The Secret of Divine Civilization and the Development of Iran
‘Abdu’l-Baha’s Secret of Divine Civilization: Towards the Development of Iran Nader Saiedi
Following the command of his father, Baha’u’llah, ‘Abdu’l-Baha wrote The Secret of Divine Civilization in 1875. From a sociological point of view, this author believes, the most important structural feature of Iran of the last centuries is the coincidence of system problems, particularly the distorted and mistaken approach to the question of the relation of religion and politics. In this paper first the causes of the backwardness of Iran will be discussed. Then we focus on the position of the Secret of Civilization on the issues of backwardness and development by investigating the approach of the text to a variety of topics including the reform policies of the prime minister Mirza Husayn Khan, the true concept of modernity and development, refutation of the anti-modernity and anti-religion forms of discourse, critique of the culture of blind following of the clergy, criticism of war and colonialism, rejection of prejudice and idleness, and praise of high aspiration, creativity and active orientation. Analysis of the Backwardness of Iran Although 20 th century Iran has witnessed many social movements including the Constitutional revolution and the Islamic revolution, none of these movements succeeded in institutionalization of human rights, and various forms of civil, religious and political freedom. Marx sees some political history as a movement from tragedy to comedy, but perhaps it can be said that the tragedy of the Constitutional Revolution turned, in the Islamic revolution, into a strange comedy. 1 How is it possible that after a century of intellectual and social developments aspiring to democracy and liberty, the masses of people, led by Iranian intellectuals, engage in a revolution that while calling for democracy, embraced a clerical theocracy? In other words, in the name of the rejection of monarchical despotism, Iranians brought about a revolution in order to submit to a form of despotism in which the political leader is perceived as the supreme representative of God on earth, while any form of criticism of him is defined as fighting against God. No king can even imagine to enjoy this level of despotic power that is institutionalized in the current Iranian system of the rule of the supreme religious jurist. In both the realization of this revolution and development of its worldview, most of the Iranian intellectuals, religious and Marxist, played a decisive role. Therefore, the main question of the sociology of Iran must be the explanation of the causes of this intellectual and political contradiction. Before discussing the causes of backwardness and the reasons for the failure of reform movements in Iran, an important general point needs to be noted. In Western Europe, social and political modernity were accompanied with a major reform in the approach to religion and culture, where religious reform of Protestantism became the precondition of later political and social reform. Unlike the West, in Iran, even when the need for political and social reform was acknowledged, there was no real awareness of the need for reform in religion. In fact, if there was an affirmation of the need for religious change, it was usually in the direction of consolidating the dominance of the clerics and their religious form of despotism. Of course, the Babi and Baha’i movements were founded upon the inseparable nature of these forms of reform. In the middle of 19 th century, the Bab with his dialectical and historical
1 Marx, Karl, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, in Tucker, Robert C. (editor) The Marx-Engels Reader . W. Norton and Company: New York, 1978, pp. 594-617.
worldview, emphasized the dynamic and the living character of religion and the word of God, and called for the transformation of religious culture in a way that would leave no room for clerical pulpit. Unlike the West where many political rulers allied themselves with Luther, in Iran even the reformist Amir Kabir failed to recognize this turning point of Iranian history, and instead of supporting this religious and cultural reform, allied himself with the traditionalist clerics in suppressing the Babi movement. The Coincidence of System Problems as the Foundation of Iran’s Problems Many forms of sociological analysis of modern Iran impose a Western model on Iranian society. For example, since Marxist theory considers religion to be superstructural and insignificant, in its analysis of Iran it only emphasizes the role of economy and state while overlooking the critical role of religious and cultural despotism in determination of the course of Iranian history. But even in the West, the decline of the significance of religion in determining social trends was due to the fact that the Western Europe experienced a systematic religious reform in 16 th century. In the judgment of this author, the key concept for understanding the structural characteristics of Iran in the last two centuries is the coincidence of system problems. In developing this model, I have benefited from the theories of many thinkers including Trotsky, Lipset, Almond/Verba, and particularly the Norwegian sociologist Rokkan. 2 According to Rokkan, influenced by Weber and Parsons, modern societies have to deal with four major system problems. These are the problems of identity, church-state relation, participation and distribution. For him, Identity refers to definition of a country as an independent nation, which in the case of Western Europe took place through gradual separation of various nations from the political rule of pope. The question of the relation between church and state deals with the nature of state and whether it is a secular or theocratic form of state. The question of participation is related to the choice between political democracy and political despotism. Finally, the question of distribution concerns various alternatives of pure capitalism, communism or welfare state. The theory of the coincidence of system problems emphasizes the qualitative difference between the experiences of Iran and the Western Europe. In Western Europe these four system problems appeared separately, at different times and in various intervals. Consequently, when a new system problem would appear, the previous system problems have already appeared and resolved. For this reason, solving a problem becomes much easier and it can be resolved through the logic of that specific problem. For example, the question of the relation of church and state appeared in 16 th century through Luther’s protestant reformation. But at that time neither the quest for democracy nor the problem of labor movement had emerged. The question of church-state relation, therefore, appeared independent from other system problems and it was resolved in a way that even the catholic countries gradually adopted some form of a secular state. Two centuries later, and in the context of the resolution of the church- state system problem, the question of participation appears in Western Europe. At the same time, the quest for political democracy took place when the question of distribution (capitalism vs. communism) had not yet appeared. The result was a successful solution of the question of participation. The fact that both church-state relation and participation were already resolved when labor movement, unionization and socialist parties come into existence led to a peaceful resolution of the distribution question in 2 Rokkan, Stein, “Dimensions of State Formation and Nation-Building: A Possible Paradigm for Research Variation within Europe”, in Tilly C., (ed.) The Formation of National States in Europe . Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.
