Read: Unofficial information and rumour in the Baha'i community


A narrative posted to a Bahá'í Internet discussion group in April 1994 described an amazing survival: the orange tree planted by the Báb in the courtyard of his house in Shiraz still lived and grew, despite destruction of the house in 1979 and the razing and paving over of the site.1

The enemies... chopped down the tree and paved over the entire lot. Before long a crack appear[ed] in the spot where the tree was planted with the Hands of Power and a shoot poked out.

Three times the shoot had been cut down and the spot re-paved.

Finally, the authorities got the point. Today that tree stands at four feet, surrounded by a fence that the Islamic authorities have erected to protect it! YA BAHA'U'L-ABHA!

...Shiraz is [not] a verdant garden. Every plant must be lovingly cared for to survive – even under the best circumstances. The one planted by the Hands of the Blessed Primal Point is cared for by Him as a token of His Loving Kindness to awaken the spiritually slumbering people. They can't kill His orange tree. How could they kill His Cause? Verily he is the Gate to the Glory of God!(2)

"Rumour" may be defined as unofficial information disseminated within a social group. The purpose of the present paper is to explore briefly the use of such information in the study of religions. American sociologist Tomatsu Shibutani refers to rumour as "improvised news" – "a recurrent form of communication through which men [sic] caught together in an ambiguous situation attempt to construct a meaningful interpretation of it by pooling their intellectual resources."(3) As ambiguity is a constant feature of life, the circulation of rumour is a continuous process within a social group. Unofficial information includes narratives of various kinds, some first-hand, some at a more distant remove from the source. A number of terms have been applied in the literature of sociology and folklore studies to refer to such narratives, including not only rumour but hearsay, memorate, proto-memorate and fabulate.(4) Whatever the term used, scholars generally agree that such narratives, even those delivered first hand, draw upon and express pre-existing cultural themes, often addressing uncertain or troubling social conditions. Persistent or long-lasting rumours may eventually become part of the folklore of a social group, as is the case with so-called "modern urban legends," a phenomenon closely related to rumours.(5) Unofficial information is not necessarily false; it may reflect actual happenings in the world, but its real importance lies in the cultural "truths" it carries and the insight it provides into the mythos or world view of the social group which creates and circulates it.

Official information generally travels vertically from the top down in a society, from the leadership through official publications to the populace. By contrast, unofficial information travels horizontally, through social networks.(6) The global interconnectedness provided by today's Internet facilitates the rapid propagation of narratives and opinions of all kinds, and fosters discourse about such information among "virtual communities" of widely scattered participants.

The sociology of knowledge

The present discussion is located within the theoretical framework of the sociology of knowledge. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, important theorists in this field, suggest that worlds are constructed and maintained through social processes. The continuing reality of these worlds is dependent on the uninterrupted continuation of the social processes that maintain their reality. In their classic study, The Social Construction of Reality, Berger and Luckmann posit a pervasive "reality of everyday life" against and within which "other realities," including that of religious experience, "appear as finite provinces of meaning."(7) The internalisation of these "subworlds" of meaning is accomplished through secondary socialisation.(8) Socialisation can never be totally effective, and the subjective reality it imposes is subject to continual erosion; for this reason, every viable social group must develop means to reinforce and maintain their social reality. According to Berger and Luckmann, "The most important vehicle of reality-maintenance is conversation." They write, "One may view the individual's everyday life in terms of the working away of a conversational apparatus that ongoingly maintains, modifies and reconstructs his subjective reality."(9) For Berger and Luckmann, conversation means "speech." Additionally, correspondence (letter writing) can serve as a means of bridging conversational discontinuities.(10) Berger and Luckmann wrote long before the advent of electronic mail, computer bulletin boards and the Internet, and such facilities provide important fora for verbal exchanges which construct, maintain and reinforce individual or group points of view.

A weakness in Berger and Luckmann's work is that it does not examine the actual processes by which the world, or a particular social world, is assembled – it fails to marshal much data derived from direct observations of social discourse. A further difficulty is Berger and Luckmann's focus on the phenomenology of individual experience. As British sociologist Jonathan Potter notes, such a focus obscures the "interactional and rhetorical" nature of fact construction.(11) Rumour, as a communal, conversational project undertaken for the purpose of making sense of the world, offers insights into some of the processes involved in the social construction of knowledge. Study of such discourse – the informal texts and talk produced and circulated within social groups – can yield insights into the particular features of the reality or world view being constructed, on the communal usefulness of this discourse, as well as how it is presented, modified, reflected and dispersed in the group and over time. Such a study also tends to focus on social interactions rather than on the "here and now" of individual experience.

