Moojan Momen's Got that Old Time Religion

By Frances Wind

There are numerous matters of concern in regard to Dr. Moojan Momen’s recent article “Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha’i Community” which was published in the journal “Religion”.

Much of it has already been answered by scholarly posts in various Baha’i chat groups and blogs, some of which are authored by those who have been listed by name as being “Apostate” by Dr. Momen.

To me the most obvious concern has to do with simple academic accuracy. According to his own standards Dr. Momen’s list of “apostates” is clearly inaccurate. On his own website Momen defines apostates as “those who maliciously attack the Baha’i Faith” and yet many of those whom he lists as apostate have never attacked the Baha’i Faith but have merely expressed disagreement with how the Baha’i Faith is managed by its administrators.

That said, there is no need to repeat what others have undoubtedly addressed more adequately than I can. However, I have two further concerns with Dr. Momen’s public listing of “apostates” which I feel are worthy of mention, and to which others may not have responded.

The first has to do with this issue of claiming that persons have attacked the Faith when they merely criticized the administration, for this in itself reveals a long-standing confusion in regard to the Baha’i Administration and the Baha’i Faith, in which the two are no longer consciously differentiated from one another. Concerning this confusion, Shoghi Effendi warned:

“I need not dwell upon what I have already reiterated and emphasized that the administration of the Cause is to be conceived as an instrument and not a substitute for the Faith of Baha’u'llah, that it should be regarded as a channel through which His promised blessings may flow, that it should guard against such rigidity as would clog and fetter the liberating forces released by His Revelation.” Shoghi Effendi (World Order of Baha’u'llah, p. 9)

It seems to me that many of those whom Dr. Momen labels “apostate” have, apparently out of sincere concern for the Baha’i Faith, protested the rigidity of the administration which Shoghi Effendi himself warned of in this quotation.

Over the course of the last 50 years, under the influence of an administration which has indeed become a substitute for the Faith of Baha’u'llah, this rigidity has only increased, and thus that administration has moved farther and farther away from the Baha’i Spirit.

The lack of Spirit, alone, should make it easy for the average Baha’i to comprehend that something is gravely wrong, however, the confusion has also increased, and to such an extent that many Baha’is, having been indoctrinated into this confusion, find it hard to consider themselves as being Baha’i at all once they have quit the administration. This is an indication that the oppression has become internalized.

Under such conditions in which the administration has clearly subjected its membership to false indoctrination and in which the administration is not in accord with the Baha’i Spirit described by Shoghi Effendi, how then can these “apostates” be considered any more apostate than the administration in Haifa itself?

The second concern gets to the root of these types of controversies:

On Dr. Momen’s website we find that he has previously written an article on the Covenant. Of particular interest in regards to the current controversy is section G - “Covenant-breaker, Covenant-breaking” subdivision 4 -”A classification of types of Covenant-Breaking” for therein he lists “Apostates” as one of the categories of “Covenant-breakers”.

Thus, according to Dr. Momen, apostates are Covenant-breakers. This alone should be sufficient cause for concern, for after labeling them publicly as “apostates” it is a further injustice to have formerly associated this term with the more lethal accusation of “Covenant-breaker”.

However, all of this takes place in the context of a still deeper injustice that has been perpetrated for the past fifty years, which has been that of both an unfairly indiscriminate indulgence in the use of this label and its combination with an over-zealous enforcement.

I am not a professional academic and do not have the inclination to make a formal study. However, I realize that at least some preliminary substantiation must be offered and for this I need only cite Momen’s own description of how the problem was treated by both Baha’u’llah and `Abdu’l-Baha as contrasted with the more recent state of affairs.

“Many of Bahá’u'lláh’s writings contain passages instructing the Bahá’ís to avoid contacts with the Covenant-breakers (see passages quoted by `Abdu’l-Bahá in SoW 13:19-25). Despite this, Bahá’u'lláh seems to have made little effort to enforce such a teaching. During the whole of Bahá’u'lláh’s ministry, there appear to have been extensive contacts between Bahá’ís and Azalís. In the first few years after Bahá’u'lláh put forward his claims, there was a series of open discussions between the two groups in various towns, each attempting to win the other over. Such meetings are known to have occurred in Baghdad, Tabriz, Qazvin, Shiraz, and Isfahan at least. There is some evidence that meetings were held and letters passed backwards and forwards between the two groups until a comparatively late date. It was `Abdu’l-Bahá who moved the question of the Covenant to the forefront of the attention of the Bahá’ís and introduced the concept of Covenant-breaking. He expressed very strongly his wish that the Bahá’ís should break all contacts with the Covenant-breakers and sent envoys to try to encourage the Bahá’ís to do this. He rarely, however, imposed any sanctions upon those who maintained links.” (Dr. Moojan Momen, from an article on the Baha’i Covenant)

In contrast to this the situation for the last fifty years has been that once an individual or group has been labeled with the term “Covenant-Breaker” the other Baha’is are forbidden to associate with them or to even consider the ideas which have also been so labeled for fear of also being categorized as such.

This contrast is even greater once one realizes that whereas in the past those considered as “Covenant-breakers” were persons who had viciously opposed Baha’u’llah and `Abdu’l-Baha to the point of attempts at physical harm, most of the modern so-called “Covenant-breaking” groups, dissimilarly, never opposed any tangible Head of the Faith at all, but rather were barred from association merely for dissent with less important administrational adjuncts - known as the “Hands of the Cause” - after Shoghi Effendi’s passing.

