Bahá'í Epistolary

Monday, 11 June 2007

Bahá'í Excommunications and Takfirs

The idea of Bahá'í excommunication or Bahá'í "takfir" (the Muslim declaration of unbelief) has acquired prominence in polemics directed against the Bahá'í community generally, and specifically against the Universal House of Justice, to the degree that it has gained remarkable currency even in the informal discussions of individuals, members, ex-members and non-members of the Bahá'í community, critical of Bahá'í institutions, even in non-polemical contexts. It has been applied, in good faith and without polemical animus, to the loss of administrative rights and expulsion of a Local Spiritual Assembly of two openly gay believers, as in the beautifully open and sensitive critique of the Bahá'í position on homosexuality posted by Andrew as a comment on my homosexuality post.

More elaborately, inflammatorily, or influentially, it has been prominently emphasised in blogs, internet lists, and even serious academic journals by individuals with a clear and long-standing opposition to the administrative institutions of the Bahá'í community. Concretely, the accusation of Bahá'í excomunications and takfors centre on the very exceptional disenrolment, over several years of a handful (or less than a handful) of individuals, by the Universal House of Justice, on the grounds that their public statements and actions are not judged by the Universal House of Justice to be compatible with membership in the Bahá'í community.

Such decisions have been taken to equate with excommunications, takfir, human rights violations, and even, on ocassion, with the notion of theological tribunals. The present essay integrates a number of postings I made in response to reactions to one prominent case of disenrolment, examining such decisions by the Universal House of Justice in the light of the sociology of community and through a comparative analysis of Bahá'í disenrolment and the terminology of takfir and excommunication.

Dear all,

It is very far from my purpose to engage in polemics of any kind, which
in my view always and inherently obscure, rather than shed light on truth,
and make intersubjectivity all the more elusive.

I do regard the present story as saddening, in all of its aspects, including, but not limited to those that have been shared. What is very clear to me is that, before being academics, or believers, we are human beings, and that these tensions, which in the
past resulted in immense, large scale traumatic fractures in religion hurt us
in very human ways (one recalls Eusebius' accounts of early Christians about
to be martyred yet holding different theological perspectives and refusing
to be martyred together!). Clearly, there is, even in the best of
cases, a great deal of hurt in these long-term and, I suggest, in fact universal processes.

I suspect however that history will be kinder than some present voices - voices
both in defense and in detraction of the decisions of contemporary Bahá'í
institutions - in its judgement of the manner in which these tensions are
being handled, by comparison to the way such tensions have been managed
over the centuries.

The voices that are arguing for radical, nefarious and highly pessimistic
readings of these events are speaking, in my view perfectly legitimately,
from within their own, innevitably painful experience of these processes.
But I still feel that when one looks beyond the painful crux of this encounter, one sees very much a natural, long term process of community development inherent in the
nature of religious community itself, not always harmonious, and typically
infinitely more explosive than is the case today, notwitstanding the very
explosive tones in which protagonists of these tensions may address it.

With all of the intense feeling expressed in these posts, with all of the
arguably severe decisions of Bahá'í instituions, we are a far cry from
the thundering jeremiads of Eusebius, the Spainsh Inquisition, the witch
hunts of James the VI, the fatwas and takfirs of Khomeini, or the secular
purges of Stalin and Mao - or even the comparatively tender probings of the
McCarthy era. I think it is perfectly correct to identify an area of tension in
outlook and, I would add as being even more important, in communication
culture, between the Universal House of Justice and those intellectuals
who have run into this kind of conflict with it. I sense that to some extent
the nature of the conflict is not primarily doctrinal as processual, but
that is my perspective which I don't expect others to necessarily share.