In recent decades, a number of scholars, drawing in part on Berger and Luckmann's work, have focussed on cultural analysis of organisations. Marsha Witten, an American sociologist, writes,

Through their talk and other symbolic behaviours, people in organizations produce a shared, intersubjective understanding of the nature of their reality... and, importantly, objectify these understandings so that the nature of their constructed environment appears as "real" to them.(12)

The settings in which such a corporate reality may arise are not necessarily limited to a company headquarters or factory floor. Discourse supporting organisational reality travels with members of the organisation, and is shared as they converse across telephone or computer lines. The informal communal discourse of religious groups provides examples of creation and maintenance of shared, intersubjective realities which support and sustain crucial elements of the values, assumptions and world views of these groups. Study of such discourse can provide insights into social processes, structures, and anxieties at work within them at particular moments in time.

Unofficial information in religious groups

Scholars have undertaken studies of unofficial information in various contemporary religious communities; a brief reference to some of this work offers a glimpse at a sample of such lore and will perhaps suggest some of the analytical uses to which it has been put. Some of the lore may remind Bahá'ís of things that they have heard in their own communities.

Eileen Barker, a sociologist at the London School of Economics and Political Science, has produced an extensive body of research on the Unification Church. As she studied the movement, Barker became aware that it possesses an internal theology not normally accessible to outsiders. This theology, set out both in Sun Myung Moon's talks and lectures to his followers, and in Unification folklore, is comprised of tales and stories, and of individual testimonies describing encounters with Moon's amazing powers. Barker noted, for example, that

Members vie with each other to bear witness to Moon's extraordinary powers – how, for example, they stood by as Moon passed in a corridor and how they immediately knew that 'he could see right through me – deep into my innermost being'. Those who have not had the privilege of being in Moon's presence tell of a dream in which he appeared to them and imparted some amazing information which was borne out by subsequent events.(13)

According to Barker, such lore contributes significantly to the recognition of Moon's status and authority on the part of Unification recruits. Similar narratives and testimonials may be found in a wide range of religious or quasi-religious movements, and play an important role in establishing group commitment and identity.

Sociological and folkloric studies of the Mormon Church, many carried out by Mormon scholars, offer further examples of the study of unofficial lore in a religious group. William A. Wilson, a folklorist at Brigham Young University, began, in the early 1970s, to collect oral narratives from returned missionaries. Wilson writes, "Mormon missionaries are inveterate storytellers. Wherever two or more are gathered for whatever purpose, one can be quite sure the air will be thick with narratives..."(14) Because these narratives are communicated through the spoken word, they are difficult to prove true or false. However, even in cases where the basis of a story can be established, it is clear that as the stories are passed from person to person by word of mouth, they have been constantly changed by those who have told them, "constantly re-created to fit the needs of the moment..."(15) Such stories are significant instruments of socialisation and social control.

Wilson notes that many Mormon missionary narratives relate the "terrifying and retributive powers" which beset missionaries who "disobey rules" or engage in "sacrilegious behaviour."(16) Still other stories recount divine protection accorded sincere missionaries in peril. In others, the wrath of God is turned upon a non-Mormon who attempts to mock or thwart the missionary work, or is visited upon a Mormon who strays from the path or ridicules Mormon teachings. In the process of their retelling and reshaping, these stories play important cultural roles as they adapt new missionaries to their tasks, orient them towards the values and rules on which their own success and that of the missionary programme will depend, and "inculcate in them attitudes toward the sacred that will guide their conduct throughout their lives."(17)

The tree

As a third example of the use of unofficial information in the study of religion, I shall return to the Bahá'í story regarding the "tree they could not kill." I first read the narrative on a Bahá'í Internet discussion group in late April 1994. A thread of subsequent postings on the same subject followed. "The story... is just wonderfully amazing,"(18) enthused one respondent. Another list member recounted his visit as a Bahá'í pilgrim to the Báb's house in Shiraz in 1974. "I tasted the fruit of that tree (literally and hopefully spiritually as well)... sat in the courtyard in which it stood, prayed and shed tears..." The pilgrim had taken some of the oranges back with him to California. The seeds had failed to grow, but that "[did] not matter now. Wisely," he concluded, "the Shirazi leaders have yielded to a Power beyond them. Pray they may further yield, their hearts..."(19)

It is well known that there has been an ongoing effort in the Bahá'í community to propagate seedlings grown from the fruit of the Báb's tree. Cultivation of such trees is even now underway at the Bahá'í world centre in Haifa, Israel, as part of a project to construct a monumental series of terraces above and below the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel, and the community draws inspiration from what may be seen as a non-violent programme of defiance against Shi'i opponents of the religion. A distinguished Bahá'í teacher, William Sears, wrote of "hundreds of such trees," grown by Bahá'ís in many countries.

