Baha'i Library Online

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COLLECTIONUnpublished articles
TITLEBahá'í and Subud Dissent: Developments in the 2000s
AUTHOR 1Bei Dawai
ABSTRACTOverview by a non-Bahá'í on dissident movements, ex-Bahá'ís, and contemporary ideological debates.
NOTES Paper presented at a conference for the Center for the Study of New Religions, Aletheia University, Taiwan, June 21-23 2011. This document was posted online at in Word format.

See also Momen's Marginality and Apostasy in the Bahá'í Community and Debates between MacEoin et al.

TAGSCriticism and apologetics; H-Bahá'í (email list); Internet; Other organizations; Subud (organization); Talisman (email list)

Abstract: Although the Bahá'í religion (a Shi'i ghulat sect which originated in the 1860's, among Persians exiled to the Ottoman Empire) and Subud (a Javanese kebatinan movement from the 1930's) are genealogically unrelated, parallels include their shared experience of internationalization, grandiose institution-building aspirations, and concern over how to frame their Islamic roots. In each case, charismatic leadership has been succeeded by a semi-elected hierarchy, whose structure and decisions are regularly criticized by dissidents and ex-members. The rise of the internet has given new publicity and vitality to these disagreements.

Reeling from the "internet wars" and purges of dissidents during the 1990's, Bahá'í dissidents have established several Yahoo groups, as well as mutually-reinforcing blogs, where challenges to official views are often raised. Meanwhile, disaffected Subudians have created the online journal Subud Vision, whose contents may be described as thoughtful, fair-minded, and intensely critical. Despite obvious differences in religious culture, Bahá'í and Subud dissidents nevertheless have much in common. Less similar has been the response of the objects of their reform: Bahá'í authorities have reacted defensively, with further purges, and attacks on the credibility of their critics; while Subud institutions have apparently done nothing, either to punish critics or to address their concerns.

The Bahá'í debate has spilled into the academic world with such publications as William Garlington's The Bahá'í Faith in America (Praeger, 2005), Sen McGlinn's Church and State: A Postmodern Political Theology (self-published, 2005), and Moojan Momen's article "Marginality and apostasy in the Bahá'í Faith" (Religion no. 37, 2007 [online here]). The latter attempts to analyze—none too charitably—the psychological motivations of seventeen unnamed (but readily identifiable) dissidents; it inspired a wave of online rebuttals from those targeted. No comparable development seems to have occurred among Subudians.


The Bahá'í religion and Subud[i] receive regular mention in the literature of "New Religious Movements," though their newness is of course relative, to some extent subjective, and only one of them claims or admits itself to be religious. They are genealogically unrelated—the Bahá'í religion arose in the 19th century Persian and Ottoman empires, Subud in 1930's Java—but have evolved in certain parallel ways. Both could be called "post-Islamic" in that they have, in a sense, transcended their Islamic origins, influenced by the gradual preponderance of believers from non-Islamic backgrounds.

The key claim of Bahá'í theology is that that Bahá'u'lláh, the Bahá'í founder, is the most recent in a series of divine prophets (superseding Christ, Muhammad, etc.), whose dispensation promises to inaugurate a new era of world unity and peace. It resembles other Shi'i ghulat ("exaggerating") sects in its ascription of divinity to a saintly human figure. While acknowledging its Twelver Shi'i background, Bahá'ís say their religion emerged from Islam in the same way that Christianity emerged from Judaism; thus it is an "independent world religion," and thus the youngest of the Abrahamic faiths. (This interpretation has prevailed since the 1950's, under Bahau'llah's great-grandson, Shoghi Effendi.) The Bahá'í religion began attracting Western converts in the 1890's, then spread across the Third World in the 1950's and 1960's (again, under Shoghi Effendi); it now boasts several hundred thousand[ii] followers scattered around the world. Although its calendar begins in AD 1844 (which is the year 1 of the Bahá'í Era), its present institutional structure—tiered nine-member regional councils headed by the Universal House of Justice in Haifa, Israel—dates only from 1963.

Meanwhile, the central element of Subud is the latihan kejiwaan ("spiritual exercise"), in which Subud members regularly enter closed rooms, segregated by sex, to be purified by Almighty God (or the Great Life Force) by means of spontaneous movements or utterances. Subud theology has much in common with other Javanese aliran kebatinan ("mystical movements"); however, its rhetoric insists that Subud is not a religion, and—despite much evidence to the contrary—that it lacks any doctrinal content. The Subud founder, M. Subuh Sumohadowidjojo (called "Bapak") criticized kebatinan movements, implicitly denying that Subud was one. Subudians disagree among themselves as to the extent to which Bapak's pronouncements, which are often of a folk Islamic character, ought to be believed or emphasized. In the 1950's, British expat Husein Rofé spread Subud from Indonesia to Japan, Hong Kong, Cyprus, and most crucially, England, where its enthusiastic reception by followers of (Gurdjieff student) John G. Bennett transformed the movement into an international, multiethnic network of about 10,000[iii] members. A significant minority have converted to Islam, or otherwise adopted certain trappings or practices of that religion, such as "Muslim" names or the Ramadan fast.

