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When the world’s great Faiths first appeared—Hinduism in approximately 2500 BC; Judaism with the advent of Moses in 1300 BC; Buddhism in about 500 BC: Christianity two thousand years ago; and Islam in the 7th Century AD—they all spoke initially to a largely illiterate populace. Few people then had even rudimentary formal educations. Only a small minority of the early followers of the messengers and founders of these Faiths could read or write.
So when the Baha’i Faith, the world’s newest major religion, appeared in the middle of the 19th Century, you might expect that global literacy rates had increased by then—but they still hadn’t gone up much at all. At that time, the vast majority of the world’s nations had literacy rates of less than ten percent at best. When formal schooling became mandatory in those cultures, it caused the rapid rise in literacy rates we’ve seen over the past hundred years, from less than 10% to almost a hundred percent in most industrialized nations today. Even the most illiterate nations, many in sub-Saharan Africa, now have literacy rates above fifty percent.
After the Baha’i Faith began advocating universal compulsory education for every child regardless of social and economic background or gender, many nations around the world mandated that every child be educated.
In his seminal 1913 Paris speech, Abdu’l-Baha identified this important Baha’i principle of universal compulsory education as one of the major teachings that sets the Baha’i Faith apart from other religions:
Education holds an important place in the new order of things. The education of each child is compulsory. If there is not money enough in a family to educate both the girl and the boy the money must be dedicated to the girl’s education, for she is the potential mother. If there are no parents the community must educate the child. In addition to this widespread education each child must be taught a profession, art, or trade, so that every member of the community will be enabled to earn his own livelihood. Work done in the spirit of service is the highest form of worship. Where do you find this statement? – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 83.
This unique relationship of worship and work, and the focus on universal compulsory education that runs throughout the Baha’i teachings, creates something entirely new. It means that wherever the Baha’i Faith grows and thrives, education, knowledge and science will also flourish. Unlike some of the religions of the past, which encouraged either no education or a dogmatic, fundamentalist or rote learning guided only by the religion’s clergy, the Baha’i Faith, which has no clergy, encourages a universal curriculum that emphasizes the teaching of moral learning, scientific knowledge and a broad understanding of all Faiths:
…education is essential, and all standards of training and teaching throughout the world of mankind should be brought into conformity and agreement; a universal curriculum should be established, and the basis of ethics be the same. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 182.
In another talk Abdu’l-Baha gave, he outlines three cardinal Baha’i principles of education:
First: Whole-hearted service to the cause of education, the unfolding of the mysteries of nature, the extension of the boundaries of pure science, the elimination of the causes of ignorance and social evils, a standard universal system of instruction, and the diffusion of the lights of knowledge and reality. Second: Service to the cause of morality, raising the moral tone of the students, inspiring them with the sublimest ideals of ethical refinement, teaching them altruism, inculcating in their lives the beauty of holiness and the excellency of virtue and animating them with the excellences and perfections of the religion of God. Third: Service to the oneness of the world of humanity; so that each student may consciously realize that he is a brother to all mankind, irrespective of religion or race. The thoughts of universal peace must be instilled into the minds of all the scholars, in order that they may become the armies of peace, the real servants of the body politic-the world. God is the Father of all. Mankind are His children. This globe is one home. Nations are the members of one family. The mothers in their homes, the teachers in the schools, the professors in the college, the presidents in the universities, must teach these ideals to the young from the cradle up to the age of manhood. – Star of the West, Vol. IX, p. 98.
The Baha’i teachings emphasize this principle of education so strongly that Abdu’l-Baha called it “one of the requisites of religion.” In his talks in Paris, he even urged every childless person to take on the responsibility of educating one child:
Partaking of knowledge and education is one of the requisites of religion. The education of each child is obligatory. If there are no parents, the community must look after the child. It is suggested that the childless educate a child. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 26.