Don't the authorities in Iran know that tomorrow, if access to Iran were permitted... Bahá'ís could fly in from all over the world and plant a whole row of orange trees all round the city of Shiraz? From the trees grown from the seeds of the tree they thought they had cut down.(20)

The emotional and practical investment of the community in keeping the tree "alive" in this way is intertwined with the narrative about the tree that would not die, and helps explain the excitement which greeted the story.

Another list participant, however, asked for the source of the report, and went on to speak out against miraculous stories which "those who are not Bahá'ís" may find "very much similar to the kinds of things that make THEM shun THEIR own religions or traditions (AND which, on the other hand, cause them to be attracted to a faith that is in harmony with science in the first place – the Bahá'í Faith!)."(21) The story seemed to have sound credentials: it had reportedly been related at the United States national Bahá'í convention by a member of the US national spiritual assembly, who said she had heard it from a member of the Universal House of Justice.(22) The matter trailed off toward confusion, however, when another respondent stated that the tree planted by the Báb had died some years before the Iranian revolution.(23)

Some weeks later the discussion was renewed by a Bahá'í wondering about the truth of the story, which, she said, she had heard from many sources. A friend had asked her for the information. "He is not simply curious," she explained. "ƒHe is ƒ discouraged by the situation in Iran [and] it would [be] an extremely hopeful tale for him were it determined to be true."(24) Clearly, for some participants in the discussion, the story had the potential to provide much-needed good news during a troubling and ambiguous period in contemporary Bahá'í history.

An account posted by another Bahá'í may have suggested part of the factual basis of the story. One of his non-Bahá'í friends had visited Shiraz and there learned about, seen, and photographed an orange tree growing on a waste piece of ground near a mosque adjacent to the site of the Báb's house. He said the tree, "fenced [in] by rocks and vertical sticks," was believed by those in the neighbourhood, "regardless of their religion," to be a tree planted by the Báb, and considered sacred. "The rumour amongst the people is that the tree always grows. Few times vandalism has caused it to be cut, but another branch is grown next year." A further interesting point was that a deteriorated wall enclosing one side of the land was locally believed to be the original wall of the house of the Báb. "People from all walks of life come to this wall and make wishes by writing them on a rolled piece of paper. They then insert them into little holes excavated all over the wall." The friend had examined one of the rolls, which read, "O, ya Seyyed Bab, please bestow upon a poor woman a power to educate herself by being admitted to university." The friend of the Bahá'í had returned to the USA with a sample of soil from the site. However, since the Bahá'í had not actually seen the soil, or the photographs taken of the area, he said he was unable to verify the report.(25) The possibility remains that the account, with its arresting parallel to popular Jewish use of the western wall in Jerusalem (and to popular Shi'i use of Ayatollah Khomeini's tomb), described conditions and beliefs in Shiraz which had served as the origin of the miracle story.

In August 1996, the "tree they could not kill" story was posted, in its original wording, to another Bahá'í discussion list (Bahá'í-studies), again sparking a number of follow-up posts over several days. One message in this latter thread was from an individual who had written to the House of Justice about the matter, and received a letter informing him the story was based on a rumour, which had been investigated and found not to be true. The poster commented, "How sad it was not true."(26) A final message, from a Bahá'í in the Pacific islands, offered a philosophical summation:

I guess we are a little deflated about the Orange tree that would not die in Shiraz... [W]e each have our own Shiraz complete with car-park within us and our communities, Bahá'í and otherwise, and our own orange trees. My own tree still manages to push through every so often no matter how pig-headed and willful I may be...
      In Solomon Islands there are trees grown from seeds from various holy places of the Bahá'í world centre... [S]ome are now growing and bearing fruit, others have struggled to survive...
      For many of the friends on those distant rocks in the sea, this is the closest they will come to the Holy Land, and is for them proof of the reality of the Faith. They may also be regarded as a metaphor for much in the Faith: teaching as sharing, effort and reward... care and nurturing.(27)

The messages reviewed here are artifacts of a process of reality construction and reality maintenance in a religious community. It can be seen that the various exchanges ultimately yielded the facts of the matter – that the rumour was untrue – and strove to assuage the resulting communal regret. At a deeper level, the diverse postings mirror aspects of the "sacred mythology" of the Bahá'í Faith(28) and illustrate the reflective interplay and sometime tension between official and popular versions of a religious tradition.

