Abdu'i-Baha on Darwinism
‘Abdu’l - Baha’s Unique Approach to Darwinism
One of the most striking examples of ‘Abdu’l - Baha’s cultural creativity is in his approach to Darwinism. 1
In the middle of the 19 th century and early 20 th century, various forms of Darwinism (biological, philosophical, sociological) became prevalent. As a biological theory, Darwinism states that living organisms are subject to evolution through adaptation to their environment which operates based on natural selection and struggle for existence. Traits that are useful for survival continue through inheritance, whereas those groups that lack such useful traits gradually disappear. In this way new species come into existence. 2 However, the biological theory of Darwin was also interpreted as a philosophical theory arguing that the order of the universe is accidental, there exists no God, and humans are merely animals and do not possess souls. Although Darwin himself did not interpret his scientific theory as an atheistic philosophy, many atheists have continued to insist on such a philosophical interpretation of Darwin’s biological theory. Dawkins, for example, argued that with the emergence of Darwinism it is no longer possible to have any belief in God. 3 Darwinian theory was also reconstructed as a sociological theory arguing that the Darwinian law of the struggle for existence and Spencer’s principle of the survival of the fittest , which operate at the level of natural evolution, are the fundamental laws operating in human society, culture, and politics. Believing in the group inheritance of intelligence and other human perfections, advocates of this theory argued that various nations and races stand at different levels of evolution and humanness. Therefore, they concluded that the progress of human species requires the elimination of inferior races and groups through the natural operation of the struggle for existence and natural selection. The British philosopher, Herbert Spencer, the famous biologist, Francis Galton, and the American sociologist William Graham Sumner were a few of the leading advocates of this social Darwinism. Such ideology became widespread in many different ways. Some historians have even spoken of the influence of social Darwinism on ideologies that made the genocides in Turkey and Germany possible. Similar negative statements about women, Turks, and non-European civilizations are occasionally found in the writings and letters of Darwin himself. 4 In response to these various forms of Darwinism, two different extreme reactions became prevalent. The first group consisted of religious fanatics and traditionalists who strongly opposed Darwinism as a scientific/biological theory while, unknowingly, supported and embraced the most significant aspects of social Darwinism. The second group contained those atheists who, by their reduction of human beings to the level of animals, conflated the scientific theory of Darwinism with an interpretation of Darwinism as a philosophical and social theory. In the name of defending the biological theory of evolution, this 1 The theory of the evolution of organisms introduced by British biologist, Charles Darwin (1809-1888). 2 Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species . Los Angeles: Quarter Books, 1936. 3 Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion . London: Bantam Press, 2006. 4 Hawkins, Mike, Social Darwinism in European and American Thought, 1860-1945 . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
latter group advocated its own brand of traditionalism, prejudice, and dogma in the realm of culture, history, society, and morality. What was common in both groups was the worship of a culture of prejudice and violence. Contrary to both groups, ‘Abdu’l -Baha ’s approach to Darwinism acknowledged an important distinction between biological, philosophical, and sociological forms of discourse. While accepting the idea of evolution in the realm of biology, he systematically rejected the philosophical and sociological interpretations of Darwinism. His critique concludes that the principle of evolution, progress, and historicity must also be applied to the realm of human culture . In ‘Abdu’l - Baha’s discourse, critique of philosophical and social Darwinism becomes a criticism of all kinds of prejudice in human societies. The requirement of this true concept of evolution and progress, ‘Abdu’l -Baha argues, is the affirmation of a culture of peace, unity, and love. Darwinian theory is an empirical and scientific theory. The truth or falsehood of such theory is dependent on the application of the empirical method of scientific research. This theory argues that living organisms have evolved throughout history and that the appearance of human beings has taken place through a gradual process. This idea is an empirical theory and it is only through the empirical method that it can be affirmed or rejected. However, many writers constructed an arbitrary philosophical and theological interpretation of such propositions, concluding that Darwinian theory proved that human beings were merely animals, that there was no end or purpose in creation, and that the universe has no creator. Many of the followers of the philosophical Darwinism turned into social Darwinists, arguing that since humans are merely animals, therefore, the regulating principle of human social existence should also be the law of the struggle for existence. According to these authors the social and cultural progress of humanity takes place through the survival of the fittest. Consequently, they glorified war, extreme class