By William Hatcher


1. The Social Matrix of Individual Growth

Until now in our discussion, we have viewed the process of spiritual growth as being primarily an individual one, a process which effects changes within the individual and in his behavior towards his social and natural environment. However, it is obvious that individual spiritual growth does not and cannot take place in a vacuum. It takes place within the context of a given society that is bound to have a profound influence on the individual in his pursuit of spirituality. Indeed, there are many intricate, subtle, and complex interactions between any society and each of the individuals composing it. These interactions produce reciprocal influences that operate on different levels of behavior, life experience, and consciousness. It is therefore more accurate to view the spiritual growth process as an organically social one having several identifiable but related components. Some of these are: (1) an individual component, which has been the main focus of our discussion in the previous sections, (2) a collective or global component, involving the evolution of society as a whole, and (3) an interactive component, involving the relationship between the individual and society. In this section, the global and interactive dimensions of the spiritual growth process will be briefly examined.

The Bahá’í Writings make clear that, just as the individual has a basically spiritual purpose to his existence, so society also has a spiritual raison d’être. The spiritual purpose of society is to provide the optimal milieu for the full and adequate spiritual growth and development of the individuals in that society. In the Bahá’í view, all other aspects of social evolution, such as technological innovations, institutional structures, decision-making procedures and the exercise of authority, group interactions, and the like, are to be judged positive or negative according to whether they contribute to or detract from the goal of fostering a favorable milieu for spiritual growth.

Such a concept of society and its meaning is certainly a radical departure from the commonly held view that society serves primarily as a vehicle for economic activity to provide for the conditions of material existence. However, the inherent limitations of this common viewpoint become readily apparent when one reflects that nature itself already provides the basic conditions for material existence. Therefore, providing such conditions can hardly be the fundamental purpose of human society, for society then becomes redundant at best and possibly harmful.

Of course, economic activity is an important part of society’s function since a certain level of material well-being and stability provides opportunities for spiritual growth. A social milieu in which large segments of the population are starving or living in other such extreme conditions is hardly a milieu which is favorable to the full and adequate spiritual development of its members, although spiritual growth can take place under such conditions. Also, a just, well-organized, and efficient economy can serve to free man, at least partially, from boring and excessive labor and thus provide time for higher intellectual and artistic pursuits.

Another spiritual implication of economic activity is that it requires intense human interaction and therefore provides many of the challenges and opportunities necessary to stimulate spiritual growth among its participants. It is in the market place that questions of justice, compassion, honesty, trust, and self-sacrifice become living reality and not just abstract philosophy. We therefore cannot safely neglect the “outer” dimension of society in the name of our basic preoccupation with spiritual growth. Indeed, if the prevailing structures and behavioral norms of society are such as to inhibit or discourage spiritual growth, the individual will be impeded in his personal growth process. The occasional moral hero will succeed in spiritualizing his life against all odds, but the vast majority will eventually succumb to the prevailing negative influences.

Also, one of the important characteristics of personal spiritual maturity is a highly developed social conscience. The spiritually-minded individual has become intensely aware of the many ways he depends on society and has a keen sense of social obligation. Society thus benefits from the spiritualized individuals within its fold because of the unselfish quality of their service to the collectivity, and because their particular talents and capacities are relatively well-developed. At the same time, the individual spiritual seeker’s relative dependence on society fosters his humility, and the energy and effort he contributes towards the solution of social problems helps prevent the (necessary) attention he gives to his inner spiritual struggles from leading to an unhealthy degree of self- preoccupation. Bahá’u’lláh has said that the individual in the pursuit of spirituality should be anxiously concerned with the needs of the society in which he lives and that “All men have been created to carry forward an ever- advancing civilization.”1Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), p. 215.

2. Unity

In our discussion of the principles governing individual spiritual growth, we have seen that certain attitudes and behavior patterns are conducive to spiritual growth whereas others are not. In the same way, certain social norms and types of social structures are conducive to the spiritual growth process whereas others are not. One of the fundamental features of the Bahá’í Faith is that its teachings include detailed prescriptions regarding social structures and their relationship to spiritual growth. Broadly speaking, Bahá’u’lláh teaches that those social and economic structures which favor co-operation and unity are conducive to the spiritual growth process while those structures based on competition, conflict, power-seeking, and dominance-seeking hierarchies are destructive to the growth process. The unity taught by Bahá’u’lláh is not simply a formal juxtaposition of disparate parts, but an organic unity based on a spiritual quality of relationship between groups and among individuals working within a given group. Nor is it a uniformity or homogeneity, but a “unity in diversity,” a unity in which the particular qualities of the co-operating components are respected in a way that enables these qualities to contribute to the unity of the whole rather than detracting from it as so often happens in the case of social structures based on competition and dominance-seeking.

The Bahá’í focus on unity, and the attention which the Bahá’í Writings give to the social and collective dimension of the spiritual growth process probably represent the most original contributions of the Bahá’í Faith to the collective spiritual consciousness of mankind, for the individual dimension of the spiritual growth process has been a part of every revealed religion. Indeed, some revelations, for example those of Jesus and Buddha, have focused almost entirely on the individual. Other revelations, such as those of Moses and Muhammad, have treated the social dimension to a greater degree, giving laws governing the behavior of groups as well as that of individuals. However, in the case of the Bahá’í Faith, we see for perhaps the first time in religious history the spiritual growth process in its full collective dimension.

3. Social Evolution; World Order

In the Bahá’í view, the whole of mankind constitutes an organic unit which has undergone a collective growth process similar to that of the individual. Just as the individual achieves his maturity in stages, gradually developing his abilities and enlarging the scope of his knowledge and understanding, so mankind has passed through different stages in the as yet unfinished process of achieving its collective maturity. According to Bahá’u’lláh, each occurrence of revelation has enabled mankind to achieve some particular step forward in its growth process. Of course, every revelation has contributed in a general way to man kind’s spiritual awareness by restating and elaborating those eternal spiritual truths which are the very basis of human existence. But Bahá’u’lláh affirms that, besides this general and universal function common to all revelations, there is a specific function by which each revelation plays its particular and unique role in the spiritual growth process. Here are some of the ways that these two dimensions of revelation are described in the Bahá’í Writings:

The divine religions embody two kinds of ordinances. First those which constitute essential or spiritual teachings of the Word of God. These are faith in God, the acquirement of the virtues which characterize perfect manhood, praiseworthy moralities, the acquisition of the bestowals and bounties emanating from the divine effulgences; in brief the ordinances which concern the realm of morals and ethics. This is the fundamental aspect of the religion of God and this is of the highest importance because knowledge of God is the fundamental requirement of man. … This is the essential foundation of all the divine religions, the reality itself, common to all. …

Secondly: Laws and ordinances which are temporary and non-essential. These concern human transactions and relations. They are accidental and subject to change according to the exigencies of time and place.2‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Faith For Every Man (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1972), p. 43.

God’s purpose in sending His Prophets unto men is twofold. The first is to liberate the children of men from the darkness of ignorance, and guide them to the light of true understanding. The second is to ensure the peace and tranquility of mankind, and provide all the means by which they can be established.3Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), pp. 79-80.

These Manifestations of God have each a twofold station. One is the station of pure abstraction and essential unity …If thou wilt observe with discriminating eyes, thou wilt behold Them all abiding in the same tabernacle, soaring in the same heaven, seated upon the same throne, uttering the same speech, and proclaiming the same Faith. …

The other station is the station of distinction, and pertaineth to the world of creation, and to the limitations thereof. In this respect, each Manifestation of God hath a distinct individuality, a definitely prescribed mission, a predestined revelation, and specially designated limitations. Each one of them is known by a different name, is characterized by a special attribute, fulfils a definite mission, and is entrusted with a particular Revelation.4Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1971), pp. 50-52.

Bahá’u’lláh associates His “particular revelation” with the transition from adolescence to adulthood in the collective life of mankind. He affirms that the social history of mankind from its primitive beginnings in the formation of small social groups until the present day represents the stages of infancy, childhood, and adolescence of mankind. Mankind now stands poised on the brink of maturity, and the current turbulence and strife in the world are analogous to the turbulence of the ultimate stages of preadulthood in the life of the individual.

The long ages of infancy and childhood, through which the human race had to pass, have receded into the background. Humanity is now experiencing the commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax, and must gradually be superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterize the stage of manhood.5Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing trust, 1955), p. 202.

The principle of the Oneness of Mankind—the pivot round which all the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh revolve—is no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope. … Its message is applicable not only to the individual, but concerns itself primarily with the nature of those essential relationships that must bind all the states and nations as members of one human family. … It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not yet experienced. …

It represents the consummation of human evolution—an evolution that has had its earliest beginnings in the birth of family life, its subsequent development in the achievement of tribal solidarity, leading in turn to the constitution of the city-state, and expanding later into the institution of independent and sovereign nations.