Western Europe through various forms of welfare state. The situation of Iran, however, was entirely different. The main structural feature of Iran is that all these four system problems have appeared at the same time, while none of them have already been resolved. 20 th century Iran witnessed the emergence of all these system problems at the same time, and without sequential intervals. The most important and fundamental problem is that in modern Iran the question of the relation between church and state has never been resolved, and therefore, it is mixed with other social problems, leading to distortion and confusion of all system problems in a way that no problem can be resolved in terms of its own logic. That is why the reform movements of Iran in 20 th century have failed, for in Iran the most elementary and foundational question of a modern society, namely the church-state relation, has not yet been successfully resolved. For this reason, 20 th century Iran is a century in which the struggle for democracy turns in to the political dominance of the clergy, and the slogan for democratic republic converts to the slogan for government by the religious jurist. Both these questions are also mixed with the issue of distribution. Consequently, People like Shariati and People’s Mujahidin speak of Islam as the religion of communism. But where were those intellectuals who could understand the obvious and evident contradiction of a clerical theocracy with the ideas of democracy and liberty? History of the modern Iran is not only a history of the emergence of all system problems at the same time, it is also a history of a reactionary approach to the question of church-state relation, leading to an increasing dominance of the culture of blind imitation and prejudice from the 16 th century up to recent decades. At the same time that the Western Europe moved towards separation of church and state which became a basis for the emergence of a culture of freedom of conscience and individual rights, which paved the way for the eventual emergence of political democracy and welfare state, Iran of the 16 th century experienced a form of the unity of church and state in the triumph of the Safavid dynasty. The young Shah Ismail legitimized his political rule by being the leader of a religious Sufi order. This mystical royal theocracy was at first different from a clerical theocracy. But since the safavids imposed Shi’ism on Iran, separated themselves from the Sunni Ottoman empire, destroyed the unity of Islamic world and were forced to import Shi’i clerics to Iran, giving them much advantages and power to the clerics. Gradually, the religious authority of the kings decreased and was transferred to the clerics. By the time of Sultan Husayn, the king is absolutely subservient to the clerics and follows their intolerant policies to non-Shi’is, which paved the way for the destruction of the Safavid dynasty. Throughout the 19 th century, and after a century of civil war and fragmentation during the 18 th century, the Qajar dynasty ruled over Iran. However, this time the Qajar kings were completely devoid of any religious authority and they owed their legitimacy to the blessing of the clerics. During the 19 th century the economic, social, cultural and political power of the clerics was rapidly increasing leading to a situation that the clerics began to think of themselves as the representatives of the hidden 12 th Imam, entertaining the idea that the Qajar kings are usurpers of authority, and that the clerics themselves could be the rulers in both religious and temporal domains of Iran. Finally, in 20 th century, after religious and secular intellectuals spoke of the progressive and revolutionary nature of the clerics, and defined them as representatives of democracy, freedom and human rights, the people of Iran with an amazing enthusiasm, successfully made a revolution and willingly submitted political power to the clerics. History of modern Iran is a movement from a royal and mystical theocracy towards a clerical theocracy. As we can see, the culture of the unity of church and state has been the main reason for the distorted response to various social questions like participation and distribution.