inequality, racism, patriarchy, slavery, colonialism, and other forms of violence as a natural, rational, and moral order of culture and history. In present sociological discourse, the term social Darwinism is usually defined as the theory of pure capitalism, and extremes of economic inequality. However, the logic of social Darwinism is not restricted to a particular form of economic relations. On the contrary, all forms of cultural, political, and religious systems that are based upon violence, coercion, and conflict are manifestations of social Darwinism. For example, aggressive nationalism, glorification of war and militarism, racism, colonialism, patriarchy, religious discrimination, and slavery and forced labor are all various reflections of the reduction of human beings to the realm of the jungle. Furthermore, even at the level of economic systems, compared to capitalism, the pre-capitalist modes of production like slavery and feudalism are more compatible with the law of the struggle for existence. At least capitalism is based on the formal and legal equality of all people, and is usually accompanied with forms of political democracy. As we shall note later, both pure capitalism and communism are examples of a system that reduces humans to the level of beasts. Communism, therefore, is an extreme reflection of social Darwinism, and not a liberation from it. In the past, empirical science was not much developed. Consequently, even philosophers used a speculative and mythological method for understanding empirical events. For the same reason, divine scriptures utilized the prevalent mythology and beliefs of the people about nature and universe as Two Approaches to Darwinism
various metaphors for expressing their ethical and mystical truth. Centuries later, however, religious traditionalists relied on the literal meanings of these metaphors and rejected the application of the scientific method in analysis of empirical and natural issues, deducing empirical propositions from religious and scriptural texts. It is for this reason that with the advent of a systematic scientific method and the rapid progress of empirical science in modern times, religion and science were perceived as mortal enemies of each other. Reducing science to religion, religious traditionalism undermines both science and religion. Its literal and ahistorical approach to scriptures rejects science and empirical knowledge, while its reduction of religion to the realm of astronomy, archeology, and biology distorts the truth of religion and turns religion into a set of superstitious beliefs, subject to disrespect and ridicule. As an example, a reference to the ideas of one of the famous Muslim thinkers, Jamal al-Din Al Afghani (Asad Abadi) on Darwinism can be useful. Afghani strongly opposes biological Darwinism. He speaks of the agreement of the Qur’an with rea son, while ignoring the obvious contradiction of reason with the literal story of Adam and Eve. Afghani, who calls Darwin “the master of all atheists”, perceives the biological theory of Darwinism as an extreme form of atheism whose goal is the promotion of moral permissiveness and normlessness (Ibahah), and the communal possession and enjoyment of property and women. According to Afghani, Darwinism is the same as the ancient religion of Mazdakism, Isma’ili Shi’ism, the French Enlightenment movement of the 18 th century, and the Babi movement in Iran. All these movements, he believes, have aimed to destroy the belief in God and religion, and to eliminate morality from society. In his imaginary history, he blames Mazdak for the fall of the Sassanid empire, def ines Isma’ili Shi’ism as the main cause of the decline of the world of Islam, and sees the French Enlightenment and the overthrow of the French monarchy as the cause of the decline of France and Europe. 5 In Afghani’s thought, the Enlightenment movement, socialism, women’s liberation, and colonialism are identical movements whose common aim is the victory of colonialism and destruction of the Islamic countries. According to Afghani, contrary to Darwinism which intends to destroy Islamic countries, all religions, especially Islam, call for “arrogance and zeal” , meaning the prejudice of the believers, and find the path of victory in three forms of prejudice: First is the species arrogance, seeing humans as the superior species in the universe. Second is the national and religious prejudice, namely, the believer must see his own religion and community as superior to all other religions and communities, certain that “his religious community is superior to all other religions, and that other than his own religion all other religions are false and wayward.” 6 Third is the otherworldly arrogance, namely, he believes in life after death and sees himself as destined for heavenly rewards. However, Afghani’s criticism of biological Darwinism is in fact an affirmation of social Darwinism, which encourages war, prejudice, inequality, and religious intolerance. 7 He denies any evolution and historicity in the realm of religion, and with his belief in the finality of Islam and Islamic laws, he opposes evolution and progress in the realm of culture and history. Although he opposes the British colonialism, he sees no 5 Asad Abadi (Al-Afghani), Jamal al-Din, Risaliyi Naychiriyyih: Haqiqati Madhhabi Naychiriyyih va Bayani Hali Naychirian . Najaf: Haydariyyiah, 1347 A.H., pp. 57-8. 6 Ibid, pp. 16-20. 7 Al-Afghani, Jamal al-Din, Al- A’mal al -Kamilah li-Jamal al-Din al-Afghani . Qahirah: Al- Mu’assassah al -Misriyyah al- ‘Ammah li-al- Ta’lif va al -Nashr, 1984, pp. 37-531.
