By Shahrzad Sabet

Shahrzad Sabet is Co-Director of the Center on Modernity in Transition (COMIT) and a Fellow at the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. A political scientist, her research spans a variety of disciplines including philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and economics. Her current book project proposes a reimagined universalism that reconciles the oneness and the diversity of humankind. She has held positions at Princeton University, the University of Maryland, and Harvard University, where she received her PhD.

 

Humanity is gripped by a crisis of identity, as various peoples and groups struggle to define themselves, their place in the world, and how they should act. Without a vision of shared identity and common purpose, they fall into competing ideologies and power struggles. Seemingly countless permutations of “us” and “them” define group identities ever more narrowly and in contrast to one another. Over time, this splintering into divergent interest groups has weakened the cohesion of society itself.1Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of the World, 18 January 2019. On humanity’s crisis of identity and the principle of human oneness, see also: Universal House of Justice, letter to the Followers of Bahá’u’lláh in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1 November 2022.

—The Universal House of Justice

 

The “crisis of identity” described by the Universal House of Justice is one of the defining features of the present moment. Questions of identity and belonging have surged to prominence in recent years, finding expression in virtually every aspect of collective life. As the forces of our decidedly global age challenge the boundaries, both literal and figurative, that define group identities, the secure sense of belonging these identities have traditionally supplied is increasingly frustrated or lost, resulting in confusion, insecurity, conflict, and ever more forceful assertions of difference. Paradoxically, even as the need for a deeply felt sense of human oneness has grown more obvious, categories of “us” and “them” have multiplied and become more salient around the globe.

Confronted with humanity’s crisis of identity, some thinkers have proposed the reimagination of national identity. A newly enlightened and capaciously inclusive form of nationalism, they suggest, can provide a shared context of belonging within which various narrower identities and attachments can be reconciled.2For example, see: Amy Chua, Political Tribes: Group Instincts and the Fate of Nations (New York: Penguin Press, 2018); Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018); Mark Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal (New York: Harper, 2017); Yascha Mounk, The Great Experiment: Why Diverse Democracies Fall Apart and What We Can Do About It (New York: Penguin Press, 2022). But solutions rooted in national identity, or in other familiar concepts such as liberal democracy, are struggling to resolve the crisis.

From the perspective of the Bahá’í teachings, the solution to our crisis of identity lies in the genuine and deeply felt recognition of human oneness. Specifically, the Bahá’í writings suggest that only a collective identity3As social psychologists explain, identity is a (self-)categorization that holds significant emotional meaning, typically entailing thick ties of empathy, solidarity, belonging, and love. Ties of identity thus differ from other, more cerebral or emotionally thin bonds of universal human connection such as those that might result, for example, from a rational commitment to the equal moral worth of all persons. See Monroe, K. R., Hankin, J., & Van Vechten, R.B. (2000). The psychological foundations of identity politics. The Annual Review of Political Science, 3(1), 419-447. 2000. rooted in the oneness of humankind can resolve our present crisis and fundamentally relieve the various long-standing tensions that surround it. The previously cited passage from Universal House of Justice goes on to elaborate this point:

“Rival conceptions about the primacy of a particular people are peddled to the exclusion of the truth that humanity is on a common journey in which all are protagonists. Consider how radically different such a fragmented conception of human identity is from the one that follows from a recognition of the oneness of humanity. In this perspective, the diversity that characterizes the human family, far from contradicting its oneness, endows it with richness. Unity, in its Bahá’í expression, contains the essential concept of diversity, distinguishing it from uniformity. It is through love for all people, and by subordinating lesser loyalties to the best interests of humankind, that the unity of the world can be realized and the infinite expressions of human diversity find their highest fulfilment.”4Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of the World, 18 January 2019. On humanity’s crisis of identity and the principle of human oneness, see also: Universal House of Justice, letter to the Followers of Bahá’u’lláh in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1 November 2022.

The notions of identity and human oneness reflected in this passage, and indeed throughout the Bahá’í writings, present a radical departure from the way these concepts are frequently understood in contemporary thought and discourse. Many prominent conceptions of our shared humanity, and in particular, those that emerge from the predominant intellectual frameworks of the West, are widely deemed homogenizing. They are also critiqued for being too far removed from the texture of everyday life to hold any relevance for the communities and relationships to which people immediately belong. The Bahá’í teachings offer a different vision. Far from threatening or contradicting the essential diversity of humankind, the Bahá’í writings suggest that a universal human identity is uniquely equipped to ensure the fundamental security and flourishing of our particular (i.e., narrower) identities, communities, and affiliations. This article considers why and how the Bahá’í expression of human oneness resolves both the collective crisis of identity we currently face and the long-assumed tension between the oneness and the diversity of humankind.

 

Humanity’s Crisis of Identity: Two Underlying Tensions

It would be helpful to begin by more closely examining the crisis itself. Two long standing tensions, or apparent contradictions, underlie humanity’s crisis of identity and complicate its resolution.

The first tension pertains directly to the nature of traditional group identities5In this article, the terms “group identity,” “collective identity,” “social identity,” and “identity” are used interchangeably. See footnote 3 for a brief explanation of what identity entails. themselves. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum explains in reference to the two-faced Roman god of duality, collective identities are “Janus-faced”: they are characterized by two contrasting aspects in chronic tension.6M. C. Nussbaum, “Toward a globally sensitive patriotism,” Daedalus 137, no. 3 (2008): 78-79. On the one hand, our traditional “bounded” identities—that is, identities that include some and exclude others—are deeply susceptible to instability, conflict, and destructiveness. Whether in the dividing lines of contemporary society or in the most catastrophic injustices of human history, collective identities can reveal an exceedingly ugly face. Observing the tensions that surround group identities, the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah declares them “horsemen of the apocalypses from apartheid to genocide.”7K. A. Appiah, The lies that bind: Rethinking identity (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018), xvi.

On the other hand, the diversity embodied in our bounded social identities is vital. At the aggregate level, various forms of diversity are essential to the strength, stability, and flourishing of social systems.8For example: A. L. Antonio, et al., “Effects of racial diversity on complex thinking in college students,” Psychological Science 15, no. 8 (2004): 507-510; F. Arbab, “Promoting a discourse on science, religion, and development,” in The lab, the temple, and the market: Reflections at the intersection of science, religion, and development, ed. S. Harper (Ottawa: International Development Research Center, 2000), 149-237. Shared identities, furthermore, bind us together in social and moral enterprises, providing a basis for community, collective action, and mutual support. At a more personal and subjective level, our particular experiences and perspectives constitute important parts of our self-concept as human beings: they legitimately yearn for recognition, inclusion, and expression.

This dual nature of collective identity is also suggested in the Bahá’í writings. Shoghi Effendi, for instance, distinguishes unbridled nationalism from a “sane and legitimate patriotism,”9Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah. Available at www.bahai.org/r/895919188 and the Universal House of Justice describes “a love of one’s country that cannot be manipulated” and that “enriches one’s life.”10Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran, 2 March 2013. Universal House of Justice, letter to the World’s Religious Leaders, April 2002. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá makes this duality more explicit. “[D]ifferences, He writes, “are of two kinds. One is the cause of annihilation and is like the antipathy existing among warring nations and conflicting tribes who seek each other’s destruction … The other kind, which is a token of diversity, is the essence of perfection …”11‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Available at www.bahai.org/r/583780535

These two sides of our traditional bounded identities leave them in a state of chronic tension and instability which has, to date, stubbornly evaded resolution. Social identities are perpetually vulnerable to destructiveness and conflict. And yet, we cannot live without them.

The tension that characterizes bounded identities is amplified by their relationship to forces and movements that are unbounded. Economic globalization in its various forms, the heightened ease of transborder communication, the growing universality of our moral intuitions, the expanding consciousness of human oneness and interdependence more broadly, not to mention the countless interdependencies that propagated a deadly virus across the globe, are all widely thought to threaten the security of our traditional identities and affiliations.12W. Brown, Walled states, waning sovereignty (Brooklyn, NY: Zone Books, 2010); C. Kinnvall “Globalization and religious nationalism: Self, identity, and the Search for ontological security,” Political Psychology 25, no. 5 (2004): 741-767. Put differently: the legitimate yearning for rootedness and belonging is challenged by the porousness, fluidity, and expanded consciousness of an increasingly global age. The insecurity induced by these “universalizing” forces thus results in a more acutely felt yearning for the sense of rootedness traditional identities provide, as well as in the related impulse to bolster the security of these identities by sharpening the boundaries that define them. In other words, as our shared consciousness of the physical, social, moral, and economic space we inhabit as human beings is stretched to include the entire planet, humanity’s collective ambivalence toward its bounded identities both intensifies and becomes increasingly expressed in a second, broader tension between the universal and the particular—between the pull of bounded identities and attachments, on the one hand, and that of universalist forces and aspirations, on the other. This stubborn tension has led the political philosopher Seyla Benhabib to conclude, “Our fate, as late-modern individuals, is to live caught in the permanent tug of war between the vision of the universal and the attachments to the particular.”13S. Benhabib, The rights of others: Aliens, residents and citizens, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 16.

At the heart of humanity’s crisis of identity, therefore, lies a key question: Can humanity’s fundamental oneness be reconciled with its essential diversity? And can such a reconciliation be achieved at the deepest levels of human identity and meaning? The answer proclaimed in the Bahá’í writings, as we have seen, is unequivocally affirmative: it is through the deeply felt recognition of human oneness that the diversity of humankind thrives and finds its highest fulfillment. Why might an identity rooted in the oneness of humankind be uniquely equipped to protect and promote its diversity?

 

Unique Features of an Identity Rooted in the Oneness of Humankind

To begin answering this question, I suggest that a collective identity genuinely rooted in the oneness of humankind is qualitatively different than every other social identity because of at least two distinguishing features. These unique features, in turn, enable a universal human identity to stabilize and empower14Of course, not all identities—and certainly not every aspect of every identity—should be preserved or empowered. Identities (or aspects of them) that cannot be reconciled with the principle of human oneness (for instance, those rooted in racial superiority or in some other form of antagonism toward others) must ultimately be abandoned. On this important point, see also footnotes 32 and 48 below. our particular identities in ways that other overarching affiliations—nationality, for example—cannot.

The first feature that distinguishes an identity rooted in the oneness of humankind is rather obviously that it is non-exclusionary. Insofar as human beings and their communities are concerned, an identity genuinely rooted in our common humanity has no bounds of exclusion or parameters of otherness; it literally has no “other.”15What I wish to do in this article is to move away from the defensive posture that cosmopolitan theorists and other proponents of universalism often take to refute objections, and instead, lean into the notion of non-exclusion to identify its implications. Much has been written to question the possibility and meaningfulness of such a collective identity and, at a theoretical level at least, this skepticism has been ably addressed elsewhere. See, for example, A. Abizadeh, “Does collective identity presuppose and other? On the alleged incoherence of global solidarity,” American Political Science Review 99, no. 1 ,(2000): 45-60. This stands in contrast to all traditional social identities which, by definition, have outsiders, and are thus inescapably bounded and exclusionary.

I hasten to note that a non-exclusionary human identity need not cast humanity in opposition to non-human life on the planet, nor must it entail a sharp separation of human beings from their physical environment, precluding, for instance, the notion that we share a type of oneness with our ecosystem(s).16For an illuminating discussion of this topic, see P. Hanley, Eleven, (Victoria, Canada: Friesen Press, 2014), especially Chapter 12. Indeed, a genuinely non-exclusionary human identity should lead to a deeper appreciation of our broader interdependence, rather than to a destructive anthropocentricism, which is often an expression of the very same attitudes and predispositions that animate the exclusion, oppression, and destruction of human life on the planet.17Hanley, Eleven, 280. See also: Akeel Bilgrami, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014), Chapter 5.

The second distinguishing feature of a genuinely universal human identity pertains to the nature of the commonality on which it is based. Consider that, as scientific studies widely confirm, virtually all other group identities are ultimately socially constructed.18W.C. Byrd, et al, “Biological determinism and racial essentialism: The ideological double helix of racial inequality,” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 661, no. 1 (2015): 8-22. This is not to say, of course, that these identities are not real, whether in their objective, material consequences, or in humanity’s subjective experience and valuation of them. It is to observe, rather, that the commonalities in which they are grounded are contingent (i.e., dependent) on a range of social constructs and impermanent socio-historical phenomena, for example, on fluid beliefs about social and biological reality, on the frequently contested details of history, on socially constructed parameters of membership, and tragically, on shared experiences of oppression and injustice.19Given its biological distinctions, one might object that an identity based on gender is an exception to this observation. But a very large proportion of what constitutes gender—our ideas about what different genders are, and how members of each should behave and feel, for example—is socially constructed. As the Universal House of Justice writes in a letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran dated 2 March 2013: “The rational soul has no gender or race, ethnicity or class…” For a related discussion, see also: Appiah, The lies that bind, Chapter 1. In this sense, then, the contingency of other collective identities is inescapable.

Strikingly, more than a hundred years ago, when the socially constructed nature of humanity’s dividing lines was far from obvious, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made these observations explicit. As he explained, “These boundaries and distinctions are human and artificial, not natural and original.”20‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Foundations of World Unity, 23. And elsewhere: “Religions, races, and nations are all divisions of man’s making only …”21‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, 131. Indeed, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá elaborated on the inherent contingency and impermanence of the various identities and affiliations that traditionally bind human beings together:

“In the contingent world there are many collective centers which are conducive to association and unity between the children of men. For example, patriotism is a collective center; nationalism is a collective center; identity of interests is a collective center; political alliance is a collective center; the union of ideals is a collective center, and the prosperity of the world of humanity is dependent upon the organization and promotion of the collective centers. Nevertheless, all the above institutions are, in reality, the matter and not the substance, accidental and not eternal—temporary and not everlasting. With the appearance of great revolutions and upheavals, all these collective centers are swept away.”22‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of the Divine Place, 14: Tablet to the Bahá’ís of the United States and Canada.

Drawing on the Bahá’í writings, this article posits that, in contrast to the necessarily contingent basis of all other identities, the basis of a universal human identity need not be socially constructed or contingent. Such an identity, rather, can be rooted in the non-contingent and ultimately investigable reality of human oneness.

This second unique and distinguishing feature of an identity authentically rooted in the oneness of humankind I will call its non-contingency. Specifically, by positing that the basis of a genuinely universal human identity is non-contingent, I take for granted first, that there is something distinctive and non-contingent that only and all human beings have in common;23As this article later discusses, the Baha’i writings offer a spiritual understanding of this human commonality, recognizing it as the human soul. and, second, that the expressions of this human commonality or “core”—expressions in the form, for example, of common yearnings, vulnerabilities, and experiences—are such that human beings, whatever their particular context, can come to recognize that a distinctive and non-contingent human commonality exists.24For the argument that follows to hold, a third premise is also needed, namely, that human beings are able to readily recognize the humanness of another without a widely articulated consensus on the content of our humanity. In other words, there is, or there can be, a reasonably widespread intuitive consensus about who falls within the community of human beings. ,25It is worth highlighting an important distinction between the non-contingent basis of a human collective identity (posited above) and the empirically contingent process whereby any social identity, including a universal one, is formed. To posit that a collective human identity can be rooted in a set of features that are not contingent on socio-historical constructs is not to say that the process through which such an identity emerges and becomes expressed—the process whereby we come to recognize and articulate our oneness and interdependence as human beings, for example, or the process that finally exposes our need for an identity based on this recognition—is not socially, materially, and historically contingent. Indeed, it is precisely the empirical conditions of our time, and the surge of historically contingent forces that shape them, which make the recognition of such a collective identity possible.

Not every possible basis of unbounded human affiliation will meet the criteria of genuine (or authentic) non-contingency. The article returns to this point in various ways below, especially when it considers what constitutes a genuinely non-contingent basis for collective identity from the Bahá’í perspective.

The sections that immediately follow, however, aim to show that when taken together, the two distinguishing features of a universal social identity posited above—that is, its non-exclusionary and potentially non-contingent basis—carry deep and far-reaching implications.

 

A Source of Fundamental Security

What implications follow from the non-exclusionary and non-contingent basis of a collective identity authentically rooted in the oneness of humankind? Consider first that these two features of a universal human identity can yield parameters of inclusion that are immovably all-inclusive—in other words, that are thoroughly stable and safe. In contrast, bounded and contingently grounded identities have parameters of membership that are inherently unstable. Because the boundaries of such identities are exclusionary (by definition, there are outsiders), and because they are contingent and fluid (they are socially constructed and therefore subject to reconstruction), their parameters of belonging are intrinsically susceptible to contestation, redefinition, exclusion, and othering. This threat of exclusion, of course, can come from without (i.e., othering of and by non-members). But significantly, it also comes from within. When parameters of inclusion are intrinsically bounded and contingent, the question of “who belongs?” can never be fully closed: today’s insiders can be cast as outsiders tomorrow. The instability of intergroup relations is thus augmented by the potential precariousness of in-group membership. The current discourse and political rhetoric surrounding many national identities helps illustrate this point. As the narrative of a national identity is recontested and retold, so too are its parameters of otherness redrawn: “Who counts as ‘real’ national and who doesn’t?” has become a strikingly unstable question in recent years, even in long-consolidated nations and democracies.

Thus, when parameters of inclusion are bounded and the basis of belonging contingent, the possibility of external threat is never fully eliminated and one’s claim to internal membership is never fully stable. Only a collective identity that is both genuinely non-exclusionary and non-contingently grounded—that is, an identity rooted in the genuine recognition of human oneness—can deliver a context of fundamental security: one belongs because one is human, full stop.26Identity and security are deeply intertwined concepts across a vast spectrum of disciplines and discourses, including political philosophy and contemporary public discourse. In philosophy, for instance, Charles Taylor’s influential discussion of identity and recognition emphasizes the guarantee of a secure feeling of permanence and continuity, while Avishai Margalit and Joseph Raz argue that the value to one’s identity of membership in a national group is the provision of a sense of security. In another prominent example, Nussbaum worries that the removal of local boundaries might leave “a life bereft of a certain sort of warmth and security.” The link between identity and security also finds concrete expression in many examples of contemporary politics and social unrest. The political rhetoric around “walls” and “wall building” in the United States, which was overwhelmingly articulated in relation to anxieties over collective identity and belonging, is but one recent example. The close connection between social identity and a feeling of security also has deep roots in the study of psychology. One of the key functions of a social identity, according to psychologists, is to satisfy the need for security. See: C. Taylor, “The politics of recognition,” in Multiculturalism: Examining the politics of recognition, ed. A. Gutmann, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994), 25-74; A. Margalit, et al, “National self-determination,” The Journal of Philosophy 87, no. 9 (1990): 439-461; M. C. Nussbaum, “Patriotism and cosmopolitanism,” Boston Review, October/November (1994); E. H. Erikson, Childhood and society, (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1950); A. Giddens, Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern Age, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991).

The distinctive characteristics of a universal human identity, therefore, reveal the possibility of a collective identity that is not only itself uniquely invulnerable to instability and destructiveness, but that is also uniquely equipped to relieve the insecurity and potential destructiveness of all other shared identities and affiliations. In other words, only a collective identity rooted in the oneness of humankind has the potential to deliver a stabilizing context of fundamental security to our particular—and otherwise unstable—group identities.

Empirical research in psychology suggests and substantiates this proposition in notable ways. Two threads of this research are briefly highlighted here. The first shows that a feeling of security (and conversely, the feeling or perception of threat) plays a critical role in constituting the context and nature of intergroup relations. Specifically, a substantial body of research finds that “felt security” relieves intergroup hostility, yielding a posture of empathy, care, and openness to out-groups,27O. Gillath, et al, “Attachment, caregiving, and volunteering: Placing volunteerism in an attachment theoretical framework,” Personal Relationships 12, no. 4 (2005): 425-446; M. Mikulincer, et al, “Attachment theory and reactions to others’ needs: Evidence that activation of the sense of attachment security promotes empathic responses,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 81, no. 1 (2001): 1205-24; M. Mikulincer, et al, “Attachment theory and concern for others’ welfare: evidence that activation of the sense of secure base promotes endorsement of self-transcendence values,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology 25, no. 4 (2003): 299-312; M. Mikulincer, et al, “Attachment, caregiving, and altruism: Boosting attachment security increases compassion and helping,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 89, no. 5 (2005): 817-839. while “felt threat” increases intergroup hostility and conflict.28For example: M. B. Brewer, “The importance of being we: Human nature and intergroup relations,” American Psychologist 62, no. 8 (2007): 728-738; M. B. Brewer, et al, “An evolutionary perspective on social identity: Revisiting groups,” in Evolution and social psychology, eds. M. Schaller, et al, (Madison, CT: Psychology Press, 2006), 143-161; L. Huddy, “From group identity to political cohesion and commitment,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, eds. L. Huddy, et al, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 737-773; D. R. Kinder, “Prejudice and politics,” in The Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, eds. L. Huddy, et al, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 812-851. See also: L. S. Richman, et al, “Reactions to discrimination, stigmatization, ostracism, and other forms of interpersonal rejection: A multimotive model,” Psychological Review 116, no. 2 (2009): 365-383; J. M. Twenge, et al, “Social exclusion decreases prosocial behavior,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 92, no. 1 (2007): 56-66; W.A.Warburton, et al, “When ostracism leads to aggression: The moderating effects of control deprivation,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 42, no. 2 (2006): 213-220. Thus, a sense of security is conducive to more caring and empathic relations with those who hold different bounded identities.

A second thread of evidence powerfully complements the first by suggesting that identifying with the humanity of others is associated with markedly higher levels of felt security. For example, in her analysis of in-depth interviews with Nazi supporters, bystanders, and rescuers of Jews during the Holocaust, the political psychologist Kristen Monroe found that those who conceived of themselves first and foremost as part of all humankind29K. R. Monroe, Heart of altruism: Perception of a common humanity, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996). K. R. Monroe, The hand of compassion: portraits of moral choice during the holocaust, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006). experienced distinctively higher levels of felt security.30K. R. Monroe, Ethics in an age of terror and genocide: Identity and moral choice, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012). In this study, the rescuers manifested heightened levels of ontological security, while Nazi supporters fell on the other end of the felt security spectrum. It is notable that those who identified with the whole of humankind did so in a deep and profoundly felt way. They shared, in other words, a decidedly thick universal identity. Monroe’s extensive study thus also provides evidence of the empirical possibility of an affectively rich and deeply internalized universal identity. Studies employing different methods offer consistent results. Brain imaging in neuropsychology, for example, reveals that the amygdala—a part of the brain that plays a central role in the experience of fear and aggression—becomes highly active when the average subject is shown faces from different races. But when subjects are first primed to think of people as individual human beings rather than as members of groups, the amygdala does not react.31For example: M.E. Wheeler, S. T. Fiske, et al, “Controlling racial prejudice: social-cognitive goals affect amygdala and stereotype activation,” Psychol Sci. 16, no. 1 (2005): 56-63.

These two threads of empirical research thus suggest that identifying with the oneness of humankind is associated with a greater sense of security, and that a sense of security relieves intergroup hostility and yields a posture of empathy, care, altruism, and openness toward out-groups.

Taken together, these empirical findings begin to substantiate the implications drawn logically from the inclusiveness and non-contingency of a universal source of belonging. An identity based on the essential oneness of humankind detaches bounded identities from the threat of rejection, humiliation, and domination that has forever shadowed them, and from notions of superiority and inferiority that have stubbornly fueled these threats. In other words, by transforming the overarching frame in which difference is situated and perceived—by resituating our particular identities within parameters of inclusion that are thoroughly safe, immovable, and all-inclusive—a universal identity has the potential to fundamentally relieve the seemingly inherent instabilities of our particular attachments, and to resolve the chronic tension or duality that we observed at the outset. An all-encompassing identity can thus deliver the context of genuine and enduring security that has long eluded our bounded social identities.32To be clear, nothing in this argument should be taken to suggest that bounded cultures and identities must remain static or unchanging. To the contrary, a context of deep, all-pervasive security allows our particular cultures and identities to freely change and evolve without causing the feelings of insecurity and threat that often accompany such change. See also footnotes 14 and 48.

 

Beyond Security: Liberating the Particular

The preceding section developed the case that an identity authentically rooted in the oneness of humankind provides a context of fundamental security, stabilizing the tensions that have long shadowed our bounded identities. The implications of a genuinely universal collective identity, however, go beyond just relieving particular identities of their destructive and destabilizing potential. What a context of deep, all-pervasive security delivers is not merely a stable equilibrium of peaceful coexistence, but rather, optimal conditions for the vibrancy and flourishing of particular identities, and of human diversity more broadly.

The idea here might be put this way: when the cost and encumbrance of insecurity and its associated protective measures are removed, on the one hand, and when an open and empathic posture toward difference becomes pervasive, on the other, then uninhibited, constructive, and creative expressions of the particular from all sides become much more probable and robust. In a context of fundamental security, goals of survival and collective self-protection can give way to more generative and constructive goals. In other words, through the felt security and certainty of belonging that an identity rooted in human oneness provides, other identities find not only protection—from their own instability and from the threat of other groups—but also liberation or release from the constraining weight that a context of latent threat has imposed on the expression of their potential. Thus, the deeply internalized consciousness of the oneness of humanity frees our bounded identities both from the threats of instability, hostility, and oppression that have stubbornly shadowed them, and from the countless safeguards and constraints that have been devised to keep these instabilities in check. Far from stifling the diversity of humankind, a reimagined universal human identity can furnish a powerful lubricant for the free expression of diversity on newly constituted terms.

Notably, the relationship between freedom and the recognition of human oneness is emphasized and elaborated in various ways throughout the Bahá’í writings. In one passage, for example, Bahá’u’lláh writes, “If the learned and worldly-wise men of this age were to allow mankind to inhale the fragrance of fellowship and love, every understanding heart would apprehend the meaning of true liberty.…”33Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, 162. In another tablet, Bahá’u’lláh explains more explicitly that “true liberty” will be achieved when identification with and love for the whole of humankind is realized in people’s consciousness.34Bahá’u’lláh, Amr va Khalq Volume 3, 472. Translations from the Persian are by the author and provisional. See also: Nader Saiedi, Logos and Civilization: Spirit, History, and Order in the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh (Lanham, MD: University Press of Maryland, 2000), 327-328. It is noteworthy that, in that passage, Bahá’u’lláh also characterizes the achievement of such an identity as “the ornament of utmost tranquility,” further associating universal human identity with a sense of fundamental security and freedom.

What comes into focus, then, is a radical and somewhat counterintuitive vision of human oneness that directly addresses the tension between the universal and the particular. The Baha’i writings suggest that it is by liberating the particular through the universal—by releasing, in other words, the particular from the insecurities, instabilities, and oppressive relationships that have constrained it—that a fundamental and enduring resolution emerges.35For a discussion of how this resolution compares to those that have been devised by some contemporary political theorists, see Shahrzad Sabet, “Social Identity and a Reimagined Cosmopolitanism” (paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Midwest Political Science Association, 17 April 2021). Paradoxically, it is by leaning fully into a genuine and emotionally rich universalism that the particular thrives, flourishes, and fulfills its potential. Thus, and as the opening passage from the Universal House of Justice indicates, it is through the deeply felt recognition of our fundamental oneness that the infinite expressions of human diversity thrive and find their highest fulfillment.36Pursuing the logic of this argument further also illuminates the reciprocal and mutually dependent relationship between unity and diversity, and the assertion of the Universal House of Justice that “Unity, in its Bahá’í expression, contains the essential concept of diversity, distinguish ing it from uniformity.” Put briefly, a context of oneness not only facilitates the expression of the particular and the fulfilment of its distinctive potential, but the liberated expression of the particular, in turn, ensures that the emergent form of oneness is not uniformity, but rather, unity—that is, the close integration of diverse components which have transcended the narrow purpose of ensuring their own existence and found their highest fulfillment in relation to the whole.

 

Critiques of Universalism and the Distinctiveness of the Bahá’í View

The notions of identity and human oneness reflected in preceding sections present a significant departure from the way these concepts are frequently understood in contemporary thought and discourse, particularly in the contemporary discourses of the West. One of the most powerful and pervasive critiques of universalism—and of a collective identity rooted in the oneness of humankind, in particular—is that it poses a threat to diversity. Skeptics worry that, along a variety of dimensions (e.g., identity, language, culture, geography, institutions, etc.), the ideal of human oneness carries an inherent risk of uniformity. This homogeneity, they further worry, tends to project dominant cultures and identities, and is often propagated through (neo-)imperialistic processes.37O. Dahbour, Self-Determination without nationalism: A theory of postnational sovereignty, (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012); A. Kolers, Land, conflict, and justice: A political theory of territory, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009); Farah Godrej, Cosmopolitan Political Thought: Method, Practice, Discipline, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). The Bahá’í writings, as we have seen, envision a radically different possibility. The concept of oneness that emerges from these writings is not uniformity, but rather, a notion of unity that “contains the essential concept of diversity.” This conception of oneness is also strikingly embodied in the practice of the Bahá’í community. Across the globe, the Bahá’í principle of the oneness of humankind is actively expressed in worldwide community-building efforts that are explicitly “outward looking”38Universal House of Justice, letter to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors, 30 December 2021.: they are, by definition, open to the full diversity of human beings, including those with other or no religious beliefs.

Another prominent critique of universalism reflects the notion that ideas rooted in our common humanity are overly abstract and disconnected from the concrete texture of everyday experience. While universalist visions might be relevant to questions of directly global or transnational concern (e.g., global governance, “global” poverty, etc.), their relevance to the relationships, neighborhoods, and communities to which people immediately belong is unclear or remote. This is especially true, the argument goes, where collective identity is concerned. In contrast to the intimacy and warmth offered by our traditional group identities, a universal human identity entails a rational commitment to the cold and distant abstraction of human oneness. From this perspective, an identity rooted in the oneness of humankind is too far removed from the texture of everyday life and experience to deliver the color, warmth, meaning, and locality that our other identities provide. A variation on this critique is the now-popularized charge of elitism: if a global, universal, or “cosmopolitan” identity works for anyone, we are told (and can vividly imagine), it works for a small, out-of-touch tribe of frequent-flying elites.39C. Calhoun, “‘Belonging’ in the cosmopolitan imaginary,” Ethnicities 3, no. 4 (2003): 531-568; M. Lerner, “Empires of reason,” Boston Review 19, no. 5 (1994); Nussbaum, “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism.”

The Bahá’í vision of oneness and identity also diverges markedly from this view. As the preceding sections have tried to show an identity genuinely rooted in the oneness of humankind transforms the overarching context in which all identities are expressed, reorienting identities and relationships at all levels of society. From the Bahá’í perspective, then, the domain of universalism does not lie exclusively beyond borders, nor is it some distant transnational space inaccessible to the masses. Its domain, rather, is everywhere: it is concrete, immediate, and ubiquitous, encompassing all the textured communities and identities human beings value, whether they hold international passports or not. In this view, the oneness of humankind finds expression as much in the particular, and as much within the bounds of local and national communities, as it does beyond them. Again, this conception of oneness is not only reflected in the writings of the Faith, but also, strikingly, in the practice and experience of the worldwide Bahá’í community across countless cultural settings. In the Bahá’í experience, a universal identity is both directly nourished by and expressed in a range of grassroots community-building efforts that are decidedly local in nature.40For an exploration of Bahá’í community-building efforts, please see the article “Community and Collective Action,” available in the Library.

A directly related and overlapping feature of the Bahá’í conception of human oneness—and of an identity rooted in the oneness of humanity, in particular—is the radical, thoroughgoing, and unprecedented nature of the transformation it entails. Unlike some notable conceptions of universalism, the Bahá’í principle of the oneness of humankind does not simply call for the “universalization” of existing identities, norms, and institutions.41The notable conceptions of universalism referred to here are primarily those that emerge from the school of thought known as “cosmopolitanism” in contemporary Western political theory. For a thorough comparison of contemporary cosmopolitan theory to a view derived from the Bahá’í writings , see Shahrzad Sabet, “Social Identity and a Reimagined Cosmopolitanism” (paper presented at the Annual Conference of the Midwest Political Science Association, 17 April 2021). For examples of contemporary Western cosmopolitan thought, see: C. R. Beitz, Political theory and international relations, second edition, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999); T. W. Pogge, Realizing Rawls, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989); D. Archibugi, The global commonwealth of citizens: Toward cosmopolitan democracy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008); D. Held, Democracy and the global order: From the modern state to cosmopolitan governance, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1995). It does not, for instance, entail the extension of existing national systems of governance and democracy to the entire globe; nor does it simply call for the expansion of existing schemes of domestic redistribution, or the replication of national collective identities in the global plane. Rather, the Bahá’í conception of the oneness of humanity represents a qualitatively distinct and transformative shift that permeates every level of society, fundamentally reorienting all identities and relationships, and transforming all structures of society. As the Universal House of Justice writes, “the principle of the oneness of humankind, as proclaimed by Bahá’u’lláh, asks not merely for cooperation among people and nations. It calls for a complete reconceptualization of the relationships that sustain society.”42Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran, 2 March 2013. Similarly, this principle “has widespread implications which affect and remold all dimensions of human activity.”43Universal House of Justice, letter to an individual, 24 January 1994.

In other words, far from merely reflecting a linear and incremental expansion of scope from the national to global sphere, the deeply felt recognition of humanity’s oneness represents a fundamentally different and qualitatively unprecedented step in the evolution of humankind. In reference to the revolutionary changes that led to the unification of nations, for example, Shoghi Effendi writes, “Great and far-reaching as have been those changes in the past, they cannot appear, when viewed in their proper perspective, except as subsidiary adjustments preluding that transformation of unparalleled majesty … which humanity is in this age bound to undergo.”44Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, 45. Elsewhere, he explains that the principle of the oneness of humankind implies “a change such that the world has not yet experienced,” “a new gospel, fundamentally different from … what the world has already conceived.”45Shoghi Effendi, World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, 42-43.

 

The Risk of False Universalisms

Of course, any proponent of the oneness of humankind must heed a critical warning: humanity shares a long and continuing history of oppressive ideas about the “human.”46For example, see: Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (New York: New York University Press, 2020); Walter D. Mignolo, “Who Speaks for the ‘Human’ in Human Rights?” Hispanic Issues On Line, Fall (2009): 7-24; Rinaldo Walcott, “Problem of The Human, or the Void of Relationality,” The Long Emancipation: Moving toward Black Freedom, (New York: Duke University Press, 2021), 55-58. Indeed, theorists of various kinds legitimately worry that casting our humanity in essentialist terms (i.e., taking for granted that our humanness is constituted by certain universal features, as the premise of non-contingency suggests) risks elevating a particular conception of the human over others, potentially marginalizing non-dominant experiences and opening the door to false, oppressive, and exclusionary ideas.

Adequately addressing these important concerns lies beyond the limited frame of this article. Here, I acknowledge the significance of these concerns and briefly highlight two points that might be developed in relation to them. First, recognizing that a non-contingent basis for a universal human identity exists—a recognition, it should be noted, that countless human beings readily and intuitively evince—does not require an immediate commitment to any particular, fixed, or rigid conception of our shared humanity. Of course, on a biological level, the truth that human beings constitute a single species is a basic fact that few people today deny, and which can serve as a starting point for the recognition of our shared humanity. But to arrive at a fuller and deeper common understanding of human oneness—one that can sustain a richly-conceived collective identity—a process of genuinely open, inclusive, and dynamic inquiry is required. By explicitly positing that the content or definition of a universal human identity must (minimally) include the recognition of its basis as non-exclusionary and non-contingent, we guard against false accounts of the human that violate these parameters—accounts, in other words, that exclude some human beings, or that render their humanity contingent and therefore questionable.47The validity of this point depends on the third premise described in footnote 23, namely, that human beings are able to readily recognize the humanness of another without a widely articulated consensus on the content of our humanity. Or put differently, there is, or could be, a reasonably widespread intuitive consensus about who falls within the community of human beings. This particular formulation of a collective human identity thus creates a safe and stable set of parameters within which genuine dialogue and inquiry into the content and expression of the human can take place.48It also creates a set of parameters within which particular identities and their various aspects can be examined. Not all identities—and certainly not every aspect of every identity—should be protected and empowered. The criteria of non-exclusion and non-contingency helps identify identities (or aspects of them) that cannot be reconciled with the principle of human oneness, and that must therefore be abandoned or recast.