The victory of the Usuli Shi’i clerics (the principalists) over the Shi’i Akhbari clerics (traditionalists) was one of the most important pillars of the increasing power of the clerics during 19 th and 20 th centuries. Contrary to the West, in which the emerging philosophy of rationalism was an affirmation of the equality of all humans as rational beings, leading to a culture of equal rights and democracy, the rationalism of the Usulis denied the rational character of the masses of the Shi’is, and confined rational ability to the clerics. For this reason, the victory of the rationalism of the Usulis was the triumph of the culture of blind imitation among the masses and the negation of independent thinking for the people who were defined as cattle and minors who must imitate and obey the clerics in all matters of religious law. With an aggressive and comprehensive interference of the Shi’i clerical jurisprudence in the details of individuals’ lives, the Usuli school succeeded in making the masses of the Iranians completely dependent on the clerics. Consequently, people became habituated to the culture of Akhundism where refusing to think independently became the supreme virtue. In such culture there was no possibility for development of equality, democracy, freedom of religion, and human rights. The Secret of Divine Civilization and Iran’s Development: Four Layers of Discourse The Secret of Divine Civilization which addresses the causes of underdevelopment and development in Iran, addresses at least four layers of discourse. First Layer: The Reformist Policies of Mirza Husayn Khan The first layer of discourse addresses the reform policies of the prime minister Mirza Husayn khan during 1870s. In early 1870s, the Qajar king Nasir Al-Din Shah intended to engage in some forms of reform in Iran. For this reason, he brought the reformist Iranian ambassador to Istanbul, who was familiar with the Ottoman Tanzimat reforms, to the capital and made him the prime minister to proceed with various reforms. His reforms caused a vehement opposition by the clerics who saw the reforms as contrary to Islam, and a major threat to their own power. Although the king was forced to remove Mirza Husayn Khan from premiership, he kept him in other political capacities to continue the reforms. 1875, the year of the writing of the Secret of Divine Civilization, is the year when although Mirza Husayn Khan was still engaged in policies of reform, the reactionary opposition of the clerics had succeeded in blocking the reform movement. The Secret of Divine Civilization supports reform in general, and many of Husayn Khan’s reforms in particular, and offers various arguments for the necessity of reform. At the beginning pages of the Secret, ‘Abdu’l-Baha supports the policy of reform and speaks of four groups who oppose modernity and development, each with a different pretext. In fact, the entire Secret is the refutation of the four objections of these four groups against reform and development of Iran. Among these four objections, the argument of the clerics (the second group) which finds modernity and reform as opposed to Islam, is the most important. The next important objection (the first group) argues that the concept of development has no objective and universal meaning, and that, therefore, the path to Iran’s development is through a return to traditionalism: Some say that these are newfangled methods and foreign isms, quite unrelated to the present needs and the time-honored customs of Persia. Others have rallied the helpless masses, who know nothing of religion or its laws and basic principles and therefore have no power of discrimination—and tell them that these modern methods are the practices of heathen peoples, and are contrary to the venerated canons of true faith, and they add the saying, “He who imitates a people is one of them.” One group insists that such reforms should go forward with great deliberation, step by step, haste being inadmissible. Another maintains that only such
measures should be adopted as the Persians themselves devise, that they themselves should reform their political administration and their educational system and the state of their culture and that there is no need to borrow improvements from other nations. Every faction, in short, follows its own particular illusion. 3
Second Layer: Definition of Development as a rational and universal Concept The second layer of discourse in the Secret concerns the definition of development and modernity. The main question in this discussion is whether the concept of development has a universal and rational definition which is applicable to all societies, or its definition depends on the specific culture of society and lacks any universal and rational principles. With the influence of cultural relativism and postmodernism in 20 th century, many came to believe that values are devoid of any objective and universal meaning and that good or bad can only be defined in terms of the cultural traditions of a society. According to this view, since concept of development is a type of value judgment, no general, objective and universal definition of it is possible. Consequently, they entertain, each society must return to its own traditions and build its social policy in terms of those traditions. Such policy orientation is defined as the only true definition of development and modernity. As the Secret points out, this same philosophy, though in a less explicit form, was advocated by various reactionary groups in Iran during the 19 th century in order to oppose any movement towards reform and development. Although the reactionary clerics believed in the universal validity of Islamic laws, since modernity first emerged in Western societies, they joined others to emphasize the evil character of Western culture and its opposition to the culture and requirements of Iran and Islam. According to these clerics, Iran’s tradition is nothing but Islam, and therefore the only true meaning of development for Iran is the universal enforcement of Shi’i religious law, the absolute dominance of the clerics in society, and the unquestioning obedience to their commands in all domains of culture and politics. However, in an explicit and clear way, the Secret refutes these kinds of traditionalism. Although in all his writings, ‘Abdu’l-Baha defends unity in diversity, such unity and diversity are defined in the context of some binding rational and universal principles. While many of these principles are to some extent institutionalized in Western societies, they are neither Western principles nor Eastern principles. Instead, they are universal principles that are required by reason, human dignity and human rights. That is why the Secret begins with the praise of reason: Consider carefully: all these highly varied phenomena, these concepts, this knowledge, these technical procedures and philosophical systems, these sciences, arts, industries and inventions—all are emanations of the human mind. Whatever people has ventured deeper into this shoreless sea, has come to excel the rest. The happiness and pride of a nation consist in this, that it should shine out like the sun in the high heaven of knowledge… 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? 4
3 ‘Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization . Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1990, p. 12. 4 Ibid, pp. 2-3.
