From:
Dialogue Magazine (published Los Angeles), Winter/Spring 1987,vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 9-13
 
 

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The Baha'i Faith and Traditional Societies:

Exploring Universes

of Discourse


by Moojan Momen

For two people to understand each otherwhen they meet and converse, it is not just necessary that they speak thesamelanguage; there must also be a common framework within which eachunderstandsall of the implications of the words and concepts used by theother. Philosophers call this having a similar "universe of discourse."

At the simplest level, difficulties canarise when the same word means different things to different people. Forexample, 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 supposedlyshare a common language.

More subtle differences are apparent when an American expresses his or her disapproval of the poor quality of service at Eng lish shops and restaurants or when an American businessman is dismayed at the lackadaisical approach of British business. Here it is no longerjust a question of language differences but, rather, differences in thewhole structure of society. We can begin to speak of the English and Americansoccupying 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 manyexamples of this phenomenon. For example, the Nuer of the Sudan regardtwins born to the tribe as birds. It is not that the Nuer are saying thata 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, whoconsider the difference self-evident, shows to what extent this tribe livesin 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.
 

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The method by which the Baha'i Faith isdiffused consists in large measure of the transfer of people from one cultureto another, often from modern Western society to a traditional culture.When these "pioneers" arrive at their destination, it can be difficultfor them, nurtured as they are on Baha'i teachings of the oneness of humanity,to appreciate the enormity of the cultural and conceptual differences betweenthe society they have just left and the one in which they have arrived.Baha'is frequently seem to forget that their teaching of the oneness ofhumanity in no way implies the uniformity of mankind. These pioneers seebefore them other human beings, and so they usually assume that they havea great deal in common, that they can communicate fully with anyone whohappens to speak their language, and that communicating with the rest ofthe country is only a matter of obtaining a good translator.

It is widely known that a person going from one of the modem societies to a traditional society experiences what istermed as "culture shock" due to the extreme differences between the culturethat 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 amonthor two. In fact, all that has happened at the end of that periodis that onehas learned enough about the culture to be able to get by,a basic survivallevel of understanding and accommodation. It usu allytakes many years beforedeeper 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 incomparing traditional societies with mod em ones. There are certain featuresthat almost all traditional societies share and which differentiate themfrom modem society. The most obvious difference between these two typesof societies is the level of technology. In a traditional society witha low level of technology, the individual must spend most of his or heravailable time carrying out tasks essential for survival: providing forthe food, clothing, and shelter of the family. The struggle for survivalmeans that the activities of every individual are con trolled by society'snorms, so that all efforts are concentrated on the important tasks of survivaland not wasted in activities of peripheral importance. The only securitythat an individual has against times of illness and old age is the familyand, 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 beprovided for within the limits that the society can manage. In return,social order exacts a heavy price in terms of limiting one's freedom ofchoice.

It is indeed in the realm of choice that the most stark difference occurs between modem and traditional society(and yet it is also the difference most easily overlooked by
 

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members of a modem society). The memberof a modern society is used to exercising the vast range of choice thata high level of technology makes available. He gets up in the morning andthroughout the day exercises choice after choice: in what he eats, whathe wears, his place of work, his companions, his entertainment, and soon. He is so used to this that it is difficult for him even to conceptualizewhat life is like in a traditional society, where there is very littleor no choice.

In a traditional society, almost everything that a person does is according to preset patterns and the limited availability of goods. This applies to the time he wakes, the clothes he wears, thetasks he performs, and the companions he takes. (I am using the masculinepronoun for convenience, but it will not escape the reader that choiceis even more limited for a woman in most traditional societies, where sheoccupies a lower position in the hierarchy.) From the most important decisionsin life, such as whom he will marry and the trade he will follow, to themost trivial, the choice does not belong to the individual but to the collectiveworkings of his society. He must defer to those above in the society'shierarchy 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 somewhatfreer than othermembers of the society) because their choices are alsopredetermined by thepressures of the society and its traditional patterns.Of course, there arealways means of avoiding one's obligations in anycommunity, but, in general,a traditional society is much more strict andintolerant of this than a modemone. This brings to light the importantpoint that it is not just the choicesthat are not available to an individualfrom a traditional society, even theconcept of being able to make choicesin many areas of life may be absent.This is what is meant by existingin different cultural uni verses.