A related point is suggested in the Bahá’í writings. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá proclaims, “[T]ruth or reality must be investigated; for reality is one, and by investigating it, all will find love and unity.”49Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 123. In another talk, He explains:

“The first teaching [of Bahá’u’lláh] is that man should investigate reality, for reality is contrary to dogmatic interpretations and imitations of ancestral forms of belief to which all nations and peoples adhere so tenaciously … Reality is one; and when found, it will unify all mankind … Reality is the oneness or solidarity of mankind … The second teaching of Bahá’u’lláh is the principle of the oneness of the world of humanity.”50Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 372.

Clearly, these passages assert the truth of the principle of the oneness of humankind. But by closely pairing that principle with the precept that human beings should actively investigate reality, the truth of human oneness is also rendered a testable hypothesis. Indeed, both the reality of human oneness, and ideas about the various forms and expressions it might take, are investigable propositions. The posture of free and independent investigation enjoined by the Bahá’í writings—that is, the principle that truth must be investigated free from the force of prevailing traditions, habits, and prejudices—both demands a critical interrogation of the (often oppressive) claims, structures, and relationships that bear the false imprint of universalism, and directly negates any assumption that universalism requires the imposition of a particular viewpoint or way of thought. In the Bahá’í view, a genuine recognition of the oneness of humankind can not only survive the free, open, and critical investigation of reality, but in fact, requires it. With the potential pitfalls of essentialism firmly in mind, but recognizing the transformative power that a genuine universalism could hold, the reality of human oneness might be regarded as a hypothesis that deserves the open, rigorous, and investigative posture that the Bahá’í teachings invite.51Relatedly, yet another critique of universalism claims that it threatens the diversity of thought that emerges from free and independent thinking. This critique might go as follows: the creation of national identities required, at best, a moderate manipulation of thought (through the invention and promotion of national mythologies, for example), and at worst, extreme suppressions of free and critical thinking (as in the case of totalitarian forms of nationalism). How much more of this manipulation and suppression would be needed, this critique asks, to bind the whole of humanity, with all its differences, in a collective identity? When we begin, however, from the premise that, unlike nationality, a universal identity need not be socially constructed, a different light is shed on the objection that the consciousness of human oneness depends on the curtailment of free and independent investigation. If one accepts, even as a hypothesis, that human oneness has a non-contingent basis, it follows that a genuinely free and critical investigation of reality—a commitment to truth and truth-seeking—could strengthen the possibility of a deeply internalized universal human identity, not undermine it. See also Nader Saiedi, “The Birth of the Human Being: Beyond Religious Traditionalism and Materialist Modernity,” The Journal of Bahá’í Studies 21, no. 1-4 (2011), 1-28.

 

A Spiritual Conception of Human Oneness and the Ongoing Learning of the Bahá’í Community

Drawing insights from the Bahá’í writings, and engaging prominent strands of contemporary thought and discourse, this article has developed the case that the solution to our collective crisis of identity lies in the genuine and deeply felt recognition of the oneness of humankind. But as the preceding section suggests, important questions remain: What might constitute the content—that is, the non-contingent basis—of a universal human collective identity? Can such an identity take shape and find expression across the vast spectrum of human diversity? And if so, how?

In this connection, the experience of the Bahá’í community and its grassroots community-building efforts present a potentially fruitful case for study. Bahá’í communities, the Universal House of Justice explains, define themselves “above all … by their commitment to the oneness of humanity.”52Universal House of Justice, letter to all who have come to honour the Herald of a new DawnOctober 2019. Significantly, for the Bahá’í community, this recognition of human oneness is a fundamental and defining feature of identity. It is a meaningful and deeply internalized commitment, entailing thick, emotionally rich bonds of genuine solidarity and love.53For a further discussion of why thick bonds of human identity might be highly hospitable to diversity, see Shahrzad Sabet, “Toward a New Universalism,” The Hedgehog Review Online, December 2020. Bahá’ís consciously strive to manifest a love that extends “without restriction to every human being”54Universal House of Justice, letter to the Bahá’ís of the United States, 22 July 2020. and to achieve “a sense of identity as members of a single human race, an identity that shapes the purpose of their lives …”55One Common Faith (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 2005), 44.

As alluded to earlier, the radical vision of human oneness that motivates this identity also shapes the practice and experience of the Bahá’í community in important and potentially illuminating ways. First, the Bahá’í expression of unity contains the essential concept of diversity. Second and relatedly, the Bahá’í concept of oneness finds powerful expression in the local and the particular: it assumes a deep confluence between a universal human identity, on the one hand, and a deeply felt sense of local community and belonging, on the other. As such, the Bahá’í principle of the oneness of humankind is actively and systematically expressed in local community-building processes open to the full spectrum of human diversity56In a letter dated 1 November 2022, the Universal House of Justice urges Bahá’ís to demonstrate “that vital Bahá’í attitude of being truly outward looking, sincerely open to all, and resolutely inclusive.” and extending to every corner of the planet. Around the globe, Bahá’ís—and all who wish to join them—are consciously learning how an identity rooted in the oneness of humankind can be cultivated and expressed across a range of breathtakingly diverse communities, identities, and experiences. In light of the two core concerns raised by critics of universalism—namely, that the ideal of human oneness stifles diversity and is detached from the texture and locality of everyday life—the evolving experience of the Bahá’í community presents fertile ground for learning. Additionally, the experience of the Bahá’í community addresses the further critique that universalist projects, in particular those pertaining to social identity, are utopian and unrealizable. The breadth, depth, and wide-reaching resonance of Bahá’í endeavors should at least prompt a reconsideration of this frequently assumed limit of collective human possibility.

Another essential characteristic of the Bahá’í principle of human oneness relates more directly to the basis of a universal human identity and the question of its non-contingency. From the Bahá’í perspective, what renders a universal collective identity truly stabilizing and non-contingent—in other words, what makes it uniquely invulnerable to the tensions, instabilities, and contradictions that characterize other sources of identity—is a spiritual understanding of the human oneness on which it is based. According to the Bahá’í writings, the fundamentally spiritual reality of human beings—the human soul—is not characterized by the contingent traits that define other, bounded social identities. As the Universal House of Justice explains, “An individual’s true self is to be found in the powers of the soul, which has the capacity to know God and to reflect His attributes. The soul has no gender, no ethnicity, no race. God sees no differences among human beings except in relation to the conscious effort of each individual to purify his or her soul and to express its full powers … This truth is directly related to another—that humanity is one family.”57Universal House of Justice, letter to the Followers of Bahá’u’lláh in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 1 November 2022. Also illuminating in this connection is the equation of the spiritual and with true freedom in the Bahá’í writings. Even as the spiritual is equated with the universal, the realization of true liberty is equated both with the spiritual (i.e., freedom from the material world of nature) and with genuine universalism, further reinforcing this article’s earlier discussion of liberty. On this and related points, see Saiedi, “The Birth of the Human Being.”

Recall the core argument that, in contrast to all other forms of love and association, the non-exclusionary and non-contingent basis of an identity rooted in human oneness yields a collective identity that is uniquely stable and stabilizing. In more than one passage, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá affirms this idea directly, and explicitly ties the non-contingency of universal love and identity to a spiritual source. For example:

“… fraternity, love and kindness based upon family, nativity, race or an attitude of altruism are neither sufficient nor permanent since all of them are limited, restricted and liable to change and disruption. For in the family there is discord and alienation; among sons of the same fatherland strife and internecine warfare are witnessed; between those of a given race, hostility and hatred are frequent; and even among the altruists varying aspects of opinion and lack of unselfish devotion give little promise of permanent and indestructible unity among mankind … the foundation of real brotherhood, the cause of loving co-operation and reciprocity and the source of real kindness and unselfish devotion is none other than the breaths of the Holy Spirit. Without this influence and animus it is impossible. We may be able to realize some degrees of fraternity through other motives but these are limited associations and subject to change. When human brotherhood is founded upon the Holy Spirit, it is eternal, changeless, unlimited.”58Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, 385-386.

Elsewhere, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá characterizes love for the whole of humanity as the one expression of love that is uniquely “perfect” (i.e., free from limits and instabilities) and again, ties this characteristic to the spiritual and the divine. He explains:

Love is limitless, boundless, infinite! Material things are limited, circumscribed, finite. You cannot adequately express infinite love by limited means.

The perfect love needs an unselfish instrument, absolutely freed from fetters of every kind. The love of family is limited; the tie of blood relationship is not the strongest bond. Frequently members of the same family disagree, and even hate each other.

Patriotic love is finite; the love of one’s country causing hatred of all others, is not perfect love!

Compatriots also are not free from quarrels amongst themselves.

The love of race is limited; there is some union here, but that is insufficient. Love must be free from boundaries!

To love our own race may mean hatred of all others, and even people of the same race often dislike each other.

Political love also is much bound up with hatred of one party for another; this love is very limited and uncertain.

The love of community of interest in service is likewise fluctuating; frequently competitions arise, which lead to jealousy, and at length hatred replaces love…

All these ties of love are imperfect. It is clear that limited material ties are insufficient to adequately express the universal love. The great unselfish love for humanity is bounded by none of these imperfect, semi-selfish bonds; this is the one perfect love, possible to all mankind, and can only be achieved by the power of the Divine Spirit. No worldly power can accomplish the universal love.59Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, 36-37.

Spiritual forces and commitments are not only conducive to selfless association and universal love; for many human beings, they are also prime sources of meaning, purpose, and purposeful action. Casting a spiritual light on identity thus reveals a potent connection between the crisis of identity with which this article is concerned, and another pressing crisis confronting humanity, namely, our collective crisis of agency and meaning. Indeed, even as we collectively struggle to find a secure sense of identity and belonging, the yearning for a sense of meaningful agency—that is, the yearning to meaningfully shape our lives, to give purposeful expression to our potential, and to contribute constructively to the communities we inhabit—is also widely frustrated. The experience of the Bahá’í community and the conception of identity on which it is based suggest that the solution to these two crises ultimately converge. A spiritual conception of identity not only attaches an absolute sense of belonging to the condition of being human; it also provides a powerful source of purpose and agency, and a basis for meaningful, transformative action. In the Bahá’í experience, these two expressions of identity—being and doing—are deeply intertwined and often indistinguishable.

The aim of this brief section has not been to demonstrate or adequately develop these ideas. Rather, it has been to highlight how the efforts of the Bahá’í community across vastly different cultural settings might provide illuminating insights into the power and possibility of a universal collective identity and, in particular, into the potential of an explicitly spiritual conception of human oneness.

 

* * *

 

“Humanity,” the Universal House of Justice observes, “is gripped by a crisis of identity…” The Bahá’í writings proclaim that the solution to this crisis lies in a radically reconceptualized vision of human identity and oneness. Specifically, they suggest that a collective identity authentically rooted in the oneness of humankind is uniquely equipped to resolve both the tensions that have destabilized our traditional group identities, and the widely assumed tension between humanity’s oneness and its diversity. Drawing on the Bahá’í writings, and engaging prominent strands of contemporary thought and discourse, this article has developed the case that only a universal human identity can ensure the fundamental security and flourishing of our particular identities, communities, and affiliations. In this view, an identity genuinely rooted in the oneness of humankind represents a qualitatively distinct and transformative shift that permeates all levels of society, that reorients all identities and relationships, and that fundamentally protects and liberates our bounded affiliations from their otherwise inherent instabilities and contradictions. Above all, this article has tried to show that as humanity’s crisis of identity persists and intensifies, the Bahá’í vision of human oneness, and its evolving expression in the community-building efforts of the worldwide Bahá’í community, are worthy of close attention.

By Benjamin Schewel

Benjamin Schewel is Co-Director of the Center on Modernity in Transition (COMIT). He is author of the book, Seven Ways of Looking at Religion, published by Yale University Press in 2017, and is currently finishing a second book, Encountering the Axial Age, which will also be published by Yale University Press. He also co-edited, Religion and Public Discourse in an Age of Transition: Reflections on Baha’i Practice and Thought, which was published by Wilfrid University Press in 2018.

The Bahá’í writings describe the modern period as an age of transition toward a future world civilization that manifests the oneness and essential diversity of humankind. The “world’s equilibrium,” Bahá’u’lláh writes, has been “upset” by the “vibrating influence” of “this most great, this new World Order.” The Universal House of Justice further elaborates upon Bahá’u’lláh’s remarks by likening these disruptive transformations to the period of adolescence: “Humanity, it is the firm conviction of every follower of Bahá’u’lláh, is approaching today the crowning stage in a millennia-long process which has brought it from its collective infancy to the threshold of maturity—a stage that will witness the unification of the human race. Not unlike the individual who passes through the unsettled yet promising period of adolescence, during which latent powers and capacities come to light, humankind as a whole is in the midst of an unprecedented transition. Behind so much of the turbulence and commotion of contemporary life are the fits and starts of a humanity struggling to come of age. Widely accepted practices and conventions, cherished attitudes and habits, are one by one being rendered obsolete, as the imperatives of maturity begin to assert themselves.”1Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, www.bahai.org/r/581649978; Universal House of Justice, “A Letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran, Dated 2 March, 2013,” www.bahai.org/r/394327546.  This essay explores the idea of modernity as an age of transition as presented in the Bahá’í writings.2Other sources develop resonant accounts of modernity as an age of transition. See, for example, such mid-twentieth century works as: Lewis Mumford, The Transformation of Man (New York: Harper & Row, 1956); Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History, trans. Michael Bullock (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1953); Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon, ed. Sarah Appleton-Weber (Eastbourne, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 1999). Or, more contemporaneously: Robert Wright, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, n.d.; Prasenjit Duara, The Crisis of Global Modernity: Asian Traditions and a Sustainable Future (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015); Joseph Chan, Confucian Perfectionism: A Political Philosophy for Modern Times (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014).

 

The origins of the modern age of transition

The modern age of transition begins as a movement out of the medieval order of civilization, some prominent expressions of which include the Song Dynasty of imperial China (960-1279 CE), the Hindu-Islamicate society of Mughal India (1526-1857 CE), the Mali Empire of West Africa (1235-1670 CE), and orthodox-Christian Byzantium (286-1453 CE). Each of these medieval societies relied upon a material substrate of village-based agrarian activity. These agrarian villages were, in turn, ruled by a cadre of urban elites whose authority was thought to hierarchically descend from the divinely sanctioned powers of a single emperor or king. Both social layers were, in turn, embedded in a common religious-metaphysical system, among which those associated with Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Neo-Confucianism were concurrently preeminent. And although by around 1250 CE, certain Old World elites had established a meaningful web of Afro-Eurasian interconnections, each medieval society still largely continued to consider itself civilizationally autonomous.3For useful descriptions of the medieval order of civilization see: Janet L. Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-135 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Volume 1: The Classical Age of Islam (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 103–117; Rethinking World History: Essays on Europe, Islam, and World History, ed. Edmund III Burke (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 44–71; Mumford, The Transformation of Man, 81–94.

Precisely how and when the medieval order began to decline is a matter of scholarly debate. What is clear, however, is that the upheavals of the “long nineteenth century”—from roughly 1770 to 1920—inaugurated the modern age of transition by firmly uprooting the foundations of medieval civilization. The advent of industrial manufacturing undermined the agrarian, village-based substrate of medieval life by unleashing the explosive powers of fossil fuels, mechanical technology, and megapolitan urbanization. Populist revolutions in the United States (1765-1791), France (1789-1799), and Haiti (1791-1804) stimulated novel vectors of political change that would, by the middle of the twentieth century, help topple most of the world’s great monarchical empires. The spreading influence of secular and materialistic ideologies disrupted the taken-for-granted authority of long-established ecclesiastical institutions and religious creeds. And a succession of pathbreaking transportation and communication technologies, including the steamboat (1803), the locomotive (1804), electric telegraphy (1844), the petrol automobile (1886), broadcast radio (1896), and the airplane (1903), overwhelmed medieval notions of civilizational autonomy by dramatically interlinking the far-flung regions of the earth. One by one, then, each of the established pillars of medieval civilization were decisively displaced during the long nineteenth century.4Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, trans. Patrick Camiller (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014), 47.

 

An era of ideological frustration

The upheavals of the long nineteenth century aroused a gusty season of intellectual commotion and ferment. How, every attentive mind began to wonder, should a just, peaceful, and prosperous society be structured if not by the age-old medieval pillars of village-based agrarianism, monarchical empire, and ecclesiastical religion? Given the outsized influence that, at the time, European and North American peoples enjoyed, many intellectuals attempted to answer this question by presenting certain impressive features of modernizing Western societies—their pursuit of rational self-determination; their relentless strivings for scientific and technological progress; their expanding commitments to democratic politics and the self-correcting dynamism of free markets; their burgeoning schemes of political-economic equalization; or even their nationalistic enthusiasms—as the crucial foundations of a new, modern order of civilization that all peoples must eventually embrace.

The Western-centric inquiries of nineteenth-century thinkers yielded a constellation of influential ideologies—including liberalism; capitalism; socialism; nationalism; anarchism; secular humanism; scientific materialism; organicism; techno-utopianism; and enlightened despotism—that illuminated certain real features of the modern age of transition. Yet these ideologies also each employed so many problematically one-sided and parochially self-centered assumptions that subsequent efforts to enact their claims ended up lurching back and forth between moments of encouraging progress and of demoralizing frustration. One thinks, for example, of how the efforts of revolutionary France to politically enact the ideals of liberty, equality, and solidarity were swiftly followed by the authoritarian repressions of the Reign of Terror and the Napoleonic regime. Or one could also mention how endeavors to demonstrate the universal validity of modern science, advanced by such thinkers as Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and August Comte (1798-1857), helped to stimulate a encouraged new constellation of obscuring materialistic orthodoxies.

Noting these difficulties, long-nineteenth-century thinkers strove to remedy the many defects that plagued their cherished modern ideologies in at least three broad ways. First, there were those who, like J.W.F. Goethe (1749-1832), John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), Karl Marx (1818-1883), and Walt Whitman (1819-1892), claimed that humanity could only continue proceeding down the path of modern progress by more consistently or radically embracing the ideals of the Enlightenment, particularly those of freedom, equality, and rationality. Second, many others advanced the countervailing claim that redressing the ideological failings of Western modernity required revitalizing one or another of humanity’s great pre-modern traditions; consider, for example, of the efforts of Friderich Nietzsche (1844-1900), Søren Kierkegaard (1817-1855), and the architects of the Meiji Restoration, respectively, to re-engage the ethos of Homeric polytheism, of early Christianity, and of Japanese Shintoism. And third, one encounters an expanding cohort of voices who, in the manner of a Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) or Max Stirner (1806-1856), suggested that a more ideal society could emerge only after the West’s moral-ideological pretensions had been firmly subverted and exposed. The intellectual landscape of the long nineteenth century was, therefore, cross-pressured by efforts to show how the crucial defects of Western modernity could be resolved by more comprehensively embracing Enlightenment ideals, or by revitalizing some premodern ethico-spiritual tradition, or by critically vitiating the dark side of modern Western civilization.

Much has obviously taken place since the close of the long nineteenth century, including such world-shaking events as the Great Depression; the Second World War; the nuclear proliferations of the Cold War; decolonization and the third wave of nation-state formation; the “Big Push” of international development; the formation of the United Nations; the establishment of the international human rights regime; the rising global clout of East and South Asian societies; the digital revolution; and the accelerating trajectory of anthropocentric climate change. And yet, dominant intellectual discourses—especially in the West—continue to swirl within the same limited horizon of ideological possibilities that crystallized between 1770 and 1920. Indeed, despite the impressive advancements in knowledge that have taken place during the century, many among our most prominent thinkers continue to assume that, if contemporary humanity is ever to address its mounting civilizational woes, it must do so either by re-committing itself to the ideals of the Enlightenment, renewing its engagement with some older and ostensibly superior tradition, or disruptively deconstructing the oppressive and disingenuous foundations of modern Western civilization.

 

The analogy of collective adolescence

The age of transition thesis discloses a new horizon of interpretive possibilities. It recasts the tumultuous vectors of modern thought and social change as the initial expressions of a still-unfolding process of global-civilizational transformation that can be likened to the collective adolescence of humankind. “The long ages of infancy and childhood through which the human race had to pass, have receded into the background,” proclaims Shoghi Effendi, who served as the administrative head of the Bahá’í Faith from 1921 to 1957, in a letter written several years before the outbreak of the Second World War. “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. Then will the human race reach that stature of ripeness which will enable it to acquire all the powers and capacities upon which its ultimate development must depend.” Or again, as the Universal House of Justice explains, “the human race, as a distinct, organic unit, has passed through evolutionary stages analogous to the stages of infancy and childhood in the lives of its individual members, and is now in the culminating period of its turbulent adolescence approaching its long-awaited coming of age.”5Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, www.bahai.org/r/166959448; Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace, www.bahai.org/r/562133059.

This image warrants careful consideration. For individuals, the period of adolescence is marked by the rapid development of adult-like capabilities. Yet a mature framework within which to orient these new powers is initially lacking. The young person must struggle to clarify the concepts, values, and identities upon which they will rely as they approach the threshold of adulthood. This is an immensely challenging task, and it is made even more difficult by the young person’s competing attachments to the well-known norms of childhood, burgeoning enamorments with their own mental and physical capabilities, and deepening uncertainties about the merits of different models of adult living. Indeed, it is precisely from the resultant sense of disorientation that arise the patterns of “turbulence,” “impetuosity,” and “vehemence” that are so consistently associated with the period of human adolescence.

When applied to the modern age of transition, the analogy of adolescence recasts the proliferating welter of modern ideologies, not as the expression of some unsurpassable state of social, political, and intellectual maturity, but rather as the chaotic yet promising outgrowth of humanity’s burgeoning abilities to envision a new era of a globally-integrated civilization. The analogy additionally encourages a long-term vision of social change that can enable successive generations to continue laboring to erect an organically transfigured world society. In this regard, one might consider the difference between the young person who, because they see themselves living only for today, dissipates their energies in the pursuit of fleeting pleasures and enthusiasms, and another, who, by remaining more acutely aware of the looming imperatives of adulthood, conscientiously devotes themselves to undertakings that prepare them for what lies ahead.

The effort to analogically reconfigure one’s narrative of history, moreover, helps clarify the crucial role that other analogies already play in shaping thought about modern history. Indeed, the very notion of enlightenment constitutes one such influential analogy, suggesting the ideals of banished illusion and of rationally clarified perception that have profoundly influenced the trajectory of modern Western culture and history. And one can also readily identify several other images—based, for example, on the model of atomic interaction, or on the naturally selective pressures of jungle life, or even on the operations of industrial factories and mechanical clocks—that continue to orient prevalent ideas about specific features of modern social existence. Consequently, instead of aspiring to supplant the ostensibly objective and neutral narratives of modernity that contemporary intellectuals employ with an unduly imagistic one, the age of transition thesis actually endeavors to transform the existing analogical contents of modern historical imagination.

 

Toward a new horizon of research and intellectual activity 

If the age of transition thesis is to ever become widely influential, much more will be required than simply enumerating its various conceptual and interpretive merits. The idea must additionally be incorporated into a new and robustly advancing pattern of research and intellectual activity. To shed further light on how an expanding constellation of individuals, communities, and institutions might practically address this far-reaching challenge and opportunity, the author draws on his experience with a nascent research organization, the Center on Modernity in Transition. Before exploring this particular body of experience, however, it may be useful to offer some additional insight into the intellectual transformation that is being considered by briefly exploring the history of the modern research university.

The institution of the modern research university arose in Germany during the early nineteenth century, and is widely recognized as beginning with the founding of the University of Berlin in 1809. Unlike its medieval predecessors, such as the universities of Paris or Oxford, which functioned as scholastic guilds that pursued the ideal of orthodox intellectual integration, the modern research university was meant to advance intellectual endeavors that grew out of the novel idea of modernity as a dawning age of rational and scientific enlightenment. One major strategy that these universities employed was to situate the proliferating research activities that Enlightenment thinkers pursued within a handful of specialized disciplines and fields. As explained by the well-known Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the modern research university was to lead humanity further into the dawning Age of Enlightenment by managing “the entire content of learning … like a factory, so to speak—by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee, and all of these together would form a kind of learned community called a university.”6Immanuel Kant, “The Conflict of the Faculties (1798),” in Religion and Rational Theology, trans. Mary J. Gregor and Robert Anchor, The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 247. The disciplinary order of knowledge that now orients our world thus arose within the efforts of modern research universities to systematically embed the idea of modernity as a dawning age of enlightenment in a new pattern of research and intellectual activity. By extension, it would seem reasonable to expect the mature development of the idea of modernity as an age of transition to entail at least an equally weighty and institutionally complex transformation in the intellectual life of humankind.

The writings of philosopher Imre Lakatos (1922-1974) further illuminate the actual process by which such an intellectual transformation might proceed. Specifically, Lakatos claims that every serious research endeavor relies upon a “hard core” of conceptual presuppositions that are never directly tested, but rather used to support an evolving “protective belt” of rigorously evaluated theories, propositions, and methodologies. For Lakatos, the main distinction between a scientific program of research and a non-scientific one lies not in the extent to which they respectively employ empirically unverified assumptions—both of them inescapably do—but rather in the degree to which their conceptual presuppositions sustain a progressively advancing system of secondary theories, propositions, and methodologies. Consequently, instead of endeavoring to conclusively demonstrate the veracity of the age of transition thesis before proceeding any further down the path of inquiry that the idea suggests, Lakatos’s arguments suggest that one must simply get started trying to use the idea to ground a new and robustly advancing program of research and intellectual activity.7Imre Lakatos, The Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes: Volume 1: Philosophical Papers (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1980).

In this regard, it may be useful to mention the nascent efforts of one research organization. the Center on Modernity in Transition (COMIT), with which the author has, since its establishment in early 2020, been energetically engaged. As the organization explains in a recent report, “the Center on Modernity in Transition aspires to contribute to the intellectual life of the emerging world civilization envisioned by Bahá’u’lláh. We begin from the premise that if one interrogates deeply enough the sources of humanity’s pressing challenges, one arrives ultimately at a network of concepts and assumptions that undergird the current order, and that shape the ways in which social reality is read, understood, and constructed. The broad aim of COMIT is thus to rigorously examine the intellectual foundations of modern society and to contribute, however gradually, to their transformation. COMIT pursues this goal by working to establish a new and dynamic research program animated by the idea of modernity as an age of transition toward a new world civilization—one characterized by unprecedented levels of unity, justice, peace, and material and spiritual prosperity.”

In support of its long-term, research-program-building agenda, the Center pursues two interrelated areas of activity. COMIT aspires to advance novel and distinctive lines of research that are rooted in the idea of modernity as an age of transition, as well as in the various fundamental concepts that underpin the idea. At the same time, however, the organization strives to contribute to a growing number of academic discourses and fields that, in one way or another, help to illuminate various facets of the modern age of transition. Neither endeavor can, the Center maintains, be effectively pursued in isolation from the other. For without consistently engaging the best knowledge and methodologies that humanity has produced, COMIT’s attempts to build a new research program would struggle to significantly improve upon the patterns of intellectual activity that operate within the world’s leading research universities. Inversely, however, if the Centre focuses only on advancing the kinds of research that existing academic institutions pursue, it would soon find itself unable to meaningfully contribute to the establishment of a new and highly distinctive program of research and intellectual activity. COMIT thus aspires to advance both endeavors in a complementary and coherent manner.

A series of initial developments suggests the fecundity of COMIT’s approach. Relevant examples include the establishment of fruitful collaborations with academic bodies at Duke University, New York University, and Columbia University; the successful execution of a number of online speaker series—for example, The Liberal Imaginary and Beyond and Identity and Belonging in a Global Age—featuring a line-up of highly distinguished thinkers and practitioners, including Charles Taylor, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Barbara Fields, Cornel West, Seyla Benhabib, and Craig Calhoun; the development of a maturing web presence, particularly the organization’s webpage, comitresearch.org, and its YouTube channel, where video recordings of its events have been widely viewed; the raising of an initial tranche of funds to support the organization’s expanding research activities and the hiring of personnel; the establishment of several dynamic, distinctive, and externally well-received research projects; and the cultivation of an expanding network of committed thought partners and research collaborators. Although the organization remains acutely aware of the many challenges it must face as its efforts continue to gain in complexity and scope, it continues to derive sustenance and hope from the demonstrated abilities of the age of transition thesis to invite the enthusiastic participation of scholars situated within a wide variety of disciplinary, intellectual, and ethico-spiritual traditions.

What this article suggests is that, today, there is a unique opportunity for motivated researchers to begin rigorously embedding the distinctive vision of modernity as an age of transition, such as it is presented in the Bahá’í writings, into new and far-reaching patterns of research and intellectual activity. The example of the Center on Modernity in Transition provides some insight into the kinds of evolving research activities that might help to tangibly advance the envisioned intellectual transformation. At present, however, the simple fact remains that we can have little real knowledge of the precise content or shape of this future intellectual efflorescence. It is precisely for this reason that the Bahá’í writings consistently encourage us to regard the welter of tumultuous forces that characterize the modern age of transition through the lens of the organic metaphor. “It is,” as ‘Abdu’l-Baha writes, “even as the seed: The tree exists within it but is hidden and concealed; when the seed grows and develops, the tree appears in its fullness.”8’Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions: www.bahai.org/r/771160088. The immediately pressing task before us is for an expanding constellation of individuals, communities, and institutions to begin boldly and systematically pursuing the myriad opportunities for serious intellectual transformation and growth that can be discerned within the immediate contexts of their lives and social milieus.

By Roshan Danesh and Douglas White III

Biographical information about the authors can be found below the article.

Human progress involves understanding and building coherence in the relationship between the seen and unseen—between what is hidden from view and what is evident right before us.

Seen and unseen realities are integral to who we are as human beings. In the Bahá’í understanding, each of us is at once a spiritual and physical being. We “approach God” through our spiritual nature, and in our physical nature we “[live] for the world alone.”1https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/abdul-baha/paris-talks/3#165303977 Our purpose and challenge in life is to understand and strive to express the spiritual dimension of our beings in how we live our temporal and physical lives. Through this coherence, we can achieve greater degrees of well-being, happiness, and accomplishment for ourselves and those around us.

Similarly, in our collective life, we need to build social realities grounded in and reflective of spiritual principles. Addressing social challenges requires applying in practical ways certain values and forces that we understand as integral to human existence. When we do this, we will support healthy, prosperous, and enduring relationships and societies. In the Bahá’í understanding:

[t]here are spiritual principles, or what some call human values, by which solutions can be found for every social problem. Any well-intentioned group can in a general sense devise practical solutions to its problems, but good intentions and practical knowledge are usually not enough. The essential merit of spiritual principle is that it not only presents a perspective which harmonizes with that which is immanent in human nature, it also induces an attitude, a dynamic, a will, an aspiration, which facilitate the discovery and implementation of practical measures. Leaders of governments and all in authority would be well served in their efforts to solve problems if they would first seek to identify the principles involved and then be guided by them.2https://www.bahai.org/documents/the-universal-house-of-justice/promise-world-peace

If human progress—as the Bahá’í teachings suggest—depends on understanding and building coherence between the invisible spiritual dimensions and the visible temporal dimensions of our reality, then it is fair to suggest that the opposite must also be true. When this relationship is not understood and reflected in our lives, when we do not see the connection between what is visible and what is invisible, human experience is marked by greater forms of hardship, lack of well-being, and patterns of social injustice. Inevitably, any effective program aimed at constructive social change must, in some way, involve making the invisible visible.

Reflecting this, for example, the Bahá’í writings speak about how addressing contemporary challenges faced by humanity requires a revitalized “consciousness” of the “oneness of humanity”3https://www.bahai.org/documents/the-universal-house-of-justice/promise-world-peace and “world citizenship.”4https://www.bahai.org/documents/the-universal-house-of-justice/promise-world-peace In becoming aware of the inextricable interconnection and interdependence of all human beings as part of one species—a reality that, in various ways, we have been veiled from seeing—constructive change can be driven. The depths of veiling of this consciousness are one of the roots of harm and conflict that justifies, for example, arbitrary and destructive distinctions between peoples along racial lines, or that paralyzes the ability to meet challenges, such as climate change, that require solutions grounded in the recognition of oneness.

This understanding—of how human progress requires making the unseen seen—provides insights into our efforts to address enduring social challenges and can help inform the ongoing development of practices and policies for change. This paper examines how these Bahá’í ideas about human progress and oneness might be applied to current discourses and efforts to address the harmful legacy of colonization of Indigenous peoples. A particular focus is on Canada, which is often viewed globally as a litmus test for progress and failure in redress and justice for Indigenous peoples. Such analysis reveals that the dynamics of the invisible being made visible at various levels has been an integral force in driving some change in Canada. Yet, at the same time, there remain fundamental realities of division and silos, as well as an enduring denial of the depths of social transformation required to address the legacy of racial inequality. From a Bahá’í perspective, if true reconciliation is to occur, current efforts and patterns must continue to be seen in a new light that can accelerate a focus on more fundamental and systemic change.

 

Seeing Injustice

In 2021, Canada had a moment of reckoning. The Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, a First Nation in British Columbia in western Canada, announced the identification of potentially more than 200 unmarked burials of Indigenous children the Canadian state had forced to attend the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The response to the announcement set off a form of national convulsion. Many non-Indigenous Canadians appeared shocked and stunned, unaware of the reality that their country’s history included children being removed from their families for “schooling,” only to die and never return. Some in the national media called it “shocking.”5https://nationalpost.com/news/what-happens-next-after-shocking-discovery-of-215-childrens-graves-in-kamloops Political leaders called it “unimaginable.”6https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/tk-eml%C3%BAps-te-secw%C3%A9pemc-215-children-former-kamloops-indian-residential-school-1.6043778 Perhaps more than at any other moment in Canadian history, Indigenous peoples and their experiences and realities were at the foreground of Canadian public life, discourse, and debate. There was a growing chorus of calls for substantive action, change, and impromptu gatherings and memorials.

But something was puzzling in this reaction. Of course, we are appropriately horrified by acts that amount to genocide, such as those experienced by Indigenous peoples in Canada.7In recent years, the colonization of Indigenous peoples in Canada has increasingly been described as a genocide. The reporting on unmarked burials across the country since 2021 has solidified this understanding. In July 2022, Pope Francis, at the conclusion of his trip to Canada to apologize for the role of the Catholic Church in the residential school system, acknowledged that the history of assimilation and abuses amounted to genocide. But how could it be that the predominant response of Canadian governments, institutions, and organizations, as well as the general public, was surprise that such a thing could ever have occurred?

The history of Indigenous peoples8When using the term “Indigenous” in reference to Canada, it applies to three distinct peoples—First Nations, Inuit, and Métis. Within each of these peoples, there is further diversity and distinction. For example, amongst First Nations, there are more than 70 language groups and 60 to 80 separate peoples. in Canada, and their enduring struggle for justice, has been thoroughly documented. The broad strokes are undeniable. At the core of European colonization was the “doctrine of discovery,” a precept from the Papacy that, if no Christians lived in a land, the lands were to be considered “discovered” and uninhabited. Simply put, the ugly root of this principle was that if there were no Christian inhabitants, then there were no human inhabitants.9https://www.ictinc.ca/blog/indigenous-title-and-the-doctrine-of-discovery Consequently, such lands were terra nullius, or empty of human beings. In the lands that now make up Canada, this racist doctrine justified a process of European settlement—and ultimately the founding of Canada in 1867—that included subjugating and displacing the diverse Indigenous peoples by imposing massive systems of oppression upon them.

Two policy programs became the foundation of Canada. The first policy was assimilation, which aimed to destroy Indigenous knowledge, culture, spirituality, family, governance, and social systems. Sir John A. McDonald, Canada’s first prime minister, stated that there was “nothing in [Indigenous peoples’] way of life that was worth preserving” and explained the goal of the government as being “to do away with the tribal system and assimilate the Indian people in all respects with the other inhabitants of the Dominions as speedily as they are fit to change.”10Session of the 6th Parliament of Dominion of Canada, 1887, quoted in “Facing History and Ourselves,” in Stolen Lives: The Indigenous Peoples of Canada and the Indian Residential Schools (City: Publisher, 2018), 37. https://www.facinghistory.org/stolen-lives-indigenous-peoples-canada-and-indian-residential-schools/chapter-3/introduction Residential schools were one tool of this policy of assimilation. Their object, as explained by Hector-Louis Langevin, one of the founders of Canada and an early government leader, was as follows: “in order to educate the (‘Indian’) children properly we must separate them from their families. Some people may say that this is hard but if we want to civilize them we must do that…if you leave them in the family they may know how to read and write, but they will remain savages, whereas by separating them in the way proposed, they acquire the habits and tastes…of civilized people.”11J. Charles Boyce, ed., “Debates of the House of Commons, 5th Parliament, 1st Session: Volume 2,” Library of Parliament, 1883, https://parl.canadiana.ca/view/oop.debates_HOC0501_02/2

The second policy program was denial and dispossession. Reflecting the “doctrine of discovery,” any claim by Indigenous peoples that they had sovereignty, ownership, or a relationship with lands and resources that made up Canada was rejected, ignored, and even outlawed. This was foundational to Canada’s economic and political creation, in addressing both the interests of different European powers—most notably the English and French—and the demands of increasing numbers of European settlers. First Nations peoples were, in various ways, forcibly removed from their lands and segregated in a system of small reserves. Even in areas where historic treaties were signed with the British Crown, both before and after Confederation, promises regarding land have been continually and systematically violated.