Early experience of growth has encouraged both Bahá'ís and Subudians to entertain grandiose expectations of world conquest, or its spiritual equivalent. Specifically, Bahá'ís see themselves as the nucleus of a future global civilization, and anticipate the emergence of a world government whose administration will be guided by Bahá'í principles, if it is not actually composed of Bahá'í institutions. Subudians for their part hail the latihan as a spiritual force capable of transforming the lives of its practitioners in such a way that ever-expanding circles of participants will be drawn to it. Marius Kahan relates that

Back when I was an applicant, the sentiment most often expressed was that Subud members were on the receiving end of a miracle—that Subud was the trailblazer of a spiritual revolution which would sweep the world, uniting all religions and ushering in a new era of harmony.[iv]

By the 2000's, however, suspicions had emerged within both movements that the future was not going according to plan. For the Bahá'ís, mass conversions and world peace (which some earlier literature predicted to be in place by the year 2000)[v] have failed to materialize, and the faith remains obscure even amidst burgeoning public interest in Islam and the Middle East. Inflated membership figures (claims of five, six, or seven million Bahá'ís are regularly encountered) disguise a reality of high turnover. The Universal House of Justice continues to announce multi-year plans,[vi] in the ponderous style of the old Soviet Union, but today the emphasis is less on numeric growth (since this cannot be feigned indefinitely) than on "consolidating" the faith through Ruhi study circles, using a series of Sunday-school style workbooks which dissidents often find stultifying. The idea is to prepare the faith to receive "entry by troops" in the future. Similarly, Subud's membership has been stagnant for decades, with aging demographics. Morale plummeted in the wake of the founder's death in 1987, and the failure of various Subud "enterprises" and projects over the years (decision-making on the basis of spiritual guidance received during the latihan having proven unreliable). International Subud conferences now center around the assignment of missions, funds, and personnel (subject to "testing" during group latihan) to an ever-evolving "alphabet soup" of organizations and committees: WSA, ISC, SYA / SIYA /SYAI, SCA / SICA, SES / SESI, MSF, SDIA, SIHA, etc.[vii]

               In each group, charismatic leadership has been succeeded by a semi-elected[viii] hierarchy, whose structure and decisions are regularly criticized by dissidents and ex-members. The rise of the internet has given new publicity and vitality to these disagreements. By "dissidents" I mean believers led by scholarship, conscience, etc. to advocate revisions to the received tradition, despite strong institutional resistance (whether in the form of opposition or apathy). As critics, dissidents bear some resemblance to disgruntled ex-members. Bahá'í dissidents include members in good standing (though perhaps marginalized for their views) as well as "unenrolled" believers. (Such distinctions are largely irrelevant to Subud.)

Here we must note a crucial difference of institutional culture: Bahá'ís are encouraged to regard their leaders and institutions as divinely appointed and guided, and obedience to them as divinely mandated. Dissent is therefore portrayed as spiritually dangerous and, in order to forestall contagion, punished with sanctions of various types. This ethos arose in the context of the various succession disputes which have occurred in Bahá'í history, and which have invariably resulted in schism and mutual excommunications, often dividing families. (Indeed, the Bahá'í religion itself began as one faction in just such a dispute.) Bahá'í theology speaks of a "covenant" by which God has guaranteed the unity of the faith—as represented by their particular branch of the schismatic tree—and ensured that rival groups ultimately come to nothing. In the event that the administration declares someone to be a "covenant breaker," all Bahá'ís must shun (ostracize) that person, on pain of being shunned themselves. Dissidents have therefore gone to considerable lengths to avoid putting their Bahá'í friends and relatives in this position, e.g. by resigning from the faith as a defensive measure. The Bahá'í administration for its part seems to have recognized the perils of such a ham-fisted approach, and in recent years has shifted to the lesser punishment of "disenrollment" (i.e., expulsion, removing a member's name from the rolls of believers), with the label of "covenant breaker" reserved for actual members of rival Bahá'í groups (who were never very numerous, and in any case usually reciprocate). For example, in the year 2000, Alison Marshall was informed by the National Spiritual Assembly of New Zealand that

…on the basis of an established pattern of statements by you and behavior and attitude on your part over the past two or three years, you cannot properly be considered as meeting the requirements of membership in the Bahá'í community.[ix]

Her husband Steve Marshall, however, remains a Bahá'í in good standing, and has not been required to shun or divorce her. The concept of an "unenrolled Bahá'í" (i.e. a believer who nevertheless lacks formal membership) has gained prominence as the disenrolled and never-enrolled find themselves part of a growing category of marginal Bahá'ís, unaffiliated with any splinter group.