Another major area of difference between modem and traditional societies is in the area of change. An individualin a modern society is used to continual and sometimes rapid changes inhis individual life and in his society. This change may be due to technologicalprogress, changing work practices, or it may be the outcome of the individual'schoice in moving to a new area. The point is that not only are a largenumber ofchoices open to the individual but he is fully prepared conceptuallyto effectchanges in his life style and environment. However, a heavy priceis paidfor this freedom; for with the gain in freedom goes the loss ofthe securitythat a traditional society gives. A much greater degree ofuncertainty, 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 hasoccurred in all of these societies over the centuries, the change is veryslow andslight so that it is barely perceptible within an individual'slifetime. Inthe present day, these traditional societies have inevitablybeen placed under a great deal of pressure to change through their contactwith modern society.Nevertheless, it is still true that a traditionalsociety tends to resistchange. The most telling point is that, whereasin a modern society a personwho wants to change his lifestyle is regardedas just that, within a traditionalframework, a person who wants to changeis regarded as bad, as evil, for heis seeking to upset society itself.There is little tolerance within a societythat is used to existing onthe edge of disaster toward people who want tolive free of its demandsupon 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 greatfor several decades now, and that these patterns of behavior are becominga 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 suitof clothes and sitting in an office with electric typewriters and air-conditioningdoes not necessarily mean the adoption of a modem conceptual universe.I have witnessed a group of villagers go into the office of a ministerof government of an Africancountry complaining that they did not havesufficient rice and that the minister,feeling the pressures of traditionalobligations toward the elders of hisvillage, leave his desk in the middleof the working day to go personallyto look for rice for them.

Innumerable problems can arise because of these different conceptual universes. The Baha'i pioneer, with a mentalpicture drawn from his or her home country of what Baha'is and Baha'i communities should be like, may find himself making harsh judgements about the "values" of the local Baha'is and Baha'i communities. Or her expectations of theamount of change that can be made and the time scale in which it can beachievedmay be totally unrealistic. One of the most common problems thatarise between Baha'i pioneers and the local Baha'i communities is overtime-keeping andpunctuality. In a modern society that is run on time-tablesand appointments,punctuality is considered a great virtue and is taughtfrom a young age. Thesort of mind-set achieved by such training is alsothe sort of mind-set thatenables travel from one country to another (usinga network of trains, buses,and planes), that can operate technologicalequipment (from the simplest,such as television sets, to the most complicated),and that can satisfy theneeds of a bureaucracy (such as filling in a taxreturn). But a traditionalsociety has no use for such skills and doesnot train people for this. Timein a traditional society is determinednot by a watch but by the needs ofthe society. It is time for planting,time for harvesting, time for a particularfestival. If someone higherthan you in the society's hierarchy asks you todo something, then it istime to do that and not something else that you maywant to do. Chronologicaltime has no meaning in a traditional society. Whena Baha'i pioneer setsup a rendezvous for five o'clock in two days time withone of the localBaha'is, he or she may think that this is a firm arrangement.But whathas in fact transpired is a possibility that if, in two days' time,thecycle of the needs of that local Baha'is traditional society does notcallfor him or her to be elsewhere and provided no one higher in the society'shierarchy asks him or her to do something at that precise time, then thelocalBaha'i will come to the rendezvous at some time in the late afternoon.

Another common area of mis understanding concerns conversion. A Baha'i pioneer may find it relatively easy to find persons who say that they are willing to become Baha'is. But these persons may be saying this to please the pioneer. There is a great de sireamong people in traditional societies to please persons that they perceiveto be higher in the hierarchy than them selves. Such an attitude may easilybe transferred to the Baha'i pioneer by virtue of his being from Europeor Amer ica or by virtue of his being evidently wealthy because of wherehe lives or what he possesses. Even if that pitfall is avoided and conversionis made on the basis of a genuine understanding of the basic Baha'i teachings,further problems are ahead. The most difficult problem for Baha'i pioneershas not been obtaining converts but deepening these Baha'is and buildingfunctioning Baha'i communities.