One of the central vehicles for implementing these assimilation and denial policies is the racist and colonial Indian Act, which passed soon after Canada was formed in the nineteenth century. The Indian Act formalized and entrenched the reserve system, authorized the removal of Indigenous children and their placement in residential schools, denied basic human rights including voting, freedom of movement, and the right to legal counsel, outlawed Indigenous forms of government, and imposed a foreign system of administrative governance through Indian Act band councils overseen and controlled by the federal government.

While some elements of the Indian Act have been amended over time, as of 2022, the Indian Act remains the primary legislation governing the lives of First Nations people in Canada.

The counterpoint to this history of colonialism has been the enduring effort led by Indigenous peoples, at times with the support of allies from many backgrounds, to address these injustices, secure recognition of Indigenous sovereignty, and establish proper relations between governments and Indigenous peoples. From Canada’s earliest days, visions of this proper relationship have been advanced in various ways. For example, in some First Nations cultures, wampum—made of white and purple seashells and beads—is woven into belts to symbolize peoples, relations, alliances, and events. The Two Row Wampum Belt of the Haudenosaunee expressed a vision of peaceful co-existence between Europeans and Indigenous peoples where “it is agreed that we will travel together, side by each, on the river of life…linked by peace, friendship, forever. We will not try to steer each other’s vessels.” As Ellen Gabriel explains:

Ka’swenh:tha or the Two Row Wampum Treaty is a significant agreement in history of the relationship between European monarchs and Indigenous peoples. Ka’swenh:tha is more than visionary. As a principled treaty it is grounded in an Indigenous intellect providing an insight and a vigilant awareness of the inevitability of the evolution of society. Ka’swenh:tha is an instrument of reconciliation for contemporary times if openness, honesty, respect, and genuine concern for present and future generations is a foundational priority.12Ellen Gabriel, “Ka’swenh:tha—the Two Row Wampum: Reconciliation through an Ancient Agreement,” in Reconciliation & the Way Forward (Ottawa: Aboriginal Healing Foundation, 2014)

Another example is the vision of co-existence with the British that is shared by several interior First Nations in British Columbia, including the Secwepemc, Okanagan, and Nlaka’pamux. In 1910, they wrote to Prime Minister Laurier to raise the alarm about the intensifying oppression, poverty, and hardship facing their peoples. As part of their letter, they shared how their earlier leaders had envisioned proper relations:

Some of our Chiefs said, “These people wish to be partners with us in our country. We must, therefore, be the same as brothers to them and live as one family. We will share equally in everything – half and half – in land, water and timber, and so on. What is ours will be theirs and what is theirs will be ours. We will help each other to be great and good.” 13http://www.skeetchestn.ca/files/documents/Governance/memorialtosirwilfredlaurier1910.pdf

Efforts by Indigenous peoples to advance these visions of peaceful co-existence have included political actions and organization and the completion of treaties and agreements that they hoped would serve as the foundation for the manifestation of this vision. Alongside this, there has been extensive use of the courts and all forms of social movements and social action.

At the same time, Indigenous peoples have worked to maintain and pass on their culture, knowledge, and social systems to future generations, although they have often had to do this work in the shadows. Jody Wilson-Raybould, the first Indigenous person to serve as Canada’s Minister of Justice and Attorney General, shared an example of this resilience in her own family:

My grandmother, whose English name was Ethel Pearson and whose Kwakwaka’wakw name was Pugladee, had to struggle for change in the shadows, out of sight and invisible, to ensure our culture and our ways survived. To keep our traditions of the Big House alive—our governance system—she and others had to hide their gatherings and the work they were doing from agents of the federal government, including the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), who had direction to stop those gatherings and that work. Our people had a system of lookouts that would let them know when the officials were close, so they could switch from the work they were doing to singing church hymns.14Jody Wilson-Raybould, True Reconciliation: How to be a Force for Change (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2022), 4.

There has also been extensive study and analysis of Canada’s legacy of colonialism, its enduring impacts on Indigenous peoples and society at large, and the necessary solutions to overcome these realities. For example, in 1996, it was estimated that in the previous three decades, almost 900 reports were written on the conditions of Indigenous peoples and Indigenous policy in Canada. Since then, the pace of study has only grown. All of these studies include recommendations and solutions for moving forward.

Similarly, the residential school system was the subject of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission15https://nctr.ca/about/history-of-the-trc/truth-and-reconciliation-commission-of-canada/ that completed its work in 2015 and heard evidence from more than 6,500 individuals. The Commission’s work included producing a volume titled Missing Children and Unmarked Burials.16https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2015/trc/IR4-9-4-2015-eng.pdf which confirmed 3,200 deaths of children at residential schools, based only on a limited review of documents which were often not kept and not complete. For example, almost half of these confirmed deaths did not list a cause of death, and nearly a third lacked the child’s name. Given this, it has long been clear that properly supporting the search for these lost children would return evidence of far more deaths, by many thousands.

So to return to our question: How could the 2021 unmarked burials announcements be a “shock” and “unimaginable” to many Canadians? They were not, of course, a shock to Indigenous people. As Jody Wilson-Raybould explains:

While the reports were indeed horrific for Indigenous peoples, they were not shocking. Yes, they are triggering and extremely painful, on a personal level, for many. But in our communities, it has always been known that children never returned from residential schools, that they died there. In various ways, these missing children have always been spoken of, as part of our telling of our history in this country.17Wilson-Raybould, True Reconciliation, 49.

Being incapable of seeing injustices that are right before one’s eyes is a perpetuation of injustice. Bahá’u’lláh highlights this truth in one of His definitions of justice, when He equates justice with being able to see the realities around oneself. Writing in the mid-1800s, He stated that the “best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice,” explaining that, by the aid of justice, “thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others” and “know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge” of others.18https://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/HW/hw-3.html He goes on to say, “justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.”19https://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/HW/hw-3.html

Without the capacity to see justice and injustice, we allow injustice to prevail. We passively bestow upon the status quo a taken-for-granted quality and fail to look beyond what is immediately and directly in front of our eyes. What looks normal, no matter how pernicious and destructive the reality it perpetuates for others, we come to accept as right, having never sought to understand what may be, at first glance, unseen to us. According to Bahá’u’lláh, this dehumanizes us as individuals. In His view, it is a complete failure to use the capacities that make us truly human. We become blind imitators; we do not see for ourselves and are trapped by illusions, unable to effect change that is grounded in principle, progress, and truth in our lives, in our communities, and the world at large. As He writes:

The essence of all that We have revealed for thee is Justice, is for man to free himself from idle fancy and imitation, discern with the eye of oneness His glorious handiwork, and look into all things with a searching eye.20https://reference.bahai.org/en/t/b/TB/tb-11.html

In the context of Canada, despite decades of revelations about the true history of the country and the racist and colonial treatment of Indigenous peoples, the reality of unmarked burials (among other aspects of the experience of Indigenous peoples in Canada) remained mainly invisible to governing institutions and the general public. This is not to say there hasn’t been some progress and change. There has been change, much of it vital and important in addressing harms and seeking a more just future. This change has been facilitated by growing awareness and knowledge. What has also been revealed, however, is how powerful and deeply entrenched narratives about Canada—portrayed as a nation forged by English Europeans and French Europeans and as a model of multiculturalism through diversity achieved by immigration— veil the true story of Canada’s foundation being built through exclusion, racism, and colonization. Truly achieving justice is impossible until we rip these veils away and reshape predominant narratives and discourses in ways that support systemic, structural, and transformative change.

Within this veiling is the erasure of Indigenous peoples and their knowledge and experience. What becomes predominant is a version of reality in which Indigenous peoples simply do not, and never did, exist. Douglas White III (one of the authors of this paper), recounted the following vivid illustration of this pervasive erasure:

At the time I was Chief of the Snuneymuxw First Nation and had been asked to give a public talk about the history of our Nation. The talk was being held in Departure Bay, which was the site of our major winter village site—Stliinup in our language. We had been pushed out of Stliinup in the mid 1800s even though the village was to be protected for our people by the treaty we entered into in 1854. Settlers named Sliinup “Departure Bay” when they came across the village at a time of year when our people were across the Salish Sea at the Fraser River for our summer salmon fishery. They assumed we were gone for good, not understanding our yearly cycle of movement throughout our territories.

After the talk, during which I shared the history of Stliinup, a member of the public approached me to say that he had lived in Departure Bay for three decades. He said he was shocked to learn the history of where he lived, and that he had no idea that this was the main winter village of the Snuneymuxw.

I was stunned as well. It had never been made so explicitly clear to me how powerful the predominant narratives of history, time, and place were, and the extent of how they erased my people. But this was a reality that I confronted more and more in my years as Chief. I realized that the reality of erasure was all-encompassing. It extended to every aspect of our reality, from where we lived, to our way of life, to our culture, to our history, to our territory, to our contributions to broader society. Even those elements of our reality that were fully shared with the Crown—like our Treaty of 1854—were effectively forgotten and ignored. Even though the Treaty was recognized and affirmed by Canada’s Constitution in 1982, decades later, as Chief, I was constantly interacting with government officials who didn’t seem to see or understand a version of history that included my people, our experience, or the basis of our relationship with the Crown.

This importance of seeing injustice and justice, and the challenge we have in doing so, is at the core of much current study and action in response to racism. Recent anti-racist literature emphasizes this. For example, Ibram X. Kendi writes, “the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it.”21Ibram X. Kendi, How To Be An Antiracist (New York: One World, 2019), 9. Identification and description are necessary because of the blindness people often show toward the ways their choices, actions, and realities uphold forms of racism. Absent critical self-reflection, consciousness-raising, and shifts in perception of self and others (and the relationship between self and others), biases and ignorance remain unconfronted. As individuals and collectives, failure to see and apprehend this reality is not some neutral act for which one is not responsible. On the contrary, it perpetuates and reinforces beliefs, patterns, and unjust and harmful structures.

 

From Silos to Solidarity

Using the capacity and responsibility that each individual has to see justice and injustice is only a start. Consciousness-raising can inform and propel social transformation, but it does not actually achieve it. Seeing must translate into concrete and impactful social action—and it must do so in particular directions.

Systems of oppression construct visible silos that manifest themselves across all facets of society: cultural, social, political, and economic. In Canada, one expression of this is sometimes described as a socio-economic gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. This gap exists across all social sectors: Indigenous peoples experience disproportionately high rates of incarceration, children in care, poverty, and suicide, as well as worse education and health outcomes, among other realities.

Underlying and reinforcing these visible silos are the invisible ones, of the vastly different perceptions, interpretations, and understanding–rooted in vastly different experiences–of people living in the same place at the same time. One by-product of colonialism is the construction of separate and cut-off knowledge systems simultaneously being built and shaped. Peoples, based on their differing experiences—some of privilege and some of oppression—construct ways of comprehending and explaining their reality and have distinct networks and mechanisms for sharing, transmitting, and acting based on that explanation. In conditions of systemic racial oppression, vastly different worldviews and belief systems animate the cultures and ways of life of the colonizer and colonized. As such, not only is there a vastly different experience that informs the development of a vastly different knowledge system, but this takes place in a context where there are already massive differences in how distinct groups interpret reality and share knowledge.

The hidden, invisible silos constructed by colonization run very deep. The disparate responses to the announcement of unmarked burials—“shock” by governments and some of the general public; confirmation and expression of what was already deeply and intimately known by Indigenous peoples—show how entrenched and enduring these silos are.

When these invisible silos are so deep, achieving justice and redress by dismantling the visible ones, such as the socio-economic gap, is much harder. Returning to Bahá’u’lláh’s terms: There is not a strong culture of “seeing with one’s own eyes” that allows, for example, the recognition of Indigenous peoples’ experiences, histories, and realities by governments or much of the population. As Kendi expresses it, there is a struggle to consistently “identify” and “describe” racism because of the power one constructed knowledge system has held in defining the predominant discourses and narratives about who we are, what we represent, and what our history and values are. Deeply entrenched architectures of social meanings and norms limit our ability to see the wrongs and harms that need to be confronted and to purposefully take action to address them.

The strength with which invisible silos operate can be seen in the debates and struggles Canada has had over the term and substance of efforts at “reconciliation” between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples. For a few decades, reconciliation has been the predominant term used to describe efforts to address Canada’s colonial legacy and the injustices Indigenous peoples faced. To some, with good reason, it is an odd term to use in this context. One of the meanings of the term is the idea of a “return” to a proper state of affairs or relations. But, of course, in the history of Canada—as in many histories of racial oppression around the globe—there is no such state to return to; rather, we are all being challenged to play our role in forging something new and different.

Another common connotation of reconciliation is its emphasis on relationships and healing. While transforming relationships and effecting healing are vital to redressing enduring injustices, there are concerns that placing such a focus on these elements can result in an overemphasis on symbolic or performative acts, rather than impactful changes to oppressive structures and systems.

The struggle over the term reconciliation speaks to a more fundamental global question, which is how to change profoundly entrenched patterns of injustice and forge change that builds cohesion, resiliency, and redress in conditions of diversity and inclusion. This is a challenge for humanity everywhere, whether addressing the legacy of slavery and the history of racism in America, or the decolonization of former European colonies in Africa, or addressing the legacy of apartheid in South Africa, or responding to decades or even centuries of oppression and persecution of religious or ethnic minorities in places around the globe.

From this perspective, the Bahá’í writings propose a particular understanding of the dynamics and requirements of social change in the contemporary world. As briefly discussed earlier, the Bahá’í teachings emphasize that constructive and progressive social change must be understood through the concept of unity. Unity, or oneness, is the central concept of Bahá’í theology, ontology, and social theory—it is the foundation of the Divine, the structure of reality, and the relationship between human beings. Humanity is understood as fundamentally indivisible and interdependent, and there is a responsibility and imperative to manifest that oneness in all our social relations. In such an integrative cosmology and worldview, conflict and violence are anathema, as are prejudice and oppression. There exist a responsibility and a necessity to focus on building patterns of unity that make destructive patterns, and the reinforcement of arbitrary distinctions, increasingly difficult and rare. As levels of social cohesion, affinity, and connection are deepened at multiple levels, conditions of individual and collective well-being are increased.

This Bahá’í vision of unity necessitates recognizing difference. Unity and interconnection do not mean uniformity and sameness, but rather the opposite: complete respect and affirmation of distinctions. In an article exploring Bahá’í approaches to social change, Roshan Danesh (co-author of this article) and Lex Musta explained:

History is rife with egregious examples of hatred and oppression masquerading as so-called unity. Perhaps most evident in history has been the association of the term unity with a limited racial unity, which carries with it an assumption of the inferior status, and in some cases subhuman status, of much of humanity standing outside of that limited unification. Because its inclusiveness is limited rather than universal, this false unity, achieved through uniformity, is antithetical to the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.

Understanding unity also entails a particular orientation to the relationship between oneness and difference (sometimes referred to as the relationship between unity and diversity). Oneness and difference, in this vision, are seen as essential and integrated concepts that are not in tension as values or constructs. The Bahá’í writings use frequent metaphors to describe this relationship. Bahá’u’lláh states, “Please God, that we avoid the land of denial, and advance into the ocean of acceptance, so that we may perceive, with an eye purged from all conflicting elements, the worlds of unity and diversity, of variation and oneness. …”22https://bahai-library.com/pdf/d/danesh_musta_social_change.pdf

This concept of unity has many implications for how an action is taken in pursuit of social change, including the redress of historic and enduring injustices like those perpetrated against Indigenous peoples in Canada.

First, there exists within Baha’u’llah’s teaching of unity a stark critique and rejection of existing structures and systems of politics, law, economics, and society. The historical consciousness that Bahá’u’lláh advocates is one in which humanity is struggling to reflect the reality of its unity. In this historical consciousness, humanity finds itself, for the first time, both capable of and challenged in expressing that unity in a global form. This means, however, that existing structures and processes are not merely inadequate and insufficient; while they may have aspects that endure into the future, they also have exclusionary and divisive elements, histories, and principles that have contributed to injustice and harm toward certain peoples and groups. To say it another way: They are grounded in siloed knowledge systems, including those that have been the sources of colonization and oppression. The work of building social systems and structures that reflect the integrative worldview of the oneness of humanity requires a transformation of the status quo.

The Bahá’í writings describe forging this kind of shift—of building new forms of just and cohesive relations between peoples—as extremely challenging, requiring immense personal and collective sacrifice, as work that each and every one of us has a role to play a part in, and as a radical change. This necessary shift is a “turbulent transition.”23https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/20030421_001/1#404609105 After all, if “justice is to be the ruling principle of social organization—then existing conceptions that were born out of ignorance of these emerging [global] realities have to be recast.”24“The Prosperity of Humankind.” A statement prepared by the Bahá’í International Community Office of Public Information. Available at www.bahai.org/r/922127541 For example, existing economic models “will not serve the needs of a world motivated by ideals of unity and justice.” Instead, new economic models are needed, “shaped by insights that arise from a sympathetic understanding of shared experience, from viewing human beings in relation to others, and from a recognition of the centrality to social well-being of the role of the family and the community.”25https://reference.bahai.org/en/t/bic/PRH/prh-5.html While new awareness and understanding are essential—indeed, shifts in individual consciousness are a necessary driver and engine of broader change—they are not nearly enough. For equal, just, and peaceful relations to exist in which humanity can face current collective challenges, sacrifice and hardship will inevitably have to be endured by individuals, communities, and societies. Long-entrenched patterns that reinforce inequality will have to be confronted.

In the context of the legacy of colonialism in Canada, one can see how there has been a propensity to sometimes pursue what may be seen as easy and to avoid or delay some of what is essential and hard. To put it even more critically, as some have done: There has been a propensity to disproportionately pursue symbolic or performative acts of reconciliation and to avoid making the necessary comprehensive political, economic, and structural shifts. So, for example, we see growing dialogue and debates about flying the Canadian flag at half-mast in response to the discovery of unmarked burials, the appropriateness of making land acknowledgements, the inclusion of Indigenous symbols and representation in ceremonies, the removal of statues, and the changing of placenames. While these types of actions are important and necessary—indeed, they are part of consciousness-raising and reflections of shifts in understanding—their limits are also clear. As Wilson-Raybould explains:

Symbolic acts do not lift a child out of poverty or help keep them with their family. They do not address the over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice system. They do not recognize and implement Indigenous rights, uphold the human rights in the UN Declaration, or do anything else tangible. And, for these reasons, they cannot be a primary focus of our attention, energy, and effort. Yes, there is necessary value in some of these actions. We need them as part of the process of learning and understanding. But no, they should not be the leading focus of the work of reconciliation. Or taken to mean we have reconciled.26Wilson-Raybould, True Reconciliation, 293.

While symbolic action grows, it occurs in a context where foundational structural and systemic change has been extremely slow. Treaties, some of them hundreds of years old, are consistently violated. As already noted, the predominant law governing the lives of most Indigenous peoples in Canada is the Indian Act, a nineteenth-century racist and segregationist statute. While the collective constitutional rights of Indigenous peoples were entrenched in the Canadian Constitution in 1982, Canadian governments adopted the position—after amending the Constitution to include Indigenous rights—that the amendments meant nothing, forcing decades of lawsuits and hundreds of court decisions about their meaning. Meanwhile, the movement toward structural and systemic change that is ultimately needed—to advance the “turbulent transition” and for “justice to be the ruling principle of social organization”—is painfully slow.

The emphasis on the symbolic over the real, of image and form over substance, has not gone unnoticed. It carries with it the potential to make true reconciliation more difficult and to increase conflict. Increasingly, performing reconciliation has become a flashpoint of controversy. For example, leaders from across the political spectrum posed for images on fields adjacent to Indian Residential Schools where children were understood to be buried. This immediately drew criticism because, for example, governments continue to be found liable for systematically violating the basic human rights of Indigenous children, including for providing lesser services for Indigenous children in government care than for non-Indigenous children. This gap between symbolic and substantive action can further reinforce mistrust, make necessary partnering for real change more difficult, and deepen cynicism and skepticism. At the same time, in other segments of society—with less sympathy toward the work of reconciliation—there can be growing frustration as this work seems to grow and intensify. Hostility toward substantive action could become even more intransigent among some as they realize that the growing attention around symbolic measures is not considered to be addressing the real work and real needs.

The focus on what is easier and avoidance of what is harder in the pursuit of reconciliation has been persistent. It continues today when recognition of the need for fundamental change is voiced, but followed up with action that is only on the margins. From a Bahá’í perspective, the resistance to breaking these patterns and to doing the hard work of restructuring political, economic, and social structures and systems effectively denies the reality of justice and unity. If we want to “reconcile”—actually build social systems reflecting inclusion, justice, and unity—we have to be willing to transform the foundations. We cannot do it while being unwilling to look at fundamental changes to systems and structures that facilitated and shaped the injustices in the first place and how those have become entrenched and continue to reinforce invisible and visible silos that arbitrarily and destructively divide human beings.

 

Transforming Human Communities

Addressing the legacy of colonization of Indigenous peoples requires distinct and specific actions. Enduring and systemic injustices must be approached, understood, and challenged on their own terms, with efforts to redress them grounded in the actual experiences and knowledge of those that have endured them. General platitudes and prescriptions, drawn primarily from theoretical or conceptual frameworks or applying the experiences from other situations of injustice, not only are likely to be ineffective, but can even contribute to perpetuating some of the injustices that one is striving to address.

This development of solutions and change that recognizes, affirms, and reflects the experiences of Indigenous peoples has been difficult. Indigenous peoples have had to fight hard to gain respect for the starting point of efforts at change to be: “nothing about us, without us.” Even when governments recognize the need for change, there remain elements of paternalism and superiority that are reflected in their belief that they still know best.

But, there has been progress. One of the central signs has been the acceleration in recognition by Canadians of all backgrounds of the history of colonization in Canada; the need to gain ever-deeper understanding of Indigenous cultures, peoples, and experiences; and the imperative to support and take action themselves to advance reconciliation. A growing recognition of the centrality and vitality of Indigenous leadership, voices, and experiences and of how much learning has to take place from them and from each other has become discernible. To get to this point of recognition, which is still deepening, Indigenous peoples have had little choice but to struggle and advocate on the terrain of imposed political and legal systems—often engaging in adversarial court processes, action in communities and on the ground, and through political processes. But there are limits to what this can achieve, and now the country is in that “turbulent transition.” Injustice is being seen and understood more and more and is increasingly accepted as untenable. The work of dismantling laws, policies, and practices that have supported injustice is well engaged. But the essential and constructive task of building deep patterns of justice and unity now requires transformation, not reformation. This transformation applies to our human community, in which elements of the status quo in political, legal, social, and economic systems and structures are changed to reflect first values and principles supporting inclusion, unity, and just relations.

Positive and important change has occurred through existing systems and structures, and this must continue to be built. For example, in the 1920s, Indigenous leaders visited the Canadian Parliament to raise the alarm about the growing oppression and declining condition of their peoples and communities. In response to this advocacy, in 1927, the government amended the Indian Act to make it illegal for Indigenous peoples to obtain funds or legal counsel to advance rights issues, thereby shutting out these claims from the court system. Almost forty years later, when these limitations were removed, Indigenous peoples strategically turned to the courts as one avenue to drive change. Over time, the courts became a central venue and vehicle that tended to side with Indigenous peoples in their claims against the government. Ultimately, the courts have played a vitally important role in shifting some of the realities, policies, and conditions of Indigenous peoples—by, in effect, holding governments to account regarding human rights norms.

How much further can such efforts go? Courts do not write legislation, change policies, or undertake or implement practices. They do not build houses, feed children, or transfer land. They do not govern. Moreover, courts are not divorced from or outside of the structures and systems that created the injustice in the first place. Instead, they are institutions of a particular tradition that at one time were forces supporting colonization and at another time were part of addressing its legacy.

While the courts and other existing institutions, systems, and structures may help mitigate conditions of inequality and injustice, they do not have the ability to drive the deep-rooted systemic and structural changes needed to forge grounded patterns in unity. Instead, human communities—peoples—must do this, consciously acting to build new patterns between them and to express those patterns in transformed social relations, structures, and systems.

It is here that one can see some of the exciting and important dynamics of change emerging as the seeds of the transformation required. The fact that Canadians—particularly younger Canadians—increasingly know and understand Canada’s history and legacy of colonization is spurring new forms of action in families, neighbourhoods, and communities that would have been nearly unimaginable even a generation ago.

Local communities where much of the population, regardless of background, recognizes the roles Indigenous governments must play in stewarding the land, protecting the environment, and maintaining cultural, spiritual, and social traditions, are looking to support those roles as they are filled. Individuals, often young people, are engaging in social action in their communities and schools to advance reconciliation, for example, by supporting the creation of culturally safe spaces where learning and sharing with Indigenous peoples can appropriately occur. School systems are changing their curricula and ways of teaching to tell the true history of Canada and focus on what must be done today to advance reconciliation. Community programs are being designed to help new Canadians arriving from other parts of the world to learn and engage with Indigenous peoples to help forge new bonds and relationships that can transcend the destructive patterns that have dominated in so much of Canadian history.

There are also important shifts in social institutions that, historically, were complicit in colonization, and are now striving to be constructive forces in reconciliation. For example, religious institutions—such as the Catholic and Anglican churches—that played a direct and active role in perpetuating racism and injustice, we see ongoing formal and informal efforts at healing and redress, such as the apology by Pope Francis in 2022, with much work for redress remaining to be done. At the same time, some other religious communities that did not play this direct historical role are examining how to create patterns within their communities that are just and inclusive, and how to participate in society in ways that foster true reconciliation. The Bahá’í community of Canada, as one example, has for many decades publicly expressed the daunting responsibility it views its own community having to strive to be an example of reconciliation and a positive agent for transformation. As the Bahá’í community stated in its submission to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples:

A great deal of work must be done to right wrongs, to create justice, and to educate a new generation. The Canadian Bahá’í Community would like to express the caution, no doubt very much on the minds of the members of the Commission, that instant solutions are not possible. We would like to offer our assistance should the Commission or Canada’s leaders, Aboriginal leaders or others, wish our help. We are a small community, but we are committed to working towards the creation of justice and unity, healing and well-being.27https://opa.bahai.ca/en_documents/submission-to-the-royal-commission-on-aboriginal-peoples-1993/

From a Bahá’í perspective, this moment in history is one of rupture. We cannot build the new—transformed communities characterized by justice and unity—on infirm foundations shaken and fractured by histories of injustice and violence, silos and division. Therefore, while we must continue to mitigate every enduring harm and make life better for peoples and communities that have suffered intergenerational prejudice and discrimination – and use every tool we can to do so – we must also, at the same time, be engaged in building anew the foundations for structures and systems that reject the possibility of such divisive and destructive actions from the outset.

In this vision, the work of reconciliation must move forward on multiple paths at once. There must be new knowledge and new discourses that lead to new actions by individuals and groups. There must be changes to laws, policies, and practices that recognize Indigenous peoples, governments, laws, traditions, and rights. There must be new forms of agreements and understandings that structure proper, sovereign relations between Indigenous and Canadian governments. But ultimately, while essential, none of these efforts alone will be enough to address the legacy of colonization or prepare for present or future challenges. To truly reconcile, human beings will also have to forge new spaces and patterns of community at the grassroots, striving to reflect the dynamics of peaceful co-existence and just relations from the beginning. This has to be done consciously, in a learning and humble mode, in which no peoples, worldviews, or knowledge systems are rendered invisible, and hidden, divisive silos are actively and visibly rejected. It is this work that is now emerging and that all of us have the capacity to foster to the best of our abilities.

The Bahá’í writings often use an analogy to describe the types of change reflected in shifts such as the work of true reconciliation–the analogy of the struggle of a human being coming of age.28https://universalhouseofjustice.bahai.org/involvement-life-society/20130302_001 At such a time, “widely accepted practices and conventions, cherished attitudes and habits, are one by one being rendered obsolete”29https://universalhouseofjustice.bahai.org/involvement-life-society/20130302_001 as new imperatives take over. True reconciliation is emblematic of these new imperatives, and achieving it–like addressing other pernicious forms of injustice and creating enduring conditions of peace and harmony–will require human affairs to be “utterly reorganized.” We must all be persistent and audacious in our efforts to advance and achieve this outcome.


Dr. Roshan Danesh, SJD, KC, has advised First Nations, the Canadian federal government, the British Columbia provincial government, local governments, and industry on reconciliation. He has also advised international organizations, including the United Nations, and civil society on issues of peace education and peace building. Roshan completed his doctoral studies in constitutional law at Harvard Law School.

Douglas White III (Kwulasultun), JD, KC, is a member and former Chief of the Snuneymuxw First Nation. He is a practicing lawyer and currently is the Chair of the BC First Nations Justice Council. He has been granted Distinguished Alumni Awards from both Vancouver Island University (2013) and the University of Victoria (2015).

 

By Michael Karlberg

Michael Karlberg is a professor of Communication Studies at Western Washington University. His interdisciplinary scholarship examines prevailing conceptions of human nature, power, social organization, and social change – and their implications for the pursuit of peace and justice.

Justice is a central principle of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh. “The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice,” Bahá’u’lláh wrote, “turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee.”1Bahá’u’lláh. Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, www.bahai.org/r/961412317 “No light can compare with the light of justice. The establishment of order in the world and the tranquillity of the nations depend upon it.”2Bahá’u’lláh. Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, www.bahai.org/r/463236506 “Tread ye the path of justice, for this, verily, is the straight path.”3Bahá’u’lláh. The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, www.bahai.org/r/660153975

How does the Bahá’í principle of justice relate to prevailing conceptions of social justice? And how do the society-building processes being advanced by the Bahá’í community relate to contemporary movements for social justice? This essay seeks to correlate Bahá’í approaches to social change with the approaches adopted by prevalent social and political movements working for social justice and to draw out emerging insights from Bahá’í endeavors in recent decades.

Conceptualizing social justice

Though the concept of justice traces back to the earliest recorded religious and philosophical texts, the concept of social justice emerged in the modern era. In contemporary discourses and in struggles for social justice, the concept is understood in many different ways. For instance, it is often understood in distributive terms, with a focus on how the basic structures of society distribute power, resources, and opportunities to different social groups. Alternatively, it is often understood in procedural terms, with a focus on how a society’s political and legal decision-making procedures can become more just. Other ways of conceptualizing social justice focus on how major historical injustices against entire populations can be repaired; how harmful stigmas and prejudices can be overcome; how environmental conditions can become more equitable for all social groups; and how other important concerns can be addressed. Given this diversity of valid but sometimes competing concerns, is it possible to articulate an underlying aspiration that ultimately motivates all movements for social justice, or a common horizon toward which all such movements can ultimately orient themselves?

The Bahá’í teachings suggest this is possible. The central organizing principle of the Bahá’í Faith—the oneness of humanity—is often understood through the metaphor of the human body. According to this metaphor, diverse individuals and social groups can be likened to the members of an organically interdependent body whose internal diversity is a source of strength and vitality. Given this organic interdependence, the well-being of every individual and group depends on the well-being of the entire social body—even as the well-being of the entire body depends on the well-being of every individual and group. This, as the Universal House of Justice has stated, is the context within which Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings on social justice must be understood.4“The issue of social justice is, as you know, central to the Bahá’í Revelation. In addressing the elected representatives of the world’s people, Bahá’u’lláh sets out the context that must frame any effort to understand His Teachings on the subject: ‘Regard the world as the human body which, though at its creation whole and perfect, hath been afflicted… with grave disorders and maladies.’… Central to such passages is the principle that not only are humanity’s talents and capacities shared by all its members, but its problems and afflictions likewise ultimately affect all. Whether in sickness or health, the human family constitutes a single species, and the condition of any part of it cannot be intelligently considered in isolation from this systemic oneness.” Universal House of Justice. From a letter to an individual dated 27 November 2001.

The Bahá’í teachings further suggest that human beings—as spiritual beings—have a two-fold moral purpose: to develop their latent spiritual and intellectual potentialities and to contribute to the well-being and development of the entire social body. Through service to humanity, the individual develops his or her latent potentialities. In turn, the relative condition of the body of humanity affects the individual’s ability to cultivate intellectual and spiritual capacities. Individual and societal development are thus inseparably linked, each one acting upon the other; the two-fold moral purpose derives from this reciprocal relationship.5Thus the Bahá’í Writings explain that “We cannot segregate the human heart from the environment outside us and say that once one of these is reformed everything will be improved. Man is organic with the world. His inner life moulds the environment and is itself also deeply affected by it. The one acts upon the other and every abiding change in the life of man is the result of these mutual reactions.” On behalf of Shoghi Effendi. Letter to an individual believer dated 17 February 1933.

In this light, social justice can be broadly understood as a set of ideal conditions within the social body that would enable every individual and group to develop their latent spiritual and intellectual potentialities. In keeping with the contemporary conceptions of social justice previously described, some of these conditions can be understood in distributive terms, some in procedural terms, some in reparative terms, some in environmental terms, and so forth. However, an underlying logic that brings coherence to all of these considerations might be stated as follows: Social justice is that set of conditions that enables every individual and social group to develop their latent potentialities and thereby contribute to the flourishing of the entire social body, from which their own flourishing ultimately derives.

Let us assume, for a moment, that this underlying conception is coherent with the particular concerns and aspirations of diverse movements for social justice and that it can orient us in the direction of a shared horizon toward which we can all seek to advance, regardless of the particular aspects of justice on which we are most immediately focused. Such an assumption still leaves open the question: How can we advance toward this end?

Pursuing social justice

There are undoubtedly many means by which social justice can be pursued. In this regard, it helps to envision a complex “ecology” of social change in which diverse movements occupy distinct niches and make contributions that can be complementary. Surveying a few of the most salient features of this ecology of social change helps us understand the distinctive contributions the Bahá’í community is increasingly able to make.

Movements for social justice have sometimes taken the form of violent insurrections aimed at capturing the state on behalf of emancipatory aims. However, the Bahá’í Faith explicitly forbids engagement in politically motivated violence. And the track record of the Bahá’í community clearly attests to this commitment.

Social justice is also pursued through conventional mechanisms of the state, such as electoral politics. In this regard, the Bahá’í teachings forbid participation in processes that are inherently conflictual and divisive. Therefore, Bahá’is do not avail themselves of partisan political mechanisms, beyond voting in democratic elections when this does not require a partisan affiliation. Bahá’ís do, however, appeal for justice through appropriate legal channels. Sometimes this occurs through mechanisms for public input on state policies, through established judiciary processes, or through mechanisms within the nascent system of international human rights law. Also, in states that safeguard freedom of speech and freedom of the press, as well as on the global stage, Bahá’ís sometimes pursue awareness-raising campaigns using traditional mass media or, more recently, social media in efforts to shine a public spotlight on injustice. However, only a small portion of the Bahá’í community is engaged in any of the aforementioned processes. The primary response of the Bahá’í community to injustice and persecution lies beyond such processes.

Beyond the conventional responses to injustice mentioned above, social movement scholars often focus on forms of contentious politics ranging from protests, civil disobedience, and general strikes, to property destruction and even terrorism.6See, for example, Charles Tilly, Contentious Performances (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008). Such strategies are intended to change state policies by applying external forms of moral, political, or economic pressure through legal or illegal forms of collective action. In the literature on contentious politics, increasing attention is being paid to strategies of nonviolent resistance. Empirical studies have demonstrated that such strategies tend to be more efficacious than their violent counterparts.7Erica Chenowith and Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011). Their efficacy appears to derive, in part, from the fact that it is easier to mobilize a larger percentage of the population in a nonviolent movement than a violent insurrection, due to both practical and moral constraints on ways in which most people can or will engage. The relative efficacy of nonviolent strategies also appears to derive from the fact that they attract broader public sympathies in support of a cause, including the sympathies of some state actors and other influential elites.

