What is the role of questioning and criticism in the Bahá’í community?
At such a time when the political world is chaotic and society seems to be on the verge of death, as a result of
the activities of societies that contain only half-truths, the friends of God should be united and act as one
single organism. The greater their unity the surer they can be of winning the day. And this unity cannot be
achieved save through obedience to the Assemblies. It is true that these are still immature and may at times act
unwisely. But supporting them will help more their advance toward an administration that is truly representative
of the Cause, than by criticizing them and ignoring their advice. Bahá’u'lláh has not only advocated certain
principles, but has also provided a mechanism whereby that ideal can be established and perpetuated. Both of these
phases are essential for the realization of His goal of world unity.”
From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi February 27, 1933, Rights and Responsibilities p. 57
The Bahá’ís are fully entitled to address criticisms to their Assemblies; they can freely air their views about policies or individual members of elected bodies to the Assembly, local or National, but then they must wholeheartedly accept the advice or decision of the Assembly, according to the principles already laid down for such matters in Bahá’í administration.
From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi — May 13, 1945 Rights and Responsibilities p. 57
…you had asked whether the believers have the right to openly express their criticism of any Assembly action or policy: it is not only the right, but the vital responsibility of every loyal and intelligent member of the Community to offer fully and frankly, but with due respect and consideration to the authority of the Assembly, any suggestion, recommendation or criticism he conscientiously feels he should in order to improve and remedy certain existing conditions or trends in his local Community, and it is the duty of the Assembly also to give careful consideration to any such views submitted to them by any one of the believers. The best occasion chosen for this purpose is the Nineteen Day Feast, which, besides its social and spiritual aspects, fulfils various administrative needs and requirements of the Community, chief among them being the need for open and constructive criticism and deliberation regarding the state of affairs within the local Bahá’í Community.
But again it should be stressed that all criticisms and discussions of a negative character which may result in
undermining the authority of the Assembly as a body should be strictly avoided. For otherwise the order of the
Cause itself will be endangered, and confusion and discord will reign in the Community.
From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi — December 13, 1939, Rights and Responsibilities p. 58
The Guardian believes that a great deal of the difficulties from which the believers … feel themselves to be suffering are caused by their neither correctly understanding nor putting into practice the administration. They seem - many of them - to be prone to continually challenging and criticizing the decisions of their Assemblies. If the Bahá’ís undermine the very bodies which are, however immaturely, seeking to co-ordinate Bahá’í activities and administer Bahá’í affairs, if they continually criticize their acts and challenge or belittle their decisions, they not only prevent any real rapid progress in the Faith’s development from taking place, but they repel outsiders who quite rightly may ask how we ever expect to unite the whole world when we are so disunited among ourselves!
There is only one remedy for this: to study the administration, to obey the Assemblies, and each believer seek to
perfect his own character as a Bahá’í. We can never exert the influence over others which we can exert over
ourselves. If we are better, if we show love, patience, and understanding of the weaknesses of others; if we seek
to never criticize but rather encourage, others will do likewise, and we can really help the Cause through our
example and spiritual strength. The Bahá’ís everywhere, when the administration is first established, find
it very difficult to adjust themselves. They have to learn to obey, even when the Assembly may be wrong, for the
sake of unity. They have to sacrifice their personalities, to a certain extent, in order that the community life
may grow and develop as a whole. These things are difficult - but we must realize that they will lead us to a very
much greater, more perfect, way of life when the Faith is properly established according to the
From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi, October 26, 1943, Rights and Responsibilities p. 58-9
Vicious criticism is indeed a calamity. But its root is lack of faith in the system of Bahá’u'lláh (i.e. the administrative order) and lack of obedience to Him - for He has forbidden it. If the Bahá’ís would follow the Bahá’í laws in voting, in electing, in serving, and in abiding by assembly decisions, all this waste of strength through criticizing others could be diverted into cooperation and achieving the Plan.
