The Limits of Discourse in the Baha'i community and their Consequences

By Robert Stockman

First presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #8
Newcastle, England
December 8–10, 1995
(see list of papers from #8)

    All human communities must set limits on their internal discourse in order to maintain cohesion and some degree of internal order. The Baha'i Faith is no exception. The limits to discourse in the Baha'i community are determined by the overriding principle of unity: 'Abdu'l-Baha has stressed that unity is more important than being right, and thus disagreement and arguments are greater evils than being united in error. Baha'i institutions have to be obeyed, in theological terms, because the Universal House of Justice is infallible; or put in sociological terms, institutional decisions can be appealed to the Universal House of Justice and its decisions must be obeyed, just as the decisions of a nation's Supreme Court about the meaning of national laws must be obeyed.

    Two mechanisms exist in the Baha'i community to enforce obedience to institutions: National Spiritual Assemblies may level administrative sanctions and the Universal House of Justice may declare someone a Covenant-breaker. The latter is a far more serious sanction, for it expels the individual from the community. Covenant-breakers often devote considerable energy to writing books describing the injustices they feel Baha'i communities have perpetrated against them. Their literature has formed a major part of modern anti-Baha'i literature or literature critical of the Baha'i community. Generally, the best solution to this problem appears to be serious scholarly research, for such research often reveals the self-centeredness of the Covenant-breaker, his misrepresentation of information, and his unwillingness to subordinate personal goals and desires, or personal hurts, for the greater good of the Baha'i Faith. Ibrahim Kheiralla is a good case study in this regard.

    Two principles define boundaries to discourse within the Baha'i community: prepublication review of manuscripts and sanctioning of Baha'is for stirring up disunity. Both have generated various degrees of external criticism of the Faith. Prepublication review is necessary while the Baha'i community is in its "infancy," a stage the Universal House of Justice says the Baha'i community is still in, and which is likely to continue for at least a decade or two. Since no system of review can be perfect, there will always be some reviewing problems, though they can be reduced if the Baha'is demonstrate more trust of their

    institutions and appeal unfavorable review decisions to their National Spiritual Assembly or to the Universal House of Justice. Generally, if review is conducted as a consultative process involving close interaction and cooperation between the author and the reviewing body--a process involving trust and mutual

    respect--the review process functions reasonably well. Preventing Baha'is from stirring up disunity over administrative decisions can be difficult, for Baha'i institutions must make delicate decisions about when to maintain a sin-covering eye and refuse to disclose an individual's actions to the entire Baha'i community, and when to risk humiliation of the individual in order to make the individual's disunifying actions clear to all.

    As the Baha'i community grows in size and in international prominence, outsiders will inevitably focus greater attention on its internal workings, and their comments will not always be positive. Continuous efforts to explain the Baha'i principles to others in more creative and clear ways will be necessary, as will be a higher standard of institutional maturity and personal holiness in the Baha'i community.

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