On the other hand, as we shall see later, the Secret affirms that the west has also deviated from many principles of civilization and true modernity. Consequently, he argues, both Iran and the West must move towards reform and true modernity: All the peoples of Europe, notwithstanding their vaunted civilization, sink and drown in this terrifying sea of passion and desire, and this is why all the phenomena of their culture come to nothing… A superficial culture, unsupported by a cultivated morality, is as “a confused medley of dreams,” and external luster without inner perfection is “like a vapor in the desert which the thirsty dreameth to be water.” For results which would win the good pleasure of God and secure the peace and well-being of man, could never be fully achieved in a merely external civilization. 5 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, and how, while harboring the greatest secret repulsion, they spend their time exchanging expressions of neighborly affection, friendship and harmony… Be just: can this nominal civilization, unsupported by a genuine civilization of character, bring about the peace and well-being of the people or win the good pleasure of God? Does it not, rather, connote the destruction of man’s estate and pull down the pillars of happiness and peace? 6 Furthermore, the Secret speaks of the affinity of authentic Iranian culture and Islam with the principles of development and modernity. Consequently, movement towards reform and true modernity is not a move towards self-alienation or Westoxication. On the contrary, it is rather a movement towards the creative spirit of Iranian culture which during the pre-Islamic era manifested itself in the form of a magnificent center of human civilization, and subsequently, during 9 th and 12 th centuries, brought about the most shining expression of an Islamic culture. According to the Secret, what is truly contrary to the authentic creative spirit of Iranian culture is the movement towards religious prejudice, intolerance, blind following of the clerics, and discrimination among various people in the name of religion. The Secret argues that in the long run, the main reason for the backwardness of Iran and the decline of its past glory and majesty was the victory of the culture of intolerance, prejudice and blind obedience to the clerics which suppressed the creative spirit of Iran and left it a weak country unable to resist the Western domination. It was this religious repression and violation of the freedom of conscience that broke down the foundation of Iranian cultural, scientific, economic and social creativity. The secret defines civilization and development on the basis of some universal principles. They include: A particular approach to humans and society which affirms the sacredness of Human beings and reason; liberation of the members of society from the bondage of religious despotism and the movement of culture towards independent thinking of individuals; separation of church and government, reconstruction of law in the direction of the equality of the rights of all people; democracy and the participation of people in political decision making; universal education which would encourage the institutionalization of freedom of thought and the engagement of people in creative economic, industrial, commercial and cultural activities; reform of the culture towards encouraging high aspiration, workmanship, and creativity to serve the people and exalt the country, so that poverty, idleness, liturgy,
5 Ibid, pp. 60-61. 6 Ibid, pp. 61-62.
laziness and extreme economic inequality are replaced by economic freedom, creative occupation, elimination of poverty and affirmation of economic justice. The Secret praises the establishment of a consultative parliament which was supported by Mirza Husayn Khan. However, ‘Abdu’l-Baha emphasizes that the parliament should be a democratic institution and that the members of the parliament should be both temporary (term-specific) and elected by the people. The Secret is well aware of the prevalence of corruption and selfishness in the realm of politics, and abhors the situation where the members of the parliament reduce their position to an immoral instrument for acquisition of wealth. 7 For this reason, in addition to emphasizing the moral prerequisites of the members, and the necessity of people’s awareness and participation in social and political affairs, 8 the Secret affirms the popular election and term limit for the members of the parliament. According to the Secret, both these conditions encourage the members of the parliament to try to observe justice and reason to some extent in order to be elected or re-elected: In the present writer’s view it would be preferable if the election of nonpermanent members of consultative assemblies in sovereign states should be dependent on the will and choice of the people. For elected representatives will on this account be somewhat inclined to exercise justice, lest their reputation suffer and they fall into disfavor with the public. 9 What has caused the development of the West is the movement in the direction of these principles, and what has been an occasion for shameful and oppressive policies and a deficiency of real progress in the West has been the deviation of these principles. For example, the prevalence of arms race, war, genocide, slavery, racism and colonialism in the history of the modern West are all reflections of the violation of these principles of true modernity. They were never a product of the enforcement of the universal principles of civilization and rationality. These sort of anti-human policies contradict the principles of freedom, democracy and equality of rights of all people. Consequently, the message of the Secret is neither blind following of the West, nor hostility to the positive aspects of Western modernity. The Secret’s message is an affirmation of the advent of reason, independent thinking, equal rights of the people, and a rejection of religious despotism, political tyranny, culture of the blind emulation of the clerics and prejudice. The Secret is an invitation for a national culture of high endeavors, creative work and industrial orientation that would revive the greatness, dignity and exaltation of Iran. In its refutation of the objections of the reactionary clerics who denounced reform and modernity as contrary to the requirements of Iran, The Secret frequently emphasizes the universality and rationality of the principles of development and true modernity. The following statement is just one example: Let us consider this justly and without bias: let us ask ourselves which one of these basic principles and sound, well-established procedures would fail to satisfy our present needs, or would be incompatible with Persia’s best political interests or injurious to the general welfare of her people. Would the extension of education, the development of useful arts and sciences, the promotion of industry and technology, be harmful things? For such endeavor lifts the individual within the mass and raises him out of the depths of ignorance to the highest reaches of knowledge and human excellence. Would the setting up of just legislation, in accord with the divine laws which guarantee the happiness of society and protect the rights of all mankind and