Of course, nonviolence, as a moral or spiritual principle, dates back millennia through Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity, and other religious movements. However, in the modern era, organized, large-scale, nonviolent social and political movements began to emerge in the nineteenth century—around the same time the Bahá’í Faith originated. By the early twentieth century, nonviolent movement strategies were being systematically refined and popularized by Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa and India. They were subsequently adapted in many other twentieth-century struggles—such as the United States civil rights movement of the 1960s. Since then, a burgeoning and sophisticated literature on nonviolent theory and practice has emerged, giving rise to a proliferation of centers for training in nonviolent collective action. These sites are becoming increasingly influential in processes of social movement learning around the globe.

Nonviolent tactics such as civil disobedience, though historically effective in achieving some aims, can undermine the broader rule of law. The Bahá’í teachings emphasize that the rule of law is essential to social progress. Therefore, in response to patently unjust laws, the Bahá’í community uses other means—legal means—to advocate for reform.

The contemporary language of “resistance” is also foreign to the Bahá’í writings and to Bahá’í discourse. Rather, the Bahá’í teachings suggest that historical progress toward peace, justice, and shared human prosperity is driven primarily by increases in the human capacity to apply spiritual principles—or foundational normative truths about human existence—to the construction of ever-more mature social forms. Such constructive efforts are active, not reactive. Indeed, such efforts often encounter resistance from those seeking to preserve the status quo. In this regard, the Bahá’í community is not simply reacting to, or resisting, the myriad injustices of the present-day social order. Rather, the community comprises diverse peoples who are attracted to the vision of a new world order articulated by Bahá’u’lláh, and who are inspired to become protagonists in the processes that will be needed to translate this vision into reality.

The Bahá’í community is thus focused on constructing an entirely new social order—a new civilization—through organized processes of learning, training, and capacity building. Such processes address, simultaneously, the transformation of both individuals and social structures, through the mobilization of ever-expanding circles of protagonists. Bahá’ís increasingly refer to these efforts in terms of society building.8The Bahá’í concept of society building has been elaborated in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors dated 30 December 2021.

In this connection, the Gandhian concept of a constructive program provides some insight.9Mohandas Gandhi. Constructive Program: Its Meaning and Place (Ahmedabad, India: Navajivan Publishing House, 1945). This concept arose from Gandhi’s recognition that the means and ends of social change need to be coherent.10“They say ‘means are after all means’. I would say ‘means are after all everything’. As the means so the end… There is no wall of separation between means and end… Realization of the goal is in exact proportion to that of the means.” Mohandas Gandhi, “An Appeal to the Nation, 17-7-1924,” in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi: GandhiServe Foundation, 1999), 28, 310. Likewise, the Universal House of Justice wrote, “Bahá’ís are to bear in mind the principle, enshrined in their teachings, that means should be consistent with ends; noble goals cannot be achieved through unworthy means. Specifically, it is not possible to build enduring unity through endeavours that require contention or assume that an inherent conflict of interests underlies all human interactions, however subtly.” Letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran, 2 March 2013. This is because the means we adopt in the pursuit of social change prefigure the ends we achieve.11For a discussion of the concept of prefiguration in theories of social change, refer to Carl Boggs, “Revolutionary Process, Political Strategy, and the Dilemma of Power,” Theory & Society 4, no. 3 (1977). The relation of this to the Gandhian concept of constructive programs is explored in Karuna Mantena, “Gandhi and the Means-Ends Question in Politics,” Occasional Papers of the School of Social Science, no. 46 (Princeton, NJ: Institute for Advanced Study, 2012). Thus, nonviolent ends cannot be achieved through violent means. As Gandhi gained experience applying this principle, and as his thinking matured, he recognized the importance of actively constructing a new social order that could displace or supplant the prevailing social order. This is what he meant by a constructive program, which he came to see as the fullest expression of the principle of coherence between means and ends.

The constructive program constitutes the internal work an oppressed population must do to build a more just order. Gandhi contrasted this constructive work with contentious forms of nonviolent action. He saw the latter as externally focused tactics intended to resist, disrupt, or dismantle specific elements of the oppressive order; he came to view these as secondary. The primary work of nonviolent social change, he came to believe, was the constructive program.12“Outward agitation,” Gandhi wrote, “cannot be given the first place. It is of subsidiary importance and it depends for its success entirely on the success of that which is internal, viz. constructive work.” Mohandas Gandhi. “My Notes (30-8-1925)” in The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi (New Delhi, Publications Division Government of India, 1999, 98 volumes), 362–363. Gandhi thus came to view social “agitation” as merely “an aid to constructive effort” (1945: iii). Moreover, he argued that “civil disobedience is not absolutely necessary… if the cooperation of the whole nation is secured in the constructive programme” (1945: 21).

Gandhi also recognized that confrontational forms of nonviolent action tend to unleash passions that can easily devolve into cycles of conflict and violence. And he understood that without an adequate constructive program, a movement dependent on confrontation and conflict can throw off old forms of violence and oppression only to leave a vacuum in which new forms of violence and oppression will emerge. However, Gandhi’s peers within the Indian independence movement downplayed the importance of this aspect of Gandhi’s thought and practice. Likewise, as Gandhi’s nonviolent methods were adapted around the world, little attention was paid to the radical implications of his thinking about constructive programs, until quite recently.13Renewed interest in this aspect of Gandhian thought, and its relevance to contemporary social change, is illustrated in Mantena, “Gandhi and the Means-Ends Question in Politics”; Majken Jul Sorensen, “Constructive Resistance: Conceptualising and Mapping the Terrain,” Journal of Resistance Studies 2 (2016); Sean Chabot and Stellan Vinthagen, “Decolonizing Civil Resistance,” Mobilization an International Quarterly 20, no. 4 (2015).

Constructive agency

The Bahá’í teachings suggest that the most effective way for Bahá’ís to contribute to social transformation is through organized expressions of constructive agency. Thus, the community as a whole is focused on consciously, intentionally, and systematically building a new social order amidst the violence and oppression of the prevailing order. However, this commitment to purely constructive means does not entail criticism of others who employ more contentious means in the pursuit of justice. Rather, Bahá’ís have faith that their purely constructive efforts will, over time, make a vital contribution to the transformation of society alongside other movements struggling for justice in their own ways—many of which are helping to sweep away obstacles to social progress and thereby clearing the ground for processes of social reconstruction.

The Bahá’í community has learned to understand its constructive work in terms of three broad, overlapping spheres of activity. First, Bahá’ís are focused on the expansion and consolidation of new forms of community life. Through this work, they seek to create new social norms, new institutional structures, and new cultural patterns on an ever-expanding scale across the planet. Second, as these community-building processes advance, so does the capacity to engage in diverse forms of outward-oriented social action. Such action aims to build capacities within a population to address its own social and economic needs and aspirations in constructive ways. Third, as both of the preceding capacities develop, so does the capacity to participate in the discourses of society. Bahá’ís thus seek to contribute to the evolution of thought and the advancement of knowledge in all fields bearing on human progress. In this regard, Bahá’ís hope to play their part in helping to lay the epistemic foundations of a more peaceful, just, and mutually prosperous social order.14Roshan Danesh and Lex Musta, “Some Reflections on Bahá’í Approaches to Social Change,” in Dimensions of Bahá’í Law, ed. Roshan Danesh (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing, 2019).

Through these three spheres of constructive activity, Bahá’ís actively seek to address the root causes of injustice and oppression. In this regard, Bahá’ís do not directly confront oppressive power structures. Instead, they adopt an expanded conception of power that opens new possibilities for pursuing social justice.15For a discussion of this theme, see Michael Karlberg, Constructing Social Reality: An Inquiry into the Normative Foundations of Social Change (Ottawa: Association for Bahá’í Studies, 2020). Contemporary conceptions of power tend to focus on its competitive, conflictual, and oppressive expressions. This narrow focus obscures unifying and mutualistic powers of the human spirit that can be marshalled by individuals, institutions, and entire communities for the purposes of constructing a more peaceful and just social order.

The Bahá’í teachings suggest that these unifying and mutualistic powers act as forces of attraction capable of drawing in ever-expanding numbers of people who want to participate in the construction of a new social order. This is based on an understanding that the present-day order, which embodies so many conflictual and oppressive expressions of power, is already in crisis and cannot be sustained because of its internal contradictions and dysfunctions. Accordingly, Bahá’ís have faith that as growing numbers of people recognize the inadequacies and injustices of the extant social order, they will be attracted to participate in efforts to construct a more peaceful and just order.

As the experience of the Bahá’í community in some parts of the world demonstrates, transformative constructive efforts of the kind described above require resilience, because such efforts will encounter repression in some contexts. As Bahá’í efforts advance in specific places, it can become clear to those who are privileged by the oppressive dynamics of the inherited social order that there would be no place for such ill-gotten privilege in the more just social order Bahá’ís and others are laboring to construct. Remarkably, in some cases, the hearts and minds of privileged individuals have been attracted to the Bahá’í Cause, and they have thrown in their lot with this society-building program. Others, however, have attempted to repress this constructive movement to maintain their privileges. The resilience of Bahá’í communities in the face of such repression—which has already been experienced in a number of countries—offers early evidence of the human capacity to continually advance a transformative constructive movement, even in the face of violent repression.16For an in-depth discussion of this theme, see Michael Karlberg, “Constructive Resilience: The Bahá’í Response to Oppression,” Peace & Change 35, no. 2 (2010), 222-257.

Consider, for instance, the Bahá’í community’s long-standing commitment to the advancement of women, and to the equality of women and men, in the context of deeply patriarchal forces that are still at play in many parts of the world. In such contexts, Bahá’ís have been among the first to reject the forced veiling of women, to declare the full equality of women and men, and to begin translating this principle into practice in every arena of family and community life by prioritizing the education of girls, fostering professional and administrative capacities in women, and empowering women to become protagonists of social change within their societies. Not surprisingly, this unwavering commitment to the equality of women and men has been used, in some countries, as a pretext for ongoing calumnies and assaults against Bahá’ís. Nonetheless, Bahá’ís continue, to this day, wherever they reside, to engage in constructive efforts to foster the advancement of women—while responding to their oppressors with dignity and compassion.

Another illustration of the Faith’s constructive work can be seen in Bahá’í efforts to develop a more just and inclusive system of democratic governance. The Bahá’í community has no clergy. Rather, it organizes its affairs through democratically elected assemblies at local, national, and international levels. Yet its unique electoral system is entirely free of nominations, partisanship, competition, money, and self-interest.17For a more detailed discussion of the Bahá’í electoral system, in comparison with electoral models in most Western liberal democracies, refer to Michael Karlberg, “Western Liberal Democracy as New World Order?,” in The Bahá’í World: 2005-2006 (2007). All adults are eligible to vote and, on the local and national levels, all adults are eligible to be voted for. Within this system, individuals who are thereby elected have a responsibility to serve in positions they never sought, and such service is characterized by personal sacrifice rather than the accrual of power and privilege. This system thus constitutes a radically new form of democratic governance, elements of which the United Nations has brought to the attention of aspiring democracies as they construct their own electoral systems for the first time.18United Nations Institute for Namibia, Comparative Electoral Systems & Political Consequences: Options for Namibia (Lusaka, Zambia: United Nations, 1989). Within this system, women and men serve side by side on elected councils even in countries where it is dangerous to do so. Likewise, blacks and whites served side by side under Jim Crow segregation in the U.S. and apartheid in South Africa, despite the dangers that entailed. In cultures with caste systems, members of the highest and lowest castes also serve side by side on these councils. Not surprisingly, this inclusive system, which stands in striking contrast to many prevailing systems of governance, has been repressed in some parts of the world. Indeed, some Bahá’ís who have been elected to positions of service within this system have subsequently been arrested, tortured, and executed by government authorities. Yet the global project of constructing a more just and responsible model of governance continues undeterred and, in the course of the past century, Bahá’ís have established elected assemblies in more than 6,000 localities and 190 countries worldwide.19Bahá’í World Centre, Department of Statistics, 2021.

By persevering with a principled and constructive approach in the pursuit of social justice—and showing resilience in the face of violent repression—Bahá’ís are demonstrating the potential of a purely non-adversarial model of transformative social change. Moreover, when they encounter direct repression, Bahá’ís do not let their oppressors establish the terms of the encounter. They refuse to play the role of victim; refuse to be dehumanized; and refuse to forfeit their sense of constructive agency.

In Iran, where the Bahá’í community has faced—and continues to face—systematic, state-sponsored persecution, that community has adopted a posture of constructive resilience under conditions of sustained, severe repression.20The concept of constructive resilience has been elaborated in numerous letters by the Universal House of Justice. See, for instance, to the Bahá’í students deprived of access to higher education in Iran dated 9 September 2007; to the Believers in the Cradle of the Faith dated 5 March 2009; to the Bahá’ís of Iran dated 23 June 2009; to the Believers in the Cradle of the Faith dated 21 March 2010; to the Believers in the Cradle of the Faith dated 21 March 2011; to the Believers in the Cradle of the Faith dated 14 May 2011; to the devoted believers of Bahá’u’lláh in the sacred land of Iran dated 1 March 2012; to the Bahá’ís of Iran dated 2 March 2013; to the followers of Bahá’u’lláh in Iran dated 27 August 2013; to the Bahá’ís of the World dated Ridván 2015; and to an individual Bahá’í in the United States dated 4 February 2018. The Bahá’í response to oppression has been, as described by the Universal House of Justice, “neither to succumb in resignation nor to take on the characteristics of the oppressor.” The House of Justice continued, “The victim of oppression can transcend it through an inner strength that shields the soul from bitterness and hatred and which sustains consistent, principled action.”21Universal House of Justice. Letter to the Bahá’ís of Iran dated 23 June 2009. Available at www.bahai.org/r/283815649

In relation to the society-building endeavors of the Bahá’í community, it should also be noted that Bahá’ís do not seek to impose their beliefs or practices on others. They believe the patterns of community life they are constructing, along with the administrative structures that support those patterns, will only be viable if they are embraced through a supremely voluntary process. In this regard, Bahá’ís reject all forms of force, coercion, compulsion, pressure, or proselytization as means of social change. Rather, their strategy is consistently one of construction and attraction: Construct a viable alternative to prevailing social norms and structures and, to the extent it proves itself more just and inclusive, it will steadily attract more and more people.22For a more extensive elaboration of this theme, refer to Michael Karlberg, Beyond the Culture of Contest: From Adversarialism to Mutualism in an Age of Interdependence (Oxford: George Ronald, 2004). When Bahá’ís encounter repression in this process, they adopt a posture of resilience while laboring on with their constructive efforts.

It should further be noted that the Bahá’í community is in it for the long game. Many social and political movements today have specific objectives they hope to achieve in a matter of years, or perhaps decades. The Bahá’í community—“another kind of movement”23‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Promulgation of Universal Peace, www.bahai.org/r/804094876 —adopts a much longer time frame, measured in centuries. Of course, Bahá’u’lláh exhorted his followers to “Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.”24Bahá’u’lláh. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’llah, www.bahai.org/r/096510150 So Bahá’ís are not indifferent to the conditions surrounding them in the moment and are encouraged to ameliorate those conditions to the extent they are able, through myriad forms of social action, commensurate with the developing capacities of the Bahá’í community. They strive to do this in ways that do not unduly divert them from the deeper long-term work that is ultimately needed to address the root causes of social injustice. In this regard, the time frame a movement operates in has significant implications for the means it adopts. Within a wider ecology of social change, some movements need to be attentive to the long game and adopt means that are suited to that time horizon.

Pedagogy of social transformation

Any effort to correlate the Bahá’í approach to social change with the approaches adopted by prevalent social and political movements would be incomplete without examining the central role that education and training plays within many movements for change. In this regard, the growing body of literature about nonviolent collective action is paying increased attention to the pedagogy of social change. Briefly examining a few of the most salient insights from this literature will, again, help illuminate the approach of the Bahá’í community.

One of the earliest documented social justice movements to develop an explicit pedagogy of social change was the Scandinavian folk school movement, which initially emerged in mid-nineteenth-century Denmark. Leaders of these folk schools recognized the inherent dignity of the working poor along with their capacity to become protagonists of social change. To release this capacity, they sought to establish a grassroots network of folk schools oriented to the needs and struggles of common people. These schools employed participatory and collaborative methods to tap into the tacit wisdom that exists within communities. Attention was paid to both the spiritual and intellectual dimensions of empowerment, the legitimization of folk culture, building community solidarity, and fostering collective social action. By the early twentieth century, a network of folk schools had taken root in rural areas and small towns throughout Scandinavia, initially among peasant farmers and later among industrial workers. In Sweden, this movement gave rise to study circles—a participatory pedagogy in which common folk come together to study, analyze their local conditions, and develop plans for social action. The collective agency fostered by folk schools and study circles across Scandinavia played a significant role in movements that had, by the late twentieth century, brought about some of the most equitable societies on earth.

In other parts of the Western world, in the decades leading into the Great Depression, a wider movement toward emancipatory forms of popular education could be discerned. Among its influential centers was the Antigonish movement in the Canadian maritime province of Nova Scotia. Against a backdrop of impoverished farming and fishing communities, a group of liberal Catholic priests and educators began fostering processes of critical consciousness raising and training focused on the development of economic cooperatives, credit unions, microfinance, and other forms of rural community self-empowerment. Drawing inspiration from Scandinavian folk schools and study circles, as well as from British workers’ educational associations and other educational movements of the time, the Antigonish movement fostered study groups that met in homes to analyze the social forces impoverishing participants, identify cooperative forms of local empowerment, and translate those into collective action. In the following decades, the Antigonish movement spread throughout the Canadian maritime provinces before exerting influence across North American and ultimately attracting visitors from around the world who came to learn from its accomplishments.

By the mid twentieth century, centers of training in the United States, such as the Highlander Folk School in rural Appalachia, along with the citizenship schools and freedom schools to which it helped give rise across the U.S. South, were training generations of activists through participatory, culturally relevant, action-oriented pedagogy in the service of overcoming rural poverty, racism, and other social injustices. In roughly the same period, popular education movements were developing across Latin America, inspired in part by the influential work of Paulo Freire. And they were simultaneously developing throughout other parts of the world, based on an understanding that the purpose of popular education is to support marginalized communities in efforts to change unjust social arrangements. Such movements rested on the assumption that all communities are sources of collective insights derived from their experiences. Emancipatory education should foster participation, dialogue, and critical thinking in ways that encourage people to draw out these insights, analyze the forces that keep them oppressed, and develop creative approaches to social change.

Though the preceding sketch traces only a few of the most well-documented threads running through a much more complex global tapestry of movements for emancipatory education and training, these threads illustrate variations on one of the most salient themes in the pedagogy of social change: a focus on raising consciousness through participatory processes that lead to collective social action.

But the pedagogy of social change includes another significant theme that must be noted. This is the training of protagonists to engage in disciplined forms of social action within a shared framework. For instance, Gandhi envisioned campaigns of nonviolent social change as the equivalent of military campaigns that required training. The focus of his training was the development of virtue, perseverance, firmness in the truth, disciplined nonviolence, and a willingness to sacrifice for a just cause. These ideas were subsequently adapted to, and expanded within, many other nonviolence struggles for social justice, including the U.S. civil rights movement.

The global diffusion of consciousness-raising methods and training techniques illustrates some of the ways that social movements have long been learning from each other about the pedagogy of social change. In this regard, Gandhi envisioned nonviolent social change as a nascent science that would steadily develop across the twentieth century and beyond; and he described his own contributions to this process as “experiments with truth.”25Mohandas Gandhi. The Story of My Experiments with Truth (Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1948). Thus, over the course of the past century, social movements have been increasingly engaged in the generation, application, and diffusion of knowledge about social change. This has been occurring both within and across diverse movements, and it has given rise to an increasingly rich body of literature on social movement learning.26Refer, for instance, to Casas-Cortés, Maria Isabel, Michal Osterweil, and Dana Powell, “Blurring Boundaries: Recognizing Knowledge-Practices in the Study of Social Movements,” Anthropological Quarterly, vol. 8, no. 1 (2008), 17-58; and Laurence Cox, “Movements Making Knowledge: A New Wave of Inspiration for Sociology?” Sociology, vol. 48, no. 5 (2014), 954-971. See also the activist journals Reflections on a Revolution, and Interface: A Journal for and about Social Movements, which directly support social movement learning; and Sean Chabot, The Transnational Roots of the Civil Rights Movement: African American Explorations of the Gandhian Repertoire (New York: Lexington Books, 2012).

To date, however, systematic learning about movement pedagogy has tended to focus on the pedagogy of contentious resistance. Less attention has been paid to the pedagogy of transformative constructive programs. One illuminating exception to this is Jessica Gordon Nembhard’s history of African-American cooperative thought and practice.27Jessica Gordon Nembhard. Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014). In the early twentieth century, inspired in part by the Antigonish movement (which also embodied a constructive program pedagogy), African Americans began forming study circles to systematize the expansion of economic cooperatives as a means of overcoming economic marginalization across the U.S. As Nembhard documents, nearly every black cooperative of this era started with a study circle of some kind. Through this decentralized, participatory, and mutually empowering pedagogy, consciousness increased about the significance of cooperative enterprises, understanding deepened about the principles and philosophy of such enterprises, and practical skills developed to organize and run such enterprises. The relationships, mutual trust, and solidarity that cooperative enterprises depend upon were also fostered by those study circles.

Nembhard’s work brings into focus the central role pedagogy can play in constructive movements for social change, and it serves as an invitation to further advance this important area of learning. In this context, the Bahá’í community has much to contribute. Since the passing of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, which ushered in the formative age of the Bahá’í Faith, Shoghi Effendi and the Universal House of Justice have successively guided the Bahá’í community by adopting a learning mode that has continuously distilled new knowledge from accumulating experience.28For an overview of this process, see Paul Lample. Revelation and Social Reality (West Palm Beach, FL: Palabra Publications, 2009). By the dawn of the twenty-first century, a conscious and systematic culture of learning was taking root across the entire global Bahá’í community, as a central element of its evolving framework for action. Though this culture of learning has been written about in detail elsewhere,29Refer, for instance, to Michael Karlberg & Todd Smith, “A Culture of Learning” in The World of the Bahá’í Faith, ed. Robert Stockman (New York: Routledge, 2022). a few of its salient features will illuminate the discussion at hand.

The Bahá’í culture of learning gave rise to, and is in turn being fostered by, a network of training institutes that began emerging in the 1990s. In short, as systematic learning became a central focus of the community as a whole, a system was needed to facilitate the generation, application, and diffusion of knowledge within the community. Training institutes emerged as a key component of this system.

The training institutes of the Bahá’í community are based on the following premises and principles, among others. The movement of a population along a path of social and spiritual development is an organic process that begins with the transformation of hearts and minds. This process must soon manifest itself in the transformation of social structures and relationships. Systematic approaches to education and capacity building are needed to support this. The concept of a “path of service” provides a valuable way to organize these processes. Diverse individuals within a population will move along paths of service at different rates. The advancement of a population must be propelled by unifying and constructive forces generated from within the population itself. And ongoing processes of study, action, reflection, and consultation that are open to all—that are participatory, coordinated, systematic, and free from the trappings of ego—are needed to generate knowledge on all of these fronts.

Based on these premises and principles, Bahá’í training institutes are proving increasingly capable of raising ever-expanding circles of protagonists to advance the society building processes of the Cause. There are now over three hundred national and regional training institutes of this kind established around the world, reaching tens of thousands of localities and millions of participants, through a decentralized and culturally adaptive approach. Each of these training institutes, in proportion to its developing capacities, is simultaneously contributing to and drawing on a systematic global learning process.

All such training institutes foster creative, grassroots initiative within a shared framework for service. In the literature on nonviolent social change, training processes of this kind have been referred to as frontloading, because, at the outset, they impart “the DNA” of a given movement’s framework in ways that enable diverse protagonists to adapt the framework to local conditions while maintaining the unity, coherence, and integrity of the framework across the movement.30Refer, for example, to the discussion of this concept in Mark Engler and Paul Engler, This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (New York: Nation Books, 2017). Of course, the DNA of Bahá’í training institutes is different from programs that train protagonists of contentious social action. Among other things, Bahá’í training institutes center on studying the Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh and exploring its implications for individual and collective transformation.

For Bahá’ís, and for growing numbers of like-minded people who participate in these training institutes, studying the Word of God provides the motivating power and the organizing principles for collective action. One form of this action is initiating devotional gatherings that bring people together across all lines of difference; foster and sustain sacrificial commitments to the betterment of the world; and provide spaces for meaningful conversations about the exigencies of the age and the means for addressing them. Another form of action is initiating classes for the education of children that, during a child’s formative age, lay the moral and intellectual foundations that can undergird a life committed to social transformation. Still another form of action is animating groups of adolescent youth within a program of spiritual and intellectual empowerment—groups of peers that, during another crucial formative age, learn to read their social reality in light of their emerging sense of justice, organize their first initiatives of social action, and thereby develop their budding capacities to become protagonists of change. Initiating study circles for older youth and adults is yet one more form of action, with the purpose of training participants to advance a wide range of society building processes —from the local community-building initiatives mentioned immediately above, to forms of social action addressing wider societal concerns, to participating in prevalent societal discourses about the betterment of the human condition.

Across all of these areas of endeavor, training institutes seek to foster the grassroots emergence of artistic expressions that awaken hearts, inspire insight and understanding, and motivate people to action. Finally, training institutes also foster the qualities, skills, and knowledge needed to construct, participate in, and refine radically new structures of democratic governance, alluded to earlier in this essay, that are capable of guiding the constructive agency of an ever-expanding community at the local, national, and global levels. This work of institution building can be understood as both a laboratory for learning about the requisites of just governance and an evolving model from which all who are concerned with just governance might draw new insights.

Invitation to collective learning and dialog

As this essay has emphasized throughout, the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh is not merely a social or political movement. The Bahá’í Faith is a world-embracing religion whose adherents constitute an ever-expanding cross-section of humanity focused on the application of spiritual principles in the construction of a new civilization befitting the age of humanity’s collective maturity. Nonetheless, in many respects, the Bahá’í community can also be understood as a global movement focused on radical social change in the original sense of the word radical: addressing the root causes of the many injustices facing humanity.

Based on more than a century and a half of experience, the Bahá’í community has much to contribute to the evolving global conversation on the pursuit of social justice. But it also has much to learn. As the preceding discussion suggests, the evolving philosophy and practice of nonviolent social change can offer, to Bahá’ís, fresh insights into the distinctive nature of Bahá’í collective action, along with a perspective on how the Bahá’í approach relates to other approaches—or how it fits into a wider ecology of social change. Furthermore, as a community that is dedicated to the generation, application, and diffusion of knowledge about social transformation, the Bahá’í community is not learning in a vacuum. Bahá’ís are learning alongside, and in dialog with, others from the wider society. Bahá’ís are also encouraged to study and draw insights from every relevant field of knowledge. The challenge for Bahá’ís is learning how to do this in ways that are coherent with the evolving conceptual framework that guides the work of the Bahá’í community.

As Bahá’ís advance on this path of learning, they will increasingly develop the capacity to articulate the Bahá’í approach to social justice in conversation with activists from other movements to foster mutual understanding, contribute to processes of mutual learning, and leverage complementarity among diverse efforts. The purpose of this essay is to invite all who are walking this path, and all who are walking similar paths, to contribute to this expanding discourse on the ends and means of social justice.

By Emily Lample & Richard Thomas

Emily Lample served on the Learning Desk of the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States from 2013 to 2020. Richard Thomas is Professor Emeritus of History at Michigan State University. He is author and coauthor of several books on race relations, the African American experience, and the Baha’i Faith.

The quarter century between 1996 and 2021 was a period of mounting racial contention in the United States. Marked by increased police killings of unarmed African Americans, race riots, burning of Black churches in the Deep South, the rise and spread of white supremacy movements, and wide-spread racial polarization, it resembled some of the worst racial strife of the 1960s. Not even the historic election of the first Black president, which many hoped would usher in a post-racial society, could turn the tide.1Cheryl W. Thompson, “Final police shooting of unarmed black people reveals troubling patterns,” Morning Edition, National Public Radio, 25 January 2021. http://www.npr.org/202101/25/95617701/fatal-police-shooting-of-unarmed-black-people-reveal-troubling-pattern. “Unrest in Virginia: Clashes over a show of white nationalism in Charlottesville turn deadly,” Time, https://time.com/charlottesville-whitenationalism-rally-clashes. https://sites.goggle/a/mmicd.org/american-racie-and-racism-1970-to-present/home/1990s. “Read the full transcript of President Obama’s farewell speech,” Los Angeles Times, 10 January 2017. https://www.latimes.com/politics/la-pol-obama-farewell-speech-transcript-20170110-story.html.

During that period, the American Bahá’í community’s longstanding dedication to racial harmony and justice continued to be expressed in numerous initiatives undertaken by individuals and organizations. These initiatives unfolded amidst a period of profound advancement across the Bahá’í world. In 1996, the worldwide Bahá’í community entered a new stage in its development, propelled by a series of global Plans that successively guided “individuals, institutions and communities” to build the capacity to “[translate] Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings into action.”2Universal House of Justice. Riḍván 2021 message. Available at www.bahai.org/r/750707520 In turn, this progress made the possibilities for social transformation more and more visible to those laboring in the field of service and had implications for the efforts of Bahá’ís to combat racial prejudice and injustice.

In July 2020, for the first time in more than 30 years, the House of Justice addressed the American Bahá’í community, as it had done during other periods of racial turmoil in the United States:

A moment of historic portent has arrived for your nation as the conscience of its citizenry has stirred, creating possibilities for marked social change. … you are seizing opportunities—whether those thrust upon you by current circumstances or those derived from your systematic labors in the wider society—to play your part, however humble, in the effort to remedy the ills of your nation. We ardently pray that the American people will grasp the possibilities of this moment to create a consequential reform of the social order that will free it from the pernicious effects of racial prejudice and will hasten the attainment of a just, diverse, and united society that can increasingly manifest the oneness of the human family.”3Universal House of Justice. Letter to the Baha’is of the United States dated 22 July 2020. Available at www.bahai.org/r/870410250

In the letter, the House of Justice pointed out the difficult path ahead amidst inevitable setbacks, saying: “Sadly, however, your nation’s history reveals that any significant progress toward racial equality has invariably been met by countervailing processes, overt or covert, that served to undermine the advances achieved and to reconstitute the forces of oppression by other means.” The “concepts and approaches for social transformation developed in the current series of Plans,” explained the House of Justice, could be “utilized to promote race unity in the context of community building, social action, and involvement in the discourses of society.”4Universal House of Justice, United States, 22 July 2020. Available at at https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/20200722_001/1#870410250

The sections below review developments in the US Bahá’í community during the period between 1996 and 2021, exploring their implications for the community’s response to racial injustice and the pursuit of racial unity.

1996 – 2006: Building capacity through focus on a single aim

For the Bahá’í world, the Four Year Plan (1996 – 2000), the first in the series of global Plans spanning the quarter century, marked a “turning point of epochal magnitude.”5Universal House of Justice, Riḍván 153. Available at www.bahai.org/r/328665132 The Plan assisted the Bahá’í community to mature in its understanding of transformation—both internally and in the world at large.

First clumsily and then with increasing ability, more and more Bahá’ís from diverse national communities learned to take action within a common framework. While it took more than a decade for new patterns of thought and action to take root across the US, the systematic approach called for by the House of Justice came to be appreciated as a vital facet of the American community’s efforts to combat deeply entrenched social ills, especially racism.

In parallel to the processes unfolding in the Bahá’í world, the 1990s and early 2000s saw Bahá’ís in the US continue to participate in a range of race-related activities in the wider society, often taking part in, and sometimes leading, initiatives in support of racial harmony. For example, many local Bahá’í communities participated in annual celebrations in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a leader of the nonviolent civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In June 1965, the National Spiritual Assembly of the Bahá’ís of the United States sent a telegram to Dr. King’s organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, supporting the historic march on Montgomery: “YOUR MORAL LEADERSHIP HUMAN RIGHTS IN SOUTH PRAISEWORTHY HISTORY MAKING FREEDOM IN UNITED STATES. SENDING REPRESENTATION MONTGOMERY AFFIRM YOUR CRY FOR UNITY OF AMERICANS AND ALL MANKIND.”6Baha’i News (June 1965): 13. This relationship between the annual Martin Luther King Day celebrations and the Bahá’í race unity work has continued through the years. In 2002, the Bahá’í community of Houston was asked to lead and close their local parade, which attracted some 300,000 people to the parade route and was partially broadcast on four national television networks.7“Year in Review,” The Baha’i World, 2001 – 2002 (Haifa, Israel: Baha’i World Centre, 2003), 84. Similarly, a number of Bahá’í communities participated in interfaith services responding to the burning of Black and multiracial churches.8“Year in Review,” 2001 – 2002, 76.

At the same time, Bahá’ís were initiating their own efforts to promote racial harmony and justice in light of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings. The Local Spiritual Assembly of Detroit, Michigan appointed a task force with a mandate to promote racial unity, which for seven years (ending in 2000) promoted and conducted an annual Models of Racial Unity Conference involving Bahá’í and non-Bahá’í speakers from a range of diverse professional, racial, ethnic and religious community groups and associations.9Joe T. Darden and Richard W. Thomas, Detroit: Race Riots, Racial Conflicts, and Efforts to Bridge the Racial Divide (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013), 282-289.

In 1998, the US National Spiritual Assembly launched a national campaign to raise awareness of issues related to race unity in the country. The campaign included a television program called The Power of Race Unity, which aired on several national broadcast stations, as well as many local and regional channels, and a document penned by the National Assembly entitled Race Unity: The Most Challenging Issues, which was mailed to several thousand homes. It was estimated that 80 percent of local Bahá’í communities in the country hosted activities in support of the campaign, ranging from private viewings of the video to workshops and public discussions about racial unity.10Year In Review,” The Baha’i World, 1998 – 1999 (Haifa, Israel: Baha’i World Centre, 2000), 91-92.

The opening of the Louis G. Gregory Bahá’í Museum in Charleston, South Carolina, on 8 February 2003,11Nancy Branham Songer, “A Beacon of Unity: The Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Museum, Charleston, South Carolina,” World Order, 36, No. 1 (2004), 45. was among the most special developments of the period. The museum honored a dedicated champion who personified the American Bahá’í community’s long and unyielding commitment to racial unity and justice. According to one source, this was the “first Bahá’í museum in the world.” It honored “both a descendant of a black slave and a white plantation owner” in a city “through whose port an untold number of Africans passed into slavery and whose citizens witnessed the shots that came to symbolize the beginning of the Civil War.”12Songer, “A Beacon of Unity,” 45. It was hailed by one speaker at the dedication as a “beacon of unity” for the world.13Songer, “A Beacon of Unity,” 45.

Additionally, this decade saw ongoing efforts to tend to the hearts of, and build capacity among, African Americans within the Bahá’í community, especially African-American men, long subject to injustice in the form of harmful stereotypes, police brutality, staggering community violence, and mass incarceration. Many of these Bahá’ís did not find within the dynamics of their Bahá’í communities the patterns of worship, praise, and mutual support for which they longed. In many cases, their participation faded until they were invited back by the warmth of a series of gatherings known as the Black Men’s Gathering.14Frederick Landry, Harvey McMurray, and Richard W. Thomas, The Story of the Baha’i Black Men’s Gathering: Celebrating Twenty-Five Years, 1987 – 2011 (Wilmette, Illinois: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 2011).

Between 1987 and 2011, the Black Men’s Gathering was dedicated to “soothing hearts” of black Bahá’í men who “had sustained slow-healing wounds” and “cultivating capacity for participation in a world-embracing mission.”15Universal House of Justice. Letter to the participants of the Black Men’s Gathering dated 28 August 2011. From the growing numbers of African-American men involved in the process arose melodies of praise and worship resonant with the African-American tradition, and gatherings led to travels to share the message of the Faith throughout many countries in Africa and the Caribbean. In July 1996, for example, more than one hundred Black Bahá’í men from the US, the Caribbean, Canada, and Africa attended the Tenth Annual Black Men’s Gathering in Hemingway, South Carolina, at the Louis Gregory Institute. In response to the call of the Universal House of Justice to “be a unique source of encouragement and inspiration to their African brothers and sisters who are now poised on the threshold of great advances for the Faith of Bahá’u’lláh,”16Universal House of Justice. Riḍván 153 message to the Followers of Bahá’u’lláh in North America: Alaska, Canada, and Greenland. Available at www.bahai.org/r/064654502. forty-five of the participants “pledged to visit Africa over the following three years to share Bahá’u’lláh’s message with the people there.17“Year in Review,” The Baha’i World, 1996 – 1997 (Haifa, Israel: Baha’i World Centre, 1998), 58.

