6 Ways Study Circles have Helped the Baha’i Community

Photo: Morris S

Over the last 15 years I’ve had the opportunity to participate, tutor, and be involved to varying degrees in numerous Baha’i study circles in different parts of the world. I’ve experienced very good ones, and ones that could use a little work. Ones that completed the Ruhi book we were working on, and ones that fizzled out before completion. Ones that were run at an extremely intensive and accelerated pace, and ones that took over a year to complete. Ones that brought people into the Faith, and ones that weren’t very well received by some of the participants.

The fact is that no matter what you think about study circles or what your involvement has been with them over the years, study circles have and continue to revolutionize many Baha’i communities worldwide, helping to change the overall culture of the Baha’i community – and I think for the better.

Of course there’s always room for improvement, and we’re all learning through action and reflection while continuously developing and working on improving our ‘posture of learning’, but I thought it would be interesting to look at just six of the ways study circles have helped the Baha’i community, so let’s take a look: 

1. Becoming less insular as a community and helping us reach out.

Let’s be clear: Baha’i study circles are not just for Baha’is. By now most Baha’is should know that, but reaching out to our friends and neighbours to join us in a Baha’i study circle is not easy for everyone, but the fact is that study circles have helped us to start thinking outside the parameters of the Baha’i community, and they’ve served as a catalyst for many of us to reach out, invite, and talk about the Faith with others, reminding us of the fact that the Teachings of Baha’u’llah are for everyone, and not just Baha’is, but for the community at large no matter what their beliefs.

2. Emphasis on reading and studying the Baha’i Writings.

Baha’is are encouraged to read and study the Writings. Now I’m sure many of us do this already, but for those of us who need a little guidance or a tip or two of what exactly to read, going through the Ruhi sequence of books definitely helps guide us to the important concepts we should be studying.

Did you know that once you’ve completed books one through to seven of the Ruhi sequence of courses, you would have read and studied with your study circle a total of 545 quotations from the Baha’i Writings? Yes folks, that’s right! 545 quotations. That’s pretty significant!

Although we’re meant to study the Baha’i Writings, and even read the Writings every morning and evening, my guess is that many of us may not have had the discipline to do this, and so study circles have provided us with a systematic opportunity to deepen in the Writings, and furthermore – as mentioned in the first point – you’re not just reading the Baha’i Writings, you’re reflecting and discussing these quotations and the concepts they present with a group of people who quite often have varying beliefs and understandings. So that’s pretty good!

3. Nurturing a sense of ownership.

Before Baha’i study circles hit the scene, I think you could argue that many Baha’i communities had developed what could perhaps be classified as a ‘culture of dependency’ on certain individuals in the community. These individuals were often seen as more knowledgable on issues relating to the Faith and its history, so community would turn to them for all of their Baha’i knowledge, and not turn to the Writings to learn about a topic themselves. For example, we would go to a deepening class based on a certain book or topic, and often the dynamic of the deepening would be a one-way interaction between the speaker and the participants. Sure, there were a few questions here and there, but by-in-large the person holding the deepening would be the person everyone looked to for the answers.

Now I’m not saying that deepening classes are not valid and that they don’t have a role in community life – of course they do, and I’m a huge fan, but the fact remains that many community members were indirectly (and unintentionally) dis-empowering themselves from delving into the Writings and really internalising and ‘digesting’ the Words of God for themselves. Study circles have countered that culture of dependency now by removing the ‘middle-man’ in a sense, encouraging us to deepen in the Baha’i Writings for ourselves, and even charging us with the task of memorizing the quotes found in the Ruhi books. What better way to really internalize them! With approximately 70,000 friends capable of serving as tutors of study circles,1 I think the culture has definitely changed as a result.

4. Encouraging the Writings to become a part of us through memorization.

In one of Baha’u’llah’s Tablets, He encourages us to memorize the Baha’i Writings:

From the texts of the wondrous, heavenly Scriptures they should memorize phrases and passages bearing on various instances, so that in the course of their speech they may recite divine verses whenever the occasion demandeth it, inasmuch as these holy verses are the most potent elixir, the greatest and mightiest talisman.2

The Ruhi sequence of courses encourage us to memorize the Baha’i Writings, and they’ve even done a lot of the work for us by hand-picking a ton of them for us. In fact, did you know that between the pages of Ruhi books one through to seven, there are 137 Baha’i quotations we’re asked to memorize?

