The Approach of 'Abdu'l-Bahá to the Problem of Tolerance

By Erfan Sabeti

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #48
Center for Bahá'í Studies: Acuto, Italy
July 10–13, 2003
(see list of papers from #48)

    Many times during our lives, we have faced the following question: "Is it necessarily a sign of intolerance to think that certain things are intolerable?" Or else in a different manner:" Does being tolerant mean tolerating everything?" A philosophical essay is as good as the arguments it offers.

    In this essay, we explore the difference between these concepts: forbearance, indifference, acceptance, turning away, freedom and tolerance. Then we distinguish matters of opinion and belief from scientific and aesthetic ones. The problem of tolerance arises only in matters of opinion (and behaviors according to them), which is why it arises so often, indeed almost constantly. We know far less than we don't know, and everything we know depends, directly or indirectly, on something we don't know.

    Here comes the necessity of an omniscient source of knowledge, surely not human. Metaphysics is the core of philosophy and true metaphysics is found in religion. Hence, we examine the teachings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá in order to find some criteria relevant to tolerance. Drawing on these teachings, we put forward the notion of 'Paradox of Tolerance'.

    The pure tolerance would be self-negating in practical terms and thus not just morally but practically doomed. An unlimited tolerance would end up negating itself since it would give free rein to those who seek to destroy it. Tolerance, therefore, can only apply within certain limits, which maintain and preserve the conditions that make it possible. We will try to set up the boundaries for tolerance according to Bahá'í thought: theoretically, the search after truth, and practically, the love for justice.

    And to conclude, we ask ourselves if the word 'tolerance' is appropriate; we can only tolerate something that we would have the power to prevent, distaste or forbid. Some things are intolerable and must be disrespected, e.g., murder, torture-and some things are tolerable if not loveable.

    Tolerance is a minor, in comparison to love, but a necessary virtue. While awaiting the day when tolerance will become love, we will say that tolerance is the best we can do.

    This paper is online at