The story of the undying tree exemplifies a tendency widely apparent in unofficial lore of the Bahá'í religion, and in others – a quasi-serious endeavour to express a sacred symbol or religious "truth" in concrete, physical terms. In the instance of Moon and the Unification Church, Moon's spiritual authority was legitimated, at least in part, by miraculous tales and testimonies of his amazing powers. In Mormon missionary narratives, dangers of disobedience to church rules were illustrated by accounts of divine punishment visited upon miscreants. In both communities, unofficial lore functioned to reinforce official doctrines and appropriate attitudes on the part of the faithful. In the present example, the undying tree testifies to the transcendent power of the Báb, and to the potential of the Bahá'í religion to overcome all obstacles – both, of course, officially promoted Bahá'í beliefs. Bahá'ís' efforts to propagate hundreds of trees from the seeds of the Báb's tree bear witness to the same points.

Trees have significant sacred associations in many religious traditions, including Bahá'í.(29) Bahá'u'lláh refers to himself as "the Tree of Life which bringeth forth the fruits of God."(30) Elsewhere, the Arabic term Sadratu'l-Muntaha, the "tree beyond which there is no passing," symbolises the manifestation of God, the "tree beyond which neither men nor angels can pass."(31) Sometimes the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh are referred to as the "Twin Lote Trees." The particular tree in the story, planted by the Báb in the courtyard of the house in which the first act of Bahá'í history took place, was one with profound historical associations for Bahá'ís. The Iranian revolution swept both house and tree away, ostensibly to make way for a road and public square. Bahá'ís viewed the act as deliberate desecration of a holy site.(32) In the face of such a disaster, potentially so unsettling, it is possible to understand how, from modest facts (or non-facts), such a wonderful story circulated in the Bahá'í community, and why its disconfirmation was disappointing.

The story and ensuing discussions stand in relation to various strands of Bahá'í ideology. Miracle stories are a significant component of the community's historiography: perhaps the most important officially-acknowledged miracle was the Báb's escape from the first rifle volley at his execution in 1850 – 750 rifles were fired at him and missed. The presence of such a miraculous event in Bahá'í history encourages a belief in continuing supernatural interventions on the part of Bahá'ís. The story is evidence of an ongoing community discourse which reifies and reflects on the spiritual power of its central figures: the undying tree is adduced as further confirmation that indeed the Báb is "the Gate to the Glory of God." The narrative suggests that the tree's survival is the result of the Báb's love, intended to assist "spiritually slumbering people" to recognise him, implicitly asserting that the Báb still lives and exercises influence over events in this world, a point which reinforces both the Báb's divine power and popular Bahá'í concepts of the afterlife. At the same time, Bahá'í doctrine downplays and discourages unofficial miracle lore, stating that such stories offer no proof of religious truth. The Bahá'í principle that "religion must be in accord with science and reason" is intertwined with the discussion of the undying tree. The community perceives itself as standing distinct from "other religious groups" which embrace superstitious beliefs. The fact that official confirmation was sought and a disclaimer posted to the group underlines the importance Bahá'ís place on reliable information. Bahá'ís recognise a community tendency to inflate and circulate miraculous tales, and the thread considered here contains an important strand of suspicion of such lore. Another point to observe is that stylistic elements of the story and its follow-ups, particularly the conventionalised expressions of reverence, resemble the tone of formal Bahá'í publications. The entire discussion can be seen as a set of interactions which display, reinforce, modify and propagate appropriate Bahá'í attitudes and expressive styles.

Finally, when all was said and done, Bahá'ís were able to find a spiritual lesson in the story, even if false: we all carry sacred ground inside us, but may neglect, even pave over it. But the spirit – the transcendent reality – will not be denied. It sends forth shoots which break through the hardened covering of hearts to remind people of their true nature. More importantly, the undying tree and its undying seeds stand for and affirm what the community wants most to know about itself, and can hear only from itself – that its members belong to a "cause" the world will not be able to destroy. This is the cornerstone of the Bahá'í worldview: that the Bahá'í religion is divine in origin and represents God's plan for humankind, and, as such, though sorely tried and beset by an ungodly world, will succeed in its aims.

