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COLLECTIONPublished articles
TITLEThe Bahá'í Faith and Traditional Societies: Exploring Universes of Discourse
AUTHOR 1Moojan Momen
TITLE_PARENTdialogue magazine
CITY_THISLos Angeles
ABSTRACTHow misunderstandings can arise between pioneers and the cultures they've moved to; traditional vs. modern ways of communication, and the dynamics of conversion.
NOTES See also list of dialogue articles or image scans.
TAGSCommunication; Conversion; Cultural diversity; Pioneering
CONTENT For two people to understand each other when they meet and converse, it is not just necessary that they speak the same language; there must also be a common framework within which each understands all of the implications of the words and concepts used by the other. Philosophers call this having a similar “universe of discourse.”

At the simplest level, difficulties can arise when the same word means different things to different people. For example, when an East German and a West German use the word “demokratisch,” they would be wrong in assuming that it means the same to each of them. Similar problems arise between the English and Americans who supposedly share a common language.

More subtle differences are apparent when an American expresses his or her disapproval of the poor quality of service at English shops and restaurants or when an American businessman is dismayed at the lackadaisical approach of British business. Here it is no longer just a question of language differences but, rather, differences in the whole structure of society. We can begin to speak of the English and Americans occupying different “conceptual universes.”

And yet East Germans and West Germans and English and Americans share large parts of a common cultural heritage and similar lifestyles. How much more are the conceptual differences, the different universes occupied by people of completely different cultures. Those whose work it is to study these different conceptual universes—anthropologists and those engaged in the field of the sociology of knowledge—have many examples of this phenomenon. For example, the Nuer of the Sudan regard twins born to the tribe as birds. It is not that Nuer are saying that a twin is like a bird, but that he is a bird. And if one were to ask why? The fact that the question itself is not intelligible to the Nuer, who consider the difference self-evident, shows to what extent this tribe lives in a different conceptual universe to others. Nor is this an isolated example. The same phenomenon occurs time and again, sometimes in surprising ways, whenever a new and different culture is examined.

The method by which the Bahá'í Faith is diffused consists in large measure of the transfer of people from one culture to another, often from modern Western society to a traditional culture. When these “pioneers” arrive at their destination, it can be difficult for them, nurtured as they are on Bahá'í teachings of the oneness of humanity, to appreciate the enormity of the cultural and conceptual differences between the society they have just left and the one in which they have arrived. Bahá'ís frequently seem to forget that their teaching of the oneness of humanity in no way implies the uniformity of mankind. These pioneers see before them other human beings, and so they usually assume that they have a great deal in common, that they can communicate fully with anyone who happens to speak their language, and that communicating with the rest of the country is only a matter of obtaining a good translator.

It is widely known that a person going from one of the modern societies to a traditional society experiences what is termed as “culture shock” due to the extreme differences between the culture that he or she has come from and the new culture he or she is experiencing. But it is generally thought that this phase only lasts a few weeks or a month or two. In fact, all that has happened at the end of that period is that one has learned enough about the culture to be able to get by, a basic survival level of understanding and accommodation. It usually takes many years before deeper levels of comprehension are reached.

Although every society and tribe will have its own conceptual universe which will have its own particularities, this does not mean that there are no general statements that can be made in comparing traditional societies with modern ones. There are certain features that almost all traditional societies share and which differentiate them from modern society. The most obvious difference between these two types of societies is the level of technology. In a traditional society with a low level of technology, the individual must spend most of his or her available time carrying out tasks essential for survival: providing for the food, clothing, and shelter of the family. The struggle for survival means that the activities of every individual are controlled by society’s norms, so that all efforts are concentrated on the important tasks of survival and not wasted in activities of peripheral importance. The only security that an individual has against times of illness and old age is the family and, through the family, membership in the society of the village or tribe. As long as one is a member in good standing of the society, one will be provided for within the limits that the society can manage. In return, social order exacts a heavy price in terms of limiting one’s freedom of choice.