The usual experience of Baha'i pioneersamong traditional peoples is that the group most easily converted is youngmen.This is because they are the group within most traditional societieswho arethe most free to experiment and try new things. However, as theygrow older,and particularly once they marry and have families, the pressuresand responsibilities of a traditional society upon them will increase andthey will find it more and more difficult to stand out as different fromtheir society. It is not unusual, therefore, to find even very deepenedBaha'is becoming inactive as they grow older and rise within their society,particularly if this is also connected, as it often is, with in creasedpolitical activity.

The action of a person who has been brought up in a traditional society and who desires to live according to a new,Baha'i 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 atraditional society even to imagine the pressures that such a person isunder from those whom he most loves and respects, his immediate familyand the elders of his society. It requires a major
 

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degree of heroism to stand out in such circumstances, much more so than in Western society.

What Baha'is 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 RomanCatholicism) are doing is building up alternative traditional societiesto which people can transfer directly from their own. The most dramaticindication of this change is the ceremony of initiation and the requirementto 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,albeitthe details have changed. They are still expected to defer to theauthorityof others (now the priest or religious authorities), no exerciseof choiceor active involvement is expected of them, only passive participationin rituals, and they are still within a cocoon of security (mission schools,mission medical centers, work obtained through mission patronage).

Conversion to the Baha'i 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 of its pressures, but to adopt new standards that set one out as different. In addition, one is expected to take the initiative to become activelyinvolved in the running of the affairs of the Baha'i community. However,having put in jeopardy one's position in one's traditional society, thereis no comparable cocoon of security into which to step.

The problems connected with building functioning Baha'i communities in areas where large numbers and even whole villageshave become Baha'is are often also associated with the differences betweentwocultures. A Baha'i pioneer who has carefully explained to a villagecommunitythe mechanisms of Baha'i administration, such as the workingsof a local spiritualassembly, the concept of consultation, the importanceof the Nineteen-DayFeast, may consider that he has performed his taskadequately and may thereforebe somewhat surprised to find upon his returnsome months later that noneof these things is happening. But this resultis almost inevitable.

Traditional societies are, as mentionedabove, extremely resistant to change. Change can only be achieved veryslowly. For a young woman (the lowest member of a traditional society barringthe children) to express her views freely in the presence of her eldersrequires a complete overturning of all of the values and patterns of atraditional society, an upheaval of earth-shaking proportions in the conceptualuniverse of all present: the young woman to have the courage to speak hermind and the elders to listen to what they would previously have consideredpunishable impudence. To elect local assemblies according to Baha'i principlesand not merely resulting in automatic election of the village elders isanother conceptual barrier that must be overcome through education andencouragement. The very
 

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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 Baha'is are trying to achieve is a monumental task. It cannot be expected that it can be accomplished easily or quickly ina society resistant to change.

How then can we expect change to come about in these Baha'i 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 answersto these questions can be obtained from observing what has occurred inthe 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, afterconversion to Islam, very little changes within a society for a long time.Among onetribe that has been studied in the Sudan, the Nuba, conversionto Islam occurred about 80 years ago. Initially, very little change wasmade in the traditional tribal ways, which included such un-Islamic practicesas eating pork and drinking sorghum beer. Gradually, a small number ofpersons, particularly those who traveled to more fully Islamic areas, beganto decline to eat pork on thegrounds that to be a good Muslim one shouldnot eat pork. More and more peopletook this up until it became not justa matter of "to be a good Muslim oneshould not eat pork," but rather "tobe a good person one should not eat pork."In other words, abstention frompork had moved from being a religious matterwhich was the concern of afew individuals to being a moral matter which hadthe full force of society'ssanctions behind it. After that, the eating ofpork rapidly died out inthat tribe. The full process took many years so thatherds of pigs werestill in evidence among the tribe up to 20 years ago. However, this adoptionof Islamic practices has been piecemeal, with some practices (such as theMuslim sexual mores) having been completely adopted and become social normsof decency, while others (such as abstention from alcohol) are recognizedas conferring religious merit but are not considered as indispensable tobeing a Muslim.

