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The vital historical movement of modernity, which began in Europe, brought us scientific, technological, cultural, and political innovations that have exerted significant influence throughout the world.
Modernity marked the transition from the ancient to the modern world—however, it should not be regarded as an end-point to history. It was a step forward, but not the last step.
The Baha’i teachings acknowledge the significance of modernity, but also envision the ongoing march of history moving toward a global civilization:
True civilization will unfurl its banner in the midmost heart of the world whenever a certain number of its distinguished and high-minded sovereigns—the shining exemplars of devotion and determination — shall, for the good and happiness of all mankind, arise, with firm resolve and clear vision, to establish the Cause of Universal Peace. They must make the Cause of Peace the object of general consultation, and seek by every means in their power to establish a Union of the nations of the world. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 64.
According to the immutable law of change, modernity naturally moves the process of modifying existing models of development forward, and as a result of these emerging realities, a transition to a broader or universal system emerges. According to the Baha’i teachings, the major characteristics of this global civilization will undoubtedly include:
- A transcendental quality that entails a dynamic spiritual world view
- Universal ethics or a shared understanding of right and wrong
- The necessity of harmony between science and religion as pillars of a true civilization
- Advancing democratic, reflective, and participatory global discourse to achieve rational consensus on resolving entrenched patterns of conflict
- A global mechanism to safeguard and maintain collective security
In his book The Secret of Divine Civilization, Abdu’l-Baha stated that the masses of people desire happiness, but ignorance shuts them away from acquiring or achieving it. In referring to the Qur’anic verse, “Shall they who have the knowledge and they who have it not, be treated alike?” Abdu’l-Baha names knowledge as the essential principle of civilization—and the necessary condition for the social progress of nations:
How long shall we drift on the wings of passion and vain desire; how long shall we spend our days like barbarians in the depths of ignorance and abomination? God has given us eyes, that we may look about us at the world, and lay hold of whatsoever will further civilization and the arts of living. He has given us ears, that we may hear and profit by the wisdom of scholars and philosophers and arise to promote and practice it. Senses and faculties have been bestowed upon us, to be devoted to the service of the general good; so that we, distinguished above all other forms of life for perceptiveness and reason, should labor at all times and along all lines, whether the occasion be great or small, ordinary or extraordinary, until all mankind are safely gathered into the impregnable stronghold of knowledge. We should continually be establishing new bases for human happiness and creating and promoting new instrumentalities toward this end. How excellent, how honorable is man if he arises to fulfil his responsibilities; how wretched and contemptible, if he shuts his eyes to the welfare of society and wastes his precious life in pursuing his own selfish interests and personal advantages. Supreme happiness is man’s, and he beholds the signs of God in the world and in the human soul, if he urges on the steed of high endeavor in the arena of civilization and justice. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 3-4.
If the broad acquisition of knowledge is impeded, nations will fall into the abyss of ignorance and fanaticism. The unfolding process of social evolution necessitates humanity’s relentless promotion and utilization of knowledge in order to advance civilization.
In The Secret of Divine Civilization, Abdu’l-Baha points out that we have learned democracy is superior to dictatorship; having electricity, railways, and asphalt is better than darkness and dirt roads; material prosperity is more admirable than the thousands-year-old state of poverty and destitution; respecting human rights and freedom is more advanced than the centuries of slavery and feudalist systems; intellectual, scientific, artistic, and philosophical freedom are preferable to fanatical and superstitious thinking. According to Abdu’l-Baha, the higher and more advanced stages of civilization would not have survived if not accompanied by the ethics of reciprocity and altruism. With this in mind, it would seem logical then that the invasion of a nation or culture by another nation, seeking supremacy over its people, would be contrary to the noble spirit of a civilization.
For example, during the time of the Nazis, Germany represented the most notable features of civilization in science, philosophy, and technology; however, since it violated the noble spirit of civilization by using hatred, domination and authoritarian methods, it fell into the low-water mark of barbarism and savagery.
In his book, Abdu’l-Baha identified two intertwined challenges, and aligned them with the level of development at the macro and micro levels. At the macro level, the labyrinth of defects and inadequacies of the international order has undermined the growth process of underdeveloped nations or ethnic groups. At the micro level, the lack of sufficient awareness and political will for self-generated reform from within has obstructed the process of social and economic development in those nations.
At the macro level, The Secret of Divine Civilization singles out militarism and expansionist policies as the source of global imbalance and the continuation of the socio-economic and political divide. To address this systemic issue, Abdu’l-Baha suggests that fundamental changes be made and enacted in terms of international law—changes based on principles of collective security. Abdu’l-Baha’s magnificent and brilliant design for a divine civilization involves a plan for restraining boundless political and military power and bringing it under the oversight of a democratically-elected international system, where the path to development will be freed from colonial and imperialistic policies through the enactment of world law.
At the micro level, The Secret of Divine Civilization suggests that the nations and peoples of the world who are suffering from poverty, from a low standard of living, from illiteracy and the remnants of colonialism must cultivate an inwardly driven determination, and with constructive resilience, take their destiny into their own hands. They need to stand on their own feet, gain valuable and practical knowledge, and address the importance of education in lifting them from their plight. They must use their material resources to create expert and capable human resources, which in turn will raise them to ever-higher levels of both material and spiritual existence. To rise up and move each country forward with reforms in the spirit of peace, reconciliation, and international cooperation is the true and lasting remedy.
These two aspects of development— self-generated, peace-oriented national reform and greater expressions of maturity and justice at the international level—complement and promote one another. While the reform from inside strengthens the central foundation of each nation, the process of international law and collective security cultivates a safe and thriving environment for ongoing national development. This binary nature of development provides a path for exiting the stalemate of underdevelopment without losing national identity and independence or resorting to aggressive conflicts and wars.