From a letter written on behalf of Shoghi Effendi — December 18, 1949, Rights and Responsibilities p. 59
The concentration of authority in the hands of the elected representatives of the believers; the necessity of the
submission of every adherent of the Faith to the considered judgment of Bahá’í Assemblies; His preference
for unanimity in decision; the decisive character of the majority vote; and even the desirability for the exercise
of close supervision over all Bahá’í publications, have been sedulously instilled by `Abdu’l-Bahá, as
evidenced by His authenticated and widely-scattered Tablets. To accept His broad and humanitarian Teachings on one
hand, and to reject and dismiss with neglectful indifference His more challenging and distinguishing precepts,
would be an act of manifest disloyalty to that which He has cherished most in His life.
Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u'lláh, pp. 6
Because the Most Great Peace is the object of our longing, a primary effort of the Bahá’í community is to reduce the incidence of conflict and contention, which are categorically forbidden in the Most Holy Book. Does this mean that one may not express critical thought? Absolutely not. How can there be the candour called for in consultation if there is no critical thought? How is the individual to exercise his responsibilities to the Cause, if he is not allowed the freedom to express his views? Has Shoghi Effendi not stated that “at the very root of the Cause lies the principle of the undoubted right of the individual to self-expression, his freedom to declare his conscience and set forth his views”?
The Administrative Order provides channels for expression of criticism, acknowledging, as a matter of principle, that “it is not only the right, but the vital responsibility of every loyal and intelligent member of the community to offer fully and frankly, but with due respect and consideration to the authority of the Assembly, any suggestion, recommendation or criticism he conscientiously feels he should in order to improve and remedy certain existing conditions or trends in his local community”. Correspondingly, the Assembly has the duty “to give careful consideration to any such views submitted to them”.
Apart from the direct access which one has to an Assembly, local or national, or to a Counsellor or Auxiliary Board member, there are specific occasions for the airing of one’s views in the community. The most frequent of these occasions for any Bahá’í is the Nineteen Day Feast which, “besides its social and spiritual aspects, fulfils various administrative needs and requirements of the community, chief among them being the need for open and constructive criticism and deliberation regarding the state of affairs within the local Bahá’í community”. At the same time, Shoghi Effendi’s advice, as conveyed by his secretary, goes on to stress the point that “all criticisms and discussions of a negative character which may result in undermining the authority of the Assembly as a body should be strictly avoided. For otherwise the order of the Cause itself will be endangered, and confusion and discord will reign in the community.”
Clearly, then, there is more to be considered than the critic’s right to self-expression; the unifying spirit of the Cause of God must also be preserved, the authority of its laws and ordinances safeguarded, authority being an indispensable aspect of freedom. Motive, manner, mode, become relevant; but there is also the matter of love: love for one’s fellows, love for one’s community, love for one’s institutions.
The responsibility resting on the individual to conduct himself in such a way as to ensure the stability of society takes on elemental importance in this context. For vital as it is to the progress of society, criticism is a two-edged sword: it is all too often the harbinger of conflict and contention. The balanced processes of the Administrative Order are meant to prevent this essential activity from degenerating to any form of dissent that breeds opposition and its dreadful schismatic consequences. How incalculable have been the negative results of ill-directed criticism: in the catastrophic divergences it has created in religion, in the equally contentious factions it has spawned in political systems, which have dignified conflict by institutionalizing such concepts as the “loyal opposition” which attach to one or another of the various categories of political opinion — conservative, liberal, progressive, reactionary, and so forth.
If Bahá’í individuals deliberately ignore the principles imbedded in the Order which Bahá’u’lláh Himself has established to remedy divisiveness in the human family, the Cause for which so much has been sacrificed will surely be set back in its mission to rescue world society from complete disintegration. May not the existence of the Covenant be invoked again and again, so that such repetition may preserve the needed perspective? For, in this age, the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh has been protected against the baneful effects of the misuse of the process of criticism; this has been done by the institution of the Covenant and by the provision of a universal administrative system which incorporates within itself the mechanisms for drawing out the constructive ideas of individuals and using them for the benefit of the entire system. Admonishing the people to uphold the unifying purpose of the Cause, Bahá’u’lláh, in the Book of His Covenant, addresses these poignant words to them: “Let not the means of order be made the cause of confusion and the instrument of union an occasion for discord.” Such assertions emphasize a crucial point; it is this: In terms of the Covenant, dissidence is a moral and intellectual contradiction of the main objective animating the Bahá’í community, namely, the establishment of the unity of mankind.
The Universal House of Justice, Individual Rights and Freedoms, paragraph 31-36