problem in collaboration with the Russian form of colonialism, and his Pan-Islamism implies the legitimacy of the political dominance of the despotic Ottoman Sultan ‘Abdu’l -Hamid over Iran. He not only has no objection against the Jihadi invasion and conquering of non-Islamic societies by the Islamic army, but he also considers this form of aggression as the supreme virtue. In reality, all people whose hearts are filled with religious and political prejudice have no real problem with colonialism in principle. These individuals praise the colonial conquest of religions and countries when it is by their religion or country, while opposing their own colonization when it is by other religions and countries. The key to real opposition to imperialism and colonialism is the rejection of all kinds of prejudice. However, some of the Western thinkers made a similar but opposite mistake. Like religious traditionalists, these thinkers reduced the realm of religion and philosophy to the realm of empirical science, and therefore, by an arbitrary philosophical interpretation of scientific propositions, they opposed religion and spiritual ideas in the name of empirical science. For example, from the empirical existence of biological laws in the realm of the human body, the French philosopher of the 18 th century, La Mettrie, deduced a dogmatic philosophical belief in materialism and atheism. 8 Likewise, in the 19 th century, Marx emphasized the empirical significance of economics in human history and assumed that the materialist and atheist philosophy was the logical conclusion of that empirical theory. 9 The truth is that, even if we assume that Marxian economic theory –– namely, the foundational character of economic relations in human history –– is true, it remains a fact that this empirical proposition has nothing to do with the philosophical question of the existence or non-existence of God. The first is an empirical question, whereas the second is a philosophical and non-empirical issue. In order to understand ‘Abdu’l - Baha’s unique approach to Darwinism, we should first distinguish between the realm of empirical science and the realm of philosophical and religious ideas. One of the most important teach ings of the Baha’i Faith is the agreement and harmony of religion and science. ‘Abdu’l -Baha unveils the truth of this agreement by offering an amazing example. According to him, religion and empirical science are like two wings of a bird. Both wings must be strong and harmonious to make the flight of the bird possible: We may think of science as one wing and religion as the other; a bird needs two wings for flight, one alone would be useless. Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it, is only ignorance — for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge. 10 Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one. Material and spiritual science are the two wings of human uplift and attainment. Both are necessary — one the natural, the other supernatural; one material, the other divine. 11 ‘Abdu’l -Baha and Darwinism as a scientific theory
8 La Mettrie, Julian O , Man a Machine . La Salle: Open Court, 1943. 9 Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, German Ideology . New York: International Publishers, 1970. 10 ‘Abdu’l -Baha , Paris Talks . London: Baha’i publis hing Trust, 1995, p. 133. 11 ‘Abdu’l -Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace . Wilmette: Baha’i publishing Trust, 1982, p. 138.
What is most striking in these two statements is the fact that these two wings are different from each other and none can replace the other. These two different wings must be in harmony with each other so that soaring in the heaven of civilization can take place. In other words, the Baha’ i Faith distinguishes between the realm of empirical knowledge, on the one hand, and philosophy and religion, on the other. Each has its own function and method, and neither can ever replace the other. The agreement of religion with science means that if we find statements which seem to belong to the realm of the natural sciences, but which contradict empirical science, we should conclude that those statements are in fact similes and metaphors for expressing spiritual realities. However, the social laws of religion must correspond with the requirements of the time and space, namely, the requirements of the historical development of humanity. Many religious traditionalists, on issues related to the natural sciences, insist on a literal interpretation of their scriptures, and on issues related to the social laws of their religion, deny any historical and dynamic orientation of their religion. Contrary to this, ‘Abdu’l -Baha removes religion from the realm of the empirical sciences, and by emphasizing the necessary agreement of the social laws of religion with the sociohistorical sciences, he affirms the historical and dynamic nature of religion. ‘Abdu’l - Baha’s criticism of Darwinism is indeed a critique of the philosophical and social interpretations of Darwinism, and not an objection against Darwinism as an empirical and biological theory. He completely agrees with the existence of progress and evolution at the biological level. What he rejects are those philosophical and social interpretations of Darwinism that contradict the principle of evolution and historicity in the realm of history, religion, and culture. He affirms the principle of evolution and change in all aspects of existence. Some of ‘Abdu’l - Baha’s discussions of Darwinism can be fo und in his work, Some Answered Questions. 12 Throughout the book, ‘Abdu’l -Baha negates the atheistic worldview and affirms the spiritual nature of human reality, the progressive nature of religion, and the spiritual truth of all beings as the mirrors and reflections of divine names and attributes. However, this criticism of the philosophical Darwinism is in fact his criticism of social Darwinism. He refutes the idea that society and culture must be governed by the law of the struggle for existence. On the contrary, he affirms that the foundation of society and social progress is cooperation, unity, peace, and solidarity among human beings. Furthermore, his historical consciousness emphasizes that the time has come to realize the spiritual truth of humanity by arriving at a new stage of human historical development by rejecting all kinds of prejudice and overcoming the beastly culture of the struggle for existence, moving towards the oneness of humankind, universal peace, and friendship and fellowship with all humanity. Throughout Some Answered Questions, ‘Abdu’l -Baha demonstrates that intelligible and spiritual truths are usually expressed through sensible metaphors and examples. Although various scriptures apparently speak of issues like Adam and Eve, levels of heaven, creation of the universe in six days, and various strange miracles, yet all these statements are in fact beautiful metaphors for conveying different forms of spiritual and moral truth to humanity. The function of religion is to unveil spiritual and moral truths of humanity, and not to replace natural sciences and the scientific method by offering a religious chemistry, religious astronomy, religious archaeology, or religious biology. This point is so central in
12 ‘Abdu’l -Baha, Some Answered Questions . Haifa: Baha’i World Center, 2014.