Were the situation to be reversed, and the Universal House of Justice
have absolute compatibility with the perspective put forward by these
intellectuals, I don't believe that, a century and a half
into community building, we would not find ourselves here in any case,
that is, with an evolving and often painful process of boundary maintenance
that would be incompatible with a different population's outlook, views or
approach to action and communication. It might look totally different in
terms of the issues that provoke and define it, and even in the manner of
engagement, but in the end, the dilemmas of inclusion and exclusion, of
individual interpretation and community cohesion, of institutional
authority and individual freedom, would remain, as they do in every single
long-standing community, religious or secular.

There is pain and there is anger. That is fair and inevitable, as it is
fair and inevitable that it informs our perspective of events (for all
concerned, whether as intellectuals, as members of institutions or as both at once).
But really I feel that taking a long, comparative view, informed by what
we know about the dynamics of community building and community development
(my professional field for the last 15 years), this seems to me, particularly
in light of current events in the world, not a scenario of extremism, human
rights violations and the end of academic freedom for all Baha'i
academics, but really a most painful, yet altogether mild and benign culmination of a process of competing discourses and identities within a constituted,
institutionalised community setting.

That within such a setting the perspective of a community's elected institutions
should come to prevail, is only to be expected. That such an in my view inevitable outcome should not be accompanied, notwithstanding the suggestions that this is the case, by
calls for attacks and hostilities, but rather a respect for dissenting
individuals's conscience, and for their right and freedom to express
their thoughts on the matter outside of the community the institutions have
been elected to guide and indeed shape, that is to me a credit to the process.

As we move onto weighing the impact of this sad development, I think that the concerns expressed regarding its potential fallout are legitimate and inevitable.
There is no doubt that this event can be neatly fitted into the narrative of such as perceive or advocate a "culture war" in the Bahá'í community. On the other hand, others might see it as simply one fairly reasonable manifestation of a complex
and age-old challenge common to all religious traditions and communities, namely, harmonising the challenge of individual self-expression with that of community cohesion.

Traditionally where the balance has weighed on the former, schism has been the result, while
where the balance has weighed on the latter the result has tended to be the denial of the
individual's right to freedom of conscience. In this case the head of the Faith, in
excercising its legitimate and constitutional right to determine the qualifications for
membership in the Bahá'í community, which is a voluntary act and is in no way demanded or
expected of anyone, has excluded an individual from membership on the basis of an "established pattern of behaviour and ...statements published" which it considers incompatible with membership in the community, without however adding
anathemas, questioning his right to publish such statements, seeking retractions, casting
aspersions upon his character or otherwise infringing on his freedom of thought or of
expression. This surely represents a comparatively benign way of dealing with a
situation that has confronted every religious community from its origins and led to some of the most bloody and fractious episodes in history.

From this perspective, it is perfectly fair for an individual to determine his own opinions,
beliefs, and actions, even as it is perfectly fair for the responsible institution to judge
their compatibility with its own criteria for membership and with the dynamics of community
development that it cosiders appropriate. This principle would seem to apply quite logically
even outside the religious sphere, where voluntary membership in a constituted association
implies acceptance of its constitution, and where the ultimate decision on whether this is the case lies with the constituted body's governing institution.

This is radically different from the Catholic concept of excommunication
( which has as its aim forcing a change of belief
or action in the excommunicant, to be expressed through penance, thus infringing on freedom of conscience. The consideration by an elected, constituted body that a set of individual
statements and behaviour are incompatible with its criteria for membership does not carry with it a demand for a change of opinion, much less a call for penance. It is even farther removed from the catholic concept of anathema, which, in addition to the excommunication, condemns the anathemised person to everlasting hell.

It is likewise far removed from the Muslim practice of takfir. The takfir or decree of
unbelief, while in some ways analogous, is generally not primarily a determination of the
membership status of an individual but a moral judgement frequently attached to punitive
measures (hadd) and a reduction in political, military and/or judicial rights (as opposed to
membership rights). It implies eternal damnation and at the very least it is a measure designed to stimulate a hostile response in the community:

"The “fatawa of condemnation” [takfir] constitute an extraordinarily provocative genre of response in the annals of Islam. They provoked action; they aroused rebuke; and they served to banish from the fold of Islam the most troublesome elements, who threatened to unravel the fabric that bound one Muslim to another." (John Ralph Willis, “The Fatwas of Condemnation,” in Islamic Legal Interpretation: Muftis and Their Fatwas, eds. Mohammed Khalid Masud et al. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 153.)

