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Exploring the differences between forbearance, indifference, acceptance, turning away, freedom, and tolerance, to distinguish matters of opinion and belief from scientific and aesthetic ones.
Presented at Irfan Colloquium session #48, Acuto Italy, July 2003.

The Approach of Abdu'l-Baha to the Problem of Tolerance

by Erfan Sabeti

Many times during our lives, we have confronted the following question: 'Is it necessarily a sign of intolerance to think that certain things are intolerable? ' Or else, in a different manner: ' Does being tolerant mean tolerating everything? ' The aim of this paper is to address these sorts of questions in the light of the teachings of Abdu'l-Bahá, of course, from a philosophical point of view.

 In philosophy, reason commands, as it does in the science, but without appeal to confirmation or refutation offered by experiment. Science provides no answers to our ultimate concerns or any of the fundamental questions we ask ourselves. The question 'Should one pursue physics? ' has no physical answer. It is the same when we ask 'Is the science true? ', no scientific answer. And of course, there are no mathematical or scientific answers to questions about the meaning of life, the existense of God, or the validity of our values and virtues. But how could we refrain from asking such questions? The point is to think to the very edge of our lives, hence as far as possible, beyond the limits of what we know. It's because of this fact that we need philosophy and since metaphysics is the core of philosophy, we should also resort to religion.

But what does all this have to do with tolerance?

 When a truth is known with certainty, tolerance is irrelevant because there is no alternative for it. One would not tolerate an accountant's refusal to correct his/her miscalculations. Nor would one tolerate a biologist's holding his/her hypothesis despite negative experimental evidences. Abdu'l-Bahá writes, "O you who are wise! Consider this carefully: Can an ordinary gun compare with a Martini-Henry rifle or a Krupp gun? If anyone should maintain that our old-time firearms are good enough for us and that it is useless to import weapons which have been invented abroad, would even a child listen to him? Or should anyone say: 'We have always transported merchandise from one country to another on the backs of animals. Why do we need steam engimes? Why should we try to ape other peoples? 'could any intelligent person tolerate such a statement? No, by the one God!Unless he should, because of some hidden design or animosity, refuse to accept the obvious. ”The truth demands nothing other than that we pursue it. Science advances and improves only by correcting, and not tolerating and neglecting, its errors.

The problem of tolerance arises solely in the matters of opinion, which is why it arises so often, in fact almost permanently. We know far less than we do not know, and everything we know depends, directly or indirectly, on something we do not know. A proposition that does not involve tolerance from a scientific standpoint might involve it from a philosophical, moral or religious point of view.

To tolerate means to accept what could be condemned or allow what could be prevented or combated. What is being tolerated should inexorably be something the tolerator feels distaste for, or even detests or despises or holds in contempt. In a tablet to a woman, whose husband was an ill-tempered one, Abdu'l-Bahá gives this advice: 'Even if thy loving kindness maketh him more bitter, manifest thou more kindliness, more tenderness, be more loving and tolerate his cruel actions and ill-treatment'. To tolerate something is to leave it be, to refrain from doing anything about it even though I am not for it. I can not be said to be tolerating something I view positively, because I have no reason for preventing the expression of something I approve, and therefore no reason for detering myself from objecting it. I can not be said to be tolerating something if I have no power to do anything about it. If I have no power to prevent something, I can not be said to be tolerating it. I am merely enduring it, or putting up with it. Tolerance is a virtue only when exercised against one's own interest and for the sake of someone else's. To tolerate the suffering of others, to tolerate an injustice of which we are not a victim is not tolerance but selfishness, indifference, or worse. In the words of Abdu'l-Bahá, 'If at this moment a wild Arab were to enter this place with a drawn sword, wishing to assault, wound and kill you, most assuredly I would prevent him. If I abandoned you to the Arab, that would not be justice but injustice. But if he injure me personally, I would forgive him.' Tolerating a murderer means becoming his partner, at least by omission or negligence.

