Tuesday, January 01, 2008

On Group Identity: The Baha'i Community has a strong collective identity and, consequently, has strong boundaries

What does it mean to be a member of the Baha'i Community? How does membership in the Baha'i Community compare to membership in other communities, religious or otherwise? One factor that distinguishes the Baha'i Community is it strong boundaries. In an article in the academic journal Religion, Momen explains. -gw

Part of the process of creating a group identity is the creation of group boundaries. The political scientist George Schöpflin states that ‘identity excludes and includes, otherwise it would not be an identity that could sustain itself. Exclusion, then is a necessary and unavoidable aspect of human existence and it is not the fact of exclusion as such that is problematical, but the particular forms of it in particular situations’ (Schöpflin, 2001). In general, the stronger the sense of group identity, the stronger the boundary distinguishing the group from society. In some ‘New Age’ movements, for example, the group boundaries may be very porous, so that individuals can enter and leave the group with little effort. These groups, however, have a nebulous group identity. By contrast, the Baha'i community has a strong collective identity and, consequently, has strong boundaries.

A number of features of the Baha'i Faith give it strong boundaries. The first is the existence of laws that Baha'is are obliged to obey. These laws are not nearly so pervasive as the Islamic Shari'ah or Judaic Halachah, but they do include such injunctions as daily prayers, fasting and abstinence from alcohol. These laws both create boundaries and strengthen group identity. The laws relating to the individual are not communally enforced. No one enforces the fast or daily prayer upon an individual. There are, however, a small number of laws with social implications that are enforced, such as the marriage and divorce laws. ...

The second element of the Baha'i Faith that ensures strong boundaries is the concept of the Covenant. There is little in the way of a creed in the Baha'i Faith. All Baha'is are encouraged to read their scriptures for themselves and to come to their own understandings. What prevents the religion from fragmenting is the loyalty that each Baha'i is expected to have to the head of the religion, which since 1963 has been an internationally elected council called the Universal House of Justice. While all Baha'is can have their own views of their scriptures, no one is allowed to claim an authoritative understanding. The Universal House of Justice itself tends to refrain from making theological statements. It is mainly concerned with making strategic and organisational decisions. It may, however, make rulings where there are disputes among Baha'is, especially when there is the fear of schism. This loyalty to the centre of the religion is the doctrine of the Covenant, and for Baha'is the greatest spiritual crime is ‘covenant-breaking’, which means, attacking the head of the religion or seeking to create schism.

From: "Marginality and apostasy in the Baha'i community," by Moojan Momen Religion Volume 37, Issue 3, September 2007, Pages 187-209. This is the original paper as submitted: "Marginality and Apostasy in the Baha'i Community."
[Photo: Uploaded on September 5, 2005 by ryran on flickr, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic. Note on picking the photo: Every post has to have a visual, is my motto. What photo to pick for a post on group identity? I picked this shot by Ryan, one of my favorite Baha'i photographers on flickr, of an attendee at a Baha'i wedding from a few years back. Ryan goes for the candid portraits. This one has that verve I associate with what it feels like to be a Baha'i. Here is more verve from Ryan. -gw]

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