Unofficial Bahá'í Lore
Author: David Piff
Publisher: George Ronald, Oxford, 2000, 584 pages
Reviewer: Iarfhlaith Watson
Never judge a book by its cover. There is something unappealing about this book's cover, its size, and title. Yet, when I began to read I found it to be a most enjoyable book. I did hesitate at my enjoyment, however, and wondered if there was something risqué about its content that appealed to me. I pushed that thought aside and read it over a short period of time and found it not to be the boring tome that I had initially expected.
What is Bahá'í lore? According to David Piff, Bahá'í lore is unofficial information within the Bahá'í community. This unofficial information comes in various guises, such as gossip, rumour, hearsay, etc. Piff does not discuss the vast differences between these types of unofficial information. Sociologically, it would be interesting to come to some understanding of these differences and how they are related systemically in different ways to the worldview of Bahá'ís. For Bahá'ís, it would be interesting to have a line drawn between spiritually acceptable forms of unofficial information and the more destructive forms usually referred to as backbiting.
Related to the differences within unofficial information is the question of the accuracy of some of these claims. Bahá'ís would be interested, where possible, to know the source of the information and how it relates to the official version. The closest Piff comes to this is to argue that while Bahá'í lore is naive, unnuanced and inconsistent, it is closely related in theme and content to official teachings. It is clear, however, that he wasn't interested in the origin or accuracy of the information, but rather, in its function in constructing a Bahá'í worldview. I do not find this satisfactory. A single individual, by and large, reports each rumour. There is no evidence that these "rumours" are not isolated instances of misunderstandings that are then conveyed to the author by another individual without corroboration. There are many instances where the "lore" is inaccurate. One respondent claimed that "you have to do ablutions with cold water" (174), yet, in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, Bahá'u'lláh said that, "Warm water may be used in times of bitter cold". Curiously, the same respondent reported that, "You have to do them with hot water" (174). Another respondent reported that "heavy petting and everything else short of actual intercourse is permissible for unmarried Bahá'í couples" (278) and also that the marriage of a couple whom had engaged in premarital sex is "foredoomed" to failure (277). She also reported that, "If you begin breakfast before the sun comes up, you can finish eating after the sun comes up without having broken the fast," even though Bahá'u'lláh stated in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas that to fast means to "Abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sundown." This leads to two problems. First, these individual misunderstandings cannot be defined as community lore if they are confined to individuals. Second, where some of the information appears relatively accurate and believable and other information appears completely inaccurate, and perhaps even hurtful backbiting, there is a blurring of the distinction between the acceptable and the unacceptable and between truth and falsity. To a certain extent the truth is made false and falsity made true.
This blurring is evident not only between the different types of information, but also between unofficial and official Bahá'í information. There is no marker laid down around the accuracy or inaccuracy of unofficial information relative to official Bahá'í information and especially to the Bahá'í writings. The impression is left that there is an unofficial Bahá'í tradition and that it is an accepted part of Bahá'í doctrine.
The original aim of the research was "to identify misinformation within popular Bahá'í discourse" (8). Although my comments above make it clear that I regret that the author did not retain at least some of this original intent, I am extremely interested in what the research became — "an effort to investigate how the discourse of the community, regardless of its canonical accuracy, contributes to and reflects the process of creating a Bahá'í world view and reinforcing Bahá'í self-understanding" (8-9). This sounds like a most welcome contribution to the sociological study of the Bahá'í Faith.
In the main chapters of the book Piff outlines Bahá'í lore around a number of "topics." These chapters deal with lore around Bahá'í teachings, enemies of the Faith, conversion, important figures in the Faith, celebrities, and unofficial interpretation by Bahá'ís of world events, especially of an impending catastrophe. In discussing these topics Piff attempts to explain the existence of these "rumours."
Piff's descriptions and explanations are generally appealing and sensible. For example, he claims that rumours about Bahá'í teachings occur as a result of a lack of information. The most pertinent example is the discourse surrounding the Kitáb-i-Aqdas before it was fully published in English in 1992. He claims that this discourse, which surrounds some problematic areas of Bahá'í history, functions to alleviate uncertainty. There is, however, a clear need to justify these discourses and support them with evidence. For example, he claims that anecdotes about dire consequences for enemies of the Bahá'í Faith serve to control the Bahá'ís and allows them to safely ignore criticism.
In the penultimate chapter Piff outlines six functions of Bahá'í lore. These are to validate the "charisma" of the central figures and institutions of the Faith; to humanise the central figures and Bahá'í leaders; to reinforce community boundaries; to establish and sustain Bahá'í identity; for community self-education; and testimonies of Bahá'í living. While these may or may not be valid explanations of the functions of these discourses, I would need to see how these functions relate to the aim of the research, which was "to investigate how the discourse of the community·contributes to and reflects the process of creating a Bahá'í world view." As it stands, the research outlines the rumours and a number of functions they perform without analysing how the discourse performs these functions. It is perhaps a rather functional, tautological and teleological argument — the Bahá'í community needs this lore, therefore it exists.
Piff's work would have been stronger if he had retained some of his original intention and addressed the issue of misinformation. More importantly this research would have benefited from an in-depth sociological analysis of the context from which this lore emerges. This lack of context, this lack of critique of the content of the rumours is the most important limitation of this work. Finally, I am also critical of the conclusions. It is unremarkable to argue that Bahá'í informal discourse is an unofficial version of the Faith. Second, he claims that both the official and unofficial discourses serve the needs of the community. I have argued above that this argument is flawed. Moreover, the author's claim that there is a cognitive and attitudinal correspondence between unofficial and official information would require assessing the misinformation of the unofficial discourse. Even so, Piff's research is an initial foray into an interesting and fruitful topic that makes an important contribution to the sociology of the Bahá'í Faith as well a being an enjoyable — if unsatisfactory — read.