In 2004, the editors of a national Bahá’í publication, World Order magazine, published a special issue with the following introduction: “We found that the fiftieth anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 decision of the United State Supreme Court that started the judicial desegregation of U.S. schools, afforded an opportunity to look at the matter from a number of perspectives.” The issue included articles examining the historic decision from the contexts of law, the teaching of history, and psychology, among others, written by Bahá’ís from diverse professional fields, racial and cultural backgrounds, and experience in promoting racial unity.”18 “Year in Review,” 1996 – 1997, 58.

These highly meritorious efforts carried forward the American Bahá’í community’s legacy of dedicated service to the cause of race unity, yet the community had a considerable distance to go in making the shift called for by the House of Justice to an approach focused on systematic processes that would build capacity in individuals and groups, and eventually in whole populations, to contribute to the kind of transformation that could ultimately dismantle the disease of racism.

In the country’s history, every time racism appeared to have been dealt a major blow—with the end of slavery, or the end of legal segregation, for example—it managed to rear up in a new form. It has proven itself deeply entrenched in American society. For this reason, notwithstanding the many activities that Bahá’ís had undertaken to address racial concerns, and their obvious merits and achievements, the ultimate results of such efforts had often been limited in their effect. As the Universal House of Justice noted, such efforts have often been characterized by “a cyclical pattern, with fits and starts,” presented with fanfare while failing to elicit universal participation.19Universal House of Justice. “Achieving Race Unity and Advancing the Process of Entry by Troops” (extracts from letters to individual believers in the United States), dated 10 April 2011. Activities, often accompanied by great enthusiasm and energy, would reach a peak and then, after a period of time, lose momentum and atrophy. For this reason, developing the capacity for collective, systematic action needed to receive a greater share of the attention of the American community. The groundwork for such an advance was more firmly laid in the next decade.

2006 – 2016: Unlocking the “society-building powers of the Faith”

During the second decade, through two consecutive Five Year Plans, the Universal House of Justice guided the worldwide Bahá’í community to explore how Bahá’í teachings can be applied at the grassroots to give rise to a new kind of community. As the House of Justice itself described in 2013:

Bahá’ís across the globe, in the most unassuming settings, are striving to establish a pattern of activity and the corresponding administrative structures that embody the principle of the oneness of humankind and the convictions underpinning it, only a few of which are mentioned here as a means of illustration: that the rational soul has no gender, race, ethnicity or class, a fact that renders intolerable all forms of prejudice … that the root cause of prejudice is ignorance, which can be erased through educational processes that make knowledge accessible to the entire human race, ensuring it does not become the property of a privileged few. Translating ideals such as these into reality, effecting a transformation at the level of the individual and laying the foundations of suitable social structures, is no small task, to be sure. Yet the Bahá’í community is dedicated to the long-term process of learning that this task entails, an enterprise in which increasing numbers from all walks of life, from every human group, are invited to take part.20Universal House of Justice. Message to the Baha ’is of Iran dated 2 March 2013. Available at www.bahai.org/r/063389421

Much of the development witnessed during these years had long-term implications for the American Bahá’í community’s approach to racial justice and unity. This section will focus on two developments in particular. First, significant progress was made in learning to channel the energies of youth toward social progress. Second, the Bahá’í community, for which the betterment of society is a primary aim, evolved in its approach to, and understanding of, social transformation. As experience accumulated, the community also came to understand better the relationship between its own growth and development and its participation in the life of society at large.

Youth at the Vanguard

Regarding the first development, in December 2005, the House of Justice drew attention to the latent potential of young people ages 12 to 15, referring to them as “junior youth” and noting that they “represent a vast reservoir of energy and talent that can be devoted to the advancement of spiritual and material civilization.”21Universal House of Justice. Message to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors dated  27 December 2005. Available at www.bahai.org/r/527522699. The junior youth spiritual empowerment program began to take off in diverse settings around the world and showed great promise in preparing adolescents to contribute to social change. At an age when intellectual, spiritual, and physical powers rapidly develop, junior youth in the program were assisted to explore the social conditions around them, to analyze the constructive and destructive forces operating in their lives, and to develop the tools needed to combat negative social forces such as materialism, prejudice, and self-centeredness.22Universal House of Justice. Riḍván 2010 message. Available at www.bahai.org/r/178319844

In the US, the junior youth spiritual empowerment program was established in neighborhoods representing a range of racial and ethnic diversity—some on indigenous lands, some in primarily Latino areas, others in predominantly African-American locations, and some in the most diverse neighborhoods in the country, comprising immigrants from all parts of the world. Through the program, young people in each of these contexts developed the capabilities necessary to contribute to the betterment of their communities. In an unjust social system that has tended to exclude racial and ethnic minorities from the American promises of equity and economic opportunity, in which forces of materialism distract those not benefitting from the system with harmful vices and mindless consumerism, the junior youth program, little by little, planted the seeds of possibility for change.

Central to the program is an educational curriculum that enhances participants’ intellectual capacities, helps build moral structure, and cultivates spiritual qualities and perception. The texts of the program seek to address the root causes of prejudice. For example, the text Glimmerings of Hope presents the story of a junior youth whose parents are killed in civil strife between two different ethnic groups. In the stories that follow, he learns that, even in the face of very painful and difficult circumstances, people have choices to make; they can opt for hope and love or let themselves fall prey to forces of hatred and division. In Observation and Insight, as a young girl learns to observe her physical environment and the social conditions of her village, she comes to question the prejudice in her community and is helped to think about ways to combat prejudice, both within herself and in the world around her.

As the junior youth program began to advance in the US, it also highlighted the distinctive role that youth play, not only in nurturing those younger than them, but in all facets of community life. The spiritual empowerment of the population between ages 15 and 30 became a central focus of this period. As more and more youth engaged in the sequence of courses offered by training institutes, they were assisted to apply what they learned in the context of community transformation. Foundational to the efforts was the concept of a “twofold moral purpose,” that is, “to attend to one’s own spiritual and intellectual growth and to contribute to the transformation of society.”23Reflections on the Life of the Spirit (Ruhi Institute, 2020), v. In 2013, the Universal House of Justice called for a series of worldwide youth conferences. In the US, approximately 5,800 young people of varied backgrounds, including roughly 2,000 youth of indigenous, Asian, African-American, and Latino heritages, attended.24“114 youth conferences, July – October 2013,” Baha’i Community News Service. https://News.bahai.org/community-new/youth-conferences. 25“2013 Youth Conference Statistics.” Internal report dated 8 August 2013.

Contributing to Social Transformation

Regarding the second process, the work unfolding at the grassroots in numerous societies naturally drew members of the Bahá’í community into closer contact with diverse populations—comprising individuals, families, and organizations with whom they worked side by side—on city blocks in major urban centers and in neighborhoods, villages, and towns.

A new pattern emerged. Whereas many Bahá’ís were accustomed to bringing people one by one into their existing faith community—which has its own culture, habits, and ways of doing things—Bahá’í communities were now learning to take the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh to whole populations, creating the possibility for such populations to investigate the Bahá’í teachings and apply them for the progress of their own people. To approach the masses of humanity in such a manner required a substantial shift in orientation for many in the Bahá’í community.

The Universal House of Justice on numerous occasions helped the Bahá’í world expand its vision and clarify its sense of mission, cautioning the community not to close in on itself or to separate itself from the world at large:

A small community, whose members are united by their shared beliefs, characterized by their high ideals, proficient in managing their affairs and tending to their needs, and perhaps engaged in several humanitarian projects—a community such as this, prospering but at a comfortable distance from the reality experienced by the masses of humanity, can never hope to serve as a pattern for restructuring the whole of society. That the worldwide Bahá’í community has managed to avert the dangers of complacency is a source of abiding joy to us. Indeed, the community has well in hand its expansion and consolidation. Yet, to administer the affairs of teeming numbers in villages and cities around the globe—to raise aloft the standard of Bahá’u’lláh’s World Order for all to see—is still a distant goal.26Universal House of Justice. Message to the Conference of the Continental Boards of Counsellors. 28 December 2010. Available at www.bahai.org/r/525496636

During this period, American Bahá’ís established the basic elements of Bahá’í community-building activities in an increasing number of localities across the country. Those communities experienced, to varying degrees, the multiplication of devotional meetings open to all inhabitants, spiritual education classes for children, groups seeking to empower adolescents and older youth, and courses designed to develop the capacity of individuals to become active contributors to the betterment of the world around them. Critically, Bahá’ís learned to open these activities to the wider society. As they did so, some Bahá’ís whose backgrounds had afforded them relative freedom from exposure to prevalent injustices became cognizant of the reality faced by many of their fellows, with whom they were working for meaningful change.

Efforts in a predominantly African-American community, for instance, led to a tight fellowship between a growing number of residents and two Iranian-American Bahá’ís who had moved into the neighborhood. Members of the community came together weekly to pray and speak with one another about their lives, their struggles, and their aspirations for their children and grandchildren. A growing number of residents also studied courses of the training institute and offered classes for the spiritual education of children. Out of the rhythm of action and reflection that characterized these activities, there also emerged efforts to address local needs, with residents themselves taking the lead. The person responsible for cooking for children’s classes, for example, had faced challenges finding dignified employment. As he engaged in the progress of the community, he was inspired to prepare homecooked meals as a small business—an enterprise that was greatly valued in a locality with no grocery store nearby. Similarly, conversations in the community led to the formation of an organization dedicated to providing affordable eyeglasses to neighbors; at the writing of this article, more than 90 pairs of glasses had been distributed through this effort.27“Lessons Learned from Expansion within a Narrow Compass”. Internal report prepared by an Auxiliary Board member. The united and spiritually uplifted community forged through such activities offered a stark contrast to negative portrayals of the neighborhood in the media. Though nascent, this and many other examples demonstrate the deep wells of capacity, creativity, and desire for progress that exist in the masses of the country, the potentialities of which can be released when individuals and populations become spiritually empowered.

With such promising efforts underway, the Universal House of Justice helped members of the US Bahá’í community see the implications of what was being learned through efforts to combat the effects of racism. A letter written on its behalf to an individual believer in 2011 explained:

Only if the efforts to eradicate the bane of prejudice are coherent with the full range of the community’s affairs, only if they arise naturally within the systematic pattern of expansion, community building, and involvement with society, will the American believers expand their capacity, year after year and decade after decade, to make their mark on their community and society and contribute to the high aim set for the Bahá’ís by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to eliminate racial prejudice from the face of the earth.28Universal House of Justice. Letter to an individual believer dated 10 April 2011.

That same year, as those organizing the Black Men’s Gathering considered next steps, the Universal House of Justice offered encouragement to extend their efforts to many others in their local communities, drawing upon what was being learned in expansion and consolidation. A letter on its behalf explained that “the time has now come for the friends who have benefited from the Gathering to raise their sights to new horizons” and encouraged participants to “Let the well-prepared army you have assembled advance from its secure fortress to conquer the hearts of your fellow citizens,” for what was needed was “concerted, persistent, sacrificial action, cycle after cycle, in cluster after cluster, by an ever-swelling number of consecrated individuals.”29Universal House of Justice. Letter to the participants of the Black Men’s Gathering dated 28 August 2011. The same ethos of loving support, the spiritual devotion, and the dedication to service that had characterized the activities of the Black Men’s Gathering for over two decades could be extended locally to bring more people into the circle of unity drawn by Bahá’u’lláh—including neighbors, co-workers, families, and friends. Toward this lofty objective, participants of the Gathering could find in the methods and approaches of the Plan being strengthened during this period the tools necessary to address the challenges of racism in the country. As was explained in the same letter:

The experience of the last five years and the recent guidance of the House of Justice should make it evident that in the instruments of the Plan you now have within your grasp everything that is necessary to raise up a new people and eliminate racial prejudice as a force within your society, though the path ahead remains long and arduous. The institute process is the primary vehicle by which you can transform and empower your people, indeed all the peoples of your nation.30Universal House of Justice, Black Men’s Gathering, 28 August 2011.

In 1938, in Advent of Divine Justice, Shoghi Effendi noted that the US Bahá’í community was too small in number and too limited in influence to produce “any marked effect on the great masses of their countrymen,” but that as the believers intensified efforts to remove their own deficiencies, they would be better equipped for “the time when they will be called upon to eradicate in their turn such evil tendencies from the lives and hearts of the entire body of their fellow-citizens.”31Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice. Available at www.bahai.org/r/034096683 During the ten-year period between 2006 and 2016, the number of people, particularly young people, drawing insight from the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh with the aim of effecting the transformation of society grew, as did their capacity to begin contributing to profound social change. The national Bahá’í community had laid the groundwork for new possibilities to address racial injustice and pursue racial harmony—possibilities that began to manifest in the final five years of this twenty-five-year period.

2016 – 2021: Envisioning the movement of populations

The beginning of the most recent Five-Year Plan (2016 – 2021) coincided with an upsurge in racial turmoil in the US. Heart-wrenching incidents of racism continued to make national news during these years, including the fatal shootings of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old African-American boy in Florida, by a Hispanic-American private citizen in 2012, and of Michael Brown, an unarmed young African-American man with his hands in the air, by police in Missouri in 2014.32https://www.cnn.com/2012/05/18/justice/florida-teen-shooting-details/index.html. “The Killing of an Unarmed Teen: What we need to know about Brown’s Death.” NBC News. Available at https://www.nbcnews.com/storyline/michael-brown-shooting-unarmed-teen-what-we-know-about-brown’s-death. On 17 June 2015, the country was shocked by the horrific mass shooting of nine African Americans in Charlestown, South Carolina, during Bible study at one of the oldest African-American churches in the South, by a 21-year-old self-identified white supremacist.33“This Day in History: Charleston Church Shooting.” 17 June 2015. https://www.history.history.com/this-day-inhistorycharleston-ame-church-shooting.

As the country geared up for a new presidential election in 2016, voices of racism on the national stage became more overt. In his farewell speech in January 2017, President Obama acknowledged the harsh reality of racism that still plagued the country. “After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.”34“Obama’s farewell speech,” Los Angeles Times, 10 January 2017. That same year, groups of white supremacists and neo-Nazis held a Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, where they fought with anti-racism counter-protesters. Dozens were injured and one person was killed when a man drove into the anti-racism protesters.35“Unrest in Virginia,” Time.

Racially motivated acts of terror continued alongside entrenched social and economic injustice. In 2020, the Washington Post reported, “The black-white economic divide is as wide as it was in 1968.” And in January 2021, a National Public Radio investigation found that, since 2015, police officers had fatally shot at least 135 unarmed black men and women nationwide; in at least three-quarters of these shootings, the officers were white.36Thompson, “Final police shooting,” 25 January 2021.

Meanwhile, in those settings where developments had gone the furthest, the American Bahá’í community could see new models of community life emerging and glimpses of transformation at the grassroots. These lessons offered hope for genuine advancement in the community’s pursuit of race unity at the local and national levels.

Most notable, of course, were advances at the grassroots, where, in certain neighborhoods and city blocks, substantial numbers of local inhabitants became engaged in Bahá’í activities. Youth, in particular, took their place at the forefront of service, engendering hope and energy in their communities. Though nascent and modest in their scope, such experiences multiplied across the country, representing the first stirrings of the spiritual empowerment of populations.37Universal House of Justice. Message. 29 December 2015. Available at https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/20151229_001/1#275100978

A neighborhood surrounding a historically Black university in the Carolinas became home to exactly such a movement. In the US, it was legal to deny access to higher education solely on the basis of skin color as recently as the 1950s. Colleges and universities like this one, founded within that context to serve African-American populations, hold special significance. In 2016, what started as a small group of friends comprising Bahá’ís and their neighbors extended in five short years to embrace scores of youth, junior youth, and families. Cohorts of African-American university students, some the first in their families to attend college, spearheaded the emergence of dynamic community life that addressed both the spiritual and intellectual needs of children, youth, and adults. African-American and Latino junior youth groups formed and were increasingly empowered to undertake service projects that sought to address the needs of their community. Noticing that many children were assessed as having low levels of literacy, for example, the junior youth created a small lending library, wrote their own simple stories for the children, and set a regular time each week to read to them. At the same time, their families became active participants in community life. The parents of the junior youth in the program, for instance, brought neighbors together in community gatherings in which they could share a meal and discuss what they would like to see on their block. Devotional gatherings multiplied, and neighbors gathered together to pray, reflect, and share experiences, questions, and concerns. As participation grew and activities multiplied, social action initiatives emerged. Among them was a vaccination clinic.38“Lessons from the Grassroots: Fostering Nuclei of Transformative Change.” Panel at the National Symposium on Racial Justice and Social Change, hosted by the US Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs. 18 – 20 May 2021. The dynamic being experienced generated not only hope but also the first stirrings of the release of the potential of a population. Similar patterns were emerging, to varying degrees, in region after region in the United States.

While experience at the grassroots took root in a growing number of communities, the US National Spiritual Assembly initiated various actions to galvanize the entire national community to play its part in the advancement of racial justice and unity. These lines of action were, in part, laid out in a series of letters to the US Bahá’í community, calling attention to the “pivotal juncture in our nation’s history” during which Bahá’ís would be called to intensify their efforts to eliminate prejudice and injustice from society. The National Assembly drew the attention of the American Bahá’ís to their “twofold mission,” which is “to develop within our own community a pattern of life that increasingly reflects the spirit of the Baha’i teachings” and “to engage with others in a deliberate and collaborative effort to eradicate the ills afflicting our nation.” In pursuing this mission, the Bahá’ís had inherited “a priceless legacy of service spanning more than a century, originally set in motion by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself,” as well as “the framework of action given to us in the current Five Year Plan.” The more that the latter is understood, the Assembly asserted, “the better we can appreciate that it is precisely suited to the needs of the times.”39National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States. Letter to the American Bahá’í community dated 25 February 2017. Bahá’ís were directed to deepen their “understanding of the forces at work in our society and the nature of our response as Bahá’ís—especially as outlined in the current set of Plans.” In their search “for answers and for a way forward,” the American people “are daily treated to a cacophony of competing voices” resting on “faulty foundations” and are longing for some “credible source” to which they can turn “for insight and hope.”40National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States. Letter to the American Bahá’í community dated 31 January 2018. In response, the Bahá’í community was guided to engage with “specific populations mentioned numerous times by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Shoghi Effendi, and the Universal House of Justice for the unique and vital contribution they will make to the creation of the new social order envisaged” in the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh.41National Spiritual Assembly to American Bahá’í community, 31 January 2018.

The National Spiritual Assembly also pursued ways, within the offices of its National Center, to give further attention to questions of racial justice and race unity in the context of already occurring work. Permanent and seasonal schools made race relations one of their central issues of study and discussion for several years. The Assembly’s Social Action Desk—which focuses on the emergence of social action in communities across the country—directed its attention to efforts at the grassroots that were addressing aspects of racial injustice. Furthermore, a national media project collected and told stories of community life characterized by building across racial and cultural divides through the pursuit of the aims of the Five Year Plan.42https://www.bahai.us/collection/a-rich-tapestry/

In the nation’s capital, the US Bahá’í Office of Public Affairs allocated an increasing number of staff to participation in the national discourse on race through attendance at numerous conferences, workshops, and roundtables.  Bahá’í representatives met with leading thinkers and organizations working to eradicate racism. In its contributions to the complex and polarizing discourse, the Office sought ways to offer novel perspectives based on the Bahá’í teachings, seeking insights into questions relating, for example, to the perceived tension between the pursuit of unity and the pursuit of justice and to the relationship between means and ends as they relate to social change. Its contributions included the opening of new forums that fostered genuine consultation and common understanding among diverse individuals and organizations.

In May 2021, the Office brought together prominent national voices and social actors in the race discourse for a three-day symposium, Advancing Together: Forging a Path Toward a Just, Inclusive and Unified Society.43https://news.bahai.org/story/1514/ Held exactly 100 years after the first race amity conference called for by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the event reflected the growing collaboration of the Bahá’í community with likeminded individuals and groups working to overcome racial disparities and promote justice.

Finally, as tensions heated up in the country in the summer of 2020, the National Spiritual Assembly issued a public statement addressing the current realities of race that ran in the Chicago Tribune and several newspapers across the country. It began:

“The Bahá’ís of the United States join our fellow-citizens in heartfelt grief at the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others whose lives were suddenly taken by appalling acts of violence. These heartbreaking violations against fellow human beings due only to the color of their skin, have deepened the dismay caused by a pandemic whose consequences to the health and livelihood of people of color have been disproportionately severe.”44“Forging a path to Racial Justice: A message from the Baha’is of the United States, June 19, 2020.” https://www.bahai.us/path-to-racial-justice/

As the Bahá’í community’s efforts to contribute to racial unity were advancing with newfound capacity at the grassroots and national levels, the Baha’i Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland was breaking new ground in the examination of race in the academic sphere.  As “an endowed academic program that advances interdisciplinary examination and discourse on global peace,”45http://www.bahaichair.umd.edu/aboutus the Bahá’í Chair, held by Dr. Hoda Mahmoudi, focused on “Structural Racism and the Root Causes of Prejudice” as one of the central themes of its work. Among its initiatives was the creation of a dynamic, ongoing space where experts and scholars from many disciplines—including Public Health, Sociology, History, Communications, Psychology, Technology, Government and Politics, and the Arts—brought ground breaking research from their diverse fields into a collective effort to better understand the impact of race and racial discrimination on society in pursuit of a more peaceful and equitable future.46Individuals such as Dr. Aldon Morris, Dr. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, and Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt have offered systematic, nuanced studies of how racial discrimination infects discourse while also providing solutions for how racial discrimination can end. Also, collaboration with Dr. Rayshawn Ray, a University of Maryland professor, Brookings Institution Fellow, and a Bahá’í Chair Board Member since 2018, has been particularly instrumental in shaping dialogues organized by the Chair. Applying Baha’i ideals concerning human dignity, human achievement, and human excellence, the Chair introduced into discussions on race and racial discrimination a spiritual perspective, highlighting humanity’s shared destiny. By 2021, the work initiated by the Chair nearly a decade before had garnered substantial support and high regard in the field. Dr. Mahmoudi and her colleague at the University of Maryland, Dr. Rashawn Ray, had, by 2021, initiated an ambitious project to bring together the perspectives of some of academia’s most well-respected and thought-provoking social scientists to analyze racism in America in a volume entitled, Systemic Racism in America: Sociological Theory, Education Inequality, and Social Change. Edited by Drs. Mahmoudi and Ray, the volume is scheduled to be published by Routledge Publishing later this year.

This period also witnessed countless initiatives undertaken by individuals and groups of Bahá’ís. One such initiative was the work of the Bahá’í-inspired organization, National Center for Race Amity (NCRA). Established in 2010 at Wheelock College in Massachusetts, the NCRA attracted experts on issues of racial discrimination and promoters of racial amity to its annual Race Amity Conferences and Race Amity Observations/Festivals not only in Boston but in more than a hundred other localities.  By the second half of the decade, its efforts gave rise to a number of noteworthy outcomes. In 2015, for example, the Massachusetts Legislature had established an annual Race Amity Day, to be celebrated on the second Sunday of June. The following year, similar efforts by the NCRA resulted in Senate Resolution 491 passed on 10 June 2016, “Designating June 12, 2016, as a national day of racial amity and reconciliation.”47“Background for the Establishment of Race Amity Day.” https://raceamity.org/race-amity-day-festival/ And in 2018 the NCRA produced the film An American Story: Race Amity and The Other Tradition. As one of a number of individual initiatives across the US, the NCRA had an example of the continuity of the American Baha’i community’s century-long response to racial injustice and the pursuit of racial unity.

As the period of 2016 to 2021 came to a close, the American Bahá’í community could see that its learning through the series of global Plans enhanced its efforts to contribute to the cause of racial justice at different levels of society.

 Conclusion: Forging a Path to Racial Justice

The identity and mission of the American Bahá’í community, fundamentally shaped by the hand of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, is intertwined with the nation’s struggle to transcend the crippling legacy of racism and its current manifestations. At each stage of its development, the Bahá’í community’s long-term commitment to apply the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh for the betterment of the world and to dismantle the insidious social ill of racism has required the development of new capacities.

Over the past quarter century, as American Bahá’ís continued to work for race unity in numerous ways, the entire Bahá’í world was set on a new path of learning about its own growth and development and its efforts to contribute to social transformation. The Bahá’í community in the United States, by the end of the period, had advanced its collective efforts to contribute to racial justice and unity at all levels of society. It had made strides in learning to build a new dynamic of community life at the grassroots—a dynamic in which individuals, families, and, in some instances, segments of a population became empowered to take ownership of the transformation of their own communities. While many of the developments described are modest and nascent, they hold promise for the long-cherished hope that the American Bahá’ís will play an increasing share in efforts to eradicate the blight of racism from their society.

By Hoda Mahmoudi and Janet Khan

Biographical information about the authors can be found below the article.

In October 1911, as the world teetered towards collapse and the prospects of war loomed large, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá delivered a speech in Paris to a group of individuals who were seeking creative solutions to the issues of the day. He spoke about the pragmatic relationship between “true thought” and its application. “If these thoughts never reach the plane of action,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained, “they remain useless: the power of thought is dependent on its manifestation in deeds.”1‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Paris Talks. Available at www.bahai.org/r/184033132

In this paper we explore ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s active promotion of the broad vision of peace set out in the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith and examine His contributions to mobilizing widespread support for the practice of peace. The realization of peace, as outlined in the Bahá’í writings and elucidated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, is dependent on spiritual thoughts based on spiritual virtues expressed through human deeds.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Reading of Social Reality

‘Abdu’l-Bahá is a figure unique in religious history. Understanding His critical role is essential to understanding the workings of the Bahá’í Faith – in its past, present, and future.

For forty years ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire, having been exiled as a nine-year-old child, when members of Bahá’u’lláh’s family were expelled from Iran to the Ottoman domains.  Undeterred by the restrictions to His freedom and the challenges of daily life, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá directed His attention to administering the affairs of the growing Bahá’í community and to easing the plight of humanity by actively promoting a vision of a just, united, and peaceful world.

Keenly aware of the events transpiring in the world at large, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá viewed the establishment of universal peace as one of the most critical issues of the day.  His writings and public talks outline the Bahá’í approach to peace and methods for its attainment and explain and illuminate the teachings of Bahá’u’lláh. They reflect a profound and sensitive understanding of the state of the world and demonstrate the relevance of the Bahá’í teachings to the alleviation of the human condition. The Bahá’í approach stresses a reliance on the constructive power of religion and on the forces of social and spiritual cohesion as a way to impact the world.2For a detailed discussion of the Bahá’í teachings on peace, see Hoda Mahmoudi and Janet A. Khan. A World  Without War: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Discourse for Global Peace (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing, 2020).

‘Abdu’l-Bahá saw in World War I a harrowing lesson of the human necessity for peace – and of the darkness that can ensue without peace. He knew and wrote extensively that nothing short of the establishment of the spiritual foundations for peace could result in lasting peace and security for humanity. In His written works, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá repeatedly draws our attention to the need for establishing the spiritual prerequisites for peace, requisites which, in turn, remove the barriers to peace, such as racial prejudice, sexism, economic inequalities, sectarianism, and nationalism.

That remarkable time in the history of the world provides the backdrop to the Tablets of the Divine Plan, a series of letters ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed to the Bahá’ís of North America. A study of these letters together with two detailed letters3Tablets to the Hague. Available at www.bahai.org/r/188605710 on peace addressed to the Executive Committee of the Central Organization for a Durable Peace at The Hague provides an opportunity to better understand the nature of universal peace as envisioned in the Bahá’í writings, the prerequisites of peace, and how peace can be waged. The Tablets of the Divine Plan set out a systematic strategy aimed at strengthening embryonic Bahá’í communities, founded on the principle of the oneness of humankind, and mobilizing their members to engage in activities associated with spreading the values of peace.  The Tablets to The Hague are examples from among ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s tireless efforts to contribute to the most relevant discourses of His time and to engage like-minded individuals and groups throughout the world in the pursuit of peace.4Mahmoudi and Khan, World Without War.

A Power of Implementation

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s caveat that “the power of thought” depends on “its manifestation in action,”5‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Paris Talks. Available at www.bahai.org/r/361617663 is particularly relevant to the idea of peace.  Consider!  Nearly 20 million men, women and children were killed during the four years of World War I!

‘Abdu’l-Bahá took the principles of global peace revealed by Bahá’u’lláh and shaped them into a practical grand strategy for how to understand, practice, and pursue peace. Among the voluminous writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the fourteen letters of the Tablets of the Divine Plan outlined detailed instructions and systematic actions for the spread of the spiritual teachings of the Bahá’í Faith throughout the world. Their aim was the establishment of growing communities throughout the world that would embody the values of peace, would comprise the diverse populations of the human family, and would contribute to the spiritualization of the planet—a vision that was being promoted as the world was witnessing the horrors and sufferings of the war:

Black darkness is enshrouding all regions… all countries are burning with the flame of dissension…the fire of war and carnage is blazing throughout the East and the West.  Blood is flowing, corpses bestrew the ground, and severed heads are fallen on the dust of the battlefield.6‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/713519310

‘Abdu’l-Bahá called on the recipients of the Tablets to arise and take action, establishing throughout the planet new communities founded on the spiritual principles of love, goodwill, and cooperation among humankind. Through such calls for acts of sacrificial service that arising to spread the divine teachings would entail, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was promoting an antidote to the social and spiritual illnesses that contribute to the conditions of war. He reminded the recipients of His letters of the power of spiritual forces to transform hatred, division, war, and destruction into love, unity, dignity, and the nobility of every human being. “Extinguish this fire,” He wrote, “so that these dense clouds which obscure the horizon may be scattered, the Sun of Reality shine forth with the rays of conciliation, this intense gloom be dispelled and the resplendent light of peace shed its radiance upon all countries.”7‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/577240123

‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained that if we desire peace in the world, we must begin by planting peace in our own hearts. This principle can be found throughout the writings of Bahá’u’lláh:

What is preferable in the sight of God is that the cities of men’s hearts, which are ruled by the hosts of self and passion, should be subdued by the sword of utterance, of wisdom and of understanding. Thus, whoso seeketh to assist God must, before all else, conquer, with the sword of inner meaning and explanation, the city of his own heart and guard it from the remembrance of all save God, and only then set out to subdue the cities of the hearts of others. 8Bahá’u’lláh. The Summons of the Lord of Hosts. Available at www.bahai.org/r/581531547

While ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sought to mobilize the Bahá’ís of North America to spread the unifying message of Bahá’u’lláh throughout the world, He also pursued numerous opportunities to introduce into the discourses of His time essential concepts and principles that would help the thinking of His contemporaries to evolve and assist humanity to move towards the realization of peace.

Indeed, in His letters to the Central Organization for a Durable Peace, written in 1919 and 1920 after the war’s conclusion, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gently but unequivocally challenged His audience to broaden its conception of peace. Specifically, in His first letter, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explored “many teachings which supplemented and supported that of universal peace,” such as the “independent investigation of reality,” “the oneness of the world of humanity,” and “the equality of women and men.” Some other related teachings of Bahá’u’lláh that were explained by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá included the following: “that religion must be the cause of fellowship and love,” “that religion must be in conformity with science and reason,” “that religious, racial, political, economic and patriotic prejudices destroy the edifice of humanity,” and “that although material civilization is one of the means for the progress of the world of mankind, yet until it becomes combined with Divine civilization, the desired result, which is the felicity of mankind, will not be attained.”9‘Abdu’l-Bahá. First Tablet to the Hague. Available at www.bahai.org/r/551373700 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá then reiterated His point, stating:

These manifold principles, which constitute the greatest basis for the felicity of mankind and are of the bounties of the Merciful, must be added to the matter of universal peace and combined with it, so that results may accrue. 10‘Abdu’l-Bahá. First Tablet to the Hague. Available at www.bahai.org/r/376814060

In the Second Tablet to the Hague, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá observed that for peace to be realized in the world, it would not be enough that people were simply informed about the horrors of war. “Today the benefits of universal peace are recognized amongst the people, and likewise the harmful effects of war are clear and manifest to all,” wrote ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

But in this matter, knowledge alone is far from sufficient: A power of implementation is needed to establish it throughout the world.… It is our firm belief that the power of implementation in this great endeavour is the penetrating influence of the Word of God and the confirmations of the Holy Spirit.11‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Second Tablet to the Hague. Available at www.bahai.org/r/705335105

Abdu’l-Bahá asserted that it is through this power of implementation that “the compelling power of conscience can be awakened, so that this lofty ideal may be translated from the realm of thought into that of reality.” “It is clear and evident,” He explained, “that the execution of this mighty endeavour is impossible through ordinary human feelings but requireth the powerful sentiments of the heart to transform its potential into reality.” 12‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Second Tablet to the Hague. Available at www.bahai.org/r/705335105

Spiritual Foundations of Peace

Understanding ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s approach to peace also demands we understand Bahá’u’lláh’s direct engagement with the world and His doctrinal declarations concerning the Bahá’í Faith. Bahá’u’lláh’s writings describe a “progressive revelation” of religion in which individual religions arise to meet the need of their times. Bahá’u’lláh stated that particular religions were entrusted with a message and a spirit that “best meet the requirements of the age in which” that religion appeared.13Bahá’u’lláh. Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. Available at www.bahai.org/r/757983498 In this context, religions are viewed as the gradual unfolding of one religion that is being renewed from age to age. The variations in the teachings of these religions are attributable to a world that is constantly changing and needing spiritual renewal and spiritual principles. Because “ancient laws and archaic ethical systems will not meet the requirements of modern conditions,” then, as a new religion takes shape, new sets of laws and principles are revealed to humanity and new spiritual beliefs must always emerge.14‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace.  Available at www.bahai.org/r/841894042

Bahá’u’lláh’s Revelation calls on individuals to internalize spiritual principles and express them through actions.  He proclaimed “to the world the solidarity of nations and the oneness of humankind.”15‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace.  Available at www.bahai.org/r/955162073 He described “a human race conscious of its own oneness.”16Bahá’í International Community, Who is Writing the Future? (New York: Office of Public Information, 1999), V.2. Complex concepts such as human oneness and the global order were transformed from utopian ideals to spiritual commands of the highest order; the Bahá’í writings unfold and clarify how such commands might be fulfilled. Bahá’u’lláh’s vision also details the need for the construction of a World Order, an order comprising administrative institutions at the local, regional, national, and international levels. Such institutions, among other things, serve as channels for the application of spiritual principles. As the institutions evolve over decades and centuries, a new world order will eventually produce the conditions conducive to global peace. Yet, even as the Bahá’í writings envision a long-term process of global transformation and maturation of the human race, they also assert that change will also arise from individual and collective efforts at the grassroots of society. In exploring the creative Word and learning to apply it to their individual and collective lives, individuals are spiritually transformed from the inside-out, and they contribute to the transformation of communities, institutions, and society at large.

In describing the Bahá’í Faith’s strong prohibition on waging war, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, stated that Bahá’u’lláh “abrogated contention and conflict, and even rejected undue insistence. He exhorted us instead to ‘consort with the followers of all religions in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship.’ He ordained that we be loving friends and well-wishers of all peoples and religions and enjoined upon us to demonstrate the highest virtues in our dealings with the kindreds of the earth….What a heavy burden was all that enmity and rancour, all that recourse to sword and spear!” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote of the impact of war on humanity. “Conversely, what joy, what gladness is imparted by loving-kindness!”17‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Light of the World. Available at www.bahai.org/r/408465671

‘Abdu’l-Bahá viewed peace as a central facet of the work of the Bahá’í Faith. There was no separating peace from the Bahá’í Faith, nor was there any separation between the  Faith and peace. Peace was both medium and message, and the Bahá’í Faith itself was the vehicle for establishing peace. He explained, in His Second Tablet to the Hague, that the followers of Bahá’u’lláh were actively engaged in the establishment of peace, because their

desire for peace is not derived merely from the intellect: It is a matter of religious belief and one of the eternal foundations of the Faith of God. That is why we strive with all our might and, forsaking our own advantage, rest, and comfort, forgo the pursuit of our own affairs; devote ourselves to the mighty cause of peace; and consider it to be the very foundation of the Divine religions, a service to His Kingdom, the source of eternal life, and the greatest means of admittance into the heavenly realm.”18‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets to the Hague. Available at www.bahai.org/r/749353064

Strategic Plan for the Achievement of Peace

‘Abdu’l-Bahá dedicated His life to the advancement of the Cause of Bahá’u’lláh and to the establishment of universal peace. His peace activities in the West include many talks given in Europe and North America. He had close contact with civic leaders and social activists and participated in the 1912 Lake Mohonk Conference on Peace and Arbitration in upstate New York attended by over 180 prominent people from the United States and other countries. He addressed a variety of American women’s organizations, gave presentations at universities and colleges, spoke in Chicago at the NAACP’s annual conference, and gave lectures at churches and synagogues.

