Since Baha’u’llah oriented the Baha’i Faith to love and unity, he made a covenant with his believers so that the question of leadership in his Faith would not become a cause of discord and schism. He explicitly appointed his son, Abdu’l-Baha, as his successor and the authorized interpreter of his writings.
Abdu’l-Baha’s first book, The Secret of Divine Civilization, came about because of that covenant. As one of the early writings of Abdu’l-Baha written at the request of Baha’u’llah, 17 years before his ascension, The Secret offers us a unique window into the Baha’i teachings and their prescription for human society.
An adequate understanding of The Secret requires an extensive analysis of the totality of the writings of Abdu’l-Baha. While the brief nature of these essays precludes that, it is necessary to note his warnings to the world during his trip to the West in the years between 1911 and 1913. At a time when America was torn by racial injustice and discrimination, and Europe was moving towards a devastating world war due to ethnic and nationalistic prejudices, Abdu’l-Baha called for racial unity and the elimination of all prejudices. He called for equal rights of men and women, and warned humanity that justice, peace, and human advancement depend on harmony and the equal rights of all people. At a time when education was a privilege of the wealthy minority, Abdu’l-Baha called for universal and obligatory education of all children in the world. At a time of confusion between unbridled laissez-faire capitalism and violent labor movements, Abdu’l-Baha called for social justice and elimination of the extremes of wealth and poverty.
He affirmed the harmony of religion, science, and reason, and declared that religion should be a cause of unity and concord rather than hatred and discord. He called for independent investigation of the truth by all humans, and affirmed the need for world peace and the oneness of humanity as the most urgent questions confronting the planet. He called for unity in diversity and argued for a universal auxiliary language to promote communication, understanding, and unity in the world.
So The Secret of Divine Civilization, inspired by the principles and vision of Baha’u’llah, analyzes these fundamental questions of modernity and socioeconomic development—and represents one of the important source documents necessary for understanding the Baha’i teachings. The Secret was written in 1875, which is clearly mentioned in the text itself:
Baha’u’llah asked his son to compose this treatise. In one of his tablets, Baha’u’llah mentions that he asked Abdu’l-Baha to write a discourse on the means and the cause of development and underdevelopment of the world, in order to reduce the prejudices of the dogmatic conservatives. (Muhammad Ali Feizi, Hayat-i-Hadrat-i-Abdu’l-Baha, p. 42.)
The Secret contains an interesting apparent paradox. Baha’u’llah called for an explication of the conditions for development of the world, whereas apparently Abdu’l-Baha’s book orients itself towards the question of the socioeconomic development of Iran. But in fact there is no contradiction here—on the contrary, this apparent paradox is a key for understanding Abdu’l-Baha’s concepts of modernity and development. But before discussing the organization and the content of The Secret, we should also locate Abdu’l-Baha’s text in the sociopolitical situation of Iran in the second half of the 19th century.
The Secret in the context of 19th century Iran
Iran, like nations in most other parts of the world, underwent fundamental social, political, and cultural transformations in the 19th century. During this period, Iran was ruled by Qajar kings, and for most of the second half of the 1800s the Qajar king Nasiri’d-Din Shah reigned. The most important development of this century was the growing recognition by Iranians of the emergence of a new international balance of power, and the subsequent decline and inferior position of Iran in economic, political, and military affairs.
During the 19th century, the balance of power in military, political, technological, economic, and cultural creativity and innovation changed in favor of the Europeans and against the Islamic societies including Iran. A thousand years earlier, with the emergence of Islam, a vast Islamic empire came into existence, initiating cultural creativity, technological invention, economic prosperity, and military might. In fact, medieval Islamic culture was equal or superior to Western culture up until the 15th century. After centuries of cultural, economic, military, and technological victory and progress, Islamic empires forgot the spirit of Islam and became obsessed with a literalistic, conservative, and traditionalistic approach to religion and society. This conservative orientation discouraged the spirit of individual autonomy, cultural creativity, and scientific innovation. Between the 16th and 19th centuries, the old Islamic cultural superiority suffered from social and cultural stagnation. At the same time, religious, scientific, democratic, industrial, and cultural reforms and revolutions in the West created powerful European states who, influenced by their new nationalistic and capitalistic institutions, initiated a process of global conquest and colonialism.
While the Ottoman empire recognized the need for sociopolitical reform in the 18th century, Iranian political and religious leaders ignored these revolutionary developments in the world. Only after two successive defeats in war with neighboring Russia, and the signing of the humiliating treaties of Gulistan (1813) and Turkaman Chai (1828) did the questions of modernity and reform became relevant issues in Iran. None of the attempts at institutional reform, however, were successful, due to both internal and external reasons.
Internally, lack of a clear vision of cultural reform and rationalization helped cause the failure of any reform attempts—as did the vehement opposition of the conservative Muslim clergy (ulama) to the culture of modernity. Rejecting that spirit, the conservative ulama adopted a traditional reaction against structural and cultural transformations occurring in the world. They insisted that modernity is opposed to the dictates of Islam; and as a result, the 19th century was a century of economic decline for Iran.
Two other internal causes insured the failure of reform: first, the pervasive corruption among Qajar kings and princes, bureaucratic officials, and religious authorities paralyzed the reform process. Secondly, the Babi religious movement, which heralded the advent of Baha’u’llah, offered a new cultural and spiritual vision for society, but was brutally persecuted by both the Qajar state and the conservative religious ulama.
In this environment, Abdu’l-Baha’s The Secret of Divine Civilization provided a radically comprehensive model of institutional and cultural rationalization and change. It analyzed the dynamics of development and underdevelopment in the light of 19th century Iranian society—and by extension, of global society as a whole.
Abdu’l-Baha’s unique vision, inspired by Baha’u’llah’s concept of a new world order, would lay the groundwork for a complete revitalization of human society.