Subud, by contrast, assumes that divine guidance is available to any member. Although volunteer supervisors called "Helpers" have been known invoke this principle in order to exclude perceived troublemakers from the latihan, Subud's anti-dogmatic tradition, and the localized nature of latihan practice, have made institutional allegiance much less of an issue. There are membership cards, but no expulsions, and attempts to form splinter groups have been uniformly unsuccessful (though proposals to create a new latihan organization would not be deemed inherently wicked). Subud organizations and their dissidents tend to ignore one another, when they are not pleading to be heard. Interestingly, where Bahá'í dissidents complain of the disruption of local community life by the intrusion of Continental Counselors and Auxiliary Board Members (appointed officials who may function as inquisitors, and are blamed for many of the resignations and disenrollments), Subudians look to the national and international levels to address problems with local communities and their Helpers.

Bahá'í dissent in the 2000's

Bahá'í dissent in the 2000's can be read as a continuation of the "internet wars" of the late 1990's. At this time, the Bahá'í administration either pressured to resign, or actively disenrolled, a number of Bahá'í intellectuals associated with the online Talisman discussion list, for disagreeing with the received line on certain controversial issues. These included the faith's opposition to homosexuality (and the strained scriptural interpretation upon which the policy is based); the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice (the same observation applies here); the shunning of "covenant-breakers"; the requirement that any proposed publications on the faith be submitted to regional censorship boards ("Bahá'í review"); and an electoral system which favors incumbents. All of these touch on more fundamental issues of infallibility and institutional authority—against which the dissidents invoke the equally core Bahá'í values of the independent investigation of truth, the elimination of all kinds of prejudice, the equality of men and women, and interreligious harmony. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex web of alliances and animosities, the rift between reforming liberals (many of them academics) and pro-administration conservatives widened, amidst mutual accusations of betrayal. In 1999 the Universal House of Justice complained of a "campaign of internal opposition to the Teachings,"[x] and warned Bahá'ís not to hold their faith to the materialistic standards of secular scholarship.

Following are some major developments of the 21st century:

Indiana University (Bloomington) anthropologist and sometime Bahá'í dissident Linda Walbridge died in 2002. She and her husband, Middle Eastern Studies professor John Walbridge (also of IUB), had both resigned during the Talisman affair, and largely abandoned the field of Bahá'í Studies for other research.

University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole—the most prolific Bahá'í academic during the 1990's, who likewise resigned from the faith during the Talisman affair—turned his attention to other, arguably more important Middle Eastern topics after 9-11. Of his 29 papers in the field of Bahá'í Studies,[xi] only two were published during the early 2000's;[xii] these took on a frank and even scathing tone, now that he was no longer constrained to submit his work to Bahá'í review. Besides Talisman, Cole and John Walbridge were also the organizers of H-Bahai, a now-inactive academic discussion list and online journal, the last of whose Occasional Papers in Shaykhi, Babi, and Bahá'í Studies appeared in 2003.

2005 saw the publication of two significant academic works which proved unexpectedly controversial within the faith (though not, apparently, outside it): William Garlington's The Bahá'í Faith in America (Praeger), which pro-administration critics felt devoted excessive attention to Bahá'í dissent (as opposed to, say, the fifty-year history of the construction of the House of Worship in Wilmette, Illinois); and Sen McGlinn's Church and State: A Postmodern Political Theology (self-published), which discusses the nature of the future global political order, i.e. whether it is to be a theocracy. McGlinn's incidental description of himself as a "Bahá'í theologian" attracted official rebuke, on the grounds that the faith has no clergy. He has since been disenrolled by the administration, for reasons which were never made public, but which seem likely to involve his published views. (Garlington had resigned during the 1980's.) Also in 2005, the U.S. National Spiritual Assembly ordered a partial boycott of Kalimat Press (founded in Los Angeles, 1978 by Anthony Lee and Payram Afsharian), an independent publisher of Bahá'í books known for its academic works, such as the Studies in the Babi and Bahá'í Religions series (eighteen volumes). At issue was Kalimat's promotion of scholarly books by Cole, Garlington, McGlinn, and Abbas Amanat.[xiii]