You can already see the result of this emphasis on memorization amongst those who have been involved in the sequence of courses and I’ve personally noticed a significant shift over the last several years of the way in which we’re all using the Baha’i Writings in our everyday speech, and this I beleive has had a direct effect on our ability to engage in meaningful and distinctive conversations.

Furthermore, by participating in study circles we’ve had to come up with creative ways to memorize these quotes, and this has not only been fun, but it’s helped ensure that we do this.

5. A unified vision and systematic action.

In a letter to the to the participants of the 114 Youth Conferences currently taking place around the world, the Universal House of Justice wrote:

The possibilities presented by collective action are especially evident in the work of community building, a process that is gaining momentum in many a cluster and in neighbourhoods and villages throughout the world that have become centres of intense activity.3

Before the Institute Process was adopted by the entire Baha’i world, we were all doing our own little thing in our our own little corners. Now that we’ve got a structured and systematic ‘road map’, we’re all able to focus our energies with unified vision and action, and this has proven to be extremely practical and powerful. There’s nothing cooler than being able to chat to someone in Nepal, South Africa or Canada and know what they’re talking about when they mention what Ruhi books they’ve completed or are participating in. Especially for those of us who move around a lot as well, you can turn up to a community anywhere in the world and just ‘plug’ yourself straight into the activities.

6. Community building and a focus on service.

As Baha’is we know that service to others is an integral part of our Faith. As Abdu’l-Baha explained:

…all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer.4

Service is also fundamental to the sequence of courses developed by the Ruhi Institute. As the Ruhi Institute explains:

…the Institute’s main sequence of courses is not arranged according to a series of subject matters, with the specific aim of increasing individual knowledge. The content and order are based, rather, on a series of acts of service, the practice of which creates capacity in the individual to meet the exigencies of dynamic, developing communities. And as also noted above, the enhancement of such capacity is viewed in terms of “walking a path of service”…The acts of service treated in the Institute’s main sequence of courses are intended, then, to establish a dynamic pattern of action that will lead to the sound development of local communities.5

The Universal House of Justice explains this in the 2010 Ridvan Message:

More important is that every soul feel welcome to join the community in contributing to the betterment of society, commencing a path of service to humanity…6

The recent video from the Baha’i World Centre called Frontiers of Learning provides us with examples of what community building can look like so that we can reflect on their experiences and learn from them. I find it incredibly humbling to see the world embracing vision of Baha’u’llah executed in all corners of the world. If you haven’t seen Frontiers of Learning yet, I highly recommend it!

Okay so that’s it for now, and I hope you’ve found these six points interesting and useful!

  1. 28 December 2010 – The Universal House of Justice, Five Year Plan Message 2011-2016 []
  2. Baha’u’llah – Tablet to Siyyid Mihdiy-i-Dahaji []
  3. 1 July 2013, The Universal House of Justice, To the participants in the 114 youth conferences []
  4. Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks []
  5. Instituto Ruhi: http://www.ruhi.org/institute/path.php []
  6. Ridvan Message 2010 – The Universal House of Justice []

About the Author

Naysan is the editor of Baha'i Blog and he has worked in various avenues of media for two decades. He’s passionate about using the arts and media to support and explore the teachings of the Baha’i Faith and he has produced and collaborated on popular music projects like the "DawnBreaker Collective" and the successful Ruhi-inspired sequence of "MANA" albums. His experience as a producer for CNN was invaluable while working on a number of special projects for the Baha’i World Centre, including the "Building Momentum" and "Pilgrimage: A Sacred Experience" videos. If there’s a media-related Baha’i project out there, chances are that Naysan was involved with it somehow!

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Discussion 13 Comments

  1. Institute materials helps me to share with the community.especially Ruhi 2,_the joy of teaching.i am on the move of still assisting the community for more understanding.Thanks for helping us with institute materials