The principle of the Oneness of Mankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, carries with it no more and no less than a solemn assertion that attainment to this final stage in this stupendous evolution is not only necessary but inevitable, that its realization is fast approaching, and that nothing short of a power that is born of God can succeed in establishing it.6Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing trust, 1955), pp. 42-43.

Because Bahá’u’lláh conceived His fundamental mission to be that of realizing world unity, His teachings contain detailed proposals for the establishment of institutions and social forms conducive to that end. For example, He proposes the establishment of a world legislature and a world court having final jurisdiction in all disputes between nations. He proposes the adoption of a universal auxiliary language, of universal obligatory education, of the principle of equality of the sexes, and of an economic system which would eliminate the extremes of poverty and wealth. All of these institutions and principles He sees as essential to building a society that encourages and promotes the full spiritual growth of its members.

The emergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of a world civilization and world culture—all of which must synchronize with the initial stages in the unfoldment of the Golden Age of the Bahá’í Era—should, by their very nature, be regarded, as far as this planetary life is concerned, as the furthermost limits in the organization of human society, though man, as an individual, will, nay must indeed as a result of such a consummation, continue indefinitely to progress and develop.7Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing trust, 1955), p. 163.

Bahá’u’lláh gave the term “world order” to the new system He envisaged. Bahá’ís believe that the establishment of this new world order is ultimately the only answer to the quest for spiritual growth. For if the stability, harmony, and morally progressive character of human society are not assured, the individual’s goal of achieving spiritual development will be frustrated and his basic purpose in life thereby undermined.

The change in focus which results from this global perspective on the spiritual growth process is succinctly and clearly expressed by Shoghi Effendi:

… the object of life to a Bahá’í is to promote the oneness of mankind. The whole object of our lives is bound up with the lives of all human beings; not a personal salvation we are seeking, but a universal one…. Our aim is to produce a world civilization which will in turn react on the character of the individual. It is, in a way, the inverse of Christianity which started with the individual unit and through it reached out to the conglomerate life of men.8Shoghi Effendi, quoted in The Spiritual Revolution (Thornhill, Ontario: Canadian Bahá’í Community, 1974), p. 9.

4. The Bahá’í Community

The social structure and behavioral norms of present-day society are largely those we have inherited from the past. For the most part, they have not been consciously chosen by the collectivity through some deliberate process, but rather have evolved in response to various temporary and sometimes contradictory exigencies. They most certainly have not been chosen according to the criterion of fostering spiritual growth.

Especially in the industrialized West, but even in more technologically primitive societies, the currently existing social forms are largely based on competition and on dominance-seeking hierarchies. Such social forms tend to promote disunity, conflict, aggressive behavior, power-seeking behavior, and excessive preoccupation with purely material success. The following passage from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh powerfully conveys the destructive effects mankind has suffered as a result of these social forms and behavior patterns:

And amongst the realms of unity is the unity of rank and station. It redoundeth to the exaltation of the Cause, glorifying it among all peoples. Ever since the seeking of preference and distinction came into play, the world hath been laid waste. It hath become desolate. Those who have quaffed from the ocean of divine utterance and fixed their gaze upon the Realm of Glory should regard themselves as being on the same level as the others and in the same station. Were this matter to be definitely established and conclusively demonstrated through the power and might of God, the world would become as the Abhá Paradise.9Quoted in a letter from the Universal House of Justice published in Bahá’í Canada, June-July 1978, p. 3.

Given Bahá’u’lláh’s affirmation that unity is the necessary social basis for spiritual growth, it follows that we are now living in a society which is largely indifferent and in many ways detrimental to the spiritual growth process. Indeed, the historical events of the twentieth century and the moral quality of our day to day lives provide powerful confirmations of this hypothesis. The social structures of present-day society are vestiges of past forms which may have been helpful in stimulating certain kinds of growth during previous stages of mankind’s spiritual evolution but which have now outlived their usefulness.

This situation obviously poses a deep problem to any individual who is serious in his pursuit of spiritual growth. Even if one accepts Bahá’u’lláh’s model of world order and is willing to strive to bring it about as the best hope for mankind, how is one to pursue successfully the spiritual growth process in a milieu that is so unconcerned with it?

The answer the Bahá’í Faith offers to this dilemma is the Bahá’í community. Bahá’u’lláh has not only offered a vision and a hope for the future, He has established a living community which already functions on the basis of the unity principles. This community is conceived as a prototype or an embryo of the future world society. By relating properly to this community and participating in it, the individual finds himself capable of developing his spiritual capacities in a significant way, even if the enveloping society-at-large remains indifferent to the growth process. Bahá’ís view the Bahá’í community established by Bahá’u’lláh as a precious and necessary tool for this transition period from the old to the new social order. At the same time, the growth and development of the Bahá’í community are part of the progressive establishment of the world order itself. Moreover, the Bahá’í community functions as an entity and as a constructive force within the larger community to stimulate the movement of society as a whole towards unity.

The individual’s participation in the Bahá’í community is not passive. There is no priesthood, clergy, or ecclesiastical hierarchy in the Bahá’í Faith. Spiritual growth is a self-initiated, self-responsible process, and the individual’s participation in the Bahá’í community in no way diminishes his responsibility for his personal development.

In order to understand more clearly how participation in the Bahá’í community fosters spiritual development, let us focus for a moment on the spiritually negative features of modern-day society. It is in the contrast between the Bahá’í community, based on unity and co-operation, and the larger society based on competition and dominance- seeking, that we can gain insight into the interactive dimension of the spiritual growth process.

It is the essence of the relationship between the individual and the society to which he belongs that the individual is strongly motivated to succeed according to the prevailing norms of success in the given society. Security, status, material well-being, social acceptance, and approval are the main things the individual seeks from society, and success in satisfying societal norms yields these rewards. Society wants the individual’s productive effort, his collaboration and support in the realization of collective goals. Society applies both incentives and threats to induce the individual to accept social norms and goals.

To say that an individual accepts the norms and goals of a society means that he uses his understanding capacity to learn the skills necessary for success. He must also cultivate those emotional patterns, attitudes, and aspirations which characterize socially successful individuals in the given society. Finally, he must act in a way conducive to success. Such a pattern of behaviour will involve producing certain goods or services as well as a certain kind of relationship with other members of the society.

The norms of modern industrialized society largely revolve around material success through competition, dominance-seeking and power-seeking. The goal is usually a high level of economic productivity coupled with a high ranking and status in the social hierarchy. To succeed, the individual must learn those skills and techniques which enable him to best others in competitive struggle and to obtain power over them. He must learn how to manipulate, control, and dominate others. The knowledge which is useful to these ends is often diametrically opposed to the kind of knowledge involved in spiritual growth. We have earlier seen that the self-knowledge which is equivalent to the knowledge of God amounts to knowing how to submit to the will of God: The individual must learn how to be the conscious instrument of a force that is his moral and spiritual superior. Thus, virtually all the skills he develops in the pursuit of social success in a power-oriented society will be useless and, in fact, detrimental to his spiritual growth. The spiritually sensitive individual in modern society is therefore faced with a dilemma. He will either become a split personality, trying to be spiritual part of the time and to manipulate others for the remainder, or else he will ultimately have to choose between the two goals of social success and spiritual progress.10Success in the pursuit of dominance must be distinguished from success in the pursuit of excellence. Striving for excellence is highly encouraged in the Bahá’í Writings. That the two pursuits are different, and that competitive struggle with others is not necessary to attain excellence, are important spiritual and psychological insights.

It is not only the development of the knowing capacity that is falsified by the pursuit of success in competition, but the heart’s feeling capacity as well. One must continually give priority to one’s own needs and desires and become increasingly insensitive to the needs of others. Genuine compassion towards and love for other individuals undermines the will to dominate because such empathetic emotions lead one to identify with and to experience the feelings of the dominated one.

The giving and receiving of love is a reciprocal or symmetric relationship. It is a positive and satisfying experience for both parties. Dominance, however, is asymmetrical, yielding positive emotions and a sense of exhilaration for the dominant one, but generally negative, depressed, angry and self-deprecating emotions for the one dominated. It is therefore logically and psychologically impossible to seek to dominate someone whom we genuinely love, since the empathetic emotions of love allow us to feel the unpleasant emotions of being dominated, and this experience undermines our willingness to become the conscious agent of producing such negative emotions in one we love and respect.

In other words, we cannot be successful in competitive struggle with others without hurting them, and we cannot deliberately hurt others if we love them. It is thus easy to see how a person who dedicates himself to success in competitive struggle with others will increasingly become alienated both from himself and from others. His heart will become atrophied and hard. The development of his feeling capacity will be stunted and distorted.