In contrast the termination of membership status in this case has been communicated privately to the individual and to the institutions concerned (and could have remained largely anonymous without affecting wider interactions outside his immediate Baha'i community, depending on the choice of the individual), without a hint of
moral judgement or condemnation, and in no way calls for or implies a hostile response from
believers, as a passage of the Guardian cited by the House of Justice in its letter on theocracy from 1995 makes clear:

"...the mere fact of disaffection, estrangement, or recantation of belief, can in no wise detract from, or otherwise impinge upon, the legitimate civil rights of individuals in a free society, be it to the most insignificant degree. Were the friends to follow other than this course, it would be tantamount to a reversion on their part, in this century of radiance and light, to the ways and standards of a former age: they would reignite in men's breasts the fire of bigotry and blind fanaticism, cut themselves off from the glorious bestowals of this promised Day of God, and impede the full flow of divine assistance in
this wondrous age."

Hence, while the recent policy of disenrolment of a relatively few individuals (I am aware of less than five), could be cast in the rather inflammatory discourse of
excommunication or takfir, I think a much closer parallel would be the much more common, and much less controversial cases of disenrolment from all kinds of voluntary associations, sometimes acrimonious, but never entailing the moral judgements, metaphysical consequences, and demands for recantation associated with the religious practices reviewed above, and entirely inapplicable to this and similar cases.

This is important to bear in mind because the tensions that have led to this impasse are
tensions universally associated with the phenomenon of religious community around the
world and across history, and hence it is likely to reccur as the years go by, one hopes in
decreasing frequency as we develop a more creative, more cohesive discourse that liberates
our capacity for self expression by engendering a richer and less contentious culture of dialogue.

Even so, I think it is unrealistic to expect or demand that such tensions cease to stimulate
intervention from a constituted body vested with the task of ensuring, according to its best
judgement, the unity of the community above and beyond the diversity of perspectives it
demonstrably tolerates and even fosters. As with any other religious community without exception, such tensions are bound to result from time to time in both, principled individual dissent, and principled institutional action.

What must be borne in mind I feel is the distinctiveness of the response, which in my view
combines a sense of collective stewardship over the development of the community the Universal House of Justice has been elected to guide and nurture, with a respect for the sacrosanct right to freedom of conscience in the individual, effectively saying that the individual's views are his or her own concern, but their compatibility with membership requirements and community dynamics in their turn are its own legitimate concern. Where it perceives a conflict, without restricting or even condemning the individual's principled perspective, it may legitimately act within the sphere of its constitutional responsibilities.

Thus the disenrolment is in no way accompanied by warnings or encouragements to
cease from writing or acting in the vein that has led to the disenrolment. It is simply made clear that it would be inappropriate to do so within the context of Baha'i membership as defined by that membership's elected, ruling body.

I am not suggesting that takfir does not have to do with membership status. In fact there are indeed some analogies, precisely relating to this aspect of the decision. However, when one is disenrolled from an association on the basis that its guiding body does not consider statements or actions taken in its name as compatible with membership therein (an example is the recent expulsion of Yehudi Menhuin's son Gerard from his father's eponymous
society for comments made in various articles that were incompatible with the
aims of the association), although great controversy may ensue, no one would
suggest that someone is losing their political, judicial or military
rights, but rather his membership rights which do include participation within
the membership body's structures. The Bahá'í community, after all, is a
membership organization, with very clear constitutional structures, and
what is being rescinded is specifically membership in that body, with,
obviously, the privileges, no less than the limitations, attached thereto. That is a
perfectly legitimate thing for any constituted body to do, within or
outside religion. In practice, the decision of the Universal House of Justice
means an individual will no lnger be able to contribute to Bahá'í funds, elect or be
elected onto institutions, or participate in the 19 Day Feast. Apart from that
no space of Bahá'í community is closed, no association curtailed, no Bahá'í
activity forbidden. He may continue to write as he wishes, and publish as
he wishes.