  2. Very good article on Study Circles, but I’m not sure why you compare them to Deepenings in a sort of negative way. A Deepening is just a study circle that uses a full sacred text, rather than the compilation/commentary format of the Ruhi series. The Ruhi books are excellent, of course, and it is very good to have a standard series of materials which people all around the world study when they first become Baha’is. But at some point, believers need to to actually study the full books and not just selected quotations from them. Until the Ruhi books were mandated, I participated in many deepenings from my time as a Baha’i youth into my later adult years, and never had the experience of people turning to the person who offered to host the study group in their homes, as some sort of expert who then dominated the conversation. I became a Baha’i as a youth and our LSA gave clear guidance to our youth group that we should study the writings together; no one dominated the meeting; we simply alternated in reading the paragraphs, used any available study guides, and shared our thoughts or emotional responses to what we read. Our LSA also participated in wonderful weekend retreats where we would study a book of sacred text. We also shared meals and had wonderful fellowship together. I can remember a very emotional weekend retreat where about 20 adults and youth studied the Seven Valleys together and picked one particular paragraph to read repeatedly and memorize. I remember that paragraph* to this day, 40 years later. In my current community, there are a small number of very long-time Baha’is. We hold a study circle for Ruhi book 1 or 2 for any adults who accompany children to a children’s class held a couple times a month in our area. But we’ve added another element: a mini deepening on a book which we will eventually read cover to cover. After we do the Ruhi material, we pull out the book, currently the Kitab-i-Iqan, and read anywhere from a couple paragraphs to a couple pages, depending on the amount of discussion the readings generate. And if that particular day, there are no adult visitors, we “old timers” spend the whole study circle period on the book, as we’ve all been through Ruhi many times. My only objection to Ruhi, other than believing Book 1 and Book 2 should now be updated to the quality levels of the later publications, is the tendency for people to depend on “study by excerpt” and the commentary of the authors, which far exceeds the volume of sacred text. I was in one community years ago where over a 5 year period, as several hundred people worked their way through the Ruhi series (and some have not yet completed it), not one deepening was held. Not one. So at least in my current community, we use the Ruhi study circle to ALSO read from the sacred text. How can you immerse, if you only ever read a few selected quotes?

    *”O My Brother! A pure heart is as a mirror; cleanse it with the burnish of love and severance from all save God, that the true sun may shine within it and the eternal morning dawn. Then wilt thou clearly see the meaning of “Neither doth My earth nor My heaven contain Me, but the heart of My faithful servant containeth Me.” And thou wilt take up thy life in thine hand, and with infinite longing cast it before the new Beloved One.”

    1. Hi Kimberlee, thanks so much sharing your thoughts and experiences on this topic, I really appreciate it and you’ve made some wonderful points! Also, my intention was not to paint a negative picture of deepenings at all, and I agree that “at some point, believers need to to actually study the full books and not just selected quotations from them”. Thanks again Kimberlee!

  3. I don’t doubt that the Ruhi sequence has had a fair number of beneficial effects on the Baha’i community. My concern is that while it has been a noble experiment, it has had enough negative side effects on the health of the (American) Baha’i community that alternatives should now be considered. In general, I believe that results are more important than the means, and unfortunately the results in our national community are stark: low to negative growth (and a general aging of the community), an abundance of divisiveness, lower participation in community life, and the majority of community members that are still active feeling hurt and useless. Also, as Kimberlee mentioned, it is quite rare that the community gets together to study the Writings outside of the Institute process (which isn’t really the Institute’s fault, but in most communities it feels like the only game in town).

    Now, it would be unfair to only point out the negatives, but I think that Naysan’s blog post has done quite a good job of pointing out the positive effects, so I don’t feel too bad at least pointing out the other side.

    1. Aiden, Allah’u’abha! I have been back and forth between the US and overseas locations since 1996, and my introduction to Ruhi was a bit rough when I returned to my Baha’i community in the US after being in another country for 5 years as an isolated believer. I was quite put off by the way it was introduced in my former US community among long-time Baha’is. For example, I couldn’t believe someone would require me to fill in the blanks in a study book (I do have a degree in engineering), or tell me I couldn’t take Book 2 until I took Book 1, even though there was no Book 1 study circle available at the time but the Book 2 course was looking for folks to join in. And I couldn’t believe it when someone told me that if I read and studied the books by myself, it wouldn’t count in the statistics because I wasn’t with a tutored group. And I couldn’t believe when someone told me that I had to go to a home visit and give a deepening to be considered as completing the course, even though I’d been visiting Baha’is in remote areas and hosting deepenings for 20 years; went travel teaching as a youth during school breaks; had pioneered since my youth; arranged devotions at a Baha’i Center for years, etc. And I couldn’t believe it when those who kept the statistics said that only completing the Ruhi courses were what mattered; the fact that I read and studied the entire Paris Talks, Kitab-i-Iqan, Hidden Words, etc is of no importance to anyone in the statistics business, but my completing Book 3 or Book 7 is. The inference is that the Word of God without commentary isn’t sufficient to urge me to service in the Faith and in my community, as if it hadn’t been that Word of God which inspired me decades before Ruhi existed, to teach children, to pioneer, to support youth activities, to study, and to pray with others outside my Faith.

