I Love the Baha’i Faith, I Just Don’t Like Statistics

(Photo: Baha'i World Centre)

There has always been a special relationship between the Faith and numbers. Nine pointed star. Ninety-five Allah’u’Abhas. Nineteen Letters of the Living and subsequently nineteen terraces.

Despite this, I’ve noticed that many of us still seem to internally resist when it comes to using numbers to advance the Cause. Whether it’s setting numerical teaching goals in a cluster, being remunerated for full-time service, or calculating how many home visits were made in a cycle – putting a number next to a spiritual undertaking can feel counter-intuitive for many, or even wrong. But is it?

It is a false assumption that something spiritual cannot also be numerical, and that a numerical thing can’t be inherently spiritual. Yet we encounter this assertion perhaps no more vehemently than when it comes to the area of statistics.

Collecting, analyzing and utilizing statistics in a Baha’i context is something many of us are still learning about. Our enthusiasm, accuracy and timeliness when it comes to collecting and providing statistics can at times be somewhat underdeveloped.

So what? Is it really that important? Do we even need to be good at it?

Measuring a Spiritual Enterprise

It might be interesting to note that the Universal House of Justice analyzes each and every cluster around the world using the statistics we send to them.

A so-called Cluster Growth Profile is put together, which is essentially a document containing a series of tables detailing information such as the number of core activities in a cluster, the number of homes visited for deepening, number of individuals who attended Holy Day celebrations and so on. The Cluster Growth Profile is a statistical snapshot taken of a cluster every three months and is a way for the Universal House of Justice to maintain an overview of the communities that make up the Baha’i world over which it governs.

What do these numbers tell the Universal House of Justice about each respective cluster? If the number of home-visits that took place in a cluster in Africa over a three-monthly period was 40, and over the same period the number in a cluster in Australia was 5, does that mean the cluster in Africa is more spiritual or that their believers are better Baha’is?

Measuring a spiritual enterprise can present challenges especially when a unit of measure may not be obvious or existent. How do we determine the presence and the degree of spiritual qualities such as unity, love or faith?

Some would argue that there is in fact a direct correlation between numbers and spiritual attributes. For example, the amount of contributions made to the Baha’i Fund by an individual or a community may indeed reflect their level of detachment and self-sacrifice. By the same token, the number of home visits being made in a cluster could indicate how tightly-knit the social fabric of that community is, whether bonds of friendship exist and are being reinforced outside the sphere of formally organized activities.

However, rather than seeing statistics as a way to put a number against a spiritual quality, we should embrace the idea of statistics as the science of learning from data. When we start to look at numbers as a way to help us learn – about ourselves, our trends, our tendencies – they become infinitely more useful.

Numbers of participants involved in a teaching campaign or individuals who have completed Ruhi Book 1 give us information on the status quo. Seeing how these numbers change over one cycle, two cycles, a year, or several years can give us valuable insight into a process of spiritual transformation. When it comes to a process of any nature, we do benefit from some sort of indicator as to whether we are advancing.1 Statistics can be utilized – whether it’s by the Universal House of Justice or individuals in their own community – as a reliable indicator of how we are progressing the work of the Cause.

One Can Disagree with Ideas, but One Cannot Argue with Facts

Statistics are nothing new to the Faith. The Guardian, Shoghi Effendi, had a passion for statistics and exerted great effort in obtaining them. Ruhiyyih Khanum fondly recollects:

He constantly kept his statistics up to date; at the time of his passing he had the usual small notebook in his bedroom in which he kept the latest additions. I remember once his smilingly holding such a notebook up and telling me: “Do you realize the whole Baha’i world is in this?”2

It is a curiously simple yet profound idea that the Baha’i world could be summed up in a few numbers. Ruhiyyih Khanum goes on to elaborate:

To understand the statistics better, one must understand what was in Shoghi Effendi’s mind behind the statistics. One cannot argue with facts; one can disagree with ideas… Facts were part of Shoghi Effendi’s ammunition with which he could defend the Faith against its enemies and through which he could not only encourage the Baha’is but stimulate them to greater effort.3

While within the community we may use statistics to monitor our own progress, outside of the community statistics can be a great tool in not only defending but presenting and propagating the Faith externally. As the work of the Baha’i community begins to attract and invite more attention through our engagement in social action, public discourse, and external affairs efforts, it becomes even more important to draw on numerical data to give others an accurate picture of who and what we are. The impact the Junior Youth Spiritual Empowerment Program has had on a population or the increase in the devotional character of a locality – these findings are all the more credible when we have data that underpins them.

The Medium is the Message

So what does all this have to do with me? If you have ever attended a 19-day Feast, facilitated a study circle, held a devotional meeting, taken part in an expansion – and even if you have not – you are integral to this process.

In an ideal world, a teacher of a children’s class will know how many children attend their class, will pass this information on to a children’s class coordinator, who will pass this on to a statistics officer, and all of this information will be vigilantly recorded every three months and analyzed for reflection and future planning by all parties involved.

Like with any chain of communication however, there is potential for a break-down at every link. It is surprising how much information is not recorded and inversely how much information is not known. The children’s class teacher does not know the number of attendees and so inflates the number, the coordinator has no contact with the teacher, a cluster does not have a statistics officer, there has been no time to record any information so the number being sent to the World Centre has been the same for the past three cycles – there are any number of obstacles that arise when it comes to statistics.

