Unique among the world’s great religions, the Baha’i Faith governs itself democratically.
When Baha’u’llah founded the Baha’i Faith in 1863, he envisioned it with a unifying, democratically-elected administration, free of the influence of any clergy, power base or appointed rulers. A hundred years later, in 1963, the Baha’is of the world elected the first Universal House of Justice, the supreme administrative body Baha’u’llah originally ordained:
The men of God’s House of Justice have been charged with the affairs of the people. They, in truth, are the Trustees of God among His servants and the daysprings of authority in His countries.
O people of God! That which traineth the world is Justice, for it is upheld by two pillars, reward and punishment. These two pillars are the sources of life to the world. Inasmuch as for each day there is a new problem and for every problem an expedient solution, such affairs should be referred to the House of Justice that the members thereof may act according to the needs and requirements of the time. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 128-129.
This remarkable institution—the planet’s first truly global elected body—now administers, directs and lovingly guides the worldwide Baha’i community. You can view the website of the Universal House of Justice here: universalhouseofjustice.bahai.org
Elected bodies make all of the legislative decisions in the Baha’i Faith—no individual Baha’i has any power. At the local level, elected Local Spiritual Assemblies direct the affairs of the community; and at the national level, National Spiritual Assemblies are elected by delegates each year. Those National Spiritual Assembly members elect the Universal House of Justice every five years. This democratic process, and the fact that the Baha’is have no clergy, insures that the Faith follows a united path, and explains one major reason why the Baha’i Faith remains unified more than a century into its history.
The Universal House of Justice, sometimes referred to by its initials “UHJ,” resides at the Baha’i World Centre in Haifa, Israel. It enacts laws “that are not expressly recorded in the Book,” according to the Baha’i writings, legislating on issues not covered in the original writings of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha:
Those matters of major importance which constitute the foundation of the Law of God are explicitly recorded in the Text, but subsidiary laws are left to the House of Justice. The wisdom of this is that the times never remain the same, for change is a necessary quality and an essential attribute of this world, and of time and place. – Abdu’l-Baha, cited in Wellsprings of Guidance, pp. 84-86.
In his Will and Testament, Abdu’l-Baha decreed that the future Universal House of Justice is:
…under the care and protection of the Abha Beauty [Baha’u’llah], under the shelter and unerring guidance of His Holiness, the Exalted One… Whatsoever they decide is of God.
Abdu’l-Baha also promised that the Universal House of Justice is “the source of all good and freed from all error.” Baha’is believe that their unity supports and upholds the inerrancy of the Universal House of Justice’s decisions, and all Baha’is attempt to follow its guidance carefully and closely. Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
It is incumbent upon these members (of the Universal House of Justice) to gather in a certain place and deliberate upon all problems which have caused difference, questions that are obscure and matters that are not expressly recorded in the Book. Whatsoever they decide has the same effect as the Text itself. Inasmuch as the House of Justice hath power to enact laws that are not expressly recorded in the Book and bear upon daily transactions, so also it hath power to repeal the same. Thus for example, the House of Justice enacteth today a certain law and enforceth it, and a hundred years hence, circumstances having profoundly changed and the conditions having altered, another House of Justice will then have power, according to the exigencies of the time, to alter that law. This it can do because these laws form no part of the divine explicit Text. – The Will and Testament, p. 19.
This very flexible, adaptable and nimble method of administering a global religion has no precedent. Unique to the Baha’i Faith, it allows religion to change with the times, reflect current thinking and practice in all areas of social and spiritual advancement.
How Baha’is Elect the Universal House of Justice
When the members of the Baha’i National Spiritual Assemblies from every nation gather at the Baha’i World Centre in the International Baha’i Convention every five years to elect a new Universal House of Justice, the voting is held in a very different atmosphere than any other kind of election.
Baha’i elections have no nominations, no slate of candidates, no electioneering, and no campaigning. Instead, each voter simply, silently and prayerfully writes down the names of the nine people they believe best represent the Baha’i ideal of service:
It is incumbent upon the chosen delegates to consider without the least trace of passion and prejudice, and irrespective of any material consideration, the names of only those who can best combine the necessary qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience. – Shoghi Effendi, Baha’i Administration, p. 88.
When the votes are tallied, the nine individuals who garner the most votes, in a simple plurality, are elected. However—membership on Baha’i administrative bodies, whether at the local, national or international level—does not confer any individual authority, power or mantle of leadership on any elected member. No individual member has any decision-making or executive authority—only the entire body can make decisions. Baha’is consider fulfilling the duties on those administrative bodies an act of humble service to the community.
The Universal House of Justice: Current Members
The current members of the Universal House of Justice, elected at the 11th Baha’i International Convention in 2013, are:
and Ayman Rouhani.
The five-year terms of these members will end at the time of the Baha’i International Convention in April of 2018. If any Universal House of Justice member resigns or dies in office, a global by-election elects a replacement.
The 2013 election marked the 50th anniversary of the first election of the Universal House of Justice in 1963. Baha’u’llah entrusted, in his own writings, the supreme governing council of the Baha’i Faith with exerting a positive influence on the welfare of humankind, promoting education, peace and global prosperity, and safeguarding human honor and the position of religion.
The Worldwide Plans of the Universal House of Justice
The Universal House of Justice, in its role of providing loving guidance to the global Baha’i community, regularly formulates, adopts and promotes plans of expansion and growth:
Shortly after its establishment, the Universal House of Justice continued the pattern set by Shoghi Effendi of developing the Baha’i Faith within the framework of a series of global plans, each lasting several years. As a result, the worldwide Baha’i community has grown significantly—to more than five million members today residing in over 100,000 localities.