But things are not so simple. Tolerance is a virtue, and virtues can not be confined to a community of virtuous; if we are sincere only with the sincere ones, and just solely with the just, we are neither sincere nor just. Morality is not a mirror or transaction. Here comes the question of pure tolerance. Is it possible to be tolerant with the intolerant? Pure tolerance is self-contradictory in practical terms and therefore not just morally but philosophically doomed. Tolerance can only apply within certain boundaries, which maintain and preserve the conditions that make it possible. Popper calls this "the paradox of tolerance”: 'If we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, if we are not prepared to defend a tolerant society against the onslaught of the intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them'. Whether a specific individual, group or behaviour should be tolerated depends not on whether they themselves are tolerant but on how dangerous they really are. Such is the case with covenant breakers: '…one of the greatest and most fundamental principles of the Cause of God is to shun and avoid entirely the Covenant-breakers, for they will utterly destroy the Cause of God, exterminate His law and render no account all efforts exerted in the past.'

Unlike love, which has no inherent boundaries except those imposed by our own personal incapacities, tolerance is intrinsically limited; an unlimited tolerance would mean the end of tolerance!Depicting the situation of Bahá'í community, Abdu'l-Bahá says: 'O ye beloved of the Lord!On one side the standard of the One True God is unfurled and the voice of the kingdom raised. The Cause of God is spreading, and manifest in splendour are the wonders from on high. On the other side the faithless wax in hate and rancour, ceaselessly stirring up grievous sedition and mischief. No day goeth by but someone raiseth the standard of revolt and spurreth his charger into the arena of discord. No hour passeth but the vile adder bareth its fangs and scattereth its deadly venom. The beloved of the Lord are wrapped in utter sincerity and devotion, unmindful of this rancour and malice. Smooth and insidious are these snakes, these whisperers of evil, artful in their craft and guile. Be ye on your guard and ever wakeful!Quick-witted and keen of intellect are the faithful, and firm and steadfast are the assured. Act ye with all circumspection!Beware lest any soul privily cause disruption or stir up strife. In the impregnable stronghold be ye brave warriors, and for the Mighty Mansion a valiant host. Exercise the utmost care, and day and night be on your guard, that thereby the tyrant may inflict no harm'. This is the case only when the institutions and the community are fragile, and not to do so would be lack of wisdom. In Popper's words: 'In this formulation, I do not imply, for instance, that we should always suppress the utterance of intolerant philosophies; as long as we can counter them by rational argument and keep them in check by public opinion, suppression would certainly be most unwise. But we should claim the right to suppress them if necessary even by force;for it may easily turn out that they are not prepared to meet us on the level of rational argument, but begin by denouncing all argument;they may forbid their followers to listen to rational argument, because it is deceptive, and teach them to answer arguments by the use of their fists or pistols. We should therefore claim in the name of tolerance, the right not to tolerate the intolerant. We should claim that any movement preaching intolerance places itself outside the law, and we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal'. Thus, some things are intolerable, even for a tolerant person. Murder, injustice and tyranny are morally intolerable and anything that threatens the freedom, peace and survival of a society can not be tolerated practically.

According to Abdu'l-Bahá one of the pillars of Bahá'í Faith is the love for truth and it can  be counted as a criterion for tolerance. 'It is evident, therefore, that there is nothing of greater importance to mankind than the investigation of truth. 'But there is a problem. Only in the name of the supposed truth of one's point of view can one pretend to impose it on others, or rather only by supposing its truth can one claim justification for its imposition. Must we therefore stop loving the truth? Since "the fundamental principle enunciated by Bahá'u'llah is that religious truth is not absolute but relative”, no one has the right to impose his/her opinion. Intolerance leads to disunity and  it is harmful for any society. It is on this very basis that
'If two souls quarrel and contend about a question of the divine questions, differing and disputing, both are wrong. The wisdom of this incontrovertible law of God is this: That between two souls from amongst the believers of God , no contention and dispute may arise;that they may speak with each other with infinite amity and love. Should there appear the least trace of controversy, they must remain silent, and both parties must continue their discussions no longer, but ask the reality of the question from the Interpreter. This is the irrefutable command!'