To confuse this with political, judicial and military rights is to cloud the
issue. The courts, the government, the police, his freedom of movement,
speech and interaction have in no wise been curtailed. Only such spaces
as attach to membership in a specific and quite small membership body have
been cut off, naturally enough, along with membership therein.

Now, I think the differences from Takfir should be most apparent! The
Universal House of Justice in its letter does not make any declarations
on an individual's belief, or declares him an unbeliever. It addresses specifically
his "membership", not his belief, in "the Bahá'í community", in the light,
notof his beliefs, which it leaves to himself, but of behaviour and
statements that it considers, perfectly within its rights, the individual in question has himself clearly stated, in conflict with the qualifications of membership in the
constituted association known as the Bahá'í community. No pronouncement on his
relationship with God is made, only with the Bahá'í community as a
membership body under its authority and care.

This is radically different from takfir situations, which, as all the
legal literature on takfir will reveal to the most casual observer, is to be
followed by an appropriate hadd or punishment additional to the severance
of membership. In the past this has frequently tended to mean execution...
We are, if we be fair, rather far from such dimensions. I do think, and
there will be enough expertise here to clarify the matter in case I am
mistaken, that the greater Kufr or unbelief, on the basis of which a fatwa of
takfir is issued, does carry the necessary implication of damnation, unless
repentance is made. Here the House of Justice is not saying, you may not
believe as you do, let alone you will rot in Hell for it, it is simply
saying that the positions advanced are incompatible with its criteria for
membership, as happens daily in hundreds of thousands of membership
bodies around the world.

It seems exaggerated therefore to equate the House of Justice saying that a number
of ideas, statements and behaviours are incompatible with membership in the
Bahá'í community, to say, the fatwa against Salman Rushdie,
or in the most benign of cases, as in the case of the takfir against
Shaykh Jassiem of South Africa, implying at the least being declared one to whom
is "denied admittance to mosques and Muslim burial grounds, to whom marriage
is prohibited by Muslim law, and with whom Muslims should not associate" (p. 115 of Appeal Court Judgment).

The equivalent is clearly non-existent here. No temples are closed, no
marriages impeded, no association forbidden, no burial forsworn. Simply
membership in a membership body is suspended by that body's governing
institution, without, it is true, the privileges attached thereto in
relation participation in that body's institutions, but likewise without
the constraints associated, such as Bahá'í review and obedience to its
governing body.

In relation to my emphasis on terminolgy, it has been written "whether it is takfir or not", but clearly, as in the examples given, this a very important distinction, since if it is takfir it carries a far more explosive, contentious and intrusive implication than
if its is, as it in fact appears, a disenrolment pure and simple. That it
is a punitive measure, I think it is perfectly legitimate to hold, as is
disenrolment in any and all membership bodies, but not in the sense of
say, administrative sanctions, which have as their aim to induce a change of
behaviour and compliance and hence being accompanied by warnings and

One may indeed disagree with the decision, but to makse such disagreement
the basis of vehement accusations of takfir is to disregard the nature,
and legitimacy, of a perfectly common, perfectly legitimate, if not for that
palatable or even correct decision by a membership body's elected, governing
institution. Thus I have no problem with someone considering this
decision wrong, but do think it unreasonable to present it in the loaded and
inappropriate garb of takfir, anathema, or excommunication, or to present
it as a priori illegitimate, or to equate it with a violation of political,
judicial or human rights at a time when the eggregious violation of such
rights is endemic and infinitely more serious and far reaching than the
suspension of membership in a voluntary religious association. To equate
the latter to the former is to trivialize one and sensationalize the

Finally, as regards the notion of doctrinal tribunals, the very point
here is that there is no attempt to infringe on the individual's liberty of
thought, no requirement to change his beliefs, his statements or even his
behaviour, hence no congregation for the doctrine of the faith, no
theological trial, much less the rather explosive and potentially
inflammatory concept of "theological crimes"! This is not about belief,
but about community.