Dr. Momen goes on to state in his summary that,

“Since the eventual aim of the Bahá’í Faith is to unite the world, it is clear that this could not be achieved if the Bahá’í Faith itself were divided. One of the most striking of the claims made by the Bahá’í Faith is that the religion is divinely protected from schism (PUP 455-6, WOB 145).”

It is a well established fact that the Baha’is have become divided, but what Dr. Momen, and indeed the entire administration, neglects to emphasize here is that the Baha’is were promised to be protected from schism only if they adhered to the Covenant — and all the various Baha’i groups accuse each other of “Covenant-Breaking”.

Whether or not any of them have adhered to the Covenant has now legitimately come into question not only because of the current situation but because of its intrinsic root in the circumstances which arose as a result of Shoghi Effendi’s passing. (At that time even the Hands seemed to be at a loss to find any direct guidance in the provisions of the Covenant regarding their circumstance and so – apparently - they thought it best to improvise a solution.)

Dr. Momen continues,

“Clearly this statement does not mean that it is impossible to set up a group that rejects the authority of the head of the religion since that has happened on numerous occasions. What it appears to mean is that, although it is possible for some to set up an independent group and to call themselves Bahá’ís, that group is like a branch that has been cut off from a tree–although it may appear alive and verdant, eventually, because it is cut off from its source of life, it will wither and die.”

It is interesting to note that it would seem the Haifan branch is the one that has been withering – drolly termed by some as “exit by troops”. It is likewise a remarkable fact that even after the passage of fifty years, several branches of Baha’i which came into existence after Shoghi Effendi’s day have not withered and died as expected. (This observation should not be taken as support for any of these other Baha’i sects on my part. I am not a member of any of them nor do I endorse them.)

One of the most clear evidences for this is the fact that the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States has recently taken some of these Baha’i organizations to court in an attempt to legally sever their identity from the word “Baha’i”. Surely the perceived need for this would not exist unless these groups were considered a serious threat?

The fact of the continued existence of these other sects beyond the lifetimes of the original generation could possibly contest whether they were truly “cut off” branches to begin with. And this relates to an argument put forth in recent years by many others who weren’t members of these organizations, but rather, have left the Haifan branch: that the label of Covenant-breaking has been illegitimately used as a method of silencing legitimate dissent.

And if the Haifan branch is itself “apostate” and the so-called “Covenant-breaking” sects not necessarily so very much so – wouldn’t this seriously call into question the primary legitimacy assumed by the former?

I do not expect that getting into detailed evidences within this essay would be useful for it is already somewhat beyond its scope, and will content myself with providing a url to Eric Stetson’s evidences in this regard. (see at end - thank you Eric.)

Reflecting back on the first concern raised earlier: It would appear that through the ordinary course of events organization gradually becomes a substitute for Spirit. Conceivably, this occurs as a reaction to entropy. We see it in the rise of bureaucracy in Nation-states. We see it in the history of all the religions. Thus, without some intervening force, the recent decades of decline in Baha’i affairs were probably inevitable. Shoghi Effendi’s warning was not sufficient to restrain this process, the scales tipped at some point and now the substitution of an Administration in place of the Baha’i Faith has continued to such an extent that “the liberating forces released by His Revelation” have been increasingly fettered and it seems the spirit has fled. (Perhaps this is why Seals and Crofts were inspired to sing so imploringly “Hummingbird Don’t Fly Away”.) According to the testimony of those who’ve left the Baha’i organization it has ceased to be a source of liberation and instead has crossed some line, passing over into spiritual captivity and oppression.

I believe these conditions were prophesied by Baha’u’llah Himself:

“What ‘oppression’ is greater than that which hath been recounted? What ‘oppression’ is more grievous than that a soul seeking the truth, and wishing to attain unto the knowledge of God, should know not where to go for it and from whom to seek it? For opinions have sorely differed, and the ways unto the attainment of God have multiplied. This ‘oppression’ is the essential feature of every Revelation. Unless it cometh to pass, the Sun of Truth will not be made manifest. For the break of the morn of divine guidance must needs follow the darkness of the night of error. … by ‘oppression’ is meant … that when the Day-star of Truth hath set, and the mirrors that reflect His light have departed, mankind will become afflicted with ‘oppression’ and hardship, knowing not whither to turn for guidance.” (Kitab-i-Iqan, pp. 31-32)

If He was describing the recent history of Baha’i wouldn’t this indicate that the last five decades were a necessary phase through which the Baha’i world had to pass? Could it then be that this dark passage was in preparation for a freshly astonishing reality? (Isn’t it written somewhere that “the wisdom of every command must be tested”?)

In closing, I must admit of the observation that all the various Baha’i sects (and indeed all the religions) have engaged in name-calling of one sort or another and I think it constructive to reflect upon `Abdu’l-Baha’s admonition in regard to a similar matter,

“O ye believers of God! The text of the divine Book is this: If two souls quarrel and contend about a question of the divine questions, differing and disputing, both are wrong.” (Tablets of the Divine Plan, p. 56)

I know that many of us are hoping that, along with the rest of the Baha’is (and those of the other religions as well) we will all find it within ourselves to make a more sincere effort to just “get it together and try to love one another” in order that eventually these ruinous strifes will pass away.


Forgotten Verses of the Baha'i Holy Writings

(My own analysis of the history of the Baha’i Administration is not necessarily in conformity with all of Eric’s conclusions put forth on that page but I think he makes some very good points that are worth consideration.)

Responses to Moojan Momen's article -- The Baha'i Faith: An Ex-Baha'i Christian View founded November 2002. This page last updated December 9, 2007.