‘Abdu’l - Baha’s text that at an early part of the book he identifies it as the key for understanding various discussions: There is a point that is pivotal to grasping the essence of the other questions that we have discussed or will be discussing, namely that human knowledge is of two kinds. One is the knowledge acquired through the senses… The other kind of human knowledge is that of intelligible things; that is, it consists of intelligible realities which have no outward form or pl ace and which are not sensible… But when you undertake to express these intelligible realities, you have no recourse but to cast them in the mould of the sensible … These expressions are comparisons, analogies, similes, and figurative interpretations in the realm of inner meaning. 13 ‘Abdu’l -Baha frequently affirms in the same book that the temporal duration of the universe has no beginning and no end; that the planet earth has existed for millions of years; that the appearance of minerals, plants, animals, and human beings took place gradually and through millions of years; and that the form of the human body has gone through countless transformations. As we see, ‘Abdu’l -Baha emphasizes the law of progressive evolution in all aspects of human existence, both physical and spiritual. However, accepting the principle of evolution does not mean that the human being is only an animal like other animals, or that humans are devoid of a human spirit, or that human identity is merely material. These issues do not belong to the realm of empirical science. They are, rather, metaphysical and spiritual propositions. However, since some materialist authors used the empirical theory of evolution to deduce and justify their philosophical theory of atheism, ‘Abdu’l - Baha’s discourse in Some Answered Questions aims to refute such interpretations and affirm the spiritual nature of human reality. Arguments of ‘Abdu’l -Baha against philosophical and social Darwinism should not be understood as arguments against biological Darwinism. What may cause a misunderstanding of ‘Abdu’l - Baha’s discussions is the fact that he repeatedly emphasizes that the human species has always existed and that, whatever his form, he has always been a human being. For example, he writes: So if we were to imagine a time when man belonged to the animal kingdom, that is, when he was merely an animal, exist ence would have been imperfect… if there had been a time when man belonged to the animal realm, the completeness of existence would have been destroyed; for man is the chief member of the body of this world, and a body without its chief member is undoubtedly imperfect. 14 [M]an has been man from his very inception and origin, and that the essence of his species has existed from eternity. We will now present spiritual proofs that human existence — that is, the human species — is a necessary existence and that without man the perfections of Divinity would not shine forth … . If man did not exist, the universe would be without result, for the purpose of existence is the revelation of the divine perfections. We cannot say, then, that there was a time when man was not. At most we can say that there was a time when this earth did not exist. 15