The will capacity is also misused in the pursuit of power and dominance. The force of the will is turned outward towards others and used against them rather than being turned inward towards self-mastery and self-dominance. The will is used to oppose others, to limit their field of action, rather than being applied to develop the internal capacities of the self in the pursuit of spirituality and excellence.

Excellence represents self-development, the flowering of the self’s capacities and qualities. It involves comparisons between our performance at different instances and under various circumstances (so-called “self competition”). But competition and power-seeking are based on comparisons with the performance of others. Such comparisons usually lead either to mediocrity, arrogance, undeveloped potential and unrealistically low, self-expectations or else to depression, jealousy, aggressive behaviour and unrealistically high self-expectations, depending on the capacities of those with whom we choose to compare ourselves. Neither of these is conducive to excellence.

In pursuing power, we tend to manipulate others, to use them as means to our ends. This is the very opposite of serving others and of acting towards them in such a way as to contribute to their spiritual advancement—the proper, God-intended expression of the will in action. In fact, unselfish service to society and true self-development go hand-in-hand, for a high degree of development makes us secure in our identity. It gives us inner peace and self- confidence. Moreover, we have more to give others, and our service is therefore more valuable and more effective.

Thus, spirituality and the pursuit of excellence reinforce each other while power struggle and competition are inimical to both. The pursuit of dominance may stimulate some development on the part of the “winners,” but such development is often at the expense of others and of society as a whole. And even for the winners, it frequently produces an unstable, artificial, and unbalanced kind of development.

A society based on unity, co-operation and mutual encouragement allows everyone to pursue spirituality and excellence while contributing significantly to the society itself. Just as love is satisfactory to both giver and receiver, so unity is beneficial both to society and to the individual members of the society. Such is the interactive dimension of the spiritual growth process.

Unity, co-operation, and mutuality constitute the norms and goals of the Bahá’í community and form the basis of its institutions. Therefore, all the spiritual benefits which derive from a society based on unity principles accrue to those who participate in the Bahá’í community. There is, first of all, the association with people who are also committed to the process of self-aware, self-initiated spiritual growth. Since no two people have exactly the same experiences or have attained to an identical level of development in all areas of their lives, the individual participant receives much stimulation and help from others. When facing a spiritual crisis in his personal life, he can usually find those who have already faced a similar crisis and can give helpful advice and loving encouragement. He therefore overcomes many difficulties which, under other circumstances, might have discouraged him to such an extent that he would have abandoned the struggle for spiritual growth. He consequently attains a much higher level of development than would have been the case had he been deprived of such helpful associations and fellowship.

At the same time, the mutuality and reciprocal nature of association based on unity means that the relationship with the community is not unidirectional: the individual is not a passive recipient of spiritual advice from experts, but has opportunities to contribute to the growth of others and of the community. His own qualities, experiences, and opinions are respected and valued by others. He is constantly being called upon to sacrifice purely selfish interests in the path of service. This acts as a check on pride and arrogance. Since sincerely motivated service to others is the real fruit of the spiritual growth process, the individual is provided almost daily with concrete situations which enable him better to evaluate the level of spiritual development he has attained.

The spiritual seeker in contemplative isolation can easily fall victim to the subtle pitfall of spiritual pride. Preoccupied with his perception of his internal mental processes, he can quickly acquire the self-generated illusion that he has reached a high degree of spiritual development. Constant and vigorous participation in a hard-working community can help to dispel such conceits.

Participation in the Bahá’í community enables one to acquire certain specific skills that cannot be easily acquired elsewhere. For example, the basis of group decision-making in the Bahá’í Faith is consultation, a process involving a frank but loving expression of views by those involved on a basis of absolute equality. Consultation represents a subtle and multifaceted spiritual process, and time and effort are required to perfect it. Similarly, the electoral processes in the Bahá’í community involve many unique aspects which will not be discussed in the framework of this paper.

Another important dimension of the Bahá’í community is its diversity and universality. One is called upon to associate intimately with people of all social, cultural, and racial backgrounds. In society at large, our associations tend to be based on homogeneity: We associate with people with whom we feel the most comfortable. If most of our associations are on this basis, it will be difficult for us to discover our subtle prejudices and illusory self- concepts. Our friends will be those who are congruent with the false as well as the true aspects of our personality. The immense diversity within the Bahá’í community makes the discovery of prejudice and self-deceit much easier.

Thus, the Bahá’í Faith views the spiritual growth process as both collective and individual. The collective dimension involves the principles by which human society can be properly structured and ordered so as to optimize spiritual and material well-being and provide a healthy growth milieu for all individuals within it. The individual bears the primary responsibility for prosecuting his own growth process and for working to create a unified and healthy social milieu for everyone. This involves working towards the establishment of world unity. In particular, it involves active participation in the ongoing life of the Bahá’í community which, though forming only a part of society as a whole, already functions on the basis of the unity principles and seeks to implement them progressively in society.


In the Bahá’í conception, spirituality is the process of the full, adequate, proper, and harmonious development of the spiritual capacities of each human being and of the collectivity of human beings. These spiritual capacities are capacities of a nonphysical, indivisible and eternally lasting entity called the soul. The soul of each individual, with its particular characteristics, is formed at the moment of the conception of the physical body. The process of spiritual development is eternal, continuing in other dimensions of existence after the death of the physical body. The body and its physical capacities serve as instruments for this process of spiritual growth during the period of earthly life when the body and soul are linked together.

All of man’s initially given capacities, both physical and spiritual, are good and potentially helpful to the spiritual growth process. However, there is a certain tension between the body’s physical needs and the metaphysical needs of the soul. Physical needs and desires must therefore be disciplined (not suppressed) if they are to contribute to the process of spiritual development in an effective way. Through the misuse or improper development of his initially given capacities, man can acquire unnatural or inordinate capacities and needs inimical to the spiritual growth process.

Among the basic spiritual capacities to be developed are the understanding or knowing capacity, the heart or feeling capacity, and the will, which represents the capacity to initiate and sustain action. The beginning stage of the process of spiritual development in childhood is one in which the individual is primarily the passive recipient of an educational process initiated by others. As the individual attains the full development of his physical capacities in adolescence, he becomes the active and self-responsible agent of his own growth process.

The goal of the development of the knowing capacity is the attainment of truth, which means that which is in conformity with reality. The ultimate reality to be known is God, and the highest form of knowledge is the knowledge of Him. God is the self-aware and intelligent force (Creator) responsible for man and his development. This knowledge of God takes the form of a particular kind of self-knowledge which enables the individual to become a conscious, willing, and intelligent instrument for God and for his purposes.

The goal of the development of the heart capacity is love. Love represents the energy necessary to pursue the goal of spiritual development. It is experienced as a strong attraction for and attachment to God and the laws and principles He has established. It also expresses itself as an attraction to others and in particular to the spiritual potential they have as beings like ourselves. Love thereby creates within us the desire to become instruments for the growth process of others.

The goal of the development of the will capacity is service to God, to others, and to ourselves. Service is realized by a certain kind of intentionality (good will) which is dramatized through appropriate action (good works). All of these basic capacities must be developed systematically and concomitantly, or else false or improper development (unspirituality) will result.

Our condition during the period of earthly life is one in which we have direct access to material reality but only indirect access to spiritual reality. The proper relationship to God is therefore established by means of recognizing and accepting the Manifestations or prophetic figures Who are superhuman beings sent by God for the purpose of educating and instructing mankind. These Manifestations are the link between the visible world of material reality and the invisible, but ultimately more real world of spiritual reality. Acceptance of the Manifestations and obedience to the laws They reveal are seen to constitute an essential prerequisite for the successful prosecution of the spiritual growth process.

The human race constitutes an organic unit whose fundamental component is the individual. Mankind undergoes a collective spiritual evolution analogous to the individual’s own growth process. The periodic appearance of a Manifestation of God is the motive force of this process of social evolution. Human society is currently at the stage of the critical transition from adolescence to adulthood or maturity. The practical expression of this yet-to-be-achieved maturity is a unified world society based on a world government, the elimination of prejudice and war, and the establishment of justice and harmony among the nations and peoples of the world. The particular mission of the revelation of Bahá’u’lláh is to provide the basis for this new world order and the moral impetus to effect this transition in the collective life of mankind. Relating effectively to this present stage of society’s evolution is essential to the successful prosecution of the spiritual growth process in our individual lives. Participation in the world-wide Bahá’í community is especially helpful in this regard.

Such, in its barest outlines, is the process of individual and collective spiritual growth as found in the Bahá’í Writings. Undoubtedly, what remains to be discovered and understood in the vast revelation of Bahá’u’lláh is infinitely greater than what we can now understand and greater still than what we have been able to discuss in the present article. But the only intelligent response to this perception of our relative ignorance is not to wait passively until such future time as these deeper implications will have become evident, but rather to act vigorously and decisively on the basis of our limited understanding. Indeed, without such a response to the revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, we may never arrive at the point where we will be able to penetrate the more subtle and deeper dimensions of the spiritual growth process.