7 Ibid, pp. 18-19. 8 Ibid, pp. 17-18. 9 Ibid, p. 24.
are an impregnable proof against assault—would such laws, insuring the integrity of the members of society and their equality before the law, inhibit their prosperity and success? Or if by using one’s perceptive faculties, one can draw analogies from present circumstances and the conclusions arrived at by collective experience, and can envisage as coming realities situations now only potential, would it be unreasonable to take such present measures as would guarantee our future security? Would it seem shortsighted…if we were to…increase the wealth of our people? Would it spell perdition for our subjects if the provincial and district governors were relieved of their present absolute authority, whereby they function exactly as they please, and were instead limited to equity and truth…? If bribery and corruption, known today by the pleasant names of gifts and favors, were forever excluded, would this threaten the foundations of justice? 10 Third Layer: Modernity and Religion If we remember the theory of the coincidence of system problems, we realize that although the development of Iran requires the movement towards political democracy and social justice, yet the precondition of the victory of democracy and economic justice is the successful resolution of the question of church-state relation. Both Baha’u’llah and ‘Abdu’l-Baha were keenly aware of the imperative primacy of solving the relation between state and religion in Iran. They both emphasized the fact that the main prerequisite of political and social democracy in Iran is the emancipation of Iranians from the bondage of clerical despotism, and the consequent institutionalization of the separation of church and state. It is for this reason that the central theme of the Secret is the critique of the culture of emulation/following of the clerics, and the encouragement of Iranians to embrace a culture of rationalism and autonomous thinking as the foundation of true civilization and modernity in Iran. A culture of clerical supremacy is characterized by various features that include emulation of the clerics, inequality of the rights of the people on the basis of attributes like religious belief and gender, dominance of the clerics in social and political decision making, prejudice especially religious prejudice, traditionalism, and all kinds of violence, censorship, discrimination and insults against people who dare to think and believe differently. It is evident that these characteristics are contrary to the norms of progress, civilization, democracy, freedom, and human rights. That is why all novel and creative ideas are vehemently opposed by akhunds, and it is only later on when these clerics note that their opposition to those ideas seriously alienate people from them, that they reluctantly accept them. In all cases, this clerical culture of traditionalism tries to prevent society from progress towards freedom and equality. The Secret is written by the command of Baha’u’llah. In fact, the message of The Secret is the same message that is contained in this statement of Baha’u’llah, written six years before the writing of the Secret: “From two ranks amongst men power hath been seized: kings and ecclesiastics.” 11 Baha’u’llah is here affirming that the future of Iran and the world is one in which there is no room for either political or religious forms of despotism. However, not only Baha’u’llah speaks of the inseparable character of these two forms of despotism-political and clerical-, his writings emphasize the sociological primacy of the battle against religious despotism. That is why the early writings of Baha’u’llah, written between 1853 and 1865, are all centered on a categorical rejection of the culture of blind following of the clerics
10 Ibid, pp. 14-15. 11 Baha’u’llah, quoted in Shoghi Effendi, The Promised Day Is Come . Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1980, p. 20.
namely the culture of renouncing one’s own reason, religious despotism, and the supremacy of akhunds in society. For example, the Book of Certitude argues that the only method of attaining truth is “detachment” of individuals. However, he defines this detachment primarily as the rejection of the culture of clerical dependence/emulation and dependent thinking. Thus through detachment we can see things through our own eyes, and not through the eyes of others, thus transcending social and cultural prejudices, and defining ourselves as capable of rationality and autonomous thinking. 12 It is only after these discussions, and in the context of his critique of religious despotism, that Baha’u’llah discusses the imperative of political democracy in 1860s and after. 13 In regard to the relation between modernity and religion in general, and Islam and modernity in particular, we can distinguish between two extreme positions, a sort of Weberian ideal types. 14 The culture of clerical supremacy is an extreme example of an anti-modernity perspective, which sees the cause of the backwardness of Iran to lie in deviation from Islam, opposes the Western modernity, defines the road to development as the return to the past, and equates this return as the supremacy of Islamic law in all social and political institutions of Iran and unconditional obedience to the clerics. The anti-religion perspective, on the contrary, identifies Islam as the main cause of the backwardness of Iran, opposes all religions, and defines following of the West and its materialistic/atheistic tendencies as the only path to the liberation and development of Iran. The Secret, however, distinguishes between clerical culture and the truth of all religions, including Islam. Contrary to the clerical perspective, The Secret argues that the key to liberation of Iran lies in the institutionalization of the separation of church and state and rejection of the culture of clerical supremacy, prejudice and dependent thinking. According to The Secret, the truth of religions is a living, dynamic and creative reality which manifests itself at different times in accordance with the requirements of social, cultural and spiritual development of humanity. Consequently, true religion promotes development and progress of society, whereas the clerical definition of religion destroys the living and creative nature of religion, reduces religion to a bundle of superstitions and obsessive laws that contradict the present needs of society, and transform religion into an instrument of subjugation of the masses by preventing their independent thinking, thus reducing humans to the level of the beasts. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s distinction between religious superstition and traditionalism, on the one hand, and the creative spirit of religion, on the other, means that, contrary to clerical perspective, the return to true Islam is not a return to clerical supremacy, rather it is a categorical rejection of that system precisely because it contradicts the living and creative spirit of religion and turns religion into a soulless corpse. It is the creative spirit of religion that explains why, in the pre-Islamic rea, Zoroastrianism led a glorious Iranian civilization, and why between 9 th and 12 th centuries, Islam which accorded with the requirements of its time, created a magnificent civilization which was the center of science, industry, and interaction of various cultures and civilizations. Consequently, affirmation of reason and acceptance of the positive aspects of Western modernity are in fact a return to the true and creative spirit of all religions, including Islam, while such return is a total refutation of the reactionary culture of clerical traditionalism.