13 Ibid, Chapter 16: 1-9. 14 Ibid, Chapter 46:4. 15 Ibid, Chapter 50: 1-4.
However, none of these statements relate to biological Darwinism. They are rather rational, philosophical, mystical, and spiritual discussions. ‘Abdu’l -Baha is arguing that the purpose and meaning of creation is the realization of spiritual perfections, while the truth of all beings is a reflection of God. In fact, both statements above clearly show that his discussion has nothing to do with the empirical theory of biological Darwinism. At first impression ‘Abdu’l - Baha’s statements may appear to contradict each other. The first statement indicates that human beings are temporally eternal and that there has been no time in which human beings have not existed. This means that the human species has existed prior to the creation of the planet earth and the appearance of minerals, plants, and animals. However, in the same discussion , ‘Abdu’l -Baha emphasizes that the human species emerged after the emergence of animals, arguing that the emergence of human beings was dependent on the appearance of a special form of relations and compositions on the planet earth. Therefore, we may mistakenly assume that ‘Abdu’l - Baha is contradicting himself. In fact, in the second quotation, ‘Abdu’l -Baha himself is intentionally pre senting the same problem. He states that “ We cannot say, then, that there was a time when man was not. At most we can say that there was a time when this earth did n ot exist.” What he is saying is that the planet earth is a new emergent creation but human beings are eternal and therefore, human beings existed prior to the creation of the earth! Yet, in his other writings he clearly states that the appearance of human beings is contingent on the emergence of specific forms of combinations and conditions on planet earth: [T]he antecedence of animals to man is not a proof that the essence of the human species was altered or transformed or that man came from the animal kingdom. For so long as it is acknowledged that these different beings have appeared in time, it is possible that man simply came into existence after the animal. 16 Similarly, the terrestrial globe was created, from the beginning, with all its elements, substances, minerals, parts, and components, but these appeared only gradually: first the minerals, then the plants, then the animals, and finally man. 17 The main question for understanding ‘Abdu’l - Baha’s position is this: Why does ‘Abdu’ l-Baha speak of the existence of human beings prior to the existence of the planet earth? The answer to this question can easily be found in the same discussions of ‘Abdu’l -Baha. When he speaks of the eternal existence of human beings, he is not speaking of the earthly and biological human beings. Rather, he is speaking of the truth of human beings, or the “perfect (complete) human being” which refers to the truth of the prophets of God. His discussion is of a mystical, and not biological, nature. In spiritual discourse and in the writings of ‘Abdu’l -Baha, the perfect (complete) human being refers to the word and will of God (truth of the Manifestations of God) that has created everything. The purpose of creation is the realization of this same spiritual truth in the world. Therefore, even when there existed no planet earth, human beings and the human species, namely, the truth of the prophets and the holy ghost as the will and word of God, which is the creator of all things, existed. In order to understand this point, we return to the same two quotations from ‘Abdu’l -Baha to see that he explicitly mentions that by the “ eternal human being ” he means the perfect human and not the earthly and biological human being:
16 Ibid, Chapter 49:4. 17 Ibid, Chapter 51: 5.
So if we were to imagine a time when man belonged to the animal kingdom, that is, when he was merely an animal, existence would have been imperfect… if there had been a time when man belonged to the animal realm, the completeness of existence would have been destroyed; for man is the chief member of the body of this world, and a body without its chief member is undoubtedly imperfect. We regard man as the chief member because, among all created things, he encompasses all the perfections of existence. Now, what we mean by “man” is the complete human being, the foremost person in the world, who is the sum of all spiritual and material perfections, and who is like the sun among all created things . 18 [M]an has been man from his very inception and origin, and that the essence of his species has existed from eternity. We will now present spiritual proofs that human existence — that is, the human species — is a necessary existence and that without man the perfections of Divinity would not shine forth… . If man did not exist, the universe would be without result, for the purpose of existence is the revelation of the divine perfections. We cannot say, then, that there was a time when man was not. At most we can say that there was a time when this earth did not exist. But from the beginning that has no beginning to the end that has no end, a perfect Manifestation has always existed. This Man of Whom we speak here is not just any man: That which we intend is the Perfect Man. 19 Therefore, the actual eternality of the human species that precedes everything including the emergence of planet earth refers to the holy ghost and the truth of the Manifestations of God. Such a proposition has nothing to do with biological Darwinism. Furthermore, since the purpose of creation is the realization of spiritual perfections, divine creation requires the advent of the biological and physical human beings as well. However, this earthly human being who emerges through the process of evolution and after the appearance of minerals, plants, and animals is no longer an animal, or an altered animal. The reason is that the emergence of the earthly human being requires not only the emergence of a specific biological evolution from animals, but also the attachment of the human spirit to this biological body. Consequently, from its inception, the human species is human due to their spiritual reality, regardless of whether the human body is similar to other animals. Explaining this point, ‘Abdu’l -Baha argues that, although the earthly human species and all other mineral, vegetative, and animal species have existed, in potentia, since the inception of the universe, when the inception of the actual earthly human species took place there was a specific combination of various elements that came into existence and attracted and received the revelation of the human spirit. Therefore, the biological evolution creates the conditions for the attachment of the human soul to a specific form of organism. The qualitative distinction between human beings and other animals is this human spirit, and not merely the particular organic composition which becomes receptive to the spirit. For example, clearing away the dust from the mirror will not by itself lead to the revelation of the rays of the sun from the mirror. Rather, such reflection requires the facing of the mirror towards the sun. If it is night or there exists no sun, then no mirror, however pure, can become shining and resplendent. This is the point that has been ignored by the materialist interpretations of Darwinian theory. In order to understand this idea, two statements of ‘Abdu’l -Baha are quoted below:
18 Ibid, Chapter 46:4-5. 19 Ibid, Chapter 50: 1-5.
Just as the spirit of man is the cause of the life of his body, so is the whole world even as a body and man as its spirit. If man did not exist, if the perfections of the spirit were not manifested and the light of the mind were not shining in this world, it would be like a body without a spirit … . Beyond this, the members, constituent parts, and composition that are found within man attract and act as a magnet for the spirit: The spirit is bound to appear in it. Thus, when a mirror is polished, it is bound to attract the rays of the sun, to be illumined, and to reflect splendid images. That is, when these physical elements are gathered and combined together, according to the natural order and with the utmost perfection, they become a magnet for the spirit, and the spirit will manifest itself therein with all its perfections. 20 Know that the people of the world are of two kinds; that is, they belong to two groups. One group denies the human spirit and say s that man is a kind of animal… . The combination of the elements in the body of man is more complete than in any other being … . It is not, they say, that man has a special power and spirit of which the other animals are deprived … . And so, after extensive research and armed with powerful arguments, they place man in the lineage of the animal … . But the divine philosophers say: No, this is not so. Although man shares the same outward powers and senses in common with the animal, there exists in him an extraordinary power of which the animal is deprived … . All things are subdued by the hand of man, who withstands nature itself. 21 The most important and most frequent discussion of ‘Abdu’l -Baha on Darwinism is directly related to the social interpretation of Darwinism, namely, the social concept of the struggle for existence. ‘Abdu’l - Baha ’s criticism of the social philosophy of the struggle for existence is intended to prove the historical, dynamic, and evolutionary nature of human reality. Unlike material phenomena which possess a relatively fixed and static nature, human beings are endowed with a human spirit and are constantly transcending their existing conditions and situations, and incessantly, through deliberation, transform the form and environment of their lives. Human beings are historical beings who are not limited to a static nature. Instead, as spiritual beings, they have various values, cultures, and social institutions like science, art, philosophy, and language, and thus reconstruct themselves and their environment. Unlike static animals, each generation of humans is different from the previous generation. In other words, biological evolution moves at a very slow pace compared to cultural and historical evolution. One of the most important aspects of this historical principle is the necessity of the evolution of religions. Consequently, no religion can be eternal and unchangeable. In fact, the belief in the finality of a religion amounts to the reduction of human beings to the level of objects and material nature. It implies negation of both the human spirit and the holy ghost whose nature is eternal progress, creativity, and reconstruction. However, the most serious problem with the philosophy of the struggle for existence is that, by its reduction of human beings to the level of animals and by degrading society to the level of the jungle, it affirms a static and dead approach according to which humanity is eternally condemned to a beastly culture of violence, war, colonialism, racism, slavery, and other forms of oppression. During the late 19 th Struggle for Existence or Cooperation for Existence?
20 Ibid, Chapter 52: 3-4. 21 Ibid, Chapter 48: 2-9.
century and early 20 th century, social Darwinism portrayed itself as a “science”, and thus promoted racism and colonialism as the requirements of science. According to this view, various groups and countries belong to different levels of biological evolution, and therefore some are completely human whereas others are closer to animals than humans. In this way, the inequality of rights was easily justified. Contrary to this materialistic worldview of social Darwinism, ‘Abdu’l -Baha emphasized a spiritual and mystical approach to reality and opposed social Darwinism. According to ‘Abdu’l -Baha, all beings are manifestations and reflections of divine names and attributes, and therefore all beings are sacred, beautiful, and endowed with rights. In this approach, the equal rights of all human beings and respect for nature and preservation of the environment are the logical requirements of the spiritual truth of all reality. Furthermore, such a philosophy indicates that religious fanatics and traditionalists who, instead of promoting love, peace, and fellowship in the world, are reducing God and religion to an instrument for the justification of hatred, discrimination, and intolerance, are in fact atheists and materialists. That is the reason why ‘Abdu’l -Baha frequently emphasizes the idea that religion must be a cause of unity and love, and therefore, if religion becomes a cause of enmity and hatred it is better not to have religion. ‘Abdu’l - Baha’s emphasis on t he necessity of religion and a spiritual approach is both a critique of religious prejudice and traditionalism, as well as a critique of the beastly culture of aggressive materialist modernity. The pivot of the worldview of Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’ l-Baha is the affirmation of the idea that the world of humanity has now arrived at a qualitatively new stage in its historical evolution. It argues that humanity must now be liberated from the bondage of the natural principle of the struggle for existence and must be born as human beings, and thus feel, think, and live in accordance with a culture of peace, solidarity, and unity. In fact, in ‘Abdu’l - Baha’s worldview, human history has so far been, primarily, a history of self-alienation among human beings. The idea of self-estrangement has been frequently discussed in the writings of Hegel and Marx. Although Hegel was, to some extent, influenced by a spiritual orientation, his own philosophy was frequently degraded to a form of self-alienation. He saw war as a moral activity, perceived the Prussian state as the realization of true freedom, and presented his own philosophy as the end of the progress of the Spirit in human history. Marx, who denied the existence of God and the human spirit and reduced human beings to merely economic entities, defined human self-alienation as solely a product of class inequality and therefore, defended communism as the only solution for the self- estrangement of humanity. Although his criticism of the extremes of inequality in a pure capitalist system is accurate, not only is his own materialistic theory the essence of self-alienation, his definition of an ideal and free society is a society in which all individuals are equal in terms of income and wealth. He thought that in such a communist society there would be no state, and all would be free to do whatever they wish. 22 However, the falsity of such ideas has been demonstrated by our experience in recent decades. Unlike Marxian assumptions, it is only under one condition that preventing the emergence of any kind of economic inequality in society is possible, and that is when all forms of