In her important work, the Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes: 'The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction(i. e, the reality of experience)and the distinction between true and false(i. e, the standards of thought)no longer exist. ' If nothing is true, how can we distinguish virtues from vices? According to Abdu'l-Bahá , one must not renounce the love for truth in order to be tolerant, quite the contrary, it is this very love that makes us tolerant. In every dispensation, new believers, indeed truth lovers, are excellent stances of tolerance. 'The communities which have accepted His teachings are now living together in the greatest love and harmony. When you enter a meeting of these people, you will find Christians, Jews, Muslims, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, gathered together in perfect fellowship and agreement. In their discussions the greatest spirit of tolerance and friendship has supplanted the former hostility and hatered witnessed among them. ' To love truth means recognizing that we can never know it absolutely , tolerance is based on our inability to attain the absolute. Some three hundred years ago, Voltaire wrote: 'What is toleration? It is the prerogative of humanity. We are all steeped in weaknesses and errors: let us forgive one another our follies, it is the first law of nature. ' Therefore, even in teaching a religious truth, one must observe tolerance: "In accordance with the divine teachings in this glorious dispensation we should not belittle anyone and call him ignorant, saying: 'You know not, but I know. ' Rather, we should look upon others with respect, and when attempting to explain and demonstrate, we should speak as if we are investigating the truth, saying: 'Here these things are before us. Let us investigate to determine where and in what form the truth can be found. ' The teacher should not consider himself as learned and others ignorant. Such a thought breedeth pride, and pride is not conducive to influence. The teacher should not see in himself any superiority; he should speak with the utmost kindliness, lowliness, and humility, for such speech exerteth influence and educateth the souls. ”Here is where tolerance follows from humility, to love truth is to accept our weakness to grasp the whole truth.

In the political realm, even if a government had access to absolute truth, it would lack the power to impose it on any soul, because an individual can not be compelled to think other than what he/she considers as true.  'Now this is beyond the power of man, that he should be able by interference or objection to change the heart and conscience, or meddle with the activities of anyone. For in the realm of conscience naught but the ray of God's light can command, and on the throne of the heart none but the pervading power of the king of kings should rule. Thus it is that one can arrest and suspend every faculty except thought and reflection: for a man can not even by his own volition withhold himself from reflection or thought, nor keep back his misusings and imaginings. ' One can prevent a person from expressing his beliefs, but one can not prevent him from having them, unless one were to suppress thought itself and weaken the government accordingly. In tolerance gives birth to hypocricy and corruption in society and therefore weakens the social solidarity. This line of thought is in accordance with the ideas of Lock and Spinoza. In his Theologico-Political Treatise, Spinoza writes that 'it is imperative that freedom of judgement should be granted , so that men may live together in harmony, however diverse, or even openly contradictory their opinions may be. ' Conversely, tolerance and freedom of conscience is the cause of progress and development. Abdu'l-Bahá contrasts medieval intolerance by saying: " But when [the westerners] removed these differences, persecutions, and bigotries out of their midst, and proclaimed the equal rights of all subjects and the liberty of men's conscience, the lights of glory and power arose and shone frOm the horizons of that kingdom in such wise that those countries made progress in every direction…These are effectual and sufficient proofs that the conscience of man is sacred and to be respected; and that liberty thereof produces widening of ideas, amendment of morals, improvement of conduct, disclosure of the secrets of creation, and manifestation of the hidden verities of the contingent world. ' In another occasion He said: '…when freedom of conscience, liberty of thought and right of speech prevail-that is to say, when every man according to his own idealization may give expression to his beliefs-development and growth are inevitable. '

Here comes the dillema of freedom and tolerance. Although tolerance imposes a duty on the tolerator to refrain from suppressing what is disliked or disapproved of, that duty does not make the tolerator unfree. Rather, the tolerator is exercising moral freedom by choosing to take a tolerant stance. The more tolerant I am of others, the freer they are; and the more tolerant others are of me, the freer I am. But this implies that my freedom is dependent on what someone else does(or does not do). But dependence on another is not freedom. If I must wait upon someone else's action or inaction, then I am not free. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Freedom is not always the highest good. Abdu'l-Bahá talks of " moderate freedom” and approves not the absolute freedom. He introduces another criterion for tolerance: '…religion must be the cause of justice, 'reality is justice'and 'the continuance of mankind depends upon justice and not forgiveness. ' So the limit of freedom and tolerance is justice.

It has been argued that this approach is some kind of intolerance. In fact, to widen the meaning of intolerance to cover all forms of negative judgement is to call "intolerant” any form of criticism, disagreement and disapproval. This "pure” tolerance makes impossible any kind of criticism. As mentioned before, intolerance means the actual exercise of a power of censorship or prevention, just as tolerance implies the ability to exercise such a power while refraining from using it. So criticism, disagreement and distaste are not intolerance, as long as the only power the critic has is that of reason and persuasion.