It is indeed in the realm of choice that the most stark difference occurs between modern and traditional society (and yet it is also the difference most easily overlooked by members of a modern society). The member of a modern society is used to exercising the vast range of choice that a high level of technology makes available. He gets up in the morning and throughout the day exercises choice after choice: in what he eats, what he wears, his place of work, his companions, his entertainment, and so on. He is so used to this that it is difficult for him even to conceptualize what life is like in a traditional society, where there is very little or no choice.

In a traditional society, almost everything that a person does is according to present patterns and the limited availability of goods. This applies to the time he wakes, the clothes he wears, the tasks he performs, and the companion he takes. (I am using the masculine pronoun for convenience, but it will not escape the reader that choice is even more limited for a woman in most traditional societies, where she occupies a lower position in the hierarchy.) From the most important decisions in life, such as whom he will marry and the trade he will follow, to the most trivial, the choice does not belong to the individual but to the collective workings of his society. He must defer to those above in the society’s hierarchy and must obey them in whatever they ask him to do. But even these, the elders of the society, are not free agents (although they are somewhat freer than other members of the society) because their choices are also predetermined by the pressures of the society and its traditional patterns. Of course, there are always means of avoiding one’s obligations in any community, but, in general, a traditional society is much more strict and intolerant of this than a modern one. This brings to light the important point that it is not just the choices that are not available to an individual from a traditional society, even the concept of being able to make choices in many areas of life may be absent. This is what is meant by existing in different cultural universes.

Another major area of difference between modern and traditional societies is in the area of change. An individual in a modern society is used to continual and sometimes rapid changes in his individual life and in his society. This change may be due to technological progress, changing work practices, or it may be the outcome of the individual’s choice in moving to a new area. The point is that not only are a large number of choices open to the individual but he is fully prepared conceptually to effect changes in his lifestyle and environment. However, a heavy price is paid for this freedom; for with the gain in freedom goes the loss of the security that a traditional society gives. A much greater degree of uncertainty, anxiety, and neurosis are the concomitant of modern society.

A traditional society is built upon age-old patterns of behavior that are resistant to change. Although change has occurred in all of these societies over the centuries, the change is very slow and slight so that it is barely perceptible within an individual’s lifetime. In the present day, these traditional societies have inevitably been placed under a great deal of pressure to change through their contact with modern society. Nevertheless, it is still true that a traditional society tends to resist change. The most telling point is that, whereas in a modern society a person who wants to change his lifestyle is regarded as just that, within a traditional framework, a person who wants to change is regarded as bad, as evil, for he is seeking to upset society itself. There is little tolerance within a society that is used to existing on the edge of disaster toward people who want to live free of its demands upon them.

It may be objected by some that the picture that I have drawn of a traditional society is too extreme, that the impact of modernity upon these traditional societies has been very great for several decades now, and that these patterns of behavior are becoming a thing of the past. However, it is unwise to draw such hasty conclusions. Old patterns of behavior do not die out quickly. Donning a Western suit of clothes and sitting in an office with electric typewriters and air-conditioning does not necessarily mean the adoption of a modern conceptual universe. I have witnessed a group of villagers go into the office of a minister of government of an African country complaining that they did not have sufficient rice and that the minister, feeling the pressures of traditional obligations toward the elders of his village, leave his desk in the middle of the working day to go personally to look for rice for them.

Innumerable problems can arise because of these different conceptual universes. The Bahá'í pioneer, with a mental picture drawn from his or her home country of what Bahá'ís and Bahá'í communities should be like, may find himself making harsh judgments about the “values” of the local Bahá'ís and Bahá'í communities. Or her expectations of the amount of change that can be made and the time scale in which it can be achieved may be totally unrealistic.