In 2007, Moojan Momen's article "Marginality and Apostasy in the Bahá'í Faith," for the Elsevier journal Religion (no. 37, pp. 187-209) attempted to analyze—none too charitably—the psychological motivations of seventeen unnamed (but readily identifiable) dissidents. Twelve of these display a "preoccupation with their campaign against the Bahá'í community" which, according to the abstract, "brings to mind Max Scheler's description of the apostate as ‘engaged in a continuous chain of acts of revenge against his own spiritual past'." Momen's article inspired a wave of online rebuttals, in addition to the four which appeared in the journal itself.[xiv] At one point I contemplated writing a paper about the controversy; on reflection, however, I can hardly improve upon the various responses which have already appeared, and which also serve to convey something of the personalities involved. Suffice it to say that—like the old joke about psychologists being crazier than their patients—Momen often seems to resemble the objects of his diagnosis. His description of the apostate worldview as a "dark mirror image" of mainstream Bahá'í experience, would be equally applicable to his perception of them. His suspicion of their alliances, slanders, and planned subversions ignores factional behavior on the part of the Bahá'í administration, not to mention his own role as cat's paw. He accuses his apostates of Nietzschean ressentiment, but at no point considers whether their complaints are justified—talk of apostate "narratives" and "mythology" obscures the important question of whether the dissidents have their facts right. By contrast, many of his apostates have been models of fair-minded critique, and have pointedly sought out common ground. Finally, having gone to so much trouble to achieve academic publication, Momen complains that dissident views have found their way into scholarly presses and journals, where they now risk confusing non-expert readers into thinking of the Bahá'í religion as a cult. All this calls to mind another psychological term: projection.

Outside of academia, discussion involving dissidents is especially likely to found on Yahoo groups (especially Talisman9, begun in 1999 as a successor to Talisman), Usenet / Google groups (e.g., talk.religion.bahai), and the message boards at During the 2000's, Bahá'í dissidents have created a number of personal blogs and websites;[xv] of these, only Sen McGlinn's (from 2004) compares with those of Cole and the Walbridges in term of academic quality. Karen Bacquet (Karen's Thoughts, from 2004) and Alison Marshall (Meditations on Bahá'u'lláh, from 2007) emphasize devotional reflections, though each has posted material more directly critical of the administrative order. (Bacquet has also published two academic journal articles in this vein.)[xvi] Bahá'í Rants (from 2005), by an anonymous writer called "Baquia" (not to be confused with Bacquet), is relatively strident—recent articles have questioned financial statements made by the Canadian National Spiritual Assembly, and the administrative favor accorded to Dr. Hossain Danesh, a Canadian psychiatrist earlier forced to abandon his medical practice due to accusations of sexual misconduct.[xvii] Blogposts by all these writers regularly feature on Bahá'ís Online (created by Steve Marshall in 2004), a Bahá'í news aggregator which often links to material from dissident sites, or of interest to dissidents. These sites—along with several others run by non-believing ex-Bahá'ís (e.g. Dan Jensen's Idol Chatter, Priscilla Gillman's Bahá'í the Way)—can be understood as mutually reinforcing, judging from their mutual links and comments.

Several other dissident sites seem to have fundamentally different aims than the above, though their authors are certainly aware of one another:

The Bahá'í Faith and Freedom of Conscience, by Frederick Glaysher (from 2001, dormant since 2005). Hosts voluminous material calculated to embarrass or expose the (Haifan) Bahá'í administration, from internet posts to information about legal cases. Glaysher supports the claims of Ruth White and Mirza Ahmad Sohrab, whom mainstream Bahá'ís regard as "covenant breakers.", by Eric Stetson (from 2001). Stetson began the decade by composed his own revealed Bahá'í text, called The Book of Restoration (published online in 2002). Since then he has successively converted to Protestantism, Christian Universalism, and Unitarian Bahaism, co-founding the Christian Universalist Association (2007) and the Unitarian Universalist Bahai (no apostrophe) Association (2009). His website has evolved accordingly. Stetson praises ‘Abdu'l-Bahá's brother Mirza Muhammad ‘Ali Bahai (a.k.a. Ghusn-i-Akbar), whom mainstream Bahá'ís regard as a "covenant breaker," and whose followers are coincidentally known as "Unitarian Bahá'ís." (from 2004), by Wahid Azal (a.k.a. Nima Hazini). Known for his vehement, paranoid, yet erudite internet posts, Azal is a Persian-Australian convert to the Bayani (= Babi) religion (though it is possible to doubt whether his group consists of anyone other than himself), and therefore a "covenant breaker" in the eyes of mainstream Bahá'ís, despite belonging to what is technically an entirely different religion. He is the author of Liber Decatriarchia Mystica (Lulu, 2006), a cabbalistic work of Bayani gnosis which he describes as owing more to Corbin or Guenon than to Crowley.

Rather than these three dissidents (or two dissidents and one ex-Bahá'í) joining groups of "covenant breakers," it would be more accurate to say that their dissent has led them to reevaluate and reclaim historical "covenant breakers" whose groups are now essentially defunct (though some communication has been established with Bahá'u'lláh's Israeli great-granddaughter Nigar Bahai Amsalem, who was interviewed for the short 2006 documentary Bahá'ís In My Backyard).

               The creation of a Bahá'í subgroup within Unitarian Universalism seems significant. According to Stetson, some fifty people have written to express their support for the Unitarian Universalist Bahai Association (formerly the Unitarian Bahai Association), which has a five-member board, and has applied for recognition by the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations. The group's Facebook page has about 70 friends at this writing, while about 200 have signed up for a related Yahoo group. The U(U)BA is not to be confused with Derrick Evanson's Unitarian Bahá'í Federation ( Whether mainstream Bahá'ís will classify such groups as "covenant breakers" who must be shunned (though the UU's for their part reject shunning), as dissident or apostate coalitions operating within an interfaith context (UU also includes Buddhist, Jewish, and Wiccan subgroups), or as converts to another religion who have nevertheless retain some aspects of Bahá'í belief, remains to be seen.

A number of satirical treatments have appeared over the decade, beginning with the short-lived faux newsblogs Brave New World and Bahá'í Farm. The most brilliant send-up has been "The Strange Story of Max the Infallible Donkey," by Brendan Cook (Bahá'ís Online, 28 Jan. 2006), about a donkey said to possess "the gift of propositional inerrancy." When a skeptic in the crowd demands evidence, its owner replies,

"You make a good point Mrs. Marshall," said Dan, looking as much at the crowd as at her, "and if we were talking about something else I might agree with you. […] But you've also got to understand that an infallible source isn't like that: it doesn't depend on what one person thinks. It's not me but Max himself who says he's infallible, and we have to remember that the things he says are more than just theories. We can trust what he tells us as we could never trust a fallible statement. If we couldn't trust him, he wouldn't be infallible, now would he?"[xviii]

("Mrs. Marshall," of course, is a salute to Alison Marshall.) Another work, the anonymous serial novella Layla, One World Warrior (2007-2009),[xix] contains serious a well as comic moments. Its messianic heroine begins a letter to the Universal House of Justice with the irreverent salutation, "Hello boys," and informs it that "by the way, no-one, no-one can read to the end of your letters!" (ch. 13) In answer to Bahá'u'lláh's warning (in par. 37 of the Kitab-i-Aqdas) that "Whoso layeth claim to a Revelation direct from God ere the expiration of a full thousand years, such a man is assuredly a lying imposter," one UHJ member alludes to a dissident interpretation—ironically borrowed from Bahá'í arguments against the inclusion of women on the UHJ[xx]—that "One thousand years was a red herring, the prophecy only applies to men" (ch. 19).

Subud dissent in the 2000's

The high point of Subud dissent during the 2000's was the founding of Subud Vision, an online[xxi] journal whose articles raise a number of basic challenges to Subud's institutional assumptions. (Truth in advertising: I am a contributor.)[xxii] Sahlan Diver gives the background behind its creation:

David Week came up with the format for that, which was that it would be centred round articles that would be edited by a team of editors, and that we would require authors to do their best to provide a supporting argument and/or evidence for their statements and conclusions. This was a distinct departure from the kind of Subud writing current at the time. Although the editorial team each made their own contribution to the site they all agreed to and have stuck with that central idea.[xxiii]

The journal's name was suggested by Stefan Freedman in order, as he said, "to emphasise the need for a way forward as well as a critique."[xxiv] Its first issue, dated 8 June 2007, contained no less than fifty essays, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of Bapak's visit to Coombe Springs (Kingston-on-Thames, Surrey), a key moment in Subud's transformation into an international movement.

To date 12 more issues, containing 79 more essays and a number of lengthy comment threads, have appeared. While Subud dissent may be encountered on other online fora—e.g. (David Week), (Hadrian Michell), or (Harris Smart)—none of these approach the sustained critique of Subud Vision. Recurring themes include whether Subud should be considered a religion after all (or worse yet, a cult); whether it overemphasizes Bapak and his teachings; whether Subud must be understood in the context of related Sufi and/or Javanese religious movements; whether the office of "Helpers" is necessary or beneficial (there have been complaints); whether the practice of "testing" ideas or appointments by means of latihan has been used in inappropriate ways; and whether to adopt religiously (or irreligiously) inclusive language in place of "Almighty God" and the like. Perhaps the most pervasive criticism is that the institutional culture of Subud has become (or has always been) dysfunctional, its leaders incompetent, and its finances irregular. Some critics call for reform, while others consider the situation hopeless, and await some new activity on the part of the divine.

While Subud Vision is not an academic journal per se—its editorial board is drawn from various fields, and the essays are equally diverse—it is sufficiently rigorous and critical for academics to welcome it as a reliable source of information. For example, one of its most prolific and critical contributors has been Sahlan Diver, the author of no less than 20 articles. "Trial by feelings" (from the debut issue) dissects the latihan-based decision-making process which led to the 1980's fiasco of the Subud-run Anugraha hotel and conference center project in Windor, England. "In Subud we have no beliefs" (Nov 2010) lists ninety de facto beliefs. "The rise and fall of the Anti-Subud site" (Oct 2007 / Jan 2008) describes a critical website by a Canadian ex-member named Ryan, which briefly flourished around 2004.[xxv] Calling upon his professional background as a managerial consultant, Diver joins Michael Irwin and Marcus Bolt in designing an ideal Subud group in a fictional community called "Wayward."[xxvi] This effort to contribute positive suggestions is an important feature of Subud Vision, whose "Solutions Project" invites readers to identify problems and propose solutions to them.[xxvii]

Just as Bahá'í dissidents regularly recall earlier conflicts between dissidents and administration figures,[xxviii] so does Subud Vision reprint selected older papers with a critical bent. For example, Michael Rogge's "Subud at cross-roads" (from the debut issue), was originally delivered to the Subud World Congress in Sydney in Jan. 1989—two years after the death of Bapak, when the organization was wrestling with its direction in an even more fundamental way than today. According to the comments thread, Rogge had been part of a transition team whose recommendations were rejected as a result of "testing." As in the Bahá'í religion, such reformist proposals have by no means withered away, but only gained more attention over time, thanks to their preservation and dissemination over the internet.

Final remarks

               Hovering in the background is the question of whether to regard dissidents as heroic idealists, or as embittered, vengeful saboteurs. While examples of both can be identified, the act of reaching out to one another in a network seems to encourage the positive side of dissent. Except for a few idiosyncratic individuals, Bahá'í and Subudian dissidents invoke such things as academic standards, human rights, feminism, dialogue, courtesy, honesty in accounting, and the abandonment of sectarian claims of spiritual uniqueness. For the most part, they have shown remarkable deference to officials of the institutions whose policies they oppose. After all, marginal figures within already-marginal groups may either resign themselves to being doubly marginalized, or appeal to mainstream societal values, and the latter group is most likely to attract other dissidents.

               Another issue is whether the character of Bahá'í and Subud dissent owes more to the Islamic origins of those movements, or to qualities common to dissidents everywhere, regardless of background. I incline to the latter view. To begin with, dissidents are as likely to target as to celebrate the specifically Islamic aspects of their traditions. Coming out of the formative era of the 1970's—when Bahá'ís joined out of support for race unity and world peace, Subudians gravitated to what amounts to an exotic hippie subculture, and both were interested in Asian or esoteric spirituality—a number of dissidents complain of a "bait and switch"[xxix] practice whereby they found themselves pushed toward a different, unadvertised, less progressive set of values. Ignoring the older "covenant breaker" schisms, Bahá'í dissent resembles not so much Shi'i factionalism as the liberalizing movements within the Catholic, Communist, and Mormon traditions. Here the common element seems to be a certain authoritarianism, which the dissidents oppose. Subudian culture being relatively anarchic, its institutions pose no threat to their dissidents. We might compare their situation with that of Esperantists who disagree with the policies of the World Esperanto Association (Universala Esperanto-Asocio), or who support the rival languages of Volapük or Toki Pona. (Outsiders may need to be told that these groups are not only on excellent terms with one another, but significantly overlap.)

               The role of dissent raises important questions about the nature of community. Bahá'í officials decry the easy parallel between, for example, the Iranian government's treatment of Bahá'ís in that country, and the Bahá'í administration's treatment of its own dissidents. After all, is not the right of a religious body to uphold certain standards, and expel noncompliant members, implicit within the principles of religious freedom and freedom of association? On the other hand, the practice of stripping dissidents of their group identity as a form of punishment can only be received as repugnant, even if it must be legally tolerated. Perhaps we may compare the phenomenon to divorce—likewise a termination (not necessarily voluntary) of a sort of "group" identity which, however intrinsically negative, may be argued to be necessary as an institution. Disenrollment however represents a breakdown, not between two individuals with reciprocal obligations to one another, but between an individual and a faceless, uncompromising mass. (Rhetoric likening a religion to a family, or a community, is obviously an exaggeration.) Questions of politics thus loom large, and dissidents can be counted upon to raise them.

              Amidst all this skepticism, it is interesting to note what aspects go unchallenged. For Bahá'í dissidents, these would include the station of Bahá'u'lláh, his social teachings concerning the unity of humanity, and the essential validity of other world religions. The Subudian equivalent would be the practice of the latihan, defined in accordance with Subud norms (e.g. the requirement that participants be formally "opened," and the prohibition against men and women doing latihan together). Viewed from the outside the subculture, dissidents and mainstream believers may seem very much alike, sharing as they do so many core values, and in this connection it is surely relevant that most dissent is directed at fellow believers, not at interested outsiders.