Between 1963 and 1973, there was a notable shift in the composition of Baha’i membership internationally as large numbers of people from Africa, Asia and Latin America joined the Faith. Tribes and minority groups represented in the community more than doubled during that decade and the number of National Spiritual Assemblies grew from the 56 that first elected the Universal House of Justice to 113. Today there are more than 170 such Assemblies. – from Development of the Baha’i Community since 1963.
Those worldwide plans from the Universal House of Justice, designed to inspire, galvanize, mobilize and direct the energies of the Baha’is in every locality all around the globe, have resulted in four “core activities” that Baha’is and their communities dedicate to the betterment of humanity: children’s classes, spiritual empowerment programs for young people, devotional gatherings and study circles that build capacity for service to others. These outwardly-focused activities, which foster systematic social action and a culture of learning, fellowship and friendliness toward all, complement and bolster the engagement of the Baha’i Faith with the wider world:
Since the formation of the Universal House of Justice, a wide range of initiatives have also been taken in areas such as human rights, global prosperity and the advancement of women. At the United Nations, in international fora, and in all manner of social spaces at the national and local levels, Baha’is are increasingly participating in discussions about matters of concern to society. Young people, with their abundant energy and relative freedom, play a leading role in Baha’i activity. – Ibid.
The Constitution of the Universal House of Justice
The Universal House of Justice drafted its constitution soon after the election of the first UHJ in 1963, and completed and signed the document nine years later in 1972.
Click here to read: The Constitution of the Universal House of Justice
It begins this way:
Baha’u’llah, the Revealer of God’s Word in this Day, the Source of Authority, the Fountainhead of Justice, the Creator of a new World Order, the Establisher of the Most Great Peace, the Inspirer and Founder of a world civilization, the Judge, the Lawgiver, the Unifier and Redeemer of all mankind, has proclaimed the advent of God’s Kingdom on earth, has formulated its laws and ordinances, enunciated its principles, and ordained its institutions. To direct and canalize the forces released by His Revelation He instituted His Covenant, whose power has preserved the integrity of His Faith, maintained its unity and stimulated its world-wide expansion throughout the successive ministries of Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi. It continues to fulfil its life-giving purpose through the agency of the Universal House of Justice whose fundamental object, as one of the twin successors of Baha’u’llah and Abdu’l-Baha, is to ensure the continuity of that divinely-appointed authority which flows from the Source of the Faith, to safeguard the unity of its followers, and to maintain the integrity and flexibility of its teachings.
This historically unique document has some remarkable provisions not found in any other body or structure, whether political or religious. As just one example, the members of the Universal House of Justice, its constitution clearly states, are not bound by the opinions or convictions of their electors—instead, they make decisions based on their own individual conscience:
…the members of the Universal House of Justice, it should be borne in mind, are not, as Baha’u’llah’s utterances clearly imply, responsible to those whom they represent, nor are they allowed to be governed by the feelings, the general opinion, and even the convictions of the mass of the faithful, or of those who directly elect them. They are to follow, in a prayerful attitude, the dictates and promptings of their conscience. They may, indeed they must, acquaint themselves with the conditions prevailing among the community, must weigh dispassionately in their minds the merits of any case presented for their consideration, but must reserve for themselves the right of an unfettered decision.
This “government of conscience” has no known parallel in the history of human governance.
The Letters and Messages of the Universal House of Justice
The Universal House of Justice regularly sends letters and messages to the world, variously addressing world leaders, the heads of religion and the Baha’i community in general.
In October of 1985, for example, the UHJ prepared, wrote and presented to world leaders its statement on the possibilities for a global peace, called The Promise of World Peace.
The statement begins this way:
The Great Peace towards which people of good will throughout the centuries have inclined their hearts, of which seers and poets for countless generations have expressed their vision, and for which from age to age the sacred scriptures of mankind have constantly held the promise, is now at long last within the reach of the nations. For the first time in history it is possible for everyone to view the entire planet, with all its myriad diversified peoples, in one perspective. World peace is not only possible but inevitable. It is the next stage in the evolution of this planet—in the words of one great thinker, “the planetization of mankind.”
In The Promise of World Peace, the Universal House of Justice says that humanity has reached a never-before-attained juncture in its history—the point where it could conceivably unite and end all war. They direct the attention of the world’s leaders to “…the penetrating insights first communicated to the rulers of mankind more than a century ago by Baha’u’llah, Founder of the Baha’i Faith…” and respectfully ask that the world turn its attention to ending six thousand years of armed conflict.
In another groundbreaking public statement, the Universal House of Justice addressed the world’s religious leaders in April of 2002, saying:
The enduring legacy of the twentieth century is that it compelled the peoples of the world to begin seeing themselves as the members of a single human race, and the earth as that race’s common homeland. Despite the continuing conflict and violence that darken the horizon, prejudices that once seemed inherent in the nature of the human species are everywhere giving way. Down with them come barriers that long divided the family of man into a Babel of incoherent identities of cultural, ethnic or national origin. That so fundamental a change could occur in so brief a period—virtually overnight in the perspective of historical time—suggests the magnitude of the possibilities for the future.
Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in the path; to cite a particular painful fact, it has long lent its credibility to fanaticism. We feel a responsibility, as the governing council of one of the world religions, to urge earnest consideration of the challenge this poses for religious leadership. Both the issue and the circumstances to which it gives rise require that we speak frankly.
This statement, To the World’s Religious Leaders, calls for an end to religious fanaticism and division; for the wholesale discarding of old patterns of racism, prejudice and bigotry; and for the equality of women and men. It also makes a concerted appeal to the world’s religious leaders for:
…renunciation of all those claims to exclusivity or finality that, in winding their roots around the life of the spirit, have been the greatest single factor in suffocating impulses to unity and in promoting hatred and violence.