12 Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude . Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1950, pp. 3-93. 13 For example, Baha’u’llah affirms political democracy in many of his writings including his Tablet to Queen Victoria , The Most Holy Book , and Tablet of the World . 14 Weber, Max. The Methodology of Social Sciences . New York: The Free Press, 1949, pp. 89-112.
Therefore, The Secret identifies the truth of religion with historicity, correspondence with the requirements of time, and enhancement of unity, science and wisdom. What proves the truth of Moses is the fact that he transformed a group of oppressed and weak slaves into a majestic civilization that became the center of science and philosophy. Likewise, what vindicates the truth of Muhammad is not a list of superstitious and irrational miracles, but rather it is the unification of various scattered and hostile tribes into a global and glorious civilization. Thus, liberation of Iran is dependent on rejection of clerical supremacy and embracing the creative spirit of all religions including Islam in accordance with the requirements of reason and time. After discussing the backwardness of Europe in medieval times and its culture of prejudice and religious intolerance, ‘Abdu’l-Baha writes in his A Traveler’s Narrative: But when they removed these differences, persecution, and bigotries out of their midst, and proclaimed the equal rights of all subjects and the liberty of men's consciences, the lights of glory and power arose and shone from the horizons of that kingdom in such wise that those countries made progress in every direction; and whereas the mightiest monarchy of Europe had been servile to and abased before the smallest government of Asia, now the great states of Asia are unable to oppose the small states of Europe. These are effectual and sufficient proofs that the conscience of man is sacred and to be respected; and that liberty thereof produces widening of ideas, amendment of morals, improvement of conduct, disclosure of the secrets of creation, and manifestation of the hidden verities of the contingent world. 15 Rejection of Clerical Supremacy within an Islamic Context The Secret of Divine Civilization is written anonymously where the author is assumed to be a reformist Muslim. Writing social critique in an anonymous way was the norm of the time in Iran. Malkum Khan called his work “Kitabchiyi Ghaybiyyih” (Ghaybiyyih Booklet), where Ghaybiyyih meant anonymous. Akhund Zadih, introduced his own book “Three Letters” as a work that is written by an Indian traveler which then is translated by Akhund Zadih into Turkish. The life and writings of both Aqa Khan Kirmani and Jamal al-Din Asad Abadi (Al-Afghani) are filled with opportunism, dissimulation, lies and contradictions. However, there is a significant difference between the anonymous writings of ‘Abdu’l- Baha and the works of these authors. The reason that these authors wrote anonymously was that they were afraid that by declaring their real belief their life, property and station may be jeopardized. On the contrary, ‘Abdu’l-Baha day and night in most explicit ways identified himself as the most devoted follower of Baha’u’llah and actively defended and promoted the Baha’i Faith. Since he wanted to help Iran develop, and since he knew that by identifying the real author of his works addressing the development of Iran, Iranians, influenced by the prejudiced clerics, would never read his work, therefore, he concealed his name in order to advance the reform of Iran. At the same time, those who were perceptive could discover the identity of the author from the contents of the book. Even the title of the book, Asrar al-Ghaybiyyiah Li-Asbabi al-madaniyyah implicitly hints at the identity of the author. Asrar al-Ghaybiyyiah means ghaybiyyah secrets. But while anonymous is one of the meanings of the word ghaybiyyah, it also means divine. Thus the literal translation of the full title is divine secrets of the causes of civilization. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s The Secret was written both anonymously and through divine inspiration, for it was written by the command of Baha’u’llah.
15 ‘Abdu’l-Baha, A Traveler’s Narrative. Wilmette: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 1982, P. 91.