A similar pattern can be seen in Baha'ihistory. The Baha'i Faith came in the first place to a traditional society,that of Iran. Many of those who became Babis and Baha'is were members ofa traditional society and were used to following the lead of the seniorfigure in theirsociety (for example, those who became Babis in Zanjanfollowing the leadof Hujjat or in Nayriz following the lead of Vahid).In practical terms, theiradoption of the Babi and Baha'i relig ions madelittle initial differenceto their lifestyles apart from the persecutionsthey suffered. The patternsof their community life reflected the traditionalpattern, with those whowere learned or wealthy (i.e., ulama or merchant)being given automatic prideof place. There occurred no great improvementin the position of women. Itwas still the practice of many early Baha'isto attend the mosque, and someof those who had been mullas before theircon version even continued to functionas mullas. The non Muslim religiousgroups that entered the Baha'i Faith,Jews and Zoroastrians, continuedto practice their own customs and were, toa large extent, isolated formthe Baha'is 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 Baha'i communities in traditional societies. However, overthe years through encouragement and education the Baha'i community in Iranbegan to adopt new conceptual patterns and eventually great changes wereeffected: Baha'i social principles were put into greater practice, theposition of women improved, and the different ethnic and religious communitieswere integrated.

Furthermore, it is important to note that the Babi-Baha'i Faith was presented to Iranians firmly within their owncultural universe: the imagery of the prophet as law-giver, justificationby suffering and martyrdom, and so on. Similarly, when the Baha'i Faithcame to North America and Europe, it was presented to the Christian Westwithin a Christian cultural context, with the life of the Bab being presentedas a close parallel to the life of Christ, the social principles beingemphasized, and so on. The Baha'i world has already seen that if we allowBaha'u'llah to appear within an Indian context as a Hindu avatar, thisleads to a much greater acceptability of the Faith in a Hindu environment(see W. Garlington, "Baha'i Conversions in Malwa," From Iran East andWest: Studies in Babi and Baha'i History. Vol. 2, pp. 157-185). Andyet the lesson has not, by and large, been learned. Baha'is are still tryingto impose an image of Baha'u'llah derived from Western cultural modelsupon the rest of the world, whether this be the more sophisticated Buddhist,Chinese, or Japanese worlds or tribal cultures.

The Baha'i 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 asthe Baha'i Faith is, in fact, a view of the Baha'i Faith evolved in theWest and therefore culturally conditioned by the West's views and orientations.Consider, for example, the fact that the Baha'i text most frequently chosenfor publication in various languages is not a presentation of the Baha'iFaith in the cultural context of those languages but ratherBaha'u'llahand the New Era by Dr. J.E. Esslemont, a presentation of the Faithwritten more than 50 years ago and very much oriented toward the West.

Only in proportion to the extent that Western Baha'i pioneers are willing to let go of their preconceptions of what the Baha'i Faith is, will they be able to evolve an understanding of what the Baha'i Faith means in each local culture. Shoghi Effendi made this pointclear in Citadel of Faith when he drew the attention of pioneersto the means for success, "which is to adapt the presentation of the fundamentalprinciples of their Faith to the cultural and religious backgrounds, theideologies,and the temperament of the diverse races and nations whom theyare calledupon to enlighten and attract." And, of course, sensitivityto local customsand 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 forchange, for through them other members of the society can see the benefitsof doing things in a new way.

The importance of bringing in leading individuals in a traditional society, for a traditional society tends to follow itsleaders. And it is these leaders who have the greatest free dom to initiatechange.

It is only to be expected that remnantsof old ways of doing things will persist within the Baha'i community untilsuch time that the standards of the Faith achieve the status of becomingthe morals of the society as a whole. Patience, encouragement, and educationare theways forward.

It is important for Western Baha'is notto hang on too tightly to their preconceptions of what Baha'u'llah andthe Baha'i Faith are, for these will be conceptions evolved within andtherefore suited to a Western conceptual uni verse. It is much more importantto let each society and culture work out for itself what its own imageand picture of the Baha'i 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 nextgeneration, and therefore if there is to be any change within the societyover the course of generations, that change must first and foremost impingeitself 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 Baha'i studies. He has published numerous articles in journals dealing with the academic study of the Near East and Iran,isa contributor to theEncyclopaedia Iran ica, and his recent book,Introduction to Shi'i Islam, has established itself as the leadingreferencework on the subject. Dr. Momen also serves as an Advisory Boardmember fordialogue.
 

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