22 Marx, Karl and Engels, Friedrich, Communist Manifesto . Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967.
individual freedom are eliminated, while the details of human behavior are regulated and controlled by a repressive and totalitarian form of state. According to ‘Abdu’l -Baha, the true identity of human beings is their spiritual and divine truth. Human beings, by forgetting their authentic spiritual identity and reducing themselves to the level of the jungle and material nature, have alienated themselves from their own truth and have lived in accordance with the principle of injustice and the struggle for existence. Up to this point, human history has been primarily a history of slavery, racism, patriarchy, religious intolerance, despotic state, war, colonialism, genocide, and extremes of class inequality. However, all these forms of oppression are ultimately products of the reduction of human beings to the level of objects, nature, and animals. The caste system in India is a product of the reduction of the identity, rights, and value of individuals to their body and the family of their birth. Patriarchy reflects the idea that the biological features of human beings and their masculinity or femininity is the determinant of their truth, value, and rights. Racism is constructed through the reduction of human identity to the skin color of individuals. Colonialism is determined by the reduction of the identity and truth of human beings to their birth in this or that part of the world. Slavery is nothing but a spiritual disease in which humans are degraded to the level of an object and animal. ‘Abdu’ l-Baha, on the contrary, invites humanity to remember their spiritual truth, and to reconstruct their social institutions based on the fact that all human beings are the image of God. Such a culture is a culture of overcoming the self-alienation of humanity. For example, in one of his talks in the United States, ‘Abdu’l -Baha argues that the statement in the Torah that God created humans in his own image, means that the truth of humanity is defined by their spiritual attributes and perfections and not by their accidental and biological characteristics. God is neither male nor female, neither black nor white, and born neither in this country nor in another. Consequently, the color of the skin and similar biological and physical characteristics of human beings has nothing to do with the truth of humanity, for the human being is the image of God. From his interpretation of the statement in the Bible, ‘Abdu’l -Baha deduces the illegitimacy of racism and other forms of oppression and ignorance. 23 This critique of self- alienation in ‘Abdu’l - Baha’s writings is the essence of his new concept of freedom. According to him, true freedom is emancipation from the bondage of nature, namely, the emergence of humans as human beings. This liberation from the bondage of nature has two aspects. The first aspect is an external one. It means that by virtue of his science and technology, human beings rule over nature and are emancipated from the control of its laws. In this way, humans are freed from the control of their immediate environment and can live in accordance with their own desire and will. Referring to this aspect of h uman liberation, ‘Abdu’l -Baha states: All created things except man are captives of nature. The stars and suns swinging through infinite space, all earthly forms of life and existence — whether mineral, vegetable or animal — come under the dominion and control of natural law. Man through scientific knowledge and power rules nature and utilizes her laws to do his bidding. According to natural limitations he is a creature of earth, restricted to life upon its surface, but through scientific utilization of material laws he soars in the sky, sails upon the ocean a nd dives beneath it… Man, as it were,
23 ‘Abdu’l -Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace , p. 70.
