Ministers of the House of Justice that they may act according to the needs and requirements of the time. They...are the recipients of divine inspiration from the unseen kingdom."
Thus, the Universal House of Justice has been ordained by Bahá'u'lláh as an instrument of divine guidance and is not to be considered as merely the international administrative body of the Bahá'í Faith. `Abdu'l-Bahá confirms that the Universal House of Justice is "under the protection and the unerring guidance of God." However, it is only the corporate body itself that has been endowed with such guidance and not the individual members.
With the coming into being of the Universal House of Justice a new era opened in the history of the Bahá'í Faith. Authoritative direction flowed to the Bahá'í community first through the Manifestation of God (Bahá'u'lláh), then through the chosen Center of the Faith (`Abdu'l-Bahá) and the Guardian of the Faith (Shoghi Effendi). But with the passing of Shoghi Effendi and the establishment of the Universal House of Justice, guidance for the Bahá'í community no longer came from a personal channel, organically linked to the Manifestation of God, but from an elected body chosen by the Bahá'í membership itself.
The relationship between the Universal House of Justice and the national and local governing bodies that support it has an extremely important feature. Having arrived at a period in which humanity is awakening to new powers of reason and perception, Bahá'u'lláh pays particular attention to the development of decision-making skills at the grassroots of human society. Thus, the Bahá'í administrative order devolves authority to national and local levels to engender new patterns of interaction and participation, especially among individuals and groups that have been historically excluded from decision-making. Consequently, responsibility for the implementation of Bahá'u'lláh's spiritual and social principles essentially resides with National and Local Spiritual Assemblies. It is these bodies that are charged with ensuring that Bahá'u'lláh's prescription of moral renewal and harmonious community life is realized. In addition, national and local Bahá'í administrative institutions are enjoined by Bahá'u'lláh to ensure that Bahá'í communities promote the interests and abide by the laws of localities, regions, and nations. He emphatically declares that He has only "singled out the hearts of men as His Own domain." Loyalty and obedience to the governments under which Bahá'ís reside obtain whether or not Bahá'ís constitute numerical majorities. In any particular nation, the National Spiritual Assembly has specific responsibility for effecting conformity with this vital principle. In this regard, the Universal House of Justice serves as the ultimate guarantor of the Bahá'í community's adherence to the laws and ordinances of Bahá'u'lláh in all parts of the world.
The Universal House of Justice was instituted when, in 1963, members of National Spiritual Assemblies from around the globe, in an atmosphere of deep reflection and profound devotion, elected nine individuals from among the Bahá'ís of the world as members of this institution. The occasion is considered by Bahá'ís to be, next to the appointment of Shoghi Effendi as the Guardian of the Faith, the most momentous event in the history of what is known as the "Formative Age" of the Bahá'í Faith. Even the manner of the election itself was befitting that institution described by `Abdu'l-Bahá as the "source of all good." Conducted by secret ballot, the Bahá'í electoral process prohibits the nomination and presentation of candidates, thereby giving maximum freedom of choice to each elector and avoiding the partisanship and power-seeking behavior so characteristic of conventional political elections. The election of the Universal House of Justice takes place every five years in the same atmosphere of spirituality and dedication. At the most recent international convention in April 1998, delegates from more than 160 national communities participated in the election.
Beyond its institutional importance, the establishment of the Universal House of Justice symbolized the distinguishing characteristic which Bahá'ís regard as the essence of their Faith: unity. No matter how wholehearted and sincere, faith alone cannot ensure that the unity of a religious community will endure. The emergence of the Universal House of Justice as the guiding authority in all the affairs of the community meant that the Bahá'í Faith had remained united through the most critical period of a religion's history, the vulnerable first century during which schism almost invariably takes root. Shortly after its formation in 1963, the Universal House of Justice wrote: "The Covenant of Bahá'u'lláh is unbroken, its all-encompassing power inviolate...The channel of Divine guidance, providing flexibility in all the affairs of mankind, remains open through that institution which was founded by Bahá'u'lláh and endowed by Him with supreme authority and unfailing guidance..." For Bahá'ís, the emphatic promise of Bahá'u'lláh had been realized: "The Hand of Omnipotence hath established His Revelation upon an enduring foundation. Storms of human strife are powerless to undermine its basis, nor will men's fanciful theories succeed in damaging its structure."
In its position at the apex of the Bahá'í administrative order, the Universal House of Justice protects the spiritual inheritance bequeathed to it by promoting "the attainment of those spiritual qualities which should characterize Bahá'í life individually and collectively"; preserving the Bahá'í Sacred Texts and safeguarding their "inviolability"; defending and protecting the Bahá'í community and emancipating it from the "fetters of repression and persecution"; preserving and developing the world spiritual and administrative centre of the Bahá'í Faith; and safeguarding "the personal rights, freedom and initiative of individuals." It is also given the charge of adapting the Bahá'í Faith to the "requirements of progressive society," and thus is empowered to legislate on matters not explicitly covered in the Bahá'í sacred texts. The approach to legislation in the Bahá'í Faith is explained in a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice: "The human tendency in past [religious] Dispensations has been to want every question answered and to arrive at a binding decision affecting every small detail of belief or practice. The tendency in the Bahá'í Dispensation, from the time of Bahá'u'lláh Himself, has been to clarify the governing principles, to make binding pronouncements on details that are considered essential, but to leave a wide area to the conscience of the individual. The same tendency appears also in administrative matters."
In addition to its responsibility for guiding the growth and development of the global Bahá'í community, the Universal House of Justice is counselled by Bahá'u'lláh to exert a positive influence on the general welfare of humankind. It is called upon by Him to promote a permanent peace among the nations of the world so that "the people of the earth may be relieved from the burden of exorbitant expenditures," and freed from the "affliction" of "conflict." It is also exhorted to take steps to ensure the "training of peoples, the upbuilding of nations, the protection of man and the safeguarding of his honor." In accordance with these injunctions of Bahá'u'lláh, the Universal House of Justice has vigorously pursued a campaign promoting international peace and stability, and has set in motion a variety of initiatives in the areas of human rights, the advancement of women, and social and economic development. In 1985, in a message entitled "The Promise of World Peace," addressed to "the peoples of the world" and presented to nearly all heads of state around the world, the Universal House of Justice outlined the essential prerequisites for the establishment of global peace and prosperity.
As stipulated by Bahá'u'lláh, the Seat of the Universal House of Justice is located on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, in close proximity to the resting places of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh.