Why We Need Bahá’í Storytelling

& Bahá’í Storytellers


What is the potential value of oral storytelling to a religion, such as the Bahá’í Faith, which strongly values and advocates literacy?

The Value of Oral Storytelling to a Highly Literate Religion

     The relationship between literacy and orality must also be considered in evaluating the need for oral storytelling in the Bahá’í context. This is an issue of importance, since the Bahá’í Faith holds every individual's right to an education as one of its most basic tenets. One might ask, does literacy serve to negate or enhance the value of oral storytelling in the Bahá’í context?

     For an answer to this question, one must look once again to the Bahá’í Exemplar, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá used both literacy and orality in his leadership of the Bahá’í Faith. He considered both to be important. As a result, Bahá’í's must not lose the importance of the oral tradition in the quest for widespread literacy. The Bahá’í teachings about the necessity for education and literacy do not in any way, therefore, imply a need to downplay the importance of orality and oral traditions such as storytelling.

     Annemarie Honnold, a Bahá’í author, once expressed her opinion that"a recorded story is more likely to retain its original form than one passed along by word of mouth for generations".  While it may be true that stories are accurately preserved by writing them down, there are also some storytellers and folklorists who could argue persuasively about the accuracy of the oral tradition in preserving data over long periods of time (Lord,1960; Sawyer (1970). Perhaps a middle ground can be discovered by exploring ways in which literacy and orality can serve to complement one another.

A Model of Literacy for the Bahá’í Faith

     The Prophets of the Bahá’í Faith, both the Bab and Baha'u'llah, modeled the example of literacy for their followers. For the first time in religious history (as early as 1844) there is a body of writings for a worldwide religion which was actually written by the hands of the prophets in their own life-times, rather than religious books written by the followers of a prophet long after their death (Shoghi Effendi, 1974).

     Baha'u'llah wrote over 15,000 Tablets [letters] as well as several major books of sacred texts. These sacred texts include books of laws and books of proofs, which He revealed. These letters and books are kept in the International Bahá’í Archives at the Bahá’í World Center in Haifa, Israel (Momen, 1989).

     Literacy is also the reason why there is no clergy within the Bahá’í Faith. Because of the Bahá’í teaching about the need for compulsory education, it is understood that individuals are urged to educate themselves to the highest possible degree and to also assist others to attain education. In this way, the Bahá’í principle of independent investigation of truth can be fulfilled. It is taught that, by achieving literacy, all Bahá’ís can come to understand the word of God for themselves without needing clergy to read and interpret the Word of God for them (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’í of the United States, 1992).

     Another important function of literacy in the Bahá’í Faith, is evidenced in the written Wills of both Baha'u'llah and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá which preserve the essential integrity of the Bahá’í principles and teachings (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, 1974). These written Wills protect the teachings of the Baha'u'llah and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá from being altered or changed, thereby splitting the Bahá’í Faith into schisms within the leadership and administrative body, as has happened in all of the other world religions.

     The Bahá’í history and principles have been taught or preserved because of literacy. To that end, Bahá’í storytellers are assured of the integrity and accuracy of the information sources available to them.

A Model of Orality for the Bahá’í Faith

     So - what exactly is "orality"?  Just as the word literacy means a high degree of facility with the written word as a body of text, orality means communication with and a high degree of facility with the spoken word and oral literature (Lord, 1960). The connection between literacy and orality within the Bahá’í Faith is also evident in the writings of its central figures, specifically Baha'u'llah and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.  Baha'u'llah and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá were raised in Persia in the 1800's, in a culture in which literacy and orality were interconnected. This cultural influence can also be seen in the writings of the Bab, as well as those of Shoghi Effendi. Not only did Baha'u'llah and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá both write prolifically and with great elegance as well as spiritual authority, but they also composed books and Tablets (letters) orally (National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States, 1974).

     Particularly vivid is the image of Baha'u'llah, whose secretary (emanuesis)would have to keep several pens all lined up in a row, ready to take down the words as Baha'u'llah composed texts orally. Words and phrases flowed out with tremendous power and swiftness, as Baha'u'llah orally composed his books and tablets. Baha'u'llah would pace the room and speak the divine revelation which would pour out through him, as His emanuesis struggled to keep. Later Baha'u'llah would read what his emanuesis had transcribed, make corrections, and then approve a text.

     The beauty of this oral language is evident to those who read or hear it.  It is also quite fluid, different from the way written language sounds when read aloud, as it has an innate flow and freshness about it.  For example the Kitab-i-lqan (Book of Certitude), the book in which Baha'u'llah offered proofs of his station as a prophet of God, was revealed in 1862 - in 2 days and nights.  It offers multiple authoritative evidences to support Baha'u'llah's claims as to his station, while at the same time making use of language that is powerful, lyrical, and evocative.

     Similarly, many of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá's books are actually transcriptions of his public and private talks which he later read, corrected, and approved for publication. Among these published talks, for example, are:  Some Answered Questions, Paris Talks, and The Promulgation of Universal Peace.  The words in these books, especially the stories they contain, cry out to be spoken aloud. In fact, Bahá’ís are urged to commit these books to memory for just that purpose. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said, "It is . . . highly praiseworthy to memorize the Tablets, divine verses, and sacred traditions".

     The connections between literacy, orality, and education are especially compelling within the Bahá’í context. The Baha'i Faith considers education so essential that it is the business of its elected administrative bodies such as the Bahá’í Local Spiritual Assembly in each community to assist individuals, in any way possible, with the acquisition of learning.  Likewise the National Spiritual Assemblies in each country or territory also bear this responsibility for Bahá’í education.  

     To that end, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States commissioned a team of educators several decades ago to begin developing what they called a Bahá’í Core Curriculum.  This effort has been an ongoing since that time.  It's interesting - in light of thoughts about storytelling and orality in the Bahá’í context - that in the Bahá’í context the word education has largely been associated with the words literacy and literate. However, when the team turned to the Bahá’í writings for guidance, they found many specifics comments from Baha'u'llah, 'Abdu'l-Baha, and Shoghi Effendi about the uses of orality in education.

     This team of Bahá’í educators selected a specific quote from Baha'u'llah to use as the focal point of the new curriculum (1995).  Interestingly, the quote they chose mentions the connections between literacy, education, and orality in a very pointed way, by using the phrase eloquent speech.

     Then, so much as capacity and capability allow, ye needs must deck the tree of being with fruits such as knowledge, wisdom, spiritual perceptions, and eloquent speech. (p. 100)

     Furthermore, there was a footnote attached to this quote which stated that eloquent speech is defined for the Bahá’í core curriculum in the following way.

     The ability to articulate knowledge, understanding, and beliefs in a clear and comprehensive way. For the purposes of the Core Curriculum, the definition of eloquent speech is extended beyond verbalizing to include all behaviors that reflect the internalization of Baha'u'llah's teachings. This involves integration and synthesis of learning into active expression of knowledge, wisdom, and spiritual perception. Eloquent speech is the endeavor to live a Bahá’í life and engage in service to humanity, (pp. 4-5)  

Clearly it is by our spoken words as well as our written words that we indicate the synthesis of learned material.

     Just as in the Persian story The Sage's Gift (see examples of Bahá’í stories) it is a person’s words, and the subsequent deeds which back up the words, that indicate the growth of wisdom and spiritual maturity. This is truly facilitated when there is use of both literacy and orality.

     While the Prophets and subsequent leaders of the Bahá’í Faith have all been extremely literate, they also clearly valued the oral tradition. Thus, it is apparent that the spoken word has great value within the Bahá’í context. Bahá’í literacy serves to support and enhance the Bahá’í oral traditions, such as Bahá’í Storytelling.