No true knowledge is purely intellectual, but spiritual knowledge is unique in the breadth of its experiential dimension: it must be lived to become part of us. Nowhere does this truth appear more clearly than in the succinct and powerful coda to Bahá’u’lláh’s Hidden Words:

I bear witness, O friends! that the favor is complete, the argument fulfilled, the proof manifest and the evidence established. Let it now be seen what your endeavors in the path of detachment will reveal.11Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1954), pp. 51-52.


By Bahíyyih Nakhjavání


Strive, O people, to gain admittance into this vast Immensity for which God ordained neither beginning nor end, in which His voice hath been raised, and over which have been wafted the sweet savors of holiness and glory.1Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, LII. Available at www.Bahá


It is impossible for the reader of such words to remain detached, for he is a seeker as soon as he begins to read. Faced with the vast immensity of the written Revelation of Bahá’u’llah, he responds like a lover to its imagery, like a servant to its exhortations, and like a passionate believer to its message of Divine Unity. Indeed, the Writings of Bahá’u’llah are some of the mightiest gates through which the seeker can strive to gain admittance into the courts of God, for here one can clearly catch the accents of that voice and can sense the sweet savours of understanding from its melodies; here one can discover, through the mysterious affinity shared by Books and Gates in this Dispensation, the symbolic archetype of the many metaphorical and literal gates that stand wide open in this Day, summoning mankind unto them.

From its inception this Cause has taught man the ways of worship through the medium of language which is alike the channel of his praise and the expression of his service: the Báb, through His Name “The Primal Point,” is both the Gate and the Initiator of language, in its most profound sense of divine revelation, and from the Bayán, “the Mother Book,” proceeds the inspiration that forms the Letters of the Living, those motions of spirit and sacrifice in the world of creation. The mystical harmony between the language of pen and spirit found in the Writings reflects the link between word and deed in the lives of men:

I render Thee thanks … that Thou hast taught Thy servants how to make mention of Thee and revealed unto them the ways whereby they can supplicate Thee through Thy most holy and exalted tongue and Thy most august and precious speech.2Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLXXVI. Available at

The reconciliation of word and deed is likewise reflected in the mingling of justice and mercy in relation to the Writings, for while a single letter from the mouth of God is the “mother of all utterances”3Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLIII. Available at and the “begetter of all creation,”4Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLIII. Available at it can also decide “between all created things, causing them who are devoted to Thee to ascend unto the summit of glory and the infidels to fall into the lowest abyss.”5Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLXXX. Available at At the same time words are the repositories of God’s infinite grace; the sheer abundance and poetry of Bahá’u’lláh’s language is an affirmation of the statement that “from eternity the door of Thy grace hath remained wide open.”6Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CLIII. Available at Such words are tokens of His immeasurable bounty:

Through the power released by these exalted words He hath lent afresh impulse and set a new direction to the birds of men ‘s hearts and hath obliterated every trace of restriction and limitation from God’s Holy Book.7Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at

“O Comrades,” He cries to those who whether reading or seeking stand before the vast immensity of His Cause, “the gates that open on the Placeless stand wide”8Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at … “This,” He attests, “is verily an evidence of His tender mercy unto men.”9Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, LII. Available at

To enter such gates requires both strength and submission: the strength of dichotomies and the submission to the widening wonder of paradox. The angels are of fire and snow; the food of them who haste to meet Him is the fragments of their broken hearts; the true believer is both a river of life eternal and a flame of fire. He must at one moment be consumed and also rise phoenix-like from the flame to become the source of another’s attraction. The reader struggles against the limitations of antithesis in his mind in order to resolve them through action, and yearns like the angels, the lovers, and the believers, to translate these words into acts of praise and dedication, to sing aloud of His glory, to circle with deeds of love around Him and stand in servitude before His throne. The traditional dichotomy between words and deeds is strangely transformed so that words become deeds, for the reader cannot remain static in this vast immensity but must be characterized by the forward striving of a life as well as a mind. The understanding and insight he receives from the language of Bahá’u’lláh demands expression in his acts. Anything less would belittle the nature of the initial invitation to strive; anything else would indeed be blasphemy

O miserable me! Were I to attempt merely to describe Thee, such an attempt would itself be an evidence of my impiety, and would attest my heedlessness in the face of the clear and resplendent tokens of Thy oneness.10Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CXIV. Available at

Since limitation is the hallmark of any human endeavor, it might be in keeping with the nature of this article to begin with a necessarily limited consideration of dust as a symbol of that state in the Writings. Again and again the circumference of the human heart, like the surface of earth, is stressed as a fixed condition, one that may not be transcended. Bahá’u’lláh writes unequivocally that men “can never hope to pass beyond the bounds which by Thy behest and decree have been fixed within their own hearts.”11Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh, CXL. Available at We are children of dust, weeds that spring out of that dust, moving forms of dust, and sons of earth. Easily overwhelmed by “shades of utter loss,”12Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at man keeps turning and returning to “water and clay.”13Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at Content “with transient dust”14Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available he sinks into “the slough of heedlessness”15Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at; the meadows of his heart too readily become a “pastures of desire and passion.”16 His hands are too easily soiled by the dust of “self and hypocrisy.”16Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at Within him and about him threatens the abyss of his limitations as he moves with stumbling slowness across the “dust-heap of a mortal world.”17Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at

The possibilities within these limits, however, are boundless. Once the reader recognizes his kinship with it, the metaphor invites him further. He realizes that both in the language itself and in the reality of his own being there lies a path across his earth-nature that beckons him beyond those gates he has already seen shimmering before him, a path upon which the particles of dust appear to gleam like gems. His dusty limitations become the expression of his most perfected virtues along these paths of service and ways of sanctity; his humility is his diadem on this highway of love and this pathway of “Thy loved ones.” The essence of his being is molded and sustained by the clay of love and grace, and words—the written expression of man both as mystery and limitation—like atoms of dust hold within them “a door that leadeth … to the station[s] of absolute certitude.”18Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitáb-i-Íqán. Available at Through such words “the rivers of Divine utterance”19Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, XVIII. Available at have flowed and caused the “tender herbs of wisdom and understanding”20Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, XVIII. Available at to spring from the soil of his heart, and from such soil the hyacinths of a greater knowledge may also grow. Indeed, such a heart is not merely “a garden of eternal delight”21Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at but a throne sanctified for His descent, a Sinai upon which His mysteries are vouchsafed, a place whose loftiness and dignity should never be defiled.

At the heart of this lofty station, however, lies the paradox of humility, for the earth can only be of such a transcendent nature when “ennobled by the footsteps of Thy chosen ones in Thy Path.” To be “a martyr in My path and shed thy life-blood on the dust” are fragments of the ideal evinced by the earth itself: “witness with what absolute submissiveness I allow myself to be trodden beneath the feet of men.” The actions of men must be of such humility that “every atom dust beneath their feet attest the depth of their devotion” and their words be of such quality “that these same atoms of dust will be thrilled by its influence.” Humility, therefore, is the station towards which one strives in approaching the immensity of service.

Having stepped forward onto this path and recognized the paradox inherent within the very dust upon which one treads, the motion forward both for the reader and the seeker is most simply conveyed by the imagery of courts and thresholds, steps and portals, canopies and shelters. The progress (if one can convey so multitudinous an approach by so flat a word) guides the reader through courts of ever increasing beauty and gardens of intoxicating nearness, like the worshipper in his approach towards the Shrines. Shoghi Effendi, in his creation of these literal gardens was not only providing a protection and establishing a respect around the holy places, but was also interpreting exquisitely the Words of Bahá’u’lláh; for these gardens reflect with haunting accuracy the shimmering presence of inner and outer courts, of marble steps that ever rise, and gates that ever open to the seeking spirit of the reader in his parallel progress through the language of Bahá’u’lláh. It is a language that is replete with the concept of kingship. This is the underlying theme that reverberates within the splendid architecture of courts and finds its nearest resolution in its references to the awe, the beauty and the fragrance of the King Who occupies them. Both His Person and His courtly surroundings are metaphors of approach, degree and perspective by which the reader can comprehend the nature of attainment in this Cause.

