The Baha'i Faith & Religious Freedom of Conscience

From: <>
Subject: Another Inquiring Mind
Date: Monday, June 28, 1999 1:23 PM
I have been following with interest the recent controversies within the
Baha'i Faith. I empathize with those who have asked sincere questions
about matters of great personal and social importance, and who have
sought to illuminate the roots of the Faith via academic research (which
inevitably involves differentiating between hagiography and history, and
not taking anything "on faith"), only to be spied upon and rebuked by
Baha'i authorities, and threatened with excommunication and social
Some twenty-eight years ago, in my late teens, I "declared," and became
very active in my local Baha'i community. I devoured as much Baha'i
literature as I could, including, of course, the Kitab-i-Iqan. One day I
came upon a reference to the covenant, passed from Abraham to Ishmael.
But wait a second -- according to the Bible, hadn't it been Isaac,
ancestor to the Jewish people, rather than his brother, later sent out
into the desert to become the forebear of the Arab people? I checked my
Bible and sure enough, I had remembered correctly. At this time in my
life I might look at such a discrepancy as a difference that doesn't
make much of a difference, the purpose of which might be to highlight
the historical "sibling rivalry" between the Jewish and Arab peoples.
However, back then it mattered a lot to me. The Covenant, after all, was
no small matter; I sought to understand it as well as to support it; and
a scriptural discrepancy that pertained to the Covenant was no small
discrepancy. I presented my question to senior members of my community,
but the best that they could do was to say, "the Baha'i revelation is
the most recent revelation, so go with the Baha'i version." I felt that
they did not understand the significance that this question had for me,
but I did not fault them for it -- I knew more about the Bible than they
did, anyway! So I wrote to the NSA a thoughtful and respectful letter.
Surely someone in Wilmette must be able to offer a detailed explanation.
Several weeks later I received a response. The essence of it was the
same as the response I had received from the LSA (only in more
high-flown language) -- to paraphrase, "if there is any discrepancy
between any scripture and the writings of Baha'u'llah, you should
believe the latter, because it is the most recent revelation, and less
subject to historical distortion, mistranslation, etc. etc."
In response to an intelligent question, I was given an answer that
neither acknowledged the validity of my concern or addressed the
substantive questions that I had raised; rather, I was encouraged to
Some time later I paid a visit to a large graduate research library. As
always, I went straight to the Baha'i shelves. There were all of the
books that I had on my own bookshelf, and many more -- including an
English-language translation of the Kitab-i-Aqdas! I was quite stunned,
as I had been told that none existed. (This was the Miller translation,
of course, published in the early '60's.) I flipped through it quickly,
then turned my attention to the bottom shelf of books, much of it
"covenant-breaker" material. I had been given dire warnings to avoid
having anything to do with covenant-breakers -- including reading their
literature -- but my inquisitive nature got the better of me. After
skimming over a number of titles, I settled on Ruth White's book, _The
Questioned Will and Testament of Abdul Baha_, and read it from cover to
cover. Regardless of her argument's validity or lack thereof, I was
struck by her devotion to Abdul Baha, her sincerity, and her passionate
commitment to the independent investigation of truth. It was obvious
that the experience of being named a covenant-breaker was an extremely
difficult one -- cast out for asking sincere questions, for expressing
her conscience, and for attempting to share sincerely held beliefs with
those to whom those questions and beliefs might matter the most -- other
The whole shunning bit began to taste very sour to me, as did the
assumption that those who asked difficult questions about their religion
and its institutions were maliciously and selfishly motivated. I had
been attracted to the Faith by its public image of concern for peace,
social justice, racial and gender equality, and the independent
investigation of truth. However, the ideal of "world unity", to be
attained within the framework of a Baha'i theocracy, began to look more
and more undesirable when I saw what kind of repression would inevitably
be needed to achieve it -- thought police, not a whole lot different
from the kind of repression employed by totalitarian regimes.
I began to pull back from my involvement, but not before attending the
first Baha'i Youth Conference in Oklahoma City. During the conference,
the codification of the Kitab-i-Aqdas was released. I stood there
waiting for the boxes to be opened, and bought the first one out on the
table. I stayed up all night poring through it. Laws pertaining to the
length of men's hair. Laws pertaining to virginity at marriage that
applied to women but not to men. Laws, laws, laws -- laws that were
probably progressive in the context of nineteenth-century Persia, but
that did not seem to present a viable model for social organization in a
modern, multicultural society. I had many questions to ask, and the
answers I received boiled down to, "these are mysteries that will only
be understood in hundreds of years -- you have to deepen your faith."
When I moved, I made no effort to connect with the Baha'i community in
my new home. So many years later, when I learned of the Talisman
controversy, and read the UHJ's April 7 letter, and Juan Cole's article
"The Baha'i Faith in America as Panopticon", I was dismayed but not
terribly surprised.
My purpose in making this post has been to tell some of my own story,
and to express my solidarity with those sincere Baha'is who have been
alienated from the Baha'i organization because of its repressive tactics
that serve to discourage the independent investigation of truth.

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