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Would it seem shortsighted, improvident and unsound, would it constitute a deviation from what is right and proper, if we were to strengthen our relationships with neighboring countries, enter into binding treaties with the great powers, foster friendly connections with well-disposed governments, look to the expansion of trade with the nations of East and West, develop our natural resources and increase the wealth of our people? – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 14-15.
At this current moment in history, the whole world debates this profound question, which Abdu’l-Baha first asked in 1875. His prescient question summarizes in one sentence the colossal ongoing struggle between nationalism and globalism, raging ever more strongly since it began in the middle of the 19th Century. It essentially asks: can nations remain isolated and autonomous; or should they cooperate, interact and ultimately unite?
Abdu’l-Baha posed that seminal question in a fascinating historical context. In his home country of Persia (now Iran), the late 1800s witnessed a lively and fractious debate between traditionalists and modernists. The modernists, led by a progressive reformer named Husayn Khan, the nation’s Minister of Justice and formerly an Ambassador to the Ottoman Court in Istanbul, believed that the time had come for Persia to enter the modern age with an expansion of the rule of law, limits on the arbitrary power of religious leaders, and an end to government corruption. The traditionalists, led by the nation’s conservative Qajar governors and religious leaders, did not want to give up their power, and vehemently resisted any modernizing influences.
The conservative clergy even opposed the construction of railroads, since they created the possibility of contact, communication and trade with Western “infidels.”
To respond to those social conditions, Abdu’l-Baha wrote his first book, The Secret of Divine Civilization. His father Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, specifically asked Abdu’l-Baha to write about the means and the causes of the world’s development and underdevelopment, in order to reduce the prejudices of the dogmatic religious conservatives in society. Religion, Baha’u’llah taught, should serve as a dynamic force for human progress, not a force that holds humanity back:
Beseech thou the Almighty that He may remove with the fingers of divine power the veils which have shut out the diverse peoples and kindreds, that they may attain the things that are conducive to security, progress and advancement… – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 62-63.
Abdu’l-Baha initially published The Secret of Divine Civilization anonymously. He wanted, he wrote in the introduction:
To demonstrate that his one purpose is to promote the general welfare, he has withheld his name. Since he believes that guidance toward righteousness is in itself a righteous act, he offers these few words of counsel to his country’s sons, words spoken for God’s sake alone and in the spirit of a faithful friend. – The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 6.
The book makes a cogent, compelling argument for Iran, and by extension the entire Islamic world at the time, to move into the new modern age. The culture would be best served, Abdu’l-Baha wrote, by embracing the Baha’i ideals of unity, love and fellowship with all peoples, all nations and all religions:
…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 unity is true religion. – Ibid., p. 73.
Can you imagine what the world might look like today if Iran and the other Islamic nations had followed Abdu’l-Baha’s counsel?
But he did not restrict his counsel to only the Muslim world—Abdu’l-Baha also addressed the West in The Secret of Divine Civilization, describing the armed camp of late 19th Century Europe as equally backwards in a different way:
The peoples of Europe have not advanced to the higher planes of moral civilization, as their opinions and behavior clearly demonstrate. Notice, for example, how the supreme desire of European governments and peoples today is to conquer and crush one another…. – Ibid., p. 61.
In 1875 Abdu’l-Baha warned the entire community of nations that the only possible solution to nationalistic wars would come through unity:
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. They must conclude a binding treaty and establish a covenant, the provisions of which shall be sound, inviolable and definite. They must proclaim it to all the world and obtain for it the sanction of all the human race. This supreme and noble undertaking—the real source of the peace and well-being of all the world—should be regarded as sacred by all that dwell on earth. All the forces of humanity must be mobilized to ensure the stability and permanence of this Most Great Covenant. In this all-embracing Pact the limits and frontiers of each and every nation should be clearly fixed, the principles underlying the relations of governments towards one another definitely laid down, and all international agreements and obligations ascertained. – Ibid., pp. 64-65.
A significant part of that unity, as we’ll see in the next essay in this series, can only occur by abolishing economic barriers and restrictions between all countries.
Next: Economic Barriers and Restrictions: Completely Abolished