Yet for all His courageous activities, and all the efforts of the Bahá’ís, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was greatly saddened by the world’s apparent indifference to Bahá’u’lláh’s call for global peace and to the efforts He Himself had made in the course of His travels.  Shoghi Effendi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s grandson and His appointed successor, wrote: “Agony filled His soul at the spectacle of human slaughter precipitated through humanity’s failure to respond to the summons He had issued, or to heed the warnings He had given.”19Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By. Available at www.bahai.org/r/986414751

Given the turbulent condition of the world and the dangers facing humankind, He devised a detailed strategic plan to address the situation and to assign responsibility for its implementation. His plan, devised in 1916 to 1917 and set out in fourteen letters, known collectively as the Tablets of the Divine Plan, was entrusted to the members of the Bahá’í community in the United States and Canada. The pivotal goal of the Tablets of the Divine Plan is directly associated with the long-range process that will lead to the achievement of peace in the world as envisaged in Bahá’u’lláh’s writings.

Designated as “the chosen trustees and principal executors of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Divine Plan,”20Shoghi Effendi. This Decisive Hour. Available at www.bahai.org/r/194317153 the North American Bahá’ís were called upon to assume a prominent role in taking the message of Bahá’u’lláh to all the countries of the world and for effecting the transformation in values necessary for the emergence of a world order characterized by justice, unity, and peace.  This great human resource – the body of willing believers in the West – was notable for its enthusiasm, determination, and deep commitment to Bahá’u’lláh’s vision for change. These communities were ideal incubators for the processes of peace.

At the time the messages of the Tablets of the Divine Plan were being written, North American Bahá’ís comprised but a small percentage of the total Bahá’ís in the world (though many had met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in 1912). Commenting on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s choice of the North American Bahá’ís and the link between World War I and the Tablets of the Divine Plan, Shoghi Effendi indicated that the Divine Plan “was prompted by the contact established by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself, in the course of His historic journey, with the entire body of His followers throughout the United States and Canada. It was conceived, soon after that contact was established, in the midst of what was then held to be one of the most devastating crises in human history.”21Shoghi Effendi. This Decisive Hour. Available at www.bahai.org/r/257510249 Shoghi Effendi offered further comment concerning the historic bond between ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the North American community: “This is the community,” he reminded us,

which, ever since it was called into being through the creative energies released by the proclamation of the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh, was nursed in the lap of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s unfailing solicitude, and was trained by Him to discharge its unique mission through the revelation of innumerable Tablets, through the instructions issued to returning pilgrims, through the despatch of special messengers, through His own travels at a later date, across the North American continent, through the emphasis laid by Him on the institution of the Covenant in the course of those travels, and finally through His mandate embodied in the Tablets of the Divine Plan.22Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By. Available at www.bahai.org/r/256927469

It is clear that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was aware of the potential capacity of the North American Bahá’ís to carry out the task with which they had been entrusted.  His extensive travels in North America afforded the opportunity to assess, at first hand, the spiritual, social, and political environment of the continent and to appreciate the freedoms – intellectual, artistic, political, and, particularly, the religious freedom—inherent in North American society. And it is also apparent that He understood the spiritual possibilities of the West and the desire of women and men to seek a fuller expression of all things – of themselves, of their society, of the world.

Significance of the Tablets of the Divine Plan

As described above, the Tablets of the Divine Plan constitute the charter for the propagation of the Bahá’í Faith and outline ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s plan for the spiritual regeneration of the world. The letters therein set out the prerequisites for peace and assign responsibility to the North American believers “to plant the banner of His Father’s Faith . . . in all the continents, the countries and islands of the globe.”23Shoghi Effendi. God Passes By. Available at www.bahai.org/r/552193552 They focus on the work of promulgating and implementing Bahá’u’lláh’s salutary message of unity, justice, and peace in a systematic and orderly manner. They represent a strategic intervention put in place by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to ensure the ongoing and systematic dissemination of the values of peace and the promotion of activities associated with moral and social advancement. They describe a spiritually based approach to peace that is pragmatic, long-term, flexible, and durable.

In those darkest days of World War I, the means of communication between ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Palestine (then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire) and the community of His followers around the world were disrupted and, for a period, severed. The first eight Tablets were written in the spring of 1916, and the second group was penned during the spring of 1917. The first group did not arrive in North America until the fall of 1916, while the delivery of the remaining Tablets was delayed until after the cessation of hostilities.24Amin Banani. Foreword to Tablets of the Divine Plan. (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1993), xxi.

The Great War of 1914-1918 rocked the very foundations of society and dramatically changed the shape of the world. The historian Margaret MacMillan provides a telling summary of the impact of the War:

Four years of war shook forever the supreme self-confidence that had carried Europe to world dominance. After the western front Europeans could no longer talk of a civilizing mission to the world. The war toppled governments, humbled the mighty and overturned whole societies. In Russia the revolutions of 1917 replaced tsarism, with what no one yet knew. At the end of the war Austria-Hungary vanished, leaving a great hole at the centre of Europe. The Ottoman empire, with its vast holdings in the Middle East and its bit of Europe, was almost done. Imperial Germany was now a republic. Old nations—Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia—came out of history to live again and new nations—Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia—struggled to be born.25Margaret MacMillan. Peacemakers: Six Months that Changed the World. (London: John Murray, 2001), 2.

The Tablets captured the mood of the day—the complex fusion of anxiety and despair, the burning desire to end a war more brutal than any the world had ever known, and a desire for a new approach to peaceful existence. Addressing this heartfelt yearning, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá offered a contrasting vision of how the world might be if it lived in harmony:

 This world-consuming war has set such a conflagration to the hearts that no word can describe it. In all the countries of the world the longing for universal peace is taking possession of men. There is not a soul who does not yearn for concord and peace. A most wonderful state of receptivity is being realized. This is through the consummate wisdom of God, so that capacity may be created, the standard of the oneness of the world of humanity be upraised, and the fundamental of universal peace and the divine principles be promoted in the East and the West.26‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/500285326

In another Tablet, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reflected on the impact of World War I on humankind and offered a context for understanding the “wisdom of this war”:

In short, after this universal war, the people have obtained extraordinary capacity to hearken to the divine teachings, for the wisdom of this war is this: That it may become proven to all that the fire of war is world-consuming, whereas the rays of peace are world-enlightening. One is death, the other is life; this is extinction, that is immortality; one is the most great calamity, the other is the most great bounty; this is darkness, that is light; this is eternal humiliation and that is everlasting glory; one is the destroyer of the foundation of man, the other is the founder of the prosperity of the human race.27‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/828798977

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s response to war, as set out in the Tablets of the Divine Plan, went far beyond providing an alternative vision.  He called for constructive mobilization consistent with the local situation. For example, tapping into peoples’ receptivity to new ideas resulting from the sufferings associated with war, He directed the Bahá’ís to take steps to spread Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings, and He set out other concrete actions that could be immediately taken. These activities aimed not only to enlarge the Bahá’í community but were considered essential to spreading the values of peace in the wider society.  To this end, He invited “a number of souls” to “arise and act in accordance with the aforesaid conditions, and hasten to all parts of the world.…Thus in a short space of time, most wonderful results will be produced, the banner of universal peace will be waving on the apex of the world and the lights of the oneness of the world of humanity may illumine the universe.”28‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/998358260

The Tablets of the Divine Plan underlined the contribution of religion to individual and social development. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stated:

Consider how the religions of God served the world of humanity! How the religion of Torah became conducive to the glory and honor and progress of the Israelitish nation! How the breaths of the Holy Spirit of His Holiness Christ created affinity and unity between divergent communities and quarreling families! How the sacred power of His Holiness Muḥammad became the means of uniting and harmonizing the contentious tribes and the different clans of Peninsular Arabia—to such an extent that one thousand tribes were welded into one tribe; strife and discord were done away with; all of them unitedly and with one accord strove in advancing the cause of culture and civilization, and thus were freed from the lowest degree of degradation, soaring toward the height of everlasting glory!29‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/191427232

Within this context, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá affirmed that the Bahá’í community’s historic mission was at heart a spiritual enterprise, and He illustrated the capacity of the community to unite peoples of different background.  He wrote:

Consider! The people of the East and the West were in the utmost strangeness. Now to what a high degree they are acquainted with each other and united together! How far are the inhabitants of Persia from the remotest countries of America! And now observe how great has been the influence of the heavenly power, for the distance of thousands of miles has become identical with one step! How various nations that have had no relations or similarity with each other are now united and agreed through this divine potency! Indeed to God belongs power in the past and in the future! And verily God is powerful over all things!30‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/205096335

The community-building activities initiated by the Bahá’ís at the behest of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the diversity of the Faith’s emerging community constitute a powerful means to engage the interest and attract the collaboration of like-minded people who are also committed to the cause of enduring social change and are willing to work for the creation of a culture of peace.

The vision of the Tablets of the Divine Plan is a vision that regards all human beings as being responsible for the advancement of civilization. The Bahá’í Faith looks to ensure such advancement is possible by highlighting the pathways of unity. To initiate the processes of individual and social transformation, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá calls on his followers to embrace a series of tasks – in a sense, to get to work – so that they might

occupy themselves with the diffusion of the divine exhortations and advices, guide the souls and promote the oneness of the world of humanity. They must play the melody of international conciliation with such power that every deaf one may attain hearing, every extinct person may be set aglow, every dead one may obtain new life and every indifferent soul may find ecstasy. It is certain that such will be the consummation.31‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/258989901

Humankind is asked to flee “all ignorant prejudices” and work for the good of all. In the West, individuals are charged to commit to “the promulgation of the divine principles so that the oneness of the world of humanity may pitch her canopy in the apex of America and all the nations of the world may follow the divine policy.”32‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/785288640

The great changes described in the Tablets will evolve slowly. For though the Tablets call for a time when “the mirror of the earth may become the mirror of the Kingdom, reflecting the ideal virtues of heaven,”33‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/904315062 translating this poetic vision into a concrete plan will take time. But this delay is not cause for slowing the activities of peace, rather the scale of change demands a systematic approach to peace.34‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Ibid 3.3 For instance, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá lists countries by name and specifies the order in which tasks are to be completed.35‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan.  Ibid., ¶6.11, ¶6.4, and ¶6.7.

But along with all His specificity, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also describes a lofty vision meant to inspire. He calls upon His followers to become “heavenly farmers and scatter pure seeds in the prepared soil,” promises that “throughout the coming centuries and cycles many harvests will be gathered,” and asks followers to “consider the work of former generations. During the lifetime of Jesus Christ, the believing, firm souls were few and numbered, but the heavenly blessings descended so plentifully that in a number of years countless souls entered beneath the shadow of the Gospel.”36‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Tablets of the Divine Plan. Available at www.bahai.org/r/434173994

Looking Ahead

Written just over a century ago during one of humanity’s darkest hours, the Tablets of the Divine Plan “set in motion processes designed to bring about, in due course, the spiritual transformation of the planet.”37Universal House of Justice. From a letter to the Bahá’ís of the World dated 21 March 2009. Available at www.bahai.org/r/288100650 These letters continue to guide Bahá’ís as they pursue the current Divine Plan under the authority of the Universal House of Justice, the international governing council of the Bahá’í Faith, and they serve as an inspiration to many others who study them. In fourteen letters, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá laid out a charter for the teaching, building, and communal activities that define the Bahá’í theatre of action. While its long-term vision encompasses all humanity, the Divine Plan’s execution is tied to the Bahá’í community’s spiritual evolution and the development of its administrative institutions. It is also tied to humanity’s receptivity and willingness to pursue peace.

Today, Bahá’ís throughout the world are actively engaged in the application of the Divine Plan through a long-term process of community building inspired by the principle of the oneness of humankind. Embracing an outward-looking orientation, Bahá’ís maintain that to systematically advance a material and spiritual global civilization, the contributions of innumerable individuals, groups, and organizations is required for generations to come. The process of community building that is finding expression in Bahá’í localities throughout the world is open to all peoples regardless of race, gender, nationality, or religion.

In these communities, Bahá’ís aspire to develop patterns of life and social structures based on Bahá’u’lláh’s principles. Throughout the process they are learning how to strengthen community life based on spiritual principles including the prerequisites for the establishment of global peace as identified in the Bahá’í writings. The Plan, in both urban and rural settings, is comprised of an educational process where children, youth, and adults explore spiritual concepts, gain capacity, and apply them to their own distinct social environment. As individuals participate in this ongoing process of community building, they draw insights from science and religion’s spiritual teachings toward gaining new knowledge and insights.

The acquisition of new knowledge is continually applied to nurturing a community environment that is free from prejudice of race, class, religion, nationality, and strives to achieve the full equality of women in all the affairs of the community as well as the society at large. A natural outcome of this transformative learning process of spiritual and material education is involvement in the life of society. In this regard, Bahá’ís are engaged in two interconnected areas of action: social action and participation in the prevalent discourses of society. Social action involves the application of spiritual principles to social problems in order to advance material progress in diverse settings. Second, in diverse settings, Bahá’í institutions and agencies, in addition to individuals and organizations, whether academic or professional, or at national and international forums, also participate in important discourses prevalent in society with the goal of exploring the solutions to social problems and contributing to the advancement of society. Aware of the complex challenges that lie ahead of them in this work, Bahá’ís are working jointly with others, convinced of the unique role that religion offers in the construction of a spiritual global order.38For more detailed information please refer to message dated 18 January 2019 from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the World. Available at www.bahai.org/r/537332008 ; Riḍván 2021 message from the Universal House of Justice to the Bahá’ís of the World. Available at wwww.bahai.org/r/750707520

Stressing the vital significance of striving to enhance the learning processes associated with the implementation of peace, a recent message addressed to Bahá’ís and their collaborators, observed that

none who are conscious of the condition of the world can refrain from giving their utmost endeavour… The devoted efforts that you and your like-minded collaborators are making to build communities founded on spiritual principles, to apply those principles for the betterment of your societies, and to offer the insights arising—these are the surest ways you can hasten the fulfillment of the promise of world peace.39Universal House of Justice. From a message to the Bahá’ís of the World dated 18 January 2019. Available at www.bahai.org/r/276724432

The Divine Plan continues to unfold over the decades as the collective capacity of the Bahá’í community grows in tandem with the world’s openness to change. Implementation of the Plan continues and will continue so that the world might achieve “the advent of that Golden Age which must witness the proclamation of the Most Great Peace and the unfoldment of that world civilization which is the offspring and primary purpose of that Peace.”40Shoghi Effendi. Citadel of Faith: Messages to America, 1947-1957. Available at www.bahai.org/r/688620126

 

About the Authors:

Janet Khan is the author or co-author of a number of books on the history and teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, including A World Without War, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Discourse for Global Peace, Call to Apostleship, Reflections on the Tablets of the Divine Plan (2016), Heritage of Light, The Spiritual Destiny of America (2009), Prophet’s Daughter, The Life and Legacy of Bahíyyih Khánum, Outstanding Heroine of the Bahá’í Faith (2005), and Advancement of Women, A Bahá’í Perspective (1998).

Hoda Mahmoudi holds the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is co-author with Dr. Janet Khan of A World Without War: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the Discourse on Global Peace (2020). She is also co-editor of Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Human Dignity and Human Rights (2019), Children and Globalization: Multidisciplinary Perspective (2019), and The Changing Ethos of Human Rights (2020).

By Reed Breneman

Reed M. Breneman is a community college professor in North Carolina. He received his M.A. in Middle Eastern Studies from the American University of Beirut.

By 1914, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá was well known in many parts of the globe for His life of service to humanity. In the Holy Land, where He had lived most of His adult life, He was revered for His service to the poor and needy in the community and for His engagement in the discourses of the day with local and regional dignitaries. His lengthy sojourns in Egypt before and after His historic visits to Europe and North America also attracted considerable attention, earning Him even more admirers from all walks of life. His travels in the West, from which He had only recently returned in early 1914, have been particularly well-documented; in both formal and informal settings and to diverse audiences, His explications of the Teachings of His Father, Bahá’u’lláh, in the context of the urgent promotion of global peace, made Him a unique Figure on the world stage. In the war years, He would win widespread acclaim for helping to avert a famine in His home region of Haifa and ‘Akká. And for many around the world, the example of His life and His voluminous Writings were and continue to be sources of guidance and elucidation.

However, rather less well known today is ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s sustained promotion of modern education in the Middle East. Perhaps most striking in this regard is how, over a period of several years, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá encouraged and nurtured a group of Bahá’í students in Beirut to pursue higher education in a way that was coherent with the students’ identities as Bahá’ís.


‘Abdu’l-Bahá in the Holy Land, c. 1920. Credit: Bahá'í Media Bank, available at https://media.bahai.org/detail/1781734/

Among ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s many visitors in early 1914 was Howard Bliss, the president of the Syrian Protestant College (SPC), an institution with which ʻAbdu’l-Bahá had maintained a longstanding relationship and at which a group of Bahá’í students had become an established presence by the time of Bliss’s visit that February.1H.M Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The Centre of the Covenant of Bahá’u’lláh (Oxford: George Ronald, 1973), 405. Bliss, an American who had grown up on the campus of the college in Beirut (his father, Daniel Bliss, was the college’s first president) and who spoke fluent Arabic, was visiting, in part, to arrange for the Bahá’í students to spend their upcoming spring break in Haifa in the vicinity of the Shrines of Bahá’u’lláh and the Báb, affording them an opportunity to meet and learn from ʻAbdu’l-Bahá. But the conversation between ʻAbdu’l-Bahá and Bliss extended to topics of pressing concern for the former. Much as He had done on numerous occasions during His travels, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá encouraged Bliss to foster in his students “principles” such as the “oneness of the world of humanity,” among others, so that their education could be directed toward “universal peace.”2Star of the West 9, no. 9 (20 August 1918): 98, http://sotwbnewsinfo.s3-website-us-east-1.amazonaws.com/sotw/searchable_pdfs/SotW_Vol-01%20(Mar%201910)-Vol-10%20(Mar%201919).pdf  See also “Zeine on Modern Education,” Al-Kulliyah, Winter 1973, 15, American University of Beirut/Library Archives.

Bliss’s receptivity to ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s remarks and encouragement was evident in a speech Bliss gave just ten days later. On 25 February, in a meeting with a group of students that was representative of the school’s rich diversity, Bliss urged it to include the “establishing of universal peace” as one of its “missions.”3Al-Kulliyah, March 1914, No. 5, 151, American University of Beirut/Library Archives ʻAbdu’l-Bahá and Bliss’s exchange, indeed, was emblematic of the larger conversation the Bahá’í community and the college had been having for several years, a conversation centering on the college’s self-styled “experiment in religious association” to which the Bahá’í students had been striving to contribute.


Howard Bliss. Credit: “Howard Bliss Photo Collection,” AUB Libraries Online Exhibits, accessed October 22, 2021, http://online-exhibit.aub.edu.lb/items/show/158.

ʻAbdu’l-Bahá and Modern Education

The Syrian Protestant College was founded in 1866 and formally renamed the American University of Beirut (AUB) in 1920. Long before any Bahá’í students had enrolled there, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá in an 1875 treatise known today as The Secret of Divine Civilization4Available at www.bahai.org/r/093729958 encouraged the establishing of modern schools in His native Persia, advocating for the “extension of education, the development of useful arts and sciences, the promotion of industry and technology.” 5‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Secret of Divine Civilization. Available at www.bahai.org/r/568414401 Education, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá asserted, should uplift individuals for the ultimate purpose of benefiting society. Over the following decades, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá was instrumental in the establishment of dozens of schools throughout His native land; notably, these schools, including many for girls, welcomed students of all faiths.6See Soli Shahvar, The Forgotten Schools: The Baha’is and Modern Education in Iran, 1899-1934 (London: Taurus Academic Studies, 2009).

‘Abdu’l-Bahá personally supervised such initiatives in His local community in ‘Akká as well. In 1903, for example, about twenty children from the Bahá’í community were assembled for classes in English, Persian, math, and other subjects including practical instruction in trades like carpentry, shoemaking, and tailoring.7Youness Afroukhteh, Memories of Nine Years in ‘Akká, Trans. by Riaz Masrour (Oxford: George Ronald, 2003), 159-60. Many of these students continued their studies at local schools, such as a French one in Haifa.8Riaz Khadem, Shoghi Effendi in Oxford and Earlier (Oxford: George Ronald, 1999), 2. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá encouraged students such as these, including His own grandchildren, to continue their education at colleges and universities, the closest of which was SPC; Shoghi Effendi, His eldest grandson and successor as Head of the Bahá’í Faith, graduated from SPC in 1917.

ʻAbdu’l-Bahá repeatedly qualified his support of such schools with the condition that they attend to the whole student and produce graduates who had progressed not only scientifically but also morally. During his visit to North America in 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke at Columbia and Stanford universities, praising the value of the scientific education they provided while also emphasizing the necessity of “spiritual development…the most important principle [of which] is the oneness of the world of humanity, the unity of mankind, the bond conjoining East and West, the tie of love which blends human hearts.”9‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The Promulgation of Universal Peace:  Talks Delivered by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá during His Visit to the United States and Canada in 1912. Available at www.bahai.org/r/650712298

By this time, Bahá’í students from Haifa and ‘Akká, as well as Persia, Egypt, and Beirut, had attended SPC for about a decade, in increasing numbers over the previous few years. There were no comparable institutions in their own countries, and attending universities in Europe or America was not yet practical for most. As SPC became a popular choice, the prospect of joining an existing group of Bahá’í students was an additional attraction. A sizable group of students as well attended the Université Saint-Joseph (USJ), also in Beirut. Together, they constituted a single coherent group, meeting together, visiting each other, and collaborating, for example, in the activities of the “Society of the Bahá’í Students of Beirut,” which was formed in 1906.10Zeine N. Zeine, “The Program of the Society of Bahá’í Students of Beirut 1929-1930” (unpublished report, n.d.) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Himself visited SPC during at least one of his visits to Beirut in 1880 and 1887.11Necati Alkan, “Midhat Pasha and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in ‘Akka: the Historical Background of the Tablet of the Land of Bā,” Baha’i Studies Review 13 (2005): 6-7, https://bahai-library.com/pdf/a/alkan_midhat_pasha_abdulbaha.pdf

The Bahá’í students’ engagement with educational institutions like SPC was very much framed in the terms ʻAbdu’l-Bahá had been setting forth for many years, perspectives inspired by the Teachings of His Father, Bahá’u’lláh. One such Teaching was the harmony of science and religion; as noted, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá was calling for education to attend to the building of character as well as the shaping of intellects. This was a matter of intense interest at the college as well. While colleges in America had moved away from direct religious instruction, at SPC, there was still an effort to provide it.12Betty S. Anderson, The American University of Beirut: Arab Nationalism and Liberal Education (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011), 38. Around the time of ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s first visit, the faculty and missionaries associated with SPC had become sharply divided over just how to reconcile this religious education with the school’s scientific training. This rift had only deepened over the decades even as the younger Bliss had taken the college in increasingly “secular,” or liberal, directions. By 1908, the college’s course catalogue framed its approach in decidedly liberal terms, asserting that the “primary aim” of the curriculum is to “to develop the reasoning faculties of the mind, to lay the foundations of a thorough intellectual training, to free the mind for independent thought.”13Anderson, American University of Beirut, 52. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá was supportive of the college’s efforts in this regard. As He Himself recorded in conversation with other visitors a week after Bliss’s visit:

The American College at Beirut is carrying on a sacred mission of education and enlightenment and every lover of higher culture and civilization must wish it a great success…Years ago I went to Beirut, and visited the College in its infancy. From that time on I have praised the liberalism of this institution whenever I found an opportunity.14Earl Redman. Visiting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Vol. 2: The Final Years, 1913-1921 (Oxford: George Ronald, 2021), 24-5.

Yet Bliss and others were intent on maintaining the Christian identity of the college.  Heavily influenced by the Social Gospel and Progressive movements, Bliss’s conception of religious education “melded religion, character, and social service”15Anderson, American University of Beirut, 67. and, in his words, sought to “set so high, so noble, so broad, so ecumenical a type of Christianity before our students” as to inspire their education and future services to society.16Anderson, American University of Beirut, 64.

Howard Bliss presumably had this project in mind when, on 15 February 1914, he asked ʻAbdu’l-Bahá for His thoughts on “ideal” education.17“Zeine,” Al-Kulliyah, 15. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s response set forth “three cardinal principles.” These principles affirm the need for unfettered intellectual inquiry in education; however, they also call for the moral and ethical development of students and their reorientation toward a broadly conceived mission of service to humanity. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s comments were as follows:

In this age the college which is dominated by a denominational spirit is an anomaly, and is engaged in a losing fight. It cannot long withstand the victorious forces of liberalism in education. The universities and colleges of the world must hold fast to three cardinal principles.

First: Whole-hearted service to the cause of education, the unfolding of the mysteries of nature, the extension of the boundaries of pure science, the elimination of the causes of ignorance and social evils, a standard universal system of instruction, and the diffusion of the lights of knowledge and reality.

Second: Service to the cause of morality, raising the moral tone of the students, inspiring them with the sublimest ideals of ethical refinement, teaching them altruism, inculcating in their lives the beauty of holiness and the excellency of virtue and animating them with the excellences and perfections of the religion of God.

Third: Service to the oneness of the world of humanity; so that each student may consciously realize that he is a brother to all mankind, irrespective of religion or race.  The thoughts of universal peace must be instilled into the minds of all scholars, in order that they may become the armies of peace, the real servants of the body politic – the world. God is the Father of all. Mankind are His children. This globe is one home. Nations are the members of one family. The mothers in their homes, the teachers in the schools, the professors in the college, the presidents in the universities, must teach these ideals to the young from the cradle up to the age of manhood.18Star of the West 9, no. 9 (20 August 1918): 98.

ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s vision for education, as expressed above, included an implicit repudiation of social Darwinism, a theory which in the decades between His visit to SPC and His 1914 meeting with its college president had become increasingly popular. Ironically, while conservative thinkers initially rejected Darwin’s scientific theory of evolution, they later embraced its implications for society, when they associated a certain conception of progress as connected with “dominant” races and civilizations, that is, white and European ones.19Norbert Scholz, “Foreign Education and Indigenous Reaction in Late Ottoman Lebanon: Students and Teachers at the Syrian Protestant College” (PhD diss., Georgetown University, 1997), 233. The more liberal wing at the college also conflated its approach to Protestant education with “Americanism.”20Anderson, American University of Beirut, 57. As one commentator has put it, the college was sending the message that only “America and Protestantism had the tools for this progressive future.”21Anderson, American University of Beirut, 89.

ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, however, urged Bliss to encourage his students to see themselves as serving the higher interests of humanity, not the particular ones of race or nation. In October of 1912, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá had implored assembled students, faculty, and staff at Stanford University along much the same lines, explaining that “the law of the survival of the fittest” did not apply to humanity.22‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Promulgation. Available at www.bahai.org/r/055943431 Acceding to such a law would be similar to allowing nature to remain uncultivated and unfruitful. Human progress, then, required education in the “ideal virtues of Divinity,” for humanity is inherently “lofty and noble” and “specialized” to “render service in the cause of human uplift and betterment.”23‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Promulgation. Available at www.bahai.org/r/935144964


Shoghi Effendi, standing in the second row (third from the left) with his class at the Syrian Protestant College (later called American University of Beirut); circa 1914. Credit: The Priceless Pearl, p. 54.

Responding to a Crisis at the College

At the time of Bliss’s visit, a major controversy was raging at the college: the question of mandatory attendance at the school’s religious services. The college’s religious requirements had relaxed over the years and, partly as a result, the school had begun to attract a more diverse student body, not only Christians from various denominations but also more Muslims, Jews, Druze, and Bahá’ís. Spurred on by the Young Turk revolution of 1908 which, among others, advocated for religious freedom and equality, in early 1909, the majority of the Muslim students refused to attend Christian religion services and Bible classes, presenting a petition to the faculty a few days later requesting that such attendance become voluntary.24Stephen B. L Penrose, That They May Have Life: The Story of the American University of Beirut 1866-1941. (Beirut: Imprimerie Catholique, 1970; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1941) 134-35. In addition to widespread opposition from Jewish students as well, the college also faced opposition from the local Muslim community, the Ottoman authorities, and American diplomats. While making some concessions to the striking students, the college largely withstood the pressure, and the mandate remained until 1915, when an Ottoman law made attendance voluntary. Bliss’s 1914 visit, in fact, was part of a tour of the region in which Bliss engaged with a number of civil and religious leaders in order to defend the college’s approach to religious education.

It was in this particular context that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s comments to Bliss about the “cardinal principles” of education were made. While it was clear to many, including ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, that missionary institutions like SPC were in a “losing fight” and the forces of liberalism were in the ascendant, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá was unstinting in His support of religious education of a certain type, an education in “service to the cause of morality” and “animating [students] with the excellences and perfections of the religion of God.” As He had explained a year and a half before at Stanford:

Fifty years ago Bahá’u’lláh declared the necessity of peace among the nations and the reality of reconciliation between the religions of the world. He announced that the fundamental basis of all religion is one, that the essence of religion is human fellowship and that the differences in belief which exist are due to dogmatic interpretation and blind imitations which are at variance with the foundations established by the Prophets of God.25‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Promulgation. Available at www.bahai.org/r/819122974

For ʻAbdu’l-Bahá, religion was one, and it was indispensable to the success of any educational enterprise if it encouraged love and unity. However, as He repeatedly made clear, “if religious belief proves to be the cause of discord and dissension, its absence would be preferable.”26‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Promulgation. Available at www.bahai.org/r/819122974 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s vision for religious education, then, was unifying but also demanding; such education had to generate higher levels of unity than that previously attained.

Responding to the well-documented protests of those in the Muslim community, including many reformers, who thought the religious services would have a negative effect on the students, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá remarked, “I am sure the morals of the students will not be corrupted. They will be informed with the contents of the Old and New Testament. What harm is there in this? A church is house of prayer. Let them enter therein and worship God. What wrong is there in this?”27Redman, Visiting, 25. Indeed, He viewed such attendance as a potential benefit to all concerned:

I have no doubt that much good will be accomplished, and many misunderstandings will be removed, if the [Muslims] attend the Churches of the Christians with reverence in their hearts and sincerity in their souls, and likewise the Christians may go [to] Mohammedan Mosques and magnify the Creator of the Universe. Is it not revealed in the Holy Scriptures that ‘My House shall be called of all nations the House of Prayer? All the houses of different names, — Church, Mosque, Synagogue, Pagoda, Temple are no other than the House of Prayers. What is there in a name? Man must attach his heart to God and not to a building. He must love to hear the name of God, no matter from what lips…28Redman, Visiting, 25.

To be clear, His support was not out of sympathy with the college’s longstanding mission, however liberally construed, to convert students to Protestantism, but out of a conviction of the oneness of God and religion, stressing universality and commonality of worship. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s approach bore some commonalities with those of Muslim reformist thinkers and other liberals but differed in key respects. The well-known reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh, whom ‘Abdu’l-Bahá met with during His 1887 visit to Beirut, embraced the adoption of modern science for the benefit of Islamic societies; however, he advocated for the development of Muslim schools and criticized the effect on students of attending foreign ones, for it estranged them from their own culture and religion.29Scholz, “Foreign Education,” 95. The modernizer Rashid Rida also pointed to the “corrupting” force of such schools, though conceding that those who had had adequate religious instruction could attend them without any danger of losing faith. Even so, while supportive of the education the college provided, he disapproved of participation in “Christian” services.30Scholz, “Foreign Education,” 99, 187. And though liberal figures (such as Suleyman al-Bustani, Beirut’s parliamentary representative in Istanbul) voiced support for the idea that the younger generation could transcend racial and religious differences and worship together,31Scholz, “Foreign Education,” 188. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s comments explicitly and seriously included the idea of Christians themselves going to mosques to worship as well, a possibility that others would have found difficult to imagine. His was a voice for a kind of radical equality that challenged liberals at the college and reformists in the wider society alike.

During those years, liberals at the college like Bliss had been moving SPC in directions that were increasingly consonant with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s bold vision. Giving up on converting students to Protestantism as the college’s primary goal, Bliss identified the fostering of religious harmony as integral to the college’s mission. As he put it, the “equal treatment for men of all religions” produces “an atmosphere of good will and moral sympathy among men of the most divergent religious belief.”32Annual Report by the President to the Boards of Managers and Trustees, 1915-16, 6-7, American University of Beirut/Library Archives. In response to the 1909 crisis, Bliss had reminded his board of trustees:

We must put ourselves in the place of our non-Christian students,– our Moslems, our Tartars, our Jews, our Druses, our Bahais…We must not dishonor his sense of honor; and we must not feel that the work of the College has fulfilled the mission until these men and their fellow religionists who form a great majority of the Empire’s population are touched and molded by the College influence.33Annual Report, 1908-09, 16.

In 1922 Laurens Hickok Seelye, a member of the AUB faculty, published in The Journal of Religion an article entitled “An Experiment in Religious Association” in which he presented the college’s (now university’s) religious policy as a “radical step” for a “Christian institution.”34Laurens H. Seelye, “An Experiment in Religious Association,” The Journal of Religion 2, no. 3 (May 1922): 303-04. Howard Bliss, he wrote, had redefined the “faith of the missionary,” which was not to “urge upon others conformity, but a gracious invitation…to learn together of the progressing revelation of God.”35Seelye, “Experiment,” 303. Bliss “put into actual missionary achievement the belief of every scientific student of religious experience.”36Seelye, 303. Seelye highlighted as a concrete sign of Bliss’s success the number of Muslims and other non-Christians the college had attracted.37Seelye, 304.  In 1920-1921, they, in fact, outnumbered the Christians by 511 to 490, with 382 Muslims, 66 Jews, 41 Druze, and 22 Bahá’ís.38Annual Report, 1920-21, 15.


American University of Beirut, (AUB). Chapel. Students emerging from service. Taken some time between 1920 and 1933. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print


American University of Beirut, (AUB). College Hall. Taken between 1920 and 1933. Credit: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA https://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print

“An Experiment in Religious Association”

In the 1910s, the college’s religious instruction and “influence” increasingly involved interfaith dialogue, in which the Bahá’í students actively participated. The college chapter of the Young Men’s Christian Association, or YMCA, attracted a diverse group of students eager to discuss religious subjects, according to Bayard Dodge, Bliss’s son-in-law and successor as college president. Dodge joined the faculty in 1913 and was also executive secretary of the YMCA chapter. In his 1914 annual report for the YMCA, he wrote:

This winter about fifteen men used to gather every Sunday morning to discuss the five different types of religion which they represented. They took a keen interest, but never were intolerant or even hot-headed, so that they showed what an easy matter it is to talk over differences and reforms, without any fear of unpleasant feeling.39Bayard Dodge, Report of the Beirut YMCA, 1913-14, 8, American University of Beirut/Library Archives.

It is evident that the “five different types of religion” included Bahá’ís, along with Christians, Muslims, Druze, and Jews. The Bahá’í students had already received the college’s unofficial consent to hold their own meetings on campus, though many at the college and in the missionary community opposed the practice. On Sunday afternoons, the members of the Society of the Bahá’í Students of Beirut would “gather under the trees in the university [SPC] or in their private rooms, chanting prayers and talking over matters of religious concern.”40Zeine, “Program.”

