Abdu’l-Baha’s book The Secret of Divine Civilization has a hidden and a manifest message—society must be modernized, but only a force as powerful as religion can accomplish it.
In the book, Abdu’l-Bahá did not explicate the hidden aspects—he wrote the text anonymously, without making any overt reference to the Baha’i teachings. Of course, Abdu’l-Baha withheld his identity as a Baha’i, because otherwise his book would have been automatically condemned by religious leaders and would not have a chance to speak to people. However, this implicit message finds its voice in Abdu’l-Baha’s other writings.
To begin with the manifest content in The Secret, Abdu’l-Baha rejects both positions in the debate. He argues that in fact Islam has been the cause of the emergence of a most wonderful and progressive civilization, and he agrees that the solution to the backwardness of Iran is to go back to the essential spirit of Islam. However, he does not agree with conservative clergy concerning the relation between Islam and modernity.
The spirit of Islam, Abdu’l-Baha affirms, is not opposed to either the culture of modernity or to learning positive cultural, scientific, and institutional lessons from Western, non-Muslim people. This also means opposing the atheistic position of the secular intellectuals who defended the Western concept of modernity and rejected Islam as a backward ideology. Both parties in the debate had assumed a contradiction between the principles of modernity and Islam. One group, however, sided with traditional Islam, whereas the other group defended modernity.
Contrary to both positions, Abdu’l-Baha argues, Islam requires a dynamic approach to religion and society. He refers to the Islamic tradition according to which Muslims must seek knowledge from any part of the world, even from a far and non-Muslim country like China. He wrote:
If it be objected that even where material affairs are concerned foreign importations are inadmissible, such an argument would only establish the ignorance and absurdity of its proponents. Have they forgotten the celebrated hadith (holy tradition): “Seek after knowledge, even unto China”? – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 26.
Similarly, Abdu’l-Baha argues that progressive forces in Islamic culture have served as an important cause of the cultural awakening of the medieval West which led to the Renaissance, the revival of classical culture, and eventually the Reformation. Furthermore, Abdu’l-Baha calls on Muslim ulama to realize the potentially progressive role of Islam, and initiate fundamental reform and rationalization of different aspects of Iranian social and spiritual life. Given the political significance of the ulama in Iran, Abdu’l-Baha uses a holy tradition to explicate the duties and responsibilities of the clergy. In his detailed and innovative explanation, Abdu’l-Baha emphasized the need for flexibility, historical adaptability, and development of science and learning in society.
So the major difference between Abdu’l-Baha’s interpretation of Islam and the interpretation shared by both conservative clergy and secular intellectuals is related to the fact that Abdu’l-Baha did not equate the spirit of Islam with traditionalism.
Abdu’l-Baha emphasizes the dynamic spirit of Islam, expressed in different times in accordance with the conditions of the time. This means that for Abdu’l-Baha the spirit of Islam is in fact opposed to the return to past Islamic customs, laws, and traditions. He points out that Islamic culture, in its beginning stages, initiated a progressive civilization precisely because its specific cultural practices corresponded with the objective needs of the time and the stage of development of humanity. The Secret says that any insistence on traditionalism and calling for return to past practices, on the other hand, would be totally opposed to both the spirit of Islam, and the requirements of an ever-advancing civilization. In other words, for Abdu’l-Baha, the essential spirit of Islam is not opposed to the authentic conceptions of the culture of modernity and rationalization.
The Secret, therefore, argues that religion and modernity are not opposed to each other—provided that by religion we understand the spirit of religion and not the dogmatic glorification and worship of tradition. But Abdu’l-Baha’s position is equally a rejection of the atheistic premises of the secular intellectuals who defended modernity at the expense of any spiritual and religious commitment. Abdu’l-Baha directly attacks the position of the French philosophy of the Enlightenment concerning the role of religion in society. He wrote that contrary to the atheistic assumptions of the French Enlightenment, divine revelation, religious values, and belief in the sanctity of spiritual guidance are not only necessary for effective order and morality, but also for social and cultural progress, advancement, modernity, and development:
It is certain that the greatest of instrumentalities for achieving the advancement and the glory of man, the supreme agency for the enlightenment and the redemption of the world, is love and fellowship and unity among all the members of the human race. Nothing can be effected in the world, not even conceivably, without unity and agreement, and the perfect means for engendering fellowship and union is true religion. – Ibid., p. 73.