To begin with he finds himself among those who “stand(s) at the gate of the city of Thy nearness”22Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXXIII. Available at and is granted the inestimable bounty of approaching the courts of His presence, the canopy of His majesty and the precincts of His mercy. By the light of God “concealed in the well-hidden pavilions” he is able to see the path clearly enough before him and watch as it ascends “into the loftiest chambers of paradise.” With his whole being poised to follow in the direction of this insight, he sets himself towards “the adored sanctuary of Thy Revelation and of Thy Beauty”23Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CL. Available at and is able to draw nearer “the habitation of Thy throne.”24Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXI. Available at Finally, in his blessedness, he finds that he has “entered Thy presence and caught the accents of Thy voice.”25Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXI. Available at

It is here, in this dazzling proximity where he can cling to the hem of His Robe, smell the musk-scented perfume of His hair and hear the Words that flow from His “sugar-shedding lips,”26Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words. Available at that the reader confronts another paradox. He realizes that his considered proximity is nothing but remoteness in relation to the magnitude beyond the metaphor:

Now that Thou hast made them to abide under the shade of the canopy of Thy mercy, do Thou assist them to attain what must befit so august a station. Suffer them not, O my Lord, to be numbered with them who, though enjoying near access to Thee, have been kept back from recognizing Thy face, and who, though meeting with Thee, are deprived of Thy presence …27Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXXV. Available at

It is by now a familiar paradox and has been met before, but the relative simplicity of its presence in a single word such as “dust” is further enhanced and its orbit of association and implication widened as the complexity of the language forces the reader to reconsider his original discovery through the application of a whole metaphor. Then again, within the image itself, are a number of layers of comprehension which the reader might approach. The topical allusions alone, with their disturbing reference to the treachery and egoism which constantly surrounded the Blessed Beauty both from within and without His household, are a disconcerting enough interpretation of this paradox. But there is also an uneasy immediacy in these words which applies to the present instant in which they are being read, and implicates the reader as he stands preoccupied by his reading and is equally threatened by his preoccupation “from having near access to Thee and from attaining the court of Thy glory.”28Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXXV. Available at

An abrupt return to a reconsideration of one’s abject limitations seems a necessary prerequisite to the motion of “circling” that must accompany any step towards proximity along this path. The gulf of separation that yawns between the servant and his King, the lover and his Beloved, the reader and the Goal of his desire, is a measure of this process:

Others were able to approach Thee but were kept back from beholding Thy face. Still others were permitted in their eagerness to look upon Thee, to enter the precincts of Thy court, but they allowed the veils of the imaginations of Thy creatures and the wrongs inflicted by the oppressors among Thy people to come in between them and Thee.29Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXXV. Available at

Separation also has its own perverse architecture, for below the ascending tiers of court and pavilion that provide the pedestrian mind of the reader with a measure of the proximity of his Goal, there is a converse motion possible, down into “this darksome well which the vain imaginations of Thine adversaries have built, down farther into this blind pit which the idle fancies of the wicked among Thy creatures have digged.”30Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at Suffocated by remoteness in the stale and cavernous dungeons of his separation from God the reader might also be dwelling “in a place within whose walls no voice can be heard except the sound of the echo, a place of thick darkness”31Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXV. Available at in which “the croaking of the raven”32Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, CLXI. Available at obliterates the melodies of the very Words he reads. The Most Great Prison and the Síyáh-Chál become symbols of the contingent world bearing down upon the soul aspiring towards God. Just as gates were the means of literal and metaphorical approach and were always open, always beckoning, so prisons and the constraint of chains and veils are also always present, threatening and denying the seeker access to his Beloved. This separation, whether imposed from within or from without, is significantly felt at the instant when proximity seems imminent. “This is the Day,” Bahá’u’llah states, “whereon every atom of the earth hath been made to vibrate and cry out: ‘O Thou Who art the Revealer of signs and the King of creation! I, verily, perceive the fragrance of Thy presence. …’”33Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at But within the same passage this very atom declares:

I know not, however, O Thou the Beloved of the world and the Desire of the nations, the place wherein the throne of Thy majesty hath been established, nor the seat which hath been made Thy footstool, and been illumined with the splendors of the light of Thy face.34Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at

The “unknowing” that must always impose itself between the reader and the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh is an ancient formless tradition in mystical poetry and finds its most tangible expression in the imagery of this Revelation. What was a cloud in an earlier dispensation is transformed by Bahá’u’lláh’s pen, and through the metaphors of separation, becomes an intensely felt, almost physical anguish. At the instant that the reader grasps the significance of the Words he reads, he becomes overwhelmed by his devastating unworthiness to approach such meaning. He realizes, moreover, that the meaning he has grasped is necessarily puny and pathetic, a play of shadows, a feeble echo of “the Kingdom of Thy Names” which is far above his comprehension and is itself “created through the movement of Thy fingers and trembleth for fear of Thee.”35Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at The burst of praise that rises to his lips is a mere reflection of those same limitations against which he has striven with such zeal:

Whatsoever hath been adorned with the robe of words is but Thy creation which hath been generated in Thy realm and begotten through the operation of Thy will and is wholly unworthy of Thy highness and falleth short of Thine excellence.36Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at

And finally this anguish is stretched to its limits through the added dimension afforded to the reader of the presence, within the Words, of the Author Himself. He is not only, through His bounty and grace, speaking on behalf of man as his advocate with words of tender compassion that can be echoed; He is also speaking in His Own capacity, with His Own personal anguish, so that the separation experienced is that of the Manifestation from the source of His light:

And at whatever time my pen ascribeth glory to any one of Thy names, methinks I can hear the voice of its lamentation in its remoteness from Thee, and can recognize its cry because of its separation from Thy Self.37Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LXXVI. Available at

To the frail reader standing on the furthest shores of this vast immensity, dazzled by orb within orb of light, it might seem that his initial presumption to strive can only set him adrift without direction on this luminous ocean, for failures are his sole means of measuring any attempt to progress. Even when he thinks he has finally grasped, on the most superficial level, the rise and fall of the metaphors and can at least stay afloat upon the waves of language, he discovers that:

It should be remembered in this connection that the one true God is in Himself exalted above proximity and remoteness. His reality transcends such limitations. His relationship to His creatures knoweth no degrees. That some are near and others are far is to be ascribed to the manifestations themselves.38Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, XCIII. Available at

And with this new paradox, this new return to a contemplation of limitation as a means of reaching towards his Goal, the reader draws nearer than he ever has before to an understanding of the nature of Bahá’u’lláh’s language.

Since God must remain unknowable and above all degree, and since the language of limitation is the only means whereby man can either know or express his unknowing, it becomes clear that the Manifestation becomes the spiritual reality of words, of metaphors and of language. He is the Word, the Primal Point, the song of the Nightingale; He holds within Him both extremes of proximity and remoteness in their most perfect balance; He is the vivid and acute stillness at the heart of all the polarities experienced by the reader, the seeker, the lover and believer. The palpable remoteness that lay couched in the imagery of dust all the way from the path through the gates to the Placeless, the play of attraction that resonated in the language of the lover, the tangible space that existed throughout the vast architecture of courts and kingship, all compel the reader to recognize his reliance on language as his only means of understanding, and recognize at the same time that any language other than that of the Manifestation, any word other than that most mighty Word, and any name that is not the King of Names, cannot hope to transcend the limitations of dust. This recognition or confession of the reader’s powerlessness to strive beyond the limits of his understanding, or travel further than the Words themselves will go, constitutes “the utmost limit to which they who lift their hearts to Thee can rise”39Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LVIII. Available at; it is the highest station afforded both reader and seeker, for in this condition they come closest to discovering the “hidden gift” in the written storehouse of the Manifestation of God, and admit to “their impotence to attain the retreats of Thy Sublime Knowledge.”

It is so intrinsic to the original desire of the reader to strive towards the unknown that he finds the intimate voice of the Manifestation uttering his most poignant thoughts:

Where can separation from Thee be found, O my God, so that reunion with Thee may be clearly recognized at the appearance of the light of Thy unity and the revelation of the splendors of the Sun of Thy oneness?40Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXVI. Available at

Now at this stage, something wholly mysterious transpires.  Even as the reader glimpses his longed-for reunion shimmering before him in the Words of the Manifestation, even as he recognizes, simultaneously, how far he is, how remote he is from grasping the full beauty of those Words, he experiences a miracle.  Depending on his sincerity, of course, about which an entire other chapter could be written, he is transfigured by the very pull and push of the hyperbole into something comparable to an angel.  He may, by the grace of God, approach the condition of one of those embodiments of integration and disintegration, of harmony and conflict, of snow and of fire that hang suspended above their own extremes of sorrow and joy. In this condition of helplessness and dependency upon the Words, the reader finds himself, like those same angels, protected again from both extremities of reunion and separation by the merciful structure of Bahá’u’lláh ‘s language. Instead of extinguishing his precarious being by the expression of a climax, by an arrival as it were at the furthermost reaches of his understanding, Bahá’u’lláh controls the reader’s inward state by presenting this climactic discovery not as an end in itself but rather as a means towards an end which, for his own protection, must still remain out of sight. In other words, instead of the powerlessness of man, his limitation, his weakness, his dependence upon grace being the focal point of the prayer, it becomes the grounds for his beseeching:

I, therefore, beseech Thee, by this very powerlessness which is beloved of Thee, and which Thou hast decreed as the goal of them that have reached and attained Thy court … not to deprive them that have set their hopes on Thee of the wonders of Thy mercy, nor to withhold from such as have sought Thee the treasures of Thy grace.41Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LVIII. Available at

Part of the mysterious subtlety and power of Bahá’u’lláh’s language lies in the contrapuntal relationship between the grounds of His beseeching and its appeal. Often, as in the beautiful Dawn Prayer for the Fast, one cannot comprehend the object for which one is beseeching without listening more closely to the grounds on which one’s appeal is raised. In this case the reader calls for grace to support and protect his limitations “by this very powerlessness which is beloved of Thee.”42Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. LVIII. Available at

He seems to have come full circle. The limitations against which he struggled earlier now become the means of his attainment. Here in the vulnerability of his essence is couched the ageless Covenant of God; here in the midmost heart of his humility reposes the eternal promise of the Beloved, assuring him that he will be graced, he will be visited again and again, in spite of his weakness and because of his unworthiness. Here as he stands, small and insignificant on the edge of the vast immensity of his relationship with the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, the reader finds himself protected from utter loss by the promise that within this immensity may be found His footsteps also, and may be seen the lineaments of His blessed Face. And here again the cherished sweetness of this Covenant becomes the grounds of his beseeching and resolves the original exhortation that had challenged the reader to set out on this endless discovery: 

I entreat Thee, by Thy footsteps in this wilderness, and by the words “Here am I. Here am I.” which Thy chosen Ones have uttered in this immensity, and by the breaths of Thy Revelation and the gentle winds of the Dawn of Thy Manifestation, to ordain that I may gaze on Thy Beauty and observe whatsoever is in Thy Book.43Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh. CLXXXIII. Available at www.Bahá

By Amín Banání

The Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá are the fruit of more than half a century of prolific labour from His early twenties to the seventy-eighth and final year of His life. Their full volume is as yet unknown; and much remains to be done in gathering, analyzing, and collating His literary legacy.

His Writings consist of personal correspondence, general tablets, tablets on specific themes, books, prayers, poems, public talks, and recorded conversations. Approximately four-fifths of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Writings are in Persian; the rest – with the exception of a very small number of prayers and letters in Turkish – are in Arabic. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was both fluent and eloquent in these three languages. Transcriptions of His extemporaneous speeches are often indistinguishable from His Writings. In a culture that placed a high premium on rhetoric ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was recognized by friend and foe, Arab and Persian, as a paragon of distinctive style and eloquence.

It is the intent of this article to touch upon the character of that style and to present an overview of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Writings in various genres and categories. Discussion of the language and style is inherently limited, as it must be attempted across twin barriers of culture and tongue; the attempt at categorization is necessarily arbitrary and is meant to serve only as a catalogue. Obviously any number of criteria, such as chronological, thematic and linguistic, can provide different sets of categories. Furthermore, some works cited as examples of certain categories could easily be put under others.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá was, of course, not a prophet and at no time claimed to have received direct revelation from God. But the Centre of the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, and the appointed Interpreter of His Revelation, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’ís believe, was divinely inspired and guided. His Writings, therefore, constitute for the Bahá’ís at once a part and an interpretation of their Scriptures.

The question of divinely inspired language has traditionally posed a dilemma and given rise to baseless dogma in the religions of the past. In their literal-minded zeal to aver the authenticity of their Holy Writ, devotees of traditional religions have often insisted on the divine authorship of the very lexical and syntactic form of that Writ. This view not only reduces God to the use of particular and different human tongues, but it also attempts to isolate religious writings from the body of the language in which they were written. It equates divine origin with absolute linguistic and literary originality. Those who uphold this view tend to be resentful of any comparison and precedence, and through their unwarranted notion of originality they completely miss the often striking literary originality of holy books that can only be perceived in the light of traditions in their languages. By ignoring the literary traditions, conceptual methods, cultural associations – in short by denying the life of the language – they reduce rather than enhance comprehension and true appreciation of holy scriptures.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s two primary languages have vigorous and highly developed literary traditions with more than a thousand years of life. Only the briefest mention of facets of these traditions that are germane to the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’ is possible here. Since most of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Writings are in Persian, the main focus here is on Persian literary traditions. But so many of these are shared with Arabic – indeed in many cases they are reflections of Arabic norms in Persian – that the observations will generally be true of the Arabic literary traditions as well.

For nearly a thousand years since the formulation and the crystallization of classical criteria in Arabic and Persian literature there has existed a preoccupation with and a primacy of form. Needless to say, tightly metered and fully rhymed poetry, as the most formal of literary arts, has been the master art form for the Arabs and the Persians. Prose writers from their aesthetically inferior position have attempted to ennoble their work with qualities of poetry, evolving a technique known as saj’. It introduces the basic poetic ingredients of rhyme and rhythm into prose without actually transforming it into equal-footed lines. A symmetry of expression is achieved by use of lexical devices such as synonyms, antonyms, and homonyms giving prose an architectural plasticity and rendering it memorable. This style of writing in Persian reached its apex during the thirteenth century A.D. and declined rapidly thereafter. By the end of the eighteenth century it had reached a nadir of artificial verbosity and lost its power to communicate.

The style of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is the outward mode of His inspiration and expression. The animus is the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. The clay is the Persian language with its characteristics. The mystery of His person forms it into a unique style. It is distinctive, unmistakably personal, and therefore original. Yet it is in the purest mould of literary tradition. It is a new flowering of saj’. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has breathed new life into a familiar form; but by harmonizing form and content He has banished contrived artifice.

In the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá form is an approach to the content. He makes use of poetic imagery and of a vast range of rhetorical and literary devices such as metaphors, similes, symbols, allegories, alliterations, assonances, and dissonances, not in order to draw a veil around the subject, but to expand the reader’s mind by refraction of the same reality through different planes of perception, cognition and intuition. This is the difference between sterile formality and organic integrity of form in a truly creative sense.

Two brief examples may illustrate this harmony of form and content in the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. First is the phrase “the Sun of Reality” which occurs frequently in His Writings both as a metaphor and a symbol for the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh. There is mutual illumination of the concrete and the abstract here – at once self-evident, life-giving, and pervasive. But it also can remind us of creatures that avoid the sun. How often ‘Abdu’l-Bahá referred to the Sun of Reality dawning over gatherings of bats! The other example is the imagery evoked in His own Tablet of Visitation: “… Give me to drink from the chalice of selflessness; with its robe clothe me…” The paragraph is made of a series of related cultural images of admittance to court, proffering of the cup of favour, and granting of the ceremonial bejewelled robe: all evoke the ceremony of a royal audience and the bestowal of high rank – traditionally an occasion of pomp, pride and vanity. By this dramatic inversion of images, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has underlined the nobility of servitude and humility.

This use of artistic form for the expression of meanings and purpose is a hallmark of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Writings. To cultivate an appreciation of the poetic qualities of His Writings is to enhance one’s understanding of His meaning.

It must be admitted that the same qualities place an enormous burden on the translator; and much can be lost in inadequate hands. Fortunately, Shoghi Effendi, particularly in his translations of some of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s prayers, has left us a true standard. The foregoing should not lead the reader to infer that the style of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, although at all times recognizable and personal, is unvarying. His subjects, ranging from philosophical treatises to meditative poems, are expressed in language appropriate to them. Before proceeding to the differentiation of the various categories of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Writings it might be helpful to clarify the traditional term Tablet (lawh) which is applied to the majority of His Works. It designates all His Writings that are addressed to specific individuals or groups. As such it is applied to everything from His personal correspondence to such fundamental documents as the Tablets of the Divine Plan and the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