That is why The Secret is not written like the usual works of ‘Abdu’l-Baha in which he explicitly affirms the emergence of a new revelation, the abrogation of Islam and Islamic laws, and the abolition of all kinds of priesthood. The aim of the Secret is to reduce the prejudices of Iranians in order to make them advance towards reform and freedom. It pursues this aim by writing in a milder language and within an Islamic framework which uses the Shi’i categories and concepts to provide a more progressive and modern interpretation of Islam. Since he finds the culture of clerical supremacy as the foundation of Iran’s backwardness, he intentionally engages in a comprehensive reinterpretation of the main argument of the Shi’i clerics for justification of their authority, and thus concludes from the same argument the necessity of the rejection of the culture of prejudice and emulation of the clerics. The main argument of the clerics for their institutional authority is a few traditions attributed to various Imams. The most famous of these traditions discusses four attributes of the clerics which make them worthy of emulation. ‘Abdu’l-Baha devoted two thirds of the Secret to a reinterpretation of these four attributes in order to reject the claims and authority of the clerics. That tradition, attributed to the Sixth Imam (Sadiq) identifies true clerics or learned ones (‘ulama’) in terms of four conditions: “As for him who is one of the learned [clerics]: he must guard himself, defend his faith, oppose his passions and obey the commandments of his Lord.” 16 ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s work interprets these four attributes and concludes from his interpretation that in the present condition of Iran, these attributes require active promotion of Iran’s development and freedom; support of new and beneficial modern sciences; rejection of prejudice and religious intolerance; and encouraging people towards development of industry, creative work, independent thinking, education, and social justice. In other words, ‘Abdu’l-Baha with a living and dynamic interpretation of these attributes in the context of the needs of the time, reaches two conclusions: First, that a true cleric who possesses these qualifications is almost non-existent, and therefore, following of the reactionary, traditionalist and prejudiced clerics who oppose reform and modernity is contrary to Islam. Secondly, true cleric today is one who promotes knowledge and wisdom among the masses and encourages their independent thinking, so that the social basis of the culture of blind following of the clerics is eliminated. Before discussing in some details, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s reinterpretation of these four attributes, it is useful to quote the conclusion of the Secret at the end of his reinterpretation of those qualifications. It is evident that ‘Abdu’l-Baha turns the basis of the authority of the clerics into an argument for the rejection of the culture of prejudice and clerical supremacy: O People of Persia! Open your eyes! Pay heed! Release yourselves from this blind following of the bigots, this senseless imitation which is the principal reason why men fall away into paths of ignorance and degradation. See the true state of things. Rise up; seize hold of such means as will bring you life and happiness and greatness and glory among all the nations of the world… Aim high, choose noble ends; how long this lethargy, how long this negligence! Despair, both here and hereafter, is all you will gain from self-indulgence; abomination and misery are all you will harvest from fanaticism, from believing the foolish and the mindless. The confirmations of God are supporting you, the succor of God is at hand: why do you not cry out and exult with all your heart, and strive with all your soul! 17
16 ‘Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization. P. 34. 17 Ibid, 104-5.
First Attribute: Guarding one’s self ‘Abdu’l-Baha argues that the meaning of preserving/guarding oneself is not selfishness, hedonism or physical wellbeing. It is rather, guarding oneself from various spiritual imperfections like ignorance, injustice, violation of the rights of others and other immoral characteristics. Therefore, a true cleric or learned man, strives towards spiritual and moral perfection of himself and society. Since the word for cleric is literally the scholar or the learned (‘ulama’) ‘Abdu’l-Baha affirms that such a true learned one should transcend the traditional meaning of knowledge and commits himself to the learning, promotion and expansion of all kinds of knowledge that are beneficial to Iran’s advancement and civilization. Furthermore, for the sake of promoting justice, this type of cleric must support legal reform and equal rights of the people. ‘Abdu’l-Baha points out that contrary to the message of the culture of prejudice and clerical supremacy, true devotion to religion, spiritual detachment and moral perfection are opposed to the culture of idleness, lethargy and dependence on others. They are rather realized through institutionalization of the culture of high aspiration, noble endeavors, creative economic and industrial activity, and creation of jobs and wealth for the people: For today the people out of the depths of their superstition, imagine that any individual who believes in God and His signs, and in the Prophets and Divine Revelations and laws, and is a devout and God-fearing person, must of necessity remain idle and spend his days in sloth, so as to be considered in the sight of God as one who has forsaken the world and its vanities, set his heart on the life to come, and isolated himself from human beings in order to draw nearer to God. 18 Second Attributes: Defending one’s religion ‘Abdu’l-Baha argues that defending Islam means attracting the hearts of the people of the world to Islam. But this attribute turns into the greatest proof for the negation of the culture of clerical supremacy. Although ‘Abdu’l-Baha does not even mention the Baha’i Faith or its categorical abolishing of holy war in the writings of Baha’u’llah, he emphasizes the fact that in the present condition of the world, promoting a religion cannot take place through violence, seeing the non-believers as polluted and polluting, constant insults against the infidels and avoiding communication and friendship with them. Instead, ‘Abdu’l-Baha affirms, the only effective means of attracting people of the world to Islam is that they find Islam a religion that promotes tolerance, friendship, love, communication and fellowship with all, and defends freedom of conscience, scientific advancement and social progress and civilization. Consequently, a cleric who day and night curses and denounces the followers of other religions as infidels, defines them as polluted and polluting, forbids interaction and friendship with them, and is obsessed with violence and discrimination, such a cleric is the ultimate embodiment of ignorance rather than learning. It is evident that the discourse of The Secret is based on a living and dynamic definition of religion and morality. In other words, the message of the Secret is that the culture of Akhundism does not defend Islam, it rather destroys it. Because of the importance of this aspect of the Secret, two statements of the text are quoted below: One of the principal reasons why people of other religions have shunned and failed to become converted to the Faith of God is fanaticism and unreasoning religious zeal… nevertheless some have remained neglectful of and separated from these qualities of extraordinary sympathy and