Dodge had written: “On Sunday morning I meet a group of Moslems and Bahá’ís, who discuss all sorts of religious questions in a most broadminded way and are intensely interesting.”41Bayard Dodge to Cleveland H. Dodge, December 1913, Box 4, The Bayard Dodge Collection, American University of Beirut/Library Archives. In one of Dodge’s earliest letters from the College, dated 26 November 1913, he singled out the Bahá’ís for their interest in such activities: “they try to take the best out of all religions.”42Bayard Dodge to “Bub,” 26 November 1913, Box 4, The Bayard Dodge Collection, American University of Beirut/Library Archives. While such interfaith activities were encouraged, they were seen to take place under the umbrella of the college’s Christianity. A very small number (12 out of 177) of YMCA members were not Christians, perhaps because as non-Christians, they could join only as associate members. By Dodge’s own admission, many other such students attended “most of the meetings, but feared to have the name ‘Christian’ in any way associated with them.”43Bayard Dodge, Report, 6. Despite the disinclination felt by many students toward being part of a Christian association, however, Dodge did not yet perceive any conflict with the fact that the YMCA was the only formal organization for these kinds of activities. Ottoman pressure ultimately succeeded in forcing the college to disband all student societies, including the YMCA, in May 1916.

During the war, the college’s religious regulations underwent dramatic changes. The subsequent, and in part consequent, upsurge in enrollment of Muslim students to the college who would now be exempt from mandatory religious exercises had caused deep anxiety in Bliss, Dodge, and others. West Hall, constructed in 1914 for student activities, became a refuge for the students from the increasingly harsh wartime conditions outside the college walls. It was also a venue for the college’s experiment in religious association to break new ground. The closing of the YMCA, along with the other student societies, in 1916; the continuation of the informal interfaith discussion groups started before the war during which time “the association in worship became freer than ever”44Seelye, “Experiment,” 305. ; and the much-vaunted sense of solidarity that the war seemed to intensify – all of these had paved the way for the formal creation of a new organization, a “Brotherhood,” envisioned by Bliss in a speech at the building’s opening. In a sermon given on 8 February 1914 titled “God’s Plan for West Hall,” Bliss had identified as the new building’s “supreme purpose the awakening in the men who make use of West Hall of the spirit of service, of ‘the struggle for the life of others’”; instrumental for such a purpose, Bliss proposed, was “a West Hall Brotherhood.”45Al-Kulliyah, March 1914, No. 5, 136.

It was not until 1920, however, that the West Hall Brotherhood properly got on its feet, when Laurens Seelye arrived to become the director of West Hall. Two years later, in his aforementioned article “An Experiment in Religious Association,” he explained the emergence of the West Hall Brotherhood. Deriding the patronizing policy of associate membership for non-Christians in the YMCA, Seelye discussed the delicate balance he and others tried to achieve in making the Brotherhood “non-Christian” even while the University remained a “Christian missionary institution.”46Seelye, “Experiment,” 305-06. Important to membership in the Brotherhood was the belief that, as stated in its Preamble, “a thoughtful, sincere man, whether Moslem, Bahai, Jew or Christian can join this Brotherhood without feeling that he has compromised his standing in relation to his own religion.”47Seelye, “Experiment,” 307. A few Bahá’ís would have been among the twelve non-Christian members of the YMCA in 1913-14, as these twelve were “very equally divided amongst men of the different sects.”48Bayard Dodge, Report, 6.Yet, as with the other non-Christians, joining the Brotherhood would have been a far more acceptable alternative for the Bahá’ís. The Brotherhood’s “Pledge” did not name any single religion but only “this united movement for righteousness and human brotherhood.”49Seelye, “Experiment,” 308. In 1921, Dr. Philip Hitti, the renowned Princeton scholar who was then a young faculty member at his alma mater AUB, wrote that the Brotherhood’s “watchword shall be ‘unity through diversity.’”50Al-Kulliyah, Nov. 1921, No. 1, 4.


Photograph of students in the Students' Union, 1914-1915. Shoghi Effendi can be seen standing in the second row, fourth from the right. Credit: AUB Library Archives

The Bahá’í Students’ Contribution

The Bahá’í students’ participation in such intercommunal spaces was complemented by similar experiences they had gained within their own community, both in Beirut as well as in Haifa and Egypt. Part of the reason for Bliss’s 1914 visit was to arrange for the April visits of the Bahá’í students in Beirut, 27 of whom would make the trip (out of around 30-35 total students)51Redman, Visiting, 23. For a broader overview of the Bahá’í students in Beirut, including detailed statistical information, see Richard Hollinger, “An Iranian Enclave in Beirut: Baha’i Students at the American University of Beirut, 1906-1948,” in Distant Relations: Iran and Lebanon in the Last 500 Years, ed. H.E. Chehabi (Oxford: Centre for Lebanese Studies in association with I.B. Taurus, 2006) 96-119.; 20 students, in two groups, visited ʻAbdu’l-Bahá in Egypt in September 1913.52Ahang Rabbani, ed., The Master in Egypt: A Compilation, Studies in the Babi and Baha’i Religions, Vol. 26 (Los Angeles: Kalimat Press, 2021) 240, 285-86. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá met with these students often during their visits (sometimes twice a day), encouraging them in their studies and asking them if their teachers “took pains to instruct the students.”53Rabbani, Master, 248. He urged them to “strive always to be at the head of [their] classes through hard study and true merit” and to “entertain high ideals and stimulate [their] intellectual and constructive forces.” 54Star of the West 9, no. 9 (20 August 1918): 98. He prioritized the study of agriculture and directly encouraged students to study medicine, in addition to subjects that would lead to careers in commerce and industry. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá also encouraged postgraduate studies, at Stanford, for example.55Rabbani, Master, 305.

Beyond their academic pursuits, however, the Bahá’í students received an education in the kind of united world ʻAbdu’l-Bahá was so interested in cultivating. He urged them to “strive to beautify the moral aspect of [their] lives” through the “divine ideals [of] humility, submissiveness, annihilation of self, perfect evanescence, charity, and loving kindness.” They must, He added, “Love and serve mankind just for the sake of God and not for anything else. The foundation of [their] love toward humanity must be spiritual faith and divine assurance.”56Star of the West 9, no. 9 (20 August 1918): 98. Not only did ʻAbdu’l-Bahá spend time with them and address them on various subjects, but the students also read copies of His talks from His 1912 trip to America.

The effect of these visits on the students was immense. As Badi Bushrui, who was among the students that visited ʻAbdu’l-Bahá in both Egypt and Haifa, later reflected, “Here is an interesting scene: the Hindu, the Zoroastrian, the Jew, the Moslem, and the atheist start singing songs of joy, praising BAHA’O’LLAH that, through His Grace, they were enabled to meet on the common-ground of Unity…”57Redman, Visiting, 24. Bushrui here is identifying people by their source communities, emphasizing the unifying effect of their attraction to the Bahá’í teachings. Indeed, the Bahá’í students were themselves a diverse group; though most were from Persia, they came from Muslim, Jewish, and Zoroastrian backgrounds. In addition, on all their visits, the students interacted with Bahá’ís from Western countries, Americans especially.

The Bahá’í students’ experience visiting ʻAbdu’l-Bahá reinforced their efforts to contribute to the life of the college, and they actively sought out spaces in which they could put into practice their spiritual education. It was through this lens that Bahá’í students participated in religious services at SPC. They were not simply tolerating the Protestant services but viewing them in this far more unifying spirit. They also took advantage of opportunities to participate in the intercommunal spaces that opened up when the services became optional for non-Christians.

But the main venue for the Bahá’í students’ contribution to the college was the Students’ Union, which put on plays and organized a Social Service Institute and a Research Club, besides holding meetings. The most important ones were its weekly Saturday night meetings at which various topics were discussed and debated and the business meetings at which “parliamentary rules [were] observed and practiced.”58Al-Kulliyah, July 1910, No. 6, 229. There were also speaking contest meetings, election meetings, and reception meetings. The twin aims of the Union were “to cultivate and develop public speaking and parliamentary discipline in its members.”59Students’ Union Gazette, 1913, 65, American University of Beirut/Library Archives. Published every two months was the Students’ Union Gazette, the student magazine that had the longest run during this period.60Anderson, American University of Beirut, 22. The Union operated “exclusively” in English61Students’ Union Gazette, 1913, 65., and indeed in his history of AUB, Bayard Dodge refers to the Union as an “English society.”62Bayard Dodge, The American University of Beirut: A Brief History of the University and the Lands Which It Serves (Beirut: Khayat, 1958), 33. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá encouraged the Bahá’í students to perfect their English and to give talks in the language, something they practiced while visiting Him in Egypt and Haifa.63Rabbani, Master, 304.

By 1912 at least, this group was playing an active role in campus life. From the time the Bahá’í students began to form a recognizable group on campus, they became dynamic members of the Union, being elected to the Union’s Cabinet, contributing to the Gazette, participating in and winning prizes in debate contests, and also proposing subjects for debate at the Saturday night meetings. From 1912 until 1916, when all student societies were closed down, Bahá’í students were almost continuously represented in the Students’ Union Cabinet, elections for which were held twice a year. Twice Bahá’í students were elected its president; twice its vice president; at least once its secretary; once its associate secretary; twice the editor of the Students’ Union Gazette; once the president of its Scientific Department; and several times as members-at-large.

Their contributions to the Union – through the topics they suggested for debate, the talks they gave, and the articles they wrote – reveal the focus of their interests: promoting greater unity among the diverse groups of students in the service of universal peace, all the while including a dynamic role for religion. In April 1914, one student proposed that a “universal religion is possible” while another, ‘Abdu’l-Husayn Isfahani, put forth that “Universal Reformation in all the different phases of life can never be effected except through religion”64Students’ Union Gazette, 1914, 60 and Al-Kulliyah, April 1914, No. 6, 192.; Isfahani in a January 1913 speaking contest on “Is reputation an index of true greatness?” had elaborated on this conception of a “universal religion,” basing his argument on the transcendent universality of the founders of major religions – their “creative and inspiring power.”65Students’ Union Gazette, 1913, 35. Jesus Christ, Muhammad, and Buddha, he argued, through their “brilliant commanding genius” accomplished what they did in the face of societal opposition. Thus, their reputations do indicate true greatness. Isfahani also proposed that month that “racial differences do not exist.”66Al-Kulliyah, April 1914, No. 6, 192.

The Bahá’ís continued their involvement with the Students’ Union in the following decades. In 1929, for example, Hasan Balyuzi gave a talk for a speaking contest on the “religion of the future,” which would be characterized by “plasticity, absence of hypocrisy, and spirit of universal brotherhood.”67Al-Kulliyyah, June 1929, No. 8, 238.

At a time when issues of war and peace were very much of the moment, the Bahá’í students sought to promote universal peace. In the years immediately before World War I, Bahá’í students proposed antiwar debate topics, such as “war must inevitably stop,” and wrote articles such as “Towards International Peace.” One such student, Aflatun Mirza, proposed that “a universal language is essential to the progress of the world.”68Al-Kulliyyah, May 1912, No. 7, 227. ʻAbdu’l-Bahá in His talks in America and Europe had supported the establishing of a secondary, auxiliary language to facilitate greater unity and lead to peace.69Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 330. In the 1920s, in fact, many Bahá’ís became active members of the worldwide Esperanto movement. One Bahá’í student, Zeine N. Zeine, was an enthusiastic promoter of the language on campus, giving talks on it, including, on at least one occasion, a short one in Esperanto itself.70Al-Kulliyyah, February 1929, No. 1, 99.

However, even more revealing of the way the Bahá’í students understood their contribution to this discourse was a speech given by Zeine in 1929, a talk that won a prestigious speaking contest. In “Mental Disarmament,” he claimed that such disarmament was more “necessary to peace and happiness of the world than the disarmament of the sword.” Attitudes, he continued, such as “intolerance, ignorance, hatred, prejudice” and so on “play more havoc than the cannon, and bring about strife and war.”71Al-Kulliyyah, April 1929, No. 6, 153. (Appropriately, Zeine, upon his graduation that year, was hired as assistant director of West Hall and an instructor of Sociology.)  In a similar vein, the president of the Students’ Union, not a Bahá’í, at the Brotherhood’s year-opening reception in October 1926, remarked, “the Druze, the Moslem, the Jew, the Bahai, the Christian all unite together to oppose others of the same religion for the welfare of the Union.”72Students’ Union Gazette, 1926, 7-8.  Back in June 1914, Badi Bushrui, who was the outgoing president of the Union, offered a succinct summary of the way Bahá’ís sought to contribute not only in their words but also in their deeds:

Let the Union, as often suggested by President Bliss, stand for universal peace and the oneness of the world of humanity. I am glad that the spirit which the college tries to infuse into her students is finding expression in the life of the Union.  Racial and religious differences play no part there. The President for the first term this year was a Christian, the last President was a Bahai and the new President is a Moslem. I believe this is the biggest stride the Union has taken to be able to choose the best man without regard to religious or racial affinity.73Al-Kulliyyah, June 1914, No. 8, 26.

Furthermore, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá’s guidance addressed the practical outcomes of their education. In Egypt in 1913, for example, ʻAbdu’l-Bahá told the students that it was “his hope that they would make extraordinary progress along spiritual lines as well as in science and art; so that each one might become a brilliant lamp in the world of modern civilization, and upon their return to Persia that country might profit from their acquired knowledge and experience.”74Rabbani, Master, 241. Out of 24 Master’s theses written before 1918, five were written by Bahá’í students.75Hollinger, Distant Relations, 111. Two theses, both written in 1918, exemplify this focus on serving the best interests of their nation. “Social Evils or Hindrances to Persia’s Progress” and “Persia in Transformation,” both written by Bahá’í students, identified elements of Persia’s religious, social, and political life needing attention and articulated a progressive vision for the country, assigning prominent places to education and the rights of women.76Azizullah Khan S. Bahadur, “Social Evils or Hindrances to Persia’s Progress” (MA thesis, American University of Beirut, 1917); Abdul-Husayn Bakir, “Persia in Transformation” (MA thesis, American University of Beirut, 1918).

In a letter to his father dated 22 June 1914, Dodge commented on this mission of the Bahá’í students.  “Most of these students travel to the College from three to four weeks away,” he related, and “speak in a most serious way of getting an education here and then returning to help their unfortunate land.”77Bayard Dodge to Cleveland H. Dodge, 22 June 1914, Box 4, The Bayard Dodge Collection, American University of Beirut/Library Archives. Dodge’s initial encounters with the Bahá’í students in 1913 led him to state that “they uphold all sorts of good reform movements.”78Bayard Dodge to “Bub,” 26 November 1913, Box 4, The Bayard Dodge Collection, American University of Beirut/Library Archives.

The Bahá’í students also contributed to the college-wide efforts to render service to the local community, efforts which greatly accelerated during the war, including medical relief activities, among others. Not long after the war broke out, most of the Bahá’ís in Haifa and ‘Akká, including Badi Bushrui and another recent SPC graduate Habiballah Khudabakhsh, later known as Dr. Mu’ayyad, were received as guests in the Druze/Christian village of Abu-Sinan.79Balyuzi, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 411. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s warm relationship with the village leaders had made this arrangement possible. In an article titled “A New Experience,” published in a fall 1915 number of the Students’ Union Gazette, Bushrui relates how Dr. Mu’ayyad started a medical clinic in the village, performing many operations and treating a variety of conditions over a period of eight months. 80Bayard Dodge, “Education As a Source of Good Will” in The Bahá’í World (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1933) 4: 370. Bushrui and an American Bahá’í woman, Lua Getsinger, acted as nurses and assistants; Bushrui also taught some of the children. Such an experience of social service would have resonated deeply with the emerging ethos of the college, to be sure.

The Bahá’í students’ contributions became a recognized fact of life at the college over the coming decades. In an article titled “Education as a Source of Good Will” published in the 1930-32 volume of The Bahá’í World, President Bayard Dodge outlined the university’s mission, confirming AUB’s strong relationship with the Bahá’ís and its view of them as a like-minded group. From Dodge’s perspective, the university’s “interpretation of the gospel of Jesus and the teachings of the prophets” was “similar to that proclaimed by the great Bahá’í leaders,” and so there had “naturally been a bond of sympathy” between the university and the Bahá’ís.81Bayard Dodge, “Education As a Source of Good Will” in The Bahá’í World (Wilmette: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1933) 4: 370.  As previously noted, the Bahá’ís’ active involvement before and during the war in the interfaith discussion groups made quite a deep impression on Dodge. Writing in 1930, when there were three Bahá’ís on the university staff and twenty-six students, Dodge listed the twenty-eight graduates of the university (there were in fact thirty82Hollinger, Distant Relations, 104. Hollinger also notes that by 1929, about 60 to 70 Bahá’í students in total had studied at SPC/AUB; by 1940, around 300 Bahá’í students had been educated in Beirut, overall. It was in the mid to late 1910s that the Bahá’í students were most statistically significant, however, with as many as 44 students at the college in 1919.) up to that point, adding that they had “become a great credit to their Alma Mater.”83Dodge, “Education,” 4: 370. The list included two women trained as nurses and midwives (women were first admitted to the university in 1921). Dodge himself noted that the list did not include the many Bahá’ís who spent time at the university but never graduated. Dodge detailed three distinguishing qualities of the Bahá’í students:

In the first place, they have acquired from their parents an enviable refinement and courtesy. As far as I can tell, all of them have been easy to get along with, good natured with their friends, and polite to their teachers. Their reputation for good manners and breeding is well established.

In the second place, the Bahá’í students have been marked by clean living and honesty. The older men have had a good influence on the younger ones, so that it is a tradition that they avoid bad habits. Every Sunday afternoon they meet together for devotional and social purposes at the house of Adib Husayn Effendi Iqbal. The older students are able to keep in touch with what the younger ones are doing and their influence is worth as much as a whole faculty of teachers.

In the third place, the Bahá’ís intuitively understand internationalism. They mix with all sorts of companions without prejudice and help to develop a spirit of fraternity on the campus… 84Dodge, “Education,” 4: 371.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s qualified encouragement of modern education bore fruit in the activities of these Bahá’í students. While taking advantage of their academic opportunities, they were also guided by moral principles, perceiving no conflict between their scientific and religious education. While highly cohesive and united as a group, they sought to be a unifying force at the school, promoting the oneness of humanity and universal peace among their classmates “without prejudice.” Becoming an established presence at a time when SPC was liberalizing its approach to religious education, the Bahá’í students found the college a receptive space in which to express their identities as Bahá’ís, and, inspired by the example and teachings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, it is clear that they made an important contribution to the life of the college. Their example shows, moreover, that when a group like the Bahá’í students is empowered in such a setting, significant results can accrue for the whole.


An issue of the Students' Union Gazette. Shoghi Effendi can be seen in the photograph.

By Amin Egea

Amín Egea lives in Barcelona, Spain. He is the author of various works on the life and teachings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, including the two volumes of The Apostle of Peace (George Ronald, 2017 and 2019), Un clamor por la paz (“A Clamor for Peace”, Editorial Bahá’í de España, 2021), and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, la construcción de un nuevo mundo (“‘Abdu’l-Bahá: The building of a new world”, Editorial Bahá’í de España, 2021).

When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited Europe and North America between 1911 and 1913, the West was experiencing a period of great prosperity and peace. Europe had gone almost forty years without a battle on its soil, while the United States had spent nearly half a century healing the wounds of its civil war. The accelerating technological and industrial advances on both sides of the Atlantic were proudly displayed year after year at international expositions visited by citizens and rulers from all corners of the globe. The Western economies had reached unprecedented prosperity, which brought about changes in social organization. It is not surprising, then, that decades later, when describing the gestalt of public opinion in the years preceding the outbreak of World War I, a famous Austrian writer would state: “Never had Europe been stronger, richer, more beautiful, or more confident of an even better future.”1Stefan Zweig, The World of Yesterday (London: Cassell and Company, 1947), 152.

Such confidence in a peaceful and prosperous future was also supported by rapid changes in international politics. The peace conferences held in The Hague in 1899 and 1907 convinced many statesmen and prominent thinkers that the possibility of war was increasingly remote. For the first time, most of the world’s nations had collectively reached global agreements aimed at preventing war, perhaps the most promising of which was the establishment of an International Court of Arbitration. Experts in international law believed that, through arbitration, countries in conflict could resolve their disputes without resorting to arms or shedding a drop of blood. From 1899 until the outbreak of the Great War, hundreds of arbitration agreements were signed to secure peace between signatory countries. Even Great Britain and Germany signed an agreement in 1904.2For a list of arbitration treaties signed before 1912, see Denis P. Myers, Revised List of Arbitration Treaties (Boston: World Peace Foundation, 1912). Each of these advances was applauded by the many statesmen who were interested in internationalism as a path to peace. The Inter-Parliamentary Union, for example, which brought together more than 3,000 politicians from around the world, supported the court without reservation. Leaders such as President Theodore Roosevelt and his successor, William Taft, supported the court.  Philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who was president of the New York Peace Society—an organization that had invited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to speak to its members—paid for the construction of the Peace Palace in The Hague. The building was inaugurated with great pomp in August 1913, just one year before the outbreak of the Great War.

 

William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the United States and the tenth Chief Justice of the United States.

The conviction that the solution to war lay primarily in international organization was so strong that the Hague Convention of 1907 agreed on the establishment of an International Court of Justice, which would not merely arbitrate but also administer justice and enforce international law. The details of such a court were postponed to a future Hague Conference, planned for the fateful year of 1915.

The academic world also gave credibility, through  individuals’ works and studies, to this optimistic vision of the future. Scholars reasoned that a war between world powers would be so costly economically and so devastating militarily that the business world, the banks, the political parties, and public opinion in general would undoubtedly impose reason on any warlike temptation.

“The very development that has taken place in the mechanism of war has rendered war an impracticable operation,” wrote Ivan S. Bloch (1836–1902) in The Future of War. He added, “The dimensions of modern armaments and the organization of society have rendered its prosecution an economic impossibility.”3Ivan S. Bloch, The Future of War (Toronto: William Brigs, 1900), xi. Quoted by Sandi E. Cooper, “European Ideological Movements Behind the Two Hague Conferences (1889–1907)” (PhD. diss., New York University, 1967). This was the sixth volume of Bloch’s Budushchaya voina v tekhnicheskom, ekonomicheskom i politicheskom otnosheniyakh (St. Petersburg: Tipografiya I. A. Efrona, 1898).

Ivan S. Bloch

Along similar lines, Norman Angell presented psychological and biological arguments in The Great Illusion (1911)—which was translated into more than twenty languages—to show that war would be an exercise in irrationality and suicide for the contending parties.

Optimism also spread to the peace movement, which was not only more influential than it is today but enjoyed far more resources and support. David Starr Jordan, who held a leading position in the World Peace Foundation and was the first president of Stanford University—and who invited ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to speak at Stanford—went so far as to ask in 1913, “What shall we say of the Great War of Europe, ever threatening, ever impending, and which never comes? Humanly speaking, it is impossible. … But accident aside—the Triple Entente lined up against the Triple Alliance—we shall expect no war.”4David Starr Jordan, What Shall we Say? Being Comments on War and Waste (Boston: World Peace Foundation, 1913), 18.

David Starr Jordan (Credit: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.)

Andrew Carnegie, who had met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá personally and received at least three letters from Him, would speak in similar terms a year before the war: “Has there ever been danger of war between Germany and ourselves, members of the same Teutonic race? Never has it been even imagined … We are all of the same Teutonic blood, and united could insure world peace.”5Andrew Carnegie, “The Baseless Fear of War,” The Advocate of Peace, April 1913, 79–80.

Norman Angell

As in other spheres, many in the internationalist movement expressed absolute faith in arbitration as the ultimate means of ending war. “I am able to prove, and this is very essential,” said J. P. Santamaria, an Argentinian representative at the Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration in the same year that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá spoke at the distinguished event (1912), “that the majority of the Latin American republics have already exchanged treaties whereby armed conflicts become practically impossible.”6Report of the annual Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration (1912), p. 49.

“We believe not only that France, but Germany and Japan as well, would gladly join with England and the United States in treaties of arbitration which would make war forever impossible,” said another of the event’s speakers.7Address of Samuel B. Capen. Report of the annual Lake Mohonk Conference on International Arbitration (1912), p. 159.

Whether as a result of faith in technological progress, hope in the positive influence of international policy aimed at peace, assurance in the power of the economy, or confidence in the supremacy of scientific reason, the prevailing visions for the future of humanity at the time of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to the West were strictly based on material criteria. The outbreak of World War I demonstrated the fallacy of that premise.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Radical Analysis of the Causes of War

The diagnosis of the world situation presented by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was very different from that of His contemporaries. Although on numerous occasions He referred to the need to establish international bodies with global reach and sufficient executive power to intervene in conflicts between countries,8For some comments and writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on this issue, see, for example: Makatib-i-Hadrat ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, vol. 4 (Tehran: Baha’i Publishing Trust, 121 B. E.), 161; Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá (Haifa: Bahá’í World Centre, 1978) 202:11 and 227:30; Paris Talks (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1967), 40:28; Promulgation of Universal Peace (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 2012), 98:10 and 103:11. He  also impressed on His audiences the urgent need to focus on the moral causes of war and the spiritual requirements for the establishment of peace.

Far from arguing that war was simply the result of deficient international organization, He asserted that it was also rooted in erroneous conceptions of the human being, which led irremediably towards division and contention. He especially warned of the dangers of racism and nationalism, which define the individual according to material parameters—bodily appearance and community of birth, respectively—and prioritize human beings and entire societies according to these factors, thus generating inequality and injustice, and fostering hatred and alienation, among human groups. He also referred to religious hatred, which He described as contrary not only to the foundation of religions but also to divine will.

“All prejudices, whether of religion, race, politics or nation, must be renounced, for these prejudices have caused the world’s sickness,” He said in a talk in Paris in 1911. Prejudice, He asserted, is “a grave malady which, unless arrested, is capable of causing the destruction of the whole human race. Every ruinous war, with its terrible bloodshed and misery, has been caused by one or other of these prejudices.”9‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, 45:1. Ibid., p. 159.

“Man has laid the foundation of prejudice, hatred and discord with his fellowman,” He explained in 1912 in a speech at a Brooklyn church, “by considering nationalities separate in importance and races different in rights and privileges.”10‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 82:11.

“As long as these prejudices prevail, the world of humanity will not have rest,” He wrote years later.11‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 227:10. This is part of one of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s communications to the Central Organization for a Durable Peace, in The Hague.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá rejected the premises on which each of these models of thought were based. He denied, for example, the objective existence of races, stating instead that “humanity is one kind, one race and progeny, inhabiting the same globe.”12‘Abdu’l-Bahá, “Address to the International Peace Forum, New York, 12 May 1912,” Promulgation of Universal Peace, 47:6. He also denied that nations are natural realities, referring to national divisions as “imaginary lines and boundaries.”13‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 98:6. He denied any essential differences between religions, since they all have a common origin, share the same spiritual foundations, and are essentially one and the same. Furthermore, He affirmed that religious differences are due to “dogmatic interpretation and blind imitations which are at variance with the foundations established by the Prophets of God,”14‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 110:15. stressed that these aspects of religion must disappear, and even went so far as to declare that “if religion be the cause of enmity surely the lack of religion is better than its presence.”15“Abdul Baha Gives His Impressions of New York”, The Sun (New York), 7 July 1912, 8.

He spoke at a time when the ideologies characteristic of a culture of inequality (racism, nationalism, sexism, and so on) were on the rise, gradually pushing humanity into what would be the bloodiest and most catastrophic century of its history. Racism, for example, was endorsed by a significant portion of the scientific community of the time and was firmly established in large parts of the world in the form of discriminatory and segregationist laws. It was even undergoing a major transformation equipped by new “scientific” techniques—such as craniometry, phrenology, and physiognomy—that inspired new and abhorrent “social reform” initiatives, such as eugenics and racial hygiene. Nationalism, for the first time in history, had instilled in the majority of humanity the vision of a globe divided into parcels of land defined by races, cultures, and languages. It drove imperialist and colonialist policies, while colonialism, in turn, exported nationalism, imposing previously nonexistent categories and definitions on citizens and territories worldwide. At the same time, longstanding religious conflicts were still very much present, reviving old grievances and warlike moods—as exemplified by the chronic problems in the Balkans, which were in full swing when ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited the West.

Even individuals and organizations with noble goals held such doctrines of inequality. Many pacifists, for example, saw war not so much as a moral problem, but as a biological one. Influenced by racism and social Darwinism, they based their criticism of war on the argument that “fit” men were sent to the battlefield, where they died, while “unfit” men stayed behind and reproduced. The consequence of such a phenomenon, they believed, was “racial weakening.”

“Only the man who survives is followed by his kind,” wrote the aforementioned David Starr Jordan. “The man who is left determines the future. From him springs the ‘human harvest’ …”16David Starr Jordan, War’s Aftermath (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1914), xv.

Along the same lines, Norman Angell also criticized colonial expansion in biological terms, arguing that domination and contact between civilizations prolonged the life of “weak races.”

“When we ‘overcome’ the servile races,” Angell reasoned in his internationally best-selling book, “far from eliminating them, we give them added chances of life by introducing order, etc., so that the lower human quality tends to be perpetuated by conquest by the higher. If ever it happens that the Asiatic races challenge the white in the industrial or military field, it will be in large part thanks to the work of race conservation, which has been the result of England’s conquest …”17Norman Angell, The great illusion (London: William Heinemann, 1910), 189. In 1933 Angell would be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Benjamin Trueblood, secretary of the American Peace Society, who met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Washington, D.C., raised the possibility of a future world federation as a consequence of a “great racial federation” in the Anglo-Saxon world.18Benjamin Trueblood, The Federation of the World (Boston: The Riverside Press, 1899), 132. This idea was similar to that put forward by Andrew Carnegie.

In this context, we can understand—with the perspective provided by the passage of more than a century since His travels—that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s warnings about the causes of war could not be understood by societies immersed in paradigms of thought totally different from the ones He presented.

And just as the meanings and diagnoses of the causes of war differed between those provided by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and the dominant discourses of the time, so did proposals for the establishment of peace. As explained, the international community had placed its hope in legislation and international institutions as mechanisms for ensuring peace; some pacifists sincerely believed that such changes also required the racial hegemony of certain peoples. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, however, emphasized a completely different concept: peacemaking would only be possible when humanity reached the understanding that it is one and acted in accordance with this principle. He brought this idea forward in a great number of His talks. For instance, in Minneapolis, He stated that human beings “must admit and acknowledge the oneness of the world of humanity. By this means the attainment of true fellowship among mankind is assured, and the alienation of races and individuals is prevented … In proportion to the acknowledgment of the oneness and solidarity of mankind, fellowship is possible, misunderstandings will be removed and reality become apparent.”19‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 105:6.

By making such a statement, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá presented His listeners with a radical challenge. The recognition of the oneness of the human race implies, on one hand, the acceptance that there is a primordial identity common to all human beings, which goes beyond any physical or accidental diversity between individuals. It also implies the abandonment of any vision of the human being—foundational to beliefs such as racism, sexism, unbridled nationalism, and religious exclusivism—that justifies human inequality. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s approach, therefore, clashed head-on with the discourses of the time and the materialistic premises that underpinned them.

The Great War

Although ‘Abdu’l-Bahá praised on numerous occasions progress that humanity was experiencing, for example in economics, politics, science, and industry, He also warned that material progress alone would not be capable of bringing true prosperity without a commensurate spiritual advancement.

“Material civilization concerns the world of matter or bodies,” He explained during His visit to Sacramento, “but divine civilization is the realm of ethics and moralities. Until the moral degree of the nations is advanced and human virtues attain a lofty level, happiness for mankind is impossible.”20‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 113:15.

From this perspective, the ideologies of inequality that permeated all areas of human endeavor were totally incapable of promoting lasting peace, including in movements that promoted pacifism, internationalism, and diplomacy.

“The Most Great Peace cannot be assured through racial force and effort,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explained in an address in Pittsburgh:

It cannot be established by patriotic devotion and sacrifice; for nations differ widely and local patriotism has limitations. Furthermore, it is evident that political power and diplomatic ability are not conducive to universal agreement, for the interests of governments are varied and selfish; nor will international harmony and reconciliation be an outcome of human opinions concentrated upon it, for opinions are faulty and intrinsically diverse. Universal peace is an impossibility through human and material agencies; it must be through spiritual power …

For example, consider the material progress of man in the last decade. Schools and colleges, hospitals, philanthropic institutions, scientific academies and temples of philosophy have been founded, but hand in hand with these evidences of development, the invention and production of means and weapons for human destruction have correspondingly increased …

If the moral precepts and foundations of divine civilization become united with the material advancement of man, there is no doubt that the happiness of the human world will be attained and that from every direction the glad tidings of peace upon earth will be announced.21‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 44:13–15.

Based on this premise, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá challenged a falsely optimistic vision of the world, noting that, if the moral and spiritual dimensions of social reality were also assessed, it would become apparent that the world was experiencing a moment of great decadence. “If the world should remain as it is today,” He said in Chicago in 1912, “great danger will face it.”22‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 104:1.

“Observe how darkness has overspread the world,” he explained in Denver:

In every corner of the earth there is strife, discord and warfare of some kind. Mankind is submerged in the sea of materialism and occupied with the affairs of this world. They have no thought beyond earthly possessions and manifest no desire save the passions of this fleeting, mortal existence. Their utmost purpose is the attainment of material livelihood, physical comforts and worldly enjoyments such as constitute the happiness of the animal world rather than the world of man.23‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace, 107:4.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá warned of the acute risk of an impending international conflict on no less than seventeen occasions. “Europe itself,” He said in Paris in 1911, “has become like one immense arsenal, full of explosives, and may God prevent its ignition—for, should this happen, the whole world would be involved.”24“Apostle of Peace Here Predicts an Appalling War in the Old World,” The Montreal Daily Star, 31 August 1912, 1. [The following includes numerous incomplete citations—most need page or publisher data] For other comments about the possibility of a war, see Promulgation of Universal Peace, 3:7, 103:11, 108:1, 114:2; ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on Divine Philosophy (Boston: The Tudor Press, 1918), 95. “The Awakening of Older Nations,” The Advertiser (Montgomery, Alabama), 7 May 1911; “Turks Prisoner for 40 Years,” The Daily Chronicle (London), Western Edition, 17 January 1913, 1; “Abdul Baha’s Word to Canada,” Toronto Weekly Star, 11 September 1912; Montreal Daily Star, 11 September 1912, 2; “Abdul Baha’s Word to Canada,” Montreal Daily Star, 11 September 1912, 12; “Persian Peace Apostle Predicts War in Europe,” Buffalo Courier, 11 September 1912, 7; “Message of Love Conveyed by Baha,” Buffalo Enquirer, 11 September 1912, 5; “Urges America to Spread Peace,” Buffalo Commercial, 11 September 1912, 14; “Abdul Baha an Optimist,” Buffalo Express, 11 September 1912, 1; “Bahian Prophet Returns After a Trip to Coast,” Denver Post, 29 October 1912, 7.

Despite this and other explicit warnings, His audiences remained for the most part unmoved. Confidence in material well-being weighed more heavily on public opinion than His diagnosis of the moral state of the world.25‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, 34:5.

He reiterated his warnings in the years between the end of World War I and His passing in 1921. In His correspondence, He explained that a second world conflagration was imminent, despite the terror caused by the first world war and the enormous progress that had been made in international governance with the establishment of the League of Nations.

“Although the representatives of various governments are assembled in Paris in order to lay the foundations of Universal Peace and thus bestow rest and comfort upon the world of humanity,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá wrote in 1919, “yet misunderstanding among some individuals is still predominant and self-interest still prevails. In such an atmosphere, Universal Peace will not be practicable, nay rather, fresh difficulties will arise.”26‘Abdu’l-Bahá, tablet to David Buchanan of Portland, Oregon, Star of the West, 28 April 1919, 42.

“For in the future another war, fiercer than the last, will assuredly break out,” He wrote in 1920. “Verily, of this there is no doubt whatever.”27Letter to Ahmad Yazdaní, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 228:2.

In another letter sent the same year, He was even more explicit. After presenting—as He had done in His addresses in the West—some of the spiritual requirements for the establishment of peace, He closed by enumerating some of the elements that would eventually lead humanity to World War II just nineteen years later:

The Balkans will remain discontented. Its restlessness will increase. The vanquished Powers will continue to agitate. They will resort to every measure that may rekindle the flame of war. Movements, newly born and worldwide in their range, will exert their utmost effort for the advancement of their designs. The Movement of the Left will acquire great importance. Its influence will spread.28Letter sent through Martha Root, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 202:14.