      But after reading the Ruhi materials and clearly seeing the intention for flexibility, and reading the guidance from the UHJ both in what it said and in what it DOESN’T say (contrary to the comments of some tutors), I eventually got over my issues, moved ahead, and drew two conclusions:

      1. The Ruhi materials themselves are fine for new Baha’is, especially if it is understood they are intended to be flexible in application; not so rigid as initially characterized. (I do feel Book 1 and Book 2 need massive overhaul, to bring them up to the same standards as the later publications.) I have tutored Book 2 in Africa with youth, and we didn’t fill in any blanks or sit for hours and read every word of the commentary, but instead incorporated visual art, skits, poetry, and music in the study circle. And, when we covered deepening topics, I added in “marriage preparation” and “spirituality and sexuality” as topics, and they were the most popular. So, I no longer blamed the materials themselves for a poor implementation. And,

      2. The emphasis on core activities in neighborhoods is a GREAT thing, but it’s not logistically or physically feasible for all Baha’is to do them, and THAT IS OK. The important thing is, we all look to see how we can serve the Faith, teach the Faith, serve our communities, and improve the spiritual life of our communities. For example, I am not in a living situation that allows me to open up my home for devotions, study circles, and deepenings and I’m too physically unfit to keep up with children and youth as I use to do or even to make home visits. But, i can look at blog sites on the Internet from the comfort of my living room, wearing my scrungy muumuu, and make comments that offer my viewpoint as a Baha’i and perhaps introduce the Faith to of someone who has never heard of it. I spoke with a man during one of my international flights and was able to mention the Faith; he was quite interested but had a major criticism: If no one has a Baha’i neighbor or happens to sit next to one on the plane, how would they ever hear of the words “Baha’i” or “Baha’u’llah”? We’re rarely in any major media coverage, the covenant breakers are more likely to be listed in the yellow pages than we are, we don’t have the PR ads on the Internet that the Mormons have or an the international TV channel that the seventh day Adventists have. So, since I can do these small things from my home on a laptop, I choose to serve in that way.

      If you personally know folks who are feeling hurt and useless, please try to rally them! At summer school, I was speaking with several elderly people (this state has quite a few retirement communities) who felt “guilty” that they couldn’t really take on a core activity in their neighborhood, so we talked about all the things we COULD do, on computers or even by snail mail, to spread the glad tidings and blazon the name; or be of service in their community, like taking up a collection of personal care products for the local women’s shelter.

      And, we don’t do enough to improve the spiritual life in our community, and our spiritual fellowship with the Friends. Yet we have so clearly been told that it is through our love for each other that we will attract the hearts of many.

      Sorry this is so long!!!!

      “Be thankful unto God that Bahá’u’lláh has given us a firm and solid foundation. He left no place for sadness in hearts, and the writings of His sacred pen contain consolation for the whole world. He had the words of truth, and anything that is contrary to His teaching is false. The chief aim of all His work was to do away with division.” – Paris Talks

  4. I’ve been a Baha’i for 34 years, pioneered overseas, consolidated believers in urban areas as well as areas so rural that the children in the villages had never seen a white person and called me “the ghost”. I share this so that readers understand I am coming from a place of love and support, as well as a place of experience. I think it’s important that we do not misconstrue Ruhi for actual deepening in the Writings. We are urged to immerse ourselves in the Holy Writings, and while Ruhi provides a platform for discussion of concepts, as do isolated quotes, they do not replace the education one receives by reading, studying and deepening on the Writings. I am concerned that I am seeing many Baha’is use Ruhi as the foundation for their understanding of their faith here in the U.S., and the result is that there are many uneducated Baha’is. We were never guided to rely on Ruhi. We were never advised to stop studying the Holy Writings directly. 534 quotes will never provide the context from which they were written. Let’s start understanding Ruhi for what it is as well as what it is not.

  5. Thanks Dennis and Kimberlee for the inspiring conversation. I have never view the Ruhi materials in that depth, but thank you guys for the wonderful comments.

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