If we view this process as a flow of information and understand the flow of information to be a natural expression of a community of people working together toward a common purpose, then is it not vital that we get better at this?

In the same way donating to the Fund or saying our 95 Allah’u’Abhas is a way to flex our spiritual muscles, the process of collecting statistics can also be seen as a spiritual exercise. When our knowledge of Baha’i activities is thorough and our communication with fellow believers is strong, providing and collecting statistics will be easy. So until our numbers are through the roof, perhaps just the effort to get them there will be all our community needs.


  1. From a document compiled by friends in Canada for the study of statistics []
  2. Ruhiyyih Khanum, The Priceless Pearl, p. 390 []
  3. Ruhiyyih Khanum, The Priceless Pearl, p. 390 []

About the Author

Zayda is a Baha'i living and serving in Australia's capital, Canberra.

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Discussion 15 Comments

  1. As a data geek, I loved this post! Particularly the quotes about Shoghi Effendi’s use of and passion for statistics. Thanks Zayda!

  2. Thank you for the article, Zayda. I happen to love the Baha’i Faith AND to love statistics. I’m retired now but was for three decades a senior manager in an engineering organization and depended heavily on one form of statistics or another to have an insight into the “health” of my organization. I learned some things: Bits and pieces of information are not necessarily knowledge about something; they don’t necessarily reveal what is REALLY going on. The easiest data to collect is often the LEAST informative. And, that collecting data can be an onerous task for the workforce; it should come from the process itself and it should include the best indicators possible of the process itself, rather than only of the result.

  3. I love the way you have talked about statistics here. They’re not something separate from what we do, but they record what we do in a way that can be reviewed and analysed. Very nice! Thanks!

  4. Found this article describing the process of collection of statistics in a noble way. Thanks for sharing this useful insights on one of the key elements of the growth process. I will share these insights with my friends during my visits to clusters.

  5. Wonderful post – would that document by the friends from Canada be available? I would be more than interested!! Can you help me with obtaining it? Many thanks!

  6. Great post! Im in the line of analysis and this really helps to understand why it is important for us to collect information on the progress of our community building efforts that will also help to identify the needs of our communities and but it is also essential to strike a balance between reporting numbers and humanising its impacts 🙂

  7. The devil is in the details. So is the angel. Numbers don’t lie. Shoghi Effendi was wise to arm the Faith with statistics about where and how many of us there are in the world, and how our influence is impressively growing.

  8. Brilliant, I love this post and was truly enlightened. It makes the whole process of collecting data and learning from data so much more meaningful when looked at through this lens.

    I also never saw things this way “By the same token, the number of home visits being made in a cluster could indicate how tightly-knit the social fabric of that community is, whether bonds of friendship exist and are being reinforced outside the sphere of formally organized activities.”

    Thanks Zayda. Keep these blog posts coming please….

  9. “So until our numbers are through the roof, perhaps just the effort to get them there will be all our community needs.”

    That is it in a nut shell.

    “How do we determine the presence and the degree of spiritual qualities such as unity, love or faith?”

    Of course this is secondary to quote one and because that cart comes before the horse Baha’i communities can leave one feeling spiritually starved.

  10. I appreciate the insight and effort you have made in explaining the value of facts and numbers. You are right that the Guardian’s leadership style reflected his desire to accurately record and document the remarkable development of the world wide Baha’i community under his care. So too the UHJ faces a complex and difficult task in assessing the strengths and capacities of the global Baha’i community. We should not be adverse to numbers and the utility of statistics in shaping plans and allocating resources. What might also be helpful to acknowledge however, is the simple fact that an excessive the numberattention to numbers and other performance measures can also be very destructive. This has certainly been my experience. As we say here in China “weighing the pig every day does not make it any heavier”.
    We Baha’is are privileged to be fellow pilgrims on a sacred journey. In making our way up the mountain if we keep stopping to measure the rope and count the number of steps we have taken, we may well lose sight of the goal and even our passion for the ascent. We talk a lot about watering the seeds of faith, nurturing telationships and new believers so using the same organic analogy we should beware of continually lifting up our plants to examine the roots. This is not a goodrs.pf way to make our garden grow.
    Finally, I think it is an entirely understandable reaction when we feel that complex affairs of the spirit are being reduced to simple metrics. If I am asked to measure my love for family or friends by recording every, phonecall, text and contact and then also suffer the indignity of having my results publicly tabled and compared with others I for one feel greatly diminished. I also fear that the beauty and mystery,which lies at the heart of loving relationships, is also somehow being commodified if not betrayed. Such data is sadly sometimes reduced in the hands of the ignorant to mere posturing and competition. This goes to the heart of trust and questions the nature of our spiritual communion. So often I feel our gatherings, even Holy Days, are hi-jacked and sacred energy is dissipated by excessive zeal of the number crunchers, however well intentioned. You have raised an important topic for reflection. We are encouraged to call ourselves to account every day not each other. I hope as we work to support each other in this great work we will find wiser ways to guide the process.

  11. I’m a statistics officer at my (little) community, I know how important this is, even more since my career has a statist side.
    Many find this as a pain maybe because they don’t get anything tangible from it, at least not in short notice.

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