The Universal House of Justice
The Universal House of Justice, ordained by Bahá’u’lláh as the legislative authority in the Bahá’í Faith, came into existence in 1963. It is a nine-member body elected at five-year intervals by the entire membership of the national governing institutions of the Bahá’í world.
The House of Justice directs the spiritual and administrative affairs of the Bahá’í International Community. It serves as well as custodian and trustee of the Bahá’í holy places and other properties in the Holy Land. Endowed by Bahá’u’lláh with the authority to legislate on all matters not specifically laid down in the Bahá’í scriptures, the House of Justice is the institution that keeps the Bahá’í community abreast of an ever-changing world.
The Universal House of Justice was inaugurated 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. Conducted by secret ballot, the Bahá’í electoral process prohibits the nomination of candidates, thereby giving maximum freedom of choice to each elector and avoiding the partisanship and power-seeking behaviour so characteristic of conventional political elections. The election of the Universal House of Justice takes place every five years in this same atmosphere of spirituality and dedication. At the international convention in April 2003, delegates from more than 180 national communities participated in the election.
Beyond the body’s 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.
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 grass-roots 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 Bahá’í world community. It 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.”1 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.2
“The essence of all that We have revealed for thee,” Bahá’u’lláh declares, “is Justice.”3 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.”4 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,”5 is His advice. “The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.”6 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,”7 He also established laws and institutional mechanisms to ensure the realization of justice in human affairs.
With the birth 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 appointed Centre 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.
2. Universal House of Justice, The Constitution of the Universal House of Justice (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1972), p. 4.
* Adapted from Bahá’í Topics, an information resource produced by the Bahá’í International Community.