[i] If anyone is interested, I am not—nor have I ever been—a member of either group (or any related ones). My essentially skeptical orientation leads me to doubt even the most basic claims made on behalf of Bahá'u'lláh or the latihan.

[ii] Estimates of five, six, or seven million are more usually encountered, and represent projections based on self-reporting. While the task of estimating religious populations is difficult even under favorable conditions, for practical as well as conceptual reasons (who counts as Catholic—those who were baptized, those who identify as Catholic, or those who attend mass?), official Bahá'í statistics for various regions tend to exceed apparent Bahá'í activity by whole orders of magnitude. The crucial question becomes one of establishing the "discount rate" by which the official figures ought to be adjusted. In Taiwan, for example, official estimates of 16,000 or 20,000 believers contrast with a triple-digit reality (if that). Meanwhile, the Bahá'í population of India—supposedly some 2.2 million strong—has been estimated at 86,612 by an internal community report from 2006-2007, and at 11,325 by the 2001 Indian census. See The Cormorant Baker (blog), "How many Bahá'ís are there in India?" (n.d., and Bahá'í Census (blog), "Shocking disclosure by Bahá'í News India" (11 August 2010,

[iii] This frequently-encountered round figure is plausible, since Subud world congresses typically attract several thousand attendees.

[iv] Marius Kahan, "Making claims" (in Subud Vision, 8 June 2007,

[v] See Sen McGlinn, "Century's end—my two cents" (12 Jan 2009,; also Orrol L. Harper, "A bird's-eye view of the world in the year 2000" (Star of the West, vol. 15 no. 7, Oct. 1924, pp. 189-96,

[vi] The years between 1937 (the start of the first Seven Year Plan) and 2021 (the centenary of the passing of Bahá'u'lláh's son ‘Abdu'l-Bahá) are the subject of fourteen such plans, including a Four Year Plan (1996-2000), a Twelve Month Plan (2000-2001), and four successive Five Year Plans (2001-2021). (See chart at All this forms part of a "Bahá'í cycle" which is to last at least 500,000 years. See Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh (Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1938), p. 102 (

[vii] Or the World Subud Association (which meets every four years during the World Congresses), International Subud Committee (headquartered in Cilandak, near Jakarta), and the "wings" of the Subud (International) .Youth Association / Subud Youth Activities International, Subud (International) Cultural Association, Subud Enterprise Services, Muhammad Subuh Foundation, Susila Dharma International Association, and Subud International Health Association. See "How is Subud organized?"

Note: In April 2016 the following email was sent to the Bahá'í Library Online:
    "If the writer means the Subud Committee is located in Jakarta Cilandak I would like to correct the writer. In Cilandak there was the home of Mohammad Subuh Sumohadiwidjojo but he moved from there before he died. The leadership country and the leading membes all change every 4 years. Now it located in Germany and the next world congress is going to be in Germany. The previous leader lived in Canada but the congress was held in Mexico. After 4 years in duty he leaders go back to other roles in Subud or become just ordinary members."
[-J.W., 2016]

[viii] I say "semi-elected" because of certain restrictions on the electoral process. To begin with, it is difficult to know how individual assembly members behave or vote. Also, the Bahá'í prohibition against campaigning means that Bahá'ís tend to write down the names of those already known to them. At higher levels, this usually results in the reelection of incumbents. Newcomers whom an assembly desires to see elected may be given publicity in newsletters and the like, while popular figures untrusted by the incumbents may be stripped of their administrative rights on some pretext. The Universal House of Justice has been accused of using appointments to the International Teaching Center to signal its approval (a suspicion which could be eliminated through the simple expedient of requiring ITC members to be female), prompting dissidents to monitor such appointments in the spirit of Kremlin watching. As for the Subudians, their custom of "testing" decisions through group latihan by a parallel, unelected kejiwaan (spiritual) hierarchy distorts normal democratic mechanisms.

[ix] See the "About Alison" page of her website, Bahá'í Mysticism ( The original documents may be read on Frederick Glaysher's website, The Bahá'í Faith and Freedom of Conscience (

[x] See Juan Cole, "Commentary on letter of Universal House of Justice dated April 7, 1999" (

[xi] See Cole also wrote Modernity and the Millennium: The Genesis of the Bahá'í Faith in the Nineteenth-Century Middle East (Columbia University Press, 1998).