The Birth of a New Society

No reader of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá should be tempted to think that, in His exposition of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings, He moved only within the theoretical realm. On the contrary, while His efforts to spread Bahá’u’lláh’s message were enormous, His endeavors to bring those teachings into the realm of action were colossal. In a conversation in London, for example, referring to one of the many congresses held at the time, bringing together philanthropists eager to improve the world, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá stressed, “To know that it is possible to reach a state of perfection, is good; to march forward on the path is better. We know that to help the poor and to be merciful is good and pleases God, but knowledge alone does not feed the starving man …”29‘Abdu’l-Bahá in London (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1982)60.

Throughout His ministry, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá directed the Bahá’í community to make itself a model of the future society foretold by Bahá’u’lláh—one through which humanity might witness the transformations that accompany the application of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings to social and interpersonal relations.

In several of His talks, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá described the Bahá’ís of Persia (now Iran) as one such example. They lived in an environment in which religious segregation was a social reality. Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, and other religious minorities lived in isolation from their Muslim neighbors and also separated from each other. Being considered impure beings (najis), the minority groups were subject to strict rules that regulated not only their relations with Muslims, but also the jobs they performed and even the clothes they wore. In this environment, bringing people from different religious backgrounds together in the same room was not just taboo, but unthinkable. Despite this, the Bahá’í community in Persia managed to become—first under the guidance of Bahá’u’lláh and then of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—a cohesive group comprising people from all religious backgrounds. Having in common their faith in the transformative capacity of Bahá’u’lláh’s teachings, they were able to set aside prejudices inherited from the surrounding society and their ancestors and work together to improve conditions for their fellow citizens. It was not long before Persian Bahá’ís—men and women alike—learned to make decisions collectively and to implement them without regard for different backgrounds or genders.

Such a change not only resulted in the unprecedented growth of the Bahá’í community, but also in the proliferation of numerous social and charitable projects throughout the country. For example, during the ministry of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, the Persian Bahá’ís managed to establish no less than twenty-five schools, including some of the country’s first schools for girls. Beginning in the first decade of the twentieth century, Bahá’ís in Persia also established health centers in several cities, including the Sahhat Hospital in Tehran, which followed the instructions of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to include in its mission statement that it would provide “service to mankind, regardless of race, religion and nationality,” a revolutionary statement at that time and place.30Seena B. Fazel and Minou Foadi. “Baha’i health initiatives in Iran: a preliminary survey,” The Baha’is of Iran, eds. Dominic P. Brookshaw and Seena B. Fazel (New York: Routledge, 2008), 128.

While this was happening in the East, American Bahá’ís were working under the leadership of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá to racially integrate their community.

“Strive with heart and soul in order to bring about union and harmony among the white and the black and prove thereby the unity of the Bahá’í world wherein distinction of color findeth no place, but where hearts only are considered,” He wrote in one of His letters to them. “Variations of color, of land and of race are of no importance in the Bahá’í Faith; on the contrary, Bahá’í unity overcometh them all and doeth away with all these fancies and imaginations.”31Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, 75.

He also exhorted them to “endeavor that the black and the white may gather in one meeting place, and with the utmost love, fraternally associate with each other.”32Bonnie J. Taylor and National Race Unity Conference, eds., The Power of Unity (Wilmette, IL: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1986), 30.

“If it be possible,” He wrote on another occasion, “gather together these two races—black and white—into one Assembly, and create such a love in the hearts that they shall not only unite, but blend into one reality. Know thou of a certainty that as a result differences and disputes between black and white will be totally abolished.”33The Power of Unity, 28.

The process by which the Bahá’í community in the United States became a model of racial integration was accelerated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s visit to North America—through His personal example, His participation in integrated meetings, His encouragement to Bahá’ís who held them, and His constant instructions in all the cities He visited on the issue of race.

After the war, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá commissioned Agnes Parsons, a Bahá’í  and member of high society in Washington, D.C., to organize the first Race Amity Conference, which took place in May 1921. The event, promoting racial unity and harmony, triggered a national movement that replicated the Conference in different parts of the United States in the following years, involving not only the American Bahá’í community, but also many other organizations and societal leaders. The result of these efforts was the transformation of the Bahá’í community into a group actively engaged in banishing the racial prejudices so present in its surrounding society.

Agnes Parsons

In His efforts to demonstrate, through the global Bahá’í community, empirical proof that unity and freedom from prejudice leads to peace, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also promoted collaborative ties between the Bahá’ís of the West and the East. Beginning in the early twentieth century, He encouraged Persian Bahá’ís to travel to Europe and North America, and Western Bahá’ís to visit Persia or India. He promoted communications between Bahá’í communities. For example, the Star of the West, the journal of the Bahá’ís of the United States, included a section in Persian and was regularly sent to Persia. As development projects in Persia grew and became more complex, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá encouraged Western Bahá’ís to support them and extend assistance. As a result, in 1909, Susan Moody, M.D., moved to the country to work at the Sahhat hospital in Tehran. Moody was followed by other Bahá’ís, including teacher and school administrator Lilian Kappes, nurse Elizabeth Stewart, and fellow doctor Sarah Clock. In 1910, the Orient-Occident Unity was founded with the aim of establishing collaboration in different fields between the people of Persia and the United States.34This name was adopted in 1912. Its earliest name was the Persian-American Educational Society. The work of this organization involved not only many Bahá’ís, but other prominent organizations and individuals.

Susan Moody
From left to right: Lillian Kappers, Muhibbih Sultan, his wife Muchul Khanum, Dr Susan Moody, Dr. Sarah Clock, and Elizabeth Stewart, 1911 in Tehran.

All these transformations provided glimpses of the social implications of the principles promulgated by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá and presented examples of the effects generated by applying in the field of action the principle of world unity and the conception of the human being enunciated by Bahá’u’lláh.

Addressing the immediate needs

On 24 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austrian-Hungarian Empire, was assassinated in Sarajevo. A few weeks later, the European powers were at war, and the disaster predicted by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá only a few years earlier became a reality.

The Ottoman regions of Syria and Palestine did not escape the dire consequences of the conflagration. The area was hit by famine caused by pillaging Ottoman troops as they crossed the territory to reach Egypt, where they were defending the strategic Suez channel. In the Haifa area, circumstances were particularly complicated. The local population held diverging alliances. The Arabs were divided between those sympathizing with the French and those supporting the Ottoman Empire, while the members of the large German colony supported their own country. These divisions caused tension and sometimes produced violence. The city was also the target of bombings from the sea. Thus, within a few weeks, Haifa and its surroundings experienced a rapid transition from a relative state of peace to severe insecurity associated with a humanitarian crisis. The conflict caused acute needs that required urgent attention.

Before the war, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had taken steps that would allow Him to ameliorate these conditions. His most visible contribution was to provide food for the people of Haifa and its vicinity. At the beginning of the twentieth century, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had established various agricultural communities around the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan Valley, with the most important one in ‘Adasiyyih, in present-day Jordan. During the hardest years of the war, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent shipments of foodstuffs from this location to Haifa, using some two hundred camels for just one trip, which gives an idea of the scale of the aid.35For more information on this, see Iraj Poostchi, “Adasiyyah: A Study in Agriculture and Rural Development,” Bahá’í Studies Review 16 (2010), 61–105. To distribute the food within the population, He organized a sophisticated rationing system using vouchers and receipts to ensure that the food reached all those in need while preventing abuse.

“He was ever ready to help the distressed and the needy,” a witness was quoted as saying in 1919 in London’s Christian Commonwealth:

… often He would deprive himself and his own family of the necessities of life, that the hungry might be fed and the naked be clothed. … For three years he spent months in Tiberias and Adassayah, supervising extensive works of agriculture, and procuring wheat, corn and other food stuffs for our maintenance, and to distribute among the starving Mohamedan and Christian families. Were it not for his pre-vision and ceaseless activity none of us would have survived. For two years all the harvests were eaten by armies of locusts. At times like dark clouds they covered the sky for hours. This, coupled with the unprecedented extortions and looting of the Turkish officials and the extensive buying of foodstuffs by the Germans to be shipped to the “Fatherland” in a time of scarcity, brought famine. In Lebanon alone more than 100.000 people died from starvation.36“News of Abdul Baha,” Christian Commonwealth (London), 22 January 1919, 196. Text in Amín Egea, The Apostle of Peace, vol. 2 (Oxford: George Ronald, 2018), 427–428.

“Abdul Baha is a great consolation and help to all these poor, frightened, helpless people,” another report read.37“Bahai News,” Christian Commonwealth (London), 3 March 1915, 283. Text in The Apostle of Peace, vol. 2, 410.

A few years later—just after the war—a British army officer described ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s role in reuniting the divided peoples of Haifa, saying, “Many are looking to him to solve the problems arising between Moslem and Christian sects.”38W. Tudor Pole, quoted in “Palestine of Tomorrow,” Christian Commonwealth (London), 24 September 1919, 614. Text in The Apostle of Peace, vol. 2, 426.

Reading Reality in Times of Crisis

The three levels of action taken by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá on the issue of war—participation in the discourses of His time, building a community based on spiritual principles, and paying attention to the immediate needs arising from the outbreak of war—offer us an opportunity to reflect, nearly one hundred years after His passing, on the appropriateness of the models of thought that currently influence global decision-making.

Today, as then, the world is beset by a large number of threats. The progressive environmental decline, the deficient global economic system—which allows for the existence of extremes of wealth and poverty and, at the same time, periodically causes major economic crises—the prevalence of war in a multitude of forms and its constant threat in a context of unprecedented technological development, the rapid spread and assimilation of hate mongering of all kinds and of all orientations, and the rise of an unfettered nationalism with an associated drive against human diversity and resistance to the processes of global convergence, are just some of the challenges facing humanity. In addition to these, which have been created by human beings themselves, there are others of an unexpected and natural character which, like the current global pandemic, highlight the fragility of a human ecosystem that has been greatly weakened by internal divisions and inequalities.

If the response to these crises—some of them unprecedented—is to be based on contradictions similar to those of the internationalists or pacifists of the years before the Great War, we can anticipate that any remedy applied will be dramatically limited in its influence. Can, for instance, a humanity that still clings to a nationalistic world view provide an adequate response to global problems? Is it possible for societies that perceive consumerism and the accumulation of goods as a path to true happiness to find solutions to crises such as global warming?

If we heed ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s advice, the diagnosis of these and future crises should not depend solely on an analysis of the material circumstances that converge in each of them, but should also address the ultimate, moral causes of these phenomena. Some of these include the pursuit of self-interest, submission to materialism, the perception that struggle and strife are legitimate means of resolving conflicts, the persistence of prejudices that deny human equality, and the distortion of the purpose of religion. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá consistently stated in His talks and writings, the solutions to the problems that afflict the human race depend not only on a change in the material conditions of humanity but also on a transformation in our understanding of what it means to be human, of our existential purpose, and of the moral framework upon which we base our actions.

By Sanem Kavrul

Sanem Kavrul served from 2015 to 2020 as the director of agriculture research for the Kimanya Ngeyo Foundation in Uganda, and serves as a resource person for similar agriculture efforts in Africa.

In the Lawḥ-i-Dunyá (Tablet of the World), Bahá’u’lláh exhorted humankind to pay special regard to agriculture, emphasizing its vital importance to the advancement of civilization.1Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, 7. Lawḥ-i-Dunyá (Tablet of the World). Available at www.bahai.org/r/512736869  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá further elaborated on this theme in His writings and talks, highlighting the role of the farmer as the “first active agent in human society” and stating that “the question of economics must commence with the farmer and then be extended to the other classes.”2Abdu’l-Bahá, from a Tablet dated 4 October 1912 to an individual believer—translated from the Persian, included in the compilation “Economics, Agriculture and Related Subjects” by the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, published in Compilation of Compilations, Volume 3, pages 5-17, 2000.“The fundamental basis of the community is agriculture, tillage of the soil,” He shared on another occasion. “All must be producers.”3Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, Talks in New York, 1-15 July 1912: 77. 309 West Seventy-eighth Street

Little wonder, then, that Bahá’í communities have, throughout the history of the Faith, paid “special regard to agriculture,” especially in the arena of social action. In Sub-Saharan Africa, where approximately two-thirds of the population is engaged in farming on either a full- or part-time basis,4Available at http://www.fao.org/family-farming/regions/africa/en/ the past decades have provided an especially rich opportunity for learning about the application of these teachings in practice. This article reviews developments in recent decades and surveys selected initiatives across the continent, with particular focus on central Africa.

The rise of collective capacity for agricultural development

Agriculture is commonly considered to be the backbone of the African economy, contributing between 30 and 60 percent of gross domestic product for each country.5Available at https://www.britannica.com/place/Africa/Agriculture The majority of this production is carried out on family farms less than one hectare in size; in fact, 95% of the farms in sub-Saharan Africa are smaller than five hectares.6Available at http://www.fao.org/family-farming/regions/africa/en/  For the most part, these farms operate at a subsistence level to feed the family and serve local markets. There are limited or no means to irrigate or to access costly inputs such as improved seed varieties, fertilizers, pesticides, or mechanized equipment. Yet despite a large percentage of the population being engaged with agricultural production activities, food security continues to be a challenge for the continent.7Among the factors threatening food security are population growth and the related issue of land shortage; the impact of climate change on rainfall and temperature patterns; soil infertility, partly caused by popular trends pushing farmers away from their traditionally diverse systems of production as well as the dependency the trends have created for chemical fertilizers that lose their effect over time; difficulties of controlling pests that have become resistant to the inorganic pesticides; the disappearance of local varieties of seeds from communities; the lack of quality in seeds purchased in the market with low germination rates; and conflict and epidemics that hinder populations of affected countries from producing and accessing food.

Bahá’í communities in Africa have historically been dedicated to the process of agricultural development. They have established schools that have specifically offered technical training in agriculture, both to build capacity and to develop a love for the field. They have formed village farmers’ groups that have worked together to enhance production and increase income. They have established organizations with the aim of building the capacity of farmers in various aspects of crop and animal production as well as value addition. Some of these efforts have gradually gained strength while others have dissipated over time owing to limited human or other resources. Yet, the sincere desire to work collectively towards agricultural development has remained a constant thread.

Two students water the vegetables they are growing as part of a “self-reliance” class at Ruaha Secondary School.

 

Students planting trees around Bambino Secondary School, Malawi

By 2010, as a result of nearly a decade and a half of systematic activity, populations in a number of countries in Africa developed greater collective capacity to address their social and economic needs, including production. At the center of this process was a system of distance education offered by Bahá’í training institutes and the strong spiritual foundations they laid in community after community. Complementing the efforts of institutes were several Baha’i-inspired organizations—supported by the Office of Social and Economic Development—that were gaining experience offering training to youth and adults, assisting them to contribute more systematically to advancing various aspects of the social and economic life of their communities.8Two programs were especially promising in their ability to empower youth and adults to contribute to the well-being of their communities: the Preparation for Social Action (PSA) program and a program for the promotion of community schools.

In hundreds of localities across the continent, this rise in capacity naturally made possible a wide variety of efforts in the area of social action, including in agriculture. For example, conversations among teachers and parents at community schools about the nutritional needs of children often led to the establishment of school gardens or farms. Consultations among groups of youth, learning about promoting the overall well-being of their communities, resulted in the creation of small-scale production projects. A pattern of study, consultation, action, and reflection—which was by now a hallmark of Baha’i activity worldwide—increasingly came to characterize agricultural efforts. Such developments helped create conditions for an increasingly systematic, community-led engagement in the area of agriculture.

Drawing insights from the experience of FUNDAEC

A number of Bahá’í-inspired organizations on the continent began to consider how to respond to the emerging capacity in the area of agriculture in a way that would be coherent with the process of community building and spiritual transformation already underway.

The insights generated by Fundación para la Aplicación y Enseñanza de las Ciencias (Foundation for the Application and Teaching of the Sciences, FUNDAEC) in Colombia were particularly valuable in this regard.  Decades of experience with participatory agricultural research carried out with farmers of the Norte del Cauca region had enabled the organization to develop educational materials that would serve as both a record of this experience as well as tools for the generation, application, and dissemination of new knowledge specific to the context of given community.  Among the educational materials, two units—“Planting Crops” and “Diversified High-Efficiency Plots”—were already included in the Preparation for Social Action (PSA) program being implemented in some countries in Africa as well as in the training offered to teachers of community schools.9The PSA program is centered on helping participants acquire capabilities in language, mathematics, science, and processes of community life including education, agriculture, health, and environmental conservation. The units are dedicated to building capacity to enhance food production on small farms, encouraging participants to engage in a process of action-research with their community.10For more information about FUNDAEC’s programs and its experience in agriculture, relevant publications can be found on its website, at www.fundaec.org

As part of the study, participants are assisted to reflect on the significance of agriculture for society and on the two sources of knowledge essential for the farmer: modern science and the experience of the farmers of the world.  They explore the question of technological choice and its implications to the well-being of a community. They study the basics of plant biology, soil science, hydrology, entomology, plant pathology, and various options for water, pest, disease and weed management. They learn how to prepare compost and other organic fertilizers, how to establish and maintain a seed bank, and how to determine the nutritional content of a harvest. They reflect on questions about the value of hard work and collaboration, spiritual qualities needed in working in a group, and how the land is a living thing that needs to be cared for and protected.  Above all, students engage in continuing conversations with farmers around them to learn from their experience and share new insights—an approach that encourages an ongoing community-level dialogue about production as well as agricultural science and technology.

The study of the two units among youth and adults in hundreds of localities across the continent gave rise to many initiatives and an increasingly rich conversation at the local level about various processes related to agricultural production.  For those organizations that were being gradually drawn into the area of agriculture, building on the learning processes initiated in the units was a natural place to start.  Through the encouragement of the Office of Social and Economic Development, a number of these agencies began to interact with one another more regularly in order to learn from each other’s experience and to begin thinking collectively about the challenges before them.

Agronomers representing various Bahá’í-inspired organizations in Africa studying texts on agriculture developed by FUNDAEC in Colombia during a continental training seminar offered by the resource person for Bahá’í International Development Organization for agriculture program in Africa, November 2019.

 

Agronomers representing various Bahá’í-inspired organizations in Africa studying texts on agriculture developed by FUNDAEC in Colombia during a continental training seminar offered by the resource person for Bahá’í International Development Organization for agriculture program in Africa, November 2019.

Building the scientific and technological capacities of farmers

This emerging network of organizations envisioned a long-term process of learning in the area of agriculture. The central aim, in addition to helping achieve food security, would be to build the scientific and technological capacities of farmers—vital to any long-lasting transformation in production processes and the village economy.  In recollecting the evolution of agriculture in their respective countries, the organizations expressed their concerns about the sense of powerlessness felt by many farmers—especially those working on a small-scale—against the economic, social, and environmental factors that influenced their production and forced them to follow systems promoted by whichever organization would provide them with needed inputs at any given time.  They further noted that local knowledge related to traditional systems of polyculture was being lost in an increasing number of communities. An effective program to empower the farmers in their respective regions would need to revive this knowledge and methods while also benefiting from the power of modern science.

Inspired by the words of Bahá’u’lláh that all human beings have been created “to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization”11Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, no. CIX, the organizations saw the farmers as partners in a process of generating, applying, and disseminating relevant agricultural knowledge, striving to establish approaches that would avoid the treatment of rural populations as mere consumers of technological packages developed outside their context.  They were highly conscious of the fact that such a process would need to be rooted in participatory local action.

Learning about elements of an alternative system of production

To meet its goal of building the scientific and technological capacities of farmers, the study of the units “Planting Crops” and “Diversified High-Efficiency Plots” by the participants needs to move beyond the theoretical; each participant or group has therefore been encouraged by the organizations to put various of its elements into practice through the establishment of a “diversified high-efficiency (DHE) plot”.  This research plot is often between 500 and 2,000 square meters in size; where land is scarce, as in peri-urban settings, the participants establish backyard gardens using readily available containers.12The groups choose the crops they wish to grow on the basis of their study of factors relevant to crop association; they make decisions about irrigation and management of soil fertility, pests, and diseases; they determine how they will use the harvest; and, once harvesting is complete, they weigh the advantages of the system they have established with common systems of both monoculture and polyculture in their microregion. Factors include nutrient content, use of space, time and labor, and degree of risk. They set up a sequence of tasks and draw detailed designs and document the number of hours and the number of inputs spent in each step. They regularly write down their observations about the health of the plot with the aid of a diary. The establishment of raised beds and planting of seeds are carried out with great precision to ensure maximum efficiency of space and resources.  While the different parts of the production process are each given due attention, the students are guided not to isolate any one factor but to view the plot as one ecosystem in which the different components are interdependent.

The production cycle—which lasts for a minimum of six months—enhances the capacities of the participants to observe, to plan and generate questions of learning, to make appropriate choices from among a number of alternatives after weighing costs and benefits, to create and use tools to collect data and document, to analyze the results of their observations and experiments and reach conclusions, to, in the final analysis, follow a dynamic process from its beginning to its end.  Further, as those engaged in this action-research converse with farmers and involve them in their activities, such capacities, which are relevant not only to the field of agriculture but to all processes of community life, begin to permeate, gradually influencing the way farmers in a community approach their work.

Although the design of DHE plots vary from region to region, there are fundamental criteria for all.13Farzam Arbab, Gustavo Correa and Francia de Valcarcel, “FUNDAEC: Its Principles and Its Activities”. Published by CELATER: Cali, Colombia, 1988.  For instance, such plots aim at addressing household food security. They need to be self-sufficient and sustainable, minimizing the use of costly inputs while at the same time providing stable and maximal yields. The plots must also conserve and enhance a farm’s natural resources, especially the soil. Other criteria include efficient use of space, even distribution of the time, resources, and energy required from the farming family over the course of the year, and regulation of income throughout the year to prevent periods of excess and deficit.  And perhaps most critically, the systems and approaches need to consider the well-being of a whole community, thus encouraging collaboration rather than competition among families.

Glimpses from across Africa

Already, thousands on the African continent in around 15 countries have studied at least one of FUNDAEC’s agriculture units, resulting in a large variety of initiatives to implement and promote the approaches contained in the units, as well as an expanding dialogue about questions related to agricultural technology and production.  Most of these efforts are at a small-scale; some have grown in size and complexity.  In a handful of countries, organizations have been building their capacity to follow a systematic research program.

Their impact, while still nascent, can already be discerned on a number of fronts.  Many organizations have observed, for example, a gradual shift in attitudes among young people towards agriculture, with greater value being placed on this vital process of community life.  Further, in a growing number of communities, the organizations are describing how members participating in their programs have been adopting a more thoughtful approach to considering the advantages and disadvantages of various technological proposals.

In Uganda, for instance, a group of youth that was approached by a development organization promoting maize monoculture systems requiring high use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides asked the organization’s representative numerous questions about the long term economic and environmental implications of the system; in the end, the group decided not to adopt it and shared with their tutor that they will no longer blindly follow the popular systems of the region. Another group reached out to village leaders and mobilized the community to construct a borehole on a piece of land donated by a group participant, providing water to sustain their experimental plot; group members also agreed to work on each other’s plots to ensure that all had time to study. The organization implementing the PSA program in the country, Kimanya-Ngeyo Foundation for Science and Education, established a large agricultural research farm, organizing training seminars and reflection spaces for tutors and participants to share their experiences with their plots.  They further guided the program’s tutors to work with former and current participants as well as community members to establish similar research plots in each region where the program is being implemented.

Participants of a PSA group in Uganda making organic fertilizers and pesticides for their DHE plot.
Participants of a PSA group in Uganda building a bore hole for their DHE plot.
Agronomists of Kimanya-Ngeyo Foundation working on a system that includes plantain, a staple crop in the country.

In Zambia, Inshindo Foundation carried out a campaign to promote backyard gardens in Kabwe, and 50 households adopted the practice. Follow-up efforts will examine how households’ production of food impacts their income and overall wellbeing. The agronomists of the Foundation are in a continuous dialogue with more than 500 farmers, many of whom have studied the agriculture units of the PSA program. The organization has recently launched a Center for Community Agriculture, where farmers from the community can study, consult, and experiment with different systems; the Center includes a local library, a seed bank, and a simple laboratory accessible to the community.

Meeting on agriculture with promoters of community well-being engaged in the field, farmers, community leaders and collaborators at Inshindo Foundation’s Center for Community Agriculture near Kabwe, Zambia.

 

Agriculture seminar in Kabwe.
Farmers in Kabwe visiting fellow farmers in neighboring communities.

In Cameroon, several former and current participants of the PSA program offered by Emergence—a Baha’i-inspired agency in the country—established an association through which they undertake collective activities, including many in agriculture. In the eastern region, which has received a large number of refugees from Central African Republic, participants have entered into crop production and animal husbandry with the refugees to assist them in addressing their dietary and financial needs.

In the Central African Republic and Malawi, the plots established around Bahá’í-inspired community schools have centered on the nutritional needs of the children and have provided a laboratory for classrooms to study biological sciences. Further, many farms neighboring the schools have adopted the practices implemented on their learning plots.

While such stories abound on the African continent, given the complex and long-term nature of this sphere of endeavor, it would be premature to state that significant changes to production processes have resulted from these efforts.  Nevertheless, an example from the south Kivu region of Democratic Republic of the Congo gives us a glimpse of a community that demonstrates the power of collective will to transform agricultural systems, grounded in spiritual principles and a systematic process of study, consultation, action, and reflection.

Reaching thousands: initial insights from the Kivu region, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Fondation Erfan-Connaissance, based in Bukavu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been offering its teacher-training program to promote the establishment of community schools in the Kivu region since 2007.

Following nine years of activity in the area of primary education, in 2016 the organization began to incorporate the two agriculture units of the PSA program in its teacher-training seminars, first offering them to its 31 facilitators and then to the 185 teachers whom they had been accompanying.  The organization hoped that the study of the units would help in three areas: to build the scientific capacities of the teachers, to develop the capabilities needed to converse with families of their students about questions related to production and nutrition, and to improve their production systems and increase their income, especially in villages where teachers are also farmers.  In schools with sufficient resources and capacity, DHE plots would be established to grow food for the students and serve as a learning space for both the students and the farming families in the community.

Soon after the first training seminar on the agriculture units, six schools established DHE plots, including one in the village of Canjavu in south Kivu—a number that has since multiplied.  In the urban area of Goma in north Kivu, the teachers’ conversations with students and their families led to the establishment of around 80 backyard gardens.  The influence of the training teachers received also led to other community agriculture initiatives, including a large seed bank project based in the Nshimbi village in south Kivu.  Now, more than 1,000 individuals are engaged in some form with the DHE plots and backyard gardens and another 1,500 have been reached through seed distribution by the Nshimbi seed bank and dissemination of a number of technologies used in DHE plots among neighboring households, especially in Canjavu.

Backyard gardens, Goma

The national primary curriculum of the Democratic Republic of the Congo contains basics of agricultural science. However, especially in urban areas where the value given to agriculture is increasingly lost and farming is viewed as the work of the uneducated, it was common for teachers of community schools to move quickly past lessons related to the topic.  Following the initial training on the two PSA agriculture units in 2016, however, Fondation Erfan-Connaissance noticed a rise in appreciation for agriculture among the teachers in Goma and an increase in their engagement with students about the subject.  Although it was difficult for most schools there to establish plots—Goma is a volcanic area and the size of land available to schools and households is very small—a few schools with sufficient resources were able to begin cultivating crops, from which the students learned about the process of plant growth.

Students of a community school visiting their garden together with their teacher to learn about plant growth.

As a result of conversations about production in and outside the classroom, a number of students approached their parents to ask whether they could plant some crops in their backyards.  This effort was also supported by the teachers and program coordinators during their visits to the households.  In most cases, the parents helped with obtaining the seeds, and the students began to take care of the crops.  Within a period of around one year, some 80 backyard gardens had been established.  The teachers regularly visited their students’ gardens and witnessed not only the rise in their capacity to manage their garden but also greater evidence of qualities such as patience, determination, and generosity.

A student with a backyard garden is describing his experience to visitors.

Gradually, the coordinators of the teacher-training program in Goma began to observe changes in the nature of interactions between families in neighborhoods with backyard gardens.  Households began to exchange planting materials and share experience and advice.  In one neighborhood, six families began to collaborate very closely in their production activities, growing medicinal plants as well as food crops.

A mother describing her experience with growing medicinal plants in her backyard garden.
A student describing her experience with her backyard garden.

Further, as the work on gardens continued, the families were able to supplement their income by selling their produce in the local market.  In response to the growing interest in urban farming, and to encourage more to engage in the process, two of the Bahá’í-inspired community schools established seed banks, and one began to provide seedlings to five other community schools as well as a number of teachers and community members.  Agriculture became an essential topic of conversation during parent-teacher meetings at schools, and reflection meetings focusing specifically on production emerged with an average participation of 120 individuals.

The seed bank in Blessings school distributing seeds and seedlings to teachers from other community schools and neighbors.

Community seed bank, Nshimbi village, South Kivu

The village of Nshimbi is a center of intense Bahá’í community building activity; there are approximately 250 residents who participate regularly in devotional meetings, 280 children who attend Bahá’í children’s classes, around 140 participants in the junior youth spiritual empowerment program, and about 90 engaged in study circles.  To respond to the academic needs of the children, a Bahá’í-inspired community school was established in the village in 2016.

Bahá’í-inspired community school established in the village of Nshimbi in 2016.

After receiving training on the two PSA units on agriculture, one of the teachers, accompanied by the agronomist of the Foundation, started a conversation with the village chief and community members about the need to diversify production systems and establish a local seed bank. The chief convened a meeting with the participation of over 500 individuals, and as a result of the consultation, the community decided to allocate two plots with a total area of approximately 12,000 square meters for the production of seeds and cuttings of a large variety of species.  Further, each family was encouraged to establish a vegetable garden to diversify locally available products.

As these efforts gained momentum, the community approached a development organization promoting seed banks to help in the construction of a small building for the bank; the community contributed bricks, sand, and labor, while the organization donated cement and metal sheets. A structure of 35 square meters was thus constructed within a few weeks on a piece of land donated by the chief.  In addition, the community put together an administrative arrangement to oversee the bank’s operations.

Among the 25 families that initially made up the bank’s membership, three committees were formed—a management committee to organize meetings and handle the bank’s records, a monitoring committee to distribute the seeds and help members of the community with aspects of cultivation so that they could meet their commitments to the bank, and an advisory committee, of which the village chief would be a member, to protect the initiative from moving in undesirable directions. Further, a number of solidarity groups emerged around the bank focusing on the sale of the agricultural products, on animal husbandry, and on adult literacy.  The families would obtain a certain amount of seeds as a loan and would return it with an interest rate that differed from crop to crop; for maize, for instance, the farmer was to return 1.5 kilograms of seed for every kilogram borrowed.  Within one year, the number of families who were members of this committee increased from 25 to 200, joining from eight neighboring communities.

In a recent reflection meeting, a mother commented that the seed bank was addressing the problem of malnutrition in the village, as families had been planting monoculture systems before its establishment, which limited the number of crops available for household consumption.  It was also observed that the participation of women in community consultations has increased.  Further, 60 of the 200 families have entered into animal husbandry from the profit they have made by diversifying their products.

Multiplication of DHE plots and secondary production, Canjavu village, South Kivu

The village of Canjavu is located around 45 minutes west of Bukavu, the capital of the South Kivu province. It has a population of approximately 3,900 divided into around 500 households.  As of April 2020, a large percentage of the population in the village was engaged in more than 600 community-building activities inspired by the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith, including 468 devotional meetings, 40 Bahá’í children’s classes, 50 junior youth groups and 42 study circles.  These activities assist the community members to develop their spiritual and intellectual capacities and provide social spaces for meaningful conversations. This has, in turn, led to a systematic process of study, consultation, action, and reflection over ways in which they can advance the various processes of community life, including education, health and agriculture.

Training on PSA agriculture units, Canjavu

The Bahá’í-inspired community school serving the village, Ecole Communautaire Muzusangabo, was established in 2011; currently 105 students attend kindergarten through grade 6.  During 2016 and 2017, the school’s teachers as well as 45 farmers from the village and three nearby localities participated in training offered by Fondation Erfan-Connaissance.  The training led to the establishment of a DHE plot connected to the school to meet the nutritional needs of the students and serve as a source of income for the school, as well as DHE systems on the farms of those participating in the study.  In 2019, the participants decided to each accompany three households that had shown interest in establishing diverse systems on their own plots, leading to the establishment of around 100 DHE plots in the village. As a result, during the Covid-19 pandemic, one village resident stated:

During this health crisis, we are not afraid of running out of food because while we are planting, we are also enjoying the harvest of our previous cultivation.  In addition, with the closure of schools, our junior youth… prepare their small plots to help their families.  They cultivate amaranth whose leaves are excellent for health.14https://www.bahairdc.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=154:la-crise-sanitaire-une-source-d-unite-spirituelle-pour-le-quartier-cpa-lubobo-2&catid=137&Itemid=571

Technical assistance from a local Bahá’í-inspired organization allowed the community to expand the scope of its production activities.  In addition to food crops addressing dietary needs, they began to cultivate beetroots as a cash crop in order to produce and sell juice.  The funds generated from the sale enabled them to purchase school supplies and to address other community needs.  They obtained blenders to simplify the juice-making process and a basic milling machine to grind their own flour, producing donuts that have become popular in neighboring towns and villages.

Beyond the increased capacity of the community to engage in collective income-generating projects, a notable outcome of the action-research process has been a rise in the farmers’ scientific and technological capacities.15They have experimented with the effect of Tithonia on production, comparing untreated and treated sections of land, concluding that fertilizers and pesticides made from the plant have notably increased yields.  They questioned assumptions regarding which crops grew well in the region and experimented with planting a number of them, including onions that provided a good harvest.  They showed determination when the school plot did not produce well one year, questioning the causes and identifying the plot’s distance from the school to be a significant factor preventing regular monitoring; they have since relocated the research plot, which resulted in increased production. The spiritual qualities and the scientific capacities developed by the group, and the resulting rise in their production, have attracted the interest of other households in the village.  While DHE systems are running in 100 households, almost all 500 households participate in the village reflection meetings on agriculture, encouraged by the chief.

 

The story of Canjavu has been spreading within the region.  They have received students from nearby universities who wish to learn about their systems, and a member of the community actively engaged in the plot was asked by the representative of a regional agricultural cooperative to visit different communities with her and share the group’s experience and learning.  The director of the Bahá’í-inspired school in the village has commented:

The spirit of unity in the village of Canjavu attracts neighboring villages which also want to learn.  People see how present evils are overwhelming humanity.  They feel that it is time to join any human enterprise that seeks to act in the Light of Unity!16 https://www.bahairdc.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=154:la-crise-sanitaire-une-source-d-unite-spirituelle-pour-le-quartier-cpa-lubobo-2&catid=137&Itemid=571

Future prospects

At the time of writing this article, humanity is experiencing a worldwide pandemic that has not only already caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of souls but has put the livelihoods of millions more into great jeopardy.  Africa has not been immune, and the prospect of famines continues to threaten the continent as it does the rest of the world.  Restrictions on movement that have reduced the exchange of products between regions and countries have made it ever-more urgent for each and every community to think deeply about the question of food, and communities are questioning the path that has led them towards dependency.

“Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in,” are the words of Bahá’u’lláh, “and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements”17Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, no. CVI.  “For all beings are linked together like a chain;” says Abdu’l-Bahá, “and mutual aid, assistance, and interaction are among their intrinsic properties and are the cause of their formation, development, and growth.”18Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, no. 46  Can neighborhoods and villages be assisted to consult prayerfully together to determine ways in which they can produce and market their staple foods in collaboration with each other?  What would it take for each household in cities and villages to grow food with whatever resources are available to them? Can current systems focusing entirely on cash crops for export be transformed into systems that would also meet the nutritional needs of thousands of a country’s residents? Can the youth of each community, many of whom have thus far chosen to move away from agriculture and rural areas, seeking the promise of a better life in overcrowded urban settings—a promise that very often leads to disappointment—be encouraged and assisted to channel their energies and focus towards advancing agriculture? How can efforts build on the spirit of service that is characterizing an increasing number of communities that have been in touch with the Creative Word? These are the types of questions that are currently being explored by Bahá’í-inspired organizations engaged in agriculture in Africa as they recall the words of Abdu’l-Bahá that the “fundamental basis of the community is agriculture… All must be producers”.