While it may be quite reasonable to find what others believe or say or do distasteful, it is entirely unreasonable to feel distaste for what they are. 'There are souls in the human world who are ignorant;we must make them knowing. Some growing upon the tree are weak and ailing;we must assist them toward health and recovery. If they are as infants in development, we must minister to them until they attain maturity. We should never detest and shun them as objectionable and unworthy. We must treat them with honor, respect and kindness;for God has created them and not Satan…all humanity must be looked upon with love, kindness, and respect; for what we behold in them are none other than the signs and traces of God Himself. ' Is one respecting others if he/she finds their ideas wrong and even evil? Perhaps one's respect for others as human beings involves not accepting what they say or do, if he/she finds it wrong, but what they are. We must be committed to truth and lies, mistakes, illusions and deceptions are its opposites.

Here enters another question that whether or not tolerance is inferior to something else, to acceptance, or to a genuine respect for others. Tolerance is not the only option available, and there is another virtue which contribute more to human well-being than tolerance does. The term " tolerance” defines a virtue that is contrary to fanaticism and dogmatism. It goes without saying that respect or love are superior to it. But if tolerance has so common usage in our literature today, it is because we lack love or respect toward our adversaries. 'Bahá'u'llah has clearly said in His Tablets that if you have an enemy, consider him not as an enemy. Do not simply be long-suffering;nay, rather, love him. Your treatment of him should be that which is becoming to lovers. Do not even say that he is your enemy. Do not see any enemies. Though he be your murderer, see no enemy. Look upon him with the eye of friendship. Be mindful that you do not consider him as an enemy and simply tolerate him, for that is but stratagem and hypocrisy. To consider a man your enemy and love him is hypocrisy. This is not becoming of any soul. You must behold him as a friend. You must treat him well. This is right. 'Abdu'l-Bahá believes that the men  "forget the laws of love and tolerance. ” These words remind us those of Jankelevitch: 'While awaiting the day when tolerance will become loving, we will say that tolerance, prosaic tolerance, is the best we can do!Tolerance-though the word is hardly exalting- is therefore a passable solution;while awaiting better-that is, until men become capable of loving one another, or simply of knowing and understanding one another- let us count ourselves fortunate if they can at least suffer each other. Tolerance, then, belongs to the interim period.' So, tolerance is only a beginning. We must attain to the station that 'the stranger may find himself a friend, the enemy a true brother', and this will be the result of universal love.

This is not contrary to the fact that one must intolerate some vices. Disrespect is not always wrong and there are hatreds that come close to being virtues - e. g. hatered toward murder, torture, lie. Some things are intolerable and must be fought;other things are tolerable even though not loveable. Tolerance reveals this spectrum. It is a minor but necessary virtue.

  1. Abdu'l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1990, p. 32.
  2. Lights of Guidance, 1988, p. 757.
  3. Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1990, p. 271.
  4. Karl Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1966, vol. 1, p. 265.
  5. Abdu'l-Bahá, Will and Testament, Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1994, p. 20
  6. Abdu'l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Bahá, Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982, p. 314.
  7. Popper, Open Society, vol. 1, p. 265.
  8. Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982, p. 62.
  9. Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day Is Come, Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1990, p.
  10. Abdu'l-Bahá, Tablets of the Divine Plan, Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1993, p. 56.
  11. Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979. p. 474.
  12. Promulgation, p. 301.
  13. Voltaire, Philosophical Dictionary, Penguin, 1988, p. 387.
  14. Selections, pp. 29-30.
  15. Abdu'l-Bahá, A Traveler's Narrative, Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982, p. 40.
  16. Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise, trans. R. H. M. Elwes, Dover Publications, 1995, p. 263.
  17. A Traveler's Narrative Written to Illustrate the Episode of the Bab, ed. And trans. E. G. Browne, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1891, 1: 203-204, 2: 164.
  18. Promulgation, p. 197.
  19. Selections, p. 305.
  20. Promulgation, p. 344.
  21. Ibid, p. 372.
  22. Some Answered Questions, p. 270.
  23. Promulgation, p. 231.
  24. Ibid, p. 267.
  25. Vladimir Jankelevitch, Traite des Vertus, Champs-Flammarion, 1986, pp. 101-102.
  26. Abdu'l-Bahá, Paris Talks, Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1972, p. 107.
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