18 Ibid, pp. 39-40.
loving-kindness, and have been prevented from attaining to the inner significances of the Holy Books. Not only do they scrupulously shun the adherents of religions other than their own, they do not even permit themselves to show them common courtesy. If one is not allowed to associate with another, how can one guide him out of the dark and empty night of denial… If a true believer when meeting an individual from a foreign country should express revulsion, and should speak the horrible words forbidding association with foreigners and referring to them as "unclean," the stranger would be grieved and offended to such a point that he would never accept the Faith, even if he should see, taking place before his very eyes, the miracle of the splitting of the moon. 19 A few, who are unaware of the reality below the surface of events… believe that the Faith can only be spread by the sword, and bolster their opinion with the Tradition, "I am a Prophet by the sword." If, however, they would carefully examine this question, they would see that in this day and age the sword is not a suitable means for promulgating the Faith, for it would only fill peoples' hearts with revulsion and terror… A faith born of sword thrusts could hardly be relied upon, and would for any trifling cause revert to error and unbelief. After the ascension of Muhammad, and His passing to "the seat of truth, in the presence of the potent King," the tribes around Medina apostatized from their Faith, turning back to the idolatry of pagan times. 20 Discussing the same issue, The Secret recounts the story of Nu’man, an Arab king, who converted to Christianity simply by witnessing the moral integrity of a simple Christian man. ‘Abdu’l-Baha concludes from this story that true promotion of religion requires good deeds and moral purity, and not violence, hatred and beastly character. Third Attribute: Opposing Passion The Secret turns the discussion of “passion”, or selfish desire, into a discourse on ethics, rationalism, gentleness and peace. In his discussion, ‘Abdu’l-Baha distinguishes between two types of civilization, a formal civilization (translated as a superficial culture) and an ethical civilization (translated as a cultivated morality). The Secret defines following of passions and selfish desires as a type of behavior that is oriented towards immediate and short term interests, contradicts both reason and morality, sacrifices the universal interests of the people for pursuit of immediate interest of one’s self or one’s particularistic group, and is willing to commit violence, war and aggression against other peoples and countries. For this reason, The Secret identifies an action that is derived from passion with a prejudiced behavior that brings about war and destruction, while opposing it to a type of action that leads to development of the world, rationality, peace and service to humankind. Consequently, ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s discussion of the concept of opposing passion turns primarily into a discourse against war and violence. ‘Abdu’l-Baha not only rejects the culture of clerical supremacy which is the embodiment of violence, intolerance, discrimination and aggression against other religious groups, he also extensively criticizes the aggressive character of Western civilization with its arms race, militarism and frequent wars. According to ‘Abdu’l-Baha: All the peoples of Europe, notwithstanding their vaunted civilization, sink and drown in this terrifying sea of passion and desire, and this is why all the phenomena of their culture come to
19 Ibid, pp. 53-5. 20 Ibid, pp. 43-4.
nothing… A superficial culture, unsupported by a cultivated morality, is as "a confused medley of dreams,"… 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… and night and day they are all straining every nerve to pile up more weapons of war, and to pay for this their wretched people must sacrifice most of whatever they are able to earn by their sweat and toil. How many thousands have given up their work in useful industries and are laboring day and night to produce new and deadlier weapons which would spill out the blood of the race more copiously than before. 21 In other words, the discourse of The Secret on the third attribute of the true cleric is not only a refutation of the culture of clerical supremacy, it is also a categorical critique of the negative aspects of the Western civilization. While some aspects of the Western modernity are moral and praiseworthy, other aspects of it belong to barbarism and not true civilization. Consequently, instead of blind imitation of the West, both Iran and the West should move towards the requirements of true modernity and civilization. These discussions demonstrate the fact that both the clerical culture of intolerance, and the Western culture of militarism are in reality two different expressions of the same underlying logic of prejudice which reduces human beings to the level of the beasts. In his other writings, ‘Abdu’l-Baha identifies the underlying cause of violence as prejudice. Furthermore, he equates the culture of prejudice with the culture of struggle for existence: 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. 22 Therefore, according to ‘Abdu’l-Baha, it is unfortunate that the discussion of civilization and development has turned into a conflict between the East and Islam, on the one hand, and Western modernity, on the other. However, the real discourse is the conflict between the culture of reason and human nobility versus the culture of prejudice and oppression. Both Eastern Akhundism and Western militarist nationalism are reflections of the culture of prejudice and oppression, and both are opposed to true modernity and civilization, namely the culture of rationality and universal morality. Fourth Attribute: Obeying the commandments of Lord The Secret interprets the fourth attribute as the necessity of religion for social order, and the true nature of religion. ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s discourse on the fourth attribute offers two major arguments to prove that the culture of clerical supremacy is the true enemy of religion. His first argument indicates that the opposition of the culture of clerical fanaticism with reason, civilization, science and freedom gradually convinces people that religion contradicts reason and human dignity, and therefore, they turn to materialism and atheism. When the clerics criticize the anti-religious character of the Western
21 Ibid, pp. 60-61. 22 ‘Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Baha . Haifa: Baha’i World Center, 1978, p. 299.
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