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I have spoken in the various Christian churches and in the synagogues, and in no assemblage has there been a dissenting voice. All have listened, and all have conceded that the teachings of Baha'u'llah are superlative in character, acknowledging that they constitute the very essence or spirit of this new age and that there is no better pathway to the attainment of its ideals. Not a single voice has been raised in objection. At most there have been some who have refused to acknowledge the mission of Baha'u'llah, although even these have admitted that He was a great teacher, a most powerful soul, a very great man. Some who could find no other pretext have said, "These teachings are not new; they are old and familiar; we have heard them before." Therefore, I will speak to you upon the distinctive characteristics of the manifestation of Baha'u'llah and prove that from every standpoint His Cause is distinguished from all others. - Abdu’l-Baha, from a talk at the home of Juliet Thompson in New York City on November 15, 1912, recorded in The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 431.
Abdu’l-Baha visited the United States and Canada in 1912, and then returned through England, Europe and Egypt to his home in Haifa (then Palestine, now Israel) in 1913. His trip to the West, unique in the annals of all world religions, made history in many ways—and it gave the world a new view of what the Baha’i teachings meant.
Near the end of his 239 days in North America, where Abdu’l-Baha gave more than 400 talks, speeches and interviews, he began to publicly respond to some of the Western world’s perceptions of the Baha’i teachings. He spoke to audiences of Protestants, Catholics and Episcopalians; he gave major addresses in Jewish synagogues and in African-American universities and churches. In talks he gave in the United States near the end of his sojourn, such as the one excerpted above, he directly addressed the mistaken idea some Westerners had about the Baha’i Faith—that it merely repeated the teachings of the religions of old, offering nothing progressive or new.
Then in Europe, before he returned home, Abdu’l-Baha spent some time with the people of Paris. He spoke at several large public gatherings, in churches and to entire schools of theology, explaining and defining the new teachings of the Baha’i Faith, with a special emphasis on what differentiates it from the Faiths of old.
An American educator, journalist and Baha’i named Isabel Fraser Chamberlain—who Abdu’l-Baha called Soraya (which means gem or princess in Persian)--heard those talks, and decided to compile their wisdom in a book. She wrote down what Abdu’l-Baha said, and then traveled to Egypt to seek his approval for her compilation of his talks, which he happily gave her.
Tudor Press in Boston first published Isabel Fraser Chamberlain’s book—originally titled Divine Common Sense: From the World’s Greatest Prisoner to His Prison Friends--in 1916. Two years later, in 1918, Soraya re-published the book with a new, simpler title: Abdu’l-Baha on Divine Philosophy. Today people all over the world know the book as Divine Philosophy.
In those Paris-based addresses and talks he gave, Abdu’l-Baha did something that started during his last days in America, but which culminated in France—he answered that comment from an American cleric whose church Abdu’l-Baha had spoken in, and he answered it in a detailed, direct and definitive way. The clear, forthright responses he gave to the criticism that “the Baha’i Faith offers nothing new,” have become, during the intervening century, a classic catalog of the many unique and unprecedented aspects of the Baha’i teachings and principles. Abdu’l-Baha’s responses explain, perhaps better than anything else we have in the Baha’i teachings, why the Baha’i revelation not only renews but revolutionizes religion.
In this series of nine articles we’ll explore what Abdu’l-Baha had to say in Paris, and take a careful look at each point he made there, to try and understand what makes the Baha’i Faith so different from any other world religion.