One of the most common problems that arise between Bahá'í pioneers and the local Bahá'í communities is over time-keeping and punctuality. In a modern society that is run on time tables and appointments, punctuality is considered a great virtue and is taught from a young age. The sort of mind-set achieved by such training is also the sort of mind-set that enables travel from one country to another (using a network of trains, buses, and planes), that can operate technological equipment (from the simplest, such as television sets, to the most complicated), and that can satisfy the needs of a bureaucracy (such as filling in a tax return). But a traditional society has no use for such skills and does not train people for this. Time in a traditional society is determined not by a watch but by the needs of the society. It is time for planting, time for harvesting, time for a particular festival. If someone higher than you in the society’s hierarchy asks you to do something, then it is time to do that and not something else that you may want to do. Chronological time has no meaning in a traditional society. When a Bahá'í pioneer sets up a rendezvous for five o’clock in two days time with one of the local Bahá'ís, he or she may think that this is a firm arrangement. But what has in fact transpired is a possibility that if, in two days’ time, the cycle of the needs of that local Bahá'ís’ traditional society does not call for him or her to be elsewhere and provided no one higher in the society’s hierarchy asks him or her to do something at that precise time, then the local Bahá'í will come to the rendezvous at some time in the late afternoon.

Another common area of misunderstanding concerns conversion. A Bahá'í pioneer may find it relatively easy to find persons who say that they are willing to become Bahá'ís. But these persons may be saying this to please the pioneer. There is a great desire among people in traditional societies to please persons that they perceive to be higher in the hierarchy than themselves. Such an attitude may easily be transferred to the Bahá'í pioneer by virtue of his being from Europe or America or by virtue of his being evidently wealthy because of where he lives or what he possesses. Even if that pitfall is avoided and conversion is made on the basis of a genuine understanding of the basic Bahá'í teachings, further problems are ahead. The most difficult problem for Bahá'í pioneers has not been obtaining converts but deepening these Bahá'ís and building functioning Bahá'í communities.

The usual experience of Bahá'í pioneers among traditional peoples is that the group most easily converted is young men. This is because they are the group within most traditional societies who are the most free to experiment and try new things. However, as they grow older, and particularly once they marry and have families, the pressures and responsibilities of a traditional society upon them will increase and they will find it more and more difficult to stand out as different from their society. It is not unusual, therefore, to find even very deepened Bahá'ís becoming inactive as they grow older and rise within their society, particularly if this is also connected, as it often is, with increased political activity.

The action of a person who has been brought up in a traditional society and who desires to live according to a new, Bahá'í pattern of life is seen, by his family and society, at best as incomprehensible and, at worst, as evil. It is difficult for someone not brought up in a traditional society even to imagine the pressures that such a person is under from those whom he most loves and respects, his immediate family and the elders of his society. It requires a major degree of heroism to stand out in such circumstances, much more so than in Western society.

What Bahá'ís are trying to bring about is even more difficult than what Christian and Islamic missionaries are trying to do. For, by and large, what Islam and Christianity (especially Roman Catholicism) are doing is building up alternative traditional societies to which people can transfer directly from their own. The most dramatic indication of this change is the ceremony of initiation and the requirement to change one’s name to a Christian or Muslim name. Once in this new environment, however, they are still within a traditional framework that they can understand, albeit the details have changed. They are still expected to defer to the authority of others (now the priest or religious authorities), no exercise of choice or active involvement is expected of them, only passive participation in rituals, and they are still within a cocoon of security (mission schools, mission medical centers, work obtained through mission patronage).

Conversion to the Bahá'í Faith is much different. There is no dramatic initiation, no requirement to change one’s name. Instead one is expected to remain as part of one’s former society, subject to all its pressures, but to adopt new standards that set one out as different. In addition, one is expected to take the initiative to become actively involved in the running of the affairs of the Bahá'í community. However, having put in jeopardy one’s position in one’s traditional society, there is no comparable cocoon of security into which to step.

