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Baha’is have nothing against wealth, Abdu’l-Baha wrote in The Secret of Divine Civilization—as long as it comes from honest work and is shared with others.
In The Secret, Abdu’l-Baha dealt extensively with the question of work ethics. Unlike the prevailing norms of 19th century Iranian society which encouraged unproductive pursuits and poverty, Abdu’l-Baha praised the acquisition of wealth, provided that it met two primary conditions:
- First, it should be gained through individual’s own productive activities in commerce, agriculture, art, and industry.
- Secondly it must be accompanied by a sense of moral responsibility towards other humans, and used in philanthropic ways.
In The Secret of Divine Civilization, Abdu’l-Baha did not explicitly raise the question of capitalism or socialism, since his position was already clear. Throughout the Baha’i teachings, he called for an equitable income distribution in society—which means that he neither supported total income equality and elimination of competition in civil society, nor that he accepted unlimited competitive capitalist liberalism and excessive inequality.
In his other writings, Abdu’l-Baha dealt with this question directly and explicitly. It is clear that for Abdu’l-Baha, both ideological extremes are unacceptable. He called for the elimination of both poverty and excess wealth, but accepted moderate economic competition in the context of a new approach to the meaning of work, a commitment to the moral and spiritual principles of the oneness of humankind and community solidarity, emphasis on agriculture, decentralized fiscal, economic, and administrative structures, welfare measures for the poor, and harmony and cooperation of the public and private sectors.
In The Secret, Abdu’l-Baha asked Iranians to note the economic and technological changes that were currently happening in Japan as one of the examples of successful reform and modernization:
… the government of Japan was in the beginning subject to and under the protection of China, and that now for some years, Japan has opened its eyes and adopted the techniques of contemporary progress and civilization, promoting sciences and industries of use to the public, and striving to the utmost of their power and competence until public opinion was focused on reform … Observe carefully how education and the arts of civilization bring honor, prosperity, independence and freedom to a government and its people. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 111.
However, beyond the questions of economic and technological reform, the moral framework of the Baha’i concept of wealth becomes evident in The Secret:
Wealth is most commendable, provided the entire population is wealthy. If, however, a few have inordinate riches while the rest are impoverished, and no fruit or benefit accrues from that wealth, then it is only a liability to its possessor. If, on the other hand, it is expended for the promotion of knowledge, the founding of elementary and other schools, the encouragement of art and industry, the training of orphans and the poor—in brief, if it is dedicated to the welfare of society—its possessor will stand out before God and man as most excellent of all who live on earth and will be accounted as one of the people of paradise. – Ibid., pp. 24-25.
In order to become a sustainable society and equitably distribute that society’s wealth, Abdu’l-Baha recommended, the educational system must also be reformed.
Elements of this reform in the Baha’i teachings include universal education, concentration on beneficial and scientific disciplines, and avoidance of scholastic controversies which are harmful to social harmony and scientific productivity. Abdu’l-Baha argues that effective attainment of social justice in society is dependent on the presence of an enlightened and educated population. His call for scientific education and his warning against scholastic controversies should not be interpreted as a rejection of the need for moral education. On the contrary, for Abdu’l-Baha what is crucial is the harmony and cooperation of both moral and technical education.
Finally, let’s look at the question of religious rationalization in The Secret. The focus of the text is in fact an affirmation of the need for religious reform in Iran. In that context Abdu’l-Baha positively mentions the Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and calls on the Muslim clergy to learn from the lessons of that historical experience:
Although at that period the power of the Pope was so great and he was regarded with such awe that the kings of Europe shook and trembled before him, and he held control of all Europe’s major concerns in the grasp of his might—nevertheless because Luther’s position as regards the freedom of religious leaders to marry, the abstention from worshiping and making prostrations before images and representations hung in the churches, and the abrogation of ceremonials which had been added on to the Gospel, was demonstrably correct … – Ibid., p. 41.
The longest part of The Secret is devoted to the refutation of the traditionalist claims of the conservative Muslim clergy, who argued that Islam is opposed to learning modern science and institutional norms. The Muslim ulama usually rejected the adoption of Western practices as heretical innovations contrary to Islam. Abdu’l-Baha provides forceful arguments against this version of historicist theory.
First, he argues that details of scientific and technological questions are to some extent independent from the question of religious teachings and revelation. Similarly, he argues that, in fact, the prophet Muhammad called for learning of knowledge from all groups, and he reminds his readers that Muhammad adopted Persian military tactics in the Battle of Ditches. Furthermore, he notes the adoption of many pre-Islamic practices in Islamic law. He also points out that Greek logic and philosophy were adopted by Islamic sciences, and are taught by the same ulama now opposed to any learning from Western societies! In this context, Abdu’l-Baha reinterpreted an Islamic tradition which explicates the characteristics of authentic ulama.
Essentially, Abdu’l-Baha called for a new focus of attention on the creative spirit of Islam and of all religion, by implementing both a progressive and a historical orientation.
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