  1. For purposes of analysis ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Writings can be divided into twelve groups of which personal correspondence (Tablets to individuals) constitutes by far the largest segment, despite the undoubted fact that a portion of this precious heritage has been irretrievably lost, and a portion remains in non-Baha’i hands. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s letters are masterpieces of Persian epistolary genre. They are marked by directness, intimacy, warmth, love, humour, forbearance, and a myriad other qualities that reveal the exemplary perfection of His personality. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addresses everyone as an equal in the service of Bahá’u’lláh. His letters often open with an invocation of the quality of faith of the recipient rather than his name or identity – epithets such as “O the Firm One in the Covenant”, “O Lover of the Blessed Beauty”. (Later when the Persians were required by law to adopt family names, many Bahá’ís chose as surnames words of address from the Tablets of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to themselves or to their fathers.)In subject matter, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s letters range from responses to the personal and ephemeral requests of His correspondents to profound elaborations, elucidations and interpretations of the Bahá’í Revelation. But mostly they are concerned with direction and exhortation of the friends to spread the Teachings.
  2. Tablets of specific topical or thematic significance addressed to individuals are perhaps best exemplified by the Tablet to Professor Auguste Forel which is in fact a philosophical treatise written by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in September, 1921, in answer to questions put to Him by the noted Swiss psychologist.
  3. Tablets addressed to Bahá’í communities in various parts of the world chronicle ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s loving and vigorous leadership of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh and its propagation from a handful of countries in the Near and the Middle East to some thirty-five countries in every continent on the globe. The most important in this group are undoubtedly the series of the Tablets of the Divine Plan, written at the close of the first World War.
  4. Among the Tablets written to world groups or congresses, the best known is the Tablet sent in 1919 to the Central Organization for a Durable Peace at the Hague.
  5. The Will and Testament of ‘Abdul’-Bahá is a unique document, written in three parts, that constitutes the charter1“The Charter which called into being, outlined the features and set in motion the processes of, this Administrative Order is none other than the Will and Testament of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, His greatest legacy to posterity, the brightest emanation of His mind and the mightiest instrument forged to insure the continuity of the three ages which constitute the component parts of His Father’s Dispensation.” Shoghi Effendi, God Passes By, p. 325, Wilmette ed.  of the Bahá’í Administrative Order. Although undated, it is clear from its contents that the first part was written in 1906/7 during the most perilous and yet most prolific period of His life.
  6. The next category is that of prayers. The Arabic and Persian languages distinguish between what is translated in English as prayer (munáját) and obligatory prayer (salát). The prayers of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá are munáját. Approximately one half of these are in Persian and the other in Arabic, with a very few in Turkish. The term munáját has a history in Persian literature beginning with Khwájih ‘Abdu’llah-i-Ansárí, a Súfí mystic of the eleventh century A.D. The munáját of Ansárí are highly stylized epigrammatic forms of communion with God. From a literary point of view these brief evocative compositions bear only the slightest generic resemblance to the munáját of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, which, although called by the same name, are clearly a literary innovation and original creations in the Persian and Arabic languages. Their chief distinguishing quality is the sustained and expanding expression of man’s experience of the Holy by means of poetic language.The prayers of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, particularly, partake in the fullest measure of poetic qualities. Some actually include fragments or lines of metrical verse which are indistinguishable from the texture of the whole prayer. The purity and sanctity of natural imagery reveal a state of cosmic harmony. The musicality of some of them transcends limitations of language. Poetry is made to serve the ultimate goal of rising above “the murmur of syllables and sounds”. The emotional intensity of some of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s prayers, especially those that recall the sufferings of and separation from Bahá’u’lláh is unrivalled.
  7. Prayers written for special occasions such as meetings of Spiritual Assemblies, or embarking on teaching trips, focus upon overcoming of self and reliance upon confirmations from God.
  8. Tablets of Visitation, virtually all written in Arabic, are primarily for commemoration of individual heroes and martyrs of the Faith, and are to be chanted when visiting their graves. The majority were written in the final years of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s life and are another testimony of His abiding love and faithfulness to the memory of those who sacrificed themselves for the Cause of God.
  9. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s poems are few in number, and mostly in Mathnaví (rhymed couplet) form. His love for this form – universally associated with the great spiritual masterpiece of the thirteenth century poet Rúmí – and His love for Rúmí’s poetry are further evinced by frequent quotations of lines from the latter’s works in His Writings.
  10. Books and treatises, of which ‘Abdu’l-Bahá left three, are The Secret of Divine Civilization, written in 1875 (also known as A Treatise on Civilization); A Traveller’s Narrative, written about 1886; and a short volume entitled A Treatise on Politics, written in 1893. The first two have been translated into English. The latter, available only in Persian, may be considered a sequel in subject and purpose to The Secret of Divine Civilization. The fundamental theme is the generative force of religion and the degenerative role of priestly power in human affairs. The first book is addressed to the Persian nation as a whole; the second is directed to the Baha’i community in that land.Their import obviously transcends the historical aims and the immediate occasion of their writing, but they also constitute significant documents within that context.

    The Secret of Divine Civilization, particularly, occupies a pre-eminent historical position among the literature of modernization in Persia. Seen in the light of the unfolding Bahá’í Revelation, it is, of course, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s elaboration of the principles enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh in His Tablets to the rulers of the earth. But read in the light of modern analytical literature on the nature and problems of modernization, it is a unique document of equally profound implications. In it ‘Abdu’l-Bahá presents a coherent programme for the regeneration of Persian society. The programme is predicated on universal education and eradication of ignorance and fanaticism. It calls for responsibility and participation of the people in government through a representative assembly. It seeks to safeguard their rights and liberties through codification of laws and institutionalization of justice. It argues for the humane benefits of modern science and technology. It condemns militarism and underscores the immorality of heavy expenditures for armaments. It promulgates a more equitable sharing of the wealth of the nation.

    Of the long list of indictments that could be brought against the one hundred and twenty five years of Qájár misrule of Persia, few could be as damaging as their neglect of this blueprint in 1875. Not until nearly twenty years later do some of these ideas appear piecemeal and unrelated in the writings of other so-called reformers and modernists in Persia. But the significance of The Secret of Divine Civilization is not merely that it represents the earliest and the only coherent scheme for the modernization of Persia. We have come to recognize as the fatal flaw of nearly all reformist ideas and modernizing efforts of the last hundred years (not only in Persia but in many parts of the world), a naive imitation of effects without grasping the causes – superficial borrowing of forms unrelated to their underlying values. Everything in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s proposals is firmly based upon the validity and potency of divine guidance. It is not westernization of the East that He advocates. He has as much to say to the spiritually impoverished societies of the West as to the people of Persia. Through a revivification of the spiritual and moral potentialities of man ‘Abdu’l-Bahá seeks to create new institutions and viable political forms – to lay the foundation of a truly divine civilization.

    A Traveller’s Narrative, which is a history of the episode of the Báb, was written for the seeker and the curious. It presents a brief and dispassionate account of that portentous dispensation in a simple and moving narrative style. Like The Secret of Divine Civilization, this book was published anonymously. It may be another indication of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s humility before Bahá’u’lláh that He did not place His name on the two books He wrote for the public beyond the Bahá’í community during the lifetime of His Father. He also wished to emphasize, as He points out in The Secret of Divine Civilization, that He had no expectation of personal gain from His efforts.

  11. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s discourses are extensive transcriptions of His utterances on various topics. The two major examples of the genre are Some Answered Questions and Memorials of the Faithful. The generic affinity of these two works is, however, strictly formal; for in subject matter they are widely different. The final written versions of both were examined by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and approved for publication.Some Answered Questions is a compilation of the table talks of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in response to questions put to Him by Laura Clifford Barney on spiritual tenets of the Bahá’í Faith and on the Bahá’í understanding of some Christian beliefs. The conversations, their recording, editing, and authentication occurred in the difficult years immediately preceding ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s relative freedom in 1908. The compilation was first published in 1907.

    Memorials of the Faithful, which has only lately (1971) been translated into English, is a compendium of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s remembrances of some seventy early believers, spoken to gatherings of Bahá’ís in Haifa during the early years of World War I. These were compiled, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s permission for their publication was granted in 1915 but due to the strictures of wartime the book was not published until 1924 when it was again authorized by Shoghi Effendi.

    The outward form of Memorials of the Faithful is a collection of brief biographical sketches. Its title in the original, Tadhkiratu’l-Vafá, places it in a Persian literary tradition some nine centuries old. It brings to mind the Tadhkiratu’l-Awliyá (Remembrance of Saints) of the twelfth century mystic poet ‘Attár. The spiritual and cultural impulses that have given rise to the literary form of tadhkirib have little to do with the particular, the personal and the ephemeral aspects of human life. It is the quality of soul, the attributes of spirit, the quintessential humanity and the reflection of the divine in man that is the focus here.

    The root word dhikr in the title means prayerful mention – reverent remembrance. It implies that it is not the biographer nor the reader who memorializes a human life, but rather the quality of that life which has earned immemorial lustre and sheds light on all who remember that quality. Quite literally this book is a remembrance of vafá – faithfulness – not just memories of individual lives, but remembrance of that essential quality which was the animating force of all those lives.

    The people whose “lives” are depicted here all share one thing in common. They are propelled by their love for Bahá’u’lláh. So great is this magnetic force in their lives that they literally travel vast distances and overcome every barrier to be with Him. Some of them arrive virtually with their dying breath, to expire happily after having seen the face of their Beloved; some die on the arduous path. Despite the peculiarities of time and place, it should not take the reader long to recognize a gallery of timeless and universal human types in this book.