The problems connected with building functioning Bahá'í communities in areas where large numbers and even whole villages have become Bahá'ís are often also associated with the differences between two cultures. A Bahá'í pioneer who has carefully explained to a village community the mechanism of Bahá'í administration, such as the workings of a local spiritual assembly, the concept of consultation, the importance of the Nineteen-Day Feast, may consider that he has performed his task adequately and may therefore be somewhat surprised to find upon his return some months later that none of these things is happening. But this result is almost inevitable.

Traditional societies are, as mentioned above, extremely resistant to change. Change can only be achieved very slowly. For a young woman (the lowest member of a traditional society barring the children) to express her views freely in the presence of her elders requires a complete overturning of all of the values and patterns of a traditional society; an upheaval of earth-shaking proportions in the conceptual universe of all present: the young woman to have the courage to speak her mind and the elders to listen to what they would previously have considered punishable impudence. To elect local assemblies according to Bahá'í principles and not merely resulting in automatic election of the village elders is another conceptual barrier that must be overcome through education and encouragement. The very concept of holding regular meetings, such as Nineteen-Day Feasts, may in itself be a conceptual barrier for, as has been mentioned above, chronological time has little meaning in a traditional society. That which the Bahá'ís are trying to achieve is a monumental task. It cannot be expected that it can be accomplished easily or quickly in a society resistant to change.

How then can we expect change to come about in these Bahá'í communities in traditional societies? What pattern of change can we expect to see? How long will it take to effect these changes? These are all questions that naturally come to mind. Some clue to the answer to these questions can be obtained from observing what has occurred in the past.

The process of Islamicization within traditional African societies has been the object of some studies. Islamicization means the gradual adoption of Islamic practices among peoples who have been converted to Islam. The results of this research reveal that, by and large, after conversion to Islam, very little changes within a society for a long time. Among one tribe that has been studied in the Sudan, the Nuba, conversion to Islam occurred about 80 years ago. Initially, very little change was made in the traditional tribal ways, which included such un-Islamic practices as eating pork and drinking sorghum beer. Gradually, a small number of persons, particularly those who traveled to more fully Islamic areas, began to decline to eat pork on the grounds that to be a good Muslim one should not eat pork. More and more people took this up until it became not just a matter of “to be a good Muslim one should not eat pork,” but rather “to be a good person one should not eat pork.” In other words, abstention from pork had moved from being a religious matter which was the concern of a few individuals to being a moral matter which had the full force of society’s sanctions behind it. After that, the eating of pork rapidly died out in that tribe. The full process took many years so that herds of pigs were still in evidence among the tribe up to 20 years ago. However, this adoption of Islamic practices has been piecemeal, with some practices (such as the Muslim sexual mores) having been completely adopted and become social norms of decency, while others (such as abstention from alcohol) are recognized as conferring religious merit but are not considered as indispensable to being a Muslim.

A similar pattern can be seen in Bahá'í history. The Bahá'í Faith came in the first place to a traditional society, that of Iran. Many of those who became Bábís and Bahá'ís were members of a traditional society and were used to following the lead of the senior figure in their society (for example, those who became Bábís in Zanján following the lead of Ḥujjat or in Nayríz following the lead of Vaḥíd). In practical terms, their adoption of the Bábí and Bahá'í religions made little initial difference to their lifestyles apart from the persecutions they suffered. The patterns of their community life reflected the traditional pattern, with those who were learned or wealthy (i.e., ulamá or merchant) being given automatic pride of place. There occurred no great improvement in the position of women. It was still the practice of many early Bahá'ís to attend the mosque, and some of those who had been mullás before their conversion even continued to function as mullás. The non-Muslim religious groups that entered the Bahá'í Faith, Jews and Zoroastrians, continued to practice their own customs and were, to a large extent, isolated from the Bahá'ís of Muslim background.

This pattern persisted, at least in part, until the early years of this century and has parallels with what is experienced today within Bahá'í communities in traditional societies. However, over the years through encouragement and education the Bahá'í community in Iran began to adopt new conceptual patterns and eventually great changes were effected: Bahá'í social principles were put into greater practice, the position of women improved, and the different ethnic and religious communities were integrated.