takes the sword out of nature’s hand and with it for his scepter of authority dominates nature itself. 24
However, although liberation from captivity to the laws of external nature is one necessary aspect of human freedom, true freedom requires that human beings be freed from the bondage of the internal nature. This liberation from the internal nature is freedom from the control of the law of the struggle for existence so that human beings can think and act as a human being. In fact, if the progress of science and technology is not accompanied with liberation from the internal nature, human science itself turns into an instrument of human enslavement, genocide of others, destruction of the environment, and the termination of human life on planet earth. Therefore, human technical reason must be accompanied with his spiritual reason. Such harmony leads to true freedom and the real birth and advent of human beings. In the words of ‘Abdu’l -Baha: And among the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh is man’s freedom, that through the ideal Power he should be free and emancipated from the captivity of the world of nature; for as long as man is captive to nature he is a ferocious animal, as the struggle for existence is one of the exigencies of the world of nature. This matter of the struggle for existence is the fountain-head of all calamities and is the supreme affliction. 25 [T]he world of mankind is in need of the breaths of the Holy Spirit. Without the spirit the world of mankind is lifeless, and without this light the world of mankind is in utter darkness. For the world of nature is an animal world. Until man is born again from the world of nature, that is to say, becomes detached from the world of nature, he is essentially an animal, and it is the teachings of God which convert this animal into a human soul. 26 ‘Abdu’l -Baha not only relates war and aggression to prejudice, he emphasizes the fact that struggle for existence among human beings is nothing other than various forms of prejudice. In other words, humans are cultural beings and not a mere natural entity. However, when this human culture is the culture of prejudice, it becomes the culture of the struggle for existence, which is the reduction of human beings to the level of brutish beasts. He states: In every period war has been waged in one country or another and that war was due to either religious prejudice, racial prejudice, political prejudice or patriotic prejudice. It has therefore been ascertained and proved that all prejudices are destructive of the human edifice. As long as these prejudices persist, the struggle for existence must remain dominant, and bloodthirstiness and rapacity continue. Therefore, even as was the case in the past, the world of humanity cannot be saved from the darkness of nature and cannot attain illumination except through the abandonment of prejudices and the acquisition of the morals of the Kingdom. 27 The worldview of ‘Abdu’l -Baha distinguishes between a materialist culture, characterized by promotion of an identity that is filled with various kinds of prejudice, and a spiritual and mystical culture, which encourages a global and universal orientation. Unlike the materialist culture, a true spiritual approach prescribes universal love and service for all peoples of the world. Throughout human history, human 24 Ibid, pp. 50-1. 25 ‘Abdu’l -Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l -Baha . Haifa: Baha’i World Center, 1978, P. 302. 26 Ibid, pp. 303-4. 27 Ibid, p. 299.
identity has been defined in terms of categories like the color of skin, ethnicity, religion, race, language, social class, and nationality. However, such definition of human identity defines identity in terms of what separates us from each other. In this conception of identity, therefore, humans are either enemies of each other, or mutual strangers. Such a definition ignores the most obvious fact of life, namely, the interdependence and unity of all human beings and all things, and therefore, reduces identity to a specific group. In such a particularistic reduction of identity to a singular group, it becomes easy to degrade other groups to the level of objects, dangerous animals, or infectious disease. Consequently, such a perspective promotes avoiding others, perceives them as polluted and polluting, forbids communication and friendship with them, applies the standard of morality only t o one’s own group, and glorifies oppression and persecution of others as virtue. However, according to ‘Abdu’l -Baha, the time has come to define human identity in a new way. In this new definition, the true identity of a human being is the reflection and image of God which is manifested in different forms in all humans and all things. What defines the authentic identity of humans is that which unites them, emphasizes their unity, affirms the inherent beauty and sacredness of all, and calls human beings to leave the repressive prison of ignorance and prejudice, and to enter the bright and infinite kingdom of reason, spirit, and consciousness, namely, the domain of the oneness of humanity and universal peace and fellowship. The word used by ‘Abdu’l -Baha that is translated as prejudice is ta’assub. The complexity of this word is not fully captured by the English word preju dice. Ta’assub is derived from the word ‘usbah, meaning group. Ta’assub, therefore, implies reduction of identity to one group and perceiving other humans as strangers and enemies. This reductive and singular identity causes various prejudicial judgments, undermines one’s sense of justice and fairness, and leads to a moral double standard in relation to one’s own group and other groups. All conceivable kinds of oppression and violence against others can easily be justified because, in the mind of the prejudiced individual, the other is not defined as a human being. On the contrary, in the prejudiced imagination, others are converted to beasts or fatal diseases. Such avoidance and dehumanization of others paves the way for their persecution. Various kinds of prejudice not only alienate individuals from other peoples and cultures, they destroy one’s freedom and autonomy. Being captive to prejudice , the individual reduces himself to his own group, thinks and feels in terms of group feelings, and thus renounces his own freedom, independent thinking, rationality, and humanity. By submission to the prejudices of one’s own group, one exchanges a sense of humanity for a sense of group security. Such an individual not only avoids fellowship, friendship and communication with other groups, he is ready to commit all kinds of injustice, cruelty, and genocide against them. As we saw in this paper, ‘Abdu’l - Baha’s approach to Darwinism is different from many prevalent approaches. He confirms the principle of evolution in the realm of biology. However, he criticizes the arbitrary philosophical and sociological interpretations of biological Darwinism, rejects the social philosophy of the struggle for existence, and emphasizes the imperative of the cooperation for existence which is a reflection of the spiritual definition of human beings. His critique of the culture of struggle for existence is an invitation to freedom, rejection of all prejudices, and affirmation of universal peace and oneness of humankind.
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