One can pounce on this very sad episode as a lurid attempt to purge the
Bahá'í community of its intellectuals, to infringe on people's civil
rights, to silence their voice and pronounce fatwas of takfir against them. But
I suspect that most dispassionate observers will see this rather as one
fairly low key manifestation of a universal tension in religion between
individual scholarly interpretation and community cohesion, which does not spell the
end of rigorous intellectual production within its ranks (surely the
worth of work produced by the likes of Buck, Lawson, Momen, Lambden, Knight,
Quinn, etc., will be judged for its scholarship and not for its faith
allegiances) ; an episode which no court of law would consider a human or
even civil rights violation, but a constituted body's legitimate (correct
or incorrect) action, implemented discretely and as far as possible
protecting the privacy of the individual concerned (his immediate institutions were
logically notified of his being unable to serve on them, but apart from
them this in no way impled, as you put it, "a very public" act, none of us
would know about it, nor most of the Bahá'í world, had it not been shared by
the author himself); and, while expressing institutional disagreement with a
given position (surely a perfectly reasonable thing to do), and judging
it outside its membership criteria - yet making no calls on it to be
modified, much less muted; and while implying potentially an ethical disapproval
(surely an equally reasonable possibility for anyone) in no way accompanied
by the extreme condemnations and proscriptions associated with takfirs or

In the hope that this clarifies somewhat my understanding, and contributes
to engendering a less fractious, more nuanced discourse on a universal,
if unuplifting situation inherent in the phenomenon of religious community
itself, and linked (not condemned) in social science to the need for
boundary maintenance, the processes by which a community seeks to build
an identity that promotes commonality and cohesion and which, while
legitimate, is not always harmonious,

With love,as ever,



Anonymous said...

Keep on posting your thoughts and insights, Ismael!
Gratefully, Martijn

Anonymous said...

This is a very thoughtful approach to institutional actions that some ex-Baha'is have tried to sensationalize. The purpose of such sensationalizing has been couched in the garb of seeking justice and rights, but the actual and possibly intended result is to bring the Baha'i community and its institutions into disrepute in the eyes of a public that has relatively little, if any, knowledge of how the Baha'i community functions and how its institutions are constituted. Sensationalism can be a kind of propaganda for the purpose of turning the public against a particular idea, community, or group.

I would hope that Ismael and others would publish academic articles about this phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

Since Ismael's posting is clearly about my own case, I would like to
go on record: I (Sen McGlinn) agree with Ismael. This is not a takfir
or an assault on my human rights or civil rights. I do not think I
had a right to be "heard" or to know the charges against me, because
that would imply a doctrinal court of inquiry, and there is no basis
for that in Bahai community structures. I deplore the action of those
who have used my case for polemic purposes, against the House of
Justice or the Bahai Faith itself.

It is regrettable, but perhaps inevitable, that Bahais who are
attempting to understand why the UHJ would have taken this action,
have come up with reasons for it, involving nasty things I am
supposed to have done, and in discussing their various theories have
confirmed them for one another. This has come to look like a campaign
of character assassination against me. I think it is very unlikely
that any official body of the Bahai Faith is behind this. Simple
speculation and curiosity explains it quite adequately.

Sen McGlinn


Thank you all for your comments and encouragement, and specially to Sen for his brave and important clarification.

This, as my reflection acknowledges, is a painful and delicate enough subject not to be obfuscated by disengenous and inflammatory polemics. Sen's contribution goes a long way toward ensuring that a tempered and sober approach be taken when thinking upon an important matter to explore and clarify, and a relatively new development in Bahá'í administrative procedure.

With all my love and gratitude for all the comments,