    The spoken language of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá is figurative and almost indistinguishable from His written style. He makes use of a rich fund of literary devices – rhymed phrases, symmetrical forms, alliterations, assonances, metaphors, similes, and allusions – that, far from sounding contrived and artificial, are naturally matched to the subject matter: the essence of faithfulness. With concrete images He describes spiritual states and psychic levels of consciousness, as if to assert the primacy and reality of the realm of spirit. Should the reader experience difficulty with the style, let him savour it slowly, allowing the unfamiliar language to create its own spirit and breathe life into its allusions. Let the words of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá trace in his mind the shape of the valley of love and faithfulness.

    In His usual self-effacing way ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’ says almost nothing about Himself in this book. But occasional events in the lives of these companions are interwoven with His own. In these passages we have some thrilling glimpses of that essence of humanity and humility that was ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

  12. Next to His personal correspondence, talks comprise the largest segment of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s recorded words. One may distinguish between talks given to Bahá’ís and addresses to the general public, such as societies, groups, universities and congregations. Generally they have the same literary marks and rhetorical patterns that are characteristic of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Writings.This vast body of Writing, boundless in its wisdom, consummate in form, generous and loving in spirit and rich in significance, is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s literary legacy, a legacy that, like His own prayer, rises “above words and letters” and transcends “the murmur of syllables and sounds”. It is the reality of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá so far as we the grateful readers are capable of perceiving.

By George Townshend

Here the world’s religions meet and are fused into one by the fire of a great love. “This is that which hath descended from the realm of glory, uttered by the tongue of power and might, and revealed unto the prophets of old. We have taken the inner essence thereof and clothed it in the garment of brevity.”

In an age of compendiums there is no other compendium such as this. No other pen has attempted to make a summary which shall be so concise and so complete as to contain in less than eight score brief Words of Counsel the vital substance of the world-religions. In the newly printed version of Shoghi Effendi, the “Hidden Words” makes a small pocket volume of fifty-five pages.

Yet for all its terseness it bears none of the marks of a digest or an abstract. It has the sweep, the force, the freshness of an original work. It is rich with imagery, laden with thought, throbbing with emotion. Even at the remove of a translation one feels the strength and majesty of the style and marvels at the character of a writing which combines so warm and tender a loving kindness with such dignity and elevation.

The teaching of the book throughout is borne up as if on wings by the most intense and steadfast spirituality. With the first utterance the reader is caught away to the heavenly places, and the vision is not obscured when the precepts given deal with the details of workaday life, with the duty of following a craft or a profession and of earning a livelihood to spend on one’s kindred for the love of God. The picture given of man and of human nature is noble and exalted. If he be in appearance a “pillar of dust,” a “fleeting shadow” yet he is in his true being a “child of the divine, and invisible essence,” a “companion of God’s Throne.” The created worlds are designed for his training. The purpose of all religious teaching is to make him worthy of the love of God and able to receive his bounties.

The “Hidden Words” is a love-song. It has for its background the romance of all the ages—the Love of God and Man, of the Creator and His creature. Its theme is God’s faithfulness and the unfaithfulness of Man. It tells of the Great Beloved Who separates from Himself His creatures that through the power of the Spirit breathed in them they may of their own will find their way to that reunion with Him which is their paradise and their eternal home. It tells how they turned away to phantoms of their own devising, how He ever with unwearying love sought them and would not leave them to the ruin they invoked but called them back that they might enter yet the unshut gates of heaven. Only the final event of the love-story is lacking. God calls, and when His utterance is complete He pauses that man may answer, and waits—listening.

Love is the cause of creation: it is the Beginning, the End and the Way. God, as yet a Hidden Treasure, knew His love for man, drew him out of the wastes of nothingness, printed on him His Own image and revealed to him His beauty. Apart from God man has nothing and is nothing; but in union with God he possesses all things. God ordained for his training every atom in the universe and the essence of all created things. He is the dominion of God and will not perish: the light of God which will never be put out; the glory of God which fades not, the robe of God which wears not out. Wrought out of the clay of love and of the essence of knowledge he is created rich and noble. He is indeed the lamp of God, and the Light of Lights is in him. He is God’s stronghold and God’s love is in him. His heart is God’s home; his spirit the place of God’s revelation. Would he sanctify his soul, he could look back beyond the gates of birth and recall the eternal command and antenatal covenant of God. Would he but look within himself, he would see there God standing powerful, mighty and supreme.

Alas! in the proud illusion of his separateness, man has forgotten whence he came, and what he is, and whither he moves. He has turned away from his True Beloved and given his heart to a stranger and an enemy. Bound fast in the prison of self, dreading that death which might be to him the messenger of joy he has rejected the immortal wine of wisdom for the poor dregs of an earthly cup and has given up eternal dominion that he might revel for an hour in the lordship of a passing world.

So blinded by arrogance and rebellion have mankind become that they live well content amid these sterile imaginings. They are no longer able to tell Truth from error nor to recognize it when it stands before them in naked purity. Thought they enter the presence of the All-Glorious; thought the Manifestation of Him Whom they affect to seek is before them and the Face of the Mighty One in all its beauty looks into their face, yet are they blind and see not. Their eyes behold not their Beloved; their hands touch not the hem of His robe. Though every utterance of His contains a thousand and a thousand mysteries, none understands, none heeds. He made the human heart to be His dwelling place; but it is given to another. Among His own on earth He is homeless. Nay more, His own heap on him persecutions. The dove of holiness is imprisoned in the claws of owls. The everlasting candle is beset by the blasts of earth. The world’s darkness gathers about the Celestial Youth. The people of tyranny wrong Love’s King of Kings. The angels weep at the spectacle; lamentation fills the heaven of heavens; but men glory in their shame and esteem their impiety a sign of their loyalty to God’s cause.

In His mercy and compassion, God leaves them not to self-destruction. Sternly but lovingly He upbraids them, He warns them. He summons them from the couch of heedlessness to the field of endeavor and heroic adventure. He demands of them a faith and courage that will dare the utmost in His service, a fortitude that will endure serenely every calamity, a devotion that will rejoice in tribulation and in death itself for the Beloved’s sake.

He gives them counsel upon counsel. With definiteness and force He shows what God expects of His lovers. The toils and perils of the Homeward Way are many and grievous; but true love will overcome them all and be grateful for afflictions through which it can prove its strength. None can set out upon this journey unless his heart is single and his affections are centered without reserve on God. If he would see God’s beauty he must be blind to all other beauty. If he would hear God’s word, he must stop his ear to all else. If he would attain to the knowledge of God he must put aside all other learning. If he would love God he will turn away from himself; if he would seek God’s pleasure he will forget his own. So complete will be his devotion that he will yield up all for the dear sake of God and welcome with longing the martyr’s death.

Earth has a thousand ties to bind men from their God: envy, pride, indolence, ambition, covetousness, the habit of detraction, the ascription to others of what one would not like to have ascribed to oneself. Against such things as these He warns all who wish to reach the bourne of Love, bids them keep ever before them the rule of Justice (“the best beloved of all things God’s sight”), and every day to bring themselves to account ere the opportunities given here on earth are snatched from them for ever by the hand of death.

He reminds them of the treasures He has laid up for those who are faithful to the end. Upon the sacred tree of glory He has hung the fairest fruits and has prepared everlasting rest in the garden of eternal delight. Sweet is that holy ecstasy, glorious that domain. Imperishable sovereignty awaits them there, and in the joy of reunion they will mirror forth the beauty of God Himself and become the revelation of His immortal splendor.

Now in this age, He declares, yet greater rewards and ampler powers are vouchsafed to mankind than in time gone by. God’s favor is complete, His proof manifest, His evidence established. He has opened in the heavenly heights a new garden, a new degree of nearness to God. Whoso attains thereto, for him the flowers of that garden will breathe the sweet mysteries of love, for him its fruits will yield the secrets of divine and consummate wisdom.

Yet even in this great day of revelation the fulness of God’s ultimate being has not been uttered. So much has been said as the will of the Most High permits: and no more. What has been set forth is measured by man’s capacity to understand it. God’s true estate and the sweetness of His voice remain undivulged.

How strange and pitiful that in the East the warmth of heart and breadth of mind of him who wrote this little book should have brought on him the relentless hate of the priests of his land. Born the heir of an ancient and noble family of Persia and endowed with vast wealth, he was through priestly envy deprived of all his possessions, driven into exile, chained, tortured and at last consigned to a life-imprisonment in the city of ‘Akká, a gaol reserved for the lowest criminals of the Ottoman Empire and reputed so pestilential that the birds of the air fell dead as they flew over it.

Strange, too, that this devotional volume, so beautiful in its thought and also (it is said) in the classic purity of its style, should never have drawn to itself the attention of an English scholar and should remain after seventy years unknown to the religion and the culture of the West.