End Notes

  1. The author presented an expanded version of this paper as a public lecture at the University of Copenhagen, 27 April 1997, under the title "The Use of Unofficial Information and Hearsay in the Study of Religion."
  2. Bahá'í-discuss posting from KK, 29 April 1994. Capitalisation as posted.
  3. Tomatsu Shibutani, Improvised News: A Sociological Study of Rumor (New York: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1966) 17.
  4. "Memorate" has been defined as a first-hand narrative describing a putative sequence of events, with a "fabulate" being a similar narrative heard second- or third-hand (see C.W. von Sydow, Selected Papers in Folklore [Copenhagen: Rosenkilde – Bagger, 1948]). Others refer to a first-hand account as a "personal experience narrative" and second- or third-hand narratives – personal experience narratives that have been picked up by other people – as memorates (C.L. Landrum at her website, http://virtual.park.uga.edu/~clandrum/oralist.html). Others refer to "proto-memorates" as memorates supposed to lie behind a fabulate (L. Degh and A. Vazsonyi "The Memorate and Proto-Memorate" (Journal of American Folklore 87 [1974]: 225-39). Still others reserve the term memorate for a first-hand account of a supernatural or psychic experience (S.K. Stahl, Literary Folkloristics and the Personal Narrative [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989] 19). My use of the term "rumour" is intended to cover all unofficial information circulating within a group.
  5. For a useful introduction to urban legends see Jan Harold Brunvand, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1981).
  6. Steven Sampson, "Rumors in Eastern Europe" (Skrift og Samfund, February 1984, Centre for Sammenlignende Kulturforskning, University of Copenhagen) 107.
  7. Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (New York: Doubleday, 1966) 25.
  8. Ibid., 138.
  9. Ibid., 152.
  10. Ibid., 154.
  11. Jonathan Potter, Representing Reality: Discourse, Rhetoric and Social Construction (London: Sage Publications, 1996) 13.
  12. Marsha Witten, "Narrative and the Culture of Obedience at the Workplace" in Dennis K. Mumby, ed. Narrative and Social Control: Critical Perspectives (Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1993) 100.
  13. Eileen Barker, "Charismatization: The Social Production of 'an Ethos Propitious to the Mobilisation of Sentiments'" in Eileen Barker, James A. Beckford and Karel Dobbelaere, eds. Secularization, Rationalism and Sectarianism: Essays in Honour of Bryan R. Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993) 194-95.
  14. William A. Wilson, "Powers of Heaven and Hell: Mormon Missionary Narratives as Instruments of Socialization and Social Control" in Marie Cornwall, Tim B. Heaton and Lawrence A. Young, eds. Contemporary Mormonism: Social Science Perspectives (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994) 207.
  15. Ibid., 208.
  16. Ibid., 209.
  17. Ibid., 216.
  18. Bahá'í-discuss posting from FJ, 2 May 1994.
  19. 19. Bahá'í-discuss posting from RV, 30 April 1994. Capitalisation as posted.
  20. William Sears, A Cry From the Heart: The Bahá'ís of Iran (Oxford: George Ronald, 1982) 78. Emphases in original.
  21. Bahá'í-discuss posting from BK, 2 May 1994. Capitalisation as posted.
  22. Bahá'í-discuss posting from BK, 3 May 1994. Attribution of rumours, whether to a respected community member or to a friend of a friend, is part of the rumour intended to increase the credibility of the material conveyed.
  23. Bahá'í-discuss posting from IM, 3 May 1994.
  24. Bahá'í-discuss posting from MR, 12 July 1994.
  25. Bahá'í-discuss posting from HN, 12 July 1994.
  26. Bahá'í-studies posting from RR, 30 August 1996. A letter dated 27 August 1996 on behalf of the Universal House of Justice, transmitted by email to an individual Bahá'í, specifically disconfirmed the story (copy in the author's possession).
  27. Bahá'í-studies posting from CB, 30 August 1996.
  28. For an important discussion of this topic, drawing on the work of Joseph Campbell, see William P. Collins, "Sacred Mythology and the Bahá'í Faith," The Journal of Bahá'í Studies 2.4 (1990): 1-15.
  29. Space constraints do not permit discussion of folklore concerning trees in various world traditions, where trees may represent cultural heroes, deities or ancestors, serve as mediators or links to the spiritual realm, or be associated with beliefs in heaven or in the afterlife (see Pamela R. Frese and S. J. M. Gray, "Trees" in Mircea Eliade, ed. The Encyclopedia of Religion [New York: Macmillan, 1987]) vol. 15.
  30. Bahá'u'lláh, "The Tablet of Ahmad" in Bahá'í Prayers (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1991) 213.
  31. Wendi Momen, ed. A Basic Bahá'í Dictionary (Oxford: George Ronald, 1989) 200.
  32. Universal House of Justice, The Bahá'í World: An International Record, Volume XVIII, 1979-1983 (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1986) 254-55.

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