[xii] These were "Race, immorality, and money in the American Bahá'í Community: Impeaching the Los Angeles Spiritual Assembly" (in Religion, vol. 30 no. 2, 2000, pp. 109-125, and "Fundamentalism in the Contemporary U.S. Bahá'í Community" (in the Review of Religious Research, vol. 43 no. 3, March 2002, pp. 195-217,

[xiii] Amanat is the author of Resurrection and Renewal: The Making of the Babi Movement in Iran, 1844-1850 (Cornell University Press, 1989). He is apparently an ex-Bahá'í.

[xiv] Momen's paper may be read online at Responses by Denis MacEoin, Sen McGlinn, Eric Stetson, and Frederick Glaysher appear in M. Stausberg (ed.), "Challenging apostasy: Responses to Moojan Momen's ‘Marginality and apostasy in the Bahá'í community', Religion (2008)"; Momen's surrebuttal, "Four heroes and an anti-hero" (sic; he means "villain") is in the same issue. See Online reactions by Stetson, K. Paul Johnson (letter to the editor of Religion, later withdrawn), Karen Bacquet ("Heretic, not apostate," 23 Dec 2007), Alison Marshall ("Crikey! Thanks Moojan"; 25 Nov 2007), Dan Jensen (untitled, 5 Dec. 2007), and others may be found at A further, more personal response by Jensen ("An apostate's narrative," Dec. 2007) is at Wahid Azal (Momen's "BB") responds in "Haifan Bahá'ís name apostates: Moojan Momen's 2007 article" (7 May 2009), In "A Momen-tary lapse of judgement" (26 Nov. 2007), Brendan Cook humorously complains that Momen has overlooked his impressive credentials as an apostate, and wonders what additional wickedness he must commit to ultimately qualify for this honor. See Momen's response is understandably appreciative of a blogpost titled "Moojan Momen is right" (Bahá'í-Catholic Blog, 17 Dec. 2007) by Jonah, an ex-Bahá'í who converted to Catholicism. Its extensive comments contain remarks by many of apostates, and are quite informative.

[xv] Their URL's are:,,,

[xvi] Namely "Enemies within: Conflict and control in the Bahá'í community," for the Cultic Studies Journal (vol. 18, 2002, pp. 109-140); and "When principle and authority collide: Bahá'í responses to the exclusion of women from the Universal House of Justice," for Nova Religio (vol. 9 no. 4, May 2006, pp. 34-52).

[xvii] See "Canadian NSA ignores surplus, issues fund appeal" (12 April 2011) and "Hossein Danesh heavily promoted by NSA" (16 Nov. 2010) For further accusations of official Bahá'í complicity in abuse, see Priscilla Gillman's blogpost, "He was the Secretary of the National Spiritual Assembly of his country; she was my best friend (5 Aug. 2008) and Karen Bacquet, "The story of a Bahá'í incest victim,"



[xx] Specifically, Bahá'u'lláh's son ‘Abdu'l-Bahá interprets a phrase from the Aqdas ("men of the House of Justice") to imply this. Cole's article, "Women's service on the House of Justice" (1996), argues that the word for "men" (rijal) is here meant in a gender-inclusive way. As for the same text's warning about future messianic claimants, "such a man" translates the Arabic hu ("he"); thus the interpretation mentioned in Layla is plausible.

[xxi] Material from 2007-2009 has also been collected in print, in four volumes from Lulu, a print-on-demand service.

[xxii] See Bei Dawei, "Subud spoofed: Notes on a burlesque of the Subud latihan in John Quigley's The Secret Soldier (1966)" (Subud Vision, April 2011),

[xxiii] Sahlan Diver, "Reply to comments made," at The Latihan Project (21 Jan. 2011),

[xxiv] Quoted in "About Subud Vision,"

[xxv] The site in question may be seen at

[xxvi] These consisted of Michael Irwin, "Wayward" (April 2010); Marcus Bolt, "A ‘Wayward' Club experience" (July 2010); and Sahlan Diver, "The Wayward way of enterprise" (Nov 2010).

[xxvii] I am reminded of a similar tendency among the Bahá'í dissidents of an earlier generation, e.g. in the essay "A Modest Proposal" (intended for the Summer / Fall 1987 issue of Dialogue, which never appeared). See

[xxviii] Most notably the L.A. class lessons (1976-1983), the closure of Dialogue magazine (1986-1988, cf. the controversies over the Mormon periodicals Dialogue and Sunstone), and the debate which followed in the wake of Denis MacEoin's "From Babism to Bahá'ísm: Problems of militancy, quietism, and conflation in the construction of a religion" (Religion no. 13, 1983). See Karen Bacquet, "The Talisman crackdown" (15 April 2001) for descriptions and links

[xxix][xxix] See for example Helen Bailie, "Bait and switch" (Subud Vision, 8 June 2007), Googling "Bahá'í" plus "bait and switch" returns numerous uses, for example by Doug McPherson as quoted on Idol Chatter ("Going Wayback," 15 Dec. 2008),

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