Although Abdu’l-Baha’s book ostensibly focuses on the dynamic of modernization as it applied to Persian society at the time, it also provides a larger framework for social development to be used by both developed and underdeveloped countries. Today, almost 150 years after its initial publication, it still offers strikingly incisive insights into the requisites of a modern civilization.
The Secret of Divine Civilization emphasizes the centrality of intellect and reflection, the refinement of moral standards, the necessity of increasing the acquisition and broadening of knowledge, and the reconstruction of the educational system for the benefit of social transformation. Abdu’l-Baha frankly wrote:
The primary, the most urgent requirement is the promotion of education. It is inconceivable that any nation should achieve prosperity and success unless this paramount, this fundamental concern is carried forward. The principal reason for the decline and fall of peoples is ignorance. Today the masses of the people are uninformed even as to ordinary affairs, how much less do they grasp the core of the important problems and complex needs of the time. – The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 109.
The 19th century political and social hierarchies of Persia reserved the benefits of education solely for the religious patriarchy. The content of education at that time, totally bereft of modern arts and sciences, represented an elitist system that deprived many men, and the vast majority of women, from any educational opportunity. It was a system whose customs and traditions had fallen behind the winds of change, and its values were infused with fundamentalism and superstition. It demanded complete obedience to the ecclesiastical class and authoritarian rulers.
In that educational system, people were regarded as weak and powerless; imitation dominated free thinking. People were taught to think that they owed their lives to the ruling regime, and to yield their will, independence, and freedom of thought to blind obedience and complete conformity to the legal decision of the clergy and the stagnated norms of tradition. In other words, Abdu’l-Baha’s treatise on divine civilization, with emphasis on the importance of thought and reason, draws the reader’s attention to the fact that every country’s rehabilitation and prosperity are conditioned upon the use of enlightened knowledge and wisdom. Every action and reform is doomed to failure unless the spirit of independent truth-seeking penetrates the culture and educational system.
The Secret of Divine Civilization includes outlines and suggestions for the reconstruction and prosperity of a nation, including the issues of economic and spiritual development and the preconditions needed in order to exit the dead-end of underdevelopment.
Among the principles presented, Abdu’l-Baha emphasized the necessity for placing a priority on refining and educating its human resources, which are introduced as the essential principle for development. Other of areas of concern include the importance of a country’s natural resources, its geographical location, and the historical and cultural heritage of its nation—but not to the extent of considering them to be the main preconditions for launching a program of development. Even for large populations, where there is potential for a vast human resource, without the dynamics of education and the development of knowledge, insight, and skills, augmentation of these human resources for the betterment of the society would be near impossible. In other words, the ultimate success or failure of all development efforts depend on how and to what extent an advanced educational process that begins with the individual and extends itself to the social relationships and processes has been systematically cultivated.
Abdu’l-Baha recommended a pattern of development that is neither blind imitation of the West nor retreating to the past with opposition to new innovations. This approach confirms the value of modernity and elaborates on its meaning and direction. He wrote:
Today throughout the five continents of the globe it is Europe and most sections of America that are renowned for law and order, government and commerce, art and industry, science, philosophy and education. … The basis of Europe’s progress and civilization was actually laid in the fifteenth century of the Christian era, and from that time on, all her present evident culture has been, under the stimulus of great minds and as a result of the expansion of the frontiers of knowledge and the exertion of energetic and ambitious efforts, in the process of development. – Ibid., p. 15.