Furthermore, it is important to note that the Bábí-Bahá'í Faith was presented to Iranians firmly within their cultural universe: the imagery of the prophet as law-giver, justification by suffering and martyrdom, and so on. Similarly, when the Bahá'í Faith came to North America and Europe, it was presented to the Christian West within a Christian cultural context, with the life of the Báb being presented as a close parallel to the life of Christ, the social principles being emphasized, and so on. The Bahá'í world has already seen that if we allow Bahá'u'lláh to appear within an Indian context as a Hindu avatar, this leads to a much greater acceptability of the Faith in a Hindu environment (see W. Garlington, “Bahá'í Conversions in Malwa,” From Iran East and West: Studies in Babi and Bahá’í History, Vol. 2, pp. 157-185). And yet the lesson has not, by and large, been learned. Bahá'ís are still trying to impose an image of Bahá'u'lláh derived from Western cultural models upon the rest of the world, whether this be the more sophisticated Buddhist, Chinese, or Japanese worlds or tribal cultures.

The Bahá'í Faith today is presented to the world, with few exceptions, in a package that is culturally oriented toward the West. In other words, what is presented to the rest of the world as the Bahá'í Faith is, in fact, a view of the Bahá'í Faith evolved in the West and therefore culturally conditioned by the West’s views and orientations. Consider, for example, the fact that the Bahá'í text most frequently chosen for publication in various languages is not a presentation of the Bahá'í Faith in the cultural context of those languages but rather Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era by Dr. J.E. Esslemont, a presentation of the Faith written more than 50 years ago and very much oriented toward the West.

Only in proportion to the extent that Western Bahá'í pioneers are willing to let go of their preconceptions of what the Bahá'í Faith is, will they be able to evolve an understanding of what the Bahá'í Faith means in each local culture. Shoghi Effendi made this point clear in Citadel of Faith when he drew the attention of pioneers to the means for success, “which is to adapt the presentation of the fundamental principles of their Faith to the cultural and religious backgrounds, the ideologies, and the temperament of the diverse races and nations whom they are called upon to enlighten and attract.” And, of course, sensitivity to local customs and protocols is of utmost importance. A number of important points emerge from the above.

  • First, the importance of those key individuals who are prepared to risk society’s wrath by being different. They are the catalysts for change, for through them other members of the society can see the benefits of doing things in a new way.
  • The importance of bringing in leading individuals in a traditional society, for traditional society tends to follow its leaders. And it is these leaders who have the greatest freedom to initiate change.
  • It is only to be expected that remnants of old ways of doing things will persist within the Bahá'í community until such time that the standards of the Faith achieve the status of becoming the morals of the society as a whole. Patience, encouragement, and education are the ways forward.
  • It is important for Western Bahá'ís not to hang on too tightly to their preconceptions of what Bahá'u'lláh and the Bahá'í Faith are, for these will be conceptions evolved within and therefore suited to a Western conceptual universe. It is much more important to let each society and culture work out for itself what its own image and picture of the Bahá'í Faith will be.
  • The tool of consultation is worthy of being concentrated upon as a priority area for change because it has the quality of itself becoming a catalyst for further change and development of a truly indigenous interpretation of the Faith.
  • The importance of the education of women cannot be overemphasized since it is they who, in a traditional society, are responsible for inculcating the values of that society upon the next generation, and therefore if there is to be any change within the society over the course of generations, that change must first and foremost impinge itself upon the minds of the women. One could even put it more strongly (and perhaps overstate the case) by saying that, from a long-term perspective, one is really wasting one’s time in teaching anyone other than the women (and children) in a traditional society.

Dr. Moojan Momen is well known for his research in the field of Bahá'í studies. He has published numerous articles in journals dealing with the academic study of the Near East and Iran, is a contributor to the Encyclopaedia Iranica, and his recent book, Introduction to Shi’i Islam, has established itself as the leading reference work on the subject. Dr. Momen also serves as an Advisory Board member for dialogue.

